The fiscal cliff isn't as scary as the looming deficit and debt crisis about to swamp the countryAll eyes have been on the clear and present danger of the fiscal cliff—understandably—but there's a sound in the mountain range that's even scarier than the cliff. It's the sound made by an avalanche, the trillions of dollars of debt that's heading our way, gathering speed and mass. For most people, it's out of earshot now, and that's the way our government prefers to play it in its financial statements. Liabilities are not set out there in accordance with the well-established norms of the private sector, where this overhang of liabilities would set off alarm bells in the markets, with boards of directors in emergency sessions.
We are on a trajectory of cumulative fiscal deficits that cannot possibly be sustained. We have gone from being the world's largest creditor nation, with no foreign debt at the end of World War II, to the world's largest debtor, with roughly half of our public debt held by foreign lenders. Over the last four years, our national debt has grown by more than $5 trillion to over $16 trillion. We have to service that debt. The Federal Reserve is keeping rates historically low but here's the cost of paying interest on the debt for fiscal 2012: $359,796,008,919.49 What do you get for that? Nothing.
The greatest fiscal challenge to the U.S. government is not just its annual deficit but its total liabilities. Our federal balance sheet does not include the unfunded social insurance obligations of Medicare, Social Security, and the future retirement benefits of federal employees. Only in the small print of the financial statements do you get some idea of the enormous size of the unfunded commitments. Today the estimated unfunded total is more than $87 trillion, or 550 percent of our GDP. And the debt per household is more than 10 times the median family income.
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