The presidential debate: A Budget Heroes primer

Dave Gustafson
Public Insight Network
Budget Hero is an online game that lets anyone try their hand at balancing the federal budget, using real proposals and real dollar amounts as determined by the Congressional Budget Office and other non-partisan sources.

Budget Hero is an online game that lets anyone try their hand at balancing the federal budget, using real proposals and real dollar amounts as determined by the Congressional Budget Office and other non-partisan sources. Click the seal to play, then tell us what you learned.

More than half of tonight’s 90-minute debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will focus on the economy and so-called pocketbook issues like unemployment and taxes. But nearly every issue, be it Medicare or military spending, has implications for the nation’s finances.

So it might be wise for the candidates to consider how thousands of politically engaged Budget Heroes have made their own tough policy choices, and how those choices might influence their vote. We’re talking about people who have played the popular online game Budget Hero, created by American Public Media and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2008. The game helps people understand how the U.S. government collects and spends money — and allows them to decide where their tax dollars should go.

Unlike a poll, the game encourages players to weigh the personal, social and fiscal effects of dozens of policy choices, and to grapple with the trade-offs associated with each. The game has been played more than 1.3 million times, with more than 47,000 players sharing their demographic information like age, income and political affiliation.

We analyzed data from more than 6,000 people who played the game in the past year before the game’s Election Edition relaunch last month. (Check out more details on the data below.)  Our takeaways from the analysis may provide interesting clues as to how people concerned about the federal deficit might score tonight’s debate — and vote in November.

When it comes to the U.S. budget, men are from Mars — and so are women.

The seven most popular policy options in Budget Hero were the same among male and female players — in the same order:

  1. Rapidly cut troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan
  2. Reform and simplify the tax code
  3. Slow the increase of Social Security benefits
  4. Raise the Social Security eligibility age
  5. Increase drug costs for wealthy seniors
  6. Cut discretionary spending
  7. End tax breaks for big oil

Rounding out each gender’s top 10 policy selections, female players tended to prioritize cutting the federal travel budget, making college more affordable and taxing toxic industries. Male players opted more for cutting Medicare waste and payments, requiring drug companies to give deeper Medicare discounts and limiting medical malpractice torts.


The future of Social Security?

Both Obama and Romney have yet to unveil comprehensive plans for addressing the long-term financial viability of Social Security, which accounted for roughly one-fifth of federal spending in the 2012 fiscal year at just under $800 billion.

The president has called for bipartisan discussions while Romney supports raising the retirement age beyond 67. Nearly two-thirds of Budget Heroes in our sample also chose to raise the eligibility age for Social Security, which bodes well for Romney.


Medicare: Make more, pay more

Making wealthier seniors pay more for prescriptions was another money-saving option for the government that received broad support across all ages of Budget Heroes. Players 45 and older even chose this policy more than younger players.

Players who make more than $100,000 each year (and might be most affected by such a policy change) picked this option more than players who make less than $50,000 a year.

In our earlier reporting on Budget Hero players’ priorities, we saw that players are often willing to make budgetary trade-offs that go against their personal interests.


Should big oil get bigger tax bill?

Energy is often part of any discussion on the economy, and Budget Hero is no exception — many players have chosen to end tax breaks for large petroleum companies. Players who identified themselves as Democrats ranked this choice among their top three priorities,  while it made the top 10 lists for independents, Green Party members and people who identify politically as “other.” It also garnered strong support in all age groups over 18 and in every income division, from people who make less than $15,000 a year to those who pull in $200,000 or more.

The Budget Hero option for oil drilling in the Arctic only made the top 10 list of Republican players, while funding research for clean energy proved popular among players who are Democrats, Green Party members and “others” — plus those who make less than $50,000.


Who cares about Obamacare?

Adding a public plan to the Affordable Care Act was a top-five choice among Democratic players, but repealing health care reform did not make the top 10 list of Republican players or any other groups within Budget Hero.


Making the tax code truly EZ

You don’t hear a lot about this on the campaign trail — and it’s not on moderator Jim Lehrer’s list of topics to address – but “simplify the tax code” scored high on the popularity meter with players, regardless of political persuasion, age and income. It came behind only “rapidly cut troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan” in popularity.

By eliminating tax loopholes and various deductions, the country could save up to $1.235 billion over 10 years, according to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Romney and Obama have both said they are in favor of overhauling government taxation to implement a simple system that is more fair, but they differ over whether the government should collect more taxes as part of changes to reduce deficits.


Medical malpractice awards: Donning a cap?

Another issue that is not expected to garner any major discussion tonight is overhauling U.S. medical malpractice laws — limiting malpractice torts and damages awarded on lawsuits.

This idea of changing malpractice laws proved most popular in a variety of Budget Hero demographic areas: among male players, those who are 18 to 45 years old and players who earn between $50,000 and $200,000 a year or more. It’s also most popular among people who identify themselves as Republicans, libertarians and independents.

However, U.S. News & World Report summed the prospect of federal tort reform this way:

“Like many Republicans, Romney wants to rein in medical malpractice lawsuits and other types of litigation that cost companies billions of dollars and often drive up prices.

“But his impact on this issue as president would be limited, since most tort law is promulgated at the state level.”


Class warfare? Not when it comes to managing the federal budget

We noticed a lof of agreement among Budget Heroes of all income ranges as they made their top policy picks.

Across all income groups, the most popular budget-stabilizing move was to rapidly cut troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest of the top five most popular policy options for players across income levels included slowing the increase in Social Security benefits, raising the Social Security eligibility age and simplifying the tax code.


Republican players take aim at discretionary spending

The most popular policy choice among Republican Budget Heroes was to cut discretionary spending. In the 2011 fiscal year, discretionary spending accounted for “$1.3 trillion, or 37 percent, of all federal outlays,” according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Libertarians, independents and players who identified themselves as “other” politically all included cutting discretionary spending in their top 10 Budget Hero plays.

Budget Heroes who identify with the Democratic and Green parties were less likely to cut discretionary spending than Republicans and libertarians.

Obama and Romney have both put forth plans to cut back on discretionary spending, which was among Budget Hero players’ top 10 choices.

According to The New York Times, Obama’s plan would reduce the deficit $1.7 trillion over the next decade from cuts to projected annual discretionary spending, based on budget compromises last year. Meanwhile, Romney says he would cut the annual federal budget by $20 billion by making an immediate cut to non-security discretionary spending if he were elected.


A note about the data

Budget Hero players are a self-selecting group. We analyzed gameplay data on a small percentage of players who completed full demographic profiles and didn’t give any questionable responses (a birth year before 1910, for example).

The data analysis, conducted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, focused on demographic information from a total of 6,378 plays between Aug. 1, 2011, and Sept. 12, 2012.

Here’s a breakdown of the demographics of the group of players we analyzed:







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.