TIME Aging

That Ageless Look

In Hollywood, it’s the ultimate prize. In real life, not so much

According to her birth certificate, Sandra Bullock turned 51 last month. But because she looks exactly the same as she did in Miss Congeniality, a movie filmed back in the 20th century, BuzzFeed deemed her “immortal” and everyone else routinely calls her “ageless.” Bullock is just one of a number of celebrities in their 40s and 50s who’ve had birthdays recently but have not gotten older, unlike the rest of us in their age bracket. Take Halle Berry. One website put a photo of her 20 years ago next to one of the newly 49-year-old Berry and dared us to choose which was which. “This Is What 49 Looks Like,” it said. If that’s what 49 looks like, I must be 71.

And how about Tom Cruise? You can click through slide after slide of him looking identical decade after decade, in Mission Impossible film after Mission Impossible film. It’s like Groundhog Day, but some of us are waking up older, while our cultural signposts don’t change. The other day, I walked out the door to find a totally nude 57-year-old Sharon Stone on the front page of the New York Post. Even accounting for Photoshop and Stone’s exceptional genetics, her body looks disconcertingly the way it did in Basic Instinct in 1992. My elder daughter wasn’t even a thought when that movie came out. This month she’s going to college, and she and Stone look a little like sisters.

This endless agelessness is particularly unnerving because middle age is a time of such change in your body, in your identity, in the way people see you. It actually feels a lot like another adolescence–a period when you’re hyperconscious of how you compare to your peers and how they’re aging. Like a teen, you even have a bit of an obsession with photos because you’re not sure exactly what you look like in the world. Is that really my neck–or is it just the light? Who is that woman? And yes, you look at the stars you grew up with, the ones you saw in films and on TV when you were all young. When they don’t seem to change, even as you do, it adds to the dissonance, the clanging disparity between your mind’s view of yourself and your new physical reality.

Of course, we know that the rich and well known have always looked more “rested” than the rest of us. Stylists of every kind, nutritionists, personal trainers and retouching can do that. But even a generation ago, famous faces evolved. Look at a picture of Grace Kelly at age 52 in the early 1980s. She looks like a beautiful, well-tended middle-aged woman. Today she’d look old for her age.

The goal now is to ward off aging while you are still young, using all the magical nonsurgical options medicine has to offer, like preventive Botox that starts in your 20s, or microneedling, in which tiny sterile needles pierce the skin and trick the body into initiating skin repair. Or how about the process whereby your own plasma is injected into your face, the “vampire facial.” Celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who is just 34, are already talking openly about using some of these techniques. Kardashian even went on camera while getting a vampire facial. It’s easy to imagine her and her famous friends looking the way they do now right into their late 50s.

Eventually these procedures will become less expensive, and ordinary people my daughter’s age will have these options and the dilemmas that go with them. Already anti-aging is starting to be considered maintenance, like coloring your hair. And it’s partly a survival tactic. In an era when 20-somethings start billion-dollar companies, youth is prized and looking older can have an economic cost. My friends and I find ourselves openly debating tactics that we used to make fun of. Is it too late for Botox? Does fat-freezing work? And how much time do you have to spend in the gym to keep the body of a 35-year-old after 50? It’s all so exhausting. But members of the next generation have it tougher. They’ll have to ask, Do I want to spend my youth trying not to get old? And when do we get to stop? I was kind of looking forward to getting off the maintenance treadmill someday. For my girls, that day might be never. I’ve already seen “Sexy at 70” headlines. Will everyone be expected to go to their graves looking hot?

I also have to wonder what else we are retarding along with age. How do you move on if you’re working so hard to stay the same? And besides, if you’ve known the ache of watching a daughter pack up for college, you know you can’t stop the clock. Nor would I switch places with her. My girl’s options are endless; her beauty is effortless. But she’s not convinced of that. Dizzy on a buffet of possibility, she and her peers believe they have to be, and do, everything at once. That’s the gift and the burden of youth. Like the rest of us, they’ll have to learn how to choose what’s worth holding on to and what to let go.

This appears in the August 31, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Gadgets

7 Great Father’s Day Gifts for 7 Different Kinds of Dads

Show the old man how to be a kid again by giving him a new toy

What do you get a father who has a kid as great as you? If your answer is “another tie,” then you’re not as great as you think you are. Instead, you should give your father something he’s never even thought about before, because the man works hard, and can probably buy anything he wants, anyhow. What he really wants is to be appreciated for putting up with your hijinks for all these years.

The best way to do that is to recognize him as more than just the guy who changed your diapers, coached your soccer team and taught you to drive, and instead as someone with interests all his own. For a little inspiration, here are seven dad stereotypes with a gift idea to match. Some of them are expensive, but hey, it’s not my job to tell you how much you should love your old man.

The Drinker: Every old fella loves a cold beverage on a hot day — whether it’s a macro beer, micro brew, or just a can of soda. No mere koozie, Arctican is a $19 drink-cooling extraordinaire that keeps beverages three times colder using a double layer of vacuum-insulated steel and an ice-cooled base. It’s some pretty chill technology for a 21st century pop to be hauling around, whether it’s by the barbecue or on the riding mower.


The Duffer: Mark Twain reportedly said “Golf is a good walk spoiled,” but your dad is only a humorist when he claims to have finished a round under par. Arccos Golf might just make an honest man out of him. A GPS-enabled iOS app, Apple Watch app, and collection of club grip sensors, this $399 learning tool will improve his game or… or… or his game stinks. No pressing of buttons or tapping on screens, you just play your round and the app collects data like stroke count, shot distance, and and club average.

ArccosArccos Golf Apps

The Lawn Mower Man: For all the money you’d spend on a Robomow robotic lawnmower, you could probably get your dad a very good landscaping service for your dad. But no man worth his grass stains derives joy from seeing another guy tending to his lawn when he can have a machine do it instead. Starting at $1,199, Robomow’s RC line connects to dad’s smartphone via Bluetooth, has steel blades, an edging mode that actually reaches beyond the wheels, can conquer 20-degree slopes, and has a rain sensor so it knows the most crucial part of lawn care: when not to mow. Speaking of that, it can also be locked via PIN-code. So no, you can’t take his new wheels for a spin.


The Retro Gamer: We’ve heard it all before. “When I was a your age, I had a paper route, and I had to dodge dogs, bees, jack-hammering road workers, Model T cars, hearses, and the grim reaper to make some spending money.” Give him the gift of video game nostalgia with NES30, an authentic-feeling game controller that can connect to everything from mobile devices to game consoles via Bluetooth and USB. Programmable to work with touchscreen games, the controller can be paired with a second NES30 to play multi-player games on iOS, and it can even step in for Wiimotes on Nintendo’s gaming system. With four buttons on the top and two shoulder triggers, the $45 accessory is not a perfect imitation of the original Nintendo Entertainment System gamepad — it’s actually better than before.


The Music Man: At some point in your life — probably around the time you start changing the words to your favorite songs so as not to scandalize your own child — you realize that your dad’s taste in music isn’t all that bad. When you reach that stage, get dad a JBL Charge 2+. This rugged, rubbery, $149 Bluetooth speaker is splash-proof, making it great for all sorts of uses, from washing the car to working in the yard to fixing a leak under the sink. With excellent bass and a 12-hour battery, it rocks hard and long. Just be sure to wipe it down when you’re done with all those chores. There’s no reason to make a mess of his things when you borrow them.

JBLCharge 2+

The Lazy Boy: If you want to do something special for dad this year, take his lineup of old, tired remote controls and lay them to rest in the back of his entertainment center. Swapping these broken-buttoned clickers with a universal remote like the Logitech Harmony Smart Control is not only more humane, it’s also better for your home in the long run. That’s because Logitech just announced a free software upgrade that makes all its hub-based remotes compatible with its home control software. Translation: This $129 universal television remote just gained the ability to connect your smartphone to more than 270,000 home and entertainment devices, like the Nest Learning Thermostat and Philips Hue LED bulbs. (And as a bonus, now you have a whole other category of gifts to buy on future Father’s Days.)

LogitechLogitech Harmony

The Numbers Guy: One thing every Dad can go for is a little more organization. If your old man is strapped with the newest tech from Apple, that means he’s aching for a quality Apple Watch dock. The only problem with that is there aren’t many out there, yet. Moxiware Apple Watch Dock Duo outdoes most others on the market because it provides a home for both the Apple Watch and an iPhone. (Question for product developers: Every Apple Watch requires an iPhone, so why are you bothering with making standalone watch docks?) Fitting Lightning-connector iPhones with and without cases, the stand can adjust to make sure any backing thickness can be accommodated. And if your Father’s Apple Watch is on back order, fear not: Moxiware’s dock can hold a regular watch in the meantime, and will ship in time for Father’s Day.

 Apple Watch Dock Duo
MoxiwareMoxiware Apple Watch Dock Duo
TIME Economy

The Real Way to Fix Finance Once and for All

Bull statue on Wall Street
Murat Taner—Getty Images

Changing the way financial institutions operate will require more than calculations and complex regulation

We live in an age of big data and hot and cold running metrics. Everywhere, at all times, we are counting things—our productivity, our friends and followers on social media, how many steps we take per day. But is it all getting us closer to truth and real understanding? I have been thinking about this a lot in the wake of a terrific conference I attended this week on “finance and society” co-sponsored by the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

There was plenty of new and creative thinking. On a panel I moderated in which Margaret Heffernan, a business consultant and author of the book Willful Blindness, made some really important points about why culture is just as important as numbers, particularly when it comes to issues like financial reform and corporate governance. As Heffernan sums it up quite aptly in her new book on the topic of corporate culture, Beyond Measure, “numbers are comforting…but when we’re confronted by spectacular success or failure, everyone from the CEO to the janitor points in the same direction: the culture.”

That’s at the core of a big debate in Washington and on Wall Street right now about how to change the financial system and ensure that it’s a help, rather than a hindrance, to the real economy. Everyone from Fed chair Janet Yellen to IMF head Christine Lagarde to Senator Elizabeth Warren—all of whom spoke at the INET conference; other big wigs like Fed vice chair Stanley Fischer and FDIC vice-chair Tom Hoenig were in the audience—agree more needs to be done to put banking back in service to society.

MORE: What Apple’s Gargantuan Cash Giveaway Really Means

But a lot of the discussion about how to do that hinges on complex and technocratic debates about incomprehensible (to most people anyway) things like “tier-1 capital” and “risk-weighted asset calculations.” Not only does that quickly narrow the discussion to one in which only “insiders,” many of whom are beholden to finance or political interests, can participate, but it also leaves regulators and policy makers trying to fight the last war. No matter how clever the metrics are that we apply to regulation, the only thing we know for sure is that the next financial crisis won’t look at all like the last one. And, it will probably come from some unexpected area of the industry, an increasing part of which falls into the unregulated “shadow banking” area.

That’s why changing the culture of finance and of business is general is so important. There’s a long way to go there: In one telling survey by the whistle blower’s law firm Labaton Sucharow, which interviewed 500 senior financial executives in the United States and the UK, 26% of respondents said they had observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace, while 24% said they believed they might need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct to be successful. Sixteen percent of respondents said they would commit insider trading if they could get away with it, and 30% said their compensation plans created pressure to compromise ethical standards or violate the law.

How to change this? For starters, more collaboration–as Heffernan points out, economic research shows that successful organizations are almost always those that empower teams, rather than individuals. Yet in finance, as in much of corporate America, the mythology of the heroic individual lingers. Star traders or CEOs get huge salaries (and often take huge risks), while their success is inevitably a team effort. Indeed, the argument that individuals, rather than teams, should get all the glory or blame is often used perversely by the financial industry itself to get around rules and regulations. SEC Commissioner Kara Stein has been waging a one-woman war to try to prevent big banks that have already been found guilty of various kinds of malfeasance to get “waiver” exceptions from various filing rules by claiming that only a few individuals in the organization were responsible for bad behavior. Check out some of her very smart comments on that in our panel entitled “Other People’s Money.”

MORE: The Real (and Troubling) Reason Behind Lower Oil Prices

Getting more “outsiders” involved in the conversation will help change culture too. In fact, that’s one reason INET president Rob Johnson wanted to invite all women to the Finance and Society panel. “When society is set up around men’s power and control, women are cast as outsiders whether you like it or not,” he says. Research shows, of course, that outsiders are much more likely to call attention to problems within organizations, since not being invited to the power party means they aren’t as vulnerable to cognitive capture by powerful interests. (On that note, see a very powerful 3 minute video by Elizabeth Warren, who has always supported average consumers and not been cowed by the banking lobby, here.)

For more on the conference and the debate over how to reform banking, check out the latest episode of WNYC’s Money Talking, where I debated the issue on the fifth anniversary of the “Flash Crash,” with Charlie Herman and Mashable business editor, Heidi Moore.

TIME Books

6 Books Bill Gates Recommended for TED 2015

Bill Gates
Bloomberg—Getty Images Bill Gates

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

The business magnate shares the best business book he's ever read

Bill Gates, long an avid reader, attended the TED conference again this year and continued his tradition of recommending books to fellow attendees.

1. Business Adventures, by John Brooks

Warren Buffett recommended this book to me back in 1991, and it’s still the best business book I’ve ever read. Even though Brooks wrote more than four decades ago, he offers sharp insights into timeless fundamentals of business, like the challenge of building a large organization, hiring people with the right skills, and listening to customers’ feedback. (Here’s a free download of one of my favorite chapters, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox.”)

2. The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin studies the lives of America’s 26th and 27th presidents to examine a question that fascinates me: How does social change happen? Can it be driven solely by an inspirational leader, or do other factors have to lay the groundwork first? In Roosevelt’s case, it was the latter. Roosevelt’s famous soft speaking and big stick were not effective in driving progressive reforms until journalists at McClure’s and other publications rallied public support.

3. On Immunity, by Eula Biss

The eloquent essayist Eula Biss uses the tools of literary analysis, philosophy, and science to examine the speedy, inaccurate rumors about childhood vaccines that have proliferated among well-meaning American parents. Biss took up this topic not for academic reasons but because of her new role as a mom. This beautifully written book would be a great gift for any new parent.

4. Making the Modern World, by Vaclav Smil

The historian Vaclav Smil is probably my favorite living author, and I read everything he writes. In this book, Smil examines the materials we use to meet the demands of modern life, like cement, iron, aluminum, plastic, and paper. The book is full of staggering statistics. For example, China used more cement in just three years than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century! Above all, I love to read Smil because he resists hype. He’s an original thinker who never gives simple answers to complex questions.

5. How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell

Business journalist Joe Studwell produces compelling answers to two of the greatest questions in development economics: How did countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China achieve sustained, high growth? And why have so few other countries managed to do so? His conclusion: All the countries that become development success stories (1) create conditions for small farmers to thrive, (2) use the proceeds from agricultural surpluses to build a manufacturing base that is tooled from the start to produce exports, and (3) nurture both these sectors with financial institutions closely controlled by the government.

6. How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff

I picked this one up after seeing it on a Wall Street Journal list of good books for investors. It was first published in 1954, but it doesn’t feel dated (aside from a few anachronistic examples—it has been a long time since bread cost 5 cents a loaf in the United States). In fact, I’d say it’s more relevant than ever. One chapter shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons. It’s a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds these days. A great introduction to the use of statistics, and a great refresher for anyone who’s already well versed in it.

This article originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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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 Apple

This Is How Terrifying It Was to Pitch Steve Jobs a New Idea

Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivering a keynote address to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on June 6, 2011.
Paul Sakuma—AP Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivering a keynote address to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on June 6, 2011.

“Are you smart? Are you going to waste my time?”

“The first time we met he walked into the room, looked around, realized that I was new, walked up to me and asked (all in one breath), “Are you smart? Do you know what you are talking about? Are you going to waste my time?”

So begins Brett Bilbrey’s 715-word response to the question “What was it like to deliver a presentation to Steve Jobs?” on the crowd-sourced Q&A site Quora.

It’s a response that has drawn some attention—315,000 views, 4,800 upvotes—since it was posted last month because Bilbrey was not just any third-party developer pitching a new app. He was a prolific Apple inventor and a key team manager whose name appears on more than 50 patents and whose engineers developed, among other products, Apple TV and the Mac Mini. From 2008 until his retirement in February he headed the company’s top-secret Technology Advancement Group charged with developing forward-looking technology for products of which he cannot speak.

But he can talk about what it was like to deal with a notoriously difficult boss.

Steve was wicked smart,” he writes. “I was always amazed at how sharp he was and how quickly he could focus on what was important. I don’t know ANYONE that even comes close to how good he was at being able to do that.”

“Don’t just read the story,” says The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple. “Read the comments too.”

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter at @philiped. Read his Apple AAPL coverage at fortune.com/ped or subscribe via his RSS feed.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME politics

Jeb Bush’s Sense and Sensibility

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

The candidate’s grown-up tone is a breath of fresh air amid so many strident conservative voices

In a week during which Rudolph Giuliani went crusader-ballistic questioning President Obama’s patriotism–indeed, questioning his upbringing–Jeb Bush gave a speech about foreign affairs, the third serious policy speech he’s given this winter. Giuliani got all the headlines, of course. That’s how you do it now: say something heinous and the world will beat a path to your door. And Bush’s speech wasn’t exactly a barn burner. His delivery was rushed and unconvincing, though he was more at ease during the question period. He was criticized for a lack of specificity. But Bush offered something far more important than specificity. He offered a sense of his political style and temperament, which in itself presents a grownup and civil alternative to the Giuliani-style pestilence that has plagued the Republic for the past 25 years.

It has been the same in each of Bush’s three big speeches. He is a political conservative with a moderate disposition. And after giving his speeches a close read, I find Bush’s disposition far more important than his position on any given issue. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air. I disagree with his hard line toward Cuba and the Iran nuclear negotiations, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say about reforming Obamacare. His arguments so far merit consideration, even when one disagrees with them.

There is none of John McCain’s chesty bellicosity. Bush makes no false, egregious claims, on issues foreign or domestic. He resists the partisan hyperbole that has coarsened our politics. He even, at one point in his foreign policy speech, praised Obama for the position he has taken on–get a map!–the Baltic states. He proposes a return to the bipartisan foreign policy that was operational when this nation was at its strongest. And he criticizes Obama for the right things: his sloppy rhetoric, his lack of strategy. You don’t say “Assad must go” and then let him stay. You don’t announce a “pivot” toward Asia–what are you pivoting away from? You don’t put human rights above national security, as Obama has done in his arm’s-length relationship with Egypt, which is actually fighting ISIS on the ground and in the air.

Bush’s economic vision is traditionally Republican. He believes the economy is more likely to grow with lower taxes than with government stimulus. He doesn’t bash the rich, but he doesn’t offer supply-side voodoo, either. The American “promise is not broken when someone is wealthy,” he told the Detroit Economic Club. “It is broken when achieving success is far beyond our imagination.” He is worried about middle-class economic stagnation, about the inability of the working poor to rise–his PAC is called Right to Rise. His solution is providing more opportunity rather than income redistribution. We’ll see, over time, what he means by that. And he favors reforming the public sector, especially the education and regulatory systems, as a way to create new economic energy. “It’s time to challenge every aspect of how government works,” he told a national meeting of auto dealers in San Francisco.

This would be a good argument to have in 2016. It is a fundamental challenge to what the Democrats have allowed themselves to become: the party of government workers rather than a defender of the working-, middle-class majority. Bush has already drawn fire for his record as an education reformer, with his support for charter schools and educational standards. But his argument goes beyond that to a more fundamental critique of government. He has praised the work of Philip K. Howard, whose book, The Rule of Nobody, is a road map for de-lawyering and rethinking the regulatory system.

Again, the way Bush talks about governmental sclerosis is the important thing. It’s no surprise he’s in favor of the Keystone pipeline and hydraulic fracking–he’s invested in fracking–but listen to this: “Washington shouldn’t try to regulate hydraulic fracking out of business,” he told the auto dealers. “It should be done reasonably and thoughtfully to protect the natural environment.” There is no call to blow up the Environmental Protection Agency or ignore science. But there is awareness of a radical truth: that there is no creative destruction in government. The civil service laws written in the 19th century, the regulations written before the information age, are ancient, slow-motion processes that have corroded the government’s ability to operate effectively.

Bush’s fate will tell us a lot about the Republican Party. He does not seem to be an angry man, and the need to screech has been the great Republican vulnerability in recent presidential campaigns. His candidacy takes crazy off the table–no nutso talk about vaccinations or evolution or the President’s patriotism. Even if you disagree with him, his civility demands respect.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.

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 Parenting

What Parents Can Learn from the 7-Year-Old who Survived a Plane Crash

Fund for Sailor Gutzler A Facebook fundraising page for Sailor Gutzler

Kids Are Capable of More than Adults Realize

No one can believe the bravery and pluck of 7-year-old Sailor Gutzler, the little girl who survived the crash of the small Piper PA-34 plane that killed her parents, sister and cousin, and then scrambled her way through the deep, dark woods to a stranger’s house for help on Dec. 2.

With a broken wrist. And no moon to guide her. And dressed for sunny Florida, but wandering through the chill of a Kentucky winter’s eve.

Her injuries were minor and she was released from the hospital to relatives the next day, but her story is still making headlines.

An expert on one of the talk shows said that in times of extreme stress, adrenalin kicks in, enabling us to go way beyond our normal capacities. As if Sailor was somehow beyond herself in that moment. Superhuman.

Because no one can imagine a 7-year-old being just, plain competent.

Sure, what she did was fantastic. But maybe ALL our kids are capable of being smart and resourceful, if only we give them a chance.

The thing is: we don’t. Underestimating kids has become our national pastime. We think they need us to wait with them at the bus stop, to organize their social life, to solve all their problems. An article in Parenting told parents never to let two friends play together unsupervised, even if they’re old enough to stay home alone: “You want to make sure that no one’s feelings get too hurt if there’s a squabble.”

That’s right. We’re told our kids can’t even handle a squabble without parental intervention.

With this kind of advice being shoved down our throats, I don’t blame parents for overprotecting. I do blame the fearmongering media for insisting that almost everything—a plastic bottle! a bad grade! a bike ride!—could somehow cripple our kids.

When, ironically, the ones really being crippled are the parents. Crippled with fear. Obviously, kids are more competent than we allow them to be: Until modern times, the parents were 13 year olds! They kept the species going! And to this day, says David Lancy, author of The Anthropology of Childhood, between 40 and 60% of the world’s toddlers are cared for by their older siblings, who may be just a year or two older than they are. We forget this when we worry that our kids need mom to pick up her 8 year old from the playdate a few blocks away.

There’s only one way I’ve found to fight that fear, and that’s with reality. In fact—promo alert— I’m about to host a reality show, World’s Worst Mom, starting Thursday night, Jan. 22, on Discovery Life.

Here’s what fear looks like: One mom I visit follows her 10-year-old daughter not just into the public bathroom, but into the stall, to keep her safe. Another wants to put videocameras throughout the house so she can make sure her six kids, aged 0-13, don’t sneak outside to play, even in the yard.

These aren’t bad moms, just terrified. They have no idea how competent their kids really are, because they’ve never let them go.

So my job is simple. I take the kids away from them. The 10 year old? I sent her to the park across the street park with her 12-year-old brother—something they’d never been allowed to do.

The kids of the mom who didn’t want them to go outside? I sent the three tweens down their suburban block, beyond where mom could see. Then I kept her in the house, while they set up a lemonade stand.

When all these kids came home—happy, sweaty, thrilled to have finally had even the most modest of adventures—I thought maybe the moms would be mad. Instead, they were out of their minds…with joy.

They were so proud of their kids, one of them actually grabbed me in her arms and twirled me around.

Now, obviously, it takes a lot more to get yourself out of a plane wreck than to run a lemonade stand. But at base what we’re talking about is this: Our kids are way more competent than we think. We cheat them—and us—when we don’t let them prove it.

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Think Tanks: What Are They Good For?

Hands on light bulb
Joos Mind—Getty Images

In a democracy desperate for new ideas and nonpartisanship, they might plan our future

In The Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld’s movie about his craft, Seinfeld reveals he always wanted to do a skit about think tanks. The comedian, always keen to deconstruct meaning, defines think tanks as: “It’s a tank… to think in…” And then he plots a skit where a think tank employee sitting in a bare room in a Rodin-like thoughtful pose is asked by colleagues if he is ready to go to lunch, only to respond that wait, wait, he isn’t done with his “work.” And then he suddenly is.

Seinfeld must have appreciated that Washington think tanks now find themselves in the spotlight, as the New York Times and other news outlets are taking a close look at the links between them and their funders, particularly foreign ones, raising the specter that they are just another form of influence-peddling organizations in disguise. I don’t think this is the case. I hope not, for my sake (I work at a think tank) and for the sake of our democracy. Most of the think tanks singled out have such diverse and competing funding bases that it’s hard to imagine them being overly swayed by any single donor. Still I confess that I’m glad that these reports have put the very important issue of institutional transparency back on our radars.

But the media attention also raised the larger Seinfeldian question of what exactly is a think tank and what is its role in our political system? It’s a question to which I have given a lot of thought, trying to come up with a better definition than Seinfeld’s crisp description. A few years ago, I was directing a growing program at a think tank—albeit one that is also a living presidential memorial and operates a bit differently than others—and I wanted to figure out how we could be more effective in our daily work. I called up colleagues at other organizations, including many I’d never met before, a few journalists, and a handful of policymakers to get a sense of when and how think tanks can impact policy issues. The results were enlightening, and I eventually wrote them down in a short book on think tank strategy.

In their most basic form, think tanks are part of the information flow in a democratic society, conducting research and analysis, and disseminating their findings and recommendations through publications and live gatherings that allow busy policymakers, advocates, journalists, and average citizens to hear diverse perspectives on important public issues. At their best they do even more, framing old issues in new ways and occasionally even coming up with actionable ideas to address some of the challenges and opportunities facing society. Harried policymakers—from cabinet secretaries to members of Congress and their staffs to civil servants implementing legislation—rarely have time to step back from the demands of the moment to conduct research and take a longer view on their portfolios. The best think tanks help break this inertia by injecting some long-term thinking and reassessments into Washington’s bloodstream.

The best think tanks also serve as hubs to bring together diverse groups that may not always speak with each other—politicians, civil servants, advocates, academics, journalists, and average citizens engaged with a particular subject. And some serve as conduits between universities, where a great deal of sophisticated but inaccessible research is done, and the larger public debate. Indeed, think tanks have proliferated in part because traditional academics often withdraw into abstract intramural scholarly debates divorced from day-to-day decision-making. The findings of scholarly research, too, are increasingly disseminated through niche publications that are hard for outsiders to use. Think tanks thus mind the gap between academia and Washington, providing a platform for researchers eager to see their work applied outside the ivory tower (which is looking more and more like an impregnable silo these days).

And much of the best work of think tanks involves building coalitions around new ideas. For instance, the Center for Global Development (one of the think tanks featured in the New York Times for accepting funding from the Norwegian government) was successful at creating a partnership among several institutions a few years ago to encourage research and production of vaccines for deadly diseases that mostly affect children in the developing world. Since drug companies had few market incentives to pursue these vaccines, the CGD worked with Harvard University, stakeholders from the governments of donor nations, and the World Bank to develop a blueprint for an Advanced Market Commitment, in which governments guaranteed that they would buy the vaccines if produced. Today this work has led to the production of millions of doses of vaccines to save the lives of children around the world.

Somewhat more modestly, I was involved in a very practical study a few years ago at the Wilson Center on how to leverage risk management tools to make the U.S.-Mexico border both more secure and more competitive. In the end, we involved two Mexican think tanks and the Los Angeles-based Pacific Council in producing two studies, which engaged key national, state, and local policymakers, business leaders, and civil society representatives on both sides of the border to come up with a blueprint for intelligent border management. Today, many of the ideas have become common practice, make the border more secure and improving the economy at the same time.

There are hundreds of other examples of think tank ideas that have effectively found their way into policy, largely because they have built coalitions of thinkers and doers, often drawing on the resources and knowledge in academia while engaging key stakeholders. The Brookings Institution, for example, has had a major impact in stimulating practical innovations to make U.S. cities better managed and more resilient; the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has helped extend the Earned Income Tax Credit to almost half of all U.S. states because of its work with state governments and local organizations; and the Heritage Foundation played a decisive role in laying the conceptual and organizational bases for the Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 attacks. Similarly, the Rand Corporation, a venerable think tank that was first established as an outfit within the Air Force and later spun off, conducted the background study that convinced the Department of Defense to abandon its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and include gays and lesbians as full members of the U.S. armed forces.

And think tanks are probably even more effective in helping frame issues so that policymakers and the public think about them differently—or examine them for the first time. The work of both the Carnegie Endowment and the Kennan Institute on Russia-U.S. relations has been critical to help us better understand the Putin enigma; research on global attitudes at the Pew Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs helps us understand what people in the United States and around the world think about each other; the Baker Institute in Houston has produced some of the most insightful work on energy futures.

Some critics have decried the rise of partisan and ideological agendas in think tanks, but the concern seems overwrought. Decision-making in our country is based on a contest of competing interests and opinions in the marketplace of ideas. It is healthy for political parties and interest groups to have their own affiliated research groups that can flesh out proposed policy prescriptions, whatever their political orientation, with more care and consideration than frontline politicians could ever do. The more well thought-out, competing voices in the debates over our nation’s future course, the better. And, as with any marketplace, it is the responsibility of consumers—in this case, journalists and policymakers—to be informed shoppers, to know the leanings of the organizations that they use as sources of information, and to demand transparency regarding their sources of funding and purpose. And think tanks would be wise to err on the side of disclosure to help this marketplace function well.

At the same time, in today’s hyper-partisan environment, Washington is also in need of a set of think tanks not driven by strong partisan or ideological agendas that can convene diverse points of view in a neutral, trusted setting. There has never been a greater need for organizations that can inject a measure of reason and rationality into otherwise polarized debates, bridging and brokering partisan divides, marshaling facts and dispassionate analysis. Indeed, in Washington, as Seinfeld would put it, there has never been a greater need for “a tank… to think in.”

Andrew Selee wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square. He is executive vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center and the author of What Should Think Tanks Do? A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact (Stanford, 2013). The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect an institutional position.

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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