The folks at American Public Media want you to solve our budget problems, or at least understand them better. So they've updated their 2008 election game, Budget Hero, with today's numbers. About 90,000 people have tried to balance the budget since last week.
Billing itself as the "first ever fun federal budget experience"the game gets you to keep clicking and trying combos of cuts and tax hikes until you realize just how difficult our deficit is to solve. By the end, you will almost certainly be a bit more OK with cutting some favorite programs. You may also realize that raising some taxes makes a whole lot of sense.
Lest you think this is an advocacy ruse, the dollar figures and projections are about as bland and nonpartisan as you can get, pulled directly from the Congressional Budget Office figures, explained and transparently plugged into the game by reporters at APM's Marketplace.
They're so obsessively nonpartisan, in fact, that the game begins with instructions that mirror the current political reality: you have to extend the Bush tax cuts. The official CBO estimates still assume they expire even though neither political party is advocating that anymore.
Now that we trust the numbers, we can be terrified by them. After just five minutes of fiddling with infrastructure and education spending, you realize a few things. For one, it's nearly impossible to close the budget gap without raising taxes or massively slicing health and military spending. There are lots of ways to do both of those, and it's kind of fun to pick between cutting foreign aid or missile defense, or between raising the Medicare eligibility age and forcing drug companies to give bigger discounts.
Most of the items are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Then there are a few numerically irrelevant fiscal specks in the budget mess. Those tend to be the hot-button issues like Amtrak funding, at $5 billion, and protecting endangered species, at $2 billion. Killing arts and humanities funding doesn't even make a noticeable dent in the big skyscraper of debt. The health-care reform bill sure does though. This game puts those choices in perspective.
Give it a try and let us know how you would balance the budget. Or better yet, let your congressmen and congresswomen know. Maybe they'll try playing this game instead of playing debt brinksmanship.
Budget Hero a creation of American Public Media. You can play it here.