If the US Government Were a Family…

The following is an extended response to a comment thread on Facebook, reproduced below:

ORIGINAL POST BY A FRIEND: “If the US Government was a family, they would be making $58,000 a year, they spend $75,000 a year, & are $327,000 in credit card debt. They are currently proposing BIG spending cuts to reduce their spending to $72,000 a year. These are the actual proportions of the federal budget & debt, reduced to a level that we can understand.” – Dave Ramsey, professional financial advisor and author.

 MY ORIGINAL COMMENT: Unfortunately, however, the government isn’t a family. I like Dave and his programs but the analogy doesn’t fly. If the government were a family, it would also change parents at least once a decade, based on the children’s judgment.

RESPONSE FROM JOHN (a fictitious name): Vally, it is still a good analogy. An analogy only has to have one point of contact. If I say, boy that guy runs like a cheetah, you know that the only point of comparison is speed. Just because the guy is not furry and does not walk on all fours, the analogy is not invalid. No analogy holds up if you move it beyond the intended point(s)of comparison.


You’re right, John, of course, about the fine point of analogies. I apologize for taking the discussion off-road into the tangents, and will say what I really wanted to say instead.

If Dave had left it at the end of the first sentence, where the analogy, in and of itself, ended and the applied judgment begins (the part about the BIG reduction in spending), I would be perfectly happy with it. Well…not happy, exactly…but at least satisfied with the comparison.

So let’s go back before the opinion and expand on the analogy in its current context.

Let’s agree that Dave’s scenario, for purposes of discussion, is factual in basis. Let’s talk about the actual composition of the family instead of pretending we’re not part of it. (The “US Government” does not exist separate from us—in effect, we elect parents for our 300 million member “family” and give them a checkbook, and we are bound by the decisions they make for the period of time we allow them to be there.) And for the ease of numbering, agree that Dave’s family has 100 members.

One addition to the scenario, however. In this family, the salary was once $75,000, but has recently been reduced to $58,000—10 of the family members are out of work, and not currently able to contribute. Though one, maybe two got jobs making less than they were before, they were quickly replaced by two other siblings. While they were losing their jobs, another ten actually made more than they did before.

The debt, however, didn’t go down. As Mary, the original poster of the quote, remarked later, it is one of the “sins of the fathers.” Doesn’t matter a whit who’s responsible (even though, technically, we all are)—it’s still there to deal with. It’s money already spent, my friends.

It isn’t that I disagree at all with what I think Dave was saying. Because I haven’t seen the context in which he said it, I assume that he was frustrated with the fact that the amount of spending reduction is barely a drop in the bucket toward any real change. But I seem to remember that Dave gained his great wisdom after going bankrupt himself, which means whatever debt he used to have “went away” with no negative consequence to anyone except those to whom he owed the debts, his credit rating and those who depended on him. He’s obviously done quite well. Nothing quite like a reformed smoker when it comes to smokers, is there?

My discomfort comes from the fact I am once again reminded of the old story about the elephant and the blind men. I’ve mentioned it before, but if you’re unfamiliar with the story, the essence is that four blind men are introduced to an elephant and asked to describe it. One, of course, talks about the trunk, another the tail, another the body. You get the picture. At the end of one version of the story:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

We seem to be unable to take off our blindfolds and look at the whole animal for what it is. I’m personally tired, as many seem to be, of the “re-election-focused” blame game. We’re making decisions about “trunks” with no regard for the effect of our decisions on the “tail.”

A case in point: Here in Georgia, out of fear and prejudice and an unwillingness to put partisan bickering aside and find a solution to how to keep financially-contributing immigrants here legally, we passed an immigration law. At the time, Tom Smith, a finance professor at Emory University, said Georgia businesses were bracing for the impact and watching Arizona, since Arizona’s law cost the state as much as $250 million in convention business. “People are looking at the history in Arizona and thinking, ‘Could a law in Georgia have the same impact?’ ” he said, according to one article. “We’re waiting to see whether that will happen in Georgia now.” Never mind the other question—since 70 million baby-boomers are headed for retirement (well, we were until our retirement packages and stock portfolios evaporated), of how our 30 million children were going to replace twice their normal tax revenues. Ten years ago, when the question was posed, the best answer they came up with had to do with immigrants in the labor force, by the way.

Meanwhile, down in south Georgia where I am originally from, crops in the field lie rotting, un-gathered because already beleaguered farmers don’t have the wherewithal financially or physically to do the job. And matters will only get worse—you can’t sell crops, even at a discount, that you can’t gather, supply goes down, prices go up…and that $58,000 now doesn’t go even as far as it did before we started. But we didn’t think of that…and we’re not through with the fallout.

Nor will the powers that be who drove the legislation through likely admit their folly with due humility, admitting that maybe they pulled the trigger a bit early, and work with their other blind brothers and sisters to find a solution that provides the possibility of a win-win for the greatest number of people. Instead, on the basis of their description of the “tail,” the ONLY right description, they’ll explain how it was the fault of the legislature two terms ago, and act surprised when the elephant decides to sit down on all of our heads.

If we are, in fact, the strongest nation in the world…if we are, in fact, the nation that put a man on the moon in a decade’s time…if we are, in fact, a “family,” then we need to act like it, looking for ways to stimulate job creation so there will be more people to pay taxes, make good on the promises made in our names to take care of those who took and take care of us—like our parents, our teachers, our troops and veterans, our police and fire departments—and have the character to say when we’re wrong without trying to pin our bad decisions on our siblings.

I don’t care who’s to blame. Doesn’t matter a bit. Like the debt, none of this mess will change as a result of knowing who did it or why. Besides, the answer to that question is easy.

It’s us. We’re the “such folk” of the elephant story, all guilty of seeing only “one side of a thing,” the side that we touch, the side that affects us and ours. We don’t give a damn about those poor schmucks who didn’t do what we told them to until we wake up and figure out the poor schmucks are the ones looking back at us in the mirror.

Sorry, guys but that doesn’t sound like “family” to me. 


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