The Website Industry Gamers reports that Erskine Bowles, co-chair of President Obama’s deficit commission, has approached Microsoft about creating a deficit-reduction video game to help “educate” the public about the need for fiscal austerity. Bowles, apparently, sees the commission’s work as not just to suggest ways to cut the deficit but to convert the unconverted.
To anyone who was around and thinking about the deficit during the first Clinton administration, the deja vu is overwhelming. Back then, Bill Clinton, in appreciation of Bob Kerrey’s vote for his first big package of economic legislation, let the Nebraska senator run a Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform: the direct precursor of Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
The effort ended in nothing, as Kerrey and his co-chair, Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth, couldn’t persuade enough of their colleagues to go along with recommendations that would have slashed Social Security benefits, over time, by 43%.
But Kerrey and Danforth, too, saw proselytizing as part of their role. their role. In December 1994, they packaged their recommendations as a computer game called “Budget Shadows,” which invited the player to create a set of budget cuts and tax increases that would balance the federal government’s books by 2030. To “win” required piling up 100 points, roughly equivalent to $20 billion (the numbers were smaller then). Means-testing Social Security yielded 9 points, for example, while raising the Social Security retirement age to 70 garnered only 5. But raising the Medicare eligibility age racked up 11 points. Other options included changing the way the CPI was calculated, which in turn would reduce benefits paid out under Social Security.
“Budget Shadows” played well in the mainstream press. The New York Times called it “the political equivalent of ‘Mortal Kombat’” and with some glee invited economic analysts from rival ends of the political spectrum to try their hand. That yielded the undeniably amusing spectacle of Max Sawicky, from the liberal Economic Policy Institute, scoring 2 points by imposing a cap on spending for the acutely ill, and Scott Hodge, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, claiming 14 points for reducing payments to health care providers. The commission distributed the game on diskette as well as over the Internet, in both Windows 3.1 and Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows (but not in a Macintosh-compatible version).
Kerrey and Danforth’s intentions were quite serious. “With the first keystrokes, people will confront the long-term fiscal imbalance caused by simple demographic forces,” Danforth said. “And they will see that the Social Security and Medicare trusts are on a course toward future insolvency.”
One commissioner, Richard Trumka, then president of the United Mine Workers of America and the only union official on the Kerrey commission, wasn’t taken by the game. If the only problem with the two programs was “simple demographic forces,” he said, it might present an accurate picture of America’s long-term fiscal challenge. But reality was more complex.
The game only allowed players to manipulate certain aspects of the budget equation, by cutting social programs or raising some taxes. Cuts in the military budget weren’t an option, raising taxes on the wealthy and closing tax loopholes enjoyed by corporations weren’t on the table, and the only allowable way to lower health care costs was to cut Social Security and Medicare. The point system didn’t seem to allow for the possibility that cutting these programs would raise costs for state and local governments, employers, and families: potentially canceling out savings while dampening economic activity and tax revenues.
That was over 15 years ago. But there’s always someone willing to dredge up the past: someone like Erskine Bowles, apparently. While the Kerrey commission report was buried and Budget Shadows never achieved the postmodernist stature of, say, Grand Theft Auto, Bowles hasn’t lost his faith in Video Nation. A deficit-reduction computer game, he told Industry Gamers, has the potential to “go viral.”