Signs of the Times (4/24/12)

Arizona Governor Signs Bill to Allow Bible Classes in Public Schools

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has signed into law a bill allowing the establishing of elective classes that focus on the Bible and its influence on Western civilization, the Christian Post reports. House Bill 2563, sponsored by state Rep. Terri Proud, passed the state Senate last Thursday 21 to 9 and was signed by Brewer on Tuesday. According to the bill, “a school district or charter school may offer an elective course pertaining to how the Bible has influenced Western culture for pupils in grades nine through 12. A teacher who instructs a course offered under this section in its appropriate historical context and in good faith shall be immune from civil liability and disciplinary action.” The Bible class elective would teach students, among other things, the contents and history of the Old and New Testaments and their influence on “laws, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values and culture.” Arizona is the sixth state to pass such a law, joining Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and South Carolina.

Ariz. to Defend Immigration Law at Supreme Court

Arizona will go before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to defend its immigration law, Senate Bill 1070, in a case that will determine the future of immigration enforcement nationwide. National legal experts predict the high court’s ruling will be a landmark decision that determines whether states have the right to enforce federal immigration laws as they see fit. It is unusual for the Supreme Court to accept a case that hasn’t yet been fully adjudicated by the lower courts, but the court appears to want to resolve the issue sooner rather than later. Several other states have passed laws similar to SB 1070, prompting conflicting legal rulings in various appeals court districts. SB 1070, among other things, made it a state crime to be in the country illegally and stated that an officer engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest must ask about a person’s legal status when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.

More Mexicans Returning Home, Fewer Immigrating

Mexican immigration to the United States is on the brink of a historic reversal: More Mexicans may be going back to Mexico than coming in, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report Monday. The influx of Mexicans, which has dominated U.S. immigration patterns for four decades, began to tumble in 2006 and 2007 as the housing bust and recession created a dearth of jobs. At the same time, the number of Mexicans returning to their native country along with their U.S.-born children soared. Stricter border enforcement, more deportations and tough state immigration laws such as the Arizona statute also contributed to the reverse flow. From 2005 to 2010, 1.4 million Mexicans came to the USA— down by more than half from the 3 million who came from 1995 to 2000. From 2005 to 2010 , the number of Mexicans who moved from the USA to Mexico rose to 1.4 million, roughly double the number who had done so 10 years before.

Welfare Spending Up 41 Percent Under Obama

The federal government will spend more than $668 billion on anti-poverty programs this year, an increase of 41 percent or more than $193 billion since President Barack Obama took office. State and local government expenditures will amount to another $284 billion, bringing the total to nearly $1 trillion — far more than the $685 billion spent on defense. Federal, state and local governments now spend $20,610 a year for every poor person in the United States, or $61,830 for each poor family of three. The largest welfare program is Medicaid, which provides benefits to 49 million Americans and cost more than $228 billion last year, followed by the food stamps program, with 41 million participants and a price tag of nearly $72 billion.

FDA Proposes Rules for Nanotechnology

Regulators are proposing that food companies that want to use tiny engineered particles in their packaging may have to provide extra testing data to show the products are safe. The Food and Drug Administration issued tentative guidelines Friday for food and cosmetic companies interested in using nanoparticles, which are measured in billionths of a meter. Nanoscale materials are generally less than 100 nanometers in diameter. A sheet of paper, in comparison, is 100,000 nanometers thick. A human hair is 80,000 nanometers thick. The submicroscopic particles are increasingly showing up in FDA-regulated products like sunscreens, skin lotions and glare-reducing eyeglass coatings. Some scientists believe the technology will one day be used in medicine, but the FDA’s announcement did not address that use. The FDA has previously stated its position that nanotechnology is not inherently unsafe; however, materials at the nano scale can pose different safety issues than do things that are far larger. The FDA will take comments on both proposals for 90 days.

  • Unknown territory offers great promise but high risk as well. Caution is required.

Measles Deaths Drop Worldwide

The number of measles deaths worldwide has apparently dropped by about three-quarters over a decade, according to a new study by the World Health Organization. Health officials estimate about 9.6 million children were saved from dying of measles from 2000 to 2010 after big vaccination campaigns were rolled out more than a decade ago. Researchers estimated that the number of deaths fell during that time period from about 535,300 to 139,300, or about 74 percent. Most of the deaths were in India and Africa, where not enough children are being immunized. The global 85 percent vaccination coverage rate was the highest ever recorded.

Eurozone Cuts Deficits, But Total Debt Rises

The 17 countries that use the euro still face an uphill struggle to control their debts in spite of managing to slash government deficits to 4.1% of economic output in 2011. Figures reported Monday by the European Union’s statistics office confirmed the effects of harsh austerity programs on the eurozone members’ economies, which in 2010 ran an overall deficit of 6.2% of gross domestic product. Yet despite these efforts, overall debt rose from 85.3% of GDP to 87.2% — the highest level since the euro was created in 1999. After a financial crisis that has now dragged on for nearly five years, Monday’s figures underscore how difficult it will be for the eurozone to bring its deficits and debts below the EU-stipulated limits of a deficit of 3% or less and debt of 60% or less of GDP.

This task will become even harder as the eurozone’s economy falls back into recession. Separate data released Monday indicated that the private sector in the 17-country block continued to shrink in April. The purchasing managers’ index for eurozone, compiled by private data firm Markit, fell to a five-month low of 47.4, down from 49.1 in March. A level below 50 means that the private sector is contracting.

Dutch Government Collapses over Debt Woes

The Dutch government, one of the most vocal critics of European countries failing to rein in their budgets, quit Monday after failing to agree on a plan to bring its own deficit in line with EU rules. Queen Beatrix’s office said she had accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Cabinet after Rutte informed her talks on a new austerity package collapsed over the weekend. Opposition lawmakers called for a vote in late June. The Dutch government collapse came a day after the first round election victory of France’s socialist candidate Francois Hollande, who has said he wants to focus less on austerity and more on economic growth.

Economic News

The Medicare and Social Security trust funds are both on “unsustainable paths” and will be exhausted by 2024 and 2033, respectively, a trustee report released Monday said. The impact of Baby Boomers hitting senior-citizen status, Americans living longer and an economy that has supplied fewer workers to pay into Medicare and Social Security have left the trust funds paying out more than they take in.

  • There is no ‘trust fund’ – it exists only on paper. The actual money went into the general fund and has already been spent

Sales of new homes slowed in March. The Census Bureau reported that sales of new homes in the month came in at an annual pace of 328,000 when adjusted for the season. That was down 7.1% from the 353,000 sales pace in February. But year-over-year data showed a 7.5% increase over March 2010.

Home prices hit new post-bubble lows in February, according to a report out Tuesday. The S&P/Case-Shiller home price index of 20 cities recorded a decline of 3.5% from 12 months earlier. Home prices have not been this low since November 2002. There are still 6 million homeowners who are late on their payments.

A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don’t fully use their skills and knowledge. Young adults with bachelor’s degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs — waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example — and that’s confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans. Median wages for those with bachelor’s degrees are down from 2000. While there’s still strong demand in science, graduates of education and health fields, arts and humanities are floundering.

The International Monetary Fund says it has raised more than $430 billion in an effort to assure finance markets that it has sufficient firepower to handle any new problems from Europe’s prolonged debt crisis, nearly doubling the IMF’s available resources to make loans to nations in trouble.

Afghanistan

The United States and Afghanistan have finalized a “strategic partnership” to guide security arrangements as the U.S. and allies pull out from the war that has lasted more than a decade. The office of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said the document is ready for the signatures of President Obama and Karzai. Afghanistan is the major topic as Obama prepares to host G-8 and NATO summits next month. Under a 2010 agreement with NATO and other allies, the U.S. plans to have troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Syria

Syrian troops armed with heavy machine guns killed dozens in the central city of Hama Monday, activists said, just a day after chanting protesters welcomed a visit by a U.N. team sent to observe a shaky cease-fire. The day’s violence, the city’s worst in months, added a dangerous new aspect to the U.N. team’s work: that the Syrian regime might exact deadly revenge against opponents who feel empowered by the observers’ presence to spill into the streets. Observance of the truce, which was supposed to begin April 12, has been spotty at best.

Syrian troops stormed and shelled districts in a suburb of the capital Damascus Sunday, activists said, a day after the Security Council voted to expand the number of U.N. truce monitors to 300 members in hopes of salvaging an international peace plan marred by continued fighting between the military and opposition rebels. An eight-member team is already on the ground in Syria, and has visited flashpoints of the 13-month-long conflict since Thursday. Fighting generally stops when they are present, but there has been a steady stream of reports of violence from areas where they have not yet gone.

Egypt

Egypt’s Islamist and secular forces sought to relaunch the street uprising against Egypt’s ruling military Friday, packing Cairo’s Tahrir Square with tens of thousands of protesters in the biggest rally in months and accusing the generals of manipulating upcoming presidential elections to preserve their power. But attempts by protest organizers to form a united front against the military were blocked by competing agendas. The protest was riven by distrust and resentments that have grown between Islamists and liberals during the rocky, military-run transition process since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago. Liberals and leftists accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of abandoning the “revolution” months ago and allying with the military in hopes of securing power. In Friday’s rally, many said the Brotherhood was only turning to the streets after the generals proved more powerful in decision-making even after an Islamist-dominated parliament was elected.

Iran

Despite another round of talks in Istanbul regarding the status of its nuclear program and a professed willingness to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran continues to refuse to make any concessions or halt its work. In the latest discussion, Iran refused access to its military nuclear site at Parchin near the capital of Tehran. Experts believe Iran is “sanitizing” the site so that if inspections do take place in the future, they will not reveal the extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons work there. Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak pointed out that all these talks have accomplished is guaranteeing “Iran has five more weeks” of uninterrupted work on its nuclear program.”

Libya

The Libyan government assumed control Friday of the country’s main international airport, taking over from militia fighters who had been providing security for months in the absence of an official force to do the job. The handover marked a step forward for Libya’s new rulers as they try to stamp their authority on the country and bring under their control the various armed brigades that helped topple longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

Yemen

Yemeni government troops have fought their way into the center of an al-Qaeda-held city in the country’s lawless south after a fierce, six-hour battle that ended early Tuesday. Al-Qaeda militants seized Zinjibar last May when fighters from the terror network’s Yemeni branch took advantage of the turmoil in the impoverished nation to capture several cities and towns in the south. The coastal city is the capital of Abyan province, and driving al-Qaeda out of it should loosen al-Qaeda’s grip over Yemen’s southern territories. The city also lies near key shipping lanes through which millions of barrels of oil pass every day.

Sudan

Sudanese aircraft have bombed an area near Bentiu, the capital of Unity State in South Sudan, killing a boy and leaving at least two people wounded. Sudan and South Sudan have been drawing closer to a full-scale war in recent months over the sharing of oil revenues and a disputed border dispute. Sudan said Friday its forces drove South Sudanese troops from a contested oil town near the countries’ ill-defined border. Sudan President Omar al-Bashir threatened to topple the South Sudan government after accusing the south of trying to take down his Khartoum-based government. South Sudan broke away from Sudan last year after an independence vote, the culmination of a 2005 peace treaty that ended decades of war that killed more than 2 million people. Despite the treaty, violence between the two countries has been on the rise, in part because the sides never agreed on the where the border lies, nor how to share oil revenues from the border region.

Mali

Christians in Mali are in desperate need of aid after being forced to flee their homes when Islamists rampaged through the north as part of a violent rebel takeover. A Barnabas Fund contact in Mali said: “Horrible crimes have been made against the population: massacres, rape of women, obligation to wear the veil, chasing Christians. All the churches were destroyed in Gao and Timbuktu. All the believers had to flee towards the south, leaving their homes and giving up all their goods.” The heavily armed rebels ransacked and looted homes, vandalized churches and occupied a Bible school in Gao. Ansar Dine, which has links to al-Qaeda and wants to turn Mali into an Islamic state, is imposing sharia law on the region.

Volcanoes

The white-capped volcano that looms over Mexico City emitted a terrifying low-pitched roar Friday and spewed roiling towers of ash and steam as it vented the pressure built up by a massive chamber of magma beneath its slopes. Authorities prepared evacuation routes, ambulances and shelters in the event of a bigger explosion. Even a large eruption of the 17,886-foot (5,450-meter) cone of Popocatepetl is unlikely to do more than dump ash on one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. But the grit could play havoc with Mexico City’s busy airport, and tens of thousands of people in the farming villages on its flanks could be forced to flee. Popo, as it’s commonly known, has put out small eruptions of ash almost daily since a round of eruptive activity began in 1994. A week ago, the eruptions started growing larger.

Earthquakes

A powerful earthquake hit waters off eastern Indonesia on Saturday, sending residents and school children running into the streets in panic. There were no reports of injuries or serious damage and no tsunami warning was issued. The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude-6.6 quake hit 50 miles off Papua province. It was centered just 18 miles beneath the ocean floor. The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude-6.6 quake hit 50 miles off Papua province. It was centered just 18 miles beneath the ocean floor.

Weather

Topsy-turvy winter weather – which saw a blizzard in October and 90-degree heat in March – returns Monday with an April snowstorm in the Northeast. Winter-storm watches and warnings are posted from the Appalachians of West Virginia, across western Pennsylvania and into southwest New York, where heavy, wet snow could topple trees already in full bloom after early spring warmth. The Weather Channel is forecasting 4 to 6 inches of snow for Pittsburgh and 5 to 8 inches in Buffalo during the day on Monday. Once the snow ends, frigid, February-like temperatures forecast in the 30s and 40s will make life miserable for those who lose power.

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