Signs of the Times (2/24/17)

European Welfare Benefits Help Fund ISIS Fighters

Governments across Europe have accidentally paid taxpayer-funded welfare benefits such as unemployment funds, disability pensions and housing allowances to Islamic State militants who have used the money to wage war in Iraq and Syria, authorities and terrorism experts say. Danish officials said this week that 29 citizens were given $100,000 in public pension benefits because they were considered too ill or disabled to work, and they then fled to Syria to fight for the radical group. It took eight months before welfare authorities cut off benefits paid to a Swedish national who had joined the terror group in its Syrian stronghold Raqqa. Authorities concluded that several of the plotters in the Brussels and Paris terror attacks that killed 162 people in 2015 and 2016 were partly financed by Belgium’s social welfare system while they planned their atrocities. The French government has cut the social-welfare benefits of several hundred French citizens who have left the country to join jihadist groups.

Islam OK, Christianity Illegal in NJ Public Schools

‘Selective allowable discrimination’ is defined as the practice of allowing discrimination of a selective group while banning discrimination of opposite groups. For the past fifty years, any semblance of Christianity is discriminated against if it involves any government person or agency. Courts have said that you can’t have schools involved in reading the Bible or praying because someone was or could be offended. Yet in many of the same schools that actively ban all references to the Bible and Christianity are now reading and teaching the Quran, reciting the Islamic call to prayer, have students reciting that Allah is God, and allowing Muslim students to roll out their prayer rugs and pray to Mecca during school hours. No concern is given to the fact that many non-Muslims are offended. A recent example of ‘selective allowable discrimination’ was seen in the public schools of New Jersey. The issue was the teaching of Islam as part of the normal classroom curriculum while at the same time, the teaching of Christianity is illegal. Parents of students at Chatham Middle School are calling on the board of education to eliminate lessons on Islam from the 7th grade social studies curriculum they believe proselytizes the religion. “Where are the atheists who file lawsuits against everything that hints of Christianity in public schools?” asks Constitution.com.

  • Islam teaches severe repression of women and abhors homosexuals, and yet Christianity is singled out as the ‘hate’ religion even though Jesus’ primary mandate is love for everyone.

Trump Withdraws Federal Protections for Transgender Students

The Trump administration on Wednesday night withdrew Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools that let them use bathrooms and facilities corresponding with their gender identity, not their biological sex. The announcement is a significant victory for opponents of the Obama administration’s guidelines who believe the federal government never should have gotten involved in the issue. Civil rights groups, meanwhile, denounced the withdrawal as a politically motivated attack that will endanger transgender children and sow confusion over the federal government’s role in enforcing civil rights. Last May, the departments of Education and Justice issued joint guidance directing schools to let transgender students use facilities that correspond with their gender identity. The letter to school districts and colleges that receive federal funding was issued jointly by the departments of Education and Justice. The letter did not take a position on the underlying question of whether Title IX protects gender identity. The departments withdrew the guidance “in order to further and more completely consider the legal issues involved.”

Federal Judge Blocks Texas Cutoff of Medicaid for Planned Parenthood

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Texas can’t cut off Medicaid dollars to Planned Parenthood over secretly recorded videos taken by anti-abortion activists in 2015 that launched Republican efforts across the U.S. to defund the nation’s largest abortion provider. Texas is now at least the sixth state where federal courts have kept Planned Parenthood eligible for Medicaid reimbursements for non-abortion services, although a bigger question remains over whether President Donald Trump will federally defund the organization. Sparks’ decision preserves what Planned Parenthood says are cancer screenings, birth control access and other health services for nearly 11,000 low-income women at 30 clinics. Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana have also had similar efforts blocked.

Canada Sees Spike in Border Crossers Coming from U.S.

Thousands are leaving the United States for Canada and immigration advocates say the political rhetoric of the Trump administration is playing a role. Many cross illegally, braving snow and frigid cold in a dash for asylum. They avoid border checkpoints and the risk of being sent back to the U.S. due to a pact dubbed the “Safe Third Country Agreement.” It requires the majority of migrants to apply for refugee protection in the first country of arrival. Canadian authorities say the migrants come from all over the world and cover a broad-spectrum, including families with children, some pushing baby carriages or carrying infants. According to the Canada Border Services Agency, more than 1,400 people have made claims at land border ports of entry in the region since November. That’s already more than all of 2015.

Trump Accuses FBI of Leaking Info

President Trump, after a brief hiatus, returned to throwing Twitter bombs Friday morning to accuse his own FBI of failing to crack down on leaks – on the heels of reports about a conversation his chief of staff had with the bureau about Russia-related allegations. Reports surfaced overnight that Reince Priebus had asked a top FBI official to dispute media reports that Trump’s campaign advisers frequently were in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election. The White House pushed back, claiming in response that while Priebus did speak with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, McCabe initiated the contact to inform Priebus that The New York Times report about campaign contacts with Russia was incorrect. Trump, who has been battling leaks in several federal agencies since his inauguration, on Friday blasted the bureau for apparently letting that conversation go public.

Trump’s Poll Numbers Dropping

In a national survey released Wednesday, Quinnipiac University found that 38% of American voters approve of Trump’s job performance, while 55% disapprove. A poll released earlier this month by Quinnipiac taken shortly after Trump’s inauguration found that 42% of American voters approved of his job performance, while 51% disapproved. Thirty-eight percent of American voters said they trust Trump to do the right thing “almost all of the time” or “most of the time,” while 61% said they trust him to do what is right “some of the time” or “hardly ever.” Inversely, 58% of voters reported they trust US courts to do the right thing “almost all of the time” or “most of the time,” while 40% said they trust the courts to do what is right “some of the time” or “hardly ever.” Fifty-nine percent of American voters approved of court actions blocking Trump’s travel ban, a revision of which is expected soon.

Support for ObamaCare at All-Time High

Support for Obamacare is at an all-time high in a new survey released Thursday, as Republican leaders continue to press the case for repeal amid fierce resistance at town halls from the public. A survey from the Pew Research Center found 54% of Americans approve of the Affordable Care Act — the highest level ever recorded by Pew — while 43% disapprove. That’s up from an even split (48%-47%) in a Pew survey from December, suggesting support for the law may be galvanized by the ongoing public fight over its future. Predictably, Republicans are most likely to say they disapprove (89%) while Democrats are most likely to express approval (85%). But slightly more independents say they approve (53%) than disapprove (45%) — up about 10 points from December. The survey results also found that even among those who disapprove of the law, 25% want GOP leaders to “make modifications” while just 17% want to “get rid of the law entirely.”

Obama Created ‘Widespread’ Security Violations, Inspector General Says

One of former President Barack Obama’s pet projects — to drag federal bureaucracy into the digital age — morphed into a rogue operation that disregarded information security policies, used unauthorized software and information systems on government networks, and exposed sensitive information to potential hackers, according to a watchdog report. Many of the most egregious security violations took place long after the Obama administration’s 2014 admission of one of the worst cyber-security losses in history: the theft by China-based intruders of 4.2 million personnel files from its Office of Personnel Management — a revelation that set off a wide-ranging review of all federal cybersecurity. In all, the watchdogs found, 100 of 116 software items were unauthorized, ranging from collaborative note-taking and data-sharing tools, to website monitoring tools and social media marketing dashboards. All were banned from GSA use by June 2016. A collaboration app, Slack, had “potentially exposed sensitive information” over a five-month period ending in May.

Dakota Access Pipeline Protest Site Cleared

The main Standing Rock protest camp near the Dakota Access Pipeline was cleared Thursday, a day after a deadline to leave the area expired, authorities said. Early Thursday, officials entered the closed Oceti Sakowin camp after the arrest of 10 people following Wednesday’s deadline. At least 23 people holding out in the camp were arrested Thursday morning after they refused to leave. Another 23 people were arrested as the cleanup of the site progressed. “The past two days have gone very smoothly in a challenging environment and complex effort to clear the camp,” Gov. Doug Burgum said in a news release. On Wednesday, Burgum had said the remaining protesters at the camp, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, would be allowed to leave without being arrested so contractors can continue cleaning up the protest site near the controversial 1,172-mile long pipeline.

Global Life Expectancy to Soar, Except in U.S.

Average life expectancy will increase globally by 2030, both at birth and at the age of 65, according to a new study. The two-time points help define when lifespans in a population are extending due to improvements in maternal and child health as well as improved adult health. In 2015, global average life expectancy at birth was 71.4 years, according to the World Health Organization. The average for women at birth will exceed 85 years in many countries by 2030, and South Korea is projected to lead the way with a woman’s life expectancy of 90.8 years. Life expectancy among men born in South Korea in 2030 is predicted to be 84.1 years. In Europe, French women and Swiss women are predicted to have the highest life expectancy, with averages of 88.6 and 84 years respectively. The lowest life expectancy at birth is likely to be in the US, with an average of 83.3 years for women and 79.5 years for men — similar to Mexico and Croatia.

For the first time since 1993, life expectancy in the United States has dropped significantly for the entire population, not just certain groups. On average, Americans can now expect to live 78.8 years, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Thursday. The infant mortality rate — the ratio of infant deaths to live births in a given year — is generally regarded as a good indicator of the overall health of a population,” according to the report. The IMR changed from 582.1 infant deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014 to 589.5 in 2015. The biggest takeaway: Heart disease and cancer are still far and away the top killers of both men and women. “The good news is that there are three things you can do to drastically reduce your risk of developing both: eat right, exercise and don’t smoke.”

  • The ‘land of plenty’ needs to learn that too much of a good thing is not good for one’s health

$1B in Social Security Benefits to Those Without a SSN

The Social Security Administration paid $1 billion in benefits to individuals who did not have a Social Security Number (SSN), according to a new audit. The agency’s inspector general found errors in the government’s documentation for representative payees, otherwise known as individuals who receive retirement or disability payments on behalf of another person who is incapable of managing the benefits themselves. The audit released Friday found thousands of cases where there was no SSN on file. Over the last decade, the agency paid $1 billion to 22,426 representative payees who “did not have an SSN. “Furthermore, unless it takes corrective action, we estimate SSA will pay about $182.5 million in benefits, annually, to representative payees who do not have an SSN or paper application supporting their selection,” the inspector general said.

Economic News

The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished with a more than 30-point gain Thursday and hit its tenth record closing high in a row. Hopes for tax cuts and a rollback on regulations from President Trump and the Republican-led Congress are helping to fuel the rally, notes CNNMoney. Investors are also excited about the potential for a big federal infrastructure spending plan that could put people to work building new roads and bridges.

America’s three biggest banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — earned more than $6.4 billion last year from ATM and overdraft fees, according to an analysis by CNNMoney. That works out to over $25 in fees annually for every adult American. Despite public outcry, banks show no sign of scaling back on fees. The big three banks collected nearly $300 million more in ATM and overdraft fees in 2016 than they did in 2015. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other watchdog groups have tried to warn people: Beware of bank fees. “These fees have a disproportionate impact on low and moderate income families living paycheck to paycheck,” says Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, an advocacy group.

Department store operator J.C. Penney said on Friday it would close about 130-140 stores over the next few months, and reported a bigger-than-expected drop in same-store sales for the holiday quarter. The company said it would also initiate a voluntary early retirement program for about 6,000 eligible employees and close two distribution facilities. J.C. Penney’s store closures come after larger rival Macy’s said in November it would shut 100 stores, as department stores struggle with weak demand for apparel and growing competition from online retailers.

Israel

the international effort to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) Israel suffered a devastating setback Thursday when the partners of the Leviathan gas reservoir announced plans to invest $3.75 billion in its development over the next 3 years. The Leviathan field, located about 130 km. west of Haifa, contains enough natural gas to fully supply Israel’s domestic energy needs for decades to come with enough surplus supply to export. It’s development will directly create hundreds of new jobs in Israel and is expected to also generate large tax revenues for the government. “This is a great victory,” said Groner. “The next stage is to ensure that many other energy exploratory companies form around the world will invest here.”

Islamic State

Iraqi federal police forces – backed by U.S. air support – entered Mosul International Airport and took control of the runway from the Islamic State, an official said Thursday. Thursday’s advance is part of a major assault that started five days ago to drive ISIS militants from the western half of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Mosul fell to ISIS in the summer of 2014, along with large swaths of northern and western Iraq. ISIS is estimated to have between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters in Mosul.

ISIS is on the path to poverty, according to a new joint study, “Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes,” from the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Ernst & Young. The terror group is apparently suffering from financial difficulties as revenues for ISIS have fallen by more than 50 percent. “The group’s most significant sources of revenue are closely tied to its territory. They are: (1) taxes and fees; (2) oil; and (3) looting, confiscations, and fines. We have found no hard evidence that foreign donations continue to be significant. Revenues from the sale of antiquities and kidnap for ransom, are unlikely to have been major sources of income. The study authors say the reason ISIS is currently facing financial trouble is that members constantly rely too heavily on the populations and territories they take over as sources of money. According to figures provided by the Global Coalition, by November 2016 Islamic State had lost 62 percent of its mid-2014 ‘peak’ territory in Iraq, and 30 per cent in Syria. From a revenue perspective, this means fewer people and businesses to tax and less control over natural resources such as oil fields, the report stated.

China

China is reportedly nearing completion of more than 20 buildings on its artificial islands in the South China Sea that are capable of housing long-range surface-to-air missiles. The concrete structures have retractable roofs and are about 66 feet long and 33 feet tall. U.S. intelligence community are monitoring whether surface-to-air missiles would be shipped to the reefs to protect China’s three airstrips. A Pentagon report released last year said that three artificial islands in the Spratly Island chains sport 10,000-foot runways and large ports. China has also excavated deep channels, created and dredged harbors and constructed communications, logistics and intelligence gathering facilities. A Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. was committed to “non-militarization in the South China Sea” and urged the countries that claim territory in the region to take action consistent with international law.

South Sudan

After three years of war, the South Sudanese government and humanitarian agencies officially have declared famine in parts of the country. More than 100,000 people are starving in the country, according to the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan. In some areas, particularly north of the country, more than 30 percent of the population there is suffering from acute malnutrition. The Integrated Food Security Report estimated that nearly five million South Sudanese in total are facing dire hunger. Unless more humanitarian aid is provided, some 275,000 children are at risk of starving to death, U.N. humanitarian agencies said.

Volcanoes

The Barren Island volcano, the only active volcano in India and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has erupted again for the first time since 1991. The Barren Island volcano has an elevation of 1,161 feet and sits on a small, uninhabited mile-wide island, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program. Its eruption in 1991 dramatically modified the structure of the central cinder cone, lowering its height from 1,000 feet to 738 feet.

Weather

Warmer-than-average temperatures have already broken hundreds of records in the central and eastern U.S., and dozens more are likely to be set in the days ahead. Hundreds of record highs were toppled Thursday-Wednesday (Feb. 16-21) in the Plains, Midwest, Great Lakes and East. Monday marked the fourth-consecutive day that daily record highs were set in Chicago. Minneapolis/St. Paul set a daily record high for six consecutive days Friday-Wednesday. These persistent well-above-average temperatures have caused plants and trees to begin blooming nearly 20 days earlier than average in the southern Plains, lower Mississippi Valley, Southeast and as far north as Kentucky and Virginia. Highs will be 20 to 40 degrees above average at times for parts of the Midwest and Northeast through Friday.

California has already received double the normal amounts of winter precipitation, ending a five-year drought. Residents are continuing to clean up after days of heavy rainfall led to flooding, mudslides and at least eight deaths. Another round of storms expected to hit the flood-weary state this weekend. About 500 residents of a Northern California community were under evacuation orders after a river levee became damaged amid rising water levels and pounding storms. Crews were able to stop the breach on the river levee by 8:45 p.m. Monday, but the evacuation order remained in place, according to the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services. The breach was found on the eastern side of the San Joaquin River, south of Manteca. San Jose’s Coyote Creek swelled to four feet above flood level, cresting at 14.4 feet around 3 p.m. Tuesday in downtown San Jose, easily breaking a 95-year-old record of 12.8 feet set in 1922

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