Feel like doing a little cliff-jumping of your own as you watch President Obama and Congress wrangle over how to avoid sending the country over the fiscal cliff?
Me, too. They’ve known for two years that this day of reckoning was coming. When the D’s and R’s couldn’t find common ground, they passed the buck to a bipartisan “supercommittee” of 12 members of Congress, but these master negotiators couldn’t agree on how to reduce the budget deficit, either. The fallback position, thanks to the legislation that created the supercommittee, was to let automatic spending cuts and tax increases kick in on Jan. 1, 2013. And they will, if the president and Congress can’t come to an agreement in the meantime.
As a Los Angeles Times analysis said of the automatic belt-tightening, “Thus what was designed as a corset to force lawmakers to cut spending fat became instead a straitjacket.” And trying to get out of a straitjacket is never pretty.
But it can be fun, in a perverse way, for those of us who are sitting on the sidelines, despairing over this latest 11th-hour political soap opera.
If you want an inkling of the complexities the Washington politicians are dealing with — and if you want the satisfaction of solving the problem yourself with a few mouse clicks — spend a little time at this website: federal.budgetchallenge.org.
It’s an interactive game that lets you decide which federal programs should stay and which should go.
The “Federal Budget Challenge” is the brainchild of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan advocacy group for “generationally responsible fiscal policy,” and Next 10, a California-based nonprofit. Here’s how the game works:
After entering some basic demographic information, you plunge right into making decisions, first about spending options that are being touted as ways to stimulate the economy and ultimately lower the deficit and national debt.
Throughout the game, you can click on a “Pros & Cons” button for each option to see the arguments for and against making a change. This by itself makes the exercise worthwhile.
As you click on each option you want, a running tally shows the impact on the deficit.
Should the federal government spend $30 billion to modernize public schools? Some 27 percent of people playing the game had chosen this option when I went online. How about spending $30 billion to establish a National Infrastructure Bank to support road improvement? Some 21 percent liked the idea.
Then you move to options for cutting spending. How about saving $45 billion by eliminating federal subsidies for Amtrak and other intercity rail systems; 22 percent say it should happen. Cut $43 billion in funding for the National Institutes of Health? Only 12 percent agree. Save $17 billion by eliminating some Department of Education grants? About 17 percent would go for it.
The most popular option when I was playing the game: cutting $55 billion in subsidies to farmers, which showed support from 33 percent of the players.
Then you get to the big fish.
Should you freeze spending on discretionary (not mandated) programs, such as defense, education and transportation — about one-third of all federal spending — at 2008 levels without adjusting for inflation? It would cut $673 billion. About 60 percent of the players chose this option.
How about repealing the Affordable Care Act, or changing Medicare to a voucher system, or raising the full retirement age for Social Security benefits to 70 by the year 2035? Eliminate the tax deduction for home mortgage interest? Impose a surtax on income over $1 million? All options you can choose and then see their impact on the bottom line.
You can print out your results, and you can contact the webmaster to set up a group challenge online.
In 10 minutes of navigating the budget, I not only got rid of the deficit, I finished with a surplus of almost $1 trillion.
Of course, I was able to merrily cut and cut without having to deal with angry constituents, stubborn politicians, persistent campaign contributors and other special interests, or the ever-present media. That was the best part of the game.
And the most unrealistic. But balancing the budget in a political vacuum was a great escape from the political reality show in Washington — and a way to learn more about what’s at stake at the same time.