This week, the Brookings Institute released a video game called “The Fiscal Ship,” in which players try to figure out how to bring down the United States’ long-term debt while remaining true to their values.
The game is a slightly fun way for regular folks to understand the hard decisions that will face the American government as it contends with the rising costs of caring for an aging nation at the same time that demographic forces cause a reduction in the overall workforce. It’s a worthwhile exercise that should be taken seriously.
That’s why I played the game as Donald Trump.
Or at least imagined I was Donald Trump. The Fiscal Ship itself is the classic product of a rich-guy funded think tankery that the American people are increasingly ignoring as background noise. The game allows you to choose three different “values,” like “tax cutter,” or “fight climate change.” These values give you parameters and goals to meet as you work toward the explicit goal of the game, which is to reduce the projected 2041 ratio of debt-to-gdp from a projected 130% to today’s level of around 75% of GDP.
But here’s the problem: Such level headed goals couldn’t be further from the id or even ego of today’s American electorate. Just take a look at Donald Trump’s campaign. In March, Trump said in a March interview that he would eliminate the national debt in 8 years, which is virtually impossible. Indeed, in a recent interview with Fortune, Trump flip flopped on his pledge to eliminate the debt, saying instead that it is possible to “pay down a percentage” of the national debt during a two-term Trump Administration, but that he’d “rather not be so aggressive.”
Nonetheless, whether it’s eliminating the debt or “paying down a portion of it” while “not being so aggressive,” Trump hasn’t exactly said how he would do either. What’s more, imaging what Trump would do as president to difficult given the GOP frontrunner’s penchant for pledging to do opposing things while in office. But that didn’t stop me. I pulled on my golden wig thinking cap, and I tried to steer the Fiscal Ship best I could with Donald Trump’s public statements and promises in mind.
To start, one must choose three priorities out of the following 9: tax cutter, reduce inequality, shrink government, strengthen national defense, strengthen social safety net, fight climate change, invest in the future, protect the elderly, and rein in entitlements. Since Trump has outlined the what would be the largest tax cut in U.S. history by a wide margin, it seemed right to say that he’s a tax cutter. But he has also pledged to build up the military, a promise that is not only central to his foreign policy, but also his trade policy, as he hopes to use a built-up military to cow China into accepting trade conditions they otherwise wouldn’t. Finally, I chose “protect the elderly” as the final Trump value, given his consistent assertion that we shouldn’t solve the nation’s budget problems by cutting entitlement programs.
Even before I was able to start choosing policies in order to right America’s fiscal ship, the game issued the following warning:
This did not bode well, but I soldiered on, I was playing as Trump afterall. So I was sure I still would be able to come up with the most beautiful debt solution ever. I tried my best to choose policies that fulfilled Trump’s values, while still trying to cut federal debt as much as possible. But in the end, the game warned me correctly. By combining Trump’s priorities, not only was I unable to reduce the United States’ long-term debt load, I actually made the problem worse, reducing revenue 11.2% by 2041, while cutting spending just 1% overall. And that’s after I chose to eliminate the EPA, the Department of Education, cut Pell Grants, eliminate subsidies for student loans, cut the mortgage interest tax deduction, and eliminate deductions for state and local taxes.
But the Trump federal budget would actually be even more radical than this game allows. According to the Tax Policy Center, Trump’s tax cuts would cost the federal government $9.5 trillion over 10 years, and that’s even before you take into account the problem Brookings is trying to solve: That government deficits are soon set to rise automatically mostly because of entitlement spending.
To make up that $9.5 trillion, you’d have to radically reimagine the federal government’s purpose. On average, the Trump tax cut will reduce federal tax revenue by $950 billion per year. Let’s take a look at some annual federal government expenditures to put that in context. Here’s what we spend roughly a year in one chart:
In other words, even if Donald Trump were to eliminate the social security program altogether—but keep the social security taxes that come out of your paycheck—we’d still be left with more debt at the end of a Trump Administration than we had when it began. Of course, Trump has specifically promised to leave Medicare and Social Security alone, so he’d probably have to resort to just eliminating the military and the entire federal safety net instead. Of course, he also promised a big military build up to in order to scare China into accepting different terms of trade, and so on.
Trump has put this budget wonk in an impossible situation. There’s just no way to make the math add up, especially if he thinks that he’s going to reduce the national debt rather than increase it a whole bunch.
Of course, for many voters this cycle, all this green eyeshade nitpicking is totally beside the point. A huge chunk of the primary electorate wants radical change that leverages the very obvious fact (to these people at least) that America’s problems are the result of stupid and corrupt leadership who have screwed America at every turn. These voters don’t seem to care that, in reality, many of America’s most pressing problems are simply the result of scarce resources and lack of political will.