College budget heroes: ‘You can cut my benefits’ to help country

Dave Gustafson
Reporter
Public Insight Network
Groups of students play the new Budget Hero Election Edition during a relaunch event Wednesday at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Groups of students play the new Budget Hero Election Edition during a relaunch event Sept. 20, 2012, at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. Desireé Luckey, seen at right in a red sweater, is in a dual-degree program for law and public policy. Her group abandoned plans to make college more affordable to help the federal budget’s long-term outlook. (Photo by Dave Gustafson | APM/Patchwork Nation)

COLLEGE PARK, MD. — With Budget Hero’s relaunch, some University of Maryland students were among the first to play the online game’s new Election Edition in hopes of putting federal spending on a more sustainable path, even if it meant serious personal sacrifices.

Budget Hero is an up-to-date simulation of budget choices currently facing Congress. Desireé Luckey said the students she played it with this week wanted to select the option to make college more affordable by increasing funding for community college and Pell grants for needy students — a policy change that would cost $58 billion in additional federal spending over 10 years.

But Luckey, who is taking out loans herself to pay for a dual-degree program in law and public policy, said her group ultimately decided against that spending.

After students played the game, School of Public Policy Dean Donald Kettl asked what messages they would send to Congress. “Think about your place in history, not just the November election,” one student replied. “Disagreement should be the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it,” another said.

The students’ tough decisions on which federal programs and taxes to keep or cut managed to delay the projected budget bust in 2033 by anywhere from three to seven years.

The University of Maryland’s independent student newspaper, The Diamondback, reported more on students’ choices:

“The groups proposed raising the retirement age, which Kettl said would cut the benefits of those very students when they reach retirement age.

“‘That, I think, is a pretty powerful message,’ Kettl said. ‘Every group stood up and said, “You can cut my benefits in the future in exchange for the ability to be able put the country back into a sound fiscal situation.”’ …

 “’As it stands now, it’s our generation that’s going to be stuck with all the debt and all the fiscal woes of the country,’ said Zach Cohen, a senior government and politics major. ‘While politicians have paid relatively good lip service about fixing the debt and bringing Social Security and Medicaid to sustainable levels, we haven’t really seen that in action.” …

“‘I think we need to have a frank discussion with the American people about what will happen if this budget goes bust,’ said J Charles Mintzmyer, a master’s student in public policy. ‘Maybe in 2035 we won’t have a military; maybe in 2035 we won’t have social security.’”

Washington Post op-ed columnist Dana Milbank wrote this week that Budget Hero will “leave you squawking mad about the ruinous consequences of politicians’ failure to reach a debt agreement.” He went on:

“The game, which the Wilson Center’s Jane Harman recommends to children as young as 8, shows — in a way that no CBO or OMB report can — just how childish lawmakers are being. Its beeps and clicks, cartoon altimeters and ‘budget bust’ clock illustrate the futility of trying to solve the problem without tax increases, or without major cuts to Medicare. It also shows how quickly the options are diminishing; in the 2008 edition, players had no trouble extending the bust clock to 2050.”

>> If you were in charge of the federal budget, what programs and taxes would you keep? Which would you cut? Give the new Budget Hero: Election Edition a try.

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Dave Gustafson Reporter
Public Insight Network
Dave Gustafson is a Public Insight Network reporter -- and the first-ever reporter hired to do journalism out of gamification. He embedded with Patchwork Nation, a project of the Jefferson Institute, to report around the Budget Hero game in June. Born in an Industrial Metropolis, he grew up in Service Worker Center and Campus and Careers community types. He now lives in a Monied Burb near Washington, D.C. Most recently, Dave was acting managing editor for digital news at the PBS NewsHour.