College students and deficit reduction

Last week the students in the class I co-teach with David Schanzer (Gridlock: can our system address America’s big challenges?) completed an in-class exercise created by the Concord Coalition that lets people devise their own plan to reduce the federal budget deficit (or not) over the next 10 years. A brief report on what they (10 groups of about 4 each; mostly undergrads, with a few grad students) decided.

  • 9 of the 10 groups embraced policies that would reduce the federal deficit over the exercise baseline (which includes taxes greatly increasing on Jan. 1, 2013 and the implementation of the ~ $1.2 Trillion in spending cuts agreed to in the debt limit deal).
  • The spread of the difference between the groups was over $5 Trillion over 10 years (a $430 Billion increase in the deficit to a $4.7 Trillion decrease, over 10 years; half of the groups identified deficit reduction of over $3 Trillion, again as compared to the baseline noted above).
  • You can download the materials we used (and you can use with a class, etc.) here.
  • The students engaged in long discussion about investing more in some areas, while cutting in others.
  • Any such exercise necessarily simplifies the choices available, and this one boils it down to 40 choices about spending and taxation. The portion of the exercise that students were most frustrated with was the section on health care and Social Security. They wanted more nuance than was available in this section. For example, it offers the choice to repeal the ACA, or not. Likewise, they wanted more subtlety to address Social Security with a mix of benefit cuts and taxes.

There are other models available for such an exercise, and I highly recommend the online budget simulation tool developed by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. It provides a bit more nuance in some of these key areas than does the tool produced by Concord, but the materials from Concord were more suited to an in-class group discussion format. Tradeoffs! Both are excellent tools to get students (and anyone) thinking about the choices our nation faces.


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