March 17, 2014
Entitled “The Government Debt Iceberg,” the latest report from The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London was meant primarily for British eyes, but there’s enough in there to concern Americans worried about how the United States will make good on its promises. Researched and written by Jagadeesh Gokhale, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, the report claims that the problem facing both the U.K. and the United States is the same: making promises without making provisions to fulfill them.
If a private business made a promise to a customer to be fulfilled over time, it would book that promise as a liability and make present plans to fulfill it. Not so the government. Gokhale says that governments use “backward-looking” financials — measuring only what has already been spent in the past — with little if any regard for, and certainly no strategy to pay for, promises made to be fulfilled in the future.
At present the U.S. government owes debtors, both private and public, foreign and domestic, more than $17 trillion, an amount about equal to the entire output of the American economy in one year. Put another way, it owes more than four times the total revenues taken in by that government in one year.
But, according to Gokhale, this greatly underestimates the real unfunded liabilities of the government, by a factor of seven. Taking into account future promises, the government’s debt is closer to $120 trillion.
Gokhale put the problem into perspective: