Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yankees Prop Up Nation's Economy

Undeterred by their failure to even make the playoffs in 2008 despite their league-high team payroll ($207 million) that was one-and-a-half times the combined total of that of the World Series finalists (Phillies-$95M; Rays-$43M), the New York Yankees decided that it would be best to double-down on their failed "strategy" of spending vast quantities of money to sign up the most high profile free agents. Their off-season spending spree continued today with the Yankees signing coveted free agent, Mark Texeira for the bargain-basement price of $180M over 8 years. The account of how the deal was completed contains this illuminating nugget:
Early Tuesday, after midnight New York time, Cashman received a telephone call from Boras stating that Teixeira’s preference was to play for the Yankees, the person said. While the Boston Red Sox had also pursued Teixeira, offering an eight-year deal worth about $170 million, New York is closer to the player’s family in Maryland.
Goes to show that Scott Boras (Texeira's agent) is a negotiating genius. The same dude who was responsible for the quarter-billion dollar Alex Rodriguez contract monstrosity with the Texas Rangers in 2001--a contract offer that by many accounts far exceeded the next best offer--managed to get the Swankees to pay $10M more than the next best offer after telling them that Texeira preferred to play in New York. That's some negotiating; as anyone who's dealt with a used car salesman knows...don't act too interested if you want the best deal. But, in the land of Boras, all nutty things are possible.

With this signing, the Yankees have now committed to shelling out $185M in 2009 to just 16 players on their 40-man roster; proof of their staunch belief in those timeless words:
'Tis better to have paid and lost
Than never to have paid at all.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Struggling Private Jet Manufacturers Request Bailout

In an economy largely fueled by spending, the fuss over the auto execs' recent use of corporate jets to travel to Washington seems ironic. Now comes more breathless "news" by the Associated Press that, horror of horrors, Wall Street executives are "still" flying by company-owned jets. This excellent and timely piece of journalism simultaneously points out that the use of corporate jets is a "coveted executive perk" and that the "jets serve as airborne offices, time-savers for executives for whom time is money - lots of money." The article goes on to say:
After years of railing against such costs, billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. CEO Warren Buffet broke down in 1989 and bought a Gulfstream IV-SP using $9.7 million in company funds. He named the aircraft "The Indefensible."
Yes, the WB-oracle himself, that champion of fiscal prudence, found it necessary to use a jet, presumably for reasons of efficiency. Now, I recognize that the use of jets is bad optics in this time of hat-in-hand-begging-for-money. Still, anyone who has traveled commercial knows how much time is wasted in waiting for planes and connections. That is a trade-off that is worth most people's time, but is probably not a prudent choice for everyone. The President, for example.

But, there you go. Here's your pyrrhic victory:
Many U.S. companies are giving up the perk. The inventory of used private jets was up 52 percent as of September, according to recent JPMorgan data on the health of the private aircraft industry.
How long do we have before private jet execs start asking for help and be harangued by the public for traveling by their own jets? This is what we get for mandating behavior instead of demanding results.

Freedom of Difference

The hullabaloo over Obama's selection of Rick Warren to lead the invocation at the Inauguration has exposed the limits to which progressives are willing to embrace "post-partisan politics." While I can understand their disdain for a man who rejects gay marriage and supported Prop 8, those who protest his selection make the critical error of perpetuating the mentality that one must only associate with those that agree on everything. For all his faults--and there are enough--Rick Warren is hardly a Pat Robertson or James Dobson, those luminaries who blamed 9/11 and Katrina on the presence of gays in this country. Moreover, Warren has consistently tried to move evangelical Christians toward social causes such as poverty-alleviation, an important service for which the nation ought to be grateful. If for nothing else, Warren ought to be embraced for his attempt to change the evangelicals' dismaying record of being one-trick ponies, for their willingness to ignore social injustice so long as "higher values" such as a public expression of faith are allowed. In this context, Obama's invitation to Warren ought to be commended because someone evangelicals admire will now publicly lead them in praying for the new president and his leadership. If you think this is a meaningless gesture, then you are no more interested in having a government for all Americans than were the cast of characters who "led" for the past eight years. Warren's presence at the Inaugural stage ought to be more disconcerting to the Christian right than for the progressive left. This is a splendid opportunity to engage the two parts of the country that do not care to acknowledge each other, let alone tolerate their differences in views. The fight over gay marriage will continue as it should in popular culture, values, and in government--including in the courts. That should not prevent collaboration in other important areas, particularly in tackling poverty. An acknowledgment of the other might be a good first step toward increasing collaboration. And, who knows, it might actually lead to greater dialogue and the chance for persuasion, as opposed to legal coercion.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mad Guy Loses Remaining Bearings

Zimbabwe is now accusing the West of waging biological warfare against that country by deliberately introducing cholera, which has killed nearly 800 people since August. The country's information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, called it a "genocidal onslaught" and a "calculated racist attack" aimed at paving the way for an invasion. As an example of how Mugabe's craziness continues to astound even the most jaded observers, the Associated Press stoically suggests that "Experts, however, blame the epidemic on Zimbabwe's economic collapse." U.S. Ambassador James McGee warned that the country was "turning into a failed state."

Yes...Zimbabwe is "turning" into a failed state. If the deterioration continues much longer, Zimbabweans might begin to starve or die of epidemics, and crime might explode.

A Zimbabwean friend of mine once suggested that they should argue that Al-Qaeda has taken root in Zimbabwe so that the West does actually invade and put Mugabe out of his misery.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Bombay. Not Mumbai

The city was called both names for centuries; the Marathi-language locals called it Mumbai, English-speakers called it Bombay. Which came first is not easily determined. Some say that Bombay is the anglicized corruption of the pre-existing local name, Mumbai. However, the Portuguese, who arrived in the area before the British, called the city Bombaim. As the wikipedia entry on this subject points out, Bombaim probably derived from a Portuguese name meaning "good bay." In other words, I believe Bombay is the anglicized version of Bombaim and not Mumbai.

In 1996, the ruling, Hindu-nationalist, Shiv Sena state government renamed the city to Mumbai in the English version as well, as part of a rash of colonial rejection that swept India. This moronic "restoration" disease was responsible for such atrocities as changing Calcutta to Kolkata (the local Bengali name), Madras to Chennai (Tamil), and Bangalore to Bengaluru (Kannada). Substituting symbolism for competence, these state governments sought to restore their cultural "pride" as a step to solving all the nation's problems. Read here for more gory details about the loaded reasons for these name changes.

This "logic" has also extended from time to time to the idea of making Hindi the sole official language of India, an honor it shares with English. Unsurprisingly, several regional groups (including the Tamilians and Kannadigas) have rioted at this brazen attempt by the Hindi-speaking "Northies" to suppress regional cultures.

Wonder why I persist in calling it Bombay? The name India itself is derived from the Greek characterization of the area where the Indus river is located, which dates to at least the time of Alexander the Great. Try and remove all the "foreign" influences and what have you left?

Perhaps these Indian "nationalists" should redirect their energies to upgrading the country's police forces, like, I dunno, giving them some real guns instead of the World War I-era, .303 Enfield rifles that they carry, if they're lucky enough to have one. Seriously, these are collectibles:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Mettle of Indian Security

Right on the heels of my last post that talked about the inept Indian security system and how, in my experience, metal detectors in India are little more than annoying obstacles that people simply walk around, the NY Times published this picture yesterday:

(The Times' caption:) Metal detectors beeped and the word 'stop' came on, but commuters at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station in Mumbai, ignored them. Some commuters even squeezed between the metal detectors in their rush to move in and out of the station.
This is not to say that the Indian government is incapable of wielding its formidable bureaucratic muscle to improve things on occasion. According to the AP, security at airports around the country has been stepped up following threats of airborne attacks:
Several extra layers of security were set up and some passengers' bags were scanned for explosives.
"Passengers have been asked to pass through six-stage security checks," said Brij Lal, a senior police official organizing security at the airport in the northern city of Lucknow.
Nirmala Sharma, a passenger who flew from New Delhi to Lucknow, said her bags were checked a half dozen times and she went through a metal detector three times. "Sometimes it seemed tedious, but it seems to be the need of the hour," she said.
Indian airport security always seemed pretty good to me, actually. But, six-stage checks sure sound good. If only they could move one of those stages of security to other parts of the country, things might have a chance of improving.

If you read that last AP article I linked to, the remarkable thing isn't the newly overly convoluted security checks, but the discussion of how Indian officials are interrogating the lone captured terrorist:

Meanwhile, police officers said they were trying to get as much detail as possible from Kasab.
"A terrorist of this sort is never cooperative. We have to extract information," said Deven Bharti, the head of the Mumbai crime branch.
Indian police are known to use interrogation methods that would be regarded as torture in the West, including questioning suspects drugged with "truth serum."
Bharti provided no details on interrogation techniques, but said "truth serum" would probably be used next week. He did not specify what drug would be used.

As the Times (the British one) points out about the drawbacks of "truth serum":

The method was widely used by Western intelligence agencies during the Cold War, before it emerged that the drugs used – typically the barbiturate sodium pentothal – may induce hallucinations, delusions and psychotic manifestation.
The point being, of course, not that the interrogators were concerned for their subjects' well-being, but that these drugs are more effective at causing verbal diarrhea where the person speaks any gibberish that comes to their minds than tell the truth.

Those who criticize the Indians for using these drugs are missing the larger issue: the interrogators are merely seeking to confirm what they have already "extracted' from the terrorist through torture.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Indo-Pak Strategery

The madness of the terror attacks in Bombay has focused the world's attention on South Asia for the moment. India's first reaction, predictably, was to blame Pakistan instead of taking coherent action to take out the terrorists who were still alive and murdering people. Naval-gazing is just beginning, with the consensus so far pointing fingers at a completely inept Indian security apparatus. Helpful intel insiders are clambering over themselves to point out that they had warned so-and-so that this was going to happen, as if that would have mattered when India's anti-terror capacity is non-existent. Here's a revealing bit:
The information was relayed to domestic security authorities, but it was unclear whether the government acted on the intelligence.
The Taj Mahal hotel, scene of much of the bloodshed, had tightened security with metal detectors and other measures in the weeks before the attacks, after being warned of a possible threat.
But the precautions "could not have stopped what took place," Ratan Tata, chairman of the company that owns the hotel, told CNN. "They (the gunmen) didn't come through that entrance. They came from somewhere in the back."
There you go: "tightened security" means that they didn't even think of covering every damn entrance. In fact, having experienced India's security measures first-hand, I bet that the metal detector (I doubt there was more than one) in the front was active for no more than a day before people simply ignored it and walked around it. India has vowed before to take a comprehensive look at gaps in [insert security need] and prevent [insert crisis name] from ever happening again. I think Mark Tully gets it exactly right when he says about what will likely happen this time: '...will India wake up? If the past is anything to go by the answer has to be "no". '

The U.S. and other major powers are worried about an Indian military response against Pakistan and the likely resultant nuclear conflagration. Secretary Rice and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm Mullen are headed to the region to calm India and pressure Pakistan to help with the investigation. Marc Ambinder helpfully calls the region "A Second Middle East":
It's the Middle East with nuclear weapons on both sides. If soft power doesn't work, do you despose the Pakistani government and take possession of their nuclear program? Let them have a nuclear exchange and hope that it somehow does not spread? The next steps for the US aren't clear. President Obama might appoint an envoy to the region, empowered to engage in shuttle diplomacy a la Richard Holbrooke, Geroge Tenet or Dennis Ross.
Which brings us to how the Obama administration thinks it needs to deal with the region. I think it is a mistake for them to put too much emphasis on solving the Kashmir issue in order to normalize Indo-Pak relations. By comparison, I believe it is much more straightforward to solve the Israel-Palestine border issue than to sort out the messy ethno-religious tangles that bog down the Afghan-Pak-N. Indian region. IMHO, it is probably better to look at a region-wide (to include Central Asia) economic strategy of increasing trade and reducing barriers to investment as a means to achieving the political end goals. Natural gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan? Check. Central Asian hydropower to India and Pakistan? Check. Joint Tourism initiatives in Kashmir? Demilitarized borders? Infrastructure projects? Removing tariffs on cross-border trade?

History shows the way. For centuries, Afghanistan and Central Asia (and Iran) were most closely linked to the Indo-Pak region in terms of cultural and economic ties. There is still more that these regions have in common than not. Just figure out where India's Bollywood movies are most popular (outside India).