Signs of the Times (8/15/12)

Arizona faith groups step up to fill foster-care need

Arizona’s faith-based community is increasingly becoming a key component in the statewide effort to find enough foster and adoptive families to care for the growing number of children in need. In a collaborative effort between the ArizonaSERVES Task Force and faith-based foster and adoption agencies, more church members are becoming certified to foster or adopt. During an informational meeting in April, the line of people interested in helping went out the door and wrapped along the sidewalk at Gilbert’s Mission Community Church. More than 300 families came to learn how they could help. Gov. Jan Brewer created the Arizona SERVES Task Force in 2010 to engage the faith community in the efforts to improve the foster-care system. Since then, faith-based agencies have increased their family foster-home applications from 18 percent to 21 percent of the total number of applications to the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

Religious Groups Divided on Gun Control

After the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., and a deadly shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., Americans remain divided on gun control. A poll, conducted in the wake of the Colorado and Wisconsin shootings, shows that a slim majority (52 percent) of Americans favors passing stricter laws, while 44 percent are opposed. Among white evangelicals, however, support for stricter gun control is weak, at 35 percent. That compares to the 62 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of unaffiliated Americans who would like to see tighter gun control laws on the books.

But on the question of guns in churches, there is actual consensus: A strong majority of Americans don’t want them in the pews, according to a new poll released Wednesday (Aug. 15) by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted in partnership with Religion News Service. More than three-quarters of respondents (76 percent) said concealed weapons should not be allowed in houses of worship, compared to 20 percent who disagreed.

Judge Won’t Halt PA’s Voter-ID Law

A Pennsylvania judge on Wednesday refused to stop a tough new voter identification law from going into effect, which Democrats say will suppress votes among President Barack Obama’s supporters. Opponents are expected to file an appeal within a day or two to the state Supreme Court as the Nov. 6 presidential election looms. The Republican-penned law — which passed over the objections of Democrats — has ignited a furious debate over voting rights as Pennsylvania is poised to play a key role in deciding the presidential contest in November. Opponents had asked Simpson to block the law from taking effect in this year’s election as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.

  • Democrats have the most fraudulent voters and, therefore, the most to lose when appropriate voter ID laws are enacted

Fast and Furious: House files suit vs. Holder

The Republican-run House on Monday asked a federal court to enforce a subpoena against Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding that he produce records on a bungled gun-tracking operation known as Operation Fast and Furious. The lawsuit asked the court to reject a claim by President Barack Obama asserting executive privilege, a legal position designed to protect certain internal administration communications from disclosure. The failure of Holder and House Republicans to work out a deal on the documents led to votes in June that held the attorney general in civil and criminal contempt of Congress. The civil contempt resolution led to Monday’s lawsuit. Holder refused requests by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hand over — without preconditions — documents that could explain why the Obama administration initially denied in February 2011 that the gun-tracking tactic was approved at the highest levels of government.

DHS Launches Obama’s New Immigration Amnesty Program

Wednesday is the first day that as many 1.76 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors can begin submitting requests for a two-year reprieve from deportation. The policy, introduced by President Barack Obama and known as “deferred action,” also will allow them to receive temporary work permits. Immigration analysts say fraud is a major concern because some undocumented immigrants may be tempted to submit fraudulent documents out of desperation if they don’t meet the age and other requirements for the program. Analysts also point out that a 1986 amnesty law that allowed nearly 3 million illegal immigrants to get green cards was rife with fraud.

  • Illegality breeds more illegality

Congress Mired in Inertia

Congress is on pace to make history with the least productive legislative year in the post World War II era. Not even the 80th Congress, which President Truman called the “do-nothing Congress” in 1948, passed as few laws as the current one, records show. Just 61 bills have become law to date in 2012 out of 3,914 bills that have been introduced by lawmakers, or less than 2% of all proposed laws. In 2011, after Republicans took control of the U.S. House, Congress passed just 90 bills into law. The only other year in which Congress failed to pass at least 125 laws was 1995.

  • This is not necessarily a bad thing since we already suffer under too many laws that inhibit individual freedom and states’ rights

State Department Climate Change Spending a Mess

Inadequate oversight, lax bookkeeping, sloppy paperwork, haphazard performance agreements and missing financial documentation have plagued U.S. State Department spending of tens of millions of dollars to combat climate change, according to a report by State’s internal financial watchdog — and the problem could be much, much bigger than that. The audit report, issued by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), casts an unflattering spotlight on a relatively obscure branch of the State Department that supervises climate change spending, and depicts it as over-extended in its responsibilities, unstaffed in critical monitoring posts, and more concerned with spending money than in monitoring its effectiveness. The State Department branch is known as the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and its Office of Global Change, or OES/EGC, which have become the nerve center of the Obama administration’s international climate change policy, and the epicenter of its foreign climate change spending, which continues to balloon despite serious economic problems at home.

  • Yet another federal boondoggle under the Obama Administration

West Nile Virus Spreading Faster

West Nile virus is spreading faster than it has in years, and the pace of the mosquito-borne disease is getting worse. States are reporting more cases than usual and Texas is getting the worst of it. Sixteen people have died of West Nile virus this summer in Texas. That’s out of 381 cases of the illness. Nationwide there have been at least 693 cases and 28 deaths. That’s up from 390 cases and eight deaths last week. Heat and scant rainfall are creating stagnant water pools, which make great breeding grounds.

Computer Firms Face Mainframe Worker Shortage

They are the dinosaurs of the computer industry. But anyone who thinks mainframe computers are going the way of typewriters and videocassette recorders is in for a surprise. “Big Iron,” as the machines are called, is not headed for extinction any time soon. But nearly 50 years after these once-giant computers were first introduced, companies like Detroit-based Compuware and IBM are preparing for a shortage of mainframe workers. Compuware estimates that as many as 40% of the world’s mainframe programmers will be retiring in the near future. The looming shortage has forced mainframe companies such as Compuware, IBM and CA Technologies to step up their talent-development efforts. But in a world with 3D graphics, video streaming and all kinds of social media, getting young people interested in a career in mainframes is a tough sell.

Economic News

U.S. retail sales rose in July by the largest amount in five months, buoyed by more spending on autos, furniture and clothing. The Commerce Department said Tuesday that retail sales rose 0.8% in July from June. The increase followed three months of declines, including a 0.7% drop in sales in June. All major categories showed increases, a sign that consumers may be gaining confidence after the longest stretch of declines since the fall of 2008.

U.S. wholesale prices increased in July from June, pulled up by higher costs for cars and light trucks and a 34.5% increase in corn prices — biggest one-month jump since October 2006. The Labor Department said the producer price index, which measures price changes before they reach the consumer, increased a seasonally adjusted 0.3% last month. That followed a 0.1% gain in June. Wholesale food prices rose 0.5% last month, a sign that the severe drought in the Midwest is driving costs higher. These increases haven’t yet reached the retail level as consumer prices remained unchanged in July from June.

U.S. factories made more cars, computers and airplanes last month, a hopeful sign that manufacturing is recovering after a weak spring. The Federal Reserve says U.S. industrial production increased 0.6% in July from June, the fourth straight monthly increase. Factory output has risen 21.9% since its recession low hit in June 2009 and is just 1.7% below the pre-recession peak for factory output reached in July 2007.

Gas prices surged in the past week to $3.721 a gallon nationally for regular, up 8 cents for the week, and California is taking the brunt. In the Golden State, the nation’s largest gasoline market, prices now top $4 a gallon. But prices were up just about everywhere in the country as the summer vacation season is passing its peak. The central Atlantic region was up 9 cents a gallon to $3.725 a gallon. Cheapest? The refinery-rich Gulf Coast has gas averaging $3.488 a gallon, up 7 cents a gallon.

Japan’s economy grew at a slower-than-expected annualized rate of 1.4% in April-June, adding to worries over the global outlook. The pace of growth dropped sharply from a revised 5.5% in the previous quarter.

Eurozone

Greece held its biggest debt sale since its economy imploded two years ago as it raised €4.06 billion ($5.01 billion) in short-term debt to pay off a bond due next week. Athens can now avoid having to ask for emergency funding to pay off a bond that matures Aug. 20 and is held by the European Central Bank.

Europe is edging closer to recession, dragged down by the crippling debt problems of most of the 17-country euro bloc. Without Germany continuing to post solid levels of growth, the eurozone would officially be in recession. The economies of both the eurozone and the wider 27-country EU shrank at a quarterly rate of 0.2% in the second quarter of the year.

Middle East

Egyptian military forces killed seven suspected militants on Sunday during raids on hideouts in a village in northern Sinai, security officials said. Tensions in Sinai, the desert peninsula that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, have escalated sharply over the past week after suspected militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near the border. Egypt launched a major offensive against the groups and sent reinforcements to the area following the attack last Sunday.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has no problem calling for the destruction of Israel and blaming it for attacks linked to his own party, but when his relative needs life-saving heart surgery, only Israeli doctors will do. The stunning hypocrisy comes to light after five Hamas-backed terrorists allegedly killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula that borders Gaza. Although evidence points to a Hamas-backed terror operation, Haniyeh inexplicably blamed it on Israel. The suspects were later killed by Israeli Defense Forces when they tried to cross the Kerem Shalom border. Yet only a few months ago, the revelation that Ismail Haniyeh’s brother-in-law received a special permit from the Israeli government to travel into the Jewish State to receive life-saving heart surgery has come as something of a surprise.

Egypt

Egypt’s Islamist president ordered the retirement of the defense minister and chief of staff on Sunday and made the boldest move so far to seize back powers that the military stripped from his office right before he took over. He fired the nation’s intelligence chief a few days ago  Mohammed Morsi has been locked in a power struggle with the military since he took office on June 30. But after militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers a week ago at a border post with Israel in Sinai, he has sought more aggressively to assert his authority over the top generals.

Syria

Syria’s former prime minister, who defected last week, says the Syrian regime is close to collapse and that President Bashar al-Assad’s government controls less than a third of the country. Riad Hijab says he is backing Syria’s rebel movement and that many other Syrian leaders, still in power, share his views. He says the besieged president has lost large patches of territory along the country’s northern and easter border and that fighting has weakened his grip on larger cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

Gunmen detonated back-to-back roadside bombs and clashed with police in central Damascus Saturday in attacks that caused no damage but highlighted the ability of rebels to breach the intense security near President Bashar Assad’s power bases. The apparently coordinated blasts point to the increasing use of guerrilla-style operations in the capital to undermine the government’s claims of having full control over Damascus. A bomb attached to a fuel truck exploded Wednesday outside a Damascus hotel where U.N. observers are staying in the Syrian capital, wounding at least three people.

Afghanistan

A member of the Afghan National Police opened fire at his colleagues at a checkpoint in southwestern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least 10 of his fellow policemen. The killings come a day after two Afghans, including a policeman, shot and killed six U.S. service members in separate attacks in neighboring Helmand province in the volatile south. Afghan attacks on their international partners are on the rise and have heightened mistrust between foreign forces and the Afghan soldiers, police and others they are training and mentoring. An Afghan official says Taliban insurgents have killed a district mayor and a member of the provincial peace council in two attacks in northern Afghanistan.

France

Months of tension between police and young people in a troubled district of northern France exploded on Tuesday, with dozens of youths facing off against riot officers in a night of violence. Seventeen officers were injured, a pre-school and public gym were torched, and at least three passing drivers in Amiens were dragged from their cars. The eruption of violence shows how little relations have changed between police and youths in France’s housing projects since nationwide riots in 2005 raged unchecked for nearly a month, leaving entire neighborhoods in flames in the far-flung suburbs. Unemployment skews higher in northern France and among the country’s youth.

North Korea

“The regime still has up to 70,000 Christians locked away in virtual concentration camps.” said Ryan Morgan, an analyst with International Christian Concern Asia. Morgan added that a Christian believer and three generations of his or her family can still go to prison for life just for owning a Bible. “We’re hoping and praying this changes soon, but we haven’t seen any sign of it yet,” he said. Believers in North Korea continue to tread softly because of the nation’s history of persecution as well as the message from the new dictator that “he is in control” and “will do anything to keep hold of power,” according to an Open Doors USA source. Open Doors lists North Korea No. 1 on its list of the worst persecutors of Christians in the world.

Earthquakes

Iranian state television has raised the toll from Saturdays’ twin earthquakes to over 300 dead and at least 3,000 injured. Many people were evacuated by rescue teams on stretchers to hospitals and clinics. At least six villages were totally leveled, and 60 others sustained damage ranging from 50 to 80 percent. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that Saturday’s first quake at 4:53 p.m. had a magnitude of 6.4 and struck 37 miles northeast of the city of Tabriz at a depth of 6.2 miles. Its epicenter was about 200 miles northwest of the capital Tehran. The second quake with a magnitude of 6.3 struck 11 minutes later, the U.S.G.S. reported. Its epicenter was 29 miles northeast of Tabriz at a depth of 6.1 miles. Scores of aftershocks have coursed through Iran’s mountainous northeast since the first two quakes.

Chinese officials say a strong earthquake has struck a remote area of the country’s far-western Xinjiang region. The government earthquake monitoring center said the quake registered magnitude 6.2 and hit Sunday evening. It said it was centered 175 miles southeast of the oasis city of Hotan. There were no initial reports of damage or injuries from the quake.

A magnitude 7.7 earthquake that hit waters off Russia’s Pacific island of Sakhalin on Tuesday inflicted no casualties or damage. The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry’s branch on Sakhalin said the quake was centered in the Sea of Okhotsk about 100 miles east of Poronaysk, Russia, at a depth of more than 373 miles. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake had a magnitude of 7.7.

Wildfires

A firefighter was killed in Idaho and another firefighter in Oregon suffered burns after she had to deploy her emergency fire shelter as wildfires continued raging across the Western United States. The Holloway Fire has so far burned 525 square miles in remote and rugged terrain straddling the Oregon-Nevada border. On the Nevada side, five ranches were evacuated Sunday evening in the Kings River Valley. In Utah, firefighters made gains throughout the weekend on several blazes burning across the state as milder temperatures coupled with sporadic rain and humidity helped with containment. A fire in central Washington has burned about 70 homes, scorching roughly 40 square miles of grassland, timber and sagebrush. At least 900 people were evacuated,

Meanwhile, crews in Northern California on Monday were making progress against an aggressive wildfire that has grown to more than 4 1/2 square miles and forced the evacuation of nearly 500 homes since it began Sunday. Three buildings have burned and two people were treated for minor injuries. In Northern California, the Chips Fire continues to spread, affecting some 600 homes as evacuation orders were still in effect Monday for the Seneca and Rush Creek communities in Plumas National Forest. The fire which began on July 29 was still only 12 percent contained. About 50 miles to the northwest, the Reading Fire has forced the closure of Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway and several trails as it burns in an area of pine forests and thick brush.

In Southern California, two fires sparked by lightning from Sunday thunderstorms continued to burn out of control Monday in the wilderness. A 222-acre blaze near in the Vallecito area of San Diego County was burning through pine trees in a remote, rugged area that was hard for ground crews to reach. The area got 635 lightning strikes from the weekend storms, which also caused flash flooding. Also, a 300-acre fire was burning in the Joshua Tree National Park, a desert preserve east of Palm Springs. Temperatures reaching 100 degrees and scattered afternoon storms were predicted.

Weather

After months of record-breaking heat and drought, many rural Americans who rely on wells for water are getting an unwelcome surprise when they turn on their faucets: The tap has run dry. No one tracks the number of wells that go dry, but state and local governments and well diggers and water haulers report many more dead wells than in a typical summer across a wide swath of the Midwest, from Nebraska to Indiana and Wisconsin to Missouri. The lack of running water can range from a manageable nuisance to an expensive headache. Homeowners and businesses are being forced to buy thousands of gallons from private suppliers, to drill deeper or to dig entirely new wells.

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