Online game: balance the US budget

Brad Robideau says:
budget-hero.jpg American Public Media recently launched Budget Hero–our newest interactive game that lets people explore the major issues of the election by changing the federal budget to match their stands on issues and their values

Budget Hero tries to bring a level of clarity and simplicity to the federal budget. It is bound to be controversial since the game puts numbers against issues like bringing home troops from Iraq soon or gradually or not at all and providing options on taxes, Social Security and Medicare. American Public Media worked closely with the Congressional Budget Office, GAO and others on the data and devoted months of reporter and researcher time to creating the game.



  1. This reminds me of an idea I’ve had to make our society instantly more democratic. I think people should be allowed to specify where their tax dollars will go, perhaps right on their tax forms.

    Of course this plan would face opposition from people who believe that the people in charge really do know best and that the unwashed masses would end up deciding to spend our tax money unwisely. I doubt that would happen, but if we were concerned, we could offer “suggested” budgets and/or only allow taxpayers to control where a small fraction of their money goes, rather than all of it.

  2. You know despite poking some buttons as of late on the Little Brother threads I say this for real…

    Cory, have you considered making a Little Brother game? I’ve been involved in Serious Games for some time now, and I think a “semi-serious game” built around a theme like Little Brother would be quite good. It’s got a message, but it’s also got a story and action. It would make a good game both to expand minds but also entertain as well (like I’m sure the book’s goals are). It could be relatively inexpensively created as a mod for a game like Half-Life 2 for example. It looks like the CC license would allow it.

    The whole serious games field is a really interesting and fascinating space that I’ve been lucky to be active in as a presenter, developer and gadfly on the Serious Games Initiative’s email list and other areas. It’s about taking games, game ideas and game technologies beyond the gratuitous to help teach, educate, train, visualize and do about anything else you can think of. It can vary from the hard core military type applications to Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games

  3. Interesting quiz on present values of govt obligations here. Object, to identify the following figures:
    1. $38.6 Trillion
    2. $11.9 $ 9.65 Trillion
    3. $13.7 Trillion
    4. $ 7.1 Trillion
    5. $ 2.7 Trillion
    6. $ 0.5 Trillion

    Answer is given towards the bottom of the post.

    1. $38.6 Trillion – E. Medicare’s unfunded gap. The other number that’s tossed around a lot is from the 2008 trustee’s report- you can breathe a sigh of relief there, it’s only $36.3 Trillion.

    2. $11.9 Trillion – A. The equity value of all residential housing in the United States (Federal Reserve Board figure for end of 2007).

    3. $13.7 Trillion – C. United States Gross Domestic Product (2007 via CBO).

    4. $7.1 Trillion – D. Present value of unfunded Social Security Obligations (2008 Trustee Report, probably optimistic)

    5. $2.7 Trillion – F. Sum of all Federal Budget outlays (Fiscal Year 2008 budget of the United States)

    6. $0.5 Trillion – B. United States Defense Budget (Fiscal Year 2008 budget of the United States).

  4. Reminds me of this: a fantastically fun game that gives you enough complexity to make you think “hey, this is hard, but I could run the country!” followed shortly by “what the hell are the bastards who are /really/ running the country doing? They should’ve lost ages ago!”

  5. #2: “I think people should be allowed to specify where their tax dollars will go, perhaps right on their tax forms.”

    That would give more power to people who pay more tax, i.e. the rich.

    Which would basically turn the US into a publicly traded corporation – the more stock you own, the more votes you have.

    And we all know how beneficial giant corporations are to our society.

  6. And we all know how beneficial giant corporations are to our society.

    Well, I’m glad someone sees this. Not sure I agree that we should treat the whole nation as one, though. Maybe stick with the one-person one-vote thing, but limit it to tax payers?

  7. AnnoyedCapitalist
    I noticed you neglected to include this:
    “Posted by Equity Private, Apr 01, 2008, 2:24pm”

    It was an April Fools Day prank.

  8. Noen,
    It wasn’t a very funny prank, then. If you’d bother to educate yourself for 10 minutes on Google, you’d know those numbers are correct.

    Hint #1: Unfunded medicare obligation conclusion on p197 in the pdf linked in this summary.

    Hint #2: For social security, the 2008 Trustee report actually gives an unfunded obligation of $13.6 trillion.

  9. The sad thing is that this game isn’t hard at all. You can play like McCain does, and make a lot of noise about nickels and dimes, or you can achieve what used to be a Republican goal in one step: repeal the Bush tax cuts. Boom, deficit goes away, we start paying down debt. You can even afford universal health care if you make just a couple of judicious cuts in pork-barrel programs like agriculture, and (ahem) the fucking WAR.

    Seriously, ten clicks and I was in surplus, with a government both serious and responsible, well on the “small” side of the swinging needle.

    The people in charge now are neither serious nor responsible, however.

  10. Managed to get 5/6 badges in 2 tries, balance the budget to 2070+ both times. The key, apparently, is to cut spending on business and war, and invest in infrastructure, research, and education, while paying down debt as quickly as possible (got it to 5.8% on the second try). The biggest disadvantage was that taxes were a little higher, but if you see taxes as investment in the public good that’s not horrible. We all go to school and we all use the roads.

    Now, am I just better at this than everyone in Washington, or are they evil, or does the game have a political motive? Who can say?

  11. “Maybe stick with the one-person one-vote thing, but limit it to tax payers?”

    Including sales tax? So all you would need to get the vote would be to buy a pack of gum?

    Or do you have only some other kind of tax in mind? Income tax and/or property tax, perhaps? Since that would exclude welfare recipients or people with no taxable income or property, and thus disenfranchise the poor, this would put proportionally more power in the hands of the rich.

    Maybe that’s what you want?

  12. AnnoyedCapitalist – I did bother to read. The numbers you cite are meaningless and Equity Private is regarded as a crank. Apples and oranges hun.

  13. Alright, AnnoyedCapitalist, I took a look at the Medicare pdf, and I think you might want to check your source: p197 is a methodological study of how the data projections were arrived at; it has no data as such.

    P38 had a graph projecting $204billion in the Medicare kitty at the end of 2017. The per annum deficit comes no where near the levels you cited: the worst year by far is 2016 running at a loss of $72billion, but that is not at all representative, and even if it was, would be some way from $38.6 Trillion even after twenty years.

    Maybe I read the report wrong, but I don’t think so.

  14. Noen: I’m not sure what you mean by meaningless. Those numbers come from the actuaries at SSA and Medicare. Who cares if they were given by a “crank?”

    Spazzm: Yea, I guess you’d be able to vote in the state elections if they had sales tax. Federal vote would then be limited to the people in the top 55% of income, who actually pay all the tax. I think the main people you’d disenfranchise are the AARP members.

    And don’t get all hissy with me, you’re the one who proposed it.

  15. Sorry if you’ve a rebuttal, AC, but I’m for bed. His figures may have come from somewhere, but I don’t think that report is where. Definitely agree Medicare should have more money.

  16. #18:
    “And don’t get all hissy with me, you’re the one who proposed it.”

    No, I did not propose anything.

    I merely explained, in what was intended to be polite tones, why putting tax-related limitations on who can vote will give more power to the rich. Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on whether you think rich people are better at running the country than poor people.

    If you feel I was being hissy with you, meh.

  17. Scottfree, p197 of the report, not the PDF. Its #203 in the PDF. In the middle of that table you have “Net results for Budget perspective.” The HI and SMI present values of -$12.7T and -$23.6T come out to -$36.3T … I’m not actually sure where the $38T number comes from, perhaps there was a number beyond 75 years.

    And your math is right on a year-by-year basis. But the above numbers were unfunded liabilities — public companies have to list these things on their balance sheets, but government entities don’t have to. [Though there’s currently effort to force cities to properly account for their pensions.] So we’re not paying much now, but the actuaries know we’ll be paying a lot more later. And you sum up all of those discounted cash flows, and you get $36-38T. This is what we would need to pay today in addition to the normal payments later in order to break even.

  18. Spazzm — Mea culpa, wasn’t you who proposed it. Also note that my tonge is planted firmly in my cheek while making these comments. I was trying to riff off of your “corporations” comment, because I think it’s a great paradigm, yet come to the opposite conclusion.

  19. The game is basically structured so your only out is to cut defense spending and raise taxes.

    It seems to use the 9″ pie model of economics: raise taxes 5% and revenue increases by 5%; lower taxes 5% and revenue decreases by 5% (sort of like how the Congressional Budget Office models taxes). Raise taxes? Free money! Lower taxes? Instant budget death! Never mind the effect of either on economic behavior.

    There’s an interesting set of charts I saw that demonstrate that tax revenues are very closely correlated with GDP. (It’s been been close to 18% of GDP for the last 50-60 years.) Meanwhile, the correlation with the top tax rate (which was around 90% in the 50s) is minimal to nil. This suggests that if you want to raise tax revenue (which isn’t necessarily the goal, but I’m just sayin’), what you really want to do is encourage business and personal financial prosperity.

  20. AnnoyedCapitalist — 1.) comparing yearly figures to combined totals is comparing apples to oranges. It’s misleading at best. 2.) The very idea that Medicare and Social Security have an unfunded liability is in dispute. This is just fearmongering from the right.

    By meaningless I mean the 0.5 trillion for defense. This is a cooked figure because we’ve already spent 1 trillion in Iraq alone so far. But I know, I know, the 0.5 is the defense budget, our spending in the MidEast is “off budget” therefore you (or someone) are really just playing games.

    I bet you think unemployment is at %5 don’t you?

  21. Noen — 1) Not apples and oranges, perhaps annuities and bonds. Not the same thing but they aren’t entirely different and can be compared. Many financial ratios do this, compare yearly cash flows against liabilities. If you know well enough that they represent different things, then you should know well enough that they deserve space next to each other.

    2) Wrong, they currently do have unfunded liabilities according to actuaries. What they are not are “bankrupt” or “insolvent” in 10 years. Those unfunded liabilities are just going to be paid for out of general revenues instead of their specific revenues or by having benefits reduced. I suppose you could say that it has no unfunded liabilities, but you could then use that same logic applied to the pensions in San Diego or GM no matter what their financial strength. Those pensions are going to be paid out as long as they can, until benefits are reduced. If SS has no unfunded liability, then no pension does.

    I’m not sure how you go from 0.5 trillion to “we just don’t know!” because you can estimate it offhand. This site here (via Wikipedia) breaks down actual spending pretty well. Overages of 25% or so seems normal since the wars began. So it’s off by a digit. What difference does that make to the rest of the numbers?

    And yes, unemployment is at 5%. I bet you didn’t know how unemployment was defined until recently, didn’t you?

  22. Anyone besides me find it annoying how limited your choices are? I could not find a “cut homeland security by 90%” or “eliminate agricultural subsidies.” I had my machete ready to go and I had to settle for a few measly tidbits.

    Maybe it only allows what they consider politically possible, but some of the options given also seem like they’d be politically impossible.

  23. Simmons forecasts that oil prices could hit $200/bbl as global demand increases. He pointed out that the industry had previously sold its best-quality grade of oil at $15/bbl and flared natural gas because it was too costly to develop.

    “That was a mistake,” he concluded.

  24. @23: There’s an interesting set of charts I saw that demonstrate that tax revenues are very closely correlated with GDP. (It’s been been close to 18% of GDP for the last 50-60 years.) Meanwhile, the correlation with the top tax rate (which was around 90% in the 50s) is minimal to nil.

    There are several things wrong with your statements:

    1) Of course you would expect tax revenues to be closely linked to the GDP: The GDP is a measure of income and consumption, both of which are taxed. Increase the GDP, increase the tax revenue. This is not a surprise, no matter which side of tax cuts you re on.

    2) I’m not sure about the “top tax rate,” but if you look at the correlation to income tax with tax revenues, you will see a very strong correlation: See graph at Every little bump in the tax rates is exactly correlated with a little bump in the tax revenue (shown here as a percentage of GDP. Since the GDP is also expanding, the percentage stays mostly stable).

    3) Note the tax cuts in the early 2000s and their effect on tax revenue. “Ah ha!” you say, “that’s not because of the tax cuts, that’s because of 9/11.” Well, yes, in part, but not completely. See graph here: You can see that after 9/11, the GDP continued to rise significantly. However, tax revenues FELL (countering your first point.

    GDP continued to rise, tax cuts were made, tax revenues fell. Which variables are more closely correlated?

  25. Noen, The BLS numbers show that total unemployment is 5.0%. I am vindicated.

    I can only guess that you have recently stumbled upon the fact that economists have more than one category for people not working. Anyone who is familiar with those statistics knows that definition.

    Why are you not pulling up other numbers, like employment-population ratios? That would also include people who have withdrawn themselves from the labor force entirely, for any reasons. I can only imagine because these “new unemployment” numbers sound surprising when compared to “old unemployment” numbers. But that alternative metric has always been 3-4% higher as long as it has been tracked.

  26. The game is basically structured so your only out is to cut defense spending and raise taxes.

    Yes. Reality has a liberal bias, doesn’t it?

  27. Wow. I cut Bush’s tax cuts, made the extraction industries pay their own way (free market ho!), made hedge fund manager salary tax loophole and bumped the social security contribution on the rich since they only pay a fraction of their salary compared to the other 99%.

    I cut military spending to levels to face credible threats. And got the hell out of Iraq, now.

    All fair and in keeping with sound, conservative practices.

    I had more money than I knew what do do with. Literally. Could not get a deficit no matter what.

    If these figures are accurate, it’s a sad, sad thing that something so common-sense is so difficult to pull off.

  28. Annoyed — Is that all it is for you? Wining? You seem to have completely missed my point. Do you know what that was? Can you repeat it back to me so I know it’s worth talking to you at all?

    trai_dep — you are assuming they have the same goals that you do. The Bush admin is on record that they want to destroy the economy. Stealing from the public trough is the whole point of a Kleptocracy.

  29. Noen — I don’t care about winning. I’m interested in getting rid of ignorance about financial issues. My initial comment was to give BoingBoing-ers some perspective on all of the numbers — the game itself shows how Medicare and Social Security are endlessly growing. You have made a lot of claims that are not true, which I have tried to correct you on. You initially claimed that the numbers were “an April Fool’s prank” created by a “crank,” and consequently said they were “meaningless.” You’ve made other claims that aren’t true (e.g., no unfunded liabilities), and I have corrected you.

    I don’t know what your point is. I would guess that you want people to ignore the numbers I posted above. But I’m not going to let you post obfuscations without retort.

  30. Dnl2ba – I actually vaguely recall those charts as well. But I think it was only comparing the top marginal tax rate against GDP. That top tax rate has varied a lot through the decades. The difference with the Bush tax cuts were that they affected more than just those people earning above $300k. They reduced taxes along the whole spectrum of payments, which caused visible reductions in the tax revenues.

    Any idea where you saw the chart? I can’t find it via google.

  31. I am vindicated. Followed by I don’t care about winning. is contradictory. Your whole response paints you as someone who sitting at you PC crying “Someone is WRONG on the Internet!” Neither is “I have corrected you” an invitation to a discussion.

    I don’t know what your point is.

    Just as I thought.

    You’re correct that the post you linked to was not an April Fool’s joke but the commenters on that site do see her as a right wing crank with an agenda. My other point was that those numbers are fudged. Governments do this all the time. Whether it’s unemployment or the consumer price index, governments lie. They fudge the numbers to make themselves look good or to justify policy. It is foolish to blindly accept what any administration says. Even more so with this administration which has politicized analysis across the board, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Food and Drug Administration.

    Cut ‘n paste is no substitute for critical thinking.

  32. Noen — Your antagonistic comments were no invitation to discussion either. Instead of making any point, you simply said the numbers were wrong and meaningless. Neither of those are true for the numbers I copied. And for your patest post, I do see your point, but it is less drastic than you make it out to be.

    Firstly, “Unemployment” and the CPI are not lies — they are consistently measured on a well defined standard on a stastistical sample. That their definitions do not satisfy the layman’s interpretation is no reason to ignore them. Even the 9.2% figure you gave does not include, say, the housewife who would rather work but could not then afford daycare. That there is a large amount of standardized historical data is a great boon. It may not measure what it claims to measure, but it measures it consistently.

    Secondly, you overestimate administration influence on the actuaries’ reports. In fact under Clinton, the forecasted liability was even larger. Using the SS Trustee report as an example, the 2008 75-year unfunded liability was 20% smaller than the 1999 one. These were caused by more optimistic growth assumptions. If you think this administration is exaggerating that liability, then Clinton’s was worse.

    You’re laughable if you think ignoring these numbers is a better use of critical thinking than analysing them while acknowledging their imperfection. You have done nothing but advocated the former.

  33. @noen: If the government agencies wanted to look good, they would’ve fudged their unfunded liabilities to look smaller, not bigger.

  34. I was part of the team at American Public Media that produced Budget Hero, and have enjoyed reading the spirited discussion and debate that the game has sparked. We hoped the game would get people talking about the federal budget, and it appears on that score it’s been a success.

    We’ve also been monitoring comments to find suggestions for improving the game, ideas for new policy options, or to spot technical problems.

    Based on the feedback that we’ve received here and elsewhere, we’ve added several new policy options to the game:

    End No Child Left Behind (Schools & Learning)
    Increase NSF grants by 50 percent (Science & Nature)
    Cut NSF grants by 50 percent (Science & Nature)
    Double funds for alternative energy (Science & Nature)
    Ground the space program (Science & Nature)
    Stop exploring Earth from space (Science & Nature)
    Increase NASA funds by 50 percent (Science & Nature)

    Sorry, but you’ll need to play the game again to see how much each of these spends or saves!

    We’ll be adding more options to the game as new policy proposals crop up during the campaign season. If you have any other ideas for cards we should add, or any further suggestions or feedback, please send them to me at

    Srini Radhakrishna

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