Republicans, Zealots and Our Security
IF China or Iran threatened our national credit rating and tried to drive up our interest rates, or if they sought to damage our education system, we would erupt in outrage.
We tend to think of national security narrowly as the risk of a military or terrorist attack. But national security is about protecting our people and our national strength — and the blunt truth is that the biggest threat to America’s national security this summer doesn’t come from China, Iran or any other foreign power. It comes from budget machinations, and budget maniacs, at home.
House Republicans start from a legitimate concern about rising long-term debt. Politicians are usually focused only on short-term issues, so it would be commendable to see the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party seriously focused on containing long-term debt. But on this issue, many House Republicans aren’t serious, they’re just obsessive in a destructive way. The upshot is that in their effort to protect the American economy from debt, some of them are willing to drag it over the cliff of default.
It is not exactly true that this would be our first default. We defaulted in 1790. By some definitions, we defaulted on certain gold obligations in 1933. And in 1979, the United States had trouble managing payouts to some individual investors on time (partly because of a failure of word processing equipment) and thus was in technical default.
Yet even that brief lapse in 1979 raised interest payments in the United States. Terry L. Zivney, a finance professor at Ball State University and co-author of a scholarly paper about the episode, says the 1979 default increased American government borrowing costs by 0.6 of a percentage point indefinitely.
Any deliberate and sustained interruption this year could have a greater impact. We would see higher interest rates on mortgages, car loans, business loans and credit cards.
American government borrowing would also become more expensive. In February, the Congressional Budget Office noted that a 1 percentage point rise in interest rates could add more than $1 trillion to borrowing costs over a decade.
In other words, Republican zeal to lower debts could result in increased interest expenses and higher debts. Their mania to save taxpayers could cost taxpayers. That suggests not governance so much as fanaticism.
More broadly, a default would leave America a global laughingstock. Our “soft power,” our promotion of democracy around the world, and our influence would all take a hit. The spectacle of paralysis in the world’s largest economy is already bewildering to many countries. If there is awe for our military prowess and delight in our movies and music, there is scorn for our political/economic management.
While one danger to national security comes from the risk of default, another comes from overzealous budget cuts — especially in education, at the local, state and national levels. When we cut to the education bone, we’re not preserving our future but undermining it.
It should be a national disgrace that the United States government has eliminated spending for major literacy programs in the last few months, with scarcely a murmur of dissent.
Consider Reading Is Fundamental, a 45-year-old nonprofit program that has cost the federal government only $25 million annually. It’s a public-private partnership with 400,000 volunteers, and it puts books in the hands of low-income children. The program helped four million American children improve their reading skills last year. Now it has lost all federal support.
“They have made a real difference for millions of kids,” Kyle Zimmer, founder of First Book, another literacy program that I’ve admired, said of Reading Is Fundamental. “It is a tremendous loss that their federal support has been cut. We are going to pay for these cuts in education for generations.”
Education programs like these aren’t quick fixes, and the relation between spending and outcomes is uncertain and complex. Nurturing reading skills is a slog rather than a sprint — but without universal literacy we have no hope of spreading opportunity, fighting crime or chipping away at poverty.
“The attack on literacy programs reflects a broader assault on education programs,” said Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic member of Congress from Connecticut. She notes that Republicans want to cut everything from early childhood programs to Pell grants for college students. Republican proposals have singled out some 43 education programs for elimination, but it’s not seen as equally essential to end tax loopholes on hedge fund managers.
So let’s remember not only the national security risks posed by Iran and Al Qaeda. Let’s also focus on the risks, however unintentional, from domestic zealots.