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Accounting Gimmicks Mask Underlying Reality for Decades
Misleading accounting used by the U.S. government, both in financial and economic reporting, far exceeds the scope of corporate accounting wrongdoing that has received partial credit for recent stock market turbulence. The bad boys of Corporate America, though, still were subject to significant regulatory oversights and the application of GAAP accounting to their books. In contrast, the government’s operations and economic reporting have been subject to oversight solely by Congress, America’s only "distinctly native criminal class."
Nearly four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson’s political sensitivities led him and the Congress to slough off some of the costs of an escalating Vietnam War through the use of accounting gimmicks. To mask the rapid growth in the federal government’s budget deficit, revenues from the surplus being generated by Social Security taxes were added into the general cash fund, without making any accounting allowance for the accompanying and increasing Social Security liabilities. This accounting-gimmicked reporting was dubbed "unified" budget accounting.
The government’s accounting then, as it is now, was on a cash basis, reflecting cash revenues versus cash expenditures. There were no accruals made for monies owed by or due to the government at some time in the future.
The bogus accounting understated the actual deficit for decades and even allowed for claims of budget surpluses in the years 1998 to 2001. While there were extensive self-congratulatory comments between the President, Congress and the Fed Chairman, at the time, all involved knew there never were any actual budget surpluses. There hasn’t been an actual balanced budget, let alone a surplus, since before Johnson and his cronies cooked the bookkeeping.
The doctored fiscal reporting complemented the short-term political interests of both major political parties. Additionally, the ignorance and/or complicity of Pollyannaish analysts on Wall Street and in the financial media-eager to discourage negative market activity-helped to keep the fiscal crisis from arousing significant concern among a dumbed-down U.S. populace.
U.S. Treasury Owns Up to a Financial Nightmare
In the mid-1970s, the then "Big Ten" accounting firms proposed setting up for the federal government an accrual accounting and reporting system similar to that used in the business community. Purchases of capital equipment, weapons and buildings would be booked as assets and depreciated, taxes receivable and accounts payable would better reflect near term cash needs. Accrued liabilities, such as Social Security payments due in the future, would reflect longer-term cash-flow needs.
As the project progressed, GAAP accounting was applied to the government’s operations and prototype annual statements were published beginning in 1974. The appropriate accounting for Social Security liabilities, however, was discarded during the Reagan administration as being politically untenable.
Under the eventual mandate of Congress, the accounting project culminated in the U.S. Treasury publishing its first formal Financial Report of the United States Government for fiscal year 2000, consistent with GAAP, except for Social Security and similar accounts such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Railroad Retirement Fund.
To the credit of the Bush administration, later reports, published in April 2003 and April 2004 for fiscal years 2002 and 2003, indicated for the first time since the 1980s what the Social Security and related numbers would look like if they were included in the accounting, just as corporations need to account for pension and retiree health benefit liabilities.
The gimmicked accounting standards, as established during the Johnson era, and as used today for official, unified budget reporting, show a 2003 deficit of $374.3 billion. Using GAAP reporting (without Social Security reporting), the official GAAP deficit for 2003 expands to $665.0 billion. Including accounting for Social Security and related areas, the 2003 deficit balloons to $3,702 billion, or $3.7 trillion. The accounting reflects no adjustment for the new, more expensive Medicare program.
As an aside, if you download a copy of the financial statements, the GAO’s auditor’s letter as to why they won’t certify the statements is an exposé of significant financial mismanagement within the federal government.