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Posts published in “Trahant”

An era of limits and immigration reform

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The debate over immigration reform in the House and the Senate is an interesting lens to examine the future of austerity.

How so? Immigration is about immigration; secure borders, global migration pattens, and a path to citizenship for more than 11 million people living in the United States without a legal status. The Senate bill is a compromise that calls for an unprecedented buildup of border security, some 20,000 new agents, in exchange for that citizenship route. (Borrowing language from the Iraq war buildup, Senators are calling it a “surge.”)

Think about what that means: The United States can’t afford to invest in education, health, or infrastructure, but it can spend big bucks on border security. The Congressional Budget Office scores the cost side of the ledger in the Senate bill this way: “Appropriate $46.3 billion for expenses related to the security of the southern U.S. border and initial administrative costs.”

The Senate compromise also limits eleven million people’s right to participate in the health care system, while, at the same time, taxing them for services not rendered. This part of the bill is just mean. The CBO says “the net budgetary effect of decreasing the number of unauthorized residents would be relatively small—the small savings for Medicaid, child nutrition, and refundable tax credits would be more than offset by a slightly larger reduction in revenues paid by, or on behalf of, unauthorized residents.”

But at least the Senate bill is not all about costs. Despite what immigration critics say, historically immigration has always boosted the U.S. economy. (It’s not even a close call.) The CBO says the Senate bill would decrease the deficit by $158 billion in the next decade. That’s probably understating the economic benefit of moving undocumented workers from off-the-book jobs into the mainstream economy.

The House approach to immigration reform is to break apart the coalition of security in exchange for citizenship. Louisiana’s Rep. John Fleming said in The Hill newspaper that one reason Republicans oppose the Senate's immigration bill is because they don't trust President Obama to enforce the border enforcement provisions in that bill. (Even though Obama won’t be president when most of the law kicks in.) (more…)

Fixing the Great American Health Mistake

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The Obama administration’s decision last week to delay a mandate for large employers to provide health insurance or pay fine is both meaningless and significant.

It’s meaningless because it impacts such a small number of employers. Nearly all employers with more than 50 employees already provide health insurance. And those that do not, are unlikely to change course because of the penalty (even at $2,000 per full-time employee that costs far less than insurance).

But it’s significant because it highlights The Great American Health Care Mistake. This country should have never forged health care to work. It was an accident, a way to avoid wage controls during World War II. No other country in the world has such a crazy system. And it makes no sense to let our employers make decisions about our health care. All the basic stuff: What kind of coverage we buy, what should be covered, or even our provider networks and, therefore our doctors.

This mistake let Americans “pretend” that health insurance did not have a cost. It was a quiet part of our compensation, but because it’s not measured by the employee (although that will change soon), it wasn’t something we were willing to spend money on ourselves.

But employer-sponsored insurance is declining. It’s a trend that began before federal health care reform. The percentage of Americans who receive health insurance through employers dropped from 69.7 percent in 2000 to just 59.5 percent in 2011, according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

And even when company insurance is offered, more employees are saying, “no thanks.” In 2000, 81.8 percent of employees who were offered coverage enrolled. A decade later, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study reported, only 76.3 percent did.

The reason for the decline in both employer and employee participation is simple: Insurance costs are out-of-sight. The study said the premium for employee-only coverage doubled from 2000 to 2011, increasing from $2,490 to $5,081. Family premiums went up by 125 percent, from $6,415 to $14,447, during the same time period.

Across the country, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study did not find a single state where employee-sponsored insurance actually increased, and 22 states saw decreases of 10 percent or more. (more…)

Voting in the name of

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The Supreme Court’s ruling last week on voting rights sends a simple and clear message: And now you do what they told ya.

The court basically said that modern states wouldn’t use their power to keep minorities -- including American Indians and Alaska Natives -- from voting. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the 5-to-4 majority.

And now you do what they told ya.

So in North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, Montana, and Alaska, and in many other states where access to voting is limited, where polling booths are located far from reservation communities, or where “early voting” hours are made purposely unequal or unfair, well, the court said, in Shelby County (the Alabama county that sued to end the Voting Rights Act) “voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity.”

And now you do what they told ya.

But of course that parity is not found in Indian Country. The last election was a success, however, American Indians and Alaska Natives still have the lowest registration rates of any racial or ethnic group. A study by Demos a couple of years ago pegged that number at 5 to 14 percent lower than the general population. I suspect the numbers are not much better two years later because Indian Country is growing so fast; nearly 200,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives are eligible to vote since the last election.

And now you do what they told ya.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, says the court’s majority is wrong because “the ‘blight of racial discrimination in voting’ continued to ‘infec[t] the electoral process in parts of our country.’ Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra. Whenever one form of voting discrimination was identified and prohibited, others sprang up in its place.”

And now you do what they told ya. (more…)

Walking into deflation

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

You would think that the broader economy would be part of any discussion about austerity. If the economy is getting stronger, well, then government budget cuts are more easily absorbed. On the other hand, if the economy is fragile, then budget cuts make it worse because the government itself is such an important part of the economy.

So government as an engine of growth -- something that is absolutely a fact in Indian Country -- is rarely considered by conservatives in the political context. Unless it’s about Defense-related jobs.

A study last month, for example, said the Pentagon could manage the sequester far more effectively if it permanently cut its civilian workforce by tens of thousands of jobs. But Congress doesn’t like that idea and is hostile to closing more bases as a way to save money. One Virginia Republican is proposing legislation that, according to Government Executive magazine, would “prohibit the department from proposing, planning or initiating another round of Base Realignment and Closure.”

But when it comes to the economy, especially long term, the choices of where government invests money is important to growth. Just think what it would mean if education spending had the same sort of passion from Congress as the military with specific legislation that prohibited the closing of a school or university. (Or even better: laws requiring full funding.)

One power the government does have to invest in economy, save an economy, or just meddle in an economy (depending on your point of view). But it is that role that the government last week hinted that it is backing away from. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has been using extraordinary tools to do what it could to prop up the economy without support from Congress. As Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times yesterday: “For the most part, Ben Bernanke and his colleagues at the Federal Reserve have been good guys in these troubled economic times. They have tried to boost the economy even as most of Washington seemingly either forgot about the jobless, or decided that the best way to cure unemployment was to intensify the suffering of the unemployed.” Krugman’s conclusion is that it’s the “wrong signal to be sending given the state of the economy. We’re still very much living through what amounts to a low-grade depression — and the Fed’s bad messaging reduces the chances that we’re going to exit that depression any time soon.”

Other economic observers fear an even bigger problem, deflation. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, a European columnist in The Telegraph wrote: “I hope the Fed knows what it is doing.” He points out that a tighter monetary policy makes less sense when the core inflation metric is lower now than when the Fed began using its powers. “America is one shock away from a slide into outright deflation, and the eurozone is half a shock away.”

We live inflation. We go to the store and it costs more for our basic supplies, food, gas, even sending children to college. Then the deal was we would get a bigger pay check to make up for these increasing costs.

But that has not been happening. And if you look at the larger economy, inflation itself has been extraordinary low. For its part, the Fed says it is still watching this trend. One Federal Reserve Bank president told Bloomberg News that if inflation remains low, despite what Bernanke said, the Fed might need to find a way to “provide more accommodation.” (more…)

Big data in Indian country

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The 21st century is a world where data - bits of information about what we do, what we say, and how we spend money - has become as important as the story narrative. It’s hard to make any kind of case with a story alone. You need facts to back up your account. You need details. You need numbers.

Right now, of course, big data is a hot story all by itself. The Guardian newspaper broke the story about how the National Security Agency has developed a powerful tool for collecting and analyzing billions of bits of information. The newspaper cited an NSA fact sheet saying this is a tool that “allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collections against that country."

In this map, countries with scant data are green and countries where lots of electronic spying is occurring, such as Iran, are red.

The collection of private communication is a serious issue, one that in a democracy requires a vigorous debate. But the second I saw this map, I was reminded yet again that Indian Country has a different kind of data problem. There is too little reliable, timely information.

If Indian Country were to show up on the NSA’s data heat map we would be the brightest green zone on the planet.
In an era of austerity this lack of data has serious consequences. Quick: What’s the unemployment rate in Indian Country? Has it gone up or down since the sequester? What’s the actual number for furloughs? How about our spending patterns? I could go on and on.

The honest answer to every one of these questions has to be a “don’t know.” A year ago the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported that it would not release a 2010 Indian Population and Labor Force Report because “of methodology inconsistencies.” Donald E. Laverdure, acting Assistant Secretary -- Indian Affairs, wrote July 2, 2012, that the “collected data from those 2010 methods did not adequately meet the standards of quality and reliability that are required of Federal agencies in reporting official statistics.”

In a rare data driven document, the Economic Policy Institute released its picture of American Indian and Alaska Native unemployment finding that the national unemployment rate did jump during the recession from 2007 to the first half of 2010, and increased 7.7 percentage points to 15.2%. That same year EPI reported the “unemployment rate for Alaska Natives jumped 6.3 percentage points to 21.3, the highest regional unemployment rate for American Indians.” (more…)

Summer of irregular order

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, has outlined his congressional agenda for this summer. “We have a busy month ahead of us and July will be just as busy, with our continued focus on making life work for Americans through our conservative solutions,” Cantor wrote to members of the Republican caucus. “During that stretch, members should expect a number of important issues to reach the house floor, including: the continuation of the appropriations process ...”

This summer’s budget conclusion -- at least from Cantor’s point of view -- is “regular order” for Appropriations bills for fiscal year 2014 and some sort of resolution of the debt limit.

The key message for Indian Country and the programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives is the House Fiscal Year 2014 budget will based on the Budget Control Act, the law that gave us the sequester. So, Cantor wrote, “the overall spending level contained in the twelve appropriations bills is written to the sequester-level of $967 billon.”

First, it’s interesting that Cantor would again pledge “regular order.” He’s saying the House would pass its budget and appropriations bills and the Senate would do the same. Then a conference committee between the two legislative bodies would negotiate the differences until common ground is found.

But it’s misleading at best. Regular order has not happened on the budget. The House, so far, has refused to appoint members to a conference committee with the Senate instead insisting on a “pre-conference” negotiation. An editorial in The New York Times said the House actually prefers chaos to regular order. “Clearly, what is frustrating Republicans is that they do not have an imminent crisis to exploit to get their way,” the editorial said. “Since 2011, they have repeatedly relied on the threat of a government shutdown, or a possible credit default, to force damaging spending cuts. (That is how the sequester was created.)”

So even though the process of regular order is not working for the budget -- the big picture review of federal spending -- it is supposed to work for the individual appropriations bills that write checks agency by agency. Let me be clear about this: A regular order on appropriations would be a good thing for Indian Country. There are many friends in the House that could use that process to improve spending on at least key programs, such as health and education. (Remembering of course that the overall budget is somewhere between irresponsible and awful.) At the same time -- and in a contrary move -- the overall Appropriations process will be worse because House Republicans want more money for Defense and to pay for that they will look to cut more domestic spending.

It will be up to the Senate to say no.

Unfortunately this situation won’t change until after the next election. Because it’s not only the Senate that can say no. Republicans are in a position to halt any new spending, or even a lifting of the sequester itself. South Dakota Sen. John Thune recently told The Washington Post, “I don’t anticipate that the sequester gets turned off. That to me is one of the few areas where we actually have cut spending.” He’s the number three ranking Republican in the Senate so his views are reflective. (more…)

Impacts of the cut

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Indian Country has already been hit hard by the sequester.

Lacey Horn, treasurer of the Cherokee Nation, recently told National Public Radio that the tribe had been planning for the impact for some time with cost-cutting measures, a hiring freeze for all non-essential positions, and canceled training and travel. “We’re delaying or foregoing any capital acquisitions, both large and small. And we're looking at our encumbrances to see if there's any changes in scope or quantity that we can make and strictly enforce the employee overtime.”

Horn’s goal is to try and absorb the sequester “to the greatest extent possible before we start making reductions in jobs and services.”

This is exactly what a tribal government should be doing. Looking for ways to “absorb” the cuts with as little impact as possible on direct services or jobs.

But can tribes do that over and over for the next decade? The Budget Control Act, the law that governs the sequester, is a ten-year austerity effort. As the Bipartisan Policy Center describes the law: “Sequestration’s effect will be akin to that of a slow motion train wreck ... the ramifications will steadily worsen as time passes.”

The Congressional Budget Office reported that the president’s budget would “lower the caps for 2017 through 2021 on discretionary spending that were originally set by the Budget Control Act and extend those caps through 2023. However, much of that lower spending would be offset by eliminating the automatic spending reductions that have occurred or are scheduled to occur under current law from 2013 through 2021. In total, those changes would lead to discretionary outlays that are 6 percent lower in 2016 than they were in 2012 but that would grow later in the decade; as a percentage of GDP, such outlays would fall from 8.3 percent in 2012 to 5.0 percent in 2023, 0.5 percentage points lower than the amount in CBO’s baseline and the lowest level in at least the past 50 years.”

Think about the last part of that sentence. The president’s budget would lift some of the hard spending caps under the Budget Control Act, but even then federal spending for domestic programs would be at the lowest level since President Kennedy’s time. And, as I have written before, the president’s budget represents a decent outcome. The president’s budget, according to CBO, would trim federal deficits by $1.1 trillion over the coming decade. Not a bad outcome. But the president’s budget would require a “yes” vote from both the House and the Senate. That’s not going to happen. (more…)

Repeal it again?

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

The U.S. House of Representatives has scheduled a vote Thursday to repeal the Affordable Care Act (including the permanent authorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act). House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, tweeted: “It just keeps getting worse. I am scheduling a vote for next week on the full repeal of #Obamacare.”

Since the law was enacted more than three years ago, House Republicans have voted more than thirty times to repeal part or all of the law. And, perhaps, more important, Republicans in Congress have tried to pull every lever they can think of to make sure the current law is neither executed nor fully-funded. The goal of Republicans in Congress is to make the Affordable Care Act “worse.”

But the problem for Republicans (and in a different way for supporters of the law) is that Americans are confused. Polling last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that four in ten Americans, or 42 percent, are unaware that the Affordable Care Act is the law. Some 12 percent think it was repealed. Another 7 percent say the Supreme Court overturned the law. And 23 percent have no idea whether the act is still law. Nearly half of those surveyed say they “do not have enough information about the health reform law to understand how it will impact their own family, a share that rises among the uninsured and low-income households.”

Then again, it’s no wonder most people are confused by the law. From the moment it passed there has been a misinformation campaign from opponents designed to confuse and stir up distrust.

President Barack Obama said last week that “misinformation” will continue at least through the next election cycle. He talked about the Affordable Care Act last week using Mother’s Day as the reason, saying, “the law is here to stay.” So many people are already better off because of the law, seniors, women, low-income Americans, sick people and families with children. “You're benefiting from it,” he said. “You just may not know it.” (more…)

Jobs evaporating in Indian country

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Wall Street celebrated last week’s jobs report. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that unemployment fell to 7.5 percent and that 165,000 new jobs were added in April. The report also revised its numbers from the past couple of months, saying that the job creation was stronger than first glance.

But the same numbers are lousy in Indian Country. If you read the full report there’s a number (and a trend) that is concerning: Government sector employment continues to drop. In the technical language of the BLS, “Employment in ... government, showed little change over the month.” Little change was a minus 11,000 jobs. But if you pull back and look at the longer trend government employment continues to shrink.

A report by The Hamilton Project last year detailed this larger trend.

“Total government (i.e., the sum of state, local, and federal) employment has decreased by over 580,000 jobs since the end of the recession, the largest decrease in any sector since the recovery began in July 2009. State and local governments, faced with tough choices imposed by the confluence of balanced-budget requirements, falling tax revenues, and greater demand for public services, have been forced to lay off teachers, police officers, and other workers,” the report by Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney reported last August. This is the lowest public-sector employment in 30 years.

But go back even further and the trend is even more stark. Between 1950 and 1975 government jobs accounted for 1 in every 4 jobs created “contributing to widespread public belief that government, especially the Federal government, is too large,” said a 1981 BLS report.

There is no national data on the growth of tribal governments just after this time frame, but there should be.

The post-1975 growth of tribal government services is stunning, drive around any reservation and the visible evidence is overwhelming. Tribes created programs, took over the management of Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service, built schools and colleges.

The California Indian Gaming Association reported in 2003, for example, that “tribal government economies have for three years lead the state in job growth, with employment more than doubling since January 2000, when there were 17,200 workers on tribal payrolls.” (more…)

Fixing the wrong problem

trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

Last week was a perfect illustration of the broken structure that is the United States government. Congress cannot pass a budget. It can barely pass a law to pay bills already incurred and owed. And its best “deficit” cutting attempt is the decade-long sequester, across-the-board cuts that hit the wrong programs, at the wrong times, and in the most harmful process.

Yet inconvenience air travelers and the entire Congress (and President Barack Obama) moves faster than Usain Bolt. So a bill is proposed and enacted to lift the sequester giving the Federal Aviation Administration more flexibility in its spending ending the furlough for air traffic controllers. Problem solved.

But for most of the country the sequester continues for another decade.

Cuts that make less sense than air traffic delays, such as laying off teachers in more than three-quarters of all school districts, will continue as planned.

Or the sequester cuts to programs that serve American Indians and Alaska natives. In testimony last week to the House, the National Congress of American Indians reported: “For many tribes, a majority of tribal governmental services is financed by federal sources. Tribes
lack the tax base and lack parity in tax authority to raise revenue to deliver services. If federal funding is reduced sharply for state and local governments, they may choose between increasing their own taxes and spending for basic services or allowing their services and programs to take the financial hit. On the other hand, many tribes have limited ability to raise substantial new revenue, especially not rapidly enough to cover the reduction in services from the across the board reductions of the FY 2013 sequestration.”

NCAI says the sequester process undermines “Indian treaty rights and obligations.” (more…)