Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "AIDS: Africa's affliction," Sept. 9, 2000

GOP gives in on minimum wage, gives up on tax relief
Congressional cave-in
Congressional Republicans buckled under election-year pressure and agreed to support a Democratic proposal to boost the minimum wage a buck an hour. House Speaker Dennis Hastert signaled last week he will back legislation making it illegal to pay employees less than $6.15 per hour by 2002-and drop his insistence that the White House agree to two key tax-relief proposals in exchange. The two tax-cut compromises are major. One is the oft-discussed proposal to abolish the estate tax-the so-called Death Tax-that threatens numerous families and businesses. The other is a proposed change in pension laws that would increase contribution limits for 401(k) retirement plans. Both tax-relief measures will stay alive as separate bills, but the Hastert compromise severs the tax cuts from the minimum-wage hike package. "It is very clear that a vast majority of congressional Democrats and Republicans would like to see a balanced approach achieved before we adjourn," Speaker Hastert said in the letter to President Clinton. "I believe that we can work together to pass this legislation when we return in September with strong bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate." The move comes at a time when the United States is near full employment and complaints everywhere are about a "tight job market," meaning that it's hard to fill open positions. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan already claims that the current job market is a nesting ground for inflation. A minimum-wage hike could feed the problem. Why the deal? Some House leaders want to head off potential Democratic attack ads claiming they favor tax cuts for the rich, but no raises for the poor. Under the deal, the minimum wage would rise to $6.15 an hour over two years: 50 cents on Jan. 1, 2001, and 50 cents on Jan. 1, 2002. The proposal would provide business tax breaks worth $76 billion over 10 years, down from $122.7 billion in an earlier House version of the bill. Cancer-causing phones?
Dialing for disease?
Do cellular telephones cause cancer? Chris Newman filed an $800 million lawsuit claiming his cell phone caused the malignant tumor behind his right ear. The neurologist sued Motorola, Bell Atlantic, Verizon Maryland, and others, saying he used the devices several times a day to keep in touch with patients between 1992 and his March 1998 diagnosis. "If I could say anything to anyone, I would say don't use them. I mean, it's not worth it to lose your kids. It's not worth it to lose your livelihood," an emphatic Dr. Newman told Baltimore's WBAL-TV. Is this for real? "No one really knows how big the risk is from cell phones," said Louis Slesin, the editor of Microwave News, a newsletter on the health risks of radiation. While fear has grown for the last few years, the Food and Drug Administration has found no evidence one way or the other. In June, the agency announced it would work with the phone industry on $1 million in studies. Motorola spokesman Norman Sandler pointed out that lawsuits similar to Dr. Newman's over the past few years all have been withdrawn or dismissed. Considerable research has provided a "sound basis for the public to use these phones safely," he said. Even so, the industry itself is taking a few precautions. A new policy adopted in July by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association requires manufacturers to tell customers how to obtain details about radiation levels produced by their phones. The FCC requires phone makers to collect radiation readings, known as the "specific absorption rate," which measures the amount of radiation absorbed by the body while using a mobile phone. With 95 million Americans using cell phones, a scare like this can be significant. Even if no new evidence is found, the controversy itself could play out for years. More mystery surrounds Russian mystery sub
The torpedo theory
Western military experts believe that explosions in the torpedo tubes aboard the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk caused the August sinking of the vessel and the deaths of its 118 passengers. They also believe the explosions could have resulted from testing a new type of torpedo, a classified silent weapon called the Squall. Experts say a training torpedo would not contain explosive material, but an experimental one would likely contain a liquid-fuel rocket that could have exploded before it left the submarine. Alexander Nikitin, a former Russian submarine captain, told a Harvard University audience last week that a Russian military website suggested before Kursk's launch that Russia's navy would test the new torpedo. That information was removed, he said, just hours later. Russian military officials continue to claim that the Kursk collided with another vessel, most likely a foreign submarine. They even launched a criminal investigation alleging that the unidentified vessel violated international safety rules. But British and American forces deny having any vessels nearby that could have made contact with the Kursk. Norwegian officials also said they found no evidence of collision. Officials report no sign of radiation leakage, but there is growing concern that the submerged reactors are not safe. Mr. Nikitin said radiation could begin leaking from the wreckage within a few months. Another Russian disaster
Towering inferno
A 26-hour fire at Moscow's landmark Ostankino television tower spread needlessly because of Russian bureaucracy. Firefighters said it took three hours to gain approval to cut power to the world's second tallest free-standing structure, which finally came from President Vladimir Putin. An earlier shutdown would have localized the fire and saved lives. One firefighter and two tower workers were killed when an elevator stuck and then plunged over 700 feet. Elián capitulation not paying predicted dividend
Stop the presses: Castro acts nasty
Remember predictions that the return of Elián Gonzalez to Cuba would usher in a warm, fuzzy new era of relations between the United States and the Castro regime? The Clinton administration is feeling shocked, shocked that Cuban dictator Castro is arbitrarily denying exit permits to Cubans with U.S. visas, which separates families and tempts would-be immigrants to attempt high-risk escapes similar to the one that brought Elián to the United States but resulted in the drowning of his mother. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lodged a formal protest with Cuba's diplomatic office in Washington, whose staffers will no doubt place the paperwork in the appropriate file. But the United States got even tougher, denying a visa that would allow the president of Cuba's National Assembly to attend an international conference of parliamentarians in New York. Ricardo Alarcon, the Cuban legislator, criticized the U.S. government's "rudeness." Unlike Elián and his mother, the 117 Cubans cited in Secretary Albright's complaint had visas to go to the United States but were prevented from leaving Cuba. In 16 cases, the denials separated families, while in 17 cases, the government blocked physicians and other professionals from leaving. Three Americans freed, but 100 Christian Chinese held
House church in China raided
Chinese authorities released three American citizens but continue to hold over 100 house church members at a detention center after an Aug. 23 raid on a meeting of the Fangcheng Church in Henan Province. Authorities arrested Fangcheng Church leader Zhang Rongliang, a popular underground house teacher, on the same day a year ago, and sentenced him to three years in a labor camp under an anti-cult ordinance. Henry Chu, 36, his wife, Sandy Lin, 29, and Patricia Lan, 24, were visiting the church when the raid took place. China released the Taiwanese-born American citizens after a protest from the U.S. embassy. Firestone: Hazardous conditions ahead
Washington's turn
Firestone may be heading for a new blowout in Washington. The company's massive summer recall affected some 6.5 million tires, which were standard equipment on some Ford trucks and sport-utes. Now Congress plans hearings on the controversy. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating 62 deaths that may be linked to the Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. Attorneys and lobbyists are pressuring the company to broaden the recall. "Did Firestone ignore the law or is the law not strict enough?" pondered Ken Johnson, an aide to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.). "Just as we want to get defective tires off the road, if we have defective laws we want to get them off the books." LA's finest facing racketeering lawsuit
The mob in blue?
Los Angeles may become the first police department to be sued as a racketeering enterprise. The case involves Louie Guerrero, who claims officers choked, kicked, and punched him and then arrested him on trumped-up charges in 1997. A judge's ruling allows Mr. Guerrero to refile under the controversial Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the 1970 law aimed at the Mafia. RICO allows plaintiffs to receive triple damages and extends the statute of limitations to 10 years after a crime is committed. (Abortion clinic owners successfully sued pro-life activists under RICO.) More than 100 convictions have been overturned since the LAPD corruption scandal was uncovered last year after allegations that officers in an anti-gang unit at the Rampart station beat, shot, and framed innocent people. Social security reaches retirement age
Old, bad deal
Social Security is now old enough for retirement-literally. The agency that runs America's mandatory retirement and disability savings plan turned 65 years old last month. Social Security Administration employees celebrated the event: They dedicated a garden at its Maryland headquarters that features a bronzed bust of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who signed the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935. The headquarters is a government office complex that ranks second only to the Pentagon, holding 10,000 employees. Those who analyze return on investment often do not celebrate, since with the same money a typical IRA can easily whip the payouts people would receive from Social Security. Nevertheless, the program is one of the most protected parts of modern American government. Social Security isn't really a retirement fund based on investments anyway; instead it moves money from younger to older Americans. Early recipients received far more than they paid into the program, but recently demographics have caught up with Social Security: Fewer workers now support each retiree. "Because workers in the Social Security program do not have any assets or property rights to support their retirement benefits, they are totally dependent on the interplay of national politics," noted economist Peter J. Ferrara in a Cato Institute report last year. Considering that everyone from the neighborhood bank branch to online brokers to company 401(k) plans offers competitive retirement plans, government-administered plans are coming under fire. Will there be a party at FDR's bust for Social Security's centennial? -Chris Stamper Peta protests Aquababies
Fishy fad?
Move over, Chia pets and pet rocks. The latest in low-maintenance companionship swims around in a plastic box of water. Known as AquaBabies, they are tiny little fish in a 4-inch cube that can sit on a desk or nightstand. For those for whom a cat or dog is just too much of a strain, AquaBabies are virtually foolproof. The $20-$25 kit comes with a little bag of food that is fed to the fish with a toothpick through the tiny air hole at the top. Then the water is changed a few times a year, using bottled water to protect the little critters from chlorine in tap water. Even the standard issue goldfish requires more work than these endlers, danios, and guppies. A year's supply of food sells for only $2, and may hold out longer than the fad. Living Aquatic Resources, inventor of AquaBabies, bills the tiny fish tank as "a perfect ecosystem." This isn't enough to stop PETA and other animal-rights activists from condemning them as torture chambers that stunt the growth of aquatic friends. Mogul closes Desert Inn, plans super resort
Vegas branches out
Most American cities try to preserve their histories. Las Vegas bulldozes them. The Desert Inn is the last survivor of Howard Hughes's empire, comprising hotel, casino, spa, restaurants, and a golf course. It celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, but won't see a 51st birthday. Vegas mogul Steve Wynn bought the luxury resort and last week shut it down. It will be torn down soon, he says. The Desert Inn joins the Sands, Hacienda, and the original Aladdin on the list of major Strip resorts that were demolished to make room for bigger dreams. According to Reuters, Mr. Wynn plans to build a new 59-story super resort on the property. It's another example of Las Vegas' relentless growth. The city's major industry is still gambling, but it has branched out with new ways to empty tourists' wallets. Dinners for $1.99 are making room for endless expensive restaurants. Lounge acts are pushed aside for massive stage shows costing $100 a seat. Theme parks and shopping malls now add to the Strip's visual overload. Today's Vegas is stranger than ever-a mix of high-class and no-class, corporate boardroom and circus tent, Wayne Newton and Picasso paintings. Nevada has discovered postmodernity.

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