In our home, conversations about the family budget take place around the kitchen table. It’s a little bit small for a battlefield, but talking about income and spending still can be, well, tense at times.
But year after year, a few budget rules apply: Spend less than we take in, put a little something away for the future and work harder if we need more. We’re not the only family that wishes the federal government had something closer to those rules.
Release of President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal — the first since the stern rebuke he and his party suffered at the polls from voters shocked by the nation’s economic condition — makes clear that the president and his team sit at a different table. Maybe it’s a baccarat table in Las Vegas, with all the gambling going on.
The Obama budget envisions the largest deficit in American history — nearly $1.6 trillion in a single year. By September 2012, the national debt would reach nearly $15.5 trillion, the highest level since World War II as a percentage of total U.S. economic output, or gross domestic product. In fact, the national debt — at 102 percent — would actually surpass GDP.
It’s not hard to imagine how such a family budget proposal would fare around our kitchen table. It wouldn’t be a conversation starter; it’d be a coffee-splatterer.
The news that we were likely to spend a third more than the family took in — especially on top of years of doing pretty much the same — would have us pulling out pencils and legal pads for the long list of changes we needed to make.
But President Obama’s vision for change in the federal budget is better fitted to a Post-it Note. One of those small, yellow ones. Or, more fittingly, a deep red one.
In his February 12 radio address, Obama used a letter he got from a Missouri family, the Breeces, to argue that he really understands what the nation is going through. He cited apt examples of the family’s frugality (the Breeces use coupons and go out to the movies only once a month) and willingness to work (Mrs. Breece is looking for a second job).
The president also noted the Breeces’ sensible determination to continue to pay for the college education of their daughter, an outstanding academic performer.
“Families across this country understand what it takes to manage a budget,” Obama said. “Well, it’s time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do.”
With all due respect, Mr. President, it’s well past time. And under this budget plan, more months and years would pass before Washington begins to act responsibly.
When a family faces a recurring deficit of one-third of its income, more than a movie ticket or two has to give. Both dad and mom might have to work harder or get better jobs (and that may happen only if the economy grows). The thrift store probably will supplant the department store. That widescreen high-def television will have to wait. The thermostat (no solar panels on the roof just yet) might have to be cut another two degrees.
Even then, the family may not make ends meet. Without enough spending cuts to balance income with needs, major lifestyle changes loom. If Johnny is away at college, maybe it’s time for mom and dad to move into an apartment or smaller house — assuming they can sell this one.
None of these choices is easy. But families, unlike sovereign governments with printing presses, can’t manufacture money. They live in the real world. And that’s why, rather than rejoice in another round of “quantitative easing” in Washington — mass-producing currency to fix the economy — Americans are growing qualitatively more uneasy day by day.
Did Washington really have to triple education spending over four decades to achieve no discernible improvements in test scores? Should we really throw out the energy economy we rely on and trust the promise of expensive wind power? Does mom need a bullet train to take her to a factory that doesn’t exist — or a relative she can’t afford to visit?
The wishful thinking out of the White House is stupefying. It’s the kind of thing you always see with losing hands at the baccarat table. But not around the kitchen table, where America’s families live.
Charles A. (Chuck) Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.