The U.S. Budget and 2037

In this well-produced video about the U.S. budget, U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan says “I asked the Congressional Budget Office to model the economy going forward, so they have these computer programs that simulate the U.S. economy; the computer program crashes in 2037 because it can’t conceive of any way in which the U.S. economy can continue because of this massive burden of debt.”

This may very well be true. But I’m wondering whether the simulator might be crashing, instead, because of the well-known 2038 problem, described in Wikipedia like this:

The year 2038 problem (also known as the Unix Millennium Bug, Y2K38, Y2.038K, or S2G by analogy to the Y2K problem) may cause some computer software to fail at some point near the year 2038. The problem affects all software and systems that both store system time as a signed 32-bit integer, and interpret this number as the number of seconds since 00:00:00 UTC on Thursday, 1 January 1970. The furthest time that can be represented this way is 03:14:07 UTC on Tuesday, 19 January 2038. Times beyond this moment will “wrap around” and be stored internally as a negative number, which these systems will interpret as a date in 1901 rather than 2038. This is caused by Integer overflow. The counter “runs out” of usable digits, “increments” the sign bit instead, and reports a maximally negative number (continuing to count up, towards zero). This will likely cause problems for users of these systems due to erroneous calculations.

I’ve no idea whether this is the case, but hearing “2037” and “crash” invoked in the video has got me wondering.


Oliver's picture
Oliver on April 19, 2011 - 10:02 Permalink

Very interesting. I bet you’re right—and I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul Ryan knows it either, politics being what it is.