China Syndrome

China Syndrome

China Syndrome

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
April 30 1999 7:06 AM

China Syndrome

For the first time in weeks, the domestic economy leads at one of the majors. The Los Angeles Times leads with the government's report that the first quarter's growth of wages, salaries, and benefits was unexpectedly slow, which is surprising because the economy is flat-out booming. But the war still dominates the news. The New York Times lead corrals several unnamed American and NATO military sources who argue that, despite official Pentagon pronouncements to the contrary, NATO's bombing campaign is not seriously diminishing the Yugoslav army's fighting ability--primarily because NATO's attack-the-air-defenses-first strategy gave it plenty of time to disperse and hunker down--and in fact has even strengthened it politically. According to the USA Today lead, the military that's being weakened by the air campaign is ... America's. The story says that according to a soon-to-retire Air Force general, the Pentagon's ability to respond to hot spots elsewhere in the world is being degraded because combat squadrons are being stripped of their best personnel and equipment. The top non-local story at the Washington Post is a detailed account of the Serb-on-Kosovar-Albanian atrocities that took place in Djakovica on April 1. The paper says the murders there of at least 55 people, including 20 women and children, are particularly well-documented because the Albanians in the town had set up an elaborate neighborhood watch system. So elaborate that international war crimes investigators are now using survivors' accounts to map out a murder-by-murder account.

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The LAT says that first quarter wage growth was barely half of what had been expected. Or even more dramatically: For the first time in two years, the latest wage and benefit gain was basically canceled out by inflation. As the Wall Street Journal points out in its story on the report, this is confounding because the U.S. labor market is the tightest it's been in 30 years, and basic supply and demand reasoning entails that workers should therefore become higher priced. Reading these two stories side by side in search of the explanation leaves one with more than a few doubts about economic spot reporting. For instance, the LAT says the wage growth rate is low because it doesn't generally reflect compensation increases achieved through bonuses and stock options, while the Journal says the index was dragged down because of a drop in bonuses awarded to financial service workers during the first quarter. And the LAT says the rate of raises has been braked by widespread employee insecurity lingering from the layoffs of the early 1990s: Workers' fears of losing their jobs keep them from asking for too much. But the Journal says that "one popular theory" is that "workers' wage demands are no longer pumped up by fears that escalating prices will erode their paychecks."

The essential confusion of the discussion is on particular display in one brief stretch of the LAT story. Within the space of two paragraphs, the story "explains" that such a small rise in income could add to pressure for bigger wage increases, but also that it is fresh evidence that inflation remains tame. The problem is the essential indeterminacy of economic facts. Are wage demands where they are because of fear or because of the absence of fear? Does a small rise in income increase the pressure for raises or relieve it? The papers get in trouble when they try to write as if such questions have determinate answers. They should instead do much shorter stories on these topics that stick to the basic quantitative information.

The contemporary discussion of the effectiveness of the military campaign against Yugoslavia is also dogged by this sort of indeterminacy. Does the fact that the Yugoslav army now enjoys more political support than it did before U.S. bombs fell bode well or ill for U.S. war aims? The answer isn't obvious. More political involvement could mean more political generals with less military acumen (this is essentially what happened to the old German general staff under the rise of Nazism).

The LAT and NYT report that a NATO warplane inadvertently fired a missile into a suburb of Sofia, Bulgaria, hitting an empty house and killing no one. Although this episode runs inside at both papers, it's not inconsequential: NATO is now bombing the wrong country. NATO's explanation is not without interest: The missile was targeting a Serb surface-to-air-missile radar, which then was turned off. "Without the guidance of an active signal," the LAT explains, the missile would have flown the length of its 30-mile range before falling." (The NYT says 50 miles.) Can this really be right? If so, NATO weapons have, in the course of their modernization, been disimproved. Once upon a time, a pilot could detonate an errant missile from the cockpit while it was still in the air. A politically useful feature, no? The papers should look into this.

The WP runs a profile of the designer of one of the guns used in the Littleton massacre, the Hi-Point carbine, which the paper informs, is just about the hottest-selling non-handgun in the country. "In all honesty," he says, "it bothers me that I sell guns."

The WP and NYT run stories inside revealing that the author of the Chernobyl virus, which has caused hundreds of thousands of computer meltdowns worldwide, is an ex-engineering student in Taipei. For crafting the virus, the student was ... given a demerit. He is now on duty with the Taiwanese army.

The NYT and USAT front new research indicating that Mars once had a magnetic field and a tectonic plate geology like Earth's. The WP runs the story inside. These features were once thought to be uniquely terrestrial, with the upshot being that Earth's future may look a lot like Mars' present. Meanwhile, the search for intelligent life on both planets continues ...