Today's Papers

Missile Shield Missile Shield

Everybody leads their own way today, but they’re all about money. The Washington Post’s lead forecasts a rekindled “blame game” on Capitol Hill between Republicans and Democrats in the face of the now-shrinking federal budget surplus. The  New York Times leads with word that last year, for the first-time in the 20-year history of 401(k) retirement savings plans, the average account lost money. The Times lead says a big part of this decline has been the mistakes of individual investors, but  USA Today’s lead suggests that this year the pros are doing worse: It reports that 43 of the 50 stocks its panel of experts picked at the beginning of 2001 are now down since then, showing an overall average return of minus 22 percent–which is worse than the Nasdaq’s loss (down 19 percent), the S&P 500’s (down 10 percent), and the Dow’s (down 5 percent). (Complaint: The story never identifies these geniuses.) The  Los Angeles Times leads with the attempt by Comcast, the third-largest U.S. cable company, to buy the largest, AT&T Broadband, via a stock and debt-assumption offer. This would be, the paper explains, a hostile takeover because AT&T has said its cable business is not for sale, because (as was announced last fall) the corporation has its own plans to spin it off into a fully independent company. The  Wall Street Journal, which puts the offer atop its front-page business news box, reports a reason to think the offer might nevertheless attract enough of AT&T’s stockholders to go through: the paper has “one of AT&T’s largest shareholders” saying that a sale to Comcast was far superior to the risks of an initial public offering, especially since AT&T hasn’t been doing that well.

The WP lead says that in the face of the apparently dwindling surplus not only, as USAT reported last week, is the White House downplaying previous plans to fight for more tax breaks, but President Bush is also “hoping to coax fellow Republicans in Congress to abandon their pledge that payroll taxes collected for Medicare are off limits for spending.” The paper says that congressional Democrats are “planning ways to maximize Bush’s discomfort.” Example: In the Senate (where they are in the majority), they will schedule the $18 billion defense appropriation requested by the Bush administration last among the annual spending bills so that by then it will “be plain to the electorate that there is no way the administration can pay for” it, without changing the budget plan it got passed last spring. The Democrats’ overriding aim, says the paper, is “to have the Washington debate on all manner of issues return to the same question: Who blew the surplus?”

Twice the WP lead tries to suggest problems with the Democrats’ save-the-surplus argument without giving the reader what she needs. The story says the stance “contradicts [the] Keynesian economic orthodoxy,” of spending your way out of an economic slowdown and makes the debaters’ point that the Democrats used to believe in Keynes, but never explains what most economists think of him nowadays. And the story also says that “fiscal experts” say using some Social Security and Medicare revenue to fuel current spending instead of on paying down the national debt, “would not be calamitous.” But as far as the story goes, some experts turns out to one expert.

The NYT lead reminds that unlike traditional “defined benefit” company retirement plans, the 401(k) plans don’t guarantee a pension level, but rather depend for their retirement adequacy on the investment choices the employee makes. And, says the story, lately their choices haven’t looked that good–they have not been investing enough to retire when they expect to, have put too much of their 401(k) money in stock, and too much in their own company’s stock. And they don’t get enough good advice about all this from their employers.

The WSJ says that the 2002 budget contains a plan for “stealth deployment” of the first stage of a national missile defense system: funding for a new test launch facility in Alaska capable of also being used as an actual shield “in an emergency” protecting against North Korean missiles. The story has this response from “a senior Pentagon official” when he was asked what kind of emergency might trigger the deployment of this Alaskan shield: As far as secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld is concerned, “There already is an emergency.”

The LAT fronts news that three years after the formation of an international commission to expedite the payment of Holocaust-era life insurance policies to the relatives of victims, the leading German insurance company, Allianz, has not paid a single claim, and a consortium of German insurance firms has still not compiled a complete list of relevant policyholders. Plus, they have filed lawsuits in California and Florida contesting statutes that were designed to expedite collection by relatives.

USAT’s top front says that Chandra Levy’s parents will today call for Rep. Gary Condit, now that he has admitted an affair with their missing daughter, to be given a polygraph test. Washington police still say, adds the paper, that Condit is not a suspect in Levy’s disappearance.

Yesterday’s NYT had a fun little peek at a decidedly weird area of journalism: the pre-demise obituary interview. According to the story, based mostly on interviews with NYT obit specialists, the usual practice is to be mum-slash-coy with the interviewee about the true point of the questions; a fig leaf of an upcoming made-for-TV movie etc., is invoked instead. But occasionally outright honesty is deployed–and rewarded. There is for instance, Noël Coward’s reaction mid-interview upon finally seeing the dark: “Oh, my obituary. I don’t mind, I’ll be dead.”