Congress will revise the bankruptcy code. An 85-15 Senate vote virtually ensures that laws protecting debtors’ assets will be overhauled soon. (The House has passed a similar version, and President Bush will sign a compromise bill.) The legislation would require more people to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which forces debtors to repay most of what they owe, rather than Chapter 7, which allows debtors to cancel debt if they give up many of their possessions. Still at issue: A clause limiting the amount of home equity people can shield from creditors. Republican spin: This bill promotes personal responsibility. When people are allowed to write off debt, credit becomes more expensive for everyone else. Most Democrats’ spin: We agree, but let’s ensure that millionaires are forced to sell their mansions if they file. Other Democrats’ spin: This bill rewards credit card companies for preying on unsuspecting consumers with misleading ads.
Drug companies will sell AIDS medicine in Africa at sharply reduced profit. Bristol-Myers Squibb, which will sell its HIV “cocktails” to African patients for $1 a day (U.S. patients pay $16), is the third drug manufacturer in the last month to make such an offer. Nearly 10 percent of South Africans have HIV and about 30 percent of Botswanans do—but median income is far below the retail cost of drug therapies. AIDS activists’ spin: The drug companies should be commended, but “below-cost” drugs are still too expensive for most patients. If South Africa suspended trade rules, it could offer the drugs “at-cost” and save more lives. South Africa’s spin: If we did that, Western investment would dry up and we would remain forever poor. Critics’ spin: If Nelson Mandela hadn’t utterly ignored the AIDS epidemic while in office, South Africa wouldn’t be in such a fix.
The United States banned imports of animal products from the European Union. This follows the discovery of foot-and-mouth disease in France, the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter. European border police are confiscating meat and cheese, and air travelers from Great Britain to the United States are being disinfected upon arrival. The disease, though harmless to humans, is highly contagious and stunts milk production in cloven-hoofed animals. More than 180,000 livestock have been slaughtered in Britain, where the outbreak originated. Britain’s spin: We may have to kill half a million animals. EU’s spin: America is overreacting. Just because two countries have the disease doesn’t mean the whole continent does. Norway’s spin: We’re going to disinfect everyone who comes from France— even Gérard Depardieu! (To learn more about foot-and-mouth disease, click here; to read the Explainer’s FAQ on foot-and-mouth, click here.)
The Dow Jones industrial average dipped below 10,000. It was the first below-10,000 close in five months. (It recovered slightly the following day.) Earlier, the Nasdaq closed below 2,000 for the first time in two years. The tech-heavy index has lost 60 percent of its value since its record close a year ago. The S&P 500 has lost over 20 percent since its peak. Stocks declined further in Europe, and Japan’s Nikkei Stock Average hit a 16-year low. Glass-half-full spin: Unemployment is still near a 30-year low (4.2 percent), and the Fed will probably lower interest rates again on March 20. Besides, the GDP has to shrink for two quarters before we enter a recession; we haven’t even had one quarter of shrinkage. Glass-half-empty spin: Unemployment is a lagging indicator, the Fed may not lower rates enough on March 20, and by the time GDP figures are calculated it will be too late.
President Bush abandoned a pledge to regulate power plants’ CO 2 emissions. Citing rising energy costs in California and elsewhere, he reversed a campaign promise to impose a mandatory cap. Conservative spins: Limiting emissions would 1) harm consumers in the name of an unsubstantiated climate threat; and 2) implicitly endorse the Kyoto Protocol—an unratified treaty signed by President Clinton—which would subject our energy policy to an international authority. Environmentalist spin: 1) The regulations wouldn’t hurt California because it is not as dependent on coal power as the rest of the nation; and 2) global warming has been proven.
A Navy jet accidentally bombed a dozen military training observers. The bomb hit an observation post in Kuwait, killing five Americans and one New Zealander. A ground operator ordered the bombing during a training exercise at night and then tried to abort the maneuver. Navy’s spin: We don’t know what happened. Pundits’ spin: First the Navy drowns innocent Japanese, then it bombs its own personnel.
Morton Downey Jr. died at 67. The son of tenor Morton ” The Irish Nightingale” Downey, he pioneered “trash TV” in the late 1980s with the brief but wildly popular Morton Downey Jr. Show. (He called his guests “slimeballs” and blew smoke in their faces.) Years later he admitted he had gone overboard. After his lung-cancer diagnosis in 1996 he became an anti-smoking activist. Downey’s spin: “[The show] got out of control because the producers wanted me to top myself every night. There were times that I did things that were a little sleazy, but I didn’t do shows on my neighbor’s collie dog having sex with my neighbor’s wife [like Jerry Springer did].” (To see excerpts from the show, click here and go to the video link; to read a Slate “Assessment” of Jerry Springer, click here.)
F lorida sentenced a boy to life in prison for a crime committed at age 12. Lionel Tate, now 14, was sentenced to life without parole for the first-degree murder of a 6-year-old girl. (Under Florida law a first-degree murderer need not intend to kill; the sentence is mandatory.) Before the trial, Tate’s mother rejected a second-degree-murder plea by her son, which would have resulted in a three-year sentence and 10-year probation. Mrs. Tate’s spin: “People say that I’m a fool for not accepting the plea bargain, but how do you send your son to jail for just playing?” Forensic experts’ spin: The boy wasn’t playing—he gave the girl a sustained, intentional beating. Prosecutors’ spin: We hope the governor reduces the sentence. Judge’s spin: Then why didn’t you reduce the charge? I won’t overturn a valid verdict simply to get around the mandatory-sentence law. Governor’s spin: I’ll consider clemency, and soon. Pundits’ spin: A life sentence for a 12-year-old is a new and bad precedent. Legislatures should give judges more discretion.
The Nasdaq composite closed below 2,000 for the first time in two years. The tech-heavy stock index has lost 60 percent of its value since its record close (5,048) a year ago. The S&P 500, the broadest measure of stocks, has lost 20 percent since its peak. Having fled the Nasdaq, investors are now moving from previously stable stocks like food-and-beverage companies to ultra-safe Treasury bonds. Stocks have declined in Europe, and Japan’s Nikkei Stock Average hit a 16-year low. Glass-half-full spin: Unemployment is still near a 30-year low (4.2 percent), and the Fed will probably lower interest rates again on March 20. Besides, the GDP has to shrink for two quarters before we enter a recession; we haven’t even had one quarter of shrinkage.
Three eBay users were charged with nearly half a million dollars in art fraud. The three men put forgeries up for sale and used more than 40 user IDs to bid up the price. They sold $450,000 worth of art through 1,100 fraudulent auctions, one of which was discovered by a New York Times reporter. Caveat emptor spin: Art on eBay may be cheaper than at Sotheby’s, but eBay’s not interested in protecting its users. eBay’s spin: Yes we are, but we can’t monitor every sale.