Friday, April 17, 2009

Analysis: Governor Bobby Jindal's response to President Barack Obama

Following are excerpts of Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R-LA) response to President Barack Obama's address to Congress [CNN Transcript, RCP Transcript, February 24, 2009]:

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office I'd never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: 'Well, I'm the Sheriff and if you don't like it you can come and arrest me!' I asked him: 'Sheriff, what's got you so mad?' He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go -- when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, 'Sheriff, that's ridiculous.' And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: 'Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!' Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and start rescuing people. There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and enterprising spirit of our citizens.

Comment: Is this really the lesson that we're forced to accept by this anecdote about Hurricane Katrina?

Suppose someone offered this anecdote, and the accompanying lesson: "Government mandated that airbags be put in cars. Just such an airbag saved my grandmother's life in a car accident that otherwise would have killed her. There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is found in our government." It doesn't seem like we're really compelled to draw this lesson from this anecdote. Likewise, the lesson Jindal tries to draw from the Hurricane Katrina anecdote is also a bit of a stretch.

Granted, there are times when government policies and regulations create needless obstacles and do more harm than good. But there are also times when government regulations and policies are helpful, and do more good than harm. To cite examples of either case and then come up with a general lesson about where "the strength" of the country lies is unfounded.


That is why Republicans put forward plans to create jobs by lowering income tax rates for working families, cutting taxes for small businesses, strengthening incentives for businesses to invest in new equipment and hire new workers, and stabilizing home values by creating a new tax credit for home-buyers. These plans would cost less and create more jobs. But Democratic leaders in Congress rejected this approach. Instead of trusting us to make wise decisions with our own money, they passed the largest government spending bill in history -- with a price tag of more than $1 trillion with interest. While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending.

Comment: Jindal is describing Democratic policies on taxes and spending as being motivated by a distrust in people. Democrats, he says, don't trust us "to make wise decisions with our own money".

This is a caricature, however: all government spending involves taking money from people and spending it in a different way than the people would have spent it. The only way to avoid this is to not have ANY taxes or government spending at all, and neither Jindal nor Obama -- nor any other Republicans or Democrats -- are proposing that. Jindal himself says that some of the spending items proposed by Obama and the Democrats "make sense": does that mean he "distrusts" how the people would have spent that money? No, of course not.

Jindal doesn't agree with all of the Democrats' spending proposals. He thinks that lowering some taxes and cutting some spending would create more jobs and economic growth than the Democrats' proposals. But he needs to defend this assertion (just like Democrats need to defend THEIR claims that their proposals would create more jobs and growth than Republican proposals). But Jindal doesn't do this. Instead of giving us evidence for the claim that Republican economic proposals are better, he just dismisses Democratic proposals by saying that the latter are based on a "distrust" of the people (even though his own spending proposals are based on a similar "distrust").


Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need? That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did.

Comment: This seems like another caricature of Democratic proposals.

It's not as if Democrats are saying, "Hey, let's borrow money that our kids (and not us!) will have to pay back so we can buy a bunch of stuff we don't need." Rather, Democrats are increasing spending (granted, by borrowing more money) so that they can spend money on things they believe we -- both current and future generations -- DO need. Democrats believe that what they are spending money on are programs that are important to our prosperity in the near term and in the longer term, and that the benefits of that spending will outweigh the cost of having to repay the loans.

Now, just because they believe that doesn't mean that they're correct. It could be that they're wrong about what programs are vital to our prosperity. A detailed, substantive empirical debate is needed here -- from both Jindal (and Republicans) and Obama (and Democrats) -- regarding what policies will result in what costs and benefits. But Jindal doesn't give us a detailed argument supporting the claim that Republican policies are better, he just asserts it. And he offers up a caricature of Democrats as knowingly and intentionally spending borrowed money on superfluous programs that yield no benefit.


We believe Americans can do anything -- and if we put aside partisan politics and work together, we can make our system of private medicine affordable and accessible for every one of our citizens.

Comment: This is an appeal for bipartisanship, an appeal to unify the country, along with a condemnation of "partisan politics" (in other words, "negative politics").

Appeals for bipartisanship and condemnations of partisan politics are sort of the flip sides of one another. And they usually share the same flaw: a lack of specificity. What, in particular, is supposed to count as good, bipartisan behavior, and what counts as bad, partisan behavior?

Such is the case here, with Jindal's appeal. How, in particular, do we put aside partisanship on the issue of health care? Moreover, how do we do this in such a way that will make private health care "affordable and accessible" to everyone? What is it that Republicans need to "put aside" in order to get this result, and what is it that Democrats need to "put aside"? Jindal doesn't say.

As with most political issues, there are substantive disagreements on health care. People have beliefs -- different beliefs -- about what is the best course of action. Is Jindal instructing people to simply put aside their beliefs about what is the best course of action on health care? If he's not saying that, what is he saying?

Appeals for unity need to include details.


Democratic leaders in Washington place their hope in the federal government. We place our hope in you -- the American people. In the end, it comes down to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government. We oppose the national Democrats' view that says the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government. We believe the way to strengthen our country is to restrain spending in Washington, and empower individuals and small businesses to grow our economy and create jobs.

Comment: This is standard caricature. Just like Democrats, liberals, and "left-wingers" typically caricature Republicans, conservatives, and "right-wingers" as being greedy, uncompassionate people who don't care about the poor, the standard caricature in the other direction is that Democrats, etc. want government to run peoples' lives rather than have people be responsible for themselves.

Both caricatures are nonsense. There's a real debate about how much assistance -- how many services -- government should and shouldn't give. Should government provide roads, a police force, emergency services, unemployment benefits, education, dental care, etc.? These are legitimate questions.

Unfortunately, we like to simply caricature anyone who disagrees with us on these questions:

"If you don't agree with me that the government should be providing X, then I'm going to accuse you of being a social Darwinist who doesn't care about human suffering at all."


"If you don't agree with me that the government shouldn't be providing X, then I'm going to accuse you of being a communist who doesn't believe people have any responsibility for their own well-being."

Such is the case here with Jindal. He should stick to arguing about what moral priorities we should have, and what policies he believes have the best empirical track record with respect to those priorities.

But saying that the people who disagree with him don't put their hope in the American people and want to make the American people dependents on government is simply caricature. If Jindal doesn't want his own views to be caricatured, then he shouldn't do it to the views of others.

-- Civ.