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.
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.
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.
The latest insider trading investigation is focusing on the new hub of Wall Street information: independent research networks that pay so-called experts for information on public companies.
What is it with Wall Street these days that it won't let a record stand for the usual amount of time? First, Marc Dreier gets one-upped by Bernie Madoff. Then, Bear Stearns gets bested by Lehman Brothers. And now the Galleon insider trading MOREDuff McDonald, Contributing Editor - Nov 22, 2010 11:49 AM ET
No, we're not talking about an overnight in federal lockup. These are Bernie's actual shoes, or at least his slippers.
The U.S. Marshal's Service next month will auction off more than 400 pieces of personal property from Bernie and Ruth Madoff, via both a live and online process. Among the available items:
A diamond engagement ring (10.54 carats!)
A Steinway & Sons grand piano (don't worry, bench is included)
One pair of velveteen slippers, MORE
The investment industry is still paying dearly for Bernie Madoff's crimes, and if SIPC is to be believed, there may be no end in sight.
Last week, an editor sent me out on what I thought was a fool's errand—a story that might engender sympathy for a Wall Streeter. The surprise answer: he was right.
The CEO of a relatively small broker-dealer had run into said editor and mentioned how angry he MOREDuff McDonald, Contributing Editor - Sep 22, 2010 1:46 PM ET
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