Soci 10: American Society (2017)

University of California, San Diego
Winter 2016-17
Tu Th 9:30–10:50, CSB 002

Lane Kenworthy
Office hours: Tu 11–12, Th 8:15–9:15, SSB 472

This course explores key issues in contemporary America and how social scientists, journalists, advocates, and policy makers approach them. We’ll examine questions such as: Are middle-class Americans struggling? Is income inequality subverting our democracy? Could we afford to provide health insurance to everyone? Should we let in fewer immigrants, or more? Will marijuana legalization be good or bad? Are African Americans catching up with whites or falling farther behind? Why haven’t we made more progress in reducing poverty? Is religion’s decline weakening America? Does big government harm the economy? What, if anything, should we do about climate change? Why are our cities so expensive to live in? Should we intervene more aggressively in Syria? Why haven’t Americans gotten happier in recent decades?


Assigned materials are to be read or viewed before class.

Jan 10 (Tu)
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “America Is Exceptional … and Ordinary,” The Good Society.

Jan 12 (Th)
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “How Do We Know?,” The Good Society.
Video: Michael Moore, Where to Invade Next, 2015, 120 minutes ($3).

Jan 17 (Tu)
Shared prosperity
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “Shared Prosperity,” The Good Society.

Jan 19 (Th)
Economic security
Video: Frontline, “Poor Kids,” season 31, episode 5, PBS, 2012, 68 minutes ($2).
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “A Decent and Rising Income Floor,” The Good Society.

Jan 24 (Tu)
Equality of opportunity
Reading 1: Lane Kenworthy, “Equality of Opportunity,” The Good Society.
Reading 2: Lane Kenworthy, “Early Education,” The Good Society.

Jan 26 (Th)
Reading: Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, “Human Work in the Robotic Future,” Foreign Affairs, 2016.

Jan 31 (Tu)
The size of government
Reading 1: N. Gregory Mankiw, “I Can Afford Higher Taxes, But They’ll Make Me Work Less,” New York Times, 2010.
Reading 2: Lane Kenworthy, “Taxes,” The Good Society.

Feb 2 (Th)
Money and politics
Video: Alex Gibney, Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream, 2012, 54 minutes (free).

Feb 7 (Tu)
Do election outcomes matter?
Reading 1: Larry Bartels, “The Partisan Political Economy,” ch. 2 in Unequal Democracy, 2nd edition, Princeton University Press, 2016. This is a pdf file, and it requires a password to access, which I’ll tell you in class.
Reading 2: Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca, “Federalism and Progressive Resistance in America,” Project Syndicate, 2017.

Feb 9 (Th)
Reading 1: Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, “The World Is Not Falling Apart,” Slate, 2014.
Reading 2: Rich Lowry, “The Bloody Lesson of Chicago’s 762 Murders,” RealClear Politics, 2017.

Feb 14 (Tu)
Marijuana legalization
Reading 1: Lane Kenworthy, “Marijuana Legalization,” The Good Society.
Reading 2: Christopher Ingraham, “Why This ‘Horrible’ Idea for How to Legalize Pot Could Be Worth Voting For,” Washington Post: Wonkblog, 2016.

Feb 16 (Th)
Health care
Video: T.R. Reid, Sick Around the World, 2008, 53 minutes (free).
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “Health Care,” The Good Society.

Essay 1 due: Tuesday, Feb 21, in class

Feb 21 (Tu)
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “Tolerance,” The Good Society.

Feb 23 (Th)
Video: Black-ish, “Hope,” season 2, episode 16, ABC, 2016, 24 minutes ($2).
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “Inclusion: African Americans,” The Good Society.

Feb 28 (Tu)
Reading 1: Reihan Salam, “Republicans Need a New Approach to Immigration,” National Review, 2016.
Reading 2: Lane Kenworthy, “Immigration,” The Good Society.

March 2 (Th)
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “Religion,” The Good Society.
Video: Real Time with Bill Maher, “Christianity Under Attack?,” HBO, 2015, 6 minutes (free).

March 7 (Tu)
Climate change
Video: Al Gore and David Guggenheim, An Inconvenient Truth, 2006, 96 minutes ($3)
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “Climate Stability,” The Good Society.

March 9 (Th)
Reading: Edward Glaeser, “How Skyscrapers Can Save the City,” The Atlantic, 2011.

March 14 (Tu)
US military intervention abroad
Reading 1: Lane Kenworthy, “US Military Intervention Abroad,” The Good Society.
Reading 2: Kenneth Pollack, “Fight or Flight: America’s Choice in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, 2016.

Essay 2 due: Thursday, March 16, in class

March 16 (Th)
Reading: Lane Kenworthy, “Happiness,” The Good Society.

Final exam: Tuesday, March 21, 8:00-11:00am


Here’s what you should get from this course:

Approaching issues scientifically. Many of the issues we’ll look at are front-and-center in popular discussion, journalistic coverage, and political debate. This discussion would be better, and more helpful to policy makers, if it were more informed by science. Approaching an issue scientifically means, among other things, considering empirical evidence rather than relying mainly on theory or ethical beliefs, looking for data rather than anecdote(s), looking for multiple sources of evidence (“If hypothesis A were true, what else would we expect to observe?”), and thinking about whether some types of evidence are more useful, and thus should be weighted more heavily, than others.

Asking important questions. For any issue or topic, there are multiple questions we might want to answer. Many are of interest, but some are more important than others.

Understanding argument and evidence. For each class day, you will do the reading or watch the video in advance. In class you’ll be quizzed on the information in the reading or video. Try to understand the question(s) the author is trying to answer, the answer(s) she gives, the key pieces of evidence, and the way the author reasons from the evidence and other considerations (laws, ethical views, etc) in reaching a conclusion.

Dealing with complexity. The substantive issues we’ll examine are big and complicated. Social scientists have struggled to understand the nature of the problem(s), to identify the main cause(s), and to figure out the most useful solution(s). The process is like detective work: seldom is the story simple and rarely do we have the exact evidence we’d need in order to be strongly confident about our conclusion, so we must ask an assortment of questions, use various types of data, and think systematically.

Comfort with quantitative data. A generation ago there was a scarcity of numerical data. Now we have an abundance: data are everywhere. That’s a good thing, because data are key to answering important questions about society. You will encounter lots of quantitative data in this course, often in graphical form. If you aren’t already comfortable interpreting such data and reasoning from them, by the end of the course you should be.

Verbal communication. The discussion section for this course is designed to foster conversation about the substantive issues we’ll cover. Your discussion section grade will be based entirely on your participation. We’ll also (I hope) have a good bit of discussion during regular class meetings.

Written communication. You will write two essays. Both are short, so I expect the quality of writing to be very high. Good writing usually comes from extensive editing. Write a draft. Then edit it. Then edit it again. And again.

Concision. Information and opinion are plentiful these days, so brevity is a valuable skill. The essays you will write are short, so you’ll need to focus on the information and argument that is most relevant or useful.

Independent research. The two essays are on topics not covered in the course. You’ll need to do some outside reading, decide on your proposal or position, and assess the degree to which evidence supports it.

Developing a good argument. The course materials and lectures are designed to expose you to ways of developing and conveying effective argument. Keys include focusing on a specific question, formulating a clear proposal or position, making use of relevant evidence, addressing potential objections and counterarguments, and communicating clearly.

Substantive knowledge. Last, but not least, the course aims to improve your understanding of the issues we cover.


The course readings and videos are available via the links in the schedule above. You’ll also need an iclicker, which you can purchase at the campus bookstore.


Course grades will be determined as follows. See below for details.

  • 15%: discussion section attendance and participation
  • 35%: quizzes
  • 20%: essay 1
  • 20%: essay 2
  • 10%: final exam

Each of these will be graded on a scale of 0 to 100. So your numerical course grade is calculated as: (discussion section attendance and participation grade x .15) + (quizzes average grade x .35) + (essay 1 grade x .2) + (essay 2 grade x .2) + (final exam grade x .1).

Your letter grade for the course will be determined as follows:

  • 97 and above = A+
  • 93–96 = A
  • 90–92 = A–
  • 87–89 = B+
  • 83–86 = B
  • 80–82 = B–
  • 77–79 = C+
  • 73–76 = C
  • 70–72 = C–
  • 60–69 = D
  • below 60 = F

There will be no extra-credit projects or assignments.


Dan Driscoll
Teaching Assistant
Section A01, W 2:00–2:50, WLH 2209
Section A02, W 3:00–3:50, WLH 2209
Office hours: W 12–1, Th 11–12, SSB 429

Davide Carpano
Teaching Assistant
Section A03, F 9:00–9:50, WLH 2112
Section A04, F 10:00–10:50, WLH 2112
Office hours: Tu Th 11–12, SSB 428

Attendance and participation in discussion section is required. Your discussion section grade will be based on your participation. Attendance may also affect your grade. You’re allowed to miss one section meeting without penalty. If you miss two, your discussion section grade will be reduced by 5 points. If you miss three, it will be reduced by 15 points. If you miss four, it will be reduced by 25 points. If you miss more than four, your section grade will be zero.


Each day in class, beginning January 17, you will take a short quiz on the reading for that day. Each quiz will have five multiple choice or true/false questions. You will answer the questions using your iclicker. There will be 18 quizzes; only your highest 15 grades will count.

Quiz grading: If you answer at least four questions, you will get 50 points (even if you have no correct answers). You get ten additional points for each correct answer. So if you answer four or more questions, your grade is 60 with one correct answer, 70 with two correct answers, 80 with three, 90 with four, 100 with five.

You must register your iclicker with TritonEd. To do that, go to, log in, choose this course, and click on “Register iclicker” in the blue menu bar. If you get a new iclicker at any point during the quarter, register it immediately.

For technical support with iclicker registration and use, contact Educational Technology Services.

You can take a makeup if you have to miss a quiz for any of the following three reasons: (1) holidays or special events observed by organized religions (for students who show affiliation with that particular religion), (2) absences pre-approved by the UCSD Dean of Students (or Dean’s designee), (3) extended illness (this requires a doctor’s note). If you miss a quiz for one of these reasons, contact me no later than the day of the quiz to schedule a makeup. I will need written verification of the circumstances.

You cannot take a makeup if you miss a quiz for any other reason. This includes faulty iclicker registration, forgetting to bring your iclicker to class, stolen or lost iclicker, iclicker malfunction, dead iclicker battery, needing to arrive late to class or leave class early, oversleeping, minor illness, transportation problem, family or friend’s special occasion, family problems, family illness, needing to study for another course, etc.

Here are my recommendations for how to prepare for the quizzes: (1) Take notes on the reading or video. Study those notes rather than re-reading or re-viewing the materials. (2) Evidence is important, but don’t get overly bogged down in detail — exact numbers, precise dates, and so on. (3) Don’t overthink the quiz questions. Don’t assume I’m trying to trick you. (4) It may help to study with one or more other students in the class.


You will write two short essays. The assignments:

  • Essay 1: What’s the most useful thing we could do to reduce obesity in America?
  • Essay 2: What’s the most useful thing we could do to increase the share of Americans who get a four-year college degree?

Due dates are listed above. An essay turned in late but within 48 hours of the deadline will be penalized 25 points (out of 100). An essay turned in more than 48 hours late, or not turned in at all, will receive a grade of zero.

Turn in a hard copy and upload your essay on TritonEd. Emailed essays won’t be accepted. To upload it on TritonEd, go to, log in, choose this course, and click on “Upload essays” in the blue menu bar. Your essay won’t be visible to other students; this is just to allow a check for plagiarism and length.

Grading will be based on the following:

  • Answer the question.
  • Refer to relevant evidence. Opinion and logic are fine but insufficient.
  • Address potential objections to your position.
  • Write clearly.
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation (use of first person — “I” or “me” — and of contractions is fine), and adhere to the following length, formatting, and citation instructions. Length: Each essay should be 1,500 words (excluding footnotes), plus or minus no more than 100 words. Formatting: The essays must be typed single-space on 8½-by-11 paper with 1-inch margins on top and bottom and 2-inch margins on each side. Use 11-point or 12-point font size. Sources and citations: Consult at least five sources of your choosing. Use footnotes (not a reference list or bibliography) to give credit to anyone from whom you borrow evidence or argument. The footnotes aren’t included in the word count. I’m not picky about the formatting of the footnotes, but include the author(s), title, and year rather than simply listing an internet address.

If you need help with writing, consider seeking assistance from the UC San Diego Writing Center.

Don’t plagiarize. If you aren’t sure what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it, see the UC San Diego Library’s guide to preventing plagiarism.


The final exam will cover all of the course material. The date and time of the exam are listed above.


Students are encouraged to share intellectual views and discuss freely the principles and applications of course materials. However, graded work must be the product of independent effort unless otherwise instructed. Students are expected to adhere to UC San Diego policy on academic integrity.


Students who need special accommodation or services should contact the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). You must register and request that the OSD send me official notification of your accommodation needs as soon as possible. Please meet with me to discuss accommodations and how the course requirements and activities may impact your ability to fully participate.


Information here, other than the grade and attendance policy, may be subject to change with advance notice, as deemed appropriate by the instructor.