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Budget Wisdom in the Classroom

Students agree in sharing the responsibility

Have we had enough of Washington's so-called adult conversation?

See also: State governments face budget deficit crisis.

As I have for years, I spent a week of teaching and listening at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., this spring. I've assured my bosses that this was my continuing search for the Fountain of Youth, a popular undertaking in Florida and at AARP.

This year, I also found wisdom. My political science and communications students were challenged to rein in federal spending, notably the federal government's staggering deficit. Using the nation's projected 2015 budget of $4.2 trillion — and its $607 billion deficit — the students discussed current and future tax and spending trends, then walked through more than 50 specific options for closing the budget gap.

In Washington, two serious bipartisan committees engaged in similar conversations over the past year and produced serious proposals that have been buried in the avalanche of partisan rhetoric and intransigence that all but shut down the federal government and has left the annual budget process in a shambles.

Nothing was off-limits for the student budgeteers. The options were culled from the bipartisan committees, a nonpartisan think tank and the Congressional Budget Office. They ranged from a wage freeze for Congress, to environmental cleanup using a carbon tax, to cutting Social Security.

The discussions were lively, and the students were engaged. Late in one session, most of the class pulled out their cellphones. It was spring, after all, sunny and warm, and I figured I'd lost their attention. To my surprise, they were using their phones as calculators to tally their tax and spending sums. (You can take your own stab at deficit reduction with the deficit calculator.)

We're in an era when blind partisanship and selfish special interests have put closing the deficit gap beyond reach. Yet here were the students sorting through dozens of budget choices. Most made sizable defense cuts, others closed tax loopholes and added or raised taxes, including higher gasoline taxes and a new 5 percent sales tax, even when they were warned that it could drive the cost of a Big Mac sky-high. They didn't cut education, protected the environment and didn't touch Social Security.

Here's the bottom line: Faced with the same options that have paralyzed Washington, the students worked to find success. They weren't selfish. The new taxes, for example, would affect them disproportionately. But the cuts were across the board, evenhanded and sensible. The human consequence of budget balancing was very much on their minds. "I don't think we should throw grandmas out on the street or deny the elderly health care services," said Victoria Priester, a senior from Jacksonville.

Students took the long view. "In such depressing economic times, we must all make sacrifices and share in the responsibility," Priester said.

At the end of the day, there was a role reversal: The students had some lessons to teach.

Jim Toedtman is editor and vice president of AARP Bulletin.