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The Irrelevancy of "Kitchen Table" Politics

If you ran your government like you balanced your checkbook, we'd all be dead in a year.

Pardon the somewhat hyperbolic sub-head above, but there's a grain of truth to it. 

You see, election season is coming upon us again. (Like Christmas, it seems to start earlier and earlier every year.) And, that means we're going to hear candidates on every level talk about what the pundits have charmingly termed "kitchen table issues."

You know what they are, these kitchen table issues. You start hearing the term every time the economy isn't looking so good. They're the sort of things that you and I and Joe Sixpack are allegedly talking about around -- you guessed it -- our kitchen tables. Things like the state of the economy, the cost of healthcare, and so on.

I don't know about you guys, but the subject of politics rarely comes up around my table, even when I worked in politics. I'd suggest that is far more a kitchen table issue than, say, consumer confidence. Of course, there's nothing that a politican can do about that, unless he can reinvent a strength and conditioning program.

Nonetheless, there's a school of thought in politics that says if you focus your message on kitchen table issues, you'll be sure to win voters over. In conjunction with that school of thought comes the rhetoric we're all used to hearing from faux-populist politicians.

My personal favorite goes something like this. "We need to start managing the government's budget the same way we manage our family's budget."

Sounds appealing, right? I mean, after all, we've got to make ends meet on a finite income, and that means prioritizing things. Sure, maybe I want an iPad, but I need to fork over my car payment.

The problem is, running a home is very, very different than managing a government, whether you're talking about , the State or Georgia, or the feds up in Washington.

Here's why. The money that runs your government and mine comes from a multitude of sources, and a lot of those sources have strings attached; you can spend that money only on certain things, like roads, or police, or infrastructure.

Here in Athens-Clarke County, we're no different. We've got our general fund, most of which goes to payroll and benefits. But when you pay your water bill, for example, that money goes into a different account, controlled by the water guys and used for their operations.

It's not as simple as saying, we need new police cars, let's write a check.

So, if you wanted the government-finance-to-family-finance analogy to work, you'd need to get about ten paychecks a month from your employer, with one of those checks being available only to pay your mortgage, and another only for groceries, and so on. And, even if you had ten times more money than you needed in your grocery account, you still couldn't use it to pay your cable bill.

That's why the analogy falls flat. And it's not just politicians who subscribe to it. Flagpole's John Huie took the Commission to task this week for spending money on new road projects, while:

...commissioners agonize over how to split up $250,000 in grant money among numerous vital nonprofit groups that help (for example) homeless families, assault victims, women dealing with addiction and the elderly needing transportation.

Huie's not completely wrong, and he points out that some of the millions in road improvement money is state money from the Georgia Department of Transportation. But he also criticizes the government for using "local" money for a new road, Jennings Mill Parkway.

And again, the problem is the funding source. Jennings Mill Parkway is funded by SPLOST dollars; you (and presumably Huie) had the opportunity to vote on it back in 2005.

The point is not whether Jennings Mill or any other local road is more or less important than funding, say, the Athens Community Council on Aging. It's two different sources of money, earmarked (and in the case of SPLOST directly approved) by us, for specific projects.

My grandfather used to say, "If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is." He was right about most things, and this is no exception. The idea of budgeting the government the way you balance your checkbook sounds easy and logical, but it's not. (Little about government is easy or logical, but we know that.)

Now, before the comments thread heats up, let me be clear. Managing a household, raising kids, and doing it in this economy is far from easy. If you're doing it, you've got my respect. It's not easier than managing a government, but it's a lot different.

So, in a few months, when the politicians come knocking on your door, promising that they're going to run this government the way they manage their household, kick them right off the front porch, and point them to a good Master's program in public administration, because they're not ready to work for you.

And if they want you to buy that tripe, they're being more than a little condescending to boot.

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