Signs of the Times (1/19/15)

Supreme Court to Decide about Nationwide Gay Marriage

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether all 50 states must allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, positioning it to resolve the issue before its current term ends in June. The decision came just months after the justices ducked the issue, refusing in October to hear appeals from rulings allowing same-sex marriage in five states. Largely as a consequence of the Supreme Court’s decision not to act, the number of states allowing same-sex marriage has since grown to 36, and more than 70 percent of Americans live in places where gay couples can marry. The cases the Supreme Court agreed to hear on Friday were brought by some 15 same-sex couples in four states.

Europe Scrambles to Find Terrorist Sleeper Cells

European counterterrorism agencies scrambled Friday to assess the potential danger of a complex and growing terrorism threat exposed by the arrests of more than two dozen people with suspected links to Islamic extremists. As many as 20 sleeper cells of between 120 and 180 people could be ready to strike in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, a Western intelligence source told CNN. A European counterterrorism official told CNN that there were indications that ISIS leadership had directed returnees from Iraq and Syria to launch attacks in Europe in revenge for Syria and Iraq airstrikes. The official, who cited France, the United Kingdom and Belgium as countries facing a particular threat, said counterterrorism agencies in Germany are on high alert. Several European nations, including the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, are participating in the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq. Belgium said on Saturday it will deploy up to 300 soldiers to help guard vulnerable sites in its two largest cities, as governments across Europe stepped up security

GOP Blasts Obama Plan to Increase Taxes on Wealthy

Congressional Republicans on Sunday pummeled President Obama’s plan to increase taxes on America’s highest wage earners, dismissing the proposal as not serious and a “non-starter.” The plan was released late Saturday by the White House and attempts to increase taxes on the top earners and others to pay for cuts for the middle class. The president is scheduled to further explain the plan on Tuesday night in his State of the Union address. Among the other Obama proposals are increasing the investment tax rate, eliminating a tax break on inheritances, giving a tax credit to working families and expanding the child care tax credit — in total roughly $320 billion in tax hikes over the next 10 years. However, the centerpiece of the proposal is to increase to 28 percent the capital gains and dividends rate on couples making more than $500,000 a year. The top capital gains rate has already been raised from 15 percent to 23.8 percent during Obama’s presidency. “Raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful,” Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Number of Mexicans Caught at Border Lowest Since 1970

Last year marked a milestone in illegal immigration in the United States — it was the first year on record when more foreign nationals classified as “Other Than Mexican” were apprehended at U.S. borders than Mexicans. An analysis of 60 years of Border Patrol data by the Pew Research Center shows that unauthorized immigrants from Mexico are crossing the U.S.-Mexican border far less often than they did before the Great Recession. About 229,000 Mexicans were apprehended by the Border Patrol in fiscal 2014, compared to 257,000 non-Mexicans. In 2007, before the recession, 809,000 Mexicans were apprehended at the border, compared to just 68,000 non-Mexicans. The number of Mexican aliens apprehended peaked at 1.6 million in 2000, while the 2014 total was the lowest since 1970, when 219,000 Mexican were apprehended.

Nation Pays Tribute to Martin Luther King

Oprah Winfrey and fellow actors from the movie “Selma” marched with hundreds in a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., one of many events around the nation ushering in Monday’s federal holiday for the slain civil rights leader. “Selma” chronicled turbulent events leading up to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the subsequent passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Remembrances of the King legacy come amid somber reflection by many on incidents in which unarmed black men were killed by police in recent months, spurring protests and heightening tensions in the U.S. The King holiday was being honored with activities nationwide, including plans for a wreath-laying in Maryland, a tribute breakfast in Boston and volunteer service activities by churches and community groups in Illinois. In South Carolina, civil rights leaders readied for their biggest rally of the year.

Ebola Update

It now appears that the alarming epidemiological predictions that in large part prompted the U.S. aid effort in Liberia were far too bleak. Although future flare-ups of the disease are possible, the near-empty Ebola centers tell the story of an aggressive American military and civilian response that occurred too late to help the bulk of the more than 8,300 Liberians who became infected. Last week, even as international aid organizations built yet more Ebola centers, there was an average of less than one new case reported in Liberia per day. U.S. officials reject the suggestion that resources were misallocated. Paradoxically, isolation centers are still being built, mostly by UNICEF.

World Economic Forum Meets in Davos this Week

Do-gooding captains of industry and government will travel up a Swiss mountain this week for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Dozens of heads of state and 2,500 business leaders, along with cultural emissaries and experts from across the entire field of human endeavor, will pile into the Alpine ski town — population 11,142 — for five days of intense workshops, speeches and fast-and-furious networking starting Tuesday night. This year there is no shortage of global wounds that require bandaging, if not tourniquets, at the 45th Davos meeting. As delegates get ready to assemble high up in the Swiss Alps, the world appears on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

On the list: Islamic extremists show no sign of slackening their barbarous pace, as evidenced in the recent attacks in Paris and Nigeria. Fears have resurfaced over Greece’s upcoming elections and what they might mean for the future of the Eurozone. Plummeting commodities prices have thrown emerging markets into disarray. Economic growth in China has stalled. Cybersecurity looks increasingly perilous. A global Ebola crisis claimed more than 8,400 lives. Russia’s proxies in Ukraine may sow fresh volatility. And with 2014 the hottest year on record, there is of course climate change.

Majority of U.S. Public School Students in Poverty

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation. The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers. The shift to a majority-poor student population means that in public schools, a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.

  • Those who can afford to do so are pulling their children out of the failed public school system in droves because of the ungodly foundation of these secular indoctrination centers

Economic News

Stocks on Friday finally broke a five-day losing streak, with the Dow jumping almost 200 points. But all three major benchmarks slid for a third straight week and remain well in the red for 2015. The market has been marked by volatility so far this year as the Dow has closed seven times with a triple-digit move and five of them to the downside.

With gas prices dipping to their lowest level in years, lawmakers in state capitals throughout the USA are increasingly open to the idea of raising fuel taxes to help rebuild crumbling roadways and bridges. The increased chatter in state capitals about raising fuel taxes comes after eight states (Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming) have done just that over the last two years.

Bitcoin – the digital currency that was supposed to render the greenback obsolete – has lost two-thirds of its value in just six months, trading around $196 Friday. Bitcoin is in absolute freefall as the U.S. dollar strengthens and looks even more promising given the Fed’s stance on interest rates.

The world’s richest 1% will soon amass wealth that represents more than the entirety of that owned by the rest of the people on our planet, a new report released Monday by the British anti-poverty charity Oxfam claims. The study, published ahead of this week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, suggests that by 2016 the gap between the world’s rich and poor will widen to the extent that those at the top of the income pile will control over 50% of total global wealth.

Middle East

Hezbollah prepared on Monday to bury its fighters killed the day before in what it said was an Israeli airstrike in Syria as Tehran announced that an Iranian general also died with the six members of the Lebanese Shiite group. The purported airstrike — neither confirmed nor denied by Israel — was a serious blow to Hezbollah, stretched thin and neck-deep in Syria’s civil war where the group’s Shiite fighters are battling alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces, and could further ratchet up tensions in the Middle East. Among the six fighters killed was the son of a slain Hezbollah military chief — the group’s most prominent figure to die so far in the conflict next door. And on Monday, Tehran confirmed that an Iranian general also was killed in the Israeli airstrike Sunday in the Golan Heights.

Islamic State

The Islamic State group released at least 200 Yazidis after five months of captivity in Iraq, Kurdish military officials said Sunday, mostly elderly, infirmed prisoners who likely slowed the extremists down. Almost all of the freed prisoners are in poor health and bore signs of abuse and neglect. Three are young children. The militants dropped them off Saturday at the Khazer Bridge, near the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil. Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled in August when the Islamic State group captured the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border. But hundreds were taken captive by the group, particularly women. Some Yazidi women were sold into slavery. About 50,000 Yazidis — half of them children, according to United Nations figures — fled to the mountains outside Sinjar during the onslaught. Some still remain there.

A German anti-Islamization group called off a rally planned for Monday in Dresden, citing a threat from Islamic State militants. PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, holds weekly rallies across Germany. They began in Dresden in October as modest, virtually unnoticed protests. But the PEGIDA movement began to gain traction after this month’s attacks in Paris at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Pakistan

Officials in Pakistan say a suspected U.S. drone strike has killed four militants near the country’s northwestern border with Afghanistan. The officials say the strike Monday targeted a suspected militant hideout in the Shawal area of Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region. The tribal region is home to both local and al-Qaida-linked foreign militants. The Pakistani army launched a major offensive there mid-June. On Dec. 16, Taliban militants responded by killing 150 people at an army-run school in Peshawar.

Yemen

Rebel Shiite Houthis battled soldiers near Yemen’s presidential palace and elsewhere across the capital Monday, seizing control of the country’s state-run media in a move an official called “a step toward a coup.” The fighting near the palace marks the biggest challenge yet to the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi by the Houthis, who seized the capital, Sanaa, during their advance in September across parts of Yemen. Many believe deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in a deal after Arab Spring protests, has orchestrated their campaign. The battles saw the convoys of Yemen’s prime minister and a top presidential adviser affiliated with the Houthis come under fire, as well as Houthi fighters take over Yemen state television and its official SABA news agency.

Cameroon

Boko Haram insurgents have kidnapped 80 people in northern Cameroon, officials said, an attack that comes as troops from neighboring Chad entered Cameroon to join the fight against the terrorist group. The attacks happened in the villages of Mabass and Makxy in the Mayo-Tsanaga Division of the Far North Region of Cameroon on Sunday morning. Three of those kidnapped were found dead. Meanwhile, thousands of Chadian troops arrived in Cameroon to join that country’s soldiers in the fight against Boko Haram. The move comes after Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya, made a strong call for international cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram who are based in Nigeria.

Cuba

A host of issues — untouched by officials in either the U.S. or Cuba for decades — will suddenly be on the table this week during rare high-level chats in Havana between the two former foes. Open travel between the U.S. and Havana. Using American credit cards to pay for hotel stays in Cuba. Foreign diplomats able to travel beyond their host cities. Internet connections and freedom of speech. When U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, sits down to talks with her Cuban counterpart in Havana, it will mark the first time a senior U.S. official has done so in at least three decades. This week’s meetings are also the first since President Obama’s sweeping announcement last month that the United States will renew ties with the Cuban government, including opening an embassy in Havana and easing restrictions on trade and travel to the island.

Weather

After freezing rain and snow glazed roads across the Northeast, leaving five dead, more misery awaits Monday. Winter storm warnings are in effect through the morning for upstate Vermont and portions of New Hampshire, Maine and western Massachusetts. In Vermont, there could be between 3 and 7 inches of snow and 10 inches in the state’s highest elevations.

Five people were killed when icy roads across the Northeast caused major travel problems in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania Sunday, including a multi-vehicle crash on Interstate 76 that closed the roadway in both directions for several hours in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. With subfreezing air in place to start Sunday morning, locations from southeast Pennsylvania to southern New England saw light freezing rain and freezing drizzle

Severe flooding in Malawi has killed over 176 people, left dozens missing and displaced at least 200,000 people, the country’s vice president said Friday. According to Vice President Saulos Chilima, at least 153 people are unaccounted for in the flood-stricken African country. Police and the army are working together to rescue villagers trapped by flood waters. Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika declared 15 of the country’s 28 districts disaster areas. The United Nations World Food Program said it plans to airlift more than 100 metric tons of food to the southern African nation to feed at least 77,000.

The year 2014 was the warmest across the globe in 134 years of records, according to a report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last Friday. NOAA said the average temperature across land and ocean surfaces in 2014 was 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, topping the previous warmest years of 2010 and 2005. Contributing heavily to the Earth’s record warm year were record warm ocean temperatures. Over land areas, parts of western and northern Europe, central South America, eastern and western coastal Australia and western North America were particularly warm in 2014.

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