“There are no simple answers.”
How many times have you heard a politician say that? How many times have I said it? It usually sounds like ducking the question. It is also absolutely true. So many of the problems we face are complex. So are the available solutions. And those solutions usually have aspects that are unpalatable to some folks, if not all.
Here are some current examples:
• Balancing the budget
• Keeping Social Security solvent as baby boomers become eligible.
• Even more urgent – Keeping Medicare solvent.
• Health Care Reform in general.
Look just at the first one. The deficit of the Gramm-Rudman/Reagan era finally disappeared in the wake of some spending constraints and an amazing expanding economy. But now deficits are back. What we hear as solutions to the problem are generally glib suggestions (“Eliminate waste, fraud and abuse” is the most frequent because there is no one who is FOR waste, fraud and abuse. You can be against them without offending anyone.)
This leads citizens to think that balanced budgets are just a matter of will rather than a complex and painful process. I remember getting many letters during that era telling me that we could balance the budget in a wink if we’d just stop giving foreign aid.
The truth was that foreign aid accounted for a fraction of 1% of the budget. In fact, if you abolished every single government expenditure except defense, Social Security, Medicare and paying interest on the existing dept you would have just balanced the budget. Everything else would have to go. I’m talking about closing all the national parks, most government agencies, shut down the FAA (which would shut down the airlines), close the weather bureau and literally hundreds of other government services that we don’t ever think about because they are always there. Yet people felt that just a little belt tightening here and there would easily solve the problem.
Here’s an idea. I offer it free to some young entrepreneur who knows how to make ones and zeros do all those amazing digital things.
It is possible to put the budget into a computer game. The information is readily available. It would require a great deal of care to simplify it without distorting it, to be sure the information was accurate and to assure that the game creator wasn’t cooking the books for one view point of the other. But, done right, every citizen could play with all the available options and see what it actually takes to balance the federal budget.
In fact, this may have been done before on a very small scale, but not for widespread consumption. This time, promote it. (Heck, add some blood if you have to. That seems to sell.)
You’d think every Member of Congress would encourage his constituents to play in order to understand how sobering the exercise can be. It would also be fun. Eliminate all the programs you don’t like and see what that does to the budget. Also see what it does to society, the economy, etc. Get rid of all the farm subsidies – whisk – and perhaps face the collapse of the agricultural economy.
Likewise with the other difficult problems I mentioned. I think healthcare reform in particular could make a fascinating exercise in the home just as it poses a vexing one at the Capitol. It would mean a lot more public understanding of how truly complex many of these problems are and how, no matter what you do, there will be unwelcome aspects to the solution.
The game should also have one more component: the ability to demonstrate to everyone the additional eye-opener – it should project what happens with these problems if we do nothing.