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Public Problems, Public Policy

8:00 Seminar

Have you ever said, "The government ought to do something about ..." Have you ever wondered why governments try to solve some problems (e.g., threats to national security and lead paint on toys) but not others (e.g., decaying infrastructure and the prevalence obesity)? Continuing the discussion of Chapter III from PACS I (Politics, Law, and Citizenship), this class explores the relationship between how we talk about a public problem (i.e., how we define it) and the likelihood that a government will take action to solve it. For example, many American children will develop Type II diabetes and face serious health problems as adults. Is this problem a threat to the national economy or just individual well-being? Does it come from poor individual choices (e.g., what to eat), governmental actions (e.g., removing physical education from schools), behavior by private actors (e.g., marketing by fast food companies), social inequalities (e.g., where food is available and how much it costs), or something else? Could it be all of the above? Governments are more likely to respond to some of these definitions than others. We will explore the reasons why. Key questions for this class include: What are the different ways in which problems can be defined? Does American political culture favor certain definitions? Who does the defining? Which kinds of problems are most likely to generate a governmental response? Why? Why do governments choose not to deal with some problems? The course is divided into two sections. The first section introduces the American policy-making process (knowledge about American government is not a prerequisite). The second section develops a vocabulary for talking about public problems and applies that vocabulary to specific examples drawn from current events. Course materials include two books (Agendas, Alternative, and Public Policy and Policy Paradox), newspaper editorials, book chapter excerpts, think tank policy memos, and popular movies.