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December 1, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Calderon, defiant, is sworn in

Ecuador flag ¡Qué cojones! Felipe Calderon faced up to the jeering members of the Democratic Revolutionary Party in the Mexican Congress just before 10:00 this morning and took the oath of office as president. Outgoing President Vicente Fox handed over the tricolor sash the symbolizes executive authority. Calderon called for dialogue among all political forces in Mexico, but his brief words could scarcely be heard above all the noise and commotion. After he left the podium, his supporters in the National Action Party chanted with glee, "¡Lo hizo! (He did it!)" Many people doubted that Calderon would be brave enough to confront the disloyal opposition who tried in vain to thwart constitutional democracy. In anticipation of a possible violent breakdown of procedure, there was actually a private ceremony several hours earlier, in which new appointments were announced, leaving some observers to question whether the transfer of power was 100 percent by the books. See CNN.com and El Universal (in Spanish).

The fact that losing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador applauded the obstructionist efforts of his party's members detracts from his image even more. Sore loser! Calderon chose [Francisco Ramirez Acuña,] a reputed hardliner to be the next Interior Minister, responsible for police and internal security affairs. [Nevertheless, Calderon] has a rather low-key, weak image, so he will be obliged to show that he is tough on subversion and political violence. The United States will be obliged to show him great respect and deference, which means a more conciliatory posture on immigration policy. That is unfortunate but necessary.

Hezbollah in Venezuela

Here's a pleasant surprise: Venezuela has arrested a guy named Teodoro Darnott, a.k.a. "Sheidy Daniel," who espouses a mixture of militant Islam, Marxism, and Liberation Theology, leading a group called "Hezbollah Latin America." He operates near the Colombian border. See the American Spectator (via Barcepundit). Perhaps this is related to the upcoming elections, as Chavez tries to repair his image by distancing himself from terrorism and win a bigger majority. But it doesn't allay suspicions that Chavez is actively promoting subversion and terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.


December 1, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Democrats squabble over posts

Nancy Pelosi has gotten off to a rocky start as incoming Speaker of the House, losing face after her choice to be House Majority Leader, John Murtha, was trounced by Steny Hoyer. I was surprised that she staked her prestige on this contest. Apparently she is not in close touch with the sentiments of the Democratic caucus. Since then she has alienated more people by rejecting Jane Harman of California as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. As the ranking Democratic member, and one who has earned respect in this sensitive field, Harman was the natural choice. Pelosi ended up choosing Silvestre Reyes of Texas over (the ethically challenged) Alcee Hastings of Florida, who is the second ranking Democrat on that committee. See Washington Post.

In other committees, no such acrimony has been in evidence. The choice of Charlie Rangel as Ways and Means Committee chairman was obvious, so he will be the authoritative voice on whether the Democrats intend to force the issue of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by cutting off funding. Likewise, John Conyers of Michigan will be in charge of impeaching President Bush -- or not -- after he becomes Judiciary Committee chairman. Henry Waxman of California will head the Government Reform Committee, whose domain consists of pretty much whatever the chairman pleases. For example, Virginia's Tom Davis held hearings on steroid use in baseball last year, which seemed strange to some people. I shudder to think what mischief Waxman must be dreaming up. Ike Skelton of Missouri will chair the House Armed Services Committee, and he has the good sense to reject Charlie Rangel's call for a resumption of the draft. The only real purpose behind that proposal, as far as I can tell, is to undermine public support for the war against Islamic terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, aside from a few missteps by Ms. Pelosi, the Democrats are poised to take over. [Afterthought: If only they had a coherent policy plan to implement! ] This will be an interesting experience as the Democrats prepare to assume control of both sides of Capitol Hill for the first time since 1994. We will have the "normal" situation of a divided government once again, with Republicans in charge of the Executive Branch, and Democrats in charge of the Legislative Branch. Perhaps that will help to restore the vital center in American politics. Power almost always confers a sense of responsibility, which is manifested in a moderating tendency, policy-wise. Fears that the Democrats will seek to enact a radical agenda are misplaced, not just because President Bush still has veto power (which he has not even used so far!), but because they want to position themselves for a successful 2008 campaign. After all, attaining power also confers a desire to remain in power. That, of course, is the origin of hubris, complacency, and eventual defeat, as the Republicans found out too late. Will the Democrats learn that lesson?


December 1, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Realism and our goals in Iraq

Now that most Americans are coming around to realize that a decisive victory in Iraq is no longer a serious possibility, the hand-wringing has begun in earnest. This is understandable, but totally unnecessary. People need to get a grip! Despite all the wishful thinking about a "graceful exit" from Iraq (see bottom paragraph), the reality is likely to be rather messy and inconclusive. Now that the transition of power and authority to the Iraqis has begun, the outcome is no longer fully under our control, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in acknowledging that fact.

David Ignatius ponders the implications of engaging Iran in a dialogue over security in Iraq, but President Ahmadinejad's government is extremely unlikely to be of any help. I think a pro forma offer should be made out of pure diplomatic necessity, gaining some breathing room as a prelude to a renewed (but more selective) offensive effort in the region. To Ignatius, the most discouraging sign is that the White House is now focused on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a necessary precursor to fixing things in Iraq. Not much chance of that happening.

Likewise, Charles Krauthammer derides the suggestion to get Iran and Syria to cooperate, but his main target is the realists on the Iraq Study Group who make that suggestion and who deprecate the whole notion of promoting democracy abroad. Krauthammer grants that Bush has often gotten carried away with Wilsonian universalist rhetoric, but reminds us that if such idealism were really the primary guidepost of Bush's foreign policy, then we would be intervening in places like Chad, Burma, or Darfur. Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias retorts that Krauthammer is falsely assuming that democracy in Iraq will automatically lead to a government that is friendlier to us. He has a point there, especially about the vain notion that we should presume to guide political outcomes in Iraq, but he overplays it. Krauthammer is often identified with neoconservatives, but he is not an ideologue. He correctly interprets foreign policies as a subtle blend of national interests and ideals, not as a dichotomous choice between the two. In U.S. foreign policy, such a blend has always been the "gold standard" of success. Liberals often fail to recognize that a harmony between interests and ideals is possible.

[By the way, some pundits are mocking the Iraq Study Group as irrelevant or as advocating no major shift in U.S. war policy -- the Mudville Gazette, for example -- but they miss the point. As I wrote on Nov. 13, "The purpose of the Study Group is to give various groups in this country a voice in setting a new policy direction, i.e., it's more about policy process than substance."]

Two weeks ago Krauthammer explained "Why Iraq Is Crumbling." He quoted Ben Franklin's remark after the U.S. Constitution was drafted, saying we had "a republic, if you can keep it." It appears that Iraq can't keep the republic we bestowed upon them, which if true would be an enormous pity. (That reminds me, we would all be better off if President Bush and others spoke more often about promoting republican forms of government than democracies, which can be unstable and prone to trample upon minority rights if the country's civic culture is not prepared for self-government.) Our armed forces did all they could to give the Iraqis a chance to govern themselves peacefully, and they are blowing the opportunity of a lifetime. Krauthammer rightly acknowledged that the United States made mistakes in Iraq, but it is anybody's guess as to whether things would have turned out much differently in the absence of strong leadership committed to pluralistic government.

In the midst of these sober observations, we should look at the undeniable accomplishments of the Iraqi liberation. Fouad Ajami, who is usually critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, derides the nostalgic wish of some realists (Brent Scowcroft, I assume) that the United States will revert to the old habit of making deals with despots for the sake of reliable access to oil:

But in truth there can be no return to the bosom of the old order. American power and the very force of what had played out in the Arab-Islamic lands in recent years have rendered the old order hollow, mocked its claims to primacy and coherence. The moment our soldiers flushed Saddam Hussein from his filthy spider hole, we had put on display the farce and swindle of Arab authority.

(Link via Instapundit.) Ajami rejects the notion that Bush was naive to promote democracy in the Middle East, or that the mission has failed:

The American project in Iraq has been unimaginably difficult, its heartbreak a grim daily affair. But the impulse that gave rise to the war was shrewd and justified.

That is a refreshingly upbeat and authoritative take on the situation. One lesson is that both the ardent pro-war and anti-war factions fail to grasp that, even with the reversal of fortunes in Iraq, the United States has brought about a permanent shift in Middle Eastern politics. In the short term, most of the consequences will appear negative to us, because the pent-up resentment has been unleashed. Over the next few years, however, Arab citizens will be ready (hopefully) to assume more responsibility for self-government. If they fail this time around, that's too bad. History is full of unpredictable twists and turns, and stubborn tendencies (traditions, bad habits) often thwart hopes for human progress. That's one of the central insights offered by the realist tradition in international relations. Maybe after another generation or two of awful violence and cruel tyranny, the Arabs will have matured politically to the point that democracy (or something like it) is a reasonable prospect. If so, we'll be ready to help. If not, don't blame us.

There is one more reason to claim success from our liberation of Iraq: It served notice to the United Nations that if the members of the Security Council fail to enforce its own sanctions, the United States will reserve the right to do so instead. Is that arrogant? It depends on your perspective. Obviously, it will seem that way to smaller and weaker countries. One of the "burdens of hegemony" is enduring the resentment of other countries who do not appreciate the stability and security provided by great powers. Rudyard Kipling used to write about that theme quite a bit. Personally, I dislike anything that approaches an imperialistic foreign policy stance, but once in a while you have to throw your weight around to get things accomplished. What I am suggesting, basically, is a Machiavellian gambit to induce the other great powers and middle powers to reform the U.N. Security Council process so that it works the way it is supposed to work. In other words, using realist means toward idealist ends.

[Speaking of the Machiavellian approach to politics, a few months ago I was alerted about a book on just that subject: Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict, by Israeli politician Obadiah Shoher. See samsonblinded.org. Very intriguing.]

Bush meets Maliki

The Great Unknown is whether the Iraqi government has either the will or the ability to assert central government authority. Many people suspect that Prime Minister Maliki is tacitly encouraging Shiite militia forces to engage in "ethnic cleansing" operations against the Sunnis. One such person is national security adviser Steven Hadley, whose leaked memo forced a one-day postponement of the meeting in Jordan between President Bush and Maliki. (See Washington Post.) In the secret memo, Hadley was much more negative and skeptical of Maliki than his public comments. Who did the leaking? Was this a Machiavellian ploy by the White House to put pressure on Iraq even while Bush expresses confidence that Maliki is the right man for the job? And what does Bush really mean when he rejects suggestions for a "graceful exit" from Iraq, insisting that we will "complete our mission" as long as the Iraqi government wants us there? Is he putting U.S. Armed Forces under the command of the Iraqi government? I see a danger that President Bush's uncompromising stance may begin to backfire if he does not choose his words more carefully.


December 2, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Princess resumes egg laying

Princess in nest, broccoli For the first time since June, Princess has laid eggs (two), but one of them had a thin shell and broke the next day, leaving just one. So, she'll be a brooding "nest potato" for the next two weeks or so. This pause between fertility cycles was much shorter than last year: She didn't lay any eggs from June 2005 until March 2006. George was singing almost every day before Thanksgiving, responding to Princess's flirtatious behavior and (perhaps) anticipating a little romantic action. Since then he has become very tranquil once again, spending much of his time guarding Princess. Our basil plants are just about spent, meaning no more of their favorite flowers this year, but they do get to enjoy fresh broccoli on a fairly regular basis.



December 4, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Sick's Stadium update

Sicks Stadium The diagram and text on the Sick's Stadium page have been revised. The home of the short-lived Seattle Pilots (1969) was among the ballparks chronicled in the recent SABR publication Rain Check: Baseball in the Pacific Northwest.

Dickering in December

Perhaps the biggest news from the winter meetings in Florida thus far is that the Cardinals have signed Chris Carpenter to a five-year contract extension, with total compensation of at least $65 million. Also, the Mets have signed aging veteran Tom Glavine to a one-year contract extension. Of course, everyone is waiting to see whether the Red Sox trade the rascal left fielder Manny Ramirez, or offer him another stint in Beantown. Today Jose Guillen signed a one-year contract for $5.5 million with the Seattle Mariners, who need more slugging power. Washington fans will miss the high-spirited outfielder. The Nationals offered salary arbitration to him, not necessarily because they expected him to stay with the team, but because they would get an extra draft pick as compensation for him as long as they make the offer. See MLB.com.

The Cincinnati Reds are contemplating filing a formal grievance against the Nationals over the multi-player trade in July. Pitcher Gary Majewski went on the disabled list shortly thereafter, and the Reds suspect the Nationals knew his arm was bad before the trade was made. There is no evidence of trickery on the part of Jim Bowden or the Nats' front office, however, and it seems to be a simple case of an athlete who wanted so much to play that he ignored the warning signs of tendonitis. See MLB.com. Personally, I'd be glad to take back Majewski on any reasonable terms, as he was one of the Nats' (and Expos') most reliable relief pitchers and has several good years ahead of him.

Orlando Devil Rays?

In an effort to expand their fan base in central Florida, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are considering playing several of their regular-season games in the Orlando area in future years. Lack of ballpark capacity would be a major constraint to overcome. Playing outside in the Florida sun would be a nice change for them, I'm sure. See the Tampa Tribune; hat tip to Mike Zurawski.


December 4, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Bolton resigns post at U.N.

More fallout from the November elections: U.N. Ambassador John Bolton submitted his resignation, effective next month. President Bush accepted it, but said he was "not happy about it." See Washington Post. It's no surprise, given that he couldn't be confirmed even with the Republicans in control of the Senate, but it's sad nonetheless. During his 15-month period of service, he advanced U.S. interests in an effective manner without causing any undue friction. Contrary to widespread press reports, he did not come across as abrasive or insensitive. I just hope his successor is as firm, unapologetic, and devoted to U.S. foreign policy goals as Bolton was. The more likely prospect, however, is of a bland "consensus-builder" who will run out the clock as the lame-duck Bush administration winds down. So who would be acceptable to Sen. Joe Biden?

Interesting deductive reasoning

One of my biggest pet peeves is the provision allowing taxpayers to deduct the interest payments they make on residential mortgages. It was enacted in the mid-1970s when inflation drove up nominal interest rates, and over the years has become an enormous and unfair subsidy to the upper middle class. The original purpose was to alleviate hardships for homeowners, but many people see nothing wrong with bending the rules to apply the deductions to vacation homes or even rental properties. Such deductions are not permitted any more, you say? Yeah, right. Anyway, Andrew Sullivan made a passing reference to this issue, which I figure is worth mentioning once again: "Some readers have asked if I favor [the mortgage interest deduction] abolition. I sure do. That's probably why I'm a blogger and not a politician." My sentiments exactly. Impractical? Well, of course, right now it is. In time, the injustices of our nominally capitalist economic system will accumulate to the point that people just can't take it any more, and then all bets will be off.

Republicans & Democrats huddle

I wish I had known about this in advance: The Democrats held a meeting here in Staunton over the weekend, in the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel. State Sen. Creigh Deeds is clearly setting the stage for a gubernatorial campaign. See the News Leader. Meanwhile, the Republican party faithful (a term that no longer applies very well to me) convened in the annual "Advance," held as usual at the Homestead Resort.

Paid bloggers

Via Daniel Drezner, here is a list of partisan hacks commentators who blogged on behalf of various candidates during the recent campaign, including some familiar ones from here in the Old Dominion. (It should be pretty obvious that no candidates or political parties are paying me anything!)


December 5, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Nats rebuild for the l-o-n-g term

The implicit message to fans from the Nationals' front office is pretty clear: Don't get your hopes up for the 2007 season, because the owners are focusing exclusively on rebuilding the franchise's pool of young talent. General Manager Jim Bowden was quote by the Washington Post that "we're not looking for short-term fixes, because that could hurt the long-term fixes we really need to make." That means we shouldn't expect any big deals to acquire star talent such as Alfonso Soriano. So, the final year of baseball at RFK Stadium looks to be rather melancholy. Is putting the Washington-area fan base at risk really such a smart move? In 2005 the team exceeded expectations by winning 81 games and losing 81, while 2,720,322 fans attended games at RFK Stadium, or at least paid to get in. In 2006 their record dropped to 71-91, while annual attendance dropped to 2,152,528. Extrapolating from these two data points, we might expect a 61-101 win-loss record in 2007, and total attendance of just 1,584,734. Let's hope the Lerner family has higher short-term ambitions than that.


December 5, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Chavez wins in a landslide

Ecuador flag To no one's surprise, Venezuelan President-for-Life Hugo Chavez was reelected to a third six-year term on Sunday, defeating Manuel Rosales by a 62%-38% margin. This was slightly more than his margin of victory in the August 2004 recall referendum. Only minor irregularities were reported, and it appears that the vote was an accurate barometer of public sentiment. Millions of poor Venezuelans who benefitted from his social welfare programs are deeply devoted to Chavez. Although he managed a modicum of dignity by paying tribute to "the responsible opposition," Chavez celebrated by repeating his childish taunt of President Bush: "It's another defeat for the devil, who tries to dominate the world." One of the first items on his agenda of "21st Century socialism" is doing away with term limits, permitting him to maintain power indefinitely. Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, whose young face contradicts his surname, declared "The U.S. elite will have to acknowledge the strength of the Bolivarian revolution..." Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa derided the leftwing movement exemplified by Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, and Peru's Ollanta Humala (who lost to Alan Garcia) as "prehistoric," contrasting them to the democratic leftist governments in Chile and Brazil. See BBC and El Universal.

Lest we freedom-loving Americans become despondent over the triumph of retrograde populist caudillismo (bossism, roughly translated), we should bear in mind a few mitigating factors: thanks to high gasoline prices, Venezuela is flush with petro-dollars, giving Chavez a huge electoral cushion as he tosses around money like it's Christmas. For him, this election was a slam dunk. Those huge rallies consist largely of government or public sector employees whose jobs would be in jeopardy if they declined to participate, or other people who get a free meal and some cash. Thus, the support for Chavez is less "deep" than it might appear to the casual observer. Over time, such contrived public demonstrations become harder to sustain, as more people become cynical about the government's outright manipulation of public opinion.

Even though Chavez won by a large margin, the fact that the opposition has reorganized since the failed general strike of 2004-2005 raises hope that the leader's stratospheric ambitions will be held in check. Rival candidate Manuel Rosales, of the western oil-producing state of Zulia, is young and has established a good rapport with many Venezuelans. The diplomatic setbacks suffered by Venezuela in recent months -- above all, the failed effort to gain a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council -- have undermine popular support back home as well. Many of the more educated people are shamed by their president's clownish behavior at the United Nations and other international fora. One can only imagine how professional diplomats who are obliged to represent the Chavez government must feel. Photos of the election can be seen at Publius Pundit, which notes that turnout was below average in the upscale areas of Caracas, where new fingerprint identification machines are used.

These fingerprint machines, made by Cogent, based in Pasadena, are basically units of delay and intimidation. They have been shown to match voters to their votes, and Venezuela's voters already know that being found to not vote for Chavez is a recipe for government reprisals.

In the United States, ironically, it is among the lower classes where most complaints about voter intimidation are heard. To promote his regional integration plans, Chavez will begin a tour of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and, possibly, Paraguay. Relations with Peru remain cool.

Correa, Bush exchange greetings

President Bush wisely took the time to extend good wishes to the newly elected president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, who reciprocated by hailing Bush's "noble" gesture. See CNN.com. After the leftist Correa is inaugurated president of Ecuador in January, a summit between that Hugo Chavez and him will surely take place.


December 5, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Potential candidates get ready

Wasting no time after the midterm elections, several of the likely 2008 presidential candidates have begun preliminary steps toward forming a campaign organization. Many Democrats have recently been going ga-ga over Barack Obama, but he simply does not have the national-level political experience that is needed to win a primary campaign, much less a fall campaign. A pretty face and smooth oratory will only take you so far in the rough and tumble world of politics. Hillary Clinton had been expecting to be in the comfortable position of being able to choose whether or not to run, under the assumption that the nomination would be hers for the asking. Well, perhaps not.

On the Republican side, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback has formed an exploratory campaign group, as reported by the Washington Post. He seems to be the champion of "movement" conservatives who prioritize social issues above all else. You know, the ones who forgot that conservatism used to be associated with limited government power. One campaign adviser, Matt Keelan, opined that Brownback would be "compassionate conservativism on steroids." Oh-oh... FWIW, here's how I would rank the likely GOP candidates:

  1. Newt Gingrich
  2. Mitt Romney
  3. Duncan Hunter
  4. John McCain
  5. Rudy Giuliani
  6. Mike Huckabee
  7. Sam Brownback

That's a hard list to draw up, because -- based on what I know right now -- I'm not particularly enthusiastic about any of the candidates other than Newt. I would just as soon they keep campaign activities to a minimum until 2008, to avoid premature burnout.


December 5, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Military equipment wearing out

Every day we see fresh evidence that our military personnel are under growing strain after repeated combat tours in Iraq, but the problem extends to the equipment side as well. Today's Washington Post describes the massive backlog of over a thousand damaged M-1 Abrams tanks, M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and other equipment that is waiting to be repaired at the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama. An estimated $17 billion worth of Army and Marine equipment is lost each year, including pieces that are blown up or just worn out. The net result of all the battle losses (including IED blasts) is that many American ground units are rated as not ready for combat. This means that the United States is hamstrung in its ability to project force in various global crisis spots, such as the Korean peninsula. It's one more manifestation of the phenomenon of "imperial overstretch," the term coined by historian Paul Kennedy, when a great power is at the point of exhaustion and can no longer sustain the effort to stabilize regions beyond its own borders.

Battle of Moscow

It was sixty five years ago today (1941) that the Red Army began a massive counteroffensive that pushed the Germans back from the gates of Moscow. German tanks and artillery pieces were totally worn out after pushing several hundred miles across the Russian plains in the blitzkrieg, and most of them simply broke down in the subzero temperatures that winter. The Germans were lucky they were able to stabilize the front and resume their offensive in 1942.


December 5, 2006 [LINK / comment]

White-fronted goose chase

Local birdwatcher Allen Larner alerted us to a rare Greater White-fronted goose south of Waynesboro, so I drove on over this morning, and sure enough I soon spotted it in the middle of a flock of Canada geese in back of a farm house. They nest in the Arctic region of Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winter in Louisiana and points west. A separate race of that species breeds in Greenland, and those are the ones that are usually seen along the east coast, but they are few and far between. That becomes my fifth life bird of the year, bringing my grand total up to 364. I also saw some Red-tailed hawks in a couple places today, but not much else.

Yesterday I was driving in the Swoope area and saw a Bald eagle in a tree only about 30 yards in front of me. It was close enough to distinguish the black pupil from the yellow iris in its eyes. I also saw a Red-tailed hawk in that vicinity, as well as a (male) Kestrel.

We are seeing Downy woodpeckers and White-breasted nuthatches in our back yard almost every day; the suet feeder is what attracts them.


December 6, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Boswell on Nats' "risky business"

WaPo columnist Thomas Boswell emphatically agrees with the point I made yesterday that the Washington Nationals' strategy of focusing exclusively on long-term rebuilding risks losing fan enthusiasm in the short term. Except that he writes more eloquently and knowledgeably than me:

Few in Washington blame the Nats for not competing on Soriano's $136 million contract. However, for one-twentieth that amount, the Nats could shore up their pitching. If they don't, the Nats are playing a high-stakes game in which they bet that Washington fans are sophisticated or patient enough -- or gullible enough -- to embrace a horrible team that didn't have to be bad.

Let's hope the Lerners, Kasten, and company are mindful of such sentiments.

Farm club changes

I don't recall seeing any official announcement, but there have been some changes in the affiliation of minor league ball clubs. The Nationals' AAA affiliate will be the Columbus Clippers, which used to be part of the Yankees' farm system. The Mets will get the New Orleans Zephyrs, which used to be affiliated with the Nationals.

Adios, Bud Selig?

Apparently, Bud Selig is going to retire after his current term expires at the end of the 2009 season. Of course, he has said the same thing several times during the years since he become Acting Comissioner. See ESPN. Hat tips to Mike Zurawski and Bruce Orser. Bud is held in low repute in much of baseball fandom, but he has managed to corral all of the unruly owners and prevent more strikes in the last few years, and of course, he finally got the Expos moved to Washington in 2005. The question is, who can possibly replace him? Will he play a role in getting all the owners on board for whoever becomes his successor?

The mail bag

What will become of RFK Stadium after the Nationals vacate it in 2008? Plans are moving ahead for a new soccer stadium for D.C. United, but it might take a couple more years. D.C. council member Jacks Evans is pushing for a new 100,000-seat football stadium on the RFK site, even though the Redskins have only been in FedEx Field for a decade. If the new stadium were domed, it could be used for a future Super Bowl. Ugh... See nbc4.com. What about keeping RFK operational for another decade or so, using it for annual Old Timers' games? That was my suggestion for making use of Tiger Stadium, but that ballpark appears to be doomed. Also, the Red Sox are going to upgrade all 40 luxury boxes at Fenway Park in time for the 2007 season. See boston.com. (Hat tips to Mike Zurawski.)

Frederick Nachman challenged my conjecture that the pedestrian ramp in the parking lot next to U.S. Cellular Field might have been part of the original Comiskey Park structure, and he recently came across a book with a photo proving that the old ballpark was in fact completely demolished. I stand corrected, as does the Comiskey Park page.


December 6, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Latin America & U.S. trade policy

One of the big questions in the wake of the November elections is whether the Democrats will pursue a more open U.S. trade policy, like Bill Clinton did, or will revert to protecting declining industries such as textiles. Ironically, most Latin American people have a friendlier disposition toward the Democrats, even though the Republicans are stronger on free trade issues, and therefore more likely to enact measures that would actually help Latin American economies. Resentment over U.S. political dominance in world affairs often counts for more than bread-and-butter considerations, even in very poor countries, or perhaps especially in very poor countries.

Two weeks ago the Washington Post had a background story that highlights the anxiety felt in Colombia and Peru, where free trade treaties are awaiting ratification in the U.S. Congress. Thousands of jobs are at stake, and at least one factory has already closed because of declining trade prospects. The article quoted Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington:

"If you really look at the U.S. agenda in Latin America, trade is the only positive. The rest is immigration, anti-narcotics. It's all negatives." Latin Americans, he said, may well start to question "how serious Americans are about having a constructive relationship."

Indeed, public impressions of Latin America in the United States -- and vice versa -- are usually not very good, as prejudice and distrust shapes opinions. The article emphasizes that President Uribe of Colombia could suffer a loss of prestige unless trade relations with the United States are quickly strengthened. Why does that matter to us? Because Colombia is in the grip of a nasty civil war, in which narco-terrorists intimidate local government officials and lure poor, destitute people to work in their criminal syndicate. The narco-terrorist threat in Colombia has a direct bearing on the United States, via drug corruption. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is waiting for the opportunity to gain more influence in Colombia, and he is clearly hoping that the U.S. Congress rejects free trade with Latin America.

Rep. Charlie Rangel, the incoming Ways and Means Chairman, is demanding that the trade pacts with Colombia and Peru be modified to include higher labour standards. In other words, he would be willing to condemn thousands of export-industry workers in Latin America to unemployment just because industries in those countries can't meet U.S. standards. What will those workers do? Probably come to the United States and take jobs in sectors where the minimum wage laws or other regulations make it uneconomical for businesses to employ legitimate workers. In other words, it's the perfect, global-scale scam. That's not to say that all Democrats or leftists are being cynical on this policy issue, however. Indeed, it can also be seen as a classic case of perfectionist ethical standards backfiring, as naive do-gooders end up making things worse. Daniel Drezner wryly "applauds" Democrats for raising the U.S. standing in Latin America via the trade issue.

More seriously, perhaps, this is precisely the type of issue where an ad hoc, cross-party coalition will be formed to pass the necessary legislation. Most reasonable people know full well that encouraging more trade with the less developed countries of Latin America is clearly in our national interest. Members of Congress who happen to represent areas where adversely affected workers live cannot be counted upon, of course. Nevertheless, anyone who is serious about promoting economic opportunities here and in Latin America, and improving security in the Western Hemisphere, should strongly favor the trade bills with Peru and Colombia. It is a matter of vital national interest, and parochial influences must be overcome for the greater good.


December 8, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Bonds signs with Giants

After taking the unusual step of travelling to Florida to look for a job during the winter meetings, Barry Bonds signed a one-year contract with the Giants. This makes it more likely than not that he will break Hank Aaron's 755 career home run record, depending on how future record keepers decide to handle the Steroid Era. See ESPN

Otherwise, it has been a rather dull December in terms of baseball trades.

Angelos fights new video board

An argument in Baltimore has escalated into a legal battle. The Maryland Stadium Authority recently decided to purchase a new Mitsubishi video screen for Camden Yards, and Orioles owner Peter Angelos fiercely objects. The problem is, three Orioles officials were on the committee that unanimously approved the project. Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck sees this petulant behavior in the context of Angelos's veto of a proposed trade with the Braves and laments,

This is the way Angelos has been doing business for most of the past decade, and he is probably the only person inside or outside his organization who doesn't realize how much his disjointed management style has hurt the team, the fans and every merchant who is trying to make a living in the area around the stadium.

Hat tip to David Pinto, who at first gave Angelos the benefit of the doubt, but after learning the Orioles are seeking a restraining order to stop the project, he opined: "The team is looking a bit greedy here." What else is new?

Cost cap constrains design

The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities wanted to put in statues and other artistic displays on the outside of the new stadium, but they may be thwarted by the cost cap provisions that were intended to prevent overruns. See Washington Post.


December 8, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Triumphant Chavez goes on tour

Fresh from his reelection victory, Hugo Chavez met with President da Silva in Brasilia to discuss his grand proposal to build a natural gas pipeline from Venezuela through Brazil to Argentina. (Many environmentalists warn that it would cause grave ecological harm.) Da Silva gave Chavez a warm embrace, probably to please his leftist constituents. Chavez rebuffed the overture of U.S. ambassador Brown, saying that bilateral relations could only be improved if the United States were to end the war in Iraq, among other things. Chavez then made a brief stop in Argentina, and finally headed to Bolivia, where a South American summit began today in Cochabamba. See CNN.com.

As the weather in the United States turns frigid, I have noticed that Venezuelan-owned CITGO is putting on more television advertisements offering 40 percent heating oil discounts to poor people.

Shifts in Latin America, 2006

In preparation for an article I am writing on the leftward shift in Latin American politics during the past few years, I prepared the following table that summarizes what happened at the ballot box this year. The entries in the "Election month" column are links to the respective blog posts that gave the fullest analysis of that particular election. Note, however, that in some cases the final results were not announced until several weeks later.

Country Election month Prior president New (or reelected) president
Chile Jan. Lagos Bachelet
Haiti Feb. Alexandre Preval
Costa Rica Feb. # Pacheco Arias
Colombia May Uribe Uribe
Peru June Toledo Garcia
Mexico July # Fox Calderon
Brazil Oct. da Silva da Silva
Nicaragua Nov. Bolaños Ortega
Ecuador Nov. Palacio Correa
Venezuela Dec. Chavez Chavez
# : Very close election, with prolonged recount.

As you can see, there were clear leftward shifts in Haiti, Peru, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. (Red means left-wing, and blue means right-wing.) In addition, Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Manuel Zelaya (Honduras) were inaugurated as president of their respective countries in January, having won elections late last year. They are both left of center, replacing center-right presidents, but Zelaya is a moderate who favors free trade.

Ventanilla wetlands

In March 2004 Jacqueline and I visited the Ventanilla wetlands, known as "Los humedales de Ventanilla" in Spanish. To my delight, I finally found a Web page devoted to that precious ecological preserve, at biologia.org. That tract of land is under severe pressure from the sprawling, uncontrolled residential development nearby. (See my photo.)


December 8, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Jeane Kirkpatrick dies

Former Georgetown professor and Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick passed away in her sleep last night at the age of 80. She was a Democrat early in life, "but she grew disillusioned with the foreign policy of President Jimmy Carter." (I can relate to that.) See Washington Post. Mrs. Kirkpatrick was often considered abrasive and undiplomatic, but she expressed the U.S. position on issues clearly and forcefully at a critical moment in the history of the Cold War. She greatly enhanced the moral standing of the Reagan administration's hard-line stance against Soviet expansionism, at a time when appeasement was widely considered the only alternative to nuclear war. You might say she was a lot like John Bolton.

One of the most pivotal events during her term at the United Nations was the Falklands War of 1982. Being a Latin American specialist, she strongly favored the Argentine side in that conflict, while Secretary of State Alexander Haig favored Great Britain, our traditional NATO allies. It was a fascinating, dramatic policy battle within the U.S. government. Even though Reagan gradually adopted a pro-British stance, providing intelligence and minor logistical support, the rupture in relations with Latin American countries during that war forced Haig to resign. Not many people realize it, but the fallout from that war was one of the main reasons for the breakdown in cooperation between Latin American countries and international financial institutions, which contributed to the global debt crisis in the second half of 1982.

Scholars of international relations will remember Mrs. Kirkpatrick for her famous article "Dictators and Double Standards." In it, she bewailed the self-abasing tendency of many Americans to hold allied leaders to higher human rights standards than leaders of enemy countries. She condemned the "doctrine of moral equivalence" that saw no difference between the Communist East and the Free West. She also drew a controversial distinction between authoritarian leaders (who were friendly to the West and often open to democratic regime change) versus totalitarian leaders (who were implacably hostile and refused to consider any liberal reforms). Among the highest-profile autocrats of the 1980s, Augusto Pinochet would be considered an "authoritarian," while Fidel Castro would be considered a "totalitarian." The latter label would probably have applied as well to Muammar Qaddafi, but he surprised many people by reforming (somewhat) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Back in those days, I tended toward a neutral, amoral view of international relations, not trusting the Soviets, but being skeptical of the Reagan administration's bluster. Eventually I came to respect Kirkpatrick and Reagan for their courage in articulating a moral vision in defense of the cause of freedom. Some day, I believe, she will come to be regarded as one of the heroes (or heroines) of the Cold War.


December 8, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Iraq Study Group reports

It may not have much immediate impact on the Bush administration's war policy, but the report by the Iraq Study Group has brought about a refreshing change of political climate in Washington. Ironically, the report's blunt declaration that the situation in Iraq "is grave and deteriorating" had a cathartic effect on discourse about the war. By bringing together elder statesmen from diverse political backgrounds, the groundwork has been laid for a new, broader consensus on how to go forward in the "war against terrorism." United we stand. The key recommendations are:

  1. Begin a diplomatic outreach to hostile regimes such as Iran and Syria.
  2. Create an "international support group" (much like the 1980s Contadora group in Central America)
  3. Allocate more U.S. ground forces to training Iraqi soldiers than to conducting patrols.
  4. Establish "milestones" to monitor the progress of Iraqis in providing for their own security.

George Will played the contrarian pessimist by writing that the report was "overtaken by reality," and contains several suggestions that are banal or just not appropriate. "By what the ISG did not recommend -- e.g., many more troops and much more money -- it recognized that the deterioration is beyond much remediation." Perhaps, but this is no time to spread gloom. As even the Democrats on the ISG stated, we owe it to the Iraqis to give it at least one more big try. One thing that bothers me is the report's emphasis on clear-cut "milestones," which remind one of the "timetable" for withdrawal that many war critics have demanded. It simply is not militarily feasible to pursue objectives on a regular sequential basis. Any decisions about troop levels must be made on the spot, based on the latest assessment of the situation.

According to Glenn Kessler and Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, it should called "The Realist Manifesto." Although the report does not explicitly deal with the objective of promoting democratization in the Middle East, the recommendation to seek negotiated deals with the authoritarian regimes in Damascus and Tehran leave no doubt that democracy should be put on the back burner for now. That doesn't mean democracy is doomed in that region, it just means the political dynamics are not favorable at the moment. As I have written, a diplomatic approach does not necessarily mean that we expect a quick or favorable response; it is rather part of a maneuver to put the onus for failure on the other countries, showing that we at least tried to cooperate with them. With U.S. credibility and prestige at a low level right now, we have little choice but to repair our position with such a diplomatic gesture. Overall, I think Kessler and Ricks are exaggerating the impact of the Realist intellectual tradition somewhat, but there is no doubt that the neoconservative ideological impetus behind U.S. foreign policy is utterly exhausted. The next two years will be a pragmatic interregnum as we wait to see who will guide the ship of state during the 2009-2012 presidential term.

As a Virginia Republican, I am proud that Rep. Frank Wolf played a central role in organizing the Iraq Study Group. He is a moderate conservative who is highly respected in both parties. In 1986 or so I met with him at a constituent input meeting, urging him to support the Contadora peace initiative in Central America. At the time, I was disappointed at his support for the Reagan administration's policies, but I now credit him for being on the right side of history.

Senate confirms Gates as SecDef

It was a virtual love fest in the U.S. Senate, which confirmed Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense yesterday after he acknowledged that the United States "is not winning" the war in Iraq. The very fact that he said those once-taboo words added to the welcome sense of relief in Washington, raising hopes for a more effective war effort. The vote was 95-2, with Jim Bunning and Rick Santorum voting "no." (Both are Republicans.) See Washington Post. This vote happened to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.


December 9, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Hezbollah strikes back

One of the ISG's more dubious suggestions is to rededicate diplomatic efforts toward achieving a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Hopes for peace in the Holy Land have been set back by Hezbollah's recent actions in Lebanon, however. Two weeks ago, a leading anti-Syria politician was assassinated, and this week there were massive demonstrations as part of Hezbollah's thinly-veiled campaign to force the democratic government of Lebanon to resign. Loudspeakers in the streets of Beirut blared Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah's voice: "Just as I promised you victory in the past, I promise you victory once again." See Washington Post. The combination of Syria's belligerence and Hezbollah's resurgence does not bode well for peace at all.

Another reason why peace initiative is unlikely to bear fruit right now: Israel has been divided internally since the lackluster campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is simply too weak to make effective bargains.


December 10, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Andy Pettitte returns to Bronx

I didn't see this one coming: Andy Pettitte just signed a one-year contract with the Yankees, for $16 million, and he has a one-year option on top of that. Pettitte said he told the Astros he would have signed with them again for $14 million, but they wouldn't go above $12 million. He had a lackluster year, which makes Houston's position understandable. What's more, their reluctance to join in the insane bidding wars for pitchers should be commended. If fellow Texan Roger Clemens follows suit and dons the pinstripe uniform once again, that would change everything in the AL East next year. See MLB.com.

Trading Chad Cordero??

Meanwile, the Nationals have declined to make any trades so far. According to the Washington Post, they were waiting to see if any teams made a juicy offer for Chad Cordero. If you ask me, anyone in the Nationals front office is seriously considering trading him is totally nuts. Apart from occasional shaky moments as a closer, Cordero is rock solid overall. What's more, he is the perfect embodiment of the glory days of May-June 2005 when the Nationals stunned the world by surging into first place in the NL East. The team desperately needs a cadre of players who can keep alive those memories, and hopes for a return to glory. I assume the rumors about trading him are just for negotiating purposes.

It seems that everyone is bemoaning the absurdly inflated salaries being offered to free agents this year, especially pitchers, but very few people realize what this means. Baseball franchises are, by and large, flush with cash thanks in large part to the enormous implied subsidy they receive via publicly-funded baseball stadiums.

Exhibition Stadium

The Exhibition Stadium diagram has been updated to conform to the standard, and the shape of the grandstand behind home plate has been corrected thanks in large part to a fine photo of it in the new edition of Green Cathedrals. I had thought that it was a smooth arc, but it was apparently a series of line segments, like at Fenway Park. Exhibition Stadium

Several other significant diagram revisions are in the works as a result of new information contained in Green Cathedrals. Ya'll come back now, ya hear?



December 12, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Augusto Pinochet fades away*

Retired Chilean dictator** Augusto Pinochet passed away a few days after suffering a heart attack. He spent his last months under house arrest, awaiting a trial that probably was never going to happen in any case. Like many historic figures, he was deeply divisive, which is why almost equal numbers of Chilean people mourned his passing as those who danced for joy in the streets. The Washington Post provided a fairly balanced biography, going into detail about the 1976 car bombing on Embassy Row in Washington, when Orlando Letelier and Ronnie Moffitt were killed. Two years later, about the same time that I moved to Washington, a former CIA employee named Michael Townley was convicted of the crime. There were many other dastardly deeds carried out in Pinochet's behest, but we may never know the extent to which he was complicit in them.

Among the most predictable leftist bloggers, Randy Paul views Pinochet as a vampire, calling for wooden stakes and garlic. [On the conservative side, Andrew Sullivan says the reaction by some to Pinochet's death helps him understand the "American right's toleration of torture as an instrument of statecraft." He also muses, wryly, "One day, Rumsfeld will be as leery of taking vacations in England as Pinochet was."]

Clearly Pinochet was a brute, and almost certainly countenanced murder and torture of political opponents, but disgust for him should be tempered by an understanding of the situation in Chile in 1973, and what Chile is like today. I am not trying to either join the crowd denouncing him or make excuses for him, but simply take an open-minded look at his life. Few people are aware that Pinochet showed no sign of interest in politics before he launched the bloody coup that toppled President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. The Chilean armed forces had a high reputation for professionalism, though there were some intrigues in response to Allende's purchase of weapons from East Bloc countries for use by workers' militias. That move was regarded, understandably, as a subversive affront to the established security forces, a big step toward a proletarian revolution or even a civil war.

A frequent misperception is that the coup was orchestrated by the U.S. government, or at least was coordinated with Washington. There is no question that the Nixon administration used the CIA to undermine the Allende government, perhaps even to the point of economic sabotage, but there is as of yet no "smoking gun" pointing to U.S. involvement in planning for Pinochet's coup. On several occasions, he flagrantly defied the U.S. government, unlike the many Cold War lackeys of Washington in Latin America.

Although Pinochet eventually came to be linked closely to free-market economic policy, this change did not come about until the second or third year of his rule. Lacking a background in economics, he improvised at first, and eventually acceded to the advice of a group of monetarist economists schooled at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, who recently passed away. Chile pioneered in the privatization of retirement pension accounts, and one of the architects of that program, Jose Piñera, was an adviser to the Bush administration, which fumbled a similar initiative. (I saw him speak at U.Va. a few years ago.) Leftist critics dispute the economic success attributed to Pinochet, and as I've noted, his economic policies were not always consistent. The big exception to the rule of privatization and integration into global capital markets was in the copper mining sector. Pinochet never reversed the nationalization of Chilean copper mines that Allende had undertaken. Much like Mexico, where oil is considered a sacrosanct patrimony of the nation, copper in Chile is not for sale to foreigners.

Nevertheless, if you look across Latin America, Chile has by far the most stable, dynamic, and productive economic system, and is the envy of all neighboring countries. Indeed, Chile has been so successful economically that its government can afford European-style social democratic safety nets. Like Spain and Portugal, even with Socialist governments since the end of the authoritarian era, economic policy in Chile has been rational and market-oriented, resisting the temptation to indulge in populist "bonanza" spending sprees. It certainly does not belong in the "Third World" category. On balance, Chile is one of the most pleasant places to live in all of Latin America, and it would be hard to explain that fact without making reference to the policies enacted by Pinochet. For a believer in free market capitalism, however, Pinochet's undeniable economic success is not necessarily cause for cheer. Indeed, it raises the troubling question of whether it is even possible to implement a market-oriented development program in a Third World country using democratic means.

* As General Douglas MacArthur said about old generals, ...

** The phrase "retired dictator" is deliberately ironic. How many true "dictators" voluntarily step down? Pinochet was clearly an iron-fisted ruler, but as the recently-deceased Jeane Kirkpatrick always emphasized, he was an authoritarian leader, not a totalitarian seeking permanent, absolute power, as Fidel Castro did. Speaking of which, Castro may not live much longer, either.


December 13, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Ebbets Field

I've made a minor modification to the 1913 and 1926 versions of the Ebbets Field diagram, based on new data in the latest edition of Green Cathedrals. (I had indicated before that I wasn't sure about the exact shape of the center field.) I'm pretty sure those center field distances (508 and 502 feet, respectively) pertain to the deepest corner, which was slightly to the right of dead center field.

The mail bag

As always, Mike Zurawski is keeping up with news on stadium developments around the country. First, planning for the the future home of the Twins is still in progress, but details about it are slowly emerging: see the Star Tribune. The capacity will be slightly smaller than had been estimated previously: 40,000, rather than [42,000]. Semi-final plans are due in February.

Also, the city of Anaheim is considering various offers by developers who want to build in the parking lots adjacent to Angel Stadium. One option is a new pro football stadium. See the L. A. Times.

Might the Oakland Athletics move to San Jose, after all? Chances are almost nil at this late date, but the San Jose city council has voted funds for a study of needed preparations, just in case the A's change their minds about moving to Fremont. See Mercury News.

Details about the planned improvements to Dolphins Stadium, including artist's renderings, are at: Miami Sun-Sentinel. As far as I can tell, it mostly involves widening the concourses behind the north and south sides, and no changes are apparent inside the seating bowl.

Speaking of football venues, Bruce Orser sent me this link to a page full of text and photos of old football stadiums in Philadelphia, including some that were also used for baseball: footballhistory.org.


December 13, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Bashing Virginia Republicans

Last week the Washington Post editorialized on divisions that plague the Republican Party in Virginia. Apparently, someone tipped them off that the moderate pragmatists in the party -- the ones who are often derided as "RINOS," meaning Republicans in name only -- stayed away from the recent "Advance" conclave at the Homestead. Given the mistrust that currently pervades the party, that's not at all surprising to me. To the Post's opinion page editors, the resistance in the House of Delegates to fully funding the transportation wish-list of Northern Virginia is irrational stubbornness. As they put it, "They would rather just be the Party of "Nyet" -- nyet to taxes, nyet to new roads, nyet to new preschools." Well, what about the possibility that they are simply being faithful to their own core principles? Is that so wrong?

To me, it is common sense that the government should refrain from subsidizing a transportation infrastructure that is based on gasoline-powered passenger vehicles. If people who live in crowded areas want more highway lanes, there should be a special tax district so that those people can pay for it in full, not forcing rural folks to share the burden. Subsidized highways artificially inflate consumer demand for petroleum, but somehow this basic fact is rarely mentioned in public discourse. (Ever hear of excessive dependence on imported oil?) Ironically, those "stubborn, backward" Republicans in the Virginia House may be more farsighted than most elitists think.

Today's Staunton News Leader echoed the Washington Post's theme, scorning the "obstructionist, Republican-dominated House of Delegates," which they call "the root cause of Virginia's recurring nightmare..." To me, the blame lies not with either the House of Delegates Republicans or the Senate Republicans, but rather with the poor state of communication within the Republican Party in general. Reasonable people who share broad common objectives ought to be able to hammer out a compromise, and the fact that such attempts have failed over and over again is a clear sign that something is seriously wrong. Thanks to a few headstrong leaders who put their own ambitions ahead of all else, factionalism has become so bad over the past few years that many members are afraid to speak their minds. In terms of policy, I have leaned somewhat more toward the House side, but I am increasingly worried that some House members are so committed to their ideological preferences that they disregard financial soundness. That was why former Governor Warner was able to take away the fiscal responsibility issue from the Republicans, and is the main reason why the Republicans might lose control of one or both legislative chambers in next year's elections. Then our state government will create all sorts of ridiculous new entitlement programs, starting with Governor Kaine's proposed universal free preschool care, and ending up who knows where.

Letter to the editor

Coincidentally, today's News Leader also published my letter to the editor that was prompted by seeing a local boy wearing an obnoxious T-shirt. I made the provocative suggestion of publishing a list of "bad parents" in hopes of instilling some respect for authority and perhaps even a sense of shame in the Wayward Youth of Today.


December 15, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Matsuzaka signs with Red Sox

So it turns out the Red Sox really were serious about Daisuke Matsuzaka after all! They finally reached terms with the pitching phenomenon, and the six-year contract he signed will be worth at least $50 million, plus possible bonuses of up to $10 million. In his eight years pitching for the Seibu Lions, he had a 108-60 record and a 2.95 ERA. He was the MVP of the inaugural World Baseball Classic last March. See MLB.com. The Seibu Lions received $51 million from the Red Sox up front, meaning the total cost was $100 million or so. Is he really that good? Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell notes that Matsuzaka will earn less than such "mediocre" pitchers as Gil Meche, Ted Lilly, or Vicente Padilla, and he puts the blame on the Japanese franchises for "international robbery, baseball style." Well that's putting it a little strongly. So will Matsuzaka be an instant success like Ichiro Suzuki, or will he take time to achieve major league excellence, as with Hideki Matsui? I have a feeling he will be more than a match for Andy Pettitte, should those two guys start against each other in one of next year's Yankees-Red Sox showdowns.

Nats trade Vidro to Seattle

This is sad news, but it's not terribly surprising. The Nationals have agreed to trade veteran second baseman Jose Vidro to Seattle, where he will (presumably) play as a designated hitter in most games. In return, Washington gets outfielder Chris Snelling and right-handed pitcher Emiliano Fruto. The deal is contingent upon a medical exam, however, and Vidro couldn't make the doctor's appointment today because the airliner had engine problems. So, he'll still be a National through this weekend, at least. Seattle will absorb $12 million of the $16 million on the two years left on Vidro's contract. See MLB.com. I hope the Nationals use that extra cash wisely. The upshot is that Felipe Lopez will probably take Vidro's place at second base, giving the shortstop position back to Cristian Guzman, who was a big disappointment in 2005 and was injured all this year. That leaves just six Nationals players who used to be with the Montreal Expos: Chad Cordero, John Patterson, Luis Ayala, Jon Rauch, Brian Schneider, and Ryan Church.

The mail bag

Paul Thompson called attention to a feature of Exhibition Stadium that I neglected to mention: the private suites on top of the football grandstand beyond left field. He also questions some of the details on that diagram. He also provided me some tips on Montreal's Olympic Stadium, which is being revised as well... He participates in a blog called Mop Up Duty.


December 16, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Separatism spreads in Bolivia

The city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia was the scene of a virtual "million man march" on Friday, as protests against the plans of President Evo Morales to centralize government authority in La Paz are gaining momentum. Santa Cruz is the center of oil and gas production in Bolivia, and people living there don't want to have all their wealth sucked out, to be redistributed by politicians in a distant capital city. Morales, who is a former union boss who is used to getting his way, is having difficulty imposing his will on the general population. See CNN.com. The push for autonomy is now spreading from the eastern province to other regions such as Beni and Pando in the north and Tarija in the south. See bolivia.com (in Spanish). It all adds up to a titanic nationwide showdown, as Chavez either succeeds in forcing his rule upon a divided nation, or else backs down. There is also a third scenario: neither side gives up, and the confrontation escalates toward civil war. The violence associated with the downfall of two recent presidents (October 2003 and June 2005) shows what a strong possibility that is.

This wave of opposition has been gathering steam for the past few weeks, ever since Morales started to manipulate the proceedings of the constitutent assembly to pave the way for easier ratification of his revised state charter. He wants to allow changes to specific articles to be approved by a simple majority vote, rather than by the customary supermajority; ratifying the whole charter would still require approval by two-thirds of the 255 members of the constituent assembly. (The assembly convened in August, and protests began within a few weeks; see Sept. 11.) Ostensibly, the proposed constitutional changes are aimed at giving more power to the Indian population of Bolivia, but in essence they would serve to undermine constitutional limits on government power. Bolivia would be transformed into a unitary state, a "winner-take-all" system with a heavily populist flavor. Such an unchecked majoritarian democracy, as Immanuel Kant once wrote, is tantamount to despotism.


December 18, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Sen. Tim Johnson in hospital

South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson's prognosis seems to have improved somewhat since he underwent emergency brain surgery, but the long-term outlook for recovery is still very much in doubt. He happens to be from my home town of Vermillion, and barely won reelection in 2002 over John Thune, who went on to defeat Sen. Tom Daschle in 2004. The margin in the 2002 election may have been decided by the newly built bridge over the Missouri River , which Johnson pushed; see Nov. 6, 2002 (scroll down). See Washington Post. There is a precedent in South Dakota for an incapacitated senator holding on to his seat for years -- Sen. Karl Mundt (R) suffered a stroke in November 1969, and remained in office until the end of his term in January 1973, even though he did not cast a single vote during that three-year period.

Whatever happens to Sen. Johnson, and whatever happens in the U.S. Senate as a result of his illness, I hope all Americans who want what's best for the country say a prayer for him. He's a good guy, and a vital (if low-key) moderate voice in the Democratic Party.

Another GOP Hispanic loses

In one of the closest House races this fall, it has finally been declared that Rep. Henry Bonilla has lost his seat. That makes a net loss of 30 seats for the Republicans. [Bonilla's district lies along the Texaxo-Mexico border, and the crackdown on illegal crossings cost him many votes.] Robert Novak [cites the Bonilla example to show] that immigration politics "are killing" the Republican Party. (Hat tip to Michael Oliver.) Indeed, like Jerry Kilgore in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign, many Republican candidates use immigration as a divisive "wedge" issue without making any serious policy proposals on how to solve the problem. If the Republican Party could only take the risk of standing up for its basic principles of equality before the law, fair play, and free market economics -- as opposed to compromising on values and rationalizing widespread cheating in hopes of attracting just a few more votes -- they just might regain their credibility among centrist voters once again.


December 18, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Christmas Bird Count, 2006

Unlike most recent years, the weather for this year's Christmas Bird Count was very mild. This year I was teamed up with Stan Heatwole, and we covered the area around New Hope, in the northeastern part of Augusta County. Stan and I saw or heard 42 species altogether, compared to the 36 I saw last year. Aside from the Phoebe, however, there were no real surprises or unusual sightings. The most dramatic wildlife sighting was a Red fox, which I saw running across a corn field. Also, Stan spotted some Slider turtles in a farm pond, which was quite a shock to me. I thought they were all hibernating by mid-November or so. (Global warming?) Here is the complete list of birds for 2006, in chronological order according to when we first saw each one:

  • 7 Carolina wrens
  • 39 Dark-eyed juncos
  • 31 Song sparrows
  • 10 Field sparrows *
  • 25 White-crowned sparrows
  • 11 American goldfinches
  • 112 American crows
  • 498 European starlings
  • 20 Carolina chickadees
  • 8 Tufted titmice
  • 27 Northern cardinals
  • 7 Red-bellied woodpeckers
  • 4 Northern flickers
  • 16 House finches
  • 35 Northern mockingbirds
  • 4 Red-tailed hawks
  • 44 Rock dove (pigeon)
  • 68 House sparrows
  • 68 Mourning doves
  • 30 Blue jays
  • 41 Turkey vultures
  • 7 American kestrels
  • 52 Eastern bluebirds
  • 7 Downy woodpeckers
  • 12 Yellow-rumped warblers
  • 6 White-breasted nuthatches
  • 28 Canada geese *
  • 34 White-throated sparrows
  • 1 Red-shouldered hawk (prob.) *
  • 1 Sharp-shinned hawk *
  • 1 Ruby-crowned kinglet *
  • 1 Great blue heron *
  • 11 Brown-headed cowbirds *
  • 56 Black vultures
  • 2 Kingfishers *
  • 1 Phoebe *
  • 2 Swamp sparrows *
  • 7 Mallards
  • 7 Grackles *
  • 2 Red-winged blackbirds *
  • 20 Horned larks (prob.) *
  • 2 Robins

  • * -- not seen last year

Interestingly, many of the numbers closely matched the tallies I made last year. To my surprise, I did not observe any Cedar waxwings for the third year in a row. I would have expected to see at least some of the following birds that I saw last year but not this year:

  • Yellow-bellied sapsuckers
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Hermit thrush
  • Gray catbird
  • Eastern towhee
  • Eastern meadowlarks

Many thanks to John and Nancy Spahr for hosting the CBC compilation dinner last night at their beautifully restored home, which also serves as Gallery 234, which is full of original works by Nancy and other local artists.

The area Stan and I covered was almost entirely new territory to me, and even though there is intensive agriculture and considerable residential development, much of the area is incredibly scenic, with the Blue Ridge only a few miles away. The proposed industrial "mega-site" (see May 15) would be located only a few miles away, and I saw several signs and bumper stickers expressing opposition to it.


December 19, 2006 [LINK / comment]

The Devil Rays are going to Disney World!

No, not to celebrate a world championship, but to host the Texas Rangers in a three-game series, on May 15-17, at Disney's "Wide World of Sports" complex near Orlando. "The stadium was designed to hold approximately 9,500 fans, but it can be expanded to accommodate 13,000." See MLB.com. (Hat tip to Steven Poppe.) At last: real Florida sunshine! It's probably a good way for the D-Rays to expand their fan base, but I hope it doesn't lead to an identity crisis such as was suffered by the former Montreal Expos when they played many of their games in Puerto Rico in 2003 and 2004. This idea was broached earlier this month, but I didn't realize it might take place this coming year. Maybe they should be called the "Florida Devil Rays," and the other team further south should be called the "Miami Marlins." I wonder if anyone is considering replacing the current dome at Tropicana Field with a retractable roof?

D.C. stadium images

There is a new set of artist's renderings of the future Washington Nationals' stadium at MLB.com. I like the cherry trees in the plaza beyond left field. Hat tip to "Mustang Danny."

Wells stays a Blue Jay

It's good to see that the Blue Jays front office is committed to fielding a pennant-contending team, as Vernon Wells signed a seven-year contract extension with them for $126 million. See MLB.com.


December 19, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Big milk and big subsidies

This is an item that I have been meaning to get to for the past week or more. Everyone complains about the price of gasoline, but not many people realize that milk prices are kept artificially high thanks to the Federal government's system of subsidies and price supports. Last week the Washington Post had a background article on the economic distortions created by the massive subsidies to U.S. dairy farmers. It notes that "The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that the programs cost U.S. consumers at least $1.5 billion a year." The article focused on a "maverick" dairy farmer from Arizona named Hein Hettinga, who opted out of the Federal system and started selling milk to local retail stores for 20 or more cents a gallon less than the competition. That was too much for the established producers belonging to the United Dairymen of Arizona to bear, however. So, they lobbied Sen. Harry Reid (soon to be Senate Majority Leader?) and others to pass a new law aimed at thwarting independent milk producers, and Hettinga responded by lobbying House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA) to stop the measure. Hettinga was vastly outspent by Big Milk lobbysists, however.

To my surprise, the measure was supported by some of the most rock-solid conservative Republicans. Retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl played a key role early on, and outgoing Agriculture Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, who represents us here in the Shenandoah Valley and points south, helped as well. (There are lots of big dairy farms in these parts, and boy do some of them stink!) John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) used a parliamentary maneuver to smooth the bill's passage, and Congress did enact such a measure last March. Free enterprise? Not! Mr. Hettinga, who lives in Yuma, just north of the border, quipped in a good-natured way: "I still think this is a great country. In Mexico, they would have just shot me."

Orthodox libertarians would cringe, but there really are some unique problems particular to agriculture that makes strict adherence to market economic principles difficult. The problem is that government remedies often create inefficiencies and perverse incentives. As with welfare, public health, and other well-meaning government programs, there is an inherent tendency toward dependency and corruption with guaranteed handouts. Obviously, both parties are closely tied to Big Milk interests. For farmers, I think the solution lies not in manipulating prices to guarantee them a "decent living," whatever that is, but rather making sure that enough financing is available to help them survive in lean years.


December 22, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Dominican Republic & baseball

Thursday's Washington Post had a feature story on the economic effect that big league baseball recruiting is having on the Dominican Republic, one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. It focused on Esmailyn Gonzalez, a 17-year old shorstop from the Dominican Republic who just got a $1.4 million signing bonus from the Washington Nationals. His family lives in a corrugated steel shack. Baseball has been a godsend for many poor families in the Caribbean and Central America, but the article notes the dark side: exploitive scouts and agents who promise the moon but don't deliver. (Remember Jerry Maguire?) The article explains:

Foreign teenagers aren't subject to MLB's annual draft, which includes only American high schoolers and college kids. Rather, they are all but auctioned off to teams by street agents known locally as buscones, a derivative of the Spanish for "to find" or "to seek."

Gonzalez's agent says he receives a 20 percent commission, which would be $280,000 from the $1.4 million bonus. Many of the buscones encourage their clients to take steroids to impress major league scouts. Ironically, there are no legal regulations on such transactions in much of Latin America, which in a sense more closely approximates the ideal of unfettered capitalism, for better or worse. MLB officials say they are working with the Dominican Republic government to prevent abuses of young baseball prospects. There is no question that the small island country overall benefits economically from baseball, but as is so often the case in today's globalized economy, the benefits are often uneven and capricious. As part of the "collateral damage" in the high-stakes competition, many young boys' bodies are ruined for life.

Nats sign Robert Fick

Journeyman utility player Robert Fick has signed a minor league contract with the Nationals, which includes an invitation to spring training tryouts but not much else. Although injury-plagued this past year with the Nats, he is the kind of solid backup player that all teams need, and it's too bad he didn't get a better offer from the team's front office. I had forgotten that he was named to the American League All-Star team when playing with Detroit in 2002. See MLB.com. His career sounds a little like Kevin Costner's character "Crash" Craddock in Bull Durham, except that Fick did make it to the "big show."

R.I.P. Cecil Travis

Former Washington Senators shortstop Cecil Travis passed away at the age of 93. As a rookie, he helped the Nats win the AL pennant in 1933, the last time a Washington team did so. Travis had a .314 career batting average and was considered by Ted Williams to have been ["one of the five best left-handed hitters I ever saw,"] but he was banged up by combat duty during World War II and never played as well again after the war was over. See Washington Post. [NOTE: For some reason, the extensive obituary written by Matt Schudel that appeared in today's print edition is not available online.]

The mail bag

A new visitor named Edward Frank paid me a kind compliment for this Web site, especially the MLB franchise history page. (I am in the process of revising that page, so his suggestions on team name changes are timely.) He also offered his opinion on the most "consistently faithful" baseball teams over the years:

By consistently faithful I mean - (1) never changed city of origin AND (2) never changed team nickname - from the date of inception of the franchise. Some franchises might be older, but none more consistently faithful.

It's an intriguing question. He thinks the Detroit Tigers are the most faithful team, followed by the Chicago Cubs. After you've thought about it yourself for a minute, roll the mouse over those blank spaces to see what Mr. Frank thinks.

Those who are registered for this Web site can put their two cents in by using the comments feature; click on the "LINK / comments" link at the top of this post. (I had to suspend registration last month because of all the spam, but I expect to get it operational again next week.)

Mike Zurawski sends news of improvements at Fenway Park, described at MLB.com. Indirect financial support for this came from $5 million additional state tax credits for historic preservation; see Boston Herald. Speaking of Fenway, I noticed that Dave Matthews (who got his start in Charlottesville, when I lived there) has put out a CD of a concert his band performed there during the All Star break last July. Last year Jimmy Buffett did the same thing. Mike also sent me this link with extensive text and even bigger images of the Washington Nationals' future stadium.


December 22, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Yuletide political roundup

This time of year, when peace, joy, and goodwill to all are the order of the day, politics is one of the last things most of us want to think about. Here are a few recent items that just cannot pass without some commentary:

Goode on immigration

As readers of this blog know, immigration reform is a high-priority issue for me, for personal as well as political reasons, and I take pains to disassociate myself from immigrant-bashing. Unfortunately, Rep. Virgil Goode has created a controversy by writing a letter to constituents about the immigration problem in which he cited the desire of incoming Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) to use the Koran when he takes the oath next month. Even after taking heat, Goode won't back down; see AP News. Today's News Leader editorial calls Goode's position "Neanderthal nativism." I wouldn't go that far, but I do think Goode is way off base. The point of using Holy Scriptures in court or other oath-taking ceremonies is to accentuate the sincerity and solemnity of the oath, and obviously a person's own religion is the most appropriate standard for that. I think this incident ranks behind "macaca" on the gaffe scale, but I fear that Rep. Goode, like outgoing Sen. Allen, simply doesn't understand how such words make it more difficult to fashion a broad consensus on national immigration policy, without which the problem will never be solved. Sigh...

Health insurance

As the Democrats prepare to take over Congress, the old issue of health insurance will no doubt arise once again. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already hinted that he wants his state to follow the lead of Massachusetts in adopting mandatory health insurance, about which I complained April 4; scroll down to second item. In yesterday's Washington Post, John Graham made the case against mandatory health insurance using a very amusing analogy to a high-class restaurant in which most of the customers are deadbeats, forcing a minority to pick up the tab. Read the whole thing. Anyone with half a brain* and a devotion to the principles of individual freedom knows that the only long-term solution to the health care mess is to radically scale back implicit government subsidies to that sector, to remove the unintentional distortions. Go ahead, call me an extremist.

[* CLARIFICATION: Just in case anyone took offense by that, a person with a full brain but who is more inclined toward socialism would disagree with such a free-market policy prescription, obviously. The emphasis is on the word and.]

Farm subsidies, again

The Washington Post had another background article on farm subsidies and the success of lobbyists for Big Agriculture to thwart reforms, one of the biggest disappointments from the recent era of a Republican majority. If the Democrats want to maintain control of Congress after the 2008 elections, they could pick up a lot of centrist votes by cleaning up that mess. I doubt they are up to the task of taking on something that ambitious.

Donkey spank hiatus

I was sorry to learn that local blogger Chris Green, an exuberant France-bashing, Hillary-bashing gun nut and gung ho former Marine, is taking a sabbatical. Hey, we can't be deadly earnest all the time! So, who is going pick up the slack in giving hell to Hillary? Well, my baseball buddy Phil Faranda's brother Tom Faranda, for one. That is one scary-looking doctored photograph! (Phil is on hiatus, as well.)


Bush OKs minimum wage hike?

UPDATE: In normal times, the idea of a Republican president approving an increase in the minimum wage would be too far-fetched to believe. But these are the Orwellian days of "compassionate conservativism" in which core principles are routinely negotiated or even cast aside by the political "wizards" in the Bush White House. Yesterday's Washington Post reported that Bush endorsed the Democrats' call to raise the minimum wage by $2.10, to $7.25 an hour, over a period of two years, in exchange for enacting a set of targeted tax cuts and regulatory exemptions for small businesses. Is that a genuine token of bipartisan cooperation, or is it a "poison pill" intended to sabotage the ostensible compromise, calculating that the Democrats would refuse the bargain? One thing's for sure, it will make the Federal tax code more complicated, requiring more bureaucrats and accountants to figure everything out. Bush's proposal is a perfect example of an unnecessarily self-contradictory combination of government policies, in which one popular but inefficacious policy measure necessitates the adoption of an offsetting (and usually bad) policy measure. It's like putting one foot on the gas, and one foot on the brake.


Sandy "Burglar" update

Further investigations into Samuel "Sandy" Berger have revealed that the former Clinton NSC official hid some of the documents purloined from the National Archives beneath a trailer at a construction site in Washington. He destroyed some of those documents, presumably to cover up the failure of the Clinton administration to deal with Al Qaeda in a timely fashion. See Washington Post. Obviously, taking those documents out of the Archives was not an innocent oversight, as he first claimed. (Did anyone believe him?) Where's the outrage? As Michael Oliver writes, "What could be a bigger crime than destroying our ability to discern our own history as a nation, particularly that leading up to the events of 9-11?"

FURTHER UPDATE: The report by the Inspector General's report on Mr. Berger is available via Pajamas Media; link thanks to Glenn Reynolds. It's fascinating to read about the various perspectives on when Berger first came under suspicion from the Archives staff, and yet it's all a bit tedious, with an absurd number of black-out words. Much of the report concerns the "Millenium Alert After Action Review" (MAAAR), the Clinton administration's self-assessment of measures taken to thwart a terrorist attack that many people feared would happen on Jan. 1, 2000.


December 23, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Lerners to invest millions more

To make up for the reluctance of the D.C. Council to exceed the existing cost cap, Mark Lerner has declared that his family will invest much more than the $10 million they have already committed to the stadium project. They are talking about an ultra-fancy video-display board, private bathrooms for the luxury suites, and other accoutrements, to make sure the Washington Nationals' future home is a first-class venue in its inaugural season. The total amount the Lerners invest could exceed $30 million, according to what the younger Lerner said in an interview. See Washington Post. Well, it's about time they stepped up to the plate! No doubt, they will get a handsome return on their investment. Columnist Thomas Boswell can scarcely contain himself with gleeful anticipation as the steel structure of the upper deck is built. He is optimistic that the views of the D.C. skyline will not be obstructed by buildings on the north side of the stadium. Construction is proceeding ahead of schedule, thanks to decent weather so far.

New stadium for D.C. United?

There are renewed discussions about building a stadium for the D.C. United soccer team, possibly as early as 2009. If so, they would only be the sole tenants of RFK Stadium for one year after the Nationals leave. It is expected to seat about 27,000 fans, and will be located on the south side of the Anacostia River, just across from the Nationals' new stadium. Bureaucratic hurdles involving the transfer of the land from the Federal government to the D.C. government may cause further delays, however. See Washington Post.

The mail bag

New visitor Don Glorisi informs me that the New York Jets had already changed their name from the "Titans" (remember?) by 1963, the final season they played in the Polo Grounds. Duly noted! He should know, he saw the Jets' final game of the 1963 season, which was probably the last sporting event ever played in the Polo Grounds! Speaking of which, I wonder what the Nationals' final game at RFK Stadium next year will be like? They are scheduled to play the Phillies on Sunday, Sept. 23.


December 23, 2006 [LINK / comment]

John Warner may run again

According to the Washington Post, Sen. John Warner is weighing the pros and cons of running for reelection in 2008, and it appears he is leaning toward seeking a sixth term. If so, it would great news for Virginia Republicans, who have been taking it on the chin in recent elections. If not, the likely Republican candidates to replace him would include outgoing Sen. George Allen, former Gov. Jim Gilmore, and Rep. Tom Davis. (I would prefer Davis.) Warner is 79 years old, but he seems to be in fine health. He campaigned very actively on behalf of George Allen, a gesture of party loyalty that Republicans should not forget. More importantly, he maintains a very active role in major political issues, such as judicial nominations (averting the "nuclear option," thus paving the way for Justices Roberts and Alito) and foreign policy (warning that time was running out in Iraq). He is just the kind of common-sense moderate conservative that drew me to the Republican Party in the mid-1990s. In 1996 Warner faced a stiff challenge from charismatic millionaire Mark Warner -- who went on to become governor in 2002 -- and the possibility of a rematch between the two Warners cannot be discounted.

Goode grief...

I haven't seen Rep. Virgil Goode's statement on TV, or else I might have been more outraged by the crude way he pandered to xenophobic constituents. The more I read about what he said, however, the creepier and more bigoted he sounds, a big embarrassment to the Republican Party. Apparently he is oblivious to the [constitutional] ban on religious tests as a qualification for public office. After thinking it over, I would have to say that what he wrote and said was worse than Sen. Allen's "macaca" gaffe. Saturday's Washington Post has a background piece on Goode's ornery, defiant nature. Leftist bloggers are having a field day, of course, but Josh Marshall's initial reaction ironically lent Goode a tiny bit of credence by scoffing at the notion that we are menaced by Muslim immigrants. Of course, most of them are fine, decent, devout people, but even if only one in a thousand is hostile, that's something to worry about. Remember 9/11?


December 23, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Great blue heron behind SARS

Great Blue Heron at SARS After a torrential rain yesterday, part of the same weather system that recently dumped two feet of snow on Colorado, the skies cleared this morning. So, I took a walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad for the first time in several weeks. There weren't as many birds as I had expected, but on the way back I came upon a Great blue heron wading in the stream. It was the first of that species I had ever seen in that location. It quickly flew behind some bushes upstream, but I managed to get close enough for a brief video clip, from which this image is extracted. Here is today's list of notable birds:

  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Downy woodpecker
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • Golden-crowned kinglet
  • Great blue heron

Roll your mouse over this image to see a closeup view, showing the yellow eyes.



December 24, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Latin America Yuletide roundup

In tropical and semi-tropical Latin America, the credulity of innocent youth is stretched by the notion that "Papa Noel" (Santa Claus) travels in a sleigh. Politics in that region tends to fade away into the background this time of year, but there are a few items of interest, nonetheless:

Venezuela: One party?

It is hardly surprising that Hugo Chavez has taken the opportunity of his landslide reelection to begin a move toward bringing the various parties and movements that support him into a "Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela." Basically, the ruling "Fifth Republic Movement" party is going to subsume the other factions into a single pro-government party, the clearest sign yet that Venezuela is in a transition from a quasi-democratic regime toward a authoritarian system. See CNN.com. Is Venezuela going to end up as a totalitarian regime like Cuba?

The "Wrong Turn"

At Tech Central Station, Desmond Lachman wrote a good summary about the tragic turn of political currents in Latin America over the past few years. He means "wrong" as in "left." It was only a few years ago that freedom, capitalism, and democracy were on the rise throughout the region. Now all of those values are in jeopardy. (Link via Instapundit.) There is much more to the story, however. Stay tuned...

Toledo to stand trial

Peru's former president Toledo has been charged in a forgery scheme by which he became a qualified candidate in the 2000 presidential campaign. This sort of thing is typical of outsider politicians who scramble to become eligible to run for the highest office. In some countries in Latin America, parties and institutions are so weak that a dozen or more candidates end up on the ballots, leaving voters very confused about the alternatives. Much like Alberto Fujimori's "Change 90" party, Toledo's "Peru Possible" party came out of nowhere, and his lack of an institutional base was a major factor that made governing Peru very difficult. See CNN.com. It is another black eye for a man who was once considered the darling of many folks in the United States, the best hope for moderate reform in Latin America.

Uruguay vs. Argentina

The spat between the neighboring countries in South America has reignited once again. Uruguayans are angry at Argentina for ignoring their protests against a pulp mill that is under construction on the Uruguay River. See BBC.


December 26, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Ecuadorans mad at Colombia

The government of Ecuador has complained to Colombia about the latter country's resumption of herbicide spraying on its side of the border. Such spraying was suspended last January, but the coca cultivation has resumed in the border zone, and Colombia felt it had no choice but to start spraying again. Tensions began rising in recent weeks, but Foreign Minister Francisco Carrion delcared that Ecuador will not sever diplomatic relations with Colombia, "at least not the government of President [Alfredo] Palacio." His term ends January 15, and the big question is whether Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe will attend the inauguration ceremonies of Rafael Correa, a populist who will be under stiff pressure to prove himself by asserting his country's interests. He blamed the dispute on Colombia's lack of willingness to cooperate on border issues. See CNN.com. So far, Correa seems to be a more reasonable leader than Bolivia's Evo Morales, who shows little or no interest in controlling coca production or fighting drug trafficking. If he plays the defiant populist role too strongly in his first days on the job, however, he may back himself into a corner that will make it difficult to build constructive relations with neighboring countries, and with the United States.


December 26, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Murtha's charitable scam

In politics, there is no such thing as pure motives. It is still possible to distinguish politicians with real integrity from the ones who use their office as a brokerage house for trading favors, however. An article in the Washington Post suggests that a charitable program that receives Federal funds thanks to Rep. John Murtha is not quite on the up and up. Murtha, of course, has a senior spot on the House Appropriations Committee and is a close ally of Speaker-to-Be Nancy Pelosi. The Pennsylvania Association for Individuals With Disabilities (PAID) was set up by a former Murtha staffer, Carmen Scialabba.

But the group serves another function as well. PAID has become a gathering point for defense contractors and lobbyists with business before Murtha's defense appropriations subcommittee, and for Pennsylvania businesses and universities that have thrived on federal money obtained by Murtha.
...
In turn, many of PAID's directors have kept Murtha's campaigns flush with cash.

Well, what do you know?! It appears that many disabled folks are getting jobs, but the efficiency of the spending for that worthy purpose is probably as low as for those police-related charities that telemarketers are always pushing. Glenn Reynolds at first found it odd that the Post chose to publish this item on Christmas Day, suspecting they were trying to bury it, but he later gave them the benefit of the doubt for at least bringing the story to light. I probably would too. For what it's worth, I used to know someone who worked in Murtha's office, and she had a rather low opinion of him.


December 27, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Jerry Ford passes away at age 93

First official portrait of President Gerald R. Ford,
August 27, 1974.
Courtesy of Gerald R. Ford Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Gerald Ford The man who served as a "bridge over troubled waters" for our country during the Watergate Era has passed away after several months of declining health. Gerald Ford was the only man ever to serve as president without being elected to that office or vice president, and he never sought the highest office. Born in Nebraska under the name "Leslie King," he was adopted by his mother's second husband and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His career in college football, his law degree at Yale, and his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II marked him as a leader. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1948, and became House Minority Leader in 1965. Through the happenstance of Vice President Spiro Agnew's sudden resignation in October 1973, Ford was designated as vice president by Richard Nixon, and was quickly approved by Congress. It was the first time those provisions of the 25th Amendment were put into practice.

As the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1974, Ford was in a very difficult position, and he acted in a prudent, low-key way. Upon assuming office on August 9, he reassured an anxious nation that the government would go on as usual. He always put his country's interests ahead of his own, and he paid a high political price for it. I always thought his decision to pardon Richard Nixon was appropriate, and it's a shame Ford did not get more credit for that action. Though he was widely mocked by comedians and scorned by those who wanted to see Richard Nixon go to jail, most people agreed in retrospect that he was the right man at the right time.

And what difficult times those were! Young people today cannot imagine the hardships that Middle America endured during the recession and inflation that followed the surge in oil prices in the mid-1970s. That unprecedentedly bleak situation even gave rise to a new word: stagflation. It marked the turn of a historical era, the end of ever-increasing mass affluence and the beginning of the Age of Limits: 55 MPH, President Jimmy Carter, malaise, sweaters, and other pious gestures of austerity. It was in this context that polyester leisure suits and disco music became popular.

Only eight months after he took office, the North Vietnamese Army broke the armistice agreement and conquered South Vietnam, creating an image that will forever haunt America: helicopters plucking desperate evacuees from the U.S. embassy rooftop in Saigon. Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge at about the same time, and the rescue by U.S. forces of the merchant ship Mayaguez from Communist captors was a rare glimmer of triumph at a moment of historical gloom. In several parts of Africa, meanwhile, the Soviet Union and its Cuban proxies gained control of governments, and Marxism seemed unstoppable in the Third World. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger managed the U.S. global retreat as best he could, and the SALT negotiations with the Soviets continued. At the time, there didn't seem to be any alternative course of action.

Ford was a solid Main Street Republican from a bygone era in which traditional family values -- including an openly professed faith in God -- were taken for granted. A firm believer in fiscal responsibility, he vetoed several dozen spending bills passed by the Democratic Congress, only a few of which were overridden. It didn't make him any more popular, but it was the right thing to do for the country as a whole. Notwithstanding his firm dedication to policy principles, he always maintained friendly relations with the Democratic opposition. He also paid heed to the Eastern Establishment of his own party by nominating Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president. "Rocky's" tenure proved to be rather difficult, however, so Ford chose Kansan Bob Dole to be his running mate in the 1976 campaign.

His wife Betty helped President Ford immensely, speaking out on key issues in a frank but graceful way that caused little if any offense. Thanks to her, millions of American women had breast cancer screening exams for the first time, probably saving hundreds of lives at least. She was a true pioneer in defining a new, more prominent public role for the first lady.

It was during Ford's brief presidency that several future Republican leaders emerged: Dick Cheney became his chief of staff, and Donald Rumsfeld became his Secretary of Defense. Then, during the 1976 primary campaign, Ronald Reagan challenged Ford for the Republican nomination, and came very close to winning a majority of delegates at the convention that summer. The two GOP rivals soon reconciled, however, and put their differences behind them. This made it possible for the Republican Party to unite behind the man from California in the 1980 campaign, and it was soon "morning in America."


December 27, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Iraq: To surge or not to surge?

Now that President Bush has acknowledged that U.S. forces are not winning in Iraq (see Washington Post), the obvious question is how much more of our precious military resources is he willing to devote to attain a reasonably favorable outcome. It has just been announced that one brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division will be sent to Kuwait, pending possible deployment in Iraq. That strikes me as an effort to buy time while he rethinks his war strategy. The Washington Post reported that the Joint Chiefs oppose adding large numbers of troops to Iraq, however, preferring to focus on strengthening the Iraqi army in hopes of achieving some stability. Most Pentagon officers "think that there is no purely military solution for Iraq."

In today's Washington Post, Jack Keane and Frederick W. Kagan call for at least 30,000 additional combat troops lasting 18 months or more. In a sense, they are correct in that the incremental increases that have been suggested thus far would hardly make a dent in the situation. Their confidence that raising troops levels by X thousand will be sufficient to achieve victory seems wildly misplaced, however. Likewise, if the insurgents knew that we would only stay for an extra year or two, they could simply wait us out. This highlights a fundamental strategic asymmetry in Iraq: The insurgents and militia forces who are engaged in terrorism against our forces and against each other have a much greater stake in the outcome than we do. For the brutal warlords like Moqtada al-Sadr and others like him, it's a winner-take-all situation with a huge potential payoff. In contrast, it is doubtful that a majority of Americans are willing to make a strong enough commitment, and endure enough sacrifice, to prevail. Somehow Keane and Kagan seem oblivious to the political will factor on the home front. The number of Americans who favor a major escalation of our military effort is under 30 percent. I wonder if the authors are really serious, or if they are simply positioning themselves as hawks like Sen. John McCain is?

That is parallel to the argument of Victor Davis Hanson, who recently wrote that the only way for a surge to yield a battleground success is if the rules of engagement are widened. True, but the psychological preconditions for a brutal crackdown on insurgent strongholds does not presently exist. I have often wondered why we didn't send in a couple squadrons of A-10 Thunderbolts and a few AC-130s to lay waste to rebellious neighborhoods. Back when we had the initiative, such an aerial offensive might have subdued the resistance in the Sunni Triangle, but I think the time for that has long since passed.

The fundamental obstacle to implementing any such "surge," however, is the simple fact that we are quickly running out of combat-ready forces. Many of our soldiers and units are about to embark on their third tour of duty in Iraq, which is far more hardship than most human beings could endure. That is why Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker is calling for a steady increase in the size of the Army, by 7,000 additional troops a year for the next few years, coupled with corresponding increases in the National Guard and Reserves. See Washington Post. The fact that such an expansion was not undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks constitutes one of the biggest mistakes of the Bush administration, I think.

In Sunday's Outlook section of the Washington Post, John Kerry heaped predictable scorn upon Bush for "refusing to flip when it's obvious that your course of action is a flop." It's a cute turn of phrase, I suppose. He is quite correct to warn against throwing good money and human resources after bad, but Kerry is hardly the best person to make such an argument. His criticism of Bush's stubbornness is well-taken (and hardly novel), but he lost me by saying that the only way we can achieve stability in Iraq is by setting "a deadline to redeploy our troops." He just doesn't get it. Deadlines will only make things easier for our adversaries. We will have much greater chance for success by keeping them in the dark about our plans. Kerry makes the same mistake many in the Bush administration do: Presuming, falsely, that our actions are what will determine the ultimate outcome in Iraq. Wrong! The situation is now largely in the hands of the Iraqis themselves, for better or worse.

The essential purpose of any surge would be to regain the tactical initiative. The only way I would even consider supporting an increase in troop levels in Iraq is if the forces were redeployed from Germany. We still have two divisions stationed there, with no conceivable mission other than preparing to redeploy to some crisis spot in Eurasia. Guess what? We are already in a crisis spot. The worst thing of all would be to commit additional forces just to postpone the inevitable, "running out the clock," so that Bush will not bear the blame for defeat, if it comes to that.

What worries me about Bush is that he does not seem to grasp the potential political leverage that he has with our troops in Iraq. His past commitments to stay as long as the Iraqi government wants us there basically let them off the hook for taking more responsibility. That is the opposite of the situation we are trying to create. Is he just naive? In Vietnam, the primary justifications for continued military effort was to maintain U.S. credibility among our allies, so they would not doubt our commitment to come to their defense in case of attack. That backfired, as the Vietnam campaign eventually undermined U.S. credibility, as nearly everyone saw that it was a losing cause. In Iraq, the most important thing Bush needs to do is to redefine our objectives in such a way that success becomes a realizable prospect.

More on ISG report

Daniel Drezner scrutinizes the suggestion from the Iraq Study Group that we redeploy our forces from the Arabian Peninsula countries to transport assault ships offshore, to neutralize the grievance that the presence of our forces is what inflames Arab-Islamic extremism. Leaving aside the question of whether we have enough ships for that, Drezner correctly notes that such a policy would not necessarily end things, because Osama bin Laden and other Islamo-fascists would almost certainly up their demands. Also, the friendly regimes in the region such as Qatar or the U.A.E. would be subject to intimidation from radical Islamic forces.

Many observers on the right (such as Baseball Crank) are still recoiling at the ISG, deriding their suggestions as retreat or surrender. I think that's way off base. (!) The ISG members share the objective of defeating the terrorist threat and President Bush's initial reaction seemed rather dismissive, which was unfortunate, but I think the ISG's overall course of deliberate, gradual scaling back of our combat forces in Iraq is appropriate. Contrary to what some editorialists have asserted, however, their recommendations should not be considered as an all-or-nothing package. Some tinkering may be necessary. Those who bear governing responsibility usually have a superior perspective to that of outsiders such as the elder statesmen James Baker and Lee Hamilton. (The ISG report can be downloaded free from the U.S. Institute for Peace.)

The Heritage Foundation was right to criticize the Iraq Study Group's argument that stability in Iraq depends on resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute. That is based on the widespread faulty premise that the grievances of extreme fascist-type political movements should be taken at face value, hoping that they might be "appeased."

In the end, however, the decision about whether to increase our troops levels in Iraq or begin to reduce our commitment is an executive decision, based on secret information to which legislators and outside experts are not privy. If Mr. Bush is looking more weary these days (as David Ignatius observes), it's because he has a lot weighing on his mind. It's all up to him... He could use our prayers in making a wise decision.


December 29, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Giant trades

Barry Zito is headed across the bay to San Francisco, signing a seven-year $126 million contract with the Giants. Principal owner Peter Magowan said this deal ranks alongside the 1992 trade by which the Giants acquired Barry Bonds. Hmmm... Zito is 28, entering the prime of his career, and the Giants seem determined to become pennant contenders once again. See MLB.com. After Oakland did so well with him this past year, it's a bit surprising to me. I suppose that Oakland's "moneyball" approach shuns bidding for superstars and instead hunting for the best talent bargains in various niche positions.

Speaking of giants (!), the Yankees are openly offering to trade Randy Johnson, negotiating with his former team in Arizona, among others. The problem is, Mr. Steinbrenner would have to eat a large part of the remaining salary due on his contract in order to complete such a deal. Like that other 40-something superstar ace who just doesn't know when to quit, Randy is looking for a graceful way to end his superlative career. The pitching rotation in The Bronx is getting crowded, as the Yankees just signed Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa to a five-year contract that is supposedly worth about $20 million. See MLB.com.

The mail bag

Bruce Orser sent me a link to a page full of aerial photos of stadiums at webshots.com. Although dramatic, they are high-altitude or satellite images, and therefore too distorted to make reliable use of. Also, there is a page full of "future" stadiums at worldstadiums.com, including an Olympic Stadium in Baghdad, seating 80,000 fans. Supposedly, it will be finished in 2008, but I am a little skeptical. Stay the course?

The revised (Montreal) Olympic Stadium diagrams are nearing completion, and I'm in the midst of compiling lots of new information from the new edition of Green Cathedrals. I'm determined to finish those chores by the end of the year. Stay tuned!


December 29, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Did Ford oppose the Iraq war?

No, but that's the impression conveyed by Bob Woodward in the Washington Post, and on all the TV yak shows. He interviewed President Ford in recent years, but in none of the audio clips I've heard does Ford declare the war to be a mistake per se. Woodward, you may recall, was criticized for some questionable interviews with former CIA chief Bill Casey, which were not published until after he died.

A more accurate sense of [what] Ford believed can be gleaned from Thomas M. DeFrank's interviews with Ford published in the Daily News:

Saddam Hussein was an evil person and there was justification to get rid of him, but we shouldn't have put the basis on weapons of mass destruction. That was a bad mistake. Where does [Bush] get his advice?

That pretty much says it all. Gerald Ford was on the ball right up until the end of his life. Hat tip to Power Line Blog.

Speaking of Saddam Hussein, his execution could come any day now. There will almost certainly be a surge in violence wrought by Sunni insurgents in Iraq, and the possibility of a terrorist attack on U.S. interests cannot be discounted. Nevertheless, for the sake of justice and, therefore, for the sake of ultimate peace, Saddam must pay the ultimate price for his crimes against humanity.


December 29, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Ethiopia liberates (?) Somalia

Tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia had been rising for several months before war finally broke out last week. The "Islamic Courts Movement" that took control of Somalia had begun to promote separatism in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, where ethnic Somalis predominate. It has proclaimed friendship with Al Qaeda, a virtual invitation to be attacked. Earlier this week Ethiopian warplanes bombed the main airport outside Mogadishu, and its troops moved across the border in support of the provisional Somali government that had taken refuge in the town of Baidoa. Today Ethiopian troops entered the capital city of Mogadishu, the very same place where the ugly ambush portrayed in Black Hawk Down took place. See Washington Post. The big question is, To what extent did the U.S. government encourage or support the Ethiopian invasion? The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is authoritarian, and not always friendly to U.S. interests. For the time being, it would appear that the Islamic terrorist movement has been turned back in a strategic location. The Somali people are more likely to come together in building a coalition government. The country has been in chaos, run by a loose grouping of warlords every since the failed U.S. intervention of 1992-1993. What happens next is impossible to say.


December 30, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Saddam Hussein has been hanged

Yes, it's true: see CNN.com. Just after midnight, details as to the precise time and circumstances of the hanging are still sketchy. It's hard to believe that the Iraqi authorities actually carried out the death sentence. It was revealing that as he approached the certainty of death, he made gestures of reconciliation. Clearly, he wanted to be remembered well by the Arab people, or at least by his Sunni faction. Without the impending execution, would he ever have acted that way? At the very least, the execution should remind everyone about the central purpose of this war: to rid Iraq (and the world) of an evil, dangerous dictator who was as cruel to his own people as he was hostile to his neighbors -- and to us. Perhaps from now on the words "Mission accomplished" will resound a little more convincingly. And perhaps the leaders of Sudan, Iran, and Syria will reflect on the ultimate consequences of the murderous deeds that they promulgate.

Sic semper tyrannis!
"Thus always to tyrants" -- the Virginia state motto.


December 31, 2006 [LINK / comment]

"Big Owe" is finally paid off

Olympic Stadium More than two years after the Montreal Expos left town, their home Olympic Stadium was finally paid off earlier this month. The total cost of the stadium, including the adjacent Biodome and other Olympic park facilities, as well as the various renovations over the years, was C$1.47 billion (Canadian dollars). The original estimated cost of the stadium itself was C$120 million, but that escalated quickly. A large portion of the debt service was funded through excise taxes on cigarettes. See the Toronto Globe and Mail.

When you read about the high hopes that Montrealers had for this grandiose sporting palace, it is sad to see how it ended up, scorned as an ill-conceived white elephant. It was a fine venue for the Olympic Games in 1976, however. (That was the year Nadia Comenici won all those gold medals in gymnastics for Romania, and when the United States won the gold medal in basketball, getting revenge on the Soviets for the blatant officiating bias of 1972.) People often forget that, until the inclined tower and roof were finished in 1987, Olympic Stadium was a fair place to see a ball game in the light of day. If they had ever gotten the retractable tent-roof to function properly, it might have served to sustain fan interest and keep the Expos in Montreal...

In commemoration of this (belated) landmark event, I have finally updated the Olympic Stadium page with a new "dynamic" diagram, showing the Olympics configuration, the football configuration, and many more. Among the significant changes from the original diagram version is that I have raised the estimated total length of the main stadium oval to 865 feet, an increase of about 60 feet. For the time being, I have left out the inclined tower from which the tent-roof is suspended. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: This has been one of the more challenging diagram projects I have worked on.

Many thanks to Paul Thompson (a partner in the Mop Up Duty blog) for sponsoring that page, and for providing detailed and very helpful feedback on that stadium and others.


December 31, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Virginia GOP peace talks?

As the Virginia General Assembly is about to convene, many people fear that the feud within the Republican Party over transportation and other issues will disrupt state government once again. The Washington Post reports that several people are trying to build bridges between the Republican leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate. Senate President pro tem John Chichester and House Speaker William Howell often act like the are enemies, when in fact they both belong to the Party of Lincoln. Go figure.

Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell has brought both sides together for direct talks. U.S. Reps. Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf have met with House leaders to urge action. And Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the National Republican Committee, who took the helm of the Virginia GOP this month, is courting both senators and delegates.

I have the highest respect for Rep. Wolf and Rep. Davis, but there is no question that satisfying their suburban constituents takes precedence over traditional Republican tight purse strings. I hope they can respect the "RoVa" (Rest of Virginia, as opposed to "NoVa" Northern Virginia) folks and work out a reasonable compromise. Mr. Gillespie, who just became head of the state Republican Party, has his hands quite full, as they say. Hey, if worse comes to worse, perhaps the Republicans can invite Jimmy Carter or even Jesse Jackson to serve as a peace-making mediator!

I should note that the Post editorialists again unfairly heaped scorn on the Virginia House Republicans for resisting demands for new highway funding. "Gimme, gimme, gimme!"


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