Signs of the Times (5/3/17)

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.

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