Signs of the Times (11/16/11)

Court Rules in Favor of Marriage Defenders

The California Supreme Court declared Thursday that proponents of the Proposition 8 marriage referendum had sufficient legal grounds to defend the ban on same-sex marriage after state officials refused. After Proposition 8 was challenged by gay couples seeking to marry, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled the ballot measure a violation of the Constitution’s equality guarantee. The California Supreme Court became involved in the pending appeal when the 9th Circuit asked it to determine whether ProtectMarriage.com, the group that started the ballot-initiative process and appealed Walker’s decision, had legal “standing” to defend the law when the state refused. The ruling, though not addressing the merits of the nationally watched case, lifts a cloud of uncertainty about the ability of ballot-initiative sponsors to intervene in disputes over the validity of an initiative. The broader dispute — testing the constitutionality of the California measure against same-sex unions — is pending in the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and is likely to play out over several more months, if not years.

Arizona Planned Parenthood Gives Up Dispute

Planned Parenthood has ended its legal attack on Arizona’s “Abortion Consent Act,” which had been held up in court since signed into law in September 2009. The law, argued before the Arizona Court of Appeals in mid-June, prohibits non-physicians from performing surgical abortions and provides for women to be fully informed with accurate information on abortion including possible consequences 24 hours in advance. In addition, it protects health workers who object to participate on religious or ethical grounds and requires notarized parental consent for minors seeking abortions. The law also ensures that women receive information on abortion alternatives, long-term medical risks, and the probable gestational age of the preborn child at the time of the requested abortion.

Healthcare Politics Hits Supreme Court

The intense politics surrounding President Obama’s health care law is now hitting the Supreme Court. Conservative groups are calling for Justice Elena Kagan to recuse herself because she worked for the Obama administration during the crafting of the health care bill. Liberal groups, meanwhile, have called for Justice Clarence Thomas to recuse himself because his wife has worked for Tea Party organizations that are seeking repeal of the health care law. The high court is expected to rule on health care by the end of June.

A slight plurality of Americans favor repeal of President Obama’s health care law, the Gallup Poll reports, though opinions are very much split along party lines — and very intense. “Views on this issue are highly partisan, with Republicans strongly in favor of repeal and the large majority of Democrats wanting the law kept in place,” Gallup says. Overall, 47% of Americans favor repeal of the health care law, while 42% want to maintain it; the remainder are undecided. Among Republicans, however, 80% favor repeal, while only 10% support the law. Democrats, meanwhile, support the health care plan by 64%-21%.

NY Occupy Protesters Seek New Encampment

The future of the New York City Occupy movement was in doubt Wednesday after police in riot gear dismantled the Occupy Wall Street encampment — the global movement’s original settlement — and left its occupants, like those in some other cities, looking for someplace else to occupy. A judge late Tuesday refused to give protesters permission to return with the tents, bedding, generators and other paraphernalia needed to endure a winter on a wind-swept plaza in Lower Manhattan. A crowd of several hundred protesters marched from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan toward the New York Stock Exchange a few blocks away on Thursday as Occupy Wall Street demonstrators across the country promised mass gatherings to mark the movement’s two month anniversary. Dozens were arrested as protesters attempted to block traders from entering the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan. Police said four officers were injured when demonstrators threw liquid — possibly vinegar — in their faces.

Police in Los Angeles declared an unlawful assembly at an Occupy rally in the city’s financial district. In Portland, Ore., more than a dozen protesters were led away in handcuffs after attempting to barricade an entrance to the Steel Bridge, an important link for mass transit in the region. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said Thursday that three Occupy Denver activists have been charged with felonies — including inciting a riot and second-degree assault on an officer. Meanwhile, protesters camped outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London said Thursday they are staying put as a deadline passed for them to take down their tents or face legal action. London officials attached eviction notices to the tents Wednesday, demanding they be removed from the churchyard by 1 p.m. ET Thursday. The Occupy London group said no one had left by the deadline, and marked its passing with a rally and a minute of silence outside the cathedral. More than 200 tents have been pitched outside the famous domed church since Oct. 15th.

U.S. Still Struggling with Air Cargo Screening

More than a year after the deadline Congress set for screening all air cargo on passenger planes, the Transportation Security Administration still isn’t checking all the cargo arriving aboard international flights. The gap in screening increasingly alarms lawmakers because bombs have been smuggled aboard planes, including explosives found a year ago in printer cartridges heading for Chicago synagogues in two air shipments from Yemen. . The Yemen printer cartridges were screened found through an intelligence tip. “America’s aviation system is at the top of the terrorist target list,” says Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who wrote the law with the cargo-screening deadline. TSA Administrator John Pistole says all domestic cargo is being screened and that TSA is negotiating screening agreements with 20 countries that send 80% of the cargo heading to the USA. The complexity of dealing with other governments and their security systems, caused TSA to miss the deadline.

Funding for NASA Cut

Congress is set to approve $406 million for the program that will replace the space shuttle — less than half what NASA originally requested. The compromise legislation was brokered by House and Senate negotiators and is expected to pass later this week. The allocation is for the commercial crew program, which will team the space agency with private companies to develop a new vehicle for taking astronauts to the International Space Station. Overall, the bill would provide $17.8 billion for the space agency — $648 million below the fiscal 2011 level and $924 million less than President Barack Obama requested.

Teen Births, Premature Deliveries and Cesareans All Decline

Rates of teen births, premature deliveries and cesareans all are going down, a new report says. Overall birth rates also fell in 2010 for the third year in a row, according to the report, released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teen birth rates fell three years in a row, decreasing 9% from 2009 to 2010, to the lowest rate in nearly 70 years. Premature birth rates— which rose steadily for three decades — have fallen for the past four years, from a high of 12.8% in 2006 to 12.0% in 2010. The rate of C-sections fell for the first time in a decade. The slight decline — dropping from 32.9% of deliveries in 2009 to 32.8% in 2010.

Number of 90-Plus People Triples

The number of people living to age 90 and beyond has tripled in the past three decades to almost 2 million and is likely to quadruple by 2050. This burst in the number of the oldest old puts extra pressure on elderly care programs, health care costs, retirement savings and Baby Boomers with the dual responsibility of caring for aging parents and unemployed adult children. The research, commissioned by the National Institute on Aging, shows that most 90-plus people have one or more disabilities, challenges that affect even more people after 95. Nearly all 90-somethings who live in nursing homes have a disability, and about 80% of those not in nursing homes have one. People plan for retirement but not always for care into their 90s and beyond, says Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. Nursing home costs run about $72,000 a year, most of it not covered by Medicare.

Boomer Migration to Sun Belt Decline

The number of Americans ages 55 to 64 who moved to Sun Belt states since the economy began to tank has declined dramatically, The slowdown is part of a continued drop in the mobility of all Americans. Only 11.6% — 35 million — changed residence from 2010 to 2011, the lowest rate since the Census Bureau began collecting the statistics in 1948. In the mid-1980s, more than 20% were moving each year. The oldest of 77 million Boomers who had fueled a rush to “active adult” communities throughout the Sun Belt are staying put because they can’t sell their homes or can’t afford to retire.

More Recycling Could Create More Jobs

Wednesday, on America Recycles Day, a new report says that increasing the nation’s recycling rate from 33% to 75% by 2030 would reduce pollution and create an extra 1.5 million jobs. With the U.S. unemployment rate remaining stubbornly high at 9%, more special interest groups are promoting their causes by trying to quantify their likely job creation. Recycling proponents have joined this fray by sponsoring the “Less Pollution, More Jobs” report. The report finds that waste diversion, unlike disposal, is more labor intensive and that new jobs would result from collecting, processing, and composting trash as well as making new products with recycled materials. It says a 75% recycling or diversion rate would generate 2.3 million jobs by 2030 — 1.1 million more jobs than would occur if the United States kept on it current recycling pace and nearly 1.5 million more jobs than existed in 2008.

Bank Branch Offices Withering Away

In the past year, the number of bank customers who prefer to bank online has jumped sharply, according to a survey conducted in August by the American Bankers Association. Sixty-two percent of bank customers said they prefer banking online to all other methods, up from 36% in 2010. Only 20% of customers said they preferred using a branch, down from 25% last year. The trend isn’t limited to younger consumers. Fifty-seven percent of bank customers age 55 and older said they prefer banking online to all other methods, up from 20% last year. Bank branches aren’t in imminent danger of extinction, but there are too many branches to serve the shrinking number of customers who use them.

Obama announces trade deals

The White House announced trade deals worth more than $25 billion with East Asian partners as President Obama caps a burst of diplomacy to the region. The new pacts include the sale of Boeing 737s and General Electric engines to Indonesia, Boeing 777s to Singapore and Sikorsky helicopters to Brunei. The White House estimated the moves would support 127,000 jobs, and timed the news to coincide with Obama’s trip to Indonesia so he could point to progress on his American jobs mission while traveling to Asia. Obama’s nine-day trip has focused on both expanding economic ties with the soaring Asia-Pacific market and boosting the U.S. military posture in the region.

Economic News

The federal debt has hit $15 trillion, the U.S. Treasury Department reported Wednesday. Republicans quickly pounced on President Obama for the red ink, while Democrats pointed out that Obama inherited a $10.6 trillion public debt from predecessor George W. Bush. The public debt will soon be 100% of the Gross Domestic Product, which currently stands at $15.2 trillion. A week from now, the special congressional “supercommittee” is scheduled to unveil a budget deficit-cutting plan.

The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level since early April, a sign that layoffs are easing and hiring may pick up. The Labor Department says weekly applications dropped by 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 388,000. It was the fourth decline in five weeks. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped to 396,750. That’s the first time the average been below 400,000 in seven months. Applications need to consistently drop below 375,000 to signal sustained job gains.

U.S. builders started slightly fewer homes in October but submitted plans for a wave of apartments, a mixed sign for the struggling housing market. Builders broke ground on a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 628,000 homes last month, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That’s down 0.3% from September and roughly half the 1.2 million that economists say must be built to sustain a healthy housing market. But building permits, a gauge of future construction, rose nearly 11%. The increase was spurred by a 30% increase in apartment permits, which reached its highest level in three years. Renting has become a preferred option for many Americans who lost their jobs during the recession and were forced to leave their homes.

U.S. consumers paid less for gas, cars and computers in October, as overall prices dropped for the first time since June. Inflation is easing after prices rose sharply this spring. The Labor Department says the Consumer Price Index dropped 0.1% in October. It rose 0.3% the previous month. A steep drop in gas prices led the decline. Food prices rose, but at the slowest pace this year. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called “core” prices rose 0.1%.

Oil prices have hit $100 per barrel for the first time in nearly four months, portending a rise in gasoline prices in the months to come. The price of benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude rose as high as $100.30 in electronic trading on Wednesday. The price has rebounded from summer lows in the $80s since peaking at $113.93 at the end of April. Regular gas is likely to average $3.37 a gallon next week — up a whopping 51 cents over last Thanksgiving

Businesses kept their stockpiles steady in September, marking the first time in nearly two years that they have not boosted their inventories. The Commerce Department said Tuesday that business inventories were unchanged in September after 20 consecutive monthly gains that stretched back to December 2009. Business sales rose 0.6% in September, the fourth consecutive gain.

What would you expect government-owned mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to do after receiving nearly $200 billion in taxpayer bailouts? Pay huge executive bonuses, of course. Since accepting government money, Fannie and Freddie spent nearly $100 million for top executive compensation. The top five executives at Fannie received a combined $33.3 million in 2009 and 2010. The top five at Freddie received $28.1 million.

Eurozone

Fear, that contagious emotion, spread from country to country in Europe on Thursday as panicky investors worried the euro currency union could be heading toward an ugly breakup. Spain and even France, one of the continent’s core economic engines, were forced to pay sharply higher interest rates to raise cash to fund government spending. While the European Central Bank was suspected of intervening in bond markets to fight the rise in the borrowing rates, many analysts say it needs to act more aggressively to contain the crisis. But Germany, Europe’s paymaster, once again blocked any such a move on concerns it would let profligate governments off the hook. Uncertainty is now even eroding the appeal of top AAA-rated government bonds from countries such as France as investors prepare for worst-case scenarios like the deconstruction of the Eurozone.

Greece

Masked youths clashed with riot police outside Greece’s parliament and the U.S. embassy Thursday as thousands of austerity-weary Greeks marched through Athens in an annual commemoration of a bloody student uprising in the 1970s. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the rioters, and some 60 people were detained for questioning but no injuries were reported. Some 28,000 people took part in the march, according to police estimates, making it one of the biggest Nov. 17 protests in years. Seven thousand officers were monitoring the crowd.

Italy

Economist Mario Monti says he has succeeded in forming a government tasked with helping Italy escape financial disaster and will hold the posts both of premier and economic minister. Italy’s new premier vowed Thursday to spur economic growth while also trying to be fair in imposing reforms urgently needed to save his country — and the euro — from financial disaster. He said his new government’s policies would fight tax evasion, lower costs for companies so they can hire more and help women and young people find jobs. He said he would quickly work on lowering Italy’s staggering public debt, which now stands at 120% of GDP

Australia

The United States announced an agreement with Australia Wednesday that will expand military cooperation between the long-time allies and boost America’s presence in the region. The agreement was revealed during a joint news conference between U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the nation’s capital, Canberra. Under the agreement, up to 250 U.S. Marines will be sent to Darwin and the northern region of Australia for military exercises and training. Over the next several years their numbers are expected to climb to 2,500 — a full Marine ground task force. While U.S. officials cited the need to respond to regional natural disasters as a reason for the agreement, concern over China’s military expansion is widely acknowledged as a driving factor.

Middle East

While the protests in Tunisia — and elsewhere in the Arab world — were largely leaderless, secular mass movements, it is Islamist parties that are set to triumph in the first round of post-revolution elections. The winner in Tunisia’s first free elections held last month was Ennahda, an Islamist group that had been banned under the former regime. It won 89 out of the 217 seats, more than three times its closest rival. Egypt, which shed its dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, will hold its first free elections starting Nov. 28 and polls show the Islamist parties are ahead. In Libya, which ended the regime of Moammar Gadhafi in October, Islamist groups are organizing for elections that may be held as early as June. Tunisia’s new leaders have assured international observers and their own people that they will not call for stricter religious laws in the country. But some here say that as time passes, the Islamists will push for stricter laws and that a more socially conservative culture will emerge.

Israel

A report released on Thursday by the Central Bureau of Statistics says that 20 percent of Israeli families – some 1.7 million people – live in poverty, including 873,000 children, about a third of the country’s population under the age of 18. Although the numbers are distressingly high, they represent a significant improvement over previous years and actually show that the poverty rate is at its lowest point since 2003.

Iran

The massive blast that struck at what was described as either an Iranian missile base or a military arms depot (conflicting reports appeared in the Iranian press) is being linked by many Western intelligence officials to Israel’s Mossad (intelligence service.) Gen. Hasan Moghaddam, one of Iran’s top missile commanders, was killed together with 16 other Guard members Saturday at a military site outside Bidganeh village, 40 kilometers southwest of Tehran. The Iranians claimed the “accidental explosion” occurred while military personnel were transporting munitions.

International sanctions aimed at Iran’s nuclear program have hurt the country’s middle class and caused factories to shut down while low-quality goods flood the country, say foreign policy analysts. But the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the military unit that protects the Islamic regime and drives the nuclear program that sanctions are meant to impede, has profited and grown stronger under the sanctions. The State Department regularly adds companies owned by the Revolutionary Guards to the list of sanctioned companies. But the Guards, with its network of shell companies, border outposts and foreign operations, is largely unaffected. Sanctions have slowed the Iranian nuclear program, impeding its access to components and nuclear materials, but have not stopped Iran from maintaining “a secret, well-structured nuclear weapons program” since before 2004, or from establishing “a hidden (weapons) program disguised in its civil programs.”

Afghanistan

Many of the hundreds of tribal elders convening here for an annual loya jirga conference say they have grown weary of foreign troops on their soil but are worried the troops will withdraw too soon and leave them at the mercy of the Taliban. Wednesday, more than 2,000 Afghan leaders from around the country will begin a four-day meeting on the future of the nation’s relationship with the United States and talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Though not an official body like the elected parliament, the jirga is a traditional gathering used to gauge the feelings of tribal leaders whose authority is widespread outside the capital. Afghanistan – Tribal leaders on Wednesday backed calls by Afghan President Hamid Karzai for close long-term ties to the United States as long as the relationship respects Afghan sovereignty.

Iraq

Two Iranian pilgrims visiting Shiite shrines in Iraq were killed when a bomb went off next to a minibus they were traveling in. Nine other Iranians were wounded in Wednesday’s explosion, as well as eight Iraqis who were nearby. The Iranians were traveling from the northern city of Samarra, which is home to a holy Shiite shrine, to another Shiite shrine in the Kazimiyah neighborhood in Baghdad. Religious pilgrims are often targeted by Sunni extremists who claim that Shiites are not true Muslims.

Syria

Syrian troops made sweeping arrests Thursday in the restive Hama province as President Bashar Assad faces a growing challenge to his iron rule. On Wednesday, a fledgling force of Syrian military deserters struck an important government security complex on the outskirts of the capital, a bold strike reflecting the resolve and confidence of the regime’s opposition. The defector group, called the Free Syrian Army, said it attacked an air intelligence base in Harasta and planted “powerful explosions inside and around the compound that shook its foundations.” The Free Syrian Army said it “carried out special operations in various areas in Damascus in order to spoil the plan that the regime is preparing against our people and our homeland,” the group said.

Yemen

Yemeni troops killed seven al-Qaeda-linked militants — including an Iranian, a Pakistani and two Somali nationals — in the latest fighting in a southern province. The military has been shelling two key government buildings in Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, after they were overrun by dozens of militants. Security has collapsed across Yemen during a nine-month popular uprising seeking to topple the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’s been in power for 30 years. The embattled president’s critics accuse Saleh of allowing the militants to take advantage of the security vacuum to support his argument that without him, al-Qaeda would take control of the country.

Nigeria

Of the 150 Nigerians that were killed Nov. 4 when the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram stormed Damaturu, the capital of Yobe State, 130 were Christians, Compass Direct News reports. Hundreds of people are still missing, and the destruction during the four-hour rampage included the bombing of at least 10 church buildings. More than 200 Boko Haram members blocked all four major highways leading into town, dislodged security agencies after a series of gun battles and the detonation of explosives, then led other area Muslims to the only Christian area of town, called New Jerusalem, which is home to more than 15,000 Christians. Any Christian who could not recite the Islamic creed was instantly killed.

Weather

At least six people have been killed by a storm system that spawned several possible tornadoes as it moved across the Southeast. Suspected tornadoes were reported Wednesday in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina. Dozens of homes and buildings were damaged, and thousands of people were without power as trees and power lines were downed.

Building debris was left piled up on the streets of a southern Indiana town’s courthouse square after a line of thunderstorms moved across the state. Monday night’s storm damaged numerous buildings in the Orange County town of Paoli about 40 miles northwest of Louisville, Ky. The town also had widespread power outages from the storm, but no injuries were immediately reported. The building housing the town’s police and fire departments was among those damaged and several homes and businesses had roofs torn off.

The National Weather Service has determined that two tornadoes touched down in western New York 15 minutes apart Monday evening. The severe weather in Chautauqua County brought down trees and power lines, ripped the roof from a garage and damaged a barn and other buildings. No injuries were reported. Power had been restored by Tuesday.

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