08/01/2011 05:05 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011

It's Not the Deficit, Stupid

When James Carville wrote the phrase "the economy, stupid," he didn't actually mean the economy, capital E. He meant jobs, and gas prices, and bread prices, and mortgage rates, and all of the other sad and boring things adults think about. In actuality, people don't give a single, solitary shit about the debt ceiling. Until it raises the price of a patio chair at Walmart.

Let's assume for a moment that the obsession with the federal debt is not a cynical ploy by Republicans to confuse people into thinking that we can't afford social security, which we can, or that we can't afford health care, which we can, or that Democrats are socialists, which, unfortunately, they aren't. Let's assume that Republicans really have, at long last, after three red administrations carrying debt, finally realized that the only thing that gets them off anymore is a budget in the black.

Why have Americans started to care, though? It's because of a tiny little leap of logic: I have to balance my budget, why shouldn't the federal government? My family shouldn't carry debt, why should the Fed? I can't choose to raise my credit limit, why should they?

Implicit here is the idea that the federal government is just a really big version of you and your family. This is what Tea Party economists believe. It's a simple metaphor, and one that takes only a four-function calculator and some pluck to bring to life.

Let's say you have a family of five. Mr. and Mrs. America -- Let's call them George and Martha -- and their three beautiful children: Jimmy, their son; Sally, their daughter; and Chris, sex as yet undetermined. With their two incomes, the America family makes 100,000 dollars a year. This is well above the average American income, but I couldn't find a calculator. We'll make do with pluck.

How does the America family spend its money?

According to federal statistics, the America family spends 20 percent of its budget on defense -- 20,000 dollars. With 20,000 dollars you can buy six Kalishnikov AK-47 rifles (used), 100 plus feet of high voltage electric fencing, a dozen or so Claymore landmines, three pure bred Rottweilers, and one professional sniper, assuming you pay him minimum wage.

What you can't buy with 20,000 is an armored military vehicle. So Mr. America (it's actually Captain America, because he did some time in Iraq) decides to use all of the 20,000 dollars he won at the Horeshoe Riverboat Casino on defense. This is called discretionary spending, and Mr. America doesn't have to include this in the family budget for some arcane and dubious reason, which means that he never actually has to say he spent 40,000 dollars on defense. Mrs. America doesn't seem to mind. Takes all kinds.

Mr. America could have spent those 20,000 discretionary dollars on a nice hobby, like gardening, or figuring out how to build biofuel airplanes, or amateur ballroom dancing. But instead he spent it on a Humvee. There went that 40 percent.

The Americas spend 20,000 a year on Social Security. This is an interesting one. Mr. and Mrs. America deposit money into Grandma and Grandpa's bank account so they can buy food and clothes and hard candy and slippers. This seems good, because someday Sally, Jimmy and Chris will do the same for them. Also, down the block at the India household, Nanna died of cholera, and Mr. and Mrs. Afghanistan shot their parents and left them out on a rock to die. So it seems like a humane system. But at the dinner table, Sally, Jimmy and Chris are grumbling about having to help their parents in the future. "Dad, how can we afford it?" Says Jimmy. "Don't we owe it to our parents?" says Sally. "It won't bother me if you spend your golden years eating cat food," says Chris, an aspiring radio personality.

Health care. 15.3 percent of America's GDP. 15,200 bucks. 15,000 bucks buys you one kidney stone operation for Mr. America and a wrist cast for Sally. Not much. So the family decides to buy insurance from the Aetna brothers, a protection racket next door. This works fine until they learn that young Chris has a bum leg, and so the Aetnas can't guarantee his safety. The family still has to pay, of course. But accidents happen. It would be a real shame if something were to happen... to Chris. One minute you're fine, and the next minute you take a nasty fall. Or your car explodes. Or you get cancer. So, one-third of the America family is uninsured.

Then there's 15 or 20 percent left for this thing called "non-defense discretionary spending," which is how Mr. America described paying for Sally's trip to Six Flags. That includes landscaping, transportation, repairs to the house, veterans benefits, community programs, anything having to do with science, the environment, and space, and research of any kind, unless that research produces something that could be used to attack another house on the block, in which case that research is considered defense discretionary spending. The armored tank.

So the family has 4,500 dollars to split for education. That means that Jimmy is getting his associates degree from community college, Sally has a GED, and Chris, as I mentioned earlier, is going into entertainment.

Now might be a good time to ask the question: what the hell kind of family are we? Anyone, with the exception of a very few survivalists living in compounds on Bureau of Land Management unincorporated dessert, would think that this family is in serious need of financial planning advice. This is a family with razor fencing, Rottweilers and a 24 hour sniper, but with three illiterate kids, one of whom can't go to the doctor, who live in a house with crumbling walls and floors that haven't been repaired since Eisenhower was president. Do you remember the film Taxi Driver? It's like that, except if Cybil Shepherd had been like, "Porno Movies? I love porno movies! Let's start a family, live in your terrifying apartment and build guns that shoot out of our Members Only sleeves! From now on, every muscle must be tight!"

Remember, this is not my metaphor. I understand that the federal government has emergent properties I don't understand. It's those elected officials who have turned ignorance into economic theory who want us to believe that the government is just one big, unhappy family, kind of like a Tennessee Williams play with 536 characters.

In this context, obsessively trying to balance the budget now is kind of like saying, "hey Sally, hey Jimmy, I know you're hungry this week, and Chris, I know you have that bum leg that keeps you at home, but I've really gotta pay the cable bill. Wouldn't want the Dish Network lady leaving me passive aggressive voicemails. Chris, get your goddamned crutch off the Humvee. You'll scratch the decals."

What actually happens is the opposite. What happens is, every month people don't pay their cable bills and don't pay their phone bills and don't pay their credit card bills so that their children, their husbands and wives, their aging parents and newborn babies, can be fed and clothed and stay healthy. When people are forced to choose between balancing their budget and taking their kids to the doctor, they don't choose the budget. When forced to choose between getting out of debt and feeding their grandparents, they don't choose the debt. When it's the credit card bill or dropping out of college, people get another credit card.

So if the Tea Party metaphor is right, and the federal government should operate just like a great big household, then Americans should start treating each other like family. Let's all actually start behaving as if we are in this together. As if your hardship actually affects me. As if we are all on the same side of the electric fence.