Reading Rouhani

26 September 2014

Between Rouhani’s Lines

As a U.S.-led coalition once again wades into his neighborhood to rid it of terrorism, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on the U.S. and other Western leaders to learn lessons from the past, but downplayed some unpleasant facts of the present.

Rouhani brought his unique brand of friendly firebrand to a conversation with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria at a New America event in New York Wednesday. He spoke of wanting to collaborate more with the U.S. – and vaguely referenced the many issues we could work through together – even while he accused the U.S. of creating the problem it’s trying to solve.

According to Rouhani, the U.S. hasn’t learned the lessons of its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. He said groups like the Islamic State never existed before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. New terrorist organizations were incubated in the security vacuum during the “years of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan”, a beneficiary of “the people who wanted to destabilize” the new democracies there.

“Bombing and airstrikes are not the appropriate way to deal with [violent extremism],” he said, later denying any knowledge of the President’s recently announced Islamic State strategy.  Military intervention only serves to “feed and strengthen terrorism” by providing more justification for terrorist acts.

Right now, Rouhani explained, the U.S. is setting the entire region up for disaster. “American authorities have announced that they wish to train another terrorist group and send them to Syria to fight,” he said.

More: 7 articles you need to read on Iran

“You mean the Free Syrian Army?” asked Zakaria.

“You can call them whatever you wish,” Rouhani responded. “Be that as it may, it is a group. I’m not sure what [the American] plan is – they say we wish to train these folks…get them ready to enter Syrian territory and fight. With whose permission? With what mandate? According to what international laws and norms are they doing this?”

In questioning our recent behavior, Rouhani’s intention was not “ to assign blame or rehash history,” but rather to highlight this need to “learn and draw lessons from the past.” The most important takeaway: “The imposition of one’s will on societies and other nations with violent and extremist methods is not successful. It may yield results over the short term, but over the long term, it only creates tragedies.”

But Rouhani didn’t talk much about Tehran’s support for the brutal Assad regime in Damascus. “Iran’s support of Assad has done as much to destabilize the region, and create the atmosphere that ISIS has taken advantage of, so while he can point to mistakes made my the U.S., he has to acknowledge Iran’s own hand in today’s crisis,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, director of New America’s Iran Initiative.

According to Rouhani, the best way to defeat the Islamic State and other Al Qaeda affiliates while not inadvertently spawning new pockets of extremism is to better coordinate with the Islamic Republic’s similar efforts. But Rouhani also stressed that Iran can’t be a full partner in a U.S.-led coalition until a nuclear accord is reached.

Related: Do sanctions actually have any effect?

If he’s trying to set this up as a quid pro quo (give in on nuclear talks so we can work together against ISIS), this seems like a dubious vow.  Syria and Iraq are strong allies of Iran, and Iran has a strong incentive to act regardless of what the U.S. does.

 But Rouhani didn’t talk much about Tehran’s support for the brutal Assad regime in Damascus

“For now, U.S.-Iran discussions on ISIS on the margins of the P5+1 nuclear talks and through intermediaries is better than nothing,” DiMaggio said. “But at some point very soon there will need to be direct, ongoing communication and even coordination. We must begin to consider the possibility of U.S.-Iran cooperation to counter ISIS even before a final nuclear agreement is signed.”

But either way, in this case, holding assistance hostage may not be a winning diplomatic strategy for Iran. Here, Rouhani may benefit from a history refresher on the story of Pakistan. The U.S. considered Pakistan a rogue state after it tested a nuclear weapon back in 1998. But after 9/11, the countries reconciled. The U.S. removed the sanctions on Pakistan and began pumping the country with aid. Why? It needed Pakistan as an ally in the War on Terror.  The U.S. might not see Iran as playing the same role in the fight against ISIS, as ISIS isn’t using Iran as a staging area as al Qaeda used Pakistan.

The other game-changer in the Pakistan-U.S. reconciliation: it had already proven its nuclear capabilities. “There was nothing the U.S. could do to change that, and so they decided they may as well lift sanctions to get what they want,” said Anish Goel, a Senior Fellow in New America’s International Security Program. On Iran, the “calculation from the U.S. might be that a nuclear Iran is more dangerous for us than an Islamic State that is well-armed and trying to strike us.”  Even if not, domestic politics makes it harder for a U.S. president to achieve rapprochement with Iran than it was with Pakistan.

As far as getting involved in U.S. domestic affairs, Rouhani has made it clear that his office has no interest in helping to sell any nuclear deal to the U.S. Congress, which will likely hesitate to approve it. Still, he said there was potential for more U.S.-Iranian collaboration down the road both in his speech on Wednesday, and during the historic phone call with President Obama last fall. He even paid homage to his hosts at New America, suggesting Iranian and U.S. think tanks should work together more.

Of course, all potential collaboration is contingent on a nuclear deal and end to sanctions. “In Farsi, we say ‘ let’s first raise the baby that we just gave birth to, and then let’s go onto number two,’” Rouhani said to audience laughter.

But does he even want to raise a second baby?

“Rouhani has a good opportunity here, because the U.S. is willing to play ball,” Goel said. “He could get the U.S. well on his side. But I’m not sure that’s something that Iran as a whole wants. I’m not sure that’s what Rouhani wants. I don’t think anyone really knows what his ultimate goal is.”

About the Author

Elizabeth WeingartenAssociate Editor
Elizabeth has worked on the editorial staffs of The Atlantic magazine, Slate magazine, and Qatar Today magazine in Doha, Qatar. She is  associate editor at New America, and the associate director of the Global Gender Parity Initiative.

Is the Islamic State the Worst Threat, or Just the Newsiest?


On Tuesday, President Obama made what was, for many, a surprising announcement. Not only had the  United States conducted the first air strikes on the Islamic State’s forces in Syria, it also “took strikes to disrupt plotting against the United States and our allies by seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria who are known as the Khorasan Group,” he said.

President Obama never mentioned the Khorasan group when he laid out his strategy for destroying the Islamic State on Sept. 10. Nor did he mention Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

The administration’s focus on the Islamic State and lack of discussion of other groups appears to demonstrate what New America International Security Program Fellow and Foreign Policy columnist Rosa Brooks has called “chasing the soccer ball” –  what happens when analysts and security resources are focused on the threat dominating the news cycle rather than on actual threats. Is that what happened here – and should that concern us?

More: 7 articles you need to read on ISIS

In this case, it’s possible that President needed to keep the Khorasan strike plans under wraps in order to successfully execute the strikes and prevent imminent threats. But now that the President has announced the air strikes using the name Khorasan group, it is time — if it wasn’t already — for a deeper public discussion of the many groups in Syria that may threaten U.S. interests.

We need a Syria strategy – not just an Islamic State strategy – because the other groups in Syria could pose a greater threat to U.S. interests.

We need a Syria strategy – not just an Islamic State strategy – because the other groups in Syria could pose a greater threat to U.S. interests.

First, some background on those other groups. American officials have suspected for a while that the Khorasan group, which is led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a senior Al Qaeda figure who had close ties to Bin Laden, may pose a more direct threat to the United States than the Islamic State. The Khorasan group has ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is known for its master-bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, who has demonstrated a knack for getting explosives through airport security. The ties between the Khorasan group and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula led to increased security in July of this year.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the Al Qaeda affiliate that poses perhaps the most immediate threat to the United States. On September 10th, as the president focused on the threat from the Islamic State, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence tweeted: “We continue to assess that AQAP remains the al-Qa‘ida affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States.”

Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, could also pose a significant threat to American interests in the region. It has taken territory along the Syrian border with Israel and, while it has so far focused on confronting the Syrian regime, it is not out of the question that the group will soon turn their sights on Israel. As we noted in an assessment of the Jihadist terrorist threat for the Bipartisan Policy Center, the potential for jihadist movements to merge their struggle with the Israeli Palestinian and Arab Israeli conflicts presents a wild card that could have wide-ranging, systemic consequences.

Related: We asked 6 experts: How can we defeat ISIS?

The president has been far from alone in focusing on IS rather than the Syrian civil war with its multitude of dangerous actors. Policymakers from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Senator John McCain, have at times referenced the 100 Americans that have travelled to fight with the Islamic State. But what they don’t mention is that those Americans travelled to fight in Syria with any group, not just IS. That effectively erased the threat from groups other than the Islamic State in the minds of many Americans – and other policymakers.

Indeed, the case that is often cited to demonstrate the threat from returning fighters – and presented as evidence for the need to confront IS – is that of Moner Abu Salha. He received training in Syria and returned to the United States undetected before returning to Syria to conduct a suicide bombing. But he was involved with Jabhat al Nusra and not the Islamic State.

Why does it matter if the public discussion of the president’s strategy on IS has, until now, left these groups out? In short, it could be dangerous. The president’s current strategy against the Islamic State could end up aiding these groups. Many of the ‘moderate’ rebels who the president seeks to arm have fought alongside Jabhat al Nusra and arms have moved between them.

Why does it matter if the public discussion of the president’s strategy on IS has, until now, left these groups out? In short, it could be dangerous.

This dynamic is compounded by the challenges posed by Shi’a militias that have strengthened their positions and played important roles confronting ISIS in Iraq. As the Bipartisan Policy Center threat assessment notes, increasing sectarian divisions and violence is another wild card that could radically reshape the nature of the jihadist movement regionally.

This week’s air strikes may be evidence that the administration is well aware of the range of threats and already has a strategy to confront the crisis as a whole, but one can’t help but question why it was not publicly addressed beforehand, so as to ensure public support for the strategy being adopted. As New America’s Brian Fishman argues, “the most important strategic lesson from Iraq” is not to lead the American public into wars with shifting objectives without forthrightly informing them of what the commitment entails, “because they will not put up with that commitment long enough for those goals to be achieved.”

Now that the strikes have been announced, it is time for a public debate on all the threat actors and not just the Islamic State. Whatever tools or actions best serve American interests in Syria, those tools need to be used as part of a Syria strategy — not simply an Islamic State strategy.

About the Author

David Sterman
David Sterman is a research associate for New America's International Security Program and a graduate of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies.
Emily SchneiderResearch Associate
Emily Schneider is a research associate for the International Security at New America.

Why Populism Isn’t Going Away


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.

Conventional wisdom and media narratives suggest that visible populist movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street emerged in response to the financial crisis of 2008. New America Fellow Yascha Mounk disagrees. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs (“Pitchfork Politics”), he argues that this surge in populism is part of a more complex trend, dating back to the 1990s and a steadily growing disenchantment with government. On this episode, Mounk and Slaughter discuss the impact of reading this rise in populism as part of a longer-term story and explore ways—in Mounk’s words—to “channel populist passions for good.”

Why We Need a New College Admissions Strategy


Sometimes, vague can be misleading—and harmful. For years, colleges have identified  disadvantaged students based primarily on “diversity” and “need.” But those categories are broad and unspecific, and  can be gamed by sophisticated applicants and parents. The result? Schools aren’t helping the students that really need it. And higher education is now perpetuating—rather than alleviating—inequality. We can reverse this pattern by learning from our education history and shifting the focus of that aid effort to first-generation college students.

The key here is this: Colleges need to get more specific about who they want to help, and why. Universities’ commitment to “diversity” is important, but it’s a poor substitute for a policy of equal access for the disadvantaged because “diverse” students and disadvantaged students are not necessarily one and the same. Several studies have shown that beneficiaries of diversity-based admissions policies typically hail from the most well-educated and economically successful segments of “diverse” communities. That’s why a diversity strategy will not help universities reclaim their mission of fostering socio-economic mobility.

Focusing on first-generation college students, on the other hand, just might. These are the students whose parents never attained a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. college, and they’re a much better proxy group for those who  are truly at a disadvantage in education. First-generation students typically attend secondary schools with fewer academic and financial resources. Yet we don’t have to look hard to find examples of students who demonstrate strong academic potential and have the discipline and perseverance to achieve long-term success. Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO; Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College; Colin Powell, former Secretary of State; and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor—all first-generation college students – are just a few examples of tremendous academic potential of these students.

So, how do we unlock all that potential? It’s easy to propose an outreach strategy to first-generation students, but harder to implement one. The 250 or so oversubscribed institutions that admit a fraction of thousands of applicants too often crowd out the smart but poorer students. High-ability students born to poor, uneducated parents have the most to gain from higher education and the most to lose as a result of current inequities. We need to remove some of the roadblocks in the present system, especially at selective institutions of higher learning.

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Here’s one such roadblock: Many universities—an overwhelming majority, in fact—practice “need-sensitive” admissions and don’t accept academically able but poor students, at least in part because they can’t pay. And then there’s merit-based financial aid, which also gives wealthier students an edge: schools often use it to climb the infamous U.S. News & World Report rankings, as Stephen Burd reports in a recent paper. No one is arguing that merit doesn’t matter, but we need to scrutinize merit aid awards more closely.  The metrics most colleges use to define “merit” favor affluent students, whose schools have the resources to support standardized testing prep, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and exams. And it’s not just colleges that are contributing to this problem: Even lower-income students who receive the maximum Pell award may be left with a significant financial burden because the government isn’t holding colleges accountable for rising costs. Too many students face an untenable choice: financing their college educations with costly student loans or foregoing higher education altogether.

The cumulative impact of these roadblocks is clear. Students from affluent backgrounds graduate from college at six times the rate of children from low-income households. For lower-income students, merely going to college is an achievement.  Fewer than 30 percent enroll in a four-year college. Of those poorer students who do matriculate, fewer than half graduate. The most damning statistics concern high-achieving students from low-income households. Even when students from low-income households outscore higher-income peers, they graduate from college at a lower rate. This data belies the notion, once extolled by universal schooling proponent Horace Mann, that our institutions of higher education are “great equalizers.”

The best way to address the social and economic inequality embedded in higher education policy is to tackle it at its roots.

To make good on the past, we need to discuss how data sometimes drives—and misidentifies—our priorities. The Department of Education mandates that colleges report a massive amount of information about their students, including test scores, graduation rates, average net price paid per student, and demographic information such as race and sex. But it neglects to ask colleges about their students’ first-generation status—sending schools the message that this status isn’t a government priority (an impression compounded by the fact no comprehensive database indicates how many such students are admitted to institutions that receive federal funds).

Even if the government were asking for data about first-generation status, universities aren’t likely to happily fork it over. In response to inquiries I made in connection with a forthcoming research paper on first-generation students’ access to higher education, administrators at numerous selective universities claimed to have no idea whether their students hail from Ph.Ds. or from high school drop outs. The data that I did manage to collect indicates that first-generation students constitute a fraction of the student bodies at selective colleges and universities. In 2011, for instance, only five percent of matriculating freshmen at the University of Michigan, and in 2013 just nine percent of matriculating freshman at the University of Virginia—both taxpayer-supported universities that enroll thousands of students—were first-generation college students.

The best way to address the social and economic inequality embedded in higher education policy is to tackle it at its roots. Admissions officials can start by practicing need-blind admissions, asking students whether their parents graduated from a four-year college, and consciously seeking to admit academically competitive first-generation students during the admissions process. Colleges should provide adequate financial support for low-income first-generation college students and the federal government must replace costly loans with grants for a greater number of needy students. The government can also look to its past for precedent to craft a legislative solution. Both the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (“GI Bill”) and 1965 Higher Education Act (part of The Great Society) offer models for providing educational benefits and access to those who are most in need.

The inclusion of greater numbers of students from the bottom rungs of society in higher education need not be a zero-sum game. This isn’t about displacing wealthier students. It’s about enriching the student body, and making college better for everyone with the potential to attend.

About the Author

Tomiko Brown-Nagin
Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law and a Professor of History at Harvard University, where she is the co-director of the Program in Law and History. Her 2011 book, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford), won the Bancroft Prize in U.S. History. She is currently at work on two books: an argument for greater access to selective higher education for first-generation and economically disadvantaged college students, and a biography of the Honorable Constance Baker Motley.

America Is More of a Club Than a Family


Over the course of the last 15 years or so, there’s been an explosion in the number of charter schools around the country. According to the latest figures (from 2012), some 2.1 million students are enrolled in schools run by private groups awarded public money. The schools bear optimistic names like “YES Prep North Central” (in Houston) and “Animo Leadership High” (in Inglewood, California). Beyond the specific concerns about education, the charter school movement is powered by a particularly American worldview, one rooted in the ethos of the dissident Protestant churches that were the foundation of early American culture: citizens opting out of a hierarchical system to pursue personal goals by joining together in a local, voluntary society.

This ideological impulse—which I and others call “voluntarism”—is a cultural trait that helps explain why the United States remains different from comparable wealthy, Western nations. Broadly speaking, voluntarism is not another term for American individualism, although it entails individualism. Voluntarism is the way Americans reconcile individualism and community. And we can feel the weight of American voluntarism in our approaches to public issues, not only in charter schools, but in debates about issues like Obamacare and gay marriage as well.

Other Western nations, by contrast, consider healthcare a civil right of citizens and a moral obligation of government. American tradition, however, treats healthcare as an individual’s personal responsibility, or at least as a personal responsibility exercised through voluntary association, as in workplace health insurance. When the debate around gay marriage shifted from a discussion of God, gender, sex, and propriety to a debate over individual rights, tolerance, and the personal freedom of Americans to choose their partners, the struggle for marriage equality became easier.

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American voluntarism makes it hard for social-democratic reformers to persuade their fellow citizens to accept the types of ambitious state-run initiatives common in most Western democracies, such as universal healthcare, free preschools, and guaranteed labor rights. Conversely, the spirit of American voluntarism makes it harder for non-Americans to understand our public policies, which are often caricatured as being nakedly Darwinian.

That American society was notably different—exceptional was the term—from other Western societies was a staple for much of 20th-century social science. Researchers have offered up lists of hows and whys, trying to distill the difference. I joined the enterprise when I started researching my 2010 book, Made in America, and the evidence spoke to the centrality of voluntarism in understanding American culture and its so-called exceptionalism.

Related: Are public spaces necessary to democracy?

Observers have for generations described Americans as deeply individualistic. But, as I argued in Made in America, individualism is too simple a description. Certainly, deeply instilled in American culture is the assumption that we are each a “sovereign” individual: the belief that each person is, deep down, a unique character, distinct and separate from everyone else, that ultimately each person determines his or his own fate, and that individuals ought to be self-reliant.

From the perspective of world history, this notion of the sovereign individual is odd. Most cultures at most times treated individuals as organic parts of their family, lineage, and tribe. That is why, for example, collective punishment—you took our goat, so my family will take your cousin’s sheep—is widely accepted around the globe, even today, after centuries of Westernization. An example I like to use in teaching is marriage: In most places, in most times, marriage has been in principle primarily about connecting families and lineages. Parents sensibly married off youths to appropriate partners. My students, many of them only a generation or two from that Old World, instead take it for granted that marriage is about two young, not fully mature individuals freely choosing one another based on their individual emotions—a weird notion, indeed. Individual sovereignty is a broadly Western assumption, and Americans are the most Western of Westerners.

American voluntarism is the merging of our individualistic and communal strains, the worldview that individuals forge their distinct fates with like-minded people in groups that they have individually, freely chosen to join and are individually free to leave.

Individualism, however, is a severely incomplete description of the American character, ignoring America’s strong communal dimension. Just as Alexis de Toqueville and other observers wrote in the 19th century of Americans’ individualism, they also described intensive community activity: neighborly assistance like barn raising; joint endeavors like militias and tending of commons; and clubs from sewing circles to lecture societies. In contrast to churches that were outposts of a central ecclesiastical authority such as Roman Catholicism and the established Protestant denominations (for examples, the Church of England and the Lutheran Church of Norway), the dominant American form was a grassroots Protestant church. This was a voluntary association of individuals who found others with common religious yearnings, pooled their resources, and hired a minister.

The many secular versions of this communalism in America—Rotary clubs, blood drives, online Kickstarter-type philanthropy projects, walks against diseases, beach cleanup weekends, you name it—belie the caricature of Americans as selfish individualists. Critically, such associations are ones individuals have voluntarily chosen; they are not tribes, castes, clans, manors, or ethnicities into which people are born and in which they die. Nor are these distinctively American types of associations sponsored or organized by the state.

More: Do we sacrifice close relationships when we pursue freedom? 

American voluntarism is the merging of our individualistic and communal strains, the worldview that individuals forge their distinct fates with like-minded people in groups that they have individually, freely chosen to join and are individually free to leave. People attain their personal ends through community, but through voluntary community. And thus they are both sovereign individuals and community citizens.

My favorite expression of this view is a statement from 1905 by Alma A. Rogers, a local writer in Portland, Oregon, who celebrated simultaneously women’s individuation and women’s community activity: “Woman has at last made the fateful discovery that she is an individual, not an adjunct. Therefore, she thrills to the pulse of organization; and lo! The woman’s club is born.” Another revealing expression is the 1960s-era slogan, “America: Love it or Leave It.” It captured the idea that people are not forced to be American, but as long as they choose to be, they are expected to be committed to the voluntary association that is America. The key to the American community, in other words, are the acts of opting in and every day choosing to stay in. That is why collective action through the state is anathema to so many Americans—it seems to usurp individual agency and responsibility, alone or in community.

Over the years, of course, Americans often compromised this voluntarism for practical reasons. Social Security is a paternalistic government mandate that people accepted during a great crisis, although it was cloaked in the language of “insurance” rather than welfare. But for the most part, such policies remain tough sells. Many observers on the left hoped that the Great Recession would trigger social-democratic breakthroughs. But Obamacare is, in historical perspective, a small step in that direction, a complex and limited extension of government subsidies for private health insurance rather than a full-on establishment of a universal entitlement. Some research suggests that Americans have actually moved against government initiatives in the wake of the financial crisis.

Americans will continue to argue about the proper boundary between our individual spheres and the sphere of our government. But, even in these disagreements, there is a common mindset, shared by right and left, that Americans should get to choose the nature of their participation in the nation. Thirty years ago this month, New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention in which he tried to replace or moderate that voluntaristic motif with another kind of imagery,

The idea of family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings … . We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another …

It was a rhetorically powerful moment, but a losing political strategy. Today, perhaps more than ever, Americans don’t tend to think of the nation as a “family” to which we are “bound,” but rather as a club that we have joined.

Claude S. Fischer wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

About the Author

Claude S. Fischer
Claude S. Fischer is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkley, author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, and a regular columnist for the Boston Review.  

Public Housing for a Smart City


At Sunday’s People’s Climate March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to cut emissions in the city to 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2050. That’s in line with international projections on the bare minimum needed to mitigate the impact of climate change.

One way the city will cut emissions, de Blasio said, is to make the city’s buildings more energy efficient. But we are still learning the best ways to use technology to reduce emissions and boost resilience. The choices de Blasio’s administration makes will determine the kind of “smart city” New York City will be.

There are two fundamentally different paths that New York could take. One is a “remote-control city” that “reduces the people of the favelas to a stream of data,” as Anthony Townsend describes it in Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. The other emphasizes self-sufficiency and the capacity of people to “recognize problems, design appropriate solutions and … participate in their implementation,” in Townsend’s words. In New York, the first battleground for that choice will be the city’s poorly maintained public housing. The test cases for the new smart city will be the 400,000 people who live there. Will New York City’s public housing of the future be remote-controlled or self-sufficient? Will New York City monitor its low-income residents as data points or engage them as part of the solution?

Will New York City monitor its low-income residents as data points or engage them as part of the solution?

Remote management at the New York City Housing Authority does not have a good track record. NYCHA homes have withered in the face of federal funding reductions and the diversion of money to policing. The city owns more than 178,000 units of public housing and struggles to meet targets for response times to regular maintenance requests.

More: In Singapore, public housing looks like this.

NYCHA’s properties were in a profound state of disrepair even before Superstorm Sandy sharpened the contrast between a remote-responder system and self-sufficiency. The storm flooded boiler rooms and electrical closets, cutting off heat, light, and elevators. Neighborhood stores that were only accepting cash meant people could not use the food stamps on their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. Deliveries of food and fuel into the city took days to start back up.

In the face of these failings, residents helped one another, carrying water up darkened stairwells to elderly residents and holding open cookouts.

Cellphone and Internet service was down across much of Red Hook, but the nonprofit Red Hook Initiative shared its Internet connection with the surrounding community through a wireless network that New America’s Open Technology Institute had helped build before and immediately after the storm. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.) Since then, a team of local residents known as Digital Stewards have added more than a dozen hot spots throughout Red Hook, even connecting the computer lab at a local recreation center and a central neighborhood park without official support from the Housing Authority or the Parks Department. (As the director of field operations for OTI at the time, I was one of the people who helped Red Hook residents get this project off the ground.)

This is not an argument against government. Quite the opposite: Public housing is essential to New York’s future, and not only as affordable places to live. The built environment is an opportunity to connect community members to one another, foster self-sufficiency, and enable collaborative problem-solving. Our social networks and our infrastructure shape each other, adding strength or weakness depending on levels of collaboration in the design and participation in the governance. Government’s role is to build infrastructure and set policy with that in mind.

More: Will new EPA rule changes effect our carbon future?

If there is a silver lining to the suffering and loss of life from that storm, it is that Sandy gave the region the federal money and local inspiration to begin building a more resilient and low-emission city. The mayor and New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, have pledged $108 million in Sandy recovery funds to conduct repairs and retrofits on one set of public housing buildings in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, with plans to proceed through 15 additional developments. Out of a total of 334 such developments, that would leave 318 more to do. NYCHA estimates the total cost for necessary capital projects to be $18 billion. There’s a lot of work to do.

If there is a silver lining to the suffering and loss of life from that storm, it is that Sandy gave the region the federal money and local inspiration to begin building a more resilient and low-emission city.

Much of the initial work in Coney Island is focused on repairs and putting essential equipment above the flood line. The need for long-term resilience and emissions reductions will mean further steps, both low-tech (such as replacing leaky windows and adding insulation) and high-tech (like adding alternative power and environmental sensors).

Whatever construction the city undertakes for its public housing, it is important to build community self-sufficiency through the active participation and leadership of residents in the design, installation, and maintenance of neighborhood infrastructure and initiatives. This is increasingly recognized as a best practice; a recent New York Times op-ed argues for residents to take part in maintenance and construction tasks in public housing.

There is no mention in the press release from Schumer or the mayor’s office of any of the $108 million going for communications infrastructure, but it is impossible to imagine achieving resilience goals or emission reduction targets without a major digital upgrade for NYCHA houses. How would you even measure emissions without a data network? And if you have to have a network for that purpose, it has to at least also keep messages flowing among the housing residents in a disaster. You can also support daily maintenance, energy efficiency, and economic development. Each additional goal for the network requires additional capacity for communication among the people who are using it. The city and NYCHA have to see the 400,000 residents of public housing as a resilience asset, not a burden. The networks they build should reflect that.

Here are five steps New York City should take to provide communication networks for a self-sufficient public housing system:

  • Wire NYCHA houses with local area networks, including ports for wireless access in public spaces and centralized service turn-on points for service providers. This will enable local communication even if a disaster knocks out Internet service, or for those who do not have a subscription. At the same time, it will lower the barrier for new providers to serve the residents because they will not have to run new wires throughout the complex.
  • Set up a virtual local area network, which uses an Internet connection to simulate a dedicated internal loop, to connect all of the complexes to one another.
  • Conduct a training program for NYCHA residents to maintain the local network, install wireless access points in public areas, and support residents’ use of broadband. These cohorts of residents could also serve as partners to teams looking to produce applications and services for NYCHA, following the model of Heatseek, winner of the “Live” and “Best Connected Device” categories at the 2014 NYC BigApps competition.
  • Establish privacy protections that put residents in control of what data they share with NYCHA, other residents, and any users of the network.
  • Leverage NYCHA networks for neighborhood connectivity and resilience so proximity to public housing becomes a benefit.

For the first two years of its existence, Red Hook Wi-Fi focused on the areas around the Red Hook houses rather than trying to gain access to the properties themselves. The urgency to reduce emissions, prepare for sea-level rise, and upgrade basic systems has only increased in that time. Now, as NYCHA takes the first steps on a multibillion-dollar path of reconstruction, the agency should learn from and expand on the innovations of its residents.

As the planet looks to the nations assembled at the United Nations for action on climate change, it should be thrilled to see New York taking the lead for cities on emissions reductions. “We know when New York City acts, it helps move policy in other places,” the mayor said in his announcement. But ultimately that leadership has to come from below for us to succeed in making New York a vibrant and habitable city for the century ahead. The city’s residents are its best hope for being smart.

About the Author

Joshua Breitbart
Joshua Breitbart is a senior research fellow for New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. Follow him on Twitter.

Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of the South Pacific


Australians like to think of themselves as green. Their island country boasts some 3 million square miles of breathtaking landscape. They were an early global leader in solar power. They’ve had environmental regulations on the books since colonial times. And in 2007 they elected a party and a prime minister running on a “pro-climate” platform, with promises to sign the Kyoto Protocol and pass sweeping environmental reforms. All of which makes sense for a country that is already suffering the early effects of global warming.

And yet, seven years later, Australia has thrown its environmentalism out the window—and into the landfill.

The climate-conscious Labor Party is out, felled by infighting and a bloodthirsty, Rupert Murdoch–dominated press that sows conspiracy theories about climate science. In its place, Australians elected the conservative Liberal Party, led by a prime minister who once declared that “the climate argument is absolute crap.”

More: Will new EPA rules change our carbon future? 

In the year since they took office, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Liberal-led coalition have already dismantled the country’s key environmental policies. Now they’ve begun systematically ransacking its natural resources. In the process, they’ve transformed Australia from an international innovator on environmental issues into quite possibly the dirtiest country in the developed world. And in a masterful whirl of the spin machine, they’ve managed to upend public debate by painting climate science as superstition and superstition as climate science. (We should note here that one of us grew up in Australia.)

The country’s landmark carbon tax has been repealed. The position of science minister has been eliminated. A man who warns of “global cooling” is now the country’s top business adviser. In November, Australia will host the G-20 economic summit; it plans to use its power as host to keep climate change off the official agenda.

If the environment has become Australia’s enemy, fossil fuels are its best friend once again. Two months after it struck down the carbon tax, the government forged a deal with a fringe party led by a mining tycoon to repeal a tax on mining profits. It appointed a noted climate-change skeptic—yes, another one—to review its renewable energy targets. Surprise: He’s expected to slash them. Independent modeling in a study commissioned by the Climate Institute, Australian Conservation Foundation, and WWF-Australia finds that the cuts to renewable energy won’t reduce Australians’ energy bills. They will, however, gift the country’s coal and gas industry another $8.8 billion U.S.

If the environment has become Australia’s enemy, fossil fuels are its best friend once again.

At a time when solar power is booming worldwide, sunny Australia is rolling back its state-level subsidies (despite domestic success) and canceling major solar projects. Meanwhile, the government has given the go-ahead to build the nation’s largest coal mine, with an eye toward boosting coal exports to India.

Did we mention that Australians’ per-capita carbon emissions are the highest of any major developed country in the world? Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of the South Pacific. No, Australia isn’t a theocracy, and oil isn’t the source of its fossil-fuel riches. But it is the world’s second-largest exporter of coal and third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and minerals and fuels account for nearly 50 percent of its export revenues. Its per-capita carbon emissions actually exceed those of Saudi Arabia. And its behavior of late is beginning to bear an ugly resemblance to those petro-states whose governments seem to exist chiefly to guarantee the spectacular profits of the fossil-fuel industry.

The skies aren’t the only realm that Australia is rapidly polluting. After all, the waste that the country is dredging up in new mines and coal port expansions has to go somewhere. Why not dump it on the Great Barrier Reef? (This month, facing a PR disaster, the mining consortium in charge of that particular project reversed its decision and will likely request permission to dump the dredge inland instead.)

“Let’s see,” Australian leaders must wake up wondering every morning: “What natural wonder could we trash today?” At the top of that list is the pristine Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, nearly two-thirds of which the new government pledged to open to commercial logging. Environmentalists argued the logging would harm threatened species such as the swift parrot, the wedge-tailed eagle, and the iconic Tasmanian devil. Those concerns were waved aside by the state government, which, like the federal government, is controlled by the Liberals. Fortunately, their plans were thwarted when UNESCO rebuffed their attempt to repeal the forest’s World Heritage protections.

More: Which is better for the environment, paper or plastic? The answer may surprise you.

How the Liberals and their coalition partners have undone so many environmental policies in such a short time is a study in the power of biased media and irrational thinking.

From the moment the pro-climate Labor Party took power in 2007, opposition leaders and pundits made its environmental policies the focal point of their political attacks. Even environmental policies established under previous Liberal regimes became politically polarized as conservatives recast environmental policies as “job-destroyers.” The carbon tax turned into Australia’s equivalent of Obamacare as the opposition sought a wedge with which to pry apart the Labor Party’s coalition with the environmentally focused political party, the Greens. In some ways, environmental policies are even more vulnerable to being cast as job-killers than health care policies are, because the benefits are less tangible to the individual.

But Abbott and his allies haven’t just turned the public against environmental regulations with threats of economic doom. They’ve also worked hard to shake the public’s trust in climate science. And they’ve done it in a way that would surprise most Americans: by comparing environmentalists to religious kooks.

Green politicians, climate change activists, and even scientists have been painted as modern incarnations of a hated early-20th-century Australian archetype: the holier-than-thou, anti-gambling, anti-alcohol religious wowser. Someone who, according to professor Ken Inglis, “prayed on his knees on Sunday and preyed on his neighbours the rest of the week.”

This line of attack began as early as 2010, when Abbott was in the parliamentary opposition. In a television interview, he said of then–Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s climate change policies, “I am not as evangelical about this as Prime Minister Rudd is. I am not theological about this the way Prime Minister Rudd is.”

In a 2012 op-ed titled “Losing their religion as evidence cools off,” in Rupert Murdoch’s national newspaper, the Australian, Abbott’s top business adviser wrote: “When Mother Nature decided in 1980 to change gears from cooler to warmer, a new global warming religion was born, replete with its own church (the UN), a papacy, (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and a global warming priesthood masquerading as climate scientists.”

Embracing the analogy, the former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard gave a speech at a U.K. fracking conference in 2013 titled “One religion is enough,” in which he called action on climate change “a substitute religion.” Interestingly, while the global-warming-as-religion line probably wouldn’t play as well stateside, it seems that the U.S.-based think tank the Heartland Institute has played a key role in funding Australia’s denial movement.

Also instrumental in sowing doubt and apathy has been Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns about two-thirds of Australia’s metropolitan press and the dominant dailies in most state capitals. According to a study by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, coverage of the former Labor government’s climate-change policies by News Corp. papers was 82 percent negative.

Even so, belief in climate change remains relatively high among Australian voters. According to a 2014 Lowy Institute poll, 45 percent of Australians now see global warming as a “serious and pressing problem,” up 5 points since 2013. (Forty percent of Americans believe it to be a major threat, a 2013 Pew Research poll found.) But belief is not the same as action.

The conservatives’ cultivated agnosticism about climate issues is abetted by the nation’s general indifference about what happens in the “Outback.” Australians have long turned a blind eye toward the 70 percent of the country that is arid bushland and the small number of people who live there. Global mining companies like Rio Tinto run desert fiefdoms in the Northern Territory that are larger than Washington, D.C. The miners themselves—largely fly-in, fly-out workers—barely live in the remote, often indigenous, communities of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, or Queensland whose land they’re gutting and whose small towns they’re destroying. Many commute from Sydney and Melbourne, or even New Zealand and Bali.

The conservatives’ cultivated agnosticism about climate issues is abetted by the nation’s general indifference about what happens in the “Outback.”

Historically, this apathy extends beyond mining. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the government allowed the British to conduct nuclear tests and blast Western Australia’s Monte Bello Islands and parts of South Australia. And just this August, the conservative minister for defense told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the American military was “welcome to use the ‘open spaces’ of the Northern Territory” for their bases and military exercises. (There’s been a U.S. Marine base in Darwin for years.) Imagine the United States gifting Alaska to the Canadian army for war games.

There are some who would like to estrange this swath of the country even further from Australia’s coastal population centers. Mining magnate Gina Rinehart, one of the richest women in the world, has lobbied for the continent’s northern third to be declared a “special economic zone” with reduced taxes, a lower minimum wage, and scant regulation.

If Australians have grown apathetic toward the use of their country, it is fair to point out that it seems equally apathetic toward them. Beautiful as it is, it’s a harsh land in which to make a home. It’s often on fire, usually in drought, and when the streams aren’t bone dry, they’re flooding—all natural disasters that are already being exacerbated by global warming.

Let’s hope that the rapacious policies of the current government represent only a temporary bout of insanity. If the Australian people cannot recover some of their earlier regard for their environment, they may find in time that their great land is no longer merely apathetic toward their residence there, but openly hostile.

This article was originally published by Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.

About the Author

Ariel BogleAssociate Editor, Future Tense
Ariel Bogle is an associate editor for the Future Tense program, a joint collaboration between the New America Foundation, the online magazine Slate, and Arizona State University. Her research focuses on emerging technologies and their implications for society.
Will Oremus
Will Oremus is a Slate staff writer.

Freakonomics Is Not Economics

If you want to learn how the economy works, what do you study? Most people would respond with “economics.” But today, there is a growing concern that the field is getting farther and farther away from the study of the economy – which means fewer people understand how it really works. That can have far-reaching consequences for all of us.

“If you want to learn about business organization, the structure of public utilities, government regulation, social insurance or waves of innovation and technology, the last place you would go to learn about these fundamental aspects of the economy is an economics department,” said Michael Lind, Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at New America.

To put it a different way, Lind suggests it would be like going to an Astronomy department, and saying, “I want to learn about stars, sunspot cycles, and the rings of Saturn,” and the professors responding, “You are in the wrong place. We do orbital mechanics, we map the orbits of hypothetical orbits. Go somewhere else if you want to learn about the rings of Saturn.”

Listen: Arianna Huffington gives you her secrets to success.

Across the country, many of our economics students are not studying the real world, said Ha-Joon Chang, an economist at Cambridge University. The prevailing theory of economics in the United States, the neo-classical viewpoint, has transformed economics from the study of the economy into the study of everything, according to Chang. In practice, this means that students are spending their time doing abstract mathematical models that may or may not have any real use. The difference is subtle, yet important, and is the reason why economics has been moving slowly away from the study of the economy.

So how can we shift economics from the abstract, model driven field to one that actually deals with the real world economy? One way could be to break down the barriers that average people feel when trying to lean economics. With it’s own jargon and complex mathematical formulas, many are intimidated to begin to understand even the basics of the field of economics.

Breaking down the barriers of economics so the average person can understand it is the idea behind Chang’s new book Economics: A Users Guide, a rebuttal against most economics books that idolize their own profession. Chang writes his book that 95 percent of economics is common sense (the other five percent, he says, can be taught). While many economists have learned that there is only one correct economic theory – whether it be Austrian, Keynesian, Marxist or another –  the reality, he says, is that each theory has its strengths and weaknesses, and economic progress depends on a whole bunch of other factors like value systems, political willingness, and modes of production.

“Professional economists don’t have a monopoly on the truth,” said Chang at a recent event at New America. “It is the duty of every responsible citizen to learn a bit of economics.”

Related: Universities should do more to align themselves with Common Core standards.

In his book, Chang sets out to do just that, and make the study of economics as user-friendly as possible. He uses examples from the Simpsons, Mary Poppins, and even includes a guide on how to read the book if you only have 10 minutes, a couple of hours, or just a half day. These features are not an attempt to make a “baby version” of economics, but rather to make it more accessible to everyone. For Chang, a more accessible version of economics that everyone understands, even if it is watered down, is still an improvement over the current situation of misinformation and misunderstanding.

“Throughout history, too many lives have been ruined by people with excessive conviction in their own views – from the Khemer Rouge on the left to the neo-liberal market fundamentalist on the right,” Chang writes. “…The 2008 global financial crisis has been a brutal reminder that we cannot leave our economy to professional economists and other technocrats.”

About the Author

Justin Lynch
Justin Lynch is the Social Media Coordinator at New America.