A familiar model

A FAMILIAR MODEL…. The Washington Post has an interesting piece today on Clarence Cammers, a 64-year-old retiree who lives in Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin district. He’s a life-long Republican, but has an adult son, Tim, who never left home, has health issues, and struggles with his finances.

Clarence told his congressman that he’ll be fine, no matter what Congress does when it comes to taxes and spending. He then asked, referring to the House GOP budget plan that he’s read cover to cover, “I guess what I’m saying is, what are all these changes going to mean for my son?”

It’s a good question. I can only hope others look at the Republican agenda and wonder the same thing.

Reading the article, Clarence comes across as a pretty decent guy who worked hard when he could and who’s asking the right questions now. Like a lot of people, he doesn’t seem to like government, but nevertheelss relies on government programs to help his family get by.

But there was one other point Clarence raised that stood out for me.

He had been balancing a budget every month for 40 years, and his fingers navigated the numbers on the keyboard from memory. It was simple accounting, really — a calculator, a Microsoft spreadsheet and an old floppy disk. Nothing to it. Money came in, and he never spent any more than he had. Input. Output. An end balance in the black.

It drove him crazy that the federal government had made such a mess out of the same process… Sometimes he wondered: Who was in charge of their math? How did they ever let it get to $14 trillion, turning a man who could balance his own budget into someone with his hand in the air and a question for a congressman about his son?

I suspect questions like these are fairly common. Folks say, “We balance our budgets. Why can’t Washington?”

It’s worth noting that the question isn’t just flawed — the federal government of the world’s largest economy and military superpower has to operate differently — it’s also based on a false assumption.

When a family goes to buy a home, its members don’t simply write a check; they take out a mortgage. Almost no one can afford to simply and literally buy a home, so we take out very large loans, and make payments, with interest.

The same is true when a family wants a car, tackles college tuition, or thinks about starting a small business. American families, in other words, take on debts, some of them huge relative to their incomes, all the time. There’s nothing wrong with any of this — these are just routine examples of people investing in themselves.

The government’s debts aren’t identical — there is no mortgage or car payment, exactly — but officials take on debts to invest in things they consider worthwhile, too. A family that relies on student loans to pay for college should be able to relate to a government that relies on loans to pay for public services. The family thinks it’ll be worth living in the red for a while, so long as it can make the payments and afford the interest, because they’ll be better off in the long run — and the government believes the exact same thing.

The comparison between families and governments “living within their means” tends to annoy me because of the lack of parallels, but I’m wondering if I should just embrace it and turn it around. If Mr. and Ms. America take on debts they can afford to improve their position in life, why is it outrageous for their government to do the same thing?

The answer from Republicans, I suspect, is that we can’t afford this much debt. (They weren’t thinking this way when they inherited a national debt that was $5 trillion and shrinking, and turned into a debt that was $10 trillion and growing, but let’s put that aside.) But we can afford it; that’s the point. Like a family making its monthly payments, the government is doing the same. Indeed, we’re doing so well on this front that others keep loaning us money at low interest rates, confident that we’re good for it.

The point is, there is no debt crisis. We owe a lot, but we’ve owed more before, and we can back on track without resorting to extremist tactics like the GOP budget plan.