Signs of the Times (12/28/11)

Christian Population Shifts Away From Europe

A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that during the last century, the Christian population has shifted dramatically away from Europe to Africa, Asia and the Americas, the Associated Press reports. About one-fourth of the world’s Christians live in Europe today, compared to two-thirds 100 years ago. About one-fourth of the worlds Christians can now be found in sub-Saharan Africa, while 37 percent live in the Americas and 13 percent live in Asia.

  • The end-time “falling away” is underway in earnest (2Thess. 2:3)

No Economic Downturn on Capital Hill

Largely insulated from the country’s economic downturn since 2008, members of Congress — many of them among the “1 percenters” denounced by Occupy Wall Street protesters — have gotten much richer even as most of the country has become much poorer in the last six years, according to an analysis by The New York Times based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group. Congress has never been a place for paupers. From plantation owners in the pre-Civil War era to industrialists in the early 1900s to ex-Wall Street financiers and Internet executives today, it has long been populated with the rich, including scions of families like the Guggenheims, Hearsts, Kennedys and Rockefellers. But rarely has the divide appeared so wide, or the public contrast so stark, between lawmakers and those they represent. There is broad debate about just why the wealth gap appears to be growing. For starters, the prohibitive costs of political campaigning may discourage the less affluent from even considering a candidacy. Beyond that, loose ethics controls, shrewd stock picks, profitable land deals, favorable tax laws, inheritances and even marriages to wealthy spouses are all cited as possible explanations for the rising fortunes on Capitol Hill. What is clear is that members of Congress are getting richer compared not only with the average American worker, but also with other very rich Americans.

  • This is why rich, pampered politicians will never have the resolve to fully deal with the debt crisis

State Workers Add Time to Pensions

Government workers in 21 states are using an obscure perk to retire early or to boost their annual pensions by thousands of dollars, which can cost taxpayers millions more in payments to retirement funds. The practice, called buying “air time,” lets state, municipal and school employees pay to add up to five years to their work history so they are eligible to retire and collect a lifetime pension. Workers already eligible for retirement can buy extra years to boost a pension by up to 25%. It’s called “air time” because workers buy credit for non-existent work, in contrast to policies that let workers buy credit for military service or government jobs in a different state. Federal law allows air-time purchases only in government pension plans.

  • Unfunded pension liabilities are already an albatross around the necks of state budgets

Federal Workers Starting at Much Higher Pay

Newly hired federal workers are starting at much higher salaries than those who did the same jobs in the past, a lift that has elevated the salaries of scientists and custodians alike, according to a USA Today analysis. The pay hikes have made the federal government a go-to place for many young people. A 20- to 24-year-old auto mechanic started at an average of $46,427 this year, up from $36,750 five years ago. The government hires about 400 full-time auto mechanics a year. A 30- to 34-year-old lawyer started at an average of $101,045 this year, up from $79,177 five years ago. The government hires about 2,500 lawyers a year. And a mechanical engineer, age 25 to 29, started at $63,675, up from $51,746 in 2006. The government hires about 600 mechanical engineers a year.

  • Yet another way the federal government ignores the economic constraints others are forced to follow

Senate Politics to Shut Down Some Agencies

When Senate Republicans filibustered President Obama’s nominee to a key consumer watchdog post this month, it was the first time in history the Senate blocked an appointment in an effort to effectively shut down an agency. It likely won’t be the last. Already, Senate Republicans are threatening to hold up Obama’s nominees to a number of posts overseeing elections, labor law and health care — and in each case, they aim to kill the agency outright. Part of the problem is that Democrats have created s many new agencies without Republican input. In blocking the president’s nomination of Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Dec. 8, McConnell said, “We are not going to let the president put another unelected czar in place.”

  • Government expansion without oversight is the hallmark of Obama’s socialistic strategy

Obama Seeks $1.2 Trillion Increase in Debt Ceiling

The Treasury Department is expected to seen another $1.2 trillion in borrowing authority by the end of the week, raising the federal debt ceiling to $16.4 trillion. It’s the third and final installment of a deal that Obama and Congress reached back in August, amid conservative opposition to a debt ceiling rise that threatened a government default. In recent months, Obama has secured two debt ceiling increases totaling $900 billion. Congress can move to block this latest increase, but Obama can veto the effort. This would be the final increase allowed under the budget agreement reached in August. The budget agreement largely pre-empts the partisan debate over federal deficits and debt that the request might otherwise have touched off in Congress.

  • Will the debt spiral ever end? Not until defaults cause economic chaos.

Copper Thieves Darken Streetlights

Nighttime stretches of road across the USA are being left dark by the theft of copper wiring from streetlights, and police are investigating whether the darkness contributed to some crashes. Copper thieves also are hitting traffic lights. In Kentucky, copper thieves have left about 450 highway lights dark in the Lexington area. Hawaii will spend more than $3 million next year to repair lights on the H-1 and H-2 freeways that have been dark for several years. Police in Colorado Springs are investigating the 4 a.m. crash of a milk tanker that overturned on a stretch of Interstate 25 that was darkened because copper wiring had been stolen from streetlights. In Vallejo, Calif., thieves stripped copper wiring from nearly 80 streetlights and from traffic lights at five intersections. A nearly 50% increase in the value of copper over the past five years makes it “an exceptionally attractive target” for thieves.

Economic News

Banks are lending again. After three years of Scrooge-like underwriting following 2008’s financial crisis, banks have turned on the spigot, boosting lending at annual rates as high as 8.2% since July, according to Federal Reserve statistics. Lending had fallen from mid-2008 through this year’s second quarter. Among the reasons: The economy is improving, while smaller banks have positioned themselves to pick up slack left as bigger banks remain cautious.

Holiday retail sales appear on track to be somewhere between ho-ho-ho and ho-hum, raising the prospect that the economic expansion is still struggling to reach top form. The National Retail Federation on Dec. 15 raised its estimated holiday sales to a 3.8% rise from 2010 — up from its previous 2.8% estimate — buoyed by the strong sales in October and November. But when you take price increases into account, the gains were only marginal.

Between 100 and 120 Sears and Kmart stores will be closed, the retailer said Tuesday, after terrible holiday sales during what is the most crucial time of the year for retailers. The company is moving away from its practice of propping up “marginally performing” stores in hopes of improving their performance. Sears said it will now concentrate on cash-generating stores.

Just as several new plug-in electric vehicles are headed to showrooms, the government is letting expire a tax credit for installing home and commercial charging equipment. A tax credit for chargers ends Saturday, even as proponents press Congress to reinstate it, perhaps retroactively, in January. The credit allows taxpayers to deduct 30% of the cost of chargers installed in their garages up to $1,000. On commercial units, the tax break is up to $30,000, according to the IRS.

A wide-ranging currency agreement between China and Japan is expected to give the Chinese Yuan a more powerful role in international trade. Economic woes in Europe and U.S. have undermined market confidence in the dollar and euro, but investors looking for a safe place to store their money have few other currency options. China, among other nations, has objected to the primacy of the dollar in international trade, and has suggested other options to the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency.

Brazil will remain one of the fastest-growing nations in the coming years after overtaking the U.K. this year to become the world’s sixth-largest economy. The countries that will grow the most are the emerging markets such as Brazil, China, India and Russia, according to the London-based Center for Economics and Business Research.


The Christmas terror attacks on two churches marked the second year in a row that the extremists seeking to install Islamic Shariah law across the country of 160 million have staged Christmas attacks. Last year, a series of bombings on Christmas Eve killed 32 people. This year, 39 people were killed with at least 52 wounded. After the bombings, a Boko Haram spokesman for the radical Muslim sect said, “”There will never be peace until our demands are met. We want all our brothers who have been incarcerated to be released; we want full implementation of the Sharia system and we want democracy and the constitution to be suspended.” The group, whose name means “Western education is sacrilege” in the local Hausa language, is responsible for at least 504 killings this year alone, and Nigeria is bracing for more brazen attacks.


The Arab League sent monitors to Syria Monday even though President Bashar Assad’s regime has only intensified its crackdown on dissent in the week since agreeing to the Arab plan to stop the bloodshed. Activists say government forces have killed several hundred civilians in the past week. At least 23 more deaths were reported Monday from intense shelling in the center of the country, just hours before the first 60 monitors were to arrive. The opposition says thousands of government troops have been besieging the Baba Amr district of in the central city of Homs for days and the government is preparing a massive assault on the area. Tens of thousands of defiant Syrian protesters thronged the streets of Homs Tuesday, calling for the execution of President Bashar Assad shortly after his army pulled its tanks back and allowed Arab League monitors in for the first time to the city at the heart of the anti-government uprising.

Activists say at least four soldiers have been killed and 12 others wounded in southern Syria in an ambush carried out by a group of military defectors. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the ambush targeted a joint military and security convoy. Thousands of army defectors in Syria have grown increasingly bolder in attacking government forces. Wednesday’s ambush comes as Arab League observers began a second day of work touring districts in the flashpoint central city of Homs. The Syrian government released 755 prisoners Wednesday who had been detained over the past nine months in the regime’s crackdown on dissent. The prisoners’ release followed accusations by Human Rights Watch that Syrian authorities were hiding hundreds of detainees from the observers now in the country.


President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday that his government would accept Taliban insurgents’ opening a representative office in the Gulf state of Qatar for the purpose of holding peace talks, although Saudi Arabia or Turkey would be preferable venues. Earlier this month, Kabul recalled its ambassador to Qatar for consultations over reports that the Taliban was planning to open an office in the tiny, gas-rich Arab state. The Islamist group has so far not publicly responded to peace offers. The insurgents, who perceive themselves as winning the war, have repeatedly said they would not engage in talks with the government while foreign troops remain on Afghan soil. “Having an exact address for the opposition (is a condition) for practical steps toward starting negotiations,” Tuesday’s statement said. Three NATO service members have been killed by a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan Wednesday. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the target was a U.S. military convoy.

  • Peace with Islamist terrorists is a dangerous illusion that only serves to give them more room to operate


An al-Qaeda front group in Iraq has claimed responsibility for the wave of attacks that ripped through markets, cafes and government buildings in Baghdad on a single day last week, killing 69 people and raising new worries about the country’s path. The coordinated attacks struck a dozen mostly Shiite neighborhoods in the first major bloodshed since U.S. troops completed a full withdrawal this month after nearly nine years of war. They also coincided with a government crisis that has again strained ties between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites to the breaking point, tearing at the same fault line that nearly pushed Iraq into all-out civil war several years ago. The claim of responsibility focused its rage on the country’s Shiite-dominated leadership, which Sunni insurgents have battled since it came to power as a result of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.


An alleged CIA spy went on trial in Tehran on Tuesday. “The first hearing in the trial of Amir Mirzai Hekmati, recently arrested for spying for the United States, began Tuesday morning” in a Tehran court, according to a statement on the Fars website. Hekmati, an Arizona-born former marine, was accused of being on a mission to infiltrate Iran’s intelligence service when he was arrested in the Islamic Republic on Aug. 29. His family deny the claim, saying it was “absolutely, positively” wrong and that Hekmati was forced to lie and confess to being an agent in an Iranian state television broadcast earlier this month.


The Obama administration has decided in principle to allow the embattled president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to enter the United States for medical treatment, subject to certain assurances, two administration officials said Monday. But those conditions — including a proposed itinerary — have not yet been submitted to the American Embassy in Yemen, these officials said, and no visa has yet been issued to Mr. Saleh. The complex negotiations over Mr. Saleh’s visa request attest to the high stakes for the administration, which urgently wants to secure room for political progress in Yemen but does not want to allow Mr. Saleh to use a medical visit as a way to shore up his political position.


A South Korean mourning delegation returned home Tuesday after meeting with North Korea’s next leader, who has rapidly gained prominence since his father’s death. Kim Jong Un’s brief meeting Monday with a group led by a former South Korean first lady and a prominent business leader shows Seoul that he is assured in his new role atop the country’s ruling structure. The South Koreans also met with Kim Yong Nam, president of Presidium of North Korea’s parliament. The sides agreed to push for the implementation of 2000 and 2007 summit agreements between the countries aimed at expanding economic cooperation.


Colombian rebels on Tuesday announced plans to release six hostages who have been held captive for more than a decade. Colombian rebels on Tuesday announced plans to release six hostages who have been held captive for more than a decade. three of those to be freed include police officers who were kidnapped in southern Colombia on July 11, 1999. The leftist rebel group has been fighting Colombia’s government since 1964 and is estimated to have between 8,000 and 9,000 fighters. FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez earlier this month repeated a proposal to free jailed guerrillas in exchange for rebel-held hostages. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has rejected any such exchange and has called on the rebels to free all their hostages unilaterally as a step toward possible dialogue.


Officials say fast-moving mudflows streaming from the mouth of a volcano in eastern Indonesia have killed four villagers. More than a dozen others were hospitalized with injuries ranging from broken bones to head wounds. About 1,000 others have fled their homes. Mount Gamalama, located in the Molucca Islands, sprang back to life this month with a powerful, non-fatal eruption. Days of heavy rains triggered flows of cold lava, rocks and other debris that slammed into villages near the base Tuesday night.


Another storm will develop in the Southeast while moving through the eastern third of the country. This storm will carry a significant amount of moisture that will produce widespread moderate to heavy rain through the Southeast. Many areas will receive several inches of rain. In the colder air to the north, a mix of rain and snow will fall in the Ohio Valley. Even colder air in the Upper Midwest will produce several inches of snow in Wisconsin and Michigan.

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