July 20, 2011
The American family budget model
During any budget debate, politicians who want to cut spending on salaries and benefits for the middle classes and on public services never fail to invoke the family budget as a model for how the government should deal with its own finances. We are repeatedly told that just as families have to make hard choices about what to spend their money on in order to stay within their income, so should the government. This comparison invokes the cozy image of thrifty families getting together around the kitchen table and making decisions about what they can afford based on their income, and making painful cuts when necessary.
This is a fantasy, especially in America, a country in which the general public has a notoriously low savings rate and exists on credit card debt and has nowhere near enough money saved to meet their retirement needs. In fact, living beyond their income seems to be the norm in families, not the exception.
Actually there are good reasons for not trying to balance the budget right now. High unemployment is a huge problem right now. The devastating effects it could be ameliorated by government spending a lot of money on projects that put people back to work. While increasing the debt is not good as a permanent policy, there are times when it makes the most sense in the short term and this is one of them. Even families realize that going into debt to purchase a home or paying for college can be a good thing.
So in reality, the federal government's budgeting process is already like that of the average family. Just not in the way the moralizing speakers intend.