Online game lets students slash, tax their way to balanced budget

Lawmakers were shown the game last week.

University of Maryland (UM) College Park students last week finagled with federal spending and deficit reduction so that, at the very worst, they could delay economic Armageddon in the United States.

UM students, most of them majoring in public policy, experimented with ways to get the country’s fiscal house in working order Sept. 19 during the launch of “Budget Hero: Election Edition,” a web-based game that invites players to find a way – any way – to trim the nation’s debt by raising taxes, doing away with certain tax deductions, raising the age of Social Security recipients, and reining in the defense budget, among dozens of other options.

Even allowing the country to fall off the proverbial fiscal cliff – a combination of economic policies dreaded by both major parties – would keep the government running until well into 2027, according to the game.

But simply delaying the economic Armageddon isn’t the point, said Diane Tucker, leader of the serious games initiative at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, which created the game and introduced the election-year edition in College Park and on Capitol Hill last week.

The game aims to better inform the public of the federal government’s financial obligations reaching into the next few decades – projections based on information from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the referee of partisan bickering surrounding economic policy in Washington, D.C.

“Numbers don’t lie,” said Tucker, who added that most Budget Hero players have deeply flawed understandings of how the government spends money. “I think there’s a way to do this so that it helps clear some of the fog around these complex issues. People’s understanding of where their money is going suffers from such enormous distortion. … There’s something very leveling about this. There have been highly partisan debates around these issues, and this will show in numbers how money stacks up.”

A prime example of the public misunderstanding of federal budget matters: Respondents to a 2011 CNN poll said they thought 10 percent of the federal budget was designated for “aid to foreign countries for international development and humanitarian assistance.” Foreign aid actually accounts for less than 1 percent of the budget. And for budget cutters: Firing every federal employee wouldn’t even reduce the deficit by half.

Students played policy cards in their mission to bring spending in line with revenue collection. A Budget Hero data analysis showed that rapidly reducing troop numbers was by far the most popular choice for trimming the debt among all groups expect for Republicans, who ranked this as their No. 5 option.

Slashing discretionary spending was No. 1 for Republicans who played the game; it wasn’t in the top 10 who identified themselves as Democrats.

Don Kettl, dean of UM’s public policy school, said students thought the Budget Hero game legitimate partly because it used numbers and projections from the CBO, a trusted source, and not a partisan resource that reinforced certain budget priorities.

“They want these to be seen as numbers that haven’t been put together with any kind of spin,” he said. “You’re not saying to go wade through the president’s budget and see what you can learn. This is far more engaging.”

A public policy student asked Kettl during the Budget Hero session how he could beat the online game.

“I don’t know if you can win or lose,” Kettl responded. “I do know that there are people of all stripes who are willing to do all kinds of things [to balance the budget] even when the people who represent them draw these hard lines in the sand.”

Budget Hero, Tucker said, could help players conceptualize the giant numbers throughout a federal budget – an understanding that could lead to activism that would push policy makers to tackle deficit reduction in sensible ways.

“It’s the best kind of teaching tool, a simulation where people can make mistakes and learn from them,” she said. “They move from passive recipients of information to interactors with that information. That expands their understanding of the role they can play.”

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