Archive for May, 2017

Signs of the Times (5/30/17)

May 30, 2017

Gender Accommodation Causes Turmoil in PA High School

Officials in the Boyertown Area School District in Pennsylvania, who have been sued for instituting what amounts to coed showers in their locker rooms, suddenly now are concerned about “student privacy,” reports WorldNetDaily.com. Several students, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Independence Law Center, brought a case against Supt. Richard Faidley and others for allowing both boys and girls to change and shower in the same room under the guise of accommodating “gender orientation.” The lawsuit charges that without any notice to students or their parents, school officials “secretly opened” their sex-specific restrooms and locker rooms to students of the opposite sex. ADF Legal Counsel Kellie Fiedorek argued “laws and customs have long recognized that we shouldn’t have to undress in front of persons of the opposite sex.” Now the school district has released a statement to WND revealing that its board met recently and “unanimously approved a proposal by an area architectural firm to study how to possibly enhance student privacy in the high school’s locker and restrooms.

No Terror Problems in Countries that Ban Muslim Refugees

As the debate continues to rage in the U.S. over Trump’s Muslim travel ban, in Japan, there is no such debate about refugees nor is there any terrorism. That’s because the Asian nation has a permanent ban on refugees from Muslim countries. Terrorism is not happening in Poland, either. Nor is it happening in Slovenia or Hungary. All of these countries keep Islamic migrants out, and Hungary recently punctuated its policy by erecting a razor-wire fence along its southern border. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has scolded Japan repeatedly over the years, trying to get the country to accept refugees, mostly Muslim, from various countries. The Japanese have steadfastly refused. Poland’s prime minister, Beata Szydlo, has also refused the constant pressure from the European Union for her country to accept its “quota” Muslim refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Referencing the Islamic suicide bombing that killed 22, mainly children, and injured dozens more at a pop concert in Manchester this week, the Catholic prime minister called out the EU’s political elites on their “folly.”

Appeals Court Refuses to Reinstate Trump’s Revised Travel Ban

Describing President Trump’s revised travel ban as intolerant and discriminatory, a federal appeals court last Thursday rejected government efforts to limit travel to the United States from six predominantly Muslim nations. The White House derided the court decision as a danger to the nation’s security, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions quickly vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court. The decision was the first from a federal appeals court on the revised travel ban issued March 6, which was an effort to make good on a campaign centerpiece of the president’s national security agenda. It echoed earlier skepticism by lower federal courts about the legal underpinnings for Mr. Trump’s executive order, which sought to halt travelers for up to 90 days while the government imposed stricter vetting processes.

Brits Fuming Over U.S. Leaks of Manchester Info

President Trump arrived at NATO headquarters here Thursday under a cloud of suspicion about the security of foreign intelligence shared with the United States, a controversy he tried to head off by vowing to end leaks of secret information. British Prime Minister Theresa May was incensed and confronted Trump over intelligence leaks about the Manchester suicide attack. Shortly after he arrived at NATO, Trump released a written statement denouncing unsanctioned disclosures. “The alleged leaks coming out of government agencies are deeply troubling,” the statement said. “These leaks have been going on for a long time and my administration will get to the bottom of this. The leaks of sensitive information pose a grave threat to our national security. I am asking the Department of Justice and other relevant agencies to launch a complete review of this matter, and if appropriate, the culprit should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” In particular, Trump singled out the New York Times for reporting information they could have only gotten from unauthorized sources. “The leaks just went from undermining our President, to deadly,” notes the American Center for Law and Justice. “The deep state shadow government is putting the lives of millions of Americans in danger. The leaks have caused our closest ally to stop sharing critical counterterrorism intelligence with the U.S.”

Trump Chastises Europe for Not Paying Fair Share in NATO

President Trump shamed European leaders for not footing more of the bill for their own defenses and lectured them to stop taking advantage of U.S. taxpayers. Speaking in front of a twisted shard of the World Trade Center at NATO’s gleaming new headquarters in Brussels, Trump upbraided America’s longtime allies for “not paying what they should be paying.” He used a ceremony to dedicate the memorial to NATO’s resolve in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States as a platform from which to exhort leaders to “focus on terrorism and immigration” to ensure their security. And he held back from the one pledge NATO leaders most dearly wanted to hear: an unconditional embrace of NATO’s solemn treaty commitment that an attack on a single alliance nation is an attack on all of them. Instead, European leaders gazed unsmilingly at Trump while he said that “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying,” and that they owe “massive amounts” from past years.

Trump Chides Nations Over Unfair Trade Practices at G-7 Summit

Wrapping up his first foreign trip as commander-in-chief, President Trump left the G-7 summit Saturday in Italy amid ongoing international deadlocks over trade and climate change. While the American president and G-7 allies agreed to increase efforts to fight terrorism, Trump aides and other world leaders acknowledged ongoing disputes over trade rules and whether the United States should remain a part of the new Paris climate change agreement, which calls for nations to restrict heat-generating carbon emissions. Climate talks in particular were “very unsatisfactory,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. Trump, who receives conflicting advice on climate change from aides, tweeted after the G-7 meetings that “I will make my final decision on the Paris Accord next week!” He has pushed back previous plans to make that announcement. In addition to protesting Trump’s views on climate change, Germany and other G-7 members pushed back on Trump’s claims that other countries engage in unfair trade practices against the United States. The back-and-forth discussions ended what European Union President Donald Tusk called “the most challenging G-7 summit in years.” As the Group of Seven summit wrapped up Saturday, thousands demonstrated in the streets, rallying around dozens of issues from immigration to capitalism and everything in between.

Foreign Leaders Distance Themselves from Trump

President Trump received a largely cordial welcome on the first overseas trip of his presidency. But now that he’s returned to Washington, the foreign leaders he met with are increasingly blunt in their reviews of the American president. In separate remarks intended mostly for domestic consumption, leaders of Germany, France and Israel all sought to distance themselves from Trump, just days after meeting with the president during his nine-day foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Vatican City, Brussels and Italy. Among the sources of friction: Trump’s reluctance to unreservedly commit to the North Atlantic alliance, his skepticism of a climate change accord signed on to by his predecessor, and the outreach to Palestinians in pursuit of a Middle East peace agreement. The dynamic is partly one of Trump’s brash style and confrontational manner.

House Health Care Bill Reduces Premiums, Covers Less

House Republicans boast that their health care bill would reduce average premiums, but that’s because the insurance policies will generally cover less. That might be fine for those who never see the doctor, but it would mean those who actually use the coverage will pay more to get treatment. Obamacare put in place an array of protections that pushed up premiums, but shielded Americans from big health care bills. Also, the law capped how much consumers have to pay out-of-pocket each year for the essential health benefits — $7,150 in 2017 — and it prevented insurers from settling annual or lifetime limits on these benefits. However, as insurers losses mounted, many have either raised prices significantly or pulled out of Obamacare leaving some states with only one provider.

Native Americans Worried About Trump’s Budget Cuts

Native Americans have, by far, the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the country. The sweeping cuts included in the Trump budget proposal have sent shivers through the Native American community. Trump’s plan would slash the budget for the Interior Department — which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency that provides services for nearly 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives — by 12%, to $11.6 billion. The cuts could be devastating, according to Mason Big Crow, the Oglala Sioux tribe treasurer. The tribe could lose at least half the money it receives from federal sources, Big Crow said.

Deaths from Alzheimer’s Up 55% in U.S.

The rate of people dying from Alzheimer’s disease in the United States rose by 55% over a 15-year period, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. The number of those patients dying at home from the neurodegenerative condition also rose, from 14% to 25% over the same time period studied, 2009-2014. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, causing symptoms including memory loss, impaired language, difficulties in concentrating and decision making, confusion, or disorientation. The disease mainly affects people over the age of 65 and is the sixth leading cause of death in the US, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. More than 5 million Americans are living with the disease. That number is predicted to rise to 16 million by 2050.

Economic News

Nearly a tenth of homes with a mortgage in the United States were considered “seriously underwater” at the end of the first quarter of 2017, according to statistics from ATTOM Data Solutions. And nearly a third of all homes nationwide valued at less than $100,000 are seriously underwater. A property is seriously underwater if the amount owed on the loan secured against it is at least 25% higher than the value of the property. The good news is that the number of seriously underwater homes is down slightly from a year ago. While negative equity continued to trend steadily downward in the first quarter, it remains stubbornly high in often-overlooked pockets of the housing market. These pockets exist in several Rust Belt cities, Las Vegas and central Florida.

Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage in 10 years. Democrats on Capitol Hill decided to mark the occasion by introducing a bill that probably won’t pass, reports CNNMoney. They introduced legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour by 2024. The bill isn’t likely to go anywhere in Congress. Republicans run the House, Senate and the White House, and no members of the GOP have given their endorsement. Meanwhile, many states have been enacting their own changes amid inaction at the federal level. Nineteen states began 2017 with higher minimum wages, from Arkansas to Michigan to Florida, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York, California and Washington D.C. all passed laws in 2016 that put them on track for $15 an hour.

OPEC, Russia and other major oil producers agreed this week to continue their reduced production volume for another nine months. These coordinated production cuts are aimed at mopping up the massive supply glut that sent crude crashing to unthinkably-low prices last year. While OPEC’s ability to cobble together an agreement has managed to keep a lid on prices this year, oil stockpiles in the U.S. and other major economies remain stubbornly-high — and that’s spooking impatient investors. Oil stockpiles in developed countries in the OECD jumped by 24 million barrels during the first quarter to a new record of 1.2 billion, according to the International Energy Agency.

Persecution Watch

Human rights activists told Capitol Hill lawmakers that Christians in North Korea are facing persecution that is likely “on par” with the level of persecution that the Early Christian Church endured under Roman emperor Nero. The activists, convened by International Christian Concern, told lawmakers about the human rights abuses that Christians face. For the past 15 years, North Korea has ranked as the top persecutor of Christians by Open Doors USA. Any Christian worship, or religious worship, is illegal and can be punished be arrest, torture or execution. Organizations such as Database Center for North Korean Human Rights and the Korean Institution for National Unification [have] interviewed thousands of defectors who brought testimony of extremely severe religious persecution.

United Kingdom

Police arrested two more suspects Saturday over the deadly Manchester concert bombing, as Britons began a sunny holiday long weekend under heightened security. Greater Manchester Police said two men, aged 20 and 22, were detained early Saturday in the northwest England city on suspicion of terrorism offenses. Police used an explosive device to get into a property to make the arrests. Police say they are now holding 11 men, aged between 18 and 44, in custody and have made major progress in their investigation. Mark Rowley, Britain’s top counterterrorism police officer, said authorities have dismantled a “large part” of the network around bomber Salman Abedi. But he said there were still “gaps in our understanding” of the plot, as investigators probed Abedi’s potential links to jihadis in Britain, Europe, Libya and the Middle East.

Islamic State

The Islamic State lured the U.S.-led forces into conducting an airstrike in March that killed over 100 civilians in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, a top American military official said Thursday. An investigation into the March bombing found that the terror groups rigged a house with over 1,000 pounds of explosives, put civilians in the basement, and employed two ISIS snipers on the roof to bait the U.S.-led coalition to attack. The bomb used by the American jet, a GBU-38 (500-lb bomb), would not have caused the type of damage associated with the destruction of the building. The probe found that the U.S. bomb triggered secondary explosions from devices clandestinely planted in the lower floors of the concrete building.

Egypt

Masked gunmen opened fire Friday on a caravan of Coptic Christian pilgrims heading to a monastery south of Cairo, killing at least 29 men, women and children, Egyptian security and health officials said. ISIS claimed credit. Christians of the Muslim majority Arab nation have been increasingly targeted by Islamic militants. The Islamic State affiliate in Egypt vowed — following the pope’s visit — to escalate attacks against Christian. The gunmen, riding in three 4 x 4 vehicles, ambushed a minibus and two cars of pilgrims heading along a desert road to the monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor in the Minya governorate, about 130 miles south of the Egyptian capital.

Egyptian fighter jets struck militant bases in eastern Libya late Friday in retaliation for the attack by masked gunmen on a caravan of Coptic Christians that left 28 people dead. In a televised address, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said his forces were hitting what he called “training bases” for the militants who carried out the killings. Senior officials said the warplanes targeted the headquarters of the Shura Council in the city of Darna, where local militias are known to be linked to al-Qaeda, not the Islamic State.

Iraq

The death toll of a deadly nighttime bombing outside a popular ice cream shop in central Baghdad has risen to 31 as ISIS militants claimed responsibility. Iraqi officials said families with children were enjoying a late-night snack after breaking their fast for Ramadan when the explosions went off. The attacks come as ISIS militants are steadily losing more territory to U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in the battle for Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. The Sunni extremists are increasingly turning to insurgency-style terror attacks to detract from their losses.

Afghanistan

At least 18 people were killed when a suicide car bomber targeted a convoy of provincial security forces in eastern Afghanistan. The target was a group of guards providing security for U.S. forces in Khost province but most of the victims in Saturday’s attack were civilians. The convoy of Khost provincial forces was targeted near the province’s main bus station. The attack comes on the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. The Taliban had warned about their new spring offensive.

Philippines

The black flag of ISIS has been raised in the Philippines. At least 103 people have died in the city of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao in less than a week as fighters affiliated with the Islamic State engaged in violent clashes with government forces, and martial law was declared over the entire island. Hundreds of hostages were taken, most of them Christians. The militants entered the predominantly Muslim city of some 200,000 suddenly, on the afternoon of May 24, wearing masks and carrying assault rifles. Black ISIS flags emblazoned in white with the words “There is no god but God” were flying from every corner in the city. Photos showed long queues of cars piled with people and belongings leaving Marawi, as tanks and armored troop vehicles headed toward the beleaguered city. Clashes between government forces and militants had claimed the lives of 19 civilians, 11 military and four policemen, as of Sunday afternoon, with at least 61 militants also killed.

North Korea

North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile that landed in Japan’s maritime economic zone Monday, officials said, the latest in a string of test launches as the North seeks to build nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can reach the U.S. mainland. It landed in Japan’s exclusive maritime economic zone, which is set about 200 nautical miles off the Japanese coast. Because Monday’s test — the North’s ninth ballistic missile launch this year — was apparently of a short-range variety of which Pyongyang has a surplus of reliable missiles, it may have been meant more as a political and military message to outsiders than as a crucial test of not-yet-perfected technology.

Volcanoes

The Bogoslof Volcano in the Aleutian Islands erupted again on Sunday, sending a cloud of ash at least 35,000 feet into the air and prompting an aviation red alert. Ash can harm and stop jet engines. Ash from southwest Alaska volcanos is a threat airliners operating between North America and Asia when a cloud rises above 20,000 feet. The Bogoslof volcano remains at a heightened state of unrest in an unpredictable condition. Additional explosions producing high-altitude volcanic clouds could occur at any time. Bogoslof, one of the United State’s most active volcanoes, has erupted at least 36 times in the past four months.  Bogoslof Island, located in the Bering Sea north of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, has nearly tripled in size due to pyroclastic fall and flow deposits.

Weather

One of the year’s most severe outbreak of thunderstorms struck the U.S. Saturday. Almost 500 reports of severe weather were received by National Weather Service offices Saturday and Saturday night, from southeast Colorado and northeast New Mexico to Virginia and North Carolina. Trees have been downed by straight-line winds across central Missouri. Many powerlines were snapped. An 80-mph wind gust was recorded in Salem, Missouri late Saturday afternoon as a squall line intensified. Early Saturday afternoon softball size hail was reported near Adrian and Ballard, Missouri. Supercell thunderstorms struck during the evening hours in Oklahoma, with hail as large as tennis balls. Wind gusts up to 69 mph blew a satellite dish off the roof of the Memphis’ emergency management office and overturned a semi on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge crossing the Mississippi River. Richmond, Virginia received hail as large as eggs, and much of central Virginia saw severe storms including damaging hail up to golf ball sized. At least a dozen people have been hurt and more than a dozen mobile homes were ‘flipped’ after storms struck in eastern North Carolina Monday.

Heavy rainfall in Sri Lanka triggered flooding and mudslides that killed nearly 200 people and left at least 100 others missing Friday. Tens of thousands have been displaced. The dangerous conditions could worsen, and citizens who live close to areas prone to flooding and mudslides have been urged to evacuate by the government. Heavy rains have lashed several parts of the country for a week, inundating roads and houses. Much of Sri Lanka has been heavily deforested for export crops such as tea and rubber, leaving the countryside exposed.

At least 16 people have been killed after strong thunderstorms and high winds buffeted Moscow and surrounding areas on Monday. Winds up to 70 mph were reported, and officials said most of the deaths were caused by falling trees. 60,000 people in Russia’s Stavropol region are being evacuated due to the threat of flooding. More than 200 houses lost roofs, more than 2,000 cars were damaged and around 14,000 trees were downed.

Signs of the Times (5/25/17)

May 25, 2017

Trump Calls for End to Islamic Extremism & Peace in Israel

President Trump urged leaders of Muslim countries to stand up against what he called “Islamic extremism” on Sunday, adopting a tough stance on terror while in Saudi Arabia, who gave the President a warm welcome. Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump received rave reviews for her advocacy of greater inclusion of women in the Saudi Arabian workforce. The World Bank announced that Arab countries had contributed $100 million toward her women’s entrepreneurship initiative. On the second leg of Trump’s first foreign trip as commander-in-chief, he greeted Israeli leaders in Jerusalem Monday with hopes to lay the groundwork for a peace deal with the Palestinians – saying a “rare opportunity” exists, and the threat posed by Iran is bringing Arab neighbors together toward that goal. “There is a growing realization among your Arab neighbors that they have common cause with you in the threat posed by Iran,” Trump said, speaking alongside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Trump also became the first sitting U.S. president to visit and pray the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

Trump’s efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on Tuesday took him to Bethlehem, a Palestinian city of just 22,000 people but symbolically important to people around the world. Meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his presidential palace in Bethlehem, Trump said, “Peace is a choice we must make each day, and the United States is here to help make that dream possible for young Jewish, Christians and Muslim children all across the region. In this spirit of hope, we come to Bethlehem, asking God for more peaceful, safe and far more tolerant world for all of us.” Trump departed Israel on Tuesday afternoon following an eventful 28-hour visit. Throughout his many stops and statements, key talking points emerged including supporting Israel against the threats from Iran and jihadi terror militias, as well as his keenness to oversee the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump proclaimed the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, invoking the reign of King David. On Wednesday, Trump met with Pope Francis where they discussed “the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue” and homed in on the need to protect Christians in the Middle East.”

Manchester Concert Bombing Claims 22 Lives

Investigators are trying to establish whether a suicide bomber was working alone or as part of a network after a deadly explosion killed at least 22 people — including some children — following an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, northern England, police said early Tuesday.  Thousands of terrified concert-goers ran for the exits as chaos unfolded after the blast at Manchester Arena, one of the largest concert venues in Europe. Greater Manchester Police are treating the incident as a terror attack and said the attacker was killed in the blast. ISIS claimed one of its members planted bombs in the middle of crowds at the 21,000 capacity Manchester Arena. The Search International Terrorist Entities Intelligence Group said that the Islamic State has celebrated the attack on social media. British Prime Minister Theresa May called the attack a display of “appalling, sickening cowardice – deliberately targeting innocent, defenseless children and young people.”

The Libyan links of suicide bomber Salman Abedi drew severe scrutiny Wednesday as authorities tried to determine if the British-born local resident acted alone. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the sophistication of the attack indicate Abedi, 22, did not act alone. Abedi had “proven” links with the Islamic State terror network, British intelligence officials say. Abedi had recently traveled to two Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Libya, where investigators believe he likely got help planning the Manchester bombing. Three suspects were rounded up in Manchester Wednesday in connection with Monday’s deadly concert bombing, as British authorities raced to prevent another attack that they sat could be imminent.

Trump’s First Budget Proposal Goes to Congress

President Trump’s first budget proposal was sent to Capitol Hill Tuesday. Trump is proposing major cuts to health care, food assistance and other safety-net programs for the poor to balance the budget in 10 years while increasing spending for the military. “If you’re on food stamps and you’re able-bodied, we need you to go to work,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said. “If you’re on disability insurance … and you’re not truly disabled, we need you to go back to work.”  Critics argue the proposed budget would hurt the most vulnerable parts of the country’s population. Opposition to Trump’s budget is likely to be strong in Congress — and not just among Democrats. The budget proposal assumes passage of the House Obamacare repeal bill, which cuts spending on Medicaid and insurance subsidies for low- and moderate-income families while repealing taxes imposed to pay for the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of insurance coverage to millions more Americans.

Other major sources of savings —the most cuts ever proposed by a president —include student loan programs, federal retiree benefits, crop subsidies, disability payments and tax credits for the working poor and families with children. The budget proposes double-digit percentage cuts next year for many Cabinet departments and major agencies, including 31% at the Environmental Protection Agency, 29% at State, and around 20% at the Agriculture and Labor departments. By contrast, the Defense and Homeland Security departments, along with Veterans Affairs, would enjoy increases of 5% or more next year. Trump also wants to increase spending for school voucher programs and infrastructure projects and to offer, for the first time, six weeks of paid family leave to new mothers and fathers.

Demand Soars for Concealed Carry Permits

The number of concealed carry permits in the United States has topped 15 million over the last year, according to data collected by the Crime Prevention Research Center. It was the largest one-year increase ever in the number of permits issued, according to the research center. In July 2016, the center reported that 14.5 million people had concealed handgun permits. As of May of this year, the number is already 15.7 million. Several states, including Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Texas, have seen a big jump in the number of gun permits issued. Between 2012 and 2016, Lott said, the growth rate for women was twice as much as it was for men. Minorities are also purchasing handguns at a higher rate compared to previous years. Firearms instructors are reporting an increase in the number of black women learning how to use guns around the country.

Abortion Conference Video Reveals Gruesome Details

The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) has released video footage from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) conference during which abortionists admit they work they do is “killing,” complain about how “difficult” it is to tear apart a fetus, and lament that they’re not given a place to discuss the “heads that get stuck that we can’t get out.” A judge’s gag order prevented this footage from being released for over a year. Some of this footage was previously leaked by Got News, but this is the first time CMP has publicly released it with subtitles, reports lifesitenews.com. “An eyeball … fell down into my lap, and that is gross!” exclaimed Dr. Uta Landy, the founder of Planned Parenthood’s Consortium of Abortion Providers (CAPS). The audience laughed. Dr. Susan Robinson, an abortionist at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, used forceps to show undercover CMP investigators how she pulls babies apart during abortions. Dr. Deborah Nucatola, who appeared in one of CMP’s first videos discussing altering abortion methods to obtain better fetal body parts to sell, describes in this video how she beheads babies so their skulls and brains can be sold.

Eight States Have Only One Abortion Clinic Open

Eight states are reportedly on their way to being abortion free and each have only one abortion clinic remaining. LifeNews.com reports that the eight states are Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arkansas. West Virginia and Kentucky were the most recent states to shut down all abortion clinics except one.

Android Apps Track Users With Hidden ‘Beacons’

An increasing number of Android applications are tracking users without their knowledge, according to a new report. Over recent years, companies have started hiding “beacons”, ultrasonic audio signals inaudible to humans, in their advertisements, in order to track devices and learn more about their owners. Electronic devices equipped with microphones can register these sounds, allowing advertisers to uncover their location and work out what kind of ads their owners watch on TV and which other devices they own, reports Technocracy News. Researchers at Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany found that, while six apps were known to be using ultrasound cross-device tracking technology in April 2015, this number grew to 39 by December 2015, and has now increased to 234.

Economic News

Home builders throughout the country are struggling to find workers, and it’s causing major problems: Labor costs are rising, homes are taking longer to complete and buyers are facing higher prices. When the housing market collapsed nearly a decade ago, home construction came to a screeching halt, leaving many workers in the field without jobs. Workers fled to other industries or other countries, and many haven’t come back. Some took jobs in the manufacturing and auto industries, while others found work in the energy sector. Foreign-born workers, the vast majority of whom come from Mexico, made up a significant chunk of home buildering crews, and many of them returned home during the Great Recession and ultimately found gainful employment there.

A record 107 million Americans have auto loan debt, according to data released this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That’s about 43% of the entire adult population in the U.S. In early 2012, only 80 million Americans had car loans. In fact, more Americans had home mortgages than auto loans in 2012. But all that has changed. Today the number of auto loans far outpaces home loans. Car sales notched another all-time high in 2016, though lately the buying frenzy seems to be over.

Nearly eight years into an economic recovery, nearly half of Americans didn’t have enough cash available to cover a $400 emergency, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest annual Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households. Specifically, the Fed’s survey found that 44% of respondents said they wouldn’t be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense like a car repair or medical bill, or would have to borrow money or sell something to meet it. The survey also found that 23 percent of U.S. adults will not be able to pay their bills this month, while 25% reported skipping medical treatments.

The combined enrollment in the four largest safety net programs in the U.S. has reached a new all-time record; More than 74 million Americans are on Medicaid and CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program); More than 58 million Americans are on Medicare; More than 60 million Americans are on Social Security; and approximately 44 million Americans are on food stamps. This latter number is dramatically higher than the 26 million Americans that were on food stamps prior to the last financial crisis.

America’s entrepreneurial sector is in deep trouble. The number of new entrepreneurs and business owners has been dropping – as a percent of the working-age population – for more than a generation, declining by 53 percent between 1977 and 2010. The share of self-employed Americans has also been declining since 1991; by 2010 it had dropped by more than 20 percent. This is bad for our economy – new businesses are a vital source of new ideas and new jobs, notes newamerica.org.

Solar employment expanded last year 17 times faster than the total U.S. economy, according to an International Renewable Energy Agency report published on Wednesday. Overall, more than 260,000 people work in the solar industry, up by 24% from 2015. The solar business has benefited from the falling cost of solar energy and generous federal tax credits that make it more affordable for businesses and homeowners to install solar panels. Elon Musk’s Tesla recently started taking orders for solar roofs that is made of solar shingles to satisfy concerns that solar panels are ugly.

Digital currency bitcoin is more popular than ever. Prices surged to a record high above $2,000 over the weekend and were trading above $2,100 on Monday. Bitcoin prices have soared 125% thus far in 2017. Traders can probably thank President Trump for at least part of the big spike due to the uncertainty about future U.S. government policies. One of the reasons digital currencies like bitcoin and lesser known ones such as Ethereum and Ripple have soared this year is because they, like gold, are not backed by governments. And even though the record of transactions is public, there is a level of anonymity about who is making the transactions.

North Korea

U.S. and South Korean officials announced on Sunday that North Korea fired a medium-range missile, in the latest ballistics test for a country speeding up its development of nuclear weapons and missiles. U.S. Pacific Command said it tracked the missile until it landed into the sea. The missile flew eastward about 310 miles. North Korea tested a longer-range missile last weekend, which experts say was a significant advance for a weapons program that aims at having a nuclear-tipped missile that can strike America. The test triggered a new U.S.-backed push for a fresh round of U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

Iran

Iran’s newly re-elected president Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that his country will continue its ballistic missile program despite criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump.  “The U.S. leaders should know that whenever we need a missile test because of a technical aspect, we will test,” Rouhani said in a news conference. “We will not wait for them and their permission.” “Our missiles are for peace, not for attack,” he added. The remarks came three days after he won Iran’s presidential election, securing another four-year term. On Sunday, Trump also made a speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that urged leaders in the Middle East region to combat extremism. Iran has built a third underground ballistic missile production factory and will keep developing its missile program, the semi-official Fars news agency reported Wednesday. The development is likely to fuel tensions with the United States in a week when President Donald Trump, on his first foreign trip, has called Iran a sponsor of militant groups and a threat to countries across the Middle East.

China

The Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward, reports the New York Times. Current and former American officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scramble in Washington’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain the fallout, but investigators were bitterly divided over the cause. Some were convinced that a mole within the C.I.A. had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Years later, that debate remains unresolved.

Philippines

Muslim extremists abducted a Catholic priest and more than a dozen churchgoers while laying siege to a southern Philippine city overnight, burning buildings, ambushing soldiers and hoisting flags of the Islamic State. President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the southern third of the nation and warned he would enforce it harshly. The violence erupted Tuesday night after the army raided the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander who is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists with a reward of up to $5 million for his capture. The militants called for reinforcements from an allied group, the Maute, and some 50 gunmen managed to enter the city of Marawi. Martial law allows Duterte to harness the armed forces to carry out arrests, searches and detentions more rapidly.

Venezuela

Massive demonstrations, violence and a rising death toll marked 50 consecutive days of anti-government protests in Venezuela. Hundreds marched on Saturday along Caracas’s Francisco Fajardo highway, one of city’s major routes. Protests turned violent in Caracas later on Saturday when demonstrators and police clashed surrounded by a mix of tear gas and exploding Molotov cocktails. More than 950 have been injured in Venezuela since the protests began, the country’s attorney general’s office said Saturday. Anti-government protesters want new elections and have called for President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation. The government has repeatedly blocked any attempts to oust Maduro from power by a referendum vote. It has also delayed local and state elections. Since March 29, opposition leaders have faced off with Maduro and his supporters, accusing him of imposing a dictatorship.

Nigeria

The 82 Nigerian schoolgirls recently released after more than three years in Boko Haram captivity reunited with their families Saturday as anxious parents looked for signs of how deeply the extremists had changed their daughters’ lives. This month’s release was the largest liberation of hostages since 276 Chibok schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school in 2014. Five commanders from the extremist group were exchanged for the girls’ freedom, and Nigeria’s government has said it would make further exchanges to bring the 113 remaining schoolgirls home.

Environment

Sea-level rise recently “accelerated significantly,” said study lead author Sönke Dangendorf of the University of Siegen in Germany. Before 1990, the Earth’s oceans were rising less than a half-inch per decade. But from 1993 through 2012, the seas rose about 1.22 inches per decade, the research found. Sea level has risen nearly 8 inches worldwide since 1880 but, unlike water in a bathtub, it doesn’t rise evenly. In the past 100 years, it has climbed about a foot or more in some U.S. cities because of ocean currents and naturally sinking land. “Ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic store some hundred times more water than glaciers,” Dangendorf said. “As a result, further melting of the ice sheets poses a particular risk for low coastal areas.”

A massive landslide buried a section of California’s iconic Highway 1 in Big Sur, according to authorities. More than one million tons of rock and dirt buried a quarter-mile stretch of Highway 1 under forty-feet of debris. The highway snakes around the California coastline and is a major tourist destination. Officials called the landslide “one of a kind,” and said authorities aren’t sure when the highway will reopen. The slide went from bad to worse over the weekend and it will be a major undertaking to open the road again, the sheriff’s office said.

Weather

The Sierra Nevada snowpack will rapidly melt this week as very warm temperatures grip the region, raising the risk of major flooding near a couple of Nevada towns. Snowpack in the Sierra from this past winter was still well above average to begin May. The SNOTEL network estimated water content of the snowpack in the Sierra was almost three times the early-May average. With well-above-average temperatures in place to start this week, melting of that snowpack will be accelerated. Rapidly increasing flows are likely on rivers and streams in the region. Flows on some waterways could be two to three times greater than normal. The Walker River in western Nevada poses the greatest risk of property damage, as it is forecast to experience major to record flooding by late week near the towns of Mason and Yerington.

Damaging storms hammered Austin County, Texas Tuesday afternoon, where trees and power lines were downed and a major interstate was closed for hours. At least a dozen small planes were damaged in Texas after an overnight storm brought winds of almost 50 mph through the area. Nearly a dozen reports of tornadoes came in across the South Tuesday evening. Parts of Highway 90 were shut down Tuesday in south Georgia, and at least 10 structures in the Peach State were damaged due to storms. At least one person was injured near Salemburg, North Carolina, after a mobile home was overturned. The local volunteer fire department building in Autryville was destroyed by a reported tornado.

For the second time in as many days, residents cleaned up damage across the South as severe storms hit the region Wednesday. Tornadoes were reported in Georgia and the Carolinas Wednesday during another round of severe weather. At least four homes were damaged in South Carolina. A radar-confirmed tornado destroyed an elementary school gym in North Carolina. There were also reports of several flipped vehicles.

Signs of the Times (5/20/17)

May 20, 2017

Miracle Harvest of Souls Among ISIS Refugees

Reports from several Christian organizations on the ground in ISIS-torn regions say that the flood of Muslims coming to Christ shows no end in sight. The challenge we face is that the need already is greater than our resources can provide. “This is an unprecedented, miracle harvest of souls resulting from the despicable terror acts of ISIS marauders and the murderous civil war in Syria. Refugees are running for their lives from ISIS evil and are running directly to our partnering camps where Christian workers are ministering to these refugees’ physical needs and sharing the Good News. The miracle harvest is so great that one of our partner’s churches that is operating a camp for Syrian refugees is reporting that more than TWO-THIRDS of their workers are former refugees who have come to faith in Christ and are now ministering God’s love to other refugees.,” reports Liberty Relief. They are in desperate need of at least 10,000 Bibles. You can contribute to this harvest at:

Christianity Growing in North Korea Despite Persecution

North Korea is the number one country for most severe persecution of Christians, according to Open Doors 2017 World Watch List, but despite the extreme persecution Christians there face, the church is growing, reports a North Korean defector. The Christian Post reports that Kim Chung-seong was able to escape North Korea right before he was to be killed. He now lives in South Korea and is involved in missions work. “The one thing that the North Korean regime fears the most, and is afraid of, is the spreading of the Gospel,” he said Friday while attending the first annual World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Washington, D.C. He said that Christians in North Korea are forced to hide their faith from the government and sometimes even from their own families in order to avoid persecution. But despite these obstacles, there are an estimated 300,000 Christians in North Korea.

Planned Parenthood Closing Multiple Abortion Clinics in Iowa

The abortion chain Planned Parenthood announced plans Thursday to close four Iowa clinics as a result of a new state law that defunds it. Reports lifennews.com. At the end of June, Planned Parenthood facilities in Burlington, Keokuk and Sioux City, Iowa will close; and a fourth in Quad City will close when the building is sold, Iowa Public Radio reports. Three of the facilities did abortions. The tax money that used to go to Planned Parenthoods in Iowa now will be given to community health clinics that offer comprehensive health care but not abortions. In contrast to the 12 (soon to be eight) Planned Parenthood facilities in Iowa, there are 221 community health clinics in Iowa, according to local news reports. These facilities will be able to expand services to low-income, minority and other patients with the funding increase.

Court Grants Christian T-shirt Printer the Right to Decline Pro-LGBT Orders

In a surprise decision, the owner of a Christian t-shirt printing business recently won an appeals case after he objected to printing a pro-LGBT message on an order of t-shirts, representing one of very few cases resolved in favor of religious freedom. Owner Blaine Adamson says he and his staff never refuse to do business with someone based on their personal beliefs, but he did feel compelled in 2012 to decline to print a message for a gay pride event because it went against his convictions. The Gay and Lesbian Services Organization promoting the event then filed a discrimination lawsuit against Adamson and his company. Hands On Originals’ case was taken up by Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF attorneys appealed the case to the Fayette Circuit Court, which overruled the original ruling against Adamson which was handed down by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission in 2014. “’It is also a victory for all Americans because it reassures us all that, no matter what you believe, the law can’t force you to express a message in conflict with your deepest convictions,” ADF’s lead attorney said.

Trump Travels to Middle East as Bombshells Multiply in Washington

President Trump began an ambitious five-city, nine-day foreign trip in Saudi Arabia on Saturday with the goal of uniting the Muslim world against terror — even as his presidency is embroiled in a quickly escalating controversy over his ties to the Russian government. In Riyadh, there’s a clear sense of national pride that Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign destination as president. Bright electronic billboards line King Salman Road the airport to downtown, showing side-by-side photos of President Trump and the Saudi king under the banner “Together we Prevail.” President Trump on Saturday signed a nearly $110 billion arms deal to help the Persian Gulf ally with its military-defense system. From Saudi Arabia, Trump will travel Monday to Jerusalem for talks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an issue that has confounded every modern president even under the best of circumstances. Trump comes to Israel amid revelations he divulged top secret Israeli intelligence to Russia, and after a diplomatic flare-up over the U.S. refusal to recognize Jerusalem as wholly within Israeli territory.

Defense Secretary Mattis says Trump’s Orders Will Annihilate ISIS

New approaches approved by President Trump to defeat Islamic State militants have begun to bear fruit, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Friday. Commanders in the field have been given greater authority to press the fight without approval from Washington, and a tactical shift to “annihilation” from a war of attrition has thrown fighters from the Islamic State, or ISIS, on “their back foot,” Mattis said. Trump’s order, Mattis said, has shifted the focus from surrounding ISIS fighters in their strongholds and waiting them out to attacking them and choking off their lines of retreat. Mattis declined to put a timeline on defeat for the terror organization, calling it a “transnational, long-term threat.”

Furor Over Trump Leaks to Russians

During an Oval Office meeting with top Russian officials, a current and a former U.S. official said, President Trump described highly classified material about a new ISIS plot. The details had not even been shared with American allies, and the disclosure could jeopardize a crucial intelligence-sharing relationship, notes the New York Times. However, President Trump on Tuesday defended conversations he had with Russian officials, saying he shared “facts” about terrorism and had “the absolute right to do” so. Under U.S. law, the President has the right to declassify sensitive material. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all strongly pushed back Monday evening following The Washington Post report that Trump disclosed to Russian officials the foreign city where an ISIS plot was hatched – a development that could potentially lead the Russians to discover U.S. intelligence sources and methods. In addition, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denied Saturday that the dismissal of FBI director James Comey was discussed during his meeting last week with President Trump in the Oval Office.

Israeli Intelligence Angry Over Leak

Reports that Israel was the source of highly classified information that President Trump shared with Russian officials last week left a chill among current and former intelligence officials here. Israeli intelligence officers are taking the matter seriously, a military intelligence officer said Tuesday. The officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said Israel was warned months ago to be careful about sharing information with Trump’s staff, and now that warning has been realized, reports the USA Today. Last week’s incident will likely lead to some adjustments in the quality of intelligence shared in the future by Israel and other countries, said Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general and former intelligence officer with the Israel Defense Forces.

Putin Offers to Hand Over Records of Trump-Lavrov Meeting

Vladimir Putin offered Wednesday to help settle the controversy over claims President Trump shared classified intel with his diplomats. Railing against “dangerous” U.S. politicians whipping up “anti-Russian sentiment,” the Russian president dismissed the claim that Trump disclosed such information to Kremlin officials and offered to hand over records of the Oval Office meeting to Congress. Speaking during a joint news conference with the Italian prime minister, Putin said those attacking Trump for allegedly being too cozy with Russian politicians were guilty of “political schizophrenia.” If Trump did disclose classified intel, Putin said he would have to reprimand Lavrov since the alleged intelligence was never passed along to him. “He hasn’t shared those secrets with us,” Putin concluded. Turning to Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election, Putin said he initially found the claim “funny” but said Moscow is now “concerned because it’s hard to imagine what the people who produce such nonsense can come up with next.”

White House Disputes Report that Trump Asked Comey to End Flynn Probe

The White House grappled late Tuesday with the political ghost of James Comey, as an explosive new report said a memo written by the ousted FBI chief claimed President Trump once asked him to end the probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The White House sharply disputed the report, as Democrats seized on it as potential proof of “obstruction” of justice. According to The New York Times the memo quoted Trump as saying he hoped Comey could “let this go” with regard to Flynn. The Times said Comey wrote the memo shortly after an Oval Office meeting on Feb. 14, the day after Flynn resigned from the Trump administration. The paper acknowledged it had not seen a copy of the memo. “The President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn,” an official said.

  • President Trump has insisted that his press coverage has been historically negative, and a newly released Harvard journalism study backs him up. A major study released Thursday by the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that the coverage of Mr. Trump during his first 100 days was “unsparing,” with negative reports outnumbering positive ones by 80 to 20 percent. “Trump’s coverage during his first 100 days set a new standard for negativity,” the report states.

Special Council to Investigate Alleged Russian Campaign Collusion

On Wednesday, former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed to be a special counsel to oversee the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion between Russia and President Trump’s campaign. Robert S. Mueller III, is a former FBI who has spent most of his life in public service. Mueller, 72, was named to head the FBI one week before the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks – and spent the next 12 years at the helm of the agency, a tenure second in length only to J. Edgar Hoover. Now, he has a new challenge: Overseeing the FBI’s ongoing counterintelligence investigation into possible collusion between the Trump election campaign associates and Russia. President Trump denied the collusion charges and called the probe the “greatest witch hunt” in U.S. history.

Ransomware Hack Linked to North Korea

Clues point to a link between a hacking group connected to North Korea and the ransomware attacks that have crippled computer systems worldwide, according to two cyber-security firms. Experts at the global cyber-security firm Symantec found that earlier versions of the ransomware known as WannaCry were found on computers that also bore evidence of the cyber tools used against Sony Pictures Entertainment, as well as banks in Poland and Bangladesh’s central bank— attacks that all were linked to North Korea. Also, a researcher at Google singled out an identical code used both in the ransomware and used by the Lazarus Group, a team of hackers tied to North Korea. Microsoft, whose older Windows operating system was the target of the ransomware that a quarter-million computers in 150 countries, has blamed the National Security Agency for stockpiling cyberweapons that were then stolen and used to form the attack, a scenario echoed by cybersecurity firms. In the WannaCry attack, which started Friday, the attackers have demanded $300 per computer in payments to unlock infected computers, a scheme that paralyzed computers at U.K. hospitals, a Spanish telephone company, and European car factories. But payouts so far have yet to top $100,000, according to firms tracking the attackers’ bitcoin accounts.

Factory Wages Too Low to Generate Rust Belt Renaissance

President Trump made boosting manufacturing the centerpiece of his economic agenda, vowing to revitalize blue-collar America, but factories just aren’t what they used to be, and the notion of “good-paying” manufacturing jobs that connect high school graduates to the middle class is quickly becoming a myth, reports the Washington Times. Instead, rank-and-file production workers now lag behind much of the rest of the economy in terms of paychecks, forcing economists to wonder whether the push for more factories is desirable in the first place, notes the conservative newspaper. Even the service industry, long dismissed as second-tier employment, averages higher wages than factory laborers, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service. In 2000, the average factory worker earned 5.1 percent more on an hourly basis than workers in the services sector. By last year, factory workers earned 4.3 percent less.

Robots to Slash Retail Jobs

Robots have already cost millions of factory jobs across the nation. Next up could be jobs at your local stores. Between 6 million to 7.5 million existing jobs are at risk of being replaced over the course of the next 10 years by some form of automation, according to a new study this week from by financial services firm Cornerstone Capital Group. That represents at least 38% of the current retail work force, which consists of 16 million workers. Retail could actually lose a greater proportion of jobs to automation than manufacturing has, according to the study. “Cashiers are considered one of the most easily automatable jobs in the economy,” said the report. And these job losses will hit women particularly hard, since about 73% of cashiers are women.

Economic News

U.S. household debt has topped the record level reached in 2008, a milestone for the recovery that shows consumers are borrowing again. But while the debt doesn’t pose the risks that toppled the financial system nine years ago, there are still some signs of potential trouble, notably high student loan debt and delinquency rates. Debt balances for American households increased $149 billion, or 1.2%, in the first quarter to $12.73 trillion, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Wednesday. That’s modestly above the $12.68 trillion peak in 2008 and 14.1% higher than the bottom in 2013. But the makeup of that debt is starkly different from what it was at the brink of the 2008 financial crisis. While mortgages still comprise the majority of the obligations, they represent a far lower share and the rebound has been led by student and auto debt. Household debt represented nearly 100% of household income in 2008, compared with 80% today, presenting a far lower risk to individual solvency and the broader economy

President Trump’s election and his promise to implement an “America First” agenda propelled the U.S. dollar to 13-year highs. But the Trump bump has proved fleeting for the greenback, which has lost virtually all of its post-election gains. Currency analysts are concerned about weak U.S. economic growth to kick off this year and concern that Trump’s political troubles will doom his economic agenda. However, the tech-heavy NASDAQ composite stock index posted a new record-high Tuesday. But on Wednesday, the stock market took a steep nosedive after allegations surfaced that President Trump revealed classified information about ISIS to Russian diplomats.

Ford Motor Co. plans to cut 10 percent of its salaried jobs in North America and Asia Pacific this year in an effort to boost profits. The company says it will offer voluntary early retirement and separation packages to its workers. It expects 1,400 positions to be affected by the end of September. Ford says its European and South American operations have already cut workers and won’t be affected. Ford’s stock price has fallen nearly 40 percent over the last three years as investors worry that U.S. sales are peaking. Ford is also spending heavily on future technology, like self-driving and fully electric cars.

Venezuela

Venezuela’s experiment with socialism has undermined what was once the most prosperous country in South America. The result? Daily riots and protests that have resulted in at least 40 deaths in recent weeks at the hands of government security forces. Inflation estimated at 720 percent. Shortages of basic foods and medicines. Newborn babies deposited in dresser drawers because hospitals have no beds. Zoo animals hunted down and butchered for food by the ravenous population. Finally, this week, and only at the urging of the United States, the United Nations is considering how to address this desperate situation. President Nicholas Maduro, who assumed power after the death of the charismatic but egomaniacal Hugo Chavez, was forced earlier this year to ask the U.N. for emergency aid, an admission of his inability to keep his people fed and secure.

Russia

Russia is buying up more of America’s debt. In March, the country bought $13.5 billion of U.S. government bonds — better known as “Treasury securities.” Russia’s total holdings of U.S. debt have now increased to nearly $100 billion, according to recently released Treasury Department data. It’s the third straight month of buying from Russia. A key reason is that Russia is restocking its foreign reserves, which declined dramatically when oil prices crashed last year to their lowers level since 2003. Foreign reserves are the cushion a country builds up to weather a rainy day. The Russian ruble hit an all-time low in early 2016 when oil prices fell to around $26 a barrel. The ruble’s crash could have been worse had the Russian government not spent lots of its US dollar holdings to keep the currency afloat.

Islamic State

Iraqi forces have dislodged Islamic State from all but 12 square km of Mosul, a military spokesman said on Tuesday, after planes dropped leaflets into the city telling civilians the battle was nearly won. Seven months into the U.S.-backed campaign, the militants now control only a few districts in the western half of Mosul including the Old City, where Islamic State is expected to make its last stand.

Under siege in other parts of Syria, Islamic State forces staged a surprise attack Thursday on two government-held villages in central Syria’s Hama province that killed more than 50 people, according to media reports and sources in the region. Fierce clashes between IS fighters and pro-Syrian government forces in the villages of Aqareb and Al-Mabujeh left at least 15 civilians and 27 pro-regime troops dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has monitors in the area. IS suffered 15 casualties, the observatory said.

Syria

The U.S. military launched fresh air strikes against pro-Assad troops in Syria after the troops ignored repeated warnings from both coalition and Russian forces, officials told Fox News Thursday. The Syrian forces, in several vehicles including at least one tank, were near the Jordanian border and deemed a threat to coalition partners on the ground, a Pentagon official said. The coalition commander assessed the threat and after shows of force didn’t stop the regime forces and those forces refused to move out of the deconfliction zone, the commander on the ground called for the air strike as a matter of force protection. Another military source told The Associated Press it appeared the Syrian forces were poised to attack an area that included U.S. advisers. “They were building a fighting position” about 55 kilometers from a U.S.-coalition base close to At Tanf, where advisers train members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian Arab Coalition.

Afghanistan

The top U.S. military officer says NATO should be prepared to move fast to deploy additional forces if President Trump and other heads of states agree to bolster the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, where government forces are locked in a stalemate with the Taliban. “What I asked my counterparts to do today is be prepared to act quickly,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday after a meeting with NATO’s military leaders. “If the political decision is to do more, let’s do more as fast as we can.” The decision is urgent because Afghanistan is entering the so-called fighting season, when snow is melting and mountains are becoming passable once again, allowing the Taliban to increase their attacks. Wednesday’s meeting will help set the stage for next week’s gathering of NATO leaders, including President Trump, in Brussels. The White House has said the president will make a decision on whether to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan after that meeting.

Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose more moderate policies included greater internal freedoms and a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. that brought about some sanctions relief, won a resounding victory for a second four-year term, Iranian State TV said Saturday. Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli told a news conference that the 68-year-old cleric won 57% of the vote against three other contenders to avoid a runoff. Voting hours were extended several times because of the high turnout — 41.2 million voters, or 73% of the electorate. In 2013, Rouhani won his first term with nearly 51% of the vote. Iran’s president is the second-most powerful figure in the country’s political system. He is subordinate to the supreme leader, who is chosen by a clerical panel and has the ultimate say over all matters of state.

South Sudan

Violence in South Sudan over the past three weeks has prompted a massive flight of refugees into neighboring countries, according to the United Nations. More than 60,000 people, most of whom are women and children, have fled the country since fighting began at the end of June, the U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR reported on Tuesday. Armed groups “are looting villages, murdering civilians, and forcibly recruiting young men and boys into their ranks,” UNHCR Spokesman Melissa Fleming said. Despite a peace deal brokered on July 11, clashes between forces loyal to the country’s President Salva Kiir and those allied with former Vice President Riek Machar are ongoing.

Volcanoes

An eruption at Bogoslof volcano – one of two to erupt in the Aleutian Islands Tuesday – is its first after more than two months of inactivity, causing ash to fall in a nearby community before drifting south over the Pacific Ocean. The Alaska Volcano Observatory said Tuesday night’s eruption at the volcano about 60 miles west of Unalaska, which began just after 10:30 p.m. and lasted for 73 minutes, sent a plume to an altitude of 34,000 feet. Overall, 39 volcanoes around the world are either erupting right now or have recently erupted according to Volcano Discovery. Most of those active volcanoes are along the Ring of Fire. Fortunately, the U.S. portion of the Ring of Fire has been less active than other areas in recent years.  But experts say this will eventually change because seismic tension continues to build.  One example of this is what is happening at Mount St. Helens right now. Since mid-April, small earthquakes have been cropping up deep beneath Mount St Helens at ‘relatively high rates,’ bringing roughly one tremor every few hours. In the last 30 days, scientists have located 55 seismic events in the vicinity, and say there may be well over 100 earthquakes linked to the swarm so far.

Environment

Cicadas are emerging from the ground four years ahead of schedule in the Mid-Atlantic states. Cicadas last emerged by the billions in 2004, were expected to remain underground for the typical 17 years and emerge again in 2021. Scientists believe the premature emergence could be due to climate change and protracted warming in the area. The connection is far from proven, but some experts suggest longer growing seasons could shorten life cycles of the 17-year broods and allow them to grow big enough in just 13 years to rise from the soil early, the Baltimore Sun reported.

Warmer temperatures and deviations in rainfall patterns appears to be the reasons why tree populations in the eastern U.S. are shifting north and, more surprisingly, west, according to new research. Overall, the changing climate has pushed trees an average of 20 miles north and 25 miles west over the past 30 years. While individual trees don’t move, of course, where they sprout can change. Saplings can expand into a new region while older growth dies in another. While the northern shift was expected due to warming temperatures, researchers think the more surprising westward movement could be the result of a change in rainfall patterns. The eastern U.S. has gotten warmer over the past few decades, and the Southeast has been trending drier. Deciduous trees like oak and maple are primarily moving west, and evergreens are moving north.

Weather

For a sixth straight day, severe thunderstorms, not to mention flash flooding, pelted parts of the Plains and Midwest on Friday, including many of the same areas of the Plains states that were hit by tornadoes and severe storms Tuesday and Thursday. A serious flash flood event is now ongoing in Middle Tennessee. The heaviest rain has now shifted north into Kentucky and southern West Virginia, where additional local flash flooding is possible. Winds gusted to 68 mph at St. Louis Lambert International Airport just after 5 a.m.

Winter Storm Valerie was an unusually strong late-spring snowstorm that dumped more than three feet of snow on the Rockies, caused tree damage and power outages, and also forced road closures over the past few days. Winter storm warnings and winter weather advisories remain in effect throughout Wyoming and the mountains of Colorado Friday. The top snowfall amount so far is 38.2 inches near Ward, Colorado, 8.4 inches of which fell in just under three hours Thursday afternoon. The snow has forced a stretch of Interstate 80 to be closed in Wyoming between Laramie and Cheyenne. The Front Range of Colorado will see its most significant snow through Friday morning. The greatest impacts, including power outages and tree damage, are expected west of Interstate 25.

A dramatic weather pattern change is occurring along the Eastern Seaboard this week allowing temperatures to soar toward near-record levels after a relatively cool start to May. The first half of May featured a southward dip in the jet stream across the Great Lakes and East, resulting in cooler-than-average temperatures overall. Higher-terrain locations in New England even saw snow from a nor’easter over last weekend. This week, the jet stream is reconfiguring itself with a northward bulge – or upper-level ridge – along the East Coast, resulting in temperatures 10 to 25 degrees above average. This will be a true taste of summer with daily record highs threatened in some locations, while others may see their first 90s of the season.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more extreme (Daniel 9:26b, Ezekiel 38:22, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:8,11)

Signs of the Times (5/15/17)

May 15, 2017

China Projected to Have World’s Largest Christian Population by 2030

According to a report from The Christian Post, China is on track to have the largest Christian population in the world by 2030, despite the increased persecution Chinese Christians have been experiencing. The report projects 200 million Chinese believers by 2030. China’s current government under President Xi Jinping is increasingly hostile toward Christians and Christianity. Hundreds of churches have been destroyed, their cross symbols removed, and Christians have been imprisoned, tortured, or even killed for their faith. Despite the persecution and lack of religious freedom, however, many Chinese Christians echo the words of Yu Jie, a Christian democracy activist: “Neither the dead hand of Communism, nor the cynical imitation of Confucianism, nor capitalism, nor democracy, nor any earthly thing will determine the fate of my land.”

Only 17% of ‘Christians’ Have biblical Worldview

A vast majority of Americans who call themselves Christians do not hold a biblical worldview, a new study by the Barna Group finds. Only 17 percent do, the survey showed. The research “found strong agreement with ideas unique to nonbiblical worldviews among practicing Christians.” Elements rooted in new age spirituality were supported by 61 percent. Fifty-four percent identified with postmodern beliefs, 36 percent with Marxism and 29 percent with secularism. “For instance, almost three in 10 … practicing Christians strongly agree that ‘all people pray to the same god or spirit, no matter what name they use for that spiritual being,’” Barna reported. A large number of Christians also embrace secularism in their worldviews. One of its component beliefs, materialism, holds that the material world is all that exists. Those respondents told Barna that the purpose of life is “’to earn as much as possible so you can make the most of life.’” That attitude was shared by 20 percent of so-called Christians.

  • The ‘falling away’ prophesied in the Bible (2Thessalonians 2:3) is underway in earnest

Rebellion Grows Against Muslim Indoctrination in Public Schools

From coast to coast, parents are rebelling against what they describe as Islamic indoctrination of their children in public schools. In Florida, for example, parents are protesting a newly approved textbook they say whitewashes Islam’s violent history of conquest and subjugation. Last week, a Groesbeck, Texas, couple moved their sixth-grade daughter to a new school after they discovered her history homework assignment on Islam. In one assignment, students were asked to list the five tenets of Islam required for salvation. In late March, a middle school in Chatham, New Jersey, was using a cartoon video to teach the Five Pillars of Islam to seventh-grade students. Meanwhile, in an initiative to “combat Islamophobia and the bullying of Muslims students,” the San Diego Unified School District, as WND reported, has formed a partnership with CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations). In a late April school board meeting, the Blaze reported, parent Christopher Wyrick confronted the San Diego school board about the Islamic instruction attached to the program and its relationship with the Islamic group. CAIR has sued the authors of a WND Books exposé, “Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That’s Conspiring to Islamize America,” which documented the group’s radical ties. A trial in the case is expected to commence this fall.

  • Not a whiff of Christianity is allowed in our public schools, so why is the teaching of Islam allowed? Anti-bullying and anti-persecution teaching can be accomplished without teaching the tenets of Islam.

Christians in Syria Boiled, Burned, Beheaded

The American Center for Law & Justice reports that Christians face unthinkable barbarity in Syria from ISIS operatives. Many are boiled, burned alive, and beheaded. Two-thirds of Syria’s Christians have been murdered or displaced. Up to 87% of Iraq’s Christians have been decimated. ISIS bombed two churches on Palm Sunday, and is threatening all “Christian gatherings” in Egypt. It’s crucifying children. There are mass graves of Christians. Franklin Graham, son of the famed evangelical preacher Billy Graham, urged fellow Christians to struggle against a “Christian genocide” that he says has killed in greater numbers than most believers can fathom. “It is safe to say that over 100,000 a year are killed because of their faith in Christ. In the last 10 years that would be close to a million people. It’s the equivalent of a Christian genocide,” Graham told the World Summit in Defense of Christians.

Tennessee Passes Strict Anti-Abortion Law

Tennessee’s governor signed a strict new abortion measure into law Friday, drawing praise and sharp criticism. The measure will further limit the few abortions already performed in Tennessee past the point of fetal viability — and potentially send doctors to jail if they fail to prove in court that an abortion of a viable fetus was necessary to save a woman’s life or prevent substantial or irreversible harm to a “major bodily function of a pregnant woman.” On July 1, Tennessee will become one of at least 21 states that explicitly ban abortions beyond viability. But the measure, called the Tennessee Infants Protection Act, goes further than most other bans and could become the subject of a lengthy court challenge.

Massive Cyberattack Hits as Many as 74 Countries

As many as 200,000 computers in 150 countries (not North America) were hit by a huge, fast-moving and global ransomware attack that locks computers and demands the digital equivalent of $300 ransom per computer, Kaspersky Lab, a Russian-based cybersecurity company, said Friday. The infections crippled more than a dozen hospitals in the United Kingdom, Spain’s largest telecom company and universities in Italy as well as some FedEx computers. Ransomware encrypts the files on a computer or network demanding that payment be made in Bitcoin or another untraceable digital currency before the criminals will unlock the files. Infected computers showed a screen giving the user three days to pay the ransom. After that, the price would be doubled. After seven days, the files would be deleted, it threatened. In Spain, the largest telecommunications company reportedly would have had to pay close to $550,000 to unlock all the encrypted computers hit on its network. “We have never seen such a fast spreading, well-coordinated attack with as many victims,” said Csaba Krasznay, director of the Cyber Security Academy at Hungary’s National University of Public Service. The National Health Service in the U.K. was repeatedly warned about its out-of-date and vulnerable systems before it suffered a devastating cyberattack on Friday, reports the New York Times.

Cyberattack Employed NSA Tools

The ransomware code is named WanaCrypt and has been in use by criminals since at least February. It is available in at least 28 languages, including Bulgarian and Vietnamese, according to Avast, a Czech security company that is following the fast-moving attack. A new variant dubbed WannaCry was created that makes use of a vulnerability in the Windows operating system that was patched by Microsoft on March 14. Computers that have not installed the patch are potentially vulnerable to the malicious code, according to a Kaspersky Lab blog post on Friday. The attack began with a simple phishing email, similar to the one Russian hackers used in the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and other targets last year. The virus then quickly spread through victims’ systems using a hacking method that the N.S.A. is believed to have developed as part of its arsenal of cyberweapons. The connection to the N.S.A. was particularly chilling. Starting last summer, a group calling itself the “Shadow Brokers” began to post software tools that came from the United States government’s stockpile of hacking weapons, the first time a cyberweapon developed by the N.S.A., funded by American taxpayers and stolen by an adversary had been unleashed by cybercriminals.

Ban on Laptops, Tablets on Trans-Atlantic Flights Appears Inevitable

A U.S. ban on laptops and tablets in cabins of trans-Atlantic flights to the United States appeared all but inevitable Friday after Department of Homeland Security officials briefed European governments on a proposal that would affect millions of passengers. The move, which would impact routes that carry as many as 65 million people a year on over 400 daily flights, would expand a ban already in place for planes flying out of eight Middle East and African countries. The restriction was introduced in March over fears that bombs or explosive materials could be concealed on electronic devices brought onboard. Cellphones would still be allowed in cabins but virtually every other electronic device would not be permitted and would need to be stowed in checked bags. One issue that has become a focus for security officials is how to make sure that lithium batteries used in laptops aren’t turned into bombs that can be detonated mid-air even if stored in luggage holds. Two airline officials briefed on the discussions said DHS gave no timetable for an announcement, but they were resigned to its inevitability.

Trump Appoints Voter-ID Champion to Panel Probing Fraud

Fulfilling yet another campaign promise, President Trump signed an executive order Thursday creating a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity headed by Vice President Mike Pence that will review and report on “systems and practices” that could be used for “fraudulent voting.” Significantly, Trump has appointed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has led the implementation of some of the nation’s strictest voting laws, as vice chairman of the panel. Kobach championed his state’s controversial proof of citizenship law, which requires voters to provide a birth certificate or passport to register. The issue of voter fraud long has divided the nation, with Democrats insisting it doesn’t exist on a scale that would impact election outcomes. Democrats, at the same time, have opposed voter ID laws and other preventative measures, asserting they discriminate against minority voters. The problem is that amid many individual reports of voter fraud, there are no reliable figures as yet to prove it exists on a meaningful scale.

Supreme Court Rejects Appeal to Reinstate NC Voter ID Law

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal to reinstate North Carolina’s voter identification law, which a lower court said targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.” The justices left in place the lower court ruling striking down the law’s photo ID requirement and reduction in early voting. The situation was complicated when Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein tried to withdraw the appeal, which was first filed when Republican Pat McCrory was governor. The dispute is similar to the court fight over Texas’ voter ID law, also struck down as racially discriminatory. Voters, civil rights groups and the Obama administration quickly filed lawsuits challenging the new laws. The Trump administration already has dropped its objections to the Texas law. Shortly before Trump took office in January, the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to reject the North Carolina appeal.

ICE Arrests 1300 in Anti-Gang Operation

Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced its largest anti-gang operation ever on Thursday, a six-week program that netted more than 1,300 arrests nationwide. Though the effort was led by ICE, the focus was not exclusively on immigrants. Of the arrests, 933 were US citizens and 445 were foreign nationals, with 384 in the country illegally. Of the 1,378 total arrests, 1,095 were confirmed to be gang members or affiliates of a gang, ICE said, including mostly Bloods, followed by Sureños, MS-13 and the Crips. MS-13 has been an increasing focus of the Trump administration as part of its border security and immigration enforcement efforts. The arrests mostly took place in the Houston, New York, Atlanta and Newark, New Jersey, areas.

Enraged Californians Rebel Against Tax Hike on Cars and Gas

In California, a state known for its love of driving, high-priced gasoline and history of tax revolts, a rebellion is brewing against Gov. Jerry Brown’s massive gas-and-car tax increase. In the two weeks since the Democrat signed Senate Bill 1, opponents have launched an initiative drive to repeal the $52.4 billion transportation package. Gas is already expensive in California — the state vies with Hawaii for the nation’s highest per-gallon prices — and SB1 will make it more so by dinging motorists with a 12-cent-per-gallon excise tax hike on gasoline, a 20-cent increase on diesel and higher vehicle registration fees in order to fill potholes, repair roads and bridges, and expand mass transit. “The voters are enraged,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen, the Orange County Republican behind the repeal initiative. What has Mr. Allen fuming is that lawmakers pushed through the largest fuel tax hike in state history without bringing it before the voters.

Union’s Paywatch Report Ignores High Salaries of Union Bosses

A powerful labor union’s new report slams the pay gap between CEOs and rank-and-file workers, but critics say it conveniently ignores the sky-high salaries union bosses pull down. The group’s annual Executive Paywatch report unveiled this week, found that last year the average S&P 500 CEO earned a total of $13.1 million in compensation, while the average U.S. worker made only $37,632, a pay ratio of 347:1. But not included in any of the figures are the total compensations of nearly 192 union presidents who earned more than the average executive’s income. An audit of past Paywatch reports by the American Enterprise Institute found that the AFL-CIO’s conclusion of the disparaging CEO-to-worker pay ratio is faulty and misleading, saying that the actual average U.S. chief executive earns $194,350. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that there are actually 246,240 ‘chief executives’ in the U.S. who earned an average annual salary of $180,700 in 2014.

More Price Hikes Likely for Obamacare Insurance Markets

Early moves by insurers suggest that another round of price hikes and limited choices will greet insurance shoppers around the country when they start searching for next year’s coverage on the public markets established by the Affordable Care Act, reports Newsmax. Regulators in Virginia and Maryland have reported early price hike requests ranging from just under 10 percent to more than 50 percent. Increases like that will probably will be seen in other states, too. Prices for this type of insurance are already being affected by evaporating competition. With the latest departures, more than 40 percent of U.S. counties would have only one insurer selling coverage on their marketplaces for next year, according to data compiled by The Associated Press. Competition for customers was supposed to keep prices low. But insurers faced big losses in some markets, and they got less financial support from the government than they expected. They’ve been raising prices and pulling out of some markets altogether in response.

Economic News

With the low unemployment rate giving workers more leverage than they’ve had in years, a surprisingly large number are either job hopping or on the lookout for new opportunities. About 27% of employees switched jobs in the 12 months ending in the first quarter. Three years ago, about 23% of workers left one job for another during the prior year. Nearly half of all leisure and hospitality workers and one-third of those in professional and business services changed jobs the past year. Not surprisingly, job hoppers are snaring bigger pay increases than their more loyal colleagues. In the first quarter, switchers who worked full-time realized average annual earnings gains of 5.2%, compared with 4.3% for full-time job holders.

For years, the nation’s solid job growth and tumbling unemployment have been tainted by the shadow of millions of underemployed (i.e. part-time) Americans not counted in the official jobless rate. However, the number of part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs fell by 281,000 last month to 5.3 million, down from a peak of 9.2 million in 2010 and the lowest number in nine years, according to the Labor Department. Altogether, the broadest measure of U.S. joblessness that includes part-timers, discouraged workers who have stopped looking as well as unemployed people is now at 8.6%, compared with 9.7% a year ago and a high of 16.9% in 2010. It’s slightly above the pre-recession mark of 8.4%.

The United States and China have agreed to take action by mid-July to increase access for U.S. financial firms and expand trade in beef and chicken among other steps as part of Washington’s drive to cut its trade deficit with Beijing, Reuters reported. The deals are the first results of 100 days of trade talks that began last month, when a meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping proved far more friendly than had been expected after last year’s U.S. presidential campaign. “China trade, huge. Because the president has basically changed his campaign position,” the Newsmax Finance Insider said. The United States ran a trade deficit of $347 billion with China last year, U.S. Treasury figures show.

North Korea

North Korea’s latest launch of a ballistic missile Sunday drew strong criticism from the United States and other nations. This time, the missile landed closer to Russia than to Japan. The White House issued a statement late Saturday saying that North Korea has been “a flagrant menace for too long,” and that the latest “provocation” should serve as a call for all nations to implement stronger sanctions against the North. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, called the situation on the Korean peninsula “complex and sensitive” and that countries “should not do things that further escalate tensions in the region.” South Korean President Moon called the launch a “clear” violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and a “serious challenge” to international peace and security. U.S. officials are closely “monitoring” the aftermath of the latest North Korean missile test after the rogue regime claimed that its newest rocket was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead – and that its arsenal could reach American shores. North Korea’s Hwasong-12 missile reached an altitude of 2,111.5 kilometers (1,312 miles) and flew 787 kilometers (489 miles), according to state news agency KCNA. Analysts estimated its ranged as 4,500 kilometers which would put the US territory of Guam within its reach.

Russia

A Russian military jet “came within approximately 20 feet” of a US Navy P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane while it was flying in international airspace over the Black Sea earlier last week. A U.S. defense official told CNN that the Russian aircraft was armed with six air-to-air missiles and that the pilot took photos of the U.S. plane during the encounter. Russia has conducted several flights off the US coast in recent months. Last week, two Russian bombers, flanked by a pair of fighter jets, were intercepted by stealth U.S. F-22 aircraft off the coast of Alaska. And during a stretch in April, Russian military aircraft were spotted flying off the coast of Alaska four times in as many days. The fact that Tuesday’s encounter took place near Crimea adds an additional level of significance, as the two countries’ opposing views on the conflict in Ukraine have become a hot-button issue between the sides. The US, meanwhile, has positioned military assets across Europe in an effort to reassure its European and NATO allies in the wake of Russia’s movements in Ukraine.

Syria

Monitors say Kurdish-led Syrian forces, backed by a U.S.-led air coalition, are battling Islamic State extremists on the northern outskirts of Raqqa, the IS de facto capital seized by the militant group three years ago. The activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advanced within four kilometers of Raqqa as fighting raged at several points north and east of the besieged city. An SDF spokesman, speaking Friday, said an anti-jihadist assault on the fortified northern city would most likely begin in the next several months.

Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has fired Health Minister Antonieta Caporale days after the government’s first release of health data in two years showed soaring infant and maternal mortality rates. The firing came after the health ministry recently released new data showing infant and maternal deaths and cases of malaria are skyrocketing in the country already grappling with severe medical shortages. Caporale had been on the job since January. The data from her office showed that confirmed malaria cases in 2016 stood at 240,000, a 76% increase over the previous year. Maternal — or pregnancy-related — deaths rose 66%, to 756. Last year, 11,466 infants died, a 30% increase. The new health minister, Luis Lopez, has been the deputy minister of hospitals for the national government and secretary of health for the Venezuelan state of Aragua.

France

Politicians, journalists and her own daughter have stepped forward in defense of Brigitte Trogneux, wife of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron, in response to a series of sexist and misogynistic slurs against her. Many of the unwelcome comments have focused on the fact that Trogneux — age 64 with seven grandchildren — is 24 years her husband’s senior. She famously went from being Macron’s teacher to his partner, and eventually his wife. Now she is France’s first lady. U.S. President Donald Trump is 24 years older than Melania Trump, but few people are making a fuss about their age gap.

Earthquakes

Last week, within the span of 24 hours, 45 earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or greater struck Alaska. Twenyt-five of them were of magnitude 4.0 or greater. The worst one had a magnitude of 6.2, but none of the earthquakes did much damage because none of them hit heavily populated areas. But the reason why all this shaking is causing so much concern is because the “Ring of Fire” runs right along the southern Alaska coastline, and all of the earthquakes except for one were along the southern coast. After running along the southern Alaska coastline, the Ring of Fire goes south along the west coast of Canada, the United States and Mexico. What affects one part of a fault network will often trigger something along another portion of the same fault network, and so many living on the West coast are watching the shaking in Alaska with deep concern. For a long time scientists have acknowledged that a major Cascadia subduction zone earthquake is way overdue, and when one finally strikes the devastation that we could see in the Pacific Northwest is likely to be off the charts. In fact, some scientists believe that the coming Cascadia subduction zone earthquake could potentially be as high as magnitude 9.0, reports Charisma News.

Weather

A confirmed EF1 tornado was reported in the Sherwood Forrest area near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Friday morning, which tossed cars into the air like toys and injured at least one person. The National Weather Service said the tornado that remained on the ground for a half-mile packed winds as high as 90 mph and was 30 yards wide. One person was transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries after the truck in which they were driving was flipped by the strong winds. Several other vehicles were tossed about, some structures may have been damaged and nearly 2,600 residents in the area were without power. A man was killed and several people injured in Passaic, New Jersey, on Sunday when strong, fast-moving thunderstorms rolled through the New York metropolitan area.

An active week is ahead as multiple rounds of severe thunderstorms, including tornadoes, threaten the central states. Some of the storms may also produce heavy rain, leading to localized areas of flash flooding. The severe weather setup this week involves a strong jet stream dip – or upper-level trough – over the Rockies, with two separate disturbances riding along that trough and punching into the Plains states. At least two rounds of severe storms are anticipated. Snow will blanket much of the mountain West the next several days, adding to a still-impressive mid-May snowpack from a winter that was the wettest on record for some areas.

Signs of the Times (5/11/17)

May 11, 2017

Molecular Genetics says Just Two Genders

After extensive study of the human genome, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science discovered there are no less than 6,500 genes “that are expressed…. differently in the two sexes.” Since there are about 30,000 genes in the entire human genome, this means more than 20 percent of it codes for traits that are gender specific. The Weizmann Institute of Science is a public research university in Rehovot, Israel, south of Tel Aviv established in 1934. The scientists at Weizman used something called the GTEx project, a comprehensive study of human gene expression in the organs and tissues of 550 adult donors. For the first time ever, they were able to develop a comprehensive map of the sex-differential in genetic architecture between the two sexes.

  • There are so many genetic differences between male and female, that efforts to change gender can only be minimally effective, leaving the so-called transgender in genetic confusion. It is a corrupted gene pool in this fallen world that has caused many to question their gender.

Trump Fires FBI Director James Comey

The search for a new permanent FBI director will move full-steam ahead Wednesday after President Trump stunned the political world by firing James Comey, abruptly ending a tenure marked by political controversies.  Basing the decision on a recommendation by the Justice Department, who excoriated Comey for his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of State, Trump’s decision calls into question the future of the investigation into Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election. Democrats were quick to slam Trump’s move as a blatant attempt to short-circuit the Russia investigation, with many calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor. As calls for an independent prosecutor intensify on both sides of the aisle, President Trump and aides argued Wednesday that, “The Democrats have said some of the worst things about James Comey, including the fact that he should be fired,” Trump tweeted.

Investigation into Trump’s Russian Ties Intensifies

The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to hear the testimony of acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and other national security officials on Thursday as part of its ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 election. James Comey, ousted from his role as FBI director by President Trump, had been scheduled to testify, and Democrats said Comey should still appear so he can answer questions about the status of the FBI’s probe and its potential connection to his dismissal. Late Wednesday, the committee subpoenaed former national security adviser Michael Flynn for information about communications with Russian officials that might be relevant to its investigation.

Texas Crackdown on Sanctuary Cities

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton already has filed suit against local jurisdictions that had been accused of not cooperating with federal immigration agents, in a preemptive bid to uphold a newly signed anti-sanctuary city law and head off numerous legal challenges. Paxton filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, as Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday signed the SB4 crackdown law which bars sanctuary policies and gives local law enforcement officers the right to ask the immigration status of anyone they stop. Under the law, local officers who won’t cooperate with federal immigration agents could face jail time and fines up to $25,000 per day. Texas isn’t the first state to ban sanctuary cities. More than 80 bills related to sanctuary policies are pending across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Thousands Fleeing Chicago Due to Increased Violence

An estimated 89,000 more people moved from the Chicago area to other portions of the country in the past year than those who moved in, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. In particular, wealthy people are living the city in droves.  It has been reported that 3,000 millionaires left the city of Chicago in 2015 alone. High taxes are one reason given, but gang violence has also been a major factor. In 2016, the number of murders in the city jumped nearly 60 percent to over 760, more than New York and Los Angeles combined. There were more than 4,300 shooting victims in the city last year, according to police. Decades of open borders and unrestrained illegal immigration have contributed to rapid growth in gang membership, now numbering over 150,000 in the metropolitan area, according to the Chicago Crime Commission. There are currently 12,244 police officers in Chicago. That means that the police are outnumbered by at least a 12 to 1 margin. The Chicago Police Department warned its officers Monday about gangs armed with high-powered weapons, after three people were shot to death over the weekend and two cops were targeted in an ambush last week. Prosecutors said Monday that a reputed gang member sprayed a police van with more than two dozen rounds from an assault rifle after mistaking the vehicle and plainclothes officers inside for rival gang members.

Kentucky on Its Way to Becoming First Abortion-Free State

Kentucky is on its way to becoming the first state with no abortion clinics. There is only one abortion clinic left in the state and officials say that the clinic has not complied with basic safety standards. LifeNews.com reports that the administration of Kentucky’s conservative Christian Gov. Matt Bevin is working to end access to abortion in the state. Administration officials argue that EMW Women’s Clinic–the last clinic open for business–is in violation of regulations that mandate the clinic obtain ambulance and hospital admittance privileges from a local hospital. The clinic maintains that it is not in violation of these regulations and, along with Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, filed a lawsuit against the state. Gov. Bevin said, “This administration will have no tolerance for the type of brazen disregard that Planned Parenthood has shown for both the safety of women and the rule of law. We will hold Planned Parenthood accountable for knowingly endangering their patients by providing illegal abortions at a facility that was not properly licensed nor prepared to handle an emergency.”

Americans Dissatisfied with Colleges

American adults are deeply divided about the U.S. higher education system and are increasingly frustrated with the costs, a new report released on Thursday finds. The survey, conducted by left-leaning think tank New America, found that only one in four adults believe that the higher education system is functioning as it should. Dissatisfaction is especially keen among Millennials, who have experienced rising dropout rates and dealt with debilitating school debt. Community colleges were one of the few bright spots in the study which surprised researchers, who found that many Americans see them as more promising and cost-effective than either their public or private four-year counterparts.

Life Expectancy Varies Widely by County in U.S.

Life expectancy at birth differs by as much as 20 years between the lowest and highest United States counties, according to new research published Monday in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Overall life expectancy at birth in the U.S. increased by 5.3 years for both men and women — from 73.8 years to 79.1 years — between 1980 and 2014. During that time period, men gained 6.7 years, from 70 years on average to 76.7 years, while women gained four years, from 77.5 years to 81.5 years. The counties with lowest life expectancy are located in South and North Dakota, while counties along the lower half of Mississippi, in eastern Kentucky, and southwestern West Virginia also showed lower life expectancies compared to the rest of the nation. The North and South Dakota counties include Native American reservations. At the other extreme, residents of counties in central Colorado can expect to live longest. Summit County, Colorado, ranked as the county with highest life expectancy in 2014 at 86.8 years, is home to several ski resort towns. The study shows that “60% of the differences in life expectancy across counties can be explained by socioeconomic factors alone” yet that leaves a “substantial amount of unexplained differences.” “Behaviors like smoking and physical activity, along with risk factors like obesity and diabetes, are also very important,” the report said.

Aetna Says Good-Bye to Obamacare

Aetna is saying goodbye to Obamacare. The insurance giant announced Wednesday that it would not offer policies in Nebraska or Delaware next year, completing its exit from the exchanges. Earlier this year, Aetna said it would pull out of Iowa and Virginia in 2018. The company said it expects to lose more than $200 million in its individual business line this year, on top of nearly $700 million in losses between 2014 and 2016. Aetna withdrew from 11 of its 15 markets for 2017. It has 255,000 Obamacare policyholders this year, down from 964,000 at the end of last year. These customers, however, continue to be costlier than the company expected, Aetna said. Aetna’s exit leaves Medica as the only insurer on the Nebraska exchange and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield as the sole carrier on the Delaware exchange. Aetna’s withdrawal is the latest in a series of insurers leaving Obamacare. The exodus began last year, when several carriers announced they were exiting or downsizing in 2017 after suffering large losses. Humana already announced it is completely abandoning the individual market in 2018. UnitedHealthcare pulled out of Virginia, and Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield said it would stop selling individual policies in Iowa in 2018.

Retail Woes Continue

The tale of woe for traditional retailers continues. Macy’s, Kohl’s and Dillard’s all reported lower sales for the last three months and missed Wall Street’s forecasts. Department store chains have been struggling lately due to intense competition from Amazon, a resurgent Walmart and newer retailers like Uniqlo, H&M and Zara. These three retail icons aren’t the only ones that have been hit hard by a rapid change in how consumers shop. Sears continues to struggle. And JCPenney, which will report its latest results Friday morning, has been unable to find a way to get sales growing either. Target has been hit hard as well. And former teen fashion king Abercrombie & Fitch is now looking for someone to buy it. American Apparel, Wet Seal, The Sports Authority and Aeropostale have all filed for bankruptcy. RadioShack has gone bankrupt — twice. All of this turmoil has led to tens of thousands of layoffs in the retail sector as well.

Economic News

Drivers are getting a break at the pump, thanks to the recent slide in crude oil prices. Gas prices have fallen virtually every day for the last three weeks, pushed down by the sudden drop in crude oil prices. The national average is now $2.34 a gallon for regular, according to AAA, about 8 cents cheaper than it was on April 20. Crude oil prices have fallen about 11% since early April. Typically this is a time of the year when gas prices are going up, not down, as refiners switch over to making the more expensive form of gasoline used during the summer months.

America has 5.7 million openings, according to the latest data from the Labor Department. That’s close to the record number of job openings since Labor started tracking them in 2000. The U.S. had an all-time high of 5.9 million openings last July. Employers are hiring and workers are starting to feel more confident about leaving a job for another one. Experts say that such a high number of job openings is due partially to a gap between the job skills employers demand and the skills job seekers have.

The number one reason a large number of Americans wind up in financial trouble and have to file for bankruptcy has nothing to do with self-indulgence. Rather, it’s because of medical debt. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), more than a quarter of U.S. adults struggle to pay their medical bills. This includes folks who have insurance, whether independently or through an employer. In fact, medical debt is the No. 1 source of personal bankruptcy filings in the U.S., and in 2014, an estimated 40% of Americans racked up debt resulting from a medical issue.

The euro notched up its highest level in six months after centrist reformer Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election on Sunday, neutralizing the biggest political challenge to the currency in its 18-year history. His far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, had threatened to scrap the euro and reintroduce France’s old money — the franc. Losing its second biggest economy could have spelled the end of the euro.

Persecution Watch

An Indonesian court has sentenced Jakarta’s governor, who is a Christian, to two years in prison on a charge of blasphemy. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed Ahok, was charged for using a Quranic verse in his re-election campaign in September. Opponents of Ahok had used the same verse to argue that Muslims should not choose a non-Muslim to lead them. Ahok said his opponents had used the verse to trick people into voting against him. According to ChristianToday.com, his speech that included the verse was posted online and soon went viral. Protests were started, including one that drew about half a million people. Ahok lost the election in April and his term ends in October. Now he’s headed to jail. Said Judge Dwiarso Budi Santiaro of the sentencing: “As part of a religious society, the defendant should be careful to not use words with negative connotations regarding the symbols of religions, including the religion of the defendant himself.”

Mexico

Mexico was the second deadliest country in the world last year. Although Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan dominated the news, Mexico’s drug wars claimed 23,000 lives during 2016 — second only to Syria, where 50,000 people died as a result of the civil war. “This is all the more surprising, considering that the conflict deaths [in Mexico] are nearly all attributable to small arms,” said John Chipman, chief executive and director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which issued its annual survey of armed conflict on Tuesday. “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan claimed 17,000 and 16,000 lives respectively in 2016, although in lethality they were surpassed by conflicts in Mexico and Central America, which have received much less attention from the media and the international community,” said Anastasia Voronkova, the editor of the survey.

France

The European political establishment breathed a heavy sigh of relief Sunday, as French voters easily elected pragmatic centrist Emmanuel Macron as president over right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen, who threatened to upend Europe’s existing order. Macron won with 66% of the vote against 34% for Le Pen, with 99% of the votes counted. Le Pen, of the National Front party, had threatened to curb immigration, particularly for Muslims, pull France out of the European Union and return the country to the French franc — moves that would have caused political and economic upheaval in Europe and around the world. Macron’s victory, coming on the heels of defeats for right-wing populist candidates in Austria and the Netherlands, appears to blunt the anti-establishment fervor sweeping Europe amid a backlash against economic stagnation, a flood of migrants pouring into their countries and a string of nerve-rattling terror attacks. Macron, 39, is a former investment banker and economy minister who strongly supports the European Union. He will become France’s youngest president, despite never having held any elected office before.

Middle East

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday lashed out at Israel and urged Muslims to flood Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. Speaking in Istanbul to the International Forum on Al-Quds Waqfs, a conference aimed at promoting Palestinian economic development, Erdogan said that about 26,000 Turks visited Jerusalem last year — the highest number among Muslim countries. In contrast, he said about 600,000 Americans, 400,000 Russians and 300,000 French citizens visited Jerusalem in 2015. “We, as Muslims, should be visiting Al-Quds more often,” he said, referring to Jerusalem by its Arabic name, calling those visits “the greatest support to our brothers there.”

Erdogan criticized Israeli policy toward Palestinians as “racist” and “discriminatory.” “Here is the only solution: the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of 1967,” he said. The Israel Foreign Ministry responded to Erdogan’s comments with a strongly-worded statement: “Whoever systematically violates human rights in their own country should not preach morality to the only true democracy in the region. Israel consistently protects total freedom of worship for Jews, Muslims and Christians — and will continue to do so despite the baseless smears launched against it.”

The Pentagon announced Tuesday that President Donald Trump had authorized arming the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), green-lighting a US policy that had sat on the backburner for years to avoid confrontation with Turkey, a key NATO ally. It said that the provision of supplies and weapons was aimed at aiding the only group it sees fit enough to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, the ISIS group’s de facto capital. Turkey lashed out at Washington’s plan to send arms to Kurdish rebels fighting ISIS in Syria, calling for an end to the U.S. strategy that has long rattled Ankara. The YPG is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of rebel fighters that Washington considers its main ally in the country. But Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist organization threatening Turkish sovereignty.

North Korea

An American teacher was detained in North Korea over the weekend, raising to four the number of U.S. citizens now being held by the communist nation’s authoritarian regime. Kim Hak-song had worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the same school where American Tony Kim had worked prior to being arrested at Pyongyang International Airport two weeks ago. Other Americans being held in North Korea include Ohio native Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was arrested in January 2016 while he was on a tour of North Korea, and Kim Dong Chul, who was arrested in October 2015 while in North Korea on business. Relations between the U.S. and North Korea have grown more strained in recent months as Pyongyang conducts nuclear and ballistic missile tests in defiance of international bans.

South Korea

Moon Jae-in won South Korea’s presidential election Tuesday after his two main rivals conceded, possibly opening a rift with the United States over relations with North Korea. The election result was driven largely by domestic concerns over corruption and a slowing economy, but Moon, a liberal, has signaled a softer approach toward neighboring North Korea than his predecessor, the hawkish Park Geun-hye. Park, the nation’s first female president, was impeached over corruption charges in March, triggering the election. Moon, 64, has questioned the effectiveness of the strict sanctions against North Korea and left the door open for greater diplomatic and economic ties with the reclusive communist country.

Nigeria

Boko Haran, an extremist group allied with the Islamic State, released 82 young women it had held captive for more than three years, government officials said late Saturday. The terrorist group is still holding an estimated 100 young women hostage. They were kidnapped from a school in the town of Chibok in April 2014. President Muhammadu Buhari’s office said in a statement that the girls were found near the town of Banki in Borno state near Cameroon. Government officials said the women were released in exchange for an unspecified number of imprisoned Boko Haram members. The girls were undergoing medical checks before being airlifted to Maiduguri, a city in Nigeria’s northeast.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s air force has pounded Islamic State targets in an eastern province where an Afghan and U.S. military raid last month killed the militant group’s top commander, the government said on Monday. The Interior Ministry said the airstrikes killed at least 34 Islamic State fighters over the past 24 hours and destroyed an insurgent-controlled radio station in Nangarhar province. The ministry also said that the strikes targeted ISIS hideouts in Nazyan and Achin districts. The government statement came after Pentagon announced on Sunday night that a military raid last month killed Abdul Haseeb Logari, the ISIS chief in Nangarhar.

Venezuela

Infant and maternal deaths and cases of malaria are skyrocketing in Venezuela, which is grappling with severe medical shortages during the country’s economic meltdown and political chaos. Confirmed malaria cases in 2016 stood at 240,000, a 76% increase over 2015. Maternal deaths rose 66% to 756. Last year, 11,466 infants died, a 30% increase, according to new records recently released by Venezuela’s health ministry. The staggering increases illustrate how badly Venezuela lacks basic medicine, equipment and supplies to treat even the simplest of injuries. According to statistics released by the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation, by June 2016, the country was already facing a shortage of more than 80% of the medicines doctors need. More than 13,000 doctors — about 20% of the country’s medical workforce — have left the country in recent years due to the collapse of the health sector.

Wildfires

Evacuations in the St. George area of Georgia have led to the closure of Charlton County schools for both students and staff, according to a statement from the district. Firefighters are using St. George Elementary School as a staging area for firefighters. The West Mims fire has scorched about 208 square miles in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and is 12 percent contained as of Tuesday morning. Conditions have not been ideal for firefighters attempting to control the blaze. Temperatures are warm, the air is dry and winds have been gusting. The area, on the Georgia-Florida line, is also under a dense smoke advisory that is expected to impact visibility in the towns of St. George, Callahan, Ratliff and northern Duval County near the Jacksonville International airport. Some road closures were in effect and the main entrance to the refuge was closed.

It has been a long, costly spring for Flordia, where dozens of fires continue to burn. Gov. Rock Scott declared a state of emergency in April. More than 2,000 wildfires have been reported statewide this year, and those blazes have claimed at least 230 square miles of land. Currently, there are more than 125 wildfires actively burning across the state. “Florida is in the middle of its worst wildfire season in years – with no end in sight,” Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam told CBS Miami. Nationally, 20,482 wildfires have consumed 1,998, 139 acres of land through May 5, significantly more than the ten-year average of 841,462 acres, although the number of wildfires is down from 20,779. That means the average acreage burned per wildfire is way up, from 40.5 acres per fire to 97.6, more than double.

Weather

Severe thunderstorms rolled through Colorado Monday afternoon, dumping hail as big as baseballs in some areas and blanketing downtown Denver in a thick layer of the frozen precipitation. In most areas, the hailstones did not exceed the size of golf balls, but that was enough to punch out car windshields and the windows of some businesses. In Wheat Ridge, just northwest of downtown Denver, baseball-sized hail was observed, the National Weather Service said.

Drought coverage in the Lower 48 is at its lowest level in 17 years of records, according to last week’s update of the U.S. Drought Monitor, providing a stunning contrast to the opposite extreme experienced a few years ago. About 5 percent of the contiguous United States was in drought as of May 2. The largest drought coverage ever analyzed by the Drought Monitor occurred on Sept. 25, 2012 when 65 percent of the U.S. – particularly the Plains, Midwest and West – was experiencing drought, much of it severe, especially California.

Tropical Storm Adrian kicked off a record early start to the 2017 eastern Pacific hurricane season Tuesday several hundred miles off the southern Mexican coast, but appears destined for a long-lived stall off the coast into at least next week. Adrian was the earliest tropical cyclone to form in the northeast Pacific in the satellite era. This record was previously held by Hurricane Alma in 1990. Tropical Storm Adrian is centered about 460 miles south-southeast of Salina Cruz, Mexico, and is moving slowly toward the northwest. It weakened into a tropical depression Thursday.

Nations around the world have adopted more than 1,200 laws to curb climate change, up from about 60 two decades ago, which is a sign of widening efforts to limit rising temperatures, a study showed on Tuesday. The study, by the London School of Economics (LSE), reviewed laws and executive policies in 164 nations, ranging from national cuts in greenhouse gases to curbs in emissions in sectors such as transport, power generation or industry. Forty-seven laws had been added since world leaders adopted a Paris Agreement to combat climate change in late 2015, a slowdown from a previous peak of about 100 a year from 2009-2013.

  • End-time climate change is prophesied in the Bible (Daniel 9:26b, Ezekiel 38:22, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:8,11). Human efforts to counter it will fail.

Signs of the Times (5/6/17)

May 6, 2017

AHCA Defunds Planned Parenthood and Covers Pre-Existing Conditions

Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, stated: “We applaud this historic vote by the House of Representatives as a first step in defunding Planned Parenthood, which is the largest abortion provider in the world. Every day, Planned Parenthood takes the lives of almost 900 innocent children and over 320,000 every year. We will not rest until abortion ends up on the scrap heap of history like slavery and segregation.” Town Hall PM, published by Human Events, notes that “Insurers are required to sell plans to all comers, including those with pre-existing conditions. This is known as “guaranteed issue,” and it’s mandated in the AHCA. No exceptions, no waivers. Anyone who is insured and remains continuously insured cannot be dropped from their plan due to a pre-existing condition.”

Republican Health Care Bill Headed for Overhaul in Senate

While President Trump took a victory lap with House Republicans after their health care bill passed its first big test Thursday, the hard work is just beginning for the majority party whose mission these past seven years has been ObamaCare’s demise. Senate approval will be a much higher bar to clear: There’s no shortage of bipartisan criticism from the upper chamber right now, and the GOP holds a considerably smaller majority margin in the Senate. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said the Senate will write its own bill, stressing senators still need to see an official estimate on the updated plan’s impact for consumers and taxpayers – something the House did not have in hand when Republicans narrowly approved the American Health Care Act on a 217-213 vote Thursday. With 20 GOP defections on Thursday, the majority party was just two votes shy of another failure to pass the Obamacare repeal and replace bill. Republicans have a slim 52-48 majority, and it takes 60 votes to pass most legislation.

Hospitals, Doctors and Insurers Criticize Health Bill

It is a rare show of unity, hospitals, doctors, health insurers and some consumer groups, with few exceptions, are calling for significant changes to the Republican health care legislation that passed the House on Thursday. The bill’s impact is wide-ranging, potentially affecting not only the millions who could lose coverage through deep cuts in Medicaid or no longer be able to afford to buy coverage in the state marketplaces, but the bill also allows states to seek waivers from providing certain benefits. Employers big and small could scale back what they pay for each year or re-impose lifetime limits on coverage. In particular, small businesses, some of which were strongly opposed to the Affordable Care Act, could be free to drop coverage with no penalty. The prospect of millions of people unable to afford coverage led to an outcry from the health care industry as well as consumer groups. They found an uncommon ally in some insurers, who rely heavily on Medicaid and Medicare as mainstays of their business and hope the Senate will be more receptive to their concerns.

Health Care in Other Developed Nations Also in Trouble

Health care issues are not just a U.S. concern:

  • The U.K.’s public health system is financed through tax and compulsory national insurance contributions, but faces serious financial problems. Care is free at the point of delivery across the U.K., but long waiting times and a limited choice of hospital or physician can be a problem. That’s why roughly 11% also have private insurance, often offered as a perk by employers. Hospital doctors went on strike last year, because the government decided to impose new employment contracts. The doctors say the new system is unfair and unsafe.
  • Germany has a multi-layered system financed by a system of mutual insurance funds. Every employee must belong to one of the insurance funds and contribute according to their income. The cost is split between the employee and employers. Patients only pay a small fee to see a doctor. Higher earners are allowed to opt out of the public system and pay for private insurance instead — an option chosen by roughly 10% of Germans. Figures from the OECD show Germans see their doctors more often, get more prescription medicines, have higher hospital admittance numbers, and longer hospital stays than people in other developed countries. A 2013 official review of 2 million hospital stays in Germany found “overtreatment” in 40% of them.
  • The generous French health system has been ranked highly by the WHO and Euro Health Consumer Index. Everyone is covered by mandatory health insurance, which is taxpayer funded. Patients are expected to pay for roughly 20% of the cost of their treatment. However, more than 90% of French people also hold private insurance, usually provided by employers, which covers the patients’ share of the cost. The French system suffers from a chronic deficit. The government is trying to respond by insisting on greater use of generic medicines. It has cut the deficit and wants to achieve a surplus by 2019. But the reforms, including cuts in what’s covered by public insurance and attempts to increase the level of patient payments, are proving to be very unpopular.
  • Canada has a government-run national health insurance, funded by tax receipts. It is organized on a regional basis, with each province adopting slightly different rules. It ranks highly for quality of care, with lower incidence of heart disease and stroke mortality, highly rated cancer care and above average life expectancy at birth. But waiting times, especially for elective surgeries such as hip and knee replacements, can be a problem. According to a 2015 survey by the Fraser Institute, Canadians have to wait 18 weeks on average before receiving specialist treatment. That’s one of the longest waits in the developed world. The Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that studies health systems, said in 2014 that Canada ranked behind Australia, the U.K., U.S., France and Sweden in terms of patient experience with waiting times.

Trump’s First Overseas Trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel & Vatican

President Donald Trump is making his first trip overseas to Saudi Arabia, to meet with Arab leaders to talk about fighting the so-called Islamic State. “It lays to rest the notion that America is anti-Muslim,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters Thursday, saying it would “change the conversation with regards to America’s relationship with the Islamic world.” After Riyadh, Trump will travel to Israel and the Vatican-a tour meant to unite the world’s great religions against radicalism and to put a marker down for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, senior administration officials told reporters Thursday.

Refugee Admissions Tumble Under Trump

The number of refugees arriving in the United States has dropped sharply this year because of President Trump’s threats to bar their entry, even though his order for a total 120-day ban has been blocked twice by federal courts, a USA TODAY analysis of government figures shows. The U.S. accepted 2,070 refugees in March, the lowest monthly total since 2013, according to State Department data. April ended with 3,316 refugees admitted, the second-lowest total since 2013. Refugees are a special class of migrants who seek asylum because war, persecution or natural disasters have forced them to flee their home countries. Worldwide, there are more refugees than at any time since World War II as a result of so many regional conflicts, according to the United Nations. Faced with that crisis, President Barack Obama increased the number of refugees the U.S. accepts each year from 70,000 in fiscal year 2015, to 85,000 in 2016 and a proposed 110,000 in 2017. That compares to about 1 million Germany accepted in the past year. Trump, however, wants to lower that number to 50,000 because of concerns that terrorists might try to enter the U.S. posing as refugees.

State Department Announces Extreme Vetting Program

Following through on President Trump’s campaign promise to put immigrants to the U.S. through “extreme vetting,” the State Department announced new proposals Thursday to increase the screening of certain applicants. Under the proposals, such applicants would have to provide information including social media handles (i.e. pseudonyms IDs), phone numbers and emails for the last five years, prior passport numbers and additional information about their family, past travel and employment. However, consular officials would not be allowed to seek passwords or breach privacy controls on social media accounts. “Collecting additional information from visa applicants whose circumstances suggest a need for further scrutiny will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity,” a State Department official told Fox News. “We estimate these changes would affect only a fraction of one percent of the more than 13 million annual visa applicants worldwide.”

DHS Catches Less Than 1% of Illegal Immigrant ‘Visa Overstays’

Homeland Security still can’t track when visitors to the U.S. leave the country — leaving deportation officers struggling to try to find millions of people who have managed to disappear into the shadows, according to a new watchdog report released Thursday. Officers have to use 27 different computer systems to try to figure out if someone actually left the country when they were supposed to, presenting a gargantuan task that often stymies their efforts to spot and kick out illegal immigrants, the Homeland Security inspector general reported. And the data the officers are using is so bad that they often get false negatives, meaning a target appears to have left the country even though they never did — allowing criminals to remain at large in the U.S. without anyone looking for them. “Such false departure information resulted in ERO officers closing visa overstay investigations of dangerous individuals, such as suspected criminals, who were actually still in the United States and could pose a threat to national security,” the investigators said in the report.

NSA Collected 151 Million Phone Records in 2016

The National Security Agency collected up more than 151 million records about Americans’ phone calls last year via a new system that Congress created to end the agency’s once-secret program that collected domestic calling records in bulk, according to a report published Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Although the number is large on its face, it nonetheless represents a massive reduction from the amount of information the agency gathered previously. Under the old system, it collected potentially “billions of records per day,” according to a 2014 study. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the agency has analyzed large amounts of communications metadata — records showing who contacted whom, but not what they said — to hunt for associates of terrorism suspects. For years, it did so by collecting domestic call records in bulk. That program came to light via the 2013 leaks by the former intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden. The National Security Agency took in the 151 million records despite obtaining court orders to use the system on only 42 terrorism suspects in 2016, along with a few left over from late 2015, the report said.

Ambushes of Police on the Rise

Ambush-style attacks on U.S. police officers soared 167 percent in 2016, hitting a 10-year high. So far this year, the disturbing cycle of attacks has not relented. Police were ambushed Tuesday night in Chicago and Sunday night in Detroit, following an ambush on Miami cops just a few weeks ago. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial Fund, which tracks officer shootings, the number of cops shot in the line of duty spiked 56 percent in 2016, but the number of ambush-style attacks was even more troubling, up 167 percent, soaring from six in 2015 to 21 in 2016. And the trend has continued into 2017. Police in Chicago launched an all-out manhunt Wednesday for a suspect who shot two officers in a surprise attack as they sat in their patrol car. On Sunday night in Detroit, two officers responded to a domestic call. When they arrived to knock on the door, 46-year-old James Edward Ray, who reportedly had no connection to the domestic call, opened fire on them. Just over a month ago, on March 28, two officers in Miami-Dade County were shot in an unprovoked ambush outside an apartment complex while they were on routine surveillance.

Alarming Rise in Children Hospitalized with Suicidal Tendencies

The percentage of younger children and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or actions in the United States doubled over nearly a decade, according to new research. A steady increase in admissions due to suicidal tendencies and serious self-harm occurred at 32 children’s hospitals across the nation from 2008 through 2015, the researchers found. The children studied were between the ages of 5 and 17, and although all age groups showed increases, the largest uptick was seen among teen girls. Females are more likely to attempt, but males in general are more likely to succeed, the study notes. Slightly more than half, 59,631 children, were between the ages 15 and 17, and nearly 37% were between 12 and 14. Children 5 through 11 — a total of 15,050 kids — represented nearly 13% of the total. Cyberbullying is seen as a major contributor for the increase. The study did not examine data for completed suicides.

Puerto Rico, the ‘Fifty-First’ State, Declares Bankruptcy

After years of economic distress, ballooning debt, bloated bureaucracy and tax hikes on the island, Puerto Rico’s oversight board on Wednesday asked a federal court for bankruptcy protection from its creditors. The oversight board appointed to lead the U.S. territory back to fiscal sustainability declared in a court filing that it was “unable to provide its citizens effective services,” crushed by $74 billion in debts and $49 billion in pension liabilities. A little-noticed provision in a bill signed into law in 2016 places the fate of Puerto Rico in the hands of the Supreme Court’s chief justice. The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability signed into law by President Obama gives Roberts the power to appoint a District Court judge to oversee the bankruptcy-like case involving a U.S. territory. Traditional municipal bankruptcies (e.g. Detroit) are overseen by bankruptcy judges. District Court judges, unlike bankruptcy judges, are political appointees. As other municipal bankruptcies have demonstrated, the judge in control of the case retains significant influence over the outcome.

  • Just as in Detroit, pension liabilities play a big roll and will continue to drag down more municipalities in the near future due to large, unfunded pension obligations

Economic News

America’s job market rebounded in April, adding a solid 211,000 jobs, far surpassing the disappointing 79,000 jobs gained in March, according to Labor Department figures released Friday. The unemployment rate dropped to 4.4%, its lowest level since May 2007. Unemployment was 10% when the recession ended in 2009. Many economists say the US is now at or near “full employment,” meaning the unemployment rate won’t go down significantly more and wage growth should start to speed up. Wages grew 2.5% in April compared to a year ago.

What housing recovery? Only about one-third of U.S. homes have topped their prerecession price peaks. The median U.S. home price was $196,500 in March, up from $151,900 at the market nadir in April 2012, Trulia figures show. And the vast majority of homes are worth more than what current owners paid for them. However, Trulia’s study concludes that just 34.2% of homes nationally have surpassed their previous highs. Some metro areas have fully recovered from the housing crash, particularly in the West and South. Many of these places have benefited from strong job, income or population growth, such as technology hubs Denver, San Francisco and Portland, each of which has seen more than 90% of homes exceed their prerecession records.

Middle East

President Donald Trump announced during his meeting with visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday that he is preparing to launch a fresh initiative aimed at resolving the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. “Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Trump said. “Let’s see if we can prove them wrong.” Trump addressed Abbas directly, telling him that he expected there to be an end to incitement against Jews and Israelis in Palestinian school curriculum and popular media. Abbas replied by assuring his host that there was already nothing but peace and co-existence taught to Palestinian schoolchildren, a claim belied by much evidence which has been published over the last two decades.

The Hamas Islamic militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip announced Saturday it had chosen its former Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh as the group’s new political chief. Haniyeh succeeds Hamas’ longtime exiled leader Khaled Mashaal and the move comes shortly after Gaza’s rulers unveiled a new, seemingly more pragmatic political program aimed at ending the group’s international isolation. Hamas is trying to rebrand itself as an Islamic national liberation movement, rather than a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed by Egypt. It has also dropped explicit language calling for Israel’s destruction, though it retains the goal of eventually “liberating” all of historic Palestine, which includes what is now Israel.

The Israeli leadership dismissed a resolution by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) executive board that rejects Israeli sovereignty and jurisdiction over Jerusalem. The resolution, passed on Tuesday, as Israel celebrated Independence Day, or Yom Ha’atzmaut, refers to the Jewish state as an occupying power in Jerusalem and declares all its legislative and administrative measures in the city as “null and void.” A majority of 22 states voted in favor, 10 voted against and 23 abstained. While the overall outcome was negative for Israel, the vote marked a shift from the near-unanimous approval seen in previous anti-Israel UNESCO votes on Jerusalem, with 23 member states abstaining and 10 – the US, Italy, the UK, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Greece, Paraguay, Ukraine, Togo and Germany – opposing.

Islamic State

A State Department official on Friday said that the Russian proposal calling to bar U.S. military aircrafts from flying over designated safe zones cannot “limit” the U.S.’s mission against ISIS in the country in any way. A deal hammered out by Russia, Turkey and Iran to set up “de-escalation zones” in mostly opposition-held parts of Syria went into effect Saturday. The plan is the latest international attempt to reduce violence in the war-ravaged country, and is the first to envisage armed foreign monitors on the ground in Syria. The United States is not party to the agreement and the Syrian rivals have not signed on to the deal. “The coalition will continue to strike ISIS targets in Syria,” the official told The Wall Street Journal. “The campaign to defeat ISIS will continue at the same relentless pace as it is proceeding now.”

North Korea

North Korea on Friday accused U.S. and South Korean intelligence services of hatching a plot to assassinate dictator Kim Jong Un with a “biochemical substance.” According to North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency, “a hideous terrorists’ group” directed by CIA and South Korean spies “ideologically corrupted” a North Korean dissident identified as “Kim” and paid the man more than $20,000 to carry out the attack. The claim comes amid rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea over the reclusive regime’s nuclear weapons program and recent provocative ballistic missile tests. The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday voted to impose new sanctions on North Korea, the latest attempt by U.S. officials to deter North Korea from carrying out a sixth nuclear test.

Afghanistan

Despite the recent deployment of more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and other heightened efforts to eradicate terrorist groups, especially ISIS, Afghanistan’s former president, Hamid Karzai, believes the U.S. is in league with ISIS. “The Daesh is a U.S. product,” he told Fox News in an exclusive interview Wednesday in Kabul, using the Arabic word for the extremist Muslim group. “The Daesh — which is clearly foreign — emerged in 2015 during the U.S. presence.” Karzai, who was president from December 2004 to September 2014, said he routinely receives reports about unmarked helicopters dropping supplies to the terror faction on the Pakistan and Afghanistan border — something that the “U.S. must explain.” He also expressed great distress at the dropping of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) last month, convinced it was a joint U.S.-ISIS operation. “The Daesh had already emptied most of their (families and fighters) so this was coordinated. This group is just a U.S. tool.”

  • More likely, it’s the globalist elite who seek to establish a one-world government who are aiding ISIS. By creating more division and hostility in the world, the call for global leadership will increase, they believe.

Iran

Iran attempted to launch a cruise missile from a submarine in the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday but the test failed, two U.S. officials told Fox News. An Iranian Yono-class “midget” submarine conducted the missile launch. North Korea and Iran are the only two countries in the world that operate this type of submarine. In February, Iran claimed to have successfully tested a submarine-launched missile. It was not immediately clear if Tuesday’s test was the first time Iran had attempted to launch a missile underwater from a submarine.

France

The campaign of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron said it suffered a “massive and coordinated” hacking attack and document leak that it said was a bid to destabilize Sunday’s presidential runoff. Fears of hacking, fake news manipulation and Russian meddling clouded the French campaign but had largely gone unrealized — until late Friday’s admission by Macron’s campaign that it had suffered a coordinated online pirate attack. It was unclear who was behind the hack and the leak. His far-right rival Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, told The Associated Press that she believes she can pull off a surprise victory in the high-stakes vote that could change Europe’s direction. Security alerts in and around Paris have French officials worried as presidential candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron face off this weekend.

Environment

A killer whale found dead on the Scottish island of Tiree had one of the highest levels of PCB pollution ever recorded, scientists say. Lulu, well known to researchers as one of the last surviving whales in the waters around Britain, died after becoming entangled in fishing rope in January 2016. The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme and the University of Aberdeen conducted an in-depth investigation of Lulu’s corpse and were shocked by the findings. “Given what is known about the toxic effects of PCBs, we have to consider (the contamination) could have been affecting her health and reproductive fitness,” said veterinary pathologist Andrew Brownlow.

Weather

Powerful storms swept through the South Thursday night and Friday morning, and major damage was reported in at least one southeastern Georgia town. Authorities said at least five people were injured when a reported tornado damaged several buildings in the town of Garden City, located 5 miles northwest of Savannah. An Advance Auto Parts store was destroyed. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport also saw storms Thursday evening – one of which spawned a funnel cloud spotted near the hub. Minor damage was reported near one of the airport’s cargo facilities immediately following the storms, but no injuries were reported. The storms also left damage in South Carolina, west of Charleston. Severe weather damage was reported in the towns of Walterboro and Holly Hill Thursday night.

Signs of the Times (5/3/17)

May 3, 2017

Trump to Sign Order Protecting Opponents of Gay Marriage & Abortion

President Trump will sign an executive order on Thursday protecting the religious liberty of the Little Sisters of the Poor and ordinary Americans who don’t subscribe to gender ideology or believe in same-sex “marriage,” two “senior administration officials” have confirmed to Politico. This executive order would protect the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious institutions from being forced to participate in the provision of contraceptives and life-ending drugs and devices. The draft of the order mandates that the Department of Health and Human Services “take appropriate actions” to ensure that Americans aren’t forced to fund abortion when they purchase health insurance. Everyone must have “the ability to purchase health insurance that does not provide coverage for abortion and does not subsidize plans that do provide such coverage,” it says. It would also protect people who believe, speak, act, or decline to act based on their beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman and “sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage.”

State Legislatures Tell Universities ‘Free Speech’ or Else

Some state legislators are getting tough on college campuses that take tax dollars but allow students to shout down conservative speech they don’t like. The ‘heckler’s veto’ has gotten the attention of lawmakers in Wisconsin, home to one of the more liberal state university systems, where Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says they are taking some proactive steps by introducing the Campus Free Speech Act. The bill mandates that the University of Wisconsin adopt a policy which highlights the importance of free speech, that the college must remain neutral on controversial issues, and that all sides have a right to express themselves. The bill also mandates consequences for students who block the free speech of others – including expulsion. Colorado has already adopted a similar bill, and five other states including Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia are currently considering versions.

Congress to Vote this Week on Compromise Spending Bill

Congress will vote this week on a bipartisan bill that provides more than $1 trillion to fund the federal government through September and averts a shutdown at the end of this week. The compromise, reached late Sunday and unveiled Monday, keeps spending within limits previously set by Congress with a twist — lawmakers increased a spending account set aside for combat operations that doesn’t count against those limits. The bill would boost defense spending by $25 billion for the full 2017 fiscal year. The House is expected to vote as early as Wednesday, with the Senate following quickly thereafter. The proposed budget includes an additional $1.2 billion in additional funding for border security, $2 billion in additional funding for medical research at the National Institutes of Health, and $990 million in additional humanitarian aid to boost global famine-relief efforts. The bill does not include Trump’s request for $1.4 billion to begin construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border as well as Trump’s request for $1.4 billion to begin construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The bill also does not defund Planned Parenthood. Democrats were surprised at how many concessions they extracted in the trillion-dollar deal, considering that Republicans have unified control of the government. However, President Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to argue that the country “needs a good shutdown” to fix Senate rules that require him to negotiate with Democrats.

Healthcare Bill Floundering Over Pre-Existing Conditions

Republican efforts to overhaul the nation’s health-care system collided Tuesday with fierce resistance about how it would affect people with preexisting medical conditions, casting the proposal’s future into deeper uncertainty as GOP leaders scrambled to try to salvage it. On Capitol Hill, influential Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) came out against the plan, dealing a major blow to proponents trying to secure enough votes to pass it in the House. Upton, a former chairman and current member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he opposes the House GOP plan because it “torpedoes” safeguards for people with preexisting conditions. Republicans left their weekly conference meeting Tuesday with no health-care vote on the schedule. The House is slated to recess Thursday until May 16.

Illegal Immigration Declining Since 2007

The number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States has steadily declined over the past 10 years, amid a significant decrease in the share of Mexicans living in the country without legal status, a new report finds. The Pew Research Center estimates that 11 million undocumented immigrants lived in the U.S. in 2016, down from a peak of 12.2 million during the recession in 2007. Most notably, Pew reported that the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico has been shrinking. Pew said the number of Mexican immigrants without legal status who were living in the U.S. in 2016 fell to 5.6 million, down from a peak of 6.9 million in 2007. Pew said Mexicans represented an estimated 50% of the total undocumented immigrant population in 2016, marking the first time since 2005 that this group did not represent a majority.

Millions March in the People’s Climate March

Millions around the world are took to the streets Saturday for the People’s Climate March. The march comes a day after the EPA announced that its website devoted to climate science will be removed from the public after 20 years. Despite extreme heat that was expected to top 90 degrees, thousands of protesters descended on Washington, D.C., Saturday to participate in a climate change march. The People’s Climate March builds on an event that originated in New York City in September 2014. People in cities across the nation and around the world joined those in Washington to stand up for the planet to protest climate policies enacted by the Trump administration. The unusually high temperatures, which could be record-breaking in the nation’s capital, adds an ironic twist to the event, the Washington Post noted.

Facebook Adding 3,000 Reviewers to Combat Violent Videos

Facebook is planning to hire thousands of people to help review user content following multiple high-profile incidents of people sharing videos of suicide and murder. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO and cofounder, said Wednesday the company will add 3,000 people to its global community operations team to help “review the millions of reports we get every week.” That’s in addition to the 4,500 people already on the team. The announcement comes weeks after Facebook faced an outcry over a Cleveland murder video that stayed up for hours on the social network before getting removed. Not long after, a man in Thailand posted videos to Facebook of himself killing his 11-month-old daughter, before killing himself. Two of those videos remained on the man’s Facebook page for about 24 hours.

Overfishing Depleting the Oceans

Overfishing is depleting oceans across the globe, with 90 percent of the world’s fisheries fully exploited or facing collapse, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. From Russian king crab fishermen in the west Bering Sea to Mexican ships that poach red snapper off the coast of Florida, unsustainable fishing practices threaten the well-being of millions of people in the developing world who depend on the sea for income and food, experts say. China, with its enormous population, growing wealth to buy seafood and the world’s largest fleet of deep-sea fishing vessels, is having the greatest impact on the globe’s oceans. Having depleted the seas close to home, Chinese fishermen are sailing farther to exploit the waters of other countries, their journeys often subsidized by a government more concerned with domestic unemployment and food security than the health of the world’s oceans and the countries that depend on them, reports the New York Times.

NAFTA Scorecard Reveals Job Losses, Minimal Gains for U.S.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a liberal think tank, estimated in 2013 that NAFTA caused the direct loss of about 700,000 jobs because of manufacturers moving to Mexico, where wages are 30% of that of an American factory worker on average. Critics of NAFTA also said the flight of American companies to Mexico led to lower wages in the U.S. But that claim is disputed by a report last year from the U.S. International Trade Commission, which said NAFTA had “essentially no effect on real wages in the United States of either skilled or unskilled workers.” On balance, the Congressional Research office concluded that NAFTA’s overall impact on the U.S. economy has been “relatively modest” because trade with Canada and Mexico accounts for less than 5% of the U.S. GDP.  “U.S. trade with Mexico and Canada was already growing prior to NAFTA and it likely would have continued to do so without an agreement,” the CRS said.

Detroit’s Big Three Suffer Sales Declines in April

GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler all posted sales declines in April. Retail sales fell 4% for GM. GM’s flagship Chevrolet brand endured a 10.4% sales decline in April, as consumers ditched cars in droves amid low gasoline prices that are making bigger vehicles more enticing. The Chevrolet Sonic subcompact plummeted 67.8%. GM’s Buick brand bucked the trend for the month with a 17% increase, fueled almost entirely by the small Encore crossover. Ford’s retail sales plunged 10.5%, while sales to fleet customers were flat. The company’s car sales fell 21.2% for the month, including sharp drops for the Fusion, Fiesta, Focus and Mustang. But sales of the F-series pickup truck, the most popular vehicle in the U.S., remained strong, falling only 0.2%. At Fiat Chrysler, retail sales fell 3%, while fleet sales tumbled 21%. Jeep sales, which represent one of Fiat Chrysler’s profit engines, declined 16.5% Tthe Fiat brand fell 18%, while the Ram truck brand enjoyed a 5.3% increase.

Economic News

In the first three months of 2017, U.S. companies grew profits at the fastest past since late 2011. The S&P 500 stock index ended the week on pace for earnings growth of 13.6% in the first quarter of 2017. That’s nearly double the 8% growth in the final quarter of 2016 and best since the third quarter of 2011, Reuters reports. But U.S. economic growth downshifted to 0.7%, its slowest quarterly growth rate in three years. What gives? How can companies grow their profits when the economy delivers a dud performance? Earnings and GDP don’t always move in tandem. Also, about 40% of profits for S&P 500 companies are generated abroad. In addition, oil prices have doubled since a year ago, powering the energy sector to quarterly profit growth of 653%. And tech is booming with 18% profit growth.

Nationwide, the median home price was $225,000 during the first quarter of 2017, up 13% from a year ago, reports Attom Data Solutions.  Homeowners who sold in the first three months of this year saw an average price gain of $44,000 from purchase, the highest gain since 2007. Homes in more expensive markets have seen the highest average price gains so far this year, the report found. Sellers in San Jose, California, saw an average price gain of $356,500, followed by those in San Francisco with a gain of $276,750.

American manufacturing is gaining momentum, reports CNNMoney. Job gains are up so far this year after being down last year. The ISM manufacturing index — a key measure of the industry’s health — showed manufacturing grew for the eighth straight month. The index hit 54.8% in April. Any reading above 50% means the sector grew and anything below that mark means it shrunk. There are currently about 12.4 million US manufacturing workers. That’s up from the low point of 11.4 million in early 2010. Despite the recent gains, manufacturing jobs have been on a decline for years and are well below the 17 million factory jobs held in 2000.

Infosys, one of the Indian companies that’s drawn unwanted attention for its business model of hiring Indian engineers on H-1B visas and outsourcing their lower cost labor to U.S firms, now wants to hire American. On Tuesday, Infosys announced the opening of a 2,000-employee tech center in Indianapolis, Ind., with another 8,000 jobs for American IT workers in coming years. The workers will mainly be computer scientists, engineers and programmers.

Islamic State

A U.S. service member died from wounds sustained in an explosion Saturday outside Mosul where coalition forces are trying to drive Islamic State militants out of their former stronghold, the U.S. military said. The push into Mosul began in October, with government forces moving into eastern districts in November. With ISIS forces virtually surrounded in the western districts, the campaign has turned into a grim, block-by-block fight, with militants using explosive devices, car bombs and rigged buildings to slow the advance of coalition forces. The U.S. service member died of wounds caused by an explosive device blast outside the city.

Afghanistan

A suicide car bomber struck a U.S. military convoy in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, killing at least eight Afghan civilians and wounding three U.S. service members, officials said. Another 25 Afghan civilians were wounded in the morning rush-hour attack near the U.S. Embassy, which destroyed several civilian vehicles. No one immediately claimed the attack, but the Taliban announced the start of their annual spring offensive on Friday, and have repeatedly targeted Afghan and U.S. forces in the past. Afghan forces have struggled to contain the Taliban since the U.S. and NATO officially concluded their combat mission at the end of 2014, switching to a support and counterterrorism role. The U.S. has more than 8,000 troops in the country.

Iran

Iran is using the billions in cash resources provided under the landmark nuclear deal to engage in an unprecedented military buildup meant to transform the Islamic Republic’s fighting force into an “offensive” juggernaut, according to a largely unreported announcement by Iranian military leaders that has sparked concern among U.S. national security insiders and sources on Capitol Hill. Iranian officials announced late last month that Iran’s defense budget had increased by 145 percent under President Hassan Rouhani and that the military is moving forward with a massive restructuring effort. Iranian leaders have stated since the Iran deal was enacted that they are using the massive amounts of cash released under the nuclear agreement to fund the purchase of new military equipment and other armaments. Iran also has pursued multi-million dollar arms deals with Russia since economic sanctions were nixed as part of the deal.

North Korea

North Korea on Tuesday said the United States’ decision to fly two supersonic B-1B Lancer bombers in the area in a training drill is a provocation and puts the two countries on the brink of a nuclear war. North Korea conducted another missile test on Saturday, its third launch in April alone, which reportedly failed soon after launch, and its Foreign Ministry said Monday the country will speed up measures to bolster its nuclear program “at the maximum pace.” President Trump said after North Korea’s latest failed rocket launch that communist leader Kim Jong-Un will eventually develop better missiles, and “we can’t allow it to happen.”

North Korea confirmed on Wednesday it has imprisoned an American accounting professor, bringing to three the number of Americans held in its prisons as international tensions escalate. State-controlled media now has confirmed that Kim Sang Dok, who also goes by the name Tony Kim, was nabbed at Pyongyang International Airport on April 22. The 58-year-old captive joins University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier and businessman Kim Dong Chul in the Hermit Kingdom’s infamous gulags as the world continues to pressure North Korea over its rogue nuclear weapons program. In the past, North Korea has generally quickly released any American citizens it detained – waiting at most for a U.S. official or statesman to come and to personally bail out detainees. But that appears to be changing, leaving officials wondering whether the captives are going to be used as bargaining chips or human shields.

China

The communists who took the reins in China in 1949 viewed religion as backward and superstitious. Authorities did their best to wipe out religious life. And by the end of the 1970s, they’d been very successful. “There were basically no functioning places of worship in the entire country. This is a place that had over 1 million temples and scores of churches and thousands of mosques,” says Ian Johnson, the author of the new book “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.” “They were all closed down or destroyed.” However, Johnson says religion has not only survived in modern China, it’s thriving. President Xi Jinping has called on China’s citizens to continue to be “unyielding Marxist atheists.” He insists that the country’s 85 million Communist Party members remain atheists. But increasingly, he’s loosening the restrictions on religious organizations. Chinese authorities even subsidize some religious practice under the guise of backing what the government calls “traditional culture.”

Venezuela

Venezuela’s increasingly embattled president called Monday for a new constitution as an intensifying protest movement entered a second month with daily clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators becoming routine. After hundreds of thousands took to the streets again to call for his ouster, President Nicolas Maduro announced that he was calling for a citizens assembly and a new constitution for the economically flailing South American nation. Opposition leaders immediately objected, charging that Maduro was seeking to further erode Venezuela’s constitutional order. Many people expect the socialist administration to give itself the power to pick a majority of delegates to a constitutional convention. Maduro could then use the writing of a new constitution as an excuse to put off regional elections scheduled for this year and presidential elections that were to be held in 2018.

Earthquakes

The U.S. Geological Survey says a magnitude-6.3 aftershock has shaken the corner of British Columbia, near the boundary with Alaska, nearly two hours after a magnitude-6.2 earthquake hit the same area. Geophysicist Amy Vaughan says it’s not completely uncommon for an aftershock to be larger than the triggering quake, though normally the following quakes are smaller. She says there’s been a series of aftershocks ranging from magnitudes 2 to 5. The initial large quake hit around 4:30 a.m. Monday about 30 miles northwest of the tiny Alaska town of Mosquito Lake and about 83 miles southwest of Whitehorse, Canada. The large aftershock struck just a few miles away. The area is sparsely populated and there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Weather

After flooding smashed records that had stood for over 100 years, more heavy rain will fall in the Ozarks and mid-Mississippi Valley Wednesday, bringing a threat of additional flash flooding and adding to already swollen rivers and reservoirs. Flooding has forced Missouri transportation officials to close Interstate 55, along with other major routes Wednesday, effectively cutting off St. Louis from any roads to the south. Meanwhile, a levee failure in Pocahontas, Arkansas, Wednesday has prompted a flash flood emergency. Meanwhile, a levee failure in Pocahontas, Arkansas, Wednesday has prompted a flash flood emergency. Storms and heavy rains that began over the weekend led to flooding that has forced the closure of hundreds of roads in Missouri, Arkansas and Illinois. At least 20 people have died from the weekend storms and subsequent flooding.

At least four tornadoes were confirmed Saturday in Texas, part of the same system that put millions under flash flood watches and warnings. Parts of southwestern Missouri and northern Arkansas have received up to 11 inches of rain. The tornadoes in East Texas killed four people. Five people died from flooding and winds in Arkansas. Two deaths were reported in Missouri, including a woman who drowned after rushing water swept away her car. One of two deaths in Mississippi included a 7-year-old who died of electric shock, and a 2-year-old girl died in Tennessee after being struck by a soccer goal post thrown by heavy winds. The storm system moved eastward and wreaked more havoc Monday afternoon and evening. Strong winds and hail battered portions of Ohio and Pennsylvania on Monday.