Signs of the Times (12/22/17)

“He sent Me after glory, to the nations which plunder you; for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye. For surely I will shake My hand against them, and they shall become spoil for their servants. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me. Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” says the Lord. “Many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and they shall become My people. And I will dwell in your midst. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you. And the Lord will take possession of Judah as His inheritance in the Holy Land, and will again choose Jerusalem. Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for He is aroused from His holy habitation!” (Zechariah 2:8-12)

U.N. Votes to Condemn U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem

Despite President Donald Trump’s threat to cut off U.S. funding to countries that oppose his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the vast majority of U.N. countries voted in favor of such a resolution on Thursday. A total of 128 nations voted to support the resolution that condemned the U.S. for its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its decision to eventually move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Nine nations, including the United States and Israel, voted against the resolution; 35 nations abstained from voting; and 21 delegations were absent. The nine countries voting “no” were the U.S., Israel, Guatemala, Honduras, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands and Togo. Among the notable abstentions were Australia, Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic and Mexico. It is also noteworthy that 21 of the 193 U.N. member states were absent for the vote including Kenya, Georgia and Ukraine which have close U.S. ties. Trump’s threat to cut off U.S. aid raised the stakes in Thursday’s U.N. vote and sparked criticism at his tactics, which one Muslim group called bullying or blackmail.

U.N. Imposes Tough New Sanctions on North Korea

The United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Friday that significantly choke off new fuel supplies and order North Koreans working overseas to return home within two years, in what may prove the last test of whether any amount of economic pressure can force it to reverse course on its nuclear program, reports the New York Times. The sanctions, adopted by a vote of 15 to 0, were the third imposed this year in an escalating effort to force the North into negotiations. China and Russia joined in the resolution, though American officials have charged that in recent months the Russians have secretly been opening new links to the North, including new internet connections that give the country an alternative to communicating primarily through China. The vote came just four days after the United States charged that Korea was responsible for the “Wannacry” cyber-attack that crippled computers around the world in May, and weeks after the country launched a new intercontinental missile that appears capable of reaching any city in the United States.

With Tax Bill, Republicans Attained 3 Objectives

President Trump signed the tax reform bill Friday. In one bill, Republicans said they were checking off three major parts of their agenda: The massive tax overhaul is coupled with a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate and authority to drill for oil in a remote Alaska refuge. The bill doesn’t fully repeal Obamacare but does chip away at one of the Affordable Care Act’s foundations. The bill they zeroes out the tax, or fine, levied against people who do not secure health insurance under the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. Republicans in Congress celebrated the passage of the biggest rewrite of the U.S. tax code in decades Wednesday, with President Trump calling it a “Christmas gift for hard-working Americans.” Workers will see the first glimpse of a tax cut in February at the earliest, but it won’t be until 2019 — when people file their taxes for next year — that most will know whether they will pay more or less to the federal government. In the meantime, tax attorneys, accountants and corporate payroll departments are scrambling to adjust to changes that won’t be official until Trump signs the bill in January. The bill also cut the corporate tax rate to 21% from 35%. Corporations not only applauded receiving a reduced tax rate, many of them wasted no time announcing plans to use some of their steep tax savings to boost their workers pay. Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bancorp said they plan to hike their company-wide minimum wages to $15 an hour. Other firms including Comcast and AT&T promised $1,000 bonuses.

  • Religious institutions may fall victim to this tax reform bill. According to a recent study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, giving to religious organizations is likely to fall by nearly $4.8 billion in 2018. The itemized charitable tax deduction contributes up to 4.0% of individual giving, and with the standard deduction nearly doubled, there will be few itemizing in 2018.

Congress Votes to Avert Shutdown, Fund CHIP Program

Congress has once again forestalled a government shutdown — with a short-term funding measure through mid-January — and temporarily extended funding for health insurance for children from low-income families. The House voted 231-188 Thursday to approve a short-term spending bill that would fund most government programs at current levels through Jan. 19. The Senate quickly followed suit, passing the bill on a 66-32 vote. Congress was forced to act because the government was scheduled to run out of money at midnight Friday, raising the possibility of a partial shutdown heading into Christmas. Temporary funding is needed because Congress has been unable to agree on long-term government spending levels since the 2017 fiscal year ended last September. Instead, the government has been operating on a series of short-term extensions of last year’s budget. The temporary spending measure provides $2.85 billion in funding for the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, through the end of March. In a separate vote, the House also advanced an $81 billion package of disaster assistance funding for states and U.S. territories ravaged by recent hurricanes and forest fires. The Senate, however, won’t take up the measure until next year.

Judge Dismisses Emoluments Clause Lawsuit Against Trump

A federal judge in New York dismissed one of the lawsuits against President Trump’s business dealings, ruling Thursday that a watchdog group didn’t have standing to challenge whether the president’s continued connection to his hotel chain violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington had sued, saying that the president was benefiting from foreign government cash when employees of those governments held events or stayed at Trump hotels. The emoluments clause prevents the president from accepting a gift from another government without the consent of Congress. But Judge George B. Daniels said the group wasn’t able to bring the action. “Plaintiffs have failed to properly allege that defendant’s actions caused plaintiffs competitive injury and that such an injury is redressable by this court,” he wrote. The New York challenge is one of several that have been brought against Mr. Trump over his refusal to completely disassociate himself from his business empire. He has removed himself from day-to-day operations, leaving his sons in charge, but still earns money from the hotels, golf courses and other properties.

Trump Administration Secures Release of Several Detained Citizens

Amid all the debate over issues like the travel ban, the border wall and health care, senior officials in the White House and State Department have quietly worked behind the scenes to resolve a major concern of the president: securing the release of American citizens detained by foreign governments and terror groups. “Immediately after President Trump took office, he told Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson to prioritize bringing home Americans who’ve been wrongfully detained or held hostage in foreign countries,” said the White House spokesperson. “We are proud that we’ve been able to secure the release of several Americans as a result of U.S. diplomatic efforts.” While the administration has been successful in securing the release of numerous Americans held abroad, officials noted there are at least ten other U.S. citizens who are being wrongly detained.

Number of Abortion Facilities Shrinking in U.S.

Closures of abortion facilities far outpaced newly-opened facilities in 2017, reports Operation Rescue. In all, 49 abortion facilities – 35 surgical and 14 medication-only clinics – closed or halted abortion services. Only eight new surgical abortion facilities were opened, along with eleven new medication abortion facilities. Forty-five percent of all states had at least one abortion facility that closed or halted all abortion services this year. In 2017, there are 704 abortion facilities remaining in the U.S. Of these, 490 offer surgical abortions, often along with medication abortions. There are 214 facilities that offer only medication abortions. “We rejoice that the abortion cartel is imploding and closing down. We are making progress. But they are not going down without a fight,” said Troy Newman, President of Operation Rescue. “We continue to work and pray that we will soon see an end to abortion in our nation.”

  • Just as the sacrificing of children through fire to Molech brought judgment upon Israel (Jeremiah 19:4-6), so too is the U.S. experiencing judgment because of the children sacrificed on the altar of abortion.

8.8 Million Sign Up for Obamacare

About 8.8 million people have signed up for 2018 coverage on the federal exchange during an open enrollment season that was half the length of prior years and far less promoted, the Trump administration said Thursday. That’s only 400,000 fewer than signed up on healthcare.gov during open enrollment a year ago. Nearly 2.4 million consumers were new to the exchanges, while more than 6.4 million continued their coverage during the sign-up period, which ran from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15. More than 4.1 million people selected plans in the last six days, including those who were automatically renewed. Unlike in prior years, the Trump administration didn’t extend the enrollment deadline, though it did give people who couldn’t get through to the call center a little more time to sign up.

Military Issues New Rules for Transgenders

The US military has issued new guidance on how transgender individuals will be admitted to the armed services in the new year. The Pentagon is proceeding with plans to accept transgender applicants to the military on January 1 after a federal judge declined earlier this month to put the deadline on hold, the Justice Department has appealed that ruling. For any applicant who has undergone sex reassignment surgery or a medical treatment plan, the recruit will need to have been “stable” in their new gender for 18 months prior to entering the military. The memorandum defines “stable” as “medical and surgical interventions for gender transitions are complete with the exception of continued use of stable cross-sex hormone protocol, if applicable, no functional limitations of complications persist, and the individual is not experiencing clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

LGBQ Teens Have High Suicide Risk

LGBQ teens are more vulnerable to planning or attempting suicide, according to a research letter published Tuesday in the journal JAMA. Looking at answers in the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey in the US, researchers found that 40% of high school students who are considered sexual minorities — who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual or questioning, meaning they are unsure of their orientation — were seriously considering suicide. Transgender teens were not included in the US government’s survey, but research has shown that transgender youth may face a similarly high, if not higher, suicide risk. Of the sexual minorities in the study, 34.9% were planning suicide and 24.9% had attempted suicide in the previous year. Compared with heterosexual teens, those numbers are exceptionally high: Of the straight teens in the study, 14.8% had seriously considered suicide, 11.9% had been planning suicide, and 6.3% had made an attempt in the past year, according to CDC data.

Life Expectancy Down for 2nd Straight Year in U.S.

Health researchers had some grim news for Americans this week: We are dying younger, and life expectancy is now down for the second straight year — something not seen in more than half a century. The primary culprit is the opioid epidemic, which is cutting down young adults at alarming and increasing rates, the researchers say. A baby born in the United States in 2016 could expect to live 78.6 years, a decrease of more than a month from 2015 and more than two months from 2014. That’s the first two-year decline since 1962 and 1963 when spikes in flu deaths were to blame. Before 2015, the last one-year decline was in 1993 and was attributed partly to the AIDS epidemic. The rest of the world is improving, seeing large declines in mortality and large improvements in life expectancy. Newborns in 29 countries, including Japan, Australia and Spain, had life expectancies above 80 years in 2015, according to the World Health Organization. The average global life expectancy was 71.4 and rising, according to that agency’s most recent report.

Economic News

The Tax Foundation analyzed the details of the final bill and said it is a pro-growth plan that will increase revenues by roughly $600 billion from expected economic growth, reducing the cost of the bill, the Free Beacon reported. The final Republican tax bill set for a House vote reportedly will boost gross domestic product by 1.7 percent, lift wages by 1.5 percent, and add 339,000 full-time jobs to the economy, according to the business-oriented foundation. However, the bill also would add $448 billion to federal deficits over 10 years with economic growth factored in, Bloomberg reported.

Corporate America caught fire in 2017, hauling in fatter profits than ever before. The lucrative year for big business, fueled by resurgent economic growth at home and abroad, helped spark a powerful stock market boom on Wall Street. Global companies that generate most of their sales outside the U.S. grew earnings twice as fast as those focused domestically, according to FactSet. Clearly, companies cashed in on newfound economic strength in Europe and Latin America as well as relative stability in China. For the first time in years, virtually all major global economies are growing at the same time.

The National Association of Realtors said Wednesday that sales of existing homes rose last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.81 million units. Home sales haven’t been this strong since December 2006, when properties sold at an annual pace of 6.42 million. However, the strong demand is depleting inventories of available home. In November, there were 1.67 million properties for sale, a 9.7% decline from a year ago. There is only 3.4 months’ supply of homes on the market, the lowest level ever tracked by the Realtors. The limited inventory has caused home values to rise faster than wages. The median home sales price increased 5.8% from a year ago to $248,000 in November. That price increase is more than double the rise in average hourly earnings, meaning that some Americans are being priced out of home ownership.

On or about Jan. 1, 18 states and 20 cities, including many in California, will hike their minimum wage because of laws or ballot initiatives that mandate gradual raises over several years or automatic cost-of-living increases. Later in the year, another three states and 18 cities and counties will boost their pay floors, according to the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. Twelve of the states and many cities are set for relatively large increases as part of a multiyear phase-in, while nine states are rolling out smaller cost-of-living bumps. New York and more than a dozen cities are moving toward a $15 wage by 2022.

Bitcoin and several other major cryptocurrencies plunged Thursday evening New York time as the end of an exponential year of growth neared. Bitcoin plunged more than 20 percent to a low of $12,504 according to CoinDesk, down more than $3,000 from $15,820 less than 12 hours ago. Despite the sharp drop, the decline took bitcoin only to roughly two-week lows. The digital currency is still up more than 1,300 percent this year.

Korea

South Korea’s leader is urging the United States to postpone joint military drills if North Korea pauses its nuclear and missile tests before the 2018 Winter Olympics start in February in South Korea’s Taebaek Mountains. “If North Korea stops its provocations leading up to the Pyeongchang Olympics, it will greatly help in holding a safe Olympics,” South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said. South Korean officials stressed Wednesday that postponing the drills would be aimed at the South hosting a peaceful Winter Olympics, and not at ending the North Korean missile crisis. North Korea has fired 23 missiles since February, sparking international condemnation and sanctions. On Nov. 29, Pyongyang launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile it said was capable of striking the U.S. mainland, claiming to have achieved its goal of becoming a nuclear state.

Yemen

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen has said it intercepted a ballistic missile south of Riyadh on Tuesday, according to Saudi state television station Al Ekhbariya. The missile did not cause any damage. The missile was heading to a residential area in the Saudi capital, before it was intercepted, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency reported. A Houthi rebel spokesperson Mohammed AbdulSalam said on his Twitter account that the rebels fired the Burkan 2H ballistic missile, targeting the prestigious Yamama Palace hotel in the Saudi capital. The Burkan missile is an Iranian-modified scud missile. Last month, Saudi Arabia’s Defense Ministry said it intercepted a Houthi missile over an international airport in the Saudi capital.

West Africa

Barely two years after West African nations defeated a deadly Ebola scourge, they are confronting a new epidemic – corruption. The International Red Cross has admitted that its officials, local bankers, volunteers and others had embezzled more than $6 million in aid funds in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. In an internal audit, the Switzerland-based Red Cross said it discovered inflated purchase orders, payments to non-existent workers and padded expense accounts. Between March 2014 and January 2016, the Ebola virus killed more than 11,000 people in the three West African nations. Many of the approximately 17,000 Ebola survivors in the three countries are facing health complications from the sickness.

Indonesia

The Java Sea is rising and weather in Jakarta is becoming more extreme. Earlier this month another freakish storm briefly turned Jakarta’s streets into rivers and brought this vast area of nearly 30 million residents to a virtual halt. The primary problem though is not the weather. Instead, the capital of Indonesia itself is sinking. Jakarta is sinking faster than any other big city on the planet, so surreally fast that rivers sometimes flow upstream, ordinary rains regularly swamp neighborhoods and buildings slowly disappear underground, swallowed by the earth. The main cause: Jakartans are digging illegal wells, drip by drip draining the underground aquifers on which the city rests — like deflating a giant cushion underneath it. About 40 percent of Jakarta now lies below sea level.

Wildfires

Evacuation orders were lifted Thursday in Santa Barbara County, California, as firefighters continued to get a handle on the massive Thomas wildfire, that that prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to request a major disaster declaration from President Donald Trump. The Thomas Fire has claimed more than 425 square miles of land since it was sparked on the evening of Dec. 4, according to Cal Fire. The blaze is 65 percent contained as of Thursday night. The cost of fighting the massive fire has reached at least $110 million. Five of the state’s 20 largest wildfires have occurred since October.

Weather

Winter Storm Dylan moved into the Northwest and High Plains on Wednesday, causing hazardous travel conditions as it dumped heavy snow on several states. High winds knocked down trees and power lines in Bend, Oregon. Nearly 2,000 homes and businesses lost power in the area, as trees collapsed onto power lines, vehicles and buildings. Dylan dumped up to 40 inches of snow in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Dozens of locations in northern Montana, northern Idaho and northern Washington state have reported at least a foot of snow. Dylan is now spreading its wintry reach into the Great Lakes and is poised to produce a mix of snow and ice in parts of the Northeast starting Friday just in time for pre-Christmas holiday travel through Saturday. Several school districts in central and northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire opted to keep students home on Friday.

However, parts of the Midwest are nearing a record-long wait for the season’s first snow. Des Moines, Iowa, hasn’t seen measurable snow – at least 0.1 inch – since March 21, the day after spring officially arrived. In 134 years of records in Iowa’s capital city, the only time the first snow came later in the season was Dec. 26, 1939. A number of other locations from southern South Dakota into Iowa, western Illinois, Missouri and Kansas were also awaiting their first accumulating snow as of Dec. 20. That’s quite a contrast with a swath of the South from South Texas to the Florida Panhandle to North Georgia and the Carolinas that already picked up significant snow from Winter Storm Benji almost two weeks ago.

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