S&P, which covered itself in a substance other than glory during the mortgage crisis, may have a poor record and strange methodology when it comes to sovereign ratings. France, which has a far higher debt per capita ratio than the U.S., still enjoys a AAA rating. And a downgrade, alone, doesn't mean U.S. interest rates will spike -- on Monday or at any time in the future. Japan's credit rating was downgraded several years ago, when the interest rates its government paid on bonds was already extremely low, and they've generally trended lower in the years since.
Market conditions, the trajectory of economic growth and relative value can play as big -- if not a bigger -- of a role in determining interest rates than a rating.
But that doesn't mean we should ignore S&P's Friday evening shot across the bow. In downgrading the U.S.'s credit rating, S&P points out what has long been obvious: Washington's inability to come to an agreement on how to close the large fiscal gaps that have emerged since the recession began is troubling. Recent events have sapped the agency's confidence that the government can and will do what is necessary to align revenues with spending commitments. And it's difficult to escape the conclusion that America's credit rating was intentionally sabotaged by Congressional Republicans.
It has long been obvious to all observers -- to economists, to politicians, to anti-deficit groups, to the ratings agencies -- that closing fiscal gaps will require tax increases, or the closure of big tax loopholes, or significant tax reform that will raise significantly larger sums of tax revenue than the system does now. Today, taxes as a percentage of GDP are at historic lows. Marginal rates on income and investments are at historic lows. Corporate tax receipts as a percentage of GDP are at historic lows. Perhaps taxes don't need to rise this year or next, but they do need to go up in the future.
Otherwise, the math of deficit reduction simply doesn't work. And that's how the deficit reduction deals signed off on by Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush came about.
Yet the action in Washington in the past year has all gone in the opposite direction. President Obama deserves some of the blame. Several months ago, he struck a deal with Congress to make the fiscal situation worse -- extending the Bush tax cuts for two more years and enacting a temporary cut in the payroll tax.
But Congressional Republicans deserve much more of the blame. For this calamity was entirely man-made -- even intentional. The contemporary Republican Party is fixated on taxes. It possesses an iron-clad belief that the existing tax rates should never go up, that loopholes shouldn't be closed unless they're offset by other tax reductions, that the fact that hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than school teachers makes complete sense, that a reversion to the tax rates of the prosperous 1990's or 1980's would be unacceptable.
In the past two years, this attitude has combined with a general hostility to playing ball with Democrats on large legislative issues, a near-blanket refusal to conduct business with President Obama, and, since the arrival of the raucous Tea Party freshman, a cavalier attitude toward the nation's obligations. It was common to hear duly elected legislators argue that it wouldn't be a big deal if the government were to pierce the debt ceiling and default on its debts.
For decades we've heard that Democrats and liberals are Communists, terrorist sympathizers, traitors, and threats to all that is Good and Holy in America. But what could be more traitorous then deliberately trying to tank the economy and cause global economic collapse out of nothing other than petty vindictiveness and lust for power?