Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "The McCain craze," Feb. 19, 2000

Clinton's final budget: $1.84 trillion ... and then some
Now you see it ... now you don't
Magician Doug Henning died of cancer last week, but the ancient art he popularized for a generation-sleight of hand-is alive and well, particularly in Washington. President Clinton's 2001 budget appeared to propose spending $1.84 trillion; ah, but there's more to this than meets the eye. The president and his lovely assistants in Congress, during negotiations last year over the fiscal 2000 budget, "saved" several billion dollars by, among other things, delaying a payday for military personnel and federal workers from late September to early October. Since fiscal 2001 will begin Oct. 1, 2000, the $4.3 billion in payments didn't show up in the 2000 budget. This year Mr. Clinton proposes to move those payments back into September so that they won't appear in the 2001 budget. Mr. Clinton wants to do the same with $1.8 billion in federal contracts and $4 billion worth of veterans' and supplemental security income benefits. Overall, White House budget wizards want to shift $10 billion in spending back into 2000. The money will still be spent, but it won't show up on the new budget. The president also proposes-voila!-to add prescription drug coverage to the Medicare entitlement, at a cost of $168 billion over 10 years. Be amazed as each year that figure rises and rises! In addition, there's $65 billion more for the Department of Agriculture as well as sufficient funding to begin hiring 500 new agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for "the largest gun enforcement initiative ever." Watch carefully as the budget drama unfolds this year; you won't believe your eyes.

Ups & Downs of the Week

  • Dennis Rodman: Aptly joining the Dallas Mavericks after a 10-month exile from the NBA, countercultural icon Rodman in his first game last week committed five fouls, grabbed 13 rebounds, and scored no points. The Mavs lost the game, but grabbed lots of media attention: Team brass issued more than 100 extra media credentials, forcing some of the overflow to be stashed in the hockey press box.
  • Joseph Oliverio: Not to be outscandalized by Dennis Rodman, a West Virginia gubernatorial candidate announced he's been arrested 150 times for fighting. Mr. Oliverio has also received 60 speeding tickets, "inhaled," at times abused alcohol, and lost his driver's license for a while but got it back in 1998. He fessed up after receiving anonymous phone calls from someone threatening to reveal his past.
  • Promiscuity vs. chastity: This week marks an ironic calendar convergence-Valentine's Day kicks off both National Chastity Week and National Condom Week. A comparison of emphases and celebratory events is instructive: Condom Week supporters plan such highlights as a literary reading from the book Getting It On: A Condom Reader, and a poetry-about-condoms contest. Chastity Week enthusiasts plan to "proclaim the truth through the promotion of virtue."
  • Worker productivity: A surge during the final three months of last year helped boost American workers' productivity growth for all of 1999 to 2.9 percent, the best performance in seven years.
  • And a rotten tomato to the Vermont House Judiciary Committee, which gave initial approval to legislation granting marriage-like legal status to homosexual partners.

new scientific analysis: complex life outside earth unlikely
Custom-made Earth: OK, but who made it?
Two University of Washington scientists have rattled mainstream academia with a radical hypothesis: Conditions necessary for the development of life above the microbe level are so complicated that Earth may be the only home of complex life in the universe. Paleontologist Peter D. Ward and astronomer Donald C. Brownlee last month released Rare Earth (Springer-Verlag), a book that arrives at that unpopular conclusion through analysis of new findings in science. That man probably has no co-citizens of the cosmos flies in the face of both evolution-based, establishment science and the musings of popular culture. Since 1960, when a young astronomer named Frank Drake began scanning the skies for signs of alien life (and was later joined by popularizer Carl Sagan), Americans have become increasingly fascinated with the possibility of future visitations from flying saucers bearing little green men. Hollywood has extended the spectrum, showing us everything from cuddly Ewoks to slobbering, dagger-toothed aliens. Writing from an evolutionary perspective in Rare Earth, Mssrs. Ward and Brownlee say our small, blue globe and its inhabitants may be the only game in town. Scientific evidence now points increasingly to the precision fine-tuning necessary for a planet to sustain life. Consider a few of the many virtues of Earth's real estate: a perfectly placed moon to control tides, climate, and tilt; a gargantuan shield (Jupiter) from the streaking asteroids and meteorites that routinely pulverize other planets; a rare, heavy-element sun with a rarer elliptical orbit; a delicately balanced atmosphere, including just enough carbon to enable rich biodiversity. "We have finally said out loud what so many have thought for so long-that complex life, at least, is rare," Mr. Ward told The New York Times. Citing such newly discovered galactic hazards as lethal waves of X-rays, gamma rays, and ionizing radiation, he added: "I don't think there's any life in the centers [of galaxies] at all." Mr. Brownlee doesn't think there's much chance of life on the edges of the galaxies either. Chance, notes astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, is exactly what the Rare Earth hypothesis reduces by default. "Every time you find a new example of a finely tuned parameter that you need for life, that makes the chance explanation of origins less and less likely," says Mr. Gonzalez, who is Mr. Brownlee's colleague in the University of Washington astronomy department. Mr. Gonzalez, a foremost national expert on stars, was the source for much of the stellar evidence presented in Rare Earth. He is also a senior research fellow at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank specializing in the "intelligent design" theory of origins-an interpretation of scientific evidence that says life appears to have been engineered by an intelligent agent. Intelligent design theory is gaining ground on Darwinism as a competing theory of origins. Mr. Gonzalez says the findings presented in Rare Earth "strengthen the design argument because the options available to the naturalist-natural law and chance-are very few. This makes the chance interpretation much weaker." It also leaves scientists to fret over their other option: If "natural law" gave rise to life, where did the natural law come from? Hugh Ross, a Christian astronomer, answered that question in 1993 with his book, The Creator and the Cosmos. That book lays out lengthy lists of the finely tuned parameters cited by Mssrs. Ward and Brownlee in Rare Earth. "Essentially, most of the astronomical ideas in Rare Earth are already mentioned in Ross's book," says Mr. Gonzalez. He adds, though, that most secular scientists either don't know about The Creator and the Cosmos, or ignore it since it posits a theory of origins that is anathema to contemporary culture: "In the beginning was the Word."

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