So what's the real number? They are all real numbers. The differences between them is what you are looking at.
For instance, the deficit number accounts for how much money the government spent versus how much it took in, but not counting things like the Wars in Iraq and Afghansitan, or borrowing from Social Security. (OK, maybe this isn't a real number then.)
The national debt numbers account for all that, but doesn't account for promises of future payments.
The final number, the really big one, is what you would get if the government was actually run like a business.
"We're running deficits in the trillions of dollars, not the hundreds of billions of dollars we're being told," says Sheila Weinberg, chief executive of the Institute for Truth in Accounting of Chicago.
The reason for the discrepancy: Accounting standards require corporations and state governments to count new financial obligations, even if the payments will be made later. The federal government doesn't follow that rule.
OK. Nothing new here. You've probably heard this before. But what you probably haven't heard is that these phony numbers have real world consequences that we are already experiencing.
The government has been making changes to the way that consumer inflation is measured for nearly half a century now. The biggest change was made in 1983 when Reagan started using something called "Owner Equivalent Rent". It was critical in understating inflation.
As Robert Hardaway, a University of Denver professor, pointed out last fall, the subprime lending crisis "can be directly traced back to the (1983) BLS decision to exclude the price of housing from the CPI. ... With the illusion of low inflation inducing lenders to offer 6 percent loans, not only has speculation run rampant on the expectations of ever-rising home prices, but home buyers by the millions have been tricked into buying homes even though they only qualified for the teaser rates."
Of course it goes far beyond just inflation numbers. Look at unemployment numbers.
The trick to measuring unemployment is how not to count people. Slowly, gradually, the largest part of the workforce is becoming a memory.
And then there is the GDP. Until 1991 the government used Gross National Product as the measurement of economic growth in this country. Then they changed it to Gross Domestic Product, which used a much narrower measurement, and started using something called "imputs".
The GDP has been subject to many further fiddles, the most manipulatable of which are the adjustments made for the presumed starting up and ending of businesses (the "birth/death of businesses" equation) and the amounts that the Bureau of Economic Analysis "imputes" to nationwide personal income data (known as phantom income boosters, or imputations; for example, the imputed income from living in one's own home, or the benefit one receives from a free checking account, or the value of employer-paid health- and life-insurance premiums).
During 2007, imputed income accounted for some 15 percent of GDP.
So wait a second. How could this be happening without everyone noticing?
The answer is: it depends on what you are looking at.