Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

Oil change
Just as both houses of Congress are set to pass a comprehensive strategy toward ending war in Sudan, the White House is bent on decapitating it. President George W. Bush says he will oppose specially targeted capital market sanctions that would take a bite out of the booming oil industry hosted by the country's Islamic regime. In doing so, Mr. Bush is bowing to opposition from Wall Street and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. And he is turning his back on a coalition that includes Republicans and Democrats, Christian advocacy groups, the American Israel Political Action Committee, the Congressional Black Caucus, trade unions, and human-rights groups. The fight is over an amendment to a bill that summons more humanitarian aid for beleaguered areas of South Sudan and highlights UN complicity in Khartoum's war effort. The amendment would prohibit foreign oil conglomerates working with Khartoum from dipping into U.S. investment markets by listing their shares on the New York Stock Exchange and others. When Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) introduced the amendment in the House last June, it passed 422-2. A Senate version did not contain the amendment; this month members of both houses will meet in conference committee to agree on a final bill to send to the president. Oil development in Sudan is pumping over $500 million annually into the government's coffers. The new revenue is fueling Khartoum's war machine-just this year it has acquired short-range missiles from Iran and an inventory of 16 Hind helicopter gunships-and prompting government soldiers to remove forcibly citizens from oilfield areas ("The politics of starvation," WORLD, July 28). Proponents of the amendment believe the measure could shut down oil production. The two largest conglomerates, China National Petroleum Corporation and Canada-based Talisman Energy, receive over 90 percent of stock proceeds from U.S. exchanges. Talisman's CEO James Buckee, under fire already for allowing Sudanese army helicopters to use an airstrip at its oilfield, said in June he would remove his company from Sudan rather than lose its U.S. stock listing. "I don't think anybody could afford not to have access to the U.S. capital markets. No asset is worth that," he told the Toronto Globe and Mail. Insiders say the chief White House critic of the amendment is Joshua Bolton, Mr. Bush's deputy chief of staff. Mr. Bolton's former employer, Goldman Sachs, worked with China's state-owned Petrochina to carve out China National Petroleum Corporation as a separate entity for Sudan oil operations. Goldman Sachs and other investment firms stand to reap dividends from underwriting China's highly undercapitalized emerging corporate sector. U.S. sanctions could jeopardize the capital flow from rogue regimes like Sudan and China. But even critics, including The Wall Street Journal, detect a "whiff of defeatism" at the White House. And the president, on record as wanting to end the war in Sudan, will be hard pressed to veto something called the Sudan Peace Act. -Mindy Belz Bush: "committed"
Defending defense
With a looming budget battle in Washington, President Bush made it clear that he would defend higher defense spending. "We are committed to defending America and our allies against ballistic missile attacks, against weapons of mass destruction held by rogue leaders in rogue nations that hate America, hate our values, and hate what we stand for," declared Mr. Bush in a speech to the American Legion convention. The president also underlined his focus on military modernization with his selection of Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, a former head of the U.S. Space Command, as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mr. Bush says his request of a $39 billion defense increase will be the largest hike since the Reagan era. Social Security myth allows Washington to avoid necessary, but politically painful, reforms
The fairy-tale trust fund
It's time for suspicion when Washington politicians start using a phrase with the word trust in it. Something called the "Social Security trust fund" was in the news last week as the Congressional Budget Office lowered its estimate of the 2001 federal budget surplus from $275 billion to $153 billion. The new figure means that the surplus will come completely from $162 billion in excess Social Security taxes: $9 billion in Social Security revenue will finance other programs and $153 billion will pay down debt. Democrats on Capitol Hill, who for years spent Social Security revenues on other spending programs, were quick to say President Bush's tax cut lowered the surplus and "raided" the Social Security trust fund. ("The old standby," page 34.) But in reality there's no trust fund to raid. Many Americans have an image of the trust fund as a vault somewhere that holds their FICA taxes for them until they retire. But no such vault exists. For almost two decades, workers have paid more into Social Security than retirees have taken out, and the government has used the excess money to buy government bonds and, in the last few years, pay down debt. Those bonds are basically IOUs, to be paid by U know who: taxpayers. The complicated trust fund myth serves liberals well. It allows them to pretend that Social Security is solvent until mid-century, when in fact the program will force taxpayers to start making good on those IOUs in about 2016. That sleight-of-hand allows pols to avoid politically painful reforms. If liberals were truly concerned about the future problems of Social Security, they could ask wealthy seniors to forego some benefits or they could join President Bush in his privatization effort. But if anyone believes anything like that will happen, well, there's a great trust fund in Washington he may want to buy. -Timothy Lamer WNBA draws tiny audience despite NBA backing
They got game?
Is the WNBA dying a slow death? The pro basketball league for women opened to heavy fanfare in 1997, yet has never done well. This year's average crowd was 8,709. Nationally televised games on NBC drew a miniscule 1.2 rating. While supporters see the league as a boost for women's sports and gender equality, some wonder whether the league would survive if the NBA with no "W" wasn't in charge. "To criticize the Women's National Basketball Association is somewhat akin to attacking motherhood," said CNNfn sports business columnist Chris Isidore in a feature that dubbed the league "a lovable money loser" and "more of a feel-good public relations effort than a successful business." Mr. Isidore said neither NBA nor WNBA executives will say when they expect the women's league to become profitable. He suggested that it receives TV coverage because NBC's risks are trivial. NBC pays no rights fee to cover the games on TV; the NBA covers production costs and sells the show to sponsors. The network and the league split ad revenue. Man knows not his time
Scientist-debunker E.T. Hall dies
E.T. Hall, the scientist who exposed the Piltdown Man hoax, died last month at age 77. The Oxford professor helped discredit what now ranks as among science's biggest frauds: discovery of bones purported to represent the "missing link" between apes and humans. Piltdown Man was supposedly dug up in a gravel pit in southern England in 1912. Its skull resembled a human, but the jaw was ape-like. The hoax fooled many researchers and it served as evidence for Darwinism. Over the years, some experts became suspicious, especially when other archaeological discoveries contradicted theories built around Piltdown Man. In 1953, Hall examined the famous bones with fluorescent X-rays so that they could be inspected without being harmed. He discovered they had been stained with potassium dichromate to make them look fossilized. Hall also discovered iron filings, which showed that an orangutan's teeth had been filed down to look human. TEENS SUPPLEMENT WORKOUTS, WITH LITTLE REGARD FOR THE SIDE-EFFECTS
Pumped up
What would an aspiring teenage athlete give to have the chiseled physique of his favorite sports superstar? A kidney, maybe? About 1 million youngsters 12 through 17 have taken performance-enhancing sports supplements, according to one survey, and experts are concerned about young people taking these products without concern for their side effects. The telephone survey by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association found use of performance enhancers was reported by 5 percent of the 650 participants. Most popular is an amino acid called creatine, cited by about half the youngsters who said they used supplements. The human liver produces creatine naturally and stores it in the muscles. Supplementary creatine is believed to boost muscle endurance and allow athletes to work out longer. Use by kids can cause short-term cramping and diarrhea. Creatine has been linked to muscle injury and kidney problems, according to Mayo Clinic specialist Brent Bauer, who downplayed the benefits of creatine to anyone other than elite athletes. Allan Korn, Blue Cross's chief medical officer, complained that parents and coaches should warn young people and that the government should regulate supplements: "The very idea that we have Oreo-like cookies containing creatine is just dreadful and we want it to stop." Creatine has its defenders. Richard Kreider, director of the exercise and sports nutrition lab at the University of Memphis said over 500 studies had found the substance safe, although researchers had not focused on minors: "If your kid is a very competitive athlete, trying to get that scholarship for college, or he's an elite-level competitor ... creatine is just one of many things like any other training device or method." INSULIN IN A PILL SHOWS PROMISE FOR DIABETICS
No more needles?
Millions of diabetics may soon be able to take their insulin in a pill. Purdue University scientists say they've found a way to help people control blood-sugar levels without the pain and hassle of an injection. Previous attempts to control diabetes with pills haven't worked because patients digested them too quickly. The new pills use a new acrylic-based, gel-like coating that can survive the stomach's digestive acids. So far, the product has only been tested on animals, but if proven successful for humans, it could be on the market later this decade. Nicholas Peppas, professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at Purdue, said he patented the invention and is talking to drug companies about more experiments. He said the specially coated pill could replace other injectable drugs, such as those used to fight cancer and osteoporosis. For many diabetics, the daily shots are a costly chore. Their bodies cannot produce or properly use insulin, so it must be injected to reduce the amount of sugar in their blood. Animal tests showed that up to 16 percent of the pills' insulin made it to the bloodstream. That's less than the 50 percent to 80 percent from insulin injections, according to Mr. Peppas, but it's still enough to control blood sugar. ANTI-CHOLESTEROL DRUG PULLED AFTER IT IS LINKED TO DEATHS
The Baycol recall
Some 53 million Americans have high cholesterol and millions more are borderline. The U.S. government projects 36 million of its citizens will soon be taking cholesterol-lowering prescription drugs. A chunk of that large market for medications is up in the air after Bayer last month withdrew from the market Baycol, the No. 3 selling cholesterol-lowering prescription drug in the world. Baycol was linked to 52 deaths worldwide and has spawned a raft of lawsuits. Before its recall, about 700,000 Americans took Baycol. It is one of a family of drugs called statins that have been linked to a life-threatening condition called rhabdomyolysis. The ailment destroys muscle cells and releases them into the bloodstream. Patients can suffer from severe muscle pain (most often in the calves and lower back) and may develop kidney failure. Bayer faces claims filed in at least four U.S. states. The company withdrew the drug voluntarily and reported that suspected cases of rhabdomyolysis have been detected in more than 1,100 Baycol patients worldwide. One of Bayer's competitors used the recall as a marketing opportunity. Bristol-Myers Squibb bought newspaper ads offering a free, one-month supply of its drug Pravachol-which is not a statin-to former Baycol patients whose doctors wrote them new prescriptions.

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