Signs of the Times (10/28/16)

State of Georgia Demands Pastor Turn Over Sermons

A Seventh-day Adventist lay minister who says he was fired by Georgia’s Department of Public Health because of his sermons says he will not turn over his sermons for review by state attorneys. Dr. Eric Walsh had been appointed to President Obama’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/Aids and was hired by the Georgia state agency. But the DPH found out that LGBT activists had protested Walsh when he was selected as the commencement speaker at Pasadena City College. The agency launched an investigation into his preaching and he was asked to hand over copies of his sermons. DPH employees watched the sermons, and later the agency rescinded the offer of employment after Walsh had been employed for only a week. Walsh then filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission in September 2014, arguing that he was fired for his sermon content. The state of Georgia then filed for a Request for Production of Documents, asking that Walsh turn over his copies of sermon notes and transcripts, including his Bible. Walsh’s attorney, Jeremy Dys, of First Liberty Institute, called the filing for the sermon notes a “government overreach.”

NATO Bolsters Presence in Eastern Europe as Russia Tension Rises

The UK has deployed hundreds of troops to Eastern Europe as NATO continues to bolster its presence in the face of perceived Russian provocation. It is the largest buildup of troops in the region since the Cold War. The announcement comes a week after a Russian fleet, which was reportedly en-route to Syria, passed close to British waters. The Russian role in the Syrian conflict has exacerbated tensions between Moscow and NATO that had already risen due to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region from Ukraine in 2014. On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that recent tactics by Moscow had forced the alliance to respond. “Russia has tripled defense spending,” Stoltenberg told reporters. The latest troop deployment comes at a time of fear over the security of Baltic states such as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, which have significant Russian-speaking minorities like Ukraine and concerns that they could suffer a similar fate to Crimea’s.

FCC Passed Sweeping New Rules to Protect Online Privacy

Federal regulators have approved unprecedented new rules to ensure broadband providers do not abuse their customers’ app usage and browsing history, mobile location data and other sensitive personal information generated while using the Internet. The rules, passed Thursday in a 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission, require Internet providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, to obtain their customers’ explicit consent before using or sharing that behavioral data with third parties, such as marketing firms. Also covered by that requirement are health data, financial information, Social Security numbers and the content of emails and other digital messages. The measure allows the FCC to impose the opt-in rule on other types of information in the future, but certain types of data, such as a customer’s IP address and device identifier, are not subject to the opt-in requirement. “It’s the consumers’ information,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “How it is used should be the consumers’ choice. Not the choice of some corporate algorithm.”

Obamacare Premiums to Rise 22%

Obamacare premiums are set to skyrocket an average of 22% for the benchmark silver plan in 2017, according to a government report released Monday. The price hike is the latest blow to Obamacare. Insurers are raising prices and downsizing their presence on the exchanges as they try to stem losses from sicker-than-anticipated customers. Enrollment for 2017 will be closely watched since insurers want to see younger and healthier consumers enroll. For 2016, the benchmark plan’s premium rose only 7.2%, on average, for the states that use healthcare.gov. While premiums are set to rise by double digits on the ObamaCare exchanges, millions of Americans already have made the decision to abandon the markets altogether and shop for health care on their ow, CNN reports.

141 Pipeline Protesters Arrested

The standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline is heating up, and protesters say they won’t back down. Long-brewing tensions over the controversial project boiled over Thursday, as police in riot gear faced off with protesters on horseback. After hours of clashes, law enforcement officials arrested 141 people. A court decision allowing construction of the $3.7 billion pipeline across four states hasn’t dampened demonstrators’ furor over the project. The developer calls it an economic boon that will make the US less dependent on imported oil. But protesters say it threatens the environment and will destroy Native American burial sites, prayer sites and artifacts. Police deployed bean bag shotguns, pepper spray gas and unleashed a high-pitched siren as they tried to disperse the crowd. Protesters lit debris on fire and threw Molotov cocktails

Seven Acquitted in Oregon Standoff Trial

Seven people who were among the armed occupiers of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year were acquitted Thursday of charges related to the 41-day standoff. Ammon Bundy; his brother, Ryan Bundy; and three other people were found not guilty of firearms charges and conspiracy to impede federal workers. Two others who were acquitted were charged only with conspiracy. The federal jury couldn’t reach a verdict on a theft charge against Ryan Bundy. The Bundy brothers and their father, Cliven Bundy, remain in police custody as they still face federal charges in Nevada for a standoff at the Bundy ranch in 2014. Dozens of people occupied part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns on January 2 after gathering outside for a demonstration supporting Dwight and Steven Hammond, father and son ranchers who were convicted of arson, and in defiant protest of federal land policies. Many of the protesters who took over an unoccupied building on the refuge were armed. The driver of one vehicle, LaVoy Finicum, was shot and killed when he got out and confronted authorities. Police said Finicum was reaching for a gun in his pocket. The occupation of part of the federal wildlife refuge ended peacefully February 11 when the last occupiers surrendered to authorities.

Migrant Update

This year has become the deadliest yet for migrants crossing the Mediterranean bound for Europe, the UN refugee agency said Wednesday. “We can now confirm that at least 3,800 people have died, making 2016 the deadliest ever,” UNHCR spokesman William Spindler wrote on Twitter. According to UN Radio, 3,771 lives were lost during the whole of 2015, the previous record number. Most of the migrants sought to travel from Libya, on the North African coast, to Italian shores, the United Nations said. Libya is a popular jumping-off point for migrants seeking to reach Europe from North Africa via what is known as the Central Mediterranean route. Smuggling networks are well established there, and the lack of an effective central government makes the job of traffickers easier. The UN refugee agency considers the route extremely dangerous due to the open sea, strong currents and grim weather.

Scores of children were left with nowhere to go Thursday night as French riot police gathered outside a refugee camp in Calais. Officials had pledged to close the camp, known as “The Jungle,” and resettle all of remaining migrants. But aid workers said hundreds of unaccompanied children remained unregistered and, with the camp closing, some faced possibly sleeping outdoors for a second night in a row. According to the French Interior Ministry, the UK had agreed to transfer 274 unaccompanied minors from Calais, but had failed to deliver on that promise. The French government, which has taken the lead in dismantling the camp that became the symbol of Europe’s failure to handle the refugee crisis, urged the UK to “quickly take responsibility.”

Pension Crisis

There are only seven cities nationwide with a pension surplus, according to a study by Fellner’s organization and the group Wilshire Consulting. The rest are $6 trillion short, setting aside just 35 cents for every dollar promised, reports Fox News. Wisconsin is the only state more than 50 percent funded, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council. The five worst include Illinois, where 60 percent of state workers retired in their 50s. In Connecticut, pensions average $40,000 a year, yet state employees contribute just zero to two percent, compared to 6 percent in North Carolina, according to the ratings company, Fitch. Back in the late 1990s, pension managers thought they were going to get 7 to 9 percent returns forever, so they gave in to union demands for bigger benefits. Then the bubble burst – first in 2000 and again in 2008.

Until now, the courts have generally held that once a city signs a pension contract, it’s iron clad and can’t be altered or broken. However, a recent appeals court ruling says the so-called ‘California rule’ is not absolute, and a city can treat retirees like any other creditor. The issue is now before the state Supreme Court. Given how many pension plans are underwater, experts say almost every city, county and state in the U.S. is waiting for a decision before deciding what to do.

  • One way or another, taxpayers will have to pay the piper for past economic malfeasance

Economic News

The U.S. economy expanded at a 2.9% annual rate from July through September compared with the same time a year ago — the fastest economic growth in two years. Growth was sluggish in the first half of the year, averaging just above 1%.While the economy gained momentum in the third quarter, growth for the year comes in at 1.7% , still slow compared with historical standards. For the third quarter, American shoppers continued to drive growth, while business spending was less of a drag. Consumer confidence hit a nine-year high in September, according to the Conference Board.

Exports grew by 10% in the quarter, the best pace in nearly three years. A huge jump in shipments of soybeans explained much of the increase in exports, economists say. China has been one of the biggest buyers of U.S. soybeans. American agricultural exports to China have increased by 200% over the past decade, according to the USDA. As a result, trade contributed 0.83 percentage point to GDP growth after adding a mere 0.18 percentage point in the April-June quarter.

The gig economy is booming – i.e. an economic sector consisting of part-time, temporary, and freelance jobs (think Uber drivers). Most of the estimated 68 million gig workers worldwide choose the freelance lifestyle for better work-life balance. But nearly 20 million of them do it out of necessity because they can’t find better work or pay, according to a report by McKinsey Global Institute, a consulting firm. The workers who do it by choice report being happier than workers in the traditional 9 to 5 economy, McKinsey found. Government officials admit they haven’t accounted for gig workers as the freelance economy has boomed. The Labor Department says it will start counting gig workers in its jobs figures by next May. Uber drivers in the U.K. won a landmark court case Friday that means they will qualify for the minimum wage, paid time off and other perks.

Twitter is cutting its staff by 9% after a widely rumored sale process appears to have come to nothing. The layoffs are expected to impact about 350 employees across sales, partnerships and marketing efforts, according to the company. The goal is to push Twitter toward profitability as an independent company. Disney, Google, Verizon and Salesforce were all said to be interested in bidding for the social network, but ultimately backed off.

Islamic State

ISIS is sending “suicide squads” from Syria to its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, witnesses have told CNN, as tens of thousands of troops close in on the key city to take it from the militant group’s control. Witnesses said hundreds of new arrivals had streamed into Mosul from the group’s heartland of Raqqa, Syria, in the past two days, describing them as foreign fighters wearing distinct uniforms and suicide belts, and carrying light weapons. ISIS fighters have been seen rigging bridges across the strategic Tigris river with explosives and have prepared dozens of vehicle-borne suicide bombs. ISIS has “executed” 232 people near the Iraqi city of Mosul and taken tens of thousands of people to use as human shields against advancing Iraqi forces, the United Nations said Friday. A coalition of around 100,000 forces began an operation on October 17 to retake Mosul, and have been slowly gaining ground toward the city, liberating villages from ISIS rule along the way. Clashes with ISIS fighters are expected to intensify the closer in troops get, and in Mosul itself, bloody street-to-street skirmishes are expected.

Syria

Rebel fighters launched a new offensive in the Syrian city of Aleppo on Friday, unleashing a series of deadly car bombings and mortar attacks on government-held positions aimed at breaking the siege of rebel-controlled eastern neighborhoods. Opposition social media showed videos of rebel tanks, armored personnel carriers, grad rockets and artillery firing from the southwest of the city, in an apparent attempt to break through Syrian government offenses from the outside Aleppo. At least 15 people were killed and more than 100 others were wounded when hundreds of mortar rounds showered down on several residential neighborhoods in regime-held areas of western Aleppo, the UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said in a statement.

Lithuania

Lithuania published a manual Friday for its three million citizens on how to defend their homeland in the event of a Russian invasion. Since Russia annexed Crimea two years ago, Lithuanians have been on edge. Conscription has been restarted and defense spending ramped up and NATO has deployed more troops to the Baltics. The manual warned of Russia’s method of using “denial and ambiguity” at the beginning of an invasion and warns: “It is most important that the civilians are aware and have a will to resist — when these elements are strong, an aggressor has difficulties in creating an environment for military invasion.” The manual also noted that Russia “does not hesitate to use a military force against its neighbors, and at this moment it basically continues the military aggression against Ukraine.”

Yemen

The UN World Food Program fears the devastating toll that hunger could have on the war-torn country of Yemen, leaving millions at risk for starvation. The organization said it has provided food for more than 3 million people each month since February. It has split these rations so it can reach 6 million people every month, but resources are beginning to run out. “An entire generation could be crippled by hunger,” Torben Due, the program’s director in Yemen, said in a statement. “We need to scale up our life-saving assistance to reach more people with timely food assistance and preventive treatment. We appeal to the international community to support the people of Yemen. The war in Yemen began in early 2015 when Houthi rebels — a minority Shia group from the north of the country — drove out the US-backed government and took over the capital, Sanaa. The country has become a proxy battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The ongoing conflict has left thousands dead as the Saudi-led coalition continues its attacks on Houthi rebels. U.S. officials told NBC News Thursday that they believe Iran has supplied weapons to the Houthis in Yemen – including coastal defense cruise missiles like the ones that were fired at US Navy ships earlier this month.

Ivory Coast

Following many years of political turmoil and civil conflict, business is back – and booming – in the Ivory Coast. This prosperous West African country is Africa’s fastest growing economy in 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The country’s phenomenal growth rate of 8.5 percent greatly contrasts with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa which has only seen three percent growth. But not every Ivorian is reaping the rewards. While the economy powers ahead, many citizens have been left behind, with the World Bank estimating that nearly half of the population still lives in poverty.

Venezuela

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro just increased the nation’s minimum wage by 40%. But that’s still not much in a world where inflation is expected to soar by nearly 500% this year and 1,660% next year, according to forecasts by the International Monetary Fund. Venezuela’s minimum wage, including food subsidies, is rising to 90,812 bolivars a month. That’s just $67 a month, according to a popular but unofficial exchange rate. On the government’s highest exchange rate (it has three), the new minimum wage is worth $138. It is the fourth time Maduro has increased the minimum wage this year. Food stamps and worker bonuses make up most of workers’ total “wages” in Venezuela. The raise comes one day before opposition leaders, who want to oust Maduro, planned a nationwide strike of businesses.

Environment

A massive new report by the World Wildlife Fund has found a 58 percent average decline of global wildlife populations since the 1970s, and human activity is to blame. The alarming new findings were part of the Living Planet Index, a report prepared by the WWF and the Zoological Society of London. It cited poaching, habitat loss and pollution as reasons for the dramatic decline – all human-caused issues. “For the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, we face a global mass extinction of wildlife,” Mike Barrett, director of science and policy at WWF-UK, told the New York Times. “We ignore the decline of other species at our peril – for they are the barometer that reveals our impact on the world that sustains us.” The report also found things could get even worse in the coming years if nothing is done to reverse the damage already occurring. By 2020, 67 percent of vertebrates could be gone from 1970 population levels if the current pace continues, the report concluded.

Earthquakes

A pair of earthquakes struck central Italy Wednesday night, causing widespread damage in an area still reeling from an earthquake that killed hundreds just months ago. However, unlike the August quake, initial reports indicate that there have been no deaths or serious injuries directly attributed to the earthquakes. Both temblors were centered near the town of Visso, Italy, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The second quake was rated 6.1 after it struck at 9:18 p.m. local time (3:18 p.m. EDT) at a depth of 6.2 miles. The town of Ussita seemed to be ground zero for serious damage at first light Thursday. Ussita Mayor Marco Rinaldi said that ‘many houses collapsed’ in the town, including a historic church. Damage to homes and buildings were also reported across the Umbria and Marche regions of Italy.

Weather

Phoenix broke a record Thursday when the temperature at Sky Harbor Airport reached 100 degrees just after 2:30 p.m. The previous record high for Oct. 27 was 98 degrees in 2001. The city’s 100-degree high also set the record for the latest date reaching triple digits, according to the National Weather Service in Phoenix. The previous mark was Oct. 23, 2003. The normal high for Oct. 27 is 84 degrees.

A 650+ foot mudslide struck a stretch of Colombian highway Wednesday morning, killing at least 7, burying multiple vehicles and four lanes of highway, authorities said. Search and rescue efforts were ongoing at the scene, near the village of El Cabuyal, where government officials said that at least 6 vehicles had been buried by the torrent of debris. A total of 9 people are still reportedly missing in the disaster. More than 50,000 cubic meters of land was displaced by the mudslide, which also took out multiple power lines en route to the highway. The local government attributed the mudslide to recent rains in the area. The stretch of impacted highway connects the Colombian capital of Bogotá to Medellín, the capital city of the mountainous province of Antioquia.

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