Signs of the Times (10/4/13)

Government Shutdown Update

With up to 800,000 federal workers facing life without a paycheck, guess who’s not among them? Congress. The 27th Amendment to the Constitution restricts any Congress from changing its own pay. While the intent was to restrain Congress from increasing its pay, the amendment also blocks Congress from freezing or cutting its compensation.

Visitors were turned away at entrances to the Grand Canyon National Park on Tuesday morning, as national parks were closed in the partial federal government shutdown. Visitors who already were staying at campgrounds or lodges Tuesday morning were allowed to stay until Thursday, and asked to make alternate plans in the meantime. All National Parks and Monuments are now closed.

Children are the collateral damage in the shutdown, and its duration could have a devastating impact on some. Pre-kindergarten classes under the Head Start program have been forced to close. Patients with incurable diseases have been turned away from the National Institute of Health’s Clinical Center. About 8.8 million women and children are at risk of not getting vouchers through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC.

Wheelchair-bound elderly veterans pushed aside barricades to tour the World War II Memorial Tuesday morning, in defiance of the government shutdown which closed all of the memorials in the nation’s capital, reports. The four busloads of veterans — visiting from Mississippi as part of a once-in-a-lifetime Honor Flight tour — ignored National Park Police instructions not to enter the site as lawmakers and tourists cheered them on. “We didn’t come this far not to get in,” one veteran proclaimed. After it was clear they had lost control of the situation, Park Police officials stood aside.

Health Exchanges Debut with High Traffic, Glitches

The opening of state- and federal-run insurance marketplaces Tuesday saw a combination of huge interest and balky technology that led to a series of glitches, delays and even crashes that marred the first hours of the centerpiece of President Obama’s health law. Some of the delays were due to high volume. About 6 million people visited the federal website Tuesday and Wednesday, said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The site is handling exchanges for 34 states that defaulted to the federal government for at least the first year. The agency did not release the number of Americans who actually bought insurance. The exchanges are the critical part of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that uninsured Americans buy health insurance. The open-enrollment period for insurance customers will last until March 31, 2014.

Debt Ceiling: Countdown to Default

Congress is sowing the seeds of a debt ceiling crisis: If lawmakers don’t raise the limit on federal borrowing soon, they will put the nation at risk of defaulting on some of its legal obligations. Much has been made of Oct. 17 as the drop-dead date. But the U.S. reached the debt ceiling in May. Since then the Treasury Department has been using special accounting measures to keep borrowing just under the limit. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said those will run out no later than Oct. 17. When they do, Treasury won’t be able to borrow and cover the ongoing deficit budget.

Postal Service Defaults on Prefunded Retirement Payment

The U.S. Postal Service has defaulted on a $5.6 billion payment for retiree health benefits that was due on Monday. The default had absolutely nothing to do with the federal government shutdown. Postmaster General Patrick Donahue told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs on September 19th that the default was going to happen. Postal officials have long complained about a Congressional mandate that requires them to set aside billions of dollars for a retiree health care fund each year. The Postal Service also defaulted on these prefund payments last year. In fiscal year 2012, the Postal Service lost a total of $15.9 billion, including $11.1 billion in defaulted payments that it owes to prefund health benefits for retirees. Postal officials point out that other federal agencies aren’t required to prefund for retirees this way.

UN Brewing New, Expensive Global Sustainability Goals

The United Nations is planning to create a sweeping new set of “sustainable development goals” for the planet that will likely require trillions of dollars of spending on poverty and the environment, a drastic reorganization of economic production and consumption — especially in rich countries — and even greater effort in the expensive war on climate change. It’s an agenda that its prominent boosters have declared will make the next 15 years “some of the most transformative in human history,” although the exact nature of the goals themselves, and how they are to be achieved, is unclear. The goals themselves are slated to become a program of the U.N.  — and all the nations that endorse them — in 2015, as part of what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called  “a universal sustainable development agenda” for the planet. They are supposed to be endorsed at a global U.N. summit, the successor to the Rio Agenda 21.

Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the UN with regard to sustainable development. It is a product of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. It is an action agenda for the UN, other multilateral organizations, and individual governments around the world that can be executed at local, national, and global levels. The “21” in Agenda 21 refers to the 21st Century. According to skeptics, the new program has the potential to become a “huge unworkable mess. William Easterly, an economics professor and co-director of New York University’s Development Research Institute says, says it is a “confused mashup of every development fad of the last 20 years” married to the aim of giving the U.N. a more central role in economic development.”

  • This will become the backbone to the emerging one-world end-time government that will enforce wealth redistribution, blur national boundaries and impose international rule-of-law (like the gun-control treaty the Obama Administration recently signed).

Fracking May Be Polluting River With Radioactive Waste

Fracking may be contaminating a Pennsylvania river with radioactive waste, a Duke University study published this past week shows. Scientists found elevated levels of radioactivity in river water at a site where treated fracking wastewater from oil and gas production sites in western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale is released into a creek. The plant processes fracking flowback water — highly saline and radioactive fluid that is returned to the surface as part of the fracking process. The natural gas-rich Marcellus shale is seeing a drilling boom, part of a nationwide rush to use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, techniques to extract shale gas and oil. Studies have also shown that energy production, including the waste water associated with fracking — a method of injecting chemicals, sand and water deep underground to crack rock formations to release oil and natural gas — may release significant fugitive methane emissions, helping to drive climate change.

California Okays Drivers’ Licenses for Illegal Immigrants

California on Thursday joined the growing list of states that allow immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to obtain driver’s licenses. The licenses, which are expected to become available no later than January 2015, will carry a special designation on the front and a notice stating that the document is not official federal identification and cannot be used to prove eligibility for employment or public benefits. Ten other states have enacted measures to give driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally, many of them in the past year, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Some of those states issue only one kind of license. But laws in many states, including Oregon and Colorado, create distinctions between the license given to immigrants and the one issued to other drivers.

Migrants Send Over $414B Home

Money that migrant workers send to their families and homeland is far more valuable to developing countries than foreign aid and is expected to grow 6.3% this year, a new World Bank study said Wednesday. Migrants are expected to send $414 billion in remittances home this year to developing countries, the study said, and the figure will likely surpass $500 billion by 2016. That makes remittance funds almost four times more important to developing nations than official foreign aid from governments, which the United Nations says amounts to about $126 billion a year. India gets $71 billion in remittances, the biggest benefactor from such funds. China got $60 billion, the Philippines $26 billion, Mexico $22 billion, Nigeria $21 billion and Egypt $20 billion.

Economic News

Slightly more Americans filed for jobless benefits last week, but the unemployment rolls could rise even more quickly in the weeks ahead if federal employees start filing claims during the shutdown. About 308,000 people filed initial claims for unemployment benefits last week, up 1,000 from the prior week, the government reported Thursday morning. The overall initial claims figure remains near its lowest level since 2007 — an encouraging sign that layoffs are back to pre-recession levels. But businesses aren’t necessarily ramping up their hiring for new jobs.

Businesses added 166,000 jobs in September, payroll processor ADP said Wednesday, as employment continued a recent trend of more modest gains. Small businesses added 74,000 jobs; large companies, 64,000; and midsize ones, 28,000. Trade, transportation and utilities led job gains, with 54,000. Professional and business services added 27,000. And construction companies added 16,000. But manufacturers added only 1,000 and financial firms cut 4,000.

Persecution Watch

A local government official in central Bangladesh has halted the construction of a church, forced Christians to worship at a mosque and threatened them with eviction from their village unless they renounce their faith, World Watch Monitor reports. The Tangail Evangelical Holiness Church in Bilbathuagani village, Tangail district, about 70 miles north of Dhaka, was started Sept. 8 by a group of about 25 Christians who had been meeting secretly for three years. However, local council chairman Rafiqul Islam Faruk joined around 200 demonstrators Sept. 13 to protest against the start of the building of the church. The following day, the Christians were summoned to his office. More than 1,000 Muslims waited outside, following an announcement at all local mosques to gather at the chairman’s office. Mokrom Ali, 32, told World Watch Monitor: “The chairman and the imams of the mosques interrogated me for accepting Christianity. They asked me why I had become a Christian. It is a great sin to become a Christian from Islam. If I did not accept Islam, they would beat me, burn my house and evict me from the society. Their threats chilled me to the bone. That is why I pretended to accept Islam, but faith in Christ is the wellspring of my life. Now I am no longer a Muslim; I am a Christian.”

Jihadist members of Somalia’s al-Shabab took hundreds of hostages and killed 67 Christians at the Westgate Mall. People who identified themselves as Muslims, and who could give the name of Mohamed’s mother or recite Quranic verses were allowed to leave. Jihadists in Nigeria killed a pastor and his son and burned their church in the northern state of Yobe where Islamists are attempting to impose Sharia law. Two Christian men, Waleed Saad Shaker, age 25, and Nash ‘at Shenouda Ishaq, age 27, were traveling on a rural road in Libya when they were surrounded by a crowd of Muslim men. The Christians were robbed, tied up and beaten. Then the Muslims demanded that they recite the shahada, the declaration of conversion to Islam. When the Christians refused, they were shot.

Middle East

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, devoting most of his half-hour address to the threat posed by Iran’s renegade nuclear program. While giving a summation of the history of Iranian duplicity and obvious intentions to develop nuclear weapons despite the repeated denials of Iranian officials, Netanayhu pointed out that “the international community has Iran on the ropes” and urged the assembled diplomats to “keep up the pressure” on the clerical regime in Teheran until it dismantles its nuclear program. He added however that if all else failed, Israel was prepared “to stand alone against Iran…but with the knowledge that in defending Israel, we will be defending many, many others.”


Thousands of supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi marched at the site of a former Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in Cairo Friday. Police and troops are on alert in the area, after protestors defied a security crackdown by gathering at the site where thousands participated in violent protests in recent months. Egyptian authorities had warned the Brotherhood that new demonstration camps would not be tolerated. Since the July 3 ouster of the Islamic president, the country’s military-backed government has moved against the Brotherhood, banning the group, seizing its assets and arresting hundreds of its supporters.


Iranians chanted ‘Death to America’ and burned the U.S. flag after weekly prayers in Tehran on Friday despite their new president’s outreach to the West and promises of moderation and easing of tensions with the outside world… During prayers Friday in Tehran, the master-of-ceremonies led the crowd into chants of ‘Death to America’ at least twice from the podium. The chant was then repeated several times by a group of worshippers who rallied after the ceremony, burning the American and Israeli flags, as they do almost every week.


A roadside bomb killed two soldiers doing relief work Wednesday in a remote region of southwestern Pakistan where a major earthquake killed at least 376 people last week, and gunmen carried out a pair of attacks on troops distributing aid there. Also in southwestern Baluchistan province but far from the earthquake zone, a bomb went off at the Pakistan-Afghan border, killing six people and wounding 11 others. A Taliban suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into the compound of a rival militant commander in northwest Pakistan on Thursday, killing 15 people. Gunmen first fired shots at Hanfi’s compound in Balandkhel village, and then the suicide bomber detonated his vehicle.


We’re not done yet. That was the message terrorists of Al-Shabaab gave to Kenya on Wednesday, as officials still sorted through rubble and clues left in the wake of the recent massacre that took 67 lives at a Nairobi shopping mall. Kenyan forces killed five terrorists, and 11 others are in custody over possible links to the attacks. The Somali militant group handed the threatening statement to regional media, which passed it on to CNN. Al-Shabaab made statements claiming responsibility, including saying on Twitter that it sent the gunmen in retaliation for Kenya’s involvement in an African Union military effort against the group, which is al Qaeda’s proxy in Somalia. Last year, the Kenyan military was part of a peacekeeping force that defeated Al-Shabaab forces to liberate the key Somali port of Kismayo.


Fresh demonstrations against the government took place in Sudan on Tuesday, despite the use of teargas on protesters a day earlier. Students at the Ahfad University for Women near the capital, Khartoum, rallied for a second day, calling for the removal of President Omar al-Bashir and his government. A number of youth groups, political opposition parties, independent trade unions and a coalition of civil society organizations have called for the immediate resignation of the government and the dissolution of legislative bodies. They want the formation of a transitional government based on a cross-section of Sudanese society. Violent protests against the lifting of government gas subsidies in Sudan — a move that nearly doubled the price of gasoline — began last week.


Another day, another radioactive-water spill. The operator of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant says at least 110 gallons spilled when workers overfilled a storage tank without a gauge that could have warned them of the danger. The amount is tiny compared to the untold thousands of tons of radioactive water that have leaked, much of it into the Pacific Ocean, since a massive earthquake and tsunami wrecked the plant in 2011. But the error is one of many Tokyo Electric Power Co. has committed as it struggles to manage a seemingly endless, tainted flow.

While the continuing environmental disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has grabbed world headlines — with hundreds of tons of contaminated water flowing into the Pacific Ocean daily — a human crisis has been quietly unfolding. Two and a half years after the plant belched plumes of radioactive materials over northeast Japan, the almost 83,000 nuclear refugees evacuated from the worst-hit areas are still unable to go home. Some have moved on, reluctantly, but tens of thousands remain in a legal and emotional limbo while the government holds out hope that they can one day return.


Authorities say that death toll from an unusual spate of hornet attacks in central China has reached 41 people. The attacks plagued not only the city of Ankang, where 19 died as reported by the official Xinhua News Agency, but had killed 22 others in two adjacent cities. All told, 1,600 people have been injured, and 37 of them are in critical or serious condition in hospitals. The provincial government says it has mobilized a special medic team and trained more medical personnel to treat victims. It says hornets mate and migrate in September and October when they are most aggressive in behavior. Local officials have also said weather changes may have contributed to the ferocity of attacks.


Thousands of teachers and students blocked Mexico City’s main thoroughfares during rush hour to honor victims of a 1968 massacre while pledging to fight to undo an overhaul of the education system. Wednesday’s protests and road closures are just the latest acts in what has become near daily disruption by demonstrations of the capital’s life in recent weeks. The education reform aims to break union control of the school system by requiring teacher evaluations.


Years of mismanagement, lack of maintenance, and frozen power rates have wrecked havoc with a electricity grid that is simply falling apart. According to Aller, the number of blackouts, classified as anything above 100 megawatts (which is enough to power a city of 200,000) have soared in the last decade. In 2004, they averaged about 40 a year. In 2011 there were 430; it 2012 they nearly doubled to 800. This from a country that has the largest proven oil reserves in the world.


Powerful storms crawled into the Midwest on Friday, dumping heavy snow in South Dakota, spawning a tornado in Nebraska and threatening dangerous thunderstorms from Oklahoma to Wisconsin. A foot of snow had fallen in western South Dakota’s scenic Black Hills by early Friday, thanks to a storm gaining strength as it slowly moves east from Colorado and Wyoming. Blizzard conditions were expected in the area, with as much as 3 feet of snow and wind gusts of between 50 and 70 mph. Although early October snowfalls aren’t unusual in the Black Hills, a storm of this magnitude happens only once every decade or two on the plains.

An estimated 10,000 walrus unable to find sea ice over shallow Arctic Ocean water have come ashore on Alaska’s northwest coast on a barrier island near Point Lay, an Inupiat Eskimo village 300 miles southwest of Barrow and 700 miles northwest of Anchorage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency immediately took steps to prevent a stampede among the animals packed shoulder to shoulder on the rocky coastline. The agency works with villages to keep people and airplanes a safe distance from herds. Young animals are especially vulnerable to stampedes triggered by a polar bear, a human hunter or a low-flying airplane.


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