Signs of the Times (3/31/12)

Supreme Court Wraps-Up Health-Care Debate

Several U.S. Supreme Court justices seemed receptive Wednesday to the idea that portions of the Obama administration’s sweeping health care law can survive even if the court declares the heart of the law — which requires all Americans to have health insurance — unconstitutional. The last of three days of extended hearings on the 2-year-old health-care law spent much time dealing with hypothetical arguments by both supporters and opponents: Does the whole law collapse if the so-called individual mandate — the requirement that all Americans acquire health insurance — is ruled to be an unconstitutional government intrusion in the rights of citizens? When the court rules in June, the decision will have a major impact on the lives of virtually all Americans and will reanimate the political fight over how to deal with the country’s high medical costs, regardless of the outcome. Health care consumes 17 percent of the nation’s economy.

The fate of President Obama’s landmark health care law likely will be decided Friday in an oak-paneled conference room adjoining the chambers of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. There, the nine justices will meet alone to discuss the case that transfixed Americans for three days of oral arguments this week. When all have had their say, they will vote in order of seniority. That initial decision may be altered as drafts of majority and dissenting opinions are written, circulated and rewritten, often many times. It might even be reversed during the lengthy writing process if one or more justices switch sides. For most of the next three months, only the justices and 39 law clerks — four per justice and one each for the three living retired justices — will be privy to the ruling. And even in an age of Twitter and YouTube, it won’t leak – or so the experts say.

Family Healthcare Costs to Exceed $20,000 This Year

Three days of Supreme Court arguments have left the fate of the 2010 health care reform law uncertain. What is certain, however, is that health care costs are continuing to eat away at consumers’ budgets. The cost to cover the typical family of four under an employer plan is expected to top $20,000 on health care this year, up more than 7% from last year. In 2002, the cost was just $9,235. The projected increase marks the fifth year in a row that health care costs will rise between 7% and 8% annually. While employers still shoulder a majority of health care expenses, employees have been paying a larger portion of the total amount every year.

Arizona Dems, Moderate GOP Block Birth-Control/Gun/Immigration Bills

A fissure between moderates and conservatives within Arizona’s Republican party has become more obvious at the state Legislature. On Wednesday, the political split led to the downfall of a controversial bill to allow employers and insurance companies to opt out of covering contraception for religious reasons. The divide also is the reason bills to allow guns on college campuses and require schools to check students’ citizenship status failed to gain traction this session. But while the death of the contraception bill has Democratic lawmakers celebrating, experts say it’s not likely a sign that one of the nation’s most conservative legislatures has suddenly had a change of political heart — lawmakers have still introduced bills promoting conservative causes.

Obama Expands His Executive Power

Despite campaign promises to refrain from using executive powers to bypass Congress, President Barack Obama is increasingly doing just that, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. From helping rebels in the Libyan revolution to granting states waivers from the No Child Left Behind education act, Obama is finding it easier to push his agenda without asking for approval from elected senators and representatives, the paper said. And that is not sitting well with either Republicans or Democrats who are keen to defend their own turf against what they see as an overreaching executive. “When he ran for president, Barack Obama promised to roll back President George W. Bush’s use of executive power, a defining point of the Bush presidency,” Laura Meckler wrote in the Journal piece. Three years into his first term, Mr. Obama has developed his own expansive view of going it alone.

  • Very little of what Obama pledged during his election campaign turned out to be real, so let’s not be fooled or cajoled by his reelection rhetoric. He’s amply displayed his power-monger, socialistic methods.

Sovereign Movement on the Rise in U.S.In the past three years, there has been growing concern over activities of so-called “sovereign citizens who “claim to exist beyond the realm of government authority,” according to a January FBI bulletin to state and local law enforcement officials warning of the potential for violence. The sovereign movement, estimated by the Southern Poverty Law Center to number 100,000 ardent followers and about 200,000 sympathizers across the country, is rooted in an ideology that rejects government authority at its most basic levels, from its power to tax to the enforcement of criminal laws, including common traffic regulations. The number of ‘sovereigns’ has swelled dramatically within a national anti-government network of related “patriot” and “militia” groups. Since 2008, the number of groups surged from 149 to 1,274 in 2011, the law center reported this month.

  • While mostly extremists, the increased numbers indicate an overall growing frustration and suspicion of the federal government’s means and motives. The accelerating slide into socialism and globalism is a very real concern.

Autism More Common than Previously Thought

New research showing one in 88 U.S. children have autism spectrum disorders is focusing national attention on the need for earlier diagnosis and treatment, especially in rural and minority communities. Figures released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 23% increase in autism spectrum cases from 2006 to 2008, and 78% increase since 2002. The largest increases in autism prevalence were found among black and Hispanic children, who have lagged behind whites in previous counts. Numbers are higher for boys, with one in 54 8-year-olds now considered to have autism, Asperger’s or a related condition. No one knows why the condition is five times more likely to affect boys than girls. It’s also not known whether increases are because of better counting or something in the environment — or a mixture of both. Researchers are examining air pollution, nutrition, medications, environmental toxins and other factors as possible contributors.

  • While researchers continue to reject vaccinations as a source, many continue to believe that this is the primary causal agent.

Economic News

U.S. consumers boosted their spending in February by the most in seven months. But Americans’ income barely grew and the saving rate fell to its lowest point in more than two years. Consumer spending rose 0.8% last month, doubling January’s 0.4% increase. Income grew 0.2%, matching January’s less-than-stellar increase. And when taking inflation into account, income after taxes fell for a second straight month. The saving rate dropped to 3.7% of after-tax income in February. That was the lowest level since August 2009. The saving rate had been 4.3% in January and it had averaged 4.7% for all of last year.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell 5,000 to 359,000 last week. The four-week moving average of claims for jobless benefits also fell to 365,000, more evidence of an improving labor market. Claims under 375,000 are considered to be indicative of expanding employment.

Nationally, 84% of those responding to an AAA survey released earlier this month say they’ve changed their routines as a result of soaring fuel prices. Better planning — combining errands into a single trip — was the most common way cited. Some 16% say they’re less affected because they bought or leased a more fuel-efficient vehicle.

The Federal Reserve is propping up the entire U.S. economy by buying 61 percent of the government debt issued by the Treasury Department, says Lawrence Goodman, a former Treasury official and current president of the Center for Financial Stability. He warns that if the situation is not “normalized” the whole economy risks a severe shock.

Canada’s conservative government released its 2012 budget today, and the penny is among the $5.2 billion in cuts. After 150 years, the last Canadian penny will be minted in April. The royal mint will stop distributing pennies to financial institutions in the fall and start working to withdraw them from circulation. It now costs 1.6 cents to produce every copper-nickel cent, and the government estimates it loses $11 million a year producing and distributing pennies.

Religious Freedom Group Names Worst Offenders

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report listing the nations most prone to violating religious freedom, WORLD News Service reports. Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) — named by USCIRF as those most in need of close monitoring by the State Department — include Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, where governments sanction discrimination and violence against unpopular and minority religions.

Middle East

Israeli analysts said the involvement of terrorist groups connected to Iran in Friday’s “Global March to Jerusalem” to press Palestinian demands in neighboring countries and world capitals could lead to violence. March organizers said they hope that thousands of people will hold protests on Israel’s borders from neighboring countries to demand the “liberation” of Jerusalem and Palestine. March 30 marks the date in 1976 when six Israeli Arabs were killed during violent protests against the government confiscating Palestinian land. Despite the stated intention of a non-violent protest, Iran, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are assisting in the march. Hezbollah and Hamas are both U.S.-designated terror groups that have waged attacks against Israel.

The IDF and Israel Police deployed thousands of riot control troops armed with tear gas and stun grenades in Jerusalem and along Israel’s borders with Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan on Friday, placing the West Bank under a full closure and taking other tight security measures as the ‘Global March to Jerusalem’ activists threatened disruptions and confrontations to mark the 36th anniversary of Land Day riots in 1976 that ended violently. Palestinian rioters burned tires and threw stones at police near the Kalandiya checkpoint while PA police prevented protesters in Bethlehem from reaching the IDF checkpoint. Lebanese troops and police, as well as UN forces, were also out in force along the Lebanese border to keep protests there under control. Protests in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank as well as in front of Israeli embassies around the world were planned for the afternoon and evening.

Iraq

The annual Arab League summit meeting opened in the Iraqi capital on Thursday with only 10 of the leaders of the 22-member in attendance amid a growing rift between Arab countries over how far they should proceed to end the one-year conflict in Syria. The Arab League took little action to address Syria crisis, deferring to UN. But the summit, held in a renovated marble palace with gold-encrusted dates for dessert, still marked a triumph for host Iraq. Lackluster attendance, and an ineffectual statement on Syria did not detract from Iraq’s triumph at conducting the summit for the first time since 1990, after it was twice delayed over security worries and anger by the Sunni Muslim Gulf states at Iraq’s Shiite-led government.

Syria

Clashes and protests broke out across many parts of Syria Friday, further complicating a peace mission by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan who urged the government to lay down its weapons first to immediately end the country’s yearlong crisis. As angry protesters lamented inaction by Arab countries, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to work out how to help the opposition in talks with Saudi Arabia, the biggest advocate for arming the rebels against President Bashar Assad. Her visit comes ahead of a 60-nation weekend gathering of the so-called “Friends of the Syrian People” in Istanbul. The meeting is an effort to find ways to aid Syria’s fractured opposition, which has been frustrated by the government’s military gains on the ground. The U.S. is seeking to unify Syria’s opposition movement and find ways to further isolate Assad’s regime.

However, the violent year-long uprising that aimed to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria has ended, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi said Saturday. He added that the presence of Syrian Army soldiers in cities was “for defensive purposes … to protect the civilians.” Makdissi’s remarks come after a series of victories for the Syrian army in the cities of Hama, Homs and Idlib, which were former rebel strongholds, the report said.

  • Statements from the Assad regime have been bizarre, at best, throughout this prolonged ordeal, so it remains to be seen whether this is just another PR strategy

Egypt

Two days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved resuming military funding to Egypt — expressing optimism in its “significant progress toward democracy” — Islamists asserted control over yet another part of the country’s transition to a new government, CNSNews.com reports. On Sunday, it was announced that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Nour party would comprise roughly 70 of the 100 seats on Egypt’s new constituent assembly, which will be responsible for crafting the country’s new constitution. With Islamists leading the constitution-drafting process, sharia (Islamic law) is expected to be a major factor, and the Muslim Brotherhood appears increasingly likely to play a primary role in determining the nature of post-Mubarak Egypt as the country prepares for presidential elections in two months.

France

French police detained 19 people Friday as they launched a crackdown on suspected Islamist extremists in cities around the country, the French president said, promising more raids to come. Tensions are high following a spate of killings in southern France by a radical Islamist that left seven people dead and two wounded and ended up with police killing the gunman last week after a 32-hour standoff. The head of Forsane Alizza, a radical Muslim group that formed two years ago, was among the detained. In October 2011, a preliminary inquiry was opened into the Forsane Alizza organization.

Pakistan

A suspected U.S. drone fired two missiles at a house in northwest Pakistan early Friday morning, killing four militants in an attack that comes as Pakistani officials have stepped up their calls for the strikes to end. The attack could complicate U.S. efforts to get Pakistan to reopen its border crossings to supplies meant for NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan shut the border last November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan’s parliament is debating a revised framework for its relationship with the U.S. that Washington hopes will result in NATO supply routes reopening. But a key demand is that the U.S. stop drone attacks, which are very unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians — a claim denied by the U.S. and contradicted by independent research.

Thailand

Suspected Muslim insurgents set off a series of bombs as shoppers gathered for lunch Saturday in a commercial hub of Thailand’s insurgency-plagued south, killing ten people and wounding 100 others. Three blasts occurred within a 100-yard radius and minutes apart in Yala city, a main commercial hub of Thailand’s restive southern provinces. The first bomb was hidden inside a motorcycle parked near a shopping area and detonated by a mobile phone at about noon. Within minutes, a second bomb hidden in another motorcycle exploded, followed by a third explosion from a device placed in a car that set fire to nearby buildings.

Yemen

An airstrike killed four al-Qaeda militants and wounded four others on Friday in a southern district of Yemen that has been under the group’s control for around a year. An unmanned U.S. drone launched the strike on a vehicle carrying seven militants in the district of Azan. A security official said the attack may have killed some al-Qaeda leaders in the group who were attending Friday prayers and left together. A second drone airstrike on Friday, just a few kilometers from the first strike, hit a building believed to be used by al-Qaeda near a main market in the town of Azan. Four residents were wounded. A gas pipeline in the same region was attacked later in the day in an operation likely carried out by militants.

Mali

The West Africa regional bloc says its sealing its borders with Mali and closing the country’s bank account following a coup that overthrew Mali’s democratically elected president. The closure of borders with many neighboring nations also cuts off Mali’s supply of gasoline. A group of mutinous soldiers seized power last week in a coup, overthrowing President Amadou Toumani Toure, who remains in hiding. Several thousand people took to the streets this week in support of the military takeover, indicating that frustration with Toure is more widespread than just among the mutinous soldiers. Mali’s coup leader responded to the threat of sanctions by saying he plans to hold elections and rapidly return the country to its established order but gave no timetable for immediate action, falling short of demands by West African countries.

Wildfires

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said he was preparing to order a stop to government-prescribed burns like the one that may have caused a deadly wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes near Denver. Meanwhile, some 400 firefighters from several states were focusing on building containment lines around the 6-square-mile wildfire, which broke out Monday. Until now, the fire’s erratic pattern has forced firefighters to focus on protecting homes, not stopping the burn. As of Saturday morning, the fire was still only 45% contained and had consumed 4,140 acres.

Weather

Kids in the nation’s “snow belts” didn’t have a white Christmas — but they’ll have an early summer vacation. At least nine of the snowiest U.S. cities had less than 60% of their average snowfall this year, and schools across the nation are deciding what to do with an unusually high number of leftover emergency weather days. Many schools will let students finish the year early.

For the second weekend in a row, the East and West Coasts will slog through damp and cool weather, while most of the central and southern USA will enjoy sunny skies and near-record temperatures well into the 80s.

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