Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Budget

Try Not Scaring the Kids to Death

I always tell myself when I start the unit on the budget and the national debt not to scar the heck out of the kids. I traditionally begin this unit by first looking at the national debt clock. When the students see that they will be obligated to pay somewhere in the vicinity of $35,000 to just pay off the current debt, I sort of lose the "don't spread the fear" battle. This is some pretty scary stuff after all. Can you believe that the Times Square Debt Clock maxed out this October going over $10 TRILLION DOLLARS??? Wow....

By now, most of the students should be aware that President-elect Obama has his job cut out over the next four years trying to stimulate the economy out of the recession, while not increasing the national debt to a point that it is unmanageable for the foreseeable future. If they have been following the news, they should have some awareness of the immensity of the task. Here is an activity I have used to help the students further realize how difficult and how controversial this job has been in the past and will be in the future.

First, I use the Federal Spending Pie Graph provided in the Hippocampus unit. As a class, we will look at the chart and discuss the difference between mandatory and discretionary spending. We will then look at all eight of the categories this chart represents. When you point to each section of the pie graph, a brief description of that section pops up. We discuss each section, making sure the kids have a pretty good understanding of the sectors of the federal spending that are being represented on the graph. I try to answer any and all questions at that time to give them a basic understanding of the national expenditures.

I then divide the class into eight groups and assign each group to one of the sections. With this done I pose a problem for the class to solve. I tell them the national budget is $1 million dollars. However, this year we must slash $100,000 from the budget due to lost revenue. The class must then decide which of the sections must be sacrificed with an understanding that there must be a unanimous class vote on solution. The trick is that each group is also told that they will lose class points if it is their section that is cut. Let the debate begin.

As can be predicted, across the board cuts are suggested, but the mandatory groups point out that this is politically almost impossible. The military sector can't imagine losing funds during a time of war and the non-military discretionary is panicky thinking about cuts to education just as they are about to enter college (and seek federal aid!). Printing money is the first out-of-the-box solution (good time to discuss inflation) and borrowing is widely suggest (but one flash back to the debt clock is all that is needed). No group wants to bite the bullet, but I keep insisting that the cuts must be made!

I can't remember a year since the end of national surpluses that the classes were able to really solve this problem . Usually one group (non-military discretionary) gives in and allows cuts in their section on things like highways and transportation, mainly due to class pressure and with my guarantee that points will not be deducted from their grade. As an opening activity to the Budget Unit, I pretty much have the students hooked. What could potentially be boring becomes salient and relevant.

Many of you might have much better budget games, but this is a quick and easy way to demonstrate the dilemmas that Congress and the President face with a national budget and a recession. Give it a try as an opening activity and then get into the facts and details of the process and problems of budgetary politics. And remember, try not to scare them too badly! Until then...

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