Plagues Without Borders
The foot-and-mouth disease plaguing European farmers doesn’t appear to have reached the U.S., but with an outbreak in Argentina and a case in Venezuela, the virus is drawing closer. All last week, American producers lined up their defenses, just in case. In North Carolina, a center of hog production, producers were taking precautionary steps against the easily transmitted bug, limiting visitors and asking the salesmen to wear booties.
Meanwhile, effects from the meat scare began working their way into the U.S. economy. McDonald’s warned of a decline in first-quarter earnings because of the European panic over contaminated beef. Even before Denmark announced its quarantine on pork, American buyers dropped the country’s baby back ribs, a staple in specialty food chains, sending a shiver through the market and driving prices up by more than 25 percent. A hint of increased sales of U.S. meat—at least in the short term—came with a spike in inquiries and orders from Japanese pork buyers, who have been forced out of the European market.
The foot-and-mouth crisis points up—better than any anarchist’s smoke bomb—the dangers of unfettered commerce between nations. Animals infected today carry a form of the virus that first appeared in India during the mid 1990s, then spread westward through the Middle East, reaching Europe in 1998. There have been outbreaks in Russia, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, South Africa, and Central Asia.
Trouble in England began this February, when a herd of old sows in the northern part of the country ate infected swill obtained from factories, schools, and hospitals. The rules say providers must boil their swill to kill disease before sending it on. In this case, vets tracking the outbreak speculate the feed could have contained a bit of meat from Asia. But nobody knows for sure.
The pigs passed the ailment on to sheep, which then were purchased by buyers anxious to meet the Easter demand for lamb. Vets believe diseased meat is not only sold throughout England, but moves swiftly across Europe’s newly relaxed boundaries. Animals are checked only when they enter the EU, not when they move between member countries. The situation is complicated by an active black market in livestock. Some observers speculate that the earlier outbreak of mad-cow disease contributed to the problems with foot-and-mouth, because Brits ramped up animal imports.
Will the disease reach the U.S.? From 1870 to 1929, America experienced nine big outbreaks of foot-and-mouth, which caused millions of animals to be killed and forced ranchers out of business. A huge outbreak occurred in central Mexico after World War II. U.S. vets and field-workers rushed in to help Mexican officials herd more than 1 million animals into trenches, where they were shot, disinfected, and buried. Last week authorities banned the import of EU animal products and began selectively sanitizing the belongings of overseas airline passengers.
All of this for a disease that usually affects humans like the common cold. Nor does foot-and-mouth kill livestock, instead merely sickening the animal for a few weeks and leaving it thinner and with a poorer grade of meat. The issue is not health but economic productivity. British papers are beginning to question the mass slaughter of uninfected animals—a practice that dates back to the 18th century. In Iran officials have adopted a more modern approach, using vaccines to slow the spread of foot-and-mouth.
“Nobody wants to trade with the countries that have the disease, because they are worried about getting the disease themselves,” says Thomas Pringle, a scientific consultant with the Sperling Biomedical Foundation in Oregon. “To eradicate infected animals is cheaper than vaccination. But you have to know that a lot of countries have this disease. It’s all over the world. A lot of countries just don’t bother to eradicate.
“Infected animals are less competitive than the others,” he adds. “They produce less milk, for example, and that’s why they get eradicated.”
A North American outbreak could force the imposition of strictures against travel and recreation—the same kind of clampdown now crippling rural England. “If the disease was to come to the U.S. or to Canada, it could be extremely expensive,” Pringle says. “We would have to maybe order the people to stay at home.”
The New Debtor Prison
All the brave talk about how great our economy has been can’t hide the basic fact that the lower-middle class did not prosper during the Clinton years and now is headed for deep trouble—especially the working poor and the elderly. Robert Reich, secretary of labor during Clinton’s first term, said Sunday on C-Span’s Washington Journal that he was told not to talk about the enormous numbers of people left out. “This huge economic boom of the 1990s bypassed . . . almost 50 percent of Americans,” he said.
Under President Bush, the outlook for the average worker may grow much worse. Already, steep declines in the stock market have stripped value from the 401(k) plans that for some 22.3 million Americans have become a kind of unsecured pension. Bush has long advocated allowing laborers to invest part of their payroll deductions rather than having the government automatically stash the earnings in Social Security. This would represent one of the greatest windfalls in history for Wall Street, but in the current economic climate would be an unmitigated disaster for the nation’s elderly.
Seniors aren’t the only group in trouble. Last week, the Senate, with Bush support, endorsed what Washington’s feel-good lobbyists term a “bankruptcy reform” bill. This disgusting piece of legislation is nothing more than a relief package for credit card companies and a set of shackles for the working stiffs in the “subprime” market. Its supporters—including Hillary Clinton, whose husband vetoed a similar measure—say the changes are necessary to stop rich people from filing for bankruptcy. That’s a ridiculous claim, since most of the people filing have incomes of about $20,000 but have run up credit card debt of $18,000. Hardly the rich!
What’s really going on here is passage of a law literally bought by the credit card industry, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of members of Congress. For starters, reports Time, Florida senator Bill McCollum received $225,000 from the credit industry; New Jersey senator Robert Torricelli took $150,00 from MBNA.
The credit card companies want to get their hands on the autos, homes, and other property of low-income debtors enticed with freely available credit cards and sky-high borrowing limits. Just a few years ago, many of these customers would have been turned down flat. But in the current market, these subprimers may have three or four cards with limits of $10,000 each. The holders quickly discover that if they miss a payment—or even pay a few days late—the interest rate can jump from the bargain basement 3 percent to 18 percent overnight.
Under the old law, the credit card companies had to stand in line with other lenders while the borrower first worked out a schedule for paying alimony, child support, student loans, and taxes. The lenders couldn’t get at retirement funds. Once Bush makes good his promise to sign the new law, the corporations, with their sophisticated collection departments, can squeeze a single mother, robbing her of child support in order to repay the card. They can also seize debtors’ private property.
Bankruptcy reform makes up one part of the new Poor Laws. Last session the government enacted legislation that allows big banks to take over smaller banks and other financial institutions, such as real estate and stock brokerages. Now Congress is going further, setting up what amounts to an unregulated banking system to milk the lower-middle class.
Washington is slowly waking up to one of its most dire stories: the discovery of hazardous residue from the testing of chemical weapons during World War I. A newly rediscovered military trench in affluent northwestern D.C. shows evidence of mustard gas, the nerve gas Lewcite, and the carcinogen arsenic.
The area around the trench, next door to American University, has long since been built over with fancy, high priced-homes. Residents are especially worried because some have felt ill while working in their backyards, and because they seem to have an unusually high incidence of cancer.
Runoff from the area drains into Washington’s main drinking-water reservoir, which itself has had a difficult time meeting EPA standards. The Army Corps of Engineers, charged with investigating the problem, claims it has spent $50 million since 1993 on examining soil where old mortar shells and chemical munitions were buried. The corps also is looking at another area in northwest Washington near the University of the District of Columbia, where much of the land has been reserved for new embassies.”There is an indication of high incidence of cancer and rare blood diseases,” Kenneth Schuster, an EPA scientist told The Washingtonian. “Are they related to the buried munitions? We don’t know, but I’m pushing for an epidemiological study.”
Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz and Adam Gray