About Me

In writing the "About Me" portion of this blog I thought about the purpose of the blog - namely, preventing the growth of Socialism & stopping the Death Of Democracy in the American Republic & returning her to the "liberty to abundance" stage of our history. One word descriptions of people's philosophies or purposes are quite often inadequate. I feel that I am "liberal" meaning that I am broad minded, independent, generous, hospitable, & magnanimous. Under these terms "liberal" is a perfectly good word that has been corrupted over the years to mean the person is a left-winger or as Mark Levin more accurately wrote in his book "Liberty & Tyranny" a "statist" - someone looking for government or state control of society. I am certainly not that & have dedicated the blog to fighting this. I believe that I find what I am when I consider whether or not I am a "conservative" & specifically when I ask what is it that I am trying to conserve? It is the libertarian principles that America was founded upon & originally followed. That is the Return To Excellence that this blog is named for & is all about.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

CLA+ Test Results Confirm Employers' Complaint - New Graduates Not Ready For Workplace

"The closest thing to magic is education." – South Carolina Senator Tim Scott
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The above graphs were included in the last post entitled How Trump's Budget Enhances Economic Growth & Prosperity to show that there are plenty of job opening opportunities for Americans – the fact that the graph on the left shows job openings @ an all time high while the number of hires actually slipped indicates a shortage of qualified people.  The graph on the right indicates that since the end of the last recession both the number of unqualified applicants & positions unable to be filled have steadily increased.
The U6 unemployment rate was 8.4% in May so there are still thousands of people who are marginally attached to the work force including discouraged workers & people who are working part time who want full time work to potentially fill some of these job openings.  There are also recent (five or less years since graduation) college graduates who are underemployed & 2017 college graduates, who 50% of employers in one survey, say are not ready for the workplace – source PayScale Inc. (www.payscale.com).
The PayScale survey pinpointed the deficiency of the 2017 college graduates as poor critical thinking skills & the results of the College Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+) test confirm the employers' complaints.
The CLA+ test is given every year @ about 200 colleges to freshmen & seniors to measure how much better these students have learned to think as seniors compared to when they were freshman.
The WSJ reviewed some of the data for the exams given in 2013 (freshmen) & 2016 (seniors) & found that "@ more than half the schools, @ least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document, or interpret data in a table."
The above results go hand in glove with the American Council Of Trustees & Alumni's (ACTA) findings that have been posted on this blog for years – namely, far too many students receive degrees in subjects they have not become proficient in including obtaining the thinking power that comes with a rigorous college education that will be useful to employers.
Below is a graphic from the WSJ that shows not all big name schools excel in the critical thinking field.
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Below is a graphic display from the WSJ that shows the pertinent statistics for Plymouth State University who recorded a 178 point positive change for students over the four years.  Interesting enough Plymouth State (actually in NH) is graded "F" by ACTA for academic criteria – Plymouth State's high score on the CLA+ test can be attributed to 40% of freshmen not meeting minimum critical thinking requirements meaning much of these young people's thinking, when they first took the CLA+ test as freshmen, was based on personal opinion, false impressions of life, incomplete thought processes, & in general was uninformed.  In short K to 12 education was no help to them.
As a point of comparison & much more in line with both the CLA+ & ACTA criteria are the results from the University of Georgia & California Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo.  Both schools are graded "A" by ACTA for academic criteria & more than 90% of seniors @ each school are considered proficient or better in critical thinking ability.  The University of Georgia has only 3% of freshmen with deficient thinking ability & Cal Polytechnic has 8%.  Freshmen @ Georgia scored 1213 points & 1155 @ Cal Polytechnic – above or in line with seniors @ Plymouth State.
Click here to see the tabulation that includes the detailed scores of some of the schools that participate in the CLA+ test plus a sample test question & three responses – one excellent & the other two lesser so.  As a former employer I would go after the person with the high score – it is really obvious that such a person will provide services that an employer will find valuable.  The CLA+ scoring is based on analysis & problem solving, writing effectiveness, & writing mechanics.
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Below are the graphic displays from the WSJ for the CLA+ statistics for the University of Texas @ Austin, the Citadel, & the University of Louisiana @ Lafayette.  The Texas school has a net change of –3 points from the freshmen start to the seniors finish but the freshmen start is much higher than most school's seniors finish.  The Citadel has an overall poor result based on the below display which is surprising for a school with a high degree of students who become commissioned military officers upon graduation.  The Louisiana school's CLA+ statistics are woeful but the school is graded "B" for academic criteria by ACTA – the school has a 15% four-year graduation rate which explains the statistics in the below display.  The point is a prospective employer has to do an in-depth analysis on a student by student basis – i.e., he just can't look @ numbers.
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All of the above, except for a few isolated examples, show America has been on the wrong track academically for quite some time.  In order to turn our jobs picture & economy around a complete & out-&-out change in mindset is required.  This includes parents making sure their children's K to 12 schooling is good – which it certainly is not now in more than the cases provided above.  Parents & students have to stop going into debt for tens of thousands of dollars to get a useless degree from schools where the student has to fake answers on tests to placate radical socialist professors who are teaching anything & everything but free market capitalism.  A twenty-five year old unemployed or underemployed college graduate has to face that his career is passing him by – he needs additional training in another field or needs to pound the electronic pavement in his field of training to find a job now that BO is out of office.  2017 college graduates have to ask if they really do have credentials that an employer can use, & if not, take remedial courses to beef up these credentials.  People in their 30s, 40s & 50s who have seen employment decimated in their companies by foreign competition – or can see it coming – have to take appropriate positive steps to find a new field of employment rather than to look to the government.  And senior citizens must find the courage to realize & admit that the trajectory of Social Security & Medicare is not a sustainable one & senior citizens have to participate in the solution like everyone else.
In summary, everyone has to get into the act.
In Trump we have a president who wants & needs to be the jobs president
Trump, one of the most successful businessmen in the world, is working with other businessmen in many industries to increase employment by removing harmful regulations & lowering the tax burden & claims on earned income for both individuals & businesses.
Add Democrats, centrist Republicans, & any one else in political office to the above list who needs to get into the act & doesn't – if they don't help Trump succeed in his economic program throw them out of office the first chance you get.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Trump's Budget Enhances Economic Growth & Prosperity

The President's 2018 fiscal year budget, which serves as a recommendation to Congress (i.e., the president proposes, congress disposes) was released on May 23.
Although the budget contained many controversial points regarding deficit reduction over 10 years (2018 through 2027) such as 1) $250 billion for repealing & replacing ObamaCare, 2) $616 billion for reforming Medicaid & CHIP, 3) $272 billion for reforming welfare, 4) $143 billion for reforming Federal student loans, & 5) $72 billion for reforming disability programs it also included deficit increases such as $200 billion for supporting $1 trillion in private/public infrastructure investment & $19 billion establishing a paid parental leave program.
The yearly budget totals for spending & revenues project a declining deficit every year except 2019 & returns the budget to balance & even produces a small surplus in 2027.  The budget produces $3.6 trillion in spending reductions over 10 years & by including the economic gains that are expected from Trump's fiscal, economic, & regulatory policies the deficit is shown reduced by $5.6 trillion compared to the current fiscal path.  Non-defense discretionary spending is reduced by the 2-penny plan (2% each year) from $479 billion in 2018 to $378 billion in 2027.
And of course the budget proposal includes "funding to plan, design, & construct a physical wall along the southern border as directed by the President's January 25, 2017 EO."
Now you can decide for yourself how much appetite Congress has for any of Trump's plans indicated above as they exercise the power of the purse in the appropriations process.
But the most controversial part of Trump's budget is found on Table S-9 entitled Economic Assumptions – where Trump assumes a 3% economic growth rate & then not until 2020 (2.5% in 2018 & 2.8% in 2019).  Democrats say this 3% projected growth rate is not attainable thereby making the entire budget unrealistic.
Over the past nine years annual economic growth has averaged 1.4%.  Annual economic growth has been 2.1% since June 2009 when the recession ended – the weakest expansion of the post World War II period.  Even a one percentage point difference in the growth of our economy translates into nearly $200-billion a year of goods & services not realized meaning fewer jobs & a lower standard of living than would be produced from a more robust economy.
Between 1950 & 2005 annual economic growth of 4% or higher was common place.  See graph below.
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The following graphic indicates that growth in gross domestic product (GDP) is a function of labor & productivity powered by capital investment.  Stanford economics professor John Taylor teaches that economic growth equals employment growth + productivity growth.  Productivity growth is powered by increases in investment, innovation, & entrepreneurship.  Long term, the economy grows because of capital & savings.
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Now this blog has documented over eight years how BO's policies intentionally kept America down.  In the case of the economy higher taxes, massive regulations, & the certainty that both would increase under BO forced entrepreneurs to wait for another administration before moving forward with investments that would increase economic growth, jobs, productivity, & accordingly everyone's standard of living.  With Trump being one of the world's most successful businessmen we have a real chance to reverse the Death Of Democracy spiral & return to the liberty to abundance stage of our republic.
Trump's budget calls for lowering both the individual & corporate income tax rates, eliminating both the 3.8% ObamaCare surtax on capital gains & dividends & the 0.9% additional Medicare payroll tax.  Trump plans to replace two government regulations for every new one made – the business cost of regulatory compliance in 2012 was nearly $2-trillion.  BO's annual compliance cost burden for an average U.S. firm is 21% of its payroll thereby leaving little or no room for investment of any kind.  In summary, Trump's budget plan provides a much better climate for businesses & workers to prosper.  Already $55-billion of burdensome regulations have been repealed thereby boosting confidence of business leaders.
See table below that identifies taxes & government regulations & red tape as the two largest problems of small businesses.
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From 1948 through 2016 the working age population grew 1.1% per year on average.  Part of the Democrat's skepticism about Trump's 3% economic growth target is that baby boomers are retiring @ a rate of 10,000 per day (they claim this is a large part of the reason that the labor force participation rate has declined from 66.0% in 2008 to 62.7% in May) & family sizes are getting smaller & I hasten to add starting to form later in life than they did for most of the twentieth century thereby retarding economic growth.  The census bureau forecasts an annual growth rate of 0.3% for the working-age population for the next 10 years – the same rate as the last nine years.
Productivity growth averaged 1.1% the past nine years (0.5% per year from 2011 through 2016) resulting in average annual output growth of 1.4% when you add the 0.3% additional hours worked each year.  See table below for relationship of productivity, output, & hours worked from 1948 through 2016.
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So with productivity down, & projected to stay down, & the labor force growing slowly how does Trump justify 3% economic growth in his budget proposal?
It must first be understood that every economic policy of the past eight years under BO was instituted to make people dependent on the government – not produce a viable economy that people prospered in.  If you don't believe me name one policy that BO put in place that enhanced free enterprise.
It is true that the labor force participation rate declined as baby boomers retired & BO bares no responsibility for this.  But this is not the case for the decline in family sizes (or their postponement to even start a family) – young & old alike found employment precarious with deep cuts in salary for experienced people, if they still had a job @ all, while young college educated people could not find jobs in their field & were forced to live in their parents basements as a result of BO's policies – this was documented by statistics, graphs, & personal experience in many posts over the years on this blog.  Much of the decline in the growth of the labor force can be laid @ the feet of BO.
In a similar vein it is easy to see why businesses did not expand their facilities or equipment that would increase productivity with the only certainty being that their taxes & number of regulations would increase under BO or Hillary Clinton, the surprise loser in the presidential election.
In summary, BO's policies precluded both family formation which hindered labor force growth & investment that would increase productivity.
The retirement of baby boomers is far from the entire story regarding the decline in the labor force participation rate.  Check out the graphs below to see that the declines in labor force participation rates of both teenagers & young adults is even greater than the overall decline (3.3% from 2008 to the present).  In fact for people 65 & over the labor force participation rate increased 4.2% from 2004 to 2014 going from 14.4% to 18.6% while the teenage rate dropped from 40.2% in 2008 to 34.3% in 2015.
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The trick to achieving 3% growth is to get the aforementioned people back into the labor force & in many cases off government dependence.  Part of Trump's budget proposal calls for people to join the labor force in order to qualify to continue receiving government benefits like food stamps.
Professor Taylor estimates that reversing the declining trend in labor force participation & getting the aforementioned people back to work will produce a 2% growth rate in employment when coupled with the average population growth rate of the past 68 years.  When businesses start to invest in capital improvements once again productivity growth of @ least 2.3% (average of the past 68 years) is a reasonable expectation resulting in GDP growth of 4.3% – much higher than Trump's assumption of 3% growth. 
Trump picked 3% growth instead of 4.3% because there will be inefficiencies productively returning the aforementioned people to the labor force.  It is a fact that people who have been out of the labor force for years most likely have lost skills & will need training.  Also it can be hard to get current recipients of government benefits to return to the labor force – hence the incentive to work in order to continue receiving benefits.  In addition, many of the teenagers & young adults listed above will have low skills but for the first time in their lives they have a real chance to achieve a better life than currently lies before them.
The following graph shows there are currently a million more openings than there are people available to fill them.  Someone who wants to get trained for these jobs will walk, not have to run, past the competition, get a better more dignified life, & contribute to the growth of the U.S. economy.
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The following graphic details another version of the trouble small businesses are having finding qualified workers.  What a new lease on life for those who take advantage of it.
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We are coming from way down & it certainly didn't have to be this way.  The following graphs show another measure of potential employment - just to get back to levels where we once were.
Another highlight of Trump's budget is:  "Tax Reform & Simplification. We must reduce the tax burden on American workers & businesses, so that we can maximize incomes & economic growth. We must also simplify our tax system, so that individuals and businesses do not waste countless hours and resources simply paying their taxes."
Below is the postcard form that the House (Ryan) is proposing to be used in filing income tax returns in the tax simplification process.  But it is still an income tax which means with its large deductions it gives the perception that government is free to over half the population & its claims on earned income can easily be raised.
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In summary, Trump's fiscal year 2018 budget is just another reason the Democrats want to get rid of him.  Democrats fear that Trump will reverse the political correctness that they depend on to confuse & mislead people so that no one any longer knows right from wrong - Democrats are like fish caught on hooks fighting for their lives – getting rid of Trump gives them a chance to resuscitate themselves.
In his work to make America great again Trump is looking to return prosperity to the citizenry by getting them off of government dependence & making America once again a land where free enterprise thrives.  The above analysis shows the principles contained in Trump's budget is a start to reverse the terrible direction this country has gone in, not only during the last eight years but since 1960 as shown on the graphic below.
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Sunday, June 11, 2017

An Analysis - Preventing Future Islamic Terror Attacks

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It is the above type of political correctness by Pope Francis that will result in the universal domination of Islam & Sharia Law & the establishment of a worldwide caliphate – expanding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's current self proclaimed caliphate – declared on June 29, 2014 - of the Islamic State of Iraq, Syria, & beyond of which al-Baghdadi is the elected caliph.
See map below - yellow shows current territory in Iraq & Syria controlled by Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL – one & the same).  The map does not include Islamic State controlled territories in Libya, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, or Nigeria.
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Consider the Pope's unnecessary capitulation to the evil of Islamic fascists to that of the contrived tiresome pronouncements of politicians, who after every senseless Islamic attack, respond with mealy mouthed words like Congressman Frelinghuysen uttered a few days ago following the atrocities in Manchester & Kabul – "We all strongly condemn these attacks and renew our pledge to stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies to defeat this unspeakable evil at its source."  Blah, blah, blah.  How many times must innocent people, smart enough to wonder when their number will be called, have to hear this type of empty, trite, clich├ęd way with words before they realize that our elected representatives – other than Trump - really don't want to take positive proactive steps to rid the world of Islamic fascists & the terror tactics they use.
The above type of faux "strong" words that we hear after every Islamic terrorist attack amount to nothing – they are worthless, meaningless, insincere repetitions that really are disrespectful & condescending.  They do nothing to prevent future attacks.
Of course it is not just American politicians who are petrified to properly address the Islamic terror problem.  The UK's prime minister Theresa May's statement after the Manchester bombing emphasized another tired refrain that such attacks "will not break us".  This prompted English singer-songwriter Morrissey to point out that the bombing will not break Prime Minister May because she lives in a bullet-proof bubble & did not know any of the young people taken to the Manchester morgues for identification – these people are already broken.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, himself a Muslim, said "London is united with Manchester" - but he does not condemn Islamic State - who have claimed responsibility for the bombing.  Following the June 3 London Bridge attack Mayor Khan said "I condemn these terrorists in the strongest possible terms . . . we will never be cowed by terrorism."  Sound disingenuously all too familiar?
And then Manchester mayor Andy Burnham says the Manchester attack was carried out by an "extremist" – which prompted Morrissey to mockingly ask "An extreme what? An extreme rabbit?"
Politically correct politicians, like all the people mentioned above, always explain that Islam is a religion of peace after the latest murder, attempted murder, or execution by beheading by people who claim Muslim affiliation.

These types of politicians always point out that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful as if this proves something. 


How do we know the true followers of Islam are the peaceful ones?  Just because they are peaceful?  This could prove to be a fool's interpretation.  A thorough study of Islam, the Quran, & the Hadith is needed to know which ones are following Islam & which ones are not.


Since 9/11 Americans have learned far too well that Islam is a fascist ideology that tolerates no other opinion or belief in the world, not only of religion, but also of political & legal systems.  Greg Woods, writing in the WSJ, points out that "Muhammad wasn't only a prophet, he was chief of state, supreme judge, & top general of the army of conquest.  He presided over an entire system of law called Sharia."


It is Muslim's belief in Sharia law that we should focus on because according to Pew Research done in 2013 32% of Muslims in America believe that Sharia should be the supreme law of the land – not the Constitution which Muslims swear an allegiance to during the citizenship process; 51% told the Polling Company in June 2015 they preferred having "the choice of being governed according to Sharia;" & 60% of Muslim-Americans under 30 told Pew they're more loyal to Islam than America.  One of the tenets of Sharia is that it is permissible to lie to gain an advantage for Islam.


It is Sharia law that makes it impossible for Muslims to assimilate into another country or culture & is the reason that Muslims intend to dominate the world.


Sharia law is the basis of Islamic terrorists' murderous acts who, in the name of Allah shout "Allahu Akbar" (Allah the greatest) during their onslaughts to reaffirm whatever is happening is in accordance with Allah's will.  They leave messages citing chapter & verse from the Quran to justify their actions that show their love for Allah & their enthusiasm, eagerness, & determination to do Allah's will.


Some tenets of Sharia law include: 1) the denial (or criticizing) of any part of the Quran is punishable by death, 2) a man can beat his wife for insubordination, 3) women wear clothing that covers them head to foot except for the eyes (this also conceals bruises & deformation from beatings), 4) women cannot drive cars, 5) a Muslim who becomes a non-Muslim is punishable by death, 6) homosexuals are put to death (most often by being thrown from buildings & more recently being caned in Banda Aceh, Indonesia last month), & 7) Muslims should engage in Taqiyya (a form of Muslim deception) & lie to non-Muslims to advance Islam.


The above clear explanation of Sharia law, & the examples of the kind of draconian principles it entails, shows the brilliance of Trump's magnificent speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21 – the first stop in his first foreign trip as president.  Prior to the trip Trump had built a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia based on the two countries mutual concerns about terrorist destruction by Islamic State (Sunni) & Iran (Shia).


The Saudis had invited the leaders of 50 Sunni Muslim countries to hear the speech in which Trump challenged these leaders of Muslim nations to become partners with the United States in driving Islamic terrorists "out of this earth."  Trump asked them to reduce, destroy, & prevent "the crisis of Islamic extremism, & the Islamists, & Islamic terror of all kinds."


There is already evidence that some of these countries have been emboldened by Trump's presence & remarks in that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the U.A.E., Bahrain, & others have identified Qatar as a financial funder of terrorism specifically mentioning Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, & being sympathetic to Iran.  Several Middle East countries have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar prompting Trump to tweet: "During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology.  Leaders pointed to Qatar – Look!  So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King & 50 countries already paying off.  They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, & all reference was pointing to Qatar.  Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism."


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Ever since the Islamic terror attacks in America on 9/11 Americans have asked why Muslims who do not participate in terrorism do not @ least condemn the violent acts – there is an implied non-approval by non-violent Muslims but no real satisfactory answer & certainly no vociferous condemnation. 


As indicated above Trump has called out the leaders of 50 Sunni Muslim nations to rid Islamic terrorism from their own countries which, if they do, will answer the above question in each country.  Trump explained to these leaders: "This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations.  This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, & decent people of all religions who seek to protect it."


Meanwhile since the Manchester & Kabul attacks the U.K. suffered its third Islamic terror attack in 72 days when three Muslim terrorists drove a rented white van into pedestrians on the London Bridge before knifing their way into the Borough Market pub & restaurant area where they were shot & killed by police.  The Islamic terrorists cried "This is for Allah" during the rampage that killed eight people & injured forty eight – 15 of whom are still in critical condition.


This time Prime Minister May said the tolerance of Islamist extremism had gone too far in the U.K. admitting that "it is time to say enough is enough."  Not intending to be flippant but wasn't the bombing @ the pop concert in Manchester on May 22 "enough" or the attack on the Westminster Bridge on March 22 "enough"?


All three of the 2017 Islamic terror attacks in the U.K. have involved terrorists who had been under law enforcement surveillance @ one time or another.  In the London Bridge case Khuram Shazad Butt had not only been under surveillance but he had appeared in a documentary on the BBC in 2016 that called for Islamic law (Sharia) in the U.K.  In addition, two years ago, a neighbor had notified authorities of potential dangers with Butt's suspicious activities.  So much for "if you see something say something" in the U.K.


The problem is that there are over 20,000 people listed as "subjects of interest" in terror in the U.K. with 3,000 being under active investigation to some degree – supposedly.  Virtually an impossible job.


Two thirds of Muslims living in the U.K. say they would not report any suspicious terror activities if they became aware of them thereby casting their loyalty with the terrorists instead of the decent people of the U.K. – source Nigel Farage.  Returning to a famous quote from sixteen years ago: "You are either with us or you are with the terrorists."


Now Prime Minister May has said she plans to ramp up anti-terrorism methods but all of the methods she has suggested so far still wreak of political correctness - avoiding hard truths so as not to offend the people around you – in this case avoiding making the obvious connection between Islam & barbaric violence. 


William Kilpatrick, writing for Crisis Magazine, provides the following list, that make up a solid foundation, of steps to take in preventing the type of Islamic terror attacks of the past several years: "surveilling mosques, madrassas, & Muslim student associations, deporting radical imams, shutting down radical mosques & schools, closing Sharia courts, closing radical Islamist political organizations, banning foreign funding of mosques, stopping the radicalization of Muslims in the prison system, preventing the return of foreign fighters from places like Syria and Libya, &—the big one—calling a halt to Muslim immigration."


I hasten to add to the above list the eradication of Muslim no-go zones (enclaves) which are so dangerous that police are afraid to enter them.  The main European terror targets - Germany, Belgium, France, & England, all with weak immigration laws – have large concentrations of Muslims, who have no intention of assimilating, in many locations & this atmosphere makes it ripe for terrorism to breed including the formation of no go zones.  Countries like Hungary, Poland, & the Czech Republic have strict immigration laws & have suffered no major terror attacks to date.


Check the graphic below for Muslim enclaves in the U.S.  Click here to learn how these enclaves form in the U.S.  Click here to watch Dennis Michael Lynch take a tour of Dearborn,  Michigan – a city of nearly 100,000 people, 40% of whom are Arab Americans.  Dearborn has the largest proportion of Arab Americans in the U.S.


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This post is not intended to discriminate or profile but rather to urge using our experience & common sense – nothing can be more foolish than to allow our Constitution, laws, moral standards, & values to be used as weapons against us by exploitative Islamic terrorists - to our ultimate capitulation & demise.  Europe provides a good example of what is coming to America unless we change our approach to the worldwide Islamic fascist offensive & exercise our own offensive as outlined above.


A good place to start with our new approach would be to ask, & find out, what kind of religion would inspire & permit Mohammad Atta & Marwan al-Shehhi to say they were practicing their religion by flying airplanes into buildings.  To me this is not a religion @ all. 


Reference post:  The Problem With Sharia Law For Non-Muslim Countries