Signs of the Times (9/2/16)

Obama’s Judicial Appointments Ensure Ongoing Liberal Legacy

President Obama, over the course of his two terms, has appointed hundreds of justices to the lower federal courts, leading to a majority of appeals courts now dominated by Democratic picks. The president has successfully seated a total of 329 federal judges during his two terms – all of them, lifetime appointments. While those nomination battles aren’t nearly as high-profile as they are for the Supreme Court, the impact of the appointments is just as pronounced. “It’s often overlooked, but nominees to the lower courts … are often one of the most important legacies a president leaves behind,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. The tilt on the federal appeals courts – particularly as the Supreme Court, which takes relatively few cases as it is, remains split 4-4 – is a trend that worries conservatives. When Obama took office, only three appellate courts had more Democrat-appointed judges than Republican-appointed judges. Now, nine of the 13 circuits do. Meanwhile, Obama’s nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, Merrick Garland, remains stalled in the Senate.

US-Led Nuke Negotiators Allowed Inspections Loopholes for Iran

The U.S. and world powers had a secret deal with Iran to allow the Islamic Republic to dodge restrictions in last year’s landmark nuclear deal, Fox News confirmed. Reuters reported Thursday that the findings are based on information from several officials involved in the negotiations. The full details are set to be published by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. Iran is not being held to the publicly announced conditions of the deal, which was supposed to allow a decade of inspections and transparency aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The institute’s president, David Albright, told Reuters that the “exemptions or loopholes are happening in secret, and it appears that they favor Iran.” Albright had previously worked as an inspector with the UN International Atomic Energy Agency.

Chi-raq Homicides on Record Pace

They call it “Chi-raq” for a reason. Chicago is already on track to cross a disturbing threshold and top the number of shootings and homicides in the city for the entire year in 2015. Last Friday to Sunday alone, gun violence has been blamed for eight homicides and 64 non-fatal shootings, according to Chicago police. As of Sunday, homicides so far this year total 459. There have been 2,818 shooting victims this year — just 170 shy of 2015’s total of 2,988, according to the Chicago Tribune. With an average of nearly 82 shootings per week, the city will likely soon pass last year’s mark.

‘Burning Man’ Festival Largest Gathering of Occult Hedonism

About 70,000 people have descended upon a very bleak stretch of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for what is perhaps the largest celebration of hedonism on the entire planet, reports RedFlagNews.com. Burning Man has been described as a “dystopian hellscape“, and that description is not too far from the truth. From August 25th to September 5th (Labor Day Monday), revelers from all over the world will dance, carouse and “express themselves” in a temporary city that has been created entirely by its citizens. This festival is part Mad Max, part Woodstock and part Eyes Wide Shut, and many “Burners” look forward all year long to these eight days of completely unrestrained hedonism. 30 years ago,

Burning Man began as a small beach gathering in San Francisco. Initially held during the Summer Solstice, it quickly took on a life of its own and was moved to Nevada in 1990. Ever since then, this eight-day party has not stopped growing, and people literally fly in from all over the world to witness one of the most bizarre spectacles in America. In this very isolated corner of the Black Rock Desert, you will find nudists (lots of them), palm readers, neopagans, “ecosexuals”, witches, sorcerers, shamans, New Age gurus, “goddesses”, Satanists, “polyamorists” and just about every type of fetishist that you can possibly imagine. The reason why the festival is called “Burning Man” is because of the gigantic effigy that is burned toward the end of the eight-day celebration. Nobody is physically harmed during the burning of this enormous “wicker man”, but it does seem to parallel the human sacrifices that the Druids would do in ancient times.

  • If ever there was a sign of the end-times to come, this is it.

Migrant Update

The United States accepted the 10,000th refugee from Syria Tuesday as part of President Obama’s policy to vastly increase the number of humanitarian admissions from the war-torn country, the White House said Monday. And officials suggested that the ceiling for next year could be even higher. The milestone comes more than a month ahead of schedule, and despite congressional concerns that the administration doesn’t have the capacity to vet the influx of refugees. It’s also been an issue in the presidential campaign, with Republican Donald Trump calling the refugee program a “Trojan horse” for terrorists. Democrat Hillary Clinton has proposed increasing the Syrian refugee ceiling even higher, to 65,000.

Over the past 12 months, Europe has gone to great lengths to repel the tide of refugees and other migrants — rather than welcome them as they had beforehand. European countries responded to a populist backlash against migrants entering the continent by increasing border controls, tightening asylum rules and accelerating deportations. The well-trod Balkan land route was closed. The European Union and Turkey brokered a deal that significantly reduced the number of people making perilous journeys across the Aegean Sea to Greece and other European ports. German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to defend her welcoming refugee policy but has put limits on it. These barriers, however, have not deterred migrants from making the journey, even as some die attempting to find a better life in Europe. The International Organization for Migration, a watchdog group, said 2,901 people drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the first six months of 2016 — a 37% increase from the same period last year. The Italian coast guard said it has rescued nearly 7,000 migrants, most of them from Eritrea and Somalia, in dozens of rescue missions since Sunday.

Zika Update

The U.S. has nearly exhausted all of its funding allocated to fight the Zika virus. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC has spent $194 million of the $222 million approved by Congress to fight the virus. As new Zika cases are announced virtually every day in places like Miami, Frieden fears they wouldn’t have enough money to stop a bigger outbreak. “The cupboard is bare,” Frieden told the Washington Post. “Basically, we’re out of money, and we need Congress to act to allow us to respond effectively.” Already, 16 infants have been born with microcephaly in the U.S. and more than 1,200 pregnant women with confirmed cases of Zika are being tracked by the CDC. Florida reported its first case in February, and as of Monday, the state has documented 588 residents with infections, including 75 pregnant women.

A team of researchers may have taken the first steps towards creating a treatment to stop Zika. The team identified nine compounds or medicinal mixtures, that appear to stop the Zika virus from killing fetal brain cells and from reproducing. The findings were published Monday in Nature Medicine. Researchers at Johns Hopkins explained that repurposing already-approved drugs is a quicker alternative than developing a new medicine. Of the 6,000 compounds tested, one already on the market showed the ability to inhibit the infection from spreading and reproducing. Zika is a mosquito-borne disease first discovered in 1947. The virus can lead to catastrophic birth defects including microcephaly – incomplete brain development. In the past nine years, the virus has crossed four continents. The World Health Organization reports that since 2015, 53 countries have reported Zika infections. Since February, eleven countries have reported sexual transmission of the disease. It was first reported in the Americas in Brazil in 2014 and has since spread to the United States.

Zika Spraying Kills Millions of Honeybees

Millions of honeybees lie dead after being sprayed with an insecticide targeting Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Beekeeper Juanita Stanley, co-owner of Flowertown Bee Farm and Supply in Summerville, South Carolina, said she lost 46 beehives — more than 3 million bees — in mere minutes after the spraying began. Stanley said Summerville Fire Capt. Andrew Macke, who keeps bees as a hobby, also lost thousands of bees. She said neither of them had protected their hives because they didn’t know about the aerial spraying. It’s a tragedy that could be repeated across the country as cases of Zika continue to rise and local mosquito control districts struggle to protect their residents and ease local fears. Dorchester County used a product called Trumpet, which contains the pesticide naled, recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for control of adult Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits Zika.

  • Bees have already been in steep decline due to colony collapse for reasons not yet fully understood

Gun boom: Sales Soar 40%

The gun industry is booming. Smith & Wesson revealed on Thursday a 40% surge in quarterly sales and a doubling of profits from last year. Consumers purchased 42% more Smith & Wesson handguns than last year. Shipments of long guns, which include shotguns hunting rifles and semi-automatic rifles, spiked by 119%. It’s the latest evidence of a thriving gun industry, in part due to concerns among many that recent mass shootings in the U.S. will cause the government to limit gun sales. FBI background checks for gun purchases have surged in recent months and are on track to shatter last year’s record.

Economic News – Domestic

U.S. payroll growth slowed in August after two booming months as employers added 151,000 jobs, underscoring that employment growth may be moderating and lowering the odds of a Federal Reserve interest rate hike this month. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.9%, the Labor Department said Friday. Businesses added 126,000 jobs, led by health care, leisure and hospitality, and professional and business services. Federal, state and local governments added 25,000. Job gains for June and July averaged 273,000. Average hourly earnings rose 4 cents to $25.73 and are up 2.4% over the past year.

Factory activity contracted in August for the first time in six months as manufacturers continued to grapple with a sluggish global economy and the oil industry’s downturn. The unexpected decline raises more questions about the industry’s recovery and the health of the economy. A closely-watched index of manufacturing activity dipped to 49.4 from 52.6 in July, the Institute for Supply Management said Thursday. A reading above 50 indicates the sector is expanding, while below 50 means contraction. The report marks the industry’s first contraction following five straight months of expansion.

U.S. productivity fell in the April-June quarter by a larger amount than first estimated, while labor costs accelerated sharply. Productivity declined at an annual rate of 0.6%, even worse than the 0.5% drop initially reported, the Labor Department said Thursday. It marked the third straight quarter that productivity has fallen. Labor costs rose at an annual rate of 4.3%, the biggest rise since a 5.7% increase in the fourth quarter. Labor costs had fallen at a 0.3% rate in the first quarter. Productivity growth has slowed significantly in this recovery and is a major reason that overall growth has been so slow.

Slightly more Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, but the overall levels still remain near historic lows in a positive sign for the job market. The Labor Department says applications for jobless aid rose 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 263,000. The number of people collecting unemployment checks has fallen 4.4% from a year ago to 2.16 million. Applications have remained below 300,000 for 78 straight weeks, the longest streak since 1970 when the total number of U.S. workers was much lower.

Consumer confidence surged to a 12-month high in August as strong job gains and low gasoline prices more than offset concerns about weak economic growth. The Conference Board’s index of Americans’ views of the economy and labor market rose to 101.1 from 96.7 in July as their assessment of current conditions and their six-month outlook both improved. Monthly job growth averaged 273,000 in June and July, bouncing back resoundingly from a two-month slump. Meanwhile gasoline prices have edged up this year but remain low, with unleaded regular at $2.21 a gallon, according to AAA. And while stocks have been volatile, they’re hovering near all-time highs.

Apple must pay up to $14.5 billion in back taxes to Ireland, the European Union ruled Tuesday after the bloc’s anti-trust arm concluded that the technology firm was given illegal tax benefits over two decades. “Member states cannot give tax benefits to selected companies — this is illegal under EU state aid rules,” said EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. Vestager said a three-year investigation found Ireland granted such lavish tax breaks to Apple over many years. She said multinational’s effective corporate tax rate on its European profits dropped from 1% in 2003 to a mere 0.0005% in 2014. In a letter addressed to customers and published Tuesday, Apple says the EU’s decision will have “serious, wide-reaching implications.” Irish authorities have vowed to fight the finding, and the U.S. government has disputed the EU’s conclusions.

Economic News – International

During the second quarter of 2016, Canada’s GDP contracted at a 1.6 percent annualized rate.  That was the worst number in seven years.Canada has been hit very hard by the collapse in oil prices. For many years, high oil prices and booming exports enabled the Canadian economy to significantly outperform the U.S. economy.  But now conditions have changed dramatically, and all of the economic bubbles up in Canada are starting to burst.  This includes the housing bubble, with home sales home sales during the first two weeks of August in British Columbia down a whopping 51% on a year over year basis.

India’s breakneck growth rate has slowed, but not enough to cost it the title of world’s fastest growing big economy. Gross domestic product growth dipped to 7.1% in the quarter ended June, a disappointing performance but one that still trumps the 6.7% posted by China in its most recent quarter. The slowdown comes as unease mounts over the pace of economic reforms, leadership at the central bank, and intractable problems that politicians seem unable to tame: corruption, bureaucracy and onerous regulation. Economists have even called into question the validity of the country’s GDP statistics, which have diverged from other indicators after government officials changed how the number is calculated. Shilan Shah, an economist at Capital Economics, estimated that growth was “almost certainly weaker” than official statistics indicate, and perhaps as slow as 5.5% or 6% in the quarter.

Mexico heavily depends on its workers living abroad to send cash back home. Almost $25 billion flowed last year from the pockets of Mexicans living overseas, almost all of it from the U.S. That’s even higher than what Mexico earns from its oil exports. Essentially, Mexico’s most lucrative natural resources are the people who leave their home country. The cash remittances are a lifeline for the country and a critical source of economic development.

In the second quarter, Brazil’s economy contracted 3.8%, after shrinking 5.4% in the first three months of the year. It’s the longest recession since the 1930s for Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy. Brazil’s unemployment rate has shot up to 11.6% from 6.8% two years ago. Brazil’s first female president was impeached and voted out of office Wednesday, but not barred from the ballot if she wants to run again. A massive bribery ring between Petrobras officials, construction firms and Brazilian politicians has unraveled over two years of investigations which has led to multiple arrests of well-known businessmen and politicians. Although Rousseff hasn’t been formally accused of involvement, just about everyone around her has.

Nigeria slumped into recession and Norway’s economic growth slowed to a standstill in the second quarter due to the ongoing oil crisis. Both countries rely on oil for a big chunk of their exports and have been hit hard by the collapse in prices. Oil has recovered from February’s low of just over $26 per barrel but the current price of about $46 is still less than half what producers were getting just two years ago. Nigeria’s second quarter GDP fell by more than 2% compared to last year, after slipping by 0.4% in the first quarter. Two consecutive quarters of decline mean Nigeria is now officially in recession. Nigeria isn’t only hurting from low prices. Its oil output also fell sharply because of a series of rebel attacks on infrastructure. Norway’s offshore oil, gas and shipping activity shrank by 1.4% in the quarter, while mainland GDP grew just 0.4%. Norway’s central bank said the country might be forced to withdraw more than $9 billion from the $888 billion pension fund in 2016 to make up for the collapse in oil revenue.

Middle East

Palestinian authorities are silencing dissent by cracking down on free speech and abusing local journalists and activists critical of their policies, a leading international human rights group said Tuesday. Human Rights Watch said both the Western-backed Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and its rival, the ruling Islamic militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, are “arresting, abusing, and criminally charging journalists and activists who express peaceful criticism of the authorities.” HRW said that in the West Bank, Palestinian forces arrested activists and musicians who “ridiculed Palestinian security forces” and “accused the government of corruption” in statements posted on Facebook or stated in graffiti and rap songs.

Islamic State

The Associated Press has documented and mapped 72 ISIS mass graves, the most comprehensive survey so far, with many more expected to be uncovered as the Islamic State group’s territory shrinks. In Syria, AP has obtained locations for 17 mass graves, including one with the bodies of hundreds of members of a single tribe all but exterminated when ISIS extremists took over their region. For at least 16 of the Iraqi graves, most in territory too dangerous to excavate, officials do not even guess the number of dead. In others, the estimates are based on memories of traumatized survivors, ISIS propaganda and what can be gleaned from a cursory look at the earth. Still, even the known victims buried are staggering — from 5,200 to more than 15,000.

Mohammad al-Adnani, the official spokesman of ISIS and one of its most senior members, has died in Syria, the terror group said in a rare public statement. His death marks the highest-profile killing yet of an ISIS member. A key deputy to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, he was the person touted to be his successor should anything happen to al-Baghdadi. A statement from ISIS’ Amaq news agency on Tuesday said al-Adnani died while inspecting military operations in the area of Aleppo,

Somalia

A truck bomb exploded Tuesday outside the Somali presidential palace and the popular Somali Youth League Hotel in Mogadishu. Twelve people died in the blast. Police said at least 15 people were hurt and the death toll is expected to rise, with many of the wounded in critical condition. Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack via its Radio Andalus station. The explosion caused extensive damage to parts of the hotel and the second checkpoint of the entrance to the presidential palace.

Kyrgyzstan

A suspected suicide bomber on Tuesday crashed a car through the entrance of the Chinese Embassy in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek, detonating a bomb that killed the attacker and wounded three embassy employees. The interior ministry described it as a terrorist attack. Deputy Prime Minister Zhenish Razakov in comments to the Interfax news agency called it a suicide bombing. Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked former Soviet republic that borders China, has a predominantly Muslim population that is considered moderate in outlook.

Mexico

Mexicans lashed out at unpopular President Enrique Pena Nieto’s decision to meet with Donald Trump on Wednesday as analysts said the meeting appeared to favor the Republican presidential nominee. Jesús Silva-Herzog, a Mexican academic, called the encounter the “biggest stupidity in the history of the Mexican presidency.” In the meeting, Peña Nieto didn’t demand that Trump apologize for calling Mexican migrants rapists and criminals. He also stood silently by in their joint press conference while Republican candidate repeated his promise to build a border wall between the countries, reports the USA Today. “The humiliation is now complete,” tweeted Carlos Loret de Mola, a news anchor for broadcaster Televisa.

Venezuela

Protesters packed the streets of Venezuela’s capital Thursday, demanding a recall vote to remove President Nicolas Maduro from power. Demonstrators blamed Maduro’s government for food shortages and major economic problems. Protesters filled three major avenues in the east of Caracas. Images of the protests showed throngs of people in plazas and roadways. Maduro told crowds clad in red that authorities had detained right-wing opposition leaders who were planning to plant bombs in the capital. He pressed his supporters to be ready in case of a coup. In recent days, the government has detained at least six opposition leaders, accusing them of conspiring against the government.

Cuba

When JetBlue Flight 387 touched down in Cuba on Wednesday, it became the first direct commercial flight between the US and the island in over a half-century. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Santa Clara, Cuba, flight was the latest symbol of the thawing of relations between the former Cold War adversaries, who restored diplomatic ties in 2015. Soon up to a maximum of 110 daily flights operated by such carriers as JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, Southwest and Silver Airways are due to begin flying to the communist-run island, according to the US Department of Transportation. Tourism to Cuba is still illegal, but there are now 12 categories of “authorized travel.” Before US citizens can board flights to Cuba, they will need to sign an affidavit swearing their travel falls within the permitted categories, including educational, religious and humanitarian reasons.

Earthquakes

Two earthquakes rocked Iceland early Monday, striking in quick succession underneath the caldera of Katla, one of the country’s largest volcanos. Authorities are monitoring the situation at the volcano in southern Iceland after the two quakes, which measured magnitude 4.2 and magnitude 4.5 and were followed by some 20 aftershocks. Iceland, an island nation in the remote North Atlantic, is a volcanic hotspot often hit by seismic activity. Its volcanos attracted international attention in April 2010, when ash from an eruption of its Eyjafjallajokull volcano grounded flights across Europe for days, disrupting travel for millions.

Weather

Hurricane Hermine has now weakened to a tropical storm while moving farther inland across the Southeast states early Friday morning. Heavy rain from Hermine will continue to impact a swath from Florida to Georgia and the Carolinas on Friday. Tropical storm-force winds, isolated tornadoes and storm surge flooding are also threats in that same area. Hermine will likely become a non-tropical low by this weekend and will hover near or off the Mid-Atlantic or Northeast seaboard, potentially resulting in strong winds, coastal flooding and other impacts. Hurricane Hermine has claimed at least one life in Florida. About 253,000 had lost power after the storm landed. Other areas of the state received heavy rains which led to flooding and the rescue of at least 18 people from rising waters in Pasco County. Hermine, which had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph, was the first hurricane to come ashore in Florida since Wilma struck 11 years ago. In Florida, life-threatening flooding remains a risk as rain has pounded the Gulf Coast since Wednesday. Forecasters say much more is in store for the beleaguered state.

Monsoonal flooding that began in June has broken records along India’s Ganges River, officials say. Water levels reached “unprecedented levels” at four locations in northern India over the past week, chief of India’s Central Water Commission GS Cha told BBC.com. This includes Patna, the state capital of Bihar, where floodwaters reached 166 feet on Aug. 26, breaking the record of 164 feet set in 1994. Several other areas that surpassed previous records. The heavy monsoon rains and subsequent flooding over the past week forced more than 200,000 people in Uttar Pradesh state to be evacuated and moved to relief camps after floodwaters entered homes in some 800 villages across large swaths of the state.

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