Signs of the Times (8/11/12)

Missouri Prayer Amendment Passes

Voters in Missouri overwhelmingly approved a “right to pray” amendment to the state’s constitution on Tuesday, despite concerns about the measure’s necessity and legality. Amendment 2, which supporters said would protect the freedom of religious expression in public schools and other public spaces, received nearly 80 percent of the vote. The language on Tuesday’s ballot stressed the rights of citizens to express their religious beliefs and the rights of children to pray and acknowledge God in schools. It also stated that students could be exempted from classroom activities that violate their religious beliefs.

Federal Judge Rules Against Hawaii Gay Marriage

A federal judge ruled Wednesday against two Hawaii women who want to get married instead of enter into a civil union, handing a victory to opponents of gay marriage in a state that’s been at the forefront of the issue. U.S. District Court Judge Alan C. Kay’s ruling sides with Hawaii Health Director Loretta Fuddy and Hawaii Family Forum, a Christian group that was allowed to intervene in the case. “If the traditional institution of marriage is to be reconstructed, as sought by the plaintiffs, it should be done by a democratically elected legislature or the people through a constitutional amendment,” and not through the courts, ruled the judge.

Court Gives Feds the OK for Warrantless Wiretaps

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the government is immune to wireless wiretapping lawsuits in a decision that the plaintiff’s attorney says releases Washington and the White House from ever being held accountable for spying on citizens. “There is no accountability,” attorney Jon Eisenberg tells the Los Angeles Times. “That is what is so distressful about this decision. It means that President Bush got away with it, and it means that President Obama will be able to get away with it and every president after him.” The extent of government wiretapping “is a government secret, and the courts aren’t going to have anything to do with revealing those secrets,” Eisenberg adds.

Widespread Fraud in Taxpayer ID Program

A recently released report shows widespread tax fraud in connection with the federal government’s Individual Taxpayer Identification Number program. The inspector general specifically said there were 154 mailing addresses that were used 1,000 or more times on applications. The inspector general also found 10 individual addresses were used for filing 53,994 tax returns and receiving $86.4 million in fraudulent tax refunds. For example, 23,994 tax refunds totaling $46.3 million were issued to an address in Atlanta; and 2,507 tax refunds totaling $10.4 million were issued to an address in Oxnard, Calif. The U.S. Treasury inspector general report accuses the IRS of discouraging employees from reviewing applications for the ID numbers, which are generally from non-resident workers.

  • And we expect the federal government to be able to effectively overhaul the healthcare system?

Kids Most Vulnerable to New Swine Flu Strain

Swine flu is surging as people pick it up from pigs at state and county fairs. Cases of a new flu variety so far this year have soared from 16 last week to 165 now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday. The new flu, called H3N2v, isn’t any more dangerous than regular flu, but children are most vulnerable. They are 90% of those infected so far, almost all of them by being up close and personal with sick pigs at fairs. The new flu is not a food-borne illness. You cannot get it from eating pork. There have been no deaths and only five hospitalizations since the new variety first appeared in 2011. In the past week, there have been 120 cases in Indiana and 30 in Ohio.

Schools Scrambling to Serve Healthier Lunch Choices

When students head back to school this fall, most will be offered a smorgasbord of healthier foods in lunch lines. The reason: New government nutrition standards for school meals go into effect this year, raising the bar for the first time in more than 15 years. Schools must meet the standards to get federal meal reimbursements. Many school districts are doing major overhauls. But some have already made significant improvements in nutritional quality of meals over the last few years. Standards call for dramatic changes, including adding more variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables, requiring at least half the grains served be whole grains and limiting sodium.

Thousands File Claims after Chevron Refinery Fire

Several thousand Richmond residents have filed legal claims against Chevron Corp., seeking compensation for a refinery fire that fouled the region’s air for hours and sent more than 4,000 people to seek medical care for breathing problems and irritated eyes. Most of the claims appear to be asking for modest amounts, reflecting the fact that there have been no reports of serious injury and nearly all seeking medical care were treated and released after a few hours in the hospital. “It’s not about the money,” said Chanel Harris, who was seeking reimbursement for the cost of taking her three young children to the emergency room of the nearby Kaiser Hospital. “It’s about holding Chevron accountable.”

More Than 100 Million Americans Are On Welfare

There are more Americans dependent on the federal government than ever before in U.S. history. According to the Survey of Income and Program Participation conducted by the U.S. Census, well over 100 million Americans are enrolled in at least one welfare program run by the federal government. Many are enrolled in more than one. That is about a third of the entire population of the country. Sadly, that figure does not even include Social Security or Medicare. Today the federal government runs almost 80 different “means-tested welfare programs”, and almost all of those programs have experienced substantial growth in recent years.

Economic News

The drought that’s drying up the Heartland isn’t just an American problem. It’s causing food prices to surge worldwide. Food is a major U.S. export, so the drought affects prices around the globe. In July, food prices jumped 6%, after three months of declines, according to the United Nations’ monthly Food Price Index released Thursday. The main drivers behind the increase? Grain prices. And more specifically, corn prices, which have hit record highs in recent weeks. According to the U.N. report, global corn prices surged nearly 23% in July.

The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell by 6,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 361,000, a level consistent with modest gains in hiring. Weekly applications bounced around in July, skewed by the difficulty of accounting for temporary summer layoffs in the auto industry.

Motorists in West Coast states are about to see a big spike in gas prices, the fallout from a fire that cut production at one of the region’s largest oil refineries. Gasoline prices, now averaging $3.88 a gallon in California and $3.72 in Washington, could surge to $4.15 to $4.25 a gallon over the next week to 10 days.

Americans cut back on credit card use in June, further evidence that high unemployment and slow growth has made consumers more cautious about spending. Overall consumer borrowing rose because of increases in auto and student loans. The Federal Reserve says total borrowing increased 3% to $2.58 trillion in June from May, but credit card debt fell 5% to $864.6 billion. A category of borrowing that includes auto and student loans increased 7% to $1.71 trillion.

U.S. companies got slightly more out of their workers this spring after scaling back on hiring. The modest 1.6% annualized gain in productivity from April through June signals employers may need to hire more if demand picks up. The Labor Department said Wednesday that the increase followed a 0.5% decline in the January-March quarter.

China’s growth in factory output fell to a three-year low in July and retail sales weakened, suggesting Beijing might need more stimulus to reverse a painful slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. Growth in industrial production weakened to 9.2% over a year earlier from June’s 9.5%, its lowest rate since May 2009. Retail sales growth slowed to 13.1% from the previous month’s 13.7%.


Across Spain, towns and villages are selling off assets, raising taxes and cutting budgets to avoid bankruptcy. Spain’s banks are seizing mortgaged property and selling it off to overcome nearly $250 billion in bad loans on their books. Though spending beyond revenues has been a habit for decades in Spain, it was the introduction of the euro, the currency created in the 1990s and joined by 17 European nations, that helped make budgets explode. The euro enjoyed immediate success backed as it is by fiscally solid nations such as Germany, France and the Netherlands. Interest rates fell for all, and municipalities in Spain borrowed heavily on easy credit that came with the AAA ratings of its neighbors.

Middle East

The most recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report presented to President Obama reveals a dramatically more serious estimation of the progress Iran has made on their nuclear weapons program. Previous versions of this report had sharply disagreed with the assessment of Israel intelligence that Iran was making rapid progress. The latest report, however, which was described as “alarming” by one intelligence official, says “Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program.”

The descendents of Palestinian families who fled to Syria during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 are now fleeing the fighting in Syria. About 800 such families have crossed into Lebanon over the past 10 days from camps in Damascus and other parts of Syria. Unwanted by the Lebanese, the Palestinians stay in hiding. The last time Palestinians moved into Lebanon in a major way was around the time when the Palestinian Liberation Organization tried to make it a base of operations, sparking a 15-year civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives.


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Turkey’s foreign minister say their countries are creating a formal structure to plan for worst-case scenarios in Syria, including a possible chemical weapons attack on regime opponents. Clinton and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Saturday that their two nations would set up a working group to respond to the crisis in Syria as conditions there deteriorate. Clinton said the group was needed in order to explore the “real details” of potential new crises.


Libya’s newly formed national assembly elected former opposition leader Mohammed el-Megarif as the country’s interim president on Friday, the latest move to establish a democratically based leadership after decades of rule by deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi. El-Megarif, who authored a series of books on Gadhafi’s repressive policies, lived as a wanted fugitive for years, and was the leader of the country’s oldest armed opposition movement, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya.


A man in an Afghan uniform shot and killed three American troops Friday morning in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. military command said, in the third attack on coalition forces by their Afghan counterparts in a week. The Taliban claimed the shooter joined the insurgency after the attack. So far this year, at least 21 similar attacks — in which Afghan forces or insurgents disguised in Afghan uniforms have turned their guns on international troops — have killed 30 coalition service members.


U.S. drones killed 10 al-Qaeda militants — one believed to be a top bomb-maker — in separate strikes targeting moving vehicles in Yemen Tuesday. The official SABA news agency said one of those killed was Abdullah Awad al-Masri, also known as Abou Osama al-Maribi, whom it described him as one of the “most dangerous elements” of al-Qaeda in the militant stronghold of Bayda province and the man in charge of a bomb-making lab. The agency said the dead also included a Bahraini, a Saudi, two Egyptians, and one Tunisian.


A massive blackout hit many parts of the Egyptian capital on Thursday, briefly halting traffic on much of its crowded subway and delaying the start of trading on the stock exchange. Egypt has been beset by frequent power outages across the country since the hot summer months began. The blackouts, together with water cuts, have enraged Egyptians, sending many to the streets to protest. The decline in basic services have also led to criticism of the country’s new President Mohammed Morsi, who is facing a slew of festering economic and social problems and a crippling budget deficit.


There are no reports of damage from a late-night moderate earthquake widely felt in Southern California. The U.S. Geological Survey says the magnitude-4.4 quake struck at 11:23 p.m. Tuesday and was centered two miles east of Yorba Linda in northern Orange County. There was a magnitude-2.7 aftershock about a minute later. The quake was felt throughout the Los Angeles area, including the San Fernando Valley some 50 miles from the epicenter.


Eight wildfires are burning in northern Nevada, having consumed over 261,000 acres, but only five structures have been destroyed. Meanwhile, ten large (over 100 acres) wildfires are active in California, with about 93,000 acres consumed but no structures burned thus far. As of Friday, a total of 54 large wildfires were burning in the U.S., all in the west except for 6 in Oklahoma and 1 in Texas.


The latest U.S. drought map shows that excessively parched conditions continue to worsen in the Plains states that are key producers of corn and soybean crops. The expanse still gripped by extreme or exceptional drought rose nearly 2 percentage points to 24.14 percent this week. The entire states of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado are now in a drought. The federal government says corn growers could end up with their lowest average yield in 17 years as the drought continues to take its toll. They estimate corn production will be down 13% from last year with the soy bean crop down by 12%.

July was the hottest month in U.S. history, and August promises little relief. July’s average temperature for the contiguous USA was 77.6 degrees Fahrenheit, eclipsing the record set during the heart of the Dust Bowl in 1936. The average July temperature was 3.3 degrees above the 20th-century average and hottest month in records dating to 1895.

Thousands of fish are dying in the Midwest as the hot, dry summer dries up rivers and causes water temperatures to climb in some spots to nearly 100 degrees. About 40,000 shovelnose sturgeon were killed in Iowa last week as water temperatures reached 97 degrees. Nebraska fishery officials said they’ve seen thousands of dead sturgeon, catfish, carp, and other species in the Lower Platte River, including the endangered pallid sturgeon. And biologists in Illinois said the hot weather has killed tens of thousands of large- and smallmouth bass and channel catfish.

  • Perhaps this is how a third of the living creatures in the seas and rivers eventually die (Rev. 8:8-11)

Tropical Storm Ernesto skirted along Mexico’s far-southern Gulf coast early Thursday, passing among some of the country’s offshore oil wells while building again toward hurricane strength before landfall in a region prone to flooding. Ernesto moved out over open water late Wednesday after crossing the Yucatan Peninsula without doing serious damage. Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression as it moved inland Friday, killing seven people and dumping rains in the mountains of Mexico’s flood-prone southern Gulf region.

Thousands of Filipinos shoveled muck and debris from flood-ravaged homes, shops and roads under a shining sun Thursday after nearly two weeks of nonstop rain. The relentless rains submerged half of the sprawling Philippine capital, triggered a landslide that killed 49 people and sent emergency crews scrambling Tuesday to rescue tens of thousands of residents who called media outlets pleading for help. The deluge was set off by the seasonal monsoon that overflowed major dams and rivers in Manila and surrounding provinces. The capital and other parts of the country already were saturated from last week’s Typhoon Saola, which battered Manila and the north for several days before blowing away Friday. That storm was responsible for at least 53 deaths.

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