You Fix the Budget: A Classroom Simulation based on Resources from The New York Times

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November 19, 2010

Last week, President Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released a draft proposal that demonstrated the potential to save $200.3 billion by the year 2015, through reductions in domestic and defense spending.  According to a Wall Street Journal / NBC News poll, Americans have mixed feelings about the plan.  Peter Wallsten of the Wall Street Journal reported the following findings:

Roughly 70% [of Americans] were uncomfortable with making cuts to programs such as Medicare, Social Security and defense in order to reduce the deficit… And nearly 60% said they were uncomfortable with raising tax revenue through such measures as boosting the gasoline tax, limiting deductions on many home mortgages and altering corporate taxation.

Interestingly, the poll found that 30% of Americans have no opinion on the recommendations as a whole.  Wallsten argues that this means that the national debate on this topic is still taking form.  David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times, argues that this debate represents a “new deficit obsession” in the United States, and that “looming federal deficits are so large that they are likely to occupy much of Washington’s attention for years.”

Leonhardt goes on to describe the New York Times’ own analysis on the federal budget.  “Rather than making recommendations,” he writes, “we are laying out a menu of major options, so that readers can come up with their own plan.”  The options represent ideas from both political parties and include both tax increases and spending cuts.  From the article:

The ultimate goal is to help you judge the deficit proposals that are now emerging. Do you think they cut spending too much and should raise taxes more? Or the reverse? Are they too aggressive or too meek on military spending? How will they affect income inequality? How might they help or hurt economic growth?

Teachers could use this tool, along with the 16 ways to reduce the national debt presented on the New York Times site “Room for Debate,” to develop a compelling lesson about the federal budget deficit that encourages students to explore the subject from multiple points of view.

Note:  Depending on students’ background knowledge, familiarity with the topic, and access to technology, teachers may choose to devote anywhere from one to five class periods on this lesson. Parts 1 and 3, along with the research required for Part 2 could be assigned as homework, or all of three parts could take place in the classroom with teacher guidance and supervision.

Part 1 – “O.K., You Fix the Budget”

Students should begin by reading David Leonhardt’s article, “O.K., You Fix the Budget,” available on the New York Times website.  After students have a general overview of the budget situation and the various options on the table, they should attempt to solve the “Budget Puzzle” (also accessible in a printable PDF version).  When students have completed a workable solution – or if they are unable to find a solution – they should write a brief synopsis of their choices and predict what effects these choices will have on the economy.

Part 2 – “Room for Debate: 16 Ways to Cut the Deficit”

Students will participate in a town hall meeting in which they represent the opinion of one of the 16 authors published on the New York Times site “Room for Debate: 16 Ways to Cut the Deficit”.  Students should be given time (in class or as homework) to read the opinion of their assigned author and do research to find additional evidence in support of this author’s opinion.  If there are more than 16 students in the classroom, students who were not assigned an author could take the role of a special interest group representing retirees, corporations, small business owners, etc.

The teacher should inform students that even though they may not agree with their author’s opinion, their role is to provide the most logical arguments supporting that opinion.  They will be given time following the town hall to express their own personal opinions.

As the town meeting begins, the teacher should ask each person to speak in turn, giving a one-minute overview of her or his plan.  After the students have presented their ideas, the students who represent special interest groups could explain which plans seem most appealing to their membership.  For the remainder of the town hall meeting, students can ask questions of one another and explain why their plan represents a solid avenue for reducing the debt.  Students should be encouraged to discuss which of the ideas work well together and could be used in conjunction to solve our fiscal crises.

When all the ideas have been thoroughly explored, students should be encouraged to discuss their own opinions about the ideas expressed.  Do some of these ideas sound more feasible than others?  Why or why not?  Which ideas are more likely to be accepted by voters?  Which are likely to cause the most debate?  Why?

Part 3 – Revisiting Your Opinion

After students have participated in the town hall meeting, they should revisit their initial plan from the “You Fix the Budget” activity.  They should look again at each spending cut and tax increase they made and determine whether or not they still agree with those choices.  To conclude this activity, students should write a letter to the editor in which they outline and argue in favor of their plan.  These letters should reference the evidence they learned from their own research and the research of the other students that they learned about through the town hall simulation.  Ultimately, this activity will help students begin to understand the many opinions about how best to solve our fiscal crisis and help them take part in the national discussion toward that end.

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