Forget AIG for a moment. Forget Freddie and Fannie, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers. Imagine a company much bigger. Imagine a company that at the end of this year will have spent $400 billion more than it has taken in. Worse, imagine that the company's accounting is so bad, the $400 billion doesn't even begin to cover the whole of this company's liabilities.
In fact, the company deliberately chooses to use what's known as "cash accounting" rather than the more accurate accrual accounting. Cash accounting looks at how much cash the company has on hand, regardless of future liabilities. It's like saying if you have $75 dollars in your checking account right now, you're $75 in the black, never mind that you've deferred your car payment this month, quit your job, and have a rent check due at the end of the month.
The company also practices dirty accounting tricks like "forward funding," "advance funding," and "delayed obligations," deceptive tricks that hide its precipitous finances from auditors and its investors.
This company routinely borrows from its workers' pension plan to pay off its debt. Its accountants then claim that because the company owes the borrowed money to its own pensioners and not to outside creditors, the resulting hole in the pension plan doesn't really count as a liability. Sometimes, the company's executives neglect to pass a budget at all. When that happens, they keep the company running with "emergency expenditures," which its accountants don't consider real expenditures for records-keeping purposes, even though they're paid with real money.
By now, you've probably guessed where I'm headed. I'm not really talking about any private company. I'm talking about your federal government. If any private corporation employed the same accounting tricks Congress and the White House use to hide the government's massive debt and financial liabilities, its board and executive officers would all be in prison. In the government, it's common practice. And that's not even considering the funding of our two ongoing wars, which somehow emanates from outside the normal budget process.
If the government were required to abide by the same accounting standards as private industry, its debt would be in the trillions, not billions. Last May, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher said that the government's unfunded liability for Social Security and Medicare alone comes to a staggering $99.2 trillion, or $330,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. It's an impossible figure.
So when congressional leaders and presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain call for more government oversight of our struggling financial institutions, go ahead and laugh. You know you want to. The idea that the private sector would be in better shape today if only we demanded more oversight from our politicians is preposterous. Our politicians wouldn't recognize "fiscal responsibility" if it spat in their ears.
Wall Street moguls may be "greedy," as both John McCain and Barack Obama have described them, but at least there are real consequences when their greed becomes excessive. They go out of business.
Except, that is, when the government bails them out. Thus far, in addition to being on the hook for the federal government's own massive debt, taxpayers are also putting up $85 billion to back insurance giant AIG, up to $100 billion each to back Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and we're funding the Bear Stearns backstop. Congress is also expected to approve at least $25 billion in corporate welfare for the big three automakers. You can probably expect more handouts down the road. All of this has some analysts now questioning the U.S. government's bond rating, and worse, wondering whether the government itself may soon collapse under the weight of its own debt.
When you, Joe Citizen, spend frivolously and default on your loans, the bank takes your house. When the government spends your tax dollars frivolously, it simply cooks the books to cover its excesses. When the books are left in ashes, the government just takes more of your money, or it prints more money, leaving the money it hasn't already taken from you devalued. Over the last few weeks, we've learned that you now face the prospect of an additional indignity: When your neighbor's bank spends frivolously and defaults on its loans, the government's going take your money then, too, to keep the bank in business.
Many commenters have blamed all of this on capitalism. This isn't capitalism. It's a peculiar kind of corporatist socialism, where good risks and the resulting profits remain private, but bad risks and the resulting losses are passed on to taxpayers. There's nothing free-market about it.
Neither Barack Obama, nor John McCain, nor either party's leadership in Congress has proposed a reasonable plan to deal with the government's unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities. In fact, all have proposed expensive new government programs that can't possibly be funded over the long term. All seem both oblivious to the federal government's impending financial peril and intent on making it worse.
Perversely, all are then simultaneously demanding that they be given greater control over the private sector — because, they gallingly explain, corporations have shown that they can't be left alone to behave in a manner that's fiscally responsible.
Governments have been screwing over taxpayers for about as long as there have been governments and taxpayers. Capitalism, on the other hand, is a fairly recent development, and has spurred an explosion of wealth and the greatest standard of living in human history. What's happening now isn't capitalism, but capitalism is certainly taking the brunt of the blame.
Unfortunately, the end result may be that our politicians make capitalism more accountable to them — the same people who have shown that when it comes to the government's finances, they're accountable to no one.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine and maintains a personal blog at www.TheAgitator.com. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.