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Adding up to real money

By
December 18, 2007

Everybody knows Uncle Sam is running in the red and has been for a long time. Still, it’s a shock to learn how much in the red.

The blandly titled “Financial Report of the United States Government” says that the gap between what the government promised under Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social insurance programs and the money on hand to pay for it is $45 trillion over the next 75 years. That’s ‘t’ for trillion as in the entire annual gross domestic product of the United States for this year being around $14 trillion.

Throw in a few other commitments the government has to make good on and the shortfall is $53 trillion.

And the gap is growing rapidly, up over two-thirds in just four years.

Accompanying these figures were indications that we really may not know how much red ink is going out the door.

Some years back Congress required the government to calculate the deficit the way the private sector does by booking expenses when they are incurred rather than by the cash accounting method when they are paid. By the accrual method, the deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was $275.5 billion instead of the relatively rosier $162.8 billion reported under the cash method.

The report is put out by the Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget, but the government’s other financial watchdog, Congress’ Government Accountability Office, refused to sign off on some of the numbers, like the Pentagon’s, only our most costly Cabinet department, because the records were such a mess.

Said GAO chief David Walker, “our government has made a whole lot of promises in the long term that it cannot possibly keep.” Tell us about it.