Signs of the Times (9/14/12)

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Killed

President Obama on Wednesday ordered stepped up security at diplomatic installations around the world after the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others were killed during violent protests at the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed Tuesday night as anti-American violence grew in response to a film ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. Killed in the attack were U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, information management officer Sean Smith, and private security guards Glen Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods. The aggression in Benghazi followed demonstrations in front of Cairo’s U.S. embassy, where protesters tore down the U.S. flag and scaled the embassy’s wall. Obama ordered “all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

  • So it’s okay to call the U.S. the Great Satan, but don’t you dare disrespect Islam?

Muslims Protest Anti-Islam Film

Chanting “death to America,” hundreds of protesters angered by an anti-Islam film stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Yemen’s capital and burned the American flag on Thursday, the latest in a series of attacks on American diplomatic missions in the Middle East. Protesters smashed windows as they breached the embassy perimeter and reached the compound grounds, although they did not enter the main building housing the offices. Angry young men brought down the U.S. flag in the courtyard, burned it and replaced it with a black banner bearing Islam’s declaration of faith — “There is no God but Allah.”

Thousands of angry Kashmiri Muslims protested Friday against an anti-Islam film, burning U.S. flags and calling President Obama a “terrorist,” while the top government cleric here reportedly demanded Americans leave the volatile Indian-controlled region immediately. At least 15,000 people took part in more than two dozen protests across Kashmir, chanting “Down with America” and “Down with Israel” in some of the largest anti-American demonstrations against the film in Asia.

Video from Tunisia’s capital shows thick, black smoke rising from an area near the U.S. Embassy Friday. Protesters there had taken down a U.S. flag from the embassy property and replaced it with a black flag, journalist Zeid Mhirsi reported. Police fired tear gas at protesters as some of them climbed the property’s walls.

Mystery Film Maker Identified

Federal authorities have identified a Coptic Christian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula,, 55, living in southern California as the key figure behind the anti-Muslim film that ignited mob violence against U.S. embassies across the Mideast. The filmmaker, who is on probation after his conviction for financial crimes, went into hiding after his movie attacking Islam’s prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by ultra-conservative Muslims on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya, where one American was killed. Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location Tuesday, writer and director Sam Bacile remained defiant, saying Islam is a cancer and that the 56-year-old intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion.

Attacks Planned for 9/11?

Heavily armed militants used a protest of an anti-Islam film as a cover and may have had help from inside Libyan security in their deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate, a senior Libyan official said Thursday. Libya announced the first four arrests, the clearest picture yet emerged of a two-pronged assault. The attacks were suspected to have been timed to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strike in the United States, the official added, with the militants using the film protest by Libyan civilians to mask their action.

Violence Reflects Struggle between Extremists & Reformers

The violence across the heartland of the Arab Spring reaches far beyond the cries of anger against America and deep into one of the region’s most high-stakes showdowns: ultraconservative Islamists seeking to challenge the new leadership struggling in Egypt and Libya. Islamic absolutist factions such as Salafis have been largely kept on the political margins as more pragmatic Islamist groups — including the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and the Ennahda party in Tunisia — rose to power from the wreckage of pro-Western regimes. But the hard-liners have never been counted out. This week’s mayhem appears to be an opportunity seized by groups such as the Salafis, which follow an austere brand of Islam that has provided some of the dogmatic underpinnings for al-Qaida and other jihadi factions.

Report Criticizes U.S. Missile-Defense System

A congressionally-requested report on the current U.S. missile-defense system says the best way to meet future threats from Iran or North Korea is to place upgraded missiles and improved radars on both coasts of the U.S. The current U.S. system is “very expensive and has limited effectiveness,” said the report from the National Research Council, which offers advice to government agencies under a congressional charter. Fashioned amid tensions with North Korea over the last two decades, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s system now has 30 interceptor missiles ready to launch from bases in Alaska and California, as well as smaller ship-based systems aboard the U.S. Navy’s Pacific and Atlantic Fleet. “The system only has a very limited ability to defend the U.S. from missiles other than ones from North Korea,” says the report.

House Renews Surveillance Law for 5 Years

The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly renewed a surveillance law that allows the government to monitor conversations of foreign spies and terrorist suspects abroad, while requiring approval from a secret court when Americans are targeted anywhere in the world. Supporters emphasized that the bill is aimed at foreigners overseas, not Americans. Opponents said the legislation does not adequately protect Americans from unintentional interception of their communications. The bill may run into problems in the Senate where Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has used a procedural tactic to prevent a vote. He is one of several senators who have unsuccessfully tried to learn how many Americans have been caught up in the surveillance.

First Group of Delayed Young Deportees Approved

The Obama administration began notifying some young illegal immigrants this week that they can stay in the country without fear of deportation for up to two years. In the four weeks since the launch of the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program, more than 72,000 illegal immigrants have sent applications to the Department of Homeland Security. Officials at Citizenship and Immigration Services have finished reviewing a small number of those cases and begun notifying applicants.

Real Unemployment Rate Is 23%, Not 8.1%

The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report says that 8.1% of Americans are currently unemployed. However, this only includes people that are unemployed during the week of the survey and without a job for the four previous weeks. But that is not a real picture of what is going on in the American job market.  The BLS figures do not take into account the millions of Americans that have had to take part time jobs because they have not been able to find full time work, those who have exhausted their unemployment benefits and those who are so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for work. There is a second BLS statistic called the Alternative Unemployment Statistic.  The AUS is always higher as it counts all of the employed except for the discouraged workers who have been out of work more than a year.  The current AUS figure is 14.6%. However, there is another even more realistic unemployment statistic that portrays a far more accurate picture of America’s job market.  The SGS or Shadow Government Statistics encompass all of the different factors that deal with unemployment.  The current SGS unemployment figure is a staggering 23%.  That means that nearly 1 of every 4 Americans are either unemployed, underemployed, exhausted unemployment benefits or are so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for work.

Stocks Continue Fed-Fueled Rally

The so-called “Bernanke bounce” may live another day. Stocks opened higher Friday, a day after the Federal Reserve, chaired by Ben Bernanke, announced an unprecedented effort to help boost a sluggish economy. Earlier, global stock markets soared, a day after the Federal Reserve, led by Chairman Ben Bernanke, unleashed a third and open-ended round of stimulus to help goose the economy and the job market. Markets are being fueled by the Fed, which extended its low-rate policy guidance into 2015 and launched an asset purchase program that will continue for the foreseeable future in an effort to keep borrowing rates low and stimulate economic growth. Following a big post-Fed rally Thursday on Wall Street that sent benchmark stock indexes to multiyear highs, stocks were up sharply in Europe, where shares were up roughly 1.4% to 1.9% on exchanges in London, Berlin and Paris.

World stock markets rose Wednesday, registering approval of a German court ruling that backs the country’s participation in a bailout fund created to prevent the weakest euro economies from going bust. Germany’s highest court rejected a challenge to Europe’s permanent rescue fund, paving the way for its ratification by Germany’s president. The fund is considered crucial to resolving the European debt crisis because it can loan money to cash-strapped governments. The fund cannot work without Germany, Europe’s largest economy.

  • These short-term debt-expansion policies will only postpone and exacerbate an inevitable long-term economic implosion

Economic News

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits jumped to a seasonally adjusted 382,000 last week, the highest level in two months. The Labor Department said Thursday that applications increased by 15,000 in part because of the impact of Hurricane Isaac, which disrupted work in nine states and boosted applications by 9,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, increased for the fourth straight week to 375,000.

More expensive gas drove up consumer prices in August by the most in three years. But outside energy, inflation was tame. The Labor Department said Friday that consumer prices rose a seasonally adjusted 0.6% last month, the first increase since March. Higher gas prices accounted for 80% of the increase. Food prices rose 0.2%. Excluding the volatile food and energy categories, core prices edged up 0.1%. In the past 12 months, prices have increased 1.7% compared to a 1.9% the same 12-month period a year ago.

Middle-class families continued to see their incomes decline in the aftermath of the Great Recession, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Wednesday. Median household income fell to $50,054 in 2011, down 1.5% from a year earlier. Income inequality widened, as the highest income echelon experienced a jump in incomes. Meanwhile, the national poverty rate hit 15.0% in 2011, down slightly from 15.1% the year before. Some 46.2 million people fell below the poverty line last year. The poverty threshold for a family of four was $23,021.

U.S. estimated Gross Domestic Product for 2012 is about $15 trillion. With nominal debt at $16 trillion, our Debt/GDP ratio is 106 per­cent. Using our total debt of $211 trillion which included unfunded liabilities, the ratio is a whopping 1,400 per­cent. Greece, which has a ratio of 160 percent, but the U.S. has Greece beat by a factor of 8.8, and yet Greece is considered to be in the worst financial shape of any nation.

Annual premiums for job-based family health plans went up only 4% this year. Premiums averaged $15,745, with employees paying more than $4,300. Employees at companies with many low-wage workers pay more for skimpier insurance than their counterparts at upscale firms. The Kaiser survey shows premiums for job-based family coverage rose nearly $2,400 since 2009, with a corresponding increase of nearly $800 for employee-only coverage.

Middle East

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that Israel cannot rely on the U.S. to act against Iran’s suspect nuclear program. In an interview published Friday, Netanyahu hinted Israel may have to strike Iran even without U.S. support to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear weapon. The comments indicate Netanyahu is not backing down from his thinly-veiled criticism of the Obama administration. Netanyahu of Israel inserted himself into the most contentious foreign policy issue of the American presidential campaign on Tuesday, criticizing the Obama administration for refusing to set clear “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear progress that would prompt the United States to undertake a military strike. As a result, he said, the administration has no “moral right” to restrain Israel from taking military action of its own.

Syria

The Syrian military is bombing hospitals in its weeks-long campaign to crush a rebellion in this commercial center, forcing doctors to treat patients in unsuitable facilities in what human rights groups say is a war crime. The army is firing artillery shells indiscriminately and warplanes are bombing whole neighborhoods daily, killing hundreds of people in Aleppo, activists allege. In several interviews, residents and medical workers say some attacks are directly targeting hospitals. Since fighting began here in Syria’s largest city in late July, the staff at one hospital says the building has been bombed at least four times. In one attack, seven rockets struck the hospital.

Christians in Syria are in a dire state as the country continues to be ravaged by conflict; many are trying to leave, while those who remain are struggling to survive as essential supplies run short. Barnabas Aid received a report from a church leader in Aleppo: “We are facing tough times. The economy is very very bad. We have shortage of bread, food, medicine, kids’ milk… no fuel for cars, nor gas for cooking… The prices of food are five times more now and since two days we don’t have water.” Endangered Christians are resorting to desperate means of escaping their war-torn country, putting themselves into the hands of human traffickers to get to safety.

Japan

A Japanese Cabinet panel called Friday for phasing out of nuclear power over the next three decades as part of an overhaul of the country’s energy policy following the Fukushima meltdowns. The proposed new energy policy is a major shift from Japan’s decades-long advocacy of nuclear power. It calls for greater reliance on renewable energy, more conservation and sustainable use of fossil fuels. The new policy requires the approval of the entire Cabinet. Japanese news reports say the Cabinet has already agreed to the changes.

China

The Japanese government and coast guard said six Chinese surveillance ships entered Japanese waters Friday near disputed islands in the East China Sea, adding to tensions between the Asian giants. It was the first intrusion by Chinese vessels into what Japan says are its waters since Tokyo bought the islands from their private Japanese owners this week. The islands, claimed by both countries and called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, are surrounding by rich fishing grounds and are near key shipping lanes.

Volcanoes

A long-simmering volcano exploded into a series of powerful eruptions outside one of Guatemala’s most famous tourist attractions on Thursday, hurling thick clouds of ash nearly two miles (three kilometers) high, spewing rivers of lava down its flanks and prompting evacuation orders for more than 33,000 people from surrounding communities. the evacuees were ordered to leave some 17 villages around the Volcano del Fuego, which sits about six miles southwest (16 kilometers) from the colonial city of Antigua, home to 45,000 people. The ash was blowing south-southeast and authorities said the tourist center of the country was not currently in danger, although they expected the eruption to last for at least 12 more hours. The agency said the volcano spewed lava nearly 2,000 feet down slopes.

Earthquakes

A strong undersea earthquake has hit parts of western Indonesia, but no tsunami warning was issued and there have been no immediate reports of damage or casualties. The U.S. Geological Survey says Friday’s 6.2-magnitude quake struck at a depth of 12 miles. It was centered about 100 miles southeast of Mentawai island, off western Sumatra.

Wildfires

A haze of thick smoke formed Tuesday over vast swaths of the West as wildfires forced more residents to flee their homes in several states. Fire officials reported seven homes were destroyed and hundreds of people were evacuated near Casper, Wyo., where a wildfire has burned across almost 24 square miles. In western Montana, fire crews said there was no containment in sight for a blaze that has prompted an evacuation order for 400 houses west of Hamilton. With winds dying down, fire crews in eastern Washington were hopeful they could gain ground on dozens of fires sparked by weekend lightning storms, but more evacuation orders were issued Tuesday as a wildfire continued to move in the hills west of Wenatchee, a fruit capital on the banks of the Columbia River. Residents of nearly 120 homes were evacuated due to the fire burning about 140 miles east of Seattle.

Weather

Intense thunderstorms swept over parts of the Southwest on Tuesday, delaying flights and stranding motorists in the Las Vegas area and flooding two mobile home parks in Southern California. East of downtown Las Vegas, television news video showed yellow school buses inching slowly along roads after school in some neighbors and muddy brown water up to the lower window sills of stucco homes in others. Dozens of cars were swamped by water up to their headlights in a parking lot outside the University of Nevada, Las Vegas sports arena. More than 1.75 inches of rain were reported in downtown Las Vegas. There were no confirmed reports of serious injuries.

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