The winners of the inaugural Fiscal Challenge, from Clemson University. (Photo courtesy Hamilton Place Strategies.)

If you think Chris Christie's Social Security plan is bold, you should see Team 109's. It would raise the retirement age to 70, cut benefits for new recipients by 15 percent, switch inflation calculators to reduce benefit growth and raise the cap on income subject to payroll taxes to fund the program. It puts privatization back on the table.

The plan isn't going anywhere, politically; it wasn't designed to. Team 109 consists of five college students: Darby Voisin, Kaitlin Elizabeth Matheson, Rebecca Moore, Dylan Joshua Bargar and Jason Alfred Marshall, all of Clemson University. They are the winners of the inaugural Fiscal Challenge, a competition sponsored by Hamilton Place Strategies that culminated at the Capitol Visitor Center this week. The game required students to stabilize America's national debt as a share of the economy over the next 25 years. You've heard of Model U.N.? This was Model Simpson-Bowles.

It was fascinating.

When you turn a pack of smart college students loose on a thorny, long-term policy problem, you're not going to end up with a bunch of answers that could pass Congress. You sort of get the opposite, policymaking with more idealism than political calculation, and a window into how today's young thinkers break from their elders who run the country right now.

I moderated the finals of the event, which brought four teams from Clemson and the University of North Carolina to Washington and forced them to give slideshow presentations to a quartet of budget-wonk judges. The plans differed, often by quite a lot, but several themes ran through them. For example:

*They balanced tax hikes and spending cuts. The goal of the game was to stabilize debt as a percentage of the economy at about 74 percent by 2039. By almost any projection based on current law or policy, that requires a lot of work. Teams presented budget consolidation plans that ranged between $5 trillion and $7 trillion over that time span. Always, they were a mix of tax increases and spending cuts. The mix varied, but not by a wide band. In general, students said they were trying to balance cuts and tax hikes, and they were trying to spread the impact of the changes across the income spectrum, from poor to very rich.

*Everyone cut Social Security. A lot. Perhaps this is youth talking, but students had no problem raising the retirement age and reducing benefits from our national retirement safety net. Many students said they considered the plan broken and on a path to insolvency, and they saw their proposals as sensible. Their grandparents might disagree.


Team 109's plan.

*They struggled to cut health spending. Rising Medicare costs are usually a big driver of long-run-fiscal-crisis projections. Students acknowledged this, but they had a hard time finding big savings in the program -- often because they insisted on savings they could quantify with some certainty. The teams refused to punt on details. Congress might note that.

*The carbon tax is so hot right now. There were plenty of interesting, one-off ideas in the plans, including a move to biannual budgeting and a reimagining of defense spending to reduce ground troops and increase terrorism and cyber-attack defense. One idea made it into every plan: levying some sort of tax on carbon emissions, in order to raise revenue and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. It made for quite the bookend with the Social Security cuts, something they'd immediately start paying and something they wouldn't see for decades, all in the name of a more sustainable future.