Think tanks w rap-up

Sept. 7, 2002 at 5:16 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering brief opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks.

The Reason Foundation

LOS ANGELES -- Kabul Goes Cool

By Charles Paul Freund

Sez here in Newsweek International that Kabul is a "Post-Taliban Paris." No, really.

"Film companies, theater troupes and art galleries are springing up across the capital," according to the story. Even Kabul's satire magazine -- the Taliban didn't think it was very funny -- has now resumed publication, one of over a hundred new periodicals that have been registered with the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai. The targeted new leadership isn't particularly happy to play the role of punch line, but at least it's not threatening to amputate the limbs of the writers and editors.

What's all this about? Turns out that well over a million Afghans have returned from extended exile, and have brought back with them the cultural influences of their scattered diaspora homes. The returning Afghans are adding these influences to the nation's own varied cultural traditions, including those budding modernizations -- such as the rise of a pop music industry -- that were interrupted by a communist regime, a long and terrible civil war and the afflictions of the psychotic Taliban.

In brief, Kabul has become a post-Taliban Paris (relatively speaking) because it has become a post-Taliban "fertile verge."

A fertile verge, according to prolific historian Daniel Boorstin, who originated the concept two decades ago, "is a place of encounter between something and something else."

In cultural terms, those "somethings" can be varied expressive traditions that, in encountering one another in a free and tolerant atmosphere, mix and morph into new and often exciting forms. The ultimate example is not really Paris. Though that celebrated city did indeed attract many kinds of creative people, the best example of the creative verge is the United States. America's extraordinarily successful culture is largely the product of such encounters.

The thinker who has done the most to advance and develop the concept of the verge is former editor of Reason magazine Virginia Postrel, who deals with it at length in her 1998 book, "The Future and Its Enemies."

Kabul is hardly going to make a transition from utter cultural constraint to the dynamism of the fertile verge without problems. And in fact, there has already been a well-publicized incident of backlash. At the end of August, Mohammad Ishaq, the head of Kabul TV and Radio, banned the playing of songs sung by women, as well as the broadcast of relatively racy Indian films and TV shows, both on conservative religious grounds. The bans echoed Taliban prohibitions, and led to some international hand wringing over the perceived renewal of fundamentalist power and the prospect of culture war.

Ishaq, however, appears to be a bureaucratic anomaly. Women singers and Bollywood movies remain available in Kandahar, which is a far more conservative place than is Kabul. Anyway, Ishaq's own Radio Kabul is otherwise continuing to broadcast notably liberal programming.

The New York Times, for example, has offered readers a glimpse of the radio service's immensely popular morning show, "Good Morning, Afghanistan." The show, influenced by returning Afghans who have worked in foreign media, is co-anchored by male and female announcers.

A recent interview with a Kabul bodybuilder named Sultani featured a remarkable exchange with the female interviewer, Jameela Rishteen. According to the Times, Rishteen wondered if women might try bodybuilding, to which Sultani replied, "Why not?"

"Very well, then," replied the interviewer, "I'd like to have a go myself."

If that's how Kabul's media women talk on the radio these days, then banning Indian pop music seems rather futile. Besides, it doesn't matter what the head of Radio Kabul bans, because it hardly mattered what the Taliban banned. All movies, all secular TV programs, and all secular music were forbidden under the harsh Taliban regime. But Kabul's citizens found ways to watch movies and to hear music anyway.

When the Taliban ran off, the people just turned up the volume. It's likely to be difficult to make them turn it back down.

(Charles Paul Freund is a senior editor at Reason magazine.)

LOS ANGELES -- Baseball's bogus settlement: Why the revenue-sharing agreement will make things even worse

By Dayn Perry

That major league baseball, which I will call MLB here, will complete the 2002 season uninterrupted is an unrelievedly good thing. By finishing a new collective bargaining agreement just in advance of the Aug. 30 strike deadline set by the Players Association, players and owners avoided copious amounts of fan venom.

The new collective bargaining agreement itself is also being hailed as a triumph for the sport. More equitable sharing of local revenues and a tax on wastrel owners like George Steinbrenner -- two key elements of the new agreement -- will help small-market teams and improve the league's competitive balance. Won't they?

Prima facie, this might seem true, but baseball's freshly minted economic reforms fail on many levels. One, they address a "problem" that is not the result of any institutional flaw but a function of fallacious comparisons to the National Basketball Association and National Football League.

Two, even if there were a serious competitive-balance problem in baseball, this agreement wouldn't fix it one whit.

In the NBA, the perceived competitive balance is owing to the fact that more than half the league's teams make the playoffs each season. While that does foment more systemic fan interest, it makes the NBA regular season stretch drive about as meaningful and engaging a Grammy speech. But despite a salary cap and come-one-come-all playoff format, NBA history is little more than a string of dynasties, with the Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers all exercising hegemony in recent years.

As for the NFL, the league has so many structural differences that using it as any sort of comparative model for baseball is a fool's errand. Consider: If MLB teams played 16 games per year, awarded 12 playoff spots instead of eight, adopted a single-game playoff system rather than holding a best-of series and manipulated their schedules so that weak teams in one year played weak schedules in the next, then suddenly baseball would be a paragon of egalitarianism.

The salary cap and practically Leninist revenue system have little to do with the apparent competitive balance in the NFL; it's correlation masquerading as causation. If the NFL played 162 games per year, thus allowing the large sample size of games to better and more accurately separate wheat and chaff, then everyone would be wringing hands over the Rams instead of the Yankees.

Under baseball's new agreement, increased sharing of local revenues means that high-end teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers must give more money to teams like the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins.

The luxury tax, which levies a fine on teams that exceed certain payroll limits each year, also targets the big-spenders. Taken in conjunction, those measures are roundly punitive toward owners who, sin of sins, choose to reinvest in their own product. The game's highest salaries are dragged down, and owners at the top of the food chain have less money to spend on their teams. The upshot is that this new system penalizes both the league's best players and its best owners.

Another problem is that these handouts, which will total almost $1 billion over the life of the new agreement, come with no accountability. In 2000, the Minnesota Twins, under the ownership of Carl Pohlad, took in more in revenue sharing than they spent on payroll. That was perfectly allowable under the old system, and there's nothing in the new one to ensure that teams use revenue-sharing dollars to increase payroll or to improve scouting and development.

The difference, however, is that this time far more money is at stake. Weak-sister teams are further encouraged to do what the Twins and Brewers have been doing for years --culling profits from a low expense/low revenue model rather than investing in the team and marketing the product to the community.

After all, if a team takes the former approach, they'll be profitable and slathered in revenue-sharing dollars for their troubles. If they operate as businesses should, they may be forced to subsidize other franchises. It's little wonder that some teams spend their resources attempting to feign or engineer impoverishment rather than building a successful organization.

Perhaps the system's most grievous flaw is its imbecilic method of defining market size. In fact, revenues won't be handed out to teams that occupy small markets; rather, they'll be given to those with the lowest revenues. To be sure, revenue streams are affected by market size, but most often low revenues are the result of witless organizational strategy or simple lack of effort.

Justify for me a system that rewards the wretched market penetration of the Philadelphia Phillies, Anaheim Angels and Chicago White Sox by penalizing shrewd and resourceful clubs like the Seattle Mariners and St. Louis Cardinals, who draw their fans from far smaller population bases.

Baseball's push for economic reform was founded upon wildly overstated competitive-balance concerns. This new system, rather than helping blighted yet well-meaning teams, will instead abet those owners who care about nothing more than maximizing subsidies and achieving cost certainty.

Baseball needs to realize that it's a good thing for poorly run businesses to lose money. Otherwise, they have no incentive to improve. Instead, baseball has erected a curious system that punishes success and rewards incompetence. Expect teams to respond accordingly.

(Dayn Perry is an Austin, Tex.-based freelance sportswriter.)

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