For centuries, governments across the globe have used strategy games – called war games – to test the effectiveness of various approaches to solving specific challenges. This year, Human Ecology Professor John Cawley incorporated a policy wargame into his class “The Economics of Risky Health Behaviors.”
The scenario involved a debate over whether to tax sugar-sweetened beverages, or SSBs, which include sodas and energy drinks. Concerned about rising obesity and diabetes, numerous U.S. cities have debated whether to tax SSBs. The debates have been contentious, involving issues of the health consequences of drinking SSBs, paternalism, and the extent to which consumers are price elastic – that is, whether they would drink fewer SSBs if the price were higher.
To model this as a wargame, Cawley, a professor of policy analysis and management, set up cities tasked with considering whether to implement a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Teams of students were assigned roles such as activists who advocated for the tax, beverage industry representatives who opposed the tax, legislators who voted on the tax, and voters who were wooed by the other parties.
“Students work as teams,” Cawley said. “They have to think like economists because they have limited budgets of money and time, and each team is trying to achieve their own objectives without knowing what the other teams’ goals are, or even how much money the other teams have. Each team’s decisions affect all of the others, so strategy is important.”
“The advocates want as high as tax as possible, but if they propose something too high then it won’t pass,” he said. “And the industry wants to defend themselves, but then they can’t look like they are not interested in public health.”
Before the in-person events, which took place over a long evening or half-day on the weekend, each team created print, radio, and television ads promoting their side of the issue. “The students did an exceptional job putting together informative and persuasive ads,” Cawley said. Teams did not have enough money to air all their advertisements, so they had to make tough decisions about how to allocate their advertising budget, which was larger for industry than the advocates. The advocates and industry also had to make multiple presentations, and answer questions, as part of a public debate. Their goal was to convince the city council to vote with their side. However, at the end of the scenario, voters choose whether to keep city council members in office, so teams had to persuade voters to side with them too.
Caitlin Bowen served as the undergraduate teaching assistant the class; she helped to organize the teams, and served as the primary contact person for the industry team for questions about rules and procedures.
“The students gained a valuable perspective on how the concepts they learned in the course can be applied in real scenarios and to the policies they are advocating for or against in different roles,” she said. “It was also an awesome opportunity to see the personality of the students and to allow them to express their creativity.”
Cawley said he chose the issue of the sugar-sweetened beverage tax because he has studied this topic from its inception. The first tax passed in Berkley, Calif. In 2015. Since then, eight additional municipalities across the nation have passed these types of taxes, five have rejected them, and one passed a tax but then repealed it.
“It’s a relatively balanced issue,” Cawley said. “Whether students are assigned to the advocates or industry team, they can find arguments they believe in. We talked about what really happened in cities that passed SSB taxes, and how it affected prices, sales, consumption, and tax revenue. However, these taxes are relatively new so we don’t have definitive proof of what the effects of these taxes are over the long-term or what the optimal tax looks like.”
In addition to helping students understand the real-life implications of a specific policy, the war game scenario was a great way to assess students’ creative and persuasive talents, Cawley said.
“It is fun to see another side of students, and I was surprised by how many were really good at it,” he said. “Cornell students tend to be impressively good communicators, they are skilled at interpreting data and synthesizing research findings. Students also really seem to enjoy working with one another; because this is a game, it channels people’s natural competitiveness.”
In light of campus closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the wargame is a good reminder of the advantages of in-person schooling, Cawley said.
“There was constant negotiation between the different groups and dynamic communication throughout the activity,” he said. “You could see the fun students were having with learning. This is one of those things that works best if you’re all in the same facility together for four hours straight.”