The government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means. We can’t spend money we don’t have. We have to balance the books. Yes, it will be tough. Yes, a lot of people will lose the lifelines they depend on. But the government budget is like a household budget. We need to live within our means.
All this makes an intuitive kind of sense – money is money, no matter how much of it you have – which might be why governments across the world are so keen to repeat it to anyone who’ll listen. But just who is this household? Who are this family? We’re supposed to imagine the same kind of family that holds close to family values and enjoys family entertainment: a dual-income, high-earning, hard-working family with two impish but adorable children and a lightly sketched backdrop of uncles and godparents. Tammy’s finger-paintings are on the fridge, George knows absolutely everything about dinosaurs. These are fundamentally decent people, who through no real fault of their own have ended up getting themselves into a bit of financial bother, and will have to make some sad but unavoidable cutbacks. Caravans in France now, not river boats up the Mekong; good honest cheddar instead of chaource, a DVD boxset instead of a patio extension. They might be in a lot of debt, but the interest is always paid in full; their credit rating hardly dips. These aren’t people who will ever have to choose between food and heating on a week-by-week basis. These aren’t delinquents. They’re model citizens, and like all models their faces are frozen stiff. Mum likes Scandinavian detective dramas, and Dad tolerates them well enough after a nice glass of Chablis. They don’t blink. They don’t breathe.
The government budget is like a family budget: this looks like a literary simile, but it’s not. A literary simile works because it brings together two things that are fundamentally very different; you get a sense for the specificity of the object by its comparison to something of a different type. Eyes like fire are not really going to give you third-degree burns, legs like tree-trunks tend not to be covered in moss or have weevils scurrying under the bark. Nobody would usually bother to write that something is like itself. The family-government simile is far stranger, far more medieval: its principle is consistency, a variant on the Great Chain of Being, rooted in the idea that a similitude between two things indicates that on some level these things are fundamentally the same. In the end, it’s mystical and vaguely Hermetic: as above, so below; the state mirrored in the family, the family in the state. An idea of some antiquity: remember all those jurists who held that as the first paterfamilias, the Biblical Adam was also the first king; remember how often the sovereign has been described as the father of his people. Which is not to say that any of this isn’t true. But if the government budget is like a family budget, what are this family really like?
Let’s meet the family.
To begin with, forget about any friendly twenty-first century cosiness; status-symbol Agas, pictures pinned to the Smeg. Unlike most families, these people hardly know each other. Unlike most families, this one is incredibly old. It can trace its ancestry back for centuries, tens of centuries, and over the years its children have done many very notable things, almost all of them involving a great deal of death. The house has been in the family for generations. It sits alone on a low but perilous crag, surrounded by endless miles of thin, fallow, shivering heath. The grass and the nettles have been chopped piebald by various half-hearted attempts at gardening; here and there stand a few miserable clumps of trees, too old to give fruit, but still not exhausted enough to topple over for the mushrooms. There are no National Trust tours; the place is an eyesore. Every generation builds some hideous new wing in whatever style is currently fashionable, but it only takes a few years to fill up with must and crud. A thousand years of useless heirlooms washes slowly from one end of the building to the other. Gunk-scrubbed medals from forgotten wars, oil paintings turned fully abstract by the cracking lacquer, ornamental silver pisspots; a place must be found for everything, and family life goes on in the tiny gaps between all this accumulated stuff. The door creaks as you enter; of course it does. It’s dark inside. The air stinks. Rat droppings, rat poison, and rot. Welcome home. You’ve lived here all your life.
Here are your monsters. The father is – there’s no way to put it kindly – a brutish and violent thug. Most of the time he turns his inexpertly focused anger on his two younger children, roaring his horror at their ingratitude with small, creamy specks of outraged snot dripping from the edge of his moustache. He’ll pick up some piece of household crap – a toilet-plunger, a priceless vase – and fling it squarely at the centre of their torsos: look at what we had, look at what we built, don’t you have any respect for anything? Blood has been spilled, in glugs and drabs; little sprays of it brown around the edges and melt slowly into the general grime of the wallpaper. Sometimes he’ll lock them in a cupboard, or one of the dozens of chilly garrets – not without their dinner; he always remembers to feed his children, even when he keeps them chained up for months on end, it’s a point of pride. The kids are skinny and sooted but never starving. In fact, he’s utterly convinced of the justice of everything he does; he knows that if everyone would just listen to him and do as he tells them then none of this would be necessary. It’s an attitude he carries into his relations with the ordinary folk of the nearby village: every so often he’ll drive his car screaming to the local supermarket, and start brutally beating anyone he encounters with his antique cane. It’s for their own good, he’ll explain. And to be fair, while dozens of people have head their bones broken and their heads caved in, nobody ever calls the police.
With his wife, whom he despises, the anger takes a different form. He’s never once raised a hand to her; instead he rummages through her jewellery box, pulling out one string of lumps after another: do you really need this? Or this? Useless, vanity, trash. Shining arcs of gold and gemstones are lobbed unceremoniously out the window or fed into the waste disposal unit. Next it’s her clothes, slashed with his penknife or ripped apart by his bare hands; she wanders the grounds in silk and satin rags. Sometimes she’ll spend hours assembling a meal from the Jamie Oliver website (she was never a natural chef) only for her husband to stride in and tip it directly into the bin. She is, as far as he’s concerned, a sentimentalist, a wastrel, and a drunk, utterly unfit for motherhood. I gave you three fine young sons, he screams at her, and you’ve ruined them. This is at such a pitch that the kids, whatever turret or dungeon they’re confined to, can’t help but hear. She looks up, briefly, woozily. They’re lovely boys, she says. Lovely boys. And it’s true that she indulges them, endlessly offering new toys, desperate kisses, sips from whatever bottle is being attacked that afternoon, hundreds of gold stars, but it’s not like she really loves them; these are gifts given to replace the love she doesn’t feel, and always half in fear of what her sons might do if they ever found out.
In fact, it’s clear that there’s very little love anywhere in this family. The gold-star system must have started as a fun game, years or decades ago, nobody really remembers: completing some household chore would get you one gold sticker, and in a house so vast and ugly there are always plenty of chores. Somewhere over the years, it became something very different. Absolutely nothing will get done now without a few gold stars being placed next to someone’s name on the noticeboard. Making a cup of tea gets you one gold star, beating back the encroaching nettle-fields with a stick gets you two, shooting a rabbit or partridge for dinner will bring you five, and if husband and wife manage to successfully complete their joyless fuck of an evening they’ll both reward the other with a full ten. It’s cold and mercurial, but for a long time the system did seem to be working. The stars themselves were made by the eldest son, a frankly terrifying creature: round, placid, heartless, and very nearly thirty-five, he spent most of his days in his childhood bedroom with safety-scissors, coloured paper, and glue, making sure that whatever happened, he would always have more gold stars in reserve than anyone else. He’d give them out to his shivering siblings, usually in return for their putting on some painful or embarrassing display – running naked through the nettles, cleaning out his wax-clogged ear with their tongue. But not too many. Really it was the job of the parents to reward their children, which they did: the mother desperately, as if her life depended on it; the father grudgingly, and even then mostly just giving them back to his favoured first-born. The system worked.
Worked. The past tense is crucial. Eventually, the eldest brother somehow managed to stab himself in the eye with his safety-scissors; after that, none of the gold stars he made were fit for purpose. Gross, misshapen blobs, the points barely distinguishable, cheap triangles, things that no self-respecting person could ever accept. He’d keep on making them, not really knowing what else to do with his life, until the entire room was crammed floor to ceiling with shiny monstrosities, scattering in flurries at his frequent belches and his nocturnal snorts. Meanwhile, outside, crisis loomed. The family was giving away far too many gold stars to itself and not taking nearly enough of them in. Chores were going undone. It wasn’t just that family ties were beginning to fall apart, but the building itself, collapsing from its usual state of chaotic disrepair into a very real risk to everyone’s health. For a while there was an attempt to fix the situation by offering a massive gold-star subsidy to the eldest child, in the hopes that it’d induce him to return to his previous level of workmanship, but if anything this just made the problem worse, nearly wiping out the available supply. Something had to change, and for once the parents were in total agreement. There were enough gold stars for everyone; the problem was that they had too many children for them to go around. One wouldn’t be missed. The youngest: he was so scrawny, already it was like he wasn’t really there. And the estate was so vast, with so many places to bury an inconvenient corpse. You need to live within your means. You can’t spend money you don’t have. You’ve got to balance your books.