All the Really Big Questions

city at night

Toronto at night.

Have you ever felt like your intellectual efforts were too narrowly focused? Or, that you were missing broader truths somehow? Both have occurred to me lately as I teach some of the esoteric details of economic theory in my AP Macroeconomics course.  This is because most economics course material is more-or-less focused on only one type of economic system (a relatively free market economy), and only one general type of government (various forms of democracy). At the same time, it is clear that most macroeconomic thinkers fall way short of grasping the relationship between the market economy as we know it and the environmental destruction of the planet that we see all around.  Is it possible that the ENTIRE economic system that we study is doomed to fail in the long run; that it is incompatible with sustainable human life on the planet? (I don’t actually think it is, but it is a question worth pondering).

I focused several lessons recently on these topics, but to help my students really grasp how these things are related, I gave them the following assignment. I’ll just put the assignment in this post, and in future posts I’ll explore some of the possible answers. I have friends who differ from me politically, some who are libertarian, and others who are quite conservative, and I wonder what answers they would give to these questions. So, without further ado–

All the Really Big Questions
AP Macro Research and Writing Assignment

There are not really correct or incorrect answers here, but what is your thinking with regard to the following questions and topics? Don’t just make things up! There are varying opinions on all of these, but use your critical thinking skills. Your worldview should be cohesive!!! These three topics are deeply and completely interrelated.

  1. Our economic system. From a worldwide perspective, is capitalism as we know it a good system? Why or why not? What would a “good system” of economics achieve? Is China on the right track with large degrees of state control? Is South Korea, with government support of certain industries? The US? Europe? Does success in one country come at the expense of another, or can all countries achieve success and prosperity? If “capitalism” isn’t an ideal system, what would replace it?

  1. Our governmental system. What should the role of governments be? If the government is small, will the free market alone result in your answer to question #1 about what a good system would achieve? If the government is larger, what are the downsides, and how might they be addressed? Is progressive taxation ok?
  1. Our impact on the environment. With regard to the environment, what is your best guess as to the path humans are on, and where do you think we will be in 2050? Is the current trajectory “sustainable” if we don’t make major changes? Many who are concerned with the environment feel that continuous growth is impossible on a finite planet. Others disagree. How important is decoupling as we move forward? If it’s not important, why? If it is important, how do you think this will come about? If the economies of the world were kept from growing, would it matter if some nations were wealthier than others as that process started? (Would locking in present inequality be fair?)

Perhaps the short version of all of these questions– in what direction should humankind be heading, and why? Remember, “no decision is a decision”— humans are going somewhere. You have read some material that I have written on this topic. Do you agree? Are there other ways to see these issues other than the ones I have presented?

Keep in mind–I am not asking these questions just to see if you can regurgitate information; I want you to use your critical thinking skills and really grapple with the issues here. But I am also not just asking these questions to get you to think (although that is part of it). I am truly interested in our path forward, and am more than happy to reevaluate my own arguments if the evidence supports it. If you do happen to agree with me, you need to explain it in a way that I can tell that you’ve really thought about it, and understand the relationship between these pieces.

Make sure your arguments, in whichever direction they lean, are supported. You can find highly biased material on these questions from sources on the left and the right. Pay attention to your sources– do they pass the critical thinking test? We are seeking rational truth here– how would highly intelligent rational beings from Mars answer these questions?

This is a major grade! Writing plus research, with double weight on each.
Typed, double-spaced, MLA format, 6-8 pages of text, plus works cited page.
Use parenthetical citation.
Due Monday, May 22, 2017

Note– It’s ok not to know something for sure. But, show that you are able to see what it is that you don’t know, and why you don’t know it, and what the choices are, and what the effect of not knowing it is (how it affects other arguments).

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Image credits: Top image, “World Pride”, Toronto at night, by Allen, Flickr Creative Commons.
Bamboo image: “Peaceful Walk”, by Peter Thoeny, Flickr Creative Commons.