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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Current Events Lesson - NSA Surveillance Scandal

This week's free lesson discusses the NSA surveillance scandal in Europe.  The leaked documents by Edward Snowden have already revealed how much the U.S. government spies on its own citizens, now he has informed world leaders and their citizens of how much the U.S. spies on them, too.

This should really come as no surprise to most people: the United States conducts massive anti-terrorist operations all over the globe.  But there is something unsettling about spying on your friends and sworn allies.  Despite this, it has also become apparent that all countries spy on their enemies and friends.  The United States just appears to do it more, and in this instance they got caught.

Such revelations have caused tension with dozens of countries throughout the world, particularly in Europe.  This could prove problematic for the United States because of impending trade negotiations.  Analysts, however, predict that although this is embarrassing for the United States, it will likely have no policy, diplomatic, or economic repercussions.

The videos I use for this lesson are included both here and as hyperlinks in the free download.  The first video (aired on ABCNews on 28 October) provides background information to the scandal.  The second video (aired on ABC7 WJLA on 29 October) provides information that will help fuel debate in your class.

  • The rights of privacy and protection guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment
  • Functions and organizations of the executive branch, especially the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency
  • Some people have called Edward Snowden a patriot, while others have called him a traitor.  How similar or dissimilar is Edward Snowden when compared to our founding fathers, who also advocated for liberty and freedom from the tyranny of government?  (One founding father you might want to highlight is Patrick Henry, who said "Give me liberty, or give me death")

I hope you and your class find this lesson engaging and invigorating.  Please leave me any questions or comments.  Enjoy!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Current Events Lesson - Debt Ceiling Crisis

The debt ceiling crisis seems to hang over the American (and world) economy about once a year.  This year, however, the struggle appears much more apocalyptic.

With the Republican-controlled House of Representatives demanding negotiations on deficit spending--particularly spending related to the Affordable Care Act--and the Democratic-controlled Senate demanding a hike in the debt ceiling with no strings attached, this debate is especially bitter.  Both sides blame the other in a contest that portends to punish the first one who blinks.

Both sides do agree that a government default would be catastrophic for both the American and world economies.  With this understanding it does seem probable that a deal will be brokered, albeit with likely only a few seconds left on the clock before the October 17 deadline.

On that date the government is expected to lack the necessary funds to pay its bills.  This is not uncommon.  Normally, the government will allow itself to create more money with the click of the mouse and pay its debts.  If the government is unable to go further into debt, however, this will not be possible.

Obviously, the government will still be able to pay most of its bills (and many theorists argue that the government could pay all of its bills even until around November 1 using creative accounting), but without an increase in the debt ceiling, the government will certainly be unable to pay some of its debts.  People have theorized which bills will get prioritized in such a default scenario, but most politicians believe any unpaid bills is an unacceptable proposition.  How will this problem get solved?

In the short term, the government clearly needs to increase its debt ceiling, and in the long term, it will likely have to make many difficult choices.  Presumably, these long-term debt solutions will need to have a combination of reductions in spending and increases in taxes.  Such a long-term solution, which has been coined the "Grand Bargain" is at this point an afterthought.

In my opinion, however, the whole concept of the debt ceiling should be up for debate.  The United States is one of the only countries in the world (Denmark is another) to hold itself to a debt ceiling.  Other countries simply borrow as much as they need in order to cover the already-approved spending.  This idea is the concept I use for this free current events lesson.  Students will get to debate whether a debt ceiling should or should not be in place.

The first video gives general background on the debt ceiling and its characteristics.  The second video, which aired on October 13 on ABC News, explains the current political situation.  Both videos are included here and in the free download.

  • Taxing and Spending clause of the constitution (gives Congress, not the president, the power to tax and pay debts)
  • The political power and role of special interest groups (particularly the Tea Party)
  • The concept of gerrymandering (some theorists argue that several House Republicans are only able to hold out on the debt ceiling because they are in such stable districts that they could never get voted out)
  • Credit Ratings (people may be less likely to loan money to the U.S. if it defaults on its loans)
  • Interest rates in financial markets (interest rates for borrowing money will certainly rise if the U.S. defaults because loaning money will become riskier)

I hope you and your class find this lesson engaging and invigorating.  Please leave me any questions or comments.  Enjoy!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Current Events Lesson - Government Shutdown

After watching TV and listening to the radio over the past week, I think it is safe to say that everyone's mind is focused on the government shutdown and what it means for them and America as a whole.  So, this week's free downloadable lesson discusses this newest government crisis.

The problem stems from the fact that Congress is responsible (once a year) for deciding how it will fund the government programs and agencies it operates.  This includes such diverse things as the military to the food stamp program.  As of October 1st, the old continuing resolution that funded the government expired, but Congress still has not decided how to fund the government in the future.  The result?  Shutdown.

Republicans are bearing a large share of the responsibility for the government shutdown due to their dislike of Obamacare.  The reason House Republicans will not pass a bill to fund the government is because they want to add provisions that will partially limit aspects of Obamacare.  Democrats, however, are bearing some blame, too.  They are unwilling to negotiate on Obamacare until the government is funded.

Thus, the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate are in typical Congressional gridlock.  The problem this time is that millions of average Americans are suffering on a daily basis.  My hope for this lesson is that it can connect to your students in a very human way.  The government shutdown, although somewhat ambiguous for most teenagers, is likely having immediate effects on their life and well-being.

The video I use for this lesson is included both here and in the free download.  It's a five minute video that aired on October 2nd on ABC News.  It explains both how the shutdown affects Americans and what the political situation in Washington, D.C. currently looks like.

  • The titles of the different Congressional leaders (i.e. Majority Leader in the Senate, Speaker of the House, Majority Whip, etc.)
  • Services provided by different governmental departments (National Parks and Museums operated by Dept. of the Interior, E-Verify is run by Dept. of Homeland Security, etc.)
  • Fundamental beliefs of the Republican party (desire fiscally responsible governments, do not want government taking over traditionally capitalistic businesses such as health insurance, etc.)
  • Fundamental beliefs of the Democratic party (government was created to ensure the social welfare of all people, government should get involved in capitalist markets if they are functioning poorly, etc.)

I hope you and your class find this lesson engaging and invigorating.  Please leave me any questions or comments.  Enjoy!