Constitutional Comparison: Germany and the US

As I was going through my RSS feed this morning, I came across this article from Deutsche Welle on Germany’s Basic Law.  As I read through it, the first thing that struck me was the fact that the very first article in Germany’s constitution discusses human dignity.  This led me to take a closer look at the Grundgesetz, and after further reading, I decided to make a lesson out of it for my class on U.S. government and politics.  We had already studied the purposes of constitutions in general and the US Constitution earlier this semester, so I wanted to compare the two constitutions.

Students noticed a number of differences, among them: 1) Germany put basic rights first, whereas the US put them as amendments; 2) Germany’s constitution is much more in depth than than the US’ (Germany has 141 articles, the US has 7); 3) Germany has an article about the flag, the US does not; 4) Germany has “compulsory military and alternative civilian service,” whereas the US military is volunteer.  We also discussed Germany’s electoral system, even though it’s not explicitly described in the Basic Law.  Out of all these ideas, however, we spent the most time discussing Article 1.1 of the Basic Law- “Human dignity shall be inviolable.  To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”  The US constitution has something similar in the Preamble with, “promote the general Welfare.”

We started first by talking about dignity and what that meant.  After that, we looked into the extent to which the governments of both countries fulfilled the idea of human dignity and general welfare.  Since my student charity, VAHSAid, just held an event this weekend to raise awareness of child poverty and food insecurity, we looked for child poverty rates in both countries.  According to the OECD, the latest rate for Germany is 9.8%, and for the US it’s 20.5%.

Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 1.10.19 PM

Other indicators we looked at (also from the same OECD page):

Key characteristics of parental leave systems (total paid leave available to mothers)- Germany: 58 weeks; US: 0 weeks

Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 1.30.51 PM

Public spending on family benefits (in per cent of GDP)- Germany: 3.03; US: 1.13

Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 1.31.59 PM

Public spending on early childhood education and care (in per cent of GDP)- Germany: 0.6; US: 0.3

Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 1.32.53 PM

Infant mortality (Deaths per 1,000 live births)- Germany: 3.2; US: 6.0

Screen Shot 2017-05-23 at 1.33.45 PM

After all was said and done, a couple of student observations stood out to me: 1) “Germany takes democracy to a whole new level,” 2) “Germany seems much more about community,” and 3) Students felt Germany’s Basic Law was less ambiguous than the US Constitution and wondered if that would lead to less legal battles or political controversy.

While the original purpose of the lesson was to compare the two constitutions, I am pleased that it led to discussions about issues other than the structure of the governments.  This isn’t to say Germany is some sort of utopia*; however, it does illustrate the need for American politicians to begin emphasizing human dignity in our policies.

Thanks for reading.

*Full disclosure: I was stationed in Germany for 2 1/2 years and have a deep appreciation for the German language, food, beer, and soccer (#NurSGE).

Views from the Classroom in the Wake of the Election

The past two days have been challenging. Yesterday (November 9) was the most intellectually and emotionally draining day I have had in my fifteen-year career as a high school teacher.  I’ve talked about the presidential and mid-term elections with my students since 2004, but what I saw yesterday was unlike anything I had seen the day after any of the previous elections.

Let me first say that I am a proud liberal.  A social democrat.  A progressive humanitarian.  You get the picture.  So yes, I am disappointed with the election results.  I understand that people have different views on the best ways to govern, and I can respect conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan who truly believe in small government and the policies that go along with that approach.  I cannot respect, however, a candidate who promotes hate, bigotry, xenophobia, Islamophobia, intolerance, racism, and rape culture.

Given the makeup of the student body at my school, I figured that students (and even staff) would need to process the results of the election on Wednesday.  As such, I offered my room as a safe place for anybody to come and talk about whatever they felt like.  I talked with confused students, concerned students, crying students, and colleagues who felt the same.  I asked students basic questions like “How are you?” “Are you okay?” and “What’s on your mind?” while trying to comfort them and assuage their fears.  Most of all, I wanted them to feel safe.  Here are a just few of their concerns:

  • Worry that their family or friends will be deported
  • Worry that their family or friends will have to wear badges identifying them as Muslims
  • Worry that they will be attacked because they are part of the LGBQT community
  • Worry that their reproductive health rights will be taken away
  • Worry that they will be more susceptible to rape

I cried.

I shook.

I almost threw up.

Of course, I also had to teach the rest of the day.  Thankfully, I had my two classes on government and politics, so discussing the results was built into my schedule.  It was still difficult.  My student teacher and I did our best to keep the conversation fair and balanced, while making sure voices were not stifled and students felt safe.  (I should mention that my student teacher did an amazing job.  He’s going to be a tremendous asset to whichever school he lands a job in.)

When the school day ended we had a faculty meeting to discuss the school climate.  Some of my colleagues cried and shared stories of the hate speech used by our students towards other students.  In our school.  In.  My.  School.

I felt disheartened.

I felt broken.

By the time I got home, I was drained.  I managed to put an abbreviated version of this on Facebook, but it didn’t help.  Even before I went to bed last night I still felt on the verge of tears.

I followed up today with students, checking to see how they were doing and letting them know I was still here for them.  For the most part, however, it was back to business as usual.  Nonetheless, my heart still aches for my students.

I am here for you.

Thanks for reading.

 

Hunger and Food Insecurity: An Introduction

Not only is food essential for life, it is also a human right.  Clause 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, …” and the UN General Assembly has gone so far as to pass a resolution titled, “The Right to Food.”  Despite this recognition, however, people around the world still go hungry and contend with food insecurity, as well as the effects of it.

With the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) in 2015, the UN established the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s)- seventeen goals with a total of 169 targets designed to make the world a better place.  Goal 2 “aims to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030. It also commits to universal access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food at all times of the year.”  While the situation around the world has improved since the MDG’s were established, people still suffer from chronic hunger.  The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) states, “About 793 million people in the world still lack sufcient (sic) food for conducting an active and healthy life.”

HM-2015-ENG-026-notrim

The United States
Looking at the above map, we see the United States is not in as bad a situation compared to the rest of the global community.  In fact, the proportion of undernourished is less than 5% of the population.  It’s important to recognize, however, that millions of U.S. households are food insecure.  According to the USDA’s Household Food Security in the United States in 2015:

  • 12.7 percent of U.S. households (15.8 million households) were food insecure
  • 5.0 percent of U.S. households (6.3 million households) had very low food security (italics in original)
  • Children were food insecure at times during the year in 7.8 percent of U.S. households with children (3.0 million households)

While those numbers are down from 2014, they should still be cause for alarm.  There is no good reason that people living in the world’s largest economy go hungry.  To be sure, the government has a number of programs in place to help ease the effects of hunger and food insecurity, but the fact that we have so many people living that way is problematic.

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-2-33-58-pm
Federal Food Assistance Programs. Source: Feeding America, http://www.feedingamerica.org/take-action/advocate/federal-hunger-relief-programs/

Wisconsin
The situation in Wisconsin is also disheartening.  In 2014, 687,370 people were food insecure, and in Dane County alone, that number was 58,480 (Feeding America).  Looking at the Kids Count Data Center, we see that 52,554 individuals participated in SNAP that year.

What Can Be Done?
Despite the federal programs available, it is clear that more needs to be done to ensure “universal access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food at all times of the year.”  The first question we should ask is why federal and state lawmakers continue to allow the problem of hunger and food insecurity to perpetuate.  The fact that these problems still exist means one of two things- either politicians are choosing to ignore them, or they are choosing to give other policy areas priority.  We, as the electorate, and as human beings, should be concerned that our elected officials are not protecting basic human rights.  Hold them accountable- email them, call their offices, etc.

Also at a policy-level, we should ensure USDA child nutrition programs receive more funding.  If children live in food insecure households, their only meals might come from the schools they attend.  As such, we must make sure they are fed while they are in school.  To address the issue of feeding children during the summer (when school is not in session), the USDA has the Summer Food Service Program.  For that to work, however, more people need to be willing to sponsor or manage sites.

If those ideas don’t appeal to you, here are some simple actions you can take (from “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World“):

  • Freeze fresh produce and leftovers if you don’t have the chance to eat them before they go bad. You can also do this with take-away or delivered food, if you know you will not feel like eating it the next day. You will save food and money.
  • Shop Smart—plan meals, use shopping lists and avoid impulse buys. Don’t succumb to marketing tricks that lead you to buy more food than you need, particularly for perishable items. Though these may be less expensive per ounce, they can be more expensive overall if much of that food is discarded.
  • Buy Funny Fruit—many fruits and vegetables are thrown out because their size, shape, or color are not “right”. Buying these perfectly good funny fruit, at the farmer’s market or elsewhere, utilizes food that might otherwise go to waste.

Conclusion
Food is a basic human right, but for some reason, our lawmakers continue to allow hunger and food insecurity to plague our society.  Since they are failing to provide for their constituents, we need to step up and help.  No person, especially a child, should go without food.

Thanks for reading.

Additional Resources
Sustainable Development Goal 2

Food and Agricultural Organization

World Food Programme

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin

Ensuring Food Security in Wisconsin Households

City of Madison Food Waste Reduction Taskforce

10 Contradictions of Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

Donald Trump gave a speech today at the Center for National Interest outlining his foreign policy.   His speech lasted approximately forty-five minutes and was comprised of two main parts- 1) what he felt was wrong with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and 2) his vision for fixing those perceived ills.  At one point he said, “Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster.  No vision, no purpose, no direction, no strategy;” the same could be said for his ideas, as they were full of contradictions and would be disastrous for the US.

Contradiction #1: In his section on overextension of resources, Trump proposed “we need to rebuild our military.”  In the next section, however, about our allies not paying their fair share, he said that “we have spent trillions of dollars over time…building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia.”  If we’ve spent that much money, and have that large of a military, does it really need to be rebuilt?

Contradiction #2: In that same second section, Trump argued “[Our allies] look at the United States as weak.”  If they truly think we’re weak, they probably wouldn’t want us defending them.

Contradiction #3: “A Trump Administration will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded.”  Since Trump cannot force countries to increase their military spending, so I don’t see how this will be accomplished.

Contradiction #4: “President Obama…abandoned our missile defense plans with Poland and the Czech Republic.”  Trump just said our allies need to do more for their defense, so wouldn’t he also not want US missile defense in Eastern Europe?

Contradiction #5:  “We’re a humanitarian nation.”  Not really.  Trump chastised our NATO allies for not meeting the target of spending 2% of GDP on defense, but the US does not meet the commitment to spend .7% of GNI on Official Development Assistance.  In 2015, we spent only .17%.

Contradiction #6: Even though it’s not in the copy of the remarks, at 1:08:18 (of the video below) he says “We want to bring peace to the world.  Too much destruction out there.  Too many destructive weapons.  The power of weaponry is the single biggest problem that we have today in the world.”  How can he say this when earlier he said he wanted to “rebuild our military” and modernize and renew our nuclear weapons arsenal?

Contradiction #7: “I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia…is possible.”  If we put missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, as it appears Trump wanted, it would actually lead to more tension with Russia.

Contradiction #8: In regards to China- “We can both benefit or we can both go our separate ways.” China owns over $1 trillion in US debt; we cannot just go our own ways.

Contradiction #9: “America will continually play the role of peacemaker.”  Peacemakers don’t increase military spending and modernize their nuclear arsenals.

Contradiction #10: America no longer has a clear understanding of our foreign policy goals.”  After watching the speech and making my way through his contradictory remarks, I don’t have a clear understanding of Trump’s foreign policy (and I know I’m not alone.)  His vision (or lack thereof) and contradictory ideas are not good for the US and not good for our allies.

Here’s the video of the speech; his remarks begin around 34:30.

What are your thoughts on Trump’s foreign policy?

Thanks for reading.

Educating Youth to be Active Citizens

When I saw the list of topics for the German Marshall Fund’s Triennial Transatlantic Leaders Retreat, I was intrigued. Halfway down the list was a topic on which I have previously written- “Youth quake: Engaging youth worldwide in learning and service.” I immediately  began thinking about what I’ve written and what I might add to those ideas to create something as if I were there as a guest speaker on that panel.  My overall premise is that if we want to engage youth, they need to have a framework around which they can build, and they absolutely must have opportunities for political participation.

A Framework
For the past four years I have used the Millennium Development Goals, and now the Sustainable Development Goals, in my classes.  Seeing as how the SDGs constitute a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity,” they are ideal for giving youth opportunities to be active citizens.  As a framework in class, not only do they help us learn about the work of the UN and NGOs, we also come back to them when we discuss current issues.  Giving the students a framework they can reference throughout the year makes increases their retention of the material and provides them with a base for their political participation.

Opportunities for Political Participation
While there are a number a ways citizens can participate in the political process, I want to focus on three- writing letters, presenting policy proposals, and volunteering.

When it comes to the MDGs and SDGs, I’ve given the students numerous opportunities to research a variety of those goals and then to write letters to UN officials with their opinions about addressing those problems (see my previous post about this activity here).  When we get a response from those officials, it lets the students know that their voice matters.  This year for example, we heard from Laurent Thomas of the FAO in response to the students’ letters about food security.

A second idea is to give students the opportunity to present policy ideas to their elected officials.  The U.S. can learn much from our friends across the Atlantic in these regards, especially with their children’s parliaments and the European Youth Event (see my previous post about this idea here).  If our youth feel they have a say in the process, then perhaps it will lead to increased political participation.

Finally, besides voicing their opinions on how to best cure the ills of society, students should actually have opportunities to work improving society.  This year, my students and I started VeronaAid, a student-driven charity whose “mission is to deliver aid to the impoverished citizens of Dane County and to make a difference in the lives of those affected by the Syrian refugee crisis.” We meet once a week to work on spreading our message and coming up with ideas for fundraising.  Because the students have a voice in this venture, they have an interest in seeing it succeed.  If you would like to see examples of their activities, please check out the website and our social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).  If we tie this back to my idea of a framework, SDG 1 is “End poverty in all its forms everywhere;” the students of VeronaAid are working towards this goal with every diaper bag or backpack they fill and every presentation they give.

Questions
What do other teachers do to encourage their students to engage in political participation?  How can we coordinate our actions at my high school with those of other schools in the area and even around the world?  Are politicians ready to listen to students’ policy ideas and give them serious consideration?

Thanks for reading.