The budget deficit stands at $521 billion, and the national debt at $7.1 trillion—but neither number has taken the edge off Congress's appetite for pork-barrel politics. According to the annual Pig Book, published by Citizens Against Government Waste, the 2004 fiscal year saw a record 10,656 projects tacked on to Congress's appropriations bills—up 13 percent from the previous year and 28 percent from 2002, for a total cost to federal taxpayers of $22.9 billion. Choice slices of pork listed in the Pig Book include $50 million to build the world's largest indoor rain forest in Coralville, Iowa; hundreds of thousands of dollars for "poultry litter composting" and "berry research"; and $5 million for the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), which was originally designed to "capture energy from the aurora borealis" and now aims to "heat the ionosphere to improve military communications." It's no coincidence that HAARP, which has absorbed nearly a hundred million federal dollars since 1995, is an Alaska-based project: the state's senior senator, the Republican Ted Stevens, chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee—and Alaska procured more pork per capita than any other state in 2004, with $524 million in appropriations. Stevens is hardly a solitary offender: runners-up in the Pig Book's pork rankings were, in order, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Montana, all of which (except for Washington) have senators on the Appropriations Committee.
—2004 Congressional Pig Book Summary, Citizens Against Government Waste
In March the Departments of Defense and State released decidedly upbeat reports on a "year of progress" in Iraq. A strikingly different assessment can be found in the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index, a frequently updated statistical summary that tracks data on reconstruction and security in the country. For instance, whereas Defense and State contend that there are now more Iraqi security forces than coalition forces protecting the citizenry, Brookings finds that only 65 percent of the 196,766-person indigenous security force is "partially or fully trained." (Tellingly, training levels are at 100 percent for those Iraqis tasked with guarding oil and electricity installations and serving as drivers and interpreters for coalition forces.) Moreover, Brookings reports, the nascent Iraqi army has fewer than 3,000 men, and 480 of the 900 Iraqis in the first new army battalion resigned shortly after being put on active duty. The State Department claims that the current violence in Iraq is due in large part to "foreign terrorists." The Brookings report notes, however, that fewer than two percent of the 8,500 "anti-coalition suspects" detained in Iraq are foreign nationals. The State Department also says that electrical-power levels "exceeded pre-war capacity" in the fall of 2003. This is technically true: on a single day last fall electrical-power levels exceeded pre-war capacity. The monthly average for electricity production, however, has yet to reach pre-war levels. Meanwhile, potable water is available to only two thirds of the population. There is some good news in these reports: the value of the Iraqi dinar is rising; oil revenues have passed $5 billion; all hospitals in Iraq are open, with 90 percent operating at pre-war levels; and the unemployment rate has decreased from 60 percent in June of 2003 to 45 percent earlier this year. Perhaps the brightest spot is education: more than 2,300 schools have been rehabilitated by USAID, millions of new textbooks have been printed and distributed, and teachers' salaries are far higher than under the former regime.
—"The New Iraq: A Year of Progress," U.S. Department of Defense; "Iraq One Year Later: Freedom and Progress," U.S. Department of State; "Iraq Index: Tracking Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq," Brookings Institution
Every year Americans lose as much money on legal gambling as they spend on movies, amusement parks, spectator sports, and video games combined—which is one reason that opponents of legalized casinos claim that gambling leads to financial ruin for many Americans. Yet proponents claim that legalized gambling is a boon to local economies. According to a recent study by scholars at Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska, both the critics and the boosters are right. Looking at the gambling boom years of the 1990s, when casino revenues more than tripled nationally, the researchers conclude that counties with casinos suffered individual bankruptcy rates more than double the rates in demographically similar counties without casinos. But the bankruptcy rate for businesses in these "casino counties" was 35 percent lower than in their betting-free counterparts.
—"The Impact of Casino Gambling on Bankruptcy Rates: A County Level Analysis," Ernie Goss and Edward Morse, Creighton University
Traditional Muslim belief accords Jesus Christ prophetic rather than divine status, insists that he was taken up to heaven before the Crucifixion, and frowns on artistic representation of religious figures. Nonetheless, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is a hit in the Middle East, where Arab reaction to the film—as documented by the Middle East Media Research Institute—has less to do with theology than with current regional politics. That is, Muslims seem to see the film as all about Israel and, to a lesser extent, Iraq. "The Palestinians are still being exposed to the kind of pain to which Jesus was exposed during his crucifixion," Yasir Arafat's media adviser recently announced. A columnist in the Syrian government daily Teshreen made similar comparisons between Gibson's Christ and those who "are crucified every day at the hands of the American and Jewish-Zionist executioners," adding, "Now the Iraqi people are facing the same ordeal and walking the same Via Dolorosa." One director in Qatar insisted that "the film does not depict Judaism or all Jews as responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus," but most of The Passion's most enthusiastic Muslim fans disagreed: Egypt's government-owned daily declared the film a "courageous challenge to the political, financial and media power of the Jews," and Kuwait's leading Shia cleric lobbied the government to let it be shown in his country—despite its conflicts with Islamic teachings—because it would present "a good opportunity to reveal the crimes committed by Jews against the Christ and many other prophets." But perhaps the most intriguing interpretation came from the Saudi journalist who wrote that The Passion of the Christ should persuade Arabs to stop blaming the Jews for the Middle East's troubles. Why? Because "if the Jews had ultimate control over Hollywood and what happens there, as our fathers, grandfathers, writers and books say, a film against them would not be produced by the hub of the world's film industry!"