Monday, June 25, 2012

US Government Debt Statistics Are Misleading And Do Not Include $200 Trillion Of Unfunded Future Entitlement Liabilities: Generally Accepted Accounting Principles Used In Business Should Apply To Government

From The Telegraph, "Reith Lecture: 'We’re mortgaging the future of the younger generation': Uncontrolled public debt threatens to rupture society as the older generation thrives at the expense of the young." by Niall Ferguson:
The heart of the matter is the way public debt allows the current generation of voters to live at the expense of those as yet too young to vote or as yet unborn. In this regard, the statistics commonly cited as government debt are themselves deeply misleading, for they encompass only the sums owed by governments in the form of bonds.
But the official debts in the form of bonds do not include the often far larger unfunded liabilities of welfare schemes like – to give the biggest American programmes – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The most recent estimate for the difference between the net present value of federal government liabilities and the net present value of future federal revenues is $200 trillion, nearly 13 times the debt as stated by the US Treasury. Notice that these figures, too, are incomplete, since they omit the unfunded liabilities of state and local governments, which are estimated to be around $38 trillion.

These mind-boggling numbers represent nothing less than a vast claim by the generation currently retired or about to retire on their children and grandchildren, who are obligated by current law to find the money in the future, by submitting either to substantial increases in taxation or to drastic cuts in other forms of public expenditure.
The present system is, to put it bluntly, fraudulent. There are no regularly published and accurate official balance sheets. Huge liabilities are simply hidden from view. Not even the current income and expenditure statements can be relied upon. No legitimate business could possible carry on in this fashion.

Public sector balance sheets can and should be drawn up so that the liabilities of governments can be compared with their assets. That would help clarify the difference between deficits to finance investment and deficits to finance current consumption.

Governments should also follow the lead of business and adopt the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. And, above all, generational accounts should be prepared on a regular basis to make absolutely clear the intergenerational implications of current policy.
[HT: Greg Mankiw]

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