By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 11/18/2007 7:54:55 PM ET 2007-11-19T00:54:55

The recent slide in the value of the dollar has attracted a lot of attention from consumers who are worried about the impact on their buying power. If you’re paid in dollars and you’re buying products priced in dollars, so far the impact has been fairly mild. But others are getting hit a lot harder — especially Americans working and living abroad who are watching the dollar-denominated paycheck keep shrinking.

What can I do since I live overseas to help offset the dollar-euro rate? I have a good income and house paid for here but gradually buying power is being eroded, especially lately. My wife has her pension in euros, which helps a little, but mine is all in dollars. Do you see (the) dollar rebounding in future?
Howard W., Rota, Spain

If you’re paid in dollars and buying products priced in euros, you pretty much take a pay cut every time the dollar declines against the euro. And if the dollar remains weak, Americans working abroad are eventually going to go back to the employers and ask for a salary adjustment.

No one knows where the dollar is headed from here. Forecasting the future value of a currency is about as easy as forecasting long-term trends in interest rates — which is to say, it can’t be done reliably. To the extent that the dollar tends to reflect imbalances in global trade and differences in growth rates, and to the extent that these imbalances ultimately get “corrected,” the dollar can be expected to recover some of its lost value. No one knows when that might happen.

For those of us here at home, the impact of the falling dollar has been less apparent. Since much of what we buy in the U.S. is made overseas, a falling dollar raises the costs of goods produced abroad and priced in currencies that are gaining on the dollar. It’s also helped push up the price of global commodities with a fixed value — like crude oil and gold. With buyers around the world bidding for the next barrel or bar with currencies like the euro, it costs more dollars to buy that barrel or bar than it did before the dollar weakened. One place American consumers are getting a break is China. Because the value of the Chinese yuan is loosely pegged to the dollar, the cost of Chinese goods hasn’t risen as quickly as goods priced in currencies that float against the dollar.

If you’re worried about your retirement savings, you could move some of it to euro-based assets. But with the dollar down so far, you risk locking in your losses for good. (There are other dollar hedges, but they get pretty complicated and expensive for small investors.) Still, no matter where the dollar is headed, it’s not a bad idea to diversify at least some of your savings across borders these days anyway.

Keep in mind that some “American” companies that are so diversified globally that they are also benefiting from the dollar drop. When GE or Microsoft (both parents of msnbc.com) goes calling in a foreign country, the lower dollar helps them two ways. First, everything they sell is essentially "on sale" — because a stronger local currency buys more in dollar terms. And when U.S. companies bring home profits earned in foreign currencies, they get a big pop from the currency translation. This is already showing up in the profits reported by large U.S. multinationals (and other smaller players with big sales in foreign markets.) So if your retirement funds are holding stocks in these companies, they’re getting a boost from the dollar’s slide.

I'm 10th grader in the model UN and I was hoping you would be able to tell me exactly what percentage of last year's income tax went into education. The reason I ask is that, according to most of my resources, the illiteracy rate in the U.S. is ascending quickly, and I need to know how much money is going into the U.S. military and health care programs that most U.S. citizens can't afford to use (even though they're paying for it) instead of into education which has been in a steady decline in the past three decades without it being noticed.
Roberto, San Juan, Puerto Rico

The way the government accounts for money is not exactly the way you or I would. One big difference is that the government can borrow as much as it wants. Whenever it needs more, Congress just raises its own spending limit. (Don’t you wish you had a credit card that worked like that?)

So for decades, the government has spent more on stuff like military and health care programs than it collects in taxes. That’s not very good news for your generation: The money they borrow has to get paid back some day. So 10, 20 or 30 years from now, unless Congress stops doing this, the only way it’s going to pay the money back is by raising your taxes. Of course, most of the people who are making these decisions are pretty old, so they don’t have to worry about being around to clean up the mess.

There are a number of different sources of information on federal spending. Some people look at the budgets Congress and the White House come up with, but they can agree to spend money on something and then not spend it. So the place we like to look is on the Treasury’s Department web site. It’s their job, after all, to keep track of all that money. You find a summary of the last fiscal year on their Web site. You may notice that, unlike you and me, the government accountants start the year Oct. 1. Why? Some people think its because in the days when most of our economy was based on agriculture, the government needed to see how good that year’s crop was before deciding how much to tax and spend. (We'd love to hear from readers with other explanations.)

For a look at current levels of government spending, we usually refer to a document called the Monthly Treasury Statement (MTS) which tries to account for all the money that passes through the government — where it came from and where it went. It’s pretty detailed, but if you dive in, you’ll learn a lot. Don’t forget: The tables are usually talking about millions of dollars, so you have to add six zeros to each entry. (That may be another reason why Congress isn’t so worried about overspending: They make the numbers look smaller when they do the accounting.)

You may be disappointed when you see how the Education Department stacks up against the other spending categories. (I know I am.) If you want to see the breakdown of where the Education Department spends your taxes, check out Table 5, page 9 on this .pdf file.  

Keep in mind that most of the funding for local schools in the U.S. comes from state and local taxes, especially local property taxes. So the amount of federal taxes represents just a small portion of the total spending on education.

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