Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget

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1 ECONOMICS Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget Lesson 4 Essential Question: Is a balanced federal budget possible and/or desirable? Introduction: This lesson begins with a conceptual analysis of trade-off which is then applied to the federal budget process. It emphasizes that there are no easy answers in budgeting and that each decision to save or to spend has a trade-off. These trade-offs are explored throughout the lesson. Key Information The following terms and concepts are used in this lesson: national budget process and priorities national debt discretionary budget non-discretionary budget/spending mandatory budget/spending deficit debt/gdp ratio trade-offs 53

2 Economics Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget Students Will Understand: Solutions to the problem of the deficit and national debt involve trade-offs and may affect groups differently. The multiple perspectives on how to deal with the budget, deficit, and national debt have many sources. Students Will Be Able To: Examine economic data and assess the costs and benefits of certain economic decisions according to various perspectives. Synthesize various types of economic information (statistics, economic theory, mathematical data, and political information) in order to evaluate the short- and long-term impacts of certain budgetary decisions. Develop solutions to complex problems that involve both economic and political variables, and are predicated upon multiple causes. Related Curriculum Standards: National Council for the Social Studies VI. Power, Authority, and Governance Understanding the historical development of structures of power, authority, and governance and their evolving functions in contemporary U.S. society and other parts of the world is essential for developing civic competence. In exploring this theme, students confront questions such as: What is power? What forms does it take? Who holds it? How is it gained, used, and justified? What is legitimate authority? How are governments created, structured, maintained, and changed? How can individual rights be protected within the context of majority rule? In schools, this theme typically appears in units and courses dealing with government, politics, political science, history, law, and other social sciences. Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics Standard 16: Role of Government There is an economic role for government in a market economy whenever the benefits of a government policy outweigh its costs. Governments often provide for national defense, address environmental concerns, define and protect property rights, and attempt to make markets more competitive. Most government policies also redistribute income. Standard 17: Using Cost/Benefit Analysis to Evaluate Government Programs Costs of government policies sometimes exceed benefits. This may occur because of incentives facing voters, government officials, and government employees, because of actions by special interest groups that can impose costs on the general public, or because social goals other than economic efficiency are being pursued. List of Lesson Resources: 1. What is the value of a high school yearbook? 2. Federal Spending by Category 3. CBO s Baseline Projections of Outlays and Discretionary Budget, FY Overview of National Debt and Budget Deficit (3 charts) 54 Understanding Fiscal Responsibility

3 Is a balanced federal budget possible and/or desirable? Lesson 4 Time Required: 2 class periods Entry: What is the value of a high school yearbook? (10 minutes) Think-Pair-Share format Have students read the scenario in Resource 1. You might choose to have students make a T-Chart of the costs and benefits of buying a yearbook. Have students work in pairs to compare their responses and approaches to making budgetary decisions. The following questions should guide students in their discussions: How do you make decisions about what to buy (or not buy) with your own money? How do you prioritize these decisions? If you decide to purchase the yearbook, what is the trade-off? What could you have done with this money instead? What other costs beyond monetary costs should be considered when making economic decisions? Can anything ever be priceless? What are the similarities and differences between students in how they consider trade-offs in the scenario and in general? Lesson Strategies and Activities: Trade-offs and Opportunity Cost Explanation of core economic principles (5-8 minutes) Explain that all economics is based on the idea of scarce resources in this case, money. People have to make trade-offs because they cannot buy everything they want. In this scenario, the students could buy a yearbook or perhaps go to a concert. If the students chose to buy a yearbook and thus not go to the concert, the concert would be called the opportunity cost of choosing to buy a yearbook. Carefully comparing top choices allows us to make the best use of our scarce resources. The federal government also has scarce financial resources so it must make trade-offs and fund some programs while never starting or ending other programs. Again there is an opportunity cost for each of these trade-offs. Every year the president proposes a federal budget, which is a spending plan for the year. In this budget, there are choices to be made which are categorized as discretionary spending. But there are also expenses, which must be paid each year by law. These are categorized as nondiscretionary, or mandatory. Every year that the revenue collected by the government does not cover the government spending results in a budget deficit. Over time, these budget deficits add up to our national debt. One way to judge the actual size of the national debt is to look at the debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio. This compares how much money the government owes to how much money is generated in the economy over a year. The theory is that the bigger the GDP, the more debt Understanding Fiscal Responsibility 55

4 Economics Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget the country can take on and eventually pay off. This lesson will introduce some of the trade-offs the government will have to make to try to manage the national debt. Be sure that students understand this vocabulary before going on to the next part of the lesson. Trade-offs in the Federal Budget Process: The Heart of Budgeting Process (25-30 minutes) Step 1: Examining Trade-offs Divide students into groups of 4-6. (Base the size of the group on its skill level: the larger the group, the better the skill level.) Distribute a copy of the Federal Spending by Category chart (Resource 2) along with the questions. Have one person in the group serve as the recorder of the group s responses. Take the time here to have the groups share their answers. Record their questions to be sure that they will be answered by the end of the next day s lesson. Tell the students that they are going to look at charts comparing mandatory and discretionary spending. Step 2: Budget Analysis (in same groups) Hand out the next set of charts and questions (Resource 3) and have students answer the questions in groups as before. Bring the groups back together and collect their answers. Tell them that they can test out their answers to the last question in tonight s homework. Discretionary Budget, FY2010 This chart shows the breakdown of the proposed federal discretionary budget for fiscal year 2010 by function area. The discretionary budget refers to the part of the federal budget proposed by the President, and debated and decided by Congress each year. The part of the budget constitutes more than one-third of total federal spending. The remainder of the federal budget is called mandatory spending. Fiscal Year 2010 runs from October 1, 2009 to September 30, Note that this chart includes the war-related spending requested by the administration as supplemental to the regular budget proposal. Congressional Budget Office s (CBO) Baseline Projections of Outlays These two charts show the CBO's baseline projections for budget outlays through In the first, expenditures are presented as an absolute amount. In the second they are presented as a percentage of the GDP. Homework: Students should be encouraged to do this homework in groups. Have students use this online website: Online Budget Simulation: popup.php?lesson_number=306&&flash_name=em306_main.swf&h=1200&w=600 (If no computer access, give students a copy of the site and have them make the changes on the handout more math here!) To try to reduce the federal budget deficit by changing the spending and tax levels to have a balanced $3.5 trillion dollar budget, students should be encouraged to try many different amounts and then print out their final budget. 56 Understanding Fiscal Responsibility

5 Is a balanced federal budget possible and/or desirable? Lesson 4 Questions to consider when making cuts or increases in taxes: What were your most difficult trade-offs? Who lost money in your budgets? What new problems or dangers might arise from your cuts? Who would support and who would oppose your budget? Consider how these interest groups might react to your budget changes: senior citizens, college students, veterans, unemployed persons, members of various political parties (Democratic, Republican, Tea Party, Independent, etc.). Review of National Budget Simulation Choices (10-15 minutes) Go over 4 previous questions to consider. Have students compare their budgets. Additional Questions: What were the priorities of the various budgets created by different class members or groups? Why is balancing a budget so difficult? How can emergency spending lead to an unbalanced budget? Overview of National Debt and Budget Deficit (15 minutes) How has the extent of the U.S. national debt changed over time? Print out the 3 charts found in Resource 4 and distribute them to students: Go over each chart with students and use the following questions to guide your discussion: What is the federal debt? Why is debt often reported using debt-to-gdp? (Remind students of overview of term given in the previous class.) What events have triggered a large increase in the federal debt? What factors contribute to the ebb and flow of the federal debt? (Hint: Consider the impact of the business cycle, for instance.) How is the federal deficit related to the federal debt? Do you believe U.S. debt is a major policy concern of today? Why or why not? Review student questions from yesterday and make sure students now have a good understanding of national budget choices and the size and possible causes of the rising national debt. Use the website: for further information if needed. Understanding Fiscal Responsibility 57

6 Economics Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget Assessment: (10 minutes in class and completed at home as homework) Tell students that they have been hired by President Obama to come up with a poster which explains the seriousness of the current U.S. debt, but also includes why fixing the budget is not so easy because of the tough trade-offs which have to be considered. They should be encouraged to incorporate information from selected parts of the charts used in class as well as their National Budget Simulation experience in the poster. Students should start planning the poster in class and then should be allowed to complete it at home. These posters could be used in the classroom as a starting point for later discussions on issues related to the federal debt or governmental decision-making. Grading Rubric for this Lesson Outstanding A Cut Above Meets Minimum Standards Needs Work Depth of Understanding of Trade-offs Involved in Budget Decisions As Well As Seriousness of Debt Problem Student skillfully utilizes key vocabulary and complex but appropriate examples. Multiple factors are included on the poster. Student competently utilizes key vocabulary and appropriate examples. Several factors are included on the poster. Student utilizes key vocabulary and some appropriate examples. Simplistic explanations. Student misuses some key vocabulary and gives incorrect examples. Explanations are flawed. Expression and Organization of Ideas Communicated Both Orally and on Poster Student is able to clearly express his/her ideas. Information is well organized and richly supported, and demonstrates an advanced level of analysis. Student is able to clearly express his/her ideas. Information is organized and adequately supported, and includes some depth and analysis. Student is able to express his/her main ideas. Information has an overall plan of organization and some supporting detail. Limited analysis or depth is evident. Student is unable to express his/her ideas clearly. Information is disorganized and is missing correct or includes inappropriate examples. Design of Poster Poster is cleverly designed, with eyecatching features, while effectively conveying important information. Poster is attractive while effectively conveying important information. Poster is neat and easy to follow so that audience can understand important information. Poster is sloppy so that audience is discouraged or confused about the actual purpose of the poster. Cooperation with Group Members Student consistently makes significant contributions to group, listens well, willingly compromisees, and ensures all tasks are completed. Student adds valuable contributions to group, listens to others, makes some compromises, and ensures all tasks are completed. Student contributes to group, listens to others, compromises at times, and does his/her part to complete the tasks. Student is disruptive and seems unable to successfully work with his/her group. Preparedness Student comes well prepared to class with homework thoroughly completed. Evidence of extra research. Student comes prepared to class with homework carefully completed. Some evidence of extra research. Student comes prepared to class with homework completed. Little or no evidence of extra research. Student is not prepared for class. Homework is incomplete or not done at all. Overall Comments? Grade: 58 Understanding Fiscal Responsibility

7 Is a balanced federal budget possible and/or desirable? Lesson 4 Further Engagement (Optional): Send a copy of your proposed National Budget Simulation plan to a local Congressperson with a written explanation for feedback. This could be done as a Podcast or PowerPoint, with an EXCEL spreadsheet of your plan. Additional Resources The Debt Issue View the entire IOUSA video using Google site: Perspectives on Solutions to the Debt Issue the-budget-deficit-in-half-by-2009-while-extending-the-tax-cuts-and-rebuilding- Iraq-and-Afghanistan References Cited: Brual. (2008). The national debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product. Retrieved August 24, 2010 from Congressional Budget Office. (2009). The budget and economic outlook: Fiscal years Retrieved August 24, 2010 from Farcaster. (2009). Total deficits v national debt increases. Retrieved August 24, 2010 from wiki/file:deficits_vs._debt_increases_-_2009.png The Heritage Foundation. (2010). National debt set to skyrocket. Retrieved August 24, 2010 from National Priorities Project. (2010). Discretionary budget, FY Retrieved August 24, 2010 from Office of Management and Budget. (2010). Federal spending by category. Budget of the United States, FY 2011, Historical Tables, Table 3.2. Retrieved August 24, 2010 at budget/historicals Understanding Fiscal Responsibility 59

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9 Lesson 4 ECONOMICS Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget Resources The following section is formatted for the easy reproduction of resources intended for use by students. They appear in the order in which they are listed in the Introduction and are essential to the lesson. These resources may also be downloaded from the Understanding Fiscal Responsibility website: Understanding Fiscal Responsibility 61

10 Economics Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget Resource 1. What is the value of a high school yearbook? A high school yearbook costs $ You are considering purchasing the yearbook because it holds many of the memories spanning your high school career. Nonetheless, $75.00 is a hefty fee for a yearbook. Given this scenario, what decision do you make? Do you buy the yearbook or not? 62 Understanding Fiscal Responsibility

11 Is a balanced federal budget possible and/or desirable? Lesson 4 Resource 2. Federal Spending by Category Source: Congressional Budget Office. Understanding Fiscal Responsibility 63

12 Economics Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget Questions to Consider: Have the budget priorities changed between 2000 and 2010? Which areas of the budget in particular? After reviewing the federal budget outlays, try to form a consensus about how you might re-allocate spending (more or less) to given areas. What are the rationales for your decisions? Why would you increase or decrease spending in particular areas? What are two questions you have about how the federal budget outlays are determined and what is one understanding you gained by taking part in this brief analysis? 64 Understanding Fiscal Responsibility

13 Is a balanced federal budget possible and/or desirable? Lesson 4 Resource 3. CBO s Baseline Projections of Outlays and Discretionary Budget, FY2010 Source: Congressional Budget Office (2010, January), The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2010 to 2020, Accessed August 24, 2010 from Understanding Fiscal Responsibility 65

14 Economics Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget Source: Public Budget Database Fiscal Year 2011, Budget Authority [1] Questions to Consider: Currently, where is more money spent: discretionary or mandatory spending? On what categories are most discretionary funds spent? What seems to be the trends for both mandatory and discretionary spending estimates into the future? Given the breakdown of mandatory and discretionary spending, what are your thoughts about how the government should seek to manage spending? 66 Understanding Fiscal Responsibility

15 Is a balanced federal budget possible and/or desirable? Lesson 4 Resource 4. Overview of National Debt and Budget Deficit (3 charts) Chart 1: Source: Understanding Fiscal Responsibility 67

16 Economics Challenges of Balancing the Federal Budget National Debt Set to Skyrocket Debt as a Percentage of GDP Source: Heritage Foundation compilations of data from U.S. Department of the Treasury, Institute for the Measurement of Worth (Alternative Fiscal Scenario), Congressional Budget Office, and White House Office of Management and Budget (http://www.heritage.org/budgetchartbook/national-debtskyrocket) 68 Understanding Fiscal Responsibility

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