You’re probably familiar with Marketplace on NPR, but did you know that they make games now too? They recently published an online “watercooler game” called Budget Hero. It’s pretty basic and is currently pretty slow since their server is getting hammered, but it’s worth a look. Balancing the federal budget has never been so interesting!
When you start the game, you get to pick three goals, which is a nice way of reminding you that there’s no objectively best federal budget. The best you can do is to have a budget that is the best at a particular category. Once that’s done, you get a bunch of dials at the bottom that tell you how your budget looks in terms of long-term sustainability, current deficit, and your goals. Above that are buildings that represent different budget categories, the taller the more expensive. It’s an amazing way of visualizing the budget. I had no idea how little a portion of the budget goes to education, especially versus the big three: defense (and diplomacy), healthcare, and social security. Clicking on a building gives you a selection of “cards” that describe a budget change (“reduce military spending by 10%”) and a cost or benefit (“-$305 billion”). Double-clicking gives you more information on the pros and cons of that particular card. You can also modify taxes in a similar way.
Playing around with it was really interesting. Although I’ve heard about things like Bush’s tax cuts, it’s hard to put it all in perspective. In Budget Hero, I can put it in terms that I understand (if I repeal Bush’s tax cuts, I can fund mandatory healthcare and alternative energy research).
There are some drawbacks too. Clicking on a building (budget topic) can sometimes give you a “server is busy” error message. The cards also focus on specific policy directions that have been talked about. If you want to do something off the wall, you won’t be able to model that here.
Despite these minor flaws, it’s entertaining and a great way to make sense of the budget. It also helped me get a handle on the costs of some of the issues I feel passionate about and what I’d have to sacrifice to pay for them.
I highly recommend trying it out!