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History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Tag: economics

Brexit: Connecting it to Classrooms

This week’s Brexit vote was a shock to many and has been cast as the result of many forces. Here are some short commentaries put together by faculty at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. They cover a range of subjects: NATO, oil markets, identity, the future of the UK, to name a few. These can be read quickly, but provide a range of interesting academic and personal viewpoints.

Although the United Kingdom was not part of the currency union, the underlying economic tension of a single European currency is one of several significant forces pulling at the threads of the European Union. Covering this complicated topic might seem daunting for high school classrooms, but Choices covers this topic concisely and clearly in its curriculum Dilemmas of Foreign Aid: Debating U.S. Policy. A case study examines the ongoing economic crisis in Greece, a crisis exacerbated by the Greek government’s desire to remain part of the European Union and the currency union.

This brief commentary by Professor Mark Blyth in Athens on the Brexit covers the currency tensions, but focuses in detail on the backlash against the EU, elites, and globalization from the bottom third of the income distribution.

Money in Politics

“Elections should be determined by who has the best ideas, not who can hustle the most money from the rich and powerful.” There are the words of Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democrat nomination for the 2016 presidential election, famous for being a self-described democratic socialist and the longest serving independent in Congress. While Sanders is known for pushing political boundaries, his views on money in politics are not exactly radical. A recent CBS-New York Times poll has shown that a whopping 84 percent of people (90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans) think that money has too much influence on political campaigns today. 46 percent of respondents believed that the system for funding political campaigns is so flawed it must be completely rebuilt.

Although campaign financing did not rank high on the list of most important problems facing the United States (the economy and jobs, predictably, dominated the poll), campaign funding is becoming an important talking point in the long run up to next year’s election. For example, Hillary Clinton, the predicted front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has made campaign financing a key element of her campaign. “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all—even if it takes a constitutional amendment,” Clinton said at an event in April 2015.

The controversy around money in politics revolves largely around recent developments in laws about campaign funding. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that there cannot be limits on third-party spending on political campaigns. This ruling was based on the First Amendment. But why is third-party political spending important? What is the public’s concern?

The New York Times released the following video, explaining “the murky process of campaign contributions and the impact of anonymous donations on the political system.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 11.25.31 AM

In many ways, the question of campaign finance is similar to many other questions we ask about the government, the United States, and the world we live in. Decisions about issues like how money in politics should (or should not) be regulated revolve around values. Values play a key role when defining the broad parameters of public policy. What do we believe about ourselves? What matters most to us? When strongly held values come into conflict, which are most important? Equality or free speech? The democracy of changing a system that most people believe to be in need of an overhaul, or the stability of maintaining a system that is not ideal but works? Some values fit together well. Others are in conflict. Governments and their citizens are constantly being forced to choose among competing values in their ongoing debates about public policy.

The Options Roles Play in Choices curriculum units not only invites students to identify and express the key values present in different policy perspectives or options, it also creates a framework where students can identify and prioritize their own values.  As the United States enters this long campaign period, recognizing values and how they relate to policy will be a vital part of being an engaged citizen and choosing a government that will help create the kind of future you want to see.

 

Related resources from the Choices Program:

Considering the Role of Values in Public Policy is an activity that uses “value cards” to analyze how political values play a part in civic life.

U.S.RoleStudentThe U.S. Role in a Changing World is a full-length curriculum unit where students reflect on global changes, assess national priorities, and decide for themselves the role the United States should play in the world today. It places U.S. policy in global perspective, inviting students to decide how the United States should frame its future.

A Changing Cuba

Since December 17, 2014, when Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations after over fifty years without any diplomatic ties, Cuba has dominated U.S. headlines. Some people see this historic shift as the latest in a series of short, dramatic periods of change that characterize Cuban history—starting with Cuba’s struggles for independence from Spain and U.S. occupation at the turn of the twentieth century to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that continues to this day. These people view Cuba as a “place frozen in time,” characterized by vintage cars and crumbling buildings. But in reality, Cuba is constantly changing.

Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow

“Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow.” Bruce McCall, The New Yorker.

For instance, Netflix received a lot of attention earlier this year for announcing that it would make its TV and movie streaming service available in Cuba. The announcement was one of the first from many U.S. companies lining up to do business in Cuba as U.S. restrictions are lifted. As many critics noted, the Netflix announcement was primarily symbolic, for only about 5 percent of Cubans currently have full access to the global internet. Furthermore, Netflix would cost users $7.99 per month, which is almost half of the average Cuban’s monthly salary.

But less well-known is that Cubans have been watching shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black for years, albeit illegally. Despite limited access to internet and outside media (both due to government censorship and the U.S. embargo), Cuban citizens have developed various strategies for accessing the news and entertainment they want. Many Cubans pay a small fee to receive what is called El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Packet), an external hard drive containing downloaded newspapers, movies, TV shows, music, sports, magazines, and other content produced in countries around the world. A new paquete is produced at the end of every week. Some have called this creative way of accessing media Cuba’s “offline internet.”

In addition to initiatives like el paquete that come from the Cuban people, the government has been making changes that originated well before negotiations to restore relations with the United States began. Since becoming Cuba’s president in 2008 after his brother Fidel stepped down from a nearly 50-year hold on power, Raúl Castro has passed a number of significant reforms, gradually but fundamentally transforming the Cuban economy and society. In this video interview with Choices, former research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Bustamante discusses some of these many reforms.

 

[mediacore height=”225″ public_url=”https://brown.mediacore.tv/media/what-economic-changes-did-raul-castro-make-when-he-became-president-of-cuba” thumb_url=”https://mediacorefiles-a.akamaihd.net/sites/11066/images/media/3622825l-AnZZfq0Z.jpg” title=”What economic changes did Raúl Castro make when he became president of Cuba in 2008?” width=”400″]

 

While the recent shift in U.S.-Cuba relations is indeed a major turning-point for Cuba, the country—both its people and its government—has not been idly waiting for the United States to change its policies before making changes of its own. Yet many questions remain about what Cuba’s future holds. How will the economic changes in Cuba affect ordinary Cubans across the island? Will these economic reforms be paired with greater political freedoms? Will Cubans still have access to free health care and education? How will Cuba relate to other countries, particularly the United States?

 

History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for CubaChoices new curriculum History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for Cuba helps students understand Cuba’s most recent economic, social, and political changes with a historical framework stretching back to the country’s precolonial past. The curriculum puts special emphasis on the many perspectives Cubans on the island have about their country’s history and its future.

Mexico: Searching for a Safe Future

Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

 

In September 2014, in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, first-year students from the teacher training college of Ayotzinapa came into conflict with the police, who fired on their bus. During the confrontation, forty-three of these students disappeared. The remains of only one of the students have been found.

Guerrero is known as one of the poorest and most violent states in Mexico. Its inhabitants live under the constant pressure of poverty and fear. The following video by The New Yorker shows that the abduction of the students of the Ayotzinapa Normal School is part of a long-ignored history of insecurity and pain in Guerrero.


Note: this video contains some disturbing content and images.Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 10.51.20 AM

 

The abduction has shaken the world. Not only has it shown the violence against young innocents (in stark contrast to the common narrative of Mexico’s violence being enacted between drug cartels and national security forces only), it has also shown the striking complicity of the central government in brutality against ordinary citizens. The Mexican government’s claims that the students were murdered by drug-traffickers after being kidnapped by police, and their promises that municipal government officials will be tried have been greeted with scorn. Witness testimony suggests that, in addition to local police forces, military personnel from a nearby base were also present at the confrontation. But the government refuses to investigate the military. Many people in Mexico feel that this symbolizes the failure of the government to ensure the safety of its citizens and to take responsibility for the violence. For some, this seems to be proof that the federal government is deeply implicated in the violence.

 

Protests in November 2014 in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The sign reads, “Not only 43. We are more than 120 million Mexicans calling for justice.” Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

Protests in November 2014 in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The sign reads, “Not only 43. We are more than 120 million Mexicans calling for justice.” Miriana Moro (CC BY 2.0)

 

Unsurprisingly, protests have broken out across Mexico. The cries of the protesters reflect various types of pain, anger at multiple injustices. There have been links made to the government’s violent suppression of student demonstrations in 1968, known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. Proponents of greater autonomy for Mexico’s indigenous populations, such as the famous EZLN or Zapatista Army who led armed rebellions against the central government in the 1990s, have added cries for economic equality, land reform, and more local power. These people have joined together in common frustration at a government that has earned their deep mistrust. For most, the abductions signify yet another instance of state-sponsored violence, widespread impunity, and the failure of the government to perform the most basic terms of the social contract—to protect its people. In light of this, many have begun to question the legitimacy of the national government, and there have been calls for revolution.

 

A march in solidarity with Ayotzinapa. The EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) fights for greater rights for indigenous communities and increased economic equality across Mexico. They have established thirty-two autonomous communities in Chiapas, where there have been documented improvements to gender equality and public health. Somos El Medio (CC BY 2.0)

 

Ultimately, the Ayotzinapa kidnapping has brought a history of tensions to a head. The Mexican people are asking what the future of their country can be. How can they secure their families and themselves from vast, unpunished violence? How will crime, corruption, and poverty be addressed? Can the central government, a body whose public support and citizen trust is corroding, play a part in creating this future? While international bodies like the UN have condemned how the Mexican government has handled the case, the U.S. government has been largely silent. Human rights organizations were outraged when U.S. President Obama did not mention the case during a meeting with Mexican President Peña Nieto in January 2015. This begs even more questions—what should Mexico’s relationship with the United States look like as the country moves forward? Can the U.S. government be trusted to partner in protecting the lives and interests of the Mexican people? What effects might this have on trade, foreign investment, and the lives of Mexican immigrants living across the U.S.-Mexico border?

These are the questions we ask students to grapple with in the latest edition of Between Two Worlds: Mexico at the Crossroads. Students learn about Mexican history from the Olmecs through Spanish colonization and the fight for independence, investigate the economic and political changes the country encountered after independence, and consider some of the challenges Mexico faces today. Students then examine three options for Mexico’s future in a role play. They use their knowledge of Mexico’s history and current challenges to present arguments about who is responsible for Mexico’s problems; how crime, violence, corruption, and inequality should be addressed; how the United States should be perceived; and what the role of the central government should be in building Mexico’s future. Finally, students design their own options for Mexico’s future, sharing their opinions on what Mexico’s policies and priorities should be. Learn more about the unit here.

Why is Nigeria important?

Street in Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria (Zouzou Wizman CCby2.0)

Street in Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria (Zouzou Wizman CCby2.0)

Choices recently released a Teaching with the News lesson on Nigeria and Boko Haram. In fact, Nigeria has been a country of interest in the Choices writers’ room this year—from this free lesson on the largest security threat faced by the country to inclusion as one of the key case studies in our soon-to-be-released full-length curriculum unit on climate change. So why is Nigeria a place worth studying?

 

1. It has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Nigeria is one of only two African countries in the list of 3G (or Global Growth Generators) countries. These countries have been identified as attractive places for investment because of the incredible growth potential they have. In fact, Citigroup predicts that Nigeria will have the highest average growth in GDP in the world between 2010 and 2050. Not only does this anticipated growth imply that Nigeria may be a model for economic development for other countries in the developing world, it also means that Nigeria is bound to have more bargaining power in the international system and increasingly important relations with countries like the United States. Despite these prospects, however, there is vast economic inequality (particularly between the poor north and relatively more affluent south) and corruption is rife.

 

2. It has great cultural richness and diversity.

Nigeria’s cultural richness is evident in the arts. Nigerian music is enjoyed throughout the continent, with legends like Fela Kuti forming a cornerstone of African music. Nigerian cinema is also important. “Nollywood” is the second largest film industry in the world, ahead of the United States and behind India. Finally, Nigeria has been a hub for literary ingenuity—boasting Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, celebrated author Chinua Achebe, and popular writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Nnedi Okorafor.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQBC5URoF0s

Nigeria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. Ethnicities in Nigeria include Yoruba (21% of the population), Hausa (21%), and Igbo (18%) as well as many smaller ethnic groups, and Christianity, Islam, and traditional African religions are practiced widely. This diversity is one of Nigeria’s great strengths, but has also been a source of conflict. In 1967, after a coup by soldiers from the north, a region that tends to be majority Hausa and Muslim, the Igbo-dominated southeast tried to secede from Nigeria and become the Republic of Biafra. As a result, the country was torn by civil war (known as the Biafran War) until the Biafrans were defeated in 1970. More recently, economic inequality between the north and south of Nigeria has created new religious and ethnic tensions, which have perpetuated the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist insurgency, Boko Haram.

 

3. It holds important natural resources.

Nigeria is the twelfth largest petroleum producer and has the tenth largest proven oil reserves. In 1971, it became a member of OPEC, an organization of oil-exporting nations that is famous for the price-inflating 1973 embargo in response to U.S. support of Israel. Nigeria’s oil reserves have certainly been a source of many of its successes (especially its growing influence) but have also led to many of the nation’s problems. Economic inequality, ethnic tension and mistrust, and the creation of a political culture of corruption can all be linked to the country’s oil wealth and the complications with governing it—making Nigeria a potential example of the “resource curse” discussed by political scientists and economists.

Oil production has also wreaked havoc on the local environment. Poor safety procedures by companies like Shell have gone largely unpunished and have damaged water supplies and polluted the air in the Niger River Delta. Gas flaring (burning the natural gas that is a byproduct of drilling) has received particular criticism and led to the rise of local community action against oil companies. Nigerian women’s groups in particular have been important in fighting against these practices, which not only degrade the immediate environment but also result in massive greenhouse gas emissions that damage the global atmosphere.

 

“Social conditions in Nigeria bring to light how women are especially vulnerable to climate change and that they play an important role in resisting environmental degradation.”

~ Climate Change and Questions of Justice (coming soon)

 

4. It is one of the historic centers of African Unity.

In 1960, Nigeria gained independence from Britain, and in 1963, after parts of British Cameroon decided to unite with Nigeria rather than with French Cameroon, it became a Federal Republic with Nnamdi Azikiwe as its first president.

Nnamdi Azikiwe and Princess Alexandra of Kent at Nigeria's Independence ceremony (Care2 CCbySA2.0)

Nnamdi Azikiwe and Princess Alexandra of Kent at Nigeria’s Independence ceremony (Care2 CCbySA2.0)

Azikiwe was a leader in the Pan-African Movement. Pan-Africanism was an ideology shared by important African and African American figures like Kwame Nkrumah and W.E.B. Du Bois, and it focused on a shared identity among those of African descent. This took particular importance during the decades of decolonization on the continent, where leaders of liberation movements and newly independent countries drew on the ideals of “collective self-reliance” to develop a united front against colonial forces. Azikiwe was one of the founders of the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union, or AU), a body that was instrumental in providing continent-wide support for liberation movements in countries that were late to achieve independence or majority rule (such as Zimbabwe and South Africa). This organization later came to be seen by many as a “dictators’ club,” where undemocratic and violent rule by many post-independence governments was ignored in favor of solidarity and a continued effort to limit the involvement of the United States and Europe in African affairs.

 

See the free Teaching with the News lesson, Nigeria and Boko Haram: Inequality, Injustice, Insurgency.

For more on liberation movements in Africa see our full-length unit, Colonization and Independence in Africa.

For more on economic growth, trade, and power see our full length unit, International Trade: Competition and Cooperation in a Globalized World.

Scotland votes on independence

On Thursday, the population of Scotland will be voting in a referendum to decide on whether the nation will secede from the United Kingdom. “Should Scotland be an independent country?” says the ballot paper, and until recently it has seemed that the answer would be an inevitable “no”. However, the pro-independence “Yes” campaign has led an impressive grassroots effort to incite the optimism of the Scottish people, leading to a recent poll placing them ahead of the “No” or “Better Together” campaign.

Campaign posters battle for space in Scotland. Image by The Justified Sinner (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via flickr

Campaign posters battle for space in Scotland. Image by The Justified Sinner (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via flickr

Indeed Scotland’s is a unique independence movement, relying not on traditional nationalist ideology or the heroism of overcoming an oppressor, but rather claiming that an independent Scottish government can do more for it’s people than the elected Scottish representatives in a British government. The “Yes” campaign is about not having to share oil revenue from the North Sea with the rest of Britain, being able to define policy without the involvement of those south of the Scottish border, and not having to put up with a government that is seen as not representing the interests of the Scottish people (Scotland tends to disproportionately vote for the Labour party, while the more populous England tends to vote in preference of the Conservative government in place in Westminster now).

The “No” campaign, on the other hand, hails pragmatic caution. It points to the problems with currency (while an independent Scotland may keep using the British pound, it seems that they would not have a seat at the table that decides on monetary policy and determines the value of the currency). Furthermore, should Scotland gain independence it would have to re-apply for its membership in the European Union—a membership that is very important for trade and economic development. It is not clear whether Scotland would regain this membership easily, or what agreements it would have to make to achieve this. Even the North Sea oil (what will be the pivot of an independent Scottish economy) has turned out to be less appealing, with technical experts pointing out that reserves are quickly diminishing and that the oil cannot be relied upon to prop up an entire country. With this economic insecurity, banks and businesses have threatened to move south should the referendum end in a “Yes.”

English, Scottish and Irish flags combine to form the Union Jack. Image by guilherme Paula (public domain) via wikimedia

English, Scottish and Irish flags combine to form the Union Jack. Image by Guilherme Paula (public domain) via wikimedia

One of the reasons that the “Yes” campaign and the Scottish National Party (SNP) are such a unique independence movement is because Scotland is not a colony. The Scottish people are not oppressed or overpowered by an imperialist power. They have a democratic stake in the British government, and they are treated as equal citizens. We can contrast this with the colonies in Africa, who were not fighting only for independence and the right to govern themselves but also for the overthrowing of a racialized system that established Africans as lesser beings. In the Choices unit Colonization and Independence in Africa, case studies on colonies and how they gained independence highlight this racism. In one of the primary sources used in the unit, a Ghanaian journalist points out that an aim of British colonial policy was “to suppress the educated African who is too articulate to be convenient to British repression.”

Even the independence movement in the United States, which did not have the same racial elements, compares unsatisfactorily to the Scottish issue. A More Perfect Union: American Independence and the Constitution considers how the American revolution grew out of discontent over the influence of the British Parliament in the colonies. As they became increasingly frustrated by the distance between them and Parliament, “colonists began to ask if they were obligated to obey laws passed without their consent.” When the Britain tightened its control over expansion in the colonies, imposed taxes, and enforced a staunch anti-smuggling regime, this anger turned into vast resistance of British controls. It is a fun oversimplification to say that the American Revolution was caused by taxes, but it is more realistic to argue that these taxes represented an oppressive British regime that was in no way accountable to the colonists and was out of touch with the situation in the colonies. This was the source of rebellion.

Realizing the differences between the Scottish “Yes” campaign and other independence movements makes the question of Scottish secession from the Union all the more complicated. It brings up new questions about how we define a country, how we consider the rights to self-determination, how we think about the problems of proportional or representative democracy. Should we keep drawing new borders until people feel appropriately represented by their governments? Where do we stop if we start doing this? How do we understand the roles of international organizations who seem to be a form of global government, if we believe that political decisions can only be made by a tightly localized government? Is there a case for other independence movements that have (like Scotland’s) up until now been dismissed as impractical or unlikely, such as in Texas or Quebec? Do the concerns raised by the Scottish independence movement help us to understand some U.S. modes of governance, such as state government and how the union works?

Rally for Scottish Independence. Image by Martainn MacDhomhnaill (CC BY-NC 2.0) via flickr

Rally for Scottish Independence. Image by Martainn MacDhomhnaill (CC BY-NC 2.0) via flickr

For up-to-date happenings surrounding the Scottish independence referendum as well as in-depth analysis, visit the BBC’s Scotland Decides page or Al Jazeera’s Scotland page.

Other interesting articles include Something extraordinary is happening in Scotland (from the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog) and Fate of United Kingdom hangs in balance after new Scotland polls (from South African paper, The Mail & Guardian).

 

More Choices units that deal with the theme of self-determination:

 

How The Economic Machine Works

Here’s a fantastic video that explains how an economy works:

http://youtu.be/PHe0bXAIuk0

At 30 minutes, it’s on the long side, but it covers everything from the basic building blocks of an economy to more complicated concepts like short-term and long-term debt cycles. (Since it’s on YouTube, you have the option to share or embed a certain section of the video by changing the start time.)

On a related note, be sure to check out our interview with Professor Mark Blyth (Brown University) on the 2008 financial crisis.

 

 

Economic Literacy


Since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, The Choices Program has received numerous requests to develop curriculum materials for high school classrooms about international economics, the global financial system, competing economic theories, etc. Creating curriculum is a challenging process regardless of the topic, but the general lack of coverage of economics information in high school makes it a steeper slope to climb. Introducing students to what, for many, is a completely new academic discipline is a daunting task.

What did we do?

Step 1: Ask an Expert

Choices started with an expert on the international political economy. We sat down at the Watson Institute to do an interview with Professor Mark Blyth about some of the economic principles behind the globalized economy.

Step 2: Use New Media to Clarify Information

Choices used new media and animations to help emphasize and illustrate the points Blyth makes during his interview.

Step 3: Connect the Expert with High School Classrooms

Choices has a long-standing mission to bring high quality content on international issues to high school classrooms.

Blyth’s videos on the global economy accompany International Trade: Competition and Cooperation in a Globalized World. Blyth also took the leading role in Austerity, an editorial video produced by The Watson Institute—worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet.

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