Signs of the Times (4/18/16)

Major Earthquakes Shake the Globe

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck about 9 miles, or 14 kilometers, north-northwest of Pedernales, Ecuador killing at least 350 people. Thousands were injured across the cities of Manta, Guayaquil and Portoviejo. The massive quake struck at about 6:58 p.m. local time Saturday. The quake’s epicenter was just under 100 miles from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Residents in Quito felt the quake for nearly 40 seconds as people fled to the streets to take cover. The earthquake knocked out electricity and eliminated cellphone coverage in several neighborhoods throughout the city. Some 10,000 armed forces and thousands of emergency workers, national police and firefighters have been sent to the region after the quake flattened buildings and buckled highways. Several major highways have been closed.

Continuing aftershocks and the threat of heavy rain and wind added urgency to rescue efforts Saturday as authorities raced to help victims of two powerful earthquakes that struck southwestern Japan a little more than 24 hours apart. The death toll continues to rise after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit southern Japan’s Kyushu Island early Saturday morning local time. At least 41 people have been confirmed dead and as many as 1,500 have been injured. At least 23 people are buried inside collapsed buildings. The quake hit virtually the same location as Thursday’s deadly, damaging 6.2 magnitude foreshock. The latest tremor occurred Saturday morning at 1:25 a.m. local time at a depth of 6.2 miles, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. The quake’s epicenter was in Kumamoto Prefecture just miles from the location of Thursday’s temblor that killed nine people and left more than 800 injured. An aftershock measuring 5.4 hit southern Kyushu island on Saturday morning.

From last Wednesday to Saturday, there were seven major earthquakes globally, and one prominent seismologist has declared that “catastrophic mega earthquakes” could be on the way.  In the 48-hour period, earthquakes occurred in Japan, Vanuatu, the southern Philippines, Mindanao, and Myanmar, all at or above 5.4 on the Richter Scale. Seismologist Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado has warned that “current conditions might trigger at least four earthquakes greater than 8.0 in magnitude”.  If his projections are accurate, our planet could be on the precipice of a wave of natural disasters. Since the beginning of 2016, south Asia has been hit by an unusually high number of large earthquakes, and this has scientists groping for an explanation.

  • For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. (Matthew 24:7)

Latest Nuclear Arms Race Threatens to Revive the Cold War

The United States, Russia and China are now aggressively pursuing a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons. The buildups threaten to revive a Cold War-era arms race and unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half-century, reports the New York Times. American officials largely blame the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, saying his intransigence has stymied efforts to build on a 2010 arms control treaty and further shrink the arsenals of the two largest nuclear powers. Some blame the Chinese, who are looking for a technological edge to keep the United States at bay. And some blame the United States for speeding ahead with a nuclear “modernization” program. At the end of the Nuclear Security Summit meeting in Washington early this month, President Obama acknowledged the potential for “ramping up new and more deadly and more effective systems that end up leading to a whole new escalation of the arms race.” For a president who came to office more than seven years ago talking about ridding the world of nuclear weapons, it was an admission that an American policy intended to reduce atomic arms might actually be contributing to a second nuclear age.

Insurers Warn that Losses from ObamaCare are Unsustainable

Health insurance companies are amplifying their warnings about the financial sustainability of the ObamaCare marketplaces as they seek approval for premium increases next year, reports The Hill. Insurers say they are losing money on their ObamaCare plans at a rapid rate, and some have begun to talk about dropping out of the marketplaces altogether. “Something has to give,” said Larry Levitt, an expert on the health law at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Either insurers will drop out or insurers will raise premiums.” The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association released a widely publicized report last month that said new enrollees under ObamaCare had 22 percent higher medical costs than people who received coverage from employers. A report from McKinsey & Company found that in the individual market, which includes the ObamaCare marketplaces, insurers lost money in 41 states in 2014, and were only profitable in 9 states.

US Aiding Business Start-Ups — for Illegal Aliens

The Small Business Administration does not provide the funds to “start or grow” a small business, reports Fox News. Instead, the SBA provides offers loan guarantees to the banks and lenders that do provide seed money. But there is one group to whom the federal government is providing direct assistance for business start-ups: illegal aliens. In fact, these recipients of taxpayer funds fall into an even more restricted category: illegal aliens who have been deported back to their native land. The Waste Report compiled by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has called attention to these outlays, which are made by an obscure federal agency called the Inter-American Foundation (IAF). Housed in a non-descript building a few blocks from the White House, IAF is spending up to $50,000 annually to help Salvadorans sent back to El Salvador to “reintegrate” into their communities, under the idea that doing so will make them less likely to seek to return to the United States. IAF works through a local NGO called INSAMI, which stands for Instituto Salvadoreño del Migrante and which estimates that 500 Salvadorans are deported from the U.S. to El Salvador each week. The group says the IAF funds assist sixty Salvadorans a year, “including deportees,” by helping to “facilitate their reintegration into their communities and support their enterprises.” IAF did not respond to Fox News’ requests for comment.

Budget Cuts Clip the Wings of Marine Aircraft Fleet

The vast majority of Marine Corps aircraft can’t fly. The reasons behind the grounding of these aircraft include the toll of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fight against ISIS and budget cuts precluding the purchase of the parts needed to fix an aging fleet, according to dozens of Marines interviewed by Fox News at two air stations in the Carolinas this week. Out of 276 F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters in the Marine Corps inventory, only about 30% are ready to fly, according to statistics provided by the Corps. Similarly, only 42 of 147 heavy-lift CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters are airworthy. U.S. military spending has dropped from $691 billion in 2010 to $560 billion in 2015. The cuts came just as the planes were returning from 15 years of war, suffering from overuse and extreme wear and tear. Many highly trained mechanics in the aviation depots left for jobs in the private sector. Lack of funds has forced the Marines to go outside the normal supply chain to procure desperately needed parts. Cannibalization, or taking parts from one multi-million-dollar aircraft to get other multi-million dollar aicraft airborne, has become the norm.

Over 40% of All Super-PAC Money Comes from Just 50 Donors

A small core of super-rich individuals is responsible for the record sums cascading into the coffers of super PACs for the 2016 elections. Forty-one percent of super-Pac funds raised by the groups by the end of February came from just 50 mega-donors and their relatives, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal campaign finance reports. In all, donors this cycle have given more than $607 million to 2,300 super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. That means super PAC money is on track to surpass the $828 million that the Center for Responsive Politics found was raised by such groups for the 2012 elections. The staggering amounts reflect how super PACs are fundraising powerhouses just six years after they came into existence. The biggest surge of cash is likely to come this fall, when millionaires and billionaires aligned with both parties fully engage in the fights over control of the White House and Congress.

  • So-called campaign-finance reform has failed miserably, with the wealthy still able to wield disproportionate influence in the election process.

UN Sex-Abuse Scandal Widening

Anger and outrage in Washington over sexual abuse by United Nations and other international peacekeepers has reached a new boiling point, with more revelations of assault surfacing even as members of both Houses of Congress pondered ways — including the withholding of U.S. money — to do something about it. An independent watchdog organization disclosed 41 previously unreported cases of alleged sexual abuse by U.N. and non-U.N. international military forces that were uncovered during recent U.N. investigations in the Central African Republic.” The new allegations came atop nearly 100 cases, stretching back as far as three years, that the same group revealed less than two weeks earlier. The AIDS-Free World group accused authorities of “exercises in evasion” as the UN kept damaging information from being released.

Cyber-Extortion Losses Skyrocket

New estimates from the FBI show that the costs from so-called ransomware are rapidly increasing.  Cyber-criminals collected $209 million in the first three months of 2016 by extorting businesses and institutions to unlock computer their servers which were frozen by malware. At that rate, ransomware is on pace to be a $1 billion a year crime this year. The agency also said that the losses could even be bigger once other related costs from these extortion schemes are factored in. Plus: Some victims may choose to pay and not report the crime. Many of the cyber-criminal groups operate out of Russia and the former Soviet republicans in Eastern Europe.

Economic News

It’s certainly easier to find work these days than in the depths of the Great Recession. But, a good job is still hard to find. Among the 10 jobs projected to grow the fastest in coming years, half pay less than $25,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And three-quarters pay less than the typical annual wage of $35,540. Many of these hot jobs are in health care. As the country ages, more of us will need medical and personal assistance. So personal care aides, home health aides and nursing assistants, which all pay $12 an hour or less for a 40-hour workweek. The only health care job that pays well and that’s adding lots of positions is registered nurse, which comes with a median wage of $66,640. The average hourly pay of jobs added over the past six months remains below the average wage of all jobs, reports CNN. The prevalence of low-paying positions and lack of wage growth are big reasons why so many Americans feel so down about the economic recovery.

Crude oil prices fell sharply Monday after energy ministers from the world’s largest oil suppliers failed to reach an agreement on freezing production to support prices. The failure to reach a deal opens up the possibility that the global glut of oil production will continue as Saudi Arabia and Iran jockey for market share. Over the weekend, the 18 members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, gathered in the Qatari capital Doha for talks aimed at reaching an accord on tightening supply to boost prices. The meeting ended without a deal after Iran said it would increase its output following the lifting of economic sanctions. Oil prices dipped under $30 a barrel in January — a 12-year low — but had risen in recent days on expectations OPEC would act to slow production.

Oil and gas producer Goodrich Petroleum Corp., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Friday, making it the latest energy company to succumb to an ongoing energy price slump. On Thursday, another Houston company Energy XXI Ltd., with operations in and along the Gulf of Mexico, also filed for bankruptcy. Low oil prices have caused repercussions throughout the energy industry. In North America, at least 59 oil and gas producers have filed for bankruptcy since the beginning of 2015, according to an April report by law firm Haynes and Boone.

After the World Court ruled in favor of the U.S., China agreed Thursday to eliminate subsidies that the United States claimed gave its industries an unfair advantage. The United States had protested the Chinese program, called the “Common Service Platform,” at the World Trade Organization last year. The program provided state subsidies to Chinese industries including apparel, steel, chemicals, medical products, building materials and agriculture. The U.S. trade deficit with China — the difference between what the U.S. imports and what it exports to China — was $28.1 billion in February, according to the Census Bureau, up from $20.6 billion the month President Obama took office.

Three years ago, Spain was second only to Greece as a symbol of the euro zone’s massive debt crisis and economic stagnation. Unemployment was a staggering 27% and its economy was still shrinking even as other eurozone nations were mounting a gradual recovery from the 2008 global recession and financial crisis. Today, the country is a rising star in the region’s persistently listless recovery despite operating without a formal government for months after a split election left a political impasse. Spain’s top economic official says the turnaround offers a blueprint to other euro zone nations for how to use sweeping banking and labor market reforms to jump-start growth. Spain’s economy grew 3.2% in 2015 and is expected to expand by 2.7% this year, compared to estimates in the euro area broadly of 1.5% and 1.6%, respectively. The country has recovered about a third of the 3.5 million jobs lost in the recession, lowering unemployment to a still lofty 20%.

Terrorism Update

Police in England said that five people from the central city of Birmingham were arrested on suspicion of being “concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.” Three men and a woman were arrested in Birmingham on Thursday night and a man was arrested at Gatwick Airport, near London, early Friday. The arrests were part of an “extensive investigation” by the British security officials and international partners including Belgian and French authorities, “to address any associated threat to the U.K. following the attacks in Europe.”

Islamic State

Kurdish Peshmerga forces – arguably the most effective ground troops battling the Islamic State terror group in Iraq – have been fighting for the past three months without a paycheck, according to experts and a top official from the region. “Unless we get direct [financial] support, we will not be able to continue the way we are currently doing so,” Qubad Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said at a forum held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington on Wednesday. A lack of direct financial support isn’t the only problem, according to Talabani. The Kurdish-controlled area of Northern Iraq also has been forced to absorb a loss of more than $100 million a month in declining oil revenues and diminished support from the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. Some fighters have reportedly gone home to visit their families without returning to the combat zone. Many have begun to look for work elsewhere.

The ISIS terror group has seen its revenue fall by 30 percent from last year while the number of people living in territory under its control has dropped by a third, a new report says. The consulting firm IHS reports that as of March 2016, ISIS’ monthly revenue was $56 million, down from a high of $80 million in March 2015. IHS estimates that around 21,000 barrels of oil are produced each day in the self-proclaimed caliphate, down from around 33,000 barrels per day. ISIS has also lost about 22 percent of its territory in the past 15 months The report gives airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and Russia partial credit for impacting ISIS’ oil production, but also notes that the militants were able to repair damaged infrastructure quickly.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has told the Obama administration and members of Congress that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets held by the kingdom if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, reports the New York Times. The Obama administration has lobbied Congress to block the bill’s passage, according to administration officials and congressional aides from both parties, and the Saudi threats have been the subject of intense discussions in recent weeks between lawmakers and officials from the State Department and the Pentagon. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, delivered the kingdom’s message personally last month during a trip to Washington, telling lawmakers that Saudi Arabia would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts. Several outside economists are skeptical that the Saudis will follow through, saying that such a sell-off would be difficult to execute and would end up crippling the kingdom’s economy. But the threat is another sign of the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Ethiopia

An Ethiopian official says that armed groups have killed more than 140 civilians near Ethiopia’s border with South Sudan. The attackers came from South Sudan and killed civilians, including women and children. The Ethiopian defense forces are currently chasing after the perpetrators and have killed more than 60 of them. The attack took place on Friday in Jakawa, in Ethiopia’s Gambella region and the attackers were members of South Sudan’s Murle tribe. A number of children were abducted and taken into South Sudan. The latest attack is much larger than past skirmishes. The Ethiopian region hosts thousands of South Sudanese refugees who fled after war broke in their country in December 2013.

Brazil

Brazil’s lower house of Congress voted to open impeachment proceedings against embattled President Dilma Rousseff, a move that sets the stage for a final vote in the Senate and throws the massive South American country into further turmoil before it hosts the Rio 2016 Olympic Games this summer. The result came after three days of marathon debate. The late Sunday vote was a tense, wild ride, with lawmakers fighting, throwing confetti and even spitting as the vote proceeded. In the final tally, 367 of the 513 members of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies voted in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment — 342 votes were required to pass. The Senate vote is expected in May. The outcome confused, worried and elated Brazilians in equal measure. Rousseff is very unpopular and stands accused of violating budget laws. And the nation remains mired in recession, beset with severe infrastructure problems.

Puerto Rico

Due to the ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico is losing a doctor a day with tragic consequences. In 2014, 364 doctors left the island never to return, the Puerto Rican Surgeons and Physicians Association says. Last year, 500 doctors packed up. Most moved for more lucrative positions in the mainland U.S. The island has been in an economic crisis for a decade. That’s why doctors — and other professionals — are fleeing. Puerto Rico has lost over 10% of its population in the past decade. Jobs just aren’t there and home values are plummeting. Private hospitals are closing their doors. Governor Alejandro García Padilla has gone as far as to declare a “humanitarian crisis” on the island. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico “receives less than half the federal healthcare funding of any of the 50 states.” The Zika virus outbreak has only stressed the island’s medical system further.

Wildfires

Wildfires across the USA burned an area about the size of Delaware, charring a whopping 1.3 million acres in the first 3 1/2 months of the year, according to data released Friday by the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s more than twice the average for this point of the year, and nearly double the total burned as of just two weeks ago. One inferno, the Anderson Creek Fire, which singed the Plains starting in March, marked the largest wildfire in the U.S. this year and the biggest in Kansas history. It burned an area twice the size of the five boroughs of New York City. In Arizona, 294 fires burned in the first quarter of the year, double the same period last year. Last year, a record 10,125,149 acres burned across the USA, topping the 10-million-acre mark for the first time. The previous record, set in 2006, was 9,873,745 acres. The 2015 figure was about 4 million more acres than average. Nine of the 10 worst years for acres burned have occurred since 2000.

Weather

A heavy spring snowstorm canceled more than 800 flights Saturday as the Denver metro area braced for more than a foot of snow. The storm will continue to dump more snow on the Rockies and High Plains Sunday into Monday. The storm has already buried the high terrain of Colorado with feet of snow, including a storm total of 47 inches near Pinecliffe. Portions of Interstate 80 were closed in southeast Wyoming Sunday morning due to poor travel conditions from the snow. Interstate 70 had to be closed at times to the west of Denver Friday into early Sunday due to heavy snowfall.

More than a foot of rain in some places flooded low-lying areas across the Houston region on Monday, forcing officials to suspend bus and rail service, close government offices and urge residents to stay home amid what officials said were extremely dangerous conditions. Heavy rainfall fell across Texas overnight, with areas west and northwest of the Houston metro area receiving as much as 20 inches of rain. A flash flood emergency was in effect Monday morning for the Houston area, and the weather service warned residents to stay off the roads. In Houston, the storm system led to two tornado warnings early Monday morning.

Widespread flooding triggered by heavy rainfall in several parts of Yemen has killed at least 16 people. The deluge also collapsed small dams, including two in Hajja and Omran provinces north of the capital city of Sana’a. Damage to property was particularly heavy, with rushing muddy water cutting off roads and sweeping away cars and cattle.

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