Whom Do You Trust?

The grammatically correct question, “Whom do you trust?” is the crucial question in life. It is a deeply religious question. Trust is an inescapable concept. We have to trust something, even if this is only our own good judgment. It is never a question of trust vs. no trust. It’s a question of what or whom to trust. In its most significant forms, trust involves vows: marriage, citizenship, and church membership.

Johnny Carson’s first big break on national television was an ABC daytime game show, “Who Do You Trust?” He took over from Edgar Bergen in 1957 and hosted the show until he took over “The Tonight Show” from Jack Paar in 1962. “Who Do You Trust?” became very popular. Like a lounge show performer in Las Vegas, Carson had to make a choice: continue hosting a lucrative daytime program with a familiar format or accept the uncertainty of moving to the big time, where he might fall flat.

Carson had to choose. He had to exercise trust. Did he trust his own talents? Did he trust the talk show format? Would “The Tonight Show” be a career stepping stone, as Steve Allen had regarded it, or a final career move, as Jack Paar had regarded it? He made the right choice, and he took Ed McMahon with him.

Television is strewn with failed careers of performers who made the wrong choice. Shelly Long quit “Cheers,” for which Kirstie Alley is grateful. Denise Crosby quit “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” for which Michael Dorn is grateful. There is great uncertainty in life. Other than death, taxes, and re-runs of “I Love Lucy,” nothing is certain.


The only song I really liked on the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” album was “When I’m Sixty-Four.” I was 26 at the time I bought the album in 1968. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” I don’t think I have listened to that album once since 1970, but those lyrics have stayed with me. Soon I will be 63. Lennon didn’t make it to 64. Neither did Harrison. If Ringo hadn’t joined AA, he might not have made it, either.

There is a question sociologists ask in order to determine the degree of loyalty: “Who would you be willing to take care of permanently without being paid, or pay to have cared for permanently?” They find that almost no one is willing to care for anyone who is not a member of the immediate family. Basically, the person doing the caring must be next of kin of the cared for.

The nuclear family has restricted the number of people with access to “the circle of care.” Part of this development is cultural. Extended families have not survived the effects of urbanization and mobility. But a large part of this transformation in my day has been political: the substitution of Social Security and Medicare for family responsibility.

In certain non-urban subcultures in the United States, the older pattern of family responsibility long resisted the corrosive effects of the welfare State — even, amazingly, inside the original social laboratories of the American welfare State: Indian reservations.

Over five decades ago, my father-in-law was a Presbyterian missionary to the Western Shoshone tribe in the Idaho-Nevada border region. My wife was born on the reservation. Years later, he made this observation regarding the family structure of Indians in his region.

Among the Paiute and Shoshone Indians of the 1940s and early 1950s, when I was a missionary among them, there were no homeless children, even though in more than a few cases both parents had died. The children were taken into the homes of relatives, or sometimes neighbors, and, despite the fact that this meant a family of eight or ten in a small cabin, no one was unhappy. Indian society was exercising a function not yet seized by the state.

He went on to cite from a detailed 1975 report on rural black families in Alabama. The same phenomenon existed. Very few black rural children were put up for adoption. (R. J. Rudshdoony, Law and Society [1982], pp. 232—33)

In urban areas, the emotional links bonding family members have weakened dramatically since the end of World War II. Part of this has to do with geographical mobility, a uniquely American cultural phenomenon, one based on free or very cheap land. Children do not merely move out; they move on. The automobile, the highway system, and the advent of federally insured home loans in the 1930s have accelerated this early American tradition.

Even more important, the expansion of promised old age care by the State has reduced the level of commitment from adult children to parents. This is reflected in the savings rate. American families do not save for a day when aged parents will move in with them. Yet throughout most human history, and in rural societies today, it has been assumed that aged parents will eventually become an economic burden on adult sons.

We can see where most people place their trust regarding care in their old age: the State. They say, “We don’t want to become a burden on our children.” But this necessarily means they will probably become a burden on other people’s children: taxpaying workers. They are willing to do this. Worse; they insist on doing this. This has moved the issue of old age care from the family to politics. What was always seen as a right of parents, meaning a duty of sons, has become an entitlement: a legal claim on the output of strangers. It has transformed a form of family responsibility based on love and mutual obligation into a matter to be solved by political conflict.


For generations, parents have trusted sons to care for them. If a son was a wastrel, they might hesitate to trust in his ability to care for them, but generally, parents have trusted their children. Society reinforced this trust by placing informal but effective sanctions on children who broke faith with parents by abandoning them.

Today, parents don’t trust their children as primary care-suppliers. They trust politicians instead. The trust that naturally extends from parents to children has been replaced by trust that also extends to politicians. Voters say that they don’t trust politicians, but they are not telling the truth. Family budgets indicate the extent to which voters really do trust politicians. A national personal savings rate of under 1% of disposable income indicates the degree of this trust.

Voters trust politicians. In major issues, where politicians commit the wealth, safety, and even survival of the social order to a particular policy, voters cannot easily be swayed from their faith prior to a disaster. Consider war. It is correctly said that the first casualty of war is truth. During wartime, dissidents are ostracized and even imprisoned. News media are fed lies by the government, which are dutifully passed on to the public. This process is so familiar that every society revises its wartime news accounts after the hostilities cease. Nevertheless, the day the shooting starts, governments, media, and voters conclude, “This time, it’s different.”

It never is.

People trust political representatives to act wisely behalf of the general public. But wisdom is not a zero-price good. Neither is self-sacrifice. Voters should know better than to trust without verifying. But they rarely verify the promises politicians make. The bigger the promise, the more likely that the promising agent will be trusted. A big promise makes voters dependent. Once the voters act in terms of what has been promised, and thereby become dependent on the system, they are unwilling to examine the economics of the promise. To discover that the promise will not come true is to force a revision of long-term plans. Such revisions are expensive. Economics teaches: “The higher the price, the less demanded.”

Today, the voters in every industrial country trust the politicians, who assure them that their future retirement payments and tax-funded medical care are not threatened. Governments put together a blue-ribbon commission, which then releases a report affirming the long-term solvency of the program, “if we act now to make minor revisions in the program.” Then the report is shelved, and no action is taken to revise the program — except perhaps to offer even more promises, all unfunded. This goes on every decade.

President Bush is promoting a revision of Social Security, in which younger workers will be given the option of paying some of their compulsory retirement money into private capital markets. This will supposedly fund a portion of their retirement by means of future output and capital gains. The problem is, the President is unwilling to discuss this obvious statistical question: “How can the money that will go into workers’ individual, private investment programs be used to pay off existing retirees?”

The system is pay-as-you-go, meaning that it is unfunded. Congress spends every dime that is left over after existing retirees are paid each month. If younger workers are allowed to opt out of the existing pay-as-you-go program, who will make up the shortfall?

Nobody with any political power acknowledges the existence of the question, let alone suggests an answer.

The White House’s website offers this reassurance:

Establishing personal accounts does not add to the total costs that Social Security faces. The obligation to pay Social Security benefits is already there. While personal accounts affect the timing of these costs, they do not add to the total amount obligated through Social Security. In fact, every plan scored by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that contains personal accounts would reduce the costs of permanently fixing the system.

Assertion: “Establishing personal accounts does not add to the total costs that Social Security faces.” Quite true. Unfortunately for would-be recipients, establishing personal accounts will affect the revenues flowing into the system. It will lower them. Money that goes into investments can’t be used to pay off granny.

Assertion: “In fact, every plan scored by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that contains personal accounts would reduce the costs of permanently fixing the system.” Reduce costs by how much? Will these costs fall as fast and as far as revenues will fall? Let’s see the figures, guys.

These statistical issues are not dealt with by the White House’s web site. That’s because they are ultimately the single issue of taxation. Who will pay? Who will make up the shortfall? Identify the targeted group, and you create a highly motivated political pressure group. A group large enough to make up the shortfall is large enough to be a major swing bloc at the next election.

In other words,

Don’t tax you.Don’t tax me.Tax the guy behind the tree.

I don’t think President Bush will get his reform passed by Congress. People still trust the government. They still think that the system is solvent, at least until they die. That’s all they care about: outlasting the system. If they cared about the gun in the belly of every voter, they would not vote for any politician who refused to shut down the system. In fact, they vote against any politician who says the system should be shut down.

Bush says that some of the money will go into private investment markets, meaning government-approved markets. The best I can say for that idea is that it will keep Congress’s hands off the money. If a thug sticks a gun in your belly and tells you to fork over your money, you might as well let his accomplices have their share for investment purposes on your (and their) behalf rather than fund boondoggles that will never pay off.

The vast majority of voters around the world are unaware of any of this. They do not understand such statistical concepts as amortization. They do not understand that a retirement program or a pension is an annuity. They really don’t care. They do not understand what most families have understood from the dawn of time: sons who support their parents then inherit their parents’ capital at the death of the parents. The family annuity is in part a capital-preservation program. Assets that survive the death of the parents become the property of the heirs.


An annuity is different. It ends with the death of the annuitant/owner. There is no inheritance. It’s pure capital consumption. It’s based on statistics: the initial contribution, the investments’ rate of return, and life expectancy. It’s a consumption program. The buyer bets that he will beat the mortality table.

A typical pension is an annuity. It ends with the death of the retired worker or his spouse. There is no inheritance.

A family whose sole retirement asset is a pension or an annuity has disinherited the next generation. We don’t talk of these investments as programs of deliberate disinheritance, but that is what they are. Of course, if the income is supplemental to a person’s earned income because the person refuses to retire, then the annuity income can be used to accumulate an inheritance. But the short time available for compounding minimizes its importance to the heirs.

Social Security is a compulsory, unfunded annuity program. Its lack of funding would make it illegal if it weren’t a government program. It is funded by future taxes. It is therefore an exercise in political trust. The problem is, the program’s Trust Fund is nothing but unmarketable government bonds: IOUs from known liars, who publicly refuse to face statistical reality.

Who do you trust?


I got a letter from Social Security. It let me know how much I have coming to me. I can retire early. That will cost me $6,000 a year in lost income. Or I can wait three years and collect the full amount. If I still decide to defer signing up, they will pay me 7% more annually for each year that I delay. In a decade, that would almost double my monthly income, assuming they don’t inflate the dollar.

I don’t assume that.

If the Federal Reserve inflates, then cost of living adjustments (COLA) will raise the payment. But if the government declares price and wage controls, the way Nixon did in 1971, then COLAs freeze. Shortages begin, just as they did, 1971—73.

So, from a strictly actuarial standpoint, I should calculate what is best for me. My parents are still alive. My grandfathers died at 81. My grandmothers survived to 83. I have taken care of myself. I am in good health. So, I figure I’ll beat the actuarial table.

My wife will get some money — $500/month — when she turns 67. That’s over a decade away.

I look at the promised income, and I ask myself: “What can I do with the money that will hedge against inflation?” Here is my answer: buy income-producing real estate. Use the income from Social Security to pay the mortgage, insurance, and taxes. Then I can raise rents if rents increase locally. The nominal value of the property will rise. I may even make post-inflation capital gains.

The point is, I can use the flow of money to repay debt — a perfectly legal use of money. It is also a sound economic use of money, if the debt is amortized by the renters’ payments. I must secure special debt: long-term, fixed interest rate, and collateralized 100% by the property. This is the Schaub approach to real estate.


Trust, once committed, is hard to abandon. He who has committed his trust doesn’t want to admit to himself that he has made a mistake. The bigger the mistake, the less likely he is to admit that he was such a fool.

I used to think that people learn from their mistakes. In private matters, they may if the price of remaining blind is high enough, but when it comes to trust in the State, I find that voters make the same mistakes over and over, generation after generation.

In every war, politicians tell voters that “defeat is not an option.” Yet all wars end either in defeat for one side or a compromise that was not acceptable to either side when the war began. Won’t voters finally figure out that defeat is always an option? Apparently not.

Voters may not learn from mistakes, but they do have to pay for them. When the mistake-maker is the government, there is no agency large enough to pass on the bills to when they come due.

That’s why you had better be preparing for two mistakes: (1) bills that come due, contrary to official assurances to the contrary; (2) political attempts to identify you as one of the guys behind the tree.

January 29, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit

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