Signs of the Times (8/13/13)

More Obamacare Delays

The Obama administration has quietly delayed another major provision of the federal health care overhaul, pushing off until 2015 a mandatory cap on out-of-pocket costs for individuals. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the administration is giving some insurers a one-year grace period to adhere to the limit, which otherwise would have capped individual costs at $6,350 a year and gone into effect in 2014. The change means some insurers could set higher limits or set no limit at all on out-of-pocket costs during that period. The grace period apparently was granted earlier this year, though was buried in reams of regulatory material and was not publicly reported until now. The confirmation comes weeks after the administration announced it was delaying a key insurance mandate – the requirement on mid-sized and large businesses to provide coverage to full-time workers. According to the Times, the decision to delay the cap on costs was made because many employers said they needed to upgrade their computer systems. The decision raises concerns that, at least for next year, the health care law will not save people as much money as President Obama claimed.

  • This overly complex program will have many unexpected deleterious effects down the road, as do all socialistic attempts by government to control private markets

New Federal Rule to Put ‘Big Brother’ in Your Vehicle

A proposed federal rule that would require black boxes or event data recorders (EDRs) in every U.S. automobile may mean “Big Brother” could be in your passenger seat for every drive. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rule requires all light passenger vehicles be equipped with an EDR by Sept..1, 2014. They only record information in the brief period before and after a crash. But black box data retrieved from U.S. car accidents in a single day would provide more information than a year’s worth of crash testing, says Tom Kowalick, who heads the design team that is standardizing the devices for automakers worldwide. But he also said he fears that for all their potential good, the EDRs present a massive privacy dilemma, and an opportunity for fraudsters. “They can take that odometer and roll that odometer back to zero,” he said. “They can change the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which is in the computer. And once they do that, then it’s okay for them to very simply steal the motor vehicle and move it away.”

  • The law of unintended consequences is sure to raise its ugly head in this situation as well

Stop-and-Frisk Policy in New York City Violated Rights, Judge Rules

In a repudiation of a major element in the Bloomberg administration’s crime-fighting legacy, a federal judge has found that the stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police Department violated the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of New Yorkers, and called for a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms. In a decision issued on Monday, the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, ruled that police officers have for years been systematically stopping innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. Officers often frisked these people, usually young minority men, for weapons or searched their pockets for contraband, like drugs, before letting them go, according to the 195-page decision. These stop-and-frisk episodes, which soared in number over the last decade as crime continued to decline, demonstrated a widespread disregard for the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, according to the ruling. It also found violations with the 14th Amendment.

California Gov. Brown Signs Transgender-Student Bill

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a controversial bill into law Monday afternoon allowing the state’s transgender public school students to choose which bathrooms they use and whether they participate in boy or girl sports. While California is the first state to pass a law of this magnitude, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington and Colorado have all adopted policies designed to protect transgendered pupils. Supporters say the law will help cut down on bullying against transgender students, Opponents of the bill say allowing students of one gender to use facilities intended for the other would invade the other students’ privacy.

  • The consequences of this law will open the door to all sorts of abuse, worsening the plight of those it seeks to protect.

Most Embassies Reopened

Eighteen of 19 of U.S. embassies and consulates across the Middle East, Asia and Africa that were closed recently due to terror threats reopened on Sunday. The U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, will remain closed because of continuing concerns about a threat for potential terrorist attacks by al Qaeda. The U.S. consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, which shut down Friday due to a separate threat also will remain closed.

U.S. Postal Service Doing Better, Not Good Enough

The U.S. Postal Service said Friday that it lost $740 million in the three months ending June 30, far less than in recent quarters. During the same period last year, it reported a $5.2 billion loss. So far, the Postal Service has lost $3.9 billion in its fiscal year, which has three months remaining. It lost $16 billion in 2012. The agency was helped by a big uptick in customers shipping packages, the area where it competes with United Postal Service and Fed Ex. But total mail volume continued to fall. The Postal Service handled 37.9 billion pieces of mail between April and June, down from 38.3 billion pieces last year.

Another big issue is a mandate that the Postal Service “prefund” health care benefits for future retirees. The requirement has been a major drag on the agency, which has exhausted a $15 billion loan from taxpayers to make up for shortfalls. This year, the Postal Service owes $5.6 billion to fund future retiree health costs. The Postal Service is expected to default on the payment — something it has done twice before — when it is due Sept. 30.

Economic News

Retail sales climbed 0.2% in July, a tepid performance that may fuel debate about how rapidly the economy may accelerate during the second half of the year. The July gain was held back by a 1% drop in the sales of cars and parts, the Census Bureau said. Sales of furniture and building materials, which economists had expected to get a boost from the housing recovery, also declined.

For the first time since the start of the financial crisis, banks have more lent out then they did in late 2008. In mid-July, according to the Federal Reserve. Banks had $7.33 trillion in loans outstanding. That was slightly more than the $7.32 trillion banks had extended in October 2008, the last time credit peaked. But the growth in lending has remained slow and uneven. Lending in the first three months of the year dropped, before rebounding in the second quarter. And much of the rebound in lending has been to corporate borrowers.

Consumers are about to get a break at the gas pump for the rest of 2013 and much of 2014, analysts say. Coupled with ample supplies and lower autumn demand, the national average price of regular-grade gasoline is likely to fall to about $3.40 in the coming weeks. That’s about 5% less than Saturday’s $3.56 national average.

Middle East

Angry protests have arisen in several quarters of Israel over the list of 26 convicted Palestinian terrorists who will soon be released as part of the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The releases, which are scheduled for Tuesday and which will culminate with a heroes’ welcome for the convicted murderers at the residence of PA President Mohammed Abbas in Ramallah. The releases are proceeding despite the protests and the legal appeals of families who lost loved ones during attacks carried out by the soon-to-be-released murderers. The High Court of Justice briefly heard and dismissed a petition by the Almagor Terror Victims Association on Sunday. Another three batches of convicted murderers are scheduled to be released over the next nine months as negotiations proceed.

  • The Obama Administration continues to pressure Israel to cave-in to terrorism, forcing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release 104 terrorist prisoners in exchange for empty promises of peace talks with Palestinians bent on destroying the Jews.

Israel’s defense minister said that his country won’t let “rumors and speculation” harm the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, an apparent attempt to downplay reports that an Israeli drone killed four militants in a cross-border strike into Egypt. The late Saturday statement by Moshe Yaalon did not explicitly deny that Israel carried out the Friday attack. The Israeli military said Friday it was looking into the report. On Sunday it said it had no further comment. Egypt is highly sensitive to criticism about letting Israel carry out strikes on its soil.

Israel’s housing minister on Sunday gave final approval to build nearly 1,200 apartments in Jewish settlements, just three days before Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are to resume in Jerusalem. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had long insisted he would not resume talks without an Israeli settlement freeze, arguing that the expansion of settlements is pre-empting the outcome of negotiations. The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967. Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem that are now home to some 560,000 Israelis.

Persecution Watch

Sixteen human rights groups are warning that more violence is about to erupt against Egypt’s Christians, CBN News reports. Isalmists in the southern part of the country are stirring up anger against the Christian community with charges that its leaders helped engineer President Mohammed Morsi’s downfall. On Tuesday, 10,000 Muslims in the city of Assiut marched through a Christian neighborhood chanting pro-Islamist slogans. They also defaced churches with spray-painted messages, including one calling Coptic Pope Tawadros “a dog.” Hossam Nabil, who owns a jewelry store on the street where the demonstration took place, said: “[The Islamists] will not stop as long as they are left to do as they please without fear of accountability. They are many and one day they will trash our stores. … [The marchers] run their index finger across their throats to suggest they will slaughter us, or scream Morsi’s name in our faces.” The human rights groups are calling on Egyptian authorities to protect the country’s Christian minority.

Egypt

Clashes erupted in Cairo a day after Egypt’s security forces backed away from a plan to disperse protest camps, as residents pelted Morsi supporters with rocks and bottles as they marched toward a government building. Police also fired tear gas at the thousands of people who participated in the march; the protesters are demanding reinstatement of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi following his July 3 ouster. The protesters responded by throwing rocks at police, Reuters reports. Two men wielding machetes were also seen chasing pro-Morsi crowds who were heading to the Interior Ministry building. On Monday, Morsi supporters flooded two camps in Cairo that have been the flashpoint of unrest.

Iraq

A wave of car bombings targeting those celebrating the end of Ramadan across Iraq killed 69 people Saturday, a bloody reminder of the inability of Iraqi authorities to stop violence threatening to spiral out of control. The surge of attacks has sparked fears that the country could see a new round of widespread sectarian bloodshed similar to that which brought the country to the edge of civil war in 2006 and 2007. This past year has seen a marked increase in attacks, especially coordinated simultaneous strikes, a trademark of ISI — the Islamic State of Iraq — an umbrella organization that includes al Qaeda in Iraq.

Nigeria

Gunmen attacked a mosque in Nigeria with automatic weapons over the weekend, killing at least 44 people. It’s not clear who was behind Sunday’s massacre, but the militant Islamist group Boko Haram — which has staged attacks in the same region before — issued a video around the same time boasting that it was gaining in strength. Details have been slow to emerge about the attack in Konduga, about 19 miles southeast of Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s northern Borno state.

Volcanoes

Gushing hot lava from an erupting volcano killed six people sleeping in a beach village in eastern Indonesia on Saturday, after ash and smoke shot up 6,560 feet into the air, Mount Rokatenda in East Nusa Tenggara province erupted early Saturday morning. Nearly 3,000 people were evacuated from the area on Palue island. Indonesia, an archipelago of 240 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity because it sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe-shaped series of fault lines.

Wildfires

Thousands of acres of a Southern California forest are going up in flames for the second time in less than three weeks. Together, the two blazes have scorched a large hole out of the wooded mountains near Palm Springs. More than 1,400 firefighters were struggling to contain the current ongoing wildfire as a steady wind blows it toward the east. The blaze has scorched more than 30 square miles and burned 48 buildings including 26 homes. The Silver Fire was 90 percent contained by Sunday evening.

California truly is the Golden State this summer – golden brown – and that has fire officials worried heading into the peak of the wildfire season. It’s still weeks before the fire-fanning Santa Ana winds usually arrive and already it’s been a brutal fire season, with nearly twice as many acres burned statewide from a year ago, including 18,000 scorched last week in a blaze still raging in the mountains 90 miles east of Los Angeles. So far this year, California fire officials have battled 4,300 wildfires, a stark increase from the yearly average of nearly 3,000 they faced from 2008 to 2012. Those fires had already burned 111 square miles or more than 71,000 acres, up from 40,000 acres during the same period last year.

More than 10,000 lightning strikes have peppered Oregon over the weekend, starting many small wildfires in central and southern sections of the state. There are eight major fires or complexes of fires in Oregon, all coming after barrages of lightning since late July. The largest active fire is the Douglas Complex in southwest Oregon, which has scorched almost 45,000 acres. Cloud cover and relatively calm winds have slowed the growth of a wildfire that has burned more than 24 square miles in northwest Wyoming. A wildfire on the Utah-Idaho border grew to more than 25 square miles Sunday evening.

Weather

While most of the United States enjoys a pleasant, temperate summer, record highs have been breaking in Europe again and again. The Slovenian capital of Ljubljanahas broken its all-time record high five times in six days, culminating in a high of 104.4 degrees Fahrenheit on Aug. 8. Other parts of the continent have risen to even hotter temperatures. The mercury unofficially surpassed 105 degrees in parts of Austria last Thursday, a country that never had a reading of 104 degrees or higher. The highest readings were in Croatia, however. Temperatures soared to a 113-degree reading. On Monday, the temperature reached 105.8 degrees Fahrenheit in Shimanto in southern Japan, setting a new national record,

Since late July, we’ve seen roughly two dozen flash flood events from the East to the Plains and Desert Southwest. Water-weary residents of Missouri, Kansas and nearby states saw more rain Friday night into Saturday after a week of intermittent downpours dumped as much as 17 inches of rain and caused several deaths. A front that arrived on Aug. 2 and stalled over the Plains has hit Missouri’s Ozarks region the hardest, with parts of Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma also experiencing persistent rain and spotty flooding, leading to at least four fatalities.

Roads in Colorado were ripped to rubble by floodwaters up to 10 feet deep, rushing up to 30 mph. Shattered homes near others still standing upright. One person dead, three others missing. That’s the harsh reality police, firefighters and residents were dealing with Saturday in Manitou Springs, a mountain community of about 5,000 people just west of Colorado Springs, after sudden, raging waters tore through the area. Under mostly sunny skies, crews spent the day looking for the missing and combing through wreckage wrought by floods triggered by intense rain.

A powerful typhoon battered the northern Philippines on Monday, toppling power lines and dumping heavy rain across mountains, cities and food-growing plains. The storm killed at least two people in a landslide and left 44 fishermen missing. Typhoon Utor, described as the strongest globally so far this year, slammed ashore in mountainous eastern Aurora province with sustained winds of 109 miles per hour and gusts of up to 130 mph. The typhoon triggered waves of up to eight feet.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more extreme

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