Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Promissory Promises...

Most of the time, whenever my old buddy Stinky Wilmont and I got into trouble back at Millville Grade School, we ended up down in Principal Baker's office. And most of the time, Mr. Baker would call us in one at a time, probably counting on the intimidation factor to garner an apology from us. It usually worked, and each of us ended up promising that both of us would do better from then on.

I learned a lot about promises back at Millville. The first thing I learned was that sometimes it's easier to make a promise than it is to keep it. The second thing I learned was it's hard to make a promise for another person. Stinky didn't always share my convictions. In fact, often times he didn't even share my intentions.

Since my learning experience with Stinky, I've become a little more careful about the promises I make. I've found I'm the one that has to keep my own promises. I know nobody else is bound to keep mine, and unless I agree otherwise, I'm not bound to keep anyone else's.

I think every once in a while politicians run into the same situation. It's a lot easier to make a promise during a campaign than it is to make good on it after the election. Especially if delivering on a promise requires the cooperation of someone who didn't make the same promise that you made. I think President Obama is finding that out right now. I suppose most elected officials find that out at some time or another.

Unfortunately, that doesn't keep them from making promises, especially if they think they can get someone else to keep them. Politicians out in California have promised state employees that if they work for 30 years, they can retire at age 50 and draw 90% of their salary for the rest of their lives. Even if it's another 50 years.

Politicians in New Jersey promise, according to Governor Christie, that a state employee can retire at age 49, and qualify for $3.8 million in pension payments and health care benefits over the course of his retirement. And again, it's a lot easier for politicians to make these promises knowing that they aren't the people who will have to keep them. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the workers and their employer were putting the money aside to cover those retirements. But that's not how that works. According to Chris Edwards over at the Cato Institute, a recent study found that local and state public employee retirement accounts across the country are underfunded and over promised by $3.2 trillion.

That means a lot of the people who will be paying that state worker's $3.8 million retirement haven't even entered the work force yet. A lot more of them haven't even been born yet. Some of their parents haven't even been born yet.

Our federal government's official debt is approaching $14 trillion. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the debt, including unfunded liabilities, is closer to $60 trillion, and every time the government takes on more debt, our elected officials promise that someone will pay that debt. But not them.

Thomas Jefferson warned that "It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes." Good advice, I think. And by all rights, every generation ought to keep its own promises.

Just in case the next generation decides not to.

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