Counting the Ways: The Structure of Federal Spending

43 Pages Posted: 8 May 2007

Date Written: March 2007


Public discussion of federal fiscal policy typically focuses on several familiar metrics of performance, including the total deficit, the level of public debt and percentage of federal spending committed to mandatory spending and net interest payments. While useful, these measures are based on accounting conventions developed years ago, and do not capture many of the ways in which the federal government now commits public resources, including obligated budget authority, guarantees associated with various government insurance programs, retirement benefits for federal workers and military personnel, and - most substantially - federal social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Collectively these programs and activities represent substantial and largely overlooked current commitments of future federal resources. After reviewing current measures of fiscal performance, the article presents several alternative ways to quantify federal financial performance over the first half of this decade utilizing more comprehensive measures of mounting federal financial obligations. So, for example, while the commonly reported total deficit of the federal government in FY2005 was $318 billion, a more comprehensive measure of fiscal results over the course of the same year would have shown a deterioration in the country's net financial position in excess of $3.3 trillion - that is, an order of magnitude larger. To promote more informed debate and encourage more responsible public leadership, the more comprehensive measures of fiscal performance described in this article should be adopted as the primary metrics for reporting the financial performance of the federal government. (US, Canada).

JEL Classification: E62, H5, H6, K0, M4

Suggested Citation

Jackson, Howell Edmunds, Counting the Ways: The Structure of Federal Spending (March 2007). Harvard Law and Economics Discussion Paper No. 583. Available at SSRN: or

Howell Edmunds Jackson (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

Griswald 402
1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-5466 (Phone)
617-495-5156 (Fax)

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