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RECENT POSTS

Genetically Modified What? What’s the deal with GMOs (and should we know when were eating them)?

Embedded video and radio clips

This November, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, which proposes adding labels to food products containing ingredients hat have been genetically modified.

Genetically modified what?

Yeah – this is about as confusing as it gets, and there’s weird science behind the whole thing, which makes it even harder to understand for us normal folk. Continue reading

What Is the Electoral College (and is it time to get rid of it)?

Everything you ever wanted to know about the electoral college but were afraid to ask (with videos and maps)

Here’s a little factoid that never fails to mightily confuse most voters. As Americans, we actually DO NOT directly elect our presidents and vice presidents. I repeat, the U.S. president is not chosen through a one-person, one-vote system!

Simply put: this is not direct democracy!

When we head to the polls on election day to choose a presidential candidate, we’re not actually really voting for that person. Instead, we’re throwing our support behind a group of “electors” who belong to a strange institution called the electoral college. And it’s that group that actually casts the direct votes to decide who the next president and vice president will be.

Don’t believe me? Check out Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Says it right there. Honest.

Weird, right?

Here’s how it works:

First off, what is the Electoral College (and do they have a good football team)?

It’s more of an institution than a place. No dorms.  No frat boys. No teams. No crazy parties. Basically, none of the fun stuff.

Here’s what it is: During the presidential election every four years, the various political parties in each state (for instance: California’s Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, etc.) choose a group of “electors,” generally party activists who have pledged their electoral votes to the presidential candidate of that party should he/she win the popular vote in that state. Pretty much anyone who’s registered to vote is eligible to be an elector, with the exception of members of Congress and federal government employees). Continue reading

Six Great Sites for Teaching the Business of Elections

Includes lots of multimedia resource links

What’s the electoral college, who are delegates, and why in the heck do we vote on Tuesday?

National elections, especially presidential ones, offer great teaching moments. But explaining the basic mechanics of America’s ever confusing electoral system can be daunting, especially for students who lack a basic understanding of the process.

Fortunately, there are a ton of great free digital resources out there to help your students demystify the process, using pretty engaging and creative formats. Of course, finding them entails the equally daunting task of spending hours online in search of the best unbiased content out there.

So, with that in mind, rather than adding to the cyber-pile, I’ve compiled a list of six excellent sites that do a good job in driving home basic election concepts, and, hopefully, encouraging your students to think critically about the process (rather than just learning about it as a given). This is by no means a comprehensive list (a good longer list can be found at the National Writing Project’s site), so if you have additional suggestions, please share in the comment box below. Continue reading

Three Major Lasting Impacts of 9/11

Includes videos

NOTE: There is an updated version (2014) of this post here.

Eleven years ago, America wasn’t engaged in any foreign wars. We deported half as many immigrants as we do today. And getting through airport security was a total breeze.

America’s involvement in the War on Terror – spurred by the  9/11 terrorist attacks- resulted in new attitudes and concerns about defense and vigilance. The change ushered in a series of government policies like the USA Patriot Act that prioritized national security, often at the expense of civil liberties.

Here are three of the many dramatic transformations brought on by the events of 9/11: Continue reading

Should the Voting Age Be Lowered?

Flickr/Liz the Librarian

American youth under 18 years old live under the same laws as adults. They pay sales taxes (every time they buy something). And some can even work jobs and get drivers licenses.

But … they can’t vote.

And that’s just not fair, say a growing number of student rights groups across the country that are lobbying to have the voting age lowered to at least 16. Continue reading

Realignment Explained

Last October California began a dramatic overhaul of its severely overcrowded prison system. Assembly Bill 109 – known as realignment – had the objective of shedding more than 30,000 inmates from in-state prisons and significantly cutting the prison budget. At the time the law took effect, there were more than 143,000 inmates behind bars in California’s 33 prisons. That’s almost twice the system’s design capacity. Meanwhile, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation received about $10 billion a year from the state’s thinning general fund – over 11 percent of last year’s entire spending plan, more than was spent on the University of California and California State University systems combined. Continue reading

Why Are Israelis So Much Wealthier Than Their Palestinian Neighbors? (and yes, there’s a bit more to it than “culture”)

Includes Daily Show clip; radio clip

Romney was absolutely correct when noting that Israel’s GDP per capita is significantly higher than that in the Palestinian territories. But he was actually way off on the specifics: in suggesting that Israelis produced roughly twice as much as do the Palestinians, he vastly understated the disparity. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimated Israel’s per capita GDP at about 10 times (or 1000% more) that of the Palestinians.

In 2011 Israel had a per capita GDP of roughly $31,000, while in 2008 — the last year the CIA listed data for the Palestinians — the per capita GDP. of the West Bank and Gaza combined was about $3,000.

That’s a 1000% difference! Continue reading

Oh No He Didn’t! Wait, But What Does GDP per Capita Actually Mean?

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

During his recent trip abroad, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney caused a political stir in Israel (among other places he went) when he said that “culture makes all the difference” in explaining the vast difference in GDP per capita between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.

And it’s not hard to understand why Palestinians might have been a bit ticked off by the remark: it’s basically saying that you’d be more financially successful if you changed your lifestyle. Harder to grasp, though, is the economic concept that Romney used in his comparison.

GDP per capita: One of those terms journalists and politicos throw out there as though it was something that normal humans conversed about at the dinner table. But what does it actually mean? And how is it relevant – or not – in determining a country’s well-being?

Put simply, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is one (of many) ways to measure a nation’s income and level of productivity. The textbook definition will tell you: it’s the the market value of all goods and services that a country produces in a given period of time (generally a year).

In normal speak: it’s all the (legal) things that are produced and sold in a country, and all the wages and profits that are earned. Basically, an indicator of economic health and wellness.

GDP per capita, then, is the total GDP value divided by the number of people who live in that country.

So, for instance, let’s imagine your family’s house is a nation unto itself (work with me here): your dad’s a carpenter and makes, say, $50,000 a year selling his furniture. Your mom’s a lawyer and makes a salary of $70,000/year. You, however, are still in school and not working and thus, not making any income (freeloader!). So, the GDP of your household would be the sum of all those incomes: $120,000.

The GDP per capita, then, would be $120,000 divided by the number of people under your roof – the three of you. So … GDP per capita = $40,000.

GDP per capita is often used as a rough estimation of a nation’s general standard of living; the higher the GDP, the higher that standard. Of course, just looking at that figure alone can be pretty misleading, especially if there’s a lot wealth inequality within a particular country. Remember, that GDP per capita is just an average – it’s the income of a representative individual in a given country.

Take the United States, for instance: GDP per capita here is one of the highest in the world. And although the overall standard of living here is pretty high compared to a lot of other countries, there are also a lot of Americans who live in poverty.

Check out this explanatory animation on GDP per capita (I know, I know –  it’s econ – but it’s kind of interesting!)

The Deal with the Delta (California’s big watering hole)

Includes: map and video


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About two-thirds of Californians drink, bathe, brush their teeth, and flush their toilets with water that comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. That’s roughly 25 million people who get at least some portion of their hydration from one big triangular watering hole.

But ask most folks what the Delta is, and you’re guaranteed to get a lot of blank stares. One recent poll found that about 4 out 5 people in California had pretty much no idea about it.

 

It’s pretty easy to take for granted that water magically pours out of the tap when you turn your faucet on. But chances are, that H20 has gone through a pretty serious journey to reach you – and it’s probably worth knowing where it comes from, and how safe the supply is. Continue reading

10 Resources To Help Make Sense of the Health Care Decision

Includes: resource links

In the week since the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling upholding key parts of President Obama’s health care law (“Obamacare”) – namely, the individual mandate that everyone buy insurance –  Americans have been inundated by an endless deluge of analysis and commentary. Making sense of it all is challenging, so here are 10 good resources that help connect the dots. Continue reading