ABC News took budget reporting to new levels of irresponsibility last night telling its viewers to think of the federal budget like the family budget by knocking off 8 zeros to make spending $38,000, instead of $3.8 trillion. While this approach could be useful to put some items in context (spending on TANF, the main welfare program, would be around $190; the $1 million Woodstock museum that served as a main prop for John McCain's presidential campaign would cost 1 cent), it is fundamentally misleading in explaining the significance of the deficit and debt.
Unlike ABC's family, the government is expecting to be around in perpetuity. This means that it never has to pay off its debt. At the least, it would be more appropriate to make a comparison to a corporation, which may forever add to its debt as it grows. No shareholder would complain if General Electric borrowed a huge amount of money to expand a profitable division. Government spending fosters growth by financing education, infrastructure and other public investments which will make the country richer in the future.
However, there are even more fundamental differences between the government and a family. The U.S. government's debt is in notes printed by the government. If ABC wants to make the family analogy, its family has an obligation to pay off the $9,000 it has borrowed in 9000 sheets of paper that say "I owe you $1."
Most families can't borrow on such terms, but the government can and does. If ABC can't explain this distinction in its 2 minute and 2 second news segment, then it should look for a different analogy.
Finally, the government has the responsibility to support the private economy. The collapse of the $8 trillion housing bubble (which ABC News neglected to tell its viewers about as it was growing) left a gap in annual demand of close to $1.4 trillion.
When the bubble burst annual spending on residential construction fell by close to $600. Consumption, which had been fueled by housing bubble generated equity, fell by close to $500 billion. The collapse of a bubble in non-residential real estate led to a fall off in this sector of close to $150 billion. And, cutbacks in state and local spending, forced by the decline in tax revenue, reduced annual demand by another $150 billion.
It would be wonderful if private sector demand would spring up and replace this lost demand, but the world doesn't work this way. If the government were to quickly cut back its deficit it would lead to lower output and higher unemployment.
To make the family analogy, suppose that the family's spending was responsible for keeping the local butcher, barber, and doctor in business. If the family decided to stop using its credit card, one or more of these businesses would go under.
If ABC wanted to do honest reporting on the budget, it would have crafted its family analogy along these lines.
One last point, ABC said that President Obama broke a promise by not cutting the deficit in half. It would have been useful to point out that the downturn was far more severe than President Obama, and most private economists, expected at the time he made this promise. This is the main reason that the deficits have not followed the course that expected.