Monetary theory is beyond the understanding of most of us. The “quantity equation,” the plasticity of V, the difference between M1 and M2 — it all sounds like so much mumbo jumbo uttered by witch doctors. But monetary reality is what really counts. And you can learn most of what you need to know about that — easily, but not cheaply — just by taking a trip to Europe. There, the fact that the Euro is worth 40 percent more than the once almighty dollar hits you with wonderful force. If the dinner check is for 100 Euro, your actual cost is $140. Instantly, you experience an un-American sense of inferiority.
When we first went to Italy some 20 years ago, the dollar was worth 1,600 lire. Having a wallet stuffed with 100,000 lire notes gave you the illusion of being a millionaire. You felt as if you could buy up the entire country. At first, when the Euro replaced the lira, it was worth considerably less than the dollar. In a few short years, our fortunes have changed. In terms of money at least, Europeans have become richer than Americans.
The reasons are complicated and Europe has problems of its own. But the bottom line is that we’ve done a worse job of managing our finances. The chief culprits for our monetary decline are excessive spending and borrowing — by our government and us. Americans have faced the financial debacle by saving more and spending less, habits that our government hasn’t yet learned.
The government is dealing with its spiraling debt in the time-honored way: by printing money so that it can pay back its debts with cheaper dollars. But the day of reckoning approaches when countries such as China decide we’re deadbeats and stop lending to us. Meanwhile, reckless monetary policy is debasing the value of what we earn and save. This program, which provokes inflation and erodes wealth, is precisely what Lenin proposed as the way to destroy capitalism.
We may vainly think we’re in charge of our destiny and that a change of politicians will restore the supremacy we feel entitled to. But the future is not entirely in our hands. Americans had it easy after World War II when our economic competitors were in ruins. Success fed the illusion that we were smarter. The rise of competition from former peasant societies and the failure of giants such as General Motors shattered that illusion.
Since the war, 2 billion new workers have left their villages and joined the global labor force, eager to work without health insurance, pensions and at a fraction of what American workers demand. How could that fail to drive our wages down? Unless we’re more innovative and productive, our standard of living must also go down.
The ironies are overwhelming and a little galling. Today, foreign tourists flock to the United States — because it’s so cheap. Some deride us as a Third World country. The credit of the United States is tarnished. When we arrived home at the Charlotte airport, a young man in the men’s room was handing out paper towels for tips. It’s hard to square his vocation with the American Dream.
Will our grandchildren end up flipping burgers and sweeping streets in Beijing? Will the day come when we have to push wheelbarrows filled with worthless greenbacks to the store to buy a loaf of bread?
But perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. One of the first things I noticed when we returned was how enormous we Americans are, at least in comparison to Italians. Though not exactly emaciated, most of them are built according to Jack Spratt specifications. This may be due to the fact that they don’t subsist on 48-ounce Big Gulps, Twinkies and 6,000-calorie triple cheese burgers.
But Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand may be at work here, bringing about a mysterious kind of parity. I leave this to the economic number crunchers, but my hunch is that we outweigh Europeans by exactly the same factor as their currency outweighs ours. The average European bank account may be 40 percent larger, but in avoirdupois terms of wealth, when we step on the scales, they’re the lightweights, we’re the fat cats.