Raising the Standard.

The Other $80 Trillion

From the 1934 Chicago Tribune.

From the 1934 Chicago Tribune.

THE EDITORS: This means U.S. outstanding obligations are greater than global GDP, which in 2008 was ~$60T. Just some perspective.

If you believe the federal government is only $17 trillion in the hole, then I have news for you: our federal government’s liabilities are actually closer to $100 trillion. When I first heard it, I was shocked, too.

I caught wind of this figure just a week ago in a first-year odyssey class, “Balancing the Federal Budget in 15 Weeks,” taught tby Professor Jeffrey H. Dorfman.  When Dorfman said that the $17 trillion figure hardly scratches the surface of our nation’s debt, I didn’t believe him — after all, $17 trillion is as horrible a number as a debtor can expect to see.

Yet “pretty horrible” barely scratches the surface in our case. “Royally screwed” may be the more accurate label.

After class, I did research to see for myself. And it’s true.

The Wall Street Journal provides the best summation of the crisis in an alarming op-ed by Chris Cox and Bill Archer, both former members of President Bill Clinton’s Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform. Alhough out of date by one fiscal year, the article does a much finer job explaining the numbers than I possibly could — I encourage you to read the whole thing.

The only problem with the story? No one knows about it. Shockingly — or not, considering the shallowness of the American news media — our national, $80 trillion-odd bender is not getting near the wall-to-wall coverage it deserves. If the media did its job, our staggeringly large obligations would make headlines every other day until the federal government got its act together.

Cox and Archer point out that public is ignorant of the federal government’s unfunded liabilities because of its obscurity: the information is spread over various congressional reports, which, in case you haven’t waded through one, are not exactly accessible to the everyman. While lawmakers force companies to be transparent about their financial decisions, they hide their own financial straits for dear life. If the public were to know how bad things really are, you can bet they would demand real change.

Maybe when another generation pays into Social Security for decades and doesn’t get a penny we will begin to see outrage. Maybe when the government shuts down completely — when, unlike previous shutdowns, it cannot actually afford to keep running at 87 percent capacity — there will be a return to responsibilty. Just maybe.

At this late date, reality dictates that big changes need to occur, quickly. To fix our economy, politicians must act. We can’t just cut spending — to use a term beloved by Huffington Post headline writers, we need to slash it.

Because, as unimaginable as it may be, the American economy can, and almost assuredly will, get worse. How long until our real debt clock adds another digit?

—Houston Gaines is a freshman studying political science

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