As lawmakers move beyond the messages and rhetoric of Tuesday's State of the Union address and consider policy changes to stabilize the country's financial well-being, we thought it might be helpful to share with them some insights we've gleaned from America's Budget Heroes.
In his speech, President Obama pressed Congress to pass a series of second-term agenda items aimed at strengthening the middle class -- while Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida made the case in his Republican response for a smaller government that gets out of the way of free enterprise.
American Public Media and the Woodrow Wilson Center created the Budget Hero game in 2008. Since then, the game's four iterations have been played more than 1.5 million times, and hundreds of players have shared their insights on the game through the Public Insight Network.
"It's a good way to show the real drivers behind the deficit and help explain, without the popular and dishonest rhetoric, which things might actually affect the budget in the future," Adam Tate of Arlington, Va.
Here are 10 things we've learned from listening to other Budget Heroes who have tried, through the game, to set the country on the path to a better financial future:
1. Don't dumb it down.
Maybe Bill Clinton was onto something with his arithmetic-laden speech last year at the Democratic National Convention. The former president delved into the numbers on everything from job creation to the differences between the Obama and Romney campaigns on Medicare and Medicaid.
For more than four years, Budget Hero has given people the chance to review the pros and cons of dozens of tax and policy options, allowing them to see the short- and long-term consequences of their spending choices on the national debt. The game also shows the relative costs of federal programs -- as Social Security, defense and health care spending tower over education, scientific research and infrastructure.
Stephanie Nystrom, a Corbett, Ore., business manager, told us the game offered her a framework to evaluate politicians' promises and claims.
"Budget Hero gave me a better context for understanding policy discussions," she said. "For instance, I heard a radio interview … about how much money entitlement programs cost in lost tax revenue. [The interviewee] made a compelling case against home mortgage deductions, [saying] that home ownership keeps our workforce from being as mobile as it needs to be in response to changing economic forces. The last time I played, I eliminated the home mortgage deduction and it improved my budget."
So, don't hold back on the numbers and the math. Nystrom isn't the first person to tell us that the understanding she gained from playing Budget Hero made her a more civic-minded and engaged listener, reader and informed citizen.
2. Get more creative.
Budget Hero only includes policy options that have been scored by the Congressional Budget Office and public policy think tanks -- in other words, only well-worn ideas already being debated by lawmakers. And that’s just not enough, according to Budget Heroes.
Players consistently say they want more -- and more creative -- solutions on both the taxing and spending sides: They've asked for the option to include a "fair" tax, to impose a flat tax or a value-added tax; they've asked for a line-item veto and the option to eliminate or combine entire federal agencies; and they’ve looked for more choices involving immigration policy and the long-term effects of raising educational standards.
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"I found Budget Hero too simple and inflexible -- making it nearly impossible to solve our budgetary crisis," said player Robert Hayes of Portland, Ore.
Lew Brown, of Guerneville, Calif., is another player who sought more choices in the game.
"The decision to eliminate departments, combine them or otherwise make executive decisions is not addressed nor is there any way of implementing any other proposals that may be at the president's discretion such as implementing wage and price controls or declaring a national economic emergency and using that as a pretext for realigning government and instituting taxation and rationing," he said.
3. If you want people to support your policies, explain the consequences in human terms.
While the game focuses on big-picture fiscal implications of policy choices, some players have said they want to know how many people might be personally affected by keeping or cutting a program or tax -- in other words, by the choices they make with each click of the mouse.
"One thing I wish that the game did was show the human elements at work," said firefighter Chris Montgomery of Joliet, Ill.
"Cutting defense spending eliminates lots of high-paying jobs; cutting social programs put many millions on the street and/or fails to provide a basic level of dignity for citizens."
4. Armed with good information, Budget Heroes are willing to make sacrifices for the good of the country.
Over and over, we've seen that Budget Heroes are often willing to make decisions that fly in the face of their own financial well-being.
In the past few months, we have heard about the variety of ways that Budget Hero players are willing to go against their own interests, with an eye toward the common good: We talked to a real estate agent who chose to ditch the mortgage-interest deduction, to a student who chose not to make college more affordable and to a variety of federal employees and contractors willing to cut parts of programs that directly benefit them.
Forcing wealthier seniors to pay more for prescriptions was a more popular choice among players who earn $100,000 or more each year, when compared to players who earn less than $50,000. And players who are 45 or older backed that policy more than younger players.
Budget Heroes, it turns out, generally had a picture larger than that of their own world in mind.
5. Governing is more involved than playing Budget Hero, but it shouldn’t be World of Warcraft either
Budget Heroes often say that the game shows how easily the country’s long-term debt problems could be resolved if lawmakers could only put aside politics and ideology, and yet many express empathy for politicians who repeatedly face the tough decisions inherent in setting fiscal policy.
"While increased revenues were certainly the majority of my deficit-reduction plan, I made more defense cuts than I expected," said James Yankay of Alexandria, Va., a statistician for the Department of Homeland Security. "It is difficult to evaluate defense cuts without a broader strategic vision of America's role in the world over the coming decades.”
Still, Budget Heroes don't necessarily buy into the "Washington's broken; why bother?" narrative. "Playing this game gave me a better perspective about filtering both Republican and Democrat claims about the budget (or lack thereof!) in the news media," said Justin Hodiak of Arlington, Va., who works as a defense consultant for the federal government. "I have a better understanding about why the two parties talk past each other."
Added Bruce Kozarsky, a writer from the Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park, Md.: "To me, [Budget Hero] helped illustrate the disconnect – really, a gaping chasm – between the parameters of the public debate and the actual options that ought to be on the table."
6. Budget Heroes are willing to boldly go where Congress has not.
Congress has been required since 1974 to pass a non-binding annual budget, but the Senate hasn't passed one in three years "in part because Democratic leaders did not want to subject embattled members to tough spending votes," The New York Times has reported.
Budget Heroes, despite all that, have shown a willingness to take a stand on issues that would make some politicians nervous.
"A lot of talk about what is impossible to do in the media and by the powers that be (like make Medicare and Social Security solvent) is actually doable," said Harshil Patel, a pharmacist from Edison, N.J.
As the game's choices evolved to reflect the budget realities of 2008 to the present, there were 23 policy options available to players that remained consistent, as they considered how best to shepherd the country into financial stability. Of those options, the three that players most frequently chose reflected policies that Congress has been unwilling to test as it hashes through its own budget proposals: raise the Social Security eligibility age, cut discretionary spending and slow the increase in Social Security benefits.
"The main issue is a burgeoning senior citizen class that is easily scared into not allowing any changes," Patel told us. "I would say the same for military spending. There are definitely ways to cut back on both thereby reducing the deficit and allowing more for education and infrastructure improvement (i.e., electrical grid) if only the media and leaders did a better job conveying information."
7. Tackle the tax code.
In last year's State of the Union address, President Obama pressed for changes in the corporate tax code that would reward companies for keeping jobs in the United States. But since then, no progress has been made on tax code reforms, according to The Washington Post.
Conventional wisdom is that voters are unwilling to support efforts to streamline the tax code and gladly tolerate the complexity if it benefits them. As former presidential adviser Bruce Barlett says: "They seem always to fear that 'simplification' is some sort of code word for raising their taxes while reducing someone else's."
Maybe what Americans need is the right context.
The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform estimates that eliminating tax loopholes and certain deductions could save the country up to $1.235 billion over a decade. That might explain why, since July 2011, "reform and simplify the tax code" has been the second most popular choice among players -- second only to "rapidly cut troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"I am a BIG fan of tax reform. People discount how much could be done to help the federal budget through intelligent tax changes," player Robert Atwood of Rutherford, N.J., wrote in 2011. "For example, end all subsidies to corn growers and lower tariffs and restrictions on Brazilian sugar based ethanol: no longer spending subsidies, corn will be shifted to food, and imported ethanol will help lower gas prices."
8. Even those closest to reaching the Social Security eligibility age seem willing to raise it.
While entitlement reform proposals such as raising the eligibility age for Social Security or Medicare have long been treated as taboo by most politicians, Budget Heroes are more open to those ideas, which could lead to huge savings for the federal government while providing less support to seniors. On Monday, the White House ruled out raising the age for Medicare but left its options open for reducing Social Security benefits.
In all versions of the game, raising the Social Security age was a top-three choice among players who shared their demographic information.
From a January review of the 23 policy options that have remained similar among all four versions of the game, raising the eligibility age for Social Security was the most-played option for players up to age 44 and over 65 during nearly 48,000 plays of Budget Hero that included players' demographic information.
Among those who were 45 to 64 years old – the people who would be the first to feel the effects of such a change – it was still the second most-popular choice, after cutting discretionary spending.
9. Younger generations have plenty to say about the federal budget; you just have to listen.
Politicians talk a good game about children being the country’s most precious asset and that we should reform the budget, education, tax code, gun control, insert-topic-here for the sake of the kids. But do we know what those younger Americans want from their government? It might surprise you to know that many of them do.
Students in middle school, high school and college classrooms have been using Budget Hero to explore the budget, economics, policy tradeoffs and understand how decisions in Washington affect them. Their capacity for cutting to the chase is impressive.
Emma Nelson, a high school freshman in Wauwatosa, Wis., told us that after playing the game in her "Current World and Economic Issues" class, she now understands "that debt piles up over time even if cuts are put in place, that small cuts don't really do much in the big picture, and that taxes actually help a lot, even though everyone hates paying them."
Say it with us: Emma for Congress.
10. It's OK to change your mind based on new information.
Numerous Budget Hero players have told us over the years that playing the game has made them rethink -- though not necessarily change -- some of their core beliefs.
"It was interesting to examine the effects of changing a couple of the things I traditionally care about: strong defense and keeping our entitlement promises. I've always been a hawk (and was in the defense aircraft business for many years), but playing the game made me face the question of whether I wanted to continue to be the world's police force," Mark Pickard of Laguna Niguel, Calif., said after the game's 2008 launch.
Americans heard from President Obama this week that the state of our union is getting stronger -- but we've heard from many Budget Hero players that the country faces dire consequences in the coming decades if our leaders fail to address our debt situation soon.
While those players are a self-selecting group, studying their comments and the way they play the game might offer politicians some guidance (and maybe even some political cover) as they face down these massive challenges in the coming years.
>> How would your values hold up when put to the Budget Hero test? Find out at budgethero.org -- and be sure to share your insights with us after you've played the game.
Editor's note (Feb. 14, 2013): Since 2008, the Budget Hero game has been played more than 1.5 million times. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on that point. The story has been updated to reflect the correct figure.