According to Bloomberg, the "Fiscal Gap" is the true measure of debt. The gap "is the present value difference between projected future spending and revenue. It captures all government liabilities, whether they are official obligations to service Treasury bonds or unofficial commitments, such as paying for food stamps or buying drones."
The U.S. fiscal gap, calculated (by us) using the Congressional Budget Office's realistic long-term budget forecast -- the Alternative Fiscal Scenario -- is now $222 trillion. Last year, it was $211 trillion. The $11 trillion difference -- this year's true federal deficit -- is 10 times larger than the official deficit and roughly as large as the entire stock of official debt in public hands.
This fantastic and dangerous growth in the fiscal gap is not new. In 2003 and 2004, the economists Alan Auerbach and William Gale extended the CBO's short-term forecast and measured fiscal gaps of $60 trillion and $86 trillion, respectively. In 2007, the first year the CBO produced the Alternative Fiscal Scenario, the gap, by our reckoning, stood at $175 trillion. By 2009, when the CBO began reporting the AFS annually, the gap was $184 trillion. In 2010, it was $202 trillion, followed by $211 trillion in 2011 and $222 trillion in 2012.
Part of the fiscal gap's growth reflects changes in policy, such as the Bush and Obama tax cuts, the introduction of Medicare Part D, and the expansion of defense spending. Part reflects "natural" growth of existing programs, including growth in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. And part reflects the demographic time bomb U.S. politicians are blithely ignoring.
When fully retired, 78 million baby boomers will collect, on average, more than 85 percent of per-capita gross domestic product ($40,000 in today's dollars) in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. Each passing year brings these outlays one year closer, which raises their present value.
Governments, like households, can't indefinitely spend beyond their means. They have to satisfy what economists call their "intertemporal budget constraint." The fiscal gap simply measures the extent to which this constraint is violated and tells us what is needed to balance the government's intertemporal budget.
Actually, maybe not. Meaningful Medicare and Social Security reform could whack that gap down a bit. Getting a handle on other entitlements would help also.
The important thing is to reverse the trend. And that can be done if we can find the political will to do it.