Home Economics and the Nation Against the State

If you’ve been following coverage of the federal budget crisis in the mainstream media in even a cursory manner, then you’ve probably heard some variation on what I call the Home Economics trope. I get a fair share of my news from NPR and the Washington Post and I encounter it regularly. It made me curious and I wondered what other anthropologists might make of it. A handy rhetorical scheme which crops up again and again, it is a framing device for organizing and make sense of esoteric national fiscal policy in familiar, quotidian terms. It also seems to be doing some nationalist work at the expense of delegitimizing the state. Or something like that.

It goes like this. The federal government’s response to financial crisis ought to mirror those of a typical family experiencing monetary hardship. If the family has bills to pay and can’t afford its current lifestyle then the parents are going to have to work extra hours or get a second job to supplement income (increase taxes and revenues), everyone is going to have to make do without certain luxuries like cable TV and fancy cell phone plans (make spending cuts), and the family ought to hold a garage sale to sell off extra things (privatization of land and natural resources). I’ve heard variations of this trope, in whole or in part, espoused by people of diverse political sympathies, from participants on radio call-in shows, from reporters and pundits. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear an elected official use it.

What does it mean that people are inclined to think of the federal budget in the subjunctive, as if it were like the budget of a typical household? What “work” does it do for the people who espouse it?

Public administrative budgets are odd things. For the past couple of years I’ve served on the Board of Trustees for my city’s public library system. We have four branch libraries and a bookmobile, scores of employees, and thousands of volumes of materials. I volunteered to join the budget committee and was immediately taken aback by how unintuitive the process was. Even though we are under a tremendous budget crunch we can’t save money by turning down the heat in winter or powering down the computers at night. Nor can you save money by closing early or taking Sundays off. Essentially you have to fire someone and/or convert a full-time job to two part-time jobs. It’s all in how the different kinds of money from different sources get allotted for different purposes.

Another example, this time from the state level. My wife works at public university and she’s gotten but one raise in four years. This year was to be different though, much to our relief. When she received her new contract we were astounded by how much her salary went up; way more than the increase that had been negotiated. But our joy was tempered when we learned that the cost of her state retirement plan had increased by exactly the same amount. Why the state unable to meet its obligation to its employees’ retirement when it was able to give them a raise by exactly the same amount? That’s the magic of budgeting!

A third example. Every department at the university is strapped for cash, probably just like yours. State budget crisis, you know. Across the street from campus Hollywood Video went out of business and the administration scooped up the building to use as the new headquarters for campus police. But before the cops could move in they built an entirely new exterior with red bricks and white columns (after all, every other building on campus has red bricks and white columns). But wait, don’t departments need money for toner? Sorry, that’s not how administrative budgets work.

Money isn’t like water flowing downhill to the lowest point, its sequestered in various ponds like Javanese rice terraces. You might not have enough in your pond to hire an assistant for your overworked office manager, but there’s still enough in the God-Awful-Public-Art pond to afford another gargantuan statue of some founding father or to change out the begonias for pansies when high school seniors come to visit.

It’s easy to see the appeal in a home economics metaphor. Plenty of people are struggling to make ends meet or worse, suffering with low incomes and high costs of living. Using their past experiences people frame the distant, seemingly alien mechinations of Congress in terms of what they already know. People think, “If I’ve maxed out my credit card then its time to cut it up.” But the government has not maxed out its credit card. Its not even remotely the same thing. The metaphor of the family at the dinner table paying bills and opting to eat hamburger instead of steak works first as a Goffmanian frame: it makes the world make sense by organizing inputs in terms of that which is already known, ie. experiences rooted in the past.

It also conveys a moral judgement. Really it is an instance of Othering the federal government and as such fits in with a broader social movement in American society for conservative populism. The actions of elected officials are perceived to be an affront to “common sense”: if someone owes you money then you expect them to pay it back. Is it not True? But we anthropologists know that even what a people takes to be patently the case (especially that) is also culturally constructed. What is it saying, this “common sense”, about the ordinary people who would seek to apply metaphors of home economics to the federal budget?

Clifford Geertz in his “Common Sense as a Cultural System” writes:

It is an inherent characteristic of common-sense thought precisely to affirm that its tenets are immediate deliverances of experience, not deliberated reflections upon it… Religion rests its case on revelation, science on method, ideology on moral passion; but common sense rests its on the assertion that it is not a case at all, just life in a nutshell. The world is its authority.
–Local Knowledge (1983:75)

I can’t help but be reminded of the culture wars of the 1990s when the Right marshaled “family values” as a rallying cry against perceived decadence and decay in US society while the economy careened into post-industrialization and the contemporary neoliberal global flow of capital took shape. “Family values” may be a passe term among the political class and media taste-makers, but the convictions that buttressed it (opposition to globalization expressed as pining for patriarchy) are still in place.

For those of who were infants when Pulp Fiction came out: “family values” sought to valorize something that was perceived to be simultaneously normal but vanishing, nuclear families with firm parental discipline established by male authority, and to stigmatize as “disfunctional” (another passe term) all that which went against the above.

There were, allegedly, some practical advantages to advocating this as social policy along the lines of what George Yudice explored in his Expediency of Culture. If households were arranged by nuclear families with a strong male in charge who wasn’t afraid to spank his kids then our prisons wouldn’t be so overcrowded and, hence, expensive to maintain. If women would just stay home and take care of the little ones then we wouldn’t have to throw away money on things like Head Start. The state, by this line of reasoning, has grown to fulfill a role abdicated by otherwise responsible men because they have been forced to expend extra effort competing with women for jobs. And stuff.

“Family values” posited the nation, epitomized by male-led nuclear families, against the state, epitomized by expensive social programs that spackle over “disfunctional” female-led families like Bondo on a rusty wheel well. The past and older modes of social relations were to be the model for the future. It was preeminently a call to nationalism because it sought to project a unity and consensus from millions of disparate and seemingly unconnected dots – independent households – a stronger nation for a weaker state.

Home economics can also be seen as a similar nationalist response against the state. In its “common sense” approach it diagnoses the pathology at the heart of government by locating the point at which it diverges from the family. It is a symbolic attack on the state, delegitimizing it, and instead acknowledging the authority of local sources of power. It is a rhetorical transfer of symbolic capital from the state to the rugged individual.

Or as Manuel Castells writes in his essay “A Powerless State?”

Indeed, in a world of acultural, transnational global networks, societies tend… to retrench themselves on the basis of identities, and to construct/ reconstruct institutions as expressions of these identities. This is why we witness, at the same time, the crisis of the nation-state and the explosion of nationalisms.
–The Power of Identity, vol.2 (1997:306)

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

20 thoughts on “Home Economics and the Nation Against the State

  1. It could be that understanding the State as a institutional representation of particular situated ideology of ‘common sense’ serves to delegitimize the state and appeal to nationalistic homogeneity with localized structures of power – and/or it could be that people believe that the principles of mathematics are not contingent or situated and that those who posit the home-econ trope are merely using a handy analogy to express it. For some, the situated complexity you describe in state or institutional budget processes, indicates a Procrustean bed of sorts, that is, those structural elements that add complexity are not necessary conditions of accounting, but rather impeding artifacts of failed prior policy. Maybe not, but we should consider an emic explanation to have some non-zero value.

    There is an interesting tension here, both can be true. And your case doesn’t really help us understand why people believe the trope, only that the result might reinforce what you imagine to be their belief. The dominant anthropological paradigm suggests an analysis of the cultural function of the trope, but the revealed function may not be causal but ancillary. Worst it may be a non-sequitor.

    That said, saying ‘that’s just how administrative budgets work’ fails to suffice as a evidence of conceptual deficiency of the home-econ trope for the reason that the trope exists because it is believed that there are administrative budgets that do not work that way, despite your particular anecdote. Anecdotes abound and it doesn’t appear compelling to compare them. It seems that your premise necessitates that the trope is untrue, and so you look for another causal mechanism (social?) facilitating the belief. The trope may or may not be true, though, and for the anthropologist, the interesting questions don’t care. The question should be Why do they believe it is true? (rather than Why do they want to believe it? Or what does believing it do for them?) How do humans generate knowledge and how do they ascertain truth?

    Anything short of that is just a post hoc guess at an explanation, which may or may not be correct.

  2. “What is it saying, this “common sense”, about the ordinary people who would seek to apply metaphors of home economics to the federal budget?”

    Willful ignorance perhaps?

    The “common sense” here sounds a lot like the product of cultural hegemony. We are surrounded by a “common sense” which reinforces an ahistorical, apolitical perspectives of society, not to mention kills curiosity and any sort of critical thinking, reinforcing the status quo. Using home economics (and all the myths entailed) as a mode of analysis for the US economy and federal budget crisis can be viewed through Gramsci’s (and Foucault’s later ideas of “discursive practice”) perspective that “every language contains the elements of a conception of the world”. The vocabulary, the way the budget crisis is described, marks the boundary for permissible discourse, discourages clarification of social alternatives, etc.

    It’s interesting to look at the home economics discourse as a nationalist response to the state. This gets at neoliberal weakening of the state and multiple effects of neoliberalism on the individual. It’s not so much powerless state, as a transformation of the state (one could argue that some state apparatuses are actually stronger and empowered in neoliberalism), with indirect means of leading and controlling individuals. This “common sense” is very much part of the indirect means, as you say the Othering of the federal government, transfer of symbolic capital to the individual. This strategy of shifting to the individual comes with the shift of responsibility for social problems, and thus turning problems of government (poverty, disease, crime) into problems of self-care.

    NPR and Washington Post are great examples of this “common sense”. The Post Investigations looked at HUD and found waste, mismanagement, failed development, etc. The article presents HUD as an incompetent individual, government as failure. No mention of market forces, funding for HUD (which is inadequate), economy, and no mention of history or electoral politics. It’s common sense, HUD is a failure so we should get rid of HUD. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/2010/07/08/AFxelh3G_page.html)

  3. So what is this post about, that when we are talking about budgeting, which is about managing money, that when we use a personal/family budget analogy to understand the national budget, that?

    “In its “common sense” approach it diagnoses the pathology at the heart of government by locating the point at which it diverges from the family.”

    so how does it diverge from the family? Are you saying in the home economics analogy there isn’t a conception of “bad budgeting”? Or how did the national budget diverge from the family? I don’t get this at all.

  4. Am I wrong that the nuclear family as household is the sine quo non for economic policy in the United States? Debates over fixing the housing market can pretty much be reduced to arguments over how best to get married couples to sign up for mortgages, thus eliminating any serious conversation about whether broad private home ownership is in fact the optimal housing strategy; arguments over same sex marriage as a civil right invoke access to health insurance plans, thus postponing the talk our nation is going to have to have about controlling health care costs (I mean, seriously, there is more talk about cutting U.S. defense spending than there is about controlling health care costs).

  5. Big Todd,

    Modern anthropology is a post hoc application of external causal explanations to Other’s behavior/thoughts. Especially where they might have differing political views. 😉

  6. @BigTodd

    To be honest it’s hard to imagine a more ridiculous analogy. It’s hard to even count the ways. Sure, households have to bring in revenues, and they have to pay some of it out, or borrow the difference. But there the resemblance ends.

    David Graeber explains why here (third question) :


  7. The nation=household metaphor is well-nigh universal wherever there are nation-states. It goes back at least as far as the romantic conceptualization of the nation has made up of people who are kin, sharing a common soil, blood, and language. The interesting differences emerge in how the household is conceived.

    In recent political debates, the right depicts the household as overspending and thus in need of cutting back. The intelligent response from the left is to point out that households frequently take on debt for good reasons, buying houses, educating children, providing adequate medical insurance, etc., plus the observation that growing a business also requires growing into debt, to make the necessary investments.

    The fundamental cognitive clash is between those who pretend that all debt is wasteful consumption, ignoring where the consumer demand that now accounts for 70% of US GDP comes from, and debt taken on as investment, e.g., in basic infrastructure (now mostly decaying), education (in need of serious reform) and social safety net (now mostly fraying).

  8. Jeremy,

    Graeber, and it seems many others here, completely misunderstands the issue. The analogy is intended to be normative, analogous to a model. Graeber responds as though it were descriptive of practice. Big difference. Also, Graeber makes some pretty big assumptions about the relative consistency of variables, specifically the continued production of wealth and the worth of fiat currency. The joke of it is, he’s right about one thing. If the deficit went away, per the current model, the economy would crash. Not because the economic model is sustainable with a deficit, but because according to the current practice, paying off the deficit implies a dramatic devaluation of the currency. Finally, his appreciation of historical instances of abstract currency does a lot of his work for him, though the nature of that currency matters. Money doesn’t actually equal wealth.

    Also, Mr. McCreery, your analysis isn’t consistent. On one hand you claim that the right merely ‘depicts’ overspending, while on the other, the left should respond that overspending is necessary. You’re making two different arguments here. If there is, in fact, overspending, than the ‘right’ is correct and you can use your second argument to address their claim. If the ‘right’ is incorrect, and there is no over-spending, than your second argument is nonsensical. Also, as an anthropologist, you should be cautious of applying what you consider ‘good reasons’ to other people.

    In all, there seems to be great confusion here about what the difference between debt and investment is- investment isn’t just another word for debt you happen to like.. There are tools to measure and differentiate them. I think the perceived cognitive clash is internal.

  9. The analogy is intended to be normative, analogous to a model.

    So the analogous analogy is like something which by definition is like something. If you’re going to be condescending you might consider tightening up your prose.

  10. @Michael Thomas

    No, Michael, the center-left in the USA does not advocate overspending. Taking on debt to invest is not overspending. It’s normal business practice. Ask anyone who runs a business (that includes, by the way, me).

    People say that the deficit is out of control, but a combination of selective spending cuts, selective investments in infrastructure and education, and returning tax rates to Reagan era levels will do far more to reassure the markets than the nothing but cuts, protect the wealthy bull that the Republican party is currently peddling. Heck, Clinton era tax levels would probably do the trick. Remember when the country last had a balanced budget?

  11. MTBradley,

    Fair enough, I’m sorry, what I meant to say was that the analogy was constructed to reference a normative model. The comma should be followed by ‘home-econ is’. I suppose my prose could use a little work. I would hate to see anyone get distracted by my syntax.

    How about:

    “The analogy is intended to be normative, that is, the home-econ frame represents a normative model of accounting instead of serving a description of current practice.”

  12. John,

    It seems that we could argue all day on what ‘overspending’, ‘investments’, and ‘normal business practice’ means to you, me or the people we are talking about. What I’m trying to say is that the interesting anthropological issues are not “is x true?” but “why do they believe x is true?” , “what for them constitutes truth?”, and “how is validity obtained”. It isn’t anthropology to merely say:

    I observe ‘x’ and believe it to be an expressed belief ‘y’.

    Why do people believe ‘y’? Because I’ve observed ‘x’, and ‘x’ is the expression of ‘y’.

    Here we only learn about Matt Thompson’s belief about the correlation between ‘x’ and ‘y’. But I don’t want to know the reason why one belief is consonant with another according to Mr. Thompson, I want to know (1) what is the nature of their paradigm, (2) how is it constructed and (3) how is maintained.

    We are still left in the dark when it comes to causality.

  13. @Michael

    On these points, I agree. My own comment was driven by awareness that nation=household writ large is an old and widespread image, whose implications depend on how the household prototype is conceived. A Japanese ie, a Chinese jia, George Lakoff’s nuturant (liberal) and patriarchal (conservative) “households” all have different implications.

    Still, the fundamental issue in the debate with which this started is whether the (tacitly nuclear family) household is morally obliged to be debt-free or willing to incur debt to invest in a better future. Investing too much in too risky projects can, of course, be as damaging as sheer overindulgence. But failure to invest can be equally damaging. How much and on what are rational debates. Demanding that a nation be debt-free? Or that budgets always balance? That’s economic insanity.

  14. John,

    It sounds like you’re saying that the concern over the nation=household as a poor analogy is misplaced; that the real issue is in understanding the meaning of debt and investment given the analogy. This sounds like a more interesting problem, one that I think Matt was working toward. I happen to disagree with Matt’s mode of analysis, but it seems he’s asking the same question we are, which is, What does the analogy tell us about how people understand the problem?

    I think the key here is how people operationalize words like ‘investing’. It isn’t completely appropriate that we assume that the dichotomy is between debt-free/investment, when they likely frame it as investment/waste. I understand that you, or I , or anyone here might have differing views on what constitutes investment, and many would love to say that a given frame is incorrect, but that doesn’t help us learn anything. We are really looking to know what informs the creation of the frame – not what does the frame do.

    One might also note that the common trope isn’t asking for complete debt-free-ness, at least not when the analogy is unpacked. Families have plenty of debt to go around. I suspect the trope has more to do with what type of debt (its meaning) and how it’s managed. Of course we don’t know, because no one has asked. We have no emic perspective here. To make any headway, we still need to know what is meant by debt, investment and waste. It’s likely that the analogy is so ubiquitous because these terms are so ambiguous. Anyway, there’s no way to tell, from what we know, if this really has anything to do with nationalism, delegitimizing the state or acknowledging local power. It may be plausible, but I have some serious doubts. The questions you need to ask are:

    Is there an abstract a priori model which is applied to both family and government, but may be most readily accessible and directly observable through the family hence the analogy? What is this model made of?


    Is the current practice of family expense management creating a model that is then applied to the government, in which case, what is the nature of that practice? Is the model necessarily based on power and authority? Why is the family practice model primary?

    It sounds like Matt suspects the latter. He may be right, but the answer is not accessible through the external imposition of a purely political paradigm.

  15. the real issue is in understanding the meaning of debt and investment given the analogy.

    This sounds pretty good. My only concern is the phrase “the analogy.” The “the” makes it sound like there is one analogy, when the conflict arises because there are multiple analogies being confused with each other.

    Suppose, for the sake of argument, that George Lakoff is right and American conservatives and liberals embrace distinct moralities grounded in different views of what a family/household should be.

    In the liberals’ nurturant household, equity is a primary value; everyone should get a fair share. The idea that only some members of the house should take the lion’s share is anathema.

    In the conservatives patriarchal household, inequalities are taken for granted; father is superior to mother, mother is superior to child. The world outside the household is a war of all against all in which father, the provider, must struggle to defeat his rivals. The patriarch’s portion is bigger because he bears the brunt of the battle.

    Plainly, these two models will result in very different views of debt, investment, and waste. Both will recognize that excessive debt can be dangerous. But in the liberal view, investments should grow the pie in which everyone has a right to an equal share. In the conservative view, the minor members of the household, and that includes the wife/mother, must bear whatever sacrifice is needed to equip the patriarch for victory. And since the war zone in which he fights is a fundamentally amoral space, quibbles about fairness outside the family can be dismissed as nonsense.

    You are right that more ethnography is needed. Is Lakoff right? What alternative models might be discovered? These are all important questions.

    The point I would make is that there is no “the analogy.” There are multiple analogies confused by the way in which “the household” and “the nation” are held to be related, with one the analogue of the other. Until, a tip of the hat to Wittgenstein, the family resemblances are sorted out, the argument won’t get very far.

  16. John,

    Re: analogy, I think you nailed it.

    I have my own disagreements with Lakoff mostly having to do with complexity of descriptions like conservative and liberal and his tendency to caricature beliefs, but I think the question is really interesting.

    This conversation is making me curious – in either example of the analogies, is the family the primary model, or is the family the most accessible expression of an abstract model generated anothetr way?

  17. Is the family the primary model, or is the family the most accessible expression of an abstract model generated anothetr way?

    Michael, this is a great question. I don’t claim to have any sort of definitive answer. I do note, however, that the grand narrative that still undergirds much anthropological thinking assumes that family, co-residence, and kinship precede the evolution of chiefdoms, states and empires. I note, too, that one of the most common ethnographic observations is that “the house” inhabited by those who share a common hearth or stove is conceived as a microcosm of the wider world, a physical embodiment of a culture’s cosmology, and the residences of chiefs, kings and emperors are usually “the house” writ large. The romantic theory of the nation state as one blood, one soil, one language, thus one big household, is a codification of ideas that have a very long history, indeed.

  18. I really like your analysis professor it is a very interesting take on the issue from an anthropological perspective. Forgive me if I am wrong, but you perceive the state accruing debt as benign in comparison to a household because of the nature of what the state spends money on and the role of the state?

    It is true that people are naturally inclined to try to make comparisons to things they understand, because (especially in a democracy) politicians and pundits need to break down more complex issues to make sense to a broader range of their constituents. I do not believe in all or most cases there is any malicious intent in doing this, but rather a clear distinction of how the media and political elite view the average masses as intellectually inept. The goal is never really to actually break down the issue honestly and intellectually; it is to make a vague analogy to get people to agree with them (the politician or pundit) on an issue that the politician truly believes they fully understand and hold a more informed correct position on.

    I take some issue with this analysis from a more political and economic point of view. While it absolutely nails the simplification of the issue by a public who culturally simplify the problem and try to relate to it, this analysis also does seem to ignore the very real issue of monetary policy, fractional reserve banking and the invisible tax called inflation that harms the entire nation, even those “home economists” at their dinner tables.

    This view of national debt as less serious than household debt in my opinion, is dangerous for several reasons. First and foremost when the federal government can freely accrue debt without the nation feeling the negative impact right away it leads to overseas expansion and endless wars. When Lyndon B. Johnson tried to raise taxes by 6% to fund the Vietnam war, he was forced off the Democratic ticket for re-election. I think this is healthy in a democracy. I think if debt was taken seriously and decisions like war or new government agencies that had long reaching consequences were made to have an immediate impact on peoples finances, they would be more sober in their political decision making process.

    This massive debt can easily be re-payed by the government at a discount because it can print or borrow money and kick the can down the road. The fiat currency has no real tangible value, its main value relies on confidence in the U.S. government, its position as the number one global currency and an appearance of responsible spending. When debts get to high, the printing presses can start up over a period of time to inject enough money back into the system to weaken the dollar and make the debt cheaper to repay.

    This is further exemplified by the fact that men and women have to both work now to live in a similar standard of middle class living as they did in the past. The family values angle is used to masquerade traditionalist and nationalist values because they prompt feelings of patriotism and a tendency to remember “the good old days” without remembering all of the other negative society problems of the time period. The very real issue of the people working harder and harder and both spouses needing to enter the workforce is a symptom of the devaluation of the dollar and massive long term deficit spending combined with borrowing and printing money.

    I think the national debt is a very real issue and the federal reserve is a very real and dangerous entity that does not allow the market to behave in a natural way, making the highs higher and the lows lower to make longer terms of less erratic behavior to give investors a sense of false security.

    Never-the-less I digress into a political opinion of an anthropological opinion. Debt and monetary policy do have serious consequences for nations and empires like our own that tend to over reach militarily and sometimes I think a healthy bit of the nation rising against the state is in order for any bloated central authority.

    Just my $0.02,


    P.S. – I also enjoyed your Glenn Beck article on his fake archaeology. It hit home because one of my best friends is a Mormon missionary currently serving in India and he has been trying to convert me for years with the same grandiose unsubstantiated claims. I enjoyed your class tonight as well, this will be a fun semester.

  19. Also one addition, the government advocates for the nuclear family not only because they are culturally, traditionally, accustomed and attached to it, but because it is cheaper, less needy and more likely to be a good, quiet middle class consumer the model that America is based around because it has worked! This nuclear family is more likely to generate tax revenue and less likely to use government services; therefore it is the perfect example of an American ideal for a government that needs money and does not want to spend it on anything except overseas military adventures and an unsustainable entitlement system.

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