Call of Fiscal Duty: Reviewing the Budget Simulators

In “Star Trek” lore, there’s the “Kobayashi Maru” scenario—an intentionally unwinnable simulator scenario used by Starfleet to test command recruits. In it, none of the choices (aside from Kirk’s reprogramming it) are good ones. In that sense, it resembles an underappreciated genre of Web games—federal budget simulators, whose ranks have grown this year.


In April, the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, the Brookings Institution project run by ex-Wall Street Journal econ policy guru David Wessel, released “The Fiscal Ship,” a web-based simulator that has you attempt to hold debt as a percentage of GDP constant at about 75 percent over the next 25 years. Maybe it doesn’t sound sexy, but as a policy goal, it has bipartisan support even as there’s bipartisan disagreement over how to achieve it.

With a nautical theme (steer the USS Federal Budget through the treacherous “stormy seas of debt”), the game nails the perspective part, driving home the worries over debt levels not seen since the end of World War II. And it smartly lays out that people can have various goals that can be in opposition – “shrink government” and “strengthen national defense” for example, or “strengthen the social safety net” and “rein in entitlements.”

But the gameplay as you go through your options leaves a bit to be desired. You measure your progress by how much a specific policy “bends the curve” of long-term debt higher (bad) or lower (good, close to the flat line of 75 percent of debt/GDP.) As you go through 16 different areas—health, taxes and investment, defense—you have to click on a separate tab to see precisely how much you’ve bent the curve and how close you are to the magic 75 percent.

The game works, but if you have more than one goal, it gets really tough. Trying to play as a pro-tax cut defense hawk who wanted to shrink government, I ended up putting in a VAT and a carbon tax at the end just to make the numbers work. The game does a good job showing how hard the goal is just to keep debt at current levels, much less reduce it.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks in front of a national debt clock

In March, the Bipartisan Policy Center put out its entrant into the budget simulation game, called Balancing Act. If “The Fiscal Ship” is the Ferrari of budget games, “Balancing Act” is the Honda Fit—no muss, no fuss, but it will get you there. Unlike the Brookings game, the BPC effort has very granular controls—in addition to a few policy-based choices (raise the full retirement age of Social Security, for example) you can dial up or down things like spending on Defense hardware or raising the corporate income tax in 0.1-percentage point increments. And the results, unlike Fiscal Ship’s separate tab, show up at the top of the page.

“Balancing Act,” though, is weakest where “Fiscal Ship” is strongest: perspective. It gives the player two measures of progress: closing the current year deficit in dollar terms and increasing the percentage toward an ill-defined “budget sustainability.” The latter is never spelled out in terms of debt level or length of time, unlike Fiscal Ship’s goal. And the two goals are not exactly in sync—cutting the deficit now will not necessarily help the long-term outlook.

Playing as a cut-the-deficit-at-all-costs advocate, I managed to get to 50 percent of sustainability and the 2016 deficit down to $168 billion from $544 billion. But that came with 10 percent cuts in Defense, social safety net programs and upping the retirement age to 69, as well as boosting taxes on the top 1 percent of earners and upping the payroll tax to 90 percent of taxable income. In short, it’s still hard.

The simplest, best budget gameplay mix may still be an oldie but goodie—the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s “Stabilize the Debt” simulator, put out in May 2010. While it looks somewhat dated (its goal is bring down debt to 60 percent of GDP by 2024), its options are clear and explained well and the results show up as both a total amount of deficit reduction and a handy red column that grows taller or shorter depending on what you do.

A similar approach was taken by the Concord Coalition and California nonprofit Next 10 in its “Federal Budget Challenge," last updated in April 2015. A rising or falling red ink column tracks your progress as you try to bring down the cumulative 10-year deficit. You choose among various options with price tags attached and it gives you tally of how much you’ve brought the 10-year deficit down by the end.

In true “Maru” fashion, even after picking every spending cut and tax hike available, I still couldn’t get it to zero.