US spending is coming home to roost

There was a time not long ago when a Russian president would think hard before encroaching on the rights and freedoms of sovereign nations, as he could be sure that a swift and decisive U.S. and international response would soon follow. His concerns not only would be of a military response, but the impact of sanctions on Russia's economy. There was a time when the idea of a Russian president publicly taunting and mocking a U.S. president would have been viewed as foolish recklessness. So why are we losing leverage with Russia and the world? The answer can be found partly in our borrowing and spending.

Robert Dold
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Robert Dold

In fiscal year 2013, we borrowed 46 cents of every dollar we spent, and we flooded our system with money through the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing strategy — features borrowing from the future to meet our lifestyle demand of today. Imagine increasing the mortgage on your house by 46 cents every time you spent a dollar. Doing so would make your bank's position over you stronger, while making you more beholden to your bank. The same holds true with foreign creditors.

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By borrowing at this rate, we incrementally cede our sovereignty and economic standing in the world. We give away our country in small pieces every day to satisfy our spending addiction, and, ironically, while our leaders are quick to express outrage and concern over Russia's bullying and encroachment on its neighbors, the same leaders stand by and do little as we willfully acquiesce to a soft economic invasion by China, Japan, Singapore, and our creditors who line up to buy our debt.

Our debt problem is the most predictable crisis in generations, and it increasingly will force us to abandon our strengths. This growing crisis inspired former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen to warn that, "Our single biggest threat to our national security is our debt." His statement as a former top military leader signals loudly that our budget no longer is driving our spending, as it should, but rather our spending has begun to dictate our budget and our ability to defend ourselves, as we have seen with disproportionately deep defense cuts. Without those willing to lead, this crisis will only worsen, and the next debt domino to fall may be funding for education, infrastructure, or some other essential need.

Our economic weakness contributes to an inability to effectively deter an emboldened Vladimir Putin as he aggressively moves toward his dream of a reconstituted 21st century Soviet power, unchecked by any semblance of foreign strength. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently addressed the hazard that our growing weakness poses and cautioned, "When America steps back and there is a vacuum, trouble will fill that vacuum."

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Leaders like Vladimir Putin can see our vulnerabilities, and often serve as eager accomplices in our own demise. For years, Putin has sold oil to the United States for cash, and increased his holding of U.S. debt by redirecting that cash to purchase U.S. Treasury Bonds, which in effect is Russia using our own money to buy our debt and subsidize our spending behavior. Russia is not the only country doing this, as China and others use our trade deficit against us by selling us more than we buy, and using the extra money to purchase our debt. China currently owns approximately $1.26 trillion — or 11 percent of our debt, and Japan owns $1.12 trillion — or nearly 10 percent.

Economists and politicians too frequently offer high rhetoric warnings regarding the risk that our spending habits pose to national security, but the connection of these caveats to our daily lives sometimes can be less than evident. Most Americans are inclined to shrug off the crises in far off places in the world, as problems somewhere else, to be dealt with by someone else. Why does this matter to the average American family? This weakens our markets, the value of our money, impacts our interest rates and our retirement savings, and makes us beholden to foreign governments that may not share our best interests.

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We should never put ourselves as a nation at the mercy of any foreign leader, but we have pursued policies that increasingly have placed us in that posture. Our economic weakness creates a vacuum of power that others are rushing to fill. And while Russia is a smaller holder of our debt than China and other countries, the current crisis is a real-world lesson regarding the perils of ceding our strengths to foreign nations in exchange for spending today. So the next time your congressman says he would "spend all day long," remember the dangerous consequences of such an uninformed philosophy.

Commentary by former Congressman Robert Dold, a small-business owner who is currently running to represent the 10th Congressional District of Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives. Follow him on Twitter @RobertDold.