Signs of the Times (12/10/12)

Supreme Court Takes on Same-Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court will tackle the contentious issue of same-sex marriage, agreeing to hear two constitutional challenges to state and federal laws dealing with the recognition of gay and lesbian couples to legally wed. The decision to review the matter came just weeks after voters approved same-sex marriage in three states. One appeal to be heard involves the federal Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA, which denies federal benefits to same-sex couples legally married in their own state. The second is a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, a voter-approved referendum that took away the right of same sex-marriage that previously had been approved by the state’s courts. There are now approximately 120,000 legally married same-sex couples in the United States.

Fiscal Cliff Deal or Not, ObamaCare Tax Increases Coming

Even if lawmakers somehow stop the Bush-era tax rates from expiring, taxes are still expected to rise on Jan. 1 — thanks to a trio of new fees tied to the federal health care overhaul. The IRS this past week published rules for some of the first major taxes meant to help pay for President Obama’s massive insurance coverage expansion. Together, they will raise investment and income taxes on top earners and impose a separate — and controversial — tax on medical devices. The bundle of fees has been largely overlooked as lawmakers and the White House bicker over the Bush tax rates, with Republicans demanding they be extended for everyone and Obama insisting rates rise for top earners. But that same group of earners is already in the crosshairs under the ObamaCare tax rules published this week. Starting Jan. 1, investment income for individuals earning over $200,000 and households earning over $250,000 will be subject to a new 3.8 percent tax. Further, regular income above those thresholds will be hit with a .9 percent Medicare surtax.

FEMA Teams Told to ‘Sightsee’ as Sandy Victims Suffered

A FEMA worker who spoke to FoxNews.com described a chaotic scene at New Jersey’s Fort Dix, where emergency workers arrived as Superstorm Sandy bore down on the Atlantic Coast. The worker said officials at the staging area were unprepared and told the incoming responders there was nothing for them to do for nearly four days. After arriving in New Jersey, the worker and others waited for three full days and parts of another, even as reports dominated the television of the devastation and suffering wrought by the storm. Workers were told to go to the Walmart nearby or to check out the area but told us to stay out of the areas affected by the storm. Told of the worker’s complaints, a FEMA official acknowledged that there were delays in getting responders out into the field. “There were logistical challenges but we have been fully engaged in the areas since then.” Some workers said the much-maligned agency seemed more organized during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

  • The Obama administration wants people to be more dependent on government to meet their every need, but then fails to deliver when it counts the most

Feds Confirm: Military Drones are Watching You

Records newly released to the Electronic Frontier Foundation reveal the federal government has approved dozens of licenses for unmanned aerial surveillance drones all across the United States. “These records, received as a result of EFF’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration,” the EFF reports, “come from state and local law enforcement agencies, universities and – for the first time – three branches of the U.S. military: the Air Force, Marine Corps and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).” Some of the records show drones used for purposes as sensible as helping the U.S. Forest Service fight forest fires. Others purposes, such as performing aerial observation of houses when serving warrants or covert surveillance of drug sales, however, have prompted the EFF to question privacy issues.

“Perhaps the scariest is the technology carried by a Reaper drone the Air Force is flying near Lincoln, Nev., and in areas of California and Utah,” EFF reports. “This drone uses ‘Gorgon Stare’ technology, which Wikipedia defines as ‘a spherical array of nine cameras attached to an aerial drone … capable of capturing motion imagery of an entire city.’ … This technology takes surveillance to a whole new level.” The use of military drones further raised flags in a New York Times report earlier this year, when reporter Mark Mazzetti joined a group of observers watching drone use at Holloman Air Force Base in remote New Mexico and discovered the military was practicing for foreign missions by spying on American vehicles.

  • On the one hand, if you’re not doing anything wrong or illegal, what’s the worry? On the other hand, who defines what’s wrong or illegal? According to Homeland Security, right-wing Christians are potential terrorists. Suppressing dissent against our increasingly socialistic, secular, anti-Christian government will become more common as the end-times roll on.

Unions Prepare for Protests, Legal Challenges in Michigan

Union members and supporters are gearing up for a massive protest Tuesday in Michigan’s capital in a last-ditch effort to stall the expected passage of “right-to-work” legislation, as they already make plans to challenge the proposal in court. The surprise move by Michigan Republicans this past Thursday to approve the anti-union bills touched off a firestorm in the home of the U.S. auto industry. Following high-profile fights over union privileges in Wisconsin and Indiana, Michigan instantly became the latest battleground in that struggle. The state legislature returns to Lansing on Tuesday, when Republicans are planning to cast the final votes on the union package and send it to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk. Snyder, a Republican, has said he would sign the bill, which prohibits unions from demanding dues from workers. If this happens, Michigan would become the 24th “right-to-work” state in the nation — and American unions would suffer a stinging defeat in the cradle of the labor movement

Economic News

Modest hiring continued in November and the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in nearly four years. The U.S. economy added 146,000 jobs in November, and the unemployment rate fell to 7.7% from 7.9% in October. Of the job gains in November, more than a third, or 52,600, came from retailers, but much of that was due to holiday hiring.

While much of the media focus is on the fact that the overall rate dropped 0.2 points, few media outlets are focusing on why the rate dropped – 542,000 Americans gave up their job search and are no longer being counted in the overall statistics. And while the overall size of the population grew by nearly 200,000 people, the number of people working or looking for work has dropped precipitously.

The net wealth of American households increased in the third quarter due to gains in the value of homes and stock investments. Net financial wealth grew $1.72 trillion to $64.77 trillion, the Federal Reserve said last Thursday. The value of. real estate owned by households rose about $300 billion during the period, while stock holdings climbed by about $520 billion.

Households decreased debt at a 2 percent annual rate during the third quarter, the steepest drop since the second quarter of 2011. In the third quarter, household debt fell $65.5 billion to $12.87 trillion. Total household liabilities were 112.7 percent of after-tax income during the quarter, the lowest since 2003.

Gas prices have plummeted 46 cents a gallon in the past two months. U.S. consumers have been paying all-time highs for gasoline in 2012, but they are about to get a break for the holiday season: $3 a gallon gas in much of the country. With U.S. supplies rising and demand fizzling, wholesale prices are sinking fast and will soon be reflected at the pump. Now averaging $3.37 a gallon nationwide, prices are expected to drop to about $3.20 a gallon within the next two to three weeks. Consumers in many states could find prices at $3 a gallon or even less.

Eurozone

The euro slipped towards a two-week low on Monday while shares and Italian bond prices also fell after Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti’s decision to resign deepened euro zone uncertainty. Monti announced over the weekend he would resign once the 2013 budget is approved, raising questions over who will take the reins of the euro zone’s third largest economy after elections expected in February. Government bonds of Spain, the other major euro zone economy deep in crisis, also fell and the cost of insuring both Italian and Spanish debt against default rose. Poor economic data compounded the jitters. French industrial output was much weaker than expected in October and tepid export growth reduced Germany’s trade surplus to its lowest level in over half a year.

Greece extended its offer to buy back debt until Tuesday, seeking more bids from bondholders after falling short of a target to retire bonds worth 30 billion euros at a cost of just 10 billion euros. The buyback is designed to provide about half of a 40-billion euro debt relief package for Athens agreed last month by the European Union and International Monetary Fund. Its success is crucial to ensuring Greece’s debt is put back on sustainable footing and – more immediately – to unlocking badly-needed aid for the country. Despite the initial lack of investor interest, the scheme is expected to ultimately hit its targets since Greek banks – whose own fate depends on a successful buyback – are expected to make up the shortfall.

Syria

The lone Syrian rebel group with an explicit stamp of approval from Al Qaeda has become one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces, posing a stark challenge to the United States and other countries that want to support the rebels but not Islamic extremists. As the Nusra Front’s successes mount, they raise more money, gather more weapons and attract more fighters. The group is a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has contributed veteran fighters and weapons. The United States, sensing that time may be running out for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, hopes to isolate the group to prevent it from inheriting Syria or fighting on after Mr. Assad’s fall to pursue its goal of an Islamic state.

Libya

The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants, according to United States officials and foreign diplomats. The weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilizing force since the fall of the Qaddafi government. The experience in Libya has taken on new urgency as the administration considers whether to play a direct role in arming rebels in Syria, where weapons are flowing in from Qatar and other countries. The Obama administration did not initially raise objections when Qatar began shipping arms to opposition groups in Syria, even if it did not offer encouragement, according to current and former administration officials. But they said the United States has growing concerns that, just as in Libya, the Qataris are equipping some of the wrong militants.

  • The U.S. has an unfortunate history of arming groups and nations that later become enemies

Egypt

A national dialogue committee said a referendum on a disputed draft constitution will be held on schedule, but President Mohammed Morsi has agreed to rescind the near-absolute power he had granted himself. The statement came after a meeting that was boycotted by the main opposition leaders who are calling for the Dec. 15 vote to be canceled. Morsi had called for the dialogue to try to defuse a spiraling crisis, but the decision appeared unlikely to appease the opposition since it recommends the referendum go ahead as scheduled. It appears as though Morsi has just reworked his initial decree and has maintained his primary goal of  protecting the Shura Assembly and preventing the dismissal of the Prosecutor General. The draft constitution essentially remains very much the same.

Pakistan

A U.S. drone strike has killed a senior Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan’s tribal region near the Afghan border, Pakistani intelligence officials said, in the latest blow to the global terrorist network. Sheik Khalid bin Abdel Rehman al-Hussainan, who was also known as Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti, was killed when missiles slammed into a house last Thursday. Al-Kuwaiti earlier this year replaced Abu Yahya al-Libi, Al Qaeda’s second in command, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in June. Covert CIA drone strikes have killed a series of senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan’s tribal region over the past few years. But the attacks are controversial because the secret nature of the program makes it difficult to determine how many civilians are being killed.

  • It is the military who should be carrying out these drone strikes, not the super-secretive CIA. Otherwise, this is a laudable use of technology that saves American lives

Iran

Iran’s crude exports are set to drop by about a quarter in December from the preceding month to the lowest level since tough sanctions were applied this year, shipping sources said, as the OPEC-member comes under pressure to curb its nuclear program. Oil shipments by Iran have more than halved in 2012 due to U.S. and European sanctions on its oil trade, straining Tehran’s finances, pressuring its currency and igniting inflation.

Belgium

Two Muslim politicians who won October municipal elections in Belgium’s capital, Brussels, have vowed to implement sharia, or Islamic law, in Belgium, the Gatestone Institute reports. The two candidates, Lhoucine Ait Jeddig and Redouane Ahrouch, both from the fledgling Islam Party, won seats in two heavily Islamic municipalities of Brussels, and say they regard their election as key to the assertion of the Muslim community in the country. The Islam party, which plans to field candidates in European-level elections in 2014, campaigned on three core issues: ensuring that halal meals are served in public school cafeterias, securing the official recognition of Muslim religious holidays, and pushing for a law that would legalize the wearing of Islamic headscarves in public spaces. Ahrouch has admitted he is taking a gradual approach, saying it may take decades to enforce sharia, but says his ultimate goal — creating an Islamic state in Belgium — has not changed.

Kenya

A blast ripped through a neighborhood in Kenya’s capital, killing three people in the second attack in three days targeting the predominantly Somali area. At least 16 others were injured in the Friday explosion near a mosque in Eastleigh. On Wednesday, another blast left eight people injured — three critically with severe head wounds. Recent explosions have rocked the East African nation, including a grenade attack last month that triggered riots in Eastleigh. Following that attack, angry mobs scorched and looted Somali-owned shops in the area. Grenade attacks have escalated since Kenya sent its forces to neighboring Somalia last year to battle the Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked group it blamed for kidnapping foreigners in the nation.

North Korea

It’s been one year since the leadership mantle in North Korea was passed from Kim Jong Il to his son, Kim Jong Un, but there have been no significant changes. “There’s still tremendous persecution, including against Christians,” Dykstra tells OneNewsNow. “It’s been number one on Open Doors’ World Watch List for ten straight years. Religious freedom, which there is none for Christians, continues; Christians — estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000 — still live in horrific conditions. Many of them are in prison. In fact, Open Doors estimates in gulags as 50,000 to 70,000.” Open Doors is hearing from Christians inside the country who are very thankful for what Christians in the West are doing. But they ask that the prayer effort continues. They are also listening to Christian radio programs, although that practice is illegal.

Earthquakes

A strong earthquake struck Friday off the coast of northeastern Japan in the same region that was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami last year. Tokyo high-rises swayed for several minutes, one city reported a small tsunami and at least two people were reportedly injured. The earthquake had a preliminary magnitude of 7.3 and struck in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Miyagi prefecture at 5:18 p.m. local time The epicenter was 6.2 miles beneath the seabed and 150 miles offshore. The magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that slammed into northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, killed or left missing some 19,000 people, devastating much of the coast.

Weather

A slow-moving storm has dumped at least 16 inches of snow on parts of Minnesota, blanketing the Twin Cities, making some rural roads impassable and leading to at least one fatal crash. The heaviest snowfall the Twin Cities has experienced in two years led to the cancellation of dozens of flights at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Sunday and caused hundreds of traffic accidents around the state. Blizzard conditions, blowing and drifting snow made visibility so poor that the state Department of Transportation pulled snowplows off the highways Sunday afternoon in southwest and west Minnesota. The Minnesota State Patrol reported nearly 600 crashes by Sunday night.

Freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall have killed at least five people and caused travel chaos across the Balkans, with rescue teams struggling to reach passengers stranded in buses and cars in Serbia on Sunday. Four people have died in Croatia and one in Serbia as a result of blizzards in the region of southwestern Europe over the weekend, closing airports and roads and blocking public transportation in big cities. People traveling in vehicles waited for hours on several roads in Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina, including the main highway leading from Belgrade to the Hungarian border, before rescue teams could free them from 20 inches of snow that had fallen in just a few hours.

Rescue workers are searching for more than 300 Filipino fishermen who have gone missing after a devastating typhoon that tore across the Philippines last week, killing more than 600 people, authorities said Monday. Typhoon Bopha, the strongest tropical cyclone to hit the Philippines this year, set off flash floods and landslides that engulfed people sheltering in their rickety houses in remote, unprepared regions on the southern island of Mindanao. The number of people still unaccounted for climbed sharply during the weekend.

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