Fixing Health Care? A Simulation in American Government

Today we have a guest post from Josiah Marineau, an assistant professor of political science at Campbellsville University. He can be contacted at josiah [dot] marineau [at] gmail [dot] com.

For my Introduction to American Government course, I designed a simulation of the legislative process in which students are tasked with debating different policy options for the U.S. healthcare system. The simulation is intended to  familiarize students to a key policy debate in contemporary U.S. politics.

The simulation will last two weeks. The first week will be preparation:  explaining the politics of the U.S. health care system, the main options for policymakers, and how the simulation  will work. Students will be introduced to the rules used in Model United Nations to govern debate and voting on bills. Students will use materials I provide to write policy position papers that advocate for a given policy solution to the challenges facing the U.S. health care system.

The simulation itself will run in the second week, over two class periods. Students will use their policy papers as the basis for debate and will give speeches in class in favor of or in opposition to proposed legislation. I expect them to form coalitions with other, like-minded students, and draft a bill that is amenable to a majority of the class.

As part of the debriefing, students will write a two-page memo reflecting on what they learned, what surprised them, what worked and what did not, and why. This memo will be due in the week after the simulation concludes.

I will grade the simulation as follows:

  • Quality of the policy position papers — 40%
  • Level of engagement in the simulation — 30%
  • Two-page reflection memo — 30%.

I will share the results of the simulation in a future post.

The Social Security Game

Today we have a guest post from Tyler Chance, a doctoral student and instructor at University of Missouri-St. Louis. He can be reached at  trc6df [at] mail [dot] umsl [dot] edu.

social-security-cardsSocial Security and its financial problems is one important policy issue that is probably not on the minds of most U.S. college students. The Social Security Game (http://socialsecuritygame.actuary.org/#make-your-choice-now ), created by the American Academy of Actuaries, is a fun activity that I use to teach my students about policy choices. The game’s goal is simple: fix Social Security so that Americans can receive retiree benefits after the year 2034. You can choose to reduce benefits, increase revenues, or apply a combination of both.  The game provides quick videos that explain the different viewpoints behind each policy alternative. After each decision you make the game uses estimates from the Social Security Office of the Chief Actuary to calculate how close you are to fixing the problem.

I like to use the game in my Introduction to American Government course, as well as in my Congressional Politics course, but it has wider applications. When I teach Introduction to American Government, the game demonstrates why paying attention to this policy issue is important and how it can be messy and hard to fix. I first have the class vote on whether we should reduce benefits or increase revenues. From there we vote on subcategories; for instance, if we voted to reduce benefits, we would then need to choose from a range of options provided by the game, such as increasing the full retirement age, reducing Cost-of-Living-Adjustments, and lowering benefits for future high-income retirees. A class in which students have diverse political ideologies quickly illustrates just how complicated the Social Security reform can become.

When I teach Congressional Politics, the game functions as a mock legislature. In this project, I play the role of a newly-elected president acting on a mandate to reform Social Security. I assign each student a specific legislator and have them research their stance on the issue and the demographics of their constituency (or you can provide students with that information on index cards).  I then encourage the students to work through the game with their constituencies in my mind.  So far, solving the problem of Social Security has been close to impossible for my classes, which allows me to show institutionalized gridlock and constituent-based constraints in practice.

The game can also be effective as an individual homework assignment. Have the students play the game and share experiences. Were they able to solve the problem? What route did they take—benefit reductions, increased revenues, or a mix of the two? Why did they choose a particular strategy?

Conceptual Understanding Through Experiments

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University. 

atomic-experimentActive engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.

In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.

If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.

I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.

For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:

Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.

For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia: http://veconlab.econ.virginia.edu/admin.htm.

The Brand New Subway Game

nyc-subway-mapFor anyone teaching geography, urban planning, or public policy, the Brand New Subway game is a fun digital tool. Created for a competition in honor of the book “The Power Broker,” it allows players to design New York City’s subway system. Players can create an entirely new system from scratch, or modify past, present, and future systems. The game also includes an option for creating subways from scratch for other U.S. cities.

Players get three kinds of continuous feedback on their designs:  the price of a single fare, the average weekly ridership, and the overall rating of the system. The overall goal is to design a system that attracts the largest number of riders and efficiently gets them to where they want to go at the lowest price. The trade-offs between ridership, operating cost, and system quality make the problem very difficult to solve.

The game’s user interface is fairly easy to figure out and players can save works in progress. A simple way to use this game: have student teams compete against each other to build the best subway. Include as part of the competition a presentation where each team defends its design against questions from other teams.

Brexit game update 2

This semester I’ve been running a Brexit simulation with Matthew (Memorial) and Chris (Keele). As we’re now moving towards the end phase, I thought it’d be useful to share our progress.

Last week, the UK group submitted their notification to invoke Article 50, which is the formal process for leaving the EU. That came with a letter setting out intentions for the terms of exit (you can read it here, on our FB page).

This week, the groups representing other EU member states have been putting together a response, which should be available very shortly.

That’ll lead up to a final session, face-to-face, in the week of 5 December to try and hammer out a deal.

The eagle-eyed among you will notice I am a bit vague about the date of this last element and this is indeed what I’m going to focus on here: logistics.

Continue reading

Too soon…?

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There is literally one photo that could be used to illustrate this story. But I used this one instead

You’ll have noticed that we’ve not posted about the result of the US Presidential election, despite four-fifths of us being American and all of us being political scientists. Let’s put that down to this being a blog about Learning & Teaching, rather than anything else.

However, as with Brexit (here and here), this elections opens up a huge opportunity to explore and investigate much political science. With that in mind, here are a couple of things to toy with.

Most obviously, the impending arrival of the Trump administration means that policy is going to change. Eight years ago, I ran a simulation with my UK students, formulating a new foreign policy doctrine for the incoming Obama administration, with groups representing the major arms of federal government and Congressional committees. This culminated in a three day final session, which produced a document just before Christmas 2008.

This works because of the necessary gap betweeen election and inauguration, so if you were to do this, then you’d have to get moving, as the premise collapses somewhat as you move into February. There’s lots of materials available, not least media coverage, so its not hard for students to pull together a brief. Indeed, my main challenge was that my students thought all Americans agree with each other (ha!) and struggled to get fully into the tensions between State and Defense (for example). I’ll take a bit of a leap here and assume that would be less of an issue this time around.

Obviously, such a simulation also works for domestic policy, either collectively or more singularly. One might imagine a game working on Obamacare reform/dismantling, to produce a proposal for the new President, which would require careful consideration of legal instruments and executive authority.

If all that is too much to bear, then the other big area of work concerns the discipline of political science as a whole. Whether for a freshman class trying to get to grips with it all, or a more advanced group, there have been some great pieces in the past week that invite class discussion about the nature and future of PoliSci. To take just four examples, Duck of Minerva  has a very thoughtful discussion, the Atlantic has an overview piece, as does Politico and Will Jennings and Martin Lodge here in the UK consider how this relates to Brexit. Lots in these to get balls rolling.

So there you go; lots of learning moments. Not to mention a very graphic demonstration of the importance of fall-back positions, both in the classroom and outside.