The cleverness of students

Student submission on a Religion & Politics exam from the fall semester of 2007.

Scotus expansion without court packing

David Karol at Monkey Cage discusses the Supreme Court:

The broader point is that the whims of one unaccountable person, whatever their age, abilities or ideology should NOT matter so much in a democracy.

Karol proposes eighteen-year terms, which reduce the length of time that the “whims of one unaccountable person” matter but do not reduce the relative importance of that person’s whims on any given case or in any given year. But court expansion would reduce the “cross-sectional” power of a justice and thus reduce the associated concern for the health of like-minded justices, severely curtailing the chance of a judicial Weekend at Bernie’s.

Of course, it is not politically feasible to give any president multiple new nominations, but it is possible to expand the Court to eighteen members without packing and with minimal disruption to the status quo:

  1. Give each current justice two votes and each new justice one vote: when a current justice vacates a seat, the president and the Senate replace the current justice with two new justices; when a new justice vacates a seat, the president and the Senate replace the new justice with one new justice.
  2. Let’s say that we want an eighteen-member Court immediately. Let each sitting justice nominate one new justice. The sitting justices would have a strong incentive to nominate a candidate with similar judicial and ideological views.

Eighteen-member or eighteen-vote Courts would have a greater potential for tie votes, but this is less a problem than a feature with positive consequences, since a majority of the full Court is now a 10-to-8 supermajority, which makes it slightly more difficult for the Court to overrule a lower court or alter its own precedent.

How props can cause a poor discussion

This post at Active Learning in Political Science describes a discussion on inequality that followed the unequal distribution of chocolate to students reflecting unequal GDPs among countries:

The students then led a discussion about how the students felt, whether the wealthy students were obligated to give up some of their chocolate, and how they would convince the wealthy students to do so. Violence entered the conversation (jokingly) at one point. Eventually the discussion turned to the real-world implications, and the chocolate was widely shared.

Use of a prop like chocolate has advantageous qualities, such as raising the interest level of students and the uniqueness of the discussion, which likely fosters the potential for learning. But the simulation itself clouded or removed many of the features of inequality necessary for a quality discussion of global inequality and aid:

  1. A discussion of inequality among students in the same room diverts attention from impediments to sharing that real countries face: it is nearly costless to pass chocolate to the person next to you, but there is a substantial cost to packaging and shipping goods across the world.
  2. Presumably none of the students had the negative features of a regime like North Korea that would raise questions about whether direct aid might be more harmful than beneficial.
  3. The method of production of the chocolate in the simulation bears no relationsip to the method of production for GDP, chocolate, or any good in the real world: countries do not “receive” goods or wealth independent of mechanisms related to the country’s natural resources, education or skill level of the population, political choices, history, etc.
  4. The parameters of the simulation ensured that the total amount of chocolate was static, so that the producion of more chocolate was not an option for the students.

The problem with simulations such as this is that the focus is placed on the simulated instead of the real.