Dispatches > The Buzz


Issue: "Humanity Under the Microscope," Dec. 8, 2001

NO PAIN, NO GAIN: The clock's ticking toward the 2002 election and columnist Bob Novak says one issue has the GOP biting its fingernails: Social Security. Steps by President Bush toward Social Security privatization have party wonks worried about a ballot-box backlash, because Democrats are sure to whip seniors into a froth. Last month, the president's Commission to Strengthen Social Security proposed that the government allow younger workers to invest part of their payroll tax in private investments, including the stock market. Because of aging baby boomers, economists expect Social Security will have to pay out more than it collects in taxes by the middle of the next decade. "Republicans, over the long haul, will benefit if Americans can divert part of payroll taxes that finance Social Security into private investments," Mr. Novak explains. "Polls show people who own common stock are more likely to vote Republican. But over the short haul, it could prove fatal in the 2002 House elections." TAKING AWAY THE CREDIT CARD: In the midst of international crises, a domestic adviser, White House budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., is rising as a major figure in the Bush administration. Los Angeles Times reporter Janet Hook calls him "the outspoken, often acerbic point man for Bush's efforts to hold the line on government spending" who has "one of the toughest jobs in Washington." Mr. Daniels, a 52-year-old former Eli Lilly executive, now faces a serious challenge: keeping Washington big spenders in line during war and recession. "Political pressure to spend has intensified because of the sense that, at a time of national crisis, money should be no object," Ms. Hook explained. About post-9/11 spending increases, he once remarked, "It might be autumn everywhere else, but in Washington it is springtime for spenders." He also complained to The Wall Street Journal about Capitol Hill lawmakers: "Their motto is, 'Don't just stand there, spend something.' This is the only way they feel relevant." He later apologized for the latter comment, but Ms. Hook says "a corrosive battle" continues with him and congressional leaders of both parties battling over the budget. WHY FLY? Did the airlines really deserve that $15 billion emergency bailout? No, argues Mark Steyn in the Chicago Sun-Times. Carriers received a bunch of money, but that didn't stop layoffs and service cutbacks that add to new hassles at airports. The only way to win back passengers is good food and good service that airlines don't give passengers today. Mr. Steyn writes that both the industry and regulators believe that passengers will put up with unlimited hassles because they have no choice. Yet leisure travel can be put off and technology makes business trips less necessary. "Somehow, psychologically, we're stuck in the mid-19th century when the original traveling men spent 11 months of the year on the road because there was no alternative," he says. "The railroads have gone, the telephone's arrived, and so have video conferencing and electronic networking, but guys are still on the road, flying off to lunch in Houston and a presentation in Denver and all kinds of other engagements at which they don't really need to be physically present." PIPE DOWN: Is it OK to smoke in your own house? Columnist Jacob Sullum writes about a Montgomery County, Md., bill that would fine people for doing just that. It would fine smokers up to $750 if neighbors complained about odor from tobacco smoke. "It hardly seems justified to declare a health emergency every time smoke drifts over from a neighbor's balcony," he writes. "But that won't stop people from using this pretext to get back at neighbors with whom they've been feuding or simply to punish smokers for their politically incorrect habit." The county council passed the bill, but County Executive Douglas Duncan changed his position and said he won't sign it. This anti-smoking measure would be one of the strictest in the country, treating tobacco as a pollutant like asbestos, radon, and pesticides. Mr. Sullum concludes that such legislation paves the way for homeowners being harassed on their own property. People have a right to complain about what neighbors do that harms them, but laws like this are useless because there is no objective criteria for dangerous amounts of cigarette smoke: "It is like fining people because their neighbors don't like the smell of their cooking."

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