Unfunded Promises, by John Mauldin

Technically speaking, unfunded promises are not debt. However, governments have made a lot of unfunded promises, like Social Security and Medicare, and their recipients certainly regard them as a debt they are owed. From John Mauldin at mauldineconomics.com:

In describing the global debt train wreck these last few weeks, I’ve discovered a common problem. Many of us define “debt” way too narrowly.

A debt occurs when you receive something now in exchange for a promise to give something back later. It doesn’t have to be cash. If you borrow your neighbor’s lawn mower and promise to return it next Tuesday, that’s a kind of debt. You receive something (use of the lawn mower) and agree to repayment terms – in this case, your promise to return it on time and in working order.

One reason you try to get that lawnmower back on time and in the proper condition is that you might want to borrow it again in the future. In the same way that not paying your bank debt will make it difficult to get a bank loan in the future, not returning that lawnmower may make your neighbor a tad bit reluctant to lend it again.

Debt can be less specific, too. Maybe, while taking your family on a beach vacation, you notice a wedding taking place. Your 12-year-old daughter goes crazy about how romantic it is. In a moment of whimsy, you tell her you will pay for her tropical island beach wedding when she finds the right guy. That “debt,” made as a loving father to delight your daughter, gets seared into her brain. A decade later, she does find Mr. Right, and reminds you of your offer. Is it a legally enforceable debt? Probably not, but it’s at least a (now) moral obligation. You’ll either pay up or face unpleasant consequences. What is that, if not a debt?

These are small examples of “unfunded liabilities.” They’re non-specific and the other party may never demand payment… but they might. And if you haven’t prepared for that possibility, you may be in the same kind of trouble the US government will face in a few years.

Uncle Sam has made too many promises to too many people, with little regard for its future ability to fulfill them. These are debt. Worse, some of them are additional debt on top of the obligations we already see on the national balance sheet.

Even worse, entire generations have planned their retirement lives around the government fulfilling those promises. If those promises aren’t met, their lifestyles will indeed become a potential train wreck.

To continue reading: Unfunded Promises

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