Signs of the Times (11/7/14)

Gay Marriage Bans Upheld in Four States

A federal appeals court allowed four states to prohibit same-sex unions — a decision that could force the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the issue. In a 2-1 ruling Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed lower court rulings in Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky that struck down same-sex marriage bans. Sutton, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, said that it’s not the responsibility of the judicial branch of government to make “such a fundamental change to such a fundamental social institution… When the courts do not let the people resolve new social issues like this one, they perpetuate the idea that the heroes in these change events are judges and lawyers,” Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in the ruling.

Missouri Judge Overturns State’s Ban on Same-Sex Marriage

A Missouri judge has overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriages and ordered registrars to start issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples. But the state’s top prosecutor said he has appealed the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court. “The constitutional challenge to Missouri’s historically recognized right to define marriage must be presented to and resolved by the state’s highest court,” state Attorney General Chris Koster said in a statement. Koster has said that while a lot of state residents have changed their minds and support marriage equality, the constitution has not changed. More than 30 states and the District of Columbia now allow marriage for same-sex couples.

Republicans Seize Senate, Gain Full Control of Congress

A Republican tide ripped the Senate away from Democrats Tuesday, giving the GOP full control of Congress and the power to pin down President Barack Obama during his last two years in office. The thumping win upends the balance of power between the White House and Capitol Hill only six years after Obama’s Democrats swept to power and marginalized Republicans in a rush to reform health care, Wall Street and pass a huge stimulus package. Now, it’s Democrats who will take the back seat on Capitol Hill, relying mostly on the power of the filibuster to stymie Republicans. Republicans retained every one of the GOP-held seats up for grabs and picked up one more than the six seats needed to take control of the Senate. In the House, CNN projected the GOP will have at least 246 seats, its largest majority since World War II.

Republicans Increase Governorships

President Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois elected a Republican governor on Tuesday night. Massachusetts will have its first Republican governor since Mitt Romney. Republicans also continued their dominance of governors’ mansions when a number of GOP leaders fought off stiff challenges from Democrats. Republican Rick Scott defeated Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in Florida’s very tight and hotly contested race. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Georgia’s Nathan Deal both narrowly won re-election in the face of well-financed Democratic challenges. Ohio’s John Kasich, Iowa’s Terry Branstad and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez also dispatched weaker Democratic challengers. And bombastic Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage survived a stiff challenge from Rep. Michael Michaud to win a second term.

Voters Pass Wage Hikes, Divide on Abortion

Voters on ballot initiatives in 41 states gave a resounding thumbs-up to higher minimum wages while dividing on abortion-related measures and GMO labeling. Scores of measures that thickened ballot booklets from Alaska to Florida included a ban on bear baiting (overturned), immigrants IDs (rejected) and gun background checks (approved). In Arkansas, Alaska, South Dakota and Nebraska, voters approved hiking the minimum wage. Voters in Illinois approved a non-binding ballot question on raising the minimum wage. In Oregon, voters rejected a measure permitting four-year driver’s cards to those who cannot prove their legal status in the United States. Supporters said the bill would keep the streets safer by forcing people to learn the rules of the road and get insurance. The measure was aimed mainly at Oregon’s tens of thousands of immigrants who are in the country illegally. The Pew Hispanic Center says about 160,000 immigrants living in Oregon entered the country illegally.

In Colorado, voters rejected a proposal to add “unborn human beings” to the state’s criminal code, a measure. And in North Dakota, voters rejected a “right-to-life” state constitutional amendment that abortion rights advocates feared would have ended legal abortions there. But Tennessee approved an amendment that will give more power to state lawmakers to regulate and restrict abortion, adding language to the Tennessee constitution that reads, in part: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”

Marijuana Wins 3-1

While Florida voters narrowly rejected a plan to legalize medical marijuana, voters in Washington, D.C., Oregon, and Alaska approved recreational pot possession and use by adults. And in Guam, voters also legalized medical marijuana use. Supporters say the legalization wins indicate voters think America’s pot prohibition is a failure, especially since non-presidential elections tend to draw an older, more conservative electorate. Twenty-three states and the nation’s capital already permit medical marijuana. Tuesday’s vote means Washington, D.C., Alaska and Oregon join Colorado and Washington in allowing adults to possess and consume marijuana just for fun. Florida’s medical marijuana initiative, Amendment 2, received more than 50% of the vote, but failed to reach the 60% needed to pass.

Women in Congress Up Incrementally

Next year, more than 100 women will serve in Congress for the first time in history. But women in both parties say the growth is incremental and the numbers are disappointing. Of 15 women running for the Senate, just four won. There are now 20 female senators. Next year, there will still be 20, unless Senator Mary L. Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat, survives a difficult runoff, which would bring the number to 21. Democratic women had an especially difficult night, with the defeat of Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, as well as two of the party’s brightest Senate prospects, Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky and Michelle Nunn of Georgia. In the House, there were 79 female voting members prior to the elections. Depending on the outcome of several races that were still too close to call, that number will range from 81 to 85 next year, according to a tally by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. As for female governors, there are currently five. The election Tuesday did not change that.

USA’s Friends, Foes Expect Policy Shifts

Friends and foes of the USA see policy shifts from the big Republican gains Tuesday, from closer ties with Israel to greater strains with Russia. Republicans’ “harsh stance toward Russia” could lead to another Cold War, said Sergey Rogov, director of the Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies, according to Russian state-run TASS news agency. “While the Democrats were in the majority in the Senate, none of those anti-Russian bills received support,” Rogov said. “Now they may be put to the vote again and most probably given a go-ahead.” Israeli leaders hailed the vote, expressing hope it will lead to better relationships between the two nations.

“It is my hope that the American Administration will now change gears and focus on the truly important issues in our region threatening western civilization,” Danny Danon, a right-wing Israeli parliamentarian, said in a statement. “Now is the time to halt the spread of ISIL and stop the Ayatollahs in Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities, instead of criticizing Israel for every housing development in Jerusalem that benefits the Jewish and Arab residents of our capital.” However, Iranian leaders seem fairly confident the election won’t have a negative impact on their policies.

China’s state-run media used the Republican sweep to criticize Obama as a “lame duck” and “abandoned baby.” Obama’s magic has lost its charm, argued one story from the state news agency Xinhua. “A weak Obama must cooperate with China even more,” ran another piece on the popular Sina news portal.

Trojan Horse Malware Lurking in Vital US Computers Since 2011

A destructive “Trojan Horse” malware program has penetrated the software that runs much of the nation’s critical infrastructure and is poised to cause an economic catastrophe, according to the Department of Homeland Security. National Security sources told ABC News there is evidence that the malware was inserted by hackers believed to be sponsored by the Russian government, and is a very serious threat. The hacked software is used to control complex industrial operations like oil and gas pipelines, power transmission grids, water distribution and filtration systems, wind turbines and even some nuclear plants. Shutting down or damaging any of these vital public utilities could severely impact hundreds of thousands of Americans. DHS said in a bulletin that the hacking campaign has been ongoing since 2011, but no attempt has been made to activate the malware to “damage, modify, or otherwise disrupt” the industrial control process. So while U.S. officials recently became aware the penetration, they don’t know where or when it may be unleashed.

Ebola Update

The last person being monitored in connection with the three diagnosed Ebola cases in Texas will be cleared from monitoring Friday after reaching the end of the 21-day maximum incubation period for the disease. Around 177 health care workers and community members had contact with at least one of the patients, their specimens or medical waste, but are symptom free.

Economic News

The resurgent labor market kept chugging in October as employers added 214,000 jobs, the Labor Department said Friday. The unemployment rate fell from 5.9% to 5.8%, lowest since July 2008.. Businesses added 209,000 jobs. Federal, state and local governments added 5,000. Monthly job growth has averaged well over 200,000 this year, up from 194,000 in 2013.

First-time claims for unemployment benefits for the week ending Nov. 1 fell by 10,000 to 278,000 from the previous week’s revised level. Claims for the past four weeks are at their lowest level in more than 14 years, the Labor Department said Thursday. The closely-followed four-week moving average of claims was 279,000, a drop of 2,250 from the previous week’s slightly revised average. That’s the lowest level for this average since April 29, 2000 when it was 273,000.

U.S. workers’ productivity increased more rapidly than expected in the third quarter as a solid jump in output offset a rise in hours worked. Labor productivity, or output per hours worked, rose at a 2% annual rate. Over the past year, productivity grew 0.9%, in line with modest increases since 2012. Productivity surged early in the recovery as employers hesitant to add staff squeezed more from existing workers, but it has increased more slowly the past couple of years as hiring picked up. Monthly job growth has averaged well over 200,000 this year.

With rents rising faster than most American’s paychecks, finding a roommate with whom to split the rent is a rising trend. The percentage of adults living with someone other than a spouse or partner hit 32% nationwide in 2012, up from 26% in 2000, according to Zillow’s analysis of the latest Census Bureau data. And, judging by the ongoing decline in homeownership rates and tightened supply of rental vacancies, the trend appears to be gaining momentum and isn’t just for kids straight out of college anymore.

Persecution Watch

Pakistani police say they have arrested up to 40 people in connection with the killing of a Christian couple in Punjab province who were beaten, then pushed into a burning kiln after being accused of desecrating the Quran. Local police officials said a mob from neighboring villages formed Tuesday after a local mullah declared the couple were guilty of blasphemy. The mob allegedly marched to the couple’s home, broke down their door, dragged them outside, beat them and threw them into the brick kiln where they both worked. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which dispatched a team to the scene, said in a statement that the couple had three young children — two sons and a daughter, and indicated the slain woman was pregnant.

Middle East

A Palestinian man rammed a minivan into a crowded train platform in east Jerusalem on Wednesday and then attacked people with an iron bar after leaving the vehicle, killing one person and injuring 13 before he was shot dead by police. The militant Hamas group took responsibility for the attack — the second such assault in east Jerusalem in the past two weeks — which escalated already heightened tensions between Arabs and Jews in the city. Earlier Wednesday, Israeli police had dispersed dozens of masked Palestinians who threw rocks and firecrackers near a contested holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City. Security was stepped up in the city amid concern that rising tensions could flare as Muslims gather for Friday prayers. Neighboring Jordan called back the kingdom’s ambassador to Israel for consultations in a gesture of protest over the violence in east Jerusalem.

Islamic State

A watchdog group, Open Doors, is asking for prayer as Christians in Iraq and Syria continue to flee ISIS. Mike Gore, of Open Doors Australia, said that the exodus of the Christians had reached “biblical proportions” this year. “Christians, not just in their hundreds, Christians in their tens of thousands [are] fleeing Iraq and Syria with little more than the clothes on their backs, because of increased pressure from the Islamic State,” Gore said during Sunday’s International Day of Prayer webcast.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS targeted the Islamist rebel group Ahrar al Sham for the first time overnight in Syria, a monitoring group said Thursday. One airstrike hit the headquarters for Ahrar al Sham in Babsaqa, Idlib province, near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Ahrar al Sham is a Sunni Muslim group that is not on the U.S. list of designated terrorist organizations and so far had not been hit by coalition airstrikes. They are not linked to al Qaeda, have not pledged allegiance to al Qaeda. There are mixed opinions on how radical the group is, mostly because its entire leadership was killed in a September blast and the new leadership’s intentions are not yet clear, although some observers anticipate a more radical direction.

The United States appears to have just scored a big win in Syria in taking out a key al Qaeda bomb-maker plotting to blow up American passenger jets, but it could come at significant cost because the same strikes appear to have also killed fighters belonging to two powerful jihadist rebel groups who were fighting ISIS and not previously focused on targeting the United States. A U.S. defense official told CNN that the strike likely killed David Drugeon, a skilled French bomb-maker. Drugeon, 24, was one of the most active bomb-makers within the Khorasan group, a U.S. intelligence official said.

Afghanistan

Afghan security forces are winning the fight against the Taliban, but they’re suffering casualties at an unsustainable rate, the No. 2 coalition commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday. Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson said more than 8,900 Afghan security forces were killed in action during the past two years as Afghan forces have taken the lead in combat operations. He said Afghan security forces, which include soldiers and police, are working on improving their tactics and protective measures, such as equipment to counter roadside bombs that could help lower the casualties. Afghan officers are also trying to limit soldiers going AWOL and boost recruitment to maintain sufficient strength.

At the same time, the number of American casualties decreased sharply as more U.S. troops leave the country and those still there have taken on more of a support role. Afghan forces lead combat operations. During the past two years, 176 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan, according to icasualties.org, which tracks coalition casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the start of the war in 2001, 2,350 U.S. servicemembers have died in Afghanistan, according to the organization.

China

Chinese health officials say only 700,000 newly-qualified couples have applied for having a second child this year, far below earlier estimates that an easing in the country’s birth policy would add 1 million to 2 million extra births per year in the first few years. Last year, China eased its one-child policy to allow couples where one partner has no siblings to have two children. Couples where both partners have no siblings have been allowed to have two children for some time.

Pollen/Pollution

The warming planet will likely make your pollen and grass allergies a lot worse. Scientists examined the effect of CO2 and ozone levels on grass and pollen production and found that by the end of the century, levels could increase more than 200 percent. “Because carbon dioxide is used as food for plants, in atmospheres with more CO2 plants have more resources,” author Jennifer Albertine, of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told weather.com. “This allows them to grow larger and produce more pollen.” Although ozone actually hurts a plant’s pollen production, the CO2 rise is expected to be so great it will override ozone’s negative effect.

Air pollution might be linked to increasing cases of ADHD in children, a study of New York City women and children found. Exposure to pollution before birth might be the key, researchers from Columbia University’s School of Public Health found, after a look at prenatal levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a component of air pollution, and ADHD symptoms in children later in life. Mothers exposed to high levels of PAH during pregnancy had five times the odds of symptoms that characterize inattentive ADHD in their kids at age 9.

Weather

An explosive storm surpassing the intensity of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy is expected to reach Alaska’s western Aleutian Islands over the weekend and bring unseasonably frigid temperatures to much of the U.S. next week, weather forecasters said Thursday. What remains of Typhoon Nuri is moving northeast from off the Japanese coast and is mixing with cold air and the jet stream, which will give it the power to produce hurricane-force winds and waves 50 feet high. It could arrive late Friday or Saturday before weakening in the Bering Sea.

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