I've been pretty fed up with the combined favoritism and outright stupidity in the financial system these days. This has led me to guess that any exchange involving a promise from a large, old (and therefore probably protected at all costs by our Overlords in Washington) corporation is going to, less and less often, be treated as something they have to *sigh* actually honor. With Sears and K-Mart reinstituting layaway (in which you make installment payments and then, after the last, receive the product), I figured this would be just another promise you can't trust anymore.
Well, a former happy customer of layaway services, calling herself "Princess of Swords", didn't seem to notice this trend and so disputed my prediction in a discussion on a Megan McArdle post. (UPDATE: previous link was to the wrong site.) Here, I post my response, in which you'll start to understand the basis for my pessimism:
Princess_of_Swords: Thanks for taking the time to detail your experience with the intricacies and standard practices prevailing with respect to layaway at the time you availed yourself of it.
Now I'm going to explain to you how it works in the real world.
In the real world, an obligation no longer means anything.
-GM was obligated to pay pensions. They didn't even bother to internally classify them on the same level as a bond, until forced to by law.
-Insurance companies are obligated to pay when disaster strikes. They fight as hard as they can to avoid paying, even for plain vanilla cases.
-Individual consumers buy things on credit, deferring the first payment for a long while. They are routinely caught not having saved for that big first payment.
-Securities brokers engage in naked short-selling of stocks, which obligates them to produce actual ownership of that stock at a later date. Yet as we've seen recently, they've ended up flooding the market with fake stocks and then casually aver that they "can't locate your stocks" and offer to reverse your purchase as if it were no big deal.
-Gift card issuers are unilaterally stealing money from gift card owners on the grounds that "they need it" because they're in financial trouble, despite having obligated themselves to treat the gift cards as equivalent to cash.
-AIG got a massive bailout from the Fed, but, we were assured, they would be obligated to pay a hefty penalty interest rate and start immediately and orderly unwinding their enterprise. Well, the Fed went back and cut their payments in exchange for nothing, thus debasing the Fed's assets (and thus the dollar). And AIG has done virtually nothing to liquidate its assets.
You get the point. I just don't care how you think things used to work back then. We are in a new world, where only us responsible commoners have to keep our word.