TIME Government

Kayla Mueller’s Father Says U.S. ‘Put Policy in Front of American Citizens’ Lives’

ISIS claims the 26-year-old hostage died in a recent air strike

Slain ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller’s father has accused the Obama administration of putting its policy of not paying ransoms “in front of American citizens’ lives.”

In an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie, Carl Mueller said he had mixed feelings about the government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorist groups who kidnapped foreigners. Other Western countries are known to have paid millions to secure the release of their nationals.

“We understand the policy about not paying ransom,” he said. “But on the other hand, any parents out there would understand that you would want anything and everything done to bring your child home…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

MONEY Autos

How New York’s Proposed Toll Hikes Stack Up Against Other Cities’

bridges over Hudson river
Brett Beyer—Getty Images

The tolls faced by New York City drivers today are expensive, and could get even pricier if a new proposal on the table is approved. Still, in the grand scheme, the city's tolls are cheap compared to some other places in the world.

This week, a transit advocacy group introduced the Move NY Fair Plan, a proposal to add and tweak driving fees around Manhattan in order to address what it describes as an “unfair, regressive tolling system,” while also easing traffic congestion and raising $1.5 billion annually to fund transportation infrastructure. The gist of the proposal, as summed up by the New York Times, the Times Herald-Record, and others, is that some bridge tolls would get cheaper while a few new tolls would be added according to “a logical formula: higher tolls where transit options are most available and lower tolls where transit is either not available or a less viable option.”

The plan calls for tolls to be added to four bridges that cross the East River but traditionally have been toll-free: Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro, and Williamsburg. Vehicles would also start being hit with a fee when they cross 60th Street northbound or southbound in Manhattan. In both cases, the new tolls would run $5.54 each way for E-ZPass users, and $8 for others. Meanwhile, tolls on a few other New York City bridges, including the Verrazano Narrows, Throgs Neck, and Bronx-Whitestone, would be reduced by $2.50 for E-ZPass holders.

The overarching argument in favor of the changes is that the existing system of tolls and transit fares isn’t sufficient to fund infrastructure needs, and that today’s tolls are just plain unfair. Hence the proposed “Fair Plan.”

But how “fair” would the new tolls be compared to what drivers face elsewhere? The proposal—which for now is just that, a proposal that may not win much support in the city or Albany—would have no effect whatsoever on the bridges and tunnels run by the Port Authority, including the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, among others. If the plan is approved, the East River Bridge tolls—again, $5.54 each way with E-ZPass, so $11.08 round trip—would be cheaper than a Port Authority bridge or tunnel crossing into New York during peak commuting hours ($11.75), but pricier than an off-peak trip ($9.75).

Among other pricey bridges and tunnels around the U.S. and abroad:

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel: The $15 toll during peak season (Friday to Monday, May 15 to September 15) is quite pricey, but hey, this engineering wonder connecting Virginia’s Eastern Shore to Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach is 20 miles long.

Golden Gate Bridge: At a cost of $6 to $7 only for cars heading into San Francisco, the Golden Gate doesn’t charge as if it’s one of America’s most famous landmarks.

Whittier Tunnel: This 2.5-mile passage in between Anchorage, Alaska, and Whittier and Prince William Sound is the longest highway tunnel in the U.S., and it only has one lane that must be shared by cars and trains. The cost of driving through in a standard vehicle is $12 one way.

Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge: Also known as Pearl Bridge, Japan’s Akashi-Kaikyo has the world’s longest central span of any suspension bridge, at 1.2 miles. Driving across costs 2,300 Yen, which is around $20 per vehicle today. The toll used to be closer to $30 back in the days when the American dollar wasn’t quite as strong.

Mont Blanc Tunnel: This passage crossing the France-Italy border in the Alps is impressive for two key data points. The tunnel stretches a total of 7.2 miles, and driving through costs about $49 one way.

As for the idea that drivers in the New York City area be charged not for crossing a body of water but simply for entering or exiting Manhattan’s CBD (central business district), Singapore, Milan, London, and Stockholm have had similar toll systems in place for years. London’s “congestion pricing” scheme has been in place since 2003. Back then, the daily charge for driving in central London was £5, or about $7.75 today. The driving surcharge has since increased, hitting £11.50 ($18) last summer.

Compared to that, the $5.54 charge to drive into lower Manhattan just might seem cheap.

TIME Government

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to Resign

Interview With FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), listens to a question during an interview in Washington, D.C. on May 28, 2014.

The agency's chief scientist, Stephen Ostroff, will serve as acting commissioner

(WASHINGTON) — From food safety to tobacco and politically charged drug approvals, Margaret Hamburg reset the course of the embattled Food and Drug Administration, an agency that had often been seen as ineffective.

After nearly six years on the job, Hamburg announced her resignation Thursday in an email to staff. She said the agency’s chief scientist, Stephen Ostroff, will serve as acting commissioner

She is among the longest-serving commissioners to head the agency and helped oversee the creation of a new food safety system, reforms in how drugs are reviewed and new tobacco regulations.

President Barack Obama named Hamburg to the post in 2009, following a series of high-profile safety problems at the agency ranging from contaminated blood thinners to salmonella-tainted peanut butter that required one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

Under Hamburg’s tenure, the FDA was more active on food policy than it had been since nutrition labeling rules were first written in the early 1990s. The agency has worked to put new food safety rules in place, phased out artery-clogging trans fats from the food supply, proposed updates to nutrition facts on the backs of food packaging and required restaurants and retailers to label calories on menus.

In her goodbye note to staffers, she emphasized the importance of science in these decisions and other reforms aimed at speeding up drug reviews and overseeing tobacco products.

“At the heart of all of these accomplishments is a strong commitment to science as the foundation of our regulatory decision-making and of our integrity as an agency,” Hamburg said.

She took control of the agency at a time when its reputation had been tarnished by accusations that agency officials were allowing politics to influence their decisions. A federal judge ruled that in 2006 the agency deliberately delayed making a decision on the Plan B morning-after pill at the behest of the Bush administration.

The same contraceptive became a political liability under Hamburg when the FDA attempted to approve its sale over-the-counter for teenagers. But at the eleventh hour the head of the department of Health and Human Services intervened and overruled FDA, deciding that young girls shouldn’t be able to buy the pill on their own. Hamburg stood by her agency’s decision and the drug was approved for non-prescription use in 2013.

In another high-stakes drug controversy, Hamburg personally made the decision to revoke the blockbuster drug Avastin’s approval to treat advanced breast cancer, based on evidence that it did not actually help patients live longer. The ruling came despite heavy lobbying by the drug’s maker Genentech and cancer patients who believed the drugs was helping them.

Before joining the FDA, Hamburg, 59, was primarily known as a bioterrorism expert who served as New York City health commissioner

News of Hamburg’s departure comes just a week after the agency announced that Robert Califf, a prominent cardiologist from Duke University, would take on the agency’s No. 2 leadership position. Califf was considered for the agency’s top job under the administrations of President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Many FDA observers expect him to eventually move into the commissioner position.

TIME Education

Shrinking the Education Gap Would Boost the Economy, Study Says

Students applaud as U.S. President Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the Worcester Technical High School graduation ceremony in Worcester
Kevin Lamarque —Reuters Students applaud as U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the Worcester Technical High School graduation ceremony in Worcester, Massachusetts June 11, 2014

A modest improvement in the lowest test scores could see GDP rise by $2.5 trillion by 2050

Narrowing the education gap between America’s poor and wealthy school children could accelerate the economy and significantly increase government revenues, according to a new study.

An improvement in the educational performance of the average student will result in “stronger, more broadly shared economic growth, which in turn raises national income and increases government revenue, providing the means by which to invest in improving our economic future,” says the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

The study is based on findings from a 2012 assessment given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Data showed the U.S. education system performed poorly when compared against the world’s 34 developed nations, ranking below average in mathematics and just average in reading and science.

The Washington Center took America’s test score of 978, and in their most modest scenario boosted the achievement scores of the country’s bottom 75% testers so that the national score reached the worldwide developed nation average of 995 (or roughly equal with France).

This would raise the U.S. GDP by 1.7% by 2050, they found, which, taking inflation into account, would amount to a $2.5 trillion rise or an average of $72 billion extra per year.

The country would also make over $900 billion extra in total federal, local and state revenue.

If the U.S. were able to match Canada’s educational achievement score of 1044, the potential gain would be significantly higher. The study estimates that GDP would grow by 6.7%, equivalent to $10 trillion or about $285 billion per year.

This latter scenario would mean a revenue boost of $3.6 trillion.

The Washington Center said their findings suggest that governmental investments into education would pay for itself in the form of economic growth for many years to come.

TIME Budget

Government Budget Cuts Are Hitting ‘Red’ States Hardest, Say Analysts

A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington
JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN —REUTERS A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington September 30, 2013, approximately one hour before the U.S. federal government partially shut down after lawmakers failed to compromise on an emergency spending bill

Experts suggest the discrepancy may point to the politicalization of public spending

Recent governmental budget cuts have not been distributed evenly with slashed spending hitting pro-Republican states the hardest, according to new analysis by Reuters.

Funding for a range of discretionary grant programs has fallen 40% in Republican states compared to a drop of only 25% in swing states or states that tend to support the Democrats, claims the news agency.

“I would suggest these numbers would tell us there is politicization going on,” said John Hudak of the Brookings Institution, who helped Reuters analyze the federal spending.

The money that the government allocates to discretionary spending goes to initiatives like the Head Start preschool education scheme and anti-drugs programs.

Read more on the study at Reuters

TIME Government

Government Officials May Be Using Less Mumbo Jumbo

Courtesy of the Center for Plain Language This report card shows how well federal government agencies did in 2014, in terms of speaking plainly when communicating with the public. It was released on Jan. 27, 2015.

"They just don’t write that well"

On Tuesday, the non-profit Center for Plain Language released its third annual report card for federal government agencies. Those who are following the spirit and letter of the Plain Writing Act—a 2010 law designed to eliminate bureaucratic gobbledygook—got A’s. Those who failed to abide and didn’t submit documents to be reviewed earned big fat F’s.

The bad news is that government agencies are still using words like weatherization, gasification, grantsmanship and interdependencies. The good news is that, overall, the average grade is going up, with 16 of 22 departments improving over the previous year’s grades.

That means fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Defense:

The Deputy Secretary, the second-highest ranking official in the DoD, is delegated full power and authority to act for the Secretary and to exercise the powers of the Secretary on any and all matters for which the Secretary is authorized to act.

And more sentences like this, from the Social Security Administration:

You need a Social Security number to get a job, collect Social Security benefits and get some other government services.

As well as fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Education (note, this really is just one sentence):

Comparison teachers included those from traditional routes to certification (those who completed all requirements for certification, typically through an undergraduate or graduate program in education, before they began to teach) and teachers from less selective alternative routes to certification (programs that allowed teachers to begin to teach before completing all requirements for certification, but that were not as selective as TFA and the Teaching Fellows programs).

And more sentences like this, from the Transportation Security Administration:

Fireworks are not permitted in checked or carry-on baggage.

But the Center for Plain Language also did things a little bit differently this time around. Rather than just grading compliance (Does the agency appoint someone to oversee their plain language endeavors? Is there a way for the public to give the agency feedback about their language?), they gave each agency a grade for compliance, writing samples and information design. The latter is a web-inspired category that’s all about using typeface and white space and graphics to make complex ideas easier to digest. In that area, most agencies came away with C’s.

“They just don’t write that well,” Annetta Cheek, co-founder of the Center for Plain Language, says about government employees. “There’s a lot of feeling that if it doesn’t look complex and legal maybe it’s not legal … It’s just counter to the culture of the government, and people struggle to write plainly.” When it comes to visual elements, she says that’s not even on most agencies’ radars. They’re all text and no pictures. “It will be a while before they dig themselves out of the hole and get to the high level that some private sector companies already have,” she says.

Cheek has been lobbying for Washington, D.C., denizens to speak simply with the public for the past 20 years. And she says that despite the government’s taste for overwrought sentences, “we are finally seeing some significant progress.”

The full report card is above. Cheek says that they’ll likely be dropping the compliance grade next year, since almost every agency has figured out how to follow the letter of the law (note all the A’s). And rather than letting the agencies cherry-pick samples to submit—which forces some skepticism about how much these grades really convey—the Center’s researchers will be making their own selections. The grades for writing were determined by feeding example documents through a software program that picked out red flags like long words, needless words and passive verbs. The information design scores were determined by two people independently scoring the documents’ visual elements.

The Act itself doesn’t include a process for oversight, which is why the Center for Plain Language developed this annual process for rewarding straightforward speech and holding jargon-lovers’ feet to the fire.

TIME

U.S. Women Leadership Ranking is Pathetic Compared to Other Countries

Democratic Women
Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images House Democratic women of the 114th Congress including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, pose for a picture on the House steps of the Capitol, Jan. 7, 2015.

We're not even close to the top

When it comes to women in leadership roles, the U.S. isn’t cutting it.

According to a new comparison by Pew, the U.S. ranks 33rd out of 49 high-income countries when it comes to women in the national legislature (20% of the House and Senate are women). When they expanded the comparison to 137 countries, the U.S. dropped to 83rd (these calculations were made were using data from mid-2014, but even when the most recent Congressional elections are taken into consideration, the U.S. only rises to 75th place.)

We did a little better when it comes to women in cabinet or government managerial positions: the U.S. ranked 25th out of 141 countries, and when the pool was narrowed to high-income countries, we tied for 12th place with Canada.

Pew also tracked “legislators, senior officials, and managers,” a category which includes corporate leaders, heads of nonprofits or unions, and policymakers. Among high-income countries, the U.S. was tied with Barbados, Tobago, and Trinidad for fourth place, but when the comparison was expanded to 125 countries with data available, the U.S. dropped to 16th place.

In other words, for all our striving, we’re not being particularly effective at electing female leaders compared to other countries. Especially compared to Rwanda, where 64% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies are held by women.

[Pew]

MONEY The Economy

The 2015 State of the Union Address In Under 2 Minutes

President Barack Obama highlighted the recovering economy as well as proposals for free community college, increasing trade with Cuba, and building more infrastructure.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 17

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Independent and third party candidates could break D.C. gridlock — if they can get to Washington.

By Tom Squitieri in the Hill

2. A new software project has surgeons keeping score as a way to improve performance and save lives.

By James Somers in Medium

3. The New American Workforce: In Miami, local business are helping legal immigrants take the final steps to citizenship.

By Wendy Kallergis in Miami Herald

4. Policies exist to avoid the worst results of head injuries in sports. We must follow them to save athletes’ lives.

By Christine Baugh in the Chronicle of Higher Education

5. Sal Khan: Use portfolios instead of transcripts to reflect student achievement.

By Gregory Ferenstein at VentureBeat

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Foreign policy isn’t public relations. The value of releasing the torture report outweighs the risks.

By Daniel Larison in the American Conservative

2. Innovation in design — not technology — might be the key to disrupting industries.

By Todd Olson in Medium

3. The simple notion of community potlucks is working to rebuild the torn fabric of Ferguson.

By Shereen Marisol Meraji at National Public Radio

4. A new poverty alleviation strategy is built on feedback and direction from the actual beneficiaries — putting people at the center of policy.

By Molly M. Scott in RealClearPolicy

5. Women are uniquely positioned to understand the impact of climate change around the world. They must have a seat at the table to set global policy.

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in the Aspen Journal of Ideas

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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