• 11.14.11

Can Crowdsourcing Fairly Slice Up The U.S. Budget?

In Washington, no one is willing to give up anything, but when presented with budget numbers, the average citizen tends to do find ways to make things work. Does the wisdom of crowds trump the wise old men in D.C.?

Can Crowdsourcing Fairly Slice Up The U.S. Budget?
The Defense budget is the carrot cake.

Most people balance their checkbooks just fine each month. Our politicians, unfortunately can’t do the same for the nation. Maybe it’s time they asked for help.


Asking the average citizen to fix something as complex as the $3.7-trillion federal budget seems akin to asking for a show of hands for free root canals. But fate smiles on the most unlikely schemes. The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), has managed, “much to our surprise,” says the Committee’s president Maya MacGuineas, to enlist more than 100,000 people through its online challenge, “Stabilize the Debt!.”

CRFB asks online users to solve, the U.S. fiscal morass. It provides players with the same choices facing Congress (though somewhat simplified) to reign in a $1.97 trillion shortfall by 2018. The goal is to bring the debt down to sustainable levels, from 69% to 60% of GDP. As Baby Boomers enter retirement (or at least old age), health care and social security bills may tank U.S. finances. Under reasonable assumptions, public debt is projected to hit 89% of GDP by 2020 and 127% by 2030. “No country can support debt at these levels without huge costs to its standard of living at a minimum and most likely a severe crisis,” says the CRFB. The results will be packaged and sent off to lawmakers, so they know (and most likely can ignore) what the average citizen is thinking.

MacGuineas found crowdsourcing the budget consisted pulled effective, moderate ideas out of people, while moderating extremes, regardless of party affiliation. Their answers revealed a great deal of bipartisan agreement on certain solutions. The biggest was “means testing,” the idea that social benefits should primarily be paid to those who need them, rather than high income individuals. “It’s about what makes sense,” she says. “Republicans and Democrats ask why do we send checks to people who don’t need them. Social security and medicaid are huge toxic issue … but you can’t give a town hall meeting without means testing coming up. It’s kind of a head-nodder.”

People also found that it was virtually impossible to have much impact by cutting foreign aid (most people think we spend 21% of GDP on foreign aid; we actually spend less than 0.21%. They’re off by 10,000%) or without what some would call unappealing measures: slash K-12 spending by 25% anyone? Perhaps its greatest benefit is allowing people to explore choices without being hemmed in by focus group-tested soundbites.

If Americans knew the dire state of the nation’s finances, MacGuineas figures, we would have a much clearer signal from the public about the budget crisis. Stablize the Debt!, she said, “gave me hope that people are willing to talk about the hard choices that politicians think are off limits.”

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.