Signs of the Times (5/20/16)

Oklahoma Legislature Criminalizes Performing Abortions

Oklahoma lawmakers have moved to effectively ban abortion in their state by making it a felony for doctors to perform the procedure, an effort the bill’s sponsor said Thursday is aimed at ultimately overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The bill, the first of its kind in the nation, also would restrict any physician who performs an abortion from obtaining or renewing a license to practice medicine in Oklahoma. It passed 33-12 Thursday and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, an anti-abortion Republican, has until next Wednesday to sign the bill into law or veto it.

Senate Approves 9/11 Legislation Despite Saudi Threats

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia, rejecting the fierce objections of a U.S. ally and setting Congress on a collision course with the Obama administration. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, approved by voice vote, had triggered a threat from Riyadh to pull billions of dollars from the U.S. economy, if the bill is enacted. The legislation gives victims’ families the right to sue in U.S. court for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the 2001 attacks that killed thousands in New York, the Washington, D.C. area and Pennsylvania. The House still must act on the legislation. Relatives of Sept. 11 victims have urged the Obama administration to declassify and release U.S. intelligence that allegedly discusses possible Saudi involvement in the attacks.

House Approves $602B Defense Bill despite White House Objections

The Republican-led House voted convincingly Wednesday to approve a $602 billion defense policy bill after rejecting attempts by Democrats to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to repeal the war powers President Barack Obama relies on to fight the Islamic State. The legislation, which authorizes military spending for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, seeks to halt a decline in the combat readiness of the U.S. armed forces by purchasing more weapons and prohibiting further cuts in troop levels. But in a 17-page statement on the policy bill, the White House detailed its opposition to numerous provisions and said Obama would veto the legislation if it reached his desk. The bill, approved 277-147, must be reconciled with a version the Senate is expected to consider by month’s end.

White House, Congress Reach Deal on Puerto Rico Rescue

Congress is trying to save Puerto Rico from “full scale economic collapse.” The Obama Administration called this latest plan to solve the island’s crisis “a fair, but tough bipartisan compromise.” The act is called PROMESA, the Spanish word for “promise.” It would create an Oversight Board to control the island’s finances. The board would also have special abilities to restructure the island’s whopping $70 billion in debt, but only as a last resort. The goal is to “bring lawful order to chaos in Puerto Rico and mitigate a looming humanitarian crisis,” the House Committee on Natural Resources said in a statement. There’s hope that the bill will pass before July 1, the date when Puerto Rico will almost certainly miss a nearly $2 billion debt payment to its creditors. Puerto Rico has already defaulted three times on its debt payments. Puerto Rico’s Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has made it clear that if he has to choose between paying teachers and police or paying the Wall Street “vulture funds,” he’ll go with the first option.

GAO Study: Segregation Worsening in U.S. Schools

America’s public schools are increasingly segregated by race and class, according to new findings by Congress’ watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office. GAO investigators found that from the 2000-2001 to the 2013-2014 school year, both the percentage of K-12 public schools in high-poverty and the percentage comprised of mostly African-American or Hispanic students grew significantly, more than doubling, from 7,009 schools to 15,089 schools. The percentage of all schools with so-called racial or socio-economic isolation grew from 9% to 16%. Researchers define “isolated schools” as those in which 75% or more of students are of the same race or class. Such schools, investigators found, offered disproportionately fewer math, science and college-prep courses and had higher rates of students who were held back in ninth grade, suspended or expelled. The report, requested by Congress in 2014, on the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down the ‘separate but equal’ laws that segregated schools, was released on Tuesday, on its 62nd anniversary.

EEOC takes on tech diversity, or lack thereof

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a rare public hearing Wednesday on a hot-button issue in Silicon Valley: the lack of women, minorities and older workers, particularly in technical roles. The anti-discrimination watchdog met at its Washington, D.C., headquarters to review the employment practices in an industry dominated by white and Asian men. Meanwhile, tech companies say they are launching a variety of hiring initiatives, from anti-bias training to partnerships with minority tech programs. The EEOC, which is charged with fighting systemic workplace discrimination, is jumping into the fray amid growing pressure from civil rights activists who have for years prodded the tech industry to hire more women and minorities and foster more inclusive corporate cultures.

Poll Finds 9 in 10 Native Americans Aren’t Offended by Redskins Name

Nine in 10 Native Americans say they are not offended by the Washington Redskins name, according to a new Washington Post poll that shows how few ordinary Indians have been persuaded by a national movement to change the football team’s moniker. The survey of 504 people across every state and the District reveals that the minds of Native Americans have remained unchanged since a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found the exact same result. Responses to The Post’s questions about the issue were broadly consistent regardless of age, income, education, political party or proximity to reservations.

Zika Update

The number of pregnant women with the Zika virus in the United States has more than tripled, increasing from 48 to 157, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. The report also says there are 122 pregnant women with the Zika virus in the U.S. territories. The report does not detail the outcomes of the pregnancies. It’s the first time the agency had disclosed the number of Zika-infected pregnant women in the U.S. and its territories.

Hackers Stole Millions in Third Attack on Global Banking System

The global banking system is under attack. A January 2015 attack on Banco del Austro is described in a recent lawsuit filed by the bank in a New York federal court. It ended with thieves transferring $12 million to accounts in Hong Kong, Dubai, New York and Los Angeles, according to court documents. The same methods used by hackers to attack banks in Vietnam and Bangladesh appear to have been deployed over a year ago in a similar heist in Ecuador. The existence of the lawsuit was first reported Friday by the Wall Street Journal, just one week after global banking communications network SWIFT instructed clients to secure their local computer networks. SWIFT, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, warned customers that two previous attacks against banks in Bangladesh and Vietnam appeared to be “part of a wider and highly adaptive campaign.” The hackers used malware to circumvent a bank’s local security systems to gain access to the SWIFT messaging network. Then fraudulent messages were sent via SWIFT to initiate cash transfers from accounts at larger banks.

Millions More Workers Now Eligible for Overtime Pay

Moving to fatten low- and middle-income paychecks that have languished for years, the Obama administration on Tuesday unveiled a long-awaited rule that will make millions of Americans newly eligible for overtime pay. While some businesses welcome the measure, many say it will simply force them to reshuffle salaries to get around the regulation. Others fear it will mean demoting white-collar workers and altering workplace cultures, reports USA Today. The new rule essentially doubles the threshold at which executive, administrative and professional employees are exempt from overtime pay to $47,476 from the current $23,660. That’s expected to make 4.2 million additional workers eligible to receive time-and-a-half wages for each hour they put in beyond 40 a week. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said the salary threshold was originally intended to exempt high-paid executives but instead has denied overtime to low-level retail supervisors and entry-level office workers who often toil 50 to 70 hours a week.

Economic News

Inflation accelerated in April as a result of rising gasoline prices, while core inflation increased modestly. The consumer price index rose 0.4%, the Labor Department said Tuesday, the largest increase in three years. The index was up 1.1% over the past year. Excluding volatile food and gasoline items, so-called core inflation increased 0.2%, up 2.1% the past 12 months. Gasoline prices jumped 8.1% in April. While still low, gas prices have been rising along with crude oil prices in recent weeks. Regular unleaded gas averaged $2.22 on Monday, up from $2.11 a month ago, according to AAA. Food costs increased 0.2%.

U.S. credit-card balances are on track to hit $1 trillion this year, as banks aggressively push their plastic and consumers grow more comfortable carrying debt. That sum would come close to the all-time peak of $1.02 trillion set in July 2008, just before the financial crisis intensified. The boom has been driven by steady economic conditions and an improving job market that have made creditworthy consumers less reluctant to take on debt. In addition, lenders have signed up millions of subprime consumers who previously weren’t able to get credit. Consumers are taking on other forms of debt, too. Auto-loan balances surpassed $1 trillion in the first quarter, a record for the industry.

  • And, once again, the debt bubble builds only to burst anew in the near future

Cash is piling up at U.S. companies – and just five tech companies have grabbed a third of it. About 87% of the cash is stashed overseas outside the long arm of Uncle Sam. Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Cisco System and Oracle are sitting on $504 billion of the $1.7 trillion in cash held by U.S. non-financial companies, according to an analysis released Friday by ratings agency Moody’s Investors.  That’s even more cash concentration in previous years, as these five companies held 27% of cash in 2014 and 25% in 2013. Apple alone is holding more cash and investments than eight of the 10 entire industry sectors except for technology and healthcare.

For years, America’s college campuses swelled with more and more students. But enrollment peaked in 2010 at just over 21 million students. Attendance has dropped every year since. By the fall of 2014 — the most recent year government data is available — there were 812,069 fewer students on U.S. college campuses. College graduates make almost double the salary of those with only a high school diploma.

A trade spat between the U.S. and China boiled over on Wednesday, with Beijing demanding the removal of a new 500% duty on some of its steel products. Trade tensions between the U.S. and China have risen considerably this year — especially over steel. Last month, U.S. Steel accused dozens of Chinese producers of breaking trade rules, and asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate. China produces half of the world’s steel, more than the U.S., European Union, Russia and Japan combined. But as the country’s massive economy slows, internal demand for steel is dropping. Beijing now stands accused of dumping its unwanted metal on other markets, forcing rivals to close their plants and killing thousands of jobs.

Bank of Spain figures show that the country’s public debt is now worth more than the value of the Country’s entire economy. The bank said Wednesday that Spain’s public debt stockpile stood at 1.09 trillion euros ($1.23 trillion) in the first quarter of the year. That represents 101 percent of the country’s annual GDP — 1.08 trillion euros — in 2015. Spain’s public debt has risen consistently since the beginning of the country’s economic crisis in 2008.

Persecution Update

In yet another disturbing example of the genocide facing Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, on 12-13 May a group from Islamic State entered a town near the city of Hama in Syria, populated only by Christians and Alawites, killing an as yet unspecified number of men, women and children. Prior to the women being killed they were first raped. Meanwhile in Aleppo, fighting continued during the truce agreed between the Syrian government and non-jihadist rebels, resulting in yet more deaths and injuries.

Hindu extremists incited a mob that targeted and assaulted Christians in the village of Katholi, located in Kanker District in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The Christians had to flee the village on April 24, along with their families in order to save their lives. Four days later they returned to their vandalized homes, after a formal reconciliation with the other villagers which had been brokered by the district authorities, but a night of rowdy death threats forced them to flee again. The district authorities intervened a second time and got a written undertaking from the villagers not to threaten or trouble the Christians. The Christians returned under police protection, but threats have re-started.

The wife and family of imprisoned Vietnamese pastor and religious freedom activist Nguyen Cong Chinh suffered beatings and mistreatment at the hands of the authorities on three occasions between May 11-13; their 18-year-old son was arrested when he tried to protect his mother. This continues a pattern of official harassment of the family which the pastor’s wife, Tran Thi Hong, describes as “intolerable.” Mrs. Hong is herself a member of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights (VNWHR). Her husband was jailed for eleven years in 2012, ironically accused of having “colluded with foreign reactionaries” in “anti-government activities” in order to “falsely accuse Vietnam of suppressing religious freedom.”

Middle East

France announced on Tuesday that it will delay a planned summit to launch a new “peace plan” for Israel and the Palestinians originally scheduled to take place on 30 May. The delay until an unspecified date later in the summer was explained as giving US diplomats, who have been cool to the idea, a chance to attend the conference after informing Paris earlier that scheduling conflicts made their attendance impossible. However, US officials remain officially cool to the French proposals.

Iraq

At least 54 people were killed in three bombings at markets in Shiite-dominated neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital on Tuesday. At least 28 people died and up to 65 were wounded when a bomb exploded at an outdoor market in the Shiite-dominated neighborhood of Shaab in northeastern Baghdad. A roadside bomb exploded before a suicide bomber targeted people who gathered to help the wounded. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, claimed responsibility. Elsewhere, a car bomb exploded at a fruit and vegetable market in the neighborhood of Dora in the south of the city killed at least eight people and wounded 22. A third bombing killed 18 people and wounded 35 others at an outdoor market in Sadr City, eastern Baghdad.

Syria

The Russian military is constructing a new army base in the central Syrian town of Palmyra, without asking for permission from relevant authorities. The site is within the protected zone listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, said “We refuse to give permission even if it was for a small room to be built inside the site whether it is for the Syrian army, Russian army or anyone else. We will never give such permission because this will be in violation of the archaeology law.” Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes captured Palmyra in March and fighting continues miles away until this day.

The United Kingdom said Tuesday the World Food Program will begin airdrops to besieged areas of Syria on June 1, if humanitarian access is not provided. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime continues to remove medical aid from humanitarian convoys and to prevent convoys from reaching Syrians in need, said British Ambassador to the United States. If the practice continues, the World Food Program will create an airdrop program starting June 1st. The airdrops will be conducted by United Nations airplanes with security guaranteed by Russia.

Libya

U.S. Special Forces and surveillance flights are operating on the ground and over Libya as the West moves to boost security operations in the country to bolster Libya’s increasingly desperate fight against ISIS. Surveillance flights over the country’s coast have been in operation from the remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria for over a year, and Special Forces have recently increased their presence on the ground, CNN reports. The U.S. presence in Libya was acknowledged by Pentagon officials in the past few days. Special Forces teams are said to be in action around the capital Tripoli, as well as Misrata and the east of the country. The U.S. publicly only supports the latest of the three groups who claim the right to govern the country — the Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Sarraj and recently installed by the United Nations. But the presence of these Special Forces teams in the strongholds of the other two groups claiming to be the country’s legitimate government shows that America retains wider private contacts.

Egypt

Greek officials said Thursday that an EgyptAir flight that disappeared over the Mediterranean enroute from Paris to Cairo with 66 people aboard apparently made two sharp turns then suddenly lost altitude before vanishing from radar. Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi said the possibility of a terror attack as the cause of the crash of flight MS804 was “stronger” than technical failure. However, EgyptAir has a long history of disastrous flights over the last 40 years. Egyptian and Greek authorities said the plane likely went down near the Greek island of Crete. Greek civil aviation authorities say all appeared fine with the flight until air traffic controllers were preparing to hand it over to their Egyptian counterparts. The pilot did not respond to their calls, and the aircraft then vanished from radar. Egyptian and Greek authorities found wreckage from EgyptAir Flight 804, including luggage, airline seats and body parts, about 180 miles off the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria on Friday. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the Islamic State terror group has taken credit for this brutal act of terror.

China

The Chinese government cranks out 488 million fake social media posts a year in an effort to divert attention away from sensitive issues, a new study estimates. The researchers describe a “massive secretive operation” carried out by government employees, highlighting just how far China is willing to go to control news and information. Many foreign websites and social networks, including Google and Facebook, are blocked in the country, and authorities closely monitor and censor activity on homegrown social media sites. The new study, led by Harvard University data scientist Gary King, looks at China’s “Fifty Cent Party,” referring to the people rumored to be paid 50 Chinese cents (US$0.08) by the government for each positive social media comment they write and post.

Earthquakes

At least one person died and 85 were injured after two earthquakes struck Ecuador’s coastal region within 12 hours Wednesday. They were aftershocks from the massive earthquake that killed at least 654 people and injured more than 4,000 in the same area last month. The quakes, with magnitudes of 6.8 and 6.7, hit at 2:57 a.m. and 11:46 a.m. local time. Two people were seriously injured and school has been canceled in the provinces of Manabi and Esmeraldas until Monday.

Wildfires

A massive wildfire continues to burn in Fort McMurray, Canada, and its push toward oil sands camps north of the Albertan city forced officials to evacuate 8,000 workers on Monday. The evacuation notice expanded to some 30 miles north of the city, which remains closed to the 88,000 residents and visitors who were forced out more than two weeks ago. The wildfire has burned at least 877,000 acres (1,370 square miles) of land and destroyed some 2,400 structures in Fort McMurray, many of which were homes. The fire remains at 0% containment as of Friday morning.

Weather

California on Wednesday suspended its mandatory statewide 25 percent reduction in urban water use, telling local communities to set their own conservation standards after a relatively wet winter and a year of enormous savings in urban water use. The new rules are a sharp change in policy for a state struggling to manage one of the worst droughts in its history. They came after a winter in which El Niño storms fell short of what meteorologists projected — particularly in the southern part of the state — but still partly filled parched reservoirs in Northern California and, more critically, partly replenished the mountain snowpacks that provide water into the spring and summer. The rules do not apply to agriculture, which is covered by different regulations and makes up the bulk of water use in the state. Cuts in supply based on seniority were imposed in the last year for the agricultural industry. Some of those cuts have been rolled back already as water has become more available.

  • This seems hasty given the duration and severity of the drought, with the rainy season coming to an end

Lake Mead’s water level reached a record low this week and is expected to drop further moving into 2016, as the drought stricken region shows no immediate signs of recovery. The elevation for the man-made reservoir was measured at 1,074 feet on Wednesday, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region. Multiple reports have confirmed that the lake is at its lowest level since the completion of the Hoover Dam amid the Great Depression in 1936. Lake Mead provides water for approximately 20 million residents in Arizona, California and Nevada, and is expected to drop by an additional 5 feet by the end of June, ABC News reports.

Vero Beach, Florida, shattered a long-standing, all-time rainfall record Tuesday as clusters of thunderstorms triggered significant flash flooding in parts of the Sunshine State. Vero Beach picked up 11.22 inches of rain Tuesday, crushing the previous wettest day record for the city, 8.82 inches, set on January 21, 1957. Several clusters of slow-moving thunderstorms with torrential rain pelted parts of Florida Tuesday afternoon and evening before a squall line rolled through Tuesday night. Winds were severe enough to flip a small single-engine plane at Treasure Coast International Airport Tuesday evening.

Floods and landslides across Sri Lanka have claimed the lives of at least 37 people, the government said Tuesday. At least 21 people are reported missing as a result of heavy storms in the past three days. More than 12 inches of rain has fallen in the last 48 hours in some locations. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and 223,687 people have been evacuated to safe locations as heavy rains continue. The Meteorological Department has warned of more rain, rough seas and strong winds in most parts of the country.

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