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Trahant: Austerity is our future, begin the discussion and plan for it now?

Which rally drew more people? One Nation Working Together or Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor? Left or right? Liberal or Conservative?

“Per usual the rally’s attendance numbers are being disputed by the left and right,” writes John Hudson in The Atlantic Wire. “While a number of progressive bloggers claim the “One Nation” rally drew a larger crowd than Beck’s August event, the Associated Press and others are challenging that claim.”

The logic here is counting people at a rally is evidence that Americans want a smaller, less taxing government, the kind of government that the Tea Party advocates.

But if you really want to count numbers then consider that while tens of thousands of Americans marched for or against government policy, compare that to Europe where 10 times as many marched against their governments’ austerity measures. (These marches, I should mention, are small by European historical standards.)

Nonetheless: Austerity is our future.

It’s one thing to think about “budget cuts” as an abstract phrase. It’s quite another when basic services are eliminated, steady jobs disappear and young people’s ambitions are blocked because college is no longer affordable.

Why is this our future? Let’s explore some math. There is one item in the federal budget that is set to expand in coming years: Interest on the debt. This is the money that’s paid to people who lend to the United States through bonds and other devices. We’ve been lucky in recent years because interest rates are low – so the net cost of debt service has been manageable. But that fortune won’t last forever.

The severe austerity we’re facing is tied to our national debt. “Net interest payments accounted for about 5 percent of overall federal spending in 2009,” the Congressional Budget Office estimates. “That figure is expected to rise to 6 percent in 2010 and then climb to nearly 14 percent in 2020.”

The Federal Budget is, essentially, divided into three spending areas: Net interest, mandatory spending (programs that people automatically qualify for such as Medicare and Medicaid) and discretionary spending. Interest gets paid pretty much no matter what. The election will debate what cuts, if any, can or should be made to mandatory spending. The third part of the budget is discretionary spending, including the cost of the military. But most of the attention (even if it’s the smallest number) centers on domestic, discretionary spending. That’s what funds everything from transportation to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

This is important because we are already spending more on interest payments than on the kind of programs that invest in our future. And, despite the common rhetoric, we are not spending enough on these essential programs. In the mid 1980s federal discretionary spending amounted to between 3.2 and 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. It went up after Sept. 11 and with the temporary boost from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that number still only reaches 4.7 percent GDP.

This matters to Indian country because tribal governments are at the tail end of the rhetoric that drives public policy. The arguments about what to cut – and how much to cut – focus on the tiniest slice of the pie. At least during the Obama administration, both the BIA and Indian Health Service have avoided any deep cuts, but that’s going to change over the next few months and years.

How should tribes prepare for the inevitable? I would hope in two ways: Looking at their own budgets, finding ways to trim costs now (while protecting employees and services). Second, and perhaps, more important, look for new revenue sources such as foundation funding or federal funding that will be protected over the next few years, such as money designated for community health centers in the health care reform bill.

Of course none of this is limited to the federal government. The same pressures are present in states, cities and tribal governments. But before this era of austerity ends we will question many of our basic assumptions about government. What happens when there are not enough police on a shift? Or when there is not enough to repave a highway? Or when a state cuts loose its public university?

Will we take to the streets then? I hope not. Our challenge is to get past the shouting, the differences, and look at the facts on the ground. No matter how loud we are, the net interest on the debt will remain the same. Our only recourse is to work together to balance spending and revenue at all levels of government.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s new book, “The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

Additional Resource:

The Center for American Progress lays out alternatives for budget cuts – and the implications of such actions. Here is a sample from the report: “But it’s evident that cuts of the scope and magnitude we have laid out really will do harm to the country, especially for the plans that cut the most. They are cuts that we’ll end up paying for one way or another. We may pay for them in delays at the airport or in the emergence of a new disease without a cure. It may cost us in traffic jams and rough roads or in unsafe food. It may mean lower economic growth as the infrastructure crumbles, education suffers, and investments in research and the technologies of the future languish. Or our armed services may be late arriving at an international hotspot. Whatever the consequences, and you can go through the list and imagine them, there will be some. And as bad as the consequences might be from what we’ve outlined here, the consequences from the alternatives we considered were, in our view, worse.

But these are, in fact, the kinds of choices we’re going to have to make.”