The real deficit and how we came to it

Allan Sloan is a senior editor-at-large at Fortune

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Scott Jagow: Last week, the Bush Administration said the next White House will inherit a half a trillion dollar budget deficit. That would be a record.
But Fortune Magazine's Allan Sloan says unfortunately, that's not even close to the real deficit.

Allan Sloan: Well, the number the Bush people have put out is $482 billion, and people are going, "Huuhh!!" Or however you inhale. But the real number is significantly higher than that, the real deficit. In fact, it probably closes in on $900 billion. But it's only money and who's counting?

Jagow: Well, what would people say if it was $900 billion?

Sloan: Well, they'd say my god, it's 6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This is the number back in the 80's, in the early Reagan years, that shocked everybody and got Congress and Reagan and all of these people to put in a very large tax increase. And now, we're approaching that number and nobody seems to realize it other than me and one or two other people who're considered cranks -- like Senator Conrad of North Dakota.

Jagow: OK, so explain how you come up with $900 versus the $482 billion.

Sloan: All right, it's Washington math. So we start with 482, the stated number. We then add back $182 billion, which is the Social Security surplus, which reduces the stated deficit, but in theory this money's being set aside for you and me when we get to be old and even crankier than we are. Which makes it 664. Then, the government pays interest on its own securities to itself and its own trust funds, and that's about another $100 billion. Then there's $50-something billion for loans and loan guarantees. So you do all of this and you end up with Senator Conrad's number, which is 815. But he's being way too nice and way too conservative.

Jagow: So Allan, what do you propose we do about this?

Sloan: Well, I propose for starters that people in our profession -- your's and mine -- decide to use the real number instead of the stated number, people might actually listen. But right now, there's no pressure on the White House -- whoever happens to be in the White House -- to care about this. The people from Congress, for the most part, go their own way because there's nobody really in charge of the whole big financial picture. Maybe this will change with the next administration, but I sure wouldn't want to bet on it.

Jagow: All right, Allan Sloan from Fortune Magazine. Thank you.

Sloan: You're welcome, Scott.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...