Opinion: Daily Journal

Go Play A Serious Game

Under Democrats and Republicans alike, the federal government has run gigantic deficits — and will continue to run them for decades to come, primarily because of projected growth in entitlements.

The presidential contest is now set. It’s Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump (vs. likely Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson vs. likely Green nominee Jill Stein, both of whom will attract voters disenchanted with the major-party options.) Expect Clinton and Trump to fight nasty. They think they have little choice if they wish to prevail, given the large share of Americans who can’t stand either one. Expect the news media to lap it up. They also think they have little choice, as reality TV gets better ratings than C-SPAN.

But don’t forget that you do have a choice. You can choose not to reward those who would turn our political discourse into professional wrestling. You can focus your attention on other consequential races on the ballot this year, for North Carolina offices that directly affect your lives. And when it comes to national politics, you can pay attention only to those candidates for Congress who offer serious ideas for bringing the federal budget into balance and promoting economic growth, among other priorities.

Speaking of which, would you like to play a game?

I’m quite serious. In today’s world, games need not be just diversions. Game theory has revolutionized the social sciences. Furthermore, now that the video-game industry has become bigger than Hollywood, activists are increasingly figuring out how to use the powerful tools of modern gaming to educate, inspire, and catalyze action.

A prime example is a new game called FiscalShip.org. It was created by two Washington-based think tanks, the Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson Center, with additional advice from other think tanks spanning the ideological spectrum from the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute on the right to the Center for American Progress and Center for Budget and Policy Priorities on the left.

The scenario is very real and very troubling. Under Democratic and Republican politicians alike, the federal government has run gigantic deficits — and will continue to run them for decades to come, primarily because of projected growth in entitlement spending. If current trends continue, total federal debt held by the public (that is, not including debits by one federal account on another) will rise from about 75 percent of gross domestic product today to 126 percent of GDP by 2041.

Although there is some disagreement about this, most economists believe that running up government debts of such a magnitude will be a major drag on job creation and income growth. Moreover, no one seriously disputes that if current trends continue, debt payments and entitlement spending will crowd out virtually everything else the federal government spends money on — or will require such large tax increases that there will be a public backlash at the very least, if not severe economic consequences.

What the game at FiscalShip.org allows is for members of the general public to create their own solutions to this dilemma. Gamers can choose from among several different roles to play. I opted for three priorities: “Shrink Government,” “Rein In Entitlements,” and “Tax Cutter.” But if you lean more to the left, you can choose roles such as “Reduce Inequality,” “Strengthen Social Safety Net,” or even “Fight Climate Change.”

After choosing your roles/goals, you then pick from dozens of different tax and spending policies. You’re trying to “win” the game by getting high marks in all three roles while also bringing the projected federal debt down to 75 percent of GDP by 2041 — that is, to essentially hold the line. My own plan relied heavily on changes to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, plus cuts in virtually every department (including Defense) and a tax-reform package that included fewer and lower tax rates, a larger child tax credit, a territorial system for corporate taxes, and the elimination of punitive taxes on dividends and capital gains.

I think my solution to the game offers the best mix of fiscal restraint and economic growth, particularly since the latter will actually bring the debt down as a share of GDP. Think you can do better? Time to get serious, and play.

John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.