Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Half-Full Faith and Credit - or Half-Empty?

I credit President Bush with seizing the "third rail" of American politics, and actually getting Social Security on the agenda. But can we really make progress on this issue if both sides keep making ridiculous arguments? The Democrats insist, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that everything is hunky-dory and there's nothing to worry about. Now, the President stoops to misguided political theatrics, posing next to a filing cabinet, telling us:

"There is no trust fund, just IOUs that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay," Bush said after inspecting the storage site. "Imagine - the retirement security for future generations is sitting in a filing cabinet."
What did the President think he would find? Some huge pile of C-notes stuffed under some gigantic federal mattress? Our entire economy is based on "IOUs" and other pieces of paper sitting in filing cabinets. Why, my husband and I have a good chunk of our retirement sitting in our filing cabinet. It's called the deed to our house. Just a piece of paper. As is the note held by our lender, worth a tidy sum in their opinion, but just an "IOU" sitting in a filing cabinet somewhere. And if we had private retirement accounts as the President would like us to have, would we have a pile of gold in Fort Knox with our name on it? Um, no. We would have a periodic paper statement informing us that the federal government is holding shares of some index mutual fund. In other words, more pieces of paper sitting in some filing cabinet (in some huge new filing cabinet complex that the government would have to build, probably in West Virginia, next door to the Social Security trust fund). And even that mutual fund itself will just be a paper thing, a promise that some stock certificates (more paper) sit in yet another filing cabinet (on Wall Street).

Indeed, even cash itself, those crisp green bank notes, are just paper promises representing faith in our economy. It seems truly bizarre for the President of the United States to be trivializing the full faith and credit of the United States. Just what does President Bush imagine that the Treasury is going to give to the people who are supposed to finance all the money he wants to borrow? Just an IOU. Fancy folks call them "bonds", and they have an expectation that the United States actually honors its bonds. Imagine.

1 comment:

KipEsquire said...

The point you're missing is that "full faith and credit" can, by definition, only apply between the government an entity that is not the government. In other words, the federal government can only extend "full faith and credit" to you, or a bank, or a pension fund, or a foreign investor, etc. The government extending "FF&C" to itself is utterly meaningless.

Yet that's what the "trust fund" is -- IOUs from the government to itself.

Compare: If you have a piggy bank full of IOUs from me, then you have meaningful assets. If you have a piggy bank full of IOUs from yourself, then you have nothing, regardless of how much "FF&C" you extend to yourself.

Or make it two spouses: If each spouse's "trust fund" consists of nothing but IOUs from the other spouse, then do they have any real assets? Is their retirement secure?