NEW YORK--During his State of the Union address President Obama repeated this ancient canard: "We have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in," he said. "That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same."
Republicans have used this "families balance their budgets, so should government" line for years. Now Democrats are doing it too. Everyone is jumping aboard the pseudo-austerity bandwagon. (Why pseudo? Neither party really wants to balance the federal budget because it can only be done by bringing home the troops, shrinking the Pentagon by 90 percent, ending corporate welfare, and soaking the rich--i.e. major campaign donors--with higher taxes.)
The family budget talking point is a fascinating meme that reflects a rarely considered national blind spot. As with other cases of mass denial (we think we're generous do-gooders around the world, foreigners see us for the crazy mean torturers we also are), we give ourselves more credit than we deserve.
We Americans value thrift and personal responsibility. We believe we should live within our means. These cultural ideals stem from our Puritan history.
But we don't live up to our ideals. Not even close.
Americans are up to the ears in debt.
Four out of five individuals have at least one credit card. The average family has an outstanding balance of $10,700. It spends 21 percent of its monthly income to pay interest on that balance.
The average American family has assets: It owns a house worth $160,000. But it owes $95,000 to the bank. As the housing market continues to crash, equity shrinks.
Our average family's savings are virtually nonexistent: $3,800 in the bank, no retirement account whatsoever (for half of families, average retirement savings $35,000 for the other half), no mutual funds, no stocks, no bonds.
The claim that American families live within their means is a joke.
To be fair, it's not entirely their fault. The typical American family only earns $43,000. It's hard to buy much of anything, much less the house that embodies the American Dream, with that. And it's impossible to save.
So they/we borrow.
As grim as a life of indebted servitude may seem, imagine what the American economy would look like if families really did live within their means, spending no more than they earned. No debt. No credit.
Markets for big-ticket items--homes, automobiles, major appliances--would crash and burn. Countless businesses would go under.
According to the National Association of Realtors 23 percent of homebuyers paid cash in January. That's more than ever before but that still leaves at least 77 percent relying on mortgage financing. (Why "at least"? Most "cash" transactions include money borrowed from banks and credit unions.) Take 77 percent of purchasers out of the buy side of the equation and million-dollar homes would be worth five figures.
Pop! Credit is the biggest bubble of all.
If credit went away, most Americans' biggest asset would vanish. Everyone would be "under water" to their lenders. The burbs would soon look like Afghanistan.
The same goes for cars: At least 88 percent of buyers take out a loan.
What would happen if these buyers had to save actual cash money before they could hit the showroom? They wouldn't buy a car. Air would get cleaner but the economic collapse that began in 2008, which has put one out of five Americans out of work, would accelerate dramatically.
Two-thirds of the U.S. economy directly relies on consumer spending. People can only purchase goods and services using one of three sources: income, savings or credit. As we've seen, the average American family doesn't have savings. Its income has been falling since 1968.
That leaves credit. If consumer credit vanished, the corporato-capitalist system currently prevailing in the U.S. would deteriorate from its current, merely unsustainable form into total chaos. Without credit cards and other loans citizens would seethe, trapped between the mutually irreconcilable forces of falling wages and the aggressive advertising and marketing of products they would never be able to afford. There would only be two possible long-term outcomes: revolution, or the ruling classes would be forced to pay substantially higher wages to workers. To corporate elites, the latter choice would be too unpalatable to countenance.
The typical American family cannot live within its means because it cannot earn enough to sustain its lifestyle. Were it to downgrade its living standards to a level it could afford, there wouldn't be enough consumer spending to drive the economy. This would force further personal austerity. Eventually we'd all be living outside.
You know what's funny? Unlike the American family, the U.S. government canspend less than it earns. It can increase revenues by raising taxes. Unlike families, it spends trillions of dollars on stuff--wars--that it doesn't need and actually makes things worse.
It could even use its power to force employers to pay workers what they deserve. If the government did that, families might not need credit.
They could (finally) live within their means.