Signs of the Times (2/26/18)

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:19)

Trump Calls for Arming Teachers

President Trump on Thursday defended his call to arm some teachers as a way to stop a “savage sicko” from causing mass casualties, while also calling for gun control measures — including raising the age for purchasing firearms to 21. I never said ‘give teachers guns’ like was stated on Fake News @CNN & @NBC. What I said was to look at the possibility of giving ‘concealed guns to gun adept teachers with military or special training experience- only the best,” Trump tweeted. “Highly trained teachers would also serve as a deterrent to the cowards that do this. Far more assets at much less cost than guards,” Trump added. “A ‘gun free’ school is a magnet for bad people.” The president’s tweets followed a listening session at the White House Wednesday afternoon with students, parents and teachers affected by the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting last week which left 17 dead. He also invited parents affected by the Sandy Hook and Columbine massacres.

Trump Imposes ‘Largest Ever’ Sanctions Against North Korea

President Trump on Friday announced the “largest ever” set of sanctions on North Korea as his administration intensifies efforts to starve Pyongyang of resources it can use for its nuclear program. The new measures target 56 vessels, shipping companies and other entities that Trump administration officials believe are used by North Korea to conduct trade prohibited under previous sanctions, creating an economic lifeline for the isolated regime. Officials hope the measures, the latest of multiple rounds of sanctions rolled out since Trump took office, will prompt North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to rethink his nuclear ambitions. The Kim regime, which has made significant advances in recent years in its missile and nuclear programs, has boasted of its ability to strike the United States and its allies.

Supreme Court Keeps DACA Immigration Program in Place for Now

The Supreme Court refused Monday to review a federal judge’s order that the Trump administration continue a program protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. The denial leaves in place the popular DACA program, which has protected some 690,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation and enabled them to get work permits. The program had faced a March 5 deadline for congressional action set by Trump last summer. Two federal courts have ruled the administration’s action was illegal. The justices could have agreed to hear the case this spring, leapfrogging a federal appeals court based in California that has been sympathetic to the cause of immigrants. They also could have overruled federal District Judge William Alsup without a hearing. Instead, they simply allowed the case to run its normal course through the appeals court, which it asked to “proceed expeditiously.” The case still could come to the high court in the future.

State Department Launches $40 Million Initiative to Counter Russian Meddling

The State Department on Monday unveiled a new program to counter Russian meddling in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. The $40 million initiative will battle state-sponsored disinformation and propaganda targeting the U.S. and its interests. The program will be run from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) and is starting with a new $1 million Information Access Fund that on Monday announced a request for proposals from groups and agencies across the country. “Under the Information Access Fund, civil society groups, media content providers, non-governmental organizations, federally funded research and development centers, private companies and academic institutions will be eligible to compete for grants from the GEC to advance their important work to counter propaganda and disinformation,” according to a statement released Monday morning.

Pro-Faith Groups Had Been Targeted by FBI & IRS

Liberty Counsel says, “We now have Hard Evidence connecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s FBI to the outrageous targeting of Tea Party and pro-faith/family groups by President Obama’s IRS. Research by Judicial Watch has revealed documentation exposing ways in which “Mueller’s FBI worked with Lois Lerner’s IRS to try and prosecute the very groups the Obama IRS was suppressing.” Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel, says, “And now this same man — Robert Mueller — is heading up the anti-Trump “collusion” investigation when instead he should be investigating Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the real conspiracy that threatened the rights of Americans!

California Overrun by Homelessness

The specter of homeless encampments steadily expanding across the downtown streets of San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco – bringing with them a public health crisis – has one southern California community taking tough action to dismantle a two-mile-long camp just a short drive from Disneyland. In a departure from the approach taken by other local governments in the state, officials in Orange County, Calif., have started to clear out the camp – by moving occupants and hauling away literally tons of trash and hazardous waste.  Trash trucks and contractors in hazmat gear have descended on the camp and so far removed 250 tons of trash, 1,100 pounds of human waste and 5,000 hypodermic needles. But the effort hasn’t been without controversy as homeless advocates, the American Civil Liberties Union and a federal judge have all weighed in on the fate of some-700 people evicted from their home along the Santa Ana River — next to Angel Stadium of Anaheim and a few miles from Disneyland, outside Los Angeles. The ACLU and others filed a federal civil rights lawsuit to stop the camp teardown and several stays have ensued until last week, when the final go-ahead was granted. For those being evicted, a mediation with U.S. District Court Judge David Carter offered the choice of a bed in a shelter or a month-long motel voucher; medical aid; drug treatment; job training; storage for their belongings and housing for pets at the county animal shelter. In San Francisco, which has a reputation as one of the prettiest cities in the world, a survey of more than 150 downtown blocks has revealed streets covered with garbage, human excrement and hypodermic needles. San Francisco has been at or near the top of national surveys tracking homelessness, with the city’s high cost of living accentuating a gap between the haves and have-nots.

No Link Between Medicinal Marijuana Legalization and Teens Recreational Drug Use

A new study reviewed 2,999 academic papers to find eleven suitable studies to pool together to examine the effects of legalization of medical marijuana and subsequent teen drug usage. None of the 11 studies, which covered data from 1991 to 2014, found an increase in past-month marijuana use among teens after medical marijuana was legalized in their state. “Regular marijuana use in teens has been shown to lead to impairments in neurodevelopment, later academic functioning, and occupational achievement. Rightly so, people are concerned about teen use — whether that’s with medical marijuana legalization or not,” said Dr. Deborah S. Hasin, an author of the study and professor of epidemiology at Columbia University.. “What we really don’t know about is [the effects of] recreational marijuana laws,” she added.

Demand for Exorcisms Up Threefold in Italy

The Vatican hopes to step up its game against demonic possessions with a week-long international conference in April to address a threefold increase in demand in Italy alone for the services of exorcists. The church is particularly alarmed over the uneven skills of some of its current exorcists and worried about priests who are no longer willing to learn the techniques. The assessment is a major finding of a four-day meeting in Sicily that included testimony on sects and Satanism, according to Vatican Radio. One of the organizers of the Sicily gathering, Friar Beningo Palilla, told Vatican Radio there are some 500,000 cases requiring exorcism in Italy each year. He blames the increase in recent years on a growing number of people seeking the services of fortune tellers and Tarot readers. Such practices “open the door to the devil and to possession,” he said.

Economic News

The richest 10% of Americans own 75% of the nation’s wealth, a level not seen since the 1930s during the Great Depression. On an income basis, the top 10% now earn over 50% of all income, up from 33% during the 1950s, according to Stansberry Research. The last time it hit 50% was in the late 1920s. Since 1980, very-high wage earners have seen their wages increase by 41%, compared to 6% for middle-wage earners and -5% for low wage earners (adjusted for inflation). Almost 40 years later, middle lass income is up just 6% — that’s just 0.17% a year. In comparison, the price of a new Ford 150 pickup is up 1,137%.

Stansberry also says that total household debt climbed another $193 billion in the fourth quarter of 2017 to a record $13.15 trillion. It has now risen for 14 consecutive quarters and five straight years, and it now is almost $500 billion more than the previous peak in the third quarter of 2008. Credit-card debt once again led the way… It rose 3.2% in the quarter to $834 billion. Student and auto loans increased 1.5% and 0.7%, respectively, to a record $1.38 trillion and $1.22 trillion. And even mortgage debt climbed substantially for the first time in several quarters, up 1.6% to $8.88 trillion. “This trend is unsustainable,” Stansberry says. “Sooner or later, it will end… and one of the largest credit-default cycles in history will begin.”

The problem of unfunded pension liabilities is reaching crisis levels. While a few cities have had to declare insolvency (e.g. Detroit), the state of California is now quite worried. Last week, Steve Westly, former California state controller and board member of CalPsers (California’s public pension fund, the largest fund in the U.S. made a stunning admission: “The pension crisis is inching closer by the day. CalPERS just voted to increase the amount cities must pay to the agency. Cities point to possible insolvency if payments keep rising but CalPERS is near insolvency itself. It may [require] reform or bailout soon.”

Corporate America has built up more debt than any time since the end of the Great Recession due to low interest rates. The credit binge has allowed companies to grow faster, invest in the future and reward shareholders with huge dividends and share buybacks, reports CNN Money. However, the elevated levels of debt will also make businesses more vulnerable when the next recession strikes or if borrowing costs spike because of rising interest rates. Either outcome will make it harder for Corporate America to pay back the $4 trillion of debt coming due by 2022. This risk has been underlined by the recent surge in Treasury yields and rising concerns that inflation could force the Federal Reserve to consider aggressive rate hikes.

Sales of new U.S. homes fell in January for the second straight month, failing to rebound from a weather-related drop in December. The Commerce Department reported Monday that last month’s sales came in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 593,000, the lowest level since August and down 7.8 percent from a revised 643,000 in December. Economists had expected new home sales to bounce back after tumbling amid harsh winter weather in December. But they may have underestimated how bad January’s weather turned out to be. Sales skidded 33.3% in the Northeast in January from December and 14.2% in the South. But they rose 15.4% in the Midwest and 1% in the West.

The median price of a new home dropped to $323,000, down 4.1% from $336,700 in December. Economists have complained about a shortage of houses on the market. But the inventory of new homes for sale rose to 301,000 in January, the most since March 2009. The housing market is beginning to contend with a steady increase in mortgage rates. Rates on long-term home loans have risen seven straight weeks. The rate on a benchmark 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage last week hit 4.4%, the highest level since April 2014.

Persecution Watch

Al-Shabaab militants murdered three Christians in an attack on a primary school compound in the village of Qarsa, north-east Kenya on 16 February.  Al-Shabaab have repeatedly targeted Christian teachers. According to local sources, such attacks are part of a deliberate effort to reduce school attendance, which makes children vulnerable to recruitment by the Somali-based Islamist group. Al-Shabaab are known to make extensive use of child soldiers and the group is reported to have recruited children as young as nine.

Five women have been killed in an Islamist terror attack on a church in the Caucasus region of Dagestan. A gunman, armed with a hunting rifle and a knife, opened fire on worshippers as they left an evening service at a church in the city of Kizlyar on Sunday 18 February. The Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the attack.

Middle East

United Against Nuclear Iran reports that Tunisia and Iran witnessed remarkably similar periods of spontaneous and widespread unrest in early January. “Although the scale of Iran’s initial unrest captured much of the world’s attention, policymakers and investors would be well advised to consider the two events together. To do so shows that protests in each country were driven by the same complaints that ignited the Arab Spring, leaving few doubts that the region remains susceptible to further and sudden fractures.” The outbreak of the unrest followed a familiar path in each country. After months of open discussion of sagging economies, protests erupted in cities across Tunisia and Iran. Crowds of demonstrators complained about austerity budgets, corruption, inflation of basic foodstuffs and persistent high unemployment. “As a result, these countries see (and will continue to see) hundreds of economic protests, strikes and demonstrations each year by unpaid workers and disgruntled citizens.”

Israel

The Trump administration has confirmed that the U.S. embassy will be moved to Jerusalem this coming May, coinciding with Israel’s 70th Independence Day. Initially, the embassy will consist of just a few offices inside an existing U.S. facility in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem, where the consular offices are currently located. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is being planned. Israel proclaimed independence on May 14, 1948. The May opening marks a significant acceleration. During his historic address to the Knesset in January, Vice President Mike Pence said the embassy would open by the end of 2019. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who signed off on the security plan for the new embassy on Thursday, had said it would take years. “President Trump’s decision to move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem on the coming Independence Day follows his historic declaration in December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement issued by the Israeli Embassy in Washington on Friday. The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday condemned “in the strongest terms” the American announcement regarding acceleration of the embassy move, saying they considered it “a provocative aggression against the Palestinian people.”

North Korea

The North Korean delegation to the Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics said that Pyongyang was “willing to have talks” with the United States, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said. This came after an hour-long meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s chief representative, Kim Yong Chol, in PyeongChang. North Korea agreed that inter-Korean relations should “improve together” with relations between North Korea and the United States, the Blue House said. The statement did not make any mention of North Korea’s nuclear program or whether the dialogue would be about denuclearization. Pyongyang has previously insisted that its nuclear weapons are not up for discussion. The White House on Sunday took a wait-and-see stance.

Iran

France, Germany and Britain have been scrambling for months to convince President Trump that they want to join him in cracking down on bad Iranian behavior — missile tests, terrorism support and regional meddling. If they can sway him, they hope he will agree to preserve intact the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement he has argued is fatally flawed. The State Department, has embarked on high-level talks with the Europeans to try to find a way to address Trump’s concerns before a May 12 deadline he has set for leaving the deal. Many involved in the effort believe success is both possible and desirable, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this month described discussions so far as “very fruitful.” Trump has also tasked Congress with legislating changes in the agreement in the same time frame. He has demanded not only that non-nuclear issues be addressed but also that the deal itself be altered to eliminate sunset clauses for some of the restrictions it places on Iran, to harden the inspection rules and to limit development of long-range missiles the United States maintains could be used to deliver nuclear payloads.

Syria

The U.N. Security Council on Saturday unanimously called for a 30-day cease-fire in Syria, with Russia agreeing to the temporary hiatus only after forcing two days of delays that critics said allowed ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to pursue a renewed bombing campaign blamed for hundreds of recent deaths in a rebel-controlled area. The nationwide truce would begin “without delay,” a victory for the United States and other nations that resisted Russian efforts to push back the start or soften the terms. It came after intense negotiations to persuade Russia not to use its veto power in the Security Council. Moscow had blocked 11 previous Syria resolutions. The United States and others accused Moscow of protecting the Assad government. It will be up to Russia to use its influence with Assad to enforce the cease-fire, which would allow desperately needed deliveries of emergency supplies and medical evacuations of the seriously injured and sick.

Nigeria

Nearly 100 Nigerian schoolgirls are missing after suspected Boko Haram militants raided their school earlier this week in northeastern Nigeria. There have been conflicting reports over the number of girls accounted for and how many are still missing. The incident came four years after 276 students were abducted from their school 170 miles away in the northeastern town of Chibok. Teachers and students ran from the Government Girls Secondary school into the bush outside Dapchi on Monday evening as the girls were taken away in trucks, the BBC reported.

Mexico

Tentative plans for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to make his first visit to the White House to meet with President Trump were scuttled last week after a testy call between the two leaders ended in an impasse over Trump’s promised border wall, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. Peña Nieto was eyeing an official trip to Washington this month or in March, but both countries agreed to call off the plan after Trump would not agree to publicly affirm Mexico’s position that it would not fund construction of a border wall that the Mexican people widely consider offensive. Speaking by phone, Peña Nieto and Trump devoted a considerable portion of their roughly 50-minute conversation to the wall, and neither man would compromise his position.

Earthquakes

A magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck central Papua New Guinea early Monday. There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths, but forest villages and a large gold mine were rattled. The temblor had a depth of 21 miles. A 5.5 magnitude aftershock struck near Porger. Tens of thousands of people live in the forested highlands region affected by the quake. Porgera is the site of a large gold mine that employs more than 2,500 residents. Papua New Guinea is located on the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, to the east of Indonesia. It is home to about 7 million people.

Weather

Communities from Texas to Kentucky continued to clean up Monday after numerous homes were damaged or destroyed by more than a dozen tornadoes that struck the mid-South on Saturday. Two people lost their lives. The powerful storms raked the region for hours, spawning powerful tornadoes that ripped apart dwellings and sent trees flying like missiles. Residents were trapped under their own belongings that were turned into projectiles or sent collapsing on top of them.

Heavy rains have swamped a large area over the past week, from northeastern Texas into the lower Mississippi Valley, Ohio River Valley and southern Great Lakes, triggering moderate to major river flooding in many areas. Six deaths have been blamed on the widespread heavy rain and flooding since last week. After a few dry days, rain will return to some of the waterlogged cities in those regions, exacerbating the flooding situation. Of greatest concern is a swath from central and southern Arkansas into Tennessee, southern Kentucky, northern Mississippi, northern Alabama and northwest Georgia Wednesday into early Thursday.

All-time monthly warm temperature records were smashed for a second straight day from the Deep South to northern New England resembling a typical early June day, rather than late February. At least two dozen locations in the East and South tied or set new February record highs Wednesday. New York’s Central Park soared to 78 degrees, crushing their previous February record high of 75 set on Feb. 24, 1985 and Feb. 25, 1930. Newark, New Jersey (80 degrees) also sets new monthly records. It was also Newark’s earliest-in-season 80-degree-plus high on record. Washington D.C. recorded its earliest 80-degree day on record at Reagan National Airport on Wednesday with a high of 82 degrees. Manchester, New Hampshire, soared to 77 degrees, which was the warmest February temperature on record anywhere in the state, topping a record set one year ago in Nashua.

The Bering Sea has lost roughly half its sea ice over the past two weeks and has more open water than ever measured at this time of year. This comes as much of western Alaska, including places like Saint Paul Island and Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, is in the midst of its warmest winter in recorded history. The community of Umiat measured unofficial temperatures 45 degrees Fahrenheit above normal on Tuesday. A lack of sea ice around the western edge of Alaska leaves the coastline open to the battering energy of storms rolling in from the Bering Sea. The Native Alaskan village of Kivalina, one of the first communities in the U.S. expected to relocate due to climate change, is being impacted by that kind of erosion.

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