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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Government, 500 ways

It's April 15th, which means a lot of people will be complaining today about how much they pay in taxes. I know that no one likes paying taxes but whenever people complain about paying 'too much', I always wonder how much they would be willing to voluntarily pay for all the benefits they receive from the government. I've been thinking about this a lot because I was recently repeating to a friend my little tirade about my students not knowing what government does. He pointed out that a lot of people (especially, it seems, Republicans) are not aware of all the things that government does - sure, if you ask someone to think about it, they can probably come up with big services like police and military protection or public schools, but a lot of things that the government does are not that obvious to the average person, or at least, it's not obvious how it affects them directly.

As a policy economist, I believe that one of the most important roles for economists is to help inform public policy (note I didn't say 'influence' or 'drive' or even 'affect', I said 'inform' - I think we are most useful as objective analysts who are trained to think about trade-offs, incentives and unintended consequences that non-economists often overlook). So not surprisingly, I spend a lot of time in my Principles class talking about public policy, sometimes from the perspective of "government does X, why might that be?" and sometimes from the perspective of "now that we've talked about this market failure, what can government to do help solve the problem?". I've always just sort of assumed that students had a decent grasp on what government does, though I don't expect them to understand why. Now I'm realizing I may need to back up and spend more time on the what.

So I'm kicking around an idea for an assignment, maybe designed as a webquest or wiki-type thing, where students choose a government service, program, agency or policy and have to write something about it, including what it is, how it might affect their lives and, using what they have learned in the class, why it exists. What I'd really like is to have every student choose a different topic from a list I give them, if for no other reason than for them to see that there are literally hundreds of things the government does that potentially affect them. The list would have to get pretty specific - I'm thinking of policies as specific as 'tax deduction for mortgage interest' or 'seatbelt requirements' as well as broad services and programs like 'national defense' or 'unemployment insurance'. I'm not entirely sure I could come up with 500 different things but I bet I could come up with enough to make an impression on them...

1 comment:

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