Know Tue, 27 Jan 2015 21:34:38 +0000 en hourly 1 At Age 75, Social Security System Isn’t Ready for Retirement Yet Tue, 27 Jan 2015 14:01:13 +0000 mp35922 January 31 marks the 75th anniversary of the first benefit check provided by the Social Security System, a $22.54 payment made to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont.

The milestone is cause for celebration, but future retirees must also raise their voices for reform.

Social Security has to be deemed one of the most successful federal programs in history. In 2013 the program provided benefits to about 41 million retirees and their dependents, 6 million survivors of deceased workers and 11 million disabled workers and their dependents.

It would be a rare politician who would call for its abolition, and for good reason. For an alarming number of Americans, Social Security is the only resource standing between what should be their golden years and a retirement of dross.

Social Security provides at least half of total income for approximately 52 percent of aged beneficiary couples and more than 90 percent of income for 22 percent of such couples.

And don’t look for a lessening of need in the future.

Only about 45 percent of workers of ages 26 through 61 participate in any employer-based retirement plan. Of workers who actually have some sort of pension plan, 78 percent have 401(k) accounts or are members of comparable plans that rely for retirement income on the resources accumulated in his or her own personal account.

Regrettably, the median balance in such accounts for workers approaching retirement is a measly $111,000, barely enough to provide for even basic necessities for a person who might live 30 years past the typical retirement age of 65.

By default, these future retirees will have to rely heavily on Social Security for their livelihood.

But despite the fears of many young people today, Social Security is not at risk of an early fiscal demise.

Assuming a modicum of political responsibility on the part of Congress and the president, even the youngest of workers can be reasonably confident that both they and even their children and grandchildren will be program beneficiaries after they retire, IF appropriate reforms are made now.

Currently, by law, Social Security payroll taxes must be placed in dedicated trust funds and benefits can only be paid out of those funds. Since 2010, outflows for benefit payments have exceeded the inflows from payroll taxes, and the projected funds will be depleted by 2033.

The ongoing income of the funds would be sufficient to pay only 77 percent of scheduled benefits. Whereas Congress could change the law to permit the shortfall to be made up with general tax revenues, in light of the long-term deficits facing the federal government, it is highly unlikely that it will do so.

To ensure that trust funds are not emptied out, we must increase revenues or decrease benefits.

Raising the payroll tax by 1.5 percent on both employers and employees, and raising the cap on earnings subject to the tax, currently $118,500, to say $220,000 would go a long way in ensuring those revenues are increased.

On the flip side, policymakers could consider reducing benefits by increasing the age at which retirees receive full benefits, from age 67 to age 70.

They could also eliminate or modify the automatic cost of living increases, or apply means testing to the benefits so that higher income retirees receive reduced payments.

Each of these changes will obviously be painful to some but are made necessary by the changing demographics of our society. Life expectancy has obviously increased during the past 75 years. In 1945, there were 7.25 people of working age for every person over 65.

By 2090, that number will shrink to only 2.29 workers.

When Fuller died in 1975 at age 100, she had collected $22,288.92, compared with her total contributions of $22.75. Social Security cannot ensure that other Americans will enjoy such a spectacular return on investment. What it can provide in the future (with wise reforms made now) is a basic standard of living for the most vulnerable of our citizens.

Michael Granof is the Ernst & Young Distinguished Centennial Professor of Accounting and Distinguished Teaching Professor of Business and Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.

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International Experience Offers Students a Different Worldview Mon, 26 Jan 2015 16:12:40 +0000 Cory Leahy Preparing Leaders graphic
This story is part of our “Preparing Leaders” series, which explores how students are learning valuable leadership lessons.

We live by the belief that what starts here changes the world, and Longhorns prove that every day. But the world also changes us.

With more than 2,800 Longhorns traveling to more than 80 countries each year, The University of Texas at Austin now ranks second in the nation for the most students studying abroad, according to the Institute of International Education’s latest annual report.

Studying abroad enriches academics and transforms students’ lives by giving them the opportunity to explore the world and interact with different cultures. The top 10 most popular Longhorn destinations include Spain, United Kingdom, France, China, Brazil, Italy, Czech Republic, Germany, South Africa, Australia and Mexico. Other Longhorns seek out unique destinations like Zambia, Yemen, Armenia, Nepal, East Timor and Serbia.

Longhorns are everywhere, and the International Office is committed to increasing access to international education to students, especially underrepresented groups. In 2014, UT Austin was recognized by NAFSA for innovation in study abroad programming that increases access to first-generation college students.

In addition to sending off Longhorns across the world, UT Austin also welcomes a large diverse population of international students, ranking in the top 25 for the international student enrollment with more than 6,000 students, scholarsand researchers from more than 120 countries. The largest proportion of international students come from China, Korea, India, Mexico, Taiwan, Canada, Iran, France, Australia and Turkey.

[Learn more about UT's study abroad programs at the study abroad fair on Jan. 28.]

The many ways in which the world impacts us is chronicled in stories by international students and about students who have been abroad. The images below depict these unique and rich experiences through the lenses of Longhorns throughout the world.

Highlands of Scotland

The Highlands of Scotland (Photo: Blake Lueder)

“I had the opportunity of interacting with people I never would have met otherwise, both from UT and from other countries. I gained a new understanding of just how different every single country really is. For instance, I never thought the United Kingdom was that different from the U.S. culturally, but I was shocked when I discovered how different we can be,” says business honors junior, Blake Lueder.

Namche Bazaar in Nepal

Namche Bazaar, Nepal (Photo: Mark Bowers)

“This photo was taken during a three-week trek through the Khumbu region in Nepal on my way to base camp at Mount Everest. It was the beginning of an amazing opportunity my wife and I had to travel Southeast Asia, and the experience gave us an enriched understanding of life and how we are all connected in way or another,” says Mark Bowers, a staff member in the International Office. “Working at the IO has allowed me to interact with students who aspire towards this experience as well, and I enjoy helping them discover something that will possibly transform their future.”

Interlaken Switzerland

Interlaken, Switzerland (Photo: Saurabh Thakur)

“Switzerland is full of breathtaking countryside and enchanting summer landscapes,” says Saurabh Thakur, MBA ’13. “There is so much more about all of us, which we can only realize by traveling and meeting other people.”

Cinque Terre Italy

Vernazza, Clinque Terre, Italy (Photo: Katy Schaffer)

“Studying abroad enhanced my plans for the future because it opened my eyes to the rest of the world. Living in another city, interacting with different people, eating new foods — all of that made me realize I wanted to travel the world, to experience newness, for the rest of my life. I plan to be an international freelance photographer after I graduate,” says photojournalism senior, Katy Schaffer.


Jerusalem, Israel (Photo: Marisa Elms)

“Studying abroad brought my major to life,” says religious studies and biochemistry senior, Marisa Elms. “While in Israel, I had the chance to visit the places, meet the people and participate in the religious events that I study in class. These experiences ignited my passion for scholarly research and affirmed my devotion to increasing religious understanding through teaching.”


Berlin, Germany (Photo: Daniel Wang)

“Studying abroad through the Normandy Scholars Program deepened my understanding of the human condition,” says biology and Plan II honors senior, Daniel Wang. “Having studied World War II during the spring [2014] semester, I explored London, Normandy, Berlin and Warsaw with the understanding that these places had seen far worse days. These cities each possessed a unique, vitalizing energy that contrasted sharply with the scenes depicted by the pictures, films and documents I studied, which all underscored the ubiquity of human suffering during the War. As for its effect on my future goals, studying abroad gave me the confidence that I would be able to relate to patients of any cultural background. Furthermore, I want to ensure that my medical practice serves all types of people equally.”

Ngorongoro Crater Tanzania

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (Photo: Karina Pieratt)

“Participating in Projects for Underserved Communities undoubtedly changed my life. Not only did it allow me to do hands on engineering work internationally, broadened my horizons and enhanced my education, but this experience was so enriching and one that I will always look back on fondly. Because of this experience I plan to applying my engineering knowledge through Engineers Without Borders once I graduate,” says mechanical engineering senior, Karina Pieratt.


Istanbul, Turkey (Photo: Selma Chang)

“As I was observing this majestic sunset, my curiosity was awaken. How many wonders are out there waiting for me to discover? Infinite amount, and therefore I decided to study the world to better understand it, and embrace all its beauty.” says international relations and global studies junior, Selma Chang.

Shangri-La Yunnan China

Shangri-La, Yunnan, China (Photo: Samin Huque)

“As a management information systems major it was awesome to be able to participate in a hackathon while I was studying abroad in Hong Kong. My teammates included a previous investment banker and students from mainland China, India and Finland,” says management informations systems senior Samin Huque. “There is something unifying seeing rural kids from a completely different part of the world play the same sports as back home. Seeing them play with the mountains, Tibetan prayer flags and architecture behind them is what is really captivating.”

Schwangau Germany

Schwangau, Germany (Photo: Shane Kok)

“Studying abroad really taught me a lot outside of the classroom. I became more independent, started living life more fully and learned to appreciate everything more. I matured as a person and had an amazing experience. I also made a group of best friends that I share unforgettable adventures with. Always live life happy and make memories along the way,” says business honors junior Shane Kok.

New Delhi India at Diwali

New Delhi, India (Photo: Pulkit Gupta)

“I’ve really enjoyed my time at UT so far, with lots to do and warm people who make me feel welcome. This picture was taken during Diwali last year I cherish it, because it is a memory of spending the festival with my family, and I will not be able to do that again for a while.” says computer science graduate student Pulkit Gupta.


Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: Cathryn Walker)

“Studying photojournalism in Prague not only provided me with a unique and advanced portfolio, but I also learned how to find beauty in the most unexpected places. Castles and waterfront views are beautiful, but there’s something very alluring and authentic about capturing locals going about their everyday, vibrant lives,” says Cathryn Walker, B.J. ’14.

You may also like:

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As one of the nation’s leading public universities, The University of Texas at Austin prepares its students to become competent global citizens. The International Office advances the critical priorities of the University by creating access to international and cultural exchange. As the university’s home for Study Abroad, International Student & Scholar ServicesEnglish as a Second Language instructionGlobal Risk & Safety and Global Initiatives, the International Office provides opportunities to learn about the world through education. 

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The Middle-Class Renter is Invisible in Federal Housing Initiatives Fri, 23 Jan 2015 15:58:44 +0000 mp35922 President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address provided a list of things that “will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families.”

Items included on the list were child care, equal pay, higher minimum wages and lower mortgage premiums.

Obama reported that the Federal Housing Administration will reduce its mortgage insurance premiums by 0.5 percent and that this reduction should make it easier for Americans to buy homes.

Obama’s address to the nation, like most addresses in recent history, essentially ignores renters, who receive no benefits from current policies such as the mortgage interest deduction or housing tax deductions.

Most taxpayers, including Texans, do not itemize their tax deductions. Data from the Joint Committee on Taxation and other tax policy groups consistently show that only one-third of taxpayers itemize, and that only 25 percent claim the mortgage interest deduction.

Although providing economic relief to middle-class households is, of course, a good thing, the speech never mentions the importance of helping folks find affordable housing regardless of whether it’s rented or owned. Simply put, renters are largely invisible in federal housing initiatives.

Americans who are fortunate enough to have high-paying jobs can save for a down payment, qualify for low-cost mortgage loans and reasonably assume they will be able to repay their mortgage loans.

For them, homeownership remains a wealth-building device, especially since the mortgage interest deduction subsidizes their housing costs by letting them deduct their mortgage interest.

Most middle- and lower-income workers are not so fortunate.

Although parts of Obama’s middle-class economics plan should help them “feel more secure in a world of constant change,” this housing initiative fails to respond to the primary reasons they are not buying homes.

Americans are not buying homes because they cannot afford to buy homes. Wages for all but the highest earners have been stagnant for years.

Housing affordability is particularly acute for Texas workers who earn the federal minimum wage, even though Texas is generally a low tax state. A recent report placed Texas on the “Terrible 10” list of states where the bottom 20 percent of wage earners pay up to seven times as much of their income in state and local taxes as the ultra-wealthy pays.

Middle-income households do not need to hear another speech that proposes relief for homeowners. They need a speech that announces a plan to help improve their housing security by providing more affordable housing, whether rented or owned.

Policymakers need to develop housing policies that make the middle-class visible. In particular, we need to reform the mortgage interest deduction because it disproportionately benefits higher-income homeowners.

Homeowners who do not itemize and instead take the standard deduction on their taxes do not benefit from the mortgage interest deduction. Renters don’t either.

Texans, in particular, derive relatively few benefits from the mortgage interest deduction because Texas does not have a state income tax, which makes Texas taxpayers more likely to take the standard deduction. In fact, a 2014 report that analyzed the geographic distribution of the mortgage interest deduction ranked Texas as one of the 10 states whose residents are least likely to claim it.

A middle-class economics housing policy should also consider ways to develop housing tax deductions or credit for middle-class renters, or tax subsidies that encourage Americans to own homes communally, jointly, or cooperatively.

More inclusive housing policies that are designed to help middle- and lower-income Americans might also help resolve some of the housing challenges owners and renters of properties continue to face.

Finally, we need housing policies that help Americans save for a security deposit for a rental home, just as state and federal programs provide down payment assistance to help renters buy homes.

For instance, because the Austin area has a higher percentage (55 percent) of renter households than the U.S. average (35 percent), the affordability concerns of more than half of the residents are essentially disregarded in current federal housing discussions.

We have not achieved the goal that congress set forth 50 years ago when declaring national housing policies. And if housing policies continue to ignore why middle-class Americans cannot and will not buy homes, we will never achieve those goals.

A. Mechele Dickerson is a professor of law at The University of Texas at Austin and is the author of “Homeownership and America’s Financial Underclass: Flawed Premises, Broken Promises, New Prescriptions.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman , the San Antonio Express News, McAllen Monitor, and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

Related op-ed on Texas Perspectives:
Now Is The Time To Put A Tax On Carbon
What the Paris Attack Can Teach Us about Freedom of Expression
We May Finally Get a Senate Worthy of Being Called “Great”

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Alcoholism Research Surprisingly Has Come a Long Way Wed, 21 Jan 2015 16:15:53 +0000 mp35922 The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently came out with a study that found six Americans die every day on average from alcohol poisoning.

Perhaps more surprising is that it turns out that most deaths from drinking too much involve middle-aged adults, not teens or college students.

The study doesn’t point at causation, but the CDC did raise new questions for further research. Although more research is always a good thing, it’s unwise to think that we don’t already know a lot about drinking and alcoholism. For example, “drinking too much” is not always “alcoholism.”

Breakthroughs in genetics, neurobiology and neuropharmacology have led scientists to know that some people who drink harmfully may develop a full-blown disease, leaving them unable to stop drinking without help.

Many people drink too much to get high, to celebrate, or to overcome anxiety or depression and never have any long-term negative effects. However, 10 to 15 percent of people who use alcohol develop the disease of alcohol dependence.

People who argue about whether “alcoholism” is a disease are like blind persons examining an elephant — they believe only the parts they touch.

If someone is familiar with the part of alcoholism that is the pain caused by an abusive alcoholic parent, her belief is shaped by that experience.

If they have been touched by their own alcohol use, that will define their belief about whether they have a drinking problem.

But alcohol dependence, the brain disease, is a definitive, diagnosable, brain pathology in the realm of epilepsy, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

This means that one of the causes of what is popularly called “alcoholism” is a neuropsychiatric problem in which something has gone wrong in specific parts of the brain, mostly in the brain’s “reward pathway.”

The brain disease is similar to a schizophrenic person losing the ability to dampen “internal voices.” People who are alcohol dependent require powerful intervention and intensive treatment that can be expensive and prolonged.

Problem drinking, on the other hand, is a self-controllable condition that may be reduced by education, punishment, maturity, will-power or simply learning from an embarrassing or costly experience.

Research that has helped clarify the differences between alcohol dependent and problem drinkers has been massively underreported.

For instance, the long-awaited connection between neuroscience and psychological counseling has now been discovered. Recent brain scan studies show clearly that counseling methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) change brain function in a positive way.

This strongly suggests that 12-step programs and other “talk therapies” normalize the brain’s reward pathway, likely involving a change in reward pathway neurotransmitter systems that have gone wrong.

Anti-craving and abstinence-enhancing medications are sufficiently effective that they have helped significant numbers of dependent drinkers stay clean and sober, especially by preventing relapse. Continuing genetic studies are expected to provide even better reward system-targeting medications.

And finally, studies on 12-step programs themselves have now reached the point at which some alcohol researchers are calling them “evidence based” or research-proven. They recommend that such programs when used in the best holistic treatment centers should be reimbursed by insurance companies.

So what can we do when so many middle-aged Americans are dying from alcohol poisoning? We must educate everyone that some people can moderate their drinking through a simple understanding of the dangers of alcohol poisoning, while other people cannot control their drinking without effective treatment of their disease.

More funding available for research on more effective alcohol intoxication prevention methods is badly needed.

Such knowledge is huge for anyone suffering from alcoholism or other drug addictions, and for those worried about the future of a loved one’s drinking and drug use.

Carlton K. Erickson is a Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology and director of the Addiction Science Research and Education Center in the College of Pharmacy at The University of Texas at Austin.

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We Need More Character Reform Among Our Athletes
What the Paris Attack Can Teach Us about Freedom of Expression
Smarter U.S. Prostitution Laws Would Help AIDS Fight

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Tower Shines for New State Leaders Wed, 21 Jan 2015 00:02:33 +0000 Cory Leahy The tower of The University of Texas at Austin will be illuminated in orange tonight, Jan. 20, in honor of the swearing in of Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

Governor Abbott is a 1981 graduate of the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin. Tower lightings commemorate significant achievements by members of the UT community and recognize extraordinary events.

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2014: The Year in Tower Lightings (Know)

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What the Paris Attack Can Teach Us about Freedom of Expression Fri, 16 Jan 2015 16:13:56 +0000 mp35922 The events of the past week in Paris have been rightly interpreted not simply as an act of terrorism, but as an outright attack on the most fundamental value in a free society — the right of free speech and free expression of ideas.

Freedom is grounded in the idea that unfettered expression is essential to maintaining freedom and avoiding the onset of tyranny, even when it might be offensive to some or many segments of a society.

As we condemn the events in France, we should also ask what sorts of threats to freedom of expression exist here in the United States.

During the past two or three years, there have been a significant number of events in which the freedom to express ideas publically has been threatened or even shut down.

For example, Condoleezza Rice was recently invited to give the commencement address at Rutgers University, only to withdraw because of student protests and opposition in the faculty council.

This was unfortunate in many ways.

Rice should not have withdrawn because of her being a distraction — universities are all about distraction, challenging ideas and encouraging people with different opinions to think in new ways.

Perhaps there is no better context to do this than a graduation ceremony, because we not only celebrate the accomplishments of students, but also celebrate the ideal of the university as a bastion of intellectual freedom and creativity.

And while the students and faculty members were right to express their disagreement with Rice’s politics, they were wrong to object to her giving a speech. We may disagree with her ideas, but they are still ideas that should be heard and contemplated, even by those of us who don’t particularly like them.

The Rutgers case is only one among many during the past few years in which invitations to provocative individuals have been withdrawn under pressure.

In today’s society, there seems to be little attempt to understand opposing ideas. Just think about Congress, which, with its intransigence on both sides, sets a bad example for our society as a whole, an example that many Americans seem to be emulating.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo is different from these types of attacks because of the vicious level of violence, but the motivation to shut down freedom of expression exists in both places.

Incidents here and abroad that attempt to shut down free expression of ideas do not usually involve the type of physical violence and overt disrespect for freedom of expression that we see in the attack in Paris. But they are a form of violence against freedom of expression.

They represent intellectual violence and a covert disrespect for the basic tenets of open expression of ideas that are central to a functioning society that values freedom.

Those who feel a sense of accomplishment in having a speaker with offensive ideas run out of town, who shout down a disliked perspective on the world, or simply imagine the political or religious other as an evil, immoral or corrupt individual with evil, immoral and corrupt ideas should think carefully about what happened this week in Paris.

Most of us have these moments when we vilify the opposition. We should make sure that they are fleeting and do not interfere with the most fundamental value of a free society: that while we may disagree on what to say and what matters, we agree and value the idea that all should have a right to express their opinions about what matters without being subjected to either overt, physical violence or covert, intellectual violence.

John W. Traphagan is a professor of religious studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in The Oklahoman, Dallas Morning News and the Austin American Statesman.

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Now Is The Time To Put A Tax On Carbon Tue, 13 Jan 2015 21:27:45 +0000 mp35922 Republicans have taken over Congress and they should take a page from Bill Clinton’s playbook to demonstrate their ability to govern and seize the moment to do something great for the country: pass a carbon tax.

Several prominent conservatives have advocated for a carbon tax, but generally speaking, both taxes and carbon regulation are unpopular with Republicans. Clinton faced a similar situation when he pushed for welfare reform in 1996. Ultimately, he broke with the conventional expectations of his party, reached across the aisle, and achieved meaningful and much-needed reform.

The Republicans have a similar opportunity today. For a variety of converging reasons — corporate support, collapsing oil prices, the chance to create political leverage — the time is finally right to put a tax on carbon.

By passing such a tax, Republicans can break through the logjam of business-as-usual bickering and show their ability to implement bi-partisan policies.

In the process, Republicans can use the carbon tax — a longtime Democratic priority — as a negotiating tool in a grand bargain for some of their long-standing policy priorities, such as corporate tax reform, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and a lifting of the ban on crude oil exports.

For several years now, conservative economists have floated the idea of using a carbon tax to help finance fiscal reforms like streamlining America’s complicated corporate tax system.

The basic argument is that a price on carbon could generate revenues for the federal government that free up the headroom needed for revenue-neutral corporate tax reductions.

Expanding our energy sector’s import and export capacity is another Republican objective that could be tied to a carbon tax.

That expansion includes two key provisions: the Keystone XL pipeline for importing oil from Canada and approving crude exports so domestic shale producers can find markets for their light sweet crude, which is an awkward fit for U.S. refineries.

Passing the carbon tax will make the energy import-export question a lot easier to accept for the many Democrats who like the economic boost that the pipelines and exports would provide, but want to blunt the environmental impact. Here the parallels to Clinton and Welfare Reform are especially apt, since the Republicans have a chance to “triangulate” their opponents.

Republicans are often criticized for being hostile to environmental protections. Passing a comprehensive carbon policy—something Democrats weren’t able to do when they controlled Congress and the White House—would defang environmental critics while attracting Democratic support for some Republican objectives.

The timing is right, but this moment won’t last.

As China considers possible policy changes on carbon, the EPA is developing a wide-spread carbon reduction plan that is generating millions of comments and promises of litigation. The Republican-led Congress can leapfrog China and the EPA with an efficient carbon mechanism that adheres to sound fiscal policies and helps achieve conservative goals.

Meanwhile, collapsing oil prices have gutted one of the most important reasons Republicans have resisted a carbon price: concerns that a carbon policy would make energy unaffordable.

Oil prices have dropped more than 40 percent in the last few months. Gasoline has dropped more than $0.75/gallon throughout the U.S. As a result, consumers can readily absorb even a steep carbon tax of $25/ton—which would raise $150 billion in annual tax revenues but add less than $0.25/gallon to gasoline at the pump.

But what about concerns that the costs would hurt domestic oil producers? They’re a step ahead of us.

Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, has already gone on the record to say that a carbon tax is preferable over cap-and-trade. In fact, ExxonMobil’s energy outlook released in December builds into its planning an assumption for implied carbon costs that hover around $80/ton. If domestic oil producers can afford it and gasoline consumers can afford it, what’s to stop us from getting it done?

It’s rare that so many factors converge simultaneously to give policymakers a chance to meet multiple societal goals in one fell swoop and with one simple policy mechanism.

If they’re smart, Republicans will seize the opportunity, and Democrats will work with them to make this happen soon: this moment won’t last long.

Michael Webber is the deputy director of the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

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16 Amazing Science Breakthroughs from 2014 Mon, 12 Jan 2015 17:19:06 +0000 Tracy Mueller It’s that time of year again, when “best of” lists trumpet the year’s top everything — movies, books, songs, hairstyles, cars, wines. There are even lists of best-of lists.

Here at UT Austin, we wanted to contribute to the best-of-the-year list frenzy by celebrating scientific breakthroughs. Some you might have already seen, others you might have missed. So sit back, cozy up to the fire and relive a few of those magical science moments from the past year, in no particular order:

scientific research at The University of Texas at Austin

Cancer researcher Linda deGraffenried in her lab. (Photo by Marsha Miller)

1. Cancer researchers discovered that aspirin and ibuprofen can significantly reduce breast cancer recurrence rates for overweight women.

2. Geophysicists found that part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is not only being eroded by the ocean, it’s being melted from below by geothermal heat.

3. Researchers created a smaller, more efficient radio wave circulator that could double the useful bandwidth in wireless communications, resulting in faster downloads, fewer dropped calls and clearer communications.

4. Anthropologists and geneticists showed that even though skull and facial features of ancient Paleoamericans were different from modern Native Americans, both are closely related and descended from the same people who migrated from northeast Asia over the Bering Land Bridge.

5. Neuroscientists created mutant worms that can’t get drunk, gaining key insights that could eventually lead to drugs to treat alcoholism.

6. Chemists created a “poison pill” that uses the components of table salt — sodium and chloride — to force cancer cells to self-destruct.

7. Astronomers found a star in the constellation Hercules that appears to have formed in the same cloud of gas and dust as our sun, earning it the nickname “the sun’s long-lost brother.”

sun's brother

Solar sibling HD 162826 is not visible to the unaided eye, but can be seen with low-power binoculars near the bright star Vega in the night sky. A high-resolution version of this chart is available at (Image by: Ivan Ramirez/Tim Jones/McDonald Observatory)

8. A fly’s super hearing mechanism inspired a team of researchers to develop a tiny, low-power device that could lead to hypersensitive hearing aids.

9. Computer scientists developed a new technique that led to the most accurate bird family tree ever developed, with some surprising results, including that flamingoes are more closely related to pigeons than to other water birds like pelicans.

10. Biomedical engineers designed an optical-based skin cancer detection device that may reduce the number of unnecessary biopsies.

11. A geologist found evidence that a massive tectonic shift more than 485 million years ago might have triggered a surge in evolution.

12. Physicists finally caught a glimpse of a mysterious particle that had been predicted in the 1930s with the strange property that it is both matter and antimatter, which might make it useful in quantum computing.

13. Mechanical engineers designed the world’s smallest, fastest nanomotor, which is an important step toward building miniature machines that could move through the body to deliver medicine.

14. Biologists made several significant discoveries about gut microbes, which play a critical role in human health and disease, including: our gut microbes are much less diverse than those of our closest relatives, the African apes; a man’s gut microbes react differently than a woman’s to the same diet; and for a fish, the more diverse its diet, the less diverse its gut microbial community.

15. Hydrologists confirmed that the Mississippi River network’s natural ability to chemically filter out nitrates is being overwhelmed.

16. A researcher is developing a mobile medical tool that will resemble an iPhone game, and enable faster and cheaper diagnosis and monitoring of diseases such as Ebola.

This story is part of our “Eyes on Innovation” series, which explores UT’s world-changing ideas, fascinating discoveries and new ways of doing things.

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We May Finally Get a Senate Worthy of Being Called “Great” Fri, 09 Jan 2015 15:30:03 +0000 mp35922 The Senate finally passed legislation that will keep most of the U.S. government running for another year.

More than that, its passage averted a government shutdown. But is this passage of a $1.1 trillion bill a sign of what we can expect from the Republican-led Senate that took charge Jan. 3?

The in-coming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), thinks so. In January, he promised that if the Republicans took control after the 2014 elections, the Senate might again be worthy of the moniker “The Greatest Deliberative Body in the World.” McConnell promised, “My purpose is to suggest that the Senate can be better than it has been, and that it must be if we’re to remain great as a nation.”

Are McConnell’s words just the hot air that we have come to expect from senators? After all, the previous Senate that just adjourned was not just unworthy of being the “greatest.” Even “deliberative” was a stretch. As one indication, more than one-third of the roll-call votes taken in the Senate during the past two years were to stop filibusters.

I think McConnell may very well be correct, which is a bit surprising given my research. I found that the driving force behind the Senate’s decline from a body worthy of praise to one worthy of only contempt is a group of senators who first served in the House Republican Conference when it was radicalized by Newt Gingrich.

These “Gingrich senators” brought his politics to the Senate, and because they came in such numbers and stuck around so long, they ended up transforming it rather than being transformed by it.

The Gingrich senators can account for almost the entire growth in party polarization in the Senate. They are primarily responsible for the massive increase in filibuster threats, and their warfare mindset has compelled them to develop and implement the latest strategy of killing bills — an endless stream of amendments until the Democrats simply give up.

Democrats led by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), with the blessing of President Barack Obama, have met the Republicans on the battlefield. While the parties have bickered for campaign talking points, the country has shut down, nearly slid off the economic cliff and suffered its first credit-rating downgrade.

Forty-two Gingrich senators have served in the Senate; 22 of them continue to serve today, including Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), David Vitter (R-Louisiana) and Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma). Their alumni include Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

In the Senate that will meet in January, there will be 26 Gingrich senators, which accounts for almost half of the Republican conference.

Despite their increasing numbers and power, McConnell is right; the Senate will function better. How can I possibly express such optimism?

Although my research shows that the Gingrich senators are distinct from the other Republicans with whom they serve, that distinction completely disappears when the Republicans are in the majority. The responsibility of governing and accountability to the American voters should compel this recalcitrant group to buckle down and solve problems.

Furthermore, the Democrats, even in the minority, simply cannot stomach the paralyzing warfare tactics that the Gingrich senators have perfected in the Senate during the past eight years.

Of course they will try, but if history is any indication, they will not be able to carry out the warfare strategy as completely or as ruthlessly.

The one wildcard is the tea party senators, led by Ted Cruz (R-Texas). However, the recent vote on the budget showed that his short-sighted, filibuster-causing shutdown last year cost him influence in his party.

Only 18 Republicans joined with him in opposing the compromise. As one Gingrich senator, Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia), put it: “I’ve seen this move before, and I wouldn’t pay money to see it again.”

If Cruz’s influence in the Senate continues to diminish, we may finally get a Senate worthy of being called “great” or at the very least “deliberative.” And with it would come the possibility of the United States remaining a great country — or at least a country where its legislative branch is actively involved in problem solving.

Sean Theriault is a professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.

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UT Austin Earns 2015 Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement Classification Wed, 07 Jan 2015 21:04:25 +0000 Cory Leahy The university has received a 2015 Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The classification is based on a framework provided by the Carnegie Foundation to document an institution’s activities around community engagement and public service.

The university is only one of six research universities designated by Carnegie as having very high research activity to receive a first-time Community Engagement Classification this year. Overall, it is one of 83 institutions to receive the classification this year for the first time, joining 157 other universities that have been re-classified.

“The classification recognizes the university’s deep commitment to public service and engagement to enrich scholarship, research and creative activity, and enhance curriculum, teaching and learning. It also recognizes that UT Austin is dedicated to addressing critical societal issues and contributing to the public good,” says Gregory J. Vincent, vice president for diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.

“The importance of this elective classification is borne out by the response of so many campuses that have demonstrated their deep engagement with local, regional, national and global communities,” says John Saltmarsh, director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education, which oversees the application process as a partner of the Carnegie Foundation. “These are campuses that are improving teaching and learning, producing research that makes a difference in communities, and revitalizing their civic and academic missions.”

The Carnegie Community Engagement Classification began in 2006 and is now on a five-year application cycle. Institutions may hold the classification for 10 years then apply for re-classification. Currently a total of 366 institutions of higher education hold the classification out of more than 3,000 institutions nationwide. Only 12 Texas institutions hold the designation, including five in the University of Texas System.

More about the University’s Community Engagement Initiatives

All colleges and schools at The University of Texas and Austin have initiatives dedicated to meeting the university’s mission of service. A few examples of the University’s outstanding accomplishments in community engagement include its many efforts and partnerships to improve Pre-K-12 education and healthcare throughout the state, including the establishment of the Dell Medical School, the establishment of the School of Nursing’s collaborative research center and the work of the UT Outreach Centers in underserved high schools around the state; UT-Austin students’ dedication to and high level of participation in community service through the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement; and the university’s academic-service learning courses. The university was recently honored with another community engagement award in December–the 2014 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Visit the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement website to learn more about our partnerships and initiatives.

This story originally appeared on the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement’s website.

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