Rising food prices are causing a worldwide crisis; insurers clog up Social Security system.

Rising food prices are causing a worldwide crisis; insurers clog up Social Security system.

Rising food prices are causing a worldwide crisis; insurers clog up Social Security system.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
April 1 2008 6:01 AM

Food 911

The Los Angeles Timesleads with a follow-up to the World Food Program's recent emergency appeal for more money and takes a look at how the worldwide phenomenon of rising food prices is leading to more hunger and food shortages. The WFP director calls it "a perfect storm" because not only does it cost much more for the agency to continue its current programs, but the number of people who need help is continuously increasing. The New York Timesleads with a lawsuit that claims insurance companies are costing the Social Security system millions of dollars every year by forcing people who file disability claims with them to also apply for money from the federal program even if it's clear that they'll be denied. These insurers often force claimants to appeal the denial, thus costing more money and delaying benefits for people who really need the government program.

The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox with a look at how the offensive in Basra weakened Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and increased the power of cleric Muqtada Sadr. Iraq was quieter yesterday after most of Sadr's supporters appear to have complied with the cleric's call for a cease-fire. The Washington Postand USA Todaylead with the resignation of Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson. USAT points out that it's the first time in Bush's tenure that a member of his Cabinet has resigned amid a criminal investigation. The WP characterizes it as a clear blow to the administration, particularly since he's leaving in the middle of the mortgage crisis. Democrats had called for his ouster because Jackson is the subject of multiple investigations for charges that he improperly used his position to hand contracts to friends. Jackson, one of the few remaining officials in the Bush administration who followed the president from Texas in 2001, announced he would be leaving on April 18.

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Besides feeding people in places like Sudan, where many rely exclusively on aid, WFP officials are particularly concerned about what they say is a new category of needy people who could once afford to eat but for whom rising prices have turned the most basic of necessities into somewhat of a luxury. These are mostly people who live in urban areas and are at the mercy of market prices. Several countries have already experienced food riots, and officials expect more to come. Meanwhile, the LAT does a good job of explaining how growing hunger can quickly reverse years of progress in developing countries by worsening overall health and decreasing education levels.

Insurers who pay out long-term disability insurance want claimants to try to get Social Security benefits because it would cut down on the amount of money the private company would have to pay out every month. The problem is that the government program defines disability much more stringently than private companies and usually doesn't pay out money unless the person can't do any job at all. But everyone still has the right to apply for Social Security benefits and each case must be investigated, which is why even the ones that are obvious denials cost time and money for an already-strapped system. These costs are then multiplied when insurers force claimants to appeal a denial again and again.

The WSJ talks to U.S. officials who say Maliki also lost a significant amount of support because there's a widespread perception among Iraqi people that he ordered the strikes in Basra to improve his political standing before the October elections. But now Maliki looks weaker than ever, and Sadr has seldom looked stronger. An expert in Shiite politics tells the WSJ this will end up being a "defining moment for Iraq" because it will mark "the birth of Sadrist power." Meanwhile, McClatchy is reporting that the Iranian general who helped Iraqi generals negotiate the cease-fire deal with Sadr is on the U.S. terrorist watch list. "Iran showed that they could mediate this cease-fire while the U.S. has shown very little influence," a Middle East expert said.

All the papers front or reefer a look at how the plan by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. to overhaul the financial regulatory system, which was officially unveiled yesterday, was immediately criticized by a variety of lawmakers and interest groups. The plan calls for streamlining the agencies that oversee the financial system, but no one really thinks it has much of a chance of passing, because it's simply too complicated and involves too many moving pieces. The Post points out that the plan calls for the revamping or elimination of some longtime Washington institutions, which is never easy to do. The LAT quotes an expert who says Paulson is merely "taking advantage of the current crisis to push a regulatory restructuring plan that would otherwise attract no interest."

Paulson warned that "those who want to quickly label the blueprint as advocating more or less regulation are oversimplifying." And indeed, the NYT notes that the plan "features both regulatory and deregulatory elements." Regardless, Democratic lawmakers said they simply don't have time for such huge overhauls when they have to deal with the current crisis. "This is a wild pitch. It is not even close to the strike zone," Sen. Christopher Dodd said. The Consumer Federation of America was more blunt: "Rolling out this plan in the middle of the current crisis is like telling Hurricane Katrina victims stranded on their rooftops in New Orleans, 'Don't worry, if you can hold for a few years, we've got a really great plan to restructure the federal emergency response system.' "

If you fall victim to a prank today, don't worry, it probably means people like you. The NYT points out anthropologists have found that practical jokes, like the ones many will be victims of during April Fools' Day, are a common way to welcome someone into a group. "It can be a kind of flattery, if you're being brought in," a sociologist tells the paper. Plus, it could be good for you. "The feeling of 'I should have known better' is the sort of counterfactual that serves to highlight your own shortcomings," a psychologist explains. "These counterfactual insights can kick-start new behaviors, new self-exploration and, ultimately, self-improvement."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.