Due to a death in the family and a trip back east, the Signs of the Times has been offline for a week, but we are back online now. As always, if you do not wish to keep receiving these reports, just reply “cancel.”

Democrats Tie 2 Issues to Funds for War

Congressional Democrats plan to push key policy objectives, including a repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the U.S. military and an immigration measure, by linking them to a must-pass defense bill coming before lawmakers this week. The Senate is planning to vote Tuesday on whether to end debate on a $725.7 billion annual defense-policy bill, a measure that includes a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law. The annual defense-authorization bill provides a 1.4 percent pay raise for troops and includes $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Senate vote is expected to be close but is almost certain to pass if Democrats can break a Republican-led filibuster. President Barack Obama voiced support for repealing “don’t ask” during his 2008 campaign and has since said he would sign the defense bill after certifying an ongoing Pentagon study of how a repeal might affect troop readiness and morale. Democrats, led by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., have also attached an immigration measure to the bill called the Dream Act, which would provide a route to citizenship for youths who were brought into the country by illegal-immigrant parents. Republicans have blasted Reid’s plans to link the Dream Act to the defense bill. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., among others, has said the move is a desperate effort by Reid to shore up Latino support as he faces a tough re-election fight. Both political parties have used the authorization bill in years past to advance other legislative goals, and it would be unusual for the military-spending plan to fail.

  • This commonly used legislative trick ought to be banned so that votes are for one subject at a time.

USA‘s Violent Crime Fell Again Last Year

The FBI said Monday that violent crime reported to police in 2009 declined in the U.S. for the third straight year. The 5.3% drop in violent crime was accompanied by a 4.6% drop in property crime, marking the seventh consecutive year that nonviolent crime has dropped. Each of the violent crime categories decreased from 2008, as did each of the property crime categories. Murder fell by 7.3%, robbery by 8%, aggravated assault by 4.2% and rape by 2.6%.Motor vehicle theft was down by 17.1%, larceny by 4% and burglary by 1.3%.Data for the FBI’s annual crime report comes from 17,985 governmental units and universities and colleges representing over 96% of the nation’s population.

New Drug-Resistant Superbugs Spreading

An infectious-disease nightmare is unfolding: A new gene that can turn many types of bacteria into superbugs resistant to nearly all antibiotics has sickened people in three states and is popping up all over the world, health officials reported Monday. The U.S. cases and two others in Canada all involve people who had recently received medical care in India, where the problem is widespread. A British medical journal revealed the risk last month in an article describing dozens of cases in Britain in people who had gone to India for medical procedures. Scientists have long feared this — a very adaptable gene that hitches onto many types of common germs and confers broad drug resistance. The U.S. cases occurred this year in people from California, Massachusetts and Illinois, said Brandi Limbago, a lab chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three types of bacteria were involved, and three different mechanisms let the gene become part of them. The gene can spread hand-to-mouth, which makes good hygiene very important.

Most Doctorates Now Awarded to Women

With female enrollments growing at all levels of higher education, doctoral degrees have been one area where men have continued to dominate. No more. New data released Tuesday show that in 2008-09, for the first time, women earned a majority of the doctoral degrees awarded in the USA. The data are part of an analysis of graduate enrollments and degrees from the Council of Graduate Schools. The majority for women in doctoral degrees is slight, 50.4%. But the shift has been steady and significant. As recently as 2000, women were earning only 44% of doctoral degrees. In master’s degrees, where women have already accounted for a majority of degrees, their share now stands at 60%. The only reason that women did not become a majority of doctoral recipients earlier is that a greater share of doctoral degrees are awarded in fields like engineering remain disproportionately male than is the case at the undergraduate level.

Gender Pay Gap is Smallest on Record

The earnings gap between men and women has shrunk to a record low, partly because many women are prospering in the new economy and partly because men have been hit hard by the recession. Women earned 82.8% of the median weekly wage of men in the second quarter of 2010, up from 76.1% for the same period a decade ago and the highest ever recorded, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. The good news is the wage gap is closing. The bad news is the reason. Men have been losing jobs at a faster rate than women in the recession because of troubles in manufacturing, construction and other industries. By contrast, job loss has been slow in government and health care, which tend to employ more women. Women, now make up 49.7% of the overall workforce.

Number of Uninsured Americans Rises to 50.7 Million

More than 50 million people were uninsured last year, almost one in six U.S. residents, the Census Bureau reported Thursday. The percentage with private insurance was the lowest since the government began keeping data in 1987. The reasons for the rise to 50.7 million, or 16.7% of all Americans, from 46.3 million uninsured were many: workers losing their jobs in the recession, companies dropping employee health insurance benefits, families going without coverage to cut costs. Driving much of the increase, however, was the rising cost of medical care; a Kaiser Family Foundation report shows workers now pay 47% more than they did in 2005 for family health coverage, while employers pay 20% more. Although the health care law signed by President Obama in March is designed to insure an additional 32 million people in public and private programs, it doesn’t fully kick in until 2014. For the next few years, experts say, the problem could get worse. The average cost to insure a family of four is already about $14,000.

Feds Gain Power over Billions in Medicare Fraud

Proposed regulations unveiled Monday seek to crack down on Medicare and Medicaid fraud by subjecting operators of certain medical firms to fingerprinting and stopping payments when credible fraud allegations are made, documents show. The rules would give federal health officials key powers to identify fraud early and reduce the estimated $55 billion in improper payments made each year in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The initiative will allow the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to go beyond what was called ‘pay and chase’ and to actually have the tools and mechanisms to prevent much of the fraud seen in recent years. The proposed rules are part of the nation’s new health law, which plans to expand coverage to millions of Americans in part by saving money on waste and fraud in the public and private health care systems. It’s not known how much money these proposed rules would save.

  • Government plans to save money generally don’t work out. Let’s hope this is an exception.

Energy States Leading Comeback from Recession

Texas, North Carolina, Idaho and a handful of other states are leading the nation’s crawl out of the worst recession since the 1930s, a USA TODAY analysis finds. Since the recession officially ended in June 2009, a group of about 10 states that have outperformed the nation almost continuously for 25 or more years again is generating new income at a faster pace than the rest of the nation. Meanwhile, two of the recession’s biggest victims —Nevada and Florida — show virtually no signs that income has begun to pick up. The Bureau of Economic Analysis on Monday released personal income numbers for all 50 states through the second quarter of 2010 — the same day the National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the recession that began in December 2007 ended in June 2009. Energy-generating states such as Texas and Alaska did the best during the recession — and continue to do well now. Even coal states such as Kentucky have enjoyed strong income gains. Alabama, Mississippi ,Georgia and Arizona have done poorly. California ranked 22nd in income growth since the recession, up from a dismal 46th in the downturn.

Economic News

Home construction increased last month and applications for building permits also grew. But the gains were driven mainly by apartment and condominium construction, not the much larger single-family homes sector. Construction of new homes and apartments rose 10.5% in August from a month earlier to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 598,000, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. That’s the highest level since April. Pulling the figures up was a 32% monthly increase in the condominium and apartment market, a small portion of the market. Single-family homes, which represented about 73% of the market in August, grew more than 4%.Housing starts are up 25% from their bottom in April 2009. But they remain 74% below their peak in January 2006.

Homebuilders’ confidence in the housing market stayed this month at the lowest level in 18 months, and more worry that the traffic of potential buyers is falling. The National Association of Home Builders said Monday that its monthly index of builders’ sentiment was unchanged in September at 13. Readings below 50 indicate negative sentiment about the market. The last time the index was above 50 was in April 2006.

Retail sales rose in August by the largest amount in five months, adding to evidence that a late spring economic swoon was temporary and not the start of another recession. Retail sales rose 0.4% last month, the best advance since March, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. Excluding a big decline in autos, retail sales increased 0.6%. That’s double the amount economists had expected. The strength came in a number of areas from department stores to clothing stores and sporting goods outlets. The advance was the latest indication that the economy is regaining its footing after a dismal spring.

Ireland sold euro1.5 billion ($2 billion) in government bonds Tuesday in a closely watched test of whether international investors would keep buying Irish treasuries despite the country’s deficit, the biggest in debt-burdened Europe. But Ireland had to pay higher-than-expected interest rates compared with previous bond auctions, reflecting investors’ fear of an Irish default. And the higher rates could be an additional financial burden in coming years. Analysts, however, called the auction a success, noting it attracted bids 5.1 times the amount of bonds on offer. Together with solid bond auctions in Spain and Greece, the sale offered markets some reassurance for the moment that Ireland and other indebted countries were getting some relief from short-term market pressures.

Middle East

A spokesman says U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates shares Israel’s concerns that Russia plans to sell anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria. Gates told Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in a private meeting on Monday that he worried the sale could further “destabilize” the region. Israeli leaders have said the sale poses a major threat to Israel because Syria backs the Lebanese Hezbollah, which has used Russian-made weapons against Israel in the past.

Afghanistan

A NATO helicopter crashed Tuesday in southern Afghanistan, killing nine international troops in a region where forces are ramping up pressure on Taliban insurgents. It was the deadliest chopper crash for the coalition in four years. A “large number” of Americans were among those who died in the crash, according to a senior military official in Washington. The cause was not immediately clear. The Taliban claimed to have shot down the helicopter, but NATO said there were no reports of hostile fire. So far this year, 525 U.S. and NATO forces have been killed in Afghanistan, surpassing the 504 killed last year. This year has been the deadliest for international forces since the war began in 2001.

The Army on Monday pledged a thorough investigation into allegations of a rogue group of soldiers accused of killing Afghan civilians for sport and trying to cover up the crimes. Soldiers within the unit have also been charged with drug use and beating a suspected informant. The soldiers were part of a unit which returned to I Corps at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state after a year-long deployment to Afghanistan, according to charging documents. Five soldiers from the platoon have been charged in connection with the killings of three Afghan civilians. Two of the five were charged in connection with all three killings. Three soldiers were charged in connection with separate killings.

Yemen

Yemeni police say thousands of people have fled a southern village where security forces are laying siege to al-Qaeda militants who took over houses there. The police chief for the surrounding district, Abdullah Baouda, says government forces have moved into the village of Hawta with tanks and armored vehicles and 90% of its residents have fled. One fleeing family said Monday that forces have shelled the village indiscriminately for the past two days. The village is in Yemen‘s mountainous Shabwa province, one the areas where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken root over the past year and a half. Yemen’s al-Qaeda offshoot has been linked to the failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

France

The European Union‘s executive body labeled France’s expulsions of Gypsies “a disgrace” last week and said the deportations probably breach European Union law. France’s deportation of more than 1,000 Gypsies, also known as Roma, mainly to Romania, has drawn international condemnation in recent weeks. Officials in France have dismantled over 100 illegal camps. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Redingharshly criticized French authorities for telling the EU commission it was not discriminating against Gypsies — a claim apparently contradicted by news reports of a government letter ordering regional officials to speed up a crackdown on illegal camps of Gypsies.

Cuba

Cuba announced last week that it will allow half a million Cubans to work for themselves rather than the state. As a socialist country, the state officially employs 95% of the country’s workforce. That means mechanics, barbers, store clerks, waiters and others who work in retail and service industries are paid salaries by the state. Unemployment hasn’t risen above 3% in eight years, according to the regime, but that ignores thousands of Cubans who aren’t looking for jobs that pay salaries worth $20 a month on average. On Monday, the Cuban Workers Confederation, a union controlled by the Communist Party, announced that layoffs will start immediately and continue through the first half of next year. The confederation said Cuba will increase private-sector job opportunities, including allowing more Cubans to become self-employed, forming cooperatives run by employees rather than government administrators and increasing private control of state land, businesses and infrastructure through long-term leases. The confederation said that the state would continue to employ people only in “indispensable” areas such as farming, construction, industry, law enforcement and education. “It’s not a market economy. It’s a survival economy,” President Raul Castro said of a system that has helped make Cuba one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere for decades.

Somalia

Somalia‘s prime minister resigned Tuesday to prevent what he called political turmoil amid an impasse with the country’s president. Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke told reporters he was resigning while standing alongside President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who thanked the prime minister for what he called a “courageous decision.” The resignation comes amid a rift between Sharmarke and Ahmed over a new draft constitution. The two have not gotten along for months, and a vote of confidence on the prime minister had been scheduled over the weekend. Ahmed called Sharmarke’s decision “historic” because the impasse was settled among Somalis instead of seeking outside intervention. The resignation won’t have much practical effect on Somalia’s weak government, which controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu. Somalia has not had an effective government for 19 years.

Indonesia

Dozens of Christians near Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta defied a police perimeter on Sunday and met to pray in their shuttered church. “We just want to carry out our obligations as Christians, but authorities are treating us like terrorists,” said Advent Tambunan, a member of Batak Christian Protestant Church in the industrial city of Bekasi. “There’s no justice for us in this country,” he told The Associated Press. The church was surrounded by hundreds of police and unarmed security guards following last week’s attack on the church that wounded two church members. Islamic hard-liners have harrassed the church for months. On Sunday, local officials had seven empty buses on standby outside the Batak Christian’s shuttered church Sunday, ready to transport them to an alternate site of worship provided by the government to avoid community backlash.

Wildfires

A wind-stoked wildfire sparked at a firing range during a National Guard training session blazed across thousands of acres Monday as crews rushed to keep it from burning more than the three homes that authorities said were destroyed overnight. Three homes were destroyed and several sheds, recreational vehicles and at least one water pump house had been damaged or destroyed in the fire area. Overnight conditions helped firefighters get a handle on the blaze by Monday morning and keep it from spreading, but authorities were trying to keep the evacuated area clear of people as a precaution. Residents and Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon were questioning the National Guard’s decision to fire weapons in dry and windy conditions Sunday, but Lt. Col. Hank McIntire said wind wasn’t a factor until after the fire took hold. It wasn’t the first time that live-fire exercises had sparked a fire at Camp Williams, a sprawling compound 30 miles south of Salt Lake City. Seven miles east of Manderfield, Utah, another active fire has consumed over 33,000 acres (about 50 square miles). The fire is threatening a major power corridor and a portion of Interstate 70 has been closed.

Weather

Hurricane Igor kicked up dangerous surf along the East Coast Monday after brushing past Bermuda and knocking out power to half the population. The storm, already blamed for sweeping three people to their deaths, clung to hurricane status with winds of 75 mph as it sped away from the USA on a path projected to take it close by Newfoundland, Canada, on Tuesday. In the tiny British Atlantic territory of Bermuda, the storm toppled trees and utility poles as its center passed 40 miles to the west overnight. Several boats ran aground, including a ferry, The Bermudian, that is used to bring cruise ship passengers to shore. No major damage or injuries were reported.

With summer officially ending Tuesday, Arizona had record-breaking heat over the past few days. Sunday climbed to 111 degrees Fahrenheit in Phoenix, setting a new record for the latest date to reach 110 or more. Finally, Tuesday, a change. A little cooler and then maybe some rain. Things will be back to toasty by the weekend, with a high on Saturday expected to reach 103 in Phoenix, according to the National Weather Service. The normal high for the weekend would be 96.

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