Figuring out who's paying for what in high finance has become quite a challenge. Politicians here and in other countries talk as though money is free. We all know that cannot be true.
Many national governments, including ours, are borrowing huge amounts so they can keep spending huge amounts. The heavy borrowing is supposed to boost economic growth and make future taxpayers richer and better able to the cover debts being racked up today. But it's not working out exactly as planned.
There are plenty of excuses. President Obama recently blamed Europe. He said the economic trouble there is spilling over and slowing the U.S. recovery.
"We should not shift responsibility," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius responded. "We're all in the same boat."
Why are people, banks and countries that have borrowed and spent far too much in the same boat with those who have been more frugal?
Banks in Spain, for example, have made so many bad loans that they have run out of money. In order to keep lending, they need to be recapitalized, which is to say they need more cash to replace the euros they lost. Spain's budget minister is urging Europe's financial institutions to "open up" and be quick about it.
The money transfers are complex and are described in unhelpful phrases such as rescuing a feeble bank or unwinding a toxic asset. What's really happening is more dangerous than the political vocabulary suggests. Bill Wilson, head of an outspoken conservative group called Americans for Limited Government, explains:
"The only way governments can continue to spend at today's levels is through the printing press. Taxes are inadequate. Lending as we think of it in the conventional sense is insufficient. The system needs more money than is currently in existence."
So central banks are pressured to lend money no one previously had to keep the international economy going. And no one is accepting responsibility for the mounting debts and ultimate devaluing of money.
"Financial institutions are go-betweens for corrupt governments, which get to spend for any scheme, and for bankers, who profit along the road to national financial ruin," Wilson observes.
But there are bound to be losers. Even in the absence of inflation, the thrifty are being punished by low returns on their safe investments.
The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury fell to 1.58 percent last week. The Federal Reserve is considering trying to drive rates even lower by selling more short-term bonds and using the proceeds to buy longer-term bonds. The tactic is called Operation Twist.
Everyone is thinking of what will help the economy, the banks, taxpayers and consumers right now. Little is said about the longer term.
In trying to explain why the economy isn't growing fast enough to lower the unemployment rate, the former head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, spoke the other day of fear: "There is a fear of the future, and when you begin to try to disaggregate what's causing that you come up with probably 40 percent of it is the fact that the economy is sagging."
So the economy is sagging partly because people are worried that it's sagging.
In two weeks the Federal Reserve meets to try to consider ways to take the droop out of the financial indicators. The bankers should consider the danger of overstimulation.
A future that looks less promising than the present is the reality in Greece and Spain, where the unemployment rates are above 20 percent. We're not all in the same boat yet. A worthy goal of the Fed, the White House and Congress would be to keep it that way — by keeping the printing presses under control.