Signs of the Times (6/6/13)

More than 65 Countries Sign Landmark Arms Trade Treaty

More than 65 countries signed the landmark treaty regulating the multibillion-dollar global arms trade Monday and the United States announced it will sign soon, giving a strong kickoff to the first major international campaign to stem the illicit trade in weapons that fuel conflicts and extremists. While the treaty was overwhelmingly approved on April 2 by the U.N. General Assembly, key arms exporters including Russia and China and major importers including India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Egypt abstained and have given no indication yet that they will sign it. The treaty will require countries that ratify it to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms and components and to regulate arms brokers, but it will not control the domestic use of weapons in any country, or so supporters claim.

  • The danger in global treaties is losing national control; the danger nationally is that gun control advocates will seek to exploit the mandate to gradually strip away 2nd amendment rights of citizens to own firearms.

Colorado Recall over Gum Control Advances

A group of gun-rights activists seeking to oust a top Democratic state lawmaker in Colorado over the passage of strict gun control legislation on Monday turned in double the signatures needed to force a recall election of Senate President John Morse.. “This sends a strong message,” Rob Harris, who delivered three boxes full of petitions to the office, told KDVR. “We’ve obtained enough signatures to recall a state legislator for the first time in the history of Colorado.” Morse tells KDVR he is going to fight the recall effort.

Border Arrests Up, Still Near Historical Lows

For the first six months of this fiscal year, ending in March, Border Patrol apprehensions of undocumented migrants entering from Mexico climbed 13 percent compared with a year earlier. The new data come as the debate over immigration reform and how much more to spend locking down the border intensifies in Washington. The Senate is expected to soon begin considering a sweeping bipartisan reform bill. The increase in apprehensions generally signals an increase in attempted crossings. And the recent surge is coming almost entirely through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which is beginning to rival the Tucson Sector as the busiest — and deadliest — route for migrants from Mexico. The number of apprehensions, 189,172, is still near historic lows. In the last 40 years, only the numbers for the first halves of fiscal 2011 and 2012 were lower.

Americans Now More Leery of Obamacare

Another poll, more bad news for President Obama’s health care plan. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey says that 49% of Americans believe that the new health care plan is a bad idea — the highest number on that question since the poll began asking it in 2009. Only 37% say that Obama’s Affordable Care Act is a good idea. the current poll also finds 38% of respondents saying that they (and their families) will be worse off under the health care law. That’s the highest percentage of respondents to express a negative outlook toward ‘Obamacare’ since 2010, when the president signed this signature piece of legislation into law. By comparison, 19 percent say they’ll be better off, and 39 percent say the law won’t make much of a difference. With new health care insurance exchanges set to come on line later this year, the administration is busy promoting the benefits of the new system.

Verizon Ordered to Give NSA All Phone Records

The Obama administration defended the National Security Agency’s need to collect telephone records of U.S. citizens on Thursday, but fell short of confirming reports that Verizon, under orders from a secret court, has been giving the NSA its call records for millions of U.S. customers since April. The Guardian reported Wednesday that Verizon has been required to turn over information on all domestic and international calls on an “ongoing, daily basis,” even if customers are not suspected of a crime. The order, effective until July 19, was issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, The Guardian said, adding that it had obtained a copy of the order. The contents of the calls are not reported, but “the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers and the time and duration of all calls.

  • Domestic spying is growing by leaps and bounds as Big Brother grows more and more entrenched

Calls for Attorney General’s Resignation Growing

On May 15, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified before the House Judiciary Committee, saying that he wasn’t involved in the “potential prosecution of the press for disclosure of material.” But nine days later, the Justice Department confirmed that Holder had signed a search warrant for a FOX News reporter’s phone records and emails in May 2010. Grassfire notes, “Last month’s possible perjury by Holder was simply the latest symptom in an epidemic of evasiveness, deception and lies that have become the hallmark of his tenure as attorney general. The nation’s top law enforcement official also has selectively refused to prosecute crimes and enforce current law when it didn’t fit his or President Obama’s political leanings.” Many believe that Holder’s willingness to ignore — or reject outright — the rule of law make him unfit to serve the American people as attorney general. As a result, the calls for his resignation are growing louder. Even the “mainstream media” finally has begun to take notice. The New York Times reports, “some in the West Wing privately tell associates they wish he would step down.”

Nation’s Drinking Water System Degrading

The nation’s drinking water systems are deteriorating, and $384 billion needs to be spent in the next 17 years to maintain a safe supply for millions of Americans, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The most significant expense, $247.5 billion, should go to replacing the aging pipes, many of which are between 50 to 100 years old, the EPA said. Although upgrades need to be made to systems nationwide, the agency said California, Texas and New York need the money the most. The survey also found that $72.5 billion is needed to prevent contamination of 73,400 water systems across the country, as well as water systems in American Indian, Alaska Native Village and other U.S. territories.

Teen Birth Rate Hit Another Record Low in 2011

The teen birth rate in 2011 set another new record low, according to the latest federal data. The numbers reflect a continued trend downward for teens having babies. The new rate, 31.3 births per 1,000 women ages 15-19, is about half the 1991 rate of 61.8 births per 1,000 teens, which was an all-time high, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The teen birth rate has been dropping steadily since the 1991 peak, save for blips in 2006 and 2007. The new report shows particularly steep drops, with a 25-percent decline in the overall teen birth rate just since 2007.

Charitable Giving Up for Large Churches, Down for Small

While charitable giving to large ECFA-accredited nonprofits and churches increased a modest 2.4 percent in 2012, as compared with a 1.4 percent decrease for 2011, giving to small organizations continued to decline for the second consecutive year, the faith-based financial accountability organization announced Thursday. When adjusted for inflation, cash gifts to ECFA members with fiscal years ending Dec. 31 were $5.3 billion last year, compared with $5.1 billion for the previous year. Religious nonprofits are still fighting to regain their pre-2008 giving levels.  When comparing pre-recession to current-giving data, giving to ECFA members is up a scant .4 percent over the six-year period,” said Dan Busby, ECFA president. Organizations with under $5 million in annual revenues saw cash donations decrease by 3.6 percent in 2012.

Economic News

The employment rate — the percentage of adult Americans who hold a job — has barely budged in the past three years. It’s hovering near its lowest level in three decades. About 58.6% of the civilian population over age 16 had a job as of April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This rate — officially called the “employment-population ratio” — has been stuck around that level for several years. Looking at the job market using that measure paints a stark picture. Companies have been hiring, but they’ve been creating jobs at a pace that merely keeps up with recent population growth.

About 346,000 people filed initial jobless claims last week, 11,000 fewer than a week earlier, the Department of Labor said Thursday. In early 2007, before the recession began, it was common to see about 315,000 initial claims filed each week. At the height of the jobs crisis in 2009, weekly claims surged as high as 670,000. So far in 2013, claims are hovering around their lowest levels since 2008, a sign that firms are firing fewer workers these days, but hiring remains sluggish.

States that have the lowest level of government financial intrusion — e.g., taxes and regulatory obstructions — also tend to have the highest economic growth rates, a new “economic freedom index” shows. “The results seem to imply that Americans value freedom and are willing to vote with their feet for it,” said Jason Sorens, one of the authors of the Mercatus report. Sorens said taxes and regulations have made life unaffordable for some Americans, and forced them from states like California, which lost 1.5 million people last decade, to places like Texas, which gained 2 million, according to City Journal. A separate Cato Institute study analyzing tax burdens by metro area found that the 10 lowest-taxed regions experienced three times the increase in the populations of the 10 highest-taxed metros.

The pace of home price increases stayed strong in April with prices up 12.1% year-over-year. The annual increase is the biggest in more than seven years. Prices were up 3.2% in April from March. The states with the highest year over year home price appreciation were Nevada, up almost 25%; California, 19%; Arizona and Hawaii, 17%; and Oregon, almost 16%.

In April, the supply of existing homes for sale grew to 5.2 months, up from 4.7 months in March, the National Association of Realtors says. Realtors generally consider a 6-month supply to be balanced between buyers and sellers

Persecution Watch

As the civil conflict in the country rages on, Christian women and children are particularly at risk. Because Islamist rebel fighters believe they have the right to rape non-Sunni, non-Muslim women, some Christian women are unable to leave their homes because the danger they are in is so acute. One Christian woman told Barnabas Fund that she had left her good job in Aleppo to return to her family home. She explained her decision by saying that if she had to die, she did not want to die alone. The woman also said, “During these two years we have felt more repressed and marginalized… It is becoming worse and worse for women.”

The Islamist Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) are carrying out a violent campaign against Christians in the country. Our brothers and sisters are being tied up, beaten and forced to hand over money to save their lives. A pastor in CAR said that the Islamist militants are conducting a “reign of terror” against Christians. The church leader also said that the rebels, who seized power in a bloody coup in March, have a hit list of pastors and other Christian workers. Church buildings have been attacked and Christian property looted. In one incident, Seleka forces seized all the collection money given at a meeting of church leaders. The threat of violence against Christians and their property has forced many believers to flee their homes and to take refuge in the countryside.

The recent spate of attacks on churches and Christian property in Egypt shows no sign of abating. Sedky Sherif, a Christian father of three, was killed in an attack on a church building in Alexandria on 17 May. Muslims began throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks at the building after an accusation was made against a local Christian man. When Christians tried to defend the site, the Muslims began firing birdshot and throwing bricks at them. The violence in Alexandria was the second anti-Christian attack in Egypt in one week. On 13 May, a church building in Menbal village, Minya, was attacked by rampaging Muslims who vandalized it and assaulted a person inside. The mob then stormed through the streets armed with firearms and knives, looted and destroyed Christian-owned businesses and torched vehicles. Several Christians were injured, and the Muslims threatened to expel them from the village. The violence followed an incident of harassment in a nearby village earlier that day, in which Muslim youths hurled bags of urine at Christian girls.

In Tanzania, anti-Christian violence continues to devastate communities. Five people were killed and around 60 injured when the inaugural service of a church in Arusha was bombed on 5 May. Many of the wounded were left in a critical condition. Eight people have been arrested in connection with the attack. A Barnabas Fund contact in Tanzania, who described the crime as a “well-planned attack”, said that radical camps in the country are teaching young Muslims that Christians must be killed or live as second-class citizens. He said that police had not taken serious action against the camps despite being told about them by church leaders. This atrocity is the latest in a series of attacks on churches and Christian leaders in Tanzania, where militant Islamism is gaining an increasingly sure foothold.

Middle East

Syrian rebels on Thursday captured a crossing point along a cease-fire line in the contested Golan Heights patrolled by U.N. troops, an Austrian defense ministry official said. The development is likely to deepen Israel’s concerns that the volatile area in the north along the Israel-Syria frontier could fall into the hands of radical Islamic factions fighting along with other insurgent groups in Syria against President Bashar Assad’s forces. The crossing’s seizure comes a day after the Syrian military, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants, captured the strategic town of al-Qusayr near the border with Lebanon in a significant blow to the opposition fighters trying to topple Assad’s regime.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a firebrand speech in Ramallah on Wednesday in which he declared that the Palestinians “won’t accept any city other than Jerusalem as our capital. The responsibility for defending and restoring Jerusalem and purifying its holy sites is not that of the Palestinians alone, but the entire Arab, Islamic and Christian nation.” He added that Muslims and Christians should visit Jerusalem “to affirm the Arab and Islamic depth of the holy city.” He continued by insisting that “there will be no peace without Jerusalem. There will be no Palestinian state without Jerusalem. There will be no security and stability without Jerusalem.”

Turkey

In Turkey, it’s not about the park anymore. It’s about the prime minister. What began as a small sit-in over the Turkish government’s plan to demolish a park in central Istanbul in favor of a shopping arcade has swelled to become the biggest protest movement against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he was elected more than 10 years ago. About a week since the demonstration started quietly in the park in Taksim Square, the now-angry protests show no sign of abating — and a defiant Erdogan shows no inclination to give in to their demands. On Monday, he dismissed allegations that security forces used excessive force, and downplayed that Turkey could be on the cusp of its own “Arab Spring.”

On Sunday night, protesters wearing face masks and goggles hurled rocks and police fired tear gas in the Besiktas district of central Istanbul. The protests have spread beyond Istanbul to other parts of the country. There were reports of confrontations in the capital, Ankara, as well as the port cities of Izmir and Adana. Trade unions claiming 240,000 members are throwing their weight behind anti-government demonstrations across Turkey. The KESK confederation of public sector workers was calling a two-day strike starting Tuesday to protest what it called the “fascism” of the governing party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has become one of the focal points of demonstrators’ anger.

Afghanistan

The U.S. military has scaled back the support American troops will provide for their Afghan counterparts after 2014 when the coalition finalizes its shift to an advisory role, reflecting pressure from the White House to keep the American presence there small. U.S. commanders had initially considered providing some level of air support, such as medical evacuation, and other support for Afghanistan’s military, since it will be several years before Afghanistan’s air force is capable of providing wide-scale medical evacuation and bombing. But the pace of withdrawal ordered by the White House ruled that out.

Iran

Western sanctions drove Iran’s crude exports to the lowest in decades in May, according to industry sources and tanker-tracking data, even before Washington toughens measures aimed at squeezing oil sales further. Crude shipments dropped to 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) last month, the data from sources showed, about a third of Iran’s oil exports before the current round of sanctions. U.S. and European sanctions aimed at pressuring Tehran over its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons have already more than halved Iran’s shipments – costing Iran billions of dollars in revenue since the start of 2012. And Washington is now seeking to cut shipments to less than 500,000 bpd through tighter sanctions.

Wildfires

Nearly 3,000 people from some 700 homes are under evacuation orders as a wildfire north of Los Angeles kept growing, feeding on old, dry brush, some of which hadn’t burned in decades. Nearly 3,000 people from some 700 homes are under evacuation orders as a wildfire north of Los Angeles kept growing, feeding on old, dry brush, some of which hadn’t burned in decades. It was spreading fastest into unoccupied land, but populated areas about 50 miles north of downtown LA remained in danger, with more than 2,800 people and 700 homes under evacuation orders that were expected to last until late Monday or Tuesday

Weather

Tropical Storm Andrea is set to wallop Florida with torrential rain as it prepares to make landfall Thursday. The first named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season made its debut Wednesday by pummeling Cuba with heavy downpours. As of 8 a.m. ET Thursday, Andrea was 160 miles west of Tampa, Florida, and was headed north-northeast at 14 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. The center of Andrea is expected to reach the Florida Panhandle late Thursday before cutting across southern Georgia and moving up the East Coast on Friday and Saturday.

The remnants of a violent storm that claimed 13 lives in Oklahoma sent punishing winds and torrential downpours to northern New England and a tornado to South Carolina. On Sunday, storms flattened trees and utility poles in parts of northern New England, delayed flights in New York City. The weather service issued a rare tornado warning as a line of thunderstorms raced through New Hampshire into western Maine. By early Monday, more than 12,000 customers were still without power in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, down from more than 40,000 outages at the peak. n northwestern South Carolina, a tornado reportedly knocked a home off its foundation and blew part of the roof off. Flash flooding inundated parts of South Carolina, particularly in Anderson, S.C.  Cars were left underwater in some low-lying parking lots.

Heavy rain over the past several days has spurred a second round of spring flooding this year in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers have crested in many places north and west of St. Louis – but to the south, the worst was yet to come. Over the past two weeks, most of Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and western Indiana have received 4 to 8 inches of rain — in a period that normally sees 1.5 to 3 inches of rainfall. And that’s on top of a very wet April in much of this region.

Waters from three swollen rivers gushed into the old town of Passau in southeast Germany on Monday, as officials warned that water levels – already the highest in 70 years – could rise further. Much of the city was inaccessible on foot and the electricity supply was shut down as a precaution, he said. Rescuers were using boats to evacuate residents from flooded parts of the city. The city was one of the worst hit by flooding that has spread across a large area of central Europe following heavy rainfall in recent days. At least eight people were reported to have died and nine were missing due to floods in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

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