Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Need-to-know news

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

Lows and highs

Officials of the Federal Reserve will meet March 18, and analysts expect them to cut interest rates for the sixth time since September. The goal: Keep a sluggish economy growing amid a housing downturn and a credit crunch. But a report from the Labor Department late last month complicated this strategy: Consumer prices rose 4.3 percent during 2007, and many economists say Fed chairman Ben Bernanke's continuing rate cuts will lead to more price hikes in the future. "They are cutting rates with a bill to be paid later," economist John Ryding of Bear Stearns told The New York Times. "The question is not, will we get inflation, but how much will it cost to stuff the genie back in the bottle."

Missing the story

President Bush on Feb. 21 wrapped up a five-nation tour of Africa with a visit to Liberia, a close U.S. associate and the only nation on the continent that may ultimately host the U.S. Africa military command (AFRICOM). Bush became the first American leader in 30 years to visit the country, which was founded in the 1820s by freed American slaves. Still, the president's efforts to help Africa received scant press attention and most of that negative, a fact not lost on humanitarian activist Bob Geldof of Live Aid fame. In a Washington press corps briefing, Geldof praised Bush for what he called "a triumph of American policy" in delivering billions to fight poverty and disease in Africa. He also scolded the assembled reporters for ignoring that story: "You guys didn't pay attention."

Strike 2.5

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The Hollywood writers strike, which ran from last November into early February, cost the local economy $2.5 billion, according to an estimate from Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. The cancellation of the Golden Globes alone accounted for $60 million of the lost revenues. The rest resulted from unmade films and television shows and unused support services such as catering and limousine rides.

Wolves on the rebound

The gray wolf population is soaring in the northern Rockies, so much so that federal officials announced plans Feb. 21 to take the animal off of the endangered species list. But environmentalists aren't celebrating. They vow to sue to keep the wolves on the list, fearing that hunters will otherwise target the 1,500 gray wolves that are estimated to be in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Wages of bribery

On Feb. 20, the priciest bribery scandal in congressional history crept toward closure as a federal judge sentenced former defense contractor Brent Wilkes to 12 years in prison. The sentence fell short of the 25 years prosecutors called for, but exceeded the eight years and four months that Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham, the central figure in the scandal, is now serving. In 2005, the San Diego Union-Tribune exposed a fishy real estate transaction between Cunningham, an eight-term congressman and America's first Vietnam fighter ace, and another defense contractor, Mitchell Wade. The story triggered a federal investigation in which Cunningham ultimately confessed to accepting $2.4 million in bribes, mostly from the two contractors. Wilkes was convicted in November of 13 counts of bribery, fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. In total, the Cunningham case led to five convictions as well as new strictures on lobbyist-legislator relationships. Wade is still awaiting sentencing.

Polar opposites

Environmentalists concerned that polar bears may soon lose the last chunks of their ice habitat to global warming should take heart. New satellite data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that polar ice levels, which had dropped markedly from 5 million square miles in January of last year to about 1.5 million square miles last October, have roared back over the winter to near their original size.

That news combined with reports throughout the Northern Hemisphere of some of the coldest winters on record suggests the earth's recent warming trend could be changing. Almost 1,000 people have died from unusually frigid conditions in Afghanistan since December as half of the country's 34 provinces have reached low temperatures of --20 degrees Fahrenheit. In the northern region of Vietnam, a record cold spell lasting more than a month has killed tens of thousands of cattle.

As yet, no environmentalists have called for increasing greenhouse gas emissions to save the cows.

Prison ministry ends

Iowa state prison officials are closing a Bible-based treatment program run by Prison Fellowship Ministries after a five-year federal court battle. The InnerChange Freedom Initiative will be terminated in mid-March, prison spokesman Fred Scaletta said, following a circuit court decision last December that prohibits taxpayer funding of such programs. The eight-year-old Newton program has operated solely on donations since last July 1. Prison Fellowship had a three-year state contract that ends in June but can be terminated when enrollment falls below 60 inmates. That will happen after a March 14 graduation. Prison Fellowship will still be welcome to minister to inmates at the Newton prison, Scaletta told the Des Moines Register "on a volunteer basis. There will be no funds allocated or applied in any way."

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