Back in the USSR & Under the Sea

12 September 2013

Needling, Wary Collaboration


It is hard to imagine a more interesting—and confusing—time to take stock of modern U.S.-Russian relations. My Twitter feed is currently ablaze with reports of the possibility that the #US will adopt the #Russia plan for solving the current #Syria crisis. At the same time, Vladimir Putin has just critiqued President Obama on the op-ed page of  The New York Times.  These seemingly unexpected and contradictory developments reflect the fact that there are two fundamental realities shaping the bilateral relationship today today: Russian domestic politics and the fact that both nations continue to have a series of shared and conflicting international interests.

First, the recent direction of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin in terms of the domestic political sphere is anathema to most of the values that the United States professes to support in its friends and allies: a free press, fair and competitive elections, civil rights for minorities, an independent judiciary, and so on. It seems that hardly more than a few weeks can go by without something happening in Russia that reminds American policymakers of how different the two regimes can be. The recent flight from the country of the distinguished economist Sergei Guriev and the trial, conviction, and release of recent Moscow mayoral candidate and opposition leader Alexander Navalny are but two examples, as are recent laws against “homosexual propaganda.” This is not to say that the United States does not cooperate with foreign regimes that have less than stellar democratic records. At the same time, though, the post-Cold War history of U.S.-Russian relations has been filled repeatedly with the promise of Russia becoming “more democratic” and of potential “resets.” To the extent that this promise isn’t fulfilled, the relationship (rightly or wrongly) suffers.

Then there is Vladimir Putin’s standing in his own country. Putin has enjoyed periods of time, especially in the first decade of his presidency, when he was a genuinely popular leader. He gave Russians a flourishing economy, rising oil prices that helped the country escape from Western loans and IMF bailouts, and much needed stability after the Yeltsin years. Today, however, Putin is less popular. Economic growth has slowed, and the Kremlin has done little to diversify their economy beyond extractive industries. The perception of corruption among the ruling elite is widespread, the growing middle class in Russia has become disillusioned with the impunity of its self-enriching leaders, and the newest generation lacks the memories of why Putin was embraced in the first place.

It seems that hardly more than a few weeks can go by without something happening in Russia that reminds American policymakers of how different the two regimes can be.

All of these factors have added up to a situation where Putin II needs to reach farther to affirm his legitimacy than Putin I ever did. And one way Putin has been doing this, borrowing from a familiar theme in Russian political rhetoric that reached its height during the Cold War years, is by casting himself as a defender of Russian values against Western—particularly American—encroachment. It’s a rational strategy, but Putin also seems to take a certain glee in needling his U.S. “partners,” as evidenced most recently by his reactions to the Edward Snowden affair and his NY Times op-ed. Scapegoating the West is an easy way out in difficult times, as evidenced by Putin’s rush to denounce protesters who took to the streets of Moscow following claims of fraud in the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections as being instruments of “foreign agents.” And as long as Putin and his surrounding ruling elite are running the show in Russia, U.S.-Russian relations are going to face an uphill struggle.

At the same time, though, it is important to note that the United States and Russia share several common goals in the international sphere, chief among them the containment of radical and fundamentalist Islamic movements as well as failed states where they thrive, which both nations perceive as representing national security threats. While the countries may not agree on the correct course of action (read: supporting different sides in the Syrian conflict), it doesn’t mean that they don’t see where it could be beneficial to work in tandem (read: trying to avoid Syria turning into a failed state).

But here, too, the United States and Russia run into fundamental differences in the way they view the global arena that prevent them from becoming true partners. On the one hand, Washington – especially the current administration’s foreign policy team – has a strong belief in the legitimacy of intervention in order to prevent humanitarian crises. The Kremlin, on the other hand, is much more invested in protecting traditional notions of sovereignty, where domestic rulers are to be given deference within their own borders. Moreover, as Daniel Treisman recently pointed out at The Monkey Cage blog, Putin “sees past episodes of U.S.-sponsored regime change—in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya—as having replaced stable, albeit sometimes unattractive, dictatorships with dangerous chaos.”

The Kremlin is much more invested in protecting traditional notions of sovereignty, where domestic rulers are to be given deference within their own borders.

So where does this leave the state of U.S.-Russian relations? At least for the duration of the Putin years (which could be a while), it’s probably prudent to expect more of the same: repeated attempts by Putin to vilify the United States in the international arena for the purpose of domestic consumption without dramatically changing its actual behavior towards the United States; a reluctance on the part of the United States to trust Russia in most matters, and occasional “surprising” moments of agreement in the international sphere when the interests of both countries manage to align.

So, we’re neither heading back to the Cold War, nor to some “reset” feel-good era of partnership. Instead, the recent back and forth on Syria will likely be an example of what will be at best wary, opportunistic collaboration in the years to come.

Joshua A. Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the The Monkey Cage politics and policy blog.

Still Unwieldy, After All These Years


Still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks, and fearful al-Qaeda could strike again, Congress in 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), charging it with protecting the United States from and responding to terrorist attacks, along with other disasters, natural and man-made. The law creating it threw together 22 distinct federal agencies, from the Coast Guard to the Secret Service, each with its own culture and history. Almost overnight, DHS became one of the largest government agencies and today it employs more than 240,000 people.

Twelve years after 9/11, the agency created to protect the homeland seems to be just as mired in bureaucratic red tape as it was immediately after its inception. Luckily, that hasn’t made us less safe, but there are ways it could run more smoothly.

The point was to break down stovepipes, just as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was supposed do within the U.S. intelligence community. But even after the release of the Bottom-Up Review in 2010, which was intended to streamline the department, it’s still one agency charged with everything from protecting U.S. presidents, their families, and visiting diplomats to responding to forest fires. You try that.

But Congress, which hasn’t done much to solve this problem – and indeed has often been a part of the issue – can and should fix the system. There are now 108 (108!) congressional committees that oversee the department’s operations. That’s actually more than the already large number of 86 in 2004. Want a visual? This graphic from the DHS Office of Legislative Affairs shows the tangled web, everything from the Senate Armed Services Committee to the House Steel Caucus to the U.S. Helsinki Commission (did you say Helsinki Commission? It focuses on U.S. commitments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). It’s ironic, or not, that an organization whose seal was designed to “suggest that [it] will break through traditional bureaucracy and perform government functions differently” is so weighted down by Congressional bureaucracy.

Twelve years after 9/11, the agency created to protect the homeland seems to be just as mired in bureaucratic red tape as it was immediately after its inception. Luckily, that hasn’t made us less safe, but there are ways it could run more smoothly.

It’s no surprise that, with this many committees, some have concurrent or overlapping jurisdictions, which can result in conflicting guidance for the department and its many agencies. Seeing this issue as a national security challenge, a report recently released by the Bipartisan Policy Center – “Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment” – made overhauling this oversight apparatus the first of its 11 recommendations. New America’s National Security Studies Program played a critical role in writing the report and performed the underlying research in it.

Echoing previous recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, the report starts with Congress, where it all began. Using the House and Senate Armed Services committees that oversee the Pentagon as a model, the report encourages Congress to clearly define and delineate the responsibilities of the different committees overseeing DHS. After all, the two armed services committees perform their oversight functions quite well without all of the redundancies that plague DHS.

Another model for the report is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has a proven track record of conducting thorough, unbiased investigations into large-scale transportation disasters, which are rare but can be exceedingly deadly and traumatic. Such a board for homeland security would harness all the investigative powers of the department’s agencies and other domestically-focused government bodies, namely the FBI. A new board, says the report, would explain how the attackers evaded law enforcement, and identify the lessons to be learned from each incident.

Such a homeland security board would also rise above the politicization of domestic terrorist attacks, and more quickly return to normal after these incidents. When the DHS, FBI, and other law enforcement agencies write their own internal reports on the failures that may have lead to a successful terrorist attack, they have an escapable institutional bias. An independent board would be immune from this bias. Also, this one board would be able to declare cities or systems safe, even while they’re investigating the incident.

Congress has allowed the department to settle into bureaucratic complacency, with hundreds of thousands of employees, instead of the silo-busting safety agency it was meant to be.

Just as critical, the report recommends the administration to create an Assistant Secretary for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) position at DHS. As with many of the issues listed above, difficulties arise from the fact that there is no single government official responsible for drafting, implementing, and enforcing a domestic CVE policy. This inhibits the abilities of the organizations charged with protecting the homeland, and everything/everyone in it, from coordinating their efforts and makes it difficult for anyone to assess the success or failure of these programs.

Staffing this position, however, may be a bigger challenge than creating it in the first place. As of July 2013, 15 of the top posts at the department, including the position of secretary, were vacant or about be. According to a report by National Public Radio, the role of commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been vacant and filled by “acting commissioners” for nearly a year-and-a-half, the position of DHS Inspector General has been staffed on a temporary basis since 2011, and the current head of the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis has been leading in an “acting” capacity for the last several months.

Addressing this lack of leadership is one of the few areas where there is bipartisan support.

And it was a bipartisan spirit that helped create DHS 11 years ago, though it has since become a punching bag for critics looking for signs of government waste and bureaucratic bloat. Congress has allowed the department to settle into bureaucratic complacency, with hundreds of thousands of employees, instead of the silo-busting safety agency it was meant to be.

Instead of derisively dismissing DHS when it becomes ensnared in red tape, Congress should help. Fewer congressional committee meetings would give DHS officials more time to create, implement, and enforce effective domestic security policies. Having clear authorities who are responsible for reviewing successful or attempted terrorist attacks and crafting specific CVE policies will go a long way towards better securing the homeland.

Bailey Cahall is a research associate with the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation.

Susan Rice on Syria: This Time, It’s Different

New America

Issue: How to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Time and place: September 9, 2013, @ New America Foundation DC

A failure to take military action against Syria in retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own population on August 21 will lead to a cascade of disastrous consequences for U.S. national security, counterterrorism efforts, credibility in addressing other reckless governments around the world, and for international and humanitarian law. That was the message delivered Monday at a New America event by Ambassador Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Adviser.

Introduced by New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter as someone well-versed in the “complicated dance between force and diplomacy,” Rice went beyond the traditional language of Washington national security debates to frame the issue in starkly personal terms: “As a parent, I cannot look at those pictures, those little children laying on the ground, their eyes glassy, their bodies twitching, and not think of my own two kids.”

Rice’s speech responded directly to all of the elephants in the room – the list of lingering doubts and objections recently voiced by other nations and members of Congress, those weary of war in the Middle East.

Why act now, in response to the August 21 attacks, when the international community has stood by as tens of thousands of civilians have died in Syria’s civil war already – when the administration’s previous cost-benefit analysis suggested that full intervention was not justified? What’s different?

Rice said the president has been clear about the purpose of any attack on Syria: to deter the regime from using chemical weapons and to degrade their ability to do so again.

“The death of any innocent in Syria or around the world in the world is a tragedy,” Rice emphasized, “whether by bullet or land mine or poisonous gas. But chemical weapons are different, they are wholly indiscriminate… gas plumes shift and spread without warning; the mass of people they can fell are immense. The tortuous death they can bring is unconscionable. They kill on a scope and scale that is entirely different than conventional weapons. Opening the door to their use anywhere threatens the United States and our personnel everywhere.”

Regarding the evidentiary questions about what actually took place on August 21 that resulted in the deaths of some 1,400 people (among them hundreds of children), Rice was equally direct: “There is no doubt about who is responsible for this attack. The Syrian regime possesses one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world. Assad has been struggling to clear these very neighborhoods in Damascus and drive out the opposition, but his conventional arsenal was not working well enough or fast enough. Only the Syrian regime has the capacity to deliver chemical weapons on a scale to cause the devastation we saw in Damascus. The opposition does not.”

Rice said the president has been clear about the purpose of any attack on Syria: to deter the regime from using chemical weapons and to degrade their ability to do so again.

On the question of whether such a deter-and-degrade action against Syria is more analogous to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the one hand, or the Kosovo or Libya air campaigns (more limited engagements credited with achieving their immediate humanitarian goals), Rice’s answer was a resounding “neither.” There will be no boots on ground, unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, nor would the action against Syria be a “sustained air campaign” along the lines of what took place in the Balkans and in Libya. Rice argued that the more appropriate historical precedents for what the White House sees as an action “deliberately limited in both time and scope” are President Reagan’s air strikes “measured in hours” against Libya in 1986 (in response to the bombing of a disco in Berlin) and the “several days of cruise missile strikes” against Iraq in 1998.

“This would not be the United States launching another ‘war,’” Rice said, although the atmospherics of asking Congress to vote on the action may be undercutting the administration’s case that this is a minor action. Neither Reagan nor Clinton sought congressional approval for their ’86 and ’98 actions; nor did this administration seek it to take action against Libya in 2011.

As to why President Obama decided to seek congressional approval, even as he insists it isn’t a legal requirement, Rice made a general case for U.S. policy having “maximum potency and sustainability” when the legislative branch – “the elected representatives of the American people” – is also invested in it. Rice also argued that the administration had pursued diplomatic avenues to avoid Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons – to no avail – and that a limited, deter-and-degrade strike against Syria was compatible with the administration’s larger policy towards that nation’s civil war: to encourage a negotiated settlement that ceases the killing.

Moreover, beyond Syria, Rice invoked a cascading list of repercussions that would flow from a U.S. failure to respond: damage to the international principle reflected in two treaties banning the possession and use of such weapons; opening the door to other weapons of mass destruction and “emboldening the madmen who would use them.” What becomes of our credibility, our ability to be taken seriously by other powers (namely North Korea and Iran) contemplating crossing lines drawn by Washington and the international community?

“If we begin to erode the moral outrage of gassing children in their bed, we open ourselves up to even more fearsome consequences,” Rice stressed.

Beyond Syria, Rice invoked a cascading list of repercussions that would flow from a U.S. failure to respond.

At the end of her wide-ranging remarks, wide-ranging to the point of alternative pleading (you can pick your reason to support military action), Rice returned to the human element, with a challenge to anyone still skeptical of the need to respond: “Every adult American, every member of Congress, should watch those videos [of children lined up in shrouds] for themselves. Look at the eyes of those men and women, those babies – and dare to turn away and forsake them. Watch those videos, and imagine the months and years ahead where an emboldened Assad and those who follow his example carry out more attacks, forcing us to witness more and more such depravity.”

Andrés Martinez is Vice President and Editorial Director of the New America Foundation.

To Have and to Uphold (International Law)

New America Foundation

“If the United States and its allies do not take military action against Syria in retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, what will be the precedent set for the future, both in terms of deterring the use of such weapons and upholding international laws prohibiting them?”

Robert Wright, Future Tense Fellow, New America Foundation: This question evinces a concern with “upholding international laws.” Here’s another question that evinces such concern: What is the effect of the United States flagrantly violating international law by attacking a country without U.N. Security Council approval and without a self-defense justification?

And let’s be clear: It would be very dubious to cast a military action as an enforcement of international law on chemical weapons. Syria didn’t sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. And the Geneva Convention, which it did sign, doesn’t contemplate military punishment for the use of chemical weapons—and arguably doesn’t apply to a civil war anyway. So a US military strike against Syria would be about upholding the norm against chemical weapons use—a very important norm, to be sure—but not about enforcing international law in any clear-cut way.

Was there a way Obama could have stood up for that norm while showing proper respect for international law? I think so. Here’s what he could have done:

(1) Seek U.N. Security Council authorization of a punitive strike; (2) Fail to get such authorization, as Syria’s ally Russia exercises its veto; (3) Deliver a speech declaring that if there is another big chemical attack in Syria, then blood will be on the hands of nations that used their veto power to impede punishment of Syria. He could also say that if there’s another attack, he’ll again take the matter to the Security Council and challenge those who thwarted action this time to change course.

This would put Vladimir Putin in an uncomfortable position. Contrary to stereotype, creepy authoritarians do care what the world thinks of them. And since Putin, as a key weapons supplier to Syria, has leverage in Damascus, his discomfort would have impact. It would pretty much ensure that there were no more big chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian military.

This would be an imperfect solution. Ideally, anyone who uses chemical weapons would be punished. But this would have addressed the most urgent humanitarian objective—pre-empting the nightmare scenario of repeated and even escalating chemical attacks. And, unlike the solution Obama proposed, it would tell the world that, yes, the US will work to uphold important humanitarian norms, but it is committed to upholding international law as well.

Gabrielle Blum Rita E. Hauser Professor of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Harvard University: Using unilateral force to uphold the international legal prohibition on chemical weapons is itself a violation of an international legal prohibition. It means breaking the law to uphold the law. The question then is whether a certain degree of vigilantism is warranted in an international system whose law and order institutions – i.e., the Security Council – are deficient.

The chemical weapons attack of August 21 is not the first time such weapons have been employed in warfare. President Obama mentioned World War I in his speech; but of course, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to massacre thousands of Kurds in Halabja in 1988, and even more widely against Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq war. In neither case did the international community intervene militarily. In fact, according to Shane Harris and Matthew Aid over at Foreign Policy, at the time, the United States provided Iraq with crucial satellite imagery of Iranian troop deployment, well aware that Iraqi forces would use chemical agents against them.

So what is different now? The United States is now the world’s leading superpower. And its interests are implicated in almost any conflict anywhere around the globe. And while Americans may resist the role of the “world’s police officer,” they are uniquely positioned to act in lieu of the designated but derelict world’s police officer – the Security Council.

This does not mean that the United States can or should jump into action whenever anyone breaks the law or disrupts the order. And upholding the U.N. system is itself an American interest. But when it comes to a vital interest such as upholding the ban on any and all use of weapons of mass destruction, and where the need for moral condemnation is so great that no rhetorical gesture could suffice to meet it, the United States might just have to be the world’s vigilante. That’s an unsatisfying, perhaps dangerous, reality, but the alternative – a world in which rogue powers are in the clear when using WMDs – is a far nastier one.

Barak Barfi, National Security Program Research Fellow, New America Foundation: As the possibility that the international community will punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons fades with each passing day, it is necessary to step back and examine how this episode will affect the proliferation and future use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it declared that Baghdad’s possession of WMD was a casus belli. It has hinted that Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons would trigger the same. So when President Barack Obama proclaimed in August 2012 that ‘a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,’ it was natural to view his comments as a continuation of America’s post-Cold War policy on WMDs.

The administration’s dithering on Syria has muddied these clear waters. It is too facile to view the Syrian example as ushering in a new policy of ‘use them if you can get away with it.’ Because whether inaction today will embolden future rogue actors to employ WMD will largely depend on the mitigating circumstances of their conflict.

If a terrorist group such as Hizballah were to obtain Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, it would be conflicted about employing them. Launching sarin tipped missiles into Israeli population areas would certainly serve Hizballah’s goals of exposing Israel’s military vulnerabilities. But a disproportionate Israeli response would decimate the organization, leaving it no more than a group of isolated cells scattered throughout Lebanon. Such considerations would be given much more weight in the group’s deliberations than fear of an international strike.

Realists believe interests rather than international law drives foreign policy. The United States has few interests in Syria and even if it tried to secure them, it is doubtful it could do so militarily. Future conflicts may be of greater importance to Washington, thus compelling it to intervene. As a result, looking to the Syrian conflict as a precedent for the interdiction of WMD use is as futile as believing that an American military strike will persuade the regime not to employ them again.

Danielle Pletka, Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute: It’s important to start with the understanding that there are no provisions in the Chemical Weapons Convention that require anyone, least of all the United States, to “retaliate” against those who violate its terms. And as Syria isn’t a signatory to the convention, the notion of an international obligation is irrelevant. The more important question is whether the President of the United States, particularly one who demanded Assad step aside and laid down a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, can simply punt rather than strike at the heart of Assad’s ability to deliver CW. As a matter of precedent, there is ample precedent for doing nothing; the Anfal campaign against Iraq’s Kurds saw chemical weapons used against innocent civilians without international reprisal.

Assad himself has used these weapons 14 times according to reports. Obama administration officials tell us this time is different, that weapons of mass destruction could fall into terrorist hands; that Assad could use them again, as could others. All the more odd, therefore, that the President now seems loath to prosecute a Syrian strike. The real message that Obama’s inaction will send is that the United States is no longer a player on the global stage, no longer an enforcer of international norms; no longer a power to be reckoned with. Forget Assad for a moment. How will the Islamic Republic of Iran read Obama’s decision?

Let’s Talk About Vladimir & Smart Kids


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.

This week, Amanda Ripley, a New America Emerson Fellow who recently wrote The Smartest Kids in the World, talks about how that group (students from from Poland, Finland, and South Korea) rocketed to the top of the global education charts. Later in the ‘cast, Slaughter discusses how Russia’s new proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile under international control could impact U.S.-Russia relations and the global energy market with New York University Professor Joshua Tucker, New America Schwartz Fellow Steve LeVine and Zócalo editorial director Andrés Martinez.  Pull up a chair, and let’s talk wonk.

Lessons from Katrina

The scene sounded like something out of a Lord of the Flies sequel: To John Thiele, a doctor at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, “the laws of man and the normal standards of medicine no longer applied,” writes Future Tense Fellow Sheri Fink in her new investigative book, Five Days At Memorial.

Yet, it’s been eight years since Katrina walloped Louisiana – and we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s New York devastation. So this week, we posed five questions to Fink about why she decided to return to the story now, and whether there’s anything we can still learn from the aftermath of Katrina. (We’ve also included a book excerpt below the interview).

In the past few decades, we’ve witnessed many natural disasters around the world that led to a breakdown of medical infrastructure and collapse of “civilized” care. Why did the atrocity of this particular situation compel you to investigate?

I think few Americans working in these situations internationally stopped to think that these exact problems could manifest in our own country in such a big way after a disaster like Katrina. The failures of preparedness and response in and of themselves were worthy of investigation because of the need for accountability and what they suggest about our vulnerability to future crises. What made the events at Memorial stand out were early allegations that respected healthcare professionals had resorted to hastening the deaths of their patients when the situation grew dire.

You wrote War Hospital– an investigation of these issues in the Balkans in 1992 – almost 10 years ago. Have medical and technological advancements in the past couple of decades complicated the fundamental moral issues of post-disaster care?

The fact that we rely so much on high-tech medical care leaves us vulnerable to power outages, and American hospitals are themselves highly vulnerable to power outages. Electrical codes don’t require testing backup power systems anywhere near as long as they may need to be used in a severe emergency, and many aren’t set up to run air conditioning or heating systems (and aren’t required to be). In flood zones, you’ll find elements of these backup power systems situated below flood level.

But I think your question gets at something deeper, which is that we are constantly faced, even in normal times, with difficult end-of-life decisions about when to turn off or not initiate life support, for example. In a disaster these questions become sharpened, and they prompt others: Which individuals should have access to apparently limited resources – and how should those decisions be made?

Are these disaster-specific issues, and decisions, ones that medical schools should start emphasizing in curriculum? Are they doing that already?

There’s more interest in this subject, but I’m not confident that it’s yet a major focus of medical and nursing education. It certainly wasn’t in the past, and that needs to change. There have been some interesting initiatives to provide comprehensive disaster preparedness training for post-graduates in medicine and nursing in recent years, but some of those programs seem to have run their course. In the absence of requirements, so much depends on the vagaries of funding cycles.

Many Americans assumed the problems after Katrina were the result of bad city management in New Orleans. Is that fair? Can other cities learn from this tragedy?

We saw the same problems arise during Hurricane Sandy in New York City in 2012, where several major hospitals and dozens of nursing homes lost power and had to be evacuated emergently in horrible circumstances. Reading Five Days at Memorial, walking through the disaster hour by hour, you’ll get a good look at the stakes of failures in preparedness and response and also a sharper understanding of how the ability to be resilient in disasters relies on infrastructure, organizations, and individuals.

If this book accomplishes everything you hope it will, what do hospitals across the country – and world – look like in 10 years?

In an ideal world, we would invest in fixing the obvious power, water and structural vulnerabilities that our hospitals have in emergencies, enabling them to serve as real resources in times of catastrophe for the most vulnerable in society. We would all be aware of what the prioritization scenarios might look like in case resources like ventilators, vaccines or rescue helicopters ran short, and these plans would be crafted with the input of a wide range of people from all walks of life. The plans would emphasize flexibility, creativity in response, and would resort to rationing only as very last step, to be discontinued the moment it’s no longer necessary. Medical professionals would have a clear understanding that the fundamental values and standards of the profession don’t change during a disaster, even as we may be forced to make difficult choices.

Excerpt of Five Days at Memorial.

AT LAST THROUGH the broken windows, the pulse of helicopter rotors and airboat propellers set the summer morning air throbbing with the promise of rescue. Floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina had marooned hundreds of people at the hospital, where they had now spent four days. Doctors and nurses milled in the foul-smelling second floor lobby. Since the storm, they had barely slept, surviving on catnaps, bottled water, and rumors. Before them lay a dozen or so mostly elderly patients on soiled, sweat-soaked stretchers. In preparation for evacuation, these men and women had been lifted by their hospital sheets, carried down flights of stairs from their rooms, and placed in a corner near an ATM and a planter with wilting greenery. Now staff and volunteers—mostly children and spouses of medical workers who had sought shelter at the hospital—hunched over the infirm, dispensing sips of water and fanning the miasma with bits of cardboard. Supply cartons, used gloves, and empty packaging littered the floor. The languishing patients were receiving little medical care, and their skin felt hot to the touch. Some had the rapid, thready pulse of dehydration.

Others had blood pressures so low their pulses weren’t palpable, their breathing the only evidence of life. Hand-scrawled evacuation priority tags were taped to their gowns or cots. The tags indicated that doctors had decided that these sickest individuals in the hospital were to be evacuated last. Among them was a divorced mother of four with a failing liver who was engaged to be remarried; a retired church janitor and father of six who had absorbed the impact of a car; a WYES public television volunteer with mesothelioma, whose name had recently disappeared from screen credits; a World War II “Rosie Riveter” who had trouble speaking because of a stroke; and an ailing matriarch with long, braided hair, “Ma’Dear,” renowned for her cooking and the strict but loving way she raised twelve children, multiple grandchildren, and the nonrelatives she took into her home.

In the early afternoon a doctor, John Thiele, stood regarding them. Thiele had taken responsibility for a unit of twenty-four patients after Katrina struck on Monday, but by this day, Thursday, the last of them were gone, presumably on their way to safety. Two had died before they were rescued, and their bodies lay a few steps down the hallway in the hospital chapel, now a makeshift morgue. Thiele specialized in critical care and diseases of the lungs. A stocky man with a round face and belly, and skinny legs revealed beneath his shorts, he answered often to “Dr. T” or, among friends, “Johnny,” and when he smiled, his eyes crinkled nearly shut. He was a native New Orleanian, married at twenty, with three children. He was a golfer and a Saints football fan. He liked to smoke a good cigar while listening to Elvis. Like many of the hospital staff around him, his professional association with what was now Memorial Medical Center stretched back decades, in his case to 1977, when he had rotated at the hospital as a Louisiana State University medical student. A classmate would later say that Johnny Thiele had turned into the sort of doctor they all wished to be: kind, gentle, and understanding, perhaps all the more so for having struggled over the years with alcohol and his moods.

When Dr. T passed a female nurse, he would greet her by name with a pat on the back and sometimes call her “kiddo.” Thiele had undergone part of his training at big, public Charity Hospital, one of the busiest trauma centers in the nation, where he learned, when several paramedics burst into the emergency room in close succession, to attend to the most critical patients first. It was strange to see the sickest here at Memorial prioritized last for rescue. At a meeting Thiele had not attended, a small group of doctors had made this decision without consulting patients or their families, hoping to ensure that those with a greater chance of long-term survival were saved. The doctors at Memorial had drilled for disasters, but for scenarios like a sarin gas attack, where multiple pretend patients arrived at the hospital at once. Not in all his years of practice had Thiele drilled for the loss of backup power, running water, and transportation.

Life was about learning to solve problems by experience. If he had a flat tire, he knew how to fix it. If somebody had a pulmonary embolism, he knew how to treat it. There was little in his personal history or education that had prepared him for what he was seeing and doing now. He had no repertoire for this. He had arrived here on Sunday. He brought along a friend who was recovering from pneumonia and was too weak to comply with the mayor’s mandatory evacuation order for the city, which had exempted hospitals. Early Monday, Thiele awoke to shouts and felt his fourth-story corner office swaying. Its floor-to-ceiling windows, thick as a thumb, moved in and out with the wind gusts, admitting the near-horizontal rain. He and his colleagues lifted computers away and sopped up water with sheets and gowns from patient exam rooms, wringing out the cloth over garbage cans. The hurricane cut off city power. The hospital’s backup generators did not support air-conditioning, and the temperature climbed. The well-insulated hospital turned dank and humid; Thiele noticed water dripping down its walls. On Tuesday, the floodwaters rose.

Early Wednesday morning, Memorial’s generators failed, throwing the hospital into darkness and cutting off power to the machines that supported patients’ lives. Volunteers helped heft patients to staging areas for rescue, but helicopters arrived irregularly. That afternoon, Thiele sat on the emergency room ramp for a cigar break with an internist, Dr. John Kokemor, who told him doctors were being requested to leave last. When Thiele asked why, his friend brought an index finger to the crook of his opposite elbow and pantomimed giving an injection. Thiele caught his drift. “Man, I hope we don’t come to that,” Thiele said.

Kokemor would later say he never made the gesture, that he had spent nearly all his time outside the building loading hundreds of mostly able-bodied evacuees onto boats, which floated them over a dozen blocks of flooded streets to where they could wade to dry ground. He said he was no longer caring for patients and too busy to worry about what was going on inside the hospital. Wednesday night, Thiele heard gunshots outside the hospital. He was sure people were trying to kill each other. “The enemy” lurked as near as a credit union building across the street. Thiele thought the hospital would be overtaken, that those inside it had no good way to defend themselves. He lost his footing in an inky stairwell and nearly pitched down the concrete steps before catching himself. Panicked and convinced he would die, he reached his family by cell phone to say good-bye. Thiele felt abandoned. You pay your taxes, he thought, and you assume the government will take care of you in a disaster.

Read the full book.

Why the Sea Is Cooler Than Space



We shall not cease from exploration

and the end of our exploring

shall be to return where we started

and know the place for the first time

That tidbit of T.S. Eliot is stolen from Graham Hawkes, a submarine designer who really, really loves the ocean. Hawkes is famous for hollering, “Your rockets are pointed in the wrong goddamn direction!” at anyone who suggests that space is the Final Frontier. The deep sea, he contends, is where we should be headed: The unexplored oceans hold mysteries more compelling, environments more challenging, and life-forms more bizarre than anything the vacuum of space has to offer. Plus, it’s cheaper to go down than up. (You can watch his appealingly arrogant TED talk on the subject here.)

Is Hawkes right? Should we all be crawling back into the seas from which we came? Ocean exploration is certainly the underdog, so to speak, in the sea vs. space face-off. There’s no doubt that the general public considers space the sexier realm. The occasional James Cameron joint aside, there’s much more cultural celebration of space travel, exploration, and colonization than there is of equivalent underwater adventures. In a celebrity death match between Captain Kirk and Jacques Cousteau, Kirk is going to kick butt every time.

In fact, the rivalry can feel a bit lopsided—the chess club may consider the football program a competitor for funds and attention, but the jocks aren’t losing much sleep over the price of pawns and cheerleaders rarely turn out for chess tournaments. But  somehow the debate rages on in dorm rooms, congressional committee rooms, and Internet chat rooms.Damp ocean boosters often aim to borrow from the rocket-fueled glamour of space. Submersible entrepreneur Marin Beck talks a big game when he says, “We can go to Mars, but the deep ocean really is our final frontier,” but he giggles when a reporter calls him the “Elon Musk of the deep sea,” an allusion to the founder of the for-profit company Space X who is rumored to be the real-life model for Iron Man’s Tony Stark.

In a celebrity death match between Captain Kirk and Jacques Cousteau, Kirk is going to kick butt every time.

Even Hawkes admits that he “grew up dreaming of aircraft”—though he means planes, not spaceships—but “then I got to look at this subsea stuff and I saw this is where aviation was all those years ago. The whole field was completely backwards, and that’s why I jumped in.”

While many of the technologies for space and sky are the similar, right down to the goofy suits with bubble heads—the main difference is that in space, you’re looking to keep pressure inside your vehicle and underwater you’re looking to keep pressure out—there’s often a sense that that sea and space are competitors rather than compadres.

They needn’t be, says Guillermo Söhnlein, a man who straddles both realms. Söhnlein is a serial space entrepreneur and the founder of the Space Angels Network. (Disclosure: My husband’s a member.) The network funds startups aimed for the stars, but his most recent venture is Blue Marble Exploration, which organizes expeditions in manned submersibles to exotic underwater locales. (Further disclosure: I have made a very small investment in Blue Marble, but am fiscally neutral in the sea vs. space fight, since I have a similar amount riding on a space company, Planetary Resources.)

As usual, the fight probably comes down to money. The typical American believes that NASA is eating up a significant portion of the federal budget (one 2007 poll found that respondents pinned that figure at one-quarter of the federal budget), but the space agency is actually nibbling at a Jenny Craig–sized portion of the pie. At about $17 billion, government-funded space exploration accounts for about 0.5 percent of the federal budget. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—NASA’s soggy counterpart—gets much less, a bit more than $5 billion for a portfolio that, as the name suggests, is more diverse.

But the way Söhnlein tells the story, this zero sum mind-set is the result of a relatively recent historical quirk: For most of the history of human exploration, private funding was the order of the day. Even some of the most famous examples of state-backed exploration—Christopher Columbus’ long petitioning of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, for instance, or Sir Edmund Hillary’s quest to climb to the top of Everest—were actually funded primarily by private investors or nonprofits.

But that changed with the Cold War, when the race to the moon was fueled by government money and gushers of defense spending wound up channeled into submarine development and other oceangoing tech.

“That does lead to an either/or mentality. That federal money is taxpayer money which has to be accounted for, and it is a finite pool that you have to draw from against competing needs, against health care, science, welfare,” says Söhnlein. “In the last 10 to 15 years, we are seeing a renaissance of private finding of exploration ventures. On the space side we call it New Space, on the ocean side we have similar ventures.” And the austerity of the current moment doesn’t hurt. “The private sector is stepping up as public falls down. We’re really returning to the way it always was.”

We really have no idea what’s hanging out at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, but there are solid reasons to think the prospects for biological novelty (and perhaps even companionship for humanity) are better down there than they are in Mars’ Valles Marineris.

And when it’s private dough, the whole thing stops being a competition. Instead, it depends on what individuals with deep pockets are pumped about—or what makes for a good sell on a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter.

Looking for alien life forms? You probably think you’re a natural space nerd, but you’re wrong. If the eternal popularity of “Is There Life on Mars?” stories is any indication, an awful lot of people are just hoping for some company. We really have no idea what’s hanging out at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, but there are solid reasons to think the prospects for biological novelty (and perhaps even companionship for humanity) are better down there than they are in Mars’ Valles Marineris.

Want a fallback plan for when that final environmental catastrophe occurs? Underwater or floating habitats may offer fewer challenges than space colonies if you’re looking to quickly build a self-sustaining place to live when things cool down, warm up, dry out, or otherwise return to fitness for human habitation.

If you’re just looking for wide open spaces, the vastness of space may ultimately prove your final frontier, but Söhnlein has a very human take on the question: “For myself,” he says, “I’d probably go with the oceans. Humanity has millennia to explore the cosmos. But I have only decades or—depending on who you believe—centuries. And there’s plenty to discover down there to fill my lifetime.”

This piece also ran in Slate’s Future Tense channel, a partnership between the New America Foundation, Arizona State University, and Slate magazine.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a Fellow at the New America Foundation and Managing Editor of Reason Magazine.

The Wages Are Too Damn Low

New America’s Economic Growth Program recently released a policy paper, “Beyond the Low-Wage Social Contract.” Below is an excerpt from the paper.

The issue of low wages has moved to the center of American public debate recently, thanks to protests against the low pay of fast food workers, the large share of poorly-paying and part-time jobs that have been created in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and proposals by President Obama and others to raise the minimum wage. But while the debate may be recent, today’s low wages are neither new nor surprising. On the contrary, they are the result of decades of public policy. For better or worse, over the last few decades there has been a strong bipartisan consensus in favor of what we call the “low-wage social contract” as the preferred model of economic support and adequacy.

By “low-wage social contract” we mean an economic system that not only assumes but also accepts that many – if not most – jobs in the U.S. will pay poorly. Rather than try to raise market wages, proponents of the low-wage social contract across the political spectrum prefer to help low-wage individuals through other methods, such as lowering taxes or providing government subsidies in cash or in kind. This has been the logic behind many of the policy interventions on behalf of working Americans in the last few decades, including the earned income tax credit (EITC), the child tax credit (CTC), and the subsidies for the purchase of individual health insurance established by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It was also clearly expressed during the budget debates of the last decade, in which tax cuts were implemented by one political party and made permanent by the other.

Over the last few decades there has been a strong bipartisan consensus in favor of what we call the “low-wage social contract” as the preferred model of economic support and adequacy.

A return to the high-wage model of the American social contract characteristic of the mid-twentieth century, however, would be difficult if not impossible due to changes in the global economic structure. Even so, it is important to analyze the problems with the current model. The low-wage social contract has failed. By means of well-designed demand-side interventions, public policy could modify and improve the social contract, even if the same high-wage, low-price system cannot exist in exactly the same form as before. In this paper, we lay out the history of the low-wage social contract and the major options for thinking about how to reform the system.

The New Deal Compromise: High Wages, Low Prices, and Welfare Capitalism

The current low-wage model lies in contrast to the high-wage social contract that prevailed in the New Deal era of the 1930s through the 1970s. High and rising wages spurred consumption as many more consumers entered the middle class and could afford a greater number of products. High-paying jobs in manufacturing and industry allowed workers without college degrees to earn a middle class standard of living, while unionization and the example that unionized firms set for others contributed to ensuring that wages stayed high.

On top of this high-wage driven economy, the government acted to spur additional consumption and provide benefits indirectly. The GI Bill offered scholarships and subsidized loans for returning veterans that allowed them to purchase major items like houses. And while the New Deal did create some universal programs, like Social Security, much of the provision of benefits ended up in the hands of employers rather than the government. This arrangement was the outcome of conflicts between progressives, who favored universal programs; unions that supported the creation of separate associations to pool benefits; and paternalistic corporations that wanted to maintain control of benefits as recruitments and rewards. With large profit margins and limited competition – and an eye for benefiting all stakeholders, rather than shareholders alone – companies in the dominant industrial sectors contributed to a fairly robust social contract that was partly public and partly private. The ability to automate and innovate in the tradable sectors, combined with limited global competition and the ability of organized labor to extract wage concessions from employers such as manufacturing companies and regulated public utilities, made high wages and low prices possible at the same time. Large businesses tended to support the high-wage social contract even more than small businesses until deregulation and the rapid advance of globalization led large corporations to distance themselves from the New Deal-era social contract and favor the low wage model.

Read more.

The Open Internet Goes to Court

New America

Issue: The implications of Verizon v. the Federal Communications Commission, a landmark net neutrality case.

Time and place: September 5, 2013, @ New America DC

Money can buy speed. Pay-and-Go airport security express lanes, VIP seats at football games, or even faster lines at Disney World. If you’re okay with that, and most of us are, imagine if you could pay for speed on the Internet. Broadband providers could soon demand that companies like Netflix pay for the privilege of swiftly streaming data-rich episodes of Breaking Bad. If we give our broadband companies that kind of power, what’s to stop them from discriminating against Internet users and online content they disagree with?

That’s at the heart of the upcoming case Verizon v. the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“This case is situated in history,” Professor Susan Crawford, former White House Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, told a full house at a New America panel previewing the case. The DC Circuit Court heard arguments on Monday. Crawford argued that the telecom’s position “is an attack on the idea that government has any role to play in an open Internet.”

Many of us understand the Internet as an open platform where we can not only access all of the Grumpy Cat videos we want, but watch news from any source, receive email from anyone we like, and chat with friends without fear of a censor. The FCC’s Open Internet Order – the point of contention in the case – tries to codify this understanding, what is commonly called “net neutrality.” As panel member Matt Wood, Policy Director at the advocacy group Free Press, told the audience, net neutrality is the principle that we should be free to access any lawful Internet content and use any applications we choose, without restrictions or varying prices. It also prevents Internet service providers from flat-out blocking content from access for their subscribers.

The Order directs Internet service providers, such as Verizon and others, to treat equally all content that passes along its wires, without discriminating in terms of speed in support of its own content and services, or refusing access to political content not aligned with the company’s views.

But in the upcoming case, Verizon argues that not only does the FCC have no authority to implement a net neutrality policy under the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act (the Act that gives the F.C.C. power to oversee things like telephones), but that the Open Internet Order itself is unconstitutional and undermines Verizon’s First Amendment right to deliver whatever content it chooses. The company argues the Internet ecosystem is doing just fine on its own.

In court documents, Verizon described the regulation as “burdensome,” stating “the FCC has acted without statutory authority to insert itself into this crucial segment of the American economy, while failing to show any factual need to do so…[they] adopted the Order without any evidence of a systematic problem in need of solution, candidly recognizing that the Internet was already “open” and working well for consumers.”

Invoking free speech, said Crawford, is a pointed legal strategy. By likening it to the Washington Post being forced by the government to run stories it opposes, Crawford suggested, Verizon is hoping the case will end up in the Supreme Court, which might end the FCC’s oversight of this issue altogether.

In Crawford’s view, the company’s legal position is a cloak for a business plan to make people and companies pay more for better Internet connections. This might turn into a severe financial impediment for start-ups and new online publications that don’t have the capital of Google or ESPN.

But it does put the FCC’s basic authority to implement any kind of Internet policy at stake. If the DC Circuit Court, or the Supreme Court, rules that the F.C.C. has no authority to regulate the Internet at all, and that Congress has no authority to give that power to the regulatory agency, the panel predicted Internet access would become tiered – those who can afford to pay could be awarded better speed and more access to content. It could also become selective ¬– contentious political websites may become increasingly unavailable. And if a broadband provider suddenly decided they didn’t like football and refused to allow anyone to stream NFL-related content, there would be little means of public recourse.

These consequences could be even direr for our most vulnerable communities. As panelist Marti Doneghy, Senior Legislative Representative at the AARP, pointed out, for seniors, rural populations, and the urban poor, a staggering amount of healthcare and education services are now almost entirely online and barriers to access could be devastating.

“The doomsday scenario is what is going to happen in people’s homes, in their communities…we do our taxes online, we apply for jobs online. This is everyday survival stuff,” panelist Steven Renderos, national organizer at the Center for Media Justice in Oakland, California, told the audience, “…when we lack agency over the Internet, communities suffer.” He considered that there’s a real possibility that vulnerable communities could be priced out of Internet access, or that they will be relegated to using a second-class Internet, making the digital divide increasingly insurmountable.

For those who like an open Internet, populated with all the affordable and speedy singing dog videos, news articles and online political talks imaginable, this is a case that bears watching. A ruling is not expected until early 2014.

Should We Bank on It?


Imagine a 10-year-old girl in Nepal stashing her weekly allowance not under a floorboard in her room, but in a banking app on her mobile phone. It’s a win-win-win: She’s building assets, averting notorious local banking corruption, and learning tech skills. It’s easy to see why the potential for mobile finance has development experts all over the world drooling. But is that utopian narrative more hype than help? To find out, we convened three analysts for a discussion on whether we should bank on mobile finance to lift youth in the developing world out of poverty: Jamie Zimmerman, director of New America’s Global Assets Program and co-author of the just-released “Beyond the Buzz: The Allure and Challenge of using Mobile Phones to Increase Youth Financial Inclusion,” Hibah Hussain, policy program associate at New America’s Open Technology Institute and author of the policy paper “Dialing Down Risks: Mobile Privacy and Information Security in Global Development Projects,” and Eric Tyler, former New America Global Assets research fellow and digital globalization expert. The conversation is condensed and edited below.

Jamie, let’s start with you. Your new paper is on the allure and challenge of mobile finance as a way to make banking more accessible to young people in the developing world . Why is mobile such an attractive solution to combat poverty?

JZ: Low-income youth in the developing world suffer from limited mobility, limited time, and limited funds, but they also tend to lead relatively complex financial lives. These kids don’t have access to the financial tools and knowledge that might benefit them — only 10 percent of youth in developing countries are “financially included.” Increasing their financial inclusion—that’s the access and capabilities necessary to use appropriate, typically formal, financial products and services (like banking accounts and TK one more example)—could ultimately help low-income youth contribute to their economic empowerment. And the way to ramp up that inclusion could be through cell phones: Mobile penetration rates for youth are estimated at around 80 percent, so there’s clearly a huge gap that mobile finance could fill. But that’s only if we get the products, services, and policies right.

Right, so that’s a big “if.” What are those challenges? What are the risks?

HH: Whenever you have young technology users, questions surrounding data collection and meaningful consent become incredibly complicated. Here in the US, we have legal protections to help guard young peoples’ digital privacy. And even with these protections, we continue to grapple with thorny questions regarding youth and digital privacy here. So imagine how unguarded digital privacy is in countries where there isn’t even protection on paper. The young people using mobile apps in the developing world are living in some of the most unstable communities in the world, and they often lack the resources necessary for making informed decisions about their mobile use.

JZ: Products, programs, and policies can have the most impact on youth—but that’s also the group that’s, in a lot of ways, hardest to reach. In our latest policy paper, we identified several legal and regulatory barriers to mobile financial solutions for low income youth such as youth being prohibited from owning a SIM card or bank account, and being required to have legal ID; poor infrastructure; limited access to mobiles, the cost of which is decreasing, but not quickly enough for many low-income youths; lack of demographic data that’s crucial to the design of successful products; and lack of focus on youth in developing and designing these products.

HH: And who’s designing and marketing these products matters, too! Many if not most mobile finance projects are structured as public-private partnerships, which means that international groups and nonprofits partner with banks and commercial groups to provide services. Nonprofits, of course, don’t want to retain or share that user data. But their partners do. And commercial entities storing and sharing data raises some serious questions: Who owns the data about young peoples’ buying habits and financial transactions? Can this information be sold to third parties and/or data profilers? How will young peoples’ mobile payment transactions affect their financial profiles as adults? Right now, there are no mechanisms in place in the developing world to provide concrete answers to these questions, and that’s a problem.

Right now, is the promise of mobile finance just that – a promise? Or have we seen viable or successful real-world models of this?

ET: Well, I think we are very early on in the development of youth financial services and mobile banking systems at large. And breakthrough examples of successful models will be coming to light with more maturity. At this point, the promising efforts have been small tweaks to the handful of more developed models: linking Kenya’s M-Pesa program with school tuition payments for easier budgeting, and automatic text message reminders when an account balance is low to deter over withdrawals. As mobile money and youth financial services continue to hopefully gain steam, there will be opportunities for successful models to grow in tangent.

It’s 2050. What does mobile finance for youth in the developing world look like?

HH: Well, as a disclaimer, I’m not too keen on future-casting– I feel like, more often than not, people who predict the future of technology end up missing the mark. But given current trends in mobile, I suspect mobile technology in 2050 will be unrecognizable from the phones we use today. Mobiles keep getting more and more integrated into our persons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the mobile technology of the future is wearable or even embeddable, enabling “them” to collect information about every single aspect of our lives. And that means mobile finance, too.

ET: Yeah, I think it is safe to say that today’s youth forty years from now will be just as blown away by how future “kids these days” are using technology to interact, transact and connect as we are today. At its core, technology will have evolved away from just being an access point to a more multi-dimensional authoring point. This means future youth will be able to not just check their financial statements but personalize their financial services and integrate them into different parts of their digital lives.

JZ: I’m going to move the future-casting up a few decades. Forget 2050. I have a feeling that by 2020 use of mobiles for finance, education and other information sharing will have exploded. As smart phones become cheaper and more ubiquitous, I think we are going to see some really interesting experimentation with gaming, financial literacy and other behavioral nudges. There will be bumps, sure, but our interest is to see the rapid innovation paced by smart design and smart policy that allows the most vulnerable and excluded to participate fully and safely.

HH: And whether or not we can do that really depends on economic and policy developments. Mobiles could be a bridge to stability, but they could also facilitate an exploitative race to the bottom. Imagine, for example, an amazing economic and policy ecosystem that allows users to have full ownership, control, and knowledge of their digital data. If users are able to make meaningful decisions about their data, then, yes, mobiles could broaden the base of people participating in the global economy. But in an ecosystem of constant surveillance, tracking, and data-mining, where users’ data goes directly to a handful of governments and companies, allowing a very small elite to benefit from it? In that case, users may have no idea how their information is being used and shared, and no control over it. If young people are only able to generate data but not access or control it, their mobile finance usage might be more valuable to data collectors than to themselves.

ET: Right. Smarter, faster, and cheaper technologies in the developing world will also provide a deluge of data for this kind of customization. “Big data” will be a misnomer. Not only will data be big but also mobile and far richer, and issues of cost and privacy will need to be mentioned in the same sentence.

How To Get More Bang for Your College Tuition Buck


The Challenge: As nerds in America’s power hallways boast (or moan) this week about the latest U.S. News and World Report college rankings, how can you find out which schools actually give you the best value in those huge tuition checks?
We know someone who can help…

The Wonk: Rachel Fishman, policy analyst for New America’s Education Policy Program

The Tip: First, check out the rankings we put together with the Washington Monthly. We even called it the Best-Bang-For-The-Buck College Rankings. (It won’t surprise to you find out that few schools make the top 10 in both the Washington Monthly and the U.S. News and World Report rankings.)

Second, wouldn’t it be better if you could judge for yourself? Well, we’re getting there, but so far we’re only part of the way. The U.S. Department of Education has put together a new college scorecard, listing some key criteria, such as costs, loan information, and graduation rates. But most students will need personalized information to understand where they’ll get the best return on investment. This is a difficult task because the Scorecard reports the outcomes of only a fraction of the students – full-time, first-time enrolled. Most critically, there are currently no data on the alumni-employment of the Scorecard, so there’s no way to know if your first-choice college has a track record of its graduates getting your dream job.

This omission was intentional, as a call-out for change. The Department of Education wants more data from every school in the country, from preschool to master’s degree programs. This would enable, say, an adult, part-time student majoring in nursing to customize the Scorecard and determine how much students just like her pay for a specific college, how likely they are to graduate, their average indebtedness, and the average salary for her program three or more years later.

But if you can’t wait for that policy change and are making the choice this year – check out a school’s average cost for students like you by using its net price calculator to determine how much financial aid you will receive. These calculators are required by law and are often found on either the admissions or financial aid page of a university. You should also research graduation rates, which are featured on the Scorecard. In addition, visiting will give you more information on graduation rates, including rates by demographic. This will give you an idea of how likely your school is to help you succeed, and what it will cost.

What Chemical Weapons “Looked Like from the Other Side”

The Shot (n): An image that speaks

Shane Harris, a New America Future Tense Fellow and Senior Writer at Foreign Policy currently writing a book on cyber warfare, takes us inside this Wikimedia Commons image of an Iranian soldier armed with a gas mask during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. During that war, Iraq used chemical weapons on Iran. As Shane Harris reported in a recent piece for Foreign Policy, the United States knew about the chemical attacks—and did nothing to prevent them.