A War That Grows New Enemies

18 September 2014

Will Obama’s ISIS Strategy Actually Worsen the Terror Threat?


Last week, when President Obama announced his intention to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, he gave a clear rationale: leaders of the radically Islamist group had “threatened America and our allies.” Obama also explained how these leaders could make good on that threat: Americans and Europeans who go join ISIS, once “trained,” could return home and try to “carry out deadly attacks.”

That’s certainly conceivable. But it’s worth noting that, in the 13 years since 9/11, that kind of attack hasn’t been the big problem. The most lethal attacks by radical Muslims on American soil have been of a different species: “homegrown” terrorism. Namely: the Fort Hood shooting of 2009, which killed 13 people, and the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013, which killed three people and injured more than 250.

The perpetrators of these attacks weren’t people who had been lured abroad by Jihadists, given terrorism training, and dispatched to America with a mission. They were people who, while in America, got alienated, got inspired by Jihadist propaganda, and, if any expert instruction was necessary (like how to make the bomb the marathon bombers used), got it via the internet. Apparently the kind of terrorism that’s hardest to fight is the kind that ferments at home.

More: How can the United States defeat ISIL? 

And what makes it ferment? In both the Boston Marathon and the Fort Hood cases, the attackers seem to have been driven by the perception that the US is at war with Islam, as evinced (in their minds) by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, if homegrown terrorism is fostered by the perception that the US is at war with Islam, what should we do to counter that perception? Here’s what I don’t recommend: Declare war on an entity that calls itself the Islamic State, enmeshing yourself in combat that will last for years.

Obviously, this entity doesn’t deserve to be called the Islamic State, because its values don’t align with the values of the great majority of the world’s Muslims. But the relatively small number of Muslims who are vulnerable to the appeal of terrorism will consider a war against this “Islamic State” a war against Islam.

The problem of terrorism is complicated, and so is the problem of ISIS. I’m not saying that our thinking about how to respond to ISIS should begin and end with the question of whether declaring war on it will foster homegrown terrorism. But, given that, since 9/11, homegrown terrorism is the only kind of Islamic terrorism that has shown much in the way of an ability to actually kill people in the United States, it would be nice if the debate over how to handle ISIS at least included some discussion of the question.

I’ll give $100 to the first person who can show that any of them, at any time prior to Obama’s September 10 speech, mentioned the possibility that bombing or otherwise attacking ISIS could increase homegrown terrorism.

Yet, during the deliberations over what to do about ISIS, did we hear a single member of the administration raise the question of homegrown terrorism? Or a single influential commentator?

Related: What will Putin do next in Europe? We asked 6 experts.

So far I haven’t found any examples. This tweet of mine, for example, failed to elicit evidence of such a thing. So my research continues! Here’s a list of 15 journalists Obama met with shortly before his ISIS speech—a Who’s Who among foreign policy commentators. I’ll give $100 to the first person who can show that any of them, at any time prior to Obama’s September 10 speech, mentioned the possibility that bombing or otherwise attacking ISIS could increase homegrown terrorism. (Just tweet your evidence to me at @robertwrighter.) And there was plenty of time for this possibility to be raised; the US bombing of ISIS started weeks before Obama’s speech.

A few commentators did raise related questions. After the first bombing strikes, Dan Drezner, on bloggingheads.tv, asked whether they might have led ISIS to direct more fire toward America. That’s not the same as the question of homegrown terrorism, which can happen regardless of whether ISIS focuses on the US. Still, to have even raised the question of blowback at that point (late August) was to place yourself among a minority of prominent US foreign policy commentators.

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Assuming ISIS does turn its gaze more to the US, and tries to train and deploy anti-American terrorists, as President Obama fears, its recruiting will likely be helped by America’s new war on it. The man who is the best post-9/11 example of the kind of terrorist Obama seems worried about is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka, the “underwear bomber,” who got training from an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen but failed in his 2009 attempt to blow up an airliner. His main guru seems to have been Anwar al-Awlaki, and Awlaki relentlessly harped on the America-is-at-war-with-Islam theme. (A poster for an event Abdulmutallab organized in 2007 as a London college student was set against a background photo of a Muslim detained at Guantanamo, kneeling, shackled, and hooded.)

The reason homegrown terrorism is worth worrying about isn’t that there are many American Muslims prone to commit it—which there manifestly aren’t. Rather, the danger is that even a few such attacks could create a backlash (anti-Muslim bigotry and violence, more oppressive surveillance of Muslims, etc.) that could create more homegrown terrorism, which would lead to more backlash, etc. A positive feedback cycle of a very negative kind.

Again, I’m not saying that the prospect of homegrown terrorism, or even of blowback in general, is by itself a killer argument against Obama’s de facto declaration of war (though I do think that, all told, the declaration was a mistake). I’m mainly just saying that America’s national security discourse is in need of repair. When we face a crucial foreign policy decision, we fail to factor in glaringly obvious considerations.

In this case, we were too busy reacting to actually think. Once we saw a couple of gruesome videos that seem to have been designed to freak us out, we obligingly freaked out. And virtually nobody of stature said, “Wait, let’s not get emotional; let’s think this through carefully.” Certainly not Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that ISIS, manifesting “sheer evil” was a “cancer” that must be stopped. (Dubious metaphor; with cancer, the medicine doesn’t risk making the cancer itself stronger, the way Kerry’s prescription for fighting ISIS does.) And certainly not Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said ISIS poses “an imminent threat to every interest we have.” Every single interest!

A central lesson of the disastrous Iraq War is that one job of a post-9/11 president is to calm fears, not feed them. Some of us voted for Barack Obama thinking he would do that, and help restore reason to foreign policy discourse. For a while it looked like we were right. Now it looks like we weren’t.

About the Author

Robert Wright
Robert Wright is a Future Tense fellow at New America, a visiting lecturer at Princeton, and is the author, most recently, of The Evolution of God.

Who Pays for Prestige?


We must get to the top. For nearly two decades, that’s been one of Northeastern University’s main goals – to ascend the infamous U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Actually, that’s been the goal of lots of colleges and universities across the country. But here’s the problem: One of the changes that many colleges have made seemingly to achieve that goal could be costing students in the short-term, and the entire country in the long-term.

First, let’s take the example of Northeastern. It was not all that long ago that Northeastern accepted nearly all of the tens of thousands of students who applied. Many were part-time and evening students. Most lived only a short car ride or subway ride away.

Over the past 20 years, the university in Massachusetts has undergone a remarkable transformation – from urban commuter campus to highly selective national research university.

Related: Is Mayor Bill De Blasio’s method of expanding Pre-K a good model for other cities?

In the mid-1990s, Northeastern was struggling, with only about half of its students graduating. The school’s new president, Richard Freeland, charted a fresh course for the institution – to make it a “smaller, better university” that would target higher-achieving students throughout the country. To carry out his vision, he went on a building spree, replacing parking lots with fancy new dormitories, as well as state-of-the art academic, research, and recreational facilities. He sought out top-notch professors. And he opened up the university’s coffers to try to attract, with generous merit scholarships, a more high-achieving student body.

But Northeastern’s generous merit aid policies have left some students out in the cold.

Freeland stepped down in 2006 (he is now the Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts), but the effort he started continues under the leadership of Joseph Aoun. Today, the top 25 percent of students Northeastern admits are automatically considered for a merit scholarship, with awards ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 each for the first year. National Merit finalists receive a $30,000 merit-based award from the institution. And the school provides full-tuition scholarships to 75 high-achieving freshmen.

By the standards that colleges use to judge their performance these days, the efforts of Freeland and Aoun seem to have paid off big time. Northeastern has catapulted up the U.S. News rankings, rising more than 100 spots since 2002. In the 2014 edition, the university broke the top 50 for the first time, making it a top-tier institution in the magazine’s estimation. The average SAT scores of incoming freshmen have risen over 160 points since 2006, to nearly 1,400. And the university now admits only about one out of every three students who apply.

But Northeastern’s generous merit aid policies have left some students out in the cold. Pell Grant recipients today make up only 14 percent of the university’s student body, and the school’s lowest-income students paid an average net price of $18,542 in 2011-12.

Unfortunately, the way that Northeastern spends its institutional aid dollars is becoming increasingly common at four-year colleges across the country. Low-income students are paying a high price for these policies.

This week, I released a report that analyzes U.S. Department of Education data and finds that hundreds of colleges expect the neediest students to pay an amount that equals half or more of their families’ yearly earnings to cover the full cost of attending these schools. This report is the follow-up to a paper New America released last year. The news is that things are getting worse.

The financial hurdles, the analysis finds, continue to be highest in the private nonprofit college sector, where only a few dozen mostly exclusive colleges meet the financial need of the low-income students they enroll.

Many private colleges have small endowments, making it extremely difficult for them to provide adequate support to those students with the greatest need. Indeed, it is often the poorest schools that enroll the largest proportion of federal Pell Grant recipients and charge these students high net prices because of their own limited resources. At the same time, many of these institutions provide deep discounts to wealthier students because they seem to believe it is necessary for the schools’ survival.

The bottom line: too many four-year colleges, both public and private, are failing to help the government achieve its college-access mission.

While the problem is not as extreme among public colleges and universities, it is rapidly escalating. As more states cut funding for their higher education systems, public colleges are increasingly adopting the enrollment management tactics of their private-college counterparts – to the detriment of low-income and working-class students alike. In fact, nearly two of every five public four-year colleges now leave the most financially needy students on the hook for more than $10,000 per year.

How did we get here? Fifty years ago, the federal government committed itself to removing the financial barriers that prevent low-income students from enrolling in and completing college. Policymakers have sought to achieve this goal primarily through the Pell Grant program, which spent about $32 billion in the 2013 fiscal year to help about 9 million financially needy students pay for college.

More: Is this the future of higher education?

For years, colleges complemented the government’s efforts by using their financial aid resources to open their doors to the neediest students. But those days appear to be in the past. Over the past several decades, a powerful enrollment management industry has emerged to ostensibly show colleges how they can use their institutional aid dollars strategically in order to increase both their prestige and revenue.

Worse yet, there is compelling evidence to suggest that many schools are using Pell Grants to supplant institutional aid they would have otherwise provided to financially needy students, and then shifting these funds to help recruit wealthier students. This is one reason why even after historic increases in Pell Grant funding, low-income students continue to take on heavier debt loads than ever before. They are not receiving the full benefits intended.

The bottom line: too many four-year colleges, both public and private, are failing to help the government achieve its college-access mission. They are, whether it’s intentional or not, adding hurdles that could hamper the educational progress of needy students, or leave them with mountains of debt after they graduate.

As Congress begins work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, policymakers must take notice of how colleges are spending their institutional aid dollars. We need federal action to ensure that colleges continue to provide a gateway to opportunity, rather than perpetuating inequality by limiting college access to only those who are rich enough to afford it.

Read Stephen Burd’s full report here.

About the Author

Stephen BurdSenior Policy Analyst, Education Policy Program
Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst with New America’s Education Policy Program. Burd recently returned to New America, where he previously served as the editor of the foundation’s Higher Ed Watch blog. In that capacity, he led the blog’s award-winning coverage of the student loan industry and for-profit higher education. He also helped shape New America’s work on higher education policy and on student financial aid issues.

A Different Kind of War Story


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.

Why do veterans miss war? That’s the question that has animated the latest work of Sebastian Junger, the best-selling author and filmmaker whose recent film, Korengal, picks up where his Academy Award-nominated war documentary Restrepo left off. The answer, he says, could have broad social implications. On this episode, Junger and Slaughter discuss those implications, and explore how both evolution and gender shape the experience of war – and peace – for men and women.

The Surprising Truth About the UN


Each September since 1945 has delivered a delightfully awkward few days when world leaders – some of whose armies have bludgeoned each other all year on the battlefields– all converge on the UN General Assembly in New York.

The meeting inevitably provides ammunition for commentators who think the UN is impotent – “all talk and no action.” But this underestimates the impact – both positive and negative – that the UN can have around the globe.

The key to using the UN correctly is to be realistic about where it can, by nature, make a difference, and where it risks being sandwiched between so many competing interests that its leaders are forced bend over backwards to please all sides and end up pleasing none.

More: Does the “You break it, you own it” rule apply in foreign affairs?

It also helps to understand a little bit about the UN’s history – when it was at its most and least effective. The United Nations never truly enjoyed a “golden age,” except, arguably, at the conceptual stage, in the immediate years before the organization’s official creation. Indeed, the name “United Nations” was coined by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the Declaration by United Nations of 1 January 1942, during the Second World War, when representatives of 26 nations pledged their governments to continue fighting together against the Nazis and the Axis Powers. Ever since they crushed their common enemies, it was often joked that the only thing that ever truly united the United Nations was a dedication to keep Germany and Japan off the Security Council (while pretending to support their accession, of course).

The key to using the UN correctly is to be realistic about where it can, by nature, make a difference, and where it risks being sandwiched between so many competing interests that its leaders are forced bend over backwards to please all sides and end up pleasing none.

Later, the Cold War forced the UN into an operational hiatus for years, bogging down the Security Council with vetoes, 271 of which were cast in all, mostly by the Soviet Union (128) and the United States (83) on almost every issue of contention.  Then, suddenly, in the early 1990s, the implosion of the Soviet empire thrust the UN back into active war zones.  UN officials had high hopes for its potential impact, pinned on low budgets, completely inadequate operational capabilities, and coupled with leftover confusion from the Cold War; many still believed that the organization should, or even could, remain neutral in fights that pitted states against officially designated terrorist organizations.

We learned the hard way that the UN couldn’t thrive in such a role. The bombing of our UN Baghdad headquarters in 2003, which killed 22 people and wounded over 100, was one of many resulting tragedies of that attempt at neutrality. In an effort to show its independence from the US, and please its anti-War membership, the UN ordered all US protection of its compound withdrawn. The moment the building was unguarded it was rammed by a truck bomb. At the time, the Al Qaeda attack forced the UN out of Iraq almost completely.

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Almost. The coffin of perceived failure was missing one nail. That came in the form of the “oil for food” program scandal, which I saw close up during my time at the United Nations Iraq Program. In this case, the Wiley Saddam had kept meticulous records of every kickback and every bribe transferred under the UN’s $74 billion “oil-for-food” program before he was knocked out of power. When an Iraqi newspaper then published it, a snowball of revelations built up to the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the United Nations, nearly forcing then Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s resignation and casting what he called a “dark cloud” over the UN. Various polls showed a majority of Americans losing trust in the organization after that.

Iraq was a sort of perma-crisis that became a lightning rod for disputes at the UN, spanning the entire era between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the ‘war on terror.’ And today, Iraq leaves us once again with security and humanitarian conundrum for which, sadly, the UN does not have all the solutions. But it’s got food, and tents and sanitation kits, and regional conflicts still provide plenty of takers for those.

And here’s where we wade into uncharted territory – illuminating where, and when, the UN is actually effective. In recent weeks, as battles raged between the Islamic State and just about every minority of North-Eastern Iraq (of which only the Kurds were equipped, physically and culturally, to defend themselves) the UN was in a position to take the lead in quickly delivering aid and shelter to the refugees pouring out of Yazidi and Christian towns overrun by the new desert pirates that roam these parts waving black flags and threatening beheadings galore on all “apostates.”

At one point, I helped coordinate  the activities of nine UN agencies, and saw that only a few branches of the gigantic bureaucratic octopus tended to perform well with money: The World Food Program, UNICEF, and UNHCR (which has done an incredible job taking in nearly three million refugees from Syria’s civil war to date) are top performers, and their role in assisting  civilians in the aftermath of any fight against terror in the Middle East or Africa cannot be dismissed. Add to the equation occasional natural disasters, like tsunamis or earthquakes, or epidemics like Ebola and the question soon changes from whether or not we “need” the UN to how best we can “make use” of it.  The UN’s pre-existing aid infrastructure is a net time saver, once crisis calls on bureaucrats to stop picking their noses and earn their salaries.

And that is as much as we can expect our elected leaders to do, using the UN as an umbrella organization when possible, and acting outside of it when universal agreement on the nature of good and evil escapes our global community.

The UN system helps share the burden of intervention more widely among its members. Western democracies have domestic voters to account to, and these voters don’t want their own taxes to pay for every aspect of global security. So, short of offering the perfect alliance as a whole, the UN offers conduits to raise funds for critical assistance.

As an organization designed “to save humanity from the scourge of war” the UN has, of course, come up short. But let us not forget that the states that have slapped this organization with an impossible brief to begin are the same that often design its missions with unrealistic expectations and withhold the resources needed to let the UN do a good job. In the case of Ukraine, for example, the UN Security Council is blocked by Russia’s power of veto.

Looking back, however, at the first blueprint offered for an organization that might be capable of actually maintaining world piece, (Immanuel Kant’s treatise “On Perpetual Peace”) we are reminded that, right from the outset, Kant never set his hopes so high as to expect dictators to play a helpful role in spreading peace. In Kant’s humble opinion, only states that functioned democratically as republics, accountable to their own populations, could reliably maintain peace among themselves.

Kant advised that the only solution was for democracies to form temporary alliances to face down their common enemies. And that is as much as we can expect our elected leaders to do, using the UN as an umbrella organization when possible, and acting outside of it when universal agreement on the nature of good and evil escapes our global community.

About the Author

Michael Soussan
Michael Soussan, a former UN humanitarian worker and Adjunct assistant professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, is the author of the classic satirical memoir “Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy” (Nation Books), which is being adapted to feature film. A media consultant, he is a partner at www.GoodLoopMedia.com.

Planning for Pre-K Perfection

During his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio promised universal access to Pre-K students across New York City. Just eight months after taking office, Mayor de Blasio delivered promise, and close to 50,000 Pre-K students attended class on opening day. But some have criticized the plan for being rushed, saying that it lacked proper planning.

We asked six experts: Is New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio’s method for expanding Pre-K a model for other cities?

Conor P. Williams- Senior researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

I’m of two minds on this question. First, yes, the de Blasio administration’s emphasis on early education should be a model for all city, state, and federal policymakers. We have strong research showing that high-quality pre-K can improve children’s long-term academic (and life) outcomes. Mayor de Blasio has been extraordinarily, powerfully focused on this issue.

Second, the problem for New York—and for cities who take it as a model—is that the aforementioned research also suggests that pre-K quality takes lots of planning, training, and oversight to build. As I’ve been writing since de Blasio took office (here, and here), there really is no precedent for expanding a city’s pre-K program at this scope and speed. Washington, D.C.’s pre-K program is one of the country’s most comprehensive, but despite being extraordinarily well-resourced and well-staffed, it still has a long way to go to improve quality. It’s taken years to expand its enrollment to current levels—around 12,000 students. For comparison’s sake, consider that the de Blasio administration is adding 30,000 new seats to New York’s pre-K this year, with about six months of planning. Last-second news that some pre-K staff and buildings haven’t been fully vetted are certainly cause for concern.

Pre-K research confirms many people’s intuitions about education and child development. It seems obvious that investing early in kids’ success can be a powerful lever for change. But while the argument may be easy to understand, it doesn’t follow that quality pre-K is easy to implement.


Steve Barnett- Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. Follow NIEER on Twitter.

Whether NYC offers a good model for other cities to follow in expanding pre-K is something that we will only know after some years.  However, it is not too soon to say that NYC offers one important lesson for other cities.  When adequate funding is available, cities (and states) can expand enrollment quickly on a large scale at high standards.

A key reason for that is there is a substantial pool of well-qualified early childhood teachers who do not teach because of the field’s abysmally low financial compensation and poor working conditions.  When we offer a decent salary, benefits, and a professional working environment many more teachers become available.  Of course, NYC also put a lot of hard and smart work into finding suitable space and recruiting families to participate.   Whether NYC achieves its ultimate goal of offering a high-quality education to every child will not be known for some time, but this will depend on the extent to which NYC has put into place a continuous improvement system to build quality over time.

It would be a mistake to assume that high quality can be achieved at scale anywhere from the very beginning no matter how slow the expansion. Excellence in practice must be developed on the job through peer learning, coaching and other supports.  If NYC successfully puts a continuous improvement system in place and quality steadily improves over the next several years, then it will have much to offer as a model for the rest of the nation.

Related: What will the future of education look like?

Susan Ochshorn- Founder of ECE PolicyWorks and author of the forthcoming Squandering Our Future. Follow her on Twitter.

Education and social reform efforts play out differently over time and space, their trajectories singular, and outcomes indeterminate.  All politics, as the saying goes, is local.

Bill de Blasio’s prekindergarten initiative is a bold experiment, the star element of a strategy to combat inequality.  Not surprisingly, he’s on the hot seat.  Critics say there’s no method to his madness; they predict a train wreck, the result of a rapid scale-up—a sacrifice of quality for access.  An emergent early childhood workforce must be educated and certified. Real estate is at a premium, leaving little space for the system’s four-year-olds, many of whom are educated in community-based organizations in the most segregated school district in the country.  It’s a “big lift,” in the words of Richard Buery, deputy mayor of strategic policy initiatives, one in which “there will be lots of things we won’t have solved.”

But those waiting for derailment ignore the state’s history and context.  They also leave out New York City’s parents, including those in the middle class, whose budgets are strained by preschool fees on par with college tuition.  Universal early education has languished on a starvation diet since 1997, when Republican Governor George Pataki enacted legislation. De Blasio has tapped into a vein of need and dissatisfaction, seizing the moment.  Whether his method is replicable is anyone’s guess; it may well be beside the point.   He is exporting a model of government as a force for change in a time of political sclerosis, confirming early childhood education as a public good.


Laura Bornfreund- Deputy director of New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow her on Twitter. 

There are certainly lessons cities and states can learned from New York City’s pre-K expansion.

First, Mayor de Blasio’s goal of providing high-quality pre-K to all NYC 4-year-olds is one that others should adopt. This should be a goal for 3-year-olds too. Second, ideas are easy—seeing them through is hard. Too often, especially in education, there is a rush to do something new without thinking through the potential challenges. In de Blasio’s case, the challenges are big: they range from logistical problems like finding space for classrooms, to broader questions like considering how to build connections between pre-K programs and the early grades in public schools. Third, staffing pre-K classrooms with strong teachers is not an easy task. Elementary school teachers may not have an understanding of how to impart new concepts on young learners. Current teachers of children birth to age 5 may not have the required qualifications or the content expertise to challenge pre-K students. And because of salary inequities for pre-K teachers who work for community-based providers and public schools, both of which are in play in NYC, it is tough to retain strong pre-K teachers in community settings.

All of this is to say that while his goals are right, de Blasio’s method has room for improvement, which is an important takeaway for cities looking to New York City as a model.


Robert Pondiscio- Senior Fellow at the Fordham Institute. Follow him on Twitter.

So far, we’ve proven a lot better at creating political appetite for preschool than creating effective programs for kids—at least on a large scale. Frankly, the idea of “universal” Pre-K is probably not the greatest use of public dollars. A good preschool program should be aimed primarily at low-income kids and focus like a laser on closing the language and knowledge gaps that form early and persist throughout their school careers, thanks to the pernicious “Matthew Effect.”  Thus a good preschool should aim to do a lot of what is simply baked into the lives of affluent children—rich language, enriching experiences, cognitive stimulation in a warm emotional setting. I’m not encouraged that New York City is focusing its program this way.

Of equal importance is what comes after preschool. Even if New York’s preschool program is wildly successful, it has to be followed up with strong elementary education; otherwise you shouldn’t expect to get much out of your investment. We don’t really have the luxury of doing preschool well—assuming we can even do that—and believing we have accomplished anything of note.

The bottom line is that good intentions do not ensure good programs. Poor kids deserve both. We should probably be investing more in figuring out how to deliver effective preschool at scale before we rush ahead with universal programs. I fear we are overpromising and doomed to under-deliver to the kids who need this the most.

Related: Nearly 2/3rds of MOOC users live abroad.


Megan Carolan- Policy research coordinator at the National Institute for Early Education Research. Follow her on Twitter. 

When New York City opened the doors to expanded pre-K for thousands of 4-year-olds earlier this month, it marked a huge departure from the scene just a year ago, when Mayor de Blasio was still seen as a longshot candidate and Christine Quinn was focusing on preschool loans. Other cities looking to expand their early childhood offerings may wonder how New York changed so quickly.

Preschool wasn’t a new expansion for de Blasio: expanding pre-K was a hugely personal priority for the Mayor and his wife, and de Blasio has been highlighting the shortage of seats when he served as Public Advocate from 2010 until his mayoral election. The de Blasio camp built partnerships both at a personal and political level from the start; the public debate with Governor Andrew Cuomo was never over whether to fund preschool, but how to fund it to balance the needs of the state and the city. Coalition-building didn’t stop there. In order to both solidify political support for this endeavor, and to build on existing capacity, the Mayor was clear about including community- and faith-based providers.

Despite the image of tough-talking New York swagger, what really aided the rapid expansion was compromise and building partnerships (some of the very social skills kids will learn in pre-K!). Bring together diverse stakeholders as well as local and state officials in an effort so clearly supported by residents put pre-K in the fast lane. No two cities will have the same mix of existing systems and political ideologies, but collaboration and compromise are key to meeting the needs of young learners across the country.

Protecting What’s Best About the Internet


On September 10th, the spinning wheel of death appeared on a large number of websites in the United States. But the disruption wasn’t caused by an accident or a network failure. It was actually a deliberate, coordinated effort by a wide range of major tech companies and content creators — not to mention hundreds of thousands of small websites and individuals — to stage an “Internet Slowdown” day. The purpose? Demonstrating what might happen if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chooses a path that allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to divide the Internet into “fast lanes” and “slow lanes.”

The FCC is currently in the middle of a high-profile network neutrality proceeding to gather input on its proposed Open Internet rules. The ultimate goal is to find a workable replacement for the blocking and nondiscrimination rules that the DC Circuit Court vacated in January’s Verizon v. FCC court decision. But the fight has grown larger and more political in recent months, with everyone from Netflix and Etsy to members of Congress weighing in on the best path forward.

There was clear consensus among virtually all commenters in FCC docket — including major cable providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable — that we need a common regulatory framework for all broadband networks. The only real opposition came from mobile carriers and some of their suppliers.

OTI is part of a broad coalition of public interest groups, tech companies, and consumer advocates that have called for the FCC to implement strong net neutrality protections grounded in the soundest possible legal framework — which we believe means reclassifying broadband under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and applying fundamental common carriage principles to Internet access. We have consistently argued in favor of this approach in our filings to the FCC, including in reply comments submitted yesterday. As we explain in our latest comments, relying on Title II as the legal foundation for net neutrality rules is neither radical nor heavy-handed. It is actually a narrowly-tailored approach grounded in sound legal principles and historic precedence.

More: How FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler can save the open internet.

Our concerns extend beyond what was considered part of the scope of the 2010 Open Internet rules. Two additional issues have gained increasing traction in the 2014 proceeding: interconnection and peering disputes (like the high-profile standoff between Netflix and several major ISPs earlier this year over degraded service) and arguments in favor of extending the same net neutrality protections to mobile Internet service as the FCC gives to traditional, wired broadband access.

Interconnection disputes can result in direct, significant consumer harm. Although some argue that interconnection has historically been treated as separate from net neutrality — since it is concerned with how ISPs and transit providers connect their networks to each other, rather than how the commercial ISP to which consumers subscribe delivers traffic over the “last mile” — it is increasingly relevant today. When Comcast or Verizon, for example, refuses to provide Netflix or a transit provider with enough bandwidth to meet their traffic needs unless they pay a fee, it is the consumer who effectively experiences discrimination until the dispute is resolved. Preliminary analysis of data collected using the Measurement Lab platform appears to confirm that high-profile standoffs can lead to significant degradation of Internet service over a period of months and that customers are held hostage by ISPs in an effort to extract greater fees from edge providers. The data suggest that consumers pay the price when conflicts between major network providers and their interconnection peers arise — which is why the FCC should step in and address the situation.

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As the FCC crafts strong rules under the appropriate legal authority, it must also ensure that the rules apply equally to all platforms. We write extensively about the importance of “technology neutral” rules — that is, a framework that applies the same net neutrality protections to Internet users regardless of whether those users access it over a fixed connection or from a mobile broadband provider. In 2010, the FCC opted to create separate and considerably weaker net neutrality rules for mobile based on technological differences between the platforms. But as wireless technology evolves, it is becoming increasingly incoherent and unworkable to maintain the regulatory distinctions as devices seamlessly switch from mobile to Wi-Fi networks without the user’s knowledge. There was clear consensus among virtually all commenters in FCC docket — including major cable providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable — that we need a common regulatory framework for all broadband networks. The only real opposition came from mobile carriers and some of their suppliers. Even Chairman Wheeler himself recently hinted that he might be leaning toward wireless parity in a speech that at the CTIA Show last week.

The wireless issue isn’t just a technological one, either. There’s significant evidence that suggests that exempting mobile carriers from the Open Internet rules would have a disparate and negative impact on minority, low-income and rural communities that rely disproportionately on wireless Internet access. According to research from the Pew Internet Project, tens of millions of Americans from traditionally disadvantaged groups are not only much less likely to have a high-speed fixed broadband connection at home, they are also more than twice as likely to rely either solely or primarily on wireless broadband networks for their primary Internet access. Our comments warn the Commission about the dangers of creating an “open Internet divide” which would only further exacerbate the existing digital divide.

Although the official filing window for comments closed yesterday, there’s no doubt that the net neutrality debate will continue in the coming weeks and months. Today, the FCC will hold expert roundtables on the open Internet, with rallies outside the FCC urging the Commissioners to get out of Washington DC and hear from the rest of America. The common message, we expect, will be loud and clear: we need strong rules that protect the Internet as an engine for economic growth, innovation, and free expression.

This article originally appeared on the Open Technology Institute blog.

About the Author

Danielle Kehl
Danielle Kehl is a policy analyst in the Open Technology Institute at New America where she works on technology policy. Her main areas of focus are U.S. broadband policy and Internet freedom. Her writing has been published in a number of outlets, including the Journal of Information Policy, Slate, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Oh, the HumanIT


If we learned anything from the movie The Social Network, it’s that the moment when Mark Zuckerberg included a “relationship status” on profile pages, was when his “The Facebook” really took off.

“Relationship status, interested in, this is what drives lives in college. Are you having sex or aren’t you? It’s why people take certain classes and sit where they sit, and do what they do,” said Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg

This lesson reminds us that the success of Facebook, and myriad other inventions, is not driven by its technological prowess, but by its ability to express and amplify emotions that we experience in the real world. It’s not a technological network; it’s a social network.

Technological potential shouldn’t drive the development of new tools; existing human need should drive it.

This is obvious to any Silicon Valley venture capitalist, but non-profits and political advocates need to remember this as well: Technological potential shouldn’t drive the development of new tools; existing human need should drive it.

After the boom of social media sites like Facebook, thousands of projects sprung up across the world with the intent to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges. But instead of applying technology to existing needs, many of them tried to create or predict needs using technology, with limited success.

One such project was developed in partnership with Internews and Google Ideas during the 2013 Presidential elections in Iran. After realizing that citizen journalism produced from the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran had no central hub, the two organizations created “Elections in Iran,” a YouTube channel to provide a home for citizen journalism during the elections to live.

The plan would have worked great, except there was not nearly the same amount of content being spread in 2013 as there was in the 2009 elections.

“There wasn’t the same civic unrest or the same level of citizen journalism that took place back in 2009,” said Nicolas Sera-Leyva, a training programs manager at the Internews Network at a recent event at OpenGov Hub.

While “Elections in Iran” was not a failure — it did become a hub for a range of opinions on Iranian media which can still be accessed today — the project represents the risks of hoping future events will rationalize technology, instead of creating technology that addresses dynamics that already exist.

This over-faith in technology is a risk even when you try to solve existing needs, if you don’t consider the technological capacities of the people you’re trying to help, as opposed to those who are funding your work.

“I worked on a tool in Nigeria which integrated SMS information into a map, and it looked great,” said Valerie Oliphant, an Operations Coordinator at Social Impact Lab. “But nobody in Nigeria ever looked at the map, and it was pointless. The locals didn’t need the map, but the donors wanted it.”

Sometimes it can even make things worse, said Hollie Russon Gilman, a civic innovation fellow at New America. That was the case at many of the projects in the “Fail Fare DC” a celebration of innovation and risk taking that has ended in failure.

“Adding technological components to projects introduces a whole new set of variables,” said Russon Gilman. “There is a risk that technology can obscure underlying social and political conditions.  When a project fails we need to ask why and learn important lessons about context and people.”

Still, when technology amplifies existing norms, the effects can be profound. This was the case in Nepal, where the group Code for Nepal taught citizens basic tools like blogging and online security. After a reported rape received less attention than many bloggers felt necessary, they used their platform to bring attention to the cause, which sparked demonstrations across Nepal.

So how can we ensure that development projects that use technology remain in the bounds of the context within each society? Just ask.

“When everyone started to take note of this, the court started to intervene, and then the prime minister had to make a national address,” said Ravi Kumar, a Co-Founder of Code for Nepal and Digital Strategist at the World Bank. “It took a year or more, but a justice was delivered.”

So how can we ensure that development projects that use technology remain in the bounds of the context within each society? Just ask. Buy-in from locals is important in all aspects of a project. Technology is not an exception to this rule.  Even if it seems outside of the human conversation, it’s only an effective tool if humans use it.

“Each society requires it own type of technology – what is effective in one context may not be a good fit in another,” said Russon Gilman.

About the Author

Justin Lynch
Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at the New America Foundation. Outside of New America, Justin is the Youth Ambassador to the United Nations for Voices of African Mothers, where he works to promote gender equality and educational opportunity in West Africa.

What Basketball Can Show Us About Race in America


It’s not surprising that the release of Atlanta Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson’s racially provocative e-mail about his team’s fan base didn’t inspire the same level of public outrage as the secretly recorded rantings of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The Levenson story lacked the pathos, the sordid sexual angle, the dysfunctional marriage, and the irrational court maneuverings of a man whose own family trust declared him “mentally incapacitated.” What’s more, as soon as Levenson knew the 2012 e-mail would be released, he apologized for writing “inflammatory nonsense,” and (perhaps inspired by the $2 billion Clippers sales price) agreed to sell his controlling interest in the team. The Hawks owner’s pre-emptive capitulation deprived us all of the opportunity to engage in yet another all-consuming 24/7 media frenzy in which we could have endlessly chewed over the contents of his infamous e-mail, and their significance.

I am not usually a fan of flooding the zone on the bad behavior of the rich and famous, but this story might have warranted it. Because while it lacks the cartoon-like buffoonery of Donald Sterling’s antics, the Levenson affair tells us a whole lot more about the serious racial challenges facing America today.

More: How to prevent the next Ferguson. 

If nothing else, Levenson’s e-mail should remind us how old-fashioned racism—the belief in the innate inferiority of members of an entire race—isn’t the only source of racial conflict in America. Levenson didn’t use racist epithets in his e-mail to the team’s general manager. Nor did he articulate a disdain for African-Americans in general. What he did do, however, was express his belief that white fans were uncomfortable being outnumbered by black fans and that, given this assessment, he’d prefer a broader white fan base than a black one.

Did Levenson belittle the importance of African-American basketball fans? Absolutely. But ultimately his comments were about demographics, and the relative status and comfort implicit in being a member of a majority group.

When Americans refer to majority and minority populations, they are generally speaking of the demographics of the nation at large, which has always had a white Protestant majority. But since the founding of the republic, cities, towns, and states across the country have experienced dynamic population shifts that have turned local minorities into majorities and vice versa.

Germans became the majority in Milwaukee in the 1860s. Irish-Americans replaced white Anglo-Saxon Protestants as the majority population in Boston around 1900. By 1980, blacks were the new majority in Baltimore. In 2001, whites became a minority in California. All of these demographic changes created intergroup tensions.

The relative size of ethnic and racial groups can influence how members of these groups get along with one another. That’s because in intergroup relations—as in basketball—size matters.

Now, I’m not arguing that ethnicity represents as deep a divide as race in America. The history of black-white relations reveals levels of cruelty and enmity that even the bitterest tensions between Massachusetts WASPs and the Irish never did. But the principle is the same. The relative size of ethnic and racial groups can influence how members of these groups get along with one another. That’s because in intergroup relations—as in basketball—size matters. The majority status of racial or ethnic groups in any given location carries with it enough benefits to induce competition and tension.

Related: Are reparations such a bad idea?

A 2007 study of Illinois residents found that living in a “higher percentage same-race neighborhood” can improve “the emotional well-being” of residents. This research strongly implies that residents of such neighborhoods are seeking emotional as well as economic benefits in togetherness. Presumably, the racial and ethnic kinship of majority group membership shores up identity, protects against discrimination by non-group members, and provides networks and support.

Similarly, a 2004 study out of Germany found that, particularly in the Western world, minority and majority memberships have “distinct effects on a variety of important social psychological phenomena.” Most importantly, newfound minority status can create “a state of uneasy mindfulness” in individuals because they are suddenly more aware of their group identity. Majority members “can take their existence for granted,” the German study concluded—and as a result, “they tend to forget their identity (without losing it).” Minority members, however, can feel obliged to expend greater amounts of emotional energy asserting their identities and making space for themselves in the world.

Perhaps because Levenson himself is Jewish, he seems to implicitly understand the burdens of being in the minority. His e-mail states explicitly that he thinks Southern whites “simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority.” But rather than find ways to make both groups—and ideally others—feel welcome and included in the culture of Hawks fandom, he sided with whites, in part because he had already concluded, as he wrote in the damning e-mail, that “there are simply not enough affluent blacks to build a significant season ticket base.”

The facts of the Levenson affair are very much specific to the universe of basketball fans in Atlanta, Georgia. But because demographers keep telling us that Anglos are projected to become a minority in the United States sometime around 2043, there is a broader, more far-reaching cautionary tale here.

Over the next several decades, how will whites react to losing their majority status in cities and counties across the country? How will prominent business owners and politicians seek to ease possible tensions? Will their long tenure as the historic majority make whites’ transition to minority status all the more difficult?

No, Levenson’s e-mail won’t get the same attention as Donald Sterling’s pathetic rants. But its content and twisted logic speak to a far more endemic problem facing a rapidly changing America.

This originally appeared on 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.

Is Sweden the Tipping Point of Europe’s Racism?


How can a “housebroken racist” get so many votes in Sweden, a country Americans think of as an egalitarian beacon? Is the growing power of the Sweden Democrats in a society that once seemed immune to the forces of racism an isolated incident, or a tipping point to an accelerated spread of intolerance across Europe?

The short answer is: probably not. While the Sweden Democrats are joining other similar anti-globalization, anti-immigration parties throughout Europe –  the Danish People’s Party, the Progress Party in Norway, the “True Finns,” the Freedom Parties in Austria and the Netherlands, Front National in France, the UK Independence Party, and the Belgian Vlaams Belang – most of these parties are still unable to build the coalitions and garner the support they need to actually impact policy. For now, Americans – and Europeans – don’t need to worry about the influence of the party in Sweden or other parts of Europe.

To understand why, it’s helpful to know a little more about the history of Swedish politics. For more than a hundred years, the Swedish party system has been divided along class lines. The Social Democrats (working class, left, welfare state) have struggled against the liberals and the conservatives (middle class, right, lower taxes). The Sweden Democrats challenged that left-right dimension in the recent election, gaining almost 13 percent of the parliamentary votes. They are now the third biggest party among the eight parties in the parliament. None of these forces command a majority, and they are unwilling to co-operate with each other. In fact, the other seven parties work hard to isolate the Sweden Democrats.

 At first they mainly attracted a few angry young men. But around a decade ago, the party began to change. It began to downplay the racist, white power rhetoric, and elevate arguments against immigration

While many of the populist parties gaining influence throughout Europe are decades old, the Sweden Democrats are a relatively new creation. The party started in the 1980s as a small sect with roots in the White Supremacy movement. At first they mainly attracted a few angry young men. But around a decade ago, the party began to change. It began to downplay the racist, white power rhetoric, and elevate arguments against immigration: The high cost of refugee reception saps money that could be used to fund the welfare state, health care and care of the elderly, they said. Non-European immigrants, especially Muslims, are either unwilling or unable to adapt to Swedish laws and customs. And these immigrants, they argued, are a drain on the society – unemployed (partly because they can’t speak Swedish) and living off of welfare benefits financed by Swedish taxpayers.

It seems like the platform is working: it earned 1.4 percent of the vote in 2002 and 12.9  percent in 2014.

Today, the Sweden Democrats are still trying to change their original, neo-Nazi image – but are no less anti-globalization, anti-immigration, and anti-EU.  They now have a charismatic leader in Jimmie Åkesson – a debonair young, well-educated orator. He has, together with a few like-minded party officials known as “the gang of four,” worked strategically to strengthen the party and reform its platform. During the election campaign, Åkesson visited refugee camps in the Middle East, and argued that Sweden’s most cost-efficient and humanitarian strategy would be to help the refugees in the camps, rather than open its borders to the mostly Syrian and Iraqi men.  This would represent a major policy change: Sweden accepts more refugees than other European country. In fact, the mayor of the city of Södertälje, just south of Stockholm, once told the US Congress that his little city welcomes more immigrants from Iraq than the entire United States. But Åkesson argues that the money Sweden would save from supporting these refugees could be spent instead on sick and elderly citizens.

Clearly, he has some Swedes convinced: The core constituency of the Sweden Democrats is working class men of all ages, with no higher education.  But to be sure, they are not white trash – just ordinary citizens mistrustful of power holders, and critical of the inflow of refugees. Since  the Sweden Democrats is the only party with an alternative to the present immigration and refugee policy,  voters who want to see a change had only one option.

But the Swedish political, social, cultural and economic elite – along with the mass media – has not been swayed by Åkesson’s oratory. They’ve unanimously condemned the Sweden Democrats, still labeling it racist party with an allegedly Nazi origin.

A pivotal position is only useful if you can co-operate in both directions. The Sweden Democrats cannot.

As a result, the party has no allies in parliament, nor in the regions or the municipalities. The strategy has been to isolate them even as the party has continued to strengthen its organization and build support among the voters. Today, it occupies a pivotal position between the two major political blocs However, a pivotal position is only useful if you can co-operate in both directions. The Sweden Democrats cannot.

The impact of the Sweden Democrats should however not be exaggerated. The party has so far had very little influence on policy decisions. Right now, the formation of a new government seems complicated, and the outcome will most likely be a weak minority government. But Swedish politicians have a long tradition of handling minority situations, and they are used to inter-party negotiations. More than half a century ago, political scientist Dankwart A. Rustow labelled Sweden a land of ”the politics of compromise”, and this is – more or less – still valid. But so far, nobody wants to strike a compromise with the Sweden Democrats. They are still a pariah.

About the Author

Anders Sannerstedt
Anders Sannerstedt is an associate professor in political science, Department of Political Science, Lund University. In recent years he has done research on the voters of the Sweden Democrats, based upon various surveys.