Here’s a surprisingly profound question: What is a promise? Dictionaries offer various definitions. I like this one: “An express assurance on which expectation is to be based.”

Image: Simon James via Flickr

That definition captures the two-sided nature of a promise. One party offers an assurance, which the other converts into an expectation. You deposit money in your checking account, and the bank assures you that you can have it back on demand. You expect that the bank will fulfill its promise when you visit an ATM.

Governments likewise make promises, but those are different. Government is the ultimate enforcer of promises, but we have no recourse if it chooses to break them – except at the ballot box. As we’ve seen in recent weeks regarding public pensions, that’s ineffective when the promises were made long ago by officials who are no longer in office.

The federal government’s keeping its promises is important for everyone in the US, because almost all of us are part of the largest public pension system: Social Security. We pay taxes our whole working lives and expect the government to give us retirement benefits. But what happens if it can’t?

Three weeks ago we visited the problems with local and state pensions. Last week we looked at European pensions. This week we are going to take a hard look at the unfunded liabilities and debt of the US government. And even though the federal unfunded pension liabilities dwarf those of state and local pensions, I want to make it clear that I believe the state and local problems will be far more intractable.

I have to warn you: You may be hopping mad when you finish reading this.