A bad defense for a bad idea

As the House debates its awful Balanced Budget Amendment, we’ve seen the return of one of the most vacuous of all Republican arguments: the federal government’s finances should mirror those of typical American families.

As Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) explained Tuesday night, “All of our homes, we all live by budgets. The American people have had to redo their budgets over and over and over again. Why? Because of the economy that we’re in today, because of the cost. And yet the federal government does not do this.” Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH), standing in front of a poster of an elderly woman looking at her bills, said, “My family that’s back home, my brothers and sister and nieces and nephews that are probably balancing their own checkbooks sometime this week, they get it.”

Most Americans do get it, and that’s why the message Ellmers, Schmidt, and other advocates of the balanced budget amendment advance is widely viewed as a common-sense approach to the very urgent problem of the spiraling national debt. Hardworking Americans balance their checkbooks, so why shouldn’t Washington?

This really isn’t that complicated. Even Ellmers, Schmidt, and their cohorts should be able to keep up.

The more complex part of the argument is understanding the differences between macro- vs. micro-economics. For that matter, it might be tough for some congressional Republicans to appreciate the need for the public sector to, in the event of a crisis, pick up the slack when consumers and businesses are forced to pull back.

But let’s put that aside and consider this at face value — Republicans believe families balance their budgets so the federal government should do the same. The problem, of course, is that families and businesses borrow money and run deficits all the time. This is a positive, not a negative, development — and if they’re doing it, there’s no reason Washington can’t do the same thing for the same reasons.

When a family goes to buy a home, for example, 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 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 create jobs often run deficits, with Wall Street’s blessing. It’s seen as a responsible, forward-thinking thing to do.

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.

And they’re both correct.

The question for BBA proponents is pretty straightforward: 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 it 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 right rejects all of this, and insists that the Constitution be changed so that Washington can’t do what families and businesses do all the time.