Egads. Even the New York Times isn’t sure that the good times of endless government spending can go on forever. Peter Goodman writes in the Times:
Borrowing and spending beyond ordinary limits largely explains how Americans got into such economic trouble. For decades, businesses and consumers feasted relentlessly, as if gravity, arithmetic and the tyranny of debt had been defanged by financial engineering.
Armed with credit cards and belief in a bountiful future, Americans brought home ceaseless volumes of iPods and cashmere sweaters, and never mind their declining incomes and winnowing savings. Banks lent staggering sums of money to homeowners with dubious credit, convinced that real estate prices could only go up. Government spent as it saw fit, secure that foreigners could always be counted on to finance American debt.
So it may seem perverse that in this new era of reckoning — with consumers finally tapped out, government coffers lean and banks paralyzed by fear — many economists have concluded that the appropriate medicine is a fresh dose of the very course that delivered the disarray: Spend without limit. Print money today, fret about the consequences tomorrow. Otherwise, invite a loss of jobs and business failures that could cripple the nation for years.
Such thinking carries the moment as President-elect Barack Obama puts together plans to spend more than $700 billion on projects like building roads and classrooms to put people back to work. It is the philosophy behind the Federal Reserve‘s decision to drop interest rates near zero — meaning that banks can essentially borrow money for free — while lending directly to financial institutions. This is the mentality that has propelled the Treasury to promise up to $950 billion to aid Wall Street, Detroit and perhaps other recipients.
But where does all this money come from? And how can a country that got itself in peril by borrowing and spending without limit now borrow and spend its way back to safety?
In the case of the Fed, the money comes from its authority to print dollars from thin air. Since late August, the Fed has expanded its balance sheet from about $900 billion to more than $2.2 trillion, creating $1.3 trillion that did not exist to replace some of the trillions wiped out by falling house prices and vengeful stock markets. The Fed has taken troublesome assets off the hands of banks and simply credited them with having reserves they previously lacked.
In the case of the Treasury, the money comes from the same wellspring that has been financing American debt for decades: Investors in the United States and around the world — not least, the central banks of China, Japan and Saudi Arabia, which have parked national savings in the safety of American government bonds.
Americans have gotten accustomed to treating this well as bottomless, even as anxiety grows that it could one day run dry with potentially devastating consequences.
The value of outstanding American Treasury bills now reaches $10.6 trillion, a number sure to increase as dollars are spent building bridges, saving auto jobs and preventing the collapse of government-backed mortgage giants. Worry centers on the possibility that foreigners could come to doubt the American wherewithal to pay back such an extraordinary sum, prompting them to stop — or at least slow — their deposits of savings into the United States.
That could send the dollar plummeting, making imported goods more expensive for American consumers and businesses. It would force the Treasury to pay higher returns to find takers for its debt, increasing interest rates for home- and auto-buyers, for businesses and credit-card holders.
“We got into this mess to a considerable extent by overborrowing,” said Martin N. Baily, a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Now, we’re saying, â€˜Well, O.K., let’s just borrow a bunch more, and that will help us get out of this mess.’ It’s like a drunk who says, â€˜Give me a bottle of Scotch, and then I’ll be O.K. and I won’t have to drink anymore.’ Eventually, we have to get off this binge of borrowing.”