Inequality and Democracy/Public Choice Policy Applications

Alan Green, Stetson University,
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Policy choices are presented to teams on two broad questions: the first on inequality in the United States and the second on democracy / public choice. These questions can be used together or split into separate exercises as needed.

Context for Use

This activity is for principles courses and will take 50-75 minutes. The activity starts with a readiness-assessment quiz that covers background material on inequality and public choice, which is followed by two policy application exercises. These chapters are covered sequentially in my course, hence the joint application exercise. It is possible, however, to use half of this exercise for either topic.


This activity is a team-based policy debate. After covering background material on inequality and democracy/public choice, students are faced with two broad questions. The first asks them to address inequality in the United States, with range of options from massive redistribution to doing nothing at all. The learning goal is for students to apply economic models and analysis to support their arguments. On inequality they should thus be cognizant of the potential tradeoffs involved as well as aware of the long term trends and multi-faceted causes of inequality. The public choice question is similarly broad; it asks students what can be done to improve democracy in the United States. Once again, students should use concepts from the readings on inefficient voting, political incentives, etc. to inform their arguments. Each application exercise has five specific options that are designed so that there is not an intended correct answer. Rather, students should be able to make an argument for any of the choices. Their task as a team is to discuss the issue and come to some consensus for the team choice. They are instructed to vote if they cannot come to consensus. The team discussion takes the first 15-20 minutes of the activity.
The instructor then facilitates a class discussion, which begins by having teams simultaneously reveal their choices (using large cards with letters). The teams are then called on in turn to defend their choices to the rest of the class. This begins a class wide discussion on what the best policy should be. With these broad questions the discussion can go a number of ways; the instructor should focus on keeping the arguments grounded in economic principles and realistic options while also considering a diverse set of options. The instructor facilitates this discussion for 10-15 minutes, after which it culminates in class vote. Students vote individually for the class vote, but extra credit can be offered for any team whose choice wins a majority of the class vote (thus incentivizing effective argument and persuasion).

Expected Student Learning Outcomes

In this activity students will use economic models, concepts and historical trends to inform policy arguments pertaining to inequality and democracy.

Information Given to Students

Student teams are given folders with both the quiz and application exercises.

Quiz - basics of inequality and public choice (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB May14 18)
Application Exercises - Inequality and Democracy (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB May14 18)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity includes both a readiness-assessment quiz and application exercises. It can be completed in one class period or spread over two. The quiz is ten multiple choice questions on background material that has been previously covered in both readings and class lectures or activities. The material includes inequality and public choice chapters from the Openstax textbook, although the questions are not from the textbook. The quiz is posted online for individual completion before class and then given to each team to take again in class along with immediate feedback scratch cards.
In the application exercise students are given two policy questions in teams. Their task as a team is to try to form a consensus around one of the five options for each policy. The policy questions are designed so that there is no "right" answer; the goal is for students to see how economics can inform policy debates. With these broad questions on inequality in the U.S. and democracy there are likely to be a wide range of opinions. This provides an opportunity for students to engage, with instructor aid if needed, in productive dialogue on contentious issues rooted in economic principles and historical trends. The instructor should circulate, listen to arguments and ask probing questions to get students to think critically while arguing civilly. If teams cannot come to a consensus they should simply vote for the team choice (modeling democracy in action). Once all teams have made their choices they should all report them simultaneously. This can be easily done by giving each team large letters (A through E) and having them all hold up the letter of their choice at the same time. The instructor should select one member from each team to briefly defend that team's choice to the class (random selection is good here; it is better if students do not know who is presenting until it is time to present so everyone has to prepare and be engaged in the discussion). In the presentation, students should refer to economic concepts from the class and also be encouraged to acknowledge competing viewpoints that might have been outvoted in the group.
The instructor then leads a short class discussion on the topic, filling in or correcting flawed reasoning when necessary and also noting if there is a convergence to one or two options. If the class as a whole wants to reduce inequality, for instance, what is their main motivation? What are the risks of redistribution? Are there good and bad ways to address? It is also good to consider why other options were eliminated. Were students willing to consider direct democracy, for instance? Why or why not? The discussion culminates in a class-wide individual vote on each policy. Students do not have to choose the same policy from their group for the individual vote; many students may disagree strongly with their group decision and thus be glad of the opportunity to voice their preference in the class-wide vote. If desired, additional incentives can be offered to any team whose policy choice secures a majority of class votes; a few extra credit points can motivate teams to build consensus and argue strongly for their preferred policy.


Quiz grades provide evidence of preparedness and general understanding. Exams using application type questions assess the students' ability to meet the learning goal for this activity.

References and Resources