Signs of the Times (1/18/12)

Iranian Pastor Again Refuses to Deny Christ in Exchange for Freedom

Iran has once again asked imprisoned Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani to renounce his faith and accept the Islamic prophet Muhammad as his savior with the promise of securing his release, but Nadarkhani has refused, the Christian Post reports. “The latest attempt to pressure Pastor Yousef to acknowledge Muhammad as a messenger of God violates both the Iranian constitution and various principles of international law, to which Iran is obliged to uphold,” said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director at the American Center for Law and Justice. Iran has received international criticism for violating international civil and political rights laws in Ndarkhani’s case, which is still awaiting a verdict from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Experts Disagree on Reach of Anti-Piracy Bills

Supporters and opponents of anti-piracy legislation stepped up their fight this week ahead of key votes in Congress next week that could dramatically alter the Internet. The legislation — two similar bills pending in the House and Senate — would empower the Department of Justice and copyright holders to shut down websites that violate intellectual property or sell counterfeit goods. A range of U.S. businesses and their trade groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pharmaceutical and media companies and publishers, say it would lead to more jobs and revenues and promote consumer safety. Opponents, including large and small Internet companies and First Amendment advocates, argue that it would stifle innovation and lead to censorship. SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, is the House bill and the U.S. Senate has a similar bill pending, the Protect IP Act, called PIPA. Wikipedia and Google went “dark” Wednesday in protest.

  • The New World Order folks would love to impose greater restraints on free speech

U.S. Economic Freedom Isn’t What it Used to Be

Impending laws and regulations could make the U.S. fall further down the Index of Economic Freedom, which measures 184 countries on trade freedom, business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights. The Index is a joint project of The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation. The U.S. comes in this year at number ten — down from ninth place last year, marking the fourth consecutive year of decline. “The United States has dropped because of sharp increases in government spending, more costly regulations, and really a growing sense that policy makers in the U.S. and Washington are putting special interests above the interest of the public at large,” explains James Roberts of Heritage. Unless changes are made to entitlement programs, current and incoming regulations, and the new healthcare law, Roberts warns that finishing in the top ten will be a thing of the past for the U.S.

Disapproval of Congress Hits New High

A record 84 percent of Americans say they disapprove of the way the Congress is doing its job compared with just 13 percent who approve of how things are going, according to a Washington Post/ABC News public opinion poll published on Monday. Democrats and Republicans fought all last year over the best way to control the country’s debt and annual budget deficit, as the two parties tried to position themselves for the 2012 elections. A vitriolic debate leading up to an agreement last summer to allow President Barack Obama to raise the debt ceiling fueled public disgust with Congress and prompted Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency to strip the United States of its stellar AAA rating.

  • Career politicians are the primary cause of America’s ills

Problems Plague Cleanup at Hanford Nuclear Waste Site

Seven decades after scientists came here during World War II to create plutonium for the first atomic bomb, a new generation is struggling with an even more daunting task: cleaning up the radioactive mess. The U.S. government is building a treatment plant to stabilize and contain 56 million gallons of waste left from a half-century of nuclear weapons production. The radioactive sludge is so dangerous that a few hours of exposure could be fatal. A major leak could contaminate water supplies serving millions across the Northwest. The cleanup is the most complex and costly environmental restoration ever attempted. And the project is not going well.

The troubled, 10-year effort to build the treatment plant faces enormous problems just as it reaches what was supposed to be its final stage, according to a USA Today analysis. The plant’s $12.3 billion price tag, already triple original estimates, is well short of what it will cost to address the problems and finish the project. In addition, several senior engineers cite design problems that could bring the plant’s operations to a halt before much of the waste is treated. And the plant’s start-up date, originally slated for last year and pushed back to its current target of 2019, is likely to slip further behind.

Fungus has Killed up to 6.7M Bats in ‘Potential Extinction’

Federal biologists announced today that up to 6.7 million bats in 16 states and four Canadian provinces may have died from the white-nose fungus since it was detected six years ago, a die-off that a conservationist today called “a potential extinction event,” The Washington Post reports. Biologists report mortality rates of 90% to 100% at some sites and expect the disease to keep spreading through several species, including some that are endangered. The cause is a mystery. One theory is that humans may have introduced the fungus while exploring caves. The new die-off figures come just before another hibernation season and are several times greater than previous estimates.

Occupy Protesters in D.C. as House Returns

An apparent smoke bomb was thrown over the fence of the White House as hundreds of Occupy protesters massed outside the gates. The crowds were dispersed Tuesday night and the White House was all clear. There were no arrests in the incident. Protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement are meeting outside the Capitol for what participants hope will become the largest gathering of Occupy activists from around the country. A few hundred protesters gathered outside barricades around the Capitol on a cold, rainy Tuesday morning. U.S. Capitol Police said one person has been arrested and charged with assault on a police officer. Participants said they are decrying the influence of corporate money in politics and want to show the House of Representatives what real democracy looks like. The House reconvened Tuesday after its winter recess. Meanwhile, the Occupy movement is suffering from declining donations and cutbacks in spending.

  • Throwing smoke bombs and assaulting a police officer is a great demonstration of Occupy thuggery, not democracy

Workers Strike Panama Canal Expansion Project

About 6,000 workers have gone on strike for higher wages at a $5.25 billion project to widen the Panama Canal to accommodate larger ships. The employees want the base wage raised from $2.90 per hour to $4.90, and the wage for the most skilled workers raised from $3.52 per hour to $7.10. Employees of the multinational construction consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal claim the firm has failed to pay them some overtime and vacation pay. They are also complaining about deficient workplace safety.

Obama’s Jobs Council Backs Republican Solutions

President Obama lauded the latest report from his jobs council Tuesday, even though many of its proposals sounded like the work of Republicans. The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness proposed cutting the corporate tax rate, boosting domestic energy production and reducing government regulations that hinder business. The reports’ emphasis on taxes, regulation and energy thrilled Republicans. “With this report, President Obama’s own panel of experts has endorsed the approach to job creation House Republicans have been pursuing for more than a year. American job creators understand that we must ease the regulatory burden on small businesses, foster private-sector innovation, transition to a more competitive tax system, and utilize the vast energy resources we have here at home,” noted House Speaker John Boehner.

World Bank Warns of Global Recession

The World Bank Wednesday slashed its 2012 growth forecasts for both emerging and developing economies from its estimates of only six months ago, and warned the world is on the cusp of a new global recession that could be as bad as the crisis four years ago. A meltdown in financial markets triggered by the sovereign debt problems in Europe poses the greatest immediate risk, according to the report. A full-blown European crisis would shave a full 4 percentage points off of global growth, which would tip the global economy from a position of weak growth into recession.

Economic News

U.S. factory output surged in December by the most in any month in 2011, offering the most visible evidence yet that manufacturing is roaring back from the recession’s depths. Stronger demand for business equipment, vehicles and energy drove the 0.9% increase in manufacturing output, the biggest monthly increase since December 2010. Industrial output is now less than 5% below its pre-recession peak.

Declining prices at the wholesale level shows inflation remains in check. The producer price index, which measures price changes before they reach consumers, declined 0.1% in December. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called core wholesale prices rose 0.3%.

Consumers whacked down credit card debt by 11% last year. The average credit card balance for 2011 was $6,576, down from $7,404 the previous year. The decline came as weak consumer confidence kept spending in check and banks continued to tighten their lending and slash credit limits for many existing customers.

Foreign demand for U.S. Treasury debt rose in November to the highest level ever, even as China trimmed its purchases for a second straight month. Foreign holdings increased 1.7% in November to $4.75 trillion. Japan, the second-largest buyer of Treasury debt, increased its holdings 6% to $1.04 trillion. China, the largest foreign holder, trimmed its holdings 0.1% to $1.13 trillion.

Global stock markets rallied Tuesday as China’s robust growth in the final quarter of 2011 eased fears of an abrupt slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. Government figures showed that growth in China slowed in the final quarter of 2011 to an 8.9% annual rate, its lowest rate in 2 ½ years, but still relatively strong. However, the worst may be yet to come, as weak exports and government tightening ripple through the world’s second-largest economy.

Europe’s sluggish economy is already taking a toll on U.S. corporate profits, with some companies starting to report lower fourth-quarter earnings and gloomier forecasts. Companies in the Standard and Poor’s 500 index derive about 14% of their sales from Europe, though some depend on the continent for as much as 40% of revenue. Adding to the problem: Europe’s weakening economy has hammered the euro, making revenue earned by U.S. firms in Europe worth less when converted into dollars.

Middle East

A hacker network that claims to be based in Saudi Arabia paralyzed the websites of Israel’s stock exchange and national airline on Monday, escalating an international cyber war that has jolted this security-obsessed country. Neither website contains sensitive information and trading and flights were not affected. But the ongoing salvos by hackers who use anti-Israel language in their posts has revealed how vulnerable Israel is to cyber warfare, despite its sophisticated computer security units in the military and advanced high-tech sector. The attacks began earlier this month when hackers identifying themselves as group-xp, a known Saudi hacking group, claimed on an Israeli sports website to have gained access to 400,000 Israeli credit card accounts. The group called it a “gift to the world for the New Year” designed to “hurt the Zionist pocket.” Last week, an Israeli hacker identifying himself as a soldier in an Israeli intelligence unit retaliated by posting information online about hundreds of Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians and others.

Members of the Obama Administration, including the president himself, have issued a string of warnings to Israel in the past week not to launch a military strike to halt Iran’s nuclear program. They are insisting that Israel give sanctions more time to work. Analysts have noted the fear of the economic impact of war on the president’s reelection campaign as a powerful influence on Washington.


Top parties in Egypt’s incoming parliament have agreed to select an Islamist politician as house speaker for the first time in decades. The Muslim Brotherhood, the big winner in the first election since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak last February, said it joined several other parties in backing Saad el-Katatni, the secretary-general of the Brotherhood’s own party. The main function of the new parliament is to pick a 100-person commission to draw up a new constitution for Egypt, while preparations take place for presidential elections scheduled for June.


Dozens of demonstrators gathered in downtown Bucharest Monday as Romania’s prime minister warned that violent protests that left 59 injured over the weekend could jeopardize stability and economic growth. Police on Sunday clashed with a small contingent of around 1,000 protesters in the capital, after four days of demonstrations against austerity measures turned violent. Tear gas and flares were used to repel demonstrators hurling stones and firebombs. The windows of shops, banks and bus stations were smashed, and street lights vandalized. In 2009, Romania took a two-year €20 billion ($27.5 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank as its economy shrank by 7.1 percent. It imposed harsh austerity measures under the agreement, reducing public wages by 25 percent and increasing taxes.


Five foreign tourists were killed by unknown armed rebels in Ethiopia’s restive Afar region in the country’s north. A group of eight unidentified foreign nationals were attacked near the Eritrean border on Monday. Two tourists were injured severely and have been brought to a health clinic by defense forces. They are in critical condition. The attackers were rebels with ties to Ethiopia’s archrival Eritrea, which hosts the exiled Oromo Liberation Front, a rebel group listed as a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian government.


Unions suspended their nationwide strike on Monday, hours after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan partially reinstated subsidies to keep gasoline prices low and deployed soldiers in the streets to halt widening demonstrations. Union leaders described their decision as a victory for labor, allowing its leaders to guide the country’s policy on fuel subsidies in the future while having gas prices drop to about $2.27 a gallon. However, many protesters joined the demonstrations with hopes of seeing gas return to its previous price of about $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter), while also speaking out against a culture of government corruption in Africa’s most populous nation.


All 158 Peace Corps volunteers in Honduras left the country on Monday, weeks after the United States announced that it would pull them out for safety reasons. The U.S. group said in late December that it was bringing home volunteers from Honduras and suspending training for new volunteers in El Salvador and Guatemala, though existing volunteers would remain in the latter two countries. The region is plagued by gang violence and Honduras is considered to have the highest murder rate in the world. Honduras President Porfirio Lobo said Monday that the Peace Corps volunteers had been affected by rising crime, but neither he nor U.S. officials have cited specific attacks as reasons for the withdrawal.


Powerful spring-like storms lashed portions of Kentucky with fierce winds Tuesday, uprooting trees and yanking down power lines that clogged roads and left thousands without electricity. Two tractor-trailers overturned on a Louisville-area highway during the storm. The fast-moving storm triggered a series of tornado warnings ahead of an expected sharp drop in temperatures from the balmy 60s in the morning to the more seasonal 20s by Tuesday night. The Louisville area appeared to be among the hardest hit, though storm warnings stretched into south-central Kentucky.

The disastrous Southern drought, which led to $10 billion in crop and agricultural losses in 2011, is forecast to continue through at least the next three months, government scientists report. The drought is also forecast to worsen and expand across the water-sensitive western USA. According to the most recent Drought Monitor, a weekly federal government report, drought is either in place or forecast to develop in a solid 2,500-mile stripe across the southern tier of the USA from California to Virginia. The climate pattern La Niña, a cooling of Pacific Ocean water that usually leads to dry weather across the southern USA, remains in place.

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