The New York Times’s David Leonhardt came out with an interactive online widget called Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget over the weekend. While it does show some bias — it’s not as progressive as many would like (see criticism below), it’s better than most similar interactive attempts. You get a list of possible changes–both spending cuts and tax increases–and can keep track of your total.
Felix Salmon’s critique of the device centers on the lack of choices. He concludes with:
In general, the NYT options on both the spending-cut and the tax-hike side tend to hit the poor and the middle classes more drastically than the rich; what’s missing here is the option to implement something much more progressive, in both senses of the word. It’s a missed opportunity, and a shame.
[And, in actuality, Social Security shouldn't even be part of the puzzle, since it's a separate program that is wholly funded through its own income stream that doesn't impact the deficit.]
Even so, give the Budget Puzzle a try. You will quickly see that (1) if rational people like us ran the budget, getting our financial house in order would not be that difficult but (2) when one places the decisions we can make so cavalierly into a political context, it becomes much harder.
How the budget is constructed is a huge political issue; it’s naive to think otherwise.
That’s why it’s so important that all of us think about the choices and weigh in with our opinions. Otherwise, those who have something to gain from the system and the money to game the system (through lobbying and campaign contributions) will rule the day.