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In December, Laurence Kotlikoff wrote in Forbes about large chunks of federal spending over many years that have not been reconciled with known accounting transactions. (The link is to a cached version of Kotlikoff’s article because Forbes blocks its site to those using adblockers). I first learned of these massive discrepancies at The Solari Report, which covered the issue in February. At first, I was so dumbfounded by the numbers that I thought it might have been a joke, or worse: fake news on Solari? But the story is real and it is shocking: $21 TRILLION of spending that cannot be explained, spanning the years 1998-2015! That’s more than five times the level of federal spending in 2017. It’s also shocking that the gap has gone almost unnoticed by the news media, though a few specifics have garnered attention at different stages of the disgorgement, as demonstrated by the various links provided in the Solari article.

The discrepancies are concentrated mainly in two departments of the federal government: Defense (DOD) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Kotlikoff quotes a description of the “accounting adjustments” from the Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office (GAO). These adjustments are akin to the entries people make in their checkbook registers when the balance can’t be reconciled to their bank statement:

“‘Journal vouchers are summary-level accounting adjustments made when balances between systems cannot be reconciled. Often these journal vouchers are unsupported, meaning they lack supporting documentation to justify the adjustment or are not tied to specific accounting transactions…. For an auditor, journal vouchers are a red flag for transactions not being captured, reported, or summarized correctly.'”

The article at Solari makes the following observations:

There appear to be at least five possibilities: 1-The missing money was spent appropriately, but existing accounting infrastructure is incapable of tracking it. 2-The money was “wasted,” i.e. spent unwisely. 3-The money was directed into black projects and Special Access Programs in massive amounts outside the Constitutional appropriations process, and therefore without the knowledge of Congress and the citizenry, for purposes unknown. 4-The money was used to manipulate markets to maintain the reserve status of the dollar. 5-The money is being stolen by fraud and collusion between government and private interests. Or perhaps a combination of all of these.

All five explanations represent a form of failure of governance or government administration. Some are more nefarious than others. While #1 might seem fairly innocuous, it nevertheless would demonstrate a slovenly approach to record-keeping and accountability as well as a ripe temptation to anyone seeking opportunities for graft. Furthermore, one cannot trust that #1 is the full explanation. The amounts are so massive that they far exceed the waste in government that even I thought possible. And no one in the federal agencies seems to have an explanation. Mark Skidmore, a Michigan State University economist who has studied the issue and made inquiries with these agencies, describes what sounds like a runaround. In December, however, the DOD announced a positive step: it’s first-ever department-wide independent audit. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accounting Office are certainly aware of the discrepancies. Links to supporting documentation at the OIG and DOD web sites appear in both the Solari and Kotlikoff articles.

If these funds have been wasted or misused, taxpayers are the victims, of course. There are a few well-known examples of private and even public companies that have victimized investors to perhaps a similar (proportionate) extent over the years. Bernie Madoff and Exxon come to mind. But in general, public companies cannot escape demands that their books be in order and that they produce value over time. The federal government, however, has received a pass for this fecklessness over many years. Perhaps it’s because the public has such low expectations for the government’s effective use of tax dollars. Federal agencies such as HUD and DOD seem almost as budgetary “black holes” into which tax dollars are sucked, with an apparent lack of scrutiny.

Kotlikoff closes by urging a thorough investigation into the government’s cockeyed accounts:

Taken together these reports point to a failure to comply with basic Constitutional and legislative requirements for spending and disclosure. We urge the House and Senate Budget Committee to initiate immediate investigations of unaccounted federal expenditures as well as the source of their payment.”

The Solari piece is no less emphatic in demanding a full probe of the causes of the budgetary discrepancies:

We must recognize the possibility that massive fraud is being perpetrated against the American people. If that is not the case, it would take relatively little effort and expense to put that concern to rest. On the other hand, what malfeasance might investigation reveal, and who might be responsible?

At the very least, we should be asking the secretaries of DOD, HUD, and the Treasury, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and the President of the NY Fed what they know, and we need independent audits of all those entities plus the Exchange Stabilization Fund. Anything less will be to acquiesce in an ongoing financial coup d’état.