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Is Our Debt Burden Really $100 Trillion?

November 28, 2012
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Source: The Atlantic, Derek Thompson

Wanna scare somebody about America's debt on the eve of the Fiscal Cliff? I mean, really scare somebody? Here's a trick. Don't talk about the debt. Talk about "unfunded liabilities."

The U.S. national debt comes out to about $16 trillion today. That's something. But it's nothing compared to the extra $87 trillion in unfunded liabilities to Social Security, Medicare, and federal pensions. Here's how that works. If you add up all of the U.S. government's promises to pay retirement and health care benefits for the next 75 years and subtract the projected tax revenue dedicated to those programs over the next 75 years, there is a gap. A $87 trillion gap -- in addition to a $16 billion hole.

"Why haven't Americans heard about the titanic $86.8 trillion liability from these programs?" Chris Box and Bill Archer ask in the Wall Street Journal. The authors blame the U.S. government for using shoddy accounting and for misleading the American public on their finances. In fact, the most misleading thing about that $87 trillion is the way the figure is often used in the media.
 

(1) That's not our debt. Our $16 trillion in debt and our $87 trillion in "unfunded liabilities" represent two very different ideas: real past promises and projected future promises. Real past promises are, well, very real. We have to pay back our debt. Failing to do it would be an illegal and disastrous default. Unfunded liabilities are future promises, and, since they're not as real, we can change them whenever we want without destroying ourselves. For example, raising the taxable income ceiling and slowing the growth of benefits could reduce the Social Security gap to zero tomorrow.

And that's if there is a Social Security "gap" to begin with. Technically, it's not legal for Social Security to have "unfunded liabilities" since it can only pay as many benefits as it receives in earmarked taxes. Both it and Medicare hospital insurance are prohibited from spending money they haven't collected from specific revenue dedicated to their programs (i.e.: payroll taxes). It is impossible for either to technically be "unfunded", since they cannot legally outspend their funding.

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