Friday, April 09, 2004

From the Mouths of Babes?

Betsy Newmark had her high school government students take part in a budget-balancing simulation, with interesting results:
The liberal kids happily cut away at military spending, NASA, and foreign aid. They were then dismayed to find that they hadn't cut very much of the deficit. The conservative kids whittled away at social welfare and increased the tax cuts. They too were unable to make substantial headway on the deficit. However, the cut that both the liberals and conservatives agreed on was whacking away at Social Security and Medicare. Cries of "throw Granny off welfare" and "buy your own drugs" were heard. They were ruthless. Some of them reduced Social Security down to zero, cackling cheerfully all the while.
In general, I’m suspicious of “from the mouths of babes” interpretations, because kids hold all kinds of magical and bogus beliefs. Ask a group of children what they’d do if they were president, and they’ll say “give everyone free healthcare,” “give everyone a good job,” “give everyone a pony,” etc. And liberals will latch onto these statements and observe how young children really know what’s important, unlike all those crotchety old folks who would turn a cold shoulder on their fellow man. So I’m hesitant to say “from the mouths of babes” when the result is one I find more pleasing.

Still, I think a useful lesson comes out of Newmark’s classroom experiment, and it’s the same one her students learned: you can’t have everything you want, so something has to get cut. The simulation in question is far better than the open-ended questions usually posed to kindergarteners because it incorporates some real-world constraints, and the difference in outcomes is apparent. Of course, the subjects were high schoolers who may already have been tainted by their elders’ jaded and cynical worldviews…

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