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Here's What the Government Thinks You Should Be Eating in 2015

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 8:09 PM EST

Earlier this week, I wrote about some of the nutrition controversies surrounding the release of new United States Dietary Guidelines in 2015. The Guidelines, which inform public health initiatives, food labels, and what health-conscious parents decide to make for dinner, are revised every five years, with help from a scientific committee.

Today, that committee released its initial scientific report, an extensive 572-page tome on all the current thinking about healthy diets.

So what are we eating—and what should we be eating—in 2015?

  • Perhaps the biggest change this year could breathe some life into your breakfast habits: The cholesterol in egg yolks is no longer as much of a health concern. The US Dietary Guidelines used to recommend that you eat no more than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol a day, or under two large eggs. But this year, the committee has scrapped that advice as new research suggests that the cholesterol you consume in our diets has little to do with your blood cholesterol. Saturated fats and trans fats, on the other hand, could boost your blood cholesterol levels, as could unlucky genes.
  • The committee found that Americans lack vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and fiber in their diets. We also eat too few whole grains. On the other hand, we eat far too much sodium and saturated fat. Two-thirds of people over age 50, those most at risk for cardiovascular disease, still eat more than the upper limit, or 10 percent of their daily calories from saturated fat.
  • Gardeners, rejoice: The committee applauds vegetables in its latest report, describing them as "excellent sources of many shortfall nutrients and nutrients of public health concern." Unfortunately, our veggie intake has declined in recent years, especially for kids. Only 10 percent of toddlers eats the recommended 1 cup of vegetables a day.
  • Added sugars, which make up 13.4 percent of our calorie intake every day, contribute to obesity, cavities, high blood pressure, and potentially cardiovascular disease. If you are in tip top shape, the committee suggests keeping your added sugar consumption under 10 percent of your daily energy intake, or roughly 12 teaspoons (including fruit juice concentrates and syrups). But for most people, the report adds, the ideal amount of added sugars is between 4.5 to 9.4 teaspoons a day, depending on your BMI.
  • Most adults are fine to keep drinking alcohol in moderation—one cup a day for women, and up to two for men. "However," writes the the committee, "it is not recommended that anyone begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits."
  • Be it máte, espresso, or chai, your caffeine habit is fine in moderation, up to 400 mg a day (3-5 cups of coffee). But before you start handing out the Rockstars: The committee found evidence that high levels of caffeine, such as those found in energy drinks, are harmful to kids and pregnant women. (Plus: See above for the danger of the added sugars found in many of these energy drinks).
  • Seafood is a pretty healthy thing to eat from a dietary standpoint, and concerns about mercury don't outweigh the health benefits of eating fish, according to the committee. And yet, the collapse of fisheries due to overfishing "has raised concern about the ability to produce a safe and affordable supply." The report suggests that both farm-raised and wild caught seafood will be needed to feed us in the future.
  • The committee found that a diet "higher in plant-based foods...and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current US diet." A group of 49 environmental and animal-welfare groups sent a letter to the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to urge them to embrace this sustainability-oriented message in their Dietary Guidelines, which are set to be released later in 2015.

 

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How Big a Deal Would It Be If Red States Lost Their Obamacare Subsidies?

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 5:51 PM EST

What happens if the Supreme Court somehow persuades itself that Obamacare subsidies shouldn't be available to people in states that rely on the federal exchange? Answer: in the red states that have refused to operate their own exchanges, lots of people would lose their subsidies—and most likely lose their health insurance too, since they could no longer afford it.

We already know that most red-state governors don't care about that. After all, if they did care they'd accept Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, which would provide health care to millions of their residents. So Greg Sargent takes a different tack today. What would it mean to state economies if their subsidies go away? Sargent's rough calculations are on the right. Florida, for example, would lose about $5 billion per year, which would be a hit to its economy. Would that be likely to convince its governor to start up a state exchange so that subsidies would keep flowing?

Sadly no. Florida has a state GDP of about $750 billion. The loss of $5 billion would represent about half a percent of the state's economy. That's not nothing, but it's close. And it's certainly not enough to make up for the opprobrium of being thought soft on Obamacare.

So....nice try. But I think we're pretty much where we've always been: it's going to be yelling and screaming from constituents and lobbyists that eventually gets red-state governors (and legislatures) to accept any part of Obamacare that they have a choice about. It's anyone's guess when that yelling will finally get loud enough.

Walmart Is Finally Raising Its Minimum Wage

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 3:19 PM EST

On Thursday, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon announced the company would be raising its baseline pay to at least $9 an hour beginning this spring and then up to $10 an hour by February 2016, a move that will affect an estimated 500,000 employees.

The decision, announced in both a press release and during a quarterly earnings call Thursday morning, follows years of mounting public pressure from both outside and within Walmart to boost its notoriously low wages and improve labor practices. The company has repeatedly responded to such criticism by pointing out that it pays more than the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour; of course, 29 states require a higher minimum wage. (An estimated 6,000 Walmart employees currently make the federal minimum.)

While McMillon described the move as a moral decision to do "the right thing," Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder said the move is more an indication of an improving economy than anything else. 

"While the economy isn't exactly booming right now, it is doing very well, with labor markets tightening and the unemployment rate continuing to fall," Vedder said. "That means it's becoming increasingly difficult for Walmart to attract good, dependable workers than it was two to three years ago. Right now, they are thinking the economy will continue to boom, and they need to stay competitive."

"Could they afford to go further and still remain hugely profitable? Probably, but would that be good policy is another question," Vedder added, referring to the reaction by Walmart stockholders today:

The nation's largest private retailer, Walmart recently admitted that 825,000 of its 1.4 million employees earn only $25,000 annually, with 600,000 part-time workers on Medicaid and other food assistance programs. Walmart employees have staged strikes protesting their low wages, with advocacy groups demanding the retailer raise its minimum wage to $15. The company says that with the new increase, the average hourly wage will rise to $13 from $12.85.

While welcoming the move on Thursday, some say it is still not enough. "When compared to the $16 billion in profit that the company rakes in annually, Walmart's promise of $10 an hour, which even for a full-time worker is not enough to keep a family of four out of poverty, is meager," Christine Owens, director of the National Employment Law Project, told the New York Times.

A more substantial change could come from McMillon's announcement, also on Thursday, pledging to bring scheduling enhancements for part-time workers currently struggling under unpredictable work hours. Last August, Starbucks announced the company would be improving scheduling policies to address such concerns.

"Walmart has been attacked over the years as being uncaring and tactless," Vedder said. "This is a chance to win some points with the American public. By waging their raises they can appear more compassionate than previously viewed, especially when they aren't put under the gun by federal law to do so."

Walmart's Surprise Wage Increase Might Be Good News About the Economy

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 2:09 PM EST

This is interesting news, especially in the wake of my earlier post about the dismal state of earnings growth in 2014. Walmart is raising wages:

The retail giant, which has been criticized for continuing to pay some employees the bare legal minimum, said that all of its United States workers would earn at least $9 an hour by April [and $10 per hour by 2016]. That would mean a raise for about 40 percent of its work force, to at least $1.75 above the federal minimum wage, the retailer said....Walmart's move follows in the footsteps of retailers like Gap and Ikea, which both took steps last year to keep pay above federal minimum wage level, in an effort to lessen turnover and attract more lower-wage workers.

....In trying to address other major complaints from workers, Walmart said it would work to make scheduling easier and more predictable, and would also improve employee training.

Why is Walmart doing this? I hope Neil Irwin is right:

The best possible news would be if Walmart’s executives made this decision not out of a desire for good press or for a squishy sense of do-gooderism, but because coldhearted business strategy compelled it.

....The company’s sales and profits rose nicely [between 2007 and 2014] while the company kept a lid on its payroll. Gains went to Walmart shareholders, not Walmart workers. So what has changed? The simple answer is that the world for employers is very different with a 5.7 percent unemployment rate (the January level) than it was five years ago, at 9.8 percent. Finding qualified workers is harder for employers now than it was then, and their workers are at risk of jumping ship if they don’t receive pay increases or other improvements. Apart from pay, Walmart executives said in their conference call with reporters that they were revising their employee scheduling policies so that workers could have more predictability in their work schedules and more easily get time off when they needed it, such as for a doctor’s appointment.

Megan McArdle highlights some recent changes in Walmart's business strategy, such as a stronger focus on e-commerce, groceries, and better inventory control:

What a lot of these changes have in common is that you need good workers to execute them well. (Terrible things happen in the grocery business unless you have an absolutely passionate commitment to rooting out expired meat and past-it produce.) Keeping stock on the shelves doesn’t sound hard until you try to get resentful teenagers to actually do so. And so forth.

One way to get a more dedicated and experienced workforce is to pay workers more. They’ll stay longer, and they’ll be very eager to keep that job. Wal-Mart had clearly previously concluded that it didn’t need a dedicated and experienced workforce composed of people who were really eager to keep their jobs. Now the company seems to have changed its mind.

From any other retailer, this would just be an isolated bit of news. From Walmart, it's potentially a big deal—thanks both to Walmart's sheer size and its impact on other retailers. Maybe, just maybe, it's a sign that the labor market really is starting to tighten.

Scott Walker's Tax Cuts Are Coming Back to Haunt Him

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 1:27 PM EST

Via Ed Kilgore, this might prove to be Scott Walker's biggest Achilles' heel:

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, facing a $283 million deficit that needs to be closed by the end of June, will skip more than $100 million in debt payments to balance the books thrown into disarray by his tax cuts.

....“They need some cash,” said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, a nonpartisan research group that examines taxes and government spending. “This is kicking the can down the road.”

For the time being, this is probably not a big deal. Walker says he's just "restructuring" the state's debt, and that will probably wash for now. But there's no question that Walker's tax cut zealotry puts him in a dilemma. If the economy continues to slog along, Wisconsin's finances will deteriorate and Walker's presidential chances will suffer. If the economy picks up, Wisconsin will benefit but so will Hillary Clinton. The path to presidential success often turns out to depend on the economy, and for Walker it might end up being a narrow path indeed.

Chart of the Day: Wages Are Down For Almost Everyone

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 12:51 PM EST

EPI's Elise Gould provides us with wage data for 2014 today, and the results aren't pretty:

  • Every group has seen a cumulative drop in wages since 2007 except for the top 5 percent (red line).
  • Every group saw a drop in wages in 2014 except for the bottom 10 percent (dark blue line).

Why did wages of the poor rebound a bit last year? Because 19 states raised their minimum wages:

A state-by-state comparison of trends in the 10th percentile suggests that these minimum-wage increases account for the nationwide 10th percentile increase. Between 2013 and 2014, the 10th percentile wage in states with minimum-wage increases grew by an average of 1.6 percent, while it barely rose (a 0.3 percent increase) in states without a minimum-wage increase.

In other news about wage growth, women have done slightly better than men; whites have done better than blacks; and college graduates have done better than high school grads. The full report is here.

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Giuliani's Anti-Obama Rant Is a Big Opportunity for Jeb Bush

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 12:02 PM EST

Here is Rudy Giuliani telling us how he really feels about President Obama during a private group dinner last night featuring Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker:

I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

Classy, as always. But I bring it up to make a particular point. It's unlikely, I think, that Walker will repudiate Giuliani's comments. But Jeb Bush could—and if he's smart, he will.

Here's why. It would cost him some support among the tea party set, but he's not going to get a lot of support there anyway. What's more, he doesn't really need it. All Jeb has to do to win is follow the Romney strategy: sweep up all the votes of the Republican moderates while everyone else fights over scraps of the tea party vote. Taking a public stand against Giuliani would cement his position as the adult in the Republican field, a position that Mitt Romney rode to the GOP nomination in 2012.

But the Romney strategy only works if Jeb is the sole adult running. Walker is trying to straddle the line between mainstream and tea party, and if he can pull it off he'll win. Jeb's team has to make sure he can't do that, and the best way to accomplish this is to take a few high-profile stands—like denouncing Giuliani's views—that Walker isn't willing to emulate. If Jeb can force Walker to make some moves early on that paint him as a pure tea party creature, that could permanently hurt him. And with Romney out and Chris Christie looking weak, Jeb could then have the centrist Republican vote all to himself. That could put him in the White House.

But he has to go big and go fast. Denounce Giuliani in terms strong enough to get some attention, and in a way that's likely to push Walker into making a mistake. The race is on.

The American Public Is Becoming Ever More Rabid for War Against ISIS

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 11:22 AM EST

It sure isn't hard to gin Americans into a war fever. President Obama isn't even trying, but support for sending U.S. ground troops back into Iraq to fight ISIS continues to grow. According to a new CBS News poll, it now stands at 57 percent.

It's not just conservatives, either. Democrats favor sending in ground troops by a margin of 50-43 percent. We're only a few public beheadings away from two-thirds approval margins among all groups, which is something of a magic number. If we reach that point, President Obama and congressional Democrats might decide—reluctantly or otherwise—that they have to change course and send in a substantial ground force.

This would probably be a disaster. The most optimistic scenario is that Graeme Wood is right, and the ISIS folks are such nutters that they'd welcome a final, conventional showdown against the forces of the West:

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo....It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

....Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse....If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

That's a battle we could pretty easily win. But if it turns out the leadership of ISIS isn't quite as daft and millenarian as Wood says, then the only way to defeat ISIS would be in grisly house-to-house fighting in Sunni strongholds like Mosul. We already know that U.S. troops can't do that effectively, and neither can the predominantly Shia troops controlled by Iraq. It would be a long, grinding, disaster of a war.

But apparently the American public hasn't quite internalized that yet. They're becoming more and more enraged about ISIS, and they want to do something. That's a bad combination.

A Superbug Nightmare Is Playing Out at an LA Hospital

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 6:00 AM EST

In today's terrifying health news, the Los Angeles Times reports that two medical scopes used at UCLA's Ronald Reagan Medical Center may have been contaminated with the potentially deadly, antibiotic-resistant bacteria carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). Two patients have died from complications that may be connected to the bacteria, and authorities believe that 179 more patients have been exposed.

Most healthy people aren't at risk of catching a CRE infection, but in hospitals this bacteria can be quite dangerous: CRE kills as many as half of all people in whom the infection has spread to the bloodstream. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are working with the California Department of Public Health to investigate the situation, which is expected to result in more infections.

The problem isn't just in Los Angeles, though. Last month, USA Today reported that hospitals around the country struggle with transmissions of bacteria on these scopes—medical devices commonly used to treat digestive-system problems—and there have been several other under-the-radar outbreaks of CRE.

This is pretty scary stuff, considering that we are starting to fall behind in the antibiotics arms race against bacteria. Due in large part to unnecessary medical prescriptions and overuse of antibiotics in our food supply, these superbugs are on the rise. In a study published last year that focused specifically on hospitals in the Southeast, researchers reported that CRE cases had increased fivefold between 2008 and 2012.

As Mother Jones' Tom Philpott wrote recently, unless something changes, it will only get worse:

in a new report, the UK government has come out with some startling global projections. Currently, the report finds, 700,000 people die annually from pathogens that have developed resistance to antibiotics, a figure the report calls a "low estimate." If present trends continue, antibiotic failure will claim 10 million lives per year by 2050, the report concludes. That's more carnage than what's currently caused by cancer and traffic accidents combined.

The CDC has, in recent years, amped up its efforts to contain the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and has developed a toolkit to help educate both patients and medical practitioners. The Obama administration has increased funding in 2015 for CDC research into how to better detect these types of infections. It also expanded the National Healthcare Safety Network to track threats of superbugs and areas of antibiotic overuse.

But the CDC emphasizes that more must be done:

Can you imagine a day when antibiotics don't work anymore? It's concerning to think that the antibiotics that we depend upon for everything from skin and ear infections to life-threatening bloodstream infections could no longer work. Unfortunately, the threat of untreatable infections is very real.

Racist Chelsea Fans Shove Black Man Off Paris Metro Train

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 7:41 PM EST

A group of fans of the English soccer club Chelsea were filmed forcibly blocking a black man from entering a subway train in Paris.

The video, recorded by an onlooker and provided to the Guardian on Tuesday, shows the white fans violently shoving the unidentified subway rider as he attempts to squeeze into the train, while chanting "We're racist. We're racist. And that's the way we like it." A black woman is seen backing away from the commotion.

According to Paul Nolan, the British man who recorded the scene, the fans also referenced World War II in their chants.

Club officials were quick to condemn the incident. "Such behaviour is abhorrent and has no place in football or society," read a statement. "We will support any criminal action against those involved, and should evidence point to involvement of Chelsea season-ticket holders or members the club will take the strongest possible action against them, including banning orders."

Paris prosecutors have also announced a probe looking into the video.

The shocking footage comes as a separate video surfaced earlier this week of Arrigo Sacchi, Italy's former soccer coach, complaining there were "too many colored players" playing for Italian teams. Sacchi has since said his comments were misunderstood and the product of the media "always looking for scoops."

As for Chelsea, the team has been dogged by racist allegations for decades. In 2011, captain John Terry was accused of calling a black player a "fucking black cunt." European soccer in general is notorious for such abuse.

The UEFA also condemned the Chelsea supporters, but said because it occurred inside the Paris Metro and not the stadium any disciplinary action could not be taken.

"We are appalled by the incident which took place in the Paris Metro on Tuesday,” officials said in a statement. "However, as it occurred away from the stadium, it is outside UEFA’s remit to act.”