Does America Need a Tahrir Square?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Does Not Make Your Loan Affordable

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Our Chronicle of Higher Education article on how Georgetown Law uses federal student loans, Income-Based Repayment (IBR), and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) to offer its students free educations financed largely with taxpayer funds has won third prize for a stand-alone feature in the Education Writers Association’s National Awards for Education Reporting.

The article set off a lively debate about the excesses of an unlimited forgiveness program largely benefitting graduate students. Indeed the implications of the scheme were not lost on the Obama administration—the president’s budget released in March proposes a series of reforms to the IBR program for student loans, including a cap on how much debt can be forgiven under PSLF—a recommendation we made in the article.

The proposed cap on PSLF has little to no bearing on the ability of such a borrower to take a low-paying job in the public sector.

Million Records Project Raises as Many Questions as Answers

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Last month, the Student Veterans of America (SVA), together with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse, released a host of new data on veterans’ higher education outcomes. The Million Records Project report, published by SVA, made use of previously unavailable data to show that more than half of veterans in a large sample had graduated within the 10-year period. (For the full summary, check out our earlier write-uphere.)

But for all the questions the SVA report answers, it raises at least as many more. There are a number of blind spots in the report about veterans’ paths through college, and their eventual outcomes. Future iterations of the Million Records Project may—and should—endeavor to answer some of these questions; without the answers, institutions of higher education, nonprofit groups, and veterans’ organizations will remain in the dark about how well higher education is serving our nation’s veterans.

Are veterans graduating?

The SVA report says 51.7 percent of the veterans in its sample attained a degree or credential. But that figure isn’t comparable to other graduation rates like those calculated by the Department of Education. That’s because instead of following a single cohort of students for multiple years, it identifies how many of the total sample—those who first used their Montgomery or Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits between 2002 and 2010, all cohorts included—graduated by 2010.

OTI to White House: Internet Surveillance is the Biggest "Big Data" Issue of All

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Today, New America's Open Technology Institute submitted comments to the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, the office that's been charged by the President with leading a 90-day review of the implications of "big data" for privacy, the economy, and public policy. OTI's comments, first delivered as a speech by OTI's policy director Kevin Bankston at the second of three workshops organized around the White House effort, reflect OTI's hope that the big data process will inform--rather than distract from--the debate over the National Security Agency's surveillance of the Internet.

Below is the text of the letter which you can also download here.


The Biggest Data of All

When considering the future of big data and privacy, we must consider the biggest data of all, the data set that encompasses almost all of the others: the data that transits the Internet.

As our offline activities and records move online—our shopping, our consumption of news and entertainment, our financial and legal and medical records and transactions, and an ever-increasing number of personal and business communications of every kind, even the most sensitive—the depth and breadth of this massive data set continues to expand. As all roads once led to Rome, today, nearly all data streams eventually flow into and through the great river of data that is the Internet.

Therefore, when considering the ethics of big data and privacy, it is necessary to look to the ISPs and governments—including our own— that have access to that river of data, often subject to unclear or insufficient legal restrictions.

Apprehension in Afghanistan: A Nation Goes to the Polls


On Saturday,  the people of Afghanistan will head to the polls for the first time in ten years as President Hamid Karzai leaves office. The election comes at a precarious time for the country’s citizens: Karzai has refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) forwarded by the United States as a precursor to the exit of American troops, the Taliban have vowed to thwart voting attempts, and global tensions are high. The democratic transition could mark a dramatic turning point for Afghanistan, as well as its neighbors. At a New America talk this week, experts illuminated what, beyond that fact, makes this election unique – and pivotal.
Several things stand out about the current election: all tickets are “cross-ethnic”, an noteworthy factor in a country where tribal divisions have spawned political battles and polarization in the past. Women and young voters (60% of the Afghan population is under the age of 25) could have big electoral impact. Faiysal AliKhan, a Carnegie Fellow with New America’s National Security Program, spent the past month traveling through Afghanistan and speaking to several presidential candidates and provincial governors as well as tribal leaders and government ministers. He argued that the Afghan people have reached a point where foreign troops are unnecessary, and optioned that even threats like the Taliban will be lessened once Afghanistan regains some of its autonomy.

Ryan Budget Brings Little New to the Table

flickr / Gage Skidmore

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chair of the House Budget Committee, this morning released his own fiscal year 2015 proposed budget. The budget, if the House adopts it, would serve as that chamber’s 2015 budget resolution, establishing spending and revenue targets for the upcoming fiscal years. (The Senate has already decided not to pass a budget resolution, so even if the House version passes, there will be no joint fiscal year 2015 resolution.)

There are few differences between Ryan’s proposed 2015 budget and last year’s proposal, at least in terms of education policy. But there is one point worth noting: The Ryan budget abides by the overall discretionary spending targets he negotiated with Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray (D-WA) last year, passed into law through the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. That’s no surprise, given how involved Ryan was in creating the targets, but it does mean spending under his plan is well above the targets originally set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. And it means the Senate, which plans to use the Bipartisan Budget Act limits as well, will be exactly aligned with the House in terms of overall spending targets.

Beware the D.C. Internship

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Are you a smart undergraduate from a middle-class family looking for summer work that will leverage all those expensive classes into a potential future job and serve up an enriching real-world learning experience in the D.C. policy world? Good for you. You are the American dream: A hard-working, dedicated young person, determined to rise up even as your college debt weighs you down. You are the perfect Washington summer internship candidate.

Here's your first enriching, real-world lesson: Don't take that prestigious, government or nonprofit D.C. internship -- unless it's paid.

It's not that the internship wouldn't be enlightening: As someone who works at a nonprofit think tank (New America), the people I work with and range of ideas I'm exposed to everyday make it an exhilarating job. Undoubtedly, you would have a comparable experience working at a similar type of institution. The problem is that most interns working at policy-oriented nonprofits in this city aren't paid anything close to a reasonable hourly wage. And the deal that nonprofits are making with those unpaid interns is textbook exploitation.

I know what you're thinking: Isn't that illegal? Nope. You see, these types of organizations are nonprofit 501(c)(3)s. So besides all of the other messed up things nonprofits can do, it also means that if you intern there, you're technically a volunteer, so they don't have to pay you (the same is true for the government, and explains why Capitol Hill internships can be unpaid).

Netflix Takes On Comcast. Here's Why You Should Care.

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This week, Netflix challenged efforts by some Internet service providers to limit how the streaming service connects to its users, joining the debate among major players about the challenges of interconnection and peering. In a statement, CEO Reed Hastings said so-called “peering”-type deals, such as the one it just struck with Comcast, indicate the need for stronger net neutrality protections. Casting Netflix as David, Hastings wrote: “If this kind of leverage is effective against Netflix, which is pretty large, imagine the plight of smaller services today and in the future.”

“Peering” and net neutrality may sound dull, but the future of your entertainment is at stake (and so are some rather more important things). Most people don’t think much about how content is delivered to their computer or TV screen via a device like Apple TV or a Roku box. Normally, you click a link or enter a Web address into your browser, and the requested content usually appears almost instantly. Sometimes you get a perpetual “spinning circle of doom” or the dreaded hourglass, indicating that you may experience delays in receiving the content you requested. Or occasionally you get an error page instead of reaching the webpage you were trying to visit. If you use Netflix, you’re probably familiar with the galling screen that says there’s a network problem.

Pakistan sheltered Bin Laden? Prove it.

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Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- The New York Times magazine is running a bombshell story alleging that the Pakistanis knew all along that Osama bin Laden was living for years in his longtime hiding place in the northern Pakistan city of Abbottabad, where he was killed by a U.S. Navy SEAL team on May 2, 2011.

The Times story, titled "What Pakistan Knew About bin Laden," will carry weight: It was written by Carlotta Gall, the dean of the correspondents who have covered Afghanistan and Pakistan since that fateful day in 2001, when al Qaeda's four hijacked planes crashed through America's comfortable sense that vast oceans insulated it from its enemies.

At great personal risk Gall has authoritatively covered the war in Afghanistan for the past 12 years. Indeed, I first met her during the civil war in Afghanistan during the mid-1990s when she was an aid worker, and I have met her many times since. I encouraged her (along with, I'm sure, many others) to write a book about her reporting in Afghanistan, as no Western reporter has more to say about what has transpired there since the fall of the Taliban.

The bin Laden story in the New York Times magazine is an extract from Gall's forthcoming book, "The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014."

Gall makes two astonishing claims in her Times magazine piece.

Growing Up & Out: The Past Two Weeks in Education Policy

flickr / Renato Ganoza

The state of the American education system, long a subject of dread for many policymakers, has been in and out of the news. When it comes to how best to mend the cracks and pave the way for change, however, there are a range of opinions. In between President Obama’s efforts towards reigning in for-profit colleges, alterations to statewide standardized testing, and other movements towards change, it’s been a busy two weeks. The standouts from New Americans: