This was a really good week, I think. Monday we did the data analysis exercise I’ve previously described. Wednesday we had a really excellent discussion on the nature of government.
In the past I asked students to spend an hour thinking about government and then from that reflection to write an essay of no more than 100 words to summarize their thinking. This has always been a good assignment, since the word limit forced students to think carefully about what they should include in their 100 words. This year I asked students to prepare for the discussion by doing the reflection and I suggested they might want to write notes though I didn’t require them to write a formal essay. I told them that for the first 10 minutes of class on Wednesday I would ask them to write a summary of their thinking. Wednesday in class after the initial 10 minutes, I asked students to give me a one sentence definition of government. I wrote a sample of those sentences down and they prompted a subsequent discussion. The discussion went really well. For whatever reason, the majority of the students defined government as I hoped they would: in the abstract. Only a handful defined government in terms of the institutions of U.S. government. Most did implicitly assume a democracy, but that wasn’t critical to their definitions. The collective view was that government was a cooperative arrangement among people to give up some rights in return for protection and other benefits. This definition provided a jumping off point to introduce the role of government in the economy.
The discussion induced a few students (political science majors?) to participate who hadn’t spoken up much in the past.
Friday was another hands-on exercise. I distributed a copy of Table B-81 from the 2005 Economic Report of the President, which is a summary of the U.S. Federal Budget. I asked pairs of students to analyze the table and identify the major categories of spending. I asked them to identify the following budget shares:
* National Defense
* Social Security
I pointed out that there was more to this than simply taking the line entries for each category since more than one line entry could legitimately be counted in each category.
I also asked them to identify the “other” major expenditure category (Interest on the public debt).
Then I asked them to figure out the budget shares for transfers to the poor and transfers to the elderly.
They didn’t have quite enough time to finish the assignment, so I asked them to complete their analysis over the weekend and prepare to report back to the class Monday.
N.B. (Monday): The students made several observations when we discussed the results today:
* How most of the federal falls into only five categories (defense, welfare, social security, healthcare and debt service);
* How little the federal government spends on education;
* How much of the federal budget is transfers.