Archive for December, 2009

December 30, 2009

Christmas Church Heist Turns to Community Blessing

Religion News Service reports that parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Violet, La., had their Christmas sorrow turn to joy on Dec. 22. The previous Sunday, a burglar broke into the St. Bernard Parish church and rifled through about 65 Christmas gifts destined for some of the parish’s needy children. As word of the crime spread, people from across the metropolitan area and as far as Wisconsin and Ohio stepped up to help. By Tuesday night, gifts were piled on the floor about 7 feet deep along three walls, including 15 bicycles donated by Boy Scouts and bags stuffed with toys from the Salvation Army. After the theft was discovered, the church’s pastor, the Rev. John Arnonesaid the anger he initially felt had changed to sorrow for the thief. “It’s an unfortunate need,” he said. “But so much good has come of it. It’s really been incredible.”

Hundreds of Yemen Militants Planning Attacks

Hundreds of Al Qaeda militants are planning terror attacks from Yemen, the country’s foreign minister said Tuesday. Abu Bakr al-Qirbi appealed for more help from the international community to help train and equip counter-terrorist forces. His plea came after an Al Qaeda group based in Yemen claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day airliner bomb plot. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, alleged to be behind the attempt to blow up an American-bound aircraft, spent time in Yemen with Al Qaeda and was in the country only days before the failed attack. Abdulmutallab is said to have told U.S. agents that there were more people “just like him” ready to carry out attacks. Photographs showing the underpants worn by alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab contained a six-inch packet of a high explosive called PETN sewn into the crotch.

Yemen‘s government said Tuesday the U.S. should have shared its warnings about the Nigerian suspect in the botched Christmas Day airline attack, and said it was tightening restrictions on student visas like the one that allowed the young man to enter the country. “We didn’t get any notice from the Americans to put this man on a list,” Information Minister Hassan al-Lozy said. “America should have told Yemen about this man, as they have of others.” He confirmed that Umar Faruk Abdulmutallab spent two extended periods in Yemen, as recently as this month, and that authorities were trying to determine what he did during that time. U.S. authorities have been trying to determine how Abdulmutallab, 23, managed to board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with explosives even though he was flagged on a watchlist as a possible terrorist. The U.S. government had intelligence from Yemen before Christmas that leaders of a branch of Al Qaeda there were talking about “a Nigerian” being prepared for a terrorist attack, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

Dutch to Use Full Body Scanners for U.S. Flights

The Netherlands will immediately begin using full body scanners for flights heading to the United States to prevent future terrorist attacks like the Christmas Day attempt by a young Nigerian. In a preliminary report, the Dutch government on Wednesday said the plan to blow up the Detroit-bound aircraft was professional but called its execution “amateurish.” Interior Minister Guusje Ter Horst said Abdulmutallab apparently assembled the explosive device, including 80 grams of PETN, in the aircraft toilet, then planned to detonate it with a syringe of chemicals. Abdulmutallab arrived in Amsterdam on Friday from Lagos, Nigeria. After a layover of less than three hours, he passed through a security check at the gate in Amsterdam, including a hand baggage scan and a metal detector.

Security companies say they have new body-scanning machines capable of screening passengers for plastic explosives in seconds that could replace the metal detectors used for decades at airports around the world. The machines could be a central part of a security review President Obama ordered Monday. The review will cover “all screening policies, technologies and procedures related to air travel,” Obama said. A “systemic failure” of the nation’s intelligence gathering and analysis allowed a Nigerian man to board a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day in an alleged attempt to blow up an airliner, President Obama said Tuesday. Experts urged the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to accelerate the installation of the body scanners that can spot hidden plastic explosives such as those Abdulmutallab apparently got past security at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport as he boarded a flight to Detroit.

Obama’s K-12 Policy Doesn’t Change Much

For the nation’s K-12 schools, 2009 may well go down as the year when everything changed but little happened. A new president promised a fresh start but angered many in even his own party by polishing his predecessor’s apple. Obama administration officials promised a new, “forward-thinking” approach to education. Public opinion had slipped for No Child Left Behind, President Bush‘s signature education reform law, which requires schools to test most children in math and reading each year in an attempt to reduce a nagging achievement gap between whites and minorities. So President Obama’s inauguration represented a fresh start to supporters. But Obama kept teachers unions at arm’s length. He talked a lot about test scores — and Arne Duncan, his Education secretary, promoted charter schools and performance-based teacher pay, as did predecessor Margaret Spellings. This prompted education historian Diane Ravitch to declare that Obama was giving Bush “a third term in education.”

Catastrophe Costs Drop in 2009

Insurers’ losses from natural disasters fell more than half in 2009 thanks to fewer hurricanes and earthquakes, a leading reinsurer said Tuesday. Munich Re said in its annual review that insured losses came in at $22 billion this year, down from $50 billion in 2008. It said total economic losses, including losses not covered by insurance, fell 75% to $50 billion from last year’s $200 billion. Winter storm Klaus was the costliest weather disaster in 2009. The storm, which hit northern Spain and southwest France on Jan. 23-25, with winds of up to 121 mph, caused more than a million people to lose power, damaged buildings and cars and wrecked numerous solar panel farms in Spain. Insured losses came to $3 billion amid total losses of $5.1 billion. The Sept. 30 earthquake that shook Sumatra caused the biggest number of deaths, with 1,200 people killed when the 7.6 magnitude quake caused tens of thousands of homes to collapse in Padang. Deaths from severe storms the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan numbered more than 1,700.

Cardiologists Sue over Medicare Fee Cuts

Heart specialists on Monday filed suit against Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in an effort to stave off steep Medicare fee cuts for routine office-based procedures such as nuclear stress tests and echocardiograms. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, charges that the government’s planned cutbacks will deal a major blow to medical care in the USA, forcing thousands of cardiologists to shutter their offices, sell diagnostic equipment and work for hospitals, which charge more for the same procedures. “What they’ve done is basically killed the private practice of cardiology,” says Jack Lewin, CEO of the American College of Cardiology. The fee cuts are separate from the health care bills now winding their way through Congress.

Local Government Pension Costs Exceed $530 billion

U.S. state and local governments face more than $530 billion in unfunded public pension liabilities and most do not have funds set aside to pay for them, a government report showed on Wednesday. As of June, state governments were on the hook for around $405 billion and 39 of the country’s largest local governments must come up with around $130 billion for their other post employment benefits, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said. The report said unfunded state liabilities ranged from as low as $71 million in Arizona to $62 billion in California. Local government liabilities ranged from $15 million for a county in Arizona to over $59 billion for New York City, the GAO said. The economic meltdown hit all U.S. municipalities hard and many have had difficulty keeping up with their pension, or OPEB, obligations. “Unfunded OPEB liabilities on their own are large enough to represent a fiscal pressure for state and local governments,” the GAO said. “Most state and local governments included in our review are paying for their OPEB liabilities for active and retired workers in a given year from their current revenues.”

“Payment Shock” Coming

The New York Times warns that U.S. debt is rising so fast that the federal government is careening toward a “payment shock” in the not-too-distant future. The national debt now stands at more than $12 trillion, and the White House has estimated that servicing the debt will rise to more than $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion in 2009. The additional $500 billion a year in interest payments would surpass the combined budgets in 2009 for education, energy, homeland security, plus the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. faces not only huge new debts incurred in response to the economic meltdown, but also a balloon of short-term borrowing coming due in the months ahead.

1 in 4 Mortgages “Under Water”

The Wall Street Journal reports that  about 23 % of U.S. homeowners, nearly 10.7 million households, owe more on their mortgages that their properties are worth, and 5.3 million households are tied to mortgages that are at least 20% higher than their current home value.  Those properties with negative equity are more likely to fall into foreclosure and get dumped into an already saturated market, slowing a housing recovery. In Nevada, 65% of mortgage borrowers owe more than their home is worth, and Arizona also has a high percentage of properties with negative equity.

Economic News

A more upbeat outlook on jobs pushed Americans’ confidence in the economy higher in December for the second month in a row, a survey released Tuesday said. Consumers’ outlook on the job market over the next six months reached its highest level in two years. The New York-based The Conference Board said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 52.9, up from a revised 50.6 in November, but the reading is still far short of the 90 that would signify a solid economy. In October, consumer confidence had reached 48.7. The index, which hit a historic low of 25.3 in February, had enjoyed a three-month climb from March through May.

More U.S. credit card users fell further behind on their payments in November, Moody’s Investor’s Services said Tuesday. The charge-off rate on U.S. credit cards, as measured by Moody’s Credit Card Index, rose to 10.56% last month after falling for the two previous months. The charge-off rate measures those credit card account balances written off as uncollectable, as an annualized percentage of total outstanding principal balance. The record-high of 10.76% was reached in June.

A congressional stalemate has left the federal estate tax, the levy on assets left to heirs, in doubt for at least part of 2010. The tax is poised to expire Thursday, though the House and Senate are expected to pass a reauthorization next year, possibly retroactive to Jan. 1. In the meantime, what might seem like a potential tax savings has become a guessing game for taxpayers, accountants, estate planners and tax lawyers. The impasse also could mean capital gains taxes on more inheritances.

Rebates to buy energy-efficient appliances, announced by the U.S. government in July, are so far available only in Delaware and won’t be offered in many states until spring. The $300 million “cash for appliances” program, funded by the federal economic stimulus, is being rolled out gradually, state-by-state. In contrast, the popular “cash for clunkers” car trade-in program was national, so all buyers were eligible the same day. Since the program is new, it’s taking time for each state to set up its own rules and “framework” for handing out the rebates.

Iran

Iran‘s police chief threatened Wednesday to show “no mercy” in crushing any new opposition protests and said more than 500 demonstrators have been arrested in the wake of this week’s deadly clashes. Tens of thousands of hard-liner government supporters turned out for state-sponsored rallies Wednesday to try to show strength against the pro-reform opposition movement. At rallies in the cities of Shiraz, Arak, Qom, Tehran and several others, they chanted “Death to Opponents” of the Islamic establishment. The government gave all civil servants and employees a day off to attend the rallies and organized buses to transport groups of schoolchildren and supporters from outlying rural areas to the protests.

Iraq

Staggered explosions killed 23 people — 13 of them policemen — and injured the governor of Anbar on Wednesday, Iraqi officials said, the worst violence in months to hit the western province as it struggles to stamp out the remnants of the al-Qaeda insurgency. Anbar is strategically important because it was once the heartland of support for al-Qaeda linked militants before American officials paid Iraqi fighters to join a pro-government force.

Gunmen killed five Sunni security guards — including one by beheading — in a gruesome pre-dawn slaying Tuesday at a village checkpoint in central Iraq The five victims were members of the Sons of Iraq, or Awakening Councils — a Sunni-dominated security force now on the government payroll that has been targeted in revenge attacks after helping turn the tide against al-Qaeda.

Pakistan

The waters off Somalia are teeming with pirates who have hijacked dozens of ships for multimillion-dollar ransoms in the past two years. An international naval force now patrols the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Monday’s bombing against a Shiite procession marking the key holy day of Ashoura sparked riots as people rampaged through the city, setting fire to markets and stores. Firefighters were still battling the flames Tuesday, with authorities calling for reinforcements. Hundreds of shops had been destroyed, with damages estimated to run into millions of dollars.

Japan

When the U.S. took over a Japanese airfield in the closing days of World War II, it was surrounded by sugarcane fields and the smoldering battlegrounds of Okinawa. It is now the focus of a deepening dispute that is testing Japan‘s security alliance with the United States and dividing its new government in Tokyo. That Marine Corps Air Station Futenma must go is not the dispute. U.S. military officials agree the base must be moved. The problem is where. The United States says that Futenma cannot be shut down until a replacement is elsewere on Okinawa, an idea that most Okinawans oppose. They have the ear of a new left-leaning Japanese government that took office in September and is reassessing the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Somalia

Pirates seized a British-flagged chemical tanker and a Panamanian-flagged carrier off Somalia‘s coast and were holding 45 crewmembers Tuesday The two hijackings late Monday showed that pirates are relentless in their pursuit of quick money from ransom and that ship owners need to take extra precaution when sailing in the Horn of Africa,. The waters off Somalia are teeming with pirates who have hijacked dozens of ships for multimillion-dollar ransoms in the past two years. An international naval force now patrols the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, but the area is too vast to completely shut down the pirates.

Earthquakes

A 5.7-magnitude earthquake has jolted parts of Bangladesh, but there have been no immediate reports of casualties or damage. The moderate intensity quake shook the capital, Dhaka, and other districts across the country after 4:00 p.m. (0900 GMT) local time Tuesday. The epicenter of the quake was near India-Myanmar border.

Wildfires

Wildfires possibly sparked by fallen power lines roared across a swath of western Australia on Wednesday, razing almost 40 homes and sending hundreds of people fleeing for their lives, officials and witnesses said. At least three people were injured. Two major blazes burned out of control overnight after breaking out Tuesday afternoon in a wheat and sheep farming district north of the coastal city of Perth, forcing the evacuation of the township of Toodyay and threatening a second town, Badgingarra, farther north. The two fires scorched a combined total of more than 33,000 acres of forest and farmland before cooler conditions on Wednesday helped hundreds of firefighters contain them.

Weather

A snowstorm blamed for a fatal crash and a fuel truck rollover served as a prelude to wind gusts of nearly 50 mph, dangerous wind chills and some of the coldest weather of the season in northern New England, and knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The wind, along with plunging temperatures, created dangerous wind chills for those venturing outside. In Vermont, the gusty weather prompted some ski resorts to close lifts.

St. Louis got more than a foot more rain than usual this year, making 2009 its fifth wettest on record and raising the risk of spring floods, forecasters said Monday. St. Louis has had 50.84 inches of rain this year — 12.4 inches more than usual. A record 12.38 inches of rain fell in October, a month when the city usually gets less than 3 inches. Last year was St. Louis’ wettest on record with 57.96 inches.

December 28, 2009

Upbeat Christmas in Bethlehem

Thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended on the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Thursday, greeted by choruses, scout troops and rock bands for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations this Palestinian town has seen in years. Residents of Bethlehem, hemmed in by an Israeli security barrier and still recovering from years of violence, celebrated their town’s annual day in the spotlight along with pilgrims and tourists. Visitors milled around Manger Square, mingling with clergymen, camera crews and locals hawking food and trinkets. Christmas in Bethlehem has its incongruous elements — the troops of Palestinian boy scouts who wear kilts and play bagpipes in one of the town’s holiday traditions, for example, or the inflatable Santa Clauses hanging from church pillars and storefronts looking out of place and overdressed in this Middle Eastern town with not a snowflake in sight.

Passengers Subdue Would-Be Jet Terrorist

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano concedes that the aviation security system failed when a young man on a watch list was able to get a U.S. visa and to take a powerful explosive on  board a fight from Amsterdam to Detroit.  A tragedy was averted when passengers overpowerd the man as he apparently tried to ignite the explosives. “Our system did not work in this instance,” Napolitano said on NBC’s Today show. “No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way.” Meanwhile, travelers face longer lines, more security following last week’s incident.

Gitmo to Remain Open till 2011

Despite Obama’s pledge to shut the Guantanamo Bay prison by January 2010, it might not close until 2011 because it will take months for the federal government to buy an Illinois prison and upgrade it to hold suspected terrorists. Congress must first appropriate money for the takeover of the Thomson Correctional Center and the necessary construction. Lawmakers wary of moving detainees from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military base into the United States could balk at approving the funds. In the Senate, there’s always the chance of delaying tactics that could hold up the money for months. Congress also needs to change a law prohibiting detention in the U.S. of detainees who are not awaiting trial.

Violence Drops in Border Cities

Even as rampant drug-related killings continue in Mexico, intensified U.S. efforts to prevent the violence from spilling across the border are succeeding. Murders in key U.S. border cities dropped in the first half of 2009, new FBI crime data show, and some law enforcement officials say that trend is continuing. Although 1,000 people were slain in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez in the first six months of 2009, according to the U.S. State Department, neighboring El Paso had just four murders. With one week left in 2009, murders total 13, compared with 18 in 2008. One of the largest drops was in Tucson, where murders fell from 30 in the first half of 2008 to nine in the same period this year. Declines, although smaller, also were reported in San Diego and the Texas border cities of Brownsville and McAllen.

In Drought, California Learns to Use Less Water

Across the semi-arid Southern California region that is home to more than 20 million people, restrictions on water use in homes and businesses imposed this year have produced a 15% savings. Leading the way has been Los Angeles itself, where a more than 18% reduction means the city will have used less water in 2009 than it did 25 years ago, despite the addition of 1 million people in that time. The biggest water conservation results have come from residential customers, rather than business or industry, city water figures show. The cost, for many residents, has been brown, dormant or dying grass lawns due to a stricter water diet. The result has been a more than 23% reduction in water use by single-family homes.

Lawsuits to Challenge ‘Obamacare’

Obamacare, as critics have dubbed the president’s plan to socialize health care, will be flooded with lawsuits if it ever becomes law, according to an organization that works to protect rights and liberties of Americans. In an alert issued this week, Liberty Counsel, run by President Mathew Staver, promised his organization “is prepared to challenge the constitutionality of the bill since Congress has no authority to require every person to obtain insurance coverage and has no authority to fine employers who do not provide the coverage standards that are required in the bill.”

Economic News

Holiday shoppers spent a little more this season than last, according to data released Monday, giving merchants some reason for cheer. The spending bounce means retailers managed to avoid a repeat of last year’s disaster even amid tight credit and double-digit unemployment. Retail sales rose 3.6% from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, compared with a 3.2% drop in the year-ago period.

The government has handed an ATM card to beleaguered mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Treasury Department said Thursday it removed the $400 billion financial cap on the money it will provide to keep the companies afloat. Already, taxpayers have shelled out $111 billion to the pair. By making the change before year-end, Treasury sidestepped the need for an OK from a bailout-weary Congress. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide vital liquidity to the mortgage industry by purchasing home loans from lenders and selling them to investors. Together, they own or guarantee almost 31 million home loans worth about $5.5 trillion, or about half of all mortgages.

Deflation tightened its hold on Japan in November and the unemployment rate rose for the first time in four months, as the world’s second-biggest economy struggles to stage a convincing comeback. The unemployment rate climbed to 5.2%, reversing an improvement to 5.1% in October. Core consumer prices fell 1.7% from a year earlier. The key consumer prices index, which excludes volatile fresh food prices, has now fallen for nine straight months.

Yemen

A Nigerian man’s claim that his attempt to blow up a U.S. plane originated with al-Qaeda’s network inside Yemen deepened concerns that instability in the Middle Eastern country is providing the terror group with a base to train and recruit militants for operations against the West and the U.S. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to destroy a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas day in a botched attempt to detonate explosives. The 23-year-old claimed to have received training and instructions from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

Yemen‘s military hit suspected al-Qaeda hideouts for the second time in a week, killing at least 30 militants in a remote area of the country — a fragmented, unstable nation the U.S. fears could turn into an Afghanistan-like refuge for the terrorist network. The strikes on Thursday, which were carried out with U.S. and Saudi intelligence help, hit a gathering of top leaders and other targets in a remote mountain valley,. The newly aggressive Yemeni campaign against al-Qaeda is being boosted by a dose of American aid, a reflection of Washington’s concerns about al-Qaeda’s presence in a highly strategic location on the border with oil-rich U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia.

Iraq

A blast in northeastern Iraq killed five people Sunday in a crowd of pilgrims who had gathered for the most important Shiite religious observance of the year It was the latest in a string of attacks targeting Shiites during the 10 days of religious ceremonies that reached their high point Sunday. The blast in the town of Tuz Khormato wounded 15 people. Sunday’s commemorations marked the climax of Ashoura, the yearly mourning period in which Shiite Muslims remember the 7th Century death of the Prophet Muhammad‘s grandson, Imam Hussein, in a battle in the central city of Karbala.

ASSIST News Service reports that five people were killed when two Assyrian churches and a church school were attacked in a series of terrorist bombings in Mosul. Several bombs had exploded shortly before in Baghdad. A newborn infant was killed and another 40 people were wounded. The U.S. military said they have detained several al-Qaeda members responsible for the attacks. The bombings were only the latest in a consistent stream of attacks against the Assyrian Christian population in Iraq. Nearly 50 churches have been attacked since 2004, leaving hundreds of thousands of Assyrians internally displaced, or living as refugees in neighboring countries.

Iran

Iranian security forces stormed a series of opposition offices on Monday, rounding up at least seven prominent anti-government activists in a new crackdown against the country’s reformist movement. Iranian security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters in the capital Sunday, killing at least four people in the fiercest clashes in months. Thousands of opposition supporters chanting “Death to the dictator,” a reference to hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, defied official warnings of a harsh crackdown on any protests coinciding with a religious observance on Sunday. Iranians were marking Ashoura, commemorating the seventh-century death in battle of one of Shiite Islam’s most beloved saints. Security forces tried but failed to disperse protesters on a central Tehran street with tear gas, charges by baton-wielding officers and warning shots fired into the air. They then opened fire directly at protesters, killing at least three people.

Pakistan

A bomb ripped through a government official’s house in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing him and his five family members in an attack that police said was in retaliation for military operations targeting Taliban in the area. The military has stepped up airstrikes in Kurram since many militants fled there following a major ground offensive launched in nearby South Waziristan in mid-October. Both areas are in Pakistan’s lawless tribal region near the Afghan border. A suspected U.S. missile strike killed three people Saturday in a northwest Pakistani tribal region where militants focused on fighting the West in Afghanistan are concentrated.

Afghanistan

Two members of the Afghan National Police were killed when militants attacked a checkpoint in western Afghanistan/ Three other policemen were missing following the attack Saturday night in the Qadis district of Badghis province. A heavily armed Taliban commander was killed during a pre-dawn shootout at a mosque in eastern Afghanistan, NATO said as it reported an American service member died in a separate attack. A joint Afghan-international force went Saturday to a compound in Wardak province to look for an insurgent believed responsible for planning attacks and buying weapons and parts for making bombs, the international coalition said. When the joint force approached the compound, the Taliban commander, armed with grenades and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, ran to a nearby mosque.

Suriname

A stabbing death in a Suriname border town set off rioting that targeted foreign workers, and at least 20 women were raped and more than 120 people had to be evacuated The riot in Albina began late Thursday and escalated Friday after a Brazilian allegedly stabbed a local man to death. Townspeople began attacking Brazilians working in Albina about an hour after the killing, and the violence spread to Chinese-owned businesses, officials said. Businesses were looted and several stores were burned. Suriname is a normally tranquil former Dutch colony on the northeastern shoulder of South America. It is home to about 480,000 people.

Weather

Drifting snow and cold rain that have plagued much of the U.S. for days stranded drivers and airline passengers Saturday trying to get home after Christmas. Storms from Texas to the Upper Midwest that dumped 23.9 inches of snow in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and 18 inches near Norfolk, Nebraska, began subsiding, but blowing and drifting snow hampered visibility in many areas. Warmer temperatures and rains in the East began melting and washing away last week’s record-setting snowfalls, threatening the region with flooding.

A fierce Christmas storm dumped snow and ice across the midsection of the United States, stranding travelers as highways and airports closed and leaving many to celebrate the holiday just where they were. The storm dumped significant snow across the region, including a record 14 inches in Oklahoma City and 11 inches in Duluth, Minn., on Thursday. Some churches decided to cancel Christmas Eve services, while others saw sharply lower attendance. Slippery roads were blamed for at least 18 deaths as the storm made its way across the country from the Southwest. Driving was so treacherous that authorities closed interstates in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas to prevent further collisions.

December 24, 2009

Southerners Lead U.S. in Religious Devotion

There’s a reason the South is known as the Bible belt: A survey shows that Southerners— and Mississippians in particular — are most active in their religious practices and beliefs. Residents of Mississippi ranked first among Americans in all four measures of a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, with 82% saying religion is very important in their lives. Five other states had at least seven in 10 people stating that religion holds that kind of importance for them: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and South Carolina. Pew researchers found New Hampshire and Vermont to be the states where the lowest percentage of respondents viewed religion as very important in their lives.

Climate History Gets ‘Erased’ Online

A new report reveals a British scientist and Wikipedia administrator rewrote climate history, editing more than 5,000 unique articles in the online encyclopedia to cover traces of a medieval warming period – something Climategate scientists saw as a major roadblock in the effort to spread the global warming message. Recently hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit expose a plot to eliminate the Medieval Warm Period, a 400-year era that began around A.D. 1000, the Financial Post’s Lawrence Solomon reports. A 1995 e-mail predating the recent Climate Research Unit scandal was sent to geophysicist David Deming. A major climate-change researcher told Deming, “We have to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period.” One chief practitioner identified as Keith Briffa, said in a Sept. 22, 1999, e-mail, “I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards ‘apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data’ but in reality the situation is not quite so simple. … I believe that the recent warmth was probably matched about 1,000 years ago.”

Senate health care bill passes

After 25 consecutive days of debate, the U.S. Senate today approved sweeping health care legislation, moving a goal that has eluded Democratic presidents since Franklin Roosevelt closer to enactment than ever before. President Obama, who put off his Hawaii Christmas vacation to remain in town for the 60-39 vote, says the legislation goes a long way toward meeting the goals he set in last year’s campaign. “I am very satisfied,” the president told the PBS NewsHour in an interview on the eve of the roll call. Underscoring the administration’s support for the bill, Vice President Biden exercised his prerogative to chair the Senate for a roll call vote that took place as the sun was rising over the Capitol Dome. It was the first time since 1963 that the Senate met on the day before Christmas and the first time since 1895 that senators cast a roll call vote on this day. The Senate vote now sends the legislation to a conference committee, where Democratic leaders will try to reconcile differences between House and Senate bills. Each chamber will then vote again on a final bill next year. Deep divisions over abortion are the party’s biggest obstacle to combining the Senate and House bills, which also differ on a public plan and how to pay to expand insurance coverage.

Democrats say the bill will improve the nation’s health and economy by making insurance available to 31 million Americans who do not have it and by preventing insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions. It also allows young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance policies until age 26, and it addresses the so-called “donut hole” in Medicare that forces seniors who have prescription drug costs of more than $2,700 a year to pay the full amount until the tab reaches $6,154. The bill would require most individuals to purchase health insurance and offer subsidies for those who cannot afford the coverage. It also makes companies with more than 50 employees subject to penalties if they do not provide health care and their workers require subsidies. Led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republicans argued that the bill will make health care more expensive for most Americans, limit Medicare benefits for senior citizens and raise the national debt.

Health Bill Mandates Insurance Coverage

The House and Senate bills revamping health care require most Americans to carry health insurance or pay a penalty. Yet government mandates don’t necessarily ensure compliance: Not all Americans buckle up, or get their children vaccinated. Some health experts worry the proposed penalties are too low and that many younger, healthier people may opt to pay the fee and gamble on their health. That could drive up the costs of covering older and sicker people. Yet Congress risks a political backlash if penalties are too steep, particularly among those who earn too much to qualify for subsidies. Under the Senate bill, people who don’t buy coverage would face a maximum penalty of $95 beginning in 2014. That would jump in 2016 to $750 or 2% of their annual income up to the cost of the cheapest health plan, whichever is greater.

  • Mandated health insurance. What aspect of our lives is next on the mandate list for our socialist government?

Health Care: Republicans Blast States’ Special Deals

Dubbing them the “Louisiana purchase” and the “Cornhusker kickback,” Republicans on Sunday attacked special deals for individual states included in the health care bill heading for a Senate vote this week. Aimed at a small group of Democratic senators who were wavering on the underlying 10-year, $871 billion health care bill, the carveouts for Nebraska, Louisiana and other states represent hundreds of millions of dollars. Hours after the bill was unveiled, Republicans zeroed in on a new provision that would provide tens of millions of dollars in funding to Nebraska, home to Sen. Ben Nelson. Nelson was the last Democrat to support the measure and did so after days of intense talks with Reid and the White House over abortion. Last-minute deals came a month after Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., agreed to vote to start debate on the bill after scoring a $300 million bump in Medicaid funding for her state.

Senators Overseeing Health Bill Get PAC Money

As the health care bill moves toward a critical vote in the Senate, the five senators charged with overseeing the floor debate count health interests among their biggest campaign contributors, records show. The political action committees and employees of drug makers Schering-Plough and Amgen have been the top two contributors in the past five years to Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and is one of three senators managing the bill for Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In all, health care interests have donated more than $2.5 million to Baucus’ fundraising committees since 2005, the center’s data show. Health care interests also dominate contributions to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, giving more than $1.3 million to the five-term senator between 2005 and this year. The political action committee and employees of Amgen top his list of contributors during the same period. Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny said “there’s no relationship” between contributions and legislation.”

  • No Relationship? Sure, right. History has shown a strong correlation between campaign contributions and legislation. Money talks, voters are ignored.

Health Experts Worried by Apathy on Swine Flu

Now that the vaccine is finally available to anyone who wants it, public-health officials are noticing a drop-off in demand. The growing complacency about the novel flu virus is likely the result of multiple factors, experts say. The illness is spreading more slowly than it was earlier this fall, people are preoccupied with the holidays, and surveys suggest that many people are still concerned about the vaccine’s safety. The growing apathy worries public-health officials, who predict the H1N1 virus will re-emerge and cause another round of widespread illness in the coming months, during what is typically the peak flu season.

  • The public is simply tired of the over-hyped virus that fell well short of the experts’ dire warnings

Senate Raises Government Debt Ceiling to $12.4 Trillion

The Senate voted Thursday to raise the ceiling on the government debt to $12.4 trillion, a massive increase over the current limit and a political problem that President Obama has promised to address next year. The Senate’s rare Christmas Eve vote, 60-39, follows House passage last week and raises the debt ceiling by $290 billion.. The vote split mainly down party lines, with Democrats voting to raise the limit and Republicans voting against doing so. The bill permits the Treasury Department to issue enough bonds to fund the government’s operations and programs until mid-February. The Senate will vote again on the issue Jan. 20. Obama must sign the measure into law to prevent a market-rattling, first-ever default on U.S. obligations. The government piled up a record $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009 to counter a meltdown in financial markets and help bring the nation out of its worst recession in seven decades.

  • This massive increase in debt only get us through another six weeks, then they’ll vote to increase the limit again. The albatross of debt continues to increase at a record rate and will soon destroy the value of the dollar

Census Reports Slow Growth/Immigration

Population growth nearly ground to a halt this year in many longtime boom states, a sign the recession has taken a toll on the migration habits of Americans. The Census Bureau’s new state population estimates released today reported that more people moved from Florida and Nevada to other states this year than moved in. Both states experienced modest population growth this year because of births. California had its fourth-lowest growth rate since 1900. Texas was a key exception among boom states, gaining 478,000 residents, more than any other state. The U.S. population grew to 307 million, up 0.86%, the slowest growth rate this decade.

Pay Czar Agrees to Let AIG boost Exec’s Pay

A top executive of American International Group has been granted a $4.3 million pay-package bump by the troubled insurance giant’s majority owner — the U.S. government — because the executive has decided to remain with the company. Kenneth Feinberg, the Obama administration’s pay czar, approved an AIG request to grant the executive a long-term compensation package that includes stock options with a current value of $3.26 million and an additional incentive award of up to $1 million. The package comes on top of the executive’s 2009 base salary of $450,000.

  • Pay Czar? Very troubling, very socialistic. Just the fact that we actually have a Pay Czar is a problem, let alone granting a pay-package “bump” equivalent to almost 10 times the execs base salary. These are indeed perilous times.

Economic News

Personal incomes rose in November at the fastest pace in six months while spending posted a second straight rise. The report raises hopes that the recovery from the nation’s deep recession might be gaining momentum. The 0.4% rise in incomes followed a 0.3% October gain.

Home resales surged 7.4% in November from October, to the highest level in nearly three years, as the federal tax credit spurred buying, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday. Sales were 44% above last year’s level, a record jump. However, sales of new homes plunged unexpectedly last month to the lowest level since April, a sign the housing market recovery will be rocky. The Commerce Department says November sales fell 11.3% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 355,000. The reason for the difference in new vs. pre-owned is that people are buying up cheaper foreclosed homes.

The economy grew at a much slower pace than initially thought in the third quarter, restrained by weak business investment and a slightly more aggressive liquidation of inventories, according to the latest data. The Commerce Department’s final estimate showed gross domestic product grew at a 2.2% annual rate instead of the 2.8% pace it reported last month. It was still the fastest pace since the third quarter 2007 and ended four straight quarters of decline.

New claims for unemployment benefits fell 28,000 in the latest week, to a lower-than-expected 452,000, sign of a more stable labor market. The four-week average for claims, which smooths out fluctuations, fell to 465,250 — the16th straight weekly decline, the Labor Department said

Uganda Pastors Chide Rick Warren, Defend Anti-Gay Bill

The Christian Post reports that a proposed anti-homosexuality law in Uganda has split Ugandan and American pastors. Ugandan pastors late last week demanded an apology from California megachurch pastor Rick Warren after he appealed to Uganda’s pastors to oppose the bill. The pastors accused Warren of “very inappropriate (sic) bully use of your church and purpose driven pulpits to coerce us into the ‘evil’ of Sodomy and Gaymorrah (sic),” the pastors, which include Martin Ssempa, state in a letter emailed to Warren. Ssempa and supporters say the bill is misunderstood, and only extends current rape statutes to same-gender incidents. Warren and others note that the bill would force pastors to report gays instead of counseling them, while inflicting life imprisonment on those found guilty.

Sudan on Brink of New War, Diplomat Warns

Baptist Press reports that Sudan may again face war between northern Muslims and southern Christians and animists unless the international community pressures the government of President Omar al-Bashir. According to South Sudan’s top diplomat in the United States, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, an estimated 400,000 civilians have died in the ongoing genocide in Darfur and more are threatened by a scheduled referendum in April. That referendum on secession could derail the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended a war in which about 2.5 million southern Sudanese people died. International Christian Concern’s regional manager for Africa, Jonathan Racho, said, “We are very concerned about the possibility of another jihad against Christians and animists in South Sudan as well as the ongoing genocide in Darfur.”

Mexico

Mexico City lawmakers on Monday made the city the first in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage, a change that will give homosexual couples more rights, including allowing them to adopt children. The bill calls for changing the definition of marriage in the city’s civil code. Marriage is currently defined as the union of a man and a woman. The new definition will be “the free uniting of two people.” The bill passed the capital’s local assembly 39-20 and leftist Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of the Democratic Revolution Party was widely expected to sign the measure into law. Mexico City’s left-led assembly has made several decisions unpopular elsewhere in this deeply Roman Catholic country, including legalizing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. That decision sparked a backlash, with the majority of Mexico’s other 32 states enacting legislation declaring life begins at conception.

China

The World Trade Organization‘s top arbitrators upheld a ruling that China is illegally restricting imports of U.S. music, films and books, and Washington pushed forward with a new case accusing China of manipulating the prices for key ingredients in steel and aluminum production. Monday’s verdict by the WTO‘s appellate body knocked down China’s objections to an August decision that came down decisively against Beijing‘s policy of forcing American media producers to route their business through state-owned companies. If China fails over the next year to bring its practices in line with international trade law, the U.S. can ask the WTO to authorize commercial sanctions against Chinese goods.

Iraq

A bomb targeting a church in northern Iraq killed two men and damaged the historic building Wednesday, a day before Christmas Eve services that will be heavily guarded for fear of more attacks on the country’s Christian minority. The bomb in the city of Mosul was hidden under sacks of baking flour in a handcart left 15 yards (meters) from the Mar Toma Church, or the Church of St. Thomas,. The blast damaged the wooden doors, windows, some furniture and one of the walls of the church, which is more than 1,200 years old.

Iran

Security forces clashed with opposition protesters gathered Wednesday for a memorial for Iran‘s most senior dissident cleric, beating men and women and firing tear gas The gathering at the main mosque in the central city of Isfahan, 200 miles (325 kilometers) southeast of Tehran, was meant to honor Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the spiritual leader of the Iranian reformist movement who died Sunday. His death set off large memorial ceremonies that turned into pro-opposition protests in defiance of a months long government crackdown on protesters rallying against the disputed June presidential elections. Iran has been in turmoil since the vote, which the opposition alleges Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won by fraud.

Pakistan

A suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a press club in northwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, leaving three people dead. Seventeen other people were injured in the attack, many of whom were traveling in a bus that was passing the press club when the explosion occurred. Peshawar has been hit by at least seven attacks in the past two months in retaliation for a military offensive launched in mid-October against the militant stronghold of South Waziristan in Pakistan’s lawless tribal area near the Afghan border. A suicide bomber struck a neighborhood full of government buildings in Pakistan‘s main northwest city Thursday, killing four people and underscoring that militant groups retain strength despite being under siege by the army.

Haiti

Poverty has forced at least 225,000 children in Haiti‘s cities into slavery as unpaid household servants, far more than previously thought, a report said Tuesday. The Pan American Development Foundation’s report also said some of those children — mostly young girls — suffer sexual, psychological and physical abuse while toiling in extreme hardship. Young servants are known as “restavek” — Haitian Creole for “stays with” — and their plight is both widely known and a source of great shame in the Caribbean nation that was founded by a slave revolt more than 200 years ago. The report recommends Haiti’s government and international donors focus efforts on educating the poor and expanding social services such as shelters for girls, who make up an estimated two-thirds of the child servant population.

Weather

A massive winter storm threatened to spoil Christmas travel plans for much of the nation with road closures forecast for highways in the Plains, hundreds of canceled flights in Chicago and Minneapolis and flash-flood warnings in the Southeast. The “big, big storm” is forecast to blanket Kansas, northern Colorado, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri with up to 2 feet of snow, said Bruce Terry, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service. Winds of up to 40 mph and snow drifts several feet deep are likely, Terry said. Snow on Wednesday caused 260 flight cancellations in Chicago’s two major airports.

A sudden dust storm Tuesday spawned a series of collisions involving as many as 20 vehicles on Interstate 10 south of Phoenix, leaving at least four people dead. A second series of accidents was reported farther south along the main route between Tucson and Phoenix. The midday accidents led authorities to close I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson.

December 18, 2009

One-Third of Countries Repress Religion

In Indonesia, Muslim groups burn down a mosque belonging to the minority Ahmadiyya. In Singapore, the government refuses to recognize Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Belgium, 68 religion-based hate crimes are reported in 2007 alone. People living in a third of all countries are restricted from practicing religion freely, either because of government policies and laws or hostile acts by individuals or groups, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center, “Global Restrictions on Religion.” That amounts to 70% of the globe’s population, since some of the most restrictive countries are very populous. Of the world’s 25 most populous countries, citizens in Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and India live with the most restrictions when both measures are taken into account, the study found. The United States, Brazil, Japan, Italy, South Africa and the United Kingdom have the least amount of restrictions on religious practices when measured by both government infringement and religion-based violence or harassment, according to the study.

Climate Summit in Disarray

The U.N. climate talks were in serious disarray Friday, prompting President Obama to upend his schedule and hold closed-door talks with 19 other world leaders to work out a last-minute agreement on fighting global warming. Delegates earlier were blaming both the U.S. and China for the lack of a political agreement. Broad disputes continued behind closed doors between wealthy nations and developing ones, delegates said — the divide that from the start has dogged the two-week U.N. climate conferenceNo agreed text had emerged as presidents and premiers were gathering at a Copenhagen convention hall, said Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren.

Carlgren, negotiating on behalf of the 27-nation European Union, blamed the morning’s impasse on the Chinese for “blocking again and again,” and on the U.S. for coming too late with an improved offer, a long-range climate aid program announced Thursday by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The United States is prepared to join other rich countries in raising $100 billion in yearly climate financing for poor countries by 2020, Secretary of State Clinton announced Thursday at the Copenhagen talks. Seven GOP senators said at a news conference Thursday that any pledges Obama makes in Copenhagen will require Senate approval. The Senate is unlikely to support an agreement that does not include China and other developing countries.

More Delays in Senate on Health Bill

With just days remaining to prove that they can meet a self-imposed Christmas deadline and pass President Barack Obama’s signature initiative through the Senate, Democrats seeking a rendezvous with history instead detoured to an intraparty brawl. All eyes were on the only known Democratic holdout, moderate Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, whose primary concern is that abortion funding restrictions in the bill were too lax. “Without modifications, the language concerning abortion is not sufficient,” he said earlier in the day in a written statement that summarized the results of days of private negotiations.

  • Keep Nelson in your prayers that he will remain strong against government-funded abortion

45 Million Americans now Lack Health Insurance

In the first six months of this year, 45.4 million Americans of all ages — or 15.1% of the population — had no health insurance, according to new National Health Interview Survey statistics released Wednesday. In addition, 58.4 million (19.4%) people of all ages had been uninsured for at least part of the year prior to the interview, and 31.9 million (10.6%) had been uninsured for more than a year at the time of interview, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s National Center for Health Statistics. Lack of health insurance coverage was highest in the South and West.

House Passes Year-End, $100B Jobs Bill

Democrats in the House Wednesday muscled through a year-end plan to create jobs, mixing about $50 billion for public works projects with another almost $50 billion for cash-strapped state and local governments. The unemployed would get continued benefits. But conspicuously absent from the plan were President Barack Obama‘s recently announced proposals to give Social Security recipients $250 payments, a tax credit for small businesses that create jobs and a program awarding tax credits to people who make their homes more energy efficient. Not a single Republican voted for the plan, which passed on a 217-212 vote after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., worked the floor for an hour. The measure now goes to the Senate, which won’t consider the measure until next year and which generally has a smaller appetite for such deficit-financed economic stimulus measures.

20 Senators Demand Probe of White House ‘Threat’

Twenty senators are demanding an investigation into reports the Obama administration threatened to close Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska if that state’s Democratic senator, Ben Nelson, didn’t join other Democrats in voting for health-care reform. The group of 20, all Republicans, today called for a hearing in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the committee’s top Republican Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Both the White House and Nelson are denying any such threat ever existed.

  • The political “arm twisting” is getting out of hand

‘DOMA-Destroying Legislation’ Afoot in Senate

A conservative activist warns that both houses of Congress are moving forward with a back-door attempt to achieve federal recognition of same-sex “marriage.” The Senate Homeland Security Committee voted 8-1 yesterday to approve a bill that would provide the same family benefits to homosexual federal civilian employees that are provided to married heterosexual employees. The measure, S. 1102, is sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).  A similar bill passed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in November. Peter Labarbera, executive director of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, says the Lieberman-Collins bill severely undermines the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The long-time family advocate believes that when President Obama reiterated his opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, he effectively gave the Senate the green light to move forward with what LaBarbera calls “DOMA-destroying legislation.”

Islamic Mosque Built at NYC Ground Zero

A new Islamic mosque will open its doors just steps from Ground Zero where Muslim terrorists murdered 2,751 people in the name of Allah on Sept. 11, 2001 – and its leading imam, who conducts sensitivity training sessions for the FBI, has reportedly blamed Christians for starting mass attacks on civilians. The five-story building at Park Place, just two blocks north of the former World Trade Center site, was the site of a Burlington Coat Factory. But a plane’s landing-gear assembly crashed through the roof on the day 19 Muslim terrorists hijacked the airliners and flew them into the Twin Towers in 2001. Now Muslim worshippers currently occupy the building, and they plan to turn it into a major Islamic cultural center.

  • While Americans twiddle their thumbs, Islam continues to make inroads within formerly Christian countries. Europe is awash with Muslims who procreate in vast numbers and will soon form voting majorities in some areas.

Foreign Adoptions by Americans Drop

The number of foreign children adopted by Americans plunged more than a quarter in the past year, reaching the lowest level since 1996. Big declines were recorded for all three countries that provided the most adopted children in the previous fiscal year. In China and Russia, government officials have been trying to promote domestic adoptions, while in Guatemala, a once-bustling but highly corrupt international adoption industry was shut down while reforms are implemented. Figures for fiscal year 2009, released by the State Department on Thursday, showed 12,753 adoptions from abroad, down from 17,438 in 2008 — a dip of 27% and nearly 45% lower than the all-time peak of 22,884 in 2004. The biggest increase came from Ethiopia — 2,277 adoptions in fiscal 2009, compared with 1,725 in 2008. Russia was No. 4 in the new listing with 1,586 adoptions, down from 1,861 in 2008. Adoptions from Vietnam— where the industry, like Guatemala’s, has been plagued by corruption allegations — dropped from to 751 to 481. The bilateral U.S.-Vietnam adoption agreement expired in September and has not been renewed.

26 Arrested for Medicare Fraud in 3 States

Federal agents arrested 26 suspects in three states Tuesday, including a doctor and nurses, in a major crackdown on Medicare fraud totaling $61 million in separate scams. Indictments were issued for 32 people in all, but the status of the other suspects wasn’t immediately known.Arrests in Miami, Brooklyn and Detroit included a Florida doctor accused of running a $40 million home health care scheme. Cleaning up an estimated $60 billion a year in Medicare fraud will be key to President Barack Obama‘s proposed health care overhaul. HHS and DOJ have promised more money and manpower to fight the fraud.

Criminals are Packing More Heat

Criminals increasingly are choosing high-powered firearms such as assault weapons, a new survey of 166 U.S. police agencies shows. Nearly 40% of the departments reported an uptick in the use of assault weapons, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank. In addition, half reported increases in the use of 9mm, .40-caliber and 10mm handguns in crimes. The survey offers one of the broadest indications of officers’ concerns about the armed threat from criminals involved in murder, assault and other weapons-related offenses. National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam says officers’ concerns are largely misplaced: “The real issue is the high-caliber criminal, not the high-caliber firearms.” He says repeat offenders are overwhelming the system and could increase as states send fewer to prison to cut costs.

States Free Prisoners Early to Save $$

As budget deficits grow and the economy tumbles, governors and legislators are cutting costs by allowing inmates, mostly low-risk offenders, to leave prison earlier than laws previously permitted. Nationwide, more states are beginning to release thousands of inmates early by increasing “time off” provisions. Oregon now allows low-risk inmates to earn reductions of up to 30 percent off their original sentence instead of 20 percent. In November, Illinois began early release of inmates who committed non-violent crimes. The state plans to release 1,000 inmates, which could save $5 million a year. Colorado loosened its corrections policies this year by letting non-violent offenders earn 12 days off their sentence for each month of good behavior. In Mississippi, a state with one of the highest incarceration levels, officials abandoned a 180-day cap on the amount of time an inmate’s sentence can be shortened. Most early release provisions apply to “low-risk” and “non-violent” inmates.

Economic News

The number of newly laid off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week. The Labor Department said Thursday that the number of new jobless claims rose to 480,000 the week ended Dec. 12, up 7,000 from the previous week. Unemployment claims had been on a downward trend since summer.

Arizona’s employment and unemployment numbers improved significantly in November, offering the state most battered by job losses hope that the labor markets are starting to recover. The unemployment rate dropped to 8.9 percent in November, its lowest level in five months, from 9.3 percent in October.

About 1.7 million homeowners were on the verge of foreclosure in the fall, a looming “shadow inventory” of homes that will be put up for sale in the coming years and weigh down prices, a report said Thursday. The number, up from 1.1 million a year earlier, is likely to keep rising through the middle of next year or later, said Mark Fleming, chief economist of First American CoreLogic, the real estate research firm that released the study.

More Americans are getting help to pay home heating bills, and more are likely to need help as the economy continues to struggle, says the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. Almost 8 million U.S. households received federal government help to heat homes in fiscal year 2009, up 33% from the prior year. Applications for assistance in the current fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, are running even higher as more people join the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

More than half of U.S. residents who wanted to travel during the holidays have significantly cut back their plans or canceled trips altogether because of the fragile economy, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows.

The U.S. Postal Service says there was an 11% decline in cancellations of first-class cards and letters from Dec. 1-13 — when most Americans mail holiday cards — compared to 2008. Hallmark spokeswoman Deidre Mize says about 1.8 billion Christmas cards will be sent this year, down from 1.9 billion to 2 billion in recent years.

General Motors is shutting down its Swedish car brand, Saab, after attempts to close deal with a buyer failed. However, GM said it still intends to sell some Saab technologies to the Chinese automaker Beijing Automotive Industry Holdings Co. Ltd.

Gulf Region to Establish Regional Currency

The Tele­graph (UK) reports that states in the Gulf region will attempt to launch a single cur­rency to replace the dollar for pricing oil and trade with Gulf countries. Ulti­mately, they hope to create a mon­e­tary expe­ri­ence like the Euro, com­plete with their own cen­tral bank (hq’d in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) mod­eled after the ECB. Spear­heading the con­ver­sion is the Gulf Coop­er­a­tion Council (GCC), whose mem­bers are Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. Other regional pow­er­houses like Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen, etc., are excluded from membership. The move will give the hyper-rich club of oil exporters a petro-currency of their own, greatly increasing their influence in the global exchange and capital markets and potentially displacing the US dollar as the pricing currency for oil contracts.

Mexico

Mexico braced itself Thursday for revenge killings and a possible drug-turf war along the Arizona-Sonora border, a day after Mexican marines stormed an apartment complex and killed one of the country’s most-wanted drug kingpins. The death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva is seen as a major victory for the Mexican government, which has been fighting an increasingly bloody war against drug cartels since December 2006. But his death could also create a leadership struggle and reignite a battle for control of valuable drug routes in northwestern Mexico, experts said.

Pakistan

A suicide car bomber detonated his explosives near a mosque inside a police compound in northwestern Pakistan on Friday, killing 10 people in the latest attack by suspected Taliban militants waging war against the Pakistani government. Friday’s attack was the second in two weeks against a mosque used by Pakistan’s security forces. Most of the 10 people killed in the attack in the Lower Dir region were police leaving the mosque after Friday prayers. The blast wounded another 28 people, also mostly police.

Two U.S. missile strikes pummeled targets inside the main sanctuary used by al-Qaeda and the Taliban along Pakistan‘s border with Afghanistan on Thursday, killing 17 people, local intelligence officials said. The latest drone attacks came amid the prospect of renewed political instability in Pakistan, with President Asif Ali Zardari facing calls for his resignation after the Supreme Court struck down an amnesty that had protected him from corruption charges.

Philippines

Security forces in army trucks Friday sent about 3,000 residents outside the danger zone surrounding the smoldering Mayon volcano, which looked set for a major eruption after days of shooting ash plumes and spilling lava. More than 35,000 evacuees were given sleeping mats and food as they settled down in evacuation centers, mostly schools, where social workers were organizing Christmas parties and games to keep children busy. Mayon shot two plumes of smoke early Friday, one reaching almost 1.2 miles into the clear blue sky. Lava continued to trickle down its steep slope, and two lava domes had formed from rising magma inside the crater.

Weather

The government is spending $40 million in federal stimulus funds to pull water from underground aquifers in drought-stricken California, even as evidence is growing that the well-drilling boom could degrade the quality of water delivered to millions of residents. Farmers, conservationists and engineers are criticizing the Interior Department’s plan to spend taxpayer money on digging more wells, saying the approach risks marring the environment. Canals buckle, aquifers collapse and drinking water turns saltier due to so much pumping, as studies show that the state’s water supplies are dwindling.

December 16, 2009

D.C. Council Votes to Legalize Gay Marriage

The City Council voted Tuesday to legalize gay marriage, giving supporters a victory after a string of recent defeats elsewhere and sending the issue to Congress, which has final say over laws in the nation’s capital. Mayor Adrian Fenty has promised to sign the bill, which passed 11-2, and gay couples could begin marrying as early as March. Congress, however, must also approve any D.C. legislation. Federal lawmakers declined to weigh in the last time they had a chance, after the council voted in May to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Congress let that bill become law without taking any action, avoiding what could have amounted to a referendum on gay marriage. Matt Barber, director of cultural affairs for Liberty Counsel, says, “It’s very unfortunate that they would choose to brazenly circumvent the will of the people in order to push something on Washington, D.C. that the people reject.” The city’s Election Board refused to put the issue on a future ballot to allow the people to decide.

Climate Summit

Developing countries, including China and India, brought the negotiations to a halt earlier Monday with their demand that rich countries offer much deeper cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions. A showdown between the world’s two largest polluters loomed over the U.N. climate talks Tuesday as China accused the United States and other rich nations of backsliding on their commitments to fight global warming. The 27-nation European Union, meanwhile, called on both the U.S. and China to increase their commitments on emissions cuts. Pope Benedict XVI called for urgent action to protect the environment, saying Tuesday that climate change and natural catastrophes threaten the rights to life, food, health — and ultimately peace.

Within the chaos of the Copenhagen environmental summit, where negotiations among 192 countries nearly broke down Monday, there’s at least one oasis of apparent calm and progress. The U.S. booth in the conference hall — an elaborate, two-room complex with a giant, rotating computer screen shaped like the planet Earth— has been used for scientific lectures, business meetings and the announcement of several “green” initiatives by the Obama administration. The U.S. presence in Copenhagen is dramatically larger than at environmental conferences under President George W. Bush, when the booth often consisted of a lone U.S. official handing out pamphlets.

Danish police fired pepper spray and beat protesters with batons outside the U.N. climate conference on Wednesday, as disputes inside left major issues unresolved just two days before world leaders hope to sign a historic agreement to fight global warming. Hundreds of protesters were trying to disrupt the 193-nation conference, the latest action in days of demonstrations to demand “climate justice” — firm action to combat global warming. Police said 230 protesters were detained.

Poll: Majority of U.S. Favor Global Treaty

A solid majority of Americans support the idea of a global treaty that would require the United States to reduce significantly greenhouse gas emissions, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, although many also express concern about the potential impact on the economy. By 55%-38%, those surveyed endorse a binding accord to limit the gases tied to global warming. By a lopsided 7-1, however, Americans say the administration should put a higher priority on improving the economy than reducing global warming. And they are split on the likely economic impact of enacting new environmental and energy laws to address climate change: 42% say they will hurt the economy; 36% say they will help.

Gore Finds His Own ‘Truth’ Inconvenient

Al Gore has had to backtrack on his prediction of arctic ice loss as the “evidence” behind the theory has fallen through. While speaking at the Copenhagen climate conference, Gore stated that according to the latest science, the Arctic icecap will disappear completely over the next five years. However, the scientist who supposedly put the report together says he does not know how Gore came to that conclusion.

Record Levels of Toxic Algae

Large swaths of toxic algae have punished U.S. coastal towns at record levels this year, shutting down shellfish harvests and sickening swimmers from Maine to Texas to Seattle. The algal blooms stretch for hundreds of miles in some areas in a phenomenon known as “red tides” and give off toxins that sicken fish and birds and can cause paralysis in humans. The blooms have been getting increasingly larger and more toxic since 2004, causing an estimated $100 million a year in damage to the country’s seafood and tourism industries.

  • Perhaps this is the mechanism in Revelation that causes one-third of the oceans and fish to die off

Democrats May Drop Medicare Buy-In

Senate Democrats said Monday they are prepared to drop a proposal to let people under 65 buy into the Medicare program if that’s what it takes to pass President Obama‘s health care initiative. Talk of dropping the Medicare idea — which would have let people between 55 and 64 buy into the program — underscores the lengths Democratic leaders are going in their quest to hold their 60-member caucus together to pass some form of legislation by the end of the year.

Gitmo Detainees to be Transferred to Illinois Prison

Administration officials as well as Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, both Democrats, announced Tuesday afternoon at the White House that the government will acquire the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., an underutilized 1,600-cell prison in a sleepy town near the Mississippi River, to house detainees currently held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo. Republicans were lining up to criticize the Obama administration Tuesday over its decision to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a prison in Illinois, accusing President Obama of increasing the threat to America’s security by making the U.S. home to suspected terrorists, saying the transfer to U.S. soil will give terrorists constitutional rights and could pose a grave threat to the state’s security.

Group’s Census Promo Called ‘Blasphemous’

A push to spread the gospel about the 2010 Census this Christmas is stoking controversy with a campaign that links the government count to events surrounding the birth of Jesus. The National Association of Latino Elected Officials is leading the distribution to churches and clergy of thousands of posters that depict the arrival of Joseph and a pregnant Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. “This is how Jesus was born,” the poster states. “Joseph and Mary participated in the Census.” The posters are promoting the Census, used to help allocate $400 billion a year in federal dollars, redraw state and local political districts and determine the number of seats each state gets in Congress. “Our challenge is a full Latino count,” says Cruz, who designed the poster. For people who fear government — especially those here illegally — the plea to fill out the Census has to come from someone they trust, he says. The campaign may counter efforts by one Latino evangelical group to get Hispanics to boycott the Census unless Congress changes immigration laws. The Rev. Miguel Rivera, chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, says invoking the name of Jesus to promote the 2010 Census is “blasphemous.”

Radiation from CT Scans Linked to Cancers

CT scans deliver far more radiation than has been believed and may contribute to 29,000 new cancers each year, along with 14,500 deaths, suggest two studies in Monday’s Archives of Internal Medicine. One study, led by the National Cancer Institute, used existing exposure data to estimate how many cancers might be caused by CT scans. Another study in the journal suggests the problem may even be worse. In that study, researchers found that people may be exposed to up to four times as much radiation as estimated by earlier studies. Not all doctors agree about those risks. Scientists have not yet determined whether low doses of radiation actually increase cancer risk or whether the risk rises only after exposure levels reach a certain threshhold, says James Thrall, chairman of the American College of Radiology.

Pot, Painkiller Use Up, Meth Use Down in Teens

Smoking marijuana is becoming even more popular among U.S. teens and they have cut down on smoking cigarettes, binge drinking and using methamphetamine, according to a federal survey released Monday. More teens also are getting high on prescription pain pills and attention-deficit drugs, according to eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed by the University of Michigan for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The increase of teens smoking pot is partly because the national debate over medical use of marijuana can make the drugs seem safer to teenagers, researchers said. In addition to marijuana, fewer teens also view prescription drugs and Ecstasy as dangerous, which often means more could use them in the future, said White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske.

Malaria Down by Half

Malaria cases appear to have been slashed by half in more than a third of countries battling the disease following a renewed push by the United Nations to eradicate it, the World Health Organization said Tuesday. In a new global report on malaria, the U.N. health agency said it was cautiously optimistic the mosquito-borne disease’s spread is slowing. Malaria infected more than 240 million people last year and killed an estimated 863,000 people, mostly in Africa. Repeated attempts to eradicate the disease have flopped and until recently, the number of cases has been rising.

Obama Urges Banks to Lend

President Obama vowed to “recover every last dime” of taxpayer funds that went to rescue Wall Street, as banking giants Citigroup and Wells Fargo announced plans Monday to repay Uncle Sam. Obama met with top bankers at the White House Monday, urging them to help the economy by extending loans to good borrowers, chiding them for lobbying against tougher regulations and reminding them that “the American people” saved them from “a predicament largely of their own making.” Since Congress passed a bailout bill last year, the government has handed out $370 billion (of a maximum $700 billion) in aid to troubled financial institutions and auto companies. But the money came with strings attached, including pay restrictions. Banks, returning to profitability, had paid back $116 billion before Monday’s announcements.

Economic News

Inflation at the wholesale level surged in November, reflecting price jumps in energy and other products while industrial production rose a better-than-expected 0.8% for the month, a sign of recovery taking root in some parts of the economy. Wholesale prices jumped 1.8% in November, more than double the 0.8% gain analysts expected. Core inflation, which excludes energy and food, rose 0.5%, biggest increase in more than a year. The Labor Department said consumer prices moved higher last month, but they mostly reflected higher energy costs. Stripping out energy and food, all other consumer prices were flat last month.

Construction of new homes, helped by better weather, rebounded in the U.S. in November following a setback in the previous month. The Commerce Department said construction of new homes and apartments rose 8.9% in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 574,000 units. Applications for new building permits were also up, rising 6% to an annual rate of 584,000 units.

General Motors plans to pay all of its $6.7 billion in government loans by the end of June, Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre Jr. said Tuesday. The automaker plans to make quarterly installments starting this month with a $1.2 billion payment, Whitacre said. GM has received $52 billion total in aid from the government as it navigated bankruptcy protection earlier this year. Of that total, $45.3 billion was converted into equity, giving the government a 61% stake in the automaker. Whitacre said GM has no timetable yet for an initial public offering of stock, which would be necessary for the government to recoup the rest of its investment in the company.

The U.S. government “quietly” agreed not to collect billions of dollars in taxes from Citigroup as part of its deal to allow the bank to repay its taxpayer bailout. The Internal Revenue Service issued a notice that extends the benefit to Citi and other companies in which the government owns a stake, the WashingtonPost reported Tuesday.

  • Preferential treatment for government purposes. Try getting such relief for yourself or your business.

China has outstripped the U.S. in the amount of money raised from stock listings, underscoring the region’s stronger economy and a resurgence in investment. Companies have raised nearly $52 billion from initial public offerings on exchanges in Hong Kong and mainland China so far this year, according to financial research firm Dealogic. That’s about twice as much as the some $26.5 billion in American IPOs.

Harassment Across Arab World Drives Women Inside

The sexual harassment of women in the streets, schools and work places of the Arab World is driving them to cover up and confine themselves to their homes, said activists at the first-ever regional conference addressing the once taboo topic. Activists from 17 countries across the region met in Cairo for a two-day conference ending Monday and concluded that harassment was unchecked across the region because laws don’t punish it, women don’t report it and the authorities ignore it. The harassment, including groping and verbal abuse, appears to be designed to drive women out of public spaces and seems to happen regardless of what they are wearing, they said. As many as 90% of Yemeni women say they have been harassed, while in Egypt, out of a sample of 1,000, 83% reported being verbally or physically abused.

Afghanistan

A suicide car bomber struck a heavily guarded neighborhood Tuesday near the home of a former Afghan vice president and a hotel favored by Westerners, killing at least eight people and wounding dozens. The brazen suicide attack underscored the precarious security situation in the heart of the Afghan capital.

The top U.S. military officer said Tuesday that he’s confident that most of the 30,000 additional troops that are being sent to Afghanistan will be there by August.

Iraq

Car bombs and other explosions ripped through Iraq‘s capital and a major northern city on Tuesday, killing nine people and showing again the ease with which insurgents manage to slip past security. The explosions in Baghdad and Mosul came exactly a week after suicide bombers killed 127 people and wounded more than 500 in a series of five bombings in the Iraqi capital — three of which appeared to target government buildings. The blasts raise fresh questions about the government’s ability to protect itself and its citizens as U.S. forces prepare to leave Iraq. Iraq‘s prime minister said Wednesday that continued violence won’t slow the U.S. military’s withdrawal from his country.

Pakistan

A suicide car bomb exploded in a market close to the home of a politician in Pakistan‘s most populous province Tuesday, killing 22 people and wounding 70 others. The blast in the Punjabi town of Dera Ghazi Khan was the latest in a series of attacks by Taliban militants avenging an army offensive against insurgents in the northwest. More than 500 people have been killed.

Iran

Iran announced Wednesday it has successfully test fired an upgraded version of its longest-range, solid-fuel missile which it said is faster and harder to shoot down. The Sajjil-2 is a two-stage missile with a range of about 1,200 miles. That range places Israel, Iran’s sworn enemy, well within reach and extends as far away as southeastern Europe with greater precision than earlier models.

The U.S. said Tuesday it will investigate a newspaper report that Iran is working on a trigger for a nuclear bomb, adding the “revelation” fueled concerns about the country’s intentions. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley’s remarks appeared to give credence to a report in The Times of London stating it had obtained a secret document describing a four-year plan by Iran to test a neutron initiator, or bomb trigger.

Philippines

The Philippines‘ most active volcano oozed lava and shot up plumes of ash Tuesday, forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes and face the possibility of a bleak Christmas in a shelter. Dark orange lava fragments glowed in the dark as they trickled down the mountain slope overnight. More than 20,000 people were evacuated to safety by nightfall Tuesday.

Sudan

At least 2,000 people have died and 250,000 have fled their homes following violence in southern Sudan this year, worsening a humanitarian crisis in a region seeking its independence, officials from a medical aid group said Monday. Officials from Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said this year’s violence is the worst since the signing of a 2005 peace deal between south Sudan and the north, an agreement that ended two decades of civil war. The group’s operations director in Sudan, Stephan Goetghebuer, said the 2009 killings are different from past violence in the south that was linked to land clashes and cattle rustling. This year, villages have been attacked, and raiders have targeted and killed women and children, he said.

Weather

Streets flooded, schools closed and at least one emergency shelter opened for people whose homes took on water as heavy rains pounded southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday, setting a monthly rainfall record at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, the airport in suburban New Orleans had received 22.26 inches of rain for the month.

December 14, 2009

Christian Parents Jailed for Shunning Explicit Sex Ed

An international human rights organization today announced it will pursue a civil lawsuit on behalf of parents who want to control their children’s education and withhold them from explicit sex education and play-acting classes required by the German government. Joel Thornton of the International Human Rights Group told WorldNetDaily the government in Salzkotten, Germany, is sending the fathers of the children to jail for terms of one week because they have refused to turn their children over to school officials for mandated sex classes. Eight families of Christians have decided to withhold their children from required sex education classes in Salzkotten. Sex education classes in Germany are explicit, and the issue is one of the major reasons why families – and not just Christian families – choose to homeschool their children even though the government has maintained its illegality since the days of Hitler.

  • Germany is a precursor to a global movement to promote promiscuous and deviant sex through state-run secular humanism indoctrination centers (otherwise known as public schools) and prohibit homeschooling

Fast-Growing Christian Churches Crushed in China

Members of a Chinese megachurch say it has been closed by police and hired thugs who smashed doors, seized Bibles, and sent dozens of worshippers to hospitals with serious injuries. The eight-story Golden Lamp Church was built to serve nearly 50,000 worshippers in northern China. Today, its co-pastors are in jail, the gates are locked, and a police vehicle sits outside. Its closure is the most visible sign that the communist government is determined to rein in the rapid spread of Christianity, with a crackdown in recent months that church leaders call the harshest in years. Congregations under attack are part of China’s growing “house church” movement, which rejects the state-controlled church in favor of liturgical freedom and a more evangelical outlook.

  • Human rights organizations conveniently overlook what’s happening to Christian congregations

New Jersey Marriage Vote Canceled

Last Thursday, the New Jersey Senate was supposed to vote on gay marriage. Gay-marriage advocates had promised their supporters that they would pass a gay marriage bill this year. It was a done deal. Gay marriage was inevitable in New Jersey, they said. Over and over again. But a funny thing happened on the way to inevitability. Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage says, “Marriage won. Truth won. Democracy won. Common sense won. Religious liberty won. The right of the people to influence their elected representatives was once more reaffirmed.” Kip Bateman, one of the Republican senators who came out against gay marriage, was very blunt about the fuss marriage defenders helped create: “’I’ve been inundated. Hundreds and hundreds of emails, phone calls… My staff’s ready to walk out.”

  • Prayer and political activism won the day. Keep it up!

Climate Summit Stalemated

The Copenhagen climate change summit is likely to end with two rival texts because the main countries cannot agree on the key question of how to share the burden of cutting emissions to a safe level. The extent of the disagreement was exposed by the publication Saturday of two draft agreements, neither of which contained clear numbers or language on any of the most contentious issues, despite two years of negotiations before the summit. The negotiators from 193 countries are hoping that the early arrival at the summit of several world leaders Wednesday will help to break the deadlock.

Health Reform Begins at Home

Americans are unfit, unhealthy and costing the nation billions of dollars to treat illnesses that could easily be prevented. And health experts believe it’s only going to get worse. Already, more than 67 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Only one in seven eats the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. And nearly one-third don’t meet federal guidelines for even moderate physical activity, meaning they spend less than 2½ hours a week walking, cycling, gardening or doing anything else that increases their heart rate. Preventative medicine is the best, most economical form of health care. Improving our overall health could eliminate billions of dollars in costs by keeping people out of hospitals in the first place, not to mention saving tens of thousands of lives.

  • We’re constantly trying to have government fix problems that are caused by poor individual choices. Just as home buyers taking on unreasonable mortgages was the root cause of the real estate crash, so too are poor health habits causing the excessive costs of health care. More government regulations (and debt) will not fix the problem.

Resistance to Medicare Buy-In Plan

Risking the wrath of Democrats, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., threatened Sunday to join Republicans in opposing health care legislation if it permits uninsured individuals as young to 55 to purchase Medicare coverage. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who is hoping to pass the legislation by Christmas, needs 60 votes to overcome Republican objections, and has been counting on Lieberman to provide the sixtienth one. Lieberman said of the Medicare proposal, “It will add taxpayer costs. It will add to the deficit. It’s unnecessary,” he added of a provision that Reid last week hailed as part of a breakthrough between liberals and moderates.

Verichip’s Merger Worries Privacy Activists

PossitiveID is the new company formed from a merger between VeriChip and Steel Vault. With a human-implantable microchip maker now running a credit-scoring and identity-theft-protection website, privacy activists are worried. VeriChip and its former owner Applied Digital have been drawing fire since 2004, when the FDA approved the rice-sized injectable RFID for human use. Critics of chipping are moved by a variety of concerns. Anti-RFID crusader Katherine Albrecht believes the technology is the Mark of the Beast predicted in the Book of Revelation, but also doubts its efficacy as a medical tag.

Immigration Sweep Nets 286 Criminals

Immigration agents say they have arrested 286 people in California in what authorities call the biggest such crackdown yet in state communities. The major sweep announced Friday was aimed at rounding up suspected illegal immigrants with criminal records. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says more than 400 agents and local law enforcement officers conducted a three-day search.

Houston Becomes Largest U.S. City with Gay Mayor

Houston became the largest U.S. city to elect an openly gay mayor, with voters handing a solid victory to City Controller Annise Parker after a hotly contested runoff. Parker defeated former city attorney Gene Locke with 53.6 percent of the vote Saturday in a race that had a turnout of only 16.5 percent. “This election has changed the world for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community. Just as it is about transforming the lives of all Houstonians for the better, and that’s what my administration will be about,” Parker told supporters after Locke conceded defeat. Her sexual orientation became the focus of the race after anti-gay activists and conservative religious groups endorsed Locke and sent out mailers condemning Parker’s “homosexual behavior.”

Asarco Settlement with Feds will Clean up 80 Polluted Sites

Environmental settlements with copper miner Asarco LLC will pay for cleanup at 80 polluted sites in 19 states, mostly in the West, U.S. Justice Department officials said Thursday. Tucson-based Asarco paid $1.79 billion to settle environmental claims it faced during the company’s bankruptcy proceedings. The mining company emerged Wednesday from four years of bankruptcy reorganization after being purchased by Mexico City-based Grupo Mexico SAB, and all the settlements were funded, the largest recovery of money for environmental cleanup in U.S. history.

Senate Passes $1.1 Trillion Spending Bill

The Senate on Sunday passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill with increased budgets for vast areas of the federal government including health, education, law enforcement and veterans’ programs. The 1,000-page-plus package, one of the last essential chores of Congress this year, passed 57-35 and now goes to President Obama for his signature. Democrats said the spending was critical to meet the needs of a recession-battered economy. Republicans decried what they said was out-of control spending and pointed to an estimated $3.9 billion in the bill for more than 5,000 local projects sought by individual lawmakers from both parties.

  • To increase federal spending at this point in the debt-induced recession is not only asinine but suicidal

Interest Rates Are Low, but Banks Balk at Refinancing

Mortgage rates in the United States have dropped to their lowest levels since the 1940s, thanks to a trillion-dollar intervention by the federal government. Yet the banks that once handed out home loans freely are imposing such stringent requirements that many homeowners who might want to refinance are effectively locked out. The scarcity of credit not only hurts homeowners but also has broad economic repercussions at a time when consumer spending and employment are showing modest signs of improvement. Refinancing could save owners hundreds of dollars a month, which could be spent, saved or used to pay down debts. Extra spending would help lift the economy, and lower payments might spare some people from losing their homes to foreclosure.

Benefits Backlog Affects Millions

Millions of Americans are waiting longer for unemployment checks, disability payments and food stamps as states furlough workers who process the benefits. From January through September, 30 states and the District of Columbia failed to meet federal standards that say they should pay at least 87% of unemployment claims within 14 to 21 days of the application, the Labor Department says. Nationwide, 2 million people got their first checks later — in some cases, after more than 70 days. That’s up from 962,000 people for the same period in 2008, when 15 states missed the goal. The number of people waiting for their first disability checks increased 38% in 2009 to 768,666, according to the Social Security inspector general. Furloughing workers who help the needy is “fundamentally irrational,” says Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue.

  • What’s irrational is the federal government pushing down its obligations onto state budgets and then castigating the states as they begin to feel the full impacts of decreased revenues and increased expenses.

Economic News

Regulators on Friday shut down Republic Federal Bank in Florida, the 131st to succumb so far this year as U.S. banks big and small have been undermined by sour loan portfolios and the battered economy. The shutdown of Republic Federal brought to 13 the number of bank failures in Florida so far this year. Failures also have been concentrated in California, Georgia and Illinois.

Citigroup said Monday it has struck a deal with the government to return $20 billion in bailout money to taxpayers. Citigroup became one of the biggest recipients of bailout money last year after the government injected $45 billion into the company to help stabilize the embattled lender.

Kremlin/U.S. Tout Nuke Progress

Russia and the United States are making “substantial progress” on negotiations for a successor to an expired nuclear weapons treaty, according to a Kremlin statement. President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev talked by phone in detail this weekend about the negotiations and agreed to extend the talks. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START, expired Dec. 5. Both governments have spent several months negotiating a new pact that would further reduce the size of the nuclear arsenals on both sides.

Afghanistan

The first reinforcements sent to Afghanistan under President Obama’s new plan will try to seize remaining insurgent strongholds in the south, touching off a struggle for a strategically important province where success could help turn the tide of war. The initial 16,000 troops ordered to Afghanistan includes about 8,500 Marines bound for Helmand. That would bring the number of Marines fighting in the province to about 20,000. The first battalion of about 1,000 is leaving this month, the first wave of the 30,000 troops the White House has ordered to Afghanistan in an effort to reverse the course of the 8-year-old war. Casualties will rise as the fighting intensifies.

Iran

Iran is ready to exchange the bulk of its stockpile of enriched uranium for nuclear fuel rods — as proposed by the U.N. — but according to its own mechanisms and timetable, the foreign minister said Saturday. Speaking to reporters at a regional security conference in Bahrain, Manochehr Mottaki said Iran agreed with a U.N. deal proposed in October in which up to 2,600 pounds of its uranium would be exchanged for fuel rods to power its research reactor. The International Atomic Energy Agency proposed in October that Iran ship its uranium out of the country to be further refined by France and Russia and turned into fuel rods, which cannot be turned into weapons.

  • Yet another negotiating ploy to buy more time

Pakistan

Five young American men under investigation in Pakistan for alleged terror links had established contact with a Taliban recruiter and have told FBI officials they were on a mission to be martyred, a Pakistani police official said. The five Muslim students were being questioned over the weekend by local law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the eastern city of Lahore, where they were shifted in the morning. FBI agents, who have been granted access to the men, are trying to see if there is enough evidence to charge any of them with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group

Philippines

Tribal gunmen freed 47 hostages in the southern Philippines on Sunday, but the region continued to be wracked by violence as suspected Islamic radicals staged a deadly jail break in which dozens of inmates were freed, including comrades accused of beheading marines. The crises underscore the complexity of conflicts raging in the country’s south, an impoverished region awash with firearms, outlaws, political warlords and Muslim insurgents.

Weather

Rocks and debris trapped cars on Los Angeles area roadways and fears of mudslides forced dozens out of their homes as California was hit with a wintry storm that inundated lowland areas with rain and threatened the mountains with heavy snow. Parts of a 12-mile stretch of the Angeles Crest Highway just north of Los Angeles were buried by mud and rock Saturday, leaving 90 vehicles stranded as authorities closed the road and crews cleared the scene.

December 11, 2009

More U.S. Christians Mix in ‘Eastern,’ New Age Beliefs

Elements of Eastern faiths and New Age thinking have been widely adopted by 65% of U.S. adults, including many who call themselves Protestants and Catholics, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released Wednesday. The chances are that one in five of the people in church find “spiritual energy” in mountains or trees, and one in six believe in the “evil eye,” that certain people can cast curses with a look — beliefs Christian pastors don’t preach. Chances are that one in five Catholics believe in reincarnation in a way never taught in catechism class — that you’ll be reborn in this world again and again. Syncretism — mashing up contradictory beliefs — appears on the rise. And, according to the survey’s other major finding, devotion to one clear faith is fading.

  • Syncretism is the objective of the New World Order as they push for a one-size fits all Universal Religion that preaches tolerance and inclusiveness

Poll: Clergy Ethics Declining

Americans’ views of the “honesty and ethics” of clergy have hit a 32-year low, with just half rating their moral caliber as high or very high, according to Gallup’s annual Honesty and Ethics Ratings of Professions survey. The favorable rating declined from 56% last year to 50% this year. Now the clergy’s ratings are even below where they were earlier this decade at the height of the Catholic Church’s clergy abuse scandal. Still, ratings of the clergy remain high on a relative basis, ranking eighth of the 22 professions tested this year,” Gallup said. Clergy ratings, however, declined the most. The most highly regarded profession was nursing, with 83% judging nurses’ honesty and ethics as high or very high. Police officers showed the greatest gain (7 points), to 63%. Bankers’ ratings tumbled amidst the financial crisis to 19%, down from 23% in 2008 and 35% in 2007. Ratings of stockbrokers fell to 9%, the same level as members of Congress.

  • One of Satan’s key end-times strategies is to undermine Christianity. One way is to increase attacks on the clergy and then trumpet their failures through the cooperative mainstream media

Poor Blame Rich at Climate Talks

Tensions spilled over at a global warming summit Wednesday as the leading delegate for poor countries accused the United States and other nations of using colonial-era tactics to “preserve their dominance.” Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di-Aping said proposals made in Copenhagen to cut emissions of greenhouse gases were insufficient. Di-Aping, speaking on behalf of a 135-nation bloc of poorer countries — of which China includes itself — accused wealthier countries of trying to hoard economic resources for themselves. His comments reflected a divide between rich and poor nations at the conference, where 192 countries are trying to forge a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Their pleas come as donor countries are recovering from the worst worldwide economic slump since the 1930s.

EU leaders say they have agreed to commit $3.6 billion a year until 2012 to help poorer countries combat global warming. The climate money is meant to go toward a global $10 billion annual fund for short-term help to poor countries. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the offer “puts Europe in a leadership role in Copenhagen.” Sarkozy also said Friday the leaders agreed to reduce their emissions by 30% of 1990 levels by 2020.

Countries with relatively healthy economies such as Brazil and China say they shouldn’t have to limit their economic growth because of past emissions by the USA and Europe. Richer nations say their greenhouse gas emissions have started to drop, and most of the growth in emissions will come from poor nations starting to industrialize. Todd Stern, a lead negotiator for the U.S. delegation, said the United States was willing to pitch in an unspecified share of the funds that will be sent from rich nations to poor ones. He said the total amount could reach $10 billion a year right away. Stern said China should not be among the recipients because its economy is prospering.

  • Wealth distribution is global socialism. Always sounds good, never works. But it gives more power to government, the primary objective of the New World Order

Climate Data Suspect

In a study last year, Ray Weiss, a geochemist who studies atmospheric pollution at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and colleagues took air samples and found that levels of nitrogen trifluoride, an industrial gas 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide as an atmospheric warming agent, were four times above what industry estimates had suggested. He says that monitoring equipment must be significantly upgraded around the world to prevent similar fudging of data if a deal is reached in Copenhagen. He says the cuts that countries including the USA are proposing in greenhouse gas emissions are difficult to measure and highly susceptible to manipulation by government officials and companies.

  • The politicians can posture all they want, but ultimately the data will either be unreliable or corrupted. So, it’s all just a lot of hot air – except for the costs imposed by these decisions which will result in greater costs to each of us.

Medical Groups Balk at Medicare ‘Buy-In’

Hospital and doctor groups that have generally supported the effort to revamp the nation’s health care system pushed back Wednesday against a new idea proposed by Democratic leaders to let younger Americans buy into Medicare. The proposal, which would allow people 55 to 64 to enroll in the seniors health program, has emerged as a central part of an agreement struck between centrist and liberal Democrats sparring over the creation of a government-run insurance program. Though the idea gained traction on Capitol Hill — and got a boost from President Obama — the outcry from the medical groups underscored the difficulty lawmakers are facing as they look for compromises that can win broad support for the Senate’s bill, which would cost $848 billion in the first 10 years.

  • Medicare is already a black hole gobbling up federal debt, so of course it makes sense for government to expand it. Aging baby boomers are already forecast to expand the program well beyond its limits.

Pell Grant Program Faces Shortfall

The Pell Grant program for needy college students is facing a massive shortfall as the country’s bleak job market drives people back to school. An administration official told The Associated Press the program will cost $18 billion more than Congress and the White House had anticipated over the next three years. Shortfalls and surpluses are common in the Pell Grant program, which forms the foundation for federal college aid. Anyone who is eligible gets a grant, making it difficult for the government to anticipate how many people will apply. Pell Grants typically go to families earning less than $40,000. Yet the looming shortfall is the largest in the 36-year history of the program, whose entire budget was about $18 billion last year.

  • Yet another of many federal black holes sucking up our tax dollars and ringing up more debt

House Passes Pork-Filled Spending Bill

A $1.1 trillion spending bill laced with budget increases and more than 5,000 congressional pet projects passed the House on Thursday amid criticism from Republicans and watchdog groups. The package — which combines six annual spending bills into one, with an average increase of 10%. It was approved 221 to 202 and now moves to the Senate. “At a time when we have record deficits, the American people are concerned about the deficits and the increasing debt, and yet I’ll guarantee you that we found a million here and a million there to fund somebody’s little pork project in some state in America,” House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said.

  • 5,000 pet projects! Unconscionable. Unforgivable. Politics as usual.

Dems to Raise U.S. Borrowing Limit by Nearly $2 Trillion

Congress is poised to lift the federal borrowing limit by as much as $1.8 trillion before the end of this year, a number large enough to avoid revisiting the matter next year when Democrats will have to defend their majority in midterm elections. The Treasury is nearing the current debt ceiling of $12.1 trillion, and Congress must authorize raising the amount the United States can borrow to avoid the country going into default to its creditors. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that the House would combine legislation raising the debt limit with a bill  that funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, greatly increasing the chances that the bill will clear Congress before the government can max out its credit card.

  • With the ability to print money to cover debt and raise the debt-limit as high as they need, there are absolutely no restraints on our elected officials who continue to defy rational budgeting standards

More Fed Workers Get 6-Figure Salaries

The number of federal workers earning six-figure salaries has exploded during the recession, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal salary data. Federal employees making salaries of $100,000 or more jumped from 14% to 19% of civil servants during the recession’s first 18 months — and that’s before overtime pay and bonuses are counted. Federal workers are enjoying an extraordinary boom time — in pay and hiring — during a recession that has cost 7.3 million jobs in the private sector. The highest-paid federal employees are doing best of all on salary increases. Defense Department civilian employees earning $150,000 or more increased from 1,868 in December 2007 to 10,100 in June 2009, the most recent figure available.

  • The federal government is not only recession-proof, but also recession-high. Drunk with power, the only sure thing in Washington, D.C. is that the federal beast will continue to gorge itself at our expense

Economic News

The number of newly laid-off workers applying for unemployment benefits rose more than expected in the latest week, after falling for five straight weeks. Initial claims for unemployment insurance rose 17,000 to a seasonally adjusted 474,000 the week ended Dec. 5, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average of claims, which smooths fluctuations, fell to 473,750, its 14th straight decline and the lowest level since September 2008.

The number of homeowners on the brink of foreclosure fell in November, the fourth straight monthly decline, as mortgage companies evaluated whether borrowers were eligible for help. Nearly 307,000 households, or one in every 417 homes, received a foreclosure-related notice in November, down 8% from a month earlier, RealtyTrac said Thursday. Banks repossessed about 77,000 homes last month, down slightly from October.

Businesses unexpectedly added to inventories at the wholesale level in October, breaking a record of 13 straight declines. It was a hopeful sign that companies will begin restocking store shelves, helping to bolster the fragile economy. Wholesale inventories rose 0.3% in October.

Retail sales rose more than expected in November, boosting hopes that the critical consumer sector will support the fragile economic recovery. Retail sales rose 1.3% last month, after a 1.1% October gain, the Commerce Department said Friday.

Only about 4% of homeowners whose home loans were reworked through a government-led program have successfully completed a trial period required to get permanent modifications — a slow pace of progress that has some now calling for change.

The U.S. trade deficit unexpectedly narrowed in October as exports surged to the highest level in nearly a year. Growing exports, boosted by a weaker dollar, are expected to boost demand for U.S. manufactured goods in coming months and provide important strength to the economic recovery. The Commerce Department said Thursday that the trade deficit fell to $32.9 billion in October, 7.6% below a revised September deficit of $35.7 billion.

  • Hooray – except its still another large deficit

5 Captured Americans Probed for Terror Links

Five young American Muslims captured in Pakistan are under investigation for possible links to terrorism after their families found a disturbing farewell video the missing men left behind showing scenes of war and casualties and saying Muslims must be defended. In Islamabad on Thursday, police officials said Pakistani intelligence agents were interrogating the five Americans. They said the men were cooperating after first giving conflicting statements. On the heels of charges against a Chicago man accused of plotting international terrorism, the case is another worrisome sign that Americans can be recruited within the United States to enlist in terrorist networks.

Droves of Palestinians Faking Illness to Flee Gaza

Several thousand Palestinians have managed to flee the Gaza Strip this year by bribing officials and producing forged medical documents certifying they are ill and in need of treatment abroad, according to a report on Thursday from the Associated Press. Living conditions in Gaza have deteriorated under the rule of the radical Islamic militia Hamas in recent years, and both Egypt and Israel have maintained tight security measures on the flow of people and goods through the Strip’s border crossings. To escape the growing poverty and misery, many Gazans have resorted to faking cancer and other serious diseases which can only be treated in hospitals in Israel or elsewhere. This requires that they pay out middlemen who help them bribe Palestinian and Egyptian officials and find doctors willing to forge medical papers needed for entry into Israel. Palestinian polls suggest nearly half the population would like to leave if they could.

Philippines

Suspected bandits abducted dozens of villagers in the southern Philippines on Thursday and were still holding about 60 of them hostage, including schoolchildren and teachers, officials said. The gunmen, believed to be former government-armed militiamen, seized about 75 people from the remote hamlet of San Martin in Agusan del Sur province and the local village school, but after negotiations with local officials released 15 of the students. Police were pursuing the gunmen, who appeared to be using the hostages as human shields to escape after a clash with authorities in a nearby village on Wednesday. The volatile southern Philippines is plagued by banditry, loosely supervised government-armed militias, and Muslim and communist insurgents.

Weather

Midwesterners on Thursday focused on digging out of the snow — up to 19 inches in some areas — and bracing for bitter-cold temperatures and more snow as a winter storm neared the end of its cross-country trek. Wind-chill temperatures could dip as low as minus 25 in parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois,. Blizzard warnings covered parts of southwest Michigan where another 12 inches of snow was expected by Friday evening. In the Northeast, which was hit by the tail end of the storm, up to 18 inches of snow could fall in parts of central and western New York, while wind gusts approaching 60 mph were reported near Buffalo. The snow was the worst to hit Iowa since 1996. Des Moines was buried under 16 inches. The storm has been blamed for at least 17 deaths. Thousands of people were still without power on Thursday.

The National Weather Service had more than 80 reports of wind damage, mostly in the Southeast, where Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina reported trees toppled, power lines down and homes damaged. Gusts of 75 mph were recorded in Maplesville, Ala.

The El Nino climate phenomena has strengthened and is expected to last into spring, potentially affecting weather around the globe for the next few months, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday. El Nino is a periodic warming of the water in the tropical Pacific Ocean accompanied by changes in air pressure and winds that can influence weather worldwide. Potential impacts through February, NOAA said,

December 9, 2009

Obama Proposes “Redirecting” Returned Bailout $$

Facing record job losses and record budget deficits, President Obama proposed a series of steps Tuesday that he said could reduce pink slips and red ink simultaneously. The president urged Congress to cut taxes and increase loan guarantees for small businesses, speed up highway and other public works projects, and offer rebates to people who make their homes more energy efficient. He said those steps could be taken while still cutting the $1.4 trillion federal budget deficit because an earlier bailout of banks and financial institutions has cost $200 billion less than projected. Some of that money can be redirected to small businesses, he said, without specifying a figure. “There are those who claim we have to choose between paying down our deficits on the one hand, and investing in job creation and economic growth on the other. This is a false choice,” Obama said. Even with the bailout’s reduced cost estimate, however, it’s still slated to add $141 billion to the deficit because repayments haven’t equaled investments.

  • Obama lives in a fairy-tale universe quite removed from reality. False choice? If we don’t rein in government debt and spending, the economy will sink for good while Obama continues to blame Bush and Fox News

Wasted Stimulus $$

Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., held a news conference Tuesday in which they released a report criticizing 100 projects paid for by the stimulus package that they claim wasted $7 billion. They blasted the use of federal stimulus dollars, claiming the money has gone to many projects that have little or nothing to do with job creation. A prime example: Mark Penn, who worked as Clinton’s pollster during her 2008 presidential run, reportedly received $5.97 million from the stimulus package so he could preserve three jobs at his public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller.

  • The federal government is the most poorly run organization in the entire country.

Senate Democrats Kill Abortion Amendment, Reach Deal on Public Option

Senate Democrats have reached a tentative deal on the divisive issue of government-run health insurance, a development that bolstered chances for health care legislation passing this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday. Reid declined to offer details, but vowed that “insurance companies will have more competition and the American people will have more choices.” He said the public option had not been stripped out of the health care bill. Shortly after Reid’s announcement, however, one Democrat said he is concerned about the new approach. “While I appreciate the willingness of all parties to engage in good-faith discussions, I do not support proposals that would replace the public option in the bill with a purely private approach,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

Reid’s announcement came just hours after the Senate faced another thorny issue associated with the 10-year, $848 billion health care bill: Abortion. Senators rejected an amendment that would have imposed stricter guidelines for the procedure. Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who has been among the most vocal critics of the health care legislation crafted by Reid, expressed disappointment that the Senate rejected his abortion amendment.

  • Reid is just like Obama: claim optimistic results in spite of the facts. The Democrats are in disarray and making all kinds of backroom deals to try and squeak a bill through Congress. Those deals and compromised legislation ensure a complete debacle.

Tea Party Gaining Political Traction

A new poll finds that the Tea Party is currently more popular with unaffiliated voters than the Republican Party. A survey by Rasmussen Reports finds that in a three-way Generic Ballot test, Democrats attract 36 percent of the vote, the Tea Party candidate picks up 23 percent, and Republicans finish third at 18 percent. Another 22 percent are undecided. Among voters not affiliated with either major party, the Tea Party comes out on top. Thirty-three percent prefer the Tea Party candidate, and 30 percent are undecided. Twenty-five percent would vote for a Democrat, and just 12 percent prefer the GOP. Pete Sepp is vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, a group that helped organize the taxpayer march on Washington in September. He predicts the Tea Party movement will continue to grow. “This is kind of the important message that we need to understand with the Tea Party movement,” he explains. “It is something that happened almost spontaneously and attracted organizations that had been here for years as well as newly founded groups — all behind a cause to try and take back the government we citizens once owned.”

Climategate ‘Tip of Iceberg’

The Colorado scientist described by the Washington Post as “the World’s Most Famous Hurricane Expert” says the “Climategate” e-mails from the United Kingdom that revealed possible data manipulation are evidence of a conspiracy among “warmists,” those who believe man’s actions are triggering possibly catastrophic climate change. “The recent ‘ClimateGate’ revelations coming out of the UK University of East Anglia are but the tip of a giant iceberg of a well organized international climate warming conspiracy that has been gathering momentum for the last 25 years,” said Colorado State University’s William Gray. He is emeritus professor of atmospheric science at CSU and heads the school’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences Tropical Meteorology Project. Gray said, “This conspiracy would become much more manifest if all the e-mails of the publically funded climate research groups of the U.S. and of foreign governments were ever made public.”

Swine Flu Far Less Severe Than First Reported

A team of researchers from the USA and Britain on Monday dramatically scaled back estimates of the severity of the swine flu epidemic. The analysis suggests that the death rate from the current wave of H1N1 flu cases probably will fall in a range that extends from far lower to slightly higher than the estimate of 36,000 deaths caused by seasonal flu in a typical year. The calculations represent a marked reduction from an August report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. That report proposed a “plausible” death toll that could fall anywhere between 30,000 and 90,000, whereas the new estimates suggest the number will more likely be much lower. The earlier estimate was based on “limited data” because the researchers began their work not long after the virus first surfaced in April, when little was known about the shape of the epidemic to come.

  • Globalist scare tactics are rapidly unraveling

New Cancer Cases, Death Rates Decline

The rates of new cancer cases and deaths continue to fall modestly each year, evidence that the nation has made progress in reducing tobacco use, preventing cancer, finding cancer early and treating it more effectively, according to the “Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer,” released Monday night. The rate of new cancer diagnoses fell by slightly less than 1% a year from 1999 to 2006. and the death rate fell by 1.6% a year. Nearly 1.5 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and more than 562,000 will die from it, the cancer society says.

Drunken Driving Fatalities Down 7%

States that target drunken driving with aggressive enforcement efforts saw their DUI fatality rates drop from 2007 to 2008, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Monday, minutes after he and other officials launched a national holiday crackdown on impaired driving. “In states where you have real tough law enforcement, where the law enforcement people are no-nonsense, those are the states that have been able to reduce their numbers,” LaHood said. “In states where they don’t have tough law enforcement, or they don’t do it as aggressively as other states, the numbers are not that good.” According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the drunken-driving fatality rate in the USA declined about 7% from 2007 to 2008, continuing a decades-long drop. Drunken-driving deaths have been trending downward since 1982, two years after Mothers Against Drunk Driving began focusing attention on the issue. There were 11,773 such fatalities in 2008, a 44% drop from the 21,113 in 1982, according to NHTSA and U.S. Department of Transportation data.

EPA’s Carbon Dioxide Ruling Could Raise Energy Costs

The latest step by the government to regulate carbon dioxide emissions saddles industry with uncertainty and potentially higher costs, industry groups said Monday after the Environmental Protection Agency declared carbon dioxide a health hazard. The EPA’s decision paves the way for new regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and factories even if Congress doesn’t pass legislation to do so. If nothing changes, the EPA, sometime next year, could require big carbon emitters – such as power plants, steel mills, cement makers and others – to put the best available equipment on new and modified plants to curb emissions. Industry groups say EPA regulation would eventually drive up energy costs, lead to lost jobs and delays in project permits and construction. More immediately, “This adds more uncertainty and could impact how companies make decisions,” says Keith McCoy, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Chinese College Students Flocking to U.S. Campuses

Last year alone, 98,510 Chinese graduate and undergraduate students poured into U.S. colleges and universities, lured by China’s emphasis on academic achievement and the prestige of U.S. higher education. China is second only to India when graduate students and undergrads are counted. Nationally, an 11% growth in undergrad enrollments last year was driven largely by a 60% increase from China, a report by the Institute of International Education says. Grad student enrollments were up 2%.U.S. colleges and universities have long welcomed students from China, where the higher education system can’t meet the demand. Two years ago, a record 10 million students throughout China took the national college entrance test, competing for 5.7 million university slots.

Food Banks Adapting to Record Demand

Food banks facing record demand from needy Americans are testing new programs and turning to new donors to get food on their holiday tables. Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, is logging record donations — $75 million in the fiscal year that ended in June, compared with $56.1 million the year before. Its food banks distributed a record 2.6 billion pounds of food, compared with 2.2 billion pounds the previous year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 49 million people in the United States — about one in six — went hungry or had insufficient food at some point in 2008, according to the latest figures available. It was the highest number since the government began tracking the problem in 1995.

Economic News

Consumers borrowed less for a record ninth straight month in October, the Federal Reserve said Monday, another sign that consumer spending will remain weak, making it harder for the economy to mount a sustained rebound. The Fed said consumer credit fell at an annual rate of $3.5 billion in October. The Fed report said consumer credit overall dropped at an annual rate of 1.7% in October, compared with a 4.2% drop in September.

  • Consumers are doing the right thing by reducing debt – too bad the government won’t do the same

Moody’s Investors Service says the U.S. and U.K. must prove they can whittle down their ballooning deficits to avoid threats to their triple-A credit ratings. In a report released on Tuesday, Moody’s set the two countries apart from other top-rated sovereign borrowers, calling them merely “resilient” rather than “resistant,” a label it applied to Canada, France and Germany, where public finances are in better shape. There are 17 such “triple-A”-rated countries in the world.

Japan‘s government on Tuesday unveiled $81 billion of new stimulus spending to keep the world’s second-biggest economy from lurching back into recession. Despite shrinking tax revenue, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his Cabinet agreed to 7.2 trillion yen ($80.6 billion) in new spending after days of negotiations with coalition partners. The largesse underlines that the world’s biggest economies are still too fragile to get by without government life support even as a recovery from the global recession takes shape.

The British government announced a one-time 50% tax on bankers’ bonuses as it laid out its plans for the country’s ravaged domestic economy ahead of a general election. With Britain the only major economy still in recession and Prime Minister Gordon Brown‘s Labour party trailing the opposition Conservative Party in opinion polls for an election that must be called within six months, the tax on bonuses could prove popular with the general public.

China virtually doubled its car sales last month compared to the same month last year and India’s November sales rose 68%, both the biggest monthly increase in at least five years. The stunning increases underscore how fast the two emerging-market countries are modernizing and how the auto industry is shifting its focus to capitalize in the growth. By contrast, U.S. auto sales last month were unchanged from a year ago, Autodata reports.

Iraq

A series of coordinated attacks struck Baghdad Tuesday, including three car bombs that blew up near government sites. At least 103 were killed and 197 wounded in the worst wave of violence in the capital in more than a month, authorities said. A total of four attacks, which also included a suicide car bomb on a police patrol, showed the ability of insurgents to strike high-profile targets in the heart of Baghdad and marked the third time since August that government buildings were targeted with multiple blasts that brought massive bloodshed. The bombings reinforced concerns about shortcomings in Iraqi security as U.S. forces plan their withdrawal.

Iraq‘s presidential council on Tuesday again postponed nationwide parliamentary elections, setting March 7 as the date for the vote in what has become a seven-week delay likely to feed concerns about an increase in violence. The commission requested the Jan. 16 elections be postponed after the elections law was vetoed by Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who wanted a greater political voice for minority Sunni Arabs and changes in the distribution of seats in Iraq’s expanded 325-seat parliament.

Iran

Hard-line militiamen firing tear gas and throwing stones stormed a crowd of thousands of university students protesting for a second day Tuesday, as Iran threatened a tougher crackdown on the opposition after the biggest anti-government demonstrations in months. More than 200 people were arrested in Tehran on Monday during protests by tens of thousands at universities nationwide, and Iran’s top prosecutor warned further unrest would not be tolerated.

Pakistan

A bomb exploded near an intelligence office in central Pakistan on Tuesday, authorities said, damaging the building and killing at least 12 people amid a surge of extremist violence that has prompted the U.S. to offer additional aid in the country’s battle against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The bombing in Multan signaled a relentless determination on the part of the militants, who — despite being pressured by a major army offensive in one of their Afghan border havens — have sustained a retaliatory campaign since October that has killed more than 400 people. On Monday, bombings elsewhere in the country killed 59 people.

Philippines

A Malaysian official says the Philippine government and Muslim separatist rebels have resumed peace talks that collapsed 16 months ago. Negotiators from both sides are meeting at a hotel in Malaysia’s largest city for the talks, which are scheduled to run through Wednesday. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been fighting for Muslim self-rule for decades in Mindanao, the southern homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic Philippines.

Uganda

Christian leaders who are themselves divided over homosexuality have joined forces to oppose a proposed Ugandan law that calls for the death penalty for some homosexual behavior. “Our Christian faith recognizes violence, harassment and unjust treatment of any human being as a betrayal of Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves,” reads the statement released Monday and signed by dozens of leaders. “As followers of the teachings of Christ, we must express profound dismay at a bill currently before the Parliament in Uganda.” The bill calls for those convicted of involvement in any homosexual acts to be sentenced to life in prison and those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” to receive the death penalty.

Brazil

Police in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have killed more than 11,000 people in the past six years, many execution-style, according to a report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch. Few of the officers have been charged in the extrajudicial killings, which are often labeled in police reports as the deaths of suspects who resisted arrest, the report said. The 122-page declaration echoes a 2008 United Nations‘ finding that police throughout Brazil were responsible for a “significant portion” of 48,000 slayings the year before. Officials from the Rio and Sao Paulo police departments did not comment.

Weather

A howling winter storm barreled through the U.S. west, hitting the mountain states with snow and fierce winds. The far-reaching storm system stretched from California to Indiana, gathering strength as it raced eastward. The storm hit nearly all of the western mountain states on Monday, leaving places like Flagstaff and Reno, under a thick blanket of snow. Between 20 and 26 inches of snow fell in various spots in Flagstaff. The snow was whipped by high winds, with top readings of 53 mph in Flagstaff, 74 mph in Prescott and 54 mph in Show Low. The storm was blamed in the deaths of a hunter in Arizona, two motorists in New Mexico and one motorist in Texas. Weather was blamed for 200 flight cancellations at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. In Des Moines, schools let out early and multivehicle pileups closed Interstates 80 and 35.

December 7, 2009

Evangelical Lutheran Leader Says Bible not the Final Authority

The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is suggesting that the Bible isn’t the last word on homosexuality. In a town hall meeting Sunday, Bishop Mark Hanson said, “the understanding we have of homosexuality today does not seem to be reflected at all in the context of the biblical writers.” Therefore, he said, Lutherans should consider more modern views on sexual orientation. At its churchwide convention in August, the ELCA lifted its ban on partnered gay and lesbian clergy, prompting some traditional congregations to withhold funds and begin forming a separate denomination. But Hanson insisted the ELCA can accommodate both views. In his words, “God is still speaking to us.”

  • The Bible is the foundation built upon the Rock of Jesus. Deviating from Scripture to justify deviant behavior is yet another sign that the “great falling away” is well underway

Climate Summit

The largest and most important U.N. climate change conference in history opened Monday, with diplomats from 192 nations warned that this could be the best, last chance for a deal to protect the world from calamitous global warming. The two-week conference, the climax of two years of contentious negotiations, convened in an upbeat mood after a series of promises by rich and emerging economies to curb their greenhouse gases, but with major issues yet to be resolved. The first week of the conference will focus on refining the complex text of a draft treaty. But major decisions will await the arrival next week of environment ministers and the heads of state in the final days of the conference, which ends Dec. 18.

At a time when political leaders are struggling to pass environmental legislation in the USA and elsewhere, in large part because of the potential economic costs, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon says religious leaders “can have the largest, widest and deepest reach” when it comes to influencing the outcome of the climate summit in Copenhagen. In all, as many as 100 religiously affiliated representatives from the USA plan to attend the summit, estimates Tyler Edgar, assistant director for the environmental arm of the National Council of Churches. There is a wide range of views among — and within — different faiths as to the fundamental questions in the environmental debate: to what extent climate change is occurring, whether human activity is responsible for it, and what, if anything, should be done as a result.

Religious leaders in Copenhagen will include Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion; Richard Cizik, a former vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Jim Ball, head of the Evangelical Environmental Network; South African cleric and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu; and representatives from the National Council of Churches (NCC), which encompasses more than 100,000 Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical and other congregations with 45 million members across the USA. In the past three years or so, many have rallied behind the belief that “we are all called upon to protect God’s creation and God’s people” by acting to stop climate change

  • The national and world council of churches have already been compromised by the New World Order and will use their influence to further globalist objectives

Senate to Debate Amendment to Bar Federal Funding of Abortion

Senators on Monday will consider an amendment that closely mirrors language in the House version of the bill, barring federally subsidized health insurance plans from covering abortion even if the procedures are paid for entirely with customers’ premiums. Sen. Ben Nelson, a prominent anti-abortion Democrat, along with other lawmakers in both parties has insisted that taxpayer funds not be used to pay for abortions in a government-run health program. Nelson has said he doesn’t expect a vote before Tuesday. The amendment appeared unlikely to gain the necessary 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, according to numerous lawmakers. He has pledged to vote with Republicans to filibuster the legislation if it does not include the anti-abortion amendment. Without his support, Democrats would need to pick up a Republican vote to pass their health care bill.

Obama Approval Continues to Tank

Support for President Obama has dropped below 50 percent for the first time in a CNN poll despite high marks for his recently announced Afghanistan policy. Forty-eight percent of Americans questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. national survey released Friday said they approve of the job Obama is doing as president — a drop of 7 percentage points from a survey last month. Fifty percent said they do not approve. Six in 10 of those questioned said they favor Obama’s move to send 30,000 more troops to that country. Two-thirds also support his plan to start removing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2011 — although the poll indicates most Americans think that announcing such a date in advance was a bad idea, and they are skeptical about whether conditions then will allow the United States to meet that goal.

Swine Flu Down, Vaccine Up

In typical government fashion, swine flu infections continue to wane just as the vaccine is becoming plentiful enough that some communities are allowing everyone to get it, not just those in priority groups. Swine flu was widespread in only 25 states last week — mostly in the Northeast and Southwest,. In late October, 48 states were reporting widespread cases of swine flu. Meanwhile, a shortage of swine flu vaccine is easing, with 73 million doses now available, roughly twice as much as there was a month ago.

2nd Recall for Tainted Beef

For the second time this year, a Fresno beef company is recalling thousands of pounds of ground beef contaminated with a drug-resistant strain of salmonella. Beef Packers Inc., owned by Cargill, announced the recall Friday. It covers 22,723 pounds of ground beef products that were sent to stores in Arizona and New Mexico. The Arizona Department of Health Services has linked two illnesses to the ground beef, made at the Beef Packers plant on Sept. 23. The beef was “repackaged into consumer-size packages and sold under different retail brand names,” according to a news release issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Safeway announced that the recall affects ground beef sold at its stores in Arizona and one outlet in Gallup, N.M. A Safeway spokesman said the recalled product is no longer in stores and urged customers to check all ground beef in their freezers and discard any with “sell by” dates of Sept. 28 through Oct. 11. Recalled products include fresh ground beef, beef patties, meat balls and stuffed peppers.

Illegal Immigration? There’s an App for That

Illegal aliens crossing the U.S.-Mexico border now have a cell-phone tool to chart the best route, find food and locate people who will help them enter the country – courtesy of a professor at a state-funded university. Ricardo Dominguez, a University of California, San Diego tenured visual arts professor and activist, designed the Transborder Immigrant Tool, an application much like a global-positioning system used in cars, to help illegals find the best locations for food, water and groups to assist them as they sneak into America. Dominguez is also co-founder of the Electronic Disturbance Theater, or EDT, a group that developed virtual-sit-in technologies in 1998 in solidarity with the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico. He also helped set up a website-jamming network called the FloodNet system to attack official sites of the U.S. Border Patrol, White House, G8, Mexican embassy and others.

$3.5B to Fix Failing Schools

The Obama administration will spend at least $3.5 billion to push local officials around the country to close failing schools and reopen them with new teachers and principals. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hopes to see the 5,000 worst-performing schools, about 1% of all U.S. schools, turned around in five years. The administration is beefing up the federal school turnaround program, which was created under the No Child Left Behind law championed by former President George W. Bush. The president doesn’t have the power to close and reopen schools himself. That authority rests with local school districts and states. But federal officials have an incentive in the turnaround program, which gives money to states for school districts to overhaul the lowest-performing schools. Districts will have to compete for grants.

Economic News

Regulators on Friday shut down Ohio’s AmTrust Bank, the fourth-largest bank to fail this year. They also closed five others, bringing to 130 the number of U.S. banks to be brought down so far in 2009 by recession and mountains of bad debt. The FDIC expects the cost of bank failures to grow to about $100 billion over the next four years. The FDIC only has about $21 billion cash in loss reserves apart from the insurance fund. It can also tap a Treasury Department credit line of up to $500 billion.

Friday’s jobs report underscored the growing prominence of temporary workers who some experts predict could constitute up to a quarter of the workforce in a few years. A big reason employers shed a far-less-than-expected 11,000 jobs last month is that temporary staffing agencies found slots for 52,000 additional workers, the most since 2004, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said. That’s a good sign because cautious employers typically hire temps in a recovery before bringing on full-time staffers.

Iraq

Iraq‘s parliament passed a reworked election law on Sunday, heading off a dispute among religious and ethnic factions that threatened to derail upcoming elections and potentially delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Central to the agreement was increasing the number of seats in the parliament to accommodate the three provinces of Kurdistan as well as adding seats for the heavily Sunni Nineveh province, said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament. The agreement came as Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, considered using his veto power for the second time in several weeks to scuttle an election law approved last month.

Afghanistan

Gen. David Petraeus, who commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, said he does not expect progress in Afghanistan to mirror the quick and dramatic results achieved under the troop surge in Iraq in 2007. Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007, said the Afghanistan plan will focus on selected regions and proceed in phases. Unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan has a rural insurgency in which militants are holed up in isolated regions that are hard to get to and have little contact with neighboring valleys.

Iran

Security forces and pro-government militiamen clashed with protesters shouting “death to the dictator” outside Tehran University on Monday, beating men and women with batons and firing tear gas, on a day of nationwide student demonstrations, witnesses said. Thousands of protesters demonstrated in the streets outside the campus in support of students inside. As they chanted “death to the dictator,” riot police and Basij militiamen charged the crowds, the witnesses said. Pro-reform campus groups have called for students across the country to turn out Monday for massive rallies at universities against Iran‘s clerical leadership — the first major protest in more than a month.

Philippines

Philippine troops have arrested 62 people and discovered another major weapons cache after martial law was imposed in a southern province following the country’s worst political massacre. Thousands of troops, backed by tanks and warplanes, have taken control of Maguindanao province in a government crackdown on the powerful Ampatuan clan, accused in the Nov. 23 killing of 57 people traveling in a convoy of a political rival. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo imposed martial law late Friday in Maguindanao — the first use of martial law in the Philippines since late dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed it nationwide more than 30 years ago.

Sudan

Gunmen killed five Rwandan soldiers in a series of attacks on the international peacekeeping force in Darfur, a spokesman for the mission said, marking a swift upsurge in violence in the western Sudanese region. The attacks on Friday and Saturday targeted peacekeepers from the United Nations-African Union force, which deployed nearly two years ago to protect civilians and improve security in Darfur. Fighting between rebels and Sudanese government forces began there in 2003, killing up to 300,000 people and driving 2.7 million from their homes. The fighting began with a rebellion by ethnic African tribes accusing the Islamic-dominated government of neglect.

China

The Christian Post reports that five more Chinese pastors have been sentenced to two years of hard labor after they tried to defend their church from being demolished. “To arbitrarily send five innocent citizens to labor camps is in direct violation against the international human rights covenants and norms the Chinese government has signed and even ratified,” said Bob Fu, president of CAA, in a statement. “This case shows the Chinese government is determined to be on the wrong side of history by clenching its power with suppressing the basic freedom of religion and conscience for Chinese citizens. We call upon the international community to hold these rights abusers accountable.” Five other pastors were sentenced earlier this month. None of the leaders were given a court trial.

December 4, 2009

Operation Christmas Child Grows, Thanks to VeggieTales

“What if December looked different this year? What if we all gave Christmas away?” That’s the refrain from the theme song of a new Christmas video from VeggieTales, the animated children’s stories that share gentle Gospel messages. But the video, Saint Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving, is doing more than entertaining. As befits its theme song, Give This Christmas Away, it has become a vehicle for giving – and providing a boost to the world’s largest children’s Christmas outreach ministry, Operation Christmas Child. The ministry delivers millions of shoe-box gifts to needy youngsters, all donated by millions of families, largely through 60,000 U.S. churches. It was founded in 1993 under the auspices of Samaritan’s Purse, the relief and development agency run by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham. So far it has sent boxes of baby dolls, balls, treats and personal letters of encouragement to 70 million children in 130 countries. U.S. director Randy Riddle says that despite the recession, the ministry will deliver a record 8 million boxes worldwide, including 5.2 million from U.S. families, up from 4.9 million last year.

N.Y. Lawmakers Reject Gay Marriage Bill

New York lawmakers rejected a bill Wednesday that would have made their state the sixth to allow gay marriage, disheartening advocates already stung by a similar decision by Maine voters just last month. The New York measure failed by a wider-than-expected margin, falling 12 votes short in a 24-38 decision by the state Senate. The Assembly had earlier approved the bill, and Gov. David Paterson, perhaps the bill’s strongest advocate, had pledged to sign it. The vote comes after months of delays and arm twisting of lawmakers sympathetic to the bill but representing conservative districts. New York also doesn’t allow civil unions, but has several laws, executive orders and court decisions that grant many of the rights to gays long enjoyed by married couples.

13 New Stem Cell Lines Approved for Research

Health officials Wednesday gave the green light to federally funded research on 13 human embryonic stem cell lines, the first approved since the Bush administration imposed limits eight years ago. “What we are announcing today is just the beginning,” Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health director, said Wednesday. Approval was “open and shut,” he said, because the lines met requirements of new Obama administration guidelines for informed consent of embryo donors. An embryonic stem cell line is a colony of cells grown from one embryo, which is destroyed in the process. The cells can grow into every type of body tissue. Collins and others propose using the cells to study embryonic development, screen drugs and perhaps grow rejection-free replacement organs.

  • Adult stem cells have shown much more promise without having to destroy embryos. The moral fiber of our nation continues to sink into the gutter.

Obama’s Climate Experts: Socialists, Globalists

Amid an international climate-change scandal involving hacked e-mails just days before a major U.N. climate summit of world leaders, it is instructive to profile top White House officials who are drafting President Obama’s climate policy. Carol Browner’s official title is assistant to the president for energy and climate change. Browner was a member of the Commission for a Sustainable World Society at Socialist International, a group that s is the “umbrella for 170 social democratic, socialist and labor parties in 55 countries. The Washington Times explained Browner’s group called for “global governance.”

Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, asserts that global climate change is primarily the fault of U.S. environmental behavior and can, therefore, be used as a mechanism to redistribute the country’s wealth. A prominent theme throughout Sunstein’s 2007 University of Chicago Law School paper, “Climate Change Justice,” maintains U.S. wealth should be redistributed to poorer nations.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and co-chairman of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, has been a longtime climate-change alarmist who has advocated ideas such as enforcing limits to world population growth. Holdren has endorsed “surrender of sovereignty” to “a comprehensive Planetary Regime” that would control all the world’s resources, direct global redistribution of wealth, oversee the “de-development” of the West, control a World Army and taxation regime, and enforce world population limits.

  • Very scary. Pray hard.

Green Homes Red-Hot

The home building industry is struggling, but one sector is booming: green homes. The number of homes winning the government’s Energy Star designation since the program began in 1995 has crossed the 1 million mark. Despite an overall housing slump, 75,000 have been added so far this year. Last year, Energy Star homes accounted for nearly 17% of all single-family homes built, up from 12% in 2007. The Energy Star label means a house is at least 20% more energy-efficient than other new homes.

States Act to Curb ‘Double Dipping’

States pummeled by the recession and heavy job losses are moving to bar government employees from “double dipping” — the practice of collecting a pension and a paycheck at the same time. The new rules are meant to curb employees from retiring only to return to their old jobs. They come at a time when unemployment has climbed to its highest level in 25 years. It’s impossible to determine exactly how many government employees also collect pension benefits, but some of the states that studied the issue have identified thousands of workers. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson proposed changes in November that would bar new government retirees from double dipping. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed a law in June that requires new retirees to wait at least six months before returning to work. Utah lawmakers will consider an overhaul when they convene in January. Arkansas lawmakers are considering a measure that would stop elected officials who quit from returning to work. “They don’t even empty out their desk,” state Rep. Allen Kerr says.

Job Losses Mount

Even with the $787 billion stimulus package that Obama signed in February, more than 4 million jobs have been lost in 2009, the worst year for job losses since World War II. The jobless rate that advisers projected would peak at 8% has topped 10%. Obama convened a summit Thursday on jobs, then flew Friday to Allentown, Pa., for the first in what will be periodic listening tours on the economy. The goal is to develop new spending and tax proposals to help many of the nation’s nearly 16 million unemployed people find work in 2010. The new focus on jobs comes as the first stimulus plan’s impact remains unclear. The Obama administration says more than 640,000 jobs have been saved or created by employers who received funds. The Congressional Budget Office this week put the figure at 600,000 to 1.6 million after considering other factors, such as the impact on consumer demand from tax cuts, unemployment insurance extensions and spending by the newly employed. It said unemployment would have been up to 0.9 percentage points higher without the stimulus.

President Obama warned Thursday that some of the nearly 8 million jobs lost during the two-year recession might not return without a series of new government initiatives to jump-start private sector hiring. Before kicking off a summit meeting on job creation, the president said the federal government can’t be counted on for most of the money this time. The two-year, $787 billion economic stimulus package he signed in February won’t be the model for the next round of initiatives, he said. “It is not going to be possible for us to have a huge second stimulus, because frankly, we just don’t have the money,” Obama said. He ruled out an immediate effort to reduce the $1.4 trillion budget deficit until the economy rebounds further and the 10.2% unemployment rate begins to decline. Focusing on the deficit too soon, he said, could risk a “double-dip recession.”

  • A little common sense from the chief perpetrator

Economic News

The economic recovery gained traction in late fall as shoppers spent a bit more and factories bumped up production. That assessment Wednesday by the Federal Reserve marked its most upbeat view since the economy tumbled into recession two years ago. The Fed’s new snapshot of business barometers nationwide found that conditions have generally improved since the last report in late October.

The unemployment rate unexpectedly fell to 10% in November as employers cut the smallest number of jobs since the recession began. The better-than-expected job figures are a rare note of encouraging news for the labor market. Still, the respite may be temporary. Many economists expect the unemployment rate to climb into next year as the economy struggles to generate enough jobs for the 15.4 million people out of work.

The number of newly laid-off workers seeking unemployment benefits also fell unexpectedly for a fifth week, the government said Thursday, a hopeful sign that the job market is slowly improving. The Labor Department said first-time claims for unemployment insurance dropped 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 457,000 in the week ended Nov. 28, lowest total since the week of Sept. 6, 2008. The number of people claiming benefits for more than a week rose 28,000 to 5.5 million. Unemployment worsened or stayed the same in most metro areas in October, the Labor Department said Wednesday, as jobs remained scarce nationwide.

  • Even at the improved level of 457,000, the economy is still shedding jobs. The normal range in a growing economy is around 350,000

The Commerce Department said productivity surged in the third quarter by the largest amount in six years while labor costs fell. While that indicates inflation remains under control, it also signals that workers’ wages are being squeezed, raising doubts about the durability of the recovery..

Bank of America (BAC) said Wednesday that it will repay the $45 billion in bailout money it received from the federal government, signaling the improved health of the nation’s largest bank after last year’s financial meltdown. The move will free the politically embattled BofA from the added scrutiny given to recipients of funds from the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. Like other TARP recipients, BofA has been subject to new regulatory constraints, most notably curbs on its executives’ pay.

Mortgage rates fell to a historic low this week, spurring mortgage applications and possibly home sales. The 30-year-average dropped to 4.71% from 4.78% a week ago, mortgage finance giant Freddie Mac said Thursday. That is the lowest since the agency began compiling its weekly survey in 1971. A year ago, the 30-year fixed-rate was 5.53%.

Exposed: EU Plan to Divide Jerusalem

Next week the foreign ministers of all 27 European Union nations are due to consider a Swedish proposal for recognizing the Old City of Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state and dividing Israel along its 1967 borders. On Tuesday, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz obtained and published secret draft of the declaration which is due to be agreed at EU foreign policy summit in Brussels on December 7-8. As the Palestinians intensify efforts to achieve international backing for statehood, the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is under threat.

  • The New World Order folks despise Israel (all things Judeo-Christian) and are hell-bent to establish a Palestinian state with Jerusalem (or parts thereof) as its capital.

Afghanistan

President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to Afghanistan will intensify fighting in the short term and place pressure on commanders there to produce measurable results in about a year. Violence will likely increase in the spring after the harsh winter weather ends and troops begin clearing insurgent strongholds, Michael Vickers, an assistant secretary of Defense, said Tuesday night. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress on Wednesday that the Taliban had a “dominant influence” in 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. “When you make a concerted effort to attack into fortified areas … you are going to take more casualties,” said Fred Kagan, who helped produce an assessment of Afghanistan for Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Non-U.S. nations operating under the NATO command in Afghanistan have promised about 7,000 more troops to battle Taliban and al Qaeda extremists and train Afghan forces, NATO’s secretary-general said Friday. This will be in addition to the 38,000 troops allied nations have there now, he said.

A narrow majority of Americans support President Obama’s revamped strategy on Afghanistan, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Wednesday, but there are broad concerns that the costs of the war will sap the government’s ability to address problems facing the nation at home. Though the results underscore a significant selling job ahead for the White House, they also show a willingness by Democratic voters to back Obama despite their reservations about the war. Those surveyed are more likely to favor Obama’s plan in general — by 51%-40% — than they are to endorse its individual components. There is little consensus in favor of his specific decisions to deploy 30,000 more U.S. troops or to set a timetable to begin their withdrawal in 2011. By nearly 3-1, Americans worry that the costs of the war will make it more difficult to deal with problems close to home. Just one in five agree with the timetable to begin withdrawing forces in 2011. Nearly half say it’s too soon to set a timetable, and one in four say troops should begin coming home earlier.

Pakistan

President Obama’s timetable for American forces in Afghanistan rattled nerves in that country and in Pakistan on Wednesday, as American diplomats worked to convince the two countries at the center of the president’s war strategy that the United States would not cut and run. In Pakistan, Mr. Obama’s declaration fed longstanding fears that America would abruptly withdraw, leaving Pakistan to fend for itself.

An intelligence official says 35 people have been killed in an attack on a mosque close to army headquarters in Pakistan. The official said 70 others were wounded in Friday’s suicide bomb and gun attack in Rawalpindi outside the capital.

Iran

Iran said Wednesday it will enrich uranium to a higher level on its own, the latest indication the country was rejecting a U.N.-backed proposal aimed at thwarting any effort by Tehran to make material for a nuclear weapon. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted Iran will not negotiate with the West over its nuclear program. David Albright of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, which has tracked Iran for signs of covert proliferation, said that Iran could be producing 20% uranium “within months” after adjusting its present enrichment program. The real concern, said Albright, is that such a move would put Iran well on the way to making weapons grade uranium — material enriched to levels above 90%.

Somalia

A male suicide bomber dressed as a woman attacked a university graduation ceremony Thursday, killing at least 15 people, including three Cabinet ministers and three journalists. The attack raised new questions about the ability of Somalia‘s weak government to control even the small area of the capital it holds. African troops protecting the government wage near daily battles with Islamic militants who hold much of central and southern Somalia. The assailants hit one of Somalia’s most important efforts to extricate itself from anarchy and violence, explaining the presence of so many top government officials. The former medical students among the graduates came from only the second class to receive diplomas from the medical school. Suspicion fell upon the militant group al-Shabab, which has ties to al-Qaeda, controls much of the country and has carried out past suicide attacks.

Burma

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reports that chronic food shortages and continuing, severe human rights violations are taking place in Chin and Kachin states in Burma. A recent fact-finding visit by CSW allegedly found that some aid funds have been dispensed as loans, instead of aid, to malnourished villagers, repayable at 200 per cent interest. Chin state has been devastated over the last two years by a chronic food shortgage caused by the flowering of bamboo and the subsequent plagues of rats, which have destroyed crops. The CSW delegation, which also met with Kachin refugees, received evidence from Kachin and Chin states of religious persecution, forced labor and attempted ‘cultural genocide’.

Eritrea

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that states from every continent expressed concern Monday at the extent of human rights violations taking place in Eritrea. Appearing before the Human Rights Council, the Eritrean delegation faced broad-ranging, and yet consistent, questioning of their human rights record. Statements by member states repeatedly expressed concern at the ongoing use of torture, arbitrary and indefinite detention, the suppression of press freedom and freedom of religion and belief among other accusations. Eritrea’s representative, Dr. Girmai Abraham, confessed to being “overwhelmed” by the number of questions he had received, and responded to calls for open access to Eritrea with a guarded conditional acceptance. However, in an astonishing admission, he indicated that an independent press was incompatible with Eritrean culture.

Sudanese Church Leaders: Peace Process at Critical Point

Christian Today reports that peace is Sudan may be fading, according to leaders of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan (ECS). The war-torn country’s peace agreement faces the monumental challenge of elections in five months, sparking contention within the government and allowing other violence to slip by. Southern Sudan also faces the threat of famine without seasonal rains. “We appeal to our partners to assist us, the Church, in providing for the physical as well as the spiritual needs of our people, and pledge to use all such support, as well as support from the Sudanese Christians, for the well-being of those facing hunger this Advent and Christmas season,” said the ECS Provincial Standing Committee following the conclusion of its five-day conference last week.

Weather

A storm packing blustery winds and driving rain knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses in the Northeast on Thursday before giving way to sunny skies and record high temperatures — all in the same morning. Utility officials reported sporadic power outages from Maine to New Jersey after wind knocked down trees and power lines early Thursday. Winds reached up to 49 mph in Brunswick, Maine, while the Isle of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire recorded a 61 mph gust. In Boston, the temperature hit 69 degrees, breaking the old record of 65 set in 1932. In Portland, the temperature climbed to 68 degrees — crushing the old high of 55 for the date.