This is what families do when faced with crisis. Painful as it is, it’s a good thing.
The AP calls it ‘kitchen economics.’
The debt crisis has brought the government to the “kitchen table” to do something that hard-pressed families do routinely, which is tear their hair out over how to pay the bills.
Pawn the family jewelry? Emptying gold reserves at Fort Knox and other repositories could raise a very handy $400 billion.
Sell the property that has been in the family for generations? Yosemite National Park would fetch a pretty penny.
At least so far, such last-gasp ideas are not in serious play at Washington’s kitchen table. But as the Aug. 2 deadline approaches for raising the country’s borrowing limit, you can bet someone in the government is thinking about them. Economists are.
“The consequences of America defaulting on its debt are so unthinkable, catastrophic and costly that we should consider anything,” said Sung Won Sohn, an economist at the Martin Smith College of Business at California State University. “Sell gold, sell oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, do ANYTHING to avoid a default.”
In short, the nation is like a family that’s overextended and close to wits’ end.
To carry on without going deeper in debt, this family would have to cut its monthly bills by 70 percent or get a huge pay increase at work, enough to raise their income by nearly two-thirds. Now.
Then they could scrape by without borrowing more, at least for a little while.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say this is not a bad thing. In crisis there is opportunity. Adversity builds character. Intransigence by some brings encouragement to compromise by others.
Some Republicans have argued that the government can do the same thing a family does when faced with more bills than it can pay in a single month. It can set priorities and make only the critical payments, such as the utility bills to keep the lights on and the water flowing, and let other payments wait. In this scenario, interest payments are the most critical.
Obama disputes that approach.
“A family, if they get over-extended and their credit card is too high, they don’t just stop paying their bills,” he said. “What they do is, they say, how do we start cutting our monthly costs?
“We don’t stop sending our kids to college, we don’t stop fixing the boiler or the roof that’s leaking. We do things in a sensible, responsible way.”
I can relate personally to this particular rendering of the larger news story, with a spate of family and household matters in the past couple of months that rose far higher in priority than whatever plan we had before. In fact, times like these have shown us that ‘plans’ are good to a point, but when the going gets tough you come together as a family and re-order your priorities with new urgency and perspective. It can be galvanizing, if you go at it pro-actively.
So…having just gone through this with my family…in fact, still facing urgent household repairs that suddenly require many hundreds of dollars, thousands all-told…on top of family medical emergencies that put us in another orbit in every way…I have a new sense of getting down to the no-nonsense business of doing what’s necessary for the common good, stepping far outside oneself.
Which leaves me with less patience for the process playing out in Washington.
In some important ways, the federal budget is not recognizable to a real family. It’s from another planet, esoteric, full of accounting tricks, funny money, and obligations that citizens don’t have.
Families don’t have the option of just voting to raise their credit card limit, for one thing.
But the obligations and options citizens do have are grave and serious and demanding of immediate attention. And now they’re facing the feds, if only they’d realize their humanity over their political caricatures.