Debts, Deficits, and Social Security: Once Again

There are a couple of easy ways to check out current Federal Public Debt to the dollar or even the penny. One you could check out the National Debt Clock which also is conveniently mirrored (in simplified form) in Times Square. In the top left you will find the number for ‘US National Debt’ at $17.1 trillion and counting. If you wanted to cross check that number via official sources you could check the Treasury’s Debt to the Penny website which is updated at the end of the previous business day. This would also show a ‘Total Public Debt Outstanding’ as of the close of business Friday of that same $17.1 trillion. This also is within rounding error the same figure that makes up ‘US Debt Subject to the Limit’. Which is to say if anyone asks anyone with any amount of knowledge what is the total amount of Federal Debt as of today the universal answer is “$17.1 trillion”.

Now if we return to the Treasury version of this we see that ‘Total Public Debt Outstanding’ is simply the sum of two other numbers: ‘Debt Held by the Public’ and ‘Intragovernmental Holdings’. And if you clicked the explanatory link on ‘Intragovernmental Holdings’ you would find that it consisted of a variety of funds and predominantly ones classified as ‘Federal Trust Funds’. And a little further digging would show that the plurality of the $4.9 trillion in ‘Intragovernmental Holdings’ consisted on the $2.8 trillion in the Social Security Trust Funds.

Alright, simple enough. But complications under the fold.
A nifty feature of the Treasury’s Debt to the Penny web tool is that it lets you test for past dates. Now there are some limits as follows:

The data on total public debt outstanding is available daily from 01/04/1993 through 11/07/2013. The debt held by the public versus intragovernmental holdings data is available:

Yearly (on a fiscal basis) from 09/30/1997 through 09/30/2001.
Monthly from 09/30/2001 through 03/31/2005
Daily from 03/31/2005 through 11/07/2013

Now as most of us know the U.S. government has run budget deficits in almost all years for decades. But there was a brief exceptional period in the late 90’s when the top line figure for the federal budget showed a surplus on a combined basis between ‘on budget’ and ‘off budget’ surplus/deficits. Moreover in FY 1999 we saw surpluses in both the General Fund and in Off Budget Funds, which latter primarily consisted of increases in assets to the Social Security Trust Funds. Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that surpluses on both the General Fund and Off Budget/Social Security sides should result in a reduced number for ‘Total Public Debt Outstanding’ and we could easily confirm that by entering the dates for the last day of FY 1998 and FY 1999 into the ‘Debt to the Penny Website’. Please be my guest.

OOps when I did it I got the following results:
September 30, 1998 $5,526,193,008,897.62
September 30, 1999 $5,656,270,901,633.43
with both numbers cut and pasted from the web-site.

Yes indeed. In FY 1999 the General Fund ran a surplus, and Social Security ran a surplus, and the combined figure for THE Federal deficit/surplus was a surplus. Yet ‘Total Public Debt Outstanding’ went UP by $130 billion. And the explanation is actually pretty easy. But so too is the following conclusion:

Public Debt is NOT the Sum of Federal Deficits. The two figures track but are NOT identical. Which has implications for the debate over Social Security. Because certain debt and deficit numbers just don’t move in the ways that ‘simple’ logic would have it. And so too certain proposals to move those numbers by programmatic cuts.