A payment plan no better than Madoff’s

September 26, 2013

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. These 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 the United States avoid defaulting on its debt by paying interest and principal on its borrowings when they come due but not making other payments that it’s 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.

Not to 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 they come 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.

Sloan is Fortune magazine’s senior editor at large.

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