Guest column: The only facts every young voter should know (but typically doesn’t)

Mark Altieri

In the last few weeks of this election season, all voters — but particularly younger ones — are going to be hit with so many confusing statistics and numbers that heads will spin and logical discernment will go out the window. This would be the case even if most of the numbers you hear in political ads were true, which of course they are not. Therefore, I wanted to throw just a few irrefutable numbers at you. These numbers, I would suggest, are the only ones you should focus on in making your future political decisions. Even though these numbers get a little nerdy and technical, I would beg you readers, particularly you younger people, to try to digest them.

As a first step, I want you to Google “National Debt Clock.” You will pull up the “U.S. National Debt Clock: Real Time.” I would strongly encourage you to make that page your Internet home page from now until Election Day for the simple reason that each day you will see the numbers we are about to talk about grow monumentally.

Federal revenues minus federal spending equals surplus (if positive) or deficit (if negative). This is the basic annual fiscal equation that causes the federal government to be in deficit or surplus in any given year. Therefore, there are two ways to avoid running a deficit in a reporting year: 1) increase revenues so that they exceed spending, or 2) reduce spending if revenues are static or in decline as they have been in recent years.

We are all generally aware that the federal government is in deficit spending mode. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year — the federal fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30 — the annual deficit was a staggering $1.3 trillion. The 2011-2012 year was almost as bad, at $1.2 trillion. If you look toward the top left of the Debt Clock you will see a category called “US Federal Budget Deficit” where you can keep track of the current year’s deficit spending.

I frequently hear news people jumbling terms and confusing $1 billion when they wanted to say $1 trillion, so it is no surprise that the average citizen has trouble getting his or her arms around these numbers. $1 billion is 1,000 piles of $1 million. $1 trillion is 1,000 piles of $1 billion. If you Google “How Much is $1 Trillion?” you will find some really informative graphs and pictures. Let me put it this way: For each additional $1 trillion of federal debt, every man, woman and child in the country is on the hook for an additional $3,500.

So far we have been talking about annual, yearly numbers. The national debt is a different thing. This national debt number hit $16 trillion a few weeks ago. This number has climbed $75 billion since then. You can see it on the Debt Clock in the same top-left corner.

The national debt is a cumulative number. It is the current outstanding debt for all past years of yet-to-be-repaid annual deficit spending. This is real debt, primarily backed up by issued, outstanding and unpaid U.S. treasury bonds and notes. Much of this debt is held by foreign countries, with China generally the largest. Each U.S. citizen’s share of the national debt as of today is pushing $52,000 (when I editorialized about this issue just three years ago, the number was $42,000). To correct this situation, we will need many federal surplus (rather than deficit) years in the future.

I wish I could stop with the bad news, but there is an even greater looming problem in the implicit federal debt. The implicit debt is the present value of the cost of future Social Security and Medicare benefits that have been established by existing laws in excess of future payroll taxes to pay for those benefits. In order to currently fund this future liability, in addition to future payroll taxes and Medicare premiums, we would have to come up with tens of trillions of dollars today. Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) require private companies to book such future liabilities and to adequately pre-fund them. Not surprisingly, the federal government exempts itself from GAAP-type accounting. This is what politicians have promised you for voting for them. Now you know what it is going to cost you, especially you younger people, since many of the older generation and the vote-buying politicians of both parties responsible for this problem have retired or are about to retire. These are the extraordinary numbers at the bottom of the Debt Clock.

These horrible numbers were miniscule when I started college in 1970. If the older generation had burdened us with such a liability when I was young, there would have been a revolution. Yet this is exactly what my generation has done to our younger citizens. Still, the mainstream media generally yawns over this reality, and the younger generation, hopefully because they are simply uninformed, does the same. When Paul Ryan (Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential pick) tried to point these realities out to the public, his opponents put out a series of advertisements (they were actually pretty funny — check on YouTube) showing a Ryan look-a-like pushing Granny over a cliff for proposing Medicare reforms.

I watched a wonderful movie the other night on Netflix, “The Savage Innocents.”

It is an Anthony Quinn movie where Quinn plays an old-school Inuit Eskimo. Part of the movie involved the fact that when an old Inuit (in the movie, the mother-in-law) no longer was useful, the younger generation put them on an ice floe to die of hypothermia or to be eaten by a polar bear. If you older readers need an excuse to think about what I’m saying, think about this movie. My attitude: I wouldn’t blame the younger generation for doing the same to us for this immoral or, at best, ignorant thing we have done to our young people.

Mark Altieri is a professor in

the Department of Accounting.