Today's Papers

Biden Gets an Assignment

USA Todayleads with new data that show only 45 of the 122 levees across the country that were deemed to be in “unacceptable” condition almost two years ago have been repaired. The Washington Postleads with a look at how a number of countries are moving toward imposing new barriers to trade, despite the fact that world leaders pledged a few weeks ago not to turn to protectionism during the economic slump. Although the moves haven’t become widespread yet, many warn they could grow in the coming months to bring a new wave of protectionism that could make it more difficult for economies around the world to recover.

The Los Angeles Timesleads with New Hampshire’s decision to halt all civil and criminal jury trials in its state courts for a month next year to save on jurors’ per diems. This may be an extreme example but could become a reality elsewhere as at least 19 states have slashed court budgets to deal with budget shortfalls. The New York Timesleads with a look at how some companies are trying to cut their labor costs without resorting to layoffs. Increasingly, companies are cutting workweeks, forcing employees to go on vacation, and freezing wages. In a number of cases, employees are supporting these indirect wage cuts since they see them as a more palatable option than layoffs. The Wall Street Journalleads its world-wide newsbox with President-elect Barack Obama’s creation of a task force to improve the standard of living of middle-class families. The White House Task Force on Working Families will be led by Vice President-elect Joe Biden and will include several Cabinet secretaries as well as economic officials from various government agencies. “Our charge is to look at existing and future policies across the board and use a yardstick to measure how they are impacting the working- and middle-class families,” Biden said yesterday.

In February 2007, the Army Corps of Engineers gave state and local governments a year to fix the levees it deemed “unacceptable,” but 18 states and Puerto Rico have so far failed to complete repair work. People who live near the unrepaired levees “have every right to be concerned,” the head of the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee safety program said. The corps has been trying to pressure governments to repair their levees, but many simply don’t have the money and see it as a problem that the federal government should fix.

It is common for countries to increase barriers to trade during an economic slump, but they often do more harm than good in the long run. Indeed, the rush to protect local industries in the 1930s is widely seen as a mistake as it unnecessarily prolonged the Great Depression. While the WP acknowledges that so far there hasn’t been a great move toward imposing stricter limits on trade, “the general trend toward protectionism could undermine what has been the steady march of free trade during the era of globalization.” Right now, many nations are focusing on trying to prop up domestic industries and many critics are characterizing that help as unfair government subsidies. This is exactly how critics see the $17.4 billion rescue of the U.S. automakers because it would disadvantage foreign competitors.

As states look for more ways to cut spending, the judicial system isn’t being spared, and the LAT says New Hampshire is now “a poster child for the problem.” But it’s hardly alone. In Florida, for example, almost 300 staff members have been laid off. If lawmakers in Florida impose an additional 10 percent cut, “all civil cases in the state of Florida would virtually be suspended,” a judge warned. The delays in jury trials could result in more out-of-court settlements, but some fear a longer wait time could create insurmountable obstacles for some cases. “Witnesses die, memories fade; things happen when trials are delayed,” a legal expert said.

The NYT doesn’t specify how many companies have been trying to cut labor costs without resorting to layoffs and points out that slashing staff is still far more widespread throughout the economy. Despite the lack of hard data, the paper relies on anecdotal evidence to say that in the last month it has become increasingly common for companies to look for unconventional ways to cut costs, and employees are mostly welcoming these efforts. Economists insist that employees are now feeling vulnerable and so are likely to accept almost anything as long as they get to keep their jobs at a time when they’re constantly being bombarded by bad news from the economy. Their feelings will change, though, if these types of measures continue for a long time.

You can add commercial property developers to the list of industries that want help from the government, reports the WSJ. Developers are warning that a large number of commercial properties will have to go into default unless the industry gets a piece of the new $200 billion loan program that is meant to thaw the frozen consumer loans market. Some in the industry are even pushing lawmakers to create a separate program specifically dedicated to increase lending in the commercial real estate market.

The people of Zimbabwe are no strangers to hunger, but things have gotten markedly worse over the past year, notes the NYT. A recent United Nations survey found that 7 in 10 people had eaten nothing or just one meal the day before. President Robert Mugabe has blamed Western sanctions for the country’s economic problems, and one of his ministers went as far as to say that Britain started the cholera outbreak that is now ravaging the country as an act of “biological chemical war force.” Aid workers are already reporting a shortage of food aid for January and say the hunger problem in Zimbabwe is likely to get worse next year.

The top U.S. envoy for Africa said yesterday that the United States can no longer support a power-sharing agreement between Zimbabwe’s opposition parties and President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country for almost three decades. Jendayi Frazer said Mugabe showed no willingness to share power and told reporters the United States will pressure African leaders to abandon Mugabe. Frazer said the government’s claim that the cholera outbreak was started by the West shows that Mugabe is “a man who’s lost it, who’s losing his mind, who’s out of touch with reality.”

The WP fronts a dispatch from Kenya that takes a look at how an increasing number of young men are leaving Somalia in an effort to escape the relentless recruiting efforts of an Islamist militia known as al-Shabab. This kind of takeover by radical Islamists is exactly what the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia was supposed to prevent. But since then, “a relentless insurgency” has taken hold and is threatening to destroy Somalia’s central government. The United States and United Nations are now pushing for a plan that shifts power to an opposition coalition that includes some of the same Islamist leaders who were described as extremists two years ago.

Initial estimates that as many as 4 million to 5 million people would travel to downtown Washington on Inauguration Day may have been a bit of an exaggeration. City officials now think the crowd will be about half that size, reports the WP.

The WP takes a look at the toys that are expected to be this season’s big sellers: pooping dolls. Stores are having trouble keeping up with demand, even if some parents think the whole thing is a little gross. But marketers know that young children are fascinated by bodily functions, and they’re quickly trying to beat each other in creating ever more realistic dolls. “For us, the peeing and pooping is pretty magical,” said a senior brand manager for Hasbro’s Baby Alive dolls.