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Picking apart the worst analogy of the debt debate

Posted by Jesse Singal  July 27, 2011 02:18 PM

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Over at The Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky has a funny piece about what has become a bipartisan talking point during the conversation over the national debt: Since families have to live within their means, so too should the government.

As Tomasky points out, this is bunk — especially so when it's coming from the mouth of a Democratic president:

[Obama] did it again Monday night, in his tepid, a-few-days-late-and-several-dollars-short speech. It is a straight-up Republican talking point. Why? Because it totally undercuts and defenestrates Keynesian countercyclical investment principles: the idea, which is (or used to be) at the very heart of liberalism, that it’s precisely when the private sector cannot invest that the government must.

Tomasky goes on to imagine a family patterned after the increasingly fevered debate over the debt ceiling — as you can imagine, it's not a particularly functional one.

This analogy has long driven me crazy. In addition to the baseline asininity of comparing a family to a government, what gets me the most about it is that usually the people who are using it are calling for steep cuts to social programs — exactly the social programs that serve as a vital lifeline to struggling families.

In other words, the argument reduces to something along the lines of, "At a time when so many families are struggling, it's only fair that the government should cut aid to struggling families."

Real families, of course, understand that sometimes, even if you're in debt, you can pay $1 now to save or make $3 later. This is not advanced economics — it is a basic fact easily grasped by anyone who has paid an accountant or a monthly health insurance premium. So it's pretty sad that most of our elected officials seem to have forgotten it.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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