Raising young deficit hawks
Remapping Debate asked Marri whether it might have been better to have a curriculum on policy and budget decisions broadly defined, without immediately prioritizing questions of debt and deficits. That, he said, would have been too “blasé” to hold the attention of students. It “wouldn’t have gotten any traction in any of the classrooms.” Marri went on to say that he regarded the topical issues of debt and deficits as as a good way to get students and teachers interested in the potentially dry subject of budgeting.
The plan is ultimately to distribute 100,000 copies of the curriculum, while also making it available for free downloading by any school, public or private, that wants it. In hindsight, Marri said, he and his colleagues regretted the use of what some people would consider a loaded phrase — “fiscal responsibility” — in the curriculum title; but it was too late to change that, he added. By the time the final curriculum is completed, however, Marri said he is confident that any perceptions of imbalance will be dispelled. “We would be very shocked and really disappointed if this curriculum were regarded as promoting Pete Peterson’s perspective.”
A spokesperson for Teachers College, Jim Gardner, said that the school would “take strong exception” to any suggestion that the “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility” curriculum had been crafted to advance the political agenda of Peterson and his foundation, which was created in 2008 to build more support for its brand of fiscal responsibility, or, as its website declares, “to increase public awareness of the nature and urgency of key fiscal challenges threatening America’s future and to accelerate action on them.”
“We don’t shill for our funders,” Gardner told Remapping Debate. At the same time, the College is not responsible for monitoring the objectivity of every faculty project, he noted. “We vouch for the integrity of the protocols that govern research,” Gardner said. “We don’t regulate individual faculty members’ or departments’ research in terms of if and how it’s being skewed.”
Errors of Commission and Omission
Weimar Republic worry. Introducing the concepts of deficit and debt, a teachers’ primer speaks of the danger of letting debt “grow so large that there is no hope of paying it off in the future.” To illustrate, the primer cites the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany, whose collapse set the stage for Nazi Germany. Most economists would consider that an extreme example, of little relevance to the United States. By contrast, the primer says nothing about the concern of many economists today that inadequate public spending could make a bad economy worse, potentially reducing the government’s capacity to pay debt in the future.
Health-care costs. The curriculum makes many references to the sharp growth of Medicare and Medicaid spending. It has extremely little to say about the parallel pattern of America’s private health care system, from which the government purchases the services provided under its programs. If the U.S. could get private health-care costs down to the level of most other countries, that accomplishment alone, some economists and health care experts say, would send the federal budget from deficit to surplus. (Health-care policy could be too much for the curriculum to take on, Marri said.)
Progressive taxation. The curriculum gives students several opportunities to express their views on the fairness of different types of taxes — flat, proportional, and progressive. Yet it fails to provide any historical background on the idea of progressive taxation or the reasons behind it. Nor do the lessons discuss the changes that have made the U.S. tax code significantly less progressive in recent decades. The omissions arguably make it difficult for students to be able to render informed opinions, as they are asked to do, about the relative merits of a progressive versus a “flat tax” system.
Budget balancing. The budgeting section of the primer likens federal spending to personal spending, and, in a claim that many economists would dispute, describes a balanced budget as “the goal for both.” (Marri told Remapping Debate that this was a mistake, but “easy enough to change.”)
“Cost-benefit” analysis. An economics primer begins with a discussion of “cost-benefit” analysis that operates from the point of view that an immutable “scarcity of resources” must govern policy decisions. “[G]iven that the amount of revenue the U.S. government can spend each year is limited,” the curriculum says, “Congress must make difficult choices.” For example, more money spent on health care could mean less spending on defense, it explains. Students will be asked to weigh the decision to fund any program against the presumed sacrifice of other programs, the primer continues. But the framework seems not to recognize that the “scarcity of resources” problem in a wealthy society could be the result of a political decision, rather than being a given. The curriculum doesn’t ask that students think about a program’s “benefits” or “costs” outside that program’s potential role in a cost-cutting exercise. Important but intangible goals that can’t be measured in dollars — such as a sense of security or ease for America’s families — do not make it into the mathematics of the curriculum’s model.
International comparisons. While the curriculum often cites this country’s high current and projected deficits, only the world history lessons mention the fact that Britain, France, and Japan all have bigger ratios of debt to gross domestic product than the U.S. does. (The next set of lessons will have more to say about how the U.S. stacks up internationally, Marri said.)