TIME language

Here’s a Theory About Why South Asian Americans Totally Rule the Spelling Bee

Champion Spellers Compete In Scripps National Spelling Bee
Alex Wong—Getty Images Speller Vanya Shivashankar (2L) of Olathe, Kansas, and speller Gokul Venkatachalam (R) of St. Louis, Missouri, celebrate with family members after winning the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 28, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland.

Anthropology professor Shalini Shankar shares her ideas with TIME

South Asian-Americans, whose forebears immigrated from countries like India or Pakistan, have now won the Scripps National Spelling Bee eight years in a row. At one point in the 2015 final, six of the remaining seven spellers were of that ethnicity, and in the end there were two: co-champions Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam. That means that out of the last 16 years, spellers of South-Asian origin have lost only four competitions. And one Northwestern academic says it’s not a coincidence.

Shalini Shankar, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies, spent this week with the 283 elite spellers who qualified for the bee in National Harbor, Md., continuing her research into what, exactly, might have produced this string of success. TIME spoke with Shankar about her interviews with parents, the kids’ intense preparation and how immigrant culture might lead to dominance in “brain sports.” (Hint: It doesn’t hurt that there is a spelling bee circuit exclusively for spellers of South-Asian descent.)

Who exactly are we talking about when we talk about top spellers in South Asian cultures?

Primarily India and Pakistan and Bangladesh are the countries that appear to have a lot of spellers. And when you look at South Asians in the South Asian spelling bee, it’s a range across those three countries. Occasionally from Sri Lanka as well. But once you get down to the finals or the championship level, it tends to be more spellers just from India. So Indian-Americans. Usually they are second generation. They were born in the United States to parents who are first generation Indian immigrants.

Is there a chance the string of wins by South Asian-Americans is a coincidence?

I think we can safely say it’s not a coincidence. I hesitate to call it dominance, only because it sounds like something premeditated or strategized. These kids come from families where their parents are really well educated, many of them, and their parents really emphasize education and certain types of extracurricular activities. Combined with that, they seem to have a real love of words and language and their parents foster that.

What kind of extracurricular activities are we talking about?

The parents spend a lot of their time and resources taking [their kids] to participate in what some of them describe as brain sports. So rather that going to travel baseball or travel soccer, they’re traveling this academic competition loop. Part of why you’re seeing their success on the rise is they’re in constant preparation mode for these various academic competitions. And there are several competitions that are exclusively for children of South Asian parentage. So they have more opportunities to do what they’re doing.

If part of this is the parents spending money on the travel circuit, does income level come into play in explaining the phenomenon?

I can’t speak to income levels because I don’t have that data. But I can safely say there’s at least one professional parent in most of these families that have what they call elite spellers. So they’re certainly socially upwardly mobile families even if they may not be wealthy, per se.

How much have you found the kids are into this intense competition because their parents are pushing them, versus pursuing it themselves?

The parents are definitely facilitators to this process but they can’t actually produce champions. They can only enable their children to excel in this activity if they’re predisposed and dedicated to doing it themselves. But I don’t think that’s so different from spelling bee champions of any other race or ethnicity. Any time you see spellers who really are dedicated and they’re making it to the highest levels of competition at the national level, generally their parents have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy helping them.

But isn’t there something, even if it’s not Tiger-Mom tactics, like a value the parents are passing along about what kind of competition is worth winning?

I have some partially formed ideas about that. I’m still looking into it. Part of what I’m seeing is that there’s a lot of prestige in this community to winning something like a spelling bee or winning a geography bee or a math bee. And that is valued as much if not more than winning some sort of physical sport … These are very important bragging rights among South Asian-American communities. There’s some real status linked to it, that the kids feel too. The kids are really excited about the prospect of being on ESPN. They want to be on television.

 

Is there a more fundamental place in the culture that this value on academic prowess comes from, like what brought these immigrants to America?

Among the elite classes in India, both economically and socially elite, there’s a real emphasis on education and the use of education for social mobility. It’s not so different from other places in the world, but it’s certainly quite prevalent there. So I think that value is one that gets very magnified when you look at what Indian-American populations actually emigrated. It’s mostly professionals who immigrated post-1965. They are doctors or engineers or scientists, etcetera. So they are absolutely going to place a higher value on that than, say, other types of accomplishment. It doesn’t meant they downplay other types of accomplishments, but there’s an understood value of education that these contests jibe with very well.

What is it that drives these kids to dedicate themselves to spelling so intensely?

Unless you really love language and reading and words, it becomes very hard to care about preparing to the extent that one needs to for a spelling bee at this level. Kids who do this love words and they love thinking about words. They read the dictionary, among other things. And not all of them prepare to win. They set their own goals, like ‘I want to make it to Scripps’ or ‘I want to make it to the semi-finals’ or the finals and proportionately spend time preparing in whatever ways they think will allow them to attain those goals.

What is that preparation process like?

That process is usually every day, if not almost every day, they spend a few hours after school, after their homework, sometimes after their parents get home so they can quiz them. They spend several hours each weekend day preparing, maybe not year-round but certainly in the weeks and months leading up to the bee. Some of these spellers who compete in their school bees as well as these South Asian spelling bees, they don’t let too much time go by when they don’t have to be preparing for something. They’re kind of constantly keeping this fresh in their minds. So it’s an ongoing process for them, during the years in which they’re able to compete. And then suddenly it ends when they’re 14. It can be a very abrupt ending.

How do competitions like this affect the way we think about childhood?

If anything, the continuum of what childhood means is being expanded in productive ways to accommodate things that might have seemed extremely marginal or relegated to this untouchable nerd kind of activity. It’s something that has more mainstream cachet. I mean, being on ESPN is something very few kids get to do and these kids are very proud of participating in something that has such national recognition. It’s just expanding our ideas about what childhood means in ways that are keeping up with how the world is changing.

TIME language

The Scripps National Spelling Bee Has Co-Champions, Again

Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, and Gokul Venkatachalam, St. Louis Missouri lift the trophy after becoming co-champions after the final round of the 88th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee
Joshua Roberts—Reuters Vanya Shivashankar, left, and Gokul Venkatachalam lift the trophy after becoming co-champions after the final round of the 88th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Md., on May 28, 2015

The winning words in the nail-biter final were 'scherenschnitte' and 'nunatak'

In a dramatic, flawless final round, two eighth-graders proved to be joint winners at the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee. One a girl and one a boy, one from Kansas and one from Missouri, one a five-time finalist and one a four-timer, 13-year-old Vanya Shivashankar and 14-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam put both their hands on the trophy and thrust it into the air on Thursday evening—after spelling word after word that few people could even hope to pronounce correctly.

Shivashankar’s winning word was scherenschnitte, meaning the art of cutting paper into decorative designs. Venkatachalam’s was nunatak, a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.

This is the second year in a row that the final has yielded co-champions. Last year was the first time in 52 years that two people had shared the trophy, and 2015 marks the first time in the bee’s 90-year history that there have ever been co-champions two years in a row. This is only the fifth tie ever.

How do two people win the bee? If three or fewer spellers are left when a round begins, the officials move to a 25-word “championship list.” As Scripps explained last year:

Once there are three spellers left in a round, the next round begins with a 25-word list. Ordinarily, a winner is declared if one speller misspells and the remaining speller correctly spells two words in a row. If no winner is declared before the list has been exhausted—or there are not enough words left for two consecutive spellings—co-champions are announced.

In the last minutes of the final, Shivashankar and Venkatachalam navigated—and sometimes breezed—through the championship words with poise, like tennis players returning near-impossible shots. And the announcers from ESPN, which broadcasts the competition held in National Harbor, Md., each year, espoused due color commentary.

Shivashankar started with bouquetiere.

“If they do want only one champion, the words are going to have to get tougher than that one was for Vanya,” the announcer scoffed.

Venkatachalam countered with caudillismo.

“It’s not the first time in this competition he’s proven he can handle a Spanish-derived word.”

She spelled thamakau, a word of Fijian origin that describes a large canoe.

“Very obscure.”

He spelled scytale, a message written in a method of cipher used especially by the Spartans.

“That’s how good these too are. For most spellers, that would be a nightmare,” the announcer explains. “That dictionary is no mystery to them.”

Tantieme. Cypseline. Urgrund. Filicite.

“I don’t know that either one of these is capable of not winning that trophy.”

Myrmotherine. Sprachgefuhl. Zimocca. Hippocrepiform.

Neither one betrayed much emotion as they cycled up to the microphone. The announcers explained that Venkatachalam was wearing a LeBron James jersey under his button-up. The audience learned that Shivshankar’s sister had previously won the bee. It was no wonder they kept so cool.

Nixtamal. Paroemiology. Scacchite. Pipsissewa. Bruxellois. Pyrrhuloxia.

At this point, there were only four words remaining. That meant that if both spelled their next words correctly, both would go home winners—because there would be just two words left, not enough for a winner to spell two correctly in succession.

After cycling through her questions about the origin, part of speech, definition and alternative pronunciations, Shivashankar nailed the byzantine mess of letters that is scherenschnitte. (She also won the Lifetime reality show Child Genius earlier this year, which was starting to look like an omen.)

Then Venkatachalam headed up to the microphone. The pronouncer said the word. The boy asked no questions and spelled nunatak like he was spelling his own name.

The ticker tape rained down on the stage and the spellers hugged each other. He held the left side and she held the right. “This is a dream come true. I can’t believe I’m up here,” Shivashankar said. But with nine bee appearances between them, it’s pretty easy to imagine that something this fitting would happen.

TIME language

7 Things You Should Know About the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee

TIME's guide to the B-E-S-T week of the year

In the first on-stage round of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee, only four of 283 kids heard the dreaded ring of the elimination bell. Most breezed through words like ubiquitous, flamenco, autopsy, howitzer and oregano at the front of a giant ballroom outside Washington, D.C. But when the spellers returned for the second on-stage round Wednesday afternoon, some adjustments had clearly been made to thin the flock.

Wearing giant placards and nervous grins, some 13-year-olds navigated the likes of panophthalmitis (inflammation involving tissues of the eyeball) and triumphantly threw their thin limbs in the air. Others held back tears after missing a vowel in the likes of guayabi (a highly valued hard tough wood from South America) and were politely sent off the stage with the same sound used to summon bellhops in fancy hotels.

By Thursday evening, when ESPN broadcasts the finals at 8 p.m. ET, there will be just a dozen spellers left. Here are seven things that will help viewers fully appreciate this harrowing, inspiring American ritual.

Americans are about three times more likely to be struck by lightning in their lifetime than to make it to the national finals. The odds of being zapped by lightning in one’s life are about one in 12,000, according to the National Weather Service. Of the 11 million kids who compete in the bee on some level, only 283 made it to the competition in National Harbor, Md., this year. That’s roughly 0.000026%, or one in 38,869.

There’s an app for that. Scripps, the sponsor of the bee, debuted an app called Buzzworthy this year. When you sign up, you’re automatically assigned five spellers that are essentially your fantasy football team for the competition. They spell words right, you get points. And each has an endearing bio so there’s no way to remain unattached. (Dear Jeffery “Eager to Embrace Tropical Flavors” Thompson: I’m counting on you.)

The process for picking the spelling words is top secret. The officials at Scripps who put on the bee guard their process for developing the word list like nuclear launch codes. There is a word committee, whose members are secret. The sources they use are secret. The qualities they look for are secret. “The nature of how that comes to be is something that needs to be protected,” says Scripps spokesperson Valerie Miller. There are whispers that some word committee members are dictionary officials, while others are former spelling champions themselves.

It is known that words get harder as the competition goes on. Words in the preliminary rounds come from study guides of about 1,500 words that are given to the spellers when they advance to the national finals. But once spellers get to the semi-finals and finals, the words they face could be any of the roughly 472,000 that are in Merriam-Webster’s Third Edition. When the contest comes down to three or fewer spellers in the final, officials advance to a special “championship list.”

There can be up to three co-champions of the bee. Once the spellers have advanced to the championship list of 25 words, there’s no other place to go. If everyone still in the game at that point spells all the words correctly as the officials go through the list, then everyone wins. That’s why there were two co-champions in 2014.

Spellers of South Asian descent have long dominated the bee. For the first time, bee director Paige Kimble recently talked about an obvious but sensitive trend: the spelling domination of Indian-American students. They’ve won the last seven years and all but four of the past 15 years, which led to some ugly comments on social media last year about “real Americans.” Miller says some research into the trend—by academics like Northwestern’s Shalini Shankar—has found that “grit” is the winners’ key attribute. Accomplishment, competition and early literacy are also important in South Asian cultures, Miller says: “When you pair up that love of competition with encouragement and emphasis on education, [spelling bees] are a natural fit.”

The real killer at the bee isn’t nerves; it’s the schwa. There are some obvious characteristics that make words tough to spell, like silent letters (mnemonic), double letters (braggadocio) or single letters where you might expect double letters (sassafras). But the true nemesis of spellers is the schwa, the vowel sound that we hear in words like America, belief and history. The schwa can be rendered as any vowel and even be silent in words like rhyth(ə)m. “The schwa is the richest source of guesses in the final rounds, the most common source of confusion,” says Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski. “These are championship spellers and that’s the most common error at highest, highest level.”

TIME language

Merriam-Webster Adds ‘Jeggings,’ ‘NSFW,’ and ‘Sharing Economy’

Dictionary
Getty Images

The American dictionary added 1,700 new words to its ranks

Have you ever struggled to define exactly what WTF means when awkwardly responding to a curious grandparent? Well, flounder no longer. That acronym, along with about 1,700 new entries, have just been defined in Merriam-Webster’s latest update to their unabridged online dictionary.

The American reference provided a selection of the new words on its blog. Many embody our modern obsession with digital life (clickbait, NSFW, emoji). Others will teach future generations about the curious fashion choices of people living in the early 21st century (jeggings). And still others provide a linguistic term for our tendency to mishear Elton John lyrics as “Hold me closer, Tony Danza” instead of “Hold me closer, tiny dancer” (eggcorn).

Here are the definitions that the lexicographers at M-W came up with for this latest reflection of who English speakers are and what we care about:

WTF (abbrev.)
Definition: what the f—, used especially to express or describe outraged surprise, recklessness, confusion or bemusement.

NSFW (abbrev.)
Definition: not safe for work; not suitable for work, used to warn someone that a website, email attachment, etc., is not suitable for viewing at most places of employment.

jeggings (n.)
Definition: a legging that is designed to resemble a tight-fitting pair of denim jeans and is made of a stretchable fabric.

photobomb (v.)
Definition: to move into the frame of a photograph as it is being taken as a joke or prank.

eggcorn (n.)
Definition: a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase either on its own or as part of a set expression.

meme (n.)
Definition: an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.

clickbait (n.)
Definition: something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.

colossal squid (n.)
Definition: an extremely large squid occurring in deep waters of the Southern Ocean that is the largest known living invertebrate.

net neutrality (n.)
Definition: the idea, principle or requirement that Internet service providers should or must treat all Internet data as the same regardless of its kind, source or destination.

emoji (n.)
Definition: any of various small images, symbols or icons used in text fields in electronic communication (as in text messages) to express the emotional attitude of the writer, convey information succinctly, communicate a message playfully without using words, etc.

sharing economy (n.)
Definition: economic activity that involves individuals buying or selling usually temporary access to goods or services, especially as arranged through an online company or organization.

click fraud (n.)
Definition: fraud committed by clicking through an advertisement on a website multiple times to spuriously increase the cost to the advertiser.

dark money (n.)
Definition: money contributed to nonprofit organizations that is used to fund political campaigns without disclosure of the donors’ identities.

upcycle (v.)
Definition: to recycle (something) in such a way that the resulting product is of a higher value than the original item.

sriracha (n.)
Definition: a pungent sauce that is made from hot peppers pureed with usually garlic, sugar, salt, and vinegar and that is typically used as a condiment.

twerk (v.)
Definition: sexually suggestive dancing characterized by rapid, repeated hip thrusts and shaking of the buttocks, especially while squatting.

vocal fry (n.)
Definition: a vocal effect produced by very slow vibration of the vocal cords and characterized by a creaking sound and low pitch.

Read More: Get Your Creak On: Is ‘Vocal Fry’ a Female Fad?

TIME Drugs

Washington State Marijuana Shops Caught Selling to Minors

Girl holding marijuana in hand , close-up
Getty Images

Four of 22 stores tested for compliance were caught selling weed to underage shoppers in state-run stings

Washington’s retail marijuana businesses got calls from the state liquor control board before the sting operations began, warning them and reminding them about best practices when it comes to keeping weed out of kids’ hands. But when the board sent 18- to 20-year-old operatives into the first batch of stores this month to see if shops would sell them weed, four of them still failed the test. According to the board’s report released Wednesday, that amounted to 18% of 22 operations.

“We’re always going to have the goal of 100% compliance, that’s what we want; [82%] is good, but it’s not great,” says State Senator Ann Rivers, who has continued to work on reforming the state’s retail and medical marijuana industries. “Many of these businesses have invested a lot of time and a lot of money. And it’s stunning to me that they’d be willing to risk their livelihood to do something so foolish.”

By the end of June, the state plans to conduct sting operations at each of the 138 retail marijuana shops reporting sales in Washington. “When the news is out,” the liquor control board’s Brian Smith says of these first numbers, “we’ll see a spike in compliance. That’s what happened on the alcohol side.” In the operations, the underage shoppers present their real IDs if asked but don’t offer an ID if they aren’t; if a store sells them marijuana, they complete the transaction and bring the contraband to officers waiting outside the shops.

Marijuana businesses in Washington that sell to minors face possible license suspensions and fines of up to $2,500. Businesses that fail three times in three years can lose their state-issued licenses, while the person who conducts the actual transaction faces a possible felony charge.

Reformers who wanted to legalize marijuana in Washington and Colorado—and who continue to pursue reform in other states—often argue that weed should be legal because it’s safer than alcohol. Regulations for alcohol, such as selling it only to adults ages 21 and older, have been used as scaffolding for nascent marijuana markets. Smith points out that similar sting operations conducted among liquor sellers in Washington always find slip-ups. Since 2012, monthly checks have found that an average of 85% of businesses, ranging from liquor shops to restaurants, don’t sell to minors.

Colorado conducted their first stings among a sample of 20 retail marijuana shops in 2014 and found 100% compliance, but the vast majority of the state’s more than 250 shops were not tested. Since summer 2014, the state has conducted a total of 137 compliance checks and six shops have been caught selling to minors. Similar checks among liquor sellers in Colorado have found that an average of about 90% of businesses don’t sell alcohol to minors.

Smith chalks some failures up to “human error,” though drivers licenses for residents under age 21 are vertical rather than horizontal in the state. Many shops, he says, have someone stationed at the door and people working the register sometimes mistakenly assume that all shoppers’ IDs have been checked before they show up at the counter. “It’s early. This is a brand new industry that is finding it’s way,” Smith says. “There’s going to be some kinks initially.”

“Because this market is new, some business people don’t have all of their systems in place as much as we might like them to, so I’m going to cut them just the slightest bit of slack,” Rivers says. But she also emphasizes that “part of the expectation of the people of this state was that [a legal marijuana market] would be well taxed and very well regulated to keep it out of the hands of kids.”

While she’s neither thrilled nor deeply disappointed in these first results, Rivers says that attention shouldn’t just be focused on what happens in the stores: “The larger concern for me is people who are purchasing it legally because they’re the right age but then giving it to the underage people.”

A failure to follow the rules gives ammunition to those who did not want to legalize marijuana or who would like to see existing markets fold. But reform advocates point out that there is, at least, some oversight now occurring. “It’s always disappointing when there are isolated incidents of non-compliance, but it’s also a powerful example of how a legal, regulated market leads to more accountability and responsibility,” says Taylor West, spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association. “Because you can certainly bet no one’s checking IDs in the criminal market, and a regulatory process incentivizes legal businesses to play by the rules.”

TIME LGBT

Oregon Becomes Third State to Ban Conversion Therapy on Minors

OR: Kate Brown Attends Oregon Statehood Day Event
Alex Milan Tracy—Sipa USA/AP Then Secretary of State Kate Brown, who is currently Governor, attends a Statehood Day celebration at the Oregon Historical Society, in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 14, 2015.

The Beaver State is the third to pass such a prohbition

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown made her state the third to outlaw the use of conversion therapy on minors on Monday, eliminating the controversial practice that President Barack Obama called to ban in early April. Oregon joins California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., in prohibiting licensed therapists from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a child.

“We hope Oregon will prove to be just [one] of many states to ban this harmful and discredited practice that uses rejection, shame and psychological abuse,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, which supports LGBT youth. Organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association and the American Psychiatric Association have all come out against the practice, also known as reparative therapy.

Oregon’s new law comes at a time when there is some movement in Washington responding to Obama’s call. On Tuesday, California Rep. Ted Lieu introduced a bill that would classify commercial conversion therapy—and advertising claims that promise changes to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity—as fraud. This could essentially ban the practice for all ages nationwide.

“The truth is that being LGBT cannot be and does not need to be cured,” said Lieu, who authored the California state ban on conversion therapy for minors. “It’s a dangerous scam, and the government must act to protect LGBT Americans from fraudsters who take their money and lie to them.”

In April, California Rep. Jackie Speier introduced a resolution calling on states to end the practice and said she was “also pursuing the possibility of a full federal ban of the practice.”

Opponents of the new state laws, who claim they are violations of free speech and the freedom of religion, have tried and so far failed to challenge them in court. In 2014, the Supreme Court declined to hear challenges to the California law. And earlier this month the Court declined to hear a challenge to the New Jersey law, leaving a ruling that upheld the ban as the final legal word on the matter.

Obama called for an end to the practice among minors in response to a petition started in honor of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender youth who walked into oncoming traffic and was killed. She left a suicide note detailing the trauma she experienced from conversion therapy pushed by her parents. The petition started on the White House’s website gained more than 120,000 signatures.

Oregon Gov. Brown, who took office in 2015, is the country’s first openly bisexual sitting governor. She signed the law with little publicity, issuing no press release on her website or tweet on her feed. But LGBT rights groups were happy to sound the trumpets. “We all owe them an enormous debt of gratitude,” the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Samantha Ames said of lawmakers who pushed the bill, “one we can only repay by promising we will continue this fight until the day no child knows the devastation of being told they were born anything but perfect.”

TIME youth

Why Young People Don’t Want to Run For Office

TIME speaks with Jennifer Lawless, whose research on young Americans' political ambition is revealed in a new book

Will American politics face a brain drain? If current trends continue, it could soon.

Political science professors Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox asked more than 4,000 high school and college students if they would be interested in running for political office in America someday: 89% of them said “no.”

That finding is the crux of a new book based on their original research, Running From Office. In it, the authors argue that the dysfunction of Washington has turned the next generation off politics in historic fashion. Unless behaviors change, American University’s Lawless says, the country’s brightest stars are going to pursue just about anything but one of the 500,000 elected offices America needs filled each year.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of TIME’s interview with Lawless, in which she explains who’s to blame, what’s to be done and why she earnestly believes parents should be convincing their kids to become politicians.

It’s an old, old thing to lament the youth’s lack of interest in politics and a rancorous political climate. What is happening here that is new?

There are two dynamics. The first is that lamenting young people’s engagement has previously always stopped at their interest or their participation. [Researchers have] never actually considered whether they’re interested in running for office. The other is the young people that we’ve surveyed, who are high school and college students now, have grown up only amid the dysfunction that currently characterizes the political system. They have known nothing else. And this is really the first generation where that’s the case.

But is this a historic brand of dysfunction?

We know that polarization is stronger now than it’s been and it’s continued to increase. We know that effectiveness—if we measure that in legislative productivity—has been lower in the last several Congresses. And look at some of the high-profile examples of dysfunction that we’re not accustomed to seeing. The government shutdown is the most obvious one. Debates over raising the debt ceiling. The U.S. having its credit rating decreased. The constant worry over the course of the last year that there might be another government shutdown. That’s new to this generation. We saw dysfunction but not at the same level in the 1980s and 1990s.

Why do you think researchers haven’t looked at political ambition before?

I think there is this disconnect. Until we started doing the research, I didn’t know that the careers that young people identify as something they might be interested in during their teens often map onto what they’re going to do later in life … There was probably this sense that, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter. Young people are disengaged. They’re tuned out. When politics matters to them, they’ll care more.’ But what our data suggests that if they’re already writing this off now, there’s nothing to suggest that it’s going to come back onto their radar screen.

Do we have numbers from previous generations to compare the 89% statistic to?

We don’t know because polls of young people in previous generations generally don’t exist. We do, though, have data over time on young people’s interest in politics, whether they talk about politics with their families, whether they are talking about politics with their friends and whether they follow political news. We found that all of those things are predictors of whether you’re running for office. And the over-time data show declines on all of those indicators. Depending how you examine them, we see declines of 20% or 30%.

How long is this list of who or what is to blame for young people’s antipathy or apathy toward being in politics?

We’re not necessarily blaming young people. It’s that they live in an environment where they’re not particularly interested in politics because they find it argumentative and dysfunctional. But their parents agree. And their teachers agree. And the news media agree. So they get these constant reinforcing messages that this is not something that is fun or interesting or important or noble … The [other] set of players are the politicians themselves. They behave increasingly in unappealing ways and in ways that suggest that they’re not effective at their jobs.

Why should parents and teachers be pitching kids on politics when that’s not necessarily a message they believe in?

We think that letting young people know that this is a way that they can effect change—and that politics does not have to be the way they perceive it—is a message we want to send. At the end of the day, legislation is passed and policies are made by the government. And if you don’t have a seat at that table, even if you are highly effective in a behind-the-scenes kind of capacity, you’re not living up to the full potential of options you have. If people choose not to do that, that’s fine. But 13 to 17-year olds should not be writing that off as a future career option … If we had heard that 89% of young people said that under no circumstances would they ever become a lawyer or a doctor or a journalist or a teacher, there would probably be a national outcry.

What happens if kids don’t change their minds?

We have more than 500,000 elected offices in this country. … We’re not concerned that no one will run for them. We’re concerned that the candidates will be the type of people who aren’t interested in bringing about a better system.

What kind of people will still be attracted to political races, if not the best candidates?

The kind of people who are currently in office. People that actually do not think that government is a way to bring about positive change, people who are more interested in their own power than public policy, people that are antagonistic and confrontational and value partisanship over output.

When you’re talking to that jaded 16-year-old, how do you pitch them on this?

The first thing is to ask them what matters to them, and in almost every case what is most important to a high school student or a college student can be linked to a specific political issue. For high school students, it might be that they’re worried about whether they’re going to be able to afford college. For college students, it might be whether they’re worried about moving into their parents’ house when they graduate. For young women, it could be that they don’t have access to contraception.

So what should be done to remedy that situation?

We have a series of recommendations. One is linking political aptitude to the college admissions process, so people have to know something about current events and politics if they want to go to college. Another suggestion we have is some kind of national service program that would value political service. We’ve seen large programs like the Peace Corps, like Americorps, like Teach for America, where we have created incentives for young people to go out and improve communities. There’s no similar program for political service, which could create an incentive for young people to get involved in their communities as elected leaders.

How optimistic are you feeling right now about all the gridlock and bickering and disenchantment improving?

It’s funny because I’m an eternal pessimist but on this front, I believe in government. A lot. Maybe this is a little idealistic, but I think as people begin to realize that there are long term consequences to the dysfunction that we’re experiencing—that we might be turning off an entire generation or even discouraging adults right now who are well-qualified to run and lead—they’ll see there are opportunities for change.

TIME housing

Report Finds Airbnb May Contribute to San Francisco’s Housing Woes

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Fights over privacy and business continue to plague the popular home-sharing platform in the City by the Bay

A report released on Thursday found that about 15% of San Francisco’s vacant housing may have been removed from the market so it could be rented out on sharing economy platform Airbnb. This comes at a time when the company is waging legal battles in several cities—and when renting out one’s home for less than 30 days has just been banned in Santa Monica, Calif.

San Francisco Board Supervisor David Campos held a news conference Thursday, asserting that the report proves Airbnb is a “significant contributor to the housing shortage” that is pushing low- and middle-income families out of the city. While no one denies that the City by the Bay is in the midst of a housing crisis, the company and at least one economist believe that the report and that politician overstate the role that Airbnb plays.

The study was conducted by the city’s independent budget and legislative analyst’s office, at the progressive lawmaker’s request. Campos has proposed legislation that would change a new law that legalized short-term rentals in San Francisco. Residents at the moment are allowed to host Airbnb guests in their units for unlimited days per year and to rent them out 90 days per year when they’re not present. Campos’ proposal would limit all rentals, hosted or un-hosted, to 90 days per year.

“The Mission is a community in crisis,” Campos said of the neighborhood that has become ground zero for working-class activists protesting gentrification fueled by booming tech companies. “This practice is exacerbating an already terrible situation.”

Airbnb countered, as local loyalists have in city council hearings, that those struggling to make ends meet can benefit from the added income that sharing a home affords. “Home sharing is an economic lifeline for thousands of San Franciscans who depend on the extra income to stay in their homes,” Airbnb spokesperson Christopher Nulty said in a statement, responding to the report. “Supervisor Campos’ proposal would make it even harder for middle class families to stay in San Francisco and pay the bills.”

The report’s author admits that the attempts to quantify Airbnb’s impact are a best guess, relying on webscrapes and assumptions about residents’ behavior. Airbnb continues to guard data about their users and financial situation that would allow for more precision. Though the company is submitting monthly anonymized data to the city to prove that hosts are remitting hotel taxes, officials have said they need more data in order to effectively enforce limits on rentals.

“I think the bigger picture questions to focus on are: How can cities pass effective legislation in the absence of accurate data about Airbnb?” Karen Chapple, professor of city and regional planning at the University of California—Berkeley, writes in an email. “Would it not be in Airbnb’s interest to share its data openly and collaborate with cities in designing and implementing fair laws?”

Arun Sundararajan, an economist who reviewed the report, believes that Airbnb and its data are something of a red herring. While the site may lead to some units being taken off the market and to disturbances among neighbors who don’t like sharing their buildings with tourists, he says the housing options provided by Airbnb are likely drawing more tourists—and more revenue—to the city. The responsibility of Airbnb in yielding the current lack of housing in the city is “sort of like a rounding error when you compare it to the population growth in San Francisco and the number of units that are rent-controlled.”

As Airbnb stands firm on protecting users’ data and refusing to fork over the names and addresses for every booking, Nulty points out that these short-term rentals are contributing around $469 million in revenue to the local economy and that more than 80% of users in San Francisco share only the home in which they live.

“Any sort of creative disruption tends to have winners and losers,” Sundararajan says. “I just don’t see a scenario in this case where the losses are going to outweigh the wins.”

TIME Food

Why Consumers Don’t Trust ‘Organic’ Labels

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Survey finds many shoppers believe organic labels are just an excuse to charge more

Organic products are all over grocery store shelves and menus, but consumers don’t have much faith in the “o” word, according to a study from market research firm Mintel. More than half of shoppers say they believe that labeling something as organic is “an excuse to charge more,” and more than one-third say they believe “organic” is just marketing jargon “with no real value or definition.”

The word has, however, had a strict definition overseen by the federal government since 2002. Back then, fresh off the heels of public debate about the term, a report on Oregon shoppers found that just 7% had no trust in the label. “It’s about an erosion of confidence,” says Billy Roberts, an analyst with Mintel, which surveyed 2,002 U.S. adults for the new study. “It’s a question of whether the whole supply chain is delivering on an organic promise.”

Roberts says that highly visible food recalls, along with a perennial distrust of big corporations and the government, has led people to feel less certain about what they’re getting when they buy something at the local grocery store. The entrance of bigger players into the organic scene—companies such as Wal-Mart, Target and PepsiCo have all been expanding their selections in recent years—has also driven down prices, Roberts notes, “and those high prices were almost a certain reassurance to consumers that what they were buying was what had been promised to them.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture decides whether any company or farm can slap an “organic” label on their product and investigate every complaint that the word is being falsely used. “We have a robust system,” says Betsy Rakola, the USDA’s organic policy advisor. “There’s a lot of integrity behind the label. Anyone who wants to sell or market or label their product as organic has to follow the USDA regulations.”

Those regulations include rules that farmland must have been free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for at least three years, for example. Organic livestock has to eat 100% organic feed and have access to the outdoors. Facilities pursuing the label must be inspected and reviewed every year. Though Mintel found that many consumers believe organic products are healthier for them, Rakola says their oversight is about the production process. Farmers have to promote ecological balance and biodiversity; they have to enhance soil and water quality; they must conserve resources. “It’s about the process and how the food is grown,” she says. “That’s the assurance that the seal provides.”

Organic may also have lost credibility because of its close association with buzzwords that have little or no definition in the eyes of the government. Outside of meat and dairy products, the word “natural” has no concrete meaning in the marketplace—which has upset some consumers enough to sue companies like Tyson for claiming they sell “100 percent all-natural” chicken nuggets. So far as Rakola is aware, there is no standard at all for when people can use the word “artisanal,” even though it evokes an image of small-batch, hand-crafted, superior-quality products.

Clamor for uniformity—for the sake of consumers and for leveling the competitive playing field—led to “organic” getting its federal definition 13 years ago. Health concerns helped win “gluten-free” a standard that went into effect in 2014; while the presences of little gluten makes little difference for trendier dieters, the lack of assurance that new dishes or products were in fact gluten-free became a danger for those with actual allergies to gluten in recent years.

Should words like “natural” and “artisanal” have definitions too, so they can’t be bandied about? “It’s not for us to jump in and say what people need,” Rakola says, emphasizing that the USDA’s job is to respond to the public and to Congress.

The market research analyst sees a chance for businesses to get ahead in the meantime, using transparency and interactive elements to show shoppers more about how their products are made. That may also be a path to giving thousands of organic products more credence with the public. “Consumers are a little hesitant to purchase many of them because of lack of confidence,” Roberts says. “It’s an opportunity for manufacturers to reach consumers, establishing that trust that consumers are really looking for.”

TIME

Road Service Gets an On-Demand Makeover

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Tow trucks and phone apps are tapping data to give you a jump-start

The ice storm that hit Nashville this February was the worst in 20 years. Freezing rain glazed the roads, so when one of Michael Cunnyngham’s employees discovered he had a flat tire, there was already a long queue of auto-club members ahead of him who had put in calls for help. “They said they’d be there in an hour. Then it was two hours,” recalls Cunnyngham, who runs a tech company. “Then it was the end of the day. So I thought, There has to be some Uber for wreckers,” he says, referring to the popular ride-hailing app. His search results turned up Urgent.ly, a Virginia-based startup that indeed bills itself as the Uber of roadside assistance. He called the employee and told him to download the app. “I get a really happy message from him not more than a few minutes later saying somebody’s coming,” Cunnyngham says. Within 30 minutes, the tire was fixed. “You couldn’t ask for a better experience,” he says.

Roadside assistance is a $10 billion market in the U.S.–and now tech companies are revving to disrupt it, replacing call centers with dispatch algorithms designed to locate the best nearby vehicle that can help with a lockout or winch a car out of a ditch. Entrepreneurs like Urgent.ly CEO Chris Spanos believe that motorists need an on-demand alternative to paying for insurance plans they might not use or blindly calling tow companies in their time of need, with little way to tell if they’re being overcharged. “You should only pay for service when you need it,” he argues. But taking on an industry behemoth like AAA, which has 55 million members, is going to be a long haul–especially because AAA is mapping out innovations of its own.

Urgent.ly and its main competitor, the Santa Monica, Calif.–based Honk, both offer flat rates, promise quick response times and provide maps in their apps that show users where their rescuer is with real-time updates. These companies are positioning themselves as not just a snappy service for the smartphone crowd but also a new revenue stream for towing companies. While AAA, which is a not-for-profit corporation, says it does not release exact figures for how much its contractors get paid, tow-truck operators have said it’s in the neighborhood of $25 per call. Kwame Scott, owner of Scott’s Towing in Suitland, Md., says he makes about $75 if that same call comes through his Urgent.ly app. Like Uber, these startups are taking about a 25% cut and handing the rest over to the drivers. “If technology can get into towing, then, hey, swell. We’re in,” Scott says.

Honk CEO Corey Brundage says the company started getting a series of call-and-cancel orders last year that they traced to AAA employees. “We do mystery-shop to see how services compare,” says AAA spokesperson Yolanda Cade. She emphasizes that America’s famous motor club has been around for 100 years and responds to “more than 30″ million calls per year; members typically also receive travel discounts or other membership perks. AAA is a federation of 43 motor clubs around the country, which can customize what they offer. In late 2014, the Mid-Atlantic club started running RescueMeNow, a web-based on-demand service for nonmembers, which comes with a follow-up contact enticing users to join. The Southern California club has meanwhile been providing a “service tracker” that shows a real-time map in the AAA app. Some car manufacturers also offer roadside assistance as part of their warranties.

Silicon Valley investors and several national companies are betting on the new guard. Honk announced a $12 million fundraising round in March, soon after Urgent.ly announced that its app will be part of AT&T’s connected-car platform, AT&T Drive. Still, towing providers like Scott aren’t sure how revolutionary these apps will be. He says that while he might get $75 for a job placed through Urgent.ly, he’d get $100 if the customer called him directly. “It hasn’t become a major part of my business,” he says. “But it’s a nice addition.”


This appears in the May 11, 2015 issue of TIME.

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