Earth Day Economics & The Toughest Job

17 April 2014

Secrets to Success & Earth Day Economics


New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter and guests explore the ideas and policy challenges that not only dominate today’s headlines, but will shape our future. Subscribe to the Weekly Wonk Podcast in iTunes.

It may seem like the only way to the corner office is by working 18-hour days and sleeping with your smart phone. It’s not – but it’s definitely the path to misery, says Arianna Huffington. The Chair, President, and Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post lays out a new path forward in her new book, Thrive, and tells Slaughter all about how we should really be defining success. And later, ahead of Earth Day, a conversation with New America Fellow Steve LeVine and Russell Gold, the senior energy correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, about the economics of fracking and renewable energy – and the plausibility of a scenario in which we don’t eventually extract all fossil fuels from the earth. In other words – will renewables ever win the economic energy game?

The Promise of ‘Empty’

Flickr/Ivan Bandura

Maidan Square in Kiev. Taksim Square in Istanbul. Tahrir Square in Cairo. Recent democratic movements around the globe have risen, or crashed and burned, on the hard pavement of vast urban public squares. The media largely has focused on the role of social media technology in these movements. But too few observers have considered the significance of the empty public spaces themselves.

Comedian Jon Stewart was one who got it. He quipped that if he ever becomes a dictator, he’d “get rid of these [bleep]ing squares” Why? Because “nothing good happens for dictators” in such places.

In the U.S., children are taught that the public square is essential to democracy. Here, the phrase “public square” is practically synonymous with free political speech. But these days “public square” is more likely to be a metaphor for media in all its forms than it is a reference to an actual, concrete place.

For at least a generation, urban planners and sociologists have bemoaned the decline of public space in American life. While older towns and cities, particularly in the Northeast and South, may have been built around a commons or town square, most newer cities in the West—often planned with the automobile in mind—were designed without town centers. The explicit intention of many planners was to give people their own private spaces rather than provide opportunities to come together in public.

Recent democratic movements around the globe have risen, or crashed and burned, on the hard pavement of vast urban public squares.

“We stopped building public squares in the post-war years also in part because of the fear of who would use them,” says Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces in New York. “And those we do have, we don’t use very much.”

If public squares are essential to democracy, is their relative absence in modern American life bad for our democracy—or a sign that we’re not as democratic as we imagine?

I can’t help but think of that over-the-top Cadillac television commercial that features a tightly wound, barrel-chested, blond dude who exalts the “crazy, driven” American work ethic while disdaining those “other countries” whose people “stroll home,” “stop by the café,” and “take August off.” The commercial, while clearly a caricature, does manage to capture a macho disdain that Americans—including myself—are sometimes guilty of exhibiting toward non-productive time, the hours and days that are not filled with goal-oriented activity.

That bias toward filling time also applies to our collective approach to space. Think of the hyper-commercialized, sensory overload that is New York’s Times Square or the clutter of billboards that line L.A’s Sunset Strip. Whether it’s a shopping mall or a new park, planners harbor a strong bias toward filling spaces with everything from vendor stalls to matching outdoor furniture. Places, they tell us, can’t just lie there empty; they must be “activated” by amenities and organized programs.

These days “public square” is more likely to be a metaphor for media in all its forms than it is a reference to an actual, concrete place.

It’s tempting to pin this desire for distraction on our aggressive consumer culture or on an ingrained American emphasis on action over repose. But the causes are likely even more far reaching. Herbert Muschamp, the late architecture critic for The New York Times, felt that “horror vacui”—the fear of emptiness—kept Americans from creating and enjoying open public spaces. But empty spaces, he argued, are the kind of places—think Japanese gardens—that encourage us to collect our thoughts and ponder new ones.

Common public places are also ideal—maybe even necessary—for the performance of quintessential democratic behaviors. As in Maidan, Taksim, and Tahrir squares, they’re a stage for the expression of political opinions. But they’re also a space that facilitates the everyday social interaction of citizens whose paths may otherwise never cross.

In capital cities, such spaces are where groups of citizens can make political claims and demonstrate the scale of their displeasure within close proximity of governmental power. But everywhere else, diverse and open public places that are not the domain of any particular social group or stratum are the physical embodiment and symbolic expressions of a diverse citizenry peacefully inhabiting a common geographic place. They connect us to democracy not through an interaction with the government but by encouraging us to interact with one another.

Nationally, the decline of public space is part of a troublesome broader trend of Americans choosing to socialize with and live near people very much like themselves.

In Washington, protests are increasingly scripted and controlled by organized interest groups rather arising organically out of broad public sentiment. Nationally, the decline of public space is part of a troublesome broader trend of Americans choosing to socialize with and live near people very much like themselves. It follows, then, that a fragmenting country whose constituent parts are increasingly keeping to themselves would abandon the public square, both figuratively and literally.

So, yes, the decline of public space in America is bad for democratic culture. Balancing the parts and the whole has always been the most challenging aspect of the American experiment. And if we want our democracy to function and thrive, we need to learn to live with and negotiate social differences and competing interests.

It won’t solve all our democracy’s problems, but restoring spaces where Americans can interact across ideological, religious, racial, and class lines would be a promising start.

This post was originally published in Zócalo Public Square.

About the Author

Gregory Rodriguez
Gregory Rodriguez is a senior research fellow at New America. He is also the founder and publisher of Zócalo Public Square and the executive director of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University.

Putin’s Risky Bet in Ukraine


To understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin has been willing to escalate tensions in the Ukraine even after annexing the Crimean peninsula, it’s instructive to remember back to 2008 when he told George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not even a country.” This comment was broadly and accurately interpreted to demonstrate the contempt Putin has long held for Ukraine, and for the possibility of a strong Ukraine aligned with the West. But few in the West considered that Putin’s words might also reflect the genuine weakness of state formation and cohesion in much of the former Soviet Union. And that this current environment could either vindicate and empower Putin – should he invade eastern Ukraine – or deliver him a resounding defeat.

Russia’s actions in recent weeks reflect Putin’s enduring skepticism of Ukraine and his view of that country’s national aspirations and the strength of the now more than 20-year-old Ukrainian state. The Kremlin appears willing to test Ukrainian state cohesion by backing and inciting pro-Russian agitators and paramilitaries in eastern Ukraine-groups that have already clashed with security forces loyal to Kiev.

If it comes to it, a successful Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, again under the flimsy pretext of protecting the ethnic Russian population, would guarantee that Ukraine would be unstable, divided and weak for a prolonged period of time.  This alone would be a foreign policy victory for the Kremlin. But the downside for Russia is also potentially enormous: A Russian invasion of Ukraine could also lead to a long conflict and an anti-Russian insurgency. And even under the “best” of circumstances for the Russians, the result would be a dysfunctional, split neighbor that is an economic basket case. For Moscow this is preferable to a Ukraine aligned with the West, but it is hardly the solvent ally and reliable partner Russia should desire in a neighbor.

If it comes to it, a successful Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine…would guarantee that Ukraine would be unstable, divided and weak for a prolonged period of time.

A Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine would put Putin’s assertions about Ukraine to the test; conversely, the Ukrainian state and society would be put to the test as well. If the Ukrainian people rise up in an insurgency, the occupation would fail, leaving Russia either stuck in a long and unwinnable conflict or forced to retreat.  The outcome of such a conflict could also threaten Putin’s own hold on power within Russia. On the other hand, if there is no insurgency following the invasion, then Putin could claim vindication that, despite more than twenty years of de jure independence, Ukraine was never really a state.

Many of the post-Soviet states, including Russia for that matter, have failed to build cohesive national narratives, civic nationalism or a viable way to incorporate ethnic minorities into the national polity. Some have succeeded more than others, including the Baltic nations and the nationalist government of Georgia between 2004-2012 led by Mikheil Saakashvili – he built a national consensus around Georgian identity and western aspirations.   But Ukraine has, to a substantial degree, failed in this regard, in part due to his far more intertwined history with Russia.

Then there is the profound east-west split within the country, with the western half of the country identifying strongly with Europe, while people in the east have long maintained a strong identification with Russia.  The split is exacerbated by strong economic, cultural and familial ties between eastern Ukraine and Russia and the porous border between the two countries, but it also reflects a failure of leadership in Ukraine that goes back at least to 2004, and probably to independence in 1991.

A Russian takeover of eastern Ukraine would amount to a game of high-stakes poker for Putin.

No Ukrainian leader has succeeded in building a national consensus; and few have even tried. Electoral victories over the last decade or so were generally treated as victories for the region supporting the winner, while those out of power generally waited for the next election under the flawed belief that their victory would change everything.  By late 2013, before the Euromaidan movement, to be a citizen of Ukraine had little binding meaning or symbolism across the nation. It is possible that the Euromaidan movement and subsequent Russian aggression changed this, but it is not at all clear how much. That failure has given Russia a stronger position, and reason to believe that an invasion of eastern Ukraine might just work.

A Russian takeover of eastern Ukraine would amount to a game of high-stakes poker for Putin.  If he got away with it, it would bolster his position at home, and make the point, but leave him further ostracized on the global stage.  He would have won an argument, but at a cost.  On the other hand, if such a move did not work even in the short run, Putin would have lost both the immediate wager and his long-term strength. Critically, a loss would also justify the Western and Kievan view that the states of the former Soviet Union are independent and able to determine their own future.

One of the difficulties all parties face in the Ukrainian crisis – and even in separating the Crimean question from the larger Ukrainian question – is the degree to which this is a unique situation or one of broader principles.  International law is rightly committed to the sanctity of current borders, no matter how many extenuating circumstances Moscow and its sympathizers within eastern Ukraine can create or point to, and so for better or worse the West is forced to stand firm and treat this as a challenge to global norms of acceptable behavior.

After all, many states from Central Asia to Central Africa have little raison d’etre, cohesive national narratives or unifying state institutions. If the collapse of Ukraine (or what would more accurately be a revelation that the state was never strong to survive) can be tolerated more than two decades after its independence, that doesn’t bode well for the stability of many states, or their ability to fend off aggressive neighbors.

About the Author

Lincoln Mitchell
Lincoln Mitchell is a scholar and consultant working on political development and the former Soviet Union. His most recent book is The Color Revolutions (Penn Press, 2012). He is also a frequent blogger on The Huffington Post, where he writes primarily about domestic U.S. politics and baseball. Find him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell and on his website.

A Closer Look at the “World’s Toughest Job”

The job description sounded miserable – inhumane, even: Rehtom Inc.’s posting sought a Director of Operations willing to work 135+ hours per week for no pay, no benefits, no vacation or holidays – but buoyed, perhaps, by the understanding that said position would offer “infinite opportunities for personal growth and rewards.” One bullet point describing the ideal candidate was offset in bold text: “Positive disposition at all times.”

By now, you’ve may have seen the viral video (above), featuring interviews from the candidates who applied, and – spoiler alert– discovered that millions of people already do the job everyday….mothers.

The purpose of the video, produced by the ad agency Mullen, was simple: help a client sell Mother’s Day greeting cards.  The message it transmits is far more complex, and one group of policy analysts and parents thought it merited a closer look. Below, their edited e-discussion details why some of the ideas baked into the tear-jerking spot could be problematic for larger work-life family debates.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America: The video is funny and touching, but disturbing in a number of ways. First, it deeply reinforces the ideal of the completely selfless mother — the woman who is available for her children 24/7 with no compensation. Many if not most mothers who fit that image deny a huge part of themselves, the part that is defined not by relationships to others but by individual agency and aspiration. I do not think that my sons would recognize that description of a mother; they would certainly not say, “My mom was always there.” But I hope and believe they would still think of me as a “good mother.”

Second, it represents motherhood as drudgery: backbreaking work around the clock with no pay, no vacations, and more work on holidays. At some point it mentions the value derived from a “close relationship with the associate.” But that cannot possibly capture the joy, wonder, and deep emotional satisfaction that comes from loving and nurturing children — or spouses, siblings, and parents — and watching them grow. It is part of the undervaluing of care in our society – seeing it as all give and no get.

Third, it ignores dads! In a growing number of households it is dad who is the primary caregiver, while mom is the primary breadwinner, even assuming that both parents are both working and caregiving. The complete absence of the idea that Dad can be just as much the anchor of the family as Mom — emotionally and physically — is actually insulting to men. No need to get all het up about something that is obviously intended to be funny and cute. But little viral videos like this one can reinforce deeply held stereotypes that are worth examining and unpacking.

Brigid Schulte, New America Breadwinning and Caregiving Program Fellow: The video reminded me so much of the image of the Angel in the House that traps women – both figuratively in the minds of men AND women, and literally – that Virginia Woolf was trying to kill off: Woolf wrote that the Angel, a figment of Victorian writer Coventry Patmore’s imagination, “was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it – in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.”

And lest we think that that Angel in the House is a relic of an ancient age, I think only of the TV ad for a UK department store that ran over the Christmas holidays just last year. In it, the Angel may look modern, but she’s still doing all the shopping, wrapping, planning, organizing, decorating, cooking, magic making, sitting on the little stool at the table while everyone else sits higher on chairs with a tired smile on her face. At the end of the spot, she finally sits down to take a breath and a sip of wine and a man’s voice asks, “What’s for tea, love?” And just this year, when I was looking for a family calendar, I became so frustrated by how gendered they are  – with assumptions that Busy Moms do it all or should do it all – that I wound up writing an essay about how the ubiquitous “Mom” calendars reinforce these powerful and powerfully limiting stereotypes.

So our task is twofold: to recognize and value the hard joy that is parenting and that both men and women are not only biologically and neurologically wired for nurture, but do, in fact raise children together, and to reimagine the role of caregivers – parents can be loving, accepting, giving and understanding, without giving all of themselves away.

Liza Mundy, Director, Caregiving and Breadwinning Program: I have kind of a perverse response to this video. First of all, I’m still not convinced that it’s real—the so-called interview applicants seem to be sitting in very cushy surroundings, not what you’d expect from someone desperate for a job, and they are conveniently diverse, but never mind. Let’s assume it’s real. I felt in watching it like I saw the punch line coming from a mile away, but I fully expected the big reveal to be that they were talking about the job of a PARENT. It never occurred to me that they would restrict it to “a mom.” Because of course, all that backbreaking labor – the schlepping to events, the work during holidays, all this supposedly joyless stuff they are describing – is something men do, too. Not in the same quantity as women, but men certainly are involved.

I agree with Brigid that in this video the Angel of the House—that impossible ideal of wifeliness and motherliness that Virginia Woolf sought to kill—is back with a vengeance. And I agree with Anne-Marie that the video completely understates the joys and satisfaction and sheer fun of giving care and being a parent.

But what also surprised me is that the producers completely left out one of the major burdens on parents – the cost of raising children. There is that funny line about how you will not be paid for your labor. But in truth, you will PAY for your labor, and pay and pay and pay, and our society will not help you because having children is something you have “selfishly” “chosen” to do. If you work in a paid job, you will also pay for child care, assuming you can find it (a recent Pew report showed an increasing number of women are staying home, not because of the pleasures of caregiving but because they can’t find affordable child care) and because you are paying for child care you will have a very hard time saving for college, or for your own retirement. There may be a narrow window of time when your children are teenagers and you are no longer paying for child care, but before you know it, college tuition will be right around the corner. The sum will be so astronomical, so mind-boggling that you will almost want to laugh, or maybe cry. You will blame yourself for not having saved enough. Either you will take out loans, or your children will take out loans, or maybe they will not go to college at all. If you choose to pay for your child’s college tuition, or even part of it, do not expect a tax credit or any government recognition that you are paying to educate the next generation of the American labor force at a time when going to college is more important than ever.

Children, who used to be source of unpaid labor back when Americans were farmers, are now the chief family cost centers (to paraphrase Mrs. Moneypenny). And we as a society don’t significantly help families, at any income level, really, to bear this cost. We worry that college graduates are having children later in life, and that this may disadvantage their children in terms of health outcomes, but we ignore that one reason for this is that late-twentysomethings can’t afford the child care costs. We worry that lower-income and even middle-income Americans are increasingly having children without getting married, but ignore the fact that one reason for this is they don’t think they are economically stable enough for marriage, which seems increasingly like an elusive goal.

So while I think the video underplays the enormous satisfaction and pleasure of being a parent, I also think that it weirdly underplays one of the central burdens, a burden that our society has made little effort to address: the relentless crushing costs, and the economic anxiety that goes along with it.

Not, as Anne-Marie says, that we want to get all het up about this. After all it’s only a video!

David Gray, Senior Fellow, New America: I agree with Liza and Anne-Marie that we shouldn’t get too focused on this as its only a video and we don’t know if it’s real.  It reinforces stereotypes, which is unfortunate, but what I do appreciate about it is it puts being a parent in a corporate type setting.  If we extend that idea, we wonder about all the economic value for society parents create and don’t get compensated for.  How should society compensate parents for their sacrifices?  The obvious emotional reward which is priceless?  Tax credits?  Better work/family policies?  It does raise the question about economic value of this “job,” and how best to appreciate it.  Parents may not sacrifice exactly what he suggests,  but we do sacrifice a lot.

Our First Ally


Napoleon got smacked around by the fierce Russian winter, and the Germans had their way with the French army in three wars over seven decades, necessitating American interventions in the last two of those conflicts.  Then French incompetence (or impotence?) drew us into the Vietnam War.  It’s no wonder French military power hasn’t much impressed Americans since the Marquis de Lafayette lent us a hand in gaining our independence.

But it’s time for Americans to reconsider our attitudes toward the French as a military power and ally, and acknowledge their significant contributions to global peace and security.

There are plenty of political and cultural reasons why this rethinking doesn’t come easily.  Beyond the caricature we carry in our heads of the French being “soft” (even compared to other Europeans), the lack of respect is often fueled by a sense of aggrieved annoyance that after all that, the French have proudly insisted on carrying on independently of their Western allies.  This annoyance undermining the transatlantic relationship began with Charles de Gaulle, whom Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill found so insufferable and difficult to work with (even as they were saving his country) they considered removing him as the head of the French resistance and de facto French leader in exile during World War II.  In the end, Britain and the United States were stuck with De Gaulle not only for the duration of that conflict, but for a formative period of the Cold War’s transatlantic alliance.

It’s time for Americans to reconsider our attitudes towards the French as a military power and ally, and acknowledge their significant contributions to global peace and security.

As President of the Fifth Republic, De Gaulle, known for his attachment to the so-called “politics of grandeur,” pulled France from NATO’s integrated command structure in order to “regain the full exercise of her sovereignty.”  France eventually returned to the NATO fold in 2009, but continues to insist on full discretion over whether to contribute to NATO operations and the independence of its nuclear force (its arsenal remains the world’s third-largest).

France will never be confused with Britain (or even Denmark) as an unconditional U.S. ally: Paris famously took a pass on the Iraq war and was early in exiting from Afghanistan.  But it’s unfair to the French—and unwise to our own strategic interests—to cling to outdated caricatures.  France is no longer the prickly “friend” of De Gaulle’s days or a military pushover allergic to playing a constructive role on the global stage.

Unlike many of our European allies, France comes close to meeting the NATO target for defense spending of 2 percent of GDP, and that investment translates into a continued capacity to project force well beyond its borders, particularly in African conflicts that desperately need international attention but that the United States wants no part of.  Rather than more playful ribbing, we probably owe the French a little appreciation.

While NATO’s humanitarian intervention in the Libyan conflict in 2011 has been widely celebrated as a model for future humanitarian missions, much less attention has been paid to its unintended consequences, especially for Libya’s neighbors.  Muammar Qaddafi’s downfall unleashed waves of instability in Libya that soon spread outward. Malian ethnic Tuareg fighters—once part of Qaddafi’s security forces—scampered off with truckloads of the former dictator’s weapons.  And not just small-scale stuff either, but heavy machine guns, mortars, and antitank weapons.  Even worse, in a building once occupied by the Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a North Africa terrorism affiliate, the Associated Press discovered copies of a training manual suggesting that Al-Qaida may have secured some of Qaddafi’s man-portable air-defense systems.  Known as MANPADs, these devastating anti-aircraft weapons are capable of taking down a commercial airliner.  Yikes.

France is no longer the prickly “friend” of De Gaulle’s days or a military pushover allergic to playing a constructive role on the global stage.

The Tuareg rebels teamed up with AQIM and launched a rebellion in Northern Mali, capturing several key northern towns in March 2012.  Stung by the string of defeats, renegade soldiers in the Malian army staged a coup, and President Amadou Toure resigned in early April.  With the government in disarray, the rebels then captured the historic city of Timbuktu.  At that point, the Tuaregs seemed content to simply declare Northern Mali an independent state, but Al-Qaida then turned on its Tuareg allies—it turns out Islamic extremists make for fickle friends—and launched a push deeper into Southern Mali.

Into that mess stepped France.  Fearing a deepening civil war, more civilian killings, and the spread of Islamic terrorism in North Africa, France intervened on January 11, 2013 and has been the primary international stabilizing force in Mali since.  Even more stunning, French troops entered Mali at the request of the Malian government (that should give us Americans something to chew on).  President François Hollande claimed victory over the terrorists in September of last year, though he quickly added—perhaps recalling President Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech on Iraq—that French troops would continue to aid Mali as long as the threat of terrorism persisted.  Although there are signs that Islamist extremists have regained footholds in some Northern areas, Mali has been moving in the right direction.  Sixty percent of Malian adults now believe the country is safe from armed conflict, up from 17 percent in 2012.

And the French have stepped up to the plate in other countries besides Mali.  France has also deployed troops to the Central African Republic (CAR) to stem the torrent of sectarian violence that has swept over its former colony.  In March of last year, Michel Djotodia led the Séléka, an undisciplined coalition made up largely of CAR’s marginalized Muslim minorities, in a rebellion that toppled President François Bozizé’s administration in Bangui.  Once empowered, Séléka militias unleashed waves of violence against Christian communities who quickly formed defense groups (called anti-Balaka) in response.

Now the tables have turned.  Djotodia resigned as president in January 2014 and Séléka troops have been on the run.  In their absence, the anti-Balaka groups have begun to take vengeance on the now unprotected Muslim communities.  Machete-wielding vigilantes are terrorizing Muslims, who are fleeing in droves to escape the violence.  France deployed a total of 2,000 troops to its former colony in support of 6,000 African Union peacekeepers, but the bloodshed has continued and whole Muslim communities are disappearing.  Another 1,000 promised by the European Union in January—at France’s urging—are finally arriving, and the UN Security Council just authorized a peacekeeping mission of about 10,000 troops and 2,000 police to replace the African-led mission.  If all goes well—hardly a guarantee—the killing might come to an end and the over 950,000 people that have fled the conflict might soon return home.

Fearing a deepening civil war, more civilian killings, and the spread of Islamic terrorism in North Africa, France intervened on January 11, 2013 and has been the primary international stabilizing force in Mali since.

Now, France’s interventions have been admittedly small scale, peaking at around 4,500 ground troops in Mali and only 2,000 in CAR—nothing on the scale of America’s forces in Afghanistan or Iraq.  And the French are not alone, either, intervening with significant help from regional and international organizations.  But those are probably good things.  Multilateralism in CAR gives the French intervention added legitimacy, and the limited nature of its involvements will help control the economic and political costs of military engagement.

The United States has not been totally MIA in these conflicts, either.  It has pledged almost $67 million in humanitarian assistance to CAR and another $101 million to equip and support the French and African troops on the ground.  It has also dispatched military aircraft and around 300 Special Operations forces to support the African Union regional task force in its hunt for Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (a violent, armed group formed in the 80s to fight against the Ugandan government), in the jungles of Central Africa.

Admittedly, the U.S. doesn’t have a lot at stake in Mali or the Central African Republic—poor, landlocked, and without the oil reserves that grant some of their neighbors more attention.  War-weary Americans aren’t anxious to intervene in seemingly low-stakes, but complex and messy civil wars in Africa.  Nation-building—we’ve learned—is really, really hard.  But although these countries seem strategically unimportant today, that will change if Mali becomes a safe haven for terrorism or CAR’s civil war starts spilling over more than just hundreds of thousands of refugees into an already fraught region.

Cynics will doubt France’s goodwill, seeing shadows of neo-imperialism in the interventions into its former African colonies.  Skeptics will question whether France will stick it out.  Certainly, a sudden spike in casualties might provoke a domestic backlash, forcing President Hollande to pull back.  Even if things go relatively well, it’s entirely possible that France’s military operations, which really are quite limited, fail to turn the tide of civil war and foster stability in these war-torn regions.

But we should resist the urge to scoff or tease.  Instead, we ought to lend the French our full-throated support, and hope they don’t soon become war-weary, too.  For all the grief we give them, the French are out there on the front lines in places where a small amount of well-applied force might make a big difference.  And it’s about time we recognized that.

About the Author

Jacob GlennResearch Intern, New America Fellows Program
Jacob Glenn is a Research Intern for the New America Foundation’s Fellows Program. He is also a Thomas R. Pickering Fellow with the U.S. Department of State and is studying Security and Conflict Management at Georgetown MSFS.

The Promise of the E-Humanities

Flickr/Mark Birkle

It’s no secret that the humanities—literature, history, philosophy, the foreign languages—are suffering from a precipitous plummet in higher education. But hark! Digital humanities are here to rescue the field—or maybe just kill it off for good.

Some 10 percent of humanities scholars currently self-identify as digital humanists, which is either an alarmingly large encroachment or a too-modest development, depending whom you ask. As such, digital humanities is the consummate academic hot-button topic: Everyone has vehement opinions, but few actually know what they’re talking about.

So what is “DH,” as the academic cool kids call it (and yes, “academic cool kids” is a misnomer)? Should everyone writing a Chaucer dissertation learn how to code, and if so, why? Will DH be the Facebook of the academy—or its

The field itself isn’t actually new. According to Roopika Risam, assistant professor of English at Salem State University and co-founder (with Richard Stockton College assistant professor Adeline Koh) of the journal Postcolonial Digital Humanities, it is the current incarnation of humanities computing, which has been around since computers were the size of a room. Although the definition of DH is contested, the field basically covers three main areas:

It’s no secret that the humanities—literature, history, philosophy, the foreign languages— are suffering from a precipitous plummet in higher education.

First, digital humanists use computational technology as a research tool. Sometimes, digital humanities is as simple as putting an an old text online for everyone to see—like this scan of a book by the obscure language philosopher Fritz Mauthner, which saved me about a month of headaches at the library back when I was writing my dissertation. Or take historian Michelle Moravec, an associate professor at Rosemont College who works “with machines in ways and on scales that my brain cannot” to analyze, for example, how suffragists talked about gender.

Second, DH makes contemporary humanities research publicly available. This is quite the little act of rebellion, as traditional scholarship is limited to a handful of staggeringly expensive journals with laughably small readerships.

And, finally, some digital humanists also study the relationship between culture and technology as a primary source. Jesse Stommel, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and director of Hybrid Pedagogy, calls it “using humanities tools to investigate” technological issues. Think applying Judith Butler’s gender theory or philosophy to, say, the #aftersex Instagram trend (and I call dibs on that paper, by the way).

But, warns Koh, “Digital humanists shouldn’t try to be computer scientists” just to seem relevant in today’s tech-obsessed academy. And indeed, it would be tragic—and probably not actually effective—if every English department in the country forsook the classics for coding. As Moravec puts it: “The idea that if somehow humanities can become more ‘like’ the sciences we will be fabulous forever is an absurd fallacy.” What makes sense, she says, is using digital technology to help people outside the humanities understand the relevance of what, exactly, it is we do all day. That is, to “disrupt” the academic status quo.

Traditionalists always fear that the latest humanities vogue will defile poor Shakespeare’s corpse. To be sure, for academics, DH does bear some resemblances to Silicon Valley, which many of us regard, in its irascible Ayn Randiness, with suspicion.

Traditionalists always fear that the latest humanities vogue will defile poor Shakespeare’s corpse.

But is being “the Silicon Valley of academia” really a bad thing? Perhaps academics can—gasp—learn a thing or two from the startup world. Like, for example, teamwork. “Academics,” says Moravec, “are taught to be individualists and highly competitive,” with the result being that most scholars work in secret until they foist a finished product upon their three-person audience. Scholars “treat ideas like currency and hoard them,” to deleterious results. Compare that, then, to an open feedback loop that leads to “productive failure, experimentation, and innovation”—all of which, Moravac says, are beginning to take root in DH, but still far more common in Silicon Valley, where failure is often a career starter rather than ender.

That said, just as the startup world can get lost in its own delusions of invincibility, so should the digital humanities seek to avoid just that—which shouldn’t be too difficult, given that DH culture possesses one quality Silicon Valley could do well to emulate: thinking about its own weaknesses all the time, meta-analyzing what it is actually doing.

Risam warns would-be bandwagoneers not to dump literature: Actual digital humanities jobs on the tenure track are few—more common, she says, is a “secondary specialization” in DH thrown in to your more traditional academic job ad. The real advantage of training in the digital humanities, she argues, is helping students look “beyond the tenure track job,” possibly outside of academia altogether.

Another way of putting that is: Do not spend eight years getting a doctorate with the sole purpose of becoming digital humanist, as you would be better off just learning to code and getting a job as a software engineer. However, if you have already made the unwise choice to enroll in a humanities Ph.D. program, one way to salvage what will otherwise be your eventual entrée onto a jobless hellscape might be to “disrupt” your Eliot (George, T.S., whichever) and start using technology to analyze, distribute, or supplement your research. The worst possible outcome, after all, will be that more than three people read your work.

This post originally appeared in Future Tense.

About the Author

Rebecca Schuman
Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

Syria’s Real Scoreboard


The Issue: Misunderstood realities on the ground in Syria.

Time and Place: March 28 @ New America.


It’s simpler when war is binary. Easier to understand – and discuss – when one side is winning, and the other is losing. When it comes to Syria, which entered its fourth year of civil war this spring, many policymakers and media elites here have fallen into the binary trap, suggesting that President Bashar Al Assad is the inevitable victor, and characterizing his snowballing power as inexorable.

But that prevailing assumption is not only inaccurate, it might also be dangerous.  And as the Obama administration may soon begin constructing a new Syrian humanitarian strategy – the aim of Resolution 384, which just passed in the Senate and is under review in the House – it’s critical that the architects of any new policy be aware of the realities on the ground.

First, who believes what – and why is it flawed? The perspective of Senator John McCain exemplifies the prevailing assumption that Assad’s position has been bolstered in recent months. “Any objective observer will tell you that Bashar Assad is winning on the battlefield,” said McCain in a Senate committee testimony.

James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, cites the chemical arms removal agreement with Russia as a strategic “win” for the Assad regime. “The prospects are right now that Assad is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year, by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as slow as that process has been,” Clapper stated.

As the Obama administration may soon begin constructing a new Syrian humanitarian strategy…it’s critical that the architects of any new policy be aware of the realities on the ground.

A recent article in the Washington Post states that the regime has also gained control of Damascus, the capital and second largest city in Syria. And it looks like the opposition forces are falling apart: deepening rifts among rebel forces are directing resources and attention away from the opposition’s efforts to overthrow the regime. These developments, underscored by the second round of failed Geneva peace talks in February and the regime’s recent capture of three rebel-held towns, have solidified the international perception of Assad’s growing and seemingly unstoppable strength.

That’s exactly what Assad wants you to believe, suggested Oubai Shahbandar, a senior advisor at the Syrian National Coalition. The Assad regime, Shahbandar explained at a recent New America event, has gone to great lengths to project the image that they are gaining territory and crushing the opposition. In reality, the government has suffered immense damages at the hands of rebel forces and is now heavily dependent on foreign fighters sponsored, trained, and equipped largely by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Let’s set the record straight on Assad’s land control, too:  In his testimony to Congress, counterinsurgency expert Dr. David Kilcullen stated that 75 percent of Syrian land is heavily contested or controlled by opposition forces, a statistic that suggests Assad’s recent territorial conquests are drastically overemphasized. What’s more, revolutionary forces recently launched a joint offensive in the mainly pro-regime Latakia province. This may potentially open up a new rebel supply line from Turkey, which would threaten regime control of a key coastal province.

The Assad regime has gone to great lengths to project the image that they are gaining territory and crushing the opposition.

But here’s the key. These strategic “wins” don’t mean rebel groups are pulling ahead, either. The war is more like a never-ending game of chess, where neither side can seem to advance far enough to yell checkmate.

“Neither the regime nor the rebels can achieve outright military victory, yet both sides still believe they can win and are escalating violence to improve their position,” Dr. Kilcullen said.

Indeed, noted the panelists, the situation in Syria is an “escalating conflict” where both the Assad regime and opposition forces are pursuing increasingly violent tactics.

This escalation makes it even more urgent for the United States to refocus its energy on how to reach a ceasefire in Syria, rather than ricocheting from the latest – often inaccurate – game-like assessments. “We can continuously look at who’s in control of what and what’s happening in what part of the country militarily, but ultimately, the debate really overlooks the fact that whoever is winning militarily is not necessarily winning the peace,” said Leila Hilal, the director of New America’s Middle East Task Force and another speaker at the event.

As international news headlines continue to broadcast stories of human suffering and flash a virtual scoreboard of battle outcomes, the call to action from the international community – most recently the United States – is getting louder:  We can no longer sit by idly and observe Syria’s agony, the community says.

The war is more like a never-ending game of chess, where neither side can seem to advance far enough to yell checkmate.

On April 7, U.S. Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) responded to that call, introducing the Syrian Humanitarian Resolution of 2014. It passed unanimously in the Senate.  If it passes in the House, this bipartisan resolution will require President Obama to develop and submit a more robust U.S. strategy for addressing the humanitarian disaster in Syria to Congress within 90 days. Resolution 384 condemns violence against innocent Syrian civilians, supports the immediate implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, and calls for transnational assistance.

This could be a good start – but there’s more long-term work to be done, suggested Nathaniel Rosenblatt – Middle East and North Africa analyst at Caerus Associates and co-author of Zooming in on Syria: Adapting U.S. Policy to Local Realities. As he points out, strictly providing humanitarian assistance does little to address long-standing civilian vulnerabilities.

Syrians need more consistent aid rather than a rapid, short-term influx of support, he said. Humanitarian aid must also become less politicized, a factor that creates conflicts among beneficiaries in the region. And that aid should go directly to local councils, given the fragmentation and severe needs inside the country, noted Leila Hilal.

“Perhaps more important is this aid effort will continue to suffer unless it includes a more robust enforcement mechanism to ensure basic civilian needs do not suffer under the whims of combatants who show little interest in putting down their guns,” Rosenblatt said.

For now, Syria remains in its escalating conflict. And that means the entire world is losing.

About the Author

Jessica Ovington
Jessica Ovington is an editorial intern at New America. She graduated in 2013 from the University of Georgia with a B.A. in International Affairs and will be attending King's College London for their Intelligence & International Security Master's program in the fall of 2014.

Escaping the Data Dragnet

Flickr/Hans Aleff

Squaring Off (n): A pointed interview.

If you use the Internet and carry a smart phone, it’s likely that most of your life is being tracked – your browsing history, your monthly income, the grocery store aisles in which you linger. The detailed information government and corporations now collect about us has huge practical ramifications. In her book Dragnet Nation, investigative journalist Julia Angwin documents the surveillance regime under which we live and its alarming day-to-day effects, aiming to ground abstract debates about privacy by explaining concretely what’s at stake. After a recent New America event, I posed five questions to Angwin about her book. Her edited responses are below.

1. The commercial dragnet is partly a result of the economic arrangement that underpins “free” online services: we (largely unwittingly) give companies free reign over our personal data in exchange for their products. Will recovering control over our personal information require a new economic model for services like Facebook and Google?

There have historically been advertising-supported free services that did not rely on surveilling their customers. Think of radio stations or free local newspapers. So, in my opinion, it’s not a given that advertising must equal surveillance.

Of course, advertisers would prefer to know as much as possible about their customers, and companies like Google and Facebook have unprecedentedly powerful tools at their disposal to deliver information to advertisers. I think the question for us as a society is: Where do we draw the line? Do we stick with the status quo, which is unlimited commercial surveillance for nearly any purpose, as long as users ‘consent’ to it in the fine print? Or do we decide that there are some types of surveillance that are too intrusive for their fairly frivolous purpose?

2. You describe your attempt to evade the dragnet as an act of resistance, and note that if enough people join you in refusing indiscriminate surveillance, we might prompt a conversation that ends it – just like sit-ins of the 1960s eventually unraveled segregation. Unlike sit-ins, though, resisting surveillance requires money and skill; it is an expensive form of protest. Isn’t it unrealistic to expect the masses can fight surveillance through resistance?

Resistance to privacy invasions doesn’t always have to be difficult and expensive. Young people who use Snapchat because they want to be able to delete their text messages are protesting without enduring much suffering. People who have quit Facebook as a result of its constantly changing privacy settings are protesting. People who quit Google search and adopt DuckDuckGo because they want a service that doesn’t store logs aren’t suffering that much.

Not everyone will attempt some of the more annoying stuff that I did – things like opting out of the body scanners at the airport, using complicated encryption software and carrying my own MyFi so I don’t have to rely on untrusted Wi-Fi connections. But a surprising number of people write to me every day to say they are attempting to use some of those tactics as well.

Of course, individual actions won’t accomplish everything. But in a democracy, we can hope that individuals who are making privacy-aware choices in their personal life might also make privacy-aware choices in the voting booth.

3. What’s at stake if privacy becomes a commodity rather than a basic right?

I worry that privacy is already becoming a luxury good. Last year, I spent more than $2,000 on privacy protection – including an encrypted cloud service, a burner phone and encryption software. It seems unfair for people to only be able to achieve a measure of privacy with that kind of expense.

I compare it to automobile safety. Cars are dangerous and yet we drive them every day. The reason we feel comfortable driving is that we know that vehicles must meet certain minimum safety standards. And those of us who can afford it can buy additional safety by buying a more expensive car.

I think we need similar assurances about the use of our personal data. If we have a baseline level of privacy that everyone is entitled to, it wouldn’t seem as unfair for people to buy their way into more privacy as a luxury good.

4. Is it enough to demand that companies be transparent about how they use and share our data?

Transparency would be a good start. Right now, we are one of the only Western nations that lacks a baseline privacy law requiring commercial data handlers to let individuals see the data held about them, correct the data and in some cases, remove the data.

When I sought my data from more than 200 data brokers, I was outraged that many of them wouldn’t share my files with me. But even when I got my files from about a dozen of them, I was not reassured. I wanted to know how the information was going to be used, and to be notified if it was used against me in some way.

A good model for data usage could be the Fair Credit Reporting Act – which requires companies to disclose when they have used credit data to deny you employment or a loan, and to allow you to dispute the data. At a minimum, it seems to me that individuals should have the right to see and dispute other types of data – such as social media posts – that might be used against them in important financial decisions.

5. You conclude that what we ultimately need to protect ourselves from the harms of surveillance are not tools but laws. You also note, though, that the privacy laws we do have on the books are pretty easy to circumvent. What might effective laws look like?

I often turn to environmental law for comparisons to what privacy law might look like in the future. The reason is that privacy and pollution are similar issues: they both cause harm that is invisible and pervasive. Both result from exploitation of a resource. And both suffer from the fact that it is often difficult to attribute specific harm to a specific piece of data or a specific pollutant.

To solve the pollution problem, we didn’t shut down factories.  We forced the polluters to be more transparent to limit their emissions. We also started recycling and driving electric cars. I believe – and hope – that we can solve the privacy problem with a similar mix of individual and collective action.

About the Author

Lina Khan
As a policy analyst for the Markets, Enterprise, and Resiliency Initiative, Lina Khan researches the concentration of power in America’s political economy. She reports on agricultural, industrial, and financial markets, and the laws that shape them. She has written for The Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and Salon, and appeared on C-SPAN's Washington Journal and The Majority Report with Sam Seder.

How to Succeed at Working Remotely Without Going Crazy


The Challenge: You recently joined the 13.4 million Americans who work remotely at least once a week. The flexibility is great – but home office pitfalls are numerous:  How do you stay sane and productive sans cubicle and co-workers?

The Wonk: Hannah Emple, Policy Analyst, Asset Building Program

The Tip:  “Remote” doesn’t have to mean isolation.

Recreate the best parts of the office environment – and leave your house to do it.

After three years living and working in Washington, D.C., I moved to San Francisco in January and have been working on my remote working skills ever since.  Here are my do’s and don’ts:

DO find people to spend time with during the day. By far the hardest adjustment for me has been the absence of co-workers to bounce ideas off of and exchange pleasantries with throughout the day. New America is a think tank after all, and talking through ideas out loud is one way I work most effectively. Now, in the absence of coworkers, I’ve begun to compile a list of friends and acquaintances who I can schedule “work dates” with. We pick a coffee shop and spend three to four hours “co-working” (all the rage out in California right now). Sure, we spend some of that time talking about non-work related things, but the upside is having an opportunity to explain a project to someone who is working in a completely different field. That has forced me to make sure my ideas are especially clear.

DO leave the house. The temptation to stay in pajamas and make elaborate breakfasts can be quite strong, but getting out of the house is probably the best way to ensure you will actually stay on task for the day.

But DON’T make the mistake of “commuting” at peak hours. Office workers who have to be in their physical office are going to clog up your region’s public transportation system until at least 9a.m. I’ve avoided the melee by swapping my first few hours of work with my commute – instead of spending 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. on a bus or a train, I spend that time getting started on work at home. When the commuter rush has died down, I hop on transit and zip to my destination.

DO find some “good-ole-standbys” for work destinations, but also take advantage of the flexibility to see new places. I’ve made it my personal mission to work from every one of San Francisco’s 28 public library branches. (I’ve made it to 12 so far.) Plus, the library has free Internet – and a scanner! Get your library card and the world can be your oyster.

DO switch to tea if you’re currently a coffee drinker – mostly because it can be cheaper (think vanilla latte vs. chamomile), and could reduce your cost of entry to work at a local coffee shop.

DO talk out loud before getting on an early conference call. If your coworkers are three hours ahead of you, like mine are, a 9 a.m. Eastern Time phone call can be disastrous. Speaking to yourself before you pick up the phone will ensure you don’t sound like Kermit the Frog.

DON’T mention that the weather in your area is 70 and sunny when all your coworkers just battled a horrible snowstorm to get to the office. (I learned that one the hard way.)

DO make up for your physical distance by being as attentive and responsive to your coworkers as you can. Maybe that means swapping anecdotes from the weekend over email, but more likely it means reviewing someone else’s most recent work and giving them constructive feedback – just like a real-live co-worker.

About the Author

Hannah Emple
Hannah Emple is a policy analyst with the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation. She provides research, analysis, and programmatic support on a range of topics related to household economic security and federal asset building policy. In particular, she focuses on U.S. housing policy, racial wealth disparities, and strategies to improve public benefits programs to promote the financial stability of low- and middle-income families.

A Terrible Recipe

The Shot (n): An image that speaks.

This week marks the one year anniversary of the tragic Boston Marathon bombing. David Sterman, a research associate with the International Security Program, explains why a photo of fireworks allegedly used in the attack is a reminder of the danger posed by readily-accessible bomb-making instructions on the Internet.

About the Author

David Sterman
David Sterman is a research assistant at the New America Foundation's National Security Program and a master’s candidate at Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies.