Signs of the Times (10/10/14)

Ninth Circuit Court Ignores Voters on Marriage

On Tuesday the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Idaho and Nevada’s voter-approved marriage amendments that protected marriage as only the union of one man and one woman in those states. “Today’s decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals strikes at the heart of two foundational institutions that have made our nation truly exceptional: a democratic system that allows for self-governance of the people and the family,” notes Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy. “By fundamentally undermining the right of the people to vote to protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman, the Ninth Circuit Court has not only usurped their authority, but has taken another step to deny every child the best opportunity to have a mother and a father. Laws may change, but what will always remain is that the definition of marriage that has been ordained since the beginning of time is what is best for men, women, children, and our society as a whole. Center for Arizona Policy is committed to continuing to defend this timeless truth.”

Justices Uphold North Carolina’s Voting Restrictions

For the second time in two weeks, the Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a state law restricting voters’ access to the polls. The latest ruling affects North Carolina, scene of a tight Senate race that could help decide which party wins control of that chamber for the final two years of President Obama’s term. The justices reversed a federal appeals court’s decision that would have allowed same-day registration and counted votes cast mistakenly in the wrong precincts. Those were among several other procedures eliminated by the state Legislature last year in what critics called the most restrictive voting law in the nation. Just last week, the justices sided with Ohio against voting rights groups that had challenged the state’s cutbacks in early voting days, evening hours and Sunday voting.

Courts Strike Down Voter ID Laws in Wisconsin and Texas

The Supreme Court on Thursday evening stopped officials in Wisconsin from requiring voters there to provide photo identification before casting their ballots in the coming election. Three of the court’s more conservative members dissented, saying they would have allowed officials to require identification. Also, a federal trial court in Texas struck down that state’s ID law, saying it put a disproportionate burden on minority voters. The Wisconsin requirement, one of the strictest in the nation, is part of a state law enacted in 2011 but mostly blocked by various courts in the interim. A federal trial judge had blocked it, saying it would “deter or prevent a substantial number of the 300,000-plus registered voters who lack ID from voting” and would disproportionately affect black and Hispanic voters. Thursday’s ruling from Texas, issued after a two-week trial in Corpus Christi, found that the state’s voter ID law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose,” Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote.

  • We need a photo ID license to drive a car, voting is a lot more important. But liberals covet the illegal immigrant vote, so once again political motives triumph over common sense.

U.S. State Department Gives Grants without Oversight

The U.S. State Department has been handing over billions of dollars in grants for foreign projects — ranging from cultural exchanges to “climate change” activities — without adequate oversight or adequate assessment of the risks involved, and sometimes without knowing whether the money was actually spent, according to the department’s Inspector General. Moreover, these money-management problems have been going on for years, despite specific warnings, according to the watchdog IG’s office. It says it has designated State’s oversight of grants, contracts and “interagency agreements” (where State spends money on another department’s behalf) as one of the department’s “major management challenges” every year since 2008. The alert cites around 20 critical audits and inspections in the past two years alone — not to mention a previous management alert last March on “contract file management deficiencies,” which identified some $6 billion worth of contracts where files were “incomplete or could not be located at all.”

  • Government, in general, is the most inefficient and often corrupt institution in the country, which is why we need less of it, not more

Twitter Sues U.S. Government

Twitter, the world’s largest microblogging platform, on Tuesday sued the U.S. government, alleging that the Justice Department’s restrictions on what the company can say publicly about the government’s national security requests for user data violate the firm’s First Amendment rights. With its lawsuit, the San Francisco-based firm is seeking to go further than five other technology companies that earlier this year reached a settlement with the government on the permissible scope of disclosure at a time of heightened concern about the scale of government surveillance. “It’s our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users’ concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance — including what types of legal process have not been received,” Ben Lee, a Twitter vice president, said in a post online.

Many States Plan to Cancel Health Care Policies

More than a dozen states plan to cancel health care policies not in compliance with ObamaCare in the coming weeks, affecting thousands of people just before the midterm elections. “It looks like several hundred thousand people across the country will receive notices in the coming days and weeks,” said Jim Capretta of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The policies are being canceled because states that initially granted a reprieve at the request of President Obama are no longer willing to do so. In coming weeks, 13 states and the District of Columbia plan to cancel such policies, which generally fall out of compliance with the Affordable Care Act because they don’t offer the level of coverage the law requires. Virginia will be hardest hit, with 250,000 policies expected to be canceled. Many of those forced out of their current plans and into ObamaCare may not be able to keep their doctors. They also could face higher deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses, making ObamaCare an election issue on the eve of voting.

Developing Nations More Optimistic than U.S. & EU

People in Asia, Africa, Latin America and even the Middle East are more optimistic about their children’s future than Americans or Europeans, according to a new study. “Asians are particularly optimistic about the next generation’s financial prospects,” according to the Pew Research Center’s report. Ninety-four percent of Vietnamese, 85% of Chinese, 71% of Bangladeshis and 67% of Indians think today’s children will be better off than their parents. Africans and Latin Americans are also mostly optimistic. Middle Easterners tend to believe their children will be worse off (41% vs. 35% who think they’ll be better off), but they’re not as pessimistic as Europeans and Americans, where “pessimism is pervasive,” according to the report. Sixty-five percent of Europeans and Americans believe today’s children will have worse standards of living as adults than their parents. The malaise is even worse in Japan, where 79% say young people will be worse off than their parents.

Life Expectancy in USA Hits a Record High

Life expectancy in the USA rose in 2012 to 78.8 years – a record high. That was an increase of 0.1 year from 2011 when it was 78.7 years, according to a new report on mortality in the USA from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The news is a little better for women, a little worse for men. Life expectancy for females is 81.2 years; for males, it’s 76.4 years. That difference of 4.8 years is the same as in 2011. Those life expectancy estimates are for people born in 2012 and represent “the average number of years that a group of infants would live if the group was to experience throughout life the age-specific death rates present in the year of birth,” the report says. The average life expectancy for a person who was 65 years old in 2012 is 19.3 years – 20.5 years for women and 17.9 years for men.

Economic News

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell last week to nearly its lowest level since before the 2007-09 recession. Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 1,000 to a seasonally adjusted 287,000 in the week ended Oct. 4th. The data adds to the view that some strength is building in the U.S. economy. Still, Federal Reserve officials remain concerned about persistently low rates of inflation and are not seen in a rush to hike interest rates.

The federal budget deficit fell sharply in 2014 — its fifth consecutive annual decline. That’s according to an estimate Wednesday by the Congressional Budget Office. The deficit for fiscal year 2014, which ended on Sept. 30, will come in at roughly $486 billion, the CBO said. The Treasury Department will report the official number in a few weeks. The 2014 number is $195 billion less than a year earlier. And as a share of the economy, the deficit dropped to 2.8% of GDP from 4.1% last year. The deficit is the gap between how much the government spends and how much it takes in over the year. It borrows to make up the difference.

The biggest reason for the deficit slide: An improving economy and higher taxes. Revenue grew by 9% over the prior year, or by $239 billion. That growth was fueled largely by a 7% jump in income and payroll tax receipts combined. Corporate tax revenue rose by 18%. Spending, meanwhile, only grew by 1% over 2013. The bulk of that growth came from mandatory spending, which Congress doesn’t vote on annually. Spending on Social Security benefits went up 5% and Medicare spending rose 2.7%. Medicaid spending jumped nearly 14%, primarily because of health reform provisions that went into effect in January 2014.

Wage growth is picking up more rapidly than government reports show, according to new data from top payroll processor ADP, suggesting that the economic recovery may be more robust than believed. Hourly pay for private-sector workers was up 4.5% in the third quarter compared to a year ago, a new ADP report reveals, much higher than the 2% annual growth reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The ADP data show that annual wage gains accelerated from about 2% in early 2013 to nearly 3% in last year’s second quarter. Pay increases have risen steadily since.

The International Monetary Fund trimmed its forecast for global economic growth on Tuesday, underscoring the widening divide between the accelerating U.S. recovery and stagnation or a slowdown in the euro zone and Asia. The disparity is likely to take center stage as 188 central bankers and foreign ministers gather at the IMF ‘s fall meeting in Washington this week. U.S. officials are withdrawing stimulus programs as job growth picks up while other nations are ramping them up, increasing currency volatility and sowing international tension.

The Justice Department is preparing a fresh round of attacks on the world’s biggest banks, again questioning Wall Street’s role in a broad array of financial markets. With evidence mounting that a number of foreign and American banks colluded to alter the price of foreign currencies, the largest and least regulated financial market, prosecutors are aiming to file charges against at least one bank by the end of the year, according to interviews with lawyers briefed on the matter. Ultimately, several banks are expected to plead guilty.

Persecution Watch

At least nine Christians have been killed by Boko Haram militants as the Islamist group, which has killed thousands of people in Nigeria, has been targeting villages in neighbouring Cameroon. There have also been reports of forced conversions on pain of death. In Tourou village, Moskata village and other surrounding villages, one church and five Christian homes have been burned down. Two other churches have been looted or vandalized and eight have been forced to close because of the security situation.

Students at a Long Island, New York high school have been denied permission to create a Christian community service club. For two consecutive years, educators at Ward Melville High School have blocked about twenty students from attending Students United in Faith, according to a Charisma News article. Last year, Ward Melville High School reversed its decision to ban the faith-based club after receiving a demand letter from Liberty Institute and law firm McDermott Will & Emery outlining the illegality of its decision. However, once again this year, as SUIF came up for renewal, Ward Melville officials denied its request to be recognized as a club on campus. “This is not a complicated issue,” Hiram Sasser, Liberty Institute Litigation Director, said in a statement. “Simply put, public schools cannot discriminate against religious clubs and must treat them the same as other student clubs on campus.”

The Human Rights Commission in Lexington, Kentucky has a chilling message for Christian business owners who refuse service to LGBT organizations: leave your religion at home. On Tuesday, a Lexington Human Rights Commission hearing examiner issued a recommended ruling that the owner of a T-shirt company violated a local ordinance against sexual-orientation discrimination. The examiner concluded that Blaine Adamson of Hands On Originals broke the law in 2012 by declining to print shirts promoting the Lexington Pride Festival. The Gay and Lesbian Services Organization subsequently filed a complaint. The examiner ordered Adamson to attend “diversity training” and ordered the T-shirt company to service LGBT customers – no questions asked.

  • A private company should be able to establish its own business practices and policies and let a free market system sort out whether it survives or not. However, under secular socialism such rights are taken away by the government and its representatives

Pestilence Update

Nigeria — Africa’s most populous country — is officially Ebola-free, the health ministry said, even as the deadly virus rages on in neighboring countries, where lockdowns and quarantines are common and death rates are rising. As the United States and Spain deal with their first diagnosed cases of Ebola and fears that the virus could spread, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending researchers to Lagos to study how Nigeria was able to contain the disease. No new cases have been reported there since Aug. 31, the CDC said. Nigeria’s “extensive response to a single case of Ebola shows that control is possible with rapid, focused interventions,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said.

Three more people were put under quarantine for possible Ebola at a Madrid hospital where a Spanish nurse became infected, authorities said Tuesday. More than 50 others were being monitored as experts tried to figure out why Spain’s anti-infection practices failed. The nurse, part of a special team that cared for a Spanish priest who died of Ebola last month, was the first case of Ebola contracted outside of West Africa. Airports in the United States will begin taking the temperatures of arriving passengers this weekend who have flight itineraries originating from West African countries where Ebola is concentrated.

Three days after a fatal case of Marburg hemorrhagic fever was diagnosed in Uganda, 99 people have been quarantined in four different locations across the East African country, as field epidemiologists and surveillance officers continue to closely monitor all people who got into contact with this first victim. More than 60 health workers form the bulk of people under quarantine after they were identified as having contact with a 30-year old male health worker who died September 28 of Marburg — an Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever.

Migrants Drowning in Mediterranean Doubles

In a desperate search for a better life, more than 3,000 migrants have died in the past year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The neighboring countries of Syria and Iraq already hosting 3 million refugees are at the forefront of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. According to Christian Today, Amnesty spokesman Nicolas Beger said: “As the EU builds its walls higher and higher, migrants and refugees are increasingly taking to the Mediterranean waters in a desperate bid to reach safety and sanctuary in Europe. Tragically they are increasingly paying the highest cost, losing their lives at sea.” The Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe is calling on churches, governments, European institutions and people across Europe for a commitment to prevent such catastrophes. “Facing these challenges requires renewed commitment to share the responsibility to protect and to ensure legal and secure access to Europe for those in need of protection,” CCME General Secretary Doris Peschke stated.

Islamic State

Warplanes sent by the U.S.-led coalition on Tuesday struck positions held by Islamic State militants near a Syrian border town that beleaguered Kurdish forces have been struggling to defend. The airstrikes began late Monday and came as Kurdish forces pushed Islamic State militants out of the eastern part of Kobani, where the jihadists had raised their black flag over buildings hours earlier. The U.S.-led coalition has launched several airstrikes over the past two weeks near Kobani in a bid to help Kurdish forces defend the town, but the sorties appear to have done little to slow the Islamic State group, which captured several nearby villages in a rapid advance that began in mid-September. A wave of coalition airstrikes on Wednesday helped blunt an Islamic State offensive on Kobani, but the battle is not over according to the Pentagon. “Air power alone is not going to be enough to save Kobani,” Rear Adm. John Kirby said Wednesday.

The assault has forced some 160,000 Syrians to flee and put a strain on Kurdish forces, who have struggled to hold off the extremists. Hundreds more civilians fled Kobani on Monday as the jihadists advanced. If ISIS takes Kobani, they would control a complete swath of land between its self-declared capital of Raqqa, Syria, and Turkey — a stretch of more than 62 miles. Turkey’s foreign minister said Thursday that it was not “realistic” to expect his country to conduct a military ground operation on its own against Islamic State militants. The new U.N. envoy to Syria said Friday that at least 500 civilians remain trapped in Kobani, warning that they were likely to be “massacred” if it falls to the extremists.

The Islamic State militants who have rampaged across northern Iraq are increasingly using water as a weapon, cutting off supplies to villages resisting their rule. The Sunni militants want to seize the dams to bolster their claim they are building an actual state; the dams are key to irrigating the country’s vast wheat fields and providing Iraqis with electricity. More ominously, the Islamic State has used its control over water facilities — including as many as four dams along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — to displace communities or deprive them of crucial water supplies. And they are increasingly selling oil from captured wells on the black market, raising over a million dollars a day according to CNN.

Iran

The massive blast at an Iranian nuclear plant earlier this week remains shrouded in mystery, but it cleared up one thing, according to those who track the Islamic Republic: The nuclear weapons program Tehran has long denied is real. The massive blast night rocked buildings more than 10 miles away, and before-and-after satellite images published by Israel Defense showed startling destruction at a facility Iran has repeatedly barred international inspectors from entering. “[The] images indicate that a complete section of structures was simply eliminated by an unexplained explosion,” Israel Defense analyst Ronen Solomon said. “The explosion wiped several testing units off the face of the earth while inflicting collateral damage on adjacent buildings.” Iran, which initially denied an explosion took place, was forced a day later to own up to a blast.

  • Did anyone but the Obama administration seriously think Iran had given up their nuclear ambitions?

Nigeria

Boko Haram, the extremist Islamic group, reportedly beheaded seven people Monday in Nigeria in revenge attacks, which were described by one resident as the way butchers “slaughter goats.” The gruesome killings appear to be in direct response to recent resistance from villagers and the country’s military, AFP reported. These locals have joined forces with the government in a push to defeat the terror group and appear to be scoring a few victories. About 15 fighters for Boko Haram died in the past few weeks, The Christian Post reported.

Yemen

Two suicide bombers struck in Yemen on Thursday — one targeting a gathering of Shiite rebels in the country’s capital and the other hitting a military outpost in the south — in attacks that killed at least 50 people, officials said. The bombings underscore Yemen’s highly volatile situation amid a Shiite rebel blitz that has stunned the nation and reshaped the country’s political landscape. At least 30 people died when a suicide attacker set off his explosives Thursday in central Sanaa, targeting a gathering of supporters of the rebel Shiite Houthis, who overran the capital in an offensive last month. The second bombing took place on the outskirts of the southern port city of Mukalla in Hadarmout province when a suicide car bomber rammed his car against a security outpost, killing at least 20 soldiers and wounding 15. Hadarmout is one of several strongholds of al-Qaida’s Yemeni branch, considered by Washington to be the most dangerous offshoot of the terror network. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack, but both bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida, which has for years staged suicide bombings against army troops, security personnel and government facilities.

North Korea

With Kim Jong Un still out of sight, North Korean officials have gone on a publicity blitz — making a rare move to take questions at the United Nations, arranging human rights talks with the European Union, and taking a high-level trip to South Korea. The overtures come at a time when its human rights record has received increased scrutiny. Pyongyang’s charm offensive has raised questions of what the regime seeks and what could be happening in the country’s inner circle. While Ri Tong Il, the North Korean deputy ambassador declined to respond to questions about Kim’s health on Tuesday, he gave some clues to what may be behind the country’s rare willingness to take reporters’ questions. Citing over 40 different sanctions against North Korea, he said: “This is the most brutal sanction throughout the world. No country… has been living under these sanctions.” Kim Jong Un failed to show up Friday for a key political anniversary in Pyongyang. North and South Korea exchanged fire Friday after gunners in the North targeted balloons carrying leaflets critical of the country’s reclusive regime

Earthquakes

A strong, shallow earthquake shook southwestern China overnight, killing at least one person, damaging buildings and prompting thousands to camp outside as aftershocks continued to strike the area, officials said Wednesday. The earthquake with a magnitude of at least 6.0 hit the Weiyuan city area of Yunnan province at 9:49 p.m. when most residents would have been in their homes. At least 324 people also injured, eight of them seriously.

A 6.2-magnitude quake struck Tuesday northeast of San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico, the U.S. Geological Survey said. The earthquake was about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) deep. The epicenter of the quake was off shore, between the Baja California peninsula and mainland Mexico. There were no immediate reports of damages.

Wildfires

Mandatory evacuations were in effect overnight for those in danger because of a Northern California wildfire, which has already destroyed five homes and is threatening 1,000 more. The Applegate Fire — centered in Placer County, about 40 miles northeast up Interstate 80 from Sacramento — had burned 420 acres and was 20% contained as of late Thursday afternoon. Evacuation orders have gone out to those living on dozens of roads in the area, and three evacuation shelters — two in Auburn and one in Colfax — have been set for those with nowhere else to go. The blaze has also affected I-80, which had one lane open eastbound in the hardest hit area as of late Thursday afternoon.

Weather

As California’s long-term drought continues to worsen, crops are dying and the ground is turning into dust. If that dust is blown into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an already-dwindling snowpack could melt even faster, and that’s terrible news for a thirsty state. Dust-covered snow can absorb more sunlight, which in turn causes it to heat up and melt faster, according to National Geographic. On the other hand, dust is one of a few particles that can seed clouds and pull more precipitation from them, according to a study performed by Kim Prather, an atmospheric chemist at the University of California-San Diego. But clouds have to be present for the dust-seeding, and there haven’t been many of those lately in California.

Super Typhoon Vongfong became the strongest tropical cyclone of 2014 and fifth super typhoon (150 mph max sustained winds or higher) of the year after intensifying rapidly overnight Monday into Tuesday, U.S. time. Maximum sustained winds had tailed off a bit Wednesday, but were still an estimated 165 mph, solidly the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane. Just days after Typhoon Phanfone left three American servicemen dead on Japan’s Okinawa Island, Super Typhoon Vongfong is pushing toward the island for a second assault. With the center of Vongfong expected to pass within 100 miles of Okinawa on Friday, military bases are preparing for major impacts to their base.

A year after Cyclone Phailin made landfall in India’s Odisha state and took 44 lives, millions in the area are bracing for the impact of another massive threat.​ Tropical Cyclone Hudhud picked up strength as it crossed the Andaman and Nicobar islands on Wednesday. As Hudhud continues its west-northwest course, the Indian Meteorological Department has issued a cyclone alert for the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, both on the eastern coast of India.

Rising sea levels are causing more frequent high-tide floods even on completely clear days on the East and Gulf Coasts, says a report out Wednesday from the Union of Concerned Scientists. In the next 15 years or so, many towns and cities could see a tripling in the number of high-tide floods each year. In 30 years, a whopping tenfold increase is possible. “Several decades ago, flooding at high tide was simply not a problem,” said Melanie Fitzpatrick, a report co-author who is a climate scientist at UCS. “Today, when the tide is extra high, people find themselves splashing through downtown Miami, Norfolk and Annapolis on sunny days and dealing with flooded roads in Atlantic City, Savannah and the coast of New Hampshire,” she said.

 

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