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Balancing the Budget, It's Easy Right?

Balancing the budget sounds easy; a few cuts here , add a penny there.  Simply put, if you only have X number of dollars coming in, then that is what you spend. Sure there are a few tough decisions but at the end of the day this is something that needs to be done.  It is a juggling act that the average American participates in daily, and now wonders why Congress "can't get their act together and just pass a budget?" 


The reality is complicated far beyond our polarizing politics.  Because the real question is, what do you cut?  If you cut defense spending and close military bases, you impact the economic stability of a region.  If you cut food stamps, you impact families, children and put the burden of feeding them on local communities.  If you raise taxes to increase revenue, you hurt those who are paying taxes. Raising corporate taxes could impact the total economy.  It is a juggling act with  chainsaws. 


The government shutdown has left students asking questions about the budget:


  • What does the government spend all  that money on? 
  • Where does the money come from? 
  • Why are we in debt? 
  • Who do we owe money to? 
  • Why can’t we just raise taxes? 


Answering student questions is difficult because they cannot see the big picture or grasp how lowering or raising taxes a fraction can change the bottom line.  In classroom simulations, it is easy for them to rush to judgement without real time feedback.   It is even easier when you are not facing those affected, or your constituents.


There are a large number of resources available for faculty to use to help students grasp the complexity of the Federal budget.  The Congressional Budget office has a variety of resources including an infographic, and interactives.  Below are several of their resources:


CBO Infographics:  There are four great downloadable infographics on the overall budget summary, discretionary spending, mandatory spending and revenues for 2017.


Waterfall Model for Projecting Discretionary Spending:  Is an excel file that “allows the user to see how projections of outlays flow from each year's estimated budget authority.  This model is designed to illustrate the methodology CBO uses to project discretionary spending. The budget authority and outlay data generated by the model do not constitute a CBO estimate.”


Interactive Force Structure Tool – is an interactive site that allows users to test spending cuts to branches.


Workbook for How Changes in Economic Conditions Might Affect the Federal Budget:  “This workbook allows users to enter an alternative scenario for productivity growth, labor force growth, inflation, or interest rates and see estimates of revenues, several types of spending, and deficits under those scenarios.”


Educators can set up a private group on the Committee for Responsible Budget’s website to have their students complete their Fix the National Debt Simulation.  Students and faculty can then compare their results.


Each of these simulations walks students through difficult decisions and illustrates the complexity of budget issues.  How do you discuss the budget with your students?   What resources do you use?  How would you balance the budget and keep everyone happy?