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accounting or accountability

Alan Greenspan says we are “way underestimating” the U.S. national debt. His statements on this point make a great follow-up to last night’s post on bailouts. Here are a couple of recent Greeenspan quotes from an article by Nicholas Ballasy:

Largely because we are not including what I would call contingent liabilities, that is the issue of, which is answered by a question: what is the probability that in today’s environment JP Morgan would be allowed to default? The answer is zero or less.”

Now, that means that whole balance sheet is a contingent liability. Now to be sure, while it’s contingent, there’s no interest payments but ultimately that overhangs the structure because we have committed in so many different ways to guarantee this, that and the other thing. It’s not only Fannie and Freddie but it’s a whole series of financial institutions and, regrettably, it is also non-financial institutions.

The bailout barometer I mentioned last night is an eye-opener, but it reflects a very incomplete view of the contingent liabilities faced by the government. Ballasy discusses some massive unfunded liabilities associated with programs like Social Security, which has a trust fund that Greenspan calls “meaningless”:

The Social Security and Medicare Trustees 2014 annual report said while legislation is needed to address all of Social Security’s financial imbalances, ‘the need has become most urgent with respect to the program’s disability insurance component. Lawmakers need to act soon to avoid automatic reductions in payments to DI beneficiaries in late 2016.’

Lawrence Lindsey, an economic official in the Bush Administration, says the real national debt is closer to 300 percent of GDP when unfunded obligations for Social Security and Medicare are added. The fast-dissipating disability insurance fund was the subject of another post here two days ago. It is a case study in irresponsible governance. Here is Ballasy with another Greenspan quote:

According to Greenspan, entitlement spending in the U.S. was 4.7 percent of GDP in 1967 compared to more than 14 percent today. ‘Had we kept it at that level, our productivity would be far higher today. The average wage would be very significantly higher, the standard of living would be higher and what we have to do is think about how we are going to shrink that pie back and, to me, that is the single most important problem that confronts this country,’ he said.

Shrinking the ongoing flow of entitlements is a tall political order. Avoiding the contingencies that would add to existing obligations calls for economic policies that promote stability, rather than boom and bust cycles that follow misguided efforts to stimulate the economy. Still another matter is to deal with the obligations that already exist. Higher taxes, inflation and default do not represent attractive policy options, but our activist government has placed us squarely in that corner.