The True National Debt of the United States Is a Quarter of a Quadrillion Dollars

Feb. 26, 2020
Bob Adelmann

Patrick Henry was right: the first step towards solving a problem is learning just how large that problem really is: "For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth, to know the worst, and to prepare for it."

But even Patrick Henry might not be prepared to learn the real size of the "fiscal gap" - the difference between promises and projected taxes - facing the United States government and its citizens.

The first thing would be for him to learn a new word: quadrillion. In mathematics, it's 10 to the 15th power. In dollars, it's unimaginable.

When Epoch Times' Mark Tapscott checked the U.S. Treasury's "Debt to the Penny" website on Monday, he reported that the U.S. national debt just ticked over to $23.3 trillion. That's four times what it was 20 years ago.

Tapscott then checked in with the Chicago-based nonprofit advocacy group Truth in Accounting (TIA) to get a more accurate reading. Said Bill Bergman, the group's director of research, the Treasury misses the real national debt by $100 trillion, explaining that "the U.S. Treasury does not include the unfunded obligations for Social Security and Medicare."

That's because those obligations can only be counted when they become liabilities. And because Congress can change the law at any time, said Bergman, the Treasury gets to hide the real numbers. Said Bergman: "The reasoning has been that the government controls the law, and can change it any time."

An actuary from Social Security spelled out the deception at a public hearing in 2007: "[It is] the government's right and ability to alter potential future benefits. Until benefits become due and payable, there is no binding commitment over which a worker has control, and so no liability can be recognized."

Even that $122 trillion number is suspect, according to Boston University professor Laurence Kotlikoff. In an interview with Joseph Lawler, editor of RealClearPolicy, Kotlikoff measured the "fiscal gap" - a tool used for generational accounting purposes - to conclude that the real national debt is closer to $222 trillion:

That's what we economists call the fiscal gap … What you have to do is look at the present value of all the [government's promises from] now through the end of time … all projected expenditures including servicing the national debt. And [then] you subtract all the projected taxes. The present value of the difference is $222 trillion.

That conversation took place eight years ago, in 2012.


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When the credit ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded the country's credit rating one notch, from AAA to AA+, on August 5, 2011, it explained:

The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.

Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government's debt dynamics any time soon.

Three days later, Terry McGraw, the chairman of McGraw Hill which owned Standard & Poor's at the time, received a phone call from then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Geithner told McGraw that "S&P's conduct would be looked at very carefully. Such behavior would not occur."

Two years later, the U.S. Treasury exacted its retribution from S&P by suing it for fraud.

The message delivered was clear. As Tyler Durden, writing in ZeroHedge in 2014, expressed it: "None of this comes as a surprise, and it has been well-known for a long time that the only reason the U.S. Department of Justice targeted only S&P and not Moody's or Fitch [which kept their ratings of U.S. Treasury debt at AAA] … is precisely due to Geithner's vendetta with S&P."

Added Durden:

Of course, this kind of selective punishment simply means that nobody else will dare to touch the U.S. ratings ever again, or speak badly against the sovereign in a public medium, for fears of retaliation.

The first thing Patrick Henry would have to do is wade through the deliberate obfuscation that hides the true extent of the nation's liabilities. And that would start with learning the new word: quadrillion.

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Sources:

Patrick Henry quote

What comes after a Trillion? A Quadrillion.

The Epoch Times: National Debt Isn't $23 Trillion, It's $122 Trillion, Group Says

Truth in Accounting: Our Debt Clock

ZeroHedge.com: Geithner Warned S&P Chairman US Would Retaliate For Downgrade

The New York Post: Treasury chief Geithner sought revenge on S&P: McGraw

Background on Laurence Kotlikoff

Kotlikoff's Generational Accounting method

RealClearPolicy.com: Economist Laurence Kotlikoff: U.S. $222 Trillion in Debt

ZeroHedge.com: The True Size Of The US National Debt, Including Unfunded Liabilities, Is 222 Trillion Dollars

John Mauldin on The Great Reset

Background on John Mauldin

TruthInAccounting.org: The government says it controls a future it says we control

U.S. national debt

United States federal government credit-rating downgrades

Standard & Poor'sUnited States of America Long-Term Rating Lowered To 'AA+' On Political Risks And Rising Debt Burden; Outlook Negative August 5, 2011

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