Let’s face it — it’s common for presidential candidates to stretch the truth on the campaign trail. However, in 2016, the candidates have taken stretching the truth to an entirely new level. With the Iowa caucuses less than two months away, it’s time to expose the half-truths presidential candidates are saying day after day and week after week in debates, interviews and speeches.
We are exposing this information because, as an organization, Truth in Accounting is committed to educating and empowering citizens with understandable, reliable and transparent government financial information. We analyze federal government financial statements and share facts about our nation’s fiscal health so citizens, legislators and the press have complete financial information. If the candidates won’t hold one another accountable, we’ll have to help.
Three areas with the most outrageous claims by candidates involve the overall federal debt amount, Social Security and state finances. Some of this would be comical if the topics weren’t so serious. And most astonishingly, the half-truths and misleading facts happen equally among candidates from both parties.
First, looking at the federal debt, our research reveals the federal government is reporting $18.2 trillion in debt — most all of the candidates reference a figure close to this — but this number fails to include all liabilities, such as Social Security and Medicare, thereby making the reported figure inaccurate. When this debt is included, our national debt is over $82 trillion. However, no presidential candidate is acknowledging our country’s actual debt amount, which means they are hiding $64 trillion of debt from American voters.
Instead of following the rules used by corporations and taxpayers, the government uses its own rules. Citizens are required to report all debt — student loans, car loans, etc. — when applying for a loan or mortgage. Unfortunately, the government does not feel it needs to disclose all of its debt and does not account for long-term costs, which is misleading.
As an example, Hillary Clinton said the federal government had a balanced budget and a surplus under President Bill Clinton during the Democratic debate, implying that the same would happen under her leadership. Governor John Kasich uses similar language since he was in Washington, D.C. at the same time. However, our federal government did not have a balanced budget or a surplus under President Clinton when all costs, including growing Social Security obligations, are considered. To say we had a balanced budget in the 1990s is inaccurate when debt was increasing.
Second, turning to Social Security, Senator Bernie Sanders says Social Security has a $2.8 trillion surplus on his website. He also claims Social Security can pay every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 19 years. Similarly, the majority of the other candidates, in both parties, do not believe that Social Security is in immediate crisis and give the impression that contributions are saved away and will be available for a long time. All of this sounds nice, but unfortunately, is untrue.
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As of today, the federal government reports only $3 trillion of Social Security debt, but the correct Social Security debt is $27.9 trillion. For presidential candidates not to acknowledge the true amount of Social Security debt, or acknowledge the crisis, is irresponsible.
Third, making matters worse, the candidates are making misleading statements about state financials. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie claims he balanced an $11 billion deficit on a $29 billion budget. But neither of these statements is true when all expenses are considered, as they should be. Our most recent figures indicate that New Jersey has $160.8 billion financial hole. Governor Kasich makes similar statements and has been balancing Ohio’s budget, but the state still has a financial hole of $13.4 billion. These are not figures a governor should be proud of.
As a CPA with over 30 years experience, I find it troubling and irresponsible for presidential candidates to misrepresent the state of our country’s fiscal health. The next president needs to level with the American people as a first step toward making sound short and long-term financial decisions. If this doesn’t happen, we will leave our children and grandchildren massive amounts of debt, unpayable IOU’s, and an overall financial disaster. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the 2016 campaign be based on facts instead of half-truths when it comes to our finances?
• Sheila Weinberg is the Founder and CEO of Truth in Accounting and a Certified Public Accountant. More information: www.truthinaccounting.org