Archive for January, 2009

Signs of the Times

January 30, 2009

Faith-Based Charities May Fare Better than Other Non-Profits

Christian Post reports that although 43 percent of Americans are trimming their giving to non-profits, faith-based organizations may not experience so many donation cuts as other non-profits will. According to a new study by Wilson Research Strategies, 81 percent of those who attend religious services more than once a week have no intentions of cutting their donations, and may actually give more. These donors form the base group for most religious charities. “There’s little doubt that most charities are in for a bit of a rough ride. However, for faith-based charities, I believe the picture is much brighter,” Rick Dunham, president and CEO of Dunham+Company, which helps ministries with their fundraising, marketing and media strategies.

Mississippi Most Religious, Vermont Least, Survey Says

RELIGION NEWS SERVICE — A new Gallup Poll, based on more than 350,000 interviews, finds that the Mississippi is the one where the most people — 85% — say yes when asked “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” Less than half of Vermonters, meanwhile — 42% — answered that same question in the affirmative. Joining Mississippi in the top “most religious” states are other notches in the Bible Belt: Alabama (82%), South Carolina (80%), Tennessee (79%), Louisiana (78%), and Arkansas (78%). New England predominates in the top “least religious” states: Following Vermont are New Hampshire (46%), Maine (48%), Massachusetts (48%), Alaska (51%) and Washington (52%). Arizona is at 61%

NBC Trashes Pro-Life Ad featuring Obama

NBC has rejected a pro-life ad that celebrates President Barack Obama’s mother’s decision not to abort the first black American president for its Super Bowl lineup – even though the video has skyrocketed in popularity with almost 750,000 hits on YouTube. The commercial, sponsored by the pro-life Catholic group Fidelis and its CatholicVote website, begins with an ultrasound image of a baby moving in his mother’s womb. “This child’s future is a broken home,” it says. “He will be abandoned by his father.” “His single mother will struggle to raise him.” “Despite the hardships, he will endure,” the ad states. “This child will become the first African American president.” It features a photo of President Obama and concludes, “Life. Imagine the potential.” After days of discussion, an NBC representative told Fidelis that NBC and the NFL will not run commercials involving “political advocacy or issues,” Fidelis said in a statement Friday.

Cost of Senate’s Stimulus Plan hits $888B

WASHINGTON — The cost of President Obama’s economic stimulus package rose to $888 billion in the Senate on Wednesday, even as an $819 billion version passed the House without any Republican support. The House vote, 244-188, was expected to be along party lines. Republicans voted against the plan as too expensive, including too much in spending and not enough in tax cuts. They ridiculed the inclusion of unrelated items and they got Democrats to drop money for family planning and restoring the National Mall. Eleven Democrats also voted against their party’s package. The Democratic bill includes tax cuts for about 95% of working Americans — $500 for individuals, $1,000 for couples — and for small businesses. The major Senate addition: $70 billion to protect about 24 million Americans from paying higher taxes under the alternative minimum tax. Obama’s chance of winning some GOP Senate votes next week is considered better than in the House.

Even before the Stimulus Plan is signed into law, some lawmakers and outside budget analysts already are worrying about how to stop them from becoming permanent. Many of the initiatives in the $819 billion stimulus plan approved by the House were campaign pledges made by Obama, such as tax cuts for 95% of working Americans. During the campaign, he didn’t say they’d be temporary. Aid to state and local governments as well as individuals also could be difficult to eliminate once the economy improves, lawmakers and analysts say. Among the initiatives that could be hard to roll back: Health insurance subsidies for unemployed workers, $40 billion; An effort to computerize records at doctors’ offices and hospitals, $17 billion; Expansion of the earned income tax credit for low-income workers, $4.7 billion; and a $500 increase in the maximum Pell grant for needy college students and increases in federal aid for special education.

GDP Down 3.8% in Q4, Biggest Drop since ’82

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The economy shrank at its fastest pace in nearly 27 years in the fourth quarter, the Commerce Department said Friday. Commerce said gross domestic product, which measures the total output of goods and services within U.S. borders, shrank at a 3.8% annual rate, worst showing since the first quarter of 1982, when output contracted at a 6.4% annual rate. The report showed consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of economic activity, fell at a 3.5% rate in the fourth quarter after declining 3.8% in the third quarter, the first consecutive drops since 1990 and 1991. Spending on durable goods, such as cars and furniture, plunged at a 22.4% rate, steepest decline since the first quarter 1987. In response to the slump in demand, investment by business slumped 19.1%, sharpest pull-back since the first quarter 1975. Residential investment plummeted 23.6%.

Fed Keeps Interest Rate Near 0, Tries Other Ways to Fix Economy

WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that it will hold a key interest rate near zero as long as needed to bolster the staggering economy, and it is ready to expand its use of non-traditional tools — including possibly purchasing longer-term U.S. Treasury bonds. Fed officials offered a stark assessment of the economy at the conclusion of their two-day meeting. Not only are business conditions rapidly deteriorating, inflation has fallen to the point that the central bank is alarmed about possible deflation — a widespread, sustained fall in prices that can wreak economic havoc. The Fed has exhausted interest rate cuts, its traditional tool, and must rely on untested policies, like buying up mortgage-backed securities and lending to banks against sometimes shaky collateral.

A Record 4.78M Get Jobless Benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of people receiving unemployment benefits has reached an all-time record, the government said Thursday, as layoffs spread throughout the economy. The Labor Department reported that the number of Americans continuing to claim unemployment insurance for the week ended Jan. 17 was a seasonally adjusted 4.78 million, the highest on records dating back to 1967. The total released by the department doesn’t include about 1.7 million people receiving benefits under an extended unemployment compensation program authorized by Congress last summer. That means the total number of recipients is actually closer to 6.5 million people.

Airlines in Financial Crisis, Aviation Group Says

USA TODAY — Airlines around the globe are in their most widespread financial crisis since World War II, the world’s largest aviation trade group said Thursday. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 230 airlines worldwide, reported that December’s international air passenger traffic fell 4.6% year-over-year, and only about 74% of plane seats were sold. International air cargo volume fell an unprecedented 22.6% year-over-year, a sign of plummeting consumer spending. In all, the IATA said airlines worldwide lost $5 billion last year, and will post more losses this year. This is the first time in memory that airlines in virtually every region of the world have been simultaneously hurt by falling ticket sales and cargo loads, the IATA said.

More Losses, Layoffs & Closings

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) — Ford Motor said Thursday it lost $5.9 billion in the fourth quarter as auto sales slumped, but it said it has no plans to seek federal aid unless economic conditions worsen. The second biggest of the Detroit 3 said Thursday that it lost $14.6 billion, or $6.41 a share, for 2008, up from a loss of $11.8 billion, or $5.03 a share, the year before. The U.S. automaker said it burned through $5.5 billion in the quarter, less than the $7.7 billion it used in the third quarter. Ford also announced that its credit arm would cut 20% of its workforce, or 1,200 jobs.

SEATTLE — Starbucks, hammered by the contracting global economy, is taking the ax to its once unstoppable coffee empire. CEO Howard Schultz on Wednesday announced painful plans to cut jobs, close stores and slow growth around the world after reporting 2009 first-quarter results that showed U.S. same-store sales down a stunning 10%. Starbucks will close 300 underperforming company-operated stores worldwide — about 200 in the U.S. These closings are in addition to the 600 U.S. stores and 61 in Australia announced last year. Overall, that’s nearly 1,000 announced store closings in less than two years. Store closings and fewer openings in 2009 could result in up to 6,000 store positions being eliminated, the bulk of which will be in the U.S.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Eastman Kodak said Thursday it is cutting 3,500 to 4,500 jobs, or 14% to 18% of its workforce, as it posted a $137 million fourth-quarter loss on plunging sales of both digital and film-based photography products. Sales slumped 24% to $2.43 billion, hit by weakened demand for digital cameras, lower royalties from patents and unfavorable foreign exchange rates.

NEW YORK (AP) — Time Warner Inc.’s AOL business is cutting up to 700 jobs, or about 10% of the Internet unit’s work force, in a bid to cut costs. AOL Chief Executive Randy Falco told employees in a memo Wednesday that AOL plans to cut the jobs in the next several quarters. He also said that AOL will skip merit pay raises in 2009.

TOKYO — Sony said Thursday its net profit plunged 95% in the October-December quarter from a year earlier as poor sales of TVs, digital cameras and mobile phones sent its core electronics division into the red. The Japanese electronics icon said net profit sank to $115.6 million (10.4 billion yen) from 200.2 billion yen a year earlier during the fiscal third quarter. Revenues fell 25% to 2.15 trillion yen from 2.86 trillion yen.The company forecast it would report its a net loss for the fiscal year through March, its first annual loss in 14 years.

TOKYO (AP) — Japanese electronics giant NEC Corp. said it will cut 20,000 workers worldwide as it tries to stanch widening losses from semiconductors and other businesses that have been hard hit by competition and the global economic slump. NEC’s net loss for October-December swelled to $1.46 billion from 5.2 billion yen a year earlier, it said Friday.

Obama: $18B in Wall St. Bonuses Outrageous

WASHINGTON — A day after claiming victory in the House vote on the stimulus, President Obama blasted Wall Street executives for giving themselves $20 billion in bonuses during this time of economic crisis. “That is the height of irresponsibility,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office. “It is shameful.” The president said his administration will be talking to the business community — especially those that receive government assistance — “to underscore that they have to start acting in a more responsible fashion if we are to, together, get this economy rolling again. There will be time for them to make profits, and there will be time for them to get bonuses. Now is not that time”

Obama Signs Equal-Pay Bill

WASHINGTON — President Obama signed his first bill Thursday, a gender pay equity law that had been a hallmark of his campaign for the White House. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act makes it easier for workers to sue companies for pay discrimination and effectively reverses a 2007 Supreme Court decision that had given workers 180 days to file a lawsuit after the pay inequity allegedly first took place. “It is fitting that with the very first bill I sign … we are upholding one of this nation’s first principles: that we are all created equal and each deserve a chance to pursue our own version of happiness,” Obama said. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Ledbetter had failed to file a discrimination suit against the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in a timely manner, citing the 180-day deadline.

Obama Hosts Labor Leaders; Will Undo Bush Orders

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama is playing to one of the Democratic Party’s most reliable constituencies — organized labor — reversing a number of his predecessor’s executive orders that critics regard as anti-union. Obama was abolished four Bush-era directives that unions opposed and then introduced Vice President Joe Biden’s task force focused on the middle class. Both were meant as a way for the new administration to connect with workers at the end of a week that has seen U.S. companies announce thousands more jobs cuts. “Over the last 100 years the middle class was built on the back of organized labor. Without their weight, heft and their insistence starting in the early 1900s we wouldn’t have the middle class we have now, in my view,” Biden told CNBC on Thursday. “So I think labor getting a fair share of the pie is part of it.”

FBI: Burgeoning Gangs Behind up to 80% of U.S. Crime

USA TODAY — Criminal gangs in the USA have swelled to an estimated 1 million members responsible for up to 80% of crimes in communities across the nation, according to a gang threat assessment compiled by federal officials. The gang population estimate is up 200,000 since 2005. Bruce Ferrell, chairman of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association, whose group monitors gang activity in 10 states, says the number of gang members may be even higher than the report’s estimate. The report says about 900,000 gang members live “within local communities across the country,” and about 147,000 are in U.S. prisons or jails. The major findings in a report by the Justice Department’s National Gang Intelligence Center, which has not been publicly released, conclude gangs are the “primary retail-level distributors of most illicit drugs” and several are “capable” of competing with major U.S.-based Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

Gene Therapy Cures Form of ‘Bubble Boy Disease’

NEW YORK (AP) — Gene therapy seems to have cured eight of 10 children who had potentially fatal “bubble boy disease,” according to a study that followed their progress for about four years after treatment. The eight patients were no longer on medication for the rare disease, which cripples the body’s defenses against infection. The successful treatment is reported in Thursday’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine and offers hope for treating other diseases with a gene therapy approach. Bubble boy disease is formally called severe combined immunodeficiency, or SCID. This genetic disorder is diagnosed in about 40 to 100 babies each year in the United States.

Peanut Butter Recall Expanded to 2 Years’ Worth of Products

The recall of peanut butter and paste products made at a Georgia plant was expanded Wednesday to include two years of production, making it one of the largest recalls ever, the Food and Drug Administration says. The expansion will engulf many more products beyond the 432, including crackers and cookies, already on a list kept by the FDA at PCA’s peanut butter was sold to institutions. Major-brand peanut butter sold in stores is not affected, the FDA says. PCA’s peanut paste or butter went into hundreds of products such as crackers, cookies and ice cream.

Cold, Dark Nights Ahead in Wake of Deadly Ice Storm

More than a million households remain without power after snow and ice slammed the country from Texas to Maine, disrupting hundreds of flights and forcing Kentucky state troopers to use four-wheelers to find stranded residents. From northern Arkansas through Kentucky, as much as 1 to 2 inches of ice burdened trees and power lines.

Iraq‘s Economy Sputters as Oil Prices Drop

USA TODAY — For the second time in less than three months, the Iraqi government announced this week that it would slash government spending in 2009 because of tumbling oil prices. As Iraqis head to the polls Saturday to elect provincial councils, which are the equivalent of state legislatures, there is rising anxiety about Iraq’s unsteady economy — even more than security issues from years of war and sectarian violence. Iraq’s finance minister, Bayan Jabr, has cautioned government workers repeatedly over the last several weeks that “hard times” are ahead. He urges them to make saving a priority. The U.S. military has said Iraqi leaders must improve basic services — like electricity, water and roads — and combat high unemployment in order to maintain the security gains made over the past year.

DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — Iraq’s foreign minister has told The Associated Press his government is very encouraged by reassurances from the Obama administration that there will be no quick withdrawal of U.S. forces. Hoshyar Zebari says it is “very, very critical” that American troops remain in Iraq in 2009 as the nation begins holding a series of elections, starting with provincial voting Saturday.

U.N. Seeks $613 Million in Aid for Gaza War Victims

DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — The United Nations has launched an emergency appeal for $613 million to help Palestinians recover from Israel’s attack on Gaza. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says help is indeed urgently needed. Ban says the appeal covers the requirements of U.N. and other aid organizations for the next six to nine months. It will help provide everything from medical care to clean water. The Israeli offensive in Gaza killed nearly 1,300 Palestinians. The U.N. estimates at least 5,300 people were wounded and 21,000 homes were destroyed or badly damaged. Ban told reporters at the World Economic Forum on Thursday that an appeal for longer-term needs will be launched later.

UN to Organize Effort to Help Stabilize Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan says the United Nations will help organize an international effort to overcome the country’s massive security and economic problems. Pakistan faces a dangerous combination of rising Taliban militancy and slowing economic growth, raising concern about the security of its nuclear weapons. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Thursday that the U.N. has agreed to help organize programs to be funded by countries including the United States and Germany. Donors formed a group called the Friends of Pakistan last year to boost Pakistan’s security, economic and social development and energy supplies. Pakistan also took a $7.6 billion bailout last year from the International Monetary Fund.

North Korea Rescinding Agreements with South Korea

SEOUL (AP) — North Korea declared all military and political agreements with South Korea “dead” Friday, warning it would not honor past accords if Seoul continues to push the Koreas to the brink of war. The North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea accused South Korean President Lee Myung-bak of raising tensions on the Korean peninsula with his hard-line position on Pyongyang. It warned that Lee’s stance would only draw “a heavier blow and shameful destruction.” Tensions between the two Koreas, which fought a bitter three-year war in the 1950s and remain divided by one of the world’s most heavily armed borders, have been high since Lee took office in Seoul nearly a year ago. Lee, a conservative, pledged to get tough with Pyongyang, questioning the wisdom of his predecessors’ “sunshine policy” of nurturing reconciliation by handing over aid to the nuclear-armed North unconditionally. Pyongyang responded by cutting off all reconciliation talks with Seoul and ratcheting up the rhetoric. Pyongyang is the capital and largest city in North Korea.

Signs of the Times

January 28, 2009

Pelosi: Fewer Babies = Stronger Economy

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stirred up a hornet’s nest by promoting the idea of spending of millions of dollars on birth control and abortion as part of the economic stimulus package. “Contraception,” argued Pelosi, “will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government.” Her comments came on ABC’s This Week when asked by host George Stephanopoulos how expanding “family-planning services” to the tune of millions of dollars will stimulate the economy.  “It’s quite shocking, actually, that the Speaker of the House — who claims to be Catholic — would go on national television and claim that contraception would reduce the cost to the government,” exclaims Susan Fani, director of communications for the Catholic League. “It’s just beyond words, really.” Pelosi has five children and six grandchildren. Catholic League president Bill Donohue finds her comments revealing. “We have reached a new low when high-ranking public office holders in the federal government cast children as the enemy,” he offers in a press statement. “But at least it explains their enthusiasm for abortion-on-demand.”

Ø JJ Commentary: This is the hidden mantra of the New World Order. The babies they want to eliminate are those born to the poor. The elitists don’t intend to take measures personally to minimize the number of babies.

Brown: Economic Crisis Represents Birth Pangs Of “New Global Order”

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called Monday for the economic crisis to be used to create a “new global order,” and a new form of internationalism, a mantra that is becoming all too familiar as globalists exploit the very problem they created to centralize power into fewer hands. In a speech, he urged countries to avoid “muddling through as pessimists” and “make the necessary adjustment to a better future and setting the new rules for this new global order”, according to his office,” reports the Association for Financial Professionals. Brown argued against the risk that the crisis could “start a retreat from globalisation” and instead urged that it be seen as nothing more than “difficult birth-pangs of a new global order” Bilderberg member Brown has previously called for a “a new financial architecture for the global age”, stating that the Bretton Woods system devised after the second world war was out of touch with the new world order.

Israeli Warplanes hit Gaza Smuggling Tunnels

JERUSALEM (AP) — President Barack Obama’s new Mideast envoy sought Wednesday to boost a 10-day-old Gaza cease-fire that was thrown into turmoil, as Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza smuggling tunnels in retaliation for a Palestinian bombing that killed a soldier. As the Israeli Cabinet met to consider how far to go in its response to Tuesday’s bombing, U.S. envoy George Mitchell said it was “critical” that the cease-fire “be extended and consolidated.” Mitchell’s tour launches the first Mideast foray of the new Obama administration. Obama said his envoy would listen to all sides to then craft an approach for moving forward with stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. The flare-up is the worst since Israel and Hamas separately declared cease-fires on Jan. 18 to end a three-week Israeli offensive against the Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip. Since withdrawing its troops, Israel has threatened to retaliate hard for any violations of the informal truce.

Obama on Arab TV: ‘Americans are not Your Enemy’

CAIRO (AP) — President Obama on Tuesday chose an Arabic satellite TV network for his first formal television interview as president, delivering a message to the Muslim world that “Americans are not your enemy.” The interview underscored Obama’s commitment to repair relations with the Muslim world that have suffered under the previous administration. The president expressed an intention to engage the Middle East immediately and his new envoy to the region, former Sen. George J. Mitchell, was expected to arrived in Egypt on Tuesday for a visit that will also take him to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Obama said the U.S. had made mistakes in the past but “that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.”

Ø JJ Commentary: Just as Israel has learned the hard way, Islamic militants do not listen to nor care about reason or peace. Their jihad mission is to destroy Israel first and then subjugate the entire world to Islam. America remains the “Great Satan” for them regardless of how nice to them we might be.

NATO: 3,000 U.S. Troops Deploy near Afghan Capital

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Thousands of U.S. troops originally destined for Iraq have deployed south of Afghanistan’s capital in the first illustration of a new military focus on the increasingly difficult fight in the South Asian nation, NATO said Tuesday. Nearly 3,000 American soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y., moved into the provinces of Logar and Wardak to the south of Kabul, the military alliance said. They will serve as part of the 55,000-strong NATO force in the country. The latest deployment indicates the shifting focus in military operations from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the U.S. and its allies are trying to turn the tide of Taliban gains and prop up the government of embattled President Hamid Karzai. President Obama is expected to double the size of American troops in Afghanistan this year, as the country becomes one of his foreign policy priorities.

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that “we are lost” unless the United States can find a way not to kill so many civilians in the pursuit of militants in Afghanistan and that flooding the chaotic country with U.S. troops would be a disaster. “The civilian casualties are doing us an enormous harm in Afghanistan, and we have got to do better” to avoid innocent deaths, even though Taliban militants use civilians as cover, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “My worry is that the Afghans come to see us as part of the problem, rather than as part of their solution,” he added. “And then we are lost.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Expects Faster U.S. Pullout

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Monday he believes the United States will withdraw its troops more quickly than the three-year timeline set down in a U.S.-Iraq security agreement. An agreement negotiated under former President Bush’s administration called for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June, with all American forces out of the country by the end of 2011. President Obama campaigned on a promise to remove all combat troops within 16 months and has asked the Pentagon to plan for “a responsible military drawdown from Iraq.” With planning underway, al-Maliki told a political rally south of Baghdad that he believes the end of the U.S. mission “will be brought forward” and that Iraq must bolster its own forces to meet the challenge after the Americans leave.

Russia Halts Missile Deployment in Europe ‘Because of Obama’

FOX NEWS —  Russia held out an olive branch to President Barack Obama today by suspending plans to deploy missiles in Europe, according to a report in Moscow. An official from Russia’s General Staff in Moscow told Interfax news that the move had been made because the new United States leadership was reconsidering plans to establish a missile defence shield in eastern Europe. Deployment of Iskander short-range missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads, was being suspended in Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad in response, the unidentified official said.

Lobbying Spending Tops $3 billion in ’08

USA TODAY — Despite the sharp economic downturn, lobbying spending in the nation’s capital surged past $3 billion last year as industries and special-interest groups wooed Congress and federal agencies on a host of issues, including taxpayer bailouts for financial companies and automakers. The record $3.3 billion lobbying price tag is up from $2.9 billion in 2007 and is more than double what was spent four years ago, according to records compiled by the non-partisan CQ MoneyLine. “It’s an arms race,” said Massie Ritsch of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. “If your competitors are spending money on professional advocacy to play offense and defense in Washington, you feel you need to do the same.” Lobbying could soar to higher levels this year, he said, as Congress and President Obama hash out a $825 billion stimulus package that seeks to jump-start the economy with tax cuts and spending.

Ø JJ Commentary: Washington politics are badly diseased regardless of who is President.

Engineers Seek Stimulus Add-on for Crumbling Infrastructure

WASHINGTON — The USA’s infrastructure is crumbling and threatens the nation’s economic well-being, according to a new report by a top engineering group. A lack of investment in roads, bridges, mass transit and aviation means the cost of repair over the next five years has skyrocketed to $2.2 trillion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). In its last estimate four years ago, the cost was $1.6 trillion. The ASCE, which has 146,000 members worldwide, is the country’s oldest national engineering society. Overall, the 15 categories graded by the ASCE received an average grade of “D” or poor, the group said in a press release. The group rushed release of its report so it can be considered during debate Wednesday on the $825 billion economic stimulus package President Obama is pushing before Congress.

Consumer Confidence Sinks to All-Time Low

NEW YORK ( — A key measure of consumer confidence fell to an all-time low in January, according to a report released Tuesday. The Conference Board, a New York-based business research group, said that its Consumer Confidence Index fell to 37.7 in January from the revised 38.6 reading in December. The month’s reading represents an all-time low going back to the index’s inception in 1967. “Consumers are losing a pretty big chunk of their net worth right now,” said Adam York, economic analyst at Wachovia. York said that loss is reflected in the value of their home and in their stock market portfolios. “It doesn’t feel good and, as a result, consumers are spending less and they are worried about the outlook for the U.S. economy and their own personal situation,” said York. “We are not surprised that consumers are pretty despondent.”

More Job Cuts/Layoffs

USA TODAY Pfizer announced plans to buy Wyeth for $68B and cut 8,000 jobs. Pfizer’s bid to buy rival Wyeth for $68 billion will create a gigantic drugmaker that provides traditional drugs such as Lipitor as well as newer biotech drugs and vaccines. Pfizer, the No. 1 drugmaker, said Monday that the largest pharmaceutical merger in eight years would create the world’s “premier biopharmaceutical” company, with $71 billion in annual revenue.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) — Corning said Tuesday it is cutting 3,500 jobs, or 13% of its payroll, as demand slumps for glass used in flat-screen televisions and computers. The specialty glass and ceramics maker, the world’s largest maker of liquid crystal display glass, announced the cutbacks as its fourth-quarter profit plunged 65%.

USA TODAY — “Some of the worst job losses are ahead of us, not behind us,” says Wells Fargo senior economist Scott Anderson. He expects 3 million Americans to lose their jobs in 2009 — up from the 2.6 million who were cut last year, which was the most since 1945, the final year of World War II. The layoffs are happening in “all industries in all areas of the world,” Anderson says.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — With the recession forcing tech companies to announce thousands of layoffs, IBM is joining the fray — but not advertising it. The Armonk, N.Y.-based company has cut thousands of jobs over the past week, including positions in sales and the software and hardware divisions. IBM says the cuts are simply part of its ongoing efforts to watch costs, and the company won’t release specific numbers, even as reports of firings stream in from IBM facilities across the country.

NEW YORK TIMES — Texas Instruments said late in the day Monday that it would eliminate 3,400 jobs, or 12 percent of its work force.

Obama Orders More Fuel-Efficient Cars by 2011

USA TODAY — President Obama’s initiative Monday to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost fuel efficiency in new vehicles would cut costs for consumers and prod carmakers to more quickly roll out greener cars, some analysts say. Obama ordered the Transportation Department to boost fuel-efficiency standards for 2011 model cars. He also told the Environmental Protection Agency to re-examine whether California should be granted a waiver to become the first state to impose greenhouse gas limits on new vehicles, reversing Bush administration policy. The state wants to slash emissions in new cars and light trucks an average 30% by 2016. At least a dozen other states joined the petition. Obama didn’t order the EPA to grant the waiver, but it’s expected to. The initiative “will make us less dependent on the oil that endangers our security, our economy and our planet,” Obama said. The auto industry says it would be hard-pressed to meet tougher mandates and argues the moves could narrow car-buying options.

FDA: Peanut Processor found Salmonella, Shipped Anyway

USA TODAY — The government Tuesday accused the peanut butter manufacturer tied to a nationwide salmonella outbreak of shipping products in 2007 and 2008 after internal tests found bacterial contamination, violating food safety regulations. Peanut butter and peanut paste manufactured by the Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) has been tied to the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 501 people in 43 states and is believed to have contributed to eight deaths. The Food and Drug Administration said that its inspection of the PCA plant in Blakely, Ga., found records of 12 instances in which plant officials identified salmonella in ingredients of finished products. The products should not have been shipped, the FDA says. PCA took no steps to address cleaning after finding the salmonella, says Michael Rogers, director of the FDA’s division of field investigations.

Study: High-Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury

HEALTHDAY — Almost half of tested samples of commercial high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contained mercury, which was also found in nearly a third of 55 popular brand-name food and beverage products where high-fructose corn syrup is the first- or second-highest labeled ingredient, according to two new U.S. studies. high-fructose corn syrup has replaced sugar as the sweetener in many beverages and foods such as breads, cereals, breakfast bars, lunch meats, yogurts, soups and condiments. On average, Americans consume about 12 teaspoons per day of high-fructose corn syrup, but teens and other high consumers can take in 80% more than average. “Mercury is toxic in all its forms. Given how much high-fructose corn syrup is consumed by children, it could be a significant additional source of mercury never before considered. We are calling for immediate changes by industry and the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) to help stop this avoidable mercury contamination of the food supply,” said the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Dr. David Wallinga, a co-author of both studies.

Iceland Forced to Form New Government

Iceland President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, whose government is in the middle of a crisis, says he has asked the country’s center-left Social Democratic Alliance Party to form a new government. The announcement came one day after the island nation’sruling coalition broke apart, making it the first government to fall as a result of the world financial crisis. It may not be the last. Iceland’s case is unique because the tiny country’s entire banking system collapsed in October, decimating the value of the life savings of most residents on the island. Still, other countries in Europe are experiencing political unrest because of the global economic downturn.

Fiji Leader Told to Hold Elections, Restore Democracy; Uganda Rebels Kill 620

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (AP) — South Pacific leaders on Tuesday demanded Fiji’s military regime hold elections to restore democracy by the end of the year or face tough sanctions, including the withholding of aid money. The ultimatum aimed at Commodore Frank Bainimarama, chief of the country’s armed forces, marked a sharp escalation in the international push to force the military from power after more than two years of broken promises. It came even as Bainimarama issued a defiant challenge to his opponents, telling his troops in Fiji’s capital that it could be 10 years before he gives up power. If Bainimarama does not comply, Fiji will be suspended from all of the regional bloc’s meetings and lose out on development funding until democratic government is restored. “More than two years of rule by an unelected military government, with no clear timetable for the return of constitutional government to the people, is not acceptable by international standards,” the leaders said.

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Ugandan rebels in eastern Congo have ruthlessly killed at least 620 people in the past month, and vulnerable civilians in the region desperately need protection, human rights groups said. Human Rights Watch said many of the attacks carried out by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels appeared to have been premeditated, and victims’ skulls were crushed with wooden bats and axes. After the massacre, the rebels “ate the Christmas feast the villagers had prepared, and then slept among the dead bodies before continuing on their trail of destruction and death” through another 12 villages. The Lord’s Resistance Army has fought in northern Uganda for two decades, and rights groups have accused it of cutting off the lips of civilians and forcing thousands of children to serve as soldiers or sex slaves. The conflict has spilled into Sudan and Congo.

Ø JJ Commentary: Purported revivals in Fiji and Uganda have fizzled out. Were they even real?

Recent Sri Lanka Fighting has Killed over 300 Civilians

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — A Sri Lankan health official says recent artillery shelling and heavy fighting in the north has killed more than 300 civilians and wounded more than 1,000 others. Dr. Thurairajah Varatharajah revealed the figures in a desperate appeal to the government and aid groups for medicine and blood transfusions for those injured in the fighting. Varatharajah is the top health official in the region.

China Reports Fifth Bird Flu Death this Year

BEIJING (AP) — An 18-year-old man died from bird flu Monday in southern China, the fifth human death from the virus in the country this year, state media reported. The Health Ministry said after the earlier deaths this month that there is no evidence of a large-scale outbreak of bird flu. It said the illnesses were isolated, unrelated and did not show significant mutations of the H5N1 virus. While the disease remains hard for humans to catch, scientists have warned if outbreaks among poultry are not controlled, the virus may mutate into a form more easily passed between people, possibly triggering a pandemic that could kill millions worldwide.

Ice, Snow Wreak Broad Swath of Havoc

USA TODAY — A storm brought snow and ice from Oklahoma to Maryland on Tuesday, causing hundreds of car wrecks and leaving thousands of homes with no heat. The weight of a coat of inch-thick ice on trees caused limbs to snap and disable hundreds of utility wires in Arkansas and Oklahoma. About 150,000 customers were without power in northern Arkansas, according to the state’s Department of Emergency Management. The deaths of 19 people were blamed on the storm, the Associated Press said. Most of the deaths were from accidents. The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said about 900 accidents were reported. Arkansas State Police reported 200 accidents statewide by 7 a.m. There were dozens of accidents in Louisville, which received up to 3 inches of snow.

Signs of the Times

January 26, 2009

New Governor Puts Brakes on Napolitano’s Executive Orders

PHOENIX (AP)Just two days into the job, Gov. Jan Brewer slammed the brakes on any new rules or regulations, at least for the time being. In a memo Thursday to all the department chiefs she inherited from Janet Napolitano, Brewer said she wants a chance to review not just proposed new rules but even those that already have been through the public hearing process and are simply awaiting formal publication. That freeze, Brewer’s first official act as governor, remains in effect through the end of April. Exceptions would be allowed for a regulation that “impacts critical public peace, health and safety functions of the agency.’ And Brewer said agencies can proceed with rules designed to deal with the current $1.6 billion budget deficit.

Obama Issues Open Government Directives

DAILY COURIER — Proclaiming a “new era of openness,” President Barack Obama took several actions during his first full day in office Wednesday to spread sunshine on federal government information. Obama re-established a presumption of disclosure when it comes to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, reversing a 2001 Bush administration written policy that promised to back agencies that rejected FOIA requests for government documents. FOIA policy generally has fallen along party lines in recent decades. The Reagan administration had a directive similar to Bush’s, while the Clinton and Carter administrations followed a presumption of disclosure. The First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, whose members include the Arizona Newspapers Association and The Daily Courier, signed onto a November 2008 “Moving Toward the 21st Century Right to Know Agenda” that urged Obama to make changes to FOIA policy.

White House, GOP Spar over Speed of Stimulus

WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials vowed Sunday to spend three-quarters of the president’s $825 billion stimulus package in 18 months, responding to criticism from Republicans that the money would flow too slowly to jolt the economy. Republicans repeated their doubts about the plan Sunday. “I think there’s a lot of slow moving government spending in this program that won’t work,” House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said on NBC’s Meet the Press. Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., said on Fox News Sunday that he cannot vote for the plan as written. McCain said he objects to some of the spending provisions, and he wants guarantees that Obama eventually will address the skyrocketing federal deficit.

Billions of Dollars Later, Banks Still in Poor Health

ARIZONA REPUBLIC — More than a year after the subprime-mortgage collapse put the squeeze on credit and pushed profits off a cliff, many banks remain in crisis. Billions of dollars of federal aid haven’t restored the industry to health, and bankers are bracing for a new set of problems now that the economy is sliding further. President Barack Obama and the new Congress are set to release another $350 billion or so in Troubled Assets Relief Program funds, yet doubts persist about the program’s effectiveness and how the money should be used. Even as public frustrations mount that the government is funneling cash to the very institutions that helped escalate the recession, experts agree that the economy won’t improve until banks get their acts together and credit conditions thaw.

Freddie Mac to Ask Government for Billions More in Funds

McLEAN, VA. (AP) — Mortgage finance company Freddie Mac said Friday it will need an additional $30 billion to $35 billion in government aid as it copes with losses on loans the company backed during the U.S. housing bubble. The company disclosed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing late Friday that it expects its government regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, to make the request from the Treasury Department. It comes on top of the $13.8 billion the company received last year after it was seized by the government. Sibling company Fannie Mae has yet to request any such aid but has warned it may need to do so.

Car Dealers Try to Survive as Economy, Sales Drop

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — By almost all accounts, 2009 will be among the toughest years ever faced by the roughly 20,000 new car dealerships in the U.S., with sales of cars and lightweight trucks projected to shrink by as much as 6 million vehicles from the 16.1 million sold as recently as 2007. Sales last year were 13.2 million, down 18% from 2007, and December sales ran at an annual rate of around 10 million. Last year’s sales were the worst in 26 years. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, about 900 dealerships closed last year, largely due to the economy. Another 200 dealerships were opened, the association said.

College Financial Aid System ‘In Crisis’

CHICAGO (AP) — Finding financial aid for college this year promises to be tougher than any final exam. The quest for money that begins for students and parents every January has taken on new urgency in 2009 amid fears that loans and grants will be scarcer than in the past due to the recession. “The financing system for college is in real crisis,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. “Every one of the participants in the system is experiencing hardship — higher education institutions, states, aid donors and families all are cash-strapped.” Federal student loans remain readily available — with some funding even increased recently by Congress. But the prospect that grants and scholarships may be cut at many schools, combined with the shrinking availability of private loans, has fueled widespread angst at a time when more people than ever are seeking help. Applications for federal aid for the current academic year already are running 10% above last year’s record pace, according to the Department of Education.

Calif. Jobless Rate Surges to 9.3%, Highest Since ’94

California‘s unemployment rate has jumped to 9.3%, the highest in 15 years. The 1% increase in December is the largest one-month jump since the state began tracking it in 1976, the San Francisco Chronicle says. Employers cut 78,200 jobs, pushing the official number of unemployed Californians to 1.7 million. That figure does not count people who have stopped looking for work or who are self-employed and not eligible for unemployment insurance. It’s even worse in Los Angeles, where the rate is 9.9%, the Los Angeles Times says. According to the Employment Development Department, the state’s highest recorded unemployment rate was 11%, during the deep recession of 1982.

More Job Reductions

NEW YORK ( — Home Depot, the No. 1 home improvement retailer, announced Monday that it is shuttering its high-end EXPO business and shrinking its support staff, with both moves resulting in a reduction 7,000 jobs. Home Depot said the staff cuts impact 2% of its total workforce.

NEW YORK ( — Sprint Nextel Corp. will cut a total of about 8,000 jobs by March 31, the company said Monday. The plan is to reduce internal and external labor costs by about $1.2 billion on an annual basis. The cuts will affect all levels of the company and various geographic locations, said telecommunications company, which currently employs about 60,000 people.

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Caterpillar said it plans about 20,000 job cuts, including positions held by Caterpillar employees, contract and agency workers. The cuts will come through layoffs and buyouts. The jobs announcement came as Caterpillar, the world’s largest maker of mining and construction equipment, said Monday its fourth-quarter profit plunged 32%.

Europe Slow to Offer New Home to Gitmo Inmates

DUBLIN (AP) — Across Europe, President Barack Obama’s decision to shut the Guantanamo Bay prison has raised an awkward question: Which EU states that railed against the camp will offer new lives to released prisoners? The U.S. Defense Department says about 50 of the 245 prisoners awaiting freedom cannot go home again on security or political grounds, raising the need to find an alternative place to send them. But European Union members long critical of Guantanamo shied away Friday from any firm commitments to help.

Israel Approves Anti-Smuggling Agreement with Egypt

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met overnight Thursday and approved a series of new security agreements with Egypt intended to prevent future weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip. The arrangement consists of three levels: intelligence cooperation, the deployment of new tunnel-detection technology and obstacles in the Sinai, and enhancing Egyptian control of the border. Cairo has also requested permission to add as many as 1,500 more border police along the perimeter with Gaza, an idea Jerusalem favors. Residents along the Rafah border have reported that Egyptian authorities have already strengthened their presence by replacing some of its force of border police with troops from the army accompanied by armored personnel carriers. The move may be an effort to prevent a Hamas-led breech in the border fence, similar to those forcefully opened by Hamas in the past.

Saudi Prince says US Ties at Risk over

top Saudi prince warned on Friday that “unless the new [Obama] administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk. “If the US wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact — especially its ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia – it will have to drastically revise its policies vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine,” Turki wrote on the Financial Times website. He also urged new US President Barack Obama to condemn what he called “Israel’s atrocities” against the Palestinians, and insisted the outgoing administration of US President George W. Bush had left a “sickening legacy” in the Middle East, singling out the Iraq war.

Hamas Says it’s Back in Control of the Gaza Strip

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Bearded Hamas men on Friday delivered an envelope with five crisp $100 bills to a veiled woman whose house was damaged during Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the first of promised relief payments by the militant group. In another part of the territory, a bulldozer cleared rubble and filled in a bomb crater where a week before a top Hamas leader had been killed in an Israeli air strike. Since a truce took hold this week, ending Israel’s three-week onslaught, Gaza’s Hamas rulers have declared victory and gone out of their way to show they are in control. They have pledged $52 million of the group’s funds to help repair lives. Hamas, which is believed to be funded by donations from the Muslim world and Iran, said the emergency relief would include $1,300 for a death in the family, $650 for an injury, $5,200 for a destroyed house and $2,600 for a damaged house. More than 4,000 houses were destroyed and about 20,000 damaged, according to independent estimates.

Russia Ready to Work with USA on Afghanistan

MOSCOW (AP) — President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday that Moscow is ready to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan by allowing the United States and others to cross Russian territory with cargo intended for coalition forces in the war-wracked nation. Medvedev said that Russia also is prepared to help international efforts to combat drug-trafficking and terrorism in Afghanistan. Medvedev voiced hope that Barack Obama’s administration will do better than its predecessors in stabilizing Afghanistan. Medvedev’s comments appeared to reflect the Kremlin’s wish to mend ties with Washington, which deteriorated under the administration of George W. Bush.

Afghan Roadside Bombs hit Record in 2008

WASHINGTON — Roadside bomb attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan hit an all-time high last year, killing more troops than ever and highlighting an “emboldened” insurgency there, according to figures released by the Pentagon. Last year, 3,276 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) detonated or were detected before blowing up in Afghanistan, a 45% increase compared with 2007. The number of troops in the U.S.-led coalition killed by bombs more than doubled in 2008 from 75 to 161. The Pentagon data did not break down the casualties by nationality. Roadside bombs in Afghanistan wounded an additional 722 coalition troops last year, setting another record.

Suicide Bomb Kills 14 in Somali Capital

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — A suicide car-bomb attack near an African Union peacekeepers’ base killed 14 people in the Somali capital on Saturday, the mayor of Mogadishu said. The bombing occurred days before a planned deployment of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers to beef up the current peacekeeping contingent. Most of southern and central Somalia is held by Islamic insurgents and peacekeepers and government forces come under regular attack in the capital. Ali said one of the dead was a police officer and the others were all civilians. Fourteen others were wounded, he said. Three of the dead were women.

Obesity ‘Virus’ Spread Like Common Cold, Scientists Say

Obesity can be “caught” as easily as a common cold from other people’s coughs, sneezes and dirty hands, scientists declared Monday. The condition has been linked to a highly-infectious virus which causes sniffles and sore throats. Nikhil Dhurandhar, an associate professor at The Pennington Biomedical Research Center, in Baton Rouge, La., said the virus, known as AD-36, infects the lungs then whisks around the body, forcing fat cells to multiply and also causing sore throats. “When this virus goes to fat tissue it replicates, making more copies of itself and in the process increases the number of new fat cells, which may explain why the fat tissue expands and why people get fat when they are infected with this virus,” Dhurandhar said.

Historic Drought Grips Argentina

STROEDER, Argentina — Skeletons of livestock are piling up in the scorching sun of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer as the worst drought in a generation turns much of Argentina’s breadbasket into a dust bowl. The nation’s farm sector stands to lose $5 billion this year alone — a huge blow to the economy of Argentina, a top world exporter of soy, corn, wheat and beef — as well as to the government of President Cristina Fernandez, which faces billions of dollars in debt payments this year. Wheat fields that once supplied flour for pasta-loving Argentines now resemble deserts, and spiny thistles are all that survive on cattle ranches in southern Buenos Aires province. Nationally, there hasn’t been this little rain in Argentina since 1971, according to the National Weather Service. Uruguay has also declared a farming emergency.

Dry, Windy Conditions in Texas keep Fires Burning

HOUSTON (AP) — High wind and dry weather Saturday allowed wildfires to continue burning across Texas, where fires have destroyed six houses, killed a man and blackened about 6,200 acres of grassland. The low humidity and extremely high wind created hazardous conditions in south-central Texas and the Hill Country. “We’re critically dry across the state,” Nick Harrison, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service said. Crews worked Saturday to contain a 1,700-acre fire in Jack County. A blaze that charred 1,000 acres in Montague County just south of the Oklahoma-Texas state line was “in cleanup stages” Saturday. Two other fires Friday charred more than 3,500 acres of grass in West Texas, burning homes, five hunting cabins, 22 outbuildings and 10 vehicles. A 2,500-acre fire that destroyed six homes in Jones County.

Signs of the Times

January 23, 2009

‘Widow’s Might’ Wins $101K Prize at Christian Film Fest

The 2009 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival just keeps getting bigger. This year’s festival welcomed more than 2,400 attendees, a record 250 entries, and giant first prize: $101,000 to go with the “Best of Festival” award. This Jubilee award is the largest single cash prize in America to a single filmmaker, signaling the Festival’s intentions to propagate future Christian films. The winning film “The Widow’s Might,” the story of a community coming to the rescue of a widow about to lose her home, was written and directed by 19-year-old John Moore. The Christian marriage film “Fireproof,” which made the highest grossing independent film in 2008, won the “Best Feature Film” category. “Our goal with the Jubilee Awards is to reward the work of Christian filmmakers who have artfully communicated a Christian worldview through their film production,” explained Doug Phillips, founder of the SAICFF.

Peanut-Butter Recall Grows as Arizonans get Sick

The scope of a nationwide salmonella investigation mushroomed Tuesday as manufacturers recalled dozens of snack products popular with children and young adults. More than 470 people in 43 states, including 10 here in Arizona, have fallen ill in recent months. The Food and Drug Administration believes they all consumed peanut butter or peanut-based products that were made at a Georgia plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America. Six of those who fell ill in Arizona were under the age of 20, the state Department of Health Services said. Health officials are asking residents to avoid all snacks that contain peanut butter and to throw out any recalled products. So far, that includes Famous Amos Peanut Butter Cookies, Private Selection Peanut Butter Passion Ice Cream, sold at Fry’s Food Stores; several varieties of Keebler peanut butter sandwich crackers and a host of nutritional bars manufactured by Clif Bar and Co. Safeway Inc. also is pulling some fruit and vegetable snacks with peanut butter, and PetSmart has recalled one of its brands of dog biscuits. Federal health officials say the salmonella recall now involves about 31 million pounds of peanut butter and peanut paste.

Huge Natural Gas Find off Israel Coast

WORLDNETDAILY — A huge deep-water natural gas find off the coast of Israel promises to be a boon to the Jewish state’s economy as well as a stimulus to other developers searching for offshore oil and natural gas in the Mediterranean. The find is significant for those who believe the Bible indicates Israel is sitting on a massive oil reserve that would reshape the geopolitical structure of the Middle East. The find also lends support to the abiotic theory of the origin of oil that holds oil is created naturally within the mantle of the earth, not by biological origins.

Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Passes House Committee

CENTER FOR ARIZONA POLICY — Wednesday, the House Health and Human Services Committee voted 6-0 to pass HB 2400 to ban partial-birth abortion. Never medically necessary, partial-birth abortion is the brutal and gruesome procedure where everything except the head of an unborn baby is delivered and then the baby’s brain is vacuumed out. This horrific procedure blurs the line between abortion and killing a newborn infant. The proposed state law tracks the federal law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state law is necessary to enable the ban’s enforcement and to make certain partial-birth abortions are not available in Arizona.

Abortion Foes Find New Climate in Washington

WASHINGTON — Thousands of abortion opponents marched here on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade Thursday, but for the first time in 14 years, they found themselves out of step with both the president and the party controlling Congress. On the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Democrats control the White House and Congress for the first time since 1995. That has given hope to abortion-rights activists that restrictions enacted by President Bush and his Republican allies will be reversed. President Obama on Friday is expected to lift a ban on federal funding for international groups that promote or perform abortions, reversing a policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Planned Parenthood: Force Doctors to Do Abortions

WORLDNETDAILY — Experts for the Alliance Defense Fund and Christian Legal Society are gearing up to defend three laws that allow medical professionals to follow their conscience and not participate in abortions. “Medical professionals should not be forced to perform abortions against their conscience,” said Casey Mattox,  litigation counsel with the CLS’s Center for Law & Religious Freedom. “Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and their pro-abortion allies are seeking to punish pro-life medical professionals for their beliefs,” Mattox said. “Far from arguing for ‘choice,’ these lawsuits seek to compel health care workers to perform abortions or face dire consequences.” The public-interest legal groups have filed motions to intervene in three separate lawsuits that seek to invalidate a federal law protecting medical professionals from discrimination because they refuse to participate in abortions.

U.S. OKs First Stem Cell Study for Spinal Injury

NEW YORK — A U.S. biotech company says it plans to start this summer the world’s first study of a treatment based on human embryonic stem cells — a long-awaited project aimed at spinal cord injury. The company gained federal permission this week to inject eight to 10 patients with cells derived from embryonic cells. The patients will be paraplegics, who can use their arms but can’t walk. They will receive a single injection within two weeks of their injury. The study is aimed at testing the safety of the procedure, but doctors will also look for signs of improvement like return of sensation or movement in the legs. Whatever its outcome, the study will mark a new chapter in the contentious history of embryonic stem cell research in the United States — a field where debate spilled out of the laboratory long ago and into national politics.

Ø JJ Commentary: The Obama administration has wasted little time in enacting their liberal agenda.

Evolution Debate Unfolds before Texas Education Board

AUSTIN, Texas — Experts and activists concerned about the way evolution is taught in Texas’ public schools made their case before the state’s board of education. Dozens of people, including a six-member expert review panel, lined up to testify as the board considers new science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next decade. The standards adopted also will dictate how publishers handle the topic in textbooks. The crowd — as well as the review panel — was sharply split on the proposal to drop language in the current curriculum that requires teachers to address “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theory. Critics say the use of the word “weaknesses” has been used to undermine Darwin’s theory of evolution and promote creationism — or intelligent design. Critics of dropping the “weaknesses” mandate blame “left-wing ideology,” for trying to stifle free speech.

Feds to ‘Rethink’ License Mandate

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday afternoon that she will “rethink” a program that requires every state to issue more secure driver’s licenses by the end of the year. The new licenses, required under a 2005 federal law, aim to prevent criminals and potential terrorists from getting fake IDs. But the licenses have been opposed by many governors, who cite the cost. Added opposition comes from the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the cards are, in effect, a national ID card. “It really has taken the form of a huge unfunded mandate on states which are struggling with huge cuts right now,” Napolitano said Thursday. Napolitano, the governor of Arizona until Tuesday, noted that she had signed a bill in June barring the state from complying with the license law.

Jobless Claims Match 26-year High; Housing Starts Sink

The Labor Department reports new jobless claims rising more than expected to 589,000, matching 26-year high. First time applications for state unemployment insurance benefits rose to a seasonally adjusted 589,000 the week ended Jan. 17 from a revised 527,000 the prior week. The Commerce Department says new-home construction plunged to an all-time low in December, capping the worst year for builders on records dating back to 1959, the Associated Press reports. The housing report said starts fell 15.5% in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 550,000 units, lowest on record, New building permits, which give a sense of future home construction, dropped 10.7% to a rate of 549,000 units, also an historic low.

Gasoline prices rise for third straight week

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Gasoline prices increased for the third week in a row, jumping another 6.3 cents per gallon due to higher crude oil costs, the government said Wednesday. The national price for regular unleaded gasoline averaged $1.85 a gallon, the highest since Nov. 24, but down $1.17 from a year ago, the federal Energy Information Administration said in its weekly survey of service stations.

Companies Slash Jobs

Microsoft it will slash 5,000 jobs over the next 18 months as it reported an 11% drop in second-quarter profit. The software giant said Thursday the moves were driven by deteriorating global economic conditions and lower client revenue, resulting from weakness in the PC market and a shift to lower-priced notebook models.

Industrial parts and systems maker Eaton, based in Cleveland, said it is cutting an additional 5,200 jobs because of a drop in demand for its products amid the global economic downturn. Wireless equipment maker LM Ericsson said it would cut 5,000 jobs. Mining giant BHP Billiton announced plans to slash 6,000 jobs, or about 6% of its global workforce.

Intel said Wednesday it is consolidating its manufacturing operations as a part of a restructuring bid that will affect thousands of jobs from the U.S to the Philippines. Between 5,000 and 6,000 employees will be affected, though some may be offered posts at other facilities, the company said. The world’s largest chipmaker is closing two assembly test facilities in Penang, Malaysia and one in Cavite, Philippines and will halt production at a plant in Hillsboro, Ore. It will also end wafer production at a facility in Santa Clara, Calif. All five are older factories, the company said.

Harley-Davidson said Friday it will cut 1,100 jobs over two years, close some operations and consolidate others as it grapples with a slowdown in motorcycle sales. The company also reported its fourth-quarter profit fell nearly 60%, and said it is slashing motorcycle shipments in 2009 to cope with reduced demand.

What do Tropicana Casino and Resort, Avis and the White House have in common? They’re all freezing the pay of some of their workers. It’s part of a growing trend by employers facing the fallout — economic and political — from a brutal recession. In some cases, employers are imposing pay freezes or cuts to avoid immediate layoffs. President Barack Obama, ordered a pay freeze for White House employees earning over $100,000 a year.

U.N. Humanitarian Chief: Gaza Devastation ‘Shocking’

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The U.N.’s humanitarian chief Thursday launched a first-hand examination of the devastation wrought by Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip so that the organization can begin providing desperately needed relief to the territory’s 1.4 million people. U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes called the steep Palestinian casualty toll “extremely shocking” and suggested the United Nations might ask Israel to compensate it for wartime damage to U.N. compounds in Gaza. Hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid were destroyed by an Israeli shelling of the main U.N. compound.

U.S. Missile Strike Kills 10 in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Missiles fired from a suspected U.S. spy plane killed ten people Friday in Pakistan just east of the Afghan border, a lawless region where al-Qaeda militants are known to hide out, security officials said. At least five of the dead were identified as foreign militants, an intelligence officer said. The strike was the first on Pakistani territory since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, but the latest in a barrage of more than 30 since the middle of last year. Pakistan’s pro-U.S. leaders had expressed hope Obama would halt the attacks, which have reportedly killed several top al-Qaeda operatives but triggered anger at the government by nationalist and Muslim critics.

Ex-Gitmo Detainee now al-Qaeda’s No. 2 in Yemen

CAIRO (AP) — A Saudi man who was released from Guantanamo after spending six years inside the U.S. prison camp has joined al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and is now the terror group’s No. 2 in the country, according to a purported Internet statement from al-Qaeda. The announcement, made this week on a website commonly used by militants, came as President Barack Obama ordered the detention facility closed within a year. The Yemen branch — known as “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” — said the man, identified as Said Ali al-Shihri, returned to his home in Saudi Arabia after his release from Guantanamo about a year ago and from there went to Yemen. The Internet statement, which could not immediately be verified, said al-Shihri was the group’s second-in-command in Yemen and his prisoner number at Guantanamo was 372.

Mexico Fires up $550 Million Wind Farm

LA VENTOSA, Mexico — Mexico inaugurated one of the world’s largest wind farm projects Thursday as the nation looks for alternative energy, in part to compensate for falling oil production. Mexico is trying to exploit its rich wind and solar potential after relying almost exclusively on petroleum for decades. The new, $550 million project is in a region so breezy that the main town is named La Ventosa, or “Windy.” It’s on the narrow isthmus between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, where winds blow at 15 mph to 22 mph, a near-ideal rate for turbines. Gusts have been known to topple tractor trailers. It will produce enough energy to power a city of 500,000 people, while reducing carbon monoxide emissions by 600,000 metric tons each year.

Tree Deaths Soar in Western U.S.

USA TODAY — Tree deaths, spurred by global warming, have more than doubled in older forests across Western states, federal scientists reported Thursday. Droughts and pests brought on by warmer temperatures have killed firs, hemlocks, pines and other large trees in particular over the past 30 years without allowing replacements to sprout, the study published in the journal Science finds. “Very likely the mortality rate will continue to rise,” says lead author Phillip van Mantgem of the U.S. Geologic Survey. In the American West, temperature increases have led to longer summers, drought and the survival of tree-killing beetles at higher elevations. These beetles are widespread in outbreaks reaching to Alaska. A research team analyzed unmanaged, old-growth forest records at 76 sites across Western states from 1955 to 2006. Tree death rates increased at 87% of the sites. Pacific Northwest forests were particularly hard-hit, with death rates doubling in the past 17 years

Florida’s freeze chills crops, tropical fish

USA TODAY — Several days of the coldest temperatures South Florida has seen in years are threatening to ruin orange groves, cucumber fields and tropical fish ponds across the state. “This is peak harvest season for many Florida crops, so damage at this time could have significant consequences stretching far outside Florida’s borders,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said. Freezing temperatures hit South Florida on Wednesday night for the first time since January 2003, said Amy Godsey, deputy state meteorologist. Interior areas such as Lake Okeechobee saw temperatures as low as 23. Florida supplies 70% of domestically grown fruits and vegetables during the winter months, and many of them are still in the field, including oranges, strawberries, blueberries and tomatoes.

2008 was Globe’s Coolest Year of the Decade

Climate reports from two separate government agencies found that 2008 was the Earth’s coolest year this decade. At the same time, data from both agencies (NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center) identified 2008 as one of the 10 warmest years on record globally.

Ø JJ Commentary: Keep in mind that records only go back to 1880. That’s not much data to make conclusions about earth’s temperature cycles over thousands of years.

Signs of the Times

January 21, 2009

Judge Rejects Atheist Challenge to Inaugural Prayer

Religion News Service reports that a U.S. District judge on Thursday (Jan. 15) denied a California atheist’s request to halt references to God at President-elect Obama’s swearing-in on Jan. 20. “I think it’s highly questionable that I have such authority,” said Judge Reggie B. Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after a two-hour hearing Thursday afternoon (Jan. 15). Walton did not dismiss the case, but denied Michael Newdow’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying the “ceremonial speech” at the presidential inauguration is “in substance” no different from legislative prayers that the Supreme Court has permitted. Newdow, an emergency room physician, made his third attempt to have religious references at presidential inaugurations declared unconstitutional.

Pastor Rick Warren’s Invocation uses Jewish, Christian Mix

Controversial evangelical pastor Rick Warren opened Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony Tuesday by touching on the two greatest prayers in Judaism and Christianity and asking God to grace the nation with clarity, responsibility and civility, “even when we differ.” Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., has been excoriated for weeks by gay rights activists outraged that a leading opponent of gay marriage had been offered a national podium by Obama. Warren’s invocation began with a fundamental Jewish prayer that declares the “Lord is one.” He also alluded to a description of God as the “compassionate and merciful” one that opens almost every chapter of the Quran. Warren concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. Jim Naughton of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington who supports gay clergy, called Warren’s speech “as inclusive as his conscience would allow him to be.” (see attached for the full text of Warren’s prayer).

Civil rights icon Joseph Lowery, who supports gay marriage,gave the benediction. Lowery’s benediction began: “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears” from Lift Every Voice and Sing, a poem by James Weldon Johnson. He asked God to help Americans make “choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.” Obama smiled as Lowery asked God to “help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.” Lowery concluded, “Let all who do justice and love mercy say amen.”

On a morning of countless firsts in U.S. history, add this: Barack Obama’s inaugural speech is the first time a president has ever explicitly acknowledged not only “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus” but non-believers as well.

Ø JJ Commentary: Loving everybody, including our enemies, is the hallmark of Christianity. However, that does not mean we also love and tolerate violations of God’s absolute laws.

Evangelicals, Progressives Announce Common Agenda

Religion News Service reports that an evangelical-progressive coalition has developed an agenda aimed at moving beyond past divisions on hot-button social issues to seek policy changes on abortion, torture and other issues. After two years of discussion, they have concluded that their “Come Let Us Reason Together” agenda will include reducing abortion, protecting employment rights of gays and lesbians, renouncing torture and immigration reform. “Though I focus on the ideal for marriage as between one man and one woman, … I also believe that each American citizen has the right to earn a living without discrimination,” said Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter. Evangelical leaders who do not condone gay marriage said they could nonetheless support greater workplace protections for gays and lesbians, provided there is an exemption for faith-based employers.

Ø JJ Commentary: Attempts to forge “common agendas” between disparate ideologies lead to compromises that undermine the absolute authority of God’s laws

Inauguration Emotions Rung High in USA

USA TODAY Across the country, people gathered in schools, arenas, bars, workplaces and homes to witness the historic day. Emotions spilled over as they wept, cheered and prayed. In many parts of the USA far from the White House, people were ecstatic and looking forward to Obama’s promise of change. In public housing projects, the auto towns of the Midwest, the Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods of the Gulf Coast and in schools, where for a day students watched history instead of reading about it, the nation celebrated. At the inauguration ceremony, a serene-looking Obama greeted well-wishers on the podium as a thunderous roar went up from what appeared to be more than 1 million flag-waving onlookers who jammed the National Mall all the way to the Washington Monument, about a mile away. People were stacked 12 deep on sidewalks along the parade route, holding children on their shoulders, snapping pictures and waving Obama posters. The day had the feeling of a giant state fair. There were vendors hawking Obama sweatshirts, hats and pins. Buildings were decked out in red, white and blue.

Ø JJ Commentary: Obama-mania’s positive vibes are uplifting, especially for multicultural citizens. Today, however, reality begins to set in. Traditionally, a 100-day “honeymoon” period exempts new Presidents from harsh criticism. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the euphoria to dissipate as his policies lead us deeper and deeper into socialism – a path unfortunately greased by our outgoing President.

Change of Power Celebrated Across Globe

USA TODAY Across the world, millions of people embraced the new president as one of their own Tuesday because of his multicultural heritage and promises of change. There was also apprehension as people wondered how Obama would deal with the slumping world economy, Iraq and conflicts such as the one in Israel and Gaza. The inauguration also marked a turnover of the U.S. diplomatic corps, as dozens of Bush administration ambassadors left their offices for the last time. “That magic moment of democratic transition means change for us all,” Antonio Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said in a farewell letter on Tuesday.

Muslims’ Hopes for Obama Dampened by Gaza

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An Arabic middle name and a compelling biography will go only so far. If President-elect Barack Hussein Obama really wants to improve America’s standing in the Muslim world, he’ll need to do more to win over skeptics. Many Muslims doubt that Obama will rethink the United States’ support for Israel. Israel’s three-week war against Palestinian militants in Gaza stopped Sunday with a cease-fire, but the rage it generated among many Muslims threatens to overshadow any optimism they feel about Obama’s inauguration. A harder line against Israel “is the immediate demand of the Muslim people.” Last month, Obama told the Chicago Tribune that he hoped to “reboot” U.S.-Muslim relations. Tensions have risen over the Bush administration’s invasions of Muslim countries Afghanistan and Iraq, by its hard line toward Iran and by its support for Israel. As part of his outreach to Muslims, Obama plans a major speech in an unspecified Islamic capital. And he has pledged to begin pulling troops from Iraq.

Chinese Websites Censor Parts of Obama Speech

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese translations of President Obama’s inauguration speech posted Wednesday on popular online portals were missing his references to communism and dissent. The comments by the newly installed U.S. president veered into potentially sensitive territory for China’s ruling Communist Party, which maintains a tight grip over the Internet and the entirely state-run media. At one point, Obama said earlier generations “faced down communism and fascism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.” He later addressed “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent — know that you are on the wrong side of history.”

Israeli Military: All Soldiers Withdrawn from Gaza

JERUSALEM (AP) — The last Israeli troops left the Gaza Strip before dawn Wednesday, the military said, as Israel dispatched its foreign minister to Europe in a bid to rally international support for an end to arms smuggling into the Hamas-ruled territory. The timing of the pullout reflected Israeli hopes to defuse the crisis in Gaza before President Barack Obama entered the White House. The military said troops remain massed on the Israeli side of the border and are poised to take action if militants violate a fragile three-day cease-fire. The troops’ exit marked the end of an Israeli offensive that ravaged Gaza and left some 1,300 Palestinians dead, according to Gaza health officials. The officials say at least half of the dead are civilians. The Israeli military says 500 Palestinian militants were killed in the fighting. Gaza’s militant groups claim only some 150 of the dead were armed fighters. Israel launched the offensive to permanently halt years of militant rocket fire on growing numbers of Israelis and to halt the smuggling of arms that turned Hamas into a potent threat to much of southern Israel.

Hamas Deems Gaza Fighting a Victory

JERUSALEM (AP) — The U.N. chief toured Gaza on Tuesday to inspect the devastation wrought by Israel’s onslaught — including the smoldering U.N. headquarters — as the territory’s militant Hamas rulers, triumphant at having survived, held victory rallies amid the ruins. Thousands of Hamas supporters thronged a square outside the remains of the parliament building in Gaza City, which was heavily damaged in an Israeli airstrike at the outset of the war. Two men hoisted a sign in carefully scripted Hebrew reading, “The resistance will be victorious, Israel has been defeated.” Israel and Hamas both ceased fire on Sunday, after an offensive that claimed the lives of some 1,300 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, and 13 Israelis. The last of Israel’s ground troops were expected to pull out of Gaza on Tuesday if the quiet holds, defense officials said.

Plans to Close Gitmo Anger 9/11 Victims’ Families

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — Plans to close Guantanamo are not sitting well with the Sept. 11 victims’ relatives who sat stunned while two alleged terrorists declared they were proud of their role in the plot. The U.S. military brought relatives of three Sept. 11 victims to Guantanamo to observe pretrial hearings in the case of five men charged in the plot who could get the death penalty if convicted. It is a potentially momentous time for the military detention center. Military judges will consider Wednesday whether to halt the Guantanamo war crimes trials after President Barack Obama ordered prosecutors to request a 120-day suspension during a review of the system used to try suspected terrorists. The motions, filed just hours after Obama’s inauguration, will be heard in the cases of five men charged in the Sept. 11 attacks and of Canadian Omar Khadr, who is accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan in 2002.

Ramos and Compean are Going Home

After tens of thousands of phone calls and e-mails, after the combined efforts of columnists such as myself and radio and television talk show hosts such as Lou Dobbs, and even after persistent appeals by congressmen such as Dana Rohrabacher, former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean finally received a commutation of their 10-plus year prison sentences from outgoing President George W. Bush and will soon be going home. It’s about time!

Arizona Primes for New Governor

PHOENIX (AP) — Former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s appointment to head the Homeland Security Department leaves Arizona’s top office in new hands — and the state likely on a very different path. Napolitano, a Democrat, leaves her state post halfway through her second four-year term. Her elevation means Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer now seizes the governor’s office. The change comes at a time when the Republican-leaning state faces a budget crisis and will likely mark a major change in how Arizona tackles it. The swap of Brewer for Napolitano also will put a social conservative — and abortion foe — in the governor’s office. Napolitano set legislative records for vetoes by an Arizona governor by killing bills passed by the Legislature on topics ranging from abortion and private school vouchers to border security and eminent domain. Such legislation can now be resurrected without fears of an automatic veto..

Airline Losses Widen

American Airlines parent AMR says it lost $340 million in the fourth quarter as fewer people flew than a year ago. CEO Gerard Arpey says the loss reflects problems facing all airlines. He says moves like cutting capacity have put American in better shape to deal with high fuel prices and a weak economy. United Airlines parent UAL on Wednesday said it lost $1.3 billion in the fourth quarter because of operating losses and fuel-price bets that turned sour as oil prices fell. The Chicago-based carrier also said it would lay off another 1,000 salaried and management staff by the end of this year, in addition to the 1,500 it had already announced. United began 2007 with some 9,000 people in those positions.

More Americans Joining Military as Jobs Dwindle

NEW YORK TIMES: As the number of jobs across the nation dwindles, more Americans are joining the military, lured by a steady paycheck, benefits and training. The last fiscal year was a banner one for the military, with all active-duty and reserve forces meeting or exceeding their recruitment goals for the first time since 2004, the year that violence in Iraq intensified drastically, Pentagon officials said. And the trend seems to be accelerating. The Army exceeded its targets each month for October, November and December — the first quarter of the new fiscal year — bringing in 21,443 new soldiers on active duty and in the reserves. Of the four armed services, the Army has faced the toughest recruiting challenge in recent years because of high casualty rates in Iraq and long deployments overseas.

Russia Restarts Gas Supplies to Europe via Ukraine

PISAREVKA, Russia (AP) — Russian natural gas began flowing into Europe on Tuesday after a nearly two-week cutoff that left large parts of the continent shivering and underscored its vulnerability and dependence on Russia’s energy. But a higher price Ukraine now has to pay for the Russian gas will further cripple an economy badly hurt by the financial crisis and could set the stage for another gas dispute with Russia. The office of Ukraine’s president has already criticized the deal, saying it hurt the nation’s interests. Europe gets about a fifth of its natural gas from Russia.

India Test Fires Missile in Province near Pakistan

NEW DELHI (AP) — India tested its nuclear-capable Brahmos supersonic cruise missile Tuesday in a province bordering Pakistan, despite already tense relations with Islamabad following the Mumbai terror attacks, a news report said. India’s Defense Minister A.K. Antony said the test was pre-planned and not directed at any country, the Press Trust of India news agency reported The test comes amid increased tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors, who have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. India says Pakistan-based militants plotted and executed the Nov. 26 Mumbai attacks that killed 164 people and has repeatedly insinuated that Pakistani intelligence agents were involved.

Signs of the Times

January 19, 2009

Atheist’s Protest Silences Lord’s Prayer in N.J. Town Council

NEWTON, N.J. — For nearly 60 years, the town council here started its meetings by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Council members felt the passage gave them guidance and inspiration. That tradition ended recently after the council’s attorney advised members they should heed a request by a resident, an avowed atheist, to stop the practice. Doug Radigan told the council at its Dec. 22 meeting the prayer was too Christian and was offensive to him. He asked for a secular replacement. Council members said they were saddened — but not really surprised — they had to end a tradition begun in 1952. “It’s not a surprise, but I’m disappointed that we had to cave into this or we would’ve been open to a lawsuit,” said longtime Councilwoman Thea Unhoch. “You can’t even say ‘Merry Christmas’ anymore.”

Ø JJ Commentary: End-time persecution of all things Christian is well underway.

Jakes, Caldwell, Wuerl Join Inaugural Services

NEW YORK (AP) — Bishop T.D. Jakes, the Dallas megachurch pastor, will preach at the private church service that President-elect Barack Obama will attend the morning of his inaugural,. The next day, an interfaith National Prayer Service will be held in the National Cathedral to cap the inauguration, featuring Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu clergy, along with pastors from mainline Protestant, evangelical and Orthodox Christian traditions. Jakes will give the sermon Tuesday at St. John’s Episcopal Church, dubbed the “Church of the Presidents,” sits across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Roman Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington will deliver a prayer for the nation. The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a United Methodist from Houston, will be among those leading responsive prayers. Caldwell is close to President George W. Bush, participated in his inaugurals and officiated at the wedding of Bush’s daughter, Jenna, to Henry Hager last May. However, the pastor backed Obama in 2008.

A Muslim scholar chosen to speak at President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural prayer service Wednesday is the leader of a group that federal prosecutors say has ties to terrorists. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, is one of many religious leaders scheduled to speak at the prayer service at Washington’s National Cathedral. Mattson has been the guest of honor at State Department dinners and has met with senior Pentagon officials during the Bush administration. She also spoke at a prayer service at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Mattson, who was elected president of the society in 2006, is a professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. But in 2007 and as recently as last July, federal prosecutors in Dallas filed court documents linking the Plainfield, Indiana-based Islamic society to the group Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Prosecutors wrote in July that they had “a wide array of testimonial and documentary evidence expressly linking” the group to Hamas and other radical groups.

Ø JJ Commentary: Tolerance and inclusiveness mean that everyone and every ideology must be accepted. Such is the slippery slope of relativism.

Israel, Palestinians Agree to One-Week Cease-Fire

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza agreed Sunday to a week-long cease-fire with Israel, after three weeks of violence that Palestinian medics say has killed more than 1,000 people and turned Gaza’s streets into battlegrounds. Sunday’s announcement came about 12 hours after Israel declared its own unilateral cease-fire. Hamas’ Syrian-based deputy leader, speaking for the militant Palestinian factions, said on Syrian television that the cease-fire will give Israel time to withdraw and open all the border crossings to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. An Israeli security chief told Cabinet ministers the military operation “is not over” and that the next few days would be critical to determining whether it would be relaunched. The military said no one was injured by more than a dozen militant rockets that struck southern Israel ahead of the announcement from deputy Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk on Syrian television. The United States and Israel have agreed to a plan that would provide U.S. support for monitoring the border with Egypt, in the hopes it will provide Israel assurances Hamas will not rearm.

Israel plans to pull all of its troops out of the Gaza Strip by the time President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated Tuesday, but only if Hamas militants hold their fire, Israeli officials said. “We didn’t set out to conquer Gaza. We didn’t set out to control Gaza. We don’t want to remain in Gaza and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. The cease-fire in Gaza could present new opportunities for achieving a broader peace in the Middle East, analysts said Sunday, despite concern over unresolved issues such as how to seal the smuggling tunnels Hamas militants use to arm themselves. It is a fragile peace. Although Israeli troops began pulling out of Gaza on Sunday, the Israeli government still warns it will respond forcefully if Hamas resumes firing rockets into Israel. Gaza residents slowly emerged from their homes Sunday to confront overflowing rubble, collapsed roofs and the task of returning to what passes as normal life.

S. Korea on Alert after North’s Military Threat

SEOUL (AP) — South Korea said its army remained on alert Sunday, a day after North Korea threatened military action in response to Seoul’s hard-line stance against its communist regime. The latest harsh rhetoric from the isolated regime appeared aimed at heightening tensions on the divided peninsula and could be a test for Barack Obama days before he is sworn in as the new U.S. president. The North’s Korean People’s Army called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak a “traitor” and accused him of preparing a military provocation, according to a statement carried Saturday by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. Pyongyang said it was adopting “an all-out confrontational posture” and warned of a “strong military retaliatory step.” South Korea immediately put its forces on alert.

Russia, Ukraine Reach Gas Deal

MOSCOW (AP) — The prime ministers of Russia and Ukraine announced a deal early Sunday to settle the gas dispute that has drastically reduced supplies of Russian gas to Europe for nearly two weeks. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Ukraine will pay 20% less than the European price for the gas this year. This means a substantial increase for Ukraine in the first quarter but the price could fall significantly later in the year as gas prices are expected to drop. Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said natural gas supplies would resume once the two countries’ gas companies sign a contract. It was not clear how soon this would happen. Russia’s Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz, both state controlled, were told to prepare the documents. The 27-nation European Union normally receives about one-fifth of its gas supplies through Ukraine. Nations in eastern Europe that rely on Russia have been left with virtually no new supplies.

Rights Group: Uganda Rebels Killed 620 in Congo

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Ugandan rebels in eastern Congo have ruthlessly killed at least 620 people in the past month, and vulnerable civilians in the region desperately need protection, human rights groups said. Human Rights Watch said many of the attacks carried out by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels appeared to have been premeditated. Researchers from the New York-based organization gathered testimony and evidence on a two-week mission to the region with staff from the Congolese rights group Justice Plus. The Lord’s Resistance Army has fought in northern Uganda for two decades, and rights groups have accused it of cutting off the lips of civilians and forcing thousands of children to serve as soldiers or sex slaves. The conflict has spilled into Sudan and Congo. The latest attacks were apparently stirred up when Uganda’s army, backed by Congolese and Sudanese soldiers, launched an operation Dec. 14 aimed at routing the rebels from Congo.

Taliban Threats Close Pakistan Schools

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — In a dark echo of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, violent religious extremists in Pakistan are moving to restrict girls’ education as they seek to impose a draconian version of Islamic law on a beleaguered population. In a northern valley where Taliban guerrillas have been waging a bloody war against security forces for more than a year, hard-liners have blown up or burned down some 170 schools, most of them for girls. Then in December, a warning by militants in a pirate radio broadcast: All schools for girls should close by Jan. 15. This week, an association representing 400 private schools for boys and girls in the Swat valley said they would all remain closed after the winter break because of the threat.

Interior Issues Offshore Drilling Plan

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Interior Department on Friday issued a detailed proposal for widespread oil and gas drilling off both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts in areas that have not had energy exploration for decades. The proposal, issued in the Bush administration’s final days, calls for oil and gas leases to be made available within two to six years “in areas of hydrocarbon potential” from New England to Florida and off the length of California. Until recently these regions of the Outer Continental Shelf have been declared off limits to drilling by Congress and by presidential executive order. It will be up to President-elect Barack Obama whether to proceed with Interior’s revised five-year leasing plan that would cover the years 2010 to 2015. He could scale it back or scrap it altogether. Interior officials said they wanted to give the next administration maximum flexibility to expand offshore drilling.

It’s Been a Tough Week for Newspapers

The Tucson Citizen is up for sale and will close by March 21 if no “viable” buyer emerges, Gannett Co. Inc. has announced. The afternoon paper — Arizona’s oldest continuously published newspaper — is being sold because of “dramatic changes in our industry and the difficult economy,” Robert J. Dickey, president of Gannett’s U.S. Community Publishing division, told employees. The Minneapolis Star Tribune filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because of declining revenues. Last Friday, the Hearst company put the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the block and said it would halt printing in 60 days if it cannot be sold.

Layoffs Mount at Hertz, AMD, Pfizer; Circuit City Liquidates

Layoff announcements mounted Friday as thousands of job cuts at Hertz, AMD, Wellpoint and Pfizer came on the heels of news that Circuit City Stores will liquidate the company, laying off 30,000 U.S. employees. Circuit City said it reached an agreement with liquidators to sell the merchandise in its 567 U.S. stores after failing to find a buyer or refinancing. The nation’s second-biggest consumer electronics retailer says it will begin close-out sales Saturday.

Hertz already has trimmed its work force by 22% in the last two years. The new reductions will bring staffing to 32% below August 2006 levels. According to CapitalIQ, the company currently has about 29,350 workers in total, who operate about 8,100 locations in 144 countries.

Advanced Micro Devices said it plans to cut 1,100 jobs, 9% of its global staff, and slash the remaining employees’ pay as the chipmaker hopes its third round of layoffs in a year can help it get through a brutal market for computer sales.

Health insurer WellPoint said Friday that it will cut about 1,500 jobs. The company, based in Indianapolis, will eliminate about 3.5% of its staff, which currently totals more than 42,000. The cuts include 900 unfilled positions and 600 employees.

Published reports said drug giant Pfizer plans to lay off nearly a third of its 8,000 salespeople. Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal say Pfizer will cut as many as 2,400 sales representatives. Pfizer, the world’s No. 1 drugmaker by revenue, declined to comment on the reports, which come the same week as it confirmed it is cutting the jobs of up to 800 scientists and other research staff.

Britain Tries another Bank Rescue: Insuring Bad Assets

LONDON — Britain announced a second rescue plan for the country’s ailing banks Monday, hoping to thaw lending by offering to insure banks against large losses on bad assets they hold. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the government will offer to insure banks against default on toxic loans in exchange for legally binding commitments to make credit more available to British businesses and home buyers who are struggling in an economic downturn.

Royal Bank of Scotland said Monday that its losses for the full-year could be as much as 28 billion pounds ($41.3 billion), which would be the biggest loss ever by a U.K. corporation. The largest full-year loss previously reported by a U.K. corporation was 15 billion pounds by Vodafone in 2006.

Caribbean Islands Slammed

The Caribbean is facing its worst tourism downturn since the Sept. 11 attacks, due to a double blow from the world economic crisis and sweeping airline cutbacks, especially by the region’s dominant carrier, American Airlines. While some islands have other industries, such as banking or oil refineries to pick up the slack, the Caribbean relies on tourism more than any other region in the world — with two-thirds of visitors coming from the USA. Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, the Bahamas’ tourism minister, says this downturn differs from the one that followed the Sept. 11 terror attacks. “This is much deeper,” he says. “All sectors, all price levels are affected.”

FDA: ‘Postpone’ Eating Foods Containing Peanut Butter

USA TODAY — The Food and Drug Administration says Americans should “postpone” eating cookies, crackers, candy and ice cream that contain peanut butter or peanut paste while the agency works to establish which products are tainted with the strain of salmonella typhimurium which has sickened 474 people nationwide and is implicated in six deaths. “Product specific information will become available in the next few days,” says Stephen Sundlof, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. While snack products are potentially contaminated, supermarket peanut butter is not. It appears that the only peanut butter linked to the outbreak was an institutional brand sold in 5 to 50 pounds tubs to schools, hospitals and nursing homes under the King Nut and Parnell’s Pride label. It was never sold at the retail level and is not available at supermarkets and grocery stores, FDA says.

Signs of the Times

January 16, 2009

Obama to End Military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Policy

FOX NEWS — President-elect Barack Obama will allow gays to serve openly in the military by overturning the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that marred President Clinton’s first days in office, according to incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. The startling pronouncement, which could re-open a dormant battle in the culture wars and distract from other elements of Obama’s agenda, came during a Gibbs exchange with members of the public who sent in questions that were answered on YouTube. Former President Bill Clinton, who initially sought to overturn the longstanding ban on gays in the military, ended up enacting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as a compromise that made it illegal for commanders to ask about the sexual orientation of service members, who were also barred from announcing they were homosexual. If a service member’s homosexuality becomes known anyway, he or she is expelled. Clinton is widely viewed as having stumbled during his first days in office by getting caught up in the raging controversy, which detracted from the rest of his agenda. It is not yet clear whether Obama would face a similar debacle.

Warren praises Obama for Inviting Homosexual Bishop

Rick Warren is applauding Barack Obama’s decision to invite homosexual Episcopal bishop V. Gene Robinson to pray at an inauguration event next week in Washington, DC. Christianity Today quotes a statement from Warren, who says “President-elect Obama has again demonstrated his genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground. I applaud his desire to be the president of every citizen.” Warren’s comment came in the wake of a controversy over Obama’s decision to invite Warren to give the invocation prayer at the swearing-in ceremony at next Tuesday’s Presidential Inauguration.

Ø JJ Commentary: The New World Order’s favorite pastor toes the party line of “tolerance” and “inclusiveness.”

Season for Football and Faith

With football in its most important time as the Super Bowl looms — the strong evangelical faith of high-profile players and coaches has been getting attention. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow wore a Bible verse on eye black in the Bowl Championship Series title game and thanked Jesus Christ in post-game interviews. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, still alive in the NFL playoffs, has spoken out about his evangelical faith. So has Tony Dungy, who retired this week as coach of the Indianapolis Colts. During his football career, Aeneas Williams earned a reputation as a quiet leader who professed a deep Christian faith. Now, the 40-year-old Williams leads a small start-up church that meets in rented space at a hotel in suburban St. Louis, where he weaves lessons from life and football into his sermons.

Anyone Here Speak English?

NEWSMAX — The great melting pot is no longer melting. According to the Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey, the number of people in the United States who speak a language other than English at home jumped from 14% in 1990 to more than 20% last year. The trend has experts convinced that newcomers are no longer interested in blending into society. Spanish leads the foreign tongues spoken in the U.S. homes by a long shot, with more that 12% now speaking it at home nationwide. In four states – Arizona, New Mexico, California and Texas – 1 in 5 live in homes where Spanish is the primary language. In California, 43% of people 5 years of age or older speak a language other than English at home. New Mexico is next at 36%, Texas at 34%, New York at 29% and Arizona at 28%.

Ø JJ Commentary: This furthers the objective of the New World Order to create the North American Union by merging the U.S. with Mexico and Canada.

Israeli Troops Thrust Deep into Gaza City

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli forces shelled the United Nations headquarters in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, engulfing the compound in fire as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was in the region on a mission to end Israel’s devastating offensive against the territory’s Hamas rulers. Ban expressed “outrage” over the bombing on the compound, which was housing hundreds of refugees at the time. He said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told him there had been a “grave mistake” and promised to pay extra attention to protecting U.N. installations. Even as a top Israeli envoy went to Egypt to discuss a cease-fire proposal, the military pushed farther into Gaza in an apparent effort to step up pressure on Hamas. Ground forces thrust deep into a crowded neighborhood for the first time, sending terrified residents fleeing for cover. Shells also struck a hospital, five high-rise apartment buildings and a building housing media outlets in Gaza City, injuring several journalists.

As talks for a cease-fire deal in Gaza gain steam, Israel remains focused on its military objectives — among them, killing Hamas’ leaders, and destroying the remaining, hard-to-find tunnels that the Palestinian militant group uses to smuggle arms. An Israeli airstrike Thursday killed Said Siam, Hamas’ interior minister, who oversaw hundreds of security agents, Hamas television said. Israel’s army says there are hundreds of tunnels traversing Gaza’s 9-mile border with Egypt and disabling them has been a key goal of the offensive that began Dec. 27. To date, airstrikes have only managed to disable 60% to 70% of the tunnels. The tunnels are dug through the basements of homes and buildings on both sides of the border, making it difficult to find the openings from the air. Building the tunnels became a large industry in Gaza, employing thousands and allowing for the nearly free movement of goods into the coastal strip.

Hamas’ political chief rejected Israeli conditions for a Gaza cease-fire Friday and demanded an immediate opening of the besieged territory’s borders, taking a tough line as he asked a summit of Arab countries to back him by cutting off any ties with Israel . Despite the hard-line comments by the Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, Israel and Egyptian mediators were expressing optimism a cease-fire could be reached. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said he was hopeful that Israel is “entering the endgame” on its Gaza offensive and that a “sustained and durable” stop to Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel was near.

Islamic Insurgents Attack Somali Presidential Palace

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Islamic insurgents attacked Somalia’s presidential palace and five civilians were killed Wednesday, underscoring fears the country could collapse into further chaos only a day after Ethiopian troops handed over security duties to a Somali force. The extremist group at the center of the fighting, which wants to establish an Islamic state in Somalia, said it now would focus its attacks on the thousands of African Union peacekeepers in the country. There are currently about 2,400 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers in Mogadishu whose mandate is restricted to guarding key government installations such as the port and airport. To date, they have rarely been the target of insurgent attacks.

Ukraine Rejects Russia’s latest Gas Request

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine rejected Russia’s latest request to pipe natural gas westward to increasingly frustrated EU consumers on Thursday, deepening the bitter economic and political dispute that has paralyzed energy shipments to Europe. Desperate to restore supplies, the European Union said it was ready to join a weekend meeting between Russia and Ukraine to seek a solution to the crisis that has left eastern Europe frantically scrambling for heat, light and power. With the cutoff of Russian gas supplies via Ukraine in its ninth day, there was little sign of an end to the delivery drought despite the EU’s vocal objections.

Pakistan Arrests at least 100 in Post-Mumbai Crackdown

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan has arrested more than 100 people in a crackdown on groups allegedly linked to the Mumbai attacks, a top official said Thursday, adding that the information India has handed over still needs work before it can be used as evidence in court. India says a Pakistan-based militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, masterminded the November attack. In the days afterward, the U.N. Security Council declared that Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity in Pakistan, was merely a front for the outlawed militant organization. Authorities have taken steps against 20 offices, 87 schools, two libraries, seven religious schools, and a handful of other organizations and websites linked to the charity. Among those who are being held, including under house arrest, are Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the head of the charity who helped establish the militant group, which was banned in 2002.

Zimbabwe Releases 100,000,000,000,000 Bank Note

Zimbabwe‘s central bank is releasing a new bank note that’s worth 100,000,000,000,000 in local dollars, news organizations report. BBC News says the new 100 trillion bill is worth about $30. Zimbabwe has the world’s highest rate of inflation. Over the summer, AFP says the government reported a 231 million percent inflation rate.

Consumer Prices Fall in December

WASHINGTON (AP) — The consumer price index fell 0.7% in December, the government said Friday, posting its lowest annual gain since 1954 for all 2008. On a year-over-year basis, the consumer price index rose a scant 0.1% from December 2007. It was the weakest reading since CPI fell 0.7% in December 1954. The index rose 4.1% in 2007. The big improvement over 2007 occurred because of the sizable declines in energy prices in recent months. December’s 0.7% drop follows a 1.7% decline in November.

2008 Foreclosure Filings Set Record

USA TODAY — Foreclosure filings surpassed 3 million in 2008, setting a record that has Washington, D.C., policymakers calling for more aggressive efforts this year to aid troubled homeowners. Foreclosures last year were up 81% from 2007 and 225% from 2006, according to a report out Thursday from RealtyTrac. One in 54 homes received at least one foreclosure filing during the year, RealtyTrac reported. Banks repossessed more than 850,000 properties in 2008 compared with about 404,000 in 2007 “That was a surprise,” says Rick Sharga, senior vice president at RealtyTrac. “These filings came despite (foreclosure) moratoriums. There was no way we were expecting a near-record month, and I believe January will be a record-setting month. We’re in for a very difficult year.”

As foreclosures mount, other homeowners are jumping on falling interest rates to lower their monthly mortgage payments. Refinancing applications, now about 85% of all mortgage applications, have surged to levels not seen since 2003, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Wednesday.

Senate Releases Second Portion of Bailout Fund

NEW YORK TIMES —The Senate voted Thursday to release the second half of the financial industry $700 billion bailout fund and House Democrats unveiled an $825 billion fiscal recovery plan aimed at putting millions of unemployed Americans back to work. The Senate action, by a vote of 52 to 42, spares Mr. Obama a messy legislative fight just as he takes office and gives him a $350 billion war chest to further stabilize the financial sector. The vote came amid renewed distress in the banking industry (see below).

Banking Misfortunes

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government early Friday morning agreed to invest $20 billion in Bank of America, and to protect the bank against up to $118 billion in potential losses from bank assets related to risky mortgage loans. Early Friday morning, Bank of America reported a $2.39 billion fourth-quarter loss and slashed its quarterly dividend to a penny. Meanwhile, Merrill Lynch posted a $15.31 billion loss for the fourth quarter. Citigroup said Friday that it is splitting into two businesses as it reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $8.29 billion — its fifth straight quarterly loss. Shares of large banks plummeted Thursday as investors grew fearful that asset values at several are declining and that they can survive only with additional cash from the federal government. “The banks are broke, and each day their capital requirements skyrocket, but there’s no place to raise capital,” says Sean Egan, managing director of ratings agency Egan-Jones.

Video Game Sales hit Record despite Economic Downturn

Total annual video game sales of $21.3 billion surpassed by 19% last year’s record of $18 billion, says researcher NPD Group. During a otherwise depressing holiday retail shopping season, sales of video games, systems and accessories in December rose 9%, or $5.3 billion, over December 2007 ($4.8 billion). “Because the video game industry offers the best bang for the buck even during times of economic downturn and recession, things like the Nintendo DS are very appealing items that can distract from the situation,” Calif.-based Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, analyst Jesse Divnich says.

Ø JJ Commentary: Don’t like this reality? Get another one.

Arctic Cold Grips Much of Nation Except Southwest

MONTPELIER, Vt. — The cold wave that stunned the nation’s midsection expanded into the Northeast on Wednesday with subzero temperatures and biting wind that kept even some winter sports fans at home. The wind chill hit 33 below zero during the night at Massena, N.Y., and the National Weather Service predicted actual temperatures nearly that low in parts of the region by Thursday night. Schools from Iowa to Pennsylvania opened late so kids would not have to be out in the coldest part of the morning. Some schools closed. No deaths were reported in the Northeast. A day earlier, a Wisconsin man died of exposure after wandering from his home; relatives said he was prone to sleepwalking. Poor visibility in blowing snow was blamed for a 20-car pileup that killed two people Wednesday in Indiana.

Meanwhile, Southern California basked in summerlike warmth again Wednesday and forecasters said the Santa Ana winds responsible for pushing highs into the 80s would continue into the weekend. Downtown Los Angeles reached 81 degrees before noon Wednesday. Temperatures in the 70s and 80s were reported across San Diego, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Signs of the Times

January 14, 2009

Pace of Bible Translation Reaches New Highs, Translators Say

Mission News Network reports that Bible translation projects are at an all time high. “We are participating in the greatest acceleration of the pace of Bible translation the church has ever witnessed. We’re actually seeing, in reality, more translation programs being started today than we’ve ever seen in the history of the church,” says President of Wycliffe Bible Translators Bob Creson. He said that Wycliffe is on target to have Bible translation projects underway in every known language that does not yet have the Bible in their native tongue by the year 2025. That means approximately 2,250 projects to go. Yet Creson is optimistic despite the global economic upheaval. “I think the work of Bible translation is one of those things that just transcend all these things that are going on around us,” he said.

U.S. in Debt to the World

As the largest debtor nation on earth by a wide margin, we ought to be concerned about who our creditors are. If they were to call in the debt, we’d be bankrupt and the dollar would be worthless. Unfortunately, many foreign nations hold our debt, few of them our allies. This gives them tremendous influence over our government, industry and economy. Ranked in order of total debt, these foreign creditors are: China, $653 billion; Japan, $586 billion; United Kingdom, $360 billion; Caribbean Banking Centers, $220 billion; Oil Exporting Nations, $188 billion; Brazil, $134 billion; Luxemburg, $86 billion; Russia, $81 billion; Hong Kong, $65 billion; Switzerland, $61 billion.

Nov. Trade Deficit Plunges 29% to Lowest Level since ’03

WASHINGTON (AP) — The trade deficit plunged to the lowest level in five years in November as a deepening recession slashed demand for oil by a record amount. Imports from China also fell by the largest amount on record. The Commerce Department said Tuesday that the trade deficit narrowed to $40.4 billion in November, a 28.7% decline from October’s deficit of $56.7 billion. The trade deficit through November was running at an annual rate of $688.2 billion, down from the 2007 imbalance of $700.3 billion. Economists expect the trade deficit will fall even more sharply this year as the recession further cuts demand for imported products. For November, exports of goods and services dropped 5.9% to $142.8 billion, the smallest level in 14 months. Imports fell an even larger 12% to $183.2 billion, the lowest level in 2½ years. The huge decline was led by the largest-ever drop in crude oil, reflecting a record fall in the average price of a barrel of crude. Total petroleum imports were down 36.5% to $23.6 billion.

Ø JJ Commentary: Despite the positive headlines, notice that the trade deficit was still $40 billion for the month and $688 billion for the year. We are still going deeper and deeper into debt.

Bernanke: Stimulus is Good, but Financial Markets Need Help

USA TODAY — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday that a massive stimulus bill proposed by president-elect Barack Obama could provide a significant short-term boost to the economy, but he cautioned that more is needed to ensure a long-lasting recovery from the deep recession and the “extraordinary stress” in global financial markets. In a wide-ranging speech to the London School of Economics, Bernanke said it may be necessary to provide more capital injections and loan guarantees to banks and financial firms to stabilize credit markets.

Ø JJ Commentary: More, more, more. More debt, more federal control, more socialism. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Paulson are the point men for the New World Order. Paulson came out of Goldman Sachs, one of the perpetrators of the financial crisis who have now received billions of dollars of assistance, but what they’ve done with it nobody knows. The objective is to bring America down from its superpower status and into the socialistic fold of a one-world government.

More Seek Heating-Bill Help with Low-Income Energy Assistance

USA TODAY — With unemployment soaring, a record number of people are seeking federal assistance to pay energy bills this winter, a survey set released Tuesday indicates. About 7.3 million households, 1.5 million more than last year, will likely receive $5.1 billion in subsidies from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association says. The projected total, which the association compiled from applications so far this winter, is an increase of 9% over the record 6.5 million households that received funds to pay heating and electricity bills in 1985.

Retail Sales Plunge 2.7% in December

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Sales at retailers fell at a steeper-than-expected rate in December, government data showed Wednesday, as a deteriorating economic environment forced consumers to cut spending during the key holiday period. The Commerce Department said total retail sales fell 2.7% to a seasonally adjusted $343.2 billion last month following a revised 2.1% drop in November. U.S. consumer technology sales fell 5.7% in the holiday season, research group NPD said Tuesday.

Israel Pounds Gaza as Rockets Strike from Lebanon

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli aircraft struck a Gaza City cemetery on Wednesday, unearthing dozens of bodies, and pounded militants’ weapons positions and arms smuggling tunnels, witnesses and the military said, as guerrillas in Lebanon raised the specter of a new front by sending rockets crashing into northern Israel. Israeli police said three rockets were fired from Lebanon at open areas near the town of Kiryat Shemona, causing no injuries or damage. Residents of northern Israel were instructed to stay close to bomb shelters following the second attack from Lebanon in less than a week, the military said. On Wednesday, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in an effort to wrest a diplomatic end to the violence, which began 19 days ago. Israel’s onslaught against Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers has killed more than 940 Palestinians, half of them civilians, according to Palestinian hospital officials. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed since the offensive began, four of them by rocket fire from Gaza. Eight years of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns sparked the war, which began with a devastating air offensive, then expanded to include a ground campaign.

Israel Ready to Strike Iran

Informed sources in Washington tell Newsmax that Israel indeed will launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities soon – possibly in just days as President George W. Bush prepares to leave office. The reason: The time clock has begun to run out. Iran is close to acquiring a nuclear device under the control of its radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said in June that Iran would have a nuclear weapon in as little as six months. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton predicted that Israel would stage a raid against Iran’s nuclear facilities if Barack Obama won the presidential election.

Bin Laden Urges Muslim Jihad Against Israel

CAIRO (AP) — al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden urged Muslims to launch a jihad against Israel and condemned Arab governments as allies of the Jewish state in a new message aimed at harnessing anger in the Mideast over the Gaza offensive. Bin Laden spoke in an audiotape posted Wednesday on Islamic militant websites where al-Qaeda usually issues its messages. It was his first tape since May and came nearly three weeks after Israel started its campaign against Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers. The al-Qaeda leader also vowed that the terror network would open “new fronts” against the United States and its allies beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. The authenticity of the tape could not be independently confirmed, but the voice resembled that of bin Laden in previous messages.

Gas-Starved EU Nations Seek End to Energy Crisis

MOSCOW (AP) — The leaders of several gas-starved European nations traveled to Ukraine and Russia on Wednesday, pressing them to restore supplies as the EU threatened both with legal action for halting energy deliveries in the midst of winter. But Ukraine’s natural gas company said for a second straight day it would not send Russian gas along to Europe. It claimed that Russia’s gas monopoly Gazprom was trying to force it to cut service to parts of Ukraine in order to send the gas along. For his part, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of holding European nations hostage and insisted the EU should not accept Ukraine’s claims. With no end to the politically charged dispute in sight — despite a weekend agreement that sent teams of EU monitors out to pumping stations to keep tabs on the gas flows — the EU was fed up. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned Gazprom and Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state-run gas company, that he will urge European energy companies to sue them unless they move quickly to restore gas supplies.

N. Korea Refuses to Give Up Nuclear Weapons

SEOUL (AP) — North Korea said Tuesday it will hold onto its nuclear arsenal until it is satisfied the U.S. is not hiding atomic weapons in South Korea and Washington establishes diplomatic relations with the regime. The North has long accused Washington of stationing nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula for a possible attack on the communist nation. Both the South and the U.S. deny having nuclear weapons in South Korea. Regional powers have been trying for years to rid North Korea of its nuclear program, but negotiations have recently stalled. The Foreign Ministry indicated it would consider giving up its nuclear weapons if the U.S. threat is removed and diplomatic relations between the two nations are established.

Ø JJ Commentary: North Korea has led the U.S. and other nations on a wild goose chase. They never are going to give up their nuclear weapons, but keep on “negotiating” so as to extract concessions and then later to renege on their agreements.

Group: China Fails to Improve Human Rights in 2008

The Associated Press reports that the Olympic Games did nothing to spread freedoms in China, according to a democracy watchdog organization. The Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House released its 2009 “Freedom in the World” report on Tuesday, and called China’s progress “disappointing” after the country’s many public promises to improve prior to the Olympic Games. “There were restrictions on Internet access even after there was some opening of that when the Games first began, and … a lot of attacks and incidents of foreign journalists arrested,” Asia researcher Sarah Cook said. “Meanwhile, local journalists continue to face a very difficult environment, including arrests.”

Blizzard Slams Plains; East Digs Out from Weekend Storm

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A fast-moving blizzard brought snow and high winds to North Dakota on Monday, closing schools and causing more headaches for residents still trying to dig out from a record snowfall last month. And, forecasters said a blast of cold air was on the way that could send the thermometer as low as 30 below zero. Wind gusts of around 60 mph were reported in southwestern North Dakota and 51 mph in Bismarck. Meanwhile, residents of the Midwest and Northeast dug out after their own tussles with weekend storms. Most residents in New England heeded the authorities’ warnings to stay off roads after the storm dumped up to 9 inches of snow in some areas in Massachusetts and sleet and freezing rain across Rhode Island. The Pacific Northwest remained on alert with three flooded rivers in Washington, where state officials were assessing the damage from heavy rain and melting snow on roads and property.

The record-breaking extreme cold that is freezing the Midwest is dropping temperatures close to 50 below in spots, snapping sewerage lines and causing numerous vehicle pileups. A blast of Arctic air is responsible for the unusual freeze that moved into the United States from Canada. The cold front will spread to the East Coast and descend into the South by the end of the week. New York City could see below-zero temperatures Thursday night, AccuWeather reported, which would be the first time the city has been below zero since Jan. 19, 1994.

Ø JJ Commentary: Global Warming? Some weather experts are now saying that signs point to another ice age. Go figure.

Signs of the Times

January 12, 2009

Gideons Mark 100 Years of giving Out the Bible

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — Long before cable television, spa treatments and eco-friendly soaps and shampoos became staples in hotel rooms, there was the Bible — the Gideon Bible. And the book with the familiar two-handled pitcher and torch on its cover that most guests find inside hotel nightstands doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Gideons International is celebrating its 100th anniversary distributing Bibles and has begun efforts to hand out more Scriptures in the U.S. to boost a distribution rate that’s remained relatively flat in recent years. Nearly 76.9 million Gideon Scriptures were given out in nearly 85 languages in 187 countries last year. Close to 1.5 billion Scriptures have been distributed since 1908, when the Gideons first began to place Bibles in hotel rooms. Since then, the nondenominational evangelical group run by businessmen has spread its tremendous reach, also giving out free Scriptures at hospitals, schools, prisons and in the military.

“This is not a church-sponsored, clergy-led effort,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group for evangelical churches and organizations. “It’s individuals that go around and distribute Bibles. It’s an astonishing accomplishment.” “What it’s done is actually changed our culture. People expect there to be a Bible in a hotel room. There’s hardly anything that’s parallel to it.” Because the Gideons were founded by Christian traveling salesmen who spent a lot of time away from home, the group sought to put Bibles in hotel bedrooms to spiritually nurture themselves and others. The Gideons have about 176,000 members, plus their wives, who distribute Scripture around the world.

Gay Bishop Doesn’t Plan to Use Bible at Inaugural Event

CONCORD, N.H. – The first openly homosexual Episcopal bishop will offer a prayer at the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural event for president-elect Barack Obama. The selection of New Hampshire Episcopal Bishop Vicki Gene Robinson for Sunday’s event follows weeks of criticism from homosexual-rights groups over Obama’s decision to have the Rev. Rick Warren give the invocation at his Jan. 20 inauguration. Warren backed the ban on same-sex “marriage” that passed in his home state of California on the November ballot. Robinson said he doesn’t yet know what he’ll say, but he knows he won’t use a Bible. “While that is a holy and sacred text to me, it is not for many Americans,” Robinson said. “I will be careful not to be especially Christian in my prayer. This is a prayer for the whole nation.”

  • JJ Commentary: We swear in elected officials and witnesses in court with the Bible. An Episcopal Bishop who doesn’t use the Bible is like a construction worker who doesn’t use a hammer. Robinson is not a true Christian.

U.S. Pledges $700K to rebuild Babylon

WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States has pledged $700,000 to help preserve and restore ancient Babylon. In a news release, the U.S. State Department says “‘The Future of Babylon’ project exemplifies the American people’s commitment to the preservation of human heritage and their respect for the cultural heritage of Iraq.” The State Department says the funding will allow the World Monuments Fund and Iraq’s Board of Antiquities and Heritage to plan for Babylon’s “conservation, study and tourism.” In the Bible, Isaiah prophesies that Babylon “will never be inhabited, nor will it be settled from generation to generation.”

  • JJ Commentary: Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do. While this appears to be a minor matter for our State Department, symbolically it demonstrates how our nation as sold out to Baal in these latter days.

Indian Supreme Court Orders Protection of Christians

Religion News Service reports that India’s Supreme Court has told the state government of Orissa that it will not “tolerate persecution of religious minorities” and if the state government cannot protect Christians, “then quit office.” A three-judge panel of the Supreme Court issued the warning Monday (Jan. 5) following a petition filed by Roman Catholic Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, who requested protection for his flock in Orissa and compensation for church properties that have been damaged in the ongoing violence. Such rulings by judges of Indian courts may not always have the force of law, but they carry considerable weight and often influence the future actions of lawmakers and government officials. Approximately 500 people, largely Christians, have been killed in the violence since August, with tens of thousands more displaced.

Religious Schools Fail to Prepare Clergy for Sexuality Issues

A new study of 36 prominent seminaries and rabbinical schools shows that future pastors are largely left to decide sexuality issues on their own, as most degree requirements do not include any sexuality-based course. The Christian Post reports that the study was conducted by Union Theological Seminary in New York and the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing. The study measured content in curriculum, institutional commitment to sexuality and gender equity, and advocacy and support for sexuality-related issues. “With so many congregations embroiled in controversy over sexual orientation issues, or struggling to address teenage sexuality, or concerned about sexual abuse, there is an urgent need for ordained clergy who understand the connections between religion and sexuality,” said the Rev. Debra W. Haffner, director of the multi-faith Religious Institute.

Chorus call for New World Order

THE AUGUSE REVIEW — In economic and financial desperation, leaders around the globe are openly calling for the creation of a “New World Order,” including prominent “old guard” members of the Trilateral Commission. Is the baby about to be born? It’s not accidental that so many of the original members of the Trilateral Commission, all of whom are now well into their 80’s, have returned to dance in the limelight once again. TC Members like Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Paul Volker and Brent Scowcroft, for instance. On January 5, 2009, Henry Kissinger was interviewed by CNBC on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  His voice still raspy and spoken with a thick accent, he responded to a question about President-elect Obama’s first actions as President: “He can give new impetus to American foreign policy … I think that his task will be to develop an overall strategy for America in this period, when really a ‘new world order’ can be created. It’s a great opportunity. It isn’t such a crisis.”

Israel Pounds New Hamas Targets

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli warplanes pounded the homes of Hamas leaders and ground troops edged closer to the Gaza Strip’s densely-populated urban center Monday, as Israel stepped up the pressure ahead of deciding whether to escalate its devastating two-week offensive. From downtown Gaza City black smoke could be seen rising over the eastern suburbs, where the two sides skirmished throughout the night. Despite the tightening Israeli cordon, however, militants still managed to fire off a rocket Monday morning which fell near the southern town of Kiryat Gat but caused no casualties. The army announced Sunday that it had begun sending reserve units into Gaza to assist thousands of ground forces already in the territory. The use of reserves is a strong signal that Israel is planning to move the offensive, which already has killed some 870 Palestinians, into a new, more punishing phase.

Former Terrorist says West Ignoring real Hamas Agenda

A former Palestinian terrorist says the West continues to pursue a failed idea that somehow terrorism against Israel will stop when the Palestinians get their own homeland. Walid Shoebat is a former member of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a convert to Christianity. He now runs the Walid Shoebat Foundation, which is an organization that cries out for the justice of Israel and the Jewish people. “The core issue is not an issue of land whatsoever. It’s an issue of wiping the state of Israel out. If you look at even suicide bombing — historically, if you look from 1980 until 2003, let’s say — 224 suicide bombings out of 300 existed in Islamic countries with no occupation whatsoever,” he notes. “So it’s not simply the desire to create a Palestinian state. It is the desire to destroy the Jewish state.”

U.S. Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site

WASHINGTON (NEW YORK TIMES)— President Bush deflected a secret request by Israel last year for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex and told the Israelis that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons, according to senior American and foreign officials. White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office. But the Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran’s major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country’s only known uranium enrichment plant is located. The White House denied that request outright, American officials said, and the Israelis backed off their plans, at least temporarily.

To Cut Deficit, Calif. to Close State Offices Twice a Month; Workers Unpaid

Starting next month, most California state offices will be closed on the first and third Fridays of each month to help close a projected $42 billion deficit. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says that by forcing state workers to take unpaid furloughs twice a month, the state will save about $1.3 billion through June 2010. Exceptions: prisons, hospitals, parks and some other agencies, mostly those that generate money for the state.

Boeing to Cut 4,500 Jobs as Economy Slows

PITTSBURGH — Boeing, the world’s second-largest airplane maker, is planning to cut about 3% of its work force as jetliner demand falls, hurt by the global economic downturn. The Chicago-based company on Friday said it expects to cut about 4,500 positions from its passenger jet business, which has factories in the Seattle area. Many of the cuts will be in areas not directly associated with aircraft production. The news comes a day after Boeing reported a 15% decline in passenger jet deliveries for 2008, when it faced an eight-week strike by union workers and shrinking airline demand. The lower deliveries ensured Boeing’s archrival, Europe’s Airbus, retained its rank as the world’s top plane maker.

Men Losing Jobs at Higher Rate than Women in Recession

USA TODAY — Women are holding onto their jobs more than their male counterparts in the recession as the types of jobs women hold generally offer more stability, albeit at less pay. In the year since the recession began in December 2007, the jobless rate for men rose from 4.4% to 7.2%. At the same time, the jobless rate for women rose from 4.3% to 5.9%. The market for jobs typically held by women has been far better than those typically held by men. Three-quarters of the workers in the health care and education sectors are women, according to economic consulting firm IHS Global Insight. Employers added 536,000 workers in those two fields in 2008, a 2.9% gain. At the same time, men represent 93% of workers in construction and 72% in manufacturing. Employers cut 632,000 construction jobs in 2008, an 8.5% drop, while 791,000 manufacturing jobs were cut, a 5.7% decline.

Price of Gas Up Nearly 12 cents after Long Slide

CAMARILLO, Calif. (AP) — The average national price of gasoline rose nearly 12 cents in the past three weeks, marking the first price hike after six months of steady decreases, according to a national survey released Sunday. The average price of regular gasoline Friday was $1.78 a gallon, oil industry analyst Trilby Lundberg said. The increase was the first since July 11, when the average national price peaked at $4.11 a gallon.

Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Peanut Butter

USA TODAY — The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Dept. of Health on Friday issued the product advisory for King Nut creamy peanut butter after preliminary testing found the presence of salmonella in a 5-pound container of the sandwich spread. The cause of a national outbreak of salmonella typhimurium which has infected 399 people in 42 states is still unknown, but state officials in Minnesota are certain enough that a brand of peanut butter sold primarily to nursing homes, hospitals and schools is the culprit that they’ve issued a warning advising state establishments not to use it. The brand of peanut butter that tested positive for salmonella in Minnesota and is possibly connected to a nationwide outbreak has been voluntarily recalled by its distributor, King Nut Companies of Solon, Ohio.

FDA Melamine Guidelines Unsafe, Consumers Union Says

The decision by the Food and Drug Administration to allow U.S.-manufactured infant formula contaminated with melamine or its byproducts onto store shelves is “seriously flawed” and medically risky because parents may feed their babies more than one product, scientists at the nonprofit group Consumers Union said Friday. The FDA detected melamine and its byproduct cyanuric acid separately in four of 89 containers of infant formula tested in the fall, but never at the same time. A can of milk-based liquid Nestle Good Start Supreme Infant Formula with Iron contained traces of melamine while three different cans of Mead Johnson’s Enfamil LIPIL with Iron had traces of cyanuric acid. The FDA says studies show potentially dangerous health effects from the industrial chemicals only when both are present. The lack of dual contamination is key, say agency officials, and thus there have been no recalls of the tainted formula. In a letter Friday, consumer advocates told FDA that they were concerned the FDA was assuming parents would never feed their babies more than one type of formula. They said they had heard from a concerned mother who routinely fed her baby two different formulas because “one caused constipation, and one caused loose bowels, but together the baby’s digestion seemed just right.”

Airlines Go Two Years with No fatalities

For the first time since the dawn of the jet age, two consecutive years have passed without a single airline passenger death in a U.S. carrier crash. No passengers died in accidents in 2007 and 2008, a period in which commercial airliners carried 1.5 billion passengers on scheduled airline flights, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal and industry data. Going without a crash fatality for a full year has been rare. Only four years since 1958 have passed without a passenger fatality, the analysis found. That makes the two-year string even more impressive. Technology improvements, more reliable aircraft and better training have helped reduce accidents.

Toxic Coal Ash Piling Up in Ponds in 32 States

WASHINGTON (AP) — Millions of tons of toxic coal ash is piling up in power plant ponds in 32 states, a situation the government has long recognized as a risk to human health and the environment but has done nothing about. An Associated Press analysis of the most recent Energy Department data found that 156 coal-fired power plants store ash in surface ponds similar to one that ruptured last month in Tennessee. On Friday, a pond at a northeastern Alabama power plant spilled a different material. The man-made lagoons hold a mixture of the noncombustible ingredients of coal and the ash trapped by equipment designed to reduce air pollution from the power plants. The AP’s analysis found that in 2005, the most recent year data is available, 721 power plants generating at least 100 megawatts of electricity produced 95.8 million tons of coal ash. About 20% — or nearly 20 million tons — ended up in surface ponds. The remainder ends up in landfills, or is sold for use in concrete, among other uses. Coal ash ponds are subject to less regulation than landfills accepting household trash, even though the industry’s own estimates show that ash ponds contain tens of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals. The EPA estimates that about 300 ponds for coal ash exist nationwide.

Pakistan: 40 Militants Killed in Attack

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — At least 40 militants were killed and scores of others wounded Sunday as security forces repulsed an attack by about 600 fighters in northwestern Pakistan, a military official said. Six security forces were also killed and seven wounded in the pre-dawn attack in Mohmand agency. Insurgents attacked the Pakistani Frontier Corps’ camp at about 2 a.m. with mortars and rockets, then used small arms to fire on a checkpoint near the Mohammad Ghat camp. The attackers were eventually driven off, but scattered skirmishes continued. The Mohmand agency lies along the volatile Afghan border and the military official said the bulk of the militants crossed over from Afghanistan and later joined with Pakistani allies. The lawless and remote mountain region is believed to be used by pro-Taliban militants as a launching pad for attacks into Afghanistan. Pakistan has deployed tens of thousands of troops to police its tribal regions, but Western and Afghan officials say that has not deterred militants.

Thousands Across World Protest Gaza Violence

BERLIN (AP) — Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in cities across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East Saturday, shouting protests against the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Protesters burned Israeli flags in Sweden and threw shoes at the U.S. consulate in Edinburgh, Scotland. In central London, three officers were hurt when demonstrators hurled shoes and placards at police outside the Israeli Embassy. One officer was knocked unconscious. Some 180 people were arrested in Paris. But in Innsbruck, Austria, volunteer security personnel arranged by the Islamic organizers of a demonstration moved quickly to surround and protect an elderly man after he suddenly unrolled an Israeli flag in the middle of the protest. The 3,500 Innsbruck marchers carried banners calling for “Freedom for Palestine” and saying “Stop the Israeli Terror.” A crowd of 12,000 gathered in London’s Hyde Park carrying placards marked “Gaza: Stop the massacre” and chanting “free, free Palestine.”

Russia, EU Sign Gas Transit Deal

NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia (AP) — Russia and the European Union signed a deal Saturday on the deployment of EU observers to monitor the flow of natural gas across Ukraine, clearing the way for restarting Russian gas supplies to a freezing Europe. Russia said it wants the written deal in place before resuming shipments, but it also needs to be signed by Ukraine to come into force. Saturday’s signing followed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s talks with visiting Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency.

2008 was USA’s Coolest Year since 1997

The USA’s 2008 annual temperature of 53 degrees was the coolest since 1997, federal climate scientists announced Thursday. Central and southern parts of the country had below-average temperatures, while above-average temperatures were felt in the West, Southwest and Northeast. Although cool compared to recent years, the nation’s temperature was still 0.2 degree above the long-term average, making it the 12th consecutive warmer-than-average year. Only three out of the past 23 years have been cooler-than-average in the USA. Since 1895, the nation’s annual average temperature has increased at a rate of 0.12 degree per decade, and at a faster rate of 0.41 degree per decade during the last 50 years. Nationwide, the average precipitation for the U.S. in 2008 was 30.48 inches, which is 1.34 inches above average.

Winter Storm Wallops Midwest, Northeast

CLEVELAND — A powerful winter storm blasted large swaths of the Midwest and Northeast with snow and freezing rain on Saturday, grounding flights and stranding vehicles along icy roads. Nearly a foot of snow fell in some Midwest states, and more than half of the morning flights at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport were canceled or delayed. Ten inches at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport forced the cancellation of about 100 flights. Freezing rain in Indiana caused five salt trucks to slide into ditches Saturday as they worked to deice roads. Tow trucks stopped responding to accidents because they were sliding off icy roads when they tried to pull vehicles from ditches. Blizzard warnings were posted across the Northern Plains early Monday as a bitterly cold wallop of snow threatens the region, while residents of the Midwest and Northeast dug out after their own tussles with weekend storms. Parts of the Midwest and Northeast were already trying to handle up to a foot of snow that caused two large vehicle pileups — a 59-vehicle crash in New Hampshire and another in Connecticut that involved 13 vehicles.

Signs of the Times

January 9, 2009

CIA missile kills 2 top al-Qaeda terrorists

The Washington Post is reporting that a CIA missile strike New Year’s Day killed two top al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan. They were the suspected masterminds of deadly suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya in 1998 and at a Marriott hotel in Islamabad in September. Sources told the paper the dead men were a Kenyan national described as al-Qaeda’s chief of operations in Pakistan who used the name Usama al-Kini and his lieutenant, identified as Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan. They were killed in a building the CIA said was being used for explosives training.” They died preparing new acts of terror,” an official told the paper.

Israeli Government says Gaza Offensive to Continue

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s government says it will press ahead with its offensive in the Gaza Strip despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire. The government’s statement says Palestinian rocket fire Friday shows the Security Council’s call for a cease-fire “is not practical.” Israeli jets and helicopters bombarded Gaza early Friday and Hamas fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, indicating there may be no quick end. In all, Israeli aircraft struck more than 30 targets before dawn, and constant explosions continued after first light. Friday’s deaths in Gaza pushed the Palestinian death toll to about 760 in the two-week-old conflict, at least half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials. Thirteen Israelis have died.

Key Arab nations and Western powers reached agreement Thursday on a proposed U.N. resolution calling for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire between Hamas militants and Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, the head of the Arab League said. The resolution was supported by the United States, Israel’s closest ally, and Arab nations which have close ties to Hamas. The key elements are the withdrawal (of Israeli forces), cease-fire, the humanitarian situation, the opening of crossings.

Gaza‘s humanitarian crisis, desperate after 13 days of war with Israel, may be about to get much worse. The United Nations said Thursday that it was suspending operations in the Palestinian territory after the Israeli army fired on U.N. trucks, killing two workers. About half of Gaza’s 1.5 million population relies on U.N. aid, which includes food, medicine and other supplies. A three-vehicle U.N. convoy, including a medical truck, came under Israeli military fire Thursday while driving to recover the body of a colleague killed earlier in the week. Claims on all sides of the conflict have been difficult to confirm independently because Israel’s military has banned foreign reporters.

Attack on Israel from Lebanon Threatens 2nd Front

JERUSALEM (AP) — Lebanese militants fired barrages of rockets into northern Israel early Thursday, striking a nursing home and threatening to open a second front for the Jewish state as it pushed forward with its offensive in the Gaza Strip. There were no serious injuries, but the rockets on Israel’s north raised the specter of renewed hostilities with Hezbollah, just 2½ years after Israel battled the guerrilla group to a 34-day stalemate. Hezbollah started the 2006 war as Israel was battling Palestinian militants in Gaza. Lebanon’s government, wary of conflict, quickly condemned the rocket fire and said it was trying to determine who was behind the attack. Israel fired mortar shells into southern Lebanon in response.

U.S. to Head Anti-Pirate Patrols off Somalia

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A U.S. Navy commander will lead a new international force to battle pirates off the coast of Somalia. More than 20 nations are expected to take part in the mission once it is fully underway later this month. The announcement Thursday by U.S. Navy officials in Bahrain did not list the countries participating, but said the new force will be headed by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Terence McKnight. Merchant fleets have been calling for a stronger military response to pirates after a sharp escalation in attacks last year. At least 111 ships were attacked and more than 40 of them commandeered.

Russia may Resume Gas Shipments to Europe Today

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s Gazprom said it could restart gas shipments to Europe on Friday if an agreement can be signed allowing an EU-led monitoring mission to track gas flows through Ukrainian pipelines. EU monitors arrived Friday in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, but Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said a final agreement on their deployment has yet to be signed. Gazprom halted all natural gas shipments through Ukraine on Wednesday, ending or reducing gas supplies to more than a dozen European nations, amid a pricing dispute with Kiev. On Friday, Miller pledged Gazprom would resume shipments to Europe once EU and Russian monitors were in place at pipeline pumping stations across Ukraine — a country roughly the size of South Africa or Texas. The EU said it could then take days for the shipments to reach western Europe.

Obama Warns of Dire Consequences Without Stimulus

WASHINGTON (AP) — President-elect Barack Obama said Thursday the recession could “linger for years” unless Congress pumps unprecedented sums from Washington into the economy. “I don’t believe it’s too late to change course, but it will be if we don’t take dramatic action as soon as possible,” Obama said in a speech delivered at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., outside Washington. His events have increasingly taken on the trappings and air of the presidency, with the speech — coming a full 12 days before he takes over at the White House — a particularly showy move. Presidents-elect typically stick to naming administration appointments and otherwise staying in the background during the transition period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, but Obama has clearly made the calculation that a nation anxious about its economic outlook and eager to bid farewell to the current president, George W. Bush, needs to hear from him differently and more frequently.

Pointing with concern to “red ink as far as the eye can see,” President-elect Barack Obama pledged Wednesday to tackle out-of-control Social Security and Medicare spending and named a special watchdog to clamp down on other federal programs, even as he campaigned anew to spend the largest pile of taxpayer money in history to revive the sinking economy. The steepness of the fiscal mountain he’ll face beginning Jan. 20 was underscored by stunning new figures: an estimate that the federal budget deficit will reach $1.2 trillion this year, by far the biggest ever, even without the new stimulus spending.

Ø JJ Commentary: Just as the past few presidents have done, Obama complains about the deficit and is right to do so. But his stimulus package will spend more than the savings he’ll get from cutting other programs and the debt load will continue to rise.

Retailers Report Dismal December Sales

NEW YORK — Retailers reported dismal sales figures for December on Thursday as even Wal-Mart Stores, one of the bright spots in the industry, finally buckled under the pressures of the deteriorating economy. As merchants reported their sales figures, confirming fears that the holiday season was the weakest in four decades, the malaise cut through practically all areas from kitchen gadget stores to apparel retailers. “This suggests that the lower income group is feeling the pinch more than we thought and this is clearly reflected in the lower-than-expected numbers at Wal-Mart,” said Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics. “I think it says the economy is in more dire straits than we thought.”

December Payrolls Plunge 524,000, Jobless Rate at 7.2%

WASHINGTON (AP) — The unemployment rate bolted to 7.2% in December, the highest level in 16 years, as nervous employers slashed 524,000 jobs, and mass layoffs continue. The Labor Department’s report, released Friday, underscored the terrible toll the deepening recession is having on workers and companies, and highlights the hard task President-elect Barack Obama faces in resuscitating the flat-lined economy. For all of 2008, the economy lost a net total of 2.6 million jobs. That was the most since 1945, when nearly 2.8 million jobs were lost during World War II. The unemployment rate rose from 6.8% in November, to 7.2% last month, the highest since January 1993. Employers are chopping costs as they try to cope with dwindling appetite from customers in the U.S. as well as in other countries, which are struggling with their own economic problems.

Consumer Borrowing Falls a Record $7.94B in November

WASHINGTON — Consumers cut back on their borrowing by a record amount in dollar terms in November, another sign of trouble for the rapidly weakening economy. The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that borrowing on credit cards, and for such things as auto loans, dropped at an annual rate of $7.94 billion in November, the biggest decline in 65 years of record keeping. Analysts are worried the economy’s troubles could trigger a major retrenchment by consumers that will make the current recession, already the longest in a quarter-century, even worse. Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of total economic output. The 3.7% drop in total borrowing in November followed a 1.3% decline in October.

Ø JJ Commentary: The Bible warns against going into debt. The world says if we don’t the economy suffers. Trying to solve a debt-induced financial crisis with more government and consumer debt may hold off total collapse for a while, but only serves to make the eventual crash all the worse.

Family Films on Increase and Are the Profit-Makers in Hollywood

Religion Press Release Services, Hollywood, Calif. (January 7, 2009) — Since the inception of the MOVIEGUIDE® Faith & Values Awards Gala and Dr. Ted Baehr’s Annual Report, the number of family movies has more than doubled and the number of movies with positive moral content has nearly quadrupled by 388 percent. “The surprising thing is, MOVIEGUIDE®’s top picks turn out to be among the most profitable films Hollywood produced during the year,” Dr. Baehr notes.

Has Pepsi Gone ‘Gay’?

One of America’s favorite soft drink brands has donated more than a million dollars to homosexual groups – and refuses to give to organizations opposes to homosexuality, one group claims. Pepsi gifted $500,000 to the Human Rights Campaign, or HRC, a group that described itself as “America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality,” the American Family Association reports. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation gave PepsiCo a 100 percent rating for the fifth year in a row on its 2009 Corporate Equality Index – a system that ranks employers on a scale from 0 to 100 percent on their treatment of LGBT employees, consumers and investors. PepsiCo has also given $500,000 to the Straight for Equality program run by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG. According to a PepsiCo bulletin, the company also won a Workplace Excellence Award at the Out & Equal Summit on Sept. 15 – an annual event that promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workplace equality.

U.S. Mine Deaths Fall to 51, the Lowest on Record

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The number of miners killed on the job in the United States fell to 51 in 2008, the fewest number of deaths since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago, according to preliminary data released by federal regulators Thursday. The previous low was 55 in 2004. Revamped safety laws and beefed up enforcement were among factors that led to the overall decline in mining deaths, federal mine safety chief Richard Stickler told The Associated Press. Mine safety became a focal point in 2006 and 2007 following a series of mining disasters in Kentucky, Utah and West Virginia. In 2006, 73 miners were killed, including 12 who died in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and five who died in a similar explosion at the Darby Mine in Kentucky. In 2007, 67 miners died, including six who were killed in the collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.

Feds Uncover Two More Investor Ponzi Schemes

On Thursday, authorities announced two alleged Ponzi schemes, just weeks after the arrest of investor Bernard Madoff stunned Wall Street. Madoff was arrested for allegedly running one of the largest investment frauds in history in a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. The latest schemes show how alleged frauds are unraveling as investors get more averse to risk. In a Ponzi, a portion of the cash brought in from new investors is given to older investors in the form of a return. If cash stops coming in, or current investors demand their cash at the same time, the scheme collapses. The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Joseph Forte, 53, of Broomall, Pa., with allegedly taking $50 million from up to 80 investors. The U.S. Attorney of the Western District of New York and the SEC charged Richard Piccoli, 82, of Williamsville, N.Y., with operating a scheme that took at least $17 million from investors since 2004. Piccoli largely targeted clergy and religious charities by advertising in Catholic newspapers, the complaint said. Experts anticipate more revelations of alleged frauds.

42 States in Salmonella Outbreak

ATLANTA (AP) — A nationwide salmonella outbreak that has struck 42 states has put about one in five of its victims in the hospital, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. Nearly 400 people have become ill in the outbreak that might have killed one person. The same type of salmonella bacteria has been lab-confirmed in 388 cases nationwide, said the CDC, which is leading the investigation but has not yet released the list of states or determined which foods may have caused people to become sick. Nationally, all the illnesses began between Sept. 3 and Dec. 29, but most of the people grew sick after Oct. 1. Most people develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days, and most people recover without treatment. DC officials say the cases in the outbreak have all been genetically fingerprinted as the Typhimurium type, which is among the most common forms of salmonella food poisoning.

Extreme Alaska Cold Grounds Planes, Disables Cars

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) —Extreme temperatures —as low as 60 below zero — call for extreme measures in a statewide cold snap so frigid that temperatures have grounded planes, disabled cars, frozen water pipes and even canceled several championship cross country ski races. Alaskans are accustomed to subzero temperatures but the prolonged conditions have folks wondering what’s going on with winter less than a month old. National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Brown said. “About once or twice every year, we get a good cold snap. But, in this case, you can call this an extreme event. This is rare.” The cold has kept planes grounded. Food and fuel aren’t coming in and they’re starting to run low in some villages.

Flooding, Avalanches Cause Evacuations in Northwest

A winter storm is drenching the Pacific Northwest and touching off avalanches, mudslides and floods that shut down highways and forced people from their homes. More than 25,000 people were told to leave their homes in a flood-endangered valley southeast of Tacoma, Wash. Three main highways crossing Washington’s Cascade Range were closed as heavy rain and wet snow made the up-to-10 feet of snowpack there unstable. The National Weather Service issued flood warnings for a number of rivers, and two, the Puyallup and Chehalis, were threatening Interstate 5 in Lewis County. The main roads connecting Seattle to the south remained closed Thursday night, while all highways heading east through the mountain passes were also closed. Mark Stewart of the Washington Military Department Emergency Management Division said nobody can recall flooding so widespread in the state.

Wildfires Trigger Evacuations near Boulder, Colo.

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Wind-driven wildfires swept across Boulder County grasslands Wednesday, destroying at least four structures and prompting mandatory evacuations of at least 500 homes. At least one other neighborhood north of the city was evacuated, but the number of homes wasn’t immediately known. The Red Cross said at least 100 people went to one emergency shelter. Authorities said more than 11,000 homes had been alerted to the fire by reverse-911 calls, but not all of those households were told to leave. The fires started in parched, rolling grasslands dotted with subdivisions, individual homes and horse ranches about 25 miles northwest of Denver. Authorities said at least three of the destroyed structures were homes, and the fourth was either a barn or a home. The largest fire, which burned more than 10 square miles, jumped across U.S. 36 and entered the Lake Valley Estates neighborhood, where police went from house to house warning residents to evacuate.

Ø JJ Commentary: Wildfires this time of year are unusual.

Moderate Quake Strikes San Bernardino

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — A moderate earthquake struck Thursday night in San Bernardino, with shaking felt from Los Angeles 55 miles to the west and south to Orange County. No immediate reports of damage or injuries were reported. A preliminary reading by the U.S. Geological Survey showed a 4.5-magnitude quake struck at 7:49 p.m. about one mile south of San Bernardino, a city of about 200,000 people.