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Chart of the Day: Obamacare Just Keeps Working, and Working, and Working....

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 10:23 AM EST

Last year, as Obamacare finally went into full effect, the ranks of the uninsured began to drop sharply. Despite all the website problems and the repeated predictions of doom from conservatives, it turned out that Obamacare was working well. Then things stabilized as open enrollment ended. Today, Gallup released new results for the final quarter of 2014, which marked the start of Obamacare's second year of enrollment, and guess what? The ranks of the uninsured are dropping yet again. The percentage of adults without health insurance dropped from 13.4 percent to 12.9 percent:

The Affordable Care Act has accomplished one of its goals: increasing the percentage of Americans who have health insurance coverage. The uninsured rate as measured by Gallup has dropped 4.2 points since the requirement to have health insurance or pay a fine went into effect. It will likely drop further as plans purchased during the current open enrollment period take effect. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that 6.5 million Americans either selected new plans or were automatically re-enrolled into a plan via HealthCare.gov as of Dec. 26, 2014.

....Other signs also point to the uninsured rate falling more after this open enrollment period ends. HHS continues to focus on the financial assistance available to enrollees and increasing the fine for not having health insurance....The uninsured rate could also fall further as more states expand Medicaid.

The uninsurance rate has dropped the most among blacks, Hispanics, the young, and the poor. It's dropped by only a small amount among the middle classes, since they're mostly insured already by their employers. But even right smack in the middle, uninsurance rates have dropped by three percentage points. Obamacare just keeps on working, and it's working for everyone.

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What We Know So Far About the Newspaper Massacre in Paris

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 9:01 AM EST
An injured person is evacuated from the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday.

This story is developing, and being updated below.

Hooded gunmen carrying automatic weapons opened fire at the offices of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, killing at least 12 people and seriously injuring 10. The Guardian is reporting that three attackers are still at large, after they were seen escaping in a car.

French President François Hollande said the shooting was "undoubtedly a terrorist attack." France has since raised its terror alert to the highest level.

According to several news reports, the gunmen were heard shouting "we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad" as they stormed into the magazine's offices armed with Kalashnikov rifles. Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper known for its caustic, no-holds-barred cartoons, has previously sparked ire from some Muslims for its satirical take on Islam, including several caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. (The publication of the likeness of the prophet is forbidden under Islam). In 2011, the magazine was firebombed after publishing an issue "guest-edited" by the prophet. 

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both condemned Wednesday's attack. 

Several prominent cartoonists, including Jean Cabut and the magazine's editor in chief, Stephane Charbonnier, were among those killed. 

Since news broke of the attack this morning, the hashtag #JesuisCharlie has been spreading on Twitter in support of the victims. The US Embassy in France also changed their Twitter profile photo to include the hashtag. 

Cartoonists around the world have also shown their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo with powerful images:

Update: Thursday, January 8, 2015, 8:30 a.m. EST: Two suspects believed to be behind the deadly Paris attack, Said and Cherif Kouachi, remain at large. A third suspect, Hamyd Mourad, surrendered to authorities. 

I Used to Be a Snob About Fake Meat. I Was Dead Wrong.

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Just like chicken

Two years ago in the New York Times Magazine, the great food writer Mark Bittman made the case for fake meat. "Isn’t it preferable," he asked, "to eat plant products mixed with water that have been put through a thingamajiggy that spews out meatlike stuff, instead of eating those same plant products put into a chicken that does its biomechanical thing for the six weeks of its miserable existence, only to have its throat cut in the service of yielding barely distinguishable meat?"

The argument is powerful. Factory-farmed meat doesn't taste like much, yet generates all manner of wreckage, from antibiotic-resistant pathogens to fouled water and air to horrific working conditions and what amounts to systematized animal torture. Indeed, why not just eat some soybeans tarted up to look and taste like meat instead?

Well, the falafel revolution I tried to foment has not materialized.

At the time I scoffed at Bittman's alternative. I deplored the ingredients list of the chicken substitute he had profiled—soy protein isolate, pea protein, carrot fiber, etc.—as an example of what Michael Pollan has called "nutritionism": fracturing perfectly excellent whole foods like peas and carrots into components and reassembling them into something less nutritionally valuable. "You're almost certainly better off eating carrots and edamame—young soybeans that actually can be eaten by people—than you are ingesting mashed-up isolated components of them," I sniffed, and then went on to suggest that everyone interested in eating less meat turn to tried-and-true, minimally processed high-protein vegetarian foodstuffs instead.

Well, the falafel revolution I tried to foment has not materialized. And now, another piece by an esteemed food writer—Rowan Jacobson, author of American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields—has caused me to rethink my position.

In a much-shared article in Outside, Jacobson profiles a company called Beyond Meat, which plans to debut a product called Beast Burger later this month. Where other companies, including Beyond Meat, have made substances that closely enough resemble chicken, Jacobson reports, the Beast Burger will represent the first respectable facsimile of beef.

It wasn't some flavor or texture breakthrough that prompted my reconsideration. Despite the lofty promise in the article's subtitle ("the juicy flavor and texture of the real thing"), what Jacobson actually tastes when he bites into a Beast Burger doesn't exactly pique the appetite—unless you have a thing for '70s-era school-cafeteria cuisine:

Is it as delicious as a quarter-pound of well-marbled, inch-thick USDA Choice? Hell no. Good ground beef, lovingly grilled at home and served piping hot, packs a juicy succulence that this Beast lacks. In flavor and texture, the current Beast reminds me of the Salisbury steak of my youth—not exactly something to celebrate, but not terrible, either.

In an excellent 2013 piece on Beyond Meat and other faux-animal-product purveyors, Mother Jones' Sydney Brownstone had a similar reaction to the company's chicken strips: "Without any sauce or fixings, the strips' flavor resembled that of a grilled Chick-fil-A breast abandoned in a cup holder for a few days."

Nor do I find the people behind these companies particularly appealing. Both Jacobson and Brownstone portray the shakers and movers driving the new-wave meat alternatives as Silicon Valley-funded, jargon-spouting techsters—the kind I look to for a clever smartphone app, not for lunch.

So why am I abandoning my opposition to fake meat? Jacobson drives home a point that's been made before, but it's starting to convince me:

Why turn plant proteins into burgers and dogs? Why not just eat them as peas and soybeans and seeds? To which I say: taco, chimichanga, empanada, crepe, pierogi, wonton, gyoza, stuffed roti, pupusa, pastie, pig in a blanket, croque monsieur, pastrami on rye. Culture is a lump of flesh wrapped in dough. If you want to save the world, you'd better make it convenient.

Companies like Beyond Meat will never be able to introduce pea protein powder into one end of a machine and extrude a convincing substitute for seared steak or roasted chicken from the other. But maybe they can replicate the way most people actually experience meat: As part of some heavily seasoned, hyperprocessed concoction. Brownstone's devastating description of her experience eating that fake chicken product involved bare strips. But tweaked with "Southwest-style" seasonings, she reports, "they really did taste startlingly similar to what I remember from my pre-vegetarian days."

Most people don't want to eat just beans.

While I still maintain that you'd be better off just eating beans than hyperprocessed beans made to simulate meat, I can acknowledge that most people don't want to eat just beans—and that these products are likely nutritionally superior to the factory-farmed meat they aim to replace. And Jacobson supplies evidence that such products are already luring meat eaters away from meat at fast-food joints. "When Chipotle added shredded-tofu Sofritas to its burrito options at a few California restaurants in 2013, sales outstripped expectations," he reports. "Half the Sofritas buyers, Chipotle found, were meat eaters."

Part of me still recoils against accepting highly industrial transformations as the solution to anything food-related. And I consider animals, even cows, to be a vital element of truly sustainable and productive farming. I'd still love to see huge swaths of Midwestern corn and soy country be converted to pasture for grass-munching, soil-building beef cows. Meanwhile, though, our vast meat industry lurches on, sucking in tremendous amounts of resources and churning out all manner of destruction, along with meat that isn't much more appealing to me than Salisbury steak-like "beef" or "chicken" strips that savor of days-old Chick-fil-A.

All of which brings me back to that 2012 Bittman piece—the one I dismissed at the time. Why, he asked, turn to Tyson and other gigantic meat companies to "use the poor chicken as a machine to produce meat when you can use a machine to produce 'meat' that seems like chicken"—and much more efficiently? According to Jacobson, it takes 36,000 calories worth of corn and soybeans to produce 1,000 calories of feedlot beef. It's obviously preferable just to shove that feed into a processor, tweak it a bit, and produce something beeflike. Especially if, as Jacobson, Brownstone, and Bittman all seem to think, people will eventually embrace such substitutes (even if I won't—I'll still process my own beans, and eat a little well-raised meat).

If these Silicon Valley tech bros can "disrupt" Big Meat into oblivion, I now say, "bon appétit." I could live happily enough in world in which factory-farmed meat is replaced by factory-tweaked bean products, while pastured-based animal farming still flourishes alongside it.

Here's a Quickie Checklist of Global Economic Worries

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 1:36 AM EST

Just to keep everyone up to speed, here's a checklist of the big things that are currently worrying investors about the global economy:

  • A possible Greek exit from the euro—aka "Grexit"—following elections later this month. On the bright side, there's not much fear any longer that this might produce contagion that blows up larger economies like Italy and Portugal. On the dark side, that lack of fear might very well be a mistake. Panic was still contagious the last time I checked.
  • Recession and a deflationary spiral in the eurozone. Germany, which pretty much runs the show in Europe, is still doing its damnedest to prevent the European economy from showing any signs of life, which means that stagnation there could last a long time.
  • A slowdown in China, possibly accompanied by a property bust.
  • Problems in emerging economies with lots of dollar-denominated debts thanks to the continuing strong dollar.

All of this combines to make investors worried about the US as well. The American economy is a bright spot right now, but it can't drive the world economy all by itself. If everyone else goes kablooey, then the US economy will eventually suffer as well, and this could cause the global economy to go even further into recession.

So....those are the things you'll probably be reading a lot about over the next few weeks and months. Now you know.

If This Is What Bipartisanship Looks Like, Count Me Out

| Wed Jan. 7, 2015 12:38 AM EST

Earlier today Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner shared a deeply awkward moment that inspired me to make the following joke on Twitter:

Then @darth, our nation's greatest Twitter account, turned that joke into art.

@paulythegun added some keepers as well.

Please add your favorite Pelosi-Boehner/romcom Photoshops in the comments.

Republicans Are Facing a Mighty Big Headwind in 2016

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 8:41 PM EST

Democrats do better in elections when the minority population grows. Everyone knows that. And the minority population is, in fact, growing. Everyone knows that, too. So does that mean Democrats are sure winners in future presidential contests?

Hardly. But it does put Republicans in a bind, since it means they need to increase their voting share among minorities. This is going to be tough, since they've done nothing much to appeal to non-white voters over the past decade or so. Still, in 2016 at least Barack Obama won't be on the ballot. So maybe, just maybe, Republicans have a chance to recover the level of minority support they enjoyed in 2004, back when two white guys were running against each other.

But it turns out that even here the news is bad. Patrick Oakford of the Center for American Progress ran the numbers to see how Republicans would do if their minority support in 2016 rose back to 2004 levels. Here are the results in two big swing states:

Republicans would still win Florida—barely—but would lose Ohio badly. This is a state that Bush won handily in 2004, and one that Republicans can't do without. By 2016, however, voters of color will make up such a large share of the Ohio electorate that even 2004 levels of support won't win the state for Republicans. They'll have to do even better than that, and the same is true in several other key swing states. Here's Oakford:

This analysis shows—through a variety of election simulations—that as people of color become a larger share of states’ electorates, it will be crucial for both Republicans and Democrats to secure the support of this vital voter cohort....For Republicans, simply repeating the history of 2004—obtaining significant support among voters of color—will not necessarily mean a win in many swing states, including Ohio and Nevada.

The GOP has a tough presidential row to hoe in 2016. They aren't sure losers by any stretch, but to win they're going to have to do a lot better among minority voters than they've done anytime recently. It's not clear what their plan is to do that.

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Elizabeth Warren Slams GOP for Hypocritical Push on Keystone XL

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 4:44 PM EST

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is attacking Republicans for trying to force the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline while simultaneously promising Democrats a renewed spirit of bipartisanship in Congress.

"There's going to be an energy hearing on Wednesday, and right now, the Republicans say they're going to move forward on the Keystone pipeline," Warren said Monday. "If we're going to move forward on something how about something that more of us can agree on?"

"A bill that's about energy conservation, energy efficiency, and about jobs and has strong bipartisan support. There is a place we can start." 

Separately, Warren told the editorial board of MassLive.com that the GOP's push for Keystone belied the party's purported eagerness to work with Democrats. "This tells me that with the Republican rhetoric that they are going to find things for us to work together on—their actions don't match their words."

Warren's criticisms came a day before the White House formally announced that President Obama will veto legislation forcing his hand on the pipeline. Senate Democrats have previously expressed confidence that Republicans would be unable to override a veto.

"I think there will be enough Democratic votes to sustain the president’s veto,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told CBS's Face the Nation Sunday.

During last month's end-of-year press conference, the president signaled his skepticism over the pipeline's purported advantages for Americans, calling it a "nominal" benefit for US consumers and a boon for Canadian oil producers. 

Tea Party Heartthrob Ben Carson Once Lived the Hobo Life Hopping Freight Trains

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 4:15 PM EST

Before he was a prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Ben Carson was just another disaffected teenager who hopped freight trains in search of thrills.

Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who plans to make a final decision about running for president by the end of May, became a tea party favorite after ripping into President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. Since then, he has staked out far-right positions on issues like gay rights (which he believes are part of a Marxist plot), the AP US History curriculum (which he fears will be an ISIS recruiting tool), and the 2016 election itself (which he believes might be canceled due to a societal breakdown).

Carson's rags-to-riches story, as a one-time juvenile delinquent raised by a single mom who rose to the top of the medical profession, is at the core of his personal appeal. It has been the subject of a best-selling book and a feature-length movie. His youthful habit of hopping aboard moving freight trains is considerably less well known. But as Carson explained in his 2008 book, Take the Risk, he and his older brother, Curtis, began riding freight trains after moving back to Detroit from Boston for middle school:

We didn't think twice about it at the time, and Mother certainly didn't know about the risks we took, but just getting to and from school in our new neighborhood was a dangerous proposition. The fastest and most exciting way to commute was to hop one of the freight trains rolling on the tracks that ran alongside the route Curtis and I took to Wilson Junior High School. Curtis liked the challenge of fast-moving trains, tossing his clarinet onto one flatcar and then jumping to catch the railing on the very last car of the train. He knew if he missed his chance, he risked never seeing his band instrument again. But he never lost that clarinet.

Since I was smaller, I usually waited for slower trains. But we both placed ourselves in great danger we didn't ever seriously stop to consider. Not only did we have to run, jump, catch the railing, and hold on for dear life to a moving freight train, but we had to avoid the railroad security who were always on the lookout for people hopping their trains.

They never caught us. And we never got seriously injured like one boy we heard of who was maimed for life after falling onto the tracks under a moving train.

As I reported in the January/February issue of Mother Jones, freight-hopping has always attracted a certain brand of (usually male) individualists who are skeptical of centralized authority. Carson's Bo Keeley phase came to an end, however, after a run-in with a gang of racist youths. "We stopped after an encounter I had with a different threat as I trotted along the railroad tracks on my way to school along one morning," he wrote. "Near one of the crossings, a gang of bigger boys, all of them white, approached me. One boy, carrying a big stick, yelled, 'Hey, you! Nigger boy!'"

If elected, Carson wouldn't be the first president with a hobo past. When Harry Truman was 18, he got a job with the Santa Fe Railroad, which required him to manage the migrant workers who rode the rails to do manual labor for the company. "Some of those hoboes had better educations than the president of Harvard University, and they weren't stuck up about it either," he later recalled.

Road Funding Isn't Broken. Why Fix It?

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 1:44 PM EST

James Pethokoukis is skeptical that even with gasoline prices plunging toward the two-dollar mark, Congress will consider raising the gasoline tax. Me too. But then there's this:

Of course, another idea — as transportation experts Matthew Kahn and David Levinson wrote in a 2011 report — is to just freeze the gas tax as is and use revenue solely to bolster existing roads and bridges, including the addition of new pricing schemes to reduce congestion. Funding for new capacity would come from a new federal highway bank, which would loan money to states contingent on meeting stringent performance tests and demonstrating ability to repay the loans. Other options include axing the tax completely and letting states fund their own projects or public-private partnerships. How about some fresh, innovative thinking on infrastructure rather than defaulting to the status quo?

There are plenty of places where we could use fresh thinking. But is this really one of them? It's infrastructure development. The simplest and most straightforward way of doing it is to raise money via taxes and then spend it. Loans aren't innovative. Dumping it all on the states isn't innovative. Public-private partnerships aren't innovative.

In fact, all of this is the opposite of innovative. They're just Rube Goldberg mechanisms to avoid transparent taxation and spending, something that we already do way too much of via subsidies and tax expenditures. Here's my idea of innovative:

  1. We figure out how much we want to spend on transportation infrastructure.
  2. We decide which taxes are the fairest, most efficient funding source.
  3. We set tax rates to match (1) and (2).
  4. We spend the money.

That's clear and transparent. It's reasonably efficient. It's an appropriate way to fund public goods. What's not to like?

Generally speaking, my point here is that just because something is traditional doesn't mean it's a dinosaur. We should pick and choose our targets for reform and innovation, not use them merely as buzzwords. If you want to build a road, nothing much has changed over the past century. You just need to raise the money and then break ground. You might want to do more or less of it, or build different kinds of roads, or build roads to different places. But funding them? We already know how to do that. Why muck it up?

BREAKING: President Obama Will Veto Congress' Keystone XL Pipeline Bill

| Tue Jan. 6, 2015 1:33 PM EST

President Barack Obama is planning to veto a bill that would force approval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, according to the Associated Press:

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the president's position hasn't changed since November, when pipeline supporters in Congress last attempted to push through its approval—an effort that fell just one vote shy of the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. Obama was adamant then that approval for the pipeline come not from Congress, but from the State Department, which normally has jurisdiction over international infrastructure projects like this one. A final decision from State has been delayed pending the outcome of a Nebraska State Supreme Court case, expected sometime early this year, that could alter the pipeline's route.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McDonnell and other Republicans have vowed to make passage of a new Keystone XL bill a top priority for the new year, and they seem prepared to move forward with a vote later this week. The bill is likely to pass. But the challenge for Republicans is to garner enough support from Democratic senators to achieve the 67 votes required to override a presidential veto. Yesterday, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) told reporters he had just 63 votes.

Even if Congress fails to override Obama's veto, it still won't be the end of what has become the flagship issue for US climate activists; the possibility remains that the State Department could still approve the project. But the Obama administration may be leaning against approval. In December, the president said the pipeline is "not even going to be a nominal benefit to US consumers."

This post has been updated.