Signs of the Times (11/6/15)

Proportion of Americans Who Believe in God Falls, Acceptance of Homosexuality Rises

The proportion of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists has dropped sharply from 71 percent to less than two thirds, the Pew Research Center said Tuesday. The share of U.S. adults who say they believe in God declined from 92 to 89 percent over the same period, from 2007 to 2014, but is still remarkably high compared to other developed countries. The percentage of Americans who say they pray every day, attend regular services and consider religion very important have also clocked small, but significant declines, the research center said. The vast majority of Americans, 77 percent of adults, continue to identify with some religious faith, but a growing number are unaffiliated to a particular group. Younger Americans are less religious than their elders. Four in ten of the youngest Millennials say they pray every day, compared to six in ten Baby Boomers. The survey also showed that nearly all major religious groups have become significantly more accepting of homosexuality in recent years — even evangelicals and Mormons who traditionally have expressed strong opposition to same-sex relationships. Changing attitudes about homosexuality are exhibit wider acceptance among the younger generation than older adults. Also, the religiously unaffiliated are growing more rapidly among Democrats than Republicans.

Iraqi Muslims Sick of ISIS, Turning to Christ

More and more Kurdish Muslims living in Iraq are turning to Christ after witnessing the brutality of extremist groups like ISIS, who carry out horrific acts in the name of Allah, Christian aid workers have revealed. A ministry leader in the Kurdish Region of Iraq told the Christian Aid Mission that his organization can barely keep up with the desire of refugees to learn about Christ and the Bible, which has grown increasingly strong since ISIS overtook many parts of the region. “They’re just sick of Islam,” he said. “People are very hungry to know about Christ, especially when they hear about miracles, healing, mercy and love.”

  • Times of persecution represent the best opportunities to share Christ because people are more open and are seeking answers

Ohio Voters Say No to Legalizing Marijuana

In a major blow to marijuana legalization nationwide, Ohio voters Tuesday rejected a sweeping initiative that would have ended pot prohibition in the Buckeye State. Unofficial election results found that the proposed constitutional amendment, known as Issue 3, was defeated 65.1% to 34.8%.At the Ohio Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, opponents of legalization rejoiced in their double victory, achieved even though they were outspent by a whopping 20-to-1 ratio. Curt Steiner, campaign director for Ohioans Against Marijuana Monopolies, said. “Issue 3 was designed and built primarily to garner massive and exclusive profits for a small group of self-selected wealthy investors. Issue 3 was about greed, not good public policy.”

Houston Rejects LGBT Rights Measure

Houston voters rejected the “Houston Equal Rights Ordinance,” a measure designed to protect lesbian, gay and transgender people. The ballot issue drew national attention, with conservative opponents claiming the law would allow troubled men to go into women’s restrooms and locker rooms. The law was passed by the city last year to protect lesbian, gay and transgender people, but Tuesday’s vote repealed it. The yearlong battle over gay and transgender rights turned into a costly, ugly war of words between this city’s lesbian mayor and social conservatives and attracted attention from the White House, sports figures and Hollywood celebrities.

San Francisco’s “Sanctuary City” Sheriff Voted Out

The sheriff who steadfastly defended the city’s “sanctuary city” policy was voted out. Ross Mirkarimi and his office received heavy criticism after Mexican illegal immigrant Francisco Sanchez allegedly shot and killed 32-year-old Kate Steinle on San Francisco’s waterfront July 1. Sanchez had been released from Mirkarimi’s jail in March even though federal immigration officials had requested that he be detained for possible deportation.” Mirkarimi received just 31% of the votes with Vicki Hennessy, a former sheriff’s official, garnering 62%.

Muslim-Majority City Council First in USA

Voters in Hamtramck, Michigan, have elected a Muslim majority to its city council, symbolizing the demographic changes that have transformed the city once known for being a Polish-Catholic enclave. In Tuesday’s election — with six candidates running for three seats — the top three vote-getters were Muslim, while the bottom three were non-Muslim. It is believed that Hamtramck is the first city in the U.S. with a Muslim majority on its city council. Formerly known for its Polish population, Hamtramck is now about 24% Arab (mostly Yemeni); 19% African-American; 15% Bangladeshi; 12% Polish; and 6% Yugoslavian (many Bosnian), according to U.S. Census figures.

Obama Orders Agencies to Stop Asking for Job Applicants’ Criminal Records

President Obama ordered federal agencies to stop requiring job applicants to declare on applications whether they have a criminal record — a movement called “ban the box.” The president visited a drug treatment and counseling center in Newark, New Jersey, and announced two executive actions that he said will help former prison inmates return to productive lives. The administration is offering $8 million in grants for job training, and the president ordered federal agencies to “ban the box.” “We can’t dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake they’ve made in the past,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ve got to make sure Americans who’ve paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.” “Public safety does have to be the top priority, and that doesn’t seem to be the president’s top priority,” said former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican.

Obama rejects Keystone Pipeline Project

President Obama rejected a presidential permit Friday morning for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, citing concerns about its impact on the climate. “America’s now a global leader in taking serious action to fight climate change,” Obama told reporters. “And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.” Obama rejected the idea that the project, which would bring Canadian tar sands oil to the United States, would either lower oil prices or improve America’s energy security. The decision to deny TransCanada Corp. a cross-border permit for a 1,179-mile pipeline between Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Neb. puts an end — at least for now — to a seven-year fight over a project that came to symbolize what Obama could do unilaterally to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Backers of the project said it would ensure a secure supply of oil from a reliable U.S. ally.

Democrats Furious over Obama’s Trans-Pacific Trade Deal

President Obama faced deep skepticism from fellow Democrats over the hard-fought Pacific Rim trade deal after it was released early Thursday morning, with critics calling it a “job-killing” agreement while the administration argued it’s an economic win. The Trans Pacific Partnership, after spending months under wraps, was posted online Thursday morning. The debate over the deal has cut across party lines, with Obama enjoying some support from Republicans yet facing fierce resistance from congressional Democrats. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., said Thursday the deal may be “worse than we thought,” predicting the agreement would lead to American job losses and calling on lawmakers to stop the deal. The text of the agreement between the U.S. and 11 other countries including Japan and Mexico runs to 30 chapters and hundreds of pages. It is dense in its detail, laying out plans for the handling of trade in everything from zinc dust to railway sleepers and live eels. The documents show the pact reached Oct. 5 in Atlanta after several years of talks is full of lofty goals. Negotiators agreed to promote environmental sustainability, respect the rights and needs of indigenous peoples, and temper protections for drug patents with safeguards for public health and access to medicines. It also emphasizes the intention of the trading bloc to abide by earlier commitments made under the World Trade Organization and other international treaties.

  • Like Obamacare, Obamatrade is another fiasco with dense details and Agenda 21 ambitions to turn America into a weak, socialistic nation under global laws and regulations

Fast-Food Workers Plan another Strike Next Week

Fast-food workers, already a potent political force, are planning their largest nationwide strike yet next week and this time will leverage their crusade for a $15-an-hour wage in a bid to sway the 2016 presidential election. The group representing the workers, ‘Fight for $15’, plans on Tuesday to stage protests at restaurants in 270 cities, the most since it began organizing the demonstrations three years ago. Striking fast-food and other low-wage workers will then gather at local city halls, kicking off a campaign to prod their colleagues to vote next November for local, state and national candidates who support the $15 pay floor. Labor and other groups will simultaneously rally in about 200 other cities, and the daylong blitz will culminate with a protest by several thousand workers at the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee. All of the top Democratic presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have said they back a $12-$15 minimum wage and have made the growing divide between rich and poor a centerpiece of their campaigns. Most of the Republican contenders oppose raising the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, saying it will hurt job growth.

Middle-Aged White Americans Dying at Record Rates

Middle-aged white Americans are dying at a record rate, new findings suggest. According to research conducted by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case and published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, death rates among white Americans ages 45 to 54 are rising even as those among every other age, racial and ethnic group in the United States are in decline. Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other sources, Deaton and Case concluded that the skyrocketing death rates they uncovered among less educated middle-aged white Americans, especially, are due to epidemic-levels of suicides and issues stemming from substance abuse, such as heroin and prescription drug overdoses and alcoholic liver disease. Deaton and Case also found that, among the middle-aged white Americans they studied, there were “concurrent declines in self-reported health, mental health, and ability to work,” as well as increased reports of pain.

IRS Audit Rates Decline to Decade-Long Low

The odds of a U.S. taxpayer facing an IRS audit fell to the lowest level in more than a decade during the 2015 federal fiscal year, according to preliminary data that the nation’s tax agency released Tuesday. The audit coverage rate, the percentage of federal tax returns the IRS examined either in person or by mail correspondence, dropped to 0.84%, the IRS said. The rate was the lowest since 2004, and the decline marked the third consecutive year with audit coverage below 1%. IRS personnel audited just over 1.2 million individuals during the fiscal year, the preliminary data shows. That marked a 1.1% decline from 2014, and a nearly 22.3% drop from fiscal year 2010. Audit-generated revenue averaged $14.7 billion annually between 2005 and 2010, but the average dropped to $10.5 billion per year since 2010, the IRS said. Staffing reductions also contributed to the worst level of IRS taxpayer services in years, as phone calls dropped by the tax agency’s switchboard soared past 8 million, and rates of calls answered fell sharply.

Economic News

The labor market bounced back strongly in October as employers added 271,000 jobs, bolstering the case for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates next month. The modest job gains for August and September, which averaged 139,000, were revised up 12,000. The unemployment rate, which is calculated from a different survey, fell to 5% from 5.1% despite a sharp rise in the number of Americans looking for work, the Labor Department said Friday. A broader measure of unemployment – that includes part-time workers and discouraged Americans who have given up job searches, as well as the unemployed — fell to 9.8% from 10%. Equally encouraging is that average hourly earnings rose 9 cents to $25.20 and are now up 2.5% over the past year, the biggest jump since 2009.

U.S. services companies grew at an accelerated pace in October as business activity, new orders and employment all strengthened. The Institute for Supply Management said Wednesday that its services index climbed to 59.1 last month from 56.9 in September. Any reading above 50 signals expansion. The figures raise the prospect that consumer spending will anchor growth during the October-December quarter at a time when manufacturing, hurt by global economic turbulence, has slowed. The gap between how the ISM measures services and manufacturing has reached its widest point in roughly 14 years.

Low oil prices are biting hard — even the mighty OPEC is being forced to tighten its belt. The cartel’s administrative body, the OPEC Secretariat in Vienna, Austria, is slimming down as its members struggle to adjust to oil prices below $50 per barrel. Travel budgets have been slashed and new staff hiring has been put on hold, an OPEC official told CNNMoney. Energy companies across the globe are taking painful steps to balance their books. Chevron announced that it expects to cut between 6,000 and 7,000 jobs this year. Shell (RDSA) is shedding 7,500 jobs, while Exxon (XOM) is letting 1,500 workers go.

This year, private colleges are charging an average of $1,476 more than last year. And public schools are charging $617 more for in-state tuition, room and board, according to the annual report from The College Board released Wednesday. The good news is that’s one of the smallest increases since the 1970s. But the bad news is that costs are still outpacing inflation and rising faster than family incomes. While middle class families saw their median income shrink by 2% over the past decade, the cost to attend a private institution jumped 25%.

The amount borrowed per student is down for the fourth year in a row, driven down largely by a decline in graduate school enrollment. And student aid from grants and scholarships that don’t have to be repaid is up by $540 per undergraduate and $1,380 per graduate student. The average loan debt for borrowers who graduated in 2014 is: $25,500 for public school grads; $30,200 for private school grads, 39% of borrowers owe less than $10,000; 28% owe between $10,000 and $25,000; 4% owe more than $100,000.

Migrant Crisis

In late September, European leaders agreed on a plan to relocate 160,000 migrants from the countries they’re flooding into — mainly Greece and Italy. Six weeks later, the scheme has only just gotten off the ground, according to new statistics released by the European Commission. Only 1,418 places (out of the needed 160,000) have been made available in EU states for these people to be transferred to — and just 116 have been moved as of November 4, according to the European Commission. Tove Ernst, a migration spokeswoman for the European Commission, says it took time to put the mechanisms in place on the ground to facilitate relocation. “The system is now up and running — the first flight from Greece [has left] and we’re hoping that progress on the ground and progress with member states will be made swiftly,” Ernst told CNN. More migrants fled to Europe in October than in all of last year, exacerbating an already dire situation for both refugees and host countries. More than 218,000 migrants fled across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in October, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said. That’s more than the 216,000 who crossed into Europe in 2014. So far, more than 750,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea this year, according to the UNHCR.

Iran

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is behind a recent wave of cyberattacks on email and social media accounts of White House personnel that are believed to be connected to the arrest of an Iranian-American businessman last month, U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal. Officials told The Journal Obama administration personnel are among a large group of people who have had their computers hacked in recent weeks, including journalists and academics. Some of the officials hacked include those employees of the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs and its Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Though President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry had hoped the recent nuclear deal would further cooperation between the two nations, the cyberattacks from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the arrest of Siamak Namazi (a Dubai-based businessman who has spent most of his life advocating improved ties between the U.S. and Iran) have signaled that Iranian hardliners have not toned down their hostility toward Washington.

Islamic State

An anonymous U.S. intelligence official told the Associated Press that intercepted communications played a role in a tentative conclusion that a Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State planted an explosive device on the Russian airliner that crashed over the weekend. An affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for bringing down the plane in a tweet quickly after it crashed. Concerns that the airliner was brought down by a bomb prompted the British government to suspend flights Wednesday to and from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. “We have concluded there is a significant possibility that the crash was caused by an explosive device on board the aircraft,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Wednesday. British Prime Minister David Cameron warned against vacations or other non-essential travel to Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheik airport, where the Russian Metrojet flight originated. Irish airlines were also directed Wednesday not to operate in the Sinai Peninsula “until further notice.” President Vladimir V. Putin on Friday suspended all flights from Russia to Egypt, the most popular tourist destination for Russians. The move came as several airlines imposed bans on checked luggage over concerns that a bomb in a cargo hold brought down the Russian charter jet in the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday

Syria

When the Pentagon pulled the plug last month on its plan to train and field a force of moderate Syrians to combat the Islamic State, it had spent $384 million, or $2 million per fighter, for a program that produced dismal results, according to interviews and spending figures obtained by USA Today. The Pentagon had tabbed $500 million in 2015 for the effort and promised to graduate 3,000 trained and equipped New Syrian Forces fighters this year, and 5,000 annually thereafter to combat the Islamic State. Of the 180 Syrians vetted, trained and equipped, 145 fighters remain in the program. Of those, 95 are in Syria today. Two of the four training camps the Pentagon designated for the program in the Middle East never hosted a recruit. The Pentagon disputes the $2 million per fighter saying that the “vast majority” of the funds paid for weapons, equipment and ammunition, some of which the U.S.-led coalition still has in storage.

  • Regardless of the cost per fighter, the program represents another dismal failure in Obama’s misguided efforts in the Middle East

Germany

German banking giant Deutsche Bank will pay $258 million and terminate six employees for processing thousands of transactions that benefited Iran and other blacklisted nations, state and federal regulators said Wednesday. The Federal Reserve and New York State Department of Financial Services imposed the penalties after finding that Deutsche Bank’s Manhattan-based division handled U.S. dollar transactions valued at more than $10.86 billion for Iranian, Libyan, Syrian, Burmese and Sudanese financial institutions and other entities. The transactions were forbidden based on U.S. economic sanctions imposed over findings of terrorism. Emails uncovered by investigators showed bank employees and customers knew the transactions were improper.

China/Taiwan

Divided by a sea channel and decades of bitter history, the leaders of China and Taiwan are set to meet in Singapore on Saturday for the first time since 1949. The summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou is unprecedented. Taiwan’s official name is the “Republic of China” tracing its founding to 1911 after the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty. The Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), ruled China until 1949 when it was defeated by the army of the Communist Party of China in a bloody civil war. KMT then fled to Taiwan, an island off the southeastern coast of mainland China. Later that same year, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China from Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The two places have been governed separately since, though a shared cultural and linguistic heritage mostly endures — with Mandarin the official language in both places.

Mexico

Mexico’s Supreme Court has ruled that growing, possessing and smoking marijuana for recreation are legal under a person’s right to personal freedoms. The measure was approved in 4-1 vote on the five-justice panel. The ruling Wednesday did not approve the sale or commercialization of marijuana, nor is it expected to lead to general legalization. But if the court rules the same way on five similar petitions, it would then establish the precedent to change the law and allow general recreational use. A similar process led to the court’s recent ruling that Mexican laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.

Cuba

President Obama cracked open the door for U.S. businesses to enter the Cuban market, but now it’s up to those companies to figure out how to get through it, reports USA Today. Dozens of American firms attended Cuba’s annual International Trade Fair this week, where businesses from more than 70 countries are trying to broker deals with the Cubans. Some Americans have set up booths promoting their products, some are having private meetings with various Cuban ministries that would have to approve any trade deals and all are trying to establish themselves in a communist country they know little about.

Maldives

The government of the Maldives has declared a state of emergency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday, two days after an explosive device was found in a vehicle near the President’s residence following an explosion on the President’s boat. The government of the Maldives, an archipelago of picturesque islands off the southern tip of India, has been in turmoil in recent weeks. In late October, state-run TV reported that Vice President Ahmed Adeeb had been arrested and charged with treason in connection with an alleged assassination attempt on President Abdulla Yameen.

Volcanoes

The eruption of a volcano has forced the closure of several Indonesian airports, including the one serving the popular resort island of Bali. The eruption of Mount Rinjani sent ash and debris more than 11,000 feet into the air, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman, tells The Associated Press. The eruption, which began late Tuesday and continued into Wednesday, coated villages and farmland in ash and prompted Indonesian officials to advise airlines to avoid flying routes near Mount Rinjani. The eruption prompted also forced several smaller airports on nearby islands to halt flights, too. The concern for aircraft is that ash could be drawn into the engines and cause significant damage in flight.

Solar Storm

A massive solar storm knocked out Swedish air traffic control systems, officials said Wednesday, prompting them to shut down the country’s airspace for more than an hour. The civil aviation authority said the solar storm created disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field, which affected radar installations in southern Sweden. Agency spokesman Per Froberg said flights disappeared from radar screens in Swedish air traffic control towers during the blackout, which lasted about an hour. Air traffic control officials in neighboring Denmark and Finland say they didn’t experience any problems. If powerful enough, these storms can disrupt satellite communications, including radar and GPS systems.

Weather

California and much of the West have been experiencing a long-term drought over the past few years, but a recent storm system has brought much-needed moisture to the area and further relief is possible in the weeks and months ahead. A recent change in the jet stream pattern is allowing for cold air to drain down into much of the western United States. This has quickly reverted the pattern from unseasonable warmth to near and even below average temperatures in some locales. Snow has also fallen across many mountain ranges of the West to start November. More than a foot of snow has fallen in some areas, including northeastern Nevada where 18 inches of snow snapped the branches of trees. 24 inches of snow was measured in Three Creek, Idaho with 8.8 inches reported in Flagstaff, Arizona. Snow-water levels are already running considerably above average across the Sierra Nevada. Computer model guidance suggests that a similar snowy setup may evolve early next week, which could bring more fresh powder to the higher elevations of California.

Much of Florida is sweating through a heat wave that is rewriting the November record books. This week, the following locations have already set or tied records for the month of November: Daytona Beach: 90 degrees on Nov. 2; Gainesville: 91 degrees on Nov. 3; Jacksonville: 89 degrees on both Nov. 1 and Nov. 3. Naples: 92 degrees on Nov 4; Tampa: 92 degrees on Nov. 4. Overnight lows also set records in Key West (81 degrees); Vero Beach (79 degrees). Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee has reached 88 degrees four of the first five days of the month. A high of 88 degrees had only happened on three previous November days dating back to 1896.

A recent study in the Journal of Glaciology reported that despite the effects of man-made global warming, the frozen continent is actually gaining ice rather than losing it. The study, led by Jay Zwally, a NASA glaciologist, claims that an increase in Antarctic snow accumulation that began 10,000 years ago is currently adding enough ice to the continent to outweigh the increased losses from its thinning glaciers, especially in eastern and central portions of the continent. Meanwhile, another study out Monday said that the destabilization and eventual collapse of the massive West Antarctic ice sheet — because of global warming — would lead to as much as a nine-foot sea level rise worldwide, inundating coastal cities.

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