Have you ever wondered how much we as taxpayers actually owe because of commitments politicians have made on our behalf? Turns out, the answer is not as simple as you might think.


I.O.U.S.A. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John C. Goodman has discovered how hard it is to make sense of the (often) nonsense parading as government statistics, especially concerning who owes how much to whom:

The place to start is with a report put out annually by the U.S. Treasury. There I learned that the federal government officially recognizes an outstanding debt of $17.5 trillion.

Ah, but that’s just the starting point, as bad as it is:

What about Social Security? It’s not on the list. What about Medicare? It’s not there either.

On further investigation, I found out why. “ promises are part of current law and can be changed by Congress at any time,” I was told. Ditto for Medicare. And disability insurance. And survivors insurance. Etc. Etc. That’s a bureaucratic way of saying, “We can break those promises any time we want to.”

So there’s the accounting fiction. Thanks Mr. Goodman for ferreting it out for us. Because the promise can be broken at any time, it really isn’t a promise, and therefore we won’t count it.


But, as Mr. Goodman points out, the promises that taxpayers have made to government servants arecounted:

[The government] does admit that it owes benefits and post-retirement medical benefits to federal workers. As a taxpayer, I’m liable for all the promises the government has made to its own employees. But federal workers are not liable for all the promises the government has made to me.

Now isn’t that something? It’s a one-way street: taxpayers owe the government for what the government promised to its workers, but the government doesn’t owe (or count) us for the promises the government made to us – because that promise can be broken!

What a sweet deal!

Anyway, after sifting through all the baloney and persiflage (I love that word!), Goodman still gets it wrong. He thinks taxpayers owe about $84 trillion if we count everything.

It’s really $222 trillion.

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