The public doesn’t know about these awesome liabilities because the totals appear only in actuarial estimates. As Chris Cox, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Bill Archer, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, the real annual accrued expense of Medicare and Social Security alone is $7 trillion. The government’s balance sheet does not include any of these unfunded obligations but focuses on the current year deficits and the accumulated national debt. Cox and Archer reported that the annual budget deficit is only about one fifth of the more accurate figure.

If the American public saw our financial statements in the same way that public companies report their pension liabilities, it would clearly see the magnitude of danger represented by the future borrowings that these liabilities to an aging population imply—borrowing on a scale that would not only bankrupt the programs themselves but the entire federal government. And to a worrying extent, we are locked into continued escalation by the fact that social insurance programs, as well as other mandatory programs, carry payments that are in accordance with automatic formulas written into law and are not subject to an annual spending limit. Today, less than 40 percent of our budget is actually decided by Congress and the president, down from 62 percent 40 years ago.

If we continue in these irresponsible ways, an eventual reckoning cannot be avoided.