John Nagy | March 3, 2017
Jeff Burks ’97 is a man of no illusions, a quality we should all find attractive in our accountants — especially at tax time. Notre Dame’s Viola D. Hank associate professor of accountancy understands, for instance, that “accounting can be boring for the layperson.”
Maybe boredom explains why we’re not paying attention to what’s happening right now with Social Security and Medicare, the subject of a lunch-hour presentation Burks made on campus a few weeks ago. If so, it appears our indifference will cost us.
The bottom line: While most well-read Americans know that the United States’ national debt has rocketed above $19 trillion and appears headed for the exosphere, few of us understand what our collective indebtedness really means.
I’m among them. So, while pausing a moment with that burden of uneasy uncertainty, here’s something else Burks wants people like me to know: Unfunded obligations to our country’s two holiest and most frighteningly massive social welfare programs — the proverbial third-rails of our national politics — will cost us and our progeny an additional $47 trillion over the next 75 years.
Tack on another $3 trillion in underfunded state pensions, and that’s $69 trillion we Americans have collectively agreed to pay, both for goods we’ve already received — what we typically think of as “the national debt” — and for the provisions we’ve committed, through our “untouchable” social insurance laws, to making for our senior citizens.
A great big $69 trillion IOU to ourselves, you might say. Payable by our future earnings, whatever those might be.
Big deal, you say. After all, few people reading this will be around 75 years from now when, I hope, my children will be visiting and playing with their own grandchildren. But if we want our kids to look forward with any confidence to a long and healthy retirement, one protected from expensive illness and indigence by the same safety nets we regard as sacrosanct, Burks says we have some painful decisions to make. Like, now. Because that $69 trillion isn’t holding still, and it already amounts to a $500,000 “lifetime burden” in payroll taxes per U.S. household. Again, assuming we don’t want to sell ourselves and our posterity short.