A persistent but misguided analogy

Some talking points linger, no matter how wrong they are.

“The American family has to balance its budget; companies that are trying to create jobs have to balance their budget; why wouldn’t we expect that a great nation can continue on indefinitely without balancing its budget?” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the chairman of the House Republican Conference.

In general, Hensarling has a bad habit of saying dumb things, but given the ubiquity of this argument, it’s worth occasionally reemphasizing why the family/business/government analogy is so very wrong.

As we’ve discussed before, families and businesses borrow money and run deficits all the time. This is a positive, not a negative, development.

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, as they should.

Businesses to do this, too, borrowing money to make capital improvements, expand locations, buy smaller companies, etc. “Companies that are trying to create jobs have to balance their budget”? Actually, companies that create jobs often run deficits, with Wall Street’s blessing.

The government’s debts aren’t identical, 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.

And they’re both correct.

Indeed, maybe Jeb Hensarling could answer a straightforward follow-up question: 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 our current debt is simply too large and we can no longer afford it. (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.

It’s one of the most remarkable aspects of the debt-ceiling debate. Families and businesses face debt crises when they run out of money and have exhausted all loan options. The federal government hasn’t run out of money and has all kinds of borrowing options, but Republicans, led in part by Hensarling, nevertheless want to create a debt crisis, on purpose.