When it comes to politics, there’s one form of argument that should be chopped, stuffed and left to rot: the kitchen table analogy.
We all know the formula. A politician takes the podium, usually to rail against government spending and compares the federal budget to a household with personal debt run amok. Americans in debt have to “tighten their belts” and “cut up their credit cards” and so, too, must the federal government.
Think pieces, particularly common on the Right, equate government spending with a national credit card. The results would be eye-popping, if only they weren’t so consistently wrong.
The problem with this analogy in particular is that it’s all wrong. The government isn’t a household, national budgets aren’t an expression of personal finance writ large. What's more, perhaps unsurprisingly, the rules that govern nearly 320 million economic lives aren’t quite the same as figuring out whether you can afford to buy a slurpee.
Government finances and personal finances aren’t entirely dissimilar, but they don't play by the same rules. For starters explained Chad Stone, chief economists with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, America can print its own money without committing a class B felony.
“The combination of a flexible exchange rate and borrowing in our own currency is something a household just doesn’t have,” he said. “It’s something a household can’t do. You can’t unilaterally increase the credit limit on your credit card whereas in the United States, once we get rid of the debt ceiling there won’t even be a silly barrier to doing so.”
Calling it “where the analogy really goes wrong,” Stone pointed out that control of our own currency makes it impossible for the United States to go bankrupt. It’s a critical difference between the government and a household budget.
“We can always print more money," Stone added. "That can lead to inflation, but it doesn’t lead to bankruptcy.”
Although no one urges unlimited printing and borrowing, Stone emphasized, the option creates a different system of incentives. Access to a flexible interest rate, as opposed to the high rates Americans pay on credit card debt, allows the government to borrow when money is cheap relative to GDP growth and liquidate when that debt gets expensive.
If control over fiscal policy sets government borrowing apart, the global impact of its monetary policy also makes spending a very big deal. When a family living beyond its means scales back, the family eats out less often. If the government scales back at the wrong time, it could close down the Olive Garden.
On the other hand, spending too much can have equally sweeping consequences.
“This is one of the [areas] that actually gets hard to talk about without a little nuance,” said Michael Madowitz of the Center for American Progress, “because there’s a time when it’s totally correct. If you’re looking at like when we’re running the economy at 120%, say if there’s a war, there’s usually a lot of inflation.”
It’s a conversation that you just don’t hear around the kitchen table.
Set against inflation is the government’s role as the spender of last resort in the face of economic weakness, propping up demand that otherwise would collapse when individuals and businesses lose income. It’s called a liquidity trap, as reduced consumer spending, and corresponding business cutbacks feed on each other in a death cycle. Individuals can’t cause one, nor can they cure one.
“In the extreme, if you’re going to tall into the worst case liquidity trap, it’s essential to take on more debt,” said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow with the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, “otherwise you get into this vicious cycle in which everyone is cutting back and the recession is getting deeper and deeper.”
In the early 1930s the government followed common sense rules, he added, and began harsh austerity measures in response to a weak economy. What happened was a quick unraveling of employment and spending, and a descent into the Great Depression.
When government borrowing is assessed against its actual costs, incentives and impact the picture looks nothing like the rules that govern personal finance. In fact the closest easy picture is to argue that the government should act counter-intuitively, saving money when times are good and spending heavily when things get bad.
Does all of this mean the rules are on their head and debt is good? Clearly not. Excessive government debt can lead to inflation, interest payments cost billions and excessively available Treasury bonds can (arguably) crowd out other investment vehicles.
But America can’t go bankrupt; its spending is often necessary to prop up demand when the economy flags and it borrows at variable interest rates.
In other words, it’s just not that simple.
“The challenge is that we usually hear [the household analogy], because it works as a sound bite for politician, and the version of it that you need to make it work is usually too complicated,” Madowitz said. “I think in general if your economic analogy fits on a bumper sticker it’s probably wrong.”