Wondrous Women & The Handshake Before the Selfie

19 December 2013

There’s Something About Mary

General Motors

“At least we don’t have office parties in strip clubs any more,” mused a college friend of mine over a recent end-of-year lunch. She entered a bank training program in the 1980s; we were chatting about the progress women have made in the financial sector. Back then, she said, female bankers or traders could expect – regularly –  to fend off sexual harassment and  inappropriate comments from male colleagues. Now, she reflected, much of the animal-house culture has dissipated.

A couple of days later, my friend emailed me: “Well, now we have a female CEO of General Motors!”–a reference, of course, to Mary Barra, recently chosen as the first woman to head an American car company.

It was an exciting announcement, and yet even with Barra’s appointment came reminders that women should not be too heartened. Around the time of the GM announcement, Catalyst released a survey showing that the percentage of women in executive and board positions at Fortune 500 companies has not changed in nearly a decade.

The cautionary notes and context are all warranted, but I’d argue that Barra’s appointment is important; and that it’s not as anomalous as it’s being made to sound.

What’s important is not to decry women’s lack of progress, but to painstakingly examine why women are succeeding in some realms more than in others.

And it’s not just about Barra – there’s reason, despite the dire statistics on women’s c-suite participation, to be optimistic about our egalitarian trajectory.  This, my college friend and I agreed, has been a year with some significant victories for women.  And increasingly, what’s important is not to decry women’s lack of progress, but to painstakingly examine why women are succeeding in some realms more than in others.

Let’s start with Mary Barra. Her appointment can be interpreted as Detroit waking up to the facts: The American car industry is an expression of women’s lives much more than it’s an outlet for any kind of rugged, testosterone-fueled, drag-racing, off-roading, high-octane masculine ethos. For all of the male mystique surrounding America’s car culture, the fact is that more women have drivers’ licenses than men: a NBC Universal Poll several years ago found that women purchase 60 percent of all new cars and influence 85 percent of all car purchases. Steve McQueen has ceded the road to Thelma and Louise – or rather, to the harried working mother.

We like to think of the American automobile as an iconic symbol of our love for speed and freedom. In reality, it’s a means of schlepping kids on errands, commuting, and transporting groceries and soccer equipment while leading work conference calls on your hands-free cellular device. In that sense, the question is not why GM appointed a woman but why other companies have not: the American woman is the face of the modern American car industry.

Barra joins a group of women executives that—whatever the studies show—intuitively feels increasingly substantial and high-profile. Women now head three of the six major defense contractors. We have Meg Whitman in charge at Hewlett-Packard; Virginia Rometty at IBM and Ursula Burns at Xerox. Janet Yellen’s nomination this year as chair of the Federal Reserve was a watershed. With Christine Lagarde at the helm of the IMF, women are now in charge of global finance, driving and regulating the very culture my classmate and others once found so hostile.

There are other positive signs, some of which have been insufficiently heralded. Nancy Gibbs became the first female editor of Time Magazine, America’s iconic newsweekly. Jill Abramson’s historic appointment as executive editor of the the New York Times occurred in 2011, but more recently a quieter but in some ways equally important first was accomplished: The New York Times’ masthead achieved gender parity. Of the top ten names in that small-type testament to big-league journalistic power, five are female.

Having women assign news stories makes a difference in so many ways: The past year also saw that newspaper’s reporter Jodi Kantor writing on Harvard Business School’s efforts to make its culture more friendly to female students, and, more recently, co-authoring a front-page article on the striking rise in the number of women bankers with stay-at-home husbands. That these trends are reported on the newspaper of record’s front page, along with NSA surveillance and Barack Obama’s approval ratings, shows that women’s leadership and treatment in the workplace is no longer a niche or marginalized topic. Oh, and let it not be forgotten that 2013 saw the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which immediately took its place on the best-seller list.

Back in more Old School realms, more women than ever leaned in as U.S. Senators in 2013, with an unprecedented nine women leading committees, including the mighty Budget and the equally powerful Appropriations.

All of which makes it even more striking – and shameful – that Twitter, the tech world’s latest favorite IPO, couldn’t manage to find a single woman for its board of directors—until public outcry forced it to grudgingly appoint one, count them: one. While women like Barra have been assiduously working their way up the management hierarchies of some of our manufacturing giants, the younger, newer companies of Silicon Valley – led by boy-men with huge, early wealth – have managed to exclude women in a way that suggests the need for eternal vigilance. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer get a lot of deserved attention, but don’t let that fool you into thinking techland is a nirvana of gender equality.

Back in more Old School realms, more women than ever leaned in as U.S. Senators in 2013, with an unprecedented nine women leading committees, including the mighty Budget and the equally powerful Appropriations.  As New America fellow Alexandra Starr has pointed out, women’s path to political leadership is changing. Once, women got their start in politics through volunteer and community-service positions, or as daughters and spouses and widows of male politicians. But now their path to leadership more closely resembles men’s – they may work as high-profile prosecutors, or be mentored by powerful politicians.

The past year also saw the anniversaries of some major pieces of federal legislation protecting women workers– the twentieth anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the 50th Anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, and the 75th Anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act. (Thanks to Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families for pointing that out to me.) For all of those pieces of legislation, women workers should be grateful. And, on a personal note, I should add that 2013 was the year I acquired my first female top boss in more than 20 years, when Anne-Marie Slaughter became the president of the New America Foundation. We did not hold the party in a strip club.

About the Author

Liza Mundy
Liza is Director of New America's Workforce and Family Program, which seeks to reframe the conversation to reflect the enormous changes that have taken place within families, workplaces, and the lives of men and women during the past several decades.

The NSA’s Wake-Up Call

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

If you have been lulled into a state of somnolence about former government contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations that the government is collecting records of every phone call you’ve made, for years, it’s time to snap out of it. That’s the bracing effect of Judge Richard Leon’s Monday ruling that the National Security Agency is probably violating the Constitution with its 7-year-old program for collecting “telephony metadata”—the euphonic phrase for whom you call and whom you receive calls from.

In June, when we learned about this NSA program in the first wave of news about the huge trove of documents that Snowden leaked, some responses were too dismissive, saying that what the NSA is doing isn’t all that invasive, since this isn’t about the contents of phone calls, and in any case, collecting and trawling through all that metadata is a crucial tool for thwarting imminent terrorist attacks. Judge Leon didn’t accept the first claim and has eviscerated the second one. This is what judicial review is all about—checking government power and calling government bullshit. And it comes today from a judge appointed by President George W. Bush who has previously ruled in favor of “expansive government power,” as Glenn Greenwald, breaker of much of the Snowden news, puts it. In other words, if Judge Leon didn’t buy the government’s argument about why it needs to collect and keep all this metadata, other judges—and many of the rest of us—may see it the same way.

If Judge Leon didn’t buy the government’s argument about why it needs to collect and keep all this metadata, other judges—and many of the rest of us—may see it the same way.

Let’s start with what the government is doing. At issue is the part of the Patriot Act, building on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that allows the government to collect an enormous trove of phone call metadata, and then query it based on an “identifier” phone number called a “seed.” A seed is a number associated with terrorist activity, based on a reasonable and articulable suspicion. Sounds OK so far. But wait: Once you’re an NSA agent with a seed, you can analyze all the numbers within three hops from that seed—meaning the numbers the seed called and received calls from, and the numbers connected to those numbers. Judge Leon points out that if one seed calls just 100 numbers in five years, and each of the numbers in the next two hops also connects with 100 numbers, the NSA can trawl through the metadata for 1 million phone numbers. And that’s got to be a low-ball estimate, since it doesn’t take into account the possibility that someone used one of those phone numbers to order from, say, Domino’s Pizza, allowing the NSA to vacuum up zillions of other callers. There were fewer than 300 seeds in 2012, according to the NSA. Still, the data collection ratchets up exponentially so fast that we have to be talking about a database with everyone’s metadata. (The ACLU created a GIF that shows how quickly “three hops” can add up.) The NSA keeps the information for up to five years. And its agents can analyze the metadata for every number they have without going back to court, or in any other way showing individualized suspicion, other than supposedly follow its own rules. Which we know it has violated multiple times, based on orders of the reviewing court established by FISA (orders that were declassified only after Snowden blew the lid off all of this last summer). In case you are wondering, Judge Leon’s opinion doesn’t address the collection of Internet data, which the government says it stopped doing in a blanket fashion in 2011, or the surveillance of the content of Internet transmissions—emails, texts, etc.

Judge Leon points out that the government’s interest in collecting all this metadata isn’t just to identify unknown terrorists and their plans. It’s to do so faster, because otherwise, why not take the time to get a warrant, or in some other way demonstrate a particular suspicion of a target? And yet, in the most breathtaking portion of his opinion, Judge Leon says that the government “does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack” or otherwise aided the government in any time-sensitive objective. The government presented evidence about “three recent episodes,” but none “involved any apparent urgency.” Next comes a devastating footnote: The government could have presented more evidence in secret, only to the judge. But it didn’t. What about the 54 thwarted terrorist attacks that some NSA backers have proclaimed? Judge Leon says no one showed any proof of them to him. I know doubts about the veracity of the government’s claims have been raised before today. But it’s amazing to see them so definitively shredded by the judge whom the government had every reason to persuade.

It’s in part because of this woeful showing that Judge Leon granted the motion of the plaintiffs—activists Larry Klayman and Charles Strange—for a preliminary injunction. That mean he thinks they’ll likely win once the case is fully presented, by both sides, in later proceedings. But Leon also stayed his order, which means it won’t go into effect while the government appeals.

The government could have presented more evidence in secret, only to the judge. But it didn’t.

The second major question Leon tackled is whether Klayman, Strange, and the rest of us have a reasonable expectation of privacy to our metadata. The government says no, based a much-cited 1979 ruling in which the Supreme Court said that once you voluntarily give the phone company information about who you’re calling, you have to accept the possibility that the government may search it. Leon says, essentially, that it’s time to bury that old case, because in 1979, the Supreme Court could not have “have imagined how the citizens of 2013 would interact with their phones.” He continues, “It’s one thing to say that people expect phone companies to occasionally provide information to law enforcement; it is quite another to suggest that our citizens expect all phone companies to operate what is effectively a joint intelligence-gathering operation with the Government.” He adds this great apoplectic line: “And I might add, there is the very real prospect that the program will go on for as along as America is combatting terrorism, which realistically could be forever!”

Leon also points out that now that everyone has a cellphone, the stream of metadata each person produces “reflects a wealth of detail about her familiar, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.” This is a quote from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, from the 2012 case in which the Supreme Court said the government couldn’t put a GPS tracker on a car without a search warrant. “Records that once would have revealed a few scattered tiles of information about a person now reveal an entire mosaic—a vibrant and constantly updating picture of the person’s life,” Leon continues. He thinks this means we have a “greater expectation” of privacy than people did in 1979. That’s the most debatable proposition in his opinion, I’d say, but it’s refreshing to hear a federal judge voice it.
Also welcome and bracing: Judge Leon’s invocation of the Constitution’s requirement, via the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure (the basis of his ruling), that “a neutral and detached authority” must stand between law enforcement and the public to referee disputes over surveillance programs. The FISA court is no substitute for regular judicial review in an open courtroom. That’s what Judge Leon has now given us. “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection an retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” he says.

Thank you, Judge Leon, for the wake-up call. And also for giving me reason to question, once again, the Obama administration’s insistence on treating Edward Snowden, as a criminal. Yes, he leaked everything on the farm. But without him, we’d never have this lawsuit or the alarm bells it joined in sounding. “If someone discloses a secret govt program that a Federal Court rules violates the Constitution, that person’s a whistleblower, right?” Greenwald tweeted Monday. Yes—that should be about right.

This Future Tense piece originally appeared in Slate. Future Tense is a collaboration between Slate magazine, New America and Arizona State University. 

About the Author

Emily Bazelon
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

The Handshake Before the Selfie

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Barack Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service made headlines around the world, but it’s understandable that the president’s “selfie” with Danish leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt received more buzz.  The U.S.-Cuba drama is about as sexy as one of those aging daytime soap operas, with protagonists (or their descendants) who stick to their assigned roles and go through the motions, even after much of the audience has moved on. (Even if your interest is in Latin America, “the handshake” deserved less attention than “the kiss,” Obama’s greeting of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who notoriously cancelled her fall visit to Washington on account of Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA spied on her.)

On all fronts, Cuba has lost its luster. For all of the romanticizing of Ché and Fidel, no one can pretend that the impoverished Caribbean island nation is still a model for anything apart from depriving a nation of freedom for half a century. Standing in line at airport customs in Mexico recently, I was reminded of the extent of Cuba’s collapse when I read signs admonishing returning travelers from Cuba to be mindful of cholera symptoms.

With that sort of record, it helps to have a hostile “imperio” to scapegoat, especially when it imposes an embargo and threatens regime change. But the United States is becoming a less convincing villain in this drama. In real life, the consequences of antagonism toward el imperio nowadays seem to be minimal, even if the NSA might choose to spy on you. As Hugo Chávez and his allies have proven, you can mock and bash the U.S. all you want. As Brazil has shown, you can successfully thwart American policies for the region at every turn.  When Secretary of State John Kerry announced last month in an address before the Organization of American States that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” Latin American dignitaries weren’t sure if they should applaud – probably because they assumed that era was over long ago.

For all of the romanticizing of Ché and Fidel, no one can pretend that the impoverished Caribbean island nation is still a model for anything apart from depriving a nation of freedom for half a century.

That Castro shared the speakers’ podium in South Africa was an unfortunate nod to the nostalgia felt around the world for the heroic David of an island that stood up to the Goliath hegemon across a narrow stretch of water (and that stood up for Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned). Mandela’s fidelity to the Castro brothers (defended here by my colleague T.A. Frank) may be understandable, but it is also a betrayal of the universal democratic values Mandela espoused. For 11 million Cubans, there is nothing endearingly David-like about the Castro regime; it’s just one interminable nightmare.

But back to the handshake, which the Obama administration neither planned nor seems to regret. Obama took some heat from the right over the gesture, but not much more than he takes from the right for having breakfast each morning. The White House line is that the handshake was the polite thing to do under the circumstances. But it’s also true that antagonism between Washington and Havana has mellowed over the past year, and the bilateral relationship is becoming less and less about governments and more and more about interactions between people.

Cuba has made it easier for its citizens to travel abroad, and the United States has made it easier for Cubans to obtain multiple-entry visas and go back and forth. Washington has relaxed (although, shamefully, not eliminated) the ban on travel to Cuba. And the Obama administration has lifted limits on the amounts of cash U.S. residents can send relatives in Cuba. This advances two goals: it helps ordinary Cubans, and it makes them less dependent on their government. (I should disclose here that the New America Foundation, where I work, is developing communications technologies to help connect Cuban citizens to the outside world and to each other, with the support of U.S. government funding.)

Antagonism between Washington and Havana has mellowed over the past year, and the bilateral relationship is becoming less and less about governments and more and more about interactions between people.

The other big impetus for the recent thaw was the Castro regime’s surprising decision to keep Edward Snowden out of the Americas, frozen in Moscow.  It’s not clear what Havana’s motivations were, but Cuba’s government asked Russian authorities at the last hour to keep Snowden off his connecting Moscow-Havana Aeroflot flight last July—and you can draw an implicit line between that decision by the Castros and the handshake in Johannesburg.  The thaw is also evidenced in closer dialogue between both governments on prosaic matters like postal service and shared law enforcement concerns.

Not that we’re ready to kiss and make up.  Much like those long-running soap operas that can’t resolve all plotlines lest they go off the air, the United States and Cuba can’t bring themselves to normalize their relationship.  For the Castro brothers, such a move would mean the end of their great scapegoat.  That is why the regime continues to hold onto Alan Gross, the USAID contractor jailed for bringing telecom equipment to Cuban groups. If Cuba really wanted improved ties, Gross would have been reunited with his family long ago.

The Obama administration, for its part, remains stuck in its outdated, surreal and counterproductive framework for Cuba policy. The core fallacy underlining our approach is that the United States must either keep the embargo in place or else become fast friends with Cuba. But the United States has full diplomatic and commercial relations with plenty of countries ruled by undemocratic and obnoxious regimes (see China), and we rightly defend such engagement. Embassies are go-betweens, not friendship bracelets.

Meanwhile, critics of current U.S. policy, both at home and abroad, often end up as apologists for the Castro regime, working hard to minimize its abuses.  It shouldn’t be so difficult to stake out a position where we call two spades two spades: Cuba’s regime is awful, and our policy in response is counterproductive.  The sad reality is that with Obama facing so many competing, and seemingly more urgent, challenges overseas, Cuba policy drifts along through inertia, in a way that serves the Castro regime’s purposes.

The United States is correct to insist that Cuba not be given full-fledged membership in the hemispheric community until it lives up to the Inter-American Democratic Charter—much the same way countries that fall short on the democratic scale can’t join the European Union. But we will stand on firmer moral ground to make this case if we drop the embargo and forge diplomatic ties, and the United States will then be in a better position to empower Cuba’s people and civil society.

In other words, just because Obama shakes hands with Castro, it doesn’t mean he’s about to take a selfie with him.

About the Author

Andrés Martinez
Andrés Martinez is New America's editorial director for Future Tense. He is also the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square, and professor of practice at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

The Best Conversations of 2013

REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

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.

Since September, Anne-Marie Slaughter and the podcast gang have chatted about everything from the Balkans to Balkanized Internet, from candy cartels to the cyber arms race. As we careen towards 2014, this week’s ‘cast is our ode to 2013 – the most engaging conversations we’ve had this year: First up, New America Board Member Francis Fukuyama joins Slaughter to talk about his favorite movie, Blade Runner,and what it means to be a human, (recorded originally on September 19). Next, Alec Ross, the former senior adviser on innovation in Hillary Clinton’s State Department joins National Security Program Senior Fellow Afshin Molavi to consider how the thawing relationship between the U.S. and Iran could impact the broader Middle East (recorded on October 17). Molavi has also written in The Weekly Wonk about the revolution Iran missed, and what he learned reading tractor catalogues in the Islamic Republic.

Which Way, Mr. Wheeler?

REUTERS/Gary Cameron

As the new FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler has kicked up some dust in the tech community by laying the groundwork for a grand vision for the next generation of networks, but then later walking back one of the key principles of Net Neutrality. The stakes here are your rights to an Open Internet – and the ability of the FCC to ensure those rights, through Net Neutrality rules and beyond.

Wheeler sparked the debate during remarks after a speech at the Ohio State University. Reading the tea leaves is a fun exercise, but with the FCC’s Open Internet Rules (which implemented Net Neutrality into agency regulations) being reviewed by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, his remarks are particularly important – for Net Neutrality and in defining how the FCC will regulate communications going forward.

So what went down? First, a few words of background. Chairman Wheeler has already demonstrated that he is not tied to previous expectations when it comes to interacting with the public. A proficient blogger on the FCC’s site, he also released an eBook in conjunction with his appearance at Ohio State. The eBook, and his prepared remarks, provide an important look into his priorities as Chairman.

The stakes here are your rights to an Open Internet – and the ability of the FCC to ensure those rights, through Net Neutrality rules and beyond.

Wheeler uses both the eBook and his remarks to outline a broad vision for his FCC chairmanship, a vision that is rooted in what he calls the “Network Compact.” He explains that this Compact is guided by longstanding principles that have underscored our communications policy over the last century – principles he identifies as “access, interconnection, and the encouragement and enablement of the public-purpose benefits of our networks (including public safety and national security).”

So far, so good. It is heartening to see an FCC Chairman contemplate the future of regulatory intervention in the context of the historical principles. And in his remarks at Ohio State, Wheeler also indicates a concrete willingness to apply those principles as regulations in an Internet-driven world. He noted that, “[a]ssuring that the Internet exists … as a collection of open, interconnected entities is an appropriate activity for the people’s representatives.”

But things started to get rocky during the Question and Answer session following his prepared remarks. When pressed, he indicated support for a scenario that the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Rules are specifically designed to prevent, noting, “I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say, ‘well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that you might receive, my subscriber receives, the best possible transmission of this movie.’ I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve. We want to observe what happens from that, and we want to make decisions accordingly, but I go back to the fact that the marketplace is where these decisions ought to be made, and the functionality of a competitive marketplace dictates the degree of regulation.”  In short, he’s suggesting that high-priced express lanes on the Information Superhighway might be okay. For consumers, as well as for companies looking to get content to their customers through new, innovative applications or programs, this means another layer of costs added on top of an already complicated Internet market.

Wheeler has since clarified that answer, and affirmed his commitment to the FCC’s Open Internet Rules in a House Energy and Commerce Oversight Hearing. When asked about his perceived endorsement of these “two-sided market arrangements,” he explained that he is “a strong supporter of the Open Internet Rules full stop,” then went on to note that the rules were designed to reach a balance between protecting consumers and stimulating innovation. The Commission’s role, he noted, was to maintain balance between those two ideas. The goal, he suggested, was to make sure that new payment schemes do not interfere with access, are not anticompetitive, and do not provide preferential treatment. That’s somewhat reassuring.

However, it is difficult to not wonder whether those views expressed in the Q-and-A are not representative of his personal views on the subject. After all, Wheeler was once a top lobbyist for the cable industry. It would not be surprising for him to be sympathetic to cable’s aspirations to start charging Internet content companies directly to reach their subscribers.

It’s important, however, to understand the Open Internet Rules in the context of the larger Internet ecosystem, because the concerns created by Wheeler’s statement extend beyond Net Neutrality. Most people think of the Internet as one monolithic network. Instead, as Wheeler himself points out, it’s a “collection of networks harnessed to a common purpose.” No one entity owns it all; content travels from one user to another thanks to a series of business arrangements, where companies agree to route your movie, book or email from one network to another.

Let’s take Netflix for example. In order for Netflix to reach Internet subscribers in the U.S., it pays Level 3, a Content Delivery Network (CDN) and backbone provider, to host and transport its content. Level 3 then has agreements with Internet service providers like Comcast and others to reach their subscribers.

No one entity owns the Internet; content travels from one user to another thanks to a series of business arrangements, where companies agree to route your movie, book or email from one network to another.

Prior to carrying Netlfix’s traffic, Level 3 had a “peering agreement” with Comcast: meaning Level 3 could reach Comcast’s subscribers at no charge and in turn Comcast could connect with all of Level 3 customers at no charge. These agreements work when the amount of traffic flowing between the two networks is generally balanced.

However, in 2010, after Level 3 signed up to carry Netlfix’s video traffic, Level 3 informed Comcast that it would need more interconnection capacity with Comcast to bring Netflix’s streaming content to Comcast subscribers’ homes. In response, Comcast told Level 3 that it had to pay for that access.

Comcast’s (and presumably other ISPs’) ability to extract these fees has grown as streaming video and other types of data-heavy traffic have created increasingly asymmetric traffic patterns—and as cable companies more generally have substantially increased their market share of Internet subscribers.

What’s the harm? For many, Comcast’s response would seem reasonable given the increase in traffic flowing onto their network. The problem is that Comcast has what we call a “terminating access monopoly” – that is, Comcast has the only direct line to a Comcast customer. This imbalance means that companies like Comcast already function as gatekeepers in these peering debates, and they have a tremendous amount of leverage to dictate the terms of such arrangements.

Comcast also has another incentive to make it more difficult for CDNs to transport over its network. When the Comcast-Level 3 dispute occurred, Comcast was in the process of purchasing the cable content company NBC-Universal. That merger was approved, and the resulting Comcast/NBC entity is now an incredibly powerful, vertically integrated behemoth that owns not just the pipes, but also a large portion of the content flowing over those pipes. Meanwhile, online streaming video services like Netflix drive an increasing number of customers to cut the cord and give up traditional cable television service in favor of Internet-only plans.

That means Comcast has every incentive to discriminate against companies carrying Netflix’s traffic, or the traffic of any present or future content provider that might be a direct threat to Comcast’s cable television revenues.

Keep in mind that what we’re talking about so far happens even with the Open Internet Rules in place. The Open Internet Rules were designed to focus on the issues of priority and discrimination – or the ability of cable providers to disrupt or restrict a subscriber’s ability to access content online, either by throttling traffic, charging subscribers additional fees for access, or otherwise limiting their ability to consume the content of their choosing.

The two-way payment schemes that Wheeler mentioned in his Q-and-A represent a clear example of where priority and discrimination would occur – precisely what the Open Internet Rules were designed to prevent. And when examined in the context of the concerns about interconnection, that would allow ISPs like Comcast to further leverage their gatekeeper status once again to extract additional fees from Internet content companies.

Basically, two-way payment schemes mean that ISPs aren’t just leveraging fees from CDNs like Level 3 and collecting monthly payments from subscribers. Now, they want to collect a third fee directly from the content providers themselves. Viewed in this light, it may be more accurate to call these arrangements “triple dipping schemes” rather than two-way payment schemes.

So, what’s next? Chairman Wheeler’s clarification of previous remarks at the House hearing and public commitment to the FCC’s Open Internet Rules are reassuring.  But, those rules are being challenged in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and an adverse decision by the court would not only invalidate the rules but could also put the FCC’s authority in jeopardy. This could make it impossible for the FCC to implement any future policies to prevent harms that arise beyond those contemplated by the current rules.

Wheeler points to interconnection as a key historical policy that drives innovation and competition. But those outcomes did not happen without some government intervention. So the question is how Wheeler will defend the historical principles he’s identified if the court invalidates the FCC’s ability to implement the Open Internet Rules in whole or in part. The Chairman has said that “regulating the Internet is a nonstarter,” which suggests he is already considering specific ways in which the FCC might step in. Yet determining the best regulatory path forward must be underscored by an examination Internet ecosystem in its entirety, and ensuring that ecosystem leads to the types of effects we would expect in a competition-driven market.

About the Author

Sarah Morris
As a senior policy counsel for the Open Technology Institute at New America Foundation, Sarah Morris assists in the research and development of policy proposals related to open technologies, broadband access, and emerging technological issues.
Benjamin Lennett
As a senior research fellow for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, Benjamin Lennett focuses on the impact of technology and communications policy on economic development, opportunity, and equality. His writings have appeared in various media outlets and journals including Slate, Columbia Journalism Review, The Chronicle of Higher EducationThe HillCommLaw Conspectus, and the Journal of Internet Law.

If You’re Poor, Don’t Expect Privacy

Flickr/Shane Pope

For centuries, political authorities have punished the poor for being poor. In colonial America, for example, “overseers of the poor” required the destitute to wear badges.

Today, “overseers of the poor” are as much code—database queries to check eligibility—as they are people and institutions. Welfare programs collect massive amounts of data that are stored in potentially unsecure databases for unknown amounts of time, with unspecified permissions control or criteria for caseworker access. Poor people in the welfare system don’t have privacy, and they don’t factor into broader debates on protecting individuals’ liberty and right to be left alone.

This isn’t just a hypothetical. Rogue actors have targeted databases for public assistance programs, leaving poor people exposed and exploited.

Poor people in the welfare system don’t have privacy, and they don’t factor into broader debates on protecting individuals’ liberty and right to be left alone.

One of the more egregious examples comes out of Utah, where in 2010 a Department of Workforce Services employee accessed a client database and released to the media, law enforcement, and governor’s office the names of benefits recipients who were allegedly unauthorized to be in the United States. In response, the state instituted a “zero tolerance” policy for unauthorized database access—but after 24 workers were fired, the penalty was reduced to a four-day suspension. In a separate incident two years later, hackers stole 250,000 Social Security numbers from the Utah state government’s server, along with “less-sensitive information” from about 500,000 more.

Lower-income individuals increasingly have to use online options for public benefits enrollment, and their (justified) fears about personal cybersecurity and identity theft can further ignite anxieties and concerns that arise as a result of  intrusive data collection. Poor people face immense amounts of stigma when applying for public assistance and are required to share a tremendous amount of personal and financial information. Combine that with a digitally insecure welfare system, and you get people in poverty who are even more marginalized—and even more distrustful of government and institutions.

One straightforward solution to this problem would be to collect less data. To target programs effectively, state agencies need information on applicants’ financial circumstances—but maybe not quite as much as we’re collecting. Asset tests, for example, have historically required applicants to turn over reams of paperwork documenting their finances—everything from bank statements to funeral agreements and life insurance policies—despite the fact that most applicants have next to nothing. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is case in point. In 2010, only 10 percent of TANF families had any savings whatsoever, with an average balance of $215. For many, TANF is a program of last resort. Requiring these families to turn over extensive paperwork to further document just how poor they are is a barrier to access and a waste of everyone’s time—and may subject applicants to needless risk.

Furthermore, narrower approaches can prevent “wealthy” families from accessing programs intended to help the poor. Both the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill, for example, would prevent SNAP (food stamp) recipients with substantial lottery winnings from continuing to receive assistance. This verification would likely rely on data matching—but would not require nearly as much data in the first place. It takes a scalpel to the problem rather than a sledgehammer.

Requiring families to turn over extensive paperwork to further document just how poor they are is a barrier to access and a waste of everyone’s time—and may subject applicants to needless risk.

Automated decision-making in public assistance needs to be fairer, too. As a recent GAO report discussed, everyone in the public assistance ecosystem—from program participants to caseworkers to evaluators—would benefit from sharing data across different programs like TANF, SNAP, and Medicaid. Automation saves time in the process to determine a person’s eligibility in a particular program, her enrollment, and recertification. Research on one program that streamlines public assistance, the Benefit Bank, demonstrates that reducing the burdensome amount of time spent on bureaucracy can allow a program participant to focus on getting a job and earning a wage. And that’s the goal, right?

But automated systems are a reflection of the values of the people and institutions behind them, and they need to be designed with fairness in mind. When they’re not, poor people suffer indiscriminately. In Indiana, the attempt to bring the state’s welfare system up to modern digital standards led to hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers being ruled ineligible—many incorrectly. The case-monitoring system was Draconian, without prompts for granular data that would better inform whether someone should be denied benefits. The upgrade resulted in one woman, a terminally ill patient in hospital care, being pushed off of Medicaid because she missed a single welfare appointment.

Obviously, our recommendations require security measures that withstand attacks and abuse by rogue actors. Making that happen will require effective assessment, coordination, and communication between agencies, IT staff and contractors, caseworkers, and ideally participants themselves. Having a data-sharing plan that’s vetted by security experts is one simple step. Until that happens, poor people will continue to have second-class privacy rights, and the welfare system that’s designed to help them will continue to be inefficient—and largely ineffective—at alleviating inequality.

This article also ran in Future Tense.

About the Author

Seeta Peña Gangadharan
Seeta Peña Gangadharan is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute (OTI). Her research focuses on the nature of digital inclusion, including inclusion in potentially harmful aspects of Internet adoption due to data mining, data profiling, and other facets of online surveillance and privacy.
Aleta Sprague
Aleta Sprague is an attorney and former policy analyst with the Asset Building Program at New America and the author of a forthcoming article in the UDC Law Review entitled "Next Generation TANF: Reconceptualizing Public Assistance as a Vehicle for Financial Inclusion.”

Trouble With the Curve?

Flickr/Renato Ganoza

“All you have to do is beat the mean” was the mantra that helped me survive three years of undergraduate pre-med courses. Organic Chemistry, Physics, Botany, and the rest of the lot were horrible, but at least they were graded on a curve. To pass, I didn’t have to actually pass—I just had to score better than most of the other miserable students sitting around me in the lecture hall.

It turns out that school accountability—or the process by which schools report, and are held responsible for, their students’ performance—now works in much the same way. Since 2002, states’ school accountability systems have been guided by federal rules established under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But two years ago, these rules were abandoned when the U.S. Department of Education began to award states waivers from NCLB, allowing them to experiment with different approaches to identify and improve their low-performing schools. In a new policy paper, I detail the results of these experiments and find the effects of the new rules to be widespread and highly erratic from state to state.

Under NCLB, parents could expect an annual report of whether their child’s school met certain performance targets, or Adequate Yearly Progress. If they didn’t, schools were placed in an improvement category. That meant students could access supplemental tutoring programs, and schools could receive additional funding, new curricula, or even new leadership. Each year a school failed to meet its targets, the consequences for failure ratcheted up. States’ waivers, however, have created a different set of expectations for schools. Performance targets still exist, but the consequences for missing them matter much less than before.

 But two years ago, these [NCLB] rules were abandoned when the U.S. Department of Education began to award states waivers from NCLB, allowing them to experiment with different approaches to identify and improve their low-performing schools.

What matters instead is a school’s performance compared to other schools, rather than its performance targets. This is, perhaps, the most critical component of NCLB waivers: in most states, schools only face significant consequences for low performance if they are among the bottom 15 percent of schools in that state. These “priority” and “focus” schools then receive extra resources and supports to improve, with an intervention process more intensive than any that occurred under NCLB. Clear the 15 percent bar, however, and schools escape the strictest consequences (and all of those extra resources). In other words, a school’s absolute level of performance matters less than its performance relative to others in the state—just like my Physics gradeI may have answered only half of the questions correctly on the midterm, but that was good enough for a “B.”

This new 15 percent approach has had far-reaching effects. In states across the country, NCLB waivers have transformed perceptions of school quality, making it difficult for parents to understand how well their local schools are serving students and redistributing scarce state resources for their improvement. Over the last year, I’ve compiled data and crunched the numbers for over 20,000 schools in 16 states. The resulting report—“It’s All Relative”—shows, for the first time, the extent of this upheaval. Within the course of a single year, two in three so-called “failing” schools under NCLB were no longer “failing”—at least not enough to warrant a priority or focus designation.

But school improvement is like rolling a boulder up a hill: one strong push won’t typically get the job done. Instead, it takes sustained, rigorous effort over time. When thousands of schools suddenly didn’t need to put in that kind of effort anymore, my obvious question was, “Why?”

First, I found that the 15 percent approach tended to cap the number of school improvement spots, dramatically reducing how many schools were identified. But states could also measure school performance in new ways, changing how they ranked their relative success. For example, many states now examine students’ growth over the course of the school year, in addition to their end-of-year results. These choices influenced the kinds of schools that did well in the new systems, but they are secondary. It’s like a university adopting a curved grading policy at the same time that professors revamp their Organic Chemistry syllabi and assessments. Both decisions affect student performance, but the new institutional grading policy probably matters more.

School improvement is like rolling a boulder up a hill: one strong push won’t typically get the job done. Instead, it takes sustained, rigorous effort over time.

As relative school accountability becomes the norm (pun intended), it’s crucial for states to keep absolute measures of school performance in mind. My research shows that this relative system may be failing to capture some of the schools that need intervention—and confusing parents and teachers along the way.  If identification as a priority or focus school is a prerequisite for significant improvement and student success, states should ensure that the schools needing this level of support are included in these categories—even if it means expanding the capacity of state education departments or guaranteeing certain kinds of schools are always identified. Grading on a curve may have helped me pass my pre-med classes, but it didn’t mean I knew the material well enough to be a doctor. Fortunately for my hypothetical patients, I would have had to also pass a medical licensure exam to practice, a test where absolute performance is all that counts.

A 15 percent approach to accountability may make school improvement efforts more manageable for states, but does it lead to better results? Does it lead to more students—regardless of race, or income, or zip code—graduating high school prepared for college and the workforce? We don’t have enough data yet to answer these questions, but it’s time to start asking them.

About the Author

Anne Hyslop
Anne Hyslop is a policy analyst with New America’s Education Policy Program. She provides research and analysis on school accountability, ESEA waivers and reauthorization, education data, and alignment between early childhood, K–12, and higher education policy.

Happy New Year, Now Shut Up


We’re speeding towards the loudest night of the year – New Year’s Eve. But for some city folk, the decibel levels on December 31 may not sound all that different from the volume on, say, January 4. And that, says a growing group of noise control advocates, is a problem.

Or is it?

In the face of whopping societal problems – like poverty, wealth inequality, and climate change, to name a few – the movement to carve out more quiet spaces in cities may seem a little, well, superficial. But with reports that suggest excessive noise can have a negative impact on education and health is it time for us to begin legislating noise control as a public health issue – or do we risk sanitizing the lively cacophony that’s characteristic of a robust, healthy city?  We asked those questions to five experts.


Christine Rosen, New America Fellow:

The challenge of finding peace amid urban cacophony is not a new one.  In George Prochnik’s In Pursuit of Silence, he reminds us that America’s founding fathers had dirt laid atop the cobblestone streets outside Independence Hall to minimize noise during the constitutional convention.  In the late 1940s, Grand Central Terminal in New York City began piping canned music throughout the station, prompting complaints to the New York Public Service Commission, including those of New Yorker editor Harold Ross, who threatened to puncture his own eardrum to avoid the din.

As the recent public backlash against the possibility of allowing cellphone calls during airplane flights suggests, we want some noise, but not too much, and we have a rational concern about our own exposure to noise pollution.  But as a matter of public health that requires government intervention, the problem is a bit murkier.

Like many urban planning schemes, calls for more government regulation of noise pollution come wrapped in progressive-sounding rhetoric and bold claims:  reducing noise would improve health, well-being, and civility, we’re told.  This might be true, but central planning isn’t necessarily the best way to achieve that.  The story of urban planning over the last century is in many ways one of the disastrous unintended consequences of well-intentioned ideas (remember Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects?).  Though a new generation of “smart” city planners claims to have learned those lessons, if we want quiet, more laws and regulations are unlikely to give it to us.  But as individuals, we can examine our own contributions to civic noise (our noise footprint, if you will) and do our best to minimize it for the sake of a quieter common good.

Chris Leinberger, President, LOCUS:

It is probable that 80-90 percent of all development over the next generation will take place in higher density urban places.   That means the new developments, whether they be office, retail, rental apartments or for-sale housing, will be much closer to one another. Therefore, noise pollution will become a much bigger factor in urban design.  U.S. developers have never had to worry about sound; there was always a 150 ft. setback from the street. This is where surface parking was placed, or an acre of land surrounding a single family house so we could ignore most noise pollution.

The future will see U.S. developers and consumers learning from the Japanese and Europeans who have more experience in dampening sound from neighbors who are a few feet away.  We will even demand tire manufacturers engineer quieter tires.  But possibly the biggest advance to date has been in sound-insulating our windows and walls.  As it becomes more ubiquitous, this will allow us to witness the excitement of urban life without being overwhelmed by the sounds.  In a surprising turn, we are finding some of the highest prices per square foot are being earned by residential units that can overlook working rivers (partly for the water views, of course) but also over looking rail yards – which can be engaging attractions, assuming you do not have to hear the rumble of the motors propelling the boats and trains.

Alissa Black, Director, California Civic Innovation Project:

When I worked for NYC’s 311, almost ten years ago, one of the top five complaints received at the call center was about ice cream truck noise. While that may seem silly, it was legitimate. Noise is an urban problem and one that disproportionately affects low-income individuals in a community. Unfortunately, I think the desire to legislate for quieter spots in a community is less driven by equality and more driven by people wanting to escape from the ubiquitous cell phone talker.

Noise as an urban plague should be addressed in broader terms that allow for quality of life improvements for people living in noise-riddled areas, rather than those that can hop into a quiet spot to recharge.  One such effort came about in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, a part of the city where very low-income individuals reside. Residents often complained about the noise, but the city was reluctant to make changes without data to prove that the noise levels there were significantly higher than in other parts of the city.

The TenderNoise project, a response to that reluctance, collected noise levels in the Tenderloin and proved they exceeded legal thresholds. It reminds us that broader efforts to deal with the inequities in noise pollution should be at the forefront of noise conversations – and not quieted.

Greta Byrum, Senior Field Analyst, Open Technology Institute:

Visionaries from the Lomax family to Harry Smith have collected time capsule-like recordings of the ambient urban soundscape, surrounding you with the fractious chorus of fishmongers and fruitsellers on New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1920s; the out-of-tune dissonance of too many bells ringing together on a Sunday in the 1960s; the barking of long-departed dogs. The city is like an orchestra –its crescendos and lulls are a testimony to the clashing and meshing of cultures and events that form the urban fabric itself.

Yet in order to work and live in urban soundscapes that are getting noisier – where life becomes an undifferentiated din and where you can’t concentrate or rest – we all need to have places and times to retreat. This shouldn’t just be a privilege of those who can afford to soundproof their homes. We should treat this not only as a case for regulation (which is necessary, in moderation) but as an opportunity for design innovations like New York’s pocket parks or its fabled High Line. But there’s another possible solution: While the introduction of new technologies (airplanes, cars, heavy machinery) to urban spaces has led to the aforementioned increase in noise pollution, technology can also be an answer to its relentless din. If we demand from our architects, planners, and industrial designers the same attention to sound as to other quality of life factors, we could see a revolution in design that prioritizes quiet and restores some peace and sanity to urban living

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 deputy director of the Breadwinning & Caregiving Program and associate director of the Global Gender Parity Initiative at New America.

Middle of the Road

In an article published today in the Atlantic, Michael Lind, Policy Director at New America’s Economic Growth program, and Josh Freedman, Policy Analyst for the program, published an article that made the case for a new “middle-income social contract.” An excerpt is below and the full article is here .


The problem of low pay has dominated headlines this year thanks to striking fast food workers, tone-deaf employers, and a spate of successful campaigns to raise state and local minimum wages.

Behind the news cycle, however, there’s a deeper issue than just the current wages of workers at Walmart or McDonald’s. Americans are once again wrestling with what they fundamentally want from the social contract — the basic bargain most of us can expect from the economy throughout our lives.

A generation ago, the country’s social contract was premised on higher wages and reliable benefits, provided chiefly by employers. In recent decades, we’ve moved to a system where low wages are supposed to be made bearable by low consumer prices and a hodgepodge of government assistance programs. But as dissatisfaction with this arrangement has grown, it is time to look back at how we got here and imagine what the next stage of the social contract might be.

Read more.

About the Author

Michael Lind
Michael Lind is co-founder of the New America Foundation and author of Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Conservative Takeover of American Politics.
Joshua Freedman
Joshua is a policy analyst in the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation. In this role, he researches and writes about economic and social policy in the United States. His main projects focus on long-term economic shifts and the intersection of government and the economy.

Spoiling Santa’s Secret


It happens sooner or later for every kid: Someone spills the beans about Santa Claus. In 2011, Elizabeth Weingarten confessed that in third grade, she revealed the truth about Santa to a classmate. Out of guilt, she tracked down her young friend to make sure she hadn’t ruined Christmas forever. The original piece is reprinted below. 

On Nov. 29, exactly 26 days before Christmas, a Chicago TV news anchor and a second-grade teacher in New York revealed the truth behind one of society’s most pervasive lies. The anchor broadcast the painful facts on the 9 o’clock news; the teacher broke the news to her students during a geography lesson. The anchor was deluged with irate responses and apologized for her “callous” act on-air the following evening. The teacher’s words caused “a blizzard of outrage” at George W. Miller Elementary School, where her actions are now being “addressed internally.”

What, exactly, was the appalling crime of these two women? They both denied the existence of Santa Claus. Now, they’re paying for it.

I feel their pain.

I was 8 the first—and only—time I spoiled Santa for a believer. My parents had come clean about the Santa myth to me a year or two earlier because I was offended that the jolly geezer didn’t care about me, a Christmas carol-singing Jew from the northern Chicago suburbs. Why did he only leap down the chimneys of my Christian friends? What had I done to deserve this prejudicial treatment? My parents finally cracked, and I was relieved. My friends weren’t more special than me after all!

My parents had come clean about the Santa myth to me a year or two earlier because I was offended that the jolly geezer didn’t care about me, a Christmas carol-singing Jew from the northern Chicago suburbs.

I knew, of course, that most kids my age were not privy to this knowledge. Possessing the secret made me feel deliciously superior. I understood the cruel, complicated world a little better than my third-grade buddies.  Unfortunately, my newfound sophistication didn’t enhance my secret-keeping abilities.

During one December art class, groups gathered around long, paint-splattered tables, coloring with broken crayons and chewed markers. I had somehow snagged a spot at a table with the popular third-grade girls. One of them, Jacqueline, was decorating a letter she’d written to Santa Claus.

Why was she wasting her time with correspondence for an imaginary man when she could be drawing something productive, like a half-person, half-dragon? (I loved drawing those.) Should I tell her what I knew so she could begin a more meaningful art project? Suddenly, it seemed silly to conceal this bit of wisdom. Spilling the secret would be a public service, I imagined. In fact, sharing the information might make me cooler—like the kids who learned the meanings of swear words before everyone else.

“You know there is no Santa Claus, right?”

Instantly, my cheeks burned as I realized I had committed a grievous wrong. So great was my shame that it’s blocked out any memory of how, exactly, Jacqueline reacted. All I recall is wishing I could dissolve into metallic goo and seep away through a hole in the ground, a la Alex Mack. I shouldn’t have told her!

I’ve felt guilty about it ever since. Each year, around Christmas, I recall the events of that afternoon and wonder: Did my gaffe kill part of her hopeful, glittering soul? Does she think of me each year by the Christmas tree, her eggnog made bitter by the memory of the day I took an ax to her childish sense of awe and wonder? How often did kids spoil Santa for their classmates?

For the first questions, I turned to Facebook. I sent Jacqueline a message, then waited anxiously for her reply. For the last one, I called my old elementary school teachers.

 Each year, around Christmas, I recall the events of that afternoon and wonder: Did my gaffe kill part of her hopeful, glittering soul?

My second-grade teacher, Robin Bell, put the episode into perspective. “I think maybe you’ve exaggerated it in your mind,” she offered. She’s watched kids hear the truth before, but it has “never destroyed anyone.” Just a few days ago, during a geography lesson on why magnets work, a kid announced that the North Pole is where Santa lives. Another student spat back, “There is no Santa!”

“I was like, ‘Well, that’s what some people think, but there could be a Santa! You never know!’” Bell recalled. The child, she said, looked quizzical. Not distraught. The Santa reveal, she said, is less of a problem these days, “because kids are more savvy and sophisticated. They aren’t quite as protected. I think there is less belief in things like that.”

Not so, said my fourth-grade teacher, JoAnn Tennenbaum. Kids still believe. The 30-year teaching veteran has taught many classes split along Santa-belief party lines. To avoid the tension, she sidesteps the subject. But certain topics are Santa minefields. One year, while discussing a charity project, which involved purchasing Christmas presents for poor families, one student asked a logical question: Why did he need to buy gifts for the poor kids? Wouldn’t Santa take care of that? Tennenbaum was stunned. The poor children don’t have mom and dad presents to supplement Santa’s, she sputtered. And Santa could only bring those kids one or two gifts.

But even the occasional verbal slip-up does little to erode a kid’s ironclad belief. When kids argue about the old man’s existence, zealots tend to distrust the deniers, Tennenbaum says. It’s tougher than you’d think to shake the faith.

So maybe there was hope that I hadn’t destroyed Jacqueline’s childhood. When I saw her reply in my inbox a couple days later, I clicked anxiously. “To be honest,” she wrote, “I have zero recollection of that happening.” A different girl, Carolyn, broke the devastating news, she said. “But maybe it was me who you told and I just blocked it out? Maybe … I just didn’t believe you?”

She didn’t believe me? All those years of guilt for nothing? But apparently, while my Santa denial was merely hearsay, Carolyn had visual evidence to back up her claim. She’d gone to the bathroom in the middle of the night and seen her parents setting up gifts. “She told me in a sort of ‘oh no, I didn’t mean to see but I did’ kind of way. We were both so horrified!”

Discovering the truth about Santa doesn’t destroy a childhood—it just propels kids forward on the path to adulthood. Jacqueline got over the loss of her fantasy gift-giver. “I don’t ever remember it being super traumatic or scarring,” she told me. “I definitely remember feeling older and wiser now that I knew Santa wasn’t real.”

It seems like it’s the parents who really have a tough time. They’re the ones who wrote in to the Chicago news anchor, the ones who demanded the New York elementary school take action. Even my mother, well after admitting the truth about Santa, kept the Tooth Fairy alive as long as she could (until I woke to find her slipping a silver dollar under my pillow). “It was one of the last vestiges of your childhood,” she told me.

Maybe the person I should’ve apologized to was Jacqueline’s mom.

This article also ran in Slate.

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 deputy director of the Breadwinning & Caregiving Program and associate director of the Global Gender Parity Initiative at New America.

Holiday Mixology 101


The Challenge:  The holidays bring seasonal food, but beyond that gross eggnog-out-of-a-box, you don’t have your go-to holiday drink. Even worse, your older relatives can’t believe you still don’t know how to mix a proper drink, ya whipper snapper.

The Wonk: John Taylor Williams, Multimedia Producer at New America

The Tip: Don’t be intimidated. You can do this. Follow these steps to turn your relative’s dusty bar surplus into something impressive and provide the family a reason not to discuss sports or the weather.

First, amass your supplies.

‘Tis the season, so think winter drinks! You love these smells on your food, so fresh nutmeg, cinnamon, apple cider, oranges with cloves and chocolate will give drinks the same winter “sense memories” that will get everyone singing carols of praise to you.

Also, raid the pantry (or the nearest supermarket) for sweet things, citrus things, bitter things, herbal things, etc.. The more sodas, juices, bitters and garnishes you have, the less fancy and varied your liquor selection needs to be.

Second, don’t worry, liquor rarely goes bad.

Even if that bottle of scotch has huddled neglected under your uncle’s basement corner bar for 15 odd years, as long as it was sealed tight and out of the sunlight – and especially if it is in a glass bottle – then you have a workable ingredient for your cocktail buffet. But, uh, no, a 10 year old scotch stored for 15 years under the bar has NOT magically become a 25 year old scotch. Once in bottle, it will remain mostly inert.

Third, ratios are awesome! Repeat after me:  2:1:1 plus a dash.

2 parts liquor. 1 part sour. 1 part sweet plus a dash of Appropriately Themed Bonus Twist.  This Magic Ratio is really the basis for so many great cocktails.

Two quick examples for training purposes.

Pear Tree Punch

2 parts vodka or dry gin (Liquor)

1 part cranberry juice (Sour)

1 part pear juice (sweet)

Dash of nutmeg

You’ll taste how the cranberry juice is not overly sour and the pear juice is not overly sweet. It is a subtle and mellow drink. It’s also easy to customize (more on that below)

Chocolate-Orange Rum Grog

2 parts spiced rum (liquor)

1 part fresh squeezed orange juice (sour)

1 part chocolate syrup (sweet)

Dash of orange bitters or a twist of orange peel

You can even do multiple components of each element, but stick to the same basic ratio.

For instance:

The Ancient Ornament

1. 5 oz. bourbon (liquor)

.5 oz. triple sec (liquor)

.5 oz. fresh squeezed orange juice (sour)

.5 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice (sour)

.5 oz. agave nectar (sweet)

.5 oz. grenadine (sweet)

Dash of fresh crushed cloves

Now about those modifications. Once you’re a pro at the basics such as those above, you can…

Fourth, interrogate your guests!

All cocktails are subjective. Aggressively interrogate your guests’ taste preferences. Useful questions: Do you like sweet or sour? Fruity or bitter? Citrus or herbal? Spicy or smoky? All of the above? What is your favorite non-alcoholic beverage? Most important: What are you in the mood for?

So, while grandma is relying on the same turkey recipe you’ve been eating since grade school, you can impress the cousins with a new, custom drink for each year and each mood. Happy Holidays and Happy Mixology!

About the Author

John Williams
As New America Foundation’s audio-visual and multimedia producer, John Williams works with the External Relations team to provide multimedia support for live events, webcasts, podcasts, as well as radio and television communications. He also post-produces audio and video content for New America’s website.