One of the most common ways in which financial institutions assess credit worthiness is by measuring a client’s net worth. In other words they add up all of their assets including guaranteed future incomes streams discounted to their current present value and compare this total to their liabilities which they then subtract from the first total to establish the net worth of the client. Now strictly speaking this ought not to apply to countries in the same way since countries that issue their own currency and have a central bank in their basement are very different from individuals. But let’s leave that huge difference aside for the moment.
Can we establish the net worth of the U.S. after performing a similar excercise to the one described above. In fact we can arrive at a roughly approximate statistic and the U.S. Office of Management of the Budget has done this on a regular basis for many years. Frances Cavenaugh in his excellent work The Truth about the National debt:5 myths and One Reality (Harvard Business School Press , 1996) includes a table on National Wealth drawn from the Office of management of the budget,Analytical Perspectives, Budget of the U.S. government, fiscal Year 1997 , p.24. which shows that the national wealth of the U.S. was 16.7 trillion dollars in 1960, 25.7 trillion in 1970, 40.2 trillion in 1980, 50.7 trillion in 1990 54.1 trillion in 1995. I have updated this data and calculated the net wealth of the U.S. after deducting net foreign claims on U.S. was 125.5 trillion in 2008. If we then deduct from this figure the total U.S. government debt in 2011 of 9.3 trillion less the foreign held portion we arrive at a figure that approximates net worth.
It is at least 118 trillion dollars. So the exaggerated concerns over the U.S. being on the verge of bankruptcy ought to be rethought. Furthermore as Cavenaugh points out(see chapter 2, Myth number One:The Debt burden on future generations) and I have argued for several decades in my various works on debt and deficit finance the notion of a debt burden somehow being transferred to future generations is a myth. Future generations do inherit the debt but they also inherit the assets built up by previous generations including the national wealth. So in reality future American generations inherit a net asset rather than a net burden.
Cavenaugh incidentally was for a number of years, senior economist responsible for debt management policy advice in the U.S. treasury and first executive director and CEO of the Federal retirement thrift Investment board.