Dispatches > The Buzz


Issue: "Marx isn't dead," July 19, 2003
freedom summer?
Hong Kong officials announced they would postpone a vote on national security laws after half a million people poured into downtown streets to protest the measures. The public outcry forced China's handpicked administrator of Hong Kong, shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa, to a humiliating capitulation after months of trying to impose the new laws on the former free-market mecca and British colony. The laws, scheduled for a July 9 vote and expected to win easy passage, instead have been tabled indefinitely. If enacted, they would have penalized individuals or organizations that criticized the Chinese government or lobbied for changes in public policy. Large numbers have turned out to protest the measures before, but never with such effect. After July 1 protests drew 500,000, Mr. Tung huddled over the following week with his Beijing backers, even as the Chinese government blacked out news coverage of demonstrations, fearful of another Tiananmen SquareÐtype outbreak. By July 4 word arrived from Beijing: Mr. Tung should delay the vote until order was restored. Mr. Tung moved to water down the bills, but Liberal Party Chairman James Tien resigned, leaving him without a key legislative ally. Beijing says it will again press for Hong Kong laws against "endangering national security." But this setback may prompt the resignation of Mr. Tung and, many residents hope, a bolder push for democracy in Hong Kong.
funding abortion
"Pro-choice" senators voted last week to force taxpayers to fund health clinics abroad that promote or perform abortions. The amendment to a $27 billion bill authorizing State Department and foreign assistance spending would lift a Bush administration policy that prohibits such funding. A vote to kill the amendment was defeated 53-43. The amendment is still far from becoming law. The House opposes repealing the administration's policy, and House negotiators plan to fight the amendment during the House-Senate conference to reconcile the two chambers' versions of the bill. Meanwhile, the White House threatened to veto the bill if the amendment remains in the final version. Still, the amendment's sponsor, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), said she is seeking to meet with President Bush to lobby him for changing the policy. She hopes the Senate's passage of the amendment "will give momentum" to allies in the House.
damaging damages
Forty-nine senators last week voted to place limits on how many hundreds of thousands of dollars patients could win from physicians in malpractice lawsuits; only 48 senators voted against the limits. But the 48 won, because the majority needed 11 more votes to stop a Democratic filibuster. The vote was a defeat for President Bush, who strongly supported the bill. The measure, similar to one that passed the House earlier this year, would have limited awards for pain and suffering to $250,000 and for punitive damages to $250,000 or twice the amount of economic damages (medical expenses, lost wages, and so forth). The measure would have allowed unlimited awards for economic damages, but would have limited trial lawyers' contingency fees. The president argues that "frivolous and abusive lawsuits" are inflating health-care costs and "driving good doctors out of medicine." Democrats argue that half a million dollars in noneconomic damages isn't enough for victims of medical wrongdoing. Political analysts expect both sides to raise the issue in the 2004 campaign, especially with Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a former trial lawyer and forceful opponent of lawsuit caps, running for president.
lottery fever
The Powerball jackpot topped $200 million last week for only the fourth time since the multi-state lottery began in 1992. As the jackpot grew-and the likelihood of winning thus grew ever dimmer-sales of tickets swelled, driving the final estimated jackpot to $261.3 million. Lottery officials said two winning ticket-holders would split the jackpot. Twenty-four states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands all participate in Powerball; winning tickets were sold in Missouri and Pennsylvania. In an indication of how deeply the game has become entrenched in many Americans' lives, Iowa Lottery spokeswoman Mary Neubauer said ticket sales slackened during the July 4 weekend but picked up once people returned to "their normal routine." After that, she said, "across Powerball states we saw sales going up just because folks were tuning back into regular life." Ms. Neubauer reported that as the drawing approached last week, sales of tickets grew to nearly 2,000 tickets per minute in Iowa alone.
rocky recovery?
The nation's official unemployment rate hit a nine-year high in June, according to the Labor Department, climbing to 6.4 percent from 6.1 percent in May. "It's pretty bad, there's no denying that," said Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics. But Mr. Mayland also argued that the number could be higher because people who weren't looking for jobs in May-and thus weren't counted as unemployed-began to look for work in June, the result of "just more enthusiasm about economic prospects." Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve reported that consumer credit rose by $7.3 billion in May, pushing total consumer debt to $1.76 trillion. As interest rates have fallen to historic lows, consumers have freed up cash by refinancing their homes and found lower credit-card interest rates as well. Good buys may have also influenced consumer behavior. "Rebates and heavily discounted merchandise were simply too good for consumers to refuse," said economist Richard Yamarone of Argus Research Corp.

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