Term Sheet

The latest on private equity, M&A, deals and movements — from Wall Street to Silicon Valley

Uncle Sam? More like Uncle Bernie if one group gets its way

September 27, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

A plan that could stiff Social Security recipients to pay down U.S. debt isn't just stupid. It's downright Madoffian.

bernie-madoff

FORTUNE -- Do you think it would be a good idea for the federal government to act like Bernie Madoff? To take money from people for decades, only to say, "Sorry, I'm out of cash," when it comes time to pay them what they're owed?

It's hard to imagine anyone who would think that this is a good idea. However, it's exactly what's being proposed by people I'll call extremists, in order to be polite. The folks think that it's a great idea to not raise the government's debt ceiling. The wrinkle some of them are proposing this time is that we can have our country avoid defaulting on its debt by paying interest and principal on its borrowings when they come due, but not making other payments that the government is supposed to make.

MORE: Wall Street is ignoring Washington, finally!

I've seen a lot of stupid things in Washington, but this proposal is absolutely the stupidest. Not to mention the most immoral.

Why? In two words, "Social Security."

Social Security is an earned benefit. Beneficiaries (including my wife and me) have paid serious money in Social Security taxes for decades and decades, in return for the promise of benefits when we qualify for them. Unless Congress has the nerve to modify what current Social Security recipients are supposed to get -- fat chance of that happening! -- not making Social Security payments when they're due would be defaulting on a governmental promise to pay.

I won't even mention the fact that for many Social Security beneficiaries who live hand-to-mouth, not getting a check would be catastrophic. Even having a check delayed a month or so would be a huge problem for them. And remember, these are people who paid for their Social Security benefits, which are entitlements but aren't welfare.

You can make the same argument when it comes to government pensions. To not pay pensioners what they've earned from decades of labor is as much a default as not paying interest and principal to creditors when it comes due.

I have no idea if it's logistically possible for the government to make its debt payments but to avoid making other payments. But even if it's possible, it's a truly terrible idea.

MORE: Where are the cries from the ratings agencies?

Defaulting on our country's debt is repellant to me, and ought to be repellant to you. And defaulting on earned obligations such as Social Security and pensions, which are earned benefits, is equally repellant.

You'll notice that I'm not talking about the hideous impact an outright default on our nation's debt would have, or the horrible consequences of the government stiffing hospitals, military suppliers, and regular old vendors that have provided services to Uncle Sam and borrowed against the payments they are entitled to. That's because these topics have been so thoroughly discussed I have nothing to add.

But defaulting on obligations to Social Security recipients, pensioners, and others who have earned their benefits? That, my friends, would truly be a Madoff moment.

Join the Conversation
About This Author
Allan Sloan
Allan Sloan
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Allan Sloan, who has been writing about business for more than 40 years, joined Fortune in July of 2007. Before that, he was the Wall Street editor for Newsweek for 12 years. His work also appears in The Washington Post. Allan is a seven-time winner of the Loeb Award, business journalism's highest honor, receiving awards in four different categories for five different employers. He is a graduate of Brooklyn College and has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He and his wife live in New Jersey. They have three grown children.

Email Allan
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.