Writings and observations

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.

And Indian Country? Only about four-in-ten workers and their families have employer-sponsored health care. Remember that many tribes and tribal enterprises are large employers that offer competitive benefit packages.

So what does all of this mean? Sure, the U.S. made a huge mistake linking health care insurance and work. Ideally we would have fixed that with health care reform, but that was politically impossible. So we came up with a sort of dual track, encouraging employer sponsored plans (including the large employer penalty that will now begin in 2015) and giving consumers a choice through state exchanges.

It is those exchanges that should be the focus now. In just a few weeks, people can sign up for insurance through an exchange if it’s not offered by an employer or if a policy costs too much. Starting next year there will be good health insurance coverage available with many subsidies for low and moderate income families. (Considering the demographics of Indian Country, buying health insurance through an exchange will likely be either free or a really good deal. More on that later.)

Critics say that the Obama administration’s delay of the employer mandate shows that ObamaCare is unraveling. I think the opposite is true. It’s far more significant that both state and the federal exchanges seem to be moving forward and that individuals can sign up beginning in October with insurance options starting in 2014.

It’s true that the Affordable Care Act doesn’t fix The Great American Health Care Mistake. But it least it opens an alternative route.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. Comment on Facebook at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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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.

A case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is the practical 21st century application of these voting rights issues. Montana law provides for early voting and late registration. However “tribal members live a great distance from the late registration and in-person absentee voting places in county seats,” according to appellants’ brief. And the counties have largely said no, even when the cost has been covered or the administrative burden reduced. “Counties take the position that there is no violation of the Voting Rights Act, no harm, and that they have no authority or obligation to ever open any satellite offices.”

And now you do what they told ya, now you’re under control.

The Supreme Court has said this is a new country, one that’s no longer divided by voting tests or low registration, “yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.” So Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was struck down and immediately states set out to prove that the Court was in error by enacting sweeping provisions that limit voter participation. Only two hours after the court’s ruling Texas announced the state’s voter ID law would take effect and new restrictive districts would begin. Not long after Mississippi and South Carolina joined the chorus. States with large American Indian or Alaska Native populations will not be far behind.

But there is a weakness in the court’s ruling: The more that those in power try to use cheap tricks – voter ID laws or limited ballot access — the more people who will demand to vote. The court has basically set out the challenge: The only way to strip those from power who would limit your right to vote, is to vote. The only way to end austerity is to win the election. The only way to invest in a better future for young people is to show up in record numbers. American Indians and Alaska Natives will vote because “they” say we can’t.

Or as Rage Against the Machine once shouted: F%$# YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!!

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A Facebook page is open at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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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.”

How will deflation impact Indian Country? The answer is that tribes, or individuals, with a lot of cash will be fine because their purchasing power will be stronger. But tribes, and individuals, that carry a lot of debt will be in tough shape because while the value of the debt stays the same, it will be harder to raise the money required to pay back that debt.

The Fed might change its mind and do what it can to prevent deflation. But that doesn’t mean a thing to Congress. The austerity crowd is bent on shrinking government. No matter the human toll.

The author Mark Blyth in his new book, “Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea,” describes the threat this way. “Austerity is a form of voluntary deflation in which the economy adjusts through the reduction of wages, prices, and public spending to restore competitiveness, which is (supposedly) best achieved by cutting the state’s budget, debts, and deficits.”

“Voluntary” deflation? More like a self-inflicted wound.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A Facebook page is open at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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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.”

But that was another time. Another recession. Before the sequester. We don’t know what happened after; We only know it’s bad.

The lack of near real time, transparent, data is not just limited to unemployment rates. In a few weeks, for example, more provisions of the Affordable Care Act will begin and will open up more Medicaid funding sources for the Indian health system. So a study about the Medicaid expansion to low-income communities of color would be ideal, right?

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured used detailed Census data from all 50 states to produce such a report. “While the Medicaid expansion will increase coverage options for all low-income Americans, it will disproportionately impact low-income people of color,” Kaiser said. Indeed the report looked at the impact of Medicaid expansion on Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders. But there was not a word about American Indians and Alaska Natives.

But this is not to single out Kaiser (and, a note of disclosure, I was a Kaiser Media Fellow in 2010). My point is you could go down the list, think tank by think tank, and Indian Country’s data invisibility is glaring.

Data invisibility matters because policy decisions are often based on what has been measured (I say often because the premise of austerity itself is contradicted by data, but that’s another story). We need to know what programs work, what’s effective. We need hard information to know how American Indians and Alaska Natives are faring during this decade of austerity.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A Facebook page is open at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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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.

Those that believe austerity is the right course can point to the shrinking budget deficit. “If the current laws that govern federal taxes and spending do not change, the budget deficit will shrink this year to $642 billion,” the Congressional Budget Office estimates. That’s the smallest shortfall since 2008.

CBO says that if you measure the deficit as part of the whole economy, the deficit this year—at 4.0 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—will be less than half as large as the shortfall in 2009, which was 10.1 percent of GDP.

But much of that savings is not coming from the sequester. There was some extra revenue and an increase in payments to the Treasury by housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And, the CBO says, the deficit “reduction results mostly from lower projections of spending for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the public debt.”

So what do all these numbers mean for Indian Country? Most important it means that there will be no easy way to reverse the sequester. At least in this Congress. No matter how many bad stories are written about the impact of the sequester on Indian education, health, or just general governance, there will be a shrug and response that at least the sequester is cutting spending.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A Facebook page is open at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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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.

In the weeks to come, the House Appropriations Committee will move next year’s spending bills through that body. Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, supports an increase in Defense spending — at the expense of domestic programs, such as those that benefit Indian Country. The Hill newspaper said: “The House Appropriations Committee outline — known in budget parlance as 302b allocations — makes clear that the heaviest cuts will fall on health, education, jobs programs, foreign aid and environmental programs.”

Under Rogers’ plan the Interior Department, for example, would get hit with cuts at 16 percent below the current sequester. (That budget line includes both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.)

If the president’s budget doesn’t stand a chance of becoming law, then neither does Rogers’ budget. But it does show how deep the divide in Congress is and why it’s getting wider. It will be impossible without an election or two to restore budgets beyond austerity (despite the growing evidence of the economic damage caused by spending cuts).
What this means for Indian Country is that the most likely outcome of the budget fight is another temporary budget, or a Continuing Resolution, along the lines of the current sequester. The bottom line is a budget outcome that steadily worsens as time passes.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A Facebook page is open at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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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.”

Indian Country, of course, has a unique role in this fight. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act is included in the larger, Affordable Care Act. And, at the same time, the reforms in the Affordable Care Act open up potential funding increases for the Indian health system as well as substantial changes in how business is conducted. So at some point: It would be logical to stop fighting over the law that exists and figure out how to make it work.

But that’s not the game plan for Republicans in the House. As Cantor’s tweet suggests, the only alternative on their agenda is repeal, something that’s not going to happen as long as Democrats run the Senate and the White House.

Republicans in the House are essentially arguing for the system that is currently in place (one that everyone agrees is an expensive mess). So they fight against any of the reforms in the Affordable Care Act, including the ones that save money, such as the Independent Payment Advisory Board (a body designed to help cut costs).

But this entire fight puts Indian Country in a difficult political position. The president’s budget asks for more money for Indian health programs. “If the proposed budget is enacted, the IHS discretionary budget will have increased 32 percent since FY 2008,” according to the agency’s news release. Many individual members of Congress — including those who serve on appropriations committees — continue to support these increases for IHS. But because of the larger opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and the broken budget process, it’s unlikely that this budget will become law.

What’s more there are lots of questions about the Indian health system that can only be answered by funding and execution of the Affordable Care Act. For example: Will tribal governments participate in exchanges? Will individual American Indians and Alaska Natives? At the state level? Or in a national exchange? What about the growing disparity for those states that refuse to expand Medicaid? (My solution has long been for Medicaid to treat tribes as states, lifting the problem out of the states entirely.)

But these questions will have to wait for answers. At least until the next election or even the one after that. Meanwhile on Thursday the House will again vote to repeal ObamaCare. But it will still be the law and House Republicans will still work hard to make that law fail.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A Facebook page is open at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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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.”

And in Washington state, in a report last year, tribal employment increased 56 percent since 2004, employing more than 27,000 people, including 18,000 non-tribal member employees.

But the shrinking federal dollar will soon impact these tribal jobs, both directly and indirectly. Next year will be worse than this (even with the sequester) and the years after will be even more destructive. It’s important to remember that the Budget Control Act is a ten-year law. The sequester that’s in the news now is only the beginning of the process.

To undo that law there must be a consensus found with President Barack Obama, the Senate and the House. That’s not going to happen soon. In fact the Congress cannot even agree to appoint a conference committee to negotiate the Senate and House budgets, let alone move forward on some sort of longer term solution. More likely, as I have written before, will be another continuing resolution, an ad-hoc budget that falls short of what’s needed.

The argument in the larger economy is that the private sector will make up the difference in government hiring. (The evidence says otherwise … but that’s another story.) But for Indian Country this is a false premise: There is clearly not enough of a private sector to hire enough people.

Wall Street may be celebrating a new era of job creation. But Indian Country is being left behind.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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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.”

But Congress is unable to reach consensus on that part of the budget, hell, on any part of the budget, except for that tiny sliver of spending that impacts air travelers.

What’s particularly maddening about this process is that the sequester addresses the wrong problem. Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas point this out in The Washington Post: “As any good budget wonk knows, our debt problems are much worse in the coming decades than in this decade. But most deficit-reduction policies save much more money in the second decade than in the first.”

And that brings me back to dysfunction and Congress.

The only problem that matters, the big ticket item, is health care. If health care is made affordable, if the United States spends roughly what the rest of the industrial world does on health care, then the budget deficit shrinks to a manageable problem.

So how does Congress solve that problem? It doesn’t. Instead it fights over and over, rearguing the law, challenging every dollar that is designed to implement the Affordable Care Act. Instead of acting to make the law work, Republicans in Congress are making sure that the it blows up. This approach is the biggest budget buster of all.

GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday: “I urge my friends on the other side to join with Republicans and stop this ‘train wreck’ before things get even worse.” So the Republican plan is to make sure that the health care law is as big a political liability as the FAA’s inconvenience for travelers. To do that there won’t be money to fund implementation, and continued resistance from states to make the law work.

Of course the Affordable Care Act is not perfect. It’s at best a baby step. But it’s really the only plan out there that even begins to shrink long-term deficits.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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trahant MARK
TRAHANT

 
Austerity

If you look at the failed history of termination – the idea of ending the federal-treaty relationship with tribal governments – there were two distinct motives. Some believed it was the next logical step for Indian progress, an economic integration. While others hated government and used termination as a method to shrink and attack government.

National Congress of American Indians President Joseph Garry, a member of Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said at the 1958 convention, that Congress adopted the termination resolution in good faith … “believing it would be good for Indian people” even though it was clearly dangerous and a disaster. That’s why nearly everyone, friends and foe alike, were at least partial supporters of termination policy.

Utah’s Republican Senator Arthur Watkins was from the shrink-and-attack government camp. He was zealous about termination, badgering tribal witnesses when they came to Capitol Hill, refusing to even consider alternatives. He dismissed treaty obligations outright. Indians, he said, “want all the benefits of the things we have – highways, schools, hospitals, everything that civilization furnished – but they don’t want to help pay their share of it.”

This story should have a familiar ring to it. The same forces are at play when it comes to austerity. One camp sees the problem — the country’s demographic imbalance — and opts for austerity as a solution or at least a partial solution. While the other camp hates government and sees austerity as a tool to shrink and attack. Arthur Watkins would be at home in a Tea Party crowd.

The practical problem with austerity, however, is that it does not lead to growth, especially over a short period of time. But from those that hate government, there was an evidence that too much debt also made it harder for an economy to grow. A pair of economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, published a paper in 2010, that found that public debt slows growth when it reaches or exceeds 90 percent of a country’s Gross Domestic Product. This work became the intellectual rallying cry for austerity. As House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan put it: “Economists who have studied sovereign debt tell us that letting total debt rise above 90 percent of GDP creates a drag on economic growth and intensifies the risk of a debt-fueled economic crisis.”

But last week another paper found Excel errors in that Reinhart and Rogoff paper (based on the work of a graduate student) and reached a conclusion that “contrary” to Reinhart and Rogoff, namely that the “average GDP growth at public debt/GDP ratios over 90 percent is not dramatically different than when debt/GDP ratios are lower.”

Of course we all make mistakes. But you would think that this is enough information to at least raise questions about austerity (or at the very least, the speed of the execution of austerity programs). But that’s hardly the case. Indeed, the data does not matter to austerity’s zealots. Ryan’s budget calls for balancing the budget in a decade, requiring a dramatically shrinking of government — a sort of termination policy for all.

There are many that buy into austerity because they believe it to be good for people. The idea of limiting federal deficits is certainly appealing and over the long haul important. But what’s missing from that debate is that federal spending must also get more people working and there must be a real investment in the next generation, in other words, spend money now. We cannot be successful with the long-term challenges – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, pension deficits – unless we do something about the first problem first. The U.S. actually has an incredible opportunity here: low interest rates. Borrowing money at this moment is extraordinarily cheap. So the country has a decade, at least, to solve the first set of problems before resolving the longer-range demographic imbalance.

The United States sharply cut government spending after World War II when debt levels exceeded 120 percent of GDP. Indian Country remembers that era well because it paralleled the termination era. Severe austerity and termination are related ideologies.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at:
https://www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity

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