Signs of the Times (7/24/13)

Final version of Two Sons: Book One now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble

U.S. Marriage Rate Drops to New Low

The marriage rate in the United States is continuing its decades-long downward slide, with fewer American women than ever getting married and others waiting longer to wed, LiveScience reports. The marriage rate has fluctuated in the past, with dips in the 1930s and 1960s, but it has been in steady decline since the 1970s. Now, researchers report that the marriage rate has dropped to a new low of 31.1, meaning there are about 31 marriages in the U.S. for every 1,000 unmarried women, researchers found. In 1950, that number was 90.2. In 1920, it was 92.3. “Marriage is no longer compulsory,” said study researcher Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. “It’s just one of an array of options. Increasingly, many couples choose to cohabit and still others prefer to remain single.” A woman’s average age at first marriage in the United States is now nearly 27, the highest in more than a century.Among all American women over 15 years of age, less than half (47 percent) are married today, the lowest since the turn of the 20th century, and down from a peak of 65 percent in 1950. On the other hand, the proportion of women who are separated or divorced is on the rise, at 15 percent today, compared with less than 1 percent in 1920, the researchers say.

Hobby Lobby Solidifies ‘Major Victory’ Against HHS Contraceptive Mandate

Hobby Lobby has solidified its victory against the HHS contraceptive mandate, as a lower court agreed with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals July 19 and temporarily banned the enforcement of the mandate on the evangelical-owned craft chain, Christianity Today reports. “There is a substantial public interest in ensuring that no individual or corporation has their legs cut out from under them while these difficult issues are resolved,” ruled the court (albeit somewhat reluctantly), according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Hobby Lobby as well as Wheaton College and other high-profile challengers. There are currently 63 cases and 200 plaintiffs challenging the mandate. Courts have largely split on granting requests for injunctions, with the scorecard for for-profit challengers standing at 23-7 (when rulings have examined merits vs. technicalities), according to Becket’s ongoing tally. Most of the 30 nonprofit cases have been dismissed on technicalities, though Geneva College recently became the first to receive a judgment on the merits and win.

Court Renews NSA Telephone Surveillance Program

The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court renewed the government’s authority Friday to continue the collection of millions of Americans’ telephone records, one of the classified counter-terrorism programs disclosed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. In an unusual public statement, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence acknowledged that the court renewed the authority that was set to expire Friday. Earlier this week, Democrat and Republican lawmakers expressed deep concerns about the scope of the surveillance program and suggested that Congress may not renew legislative authority for it when it comes up for review in nearly two years.

Benghazi Survivors Forced to Sign Non-Disclosures

We finally know why we’ve never heard from the survivors of the Benghazi terrorist attack:  these individuals were forced to shut up and ordered to sign non-disclosure documents. The news comes to us via Congressman Frank Wolfe (R-Virginia) who is calling on the Obama administration to explain why the survivors of last year’s deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, were reportedly asked to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from talking about the attack. Mary Parker of ConservativeCampaign.org notes, “The Obama administration is demonstrating once again that it is the most deceitful and manipulative presidential administrations in our nation’s history.  Everything is either a ‘spin-job,’ a lie, or a manipulation (think of taking advantage of crises to scare people into accepting radical policies or the current race-baiting Obama is engaged in over the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case).”

Critical State Dept. Agency in Chaos

An obscure little State Department agency whose work is called “critical to the Department’s information security posture” has been in a shambles for years, and is still in chaos, according to an audit report by the department’s inspector general. As one result of all the bumbling and inaction, the security checks that the agency is supposed to perform and subsequent approvals for use that it is supposed to bestow every three years on 36 of those State Department systems have lapsed entirely, meaning that they are operating, in effect, illegally. One of the systems that is operating without a current license, known as iPost, was given an award two years ago for “significantly improving the effectiveness of the nation’s cyber security.”  According to the inspector general’s report, auditors couldn’t find any documentation to back up how the award-winning system was created or maintained, nor any source code for the information it was supposed to track.

  • Typical government boondoggle, and they want to impose more government, not less?

Judge Rules Detroit Bankruptcy Unconstitutional

A Michigan Circuit Court Judge ruled Friday that Detroit’s bankruptcy filing is unconstitutional and ordered the case be withdrawn from federal bankruptcy court. But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a statement soon after the decision that he intended an immediate appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals and would seek to block this latest order from taking effect while the appeal is heard. The order came in response to motions by lawyers for retirees and pension funds for city workers, who argue the state constitution prohibits cutting pension and retirement benefits, as has been proposed in the bankruptcy case.

Doctors Bailing Out on Their Practices

Doctors who own private practices are looking for a way out. Fed up with their rising business expenses and shrinking payouts from insurers, many are selling their practices to hospitals. It’s happening nationwide and has picked up pace. Experts say the number of physicians unloading their practices to hospitals is up 30% to 40% in the last five years. Doctors who sell typically become employees of the hospital, as do the people who work for them. Obamacare has also created more fear of the unknown. Doctors are worried that new regulations will add to their administrative work and require them to pour more money into their businesses.

Crushing Pension Obligations Weighs Heavy on Cities/States

Detroit may be alone among the nation’s biggest cities in terms of filing for bankruptcy, but it is far from the only city being crushed by a roiling mountain of long-term debt. At the heart of Detroit’s problem is a growing unfunded debt on benefits owed to current and future retirees — some $3.5 billion, which mirrors a circumstance being seen across the U.S. From Baltimore to Los Angeles, and many points in between, municipalities are increasingly confronted with how to pay for these massive promises. The Pew Center for the States, in Washington, estimated states’ public pension plans across the U.S. were underfunded by a whopping $1.4 trillion in 2010.

Economic News

The recent bankruptcy filing in Detroit is raising red flags about other major U.S. cities also dealing with billions in under-funded retiree benefits, prompting the question — who might be next? Just last week, Chicago’s credit rating was downgraded as a result of its $19 billion in under-funded pension liabilities. Moody’s Investors

Existing-home sales fell 1.2% in June, the National Association of Realtors said Monday, in a report that mostly reflected deals that were agreed to before mortgage rates began to rise in late May. But most other statistics indicate that rising rates have had only a small effect on prospects for home buying.

Builders’ confidence rose 6 points this month, to 57 on a 100-point scale. The confidence index dipped below 10 during the housing bust. July’s climb reflected both higher traffic at new home developments and better expectations about future sales.

Health care costs are the top concern of chief financial officers, who are still unsure of and worried about the impact of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) on their businesses, a new survey of CFOs by Bank of America Merrill Lynch says. Seven out of 10 CFOs and other top financial executives ranked health care among their top business concerns for 2013, easily topping a list of suggestions that included revenue growth, energy costs, taxes and the ability to find qualified workers.

Persecution Watch

Gunmen killed six Christians in an early morning attack Sunday on Dinu village in southern Plateau state, a month after Muslim Fulani herdsmen shot a Christian to death in a nearby village. Rev. Johnson Kikem, chairman of a nearby Regional Church Council of the Church of Christ in Nations, reported that church members who fled the village in Wase Local Government Area said the assailants were Muslims. Fulani Muslims have long fought over property with Christians of other ethnicities, and Islamic extremist groups are suspected of inflaming the herdsmen’s anti-Christian sentiment.

A young couple in Vietnam who accepted Christ last month have been beaten and threatened by officials, Voice of the Martyrs reports. Local authorities hit the wife on the face with a stick and threatened to take the couple’s land and home if they refuse to renounce Christianity and return to Buddhism. The wife fears further beatings, and the husband is afraid they will lose their land and have no way of supporting their family. The couple, who survive through subsistence farming, have three boys aged 10, 12 and 14.

Middle East

The Central Bureau of Statistics published a report in 2012 showing that there are roughly 158,000 Christians in Israel, with over 80% being Arabs belonging to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches. The remainder belong to various other denominations and speaking several different languages, including Hebrew, Russian, German and English. Most Arab Christians live in the Galilee, while Jerusalem is also home to nearly 12,000. Israel maintains its status as the only country in the Middle East whose Christian population is growing, although the annual growth rate of 1.3% is lower than the 1.8% growth rate for Jews and 2.5% for Muslims.

Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood reportedly is attempting to blame Egypt’s Coptic Christian community for the recent ousting of President Mohammed Morsi and even resorting to violent tactics in an effort to gain back power. Reports have surfaced out of Egypt that sectarian attacks against Copts by Islamic extremists are on the rise since Morsi was ousted July 3. Copts, who make up about 9% of Egypt’s population, have said they consistently have been targeted by Islamic radicals for campaigning against the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president. : The sectarian attacks against Copts are one of the controversial strategies pursued by Islamic extremist currents in their bid to intimidate Christians,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, political analyst and researcher for the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

A bomb blast outside the security headquarters in one of Egypt’s Nile Delta cities wounded 19 people, security officials said early Wednesday, raising fears of deteriorating security after President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster. Eleven people have been killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of the ousted president since Monday. Most were killed in pre-dawn street battles near a pro-Morsi protest camp as the country remained mired in turmoil three weeks after the military overthrew the Islamist leader.

Syria

A deal reached in Congress to allow the United States to ship arms to Syrian rebels could spur more support from other nations, blunting the military gains of dictator Bashar Assad and preventing him from crushing the rebel movement. Syrian rebels say the decision by U.S. lawmakers to go along with President Obama’s plan announced weeks ago to arm their factions will give them an edge. Obama announced in June that he intended to provide the rebels lethal means to combat Assad’s forces after they crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons against rebel strongholds in cities. The White House has said it planned to provide “light arms” to the rebels. But no arms flowed because of concerns on Capitol Hill, among them worries that the arms would wind up in the hands of the many al-Qaeda aligned groups that are fighting in Syria.

  • Over and over again we supply arms that eventually are used against us or our interests. Bad idea.

Iraq

Violence exploded in Iraq over the past 24 hours near Baghdad and in Mosul, leaving nearly 50 people dead and hundreds of al Qaeda-linked militants free in a massive jailbreak, authorities said Monday. Security forces battled militants outside two major penitentiaries near the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and thwarted prison breaks, the Justice Ministry said Monday. The incidents occurred Sunday night at Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, and al-Taji prison, north of the capital. The Justice Ministry said well-armed “terrorist groups” attacked the prisons simultaneously using mortars. They also carried rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, and were accompanied by suicide bombers and car bombs. The attacks coincided with riots by inmates who set fires inside the prisons. An al Qaeda group claimed responsibility Tuesday for coordinated attacks on two Iraqi prisons that a lawmaker said freed more than 500 inmates, including some senior members of the militant group.

Afghanistan

A key aspect of the military’s effort to protect troops from roadside bombs has been sabotaged from within, according to a report by Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghanistan. A $32-million effort begun in 2009 to seal off culverts to prevent insurgents from using them as hiding places for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has been plagued by fraud and may have resulted in several U.S. troops being killed or wounded, the report notes. The inspector general found that Afghan contractors took money to construct the barriers, and in some cases did no work. U.S. contracting officers didn’t do enough to ensure the work was done.

Mexico

A group of 81 migrants held captive in a house in the border city of Reynosa were rescued by Mexican authorities. A tip led state and federal agents to the two-story home where the migrants were held Wednesday. They had been held hostage there for several days. Men and women were among the captives, 39 from Honduras, 38 from Guatemala, three from El Salvador and one Mexican. The migrants told authorities that they were attempting to enter the United States illegally. Reynosa sits right on the U.S.-Mexico border, near McAllen, Texas. Mass kidnappings of this sort in Mexico are not unheard of. In June, 52 migrants were rescued from another home in Reynosa. That same month, 165 migrants were rescued from the city of Gustavo Diaz Ordaez, also in Tamaulipas state.

Volcanoes

Indonesia’s most volatile volcano spewed smoke and ash Monday, forcing hundreds of people to flee their villages along its slopes. Mount Merapi on the main island of Java rumbled as heavy rain fell around its cloud-covered crater. The volcano unleashed a column of dark red volcanic material 3,280 feet into the air, and the ash made the rain thick and muddy in several villages as terrified residents fled to safety. The sound was heard 18 miles away, but an eruption did not occur. The 2,968-meter (9,737-foot) mountain is the most active of 500 Indonesian volcanoes. Its last major eruption in 2010 killed 347 people.

Earthquakes

A strong, shallow earthquake struck a dry, hilly farming area in western China early Monday, killing at least 94 people, injuring over a thousand. Almost 2,000 homes were completely destroyed, and about 22,500 damaged. The quake hit near the city of Dingxi in Gansu province, a hilly region of mountains, desert and pastureland about 766 miles west of Beijing. Residents described shaking windows and swinging lights but there was relatively little major damage or panic in the city itself. The tremor came three months and two days after a deadly quake hit Sichuan province on April 20, killing nearly 200 people.

New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, was rattled by a strong magnitude 6.9 earthquake on Sunday that broke water mains, smashed windows and downed power lines that left parts of the city without power. At least two people have been injured. The quake struck under the Cook Strait 34 miles south-southwest of Wellington. It was a relatively shallow quake, estimated to have occurred just 8.7 miles underground. The quake struck at 5:09 p.m. local time Sunday, near nightfall.

Wildfires

A new central Oregon wildfire that quickly grew to cover half a square mile has prompted the evacuation of about 120 homes in several subdivisions. The Stagecoach fire started Monday afternoon northeast of Gilchrist.It was about 10 percent contained by Monday night. Meanwhile, a fire that has burned 20,000 to 25,000 acres — or 31 to 39 square miles — on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation of central Oregon was estimated to be 20 percent contained. A couple dozen people remained evacuated from their homes. The fire bypassed a reservation resort without causing damage.

Heavy rain aided firefighters who made substantial gains against a week-old wildfire that burned across 42 square miles as thousands of people were allowed to return to their homes in Southern California mountain communities near Palm Springs. With the arrival of an inch and a half of rain Sunday, firefighters began to beat back the flames and had the blaze 68 percent contained. Some 6,000 people fled the idyllic little towns that dot the San Jacinto Mountains between Palm Springs and Hemet after the fire broke out Monday and quickly raged across the heavily wooded area. Twenty-three structures, including the seven homes, were destroyed. There were no reports of injuries.

Weather

A heat wave in England is being blamed for hundreds of premature deaths, and a wildfire warning has been issued as the mercury continues to rise. The estimated death toll for the first nine days of the heat wave as between 540 and 760 people in England alone. With rainfall at only around 15 percent of average monthly totals so far, Britain’s national weather service has warned there is an “elevated risk” of fires in the countryside.

A severe thunderstorm with strong winds swept through Las Vegas, knocking down trees and utility poles and scattering gamblers from the casino floor at Caesars Palace as flooding hit parts of the famed Strip. Some resorts on the Strip and Fremont Street were without power several hours after the fast-moving storm moved through the city at about 7 p.m. on Friday. Fire units also responded to several calls of people needing water rescue near the Strip. Power outages affected 33,000 people across the Las Vegas area. Some of the record rainfall kicked a hole in the roof of Gilley’s Saloon, a Western-style bar at Treasure Island on the Strip where customers watched as sheets of water fell in.

July 18 was the record wettest July calendar day at Miami Beach.  6.78″ of rain was measured, there.  Dating to 1927, only five other calendar days were wetter, most recently, Oct. 30, 2011, when 7″ of rain fell there.  A record 9.23″ of rain fell Thursday in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was the second wettest calendar day on record, dating to 1898. It topped the previous wettest July day by over 5″.

A tornado packing 110 mph winds hit Ursuline College in northeast Ohio early Saturday morning, collapsing a wall of the school’s athletic center and damaging other buildings but causing no injuries. The twister reached 100-200 yards wide and traveled 1.3 miles. Only a few students were on campus at the time.

A summer of rain has left its mark on South Carolina, undermining dozens of roads, flooding neighborhoods from the mountains to the coast, and ruining the South Carolina Botanical Gardens. Parts of Pickens County have received more than 60 inches of rain so far in 2013. With soil moisture at near-record levels, emergency officials worry that if a tropical storm moves over the state in the next month and brings more torrential rains, the results could be disastrous.

Sunday’s monsoon rains brought the Phoenix region treacherous flooding that prompted numerous water rescues and historically low temperatures during the hottest time of the year. Flash floods swamped parts of the Phoenix area Sunday as a storm dropped up to two inches of rain in some areas, flooded washes, stranded some residents, and sent fire crews to numerous water rescues from Apache Junction to Phoenix. The downpour prompted the shutdown of U.S. 60 in Tempe, Ariz. The water swept away several vehicles and stranded some people in their homes. Meanwhile, it took just a half hour for the streets in the Tucson, Arizona, area to become dangerous rivers of fast-moving water from the monsoon downpours. For firefighters, it was one rescue after another, after another.

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