Academics land £2m prizes at Zuckerberg-backed ‘science Oscars’ – Ian Sample Sunday 8 November 2015 21.00 EST

British researcher John Hardy among those to win a Breakthrough prize at ceremony hosted by Seth MacFarlane in the US

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, left, and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner

Science is starting to pay big for a small minority who land major prizes. At a ceremony in California on Sunday night, six researchers became substantially wealthier when they were handed Breakthrough prizes, set up by the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner along with some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley.

Among those honoured were Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and Edward Boyden of MIT for developing a procedure called optogenetics – a means of turning neurons on and off using light. They took home $3m (£2m) apiece for winning the Breakthrough prize in life sciences.

The same prize winnings went to John Hardy, who studies Alzheimer’s disease at University College London; Helen Hobbs, of the University of Texas South-western medical centre, for discovering gene variants linked to cholesterol; Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig for reading Neanderthal and other ancient genomes; and Ian Agol, a mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, for his work on problems that language cannot easily convey: virtual Hakenvirtual fibering conjectures and tameness.

A group of 1,300 researchers won the Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics, but the $3m will be shared among five team leaders whose experiments confirmed that ghostly subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass. The same landmark discovery won the Nobel prize in physics this year.

In keeping with Milner’s aim of raising scientists to rock star status in the eyes of the public, the Breakthrough prizes – sometimes called the Oscars of science – were handed out at a ceremony at Hangar One in Silicon Valley hosted by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy.

Pharrell Williams was down to perform, with Russell Crowe, Hilary Swank and Lily Collins among the guest presenters. The plan for the evening, with a theme of “life in the universe”, included a live video link to the Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station.

The prizes, totalling $21.9m this year – taking the total handed out to more than $160m since they were established in 2012 – are backed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his partner, Priscilla Chan, Google’s Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki of 23andme, and Jack Ma of and his wife, Cathy Zhang. Unlike Nobel prizes, the Breakthrough prizes are explicitly directed at researchers who are still active in their fields.

Hardy, nicknamed Scruffy by his former colleagues – he was once crowned the worst dressed scientist in the field at a major neuroscience conference – won the prize for his discovery of genetic mutations that give rise to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and for inspiring new treatments for preventing the disease.

He said he was having bacon and eggs in his kitchen one Saturday morning when Mahlon DeLong, a US neurologist from the prize committee, called with the news of his win. “I was speechless. It was a 15-minute call that changed my life. I had to have another cup of coffee,” he said.

Hardy is the most cited Alzheimer’s researcher in Britain, and may be the most storied too. He once rang up a $1,000 bill at an Osaka karaoke bar, drinking whiskey and singing Yellow Submarine, while in the city for a conference. One tale has him travelling with a colleague and mistakenly picking up the wrong suitcase before retiring to bed. The next day, Hardy appeared in the other man’s clothes. “He said he just thought his wife had bought him some new clothes,” a former colleague, Karen Duff, told the journal Nature Medicine in 2004.

He made a major breakthrough in 1990 at Imperial College London when his team found mutations that helped to explain how amyloid plaques form in the brain. Later, he showed that tangles of a protein called tau appeared to happen as the disease progressed. It was part of a strategy to understand the order in which Alzheimer’s takes hold.

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When the Superrich Die, Here’s What’s in Their Wallets – By RICHARD RUBIN and JOSH ZUMBRUN Oct 2015 

Art makes up 2.5 percent of the biggest estates and just 0.6 percent of those who had between $10 million and $20 million. This Picasso fetched more than $95 million in 2006. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The superrich are different from the very, very rich. For one thing, they own more art.

Estate tax data recently released by the Internal Revenue Service show what the wealthiest Americans possess when they die—and where the money goes.

First, a few basics. The returns in the data sample were all filed in 2014, which means they came largely from the estates of people who died in 2013. That year, the tax applied to estates of individuals exceeding $5.25 million, with a top rate of 40 percent, up from 35 percent the year before. Estates can deduct charitable contributions and bequests to surviving spouses, who then pay up when they die.

The most important thing to remember about the estate tax is that almost no one pays it anymore. Congress has bumped up the exemption and indexed it to inflation, ensuring that almost all of the 2.6 million people a year who die in the U.S. never have to worry about the estate tax.

That leaves the very wealthiest sliver of the country. Fewer than 12,000 estate tax returns were filed in 2014, and more than half of those returns didn’t yield any tax for the federal government.

The data break down what assets people hold at death, offering a glimpse into the holdings of the ultrawealthy. They don’t provide much information about all of the ways that wealthy individuals shift assets out of their ownership or all of the convoluted planning maneuvers that can reduce the size of estates before death. People who died with more than $50 million–the top category–were heavily invested in stock and closely held businesses.

Those who were rich enough to file an estate tax return–but not at the very top–relied much more heavily on retirement accounts such as 401(k) plans and on real estate.


Why Marco Rubio is insisting that his massive tax cuts will pay for themselves, explained – Updated by Ezra Klein on October 6, 2015, 1:50 p.m. ET

On Tuesday, Marco Rubio told CNBC’s John Harwood that his massive tax cuts— which estimates have found would blow a roughly $4 trillion to $5 trillion hole in the deficit — creates a surplus “within the 10-year window.”

It is worth slowing down to make clear exactly what Rubio said there. Rubio’s plan cuts corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, taxes on the rich, taxes on the middle class — it cuts taxes on everyone. The cuts are so large that the New York Times called it“the puppies and rainbows plan.” And what Rubio is saying is that his massive tax cut is actually going to mean more tax revenue for the government — that two minus one will equal four.

Harwood seemed shocked. “Wait,” he interrupted, “your plan creates a surplus because of the dynamic effect?”

“Absolutely,” Rubio replied.

Rubio’s assurance will, to most tax analysts, sound like nonsense. And it is nonsense. A plan that massively cuts taxes isn’t going to lead to budget surpluses. But it’s nonsense that has been validated by an important conservative tax group, that shows the kind of candidate Rubio is looking to be, and that speaks to why the debate over taxes in Washington has become so dysfunctional.

But let’s start with a term Harwood used that may be unfamiliar: “the dynamic effect.”

What is “the dynamic effect,” and how does it turn a massive tax cut into a revenue raiser?

There are two ways to calculate the cost of a given policy. One is to do a static estimate that simply looks at the policy in isolation. So if I cut your taxes by $10,000, a static estimate will say the tax cut costs $10,000.

By contrast, a dynamic estimate tries to account for the way people respond to policy changes. So if I cut your taxes by $10,000, you might invest that $10,000 in a company that invents cold fusion, doubles the rate of economic growth, and creates a huge surge in future revenues.

The problem with static estimates is that they’re wrong. The problem with dynamic estimates is that they’re impossible.

If you want to dynamically estimate the revenue effects of a tax cut, you need to know the future. Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, who served as chief economist to President George W. Bush, runs through just some of the considerations:

In the coming years, will these Congresses respond quickly to the revenue shortfall, or will they let budget deficits fester? When they act to close the budget gap, will they increase taxes, or will they cut spending? If they cut spending, will it be on consumption items, such as health care for the elderly, or on growth-promoting investments, such as education for the young?

But the impossibility of dynamic scoring is actually helpful for advocates: Because it’s impossible to get right, no one can really prove that you got it wrong. And that helps conservatives avoid a central problem in their policy agenda.

Conservatives hate taxes, they dislike deficits, and they’re scared of spending cuts. Dynamic scoring is the answer.

Conservative policymaking is caught in a trilemma: Conservatives want to lower taxes, they want to balance the budget, and big spending cuts are unpopular. But there’s no way to balance the budget while cutting taxes and only cutting popular spending.

Among responsible policymakers, that trilemma leads to hard trade-offs. Among irresponsible policymakers, it leads to the magic of dynamic scoring.

The basic idea here is that massive tax cuts boost growth so much that they pay for themselves, and so there’s no actual trade-off between lower taxes and balanced budgets. In this telling, eating your cake leads your body to burn calories so fast that it’s like you end up thinner than you started!

Basically no serious economists believe this. Careful efforts to quantify whether tax cuts boost growth have led to estimates that they have a modest negative effect, a modest positive effect, or not much effect at all, depending on what assumptions you use. Mankiw, the former Bush adviser, described the idea that cuts boost growth so much that they pay for themselves as the province of “cranks and charlatans” in his economic textbook.

At various times Republicans have tried to stock the government with cranks and charlatans who will tell them what they want to hear, but it’s never really worked out. In 2003, for instance, they installed Douglas Holtz-Eakin as the new director of the Congressional Budget Office and asked him to dynamically score the Bush tax cuts. The Wall Street Journal records the disappointing results:

Some provisions of the president’s plan would speed up the economy; others would slow it down. Using some models, the plan would reduce the budget deficit from what it otherwise would have been; using others, it would widen the deficit.

But in every case, the effects are relatively small. And in no case does Mr. Bush’s tax cut come close to paying for itself over the next 10 years.

Of the nine models Holtz-Eakin tried, only two showed much improvement in the deficit — and both of those models assumed taxes would be raised after 2013 to eliminate the deficit, so “people will work harder between 2004 and 2013 because they know that their taxes will be going up, and will want to earn more money before those tax increases take effect.”

But Washington has plenty of not-very-serious economists who work outside the government who are happy to provide air cover to tax-cutting Republicans. And Rubio went out and found himself some.

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House Republicans Are Quietly Advancing Their Next Tactic To Dismantle Obamacare




Reproductive health care policy has captivated the national conversation, thanks to Republican lawmakers threatening a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funds and planning congressional inquiries into the national women’s health organization. But these issues have, perhaps intentionally, overshadowed another legislative move in the health care arena.

On Tuesday, House Republicans quietly advanced a strategic bill gutting key parts of the Affordable Care Act — a move that could lay the groundwork for a future Obamacare attack if a Republican wins the presidency in 2016.

Legislation seeking to repeal Obamacare is far from novel; the House has voted on over 50 similar bills in the past, most dying in the Senate. But this specific measure may have a better chance of advancing further. That’s because it relies on a complex strategy to get around a potential Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

Using a method called “reconciliation” that allows tax-related measures to be fast-tracked to the president’s desk, GOP lawmakers can dodge the Senate by slashing the budgetary pieces of Obamacare. This complicated workaround wouldn’t repeal Obamacare outright. However, it would eliminate the central policy that the Affordable Care Act is founded on: The individual mandate that requires Americans to purchase health insurance, which was ruled a “tax” when it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012.

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Climate economists are coming around to the idea that a carbon tax isn’t enough – Updated by David Roberts on September 4, 2015, 2:01 p.m. ET

“What’s that out there? It looks like … a world!” (Shutterstock)

The journal Nature has published a new commentary from a set of six (mostly) economists, called “Push renewables to spur carbon pricing.” It is notable not so much for the argument it makes as for the wider changes it augers.

The argument goes something like this:

  1. Carbon pricing is key to any serious, comprehensive effort to address climate change.
  2. It is politically difficult to implement carbon pricing — especially to implement a price as high as what’s needed. (No extant carbon pricing system has a high enough price.)
  3. The declining cost of renewable energy, which has been accelerated by policy, lowers political barriers and makes carbon pricing an easier political lift.
  4. Therefore, economists and other fans of carbon pricing ought to support policies that further accelerate the deployment of renewable energy. (The piece mentions time-of-use pricing for utilities, modernizing grids, the Clean Power Plan, various renewable energy subsidies, and more.)

When I first read this, my reaction was, “Yeah, no shit.” This is something clean energy activists and (some) analysts have been banging on about for a long time.

But I think it is significant. Lead author Gernot Wagner is a senior economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, which has championed carbon pricing since the 1990s. A few years ago, I would have pegged him as a pretty standard-issue climate economist (albeit a nice and very smart one), whose attitude toward climate policies that aren’t carbon pricing hovered between disdain and hold-your-nose tolerance.

In his first book he argued, as many newly minted climate economists are wont to do, that economics can save the world, if only non-economists would shut up and listen. (Okay, that latter part is implicit.) However, his latest book (co-authored with climate economist Martin Weitzman) and the Naturecommentary evidence a shift toward a more gimlet-eyed pragmatism.

The book focuses less on the kinds of damages that can be quantified and plugged into economic models than on degrees of risk, just as the commentary focuses less on blue-sky policy than on good-enough policy, measures that can get cultural and political momentum going, judged not against a theoretical alternative but against the real-world baseline of no policy.

In both cases, what we see is an economist grappling seriously with political economy, the trade-offs inevitably faced in a world where dangers are uncertain, time is short, and political change faces severe headwinds.

It seems to me — though I may be projecting, since this is also my fond hope — that Wagner’s evolution is indicative of a broader shift in the community of climate economists and wonks, away from arms-length purity (“we’re not like those activists, we have models“) to a more jaundiced but realistic engagement with the social and political forces that shape policymaking. It is a welcome sign.

College could cost up to $100,000 per year by 2030. Here’s how to save. – Updated by Libby Nelson on August 28, 2015, 9:01 a.m. ET

College could cost up to $100,000 per year by 2030. Here’s how to save.

When today’s 18-year-old college freshmen were born, the average tuition at a public university was $3,111. At a private university, it was $13,785. Since then, the price of college has risen far faster than inflation: Tuition has tripled at public universities and more than doubled at private universities.

That creates a dilemma for today’s parents. It’s a safe bet that college will be more expensive by the time their kids get to college. But they don’t know how much more expensive, which makes it hard to figure out how much to save.

One way to get a ballpark figure is to assume that college costs will continue increasing at their current rate. It already costs about $60,000 per year to attend a top-tier private college. If college costs keep climbing, that college will cost more than $100,000 per year in 2030. To afford it, the parents of a 3-year-old would need to begin investing about $1,300 per month.

But the way the financial aid system works actually makes the decision a bit simpler for the average parent. That’s because you’ll come out ahead financially if you max out tax-free retirement savings options before putting any money in a college savings fund. And since the contribution limits on IRA and 401(k) accounts are higher than most people can afford, that means most parents should just focus on saving as much as possible for retirement.


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Taxi booking app Uber fined $7.3m in California – BBC News 16 July 2015

Uber appSan Francisco-based Uber has been fined $7.3m in California over its operations

Taxi booking app Uber has been fined $7.3m (£4.6m) in California for not giving regulators enough information about its service and operations.

A judge at the California Public Utilities Commission – the regulator that allows the company to operate in the state – said Uber had not filed all the reports required by the body.

It was accused of withholding details on incidents such as accidents.

Uber has been involved in legal battles around the world over its operations.

The San Francisco based firm’s services in US cities such as Portland, Oregon have been suspended after a disagreement with the city, while its service of offering unlicensed taxi drivers has been banned in countries like Germany and Italy.

Uber’s app allows passengers to request rides from drivers in the area and its fares are generally lower than those of traditional taxis.

The company has also been accused of not giving data on how often it provided access to disabled passengers in California.

Uber has defended its operations in the state by saying it has given enough information to the commission.

After the ruling, the firm said that it would appeal against the decision.

The company has up to 30 days to appeal before its licence to operate in California is suspended.

Inside The Messy Kansas Fight To Save Face On Tea Party Tax Cuts – BY KAY STEIGER POSTED ON JUNE 12, 2015 AT 2:08 PM



This week Kansas has been struggling to dig itself out of a budget hole so deep that it has gone into legislative overtime to fix the problem. This week, the House rejected yet another a proposal that would have used a hikes in sales and cigarette taxes to raise revenue.

“The longest session we’ve ever had was 107 [days] and we’re already on our 112th, with no end in sight,” said state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat from a district in the northeast part of the state who has been working on the Kansas conference committee to reach a deal between the two bodies of the legislature on the budget. Kansas is constitutionally obligated to create a balanced budget each year.

Kansas has been paying the price for tax cuts passed in 2012 and 2013 after the election of Gov. Sam Brownback and other Republicans who sliced income taxes and taxes on small businesses in the hopes of spurring greater economic growth. But that dream hasn’t been realized. Instead, the legislature is left scrambling to try to pass a balanced budget without making alterations to the tax code.

“I don’t see a way of reconciling this without putting at least some of the business tax back on,” Kelly said, referring to one proposal that would at least tax small business profits at the same as the lowest level of income tax, 2.7 percent. “Just doing sales tax, it doesn’t work in the long run.”

“We knew back in 2012 when the debate was going on about the tax bill exactly what the ramifications were going to be. Our finance folks ran the numbers and made it very clear that we’d be $1.2 billion under water by now. And that’s exactly what’s happened,” Kelly said. She explained that even though the current budget is about $400 million short, they managed to collect about half of the overall $800 million deficit by pulling funds from highways and other budgetary tricks.


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Will Deschamps, state chairman of Montana, wears a tie decorated with elephant mascots at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, Florida, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a wealthy former business executive who served as Massachusetts governor and as a bishop in the Mormon church, is under pressure to show undecided voters more personality and emotion in his convention speech tonight, even as fiscal conservatives in his own party say he must more clearly define his plans for reining in the deficit and improving the economy. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For most of modern U.S. political history, Republicans in general have cast themselves as the party of fiscally responsible governance, adhering to a simple equation: low government spending plus tax cuts – the bigger, and broader, the better – equals all-but-guaranteed economic growth and full government coffers.

Look at states governed by Republicans, however, and it seems that the GOP might need a collective refresher course in economics, if not general math.

Five years after the economic recession wreaked havoc on their budgets, at least a dozen red states are awash in red ink, facing nine- and ten-figure deficits heading into the new fiscal year. That’s led GOP governors who won office by pledging fiscal responsibility, and bans on new taxes, to slash spending on everything from education to the environment while simultaneously increasing the financial burdens for the poor, along with the use of accounting sleight-of-hand to make the books look better.

[READ: Which America: Jindal’s Louisiana or O’Malley’s Maryland?]

Though it’s clearly a bipartisan issue – Maryland’s new Republican governor, Larry Hogan, inherited a $1.2 billion budget deficit from former governor (and future Democratic presidential candidate) Martin O’Malley – the rising red tide could wash away the so-called “Laffer Curve,” a key element of Republicans’ long-held fiscal orthodoxy that asserts tax cuts pay for themselves by stimulating economic growth.

In Kansas, two-term Republican Gov. Sam Brownback famously declared his state was a real-world “experiment” for the GOP’s fiscal ideas devised by Arthur Laffer, an influential conservative economist and one of Brownback’s key advisers. Despite Laffer’s presence on his policy team, Brownback’s state’s budget is nearly $1 billion in the red, forcing the governor to make deep cuts in education, social programs and some services.

The deficits could also sweep into the dustbin the presidential ambitions of at least three Republican governors who are struggling to balance the books in their home states even as they try to make names for themselves on the national political stage.

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