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Scot Lehigh

Get ready to play ‘Save Your Country’s Future’

By Scot Lehigh
May 21, 2010

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CONVINCED THAT you could do a better job than Washington’s clueless crowd at governing this country?

Well, your chance has arrived. So sit down at your computer, roll up your sleeves, and get ready to play . . . Save Your Country’s Future. Or, as the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calls its fun and edifying online exercise in federal budgeting, “Stabilize the Debt.’’

Just type crfb.org into your browser, and presto: You’re ready to confront the same choices Washington policy makers face as they fight a rising tide of red ink. You can pick among dozens of policy options, each with a concise and easy-to-understand description. As you choose, you’ll see the instant results on an accompanying graph that charts the national debt. All that’s lacking is a legion of lobbyists to try to lead you astray. And an angry assembly of AARP avatars ready to protest most any entitlement-trimming move you make.

Your goal as a would-be Washington policy maker isn’t even to balance the budget. It’s just to reduce the projected federal debt to 60 percent of the economy by 2018. That’s not an ideal level, to be sure, but it’s far preferable to estimates that show the national debt hitting 85 percent of Gross Domestic Product by then.

Now, don’t get your tail feathers in a tizzy, deficit doves: the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization isn’t advocating instant action. To avoid crippling the fledgling recovery, it recommends that spending cuts wait until 2012. Still, the committee is intent on educating Americans now about the choices we’ll face when the time comes to take up that task.

Before you start, be forewarned. Some of you may find that your cherished nostrums are little more than fiscal fool’s gold. Like the notion that we could get our budget in order if we just slashed foreign aid. Check the choice to cut foreign aid in half and . . . and the bright red bar that marks the debt hardly shrinks at all.

Even limiting spending growth to the rate of inflation — that is, imposing a real dollar freeze — doesn’t take an overly big bite out of our growing debt. And if you want government spending to grow at the same rate as the economy? Well, the bar will certainly move — but in the wrong direction.

Let’s turn to tax cuts for a moment. Few want to see their own taxes go up, but I think it’s fair to say that there are more than a few who wouldn’t mind nicking upper earners a little more. One choice the simulator presents is to keep the Bush-era tax breaks for those making less than $250,000, but do away with those for folks who earn more. Problem solved, right?

No, actually not. That doesn’t help here. Why not? Because current baseline fiscal projections assume that all of those tax cuts will expire. Thus retaining any of them only increases the red ink — or the spending cuts that need to be made elsewhere. There, the budget simulator makes it easy to see something conservatives like to deny: The significant role those tax cuts play in our long-term fiscal problems.

Here’s another exercise worth doing. Choose a menu of strict right-wing or left-wing policy choices and see where it takes you. Unless you’re a true believer of either stripe, my guess is you’ll conclude there’s no politically realistic solution to be had just by cutting spending and entitlements or simply by slashing military spending and raising a smorgasbord of taxes on upper earners.

“The problem has become so large because we have waited so long and because of what has happened in the economy recently that there is barely room for anything to be off the table,’’ says Maya MacGuineas, president of the committee. “It is nearly impossible to fix this situation without both cutting spending quite significantly and raising taxes.’’

The sooner the American public realizes that, the better. And that’s why this is one computer game I hope catches on not just with young people but with their parents and grandparents as well.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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