Students Rise to the Fiscal Challenge

Special Guests: Mike Aguilar

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This week on Facing the Future, we heard from three college students who recently took part in the annual Fiscal Challenge competition where teams from around the country devise and defend their own plans for putting the federal budget on a sustainable path.

For some expert perspective on these plans, I was joined by Concord Coalition National Field Director Phil Smith and Chief Economist Steve Robinson, both of whom attended the competition finals in Washington DC on Friday, April 12th. 

Also joining the discussion was Dr. Mike Aguilar, economics professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, founder and president of the Fiscal Challenge. 

Aguilar explained that he started the Fiscal Challenge as an educational nonprofit in 2013. “When I was teaching,” he said, “I found that we do a lot in college academics, public policy, and economics departments on monetary policy; not a lot on fiscal policy.

So I started a nonprofit with the goal of enhancing students’ understanding of fiscal policy. Every year we have a competition. Experiential education, I think, is the best.”

In this year’s competition, Aguilar noticed two prominent themes. “One was political feasibility,” he said, “and the second was growth. With political feasibility, you would think it’s a divisive election, maybe they’re more cognizant of that. What really surprised me was growth. The target variable is debt to GDP. It’s a fraction, and often in the past students would focus on the numerator but they often would overlook the dynamic effects for the denominator. This year we had tons of great supply side stuff – investments in transit, investments in broadband, human capital, apprenticeships, immigration, green cards, universal Pre. K. That was one of the major new themes from this year that I saw, not in every team, but across many of them.”

Members of this year’s three top teams described their plans and gave us some advice on making fiscal policy relevant to their peers. 

Akash Banerjee, a member of this year’s winning team from Temple University told us, ”One of the biggest things in connecting with college students is making them feel heard and just making them feel like my desires and my dreams and my future is valuable, like someone cares about it and it’s not just a bunch of powers that be talking about my future without me being in the room and without me having any say, but someone actually cares about making sure that me and my kids can afford to go to college, or that me and my kids can can move upward on the socioeconomic ladder. And that’s something that I think is really lacking. It’s not just about educating. It’s also about listening.”

Jake Anthony, a member of the second place University of Notre Dame team added, “One of the big things that gets a lot of people really interested in this, and why a lot of members of our club get interested in this and really become passionate about the debt as an issue, is this idea that ultimately, on interest, you’re spending a huge portion of the U.S. budget, paying for previous things rather than investing in the future, or investing in the kinds of things that you want to see in your society. All these college students have a whole bunch of great things they want to do with the country and with the future. But those things need financing, and if we keep pushing all our spending forward, we won’t have any ability to spend for the next generation of great ideas. So I think a good way to reach out to people is to help them understand the magnitude of the consequences of not dealing with this issue, and how things keep piling up.”

Aleksei Shilov from the third place Northeastern University team observed that, “talking to college students often you get the sense that there’s no sense of urgency because, for instance, with Social Security, there’s this attitude that ‘they’re gonna come up with something when the time comes. So I’m not worried about it,’ or there’s a pessimistic attitude as well, which is, ‘I won’t have much retirement so why worry?’ In my experience, explaining what exactly is going to happen if we don’t fix Social Security, for instance, for their parents, first of all, but second to their own retirement is important. Of course, they should also save for their retirement but Social Security is an important part to stabilize any short gaps that might arise in the future. Pointing out the effects on their personal lives really helps, like asking them to imagine themselves in 40 years, being without Social Security.”

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join us as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.

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