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William K. Black Headshot

Americans Can Do Anything: Jindal's Lack of Faith in Democracy (Part 1)

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This reaction to Governor Jindal's speech focuses on subjects I've taught: democratic government and public finance. His response to President Obama's State of the Union Address presented a paradox he did not recognize. His mantra is "American can do anything." Our democratic government is "the freest political system in the history of the world." He celebrates its success in response to terrible crises: slavery, world wars, depression, and terrorism." We triumph because when Americans: "pull together, there is no challenge we cannot overcome."

The context of the paradox was his claim (despite macroeconomic theory and experience that proves the opposite) that nations suffering from severe recessions should respond solely with tax cuts and not stimulate demand through public expenditures. My focus is on the rationale he offers, which is that our democracy is illegitimate. When Jindal says "Americans can do anything," he actually means "except through democratic processes."

But Democratic leaders in Congress rejected this approach [of making solely tax cuts]. Instead of trusting us to make wise decisions with our own money, they passed the largest government spending bill in history.

We oppose the National Democrats' view that says -- the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government.

When Americans spend money individually we make "wise decisions" but if "government" spends money we are worse off because we become "dependen[t]" on it. The "government" spends money because it doesn't "trust us." Jindal cites the U.S. victories in the two world wars as proof that we can do anything. We won because we used public expenditures to raise, feed, train, equip, and transport armed forces to Europe and Asia. If we had cut taxes and "trust[ed]" citizens to "make wise decisions" with "our own money" we would have lost the wars.

Jindal says that ending slavery was one of our greatest triumphs. Lincoln would not have saved the Union and ended slavery if he had responded to secession with tax cuts. Lincoln, the greatest Republican, dramatically expanded the federal government in order to win the Civil War, preserve the Union, and end slavery. The Confederacy, of course, wouldn't have let Jindal's parents into Louisiana.

Public finance explains why governments are needed to provide a "public good" like national defense. Private markets cannot make a profit on "public goods." "Public goods" have two defining characteristics -- there is no practical manner for a private firm to exclude non-payers from the benefits and "consumption" of the good or service is "non rival." Public finance also explains why additional "collective action" problems, such as "free riders" ensure that "trusting" citizens to "make wise decisions with our own money" will never produce an effective national defense.

Jindal proclaims that another triumph is that the U.S. "won the struggle for civil rights." He overstates, but government actions have brought progress. The initiative typically came from the targets of bias, but the targets' strategy nearly always centered on the enlistment of the federal government as an ally. Absent the federal government's support, the struggle for civil rights would have been lost. Public finance and political theory explain why this is true. Bigots that secure the support of local and state governments render their targets politically powerless. Such discrimination can prevail indefinitely. Private market actions cannot defeat it, and will often reinforce it. Private intimidation, often aided by local law enforcement, can make the bigotry lethal and far more effective. Federal government intervention was essential, and effective, in reducing such discrimination. Discrimination against disfavored groups causes great harm not only to the direct victims, but also "negative externalities" that harm the overall economy, society, and polity.

Jindal emphasized the importance of education:

To strengthen our economy, we also need to make sure every child in America gets the best possible education.

Public education is the single most important reason for our nation's success. Jindal appears to understand that. Republicans led the charge for free public education. The slave states generally opposed public education. Slave states often made it illegal to educate slaves. Slave states repeatedly blocked passage of the Land Grant Colleges act. Lincoln was finally able to pass it because of secession. Education provides "positive externalities." Your child's superior education helps society. It makes her a more likely to be an informed voter and a better contributor to the economy. Better-educated kids are less likely to have children out of wedlock or enter shotgun marriages, more likely to marry, more likely to defer having children to a time when they can afford to care for them with their own resources, less likely to become criminals, and less likely to divorce (Cahn & Carbone 2009, Red Families v. Blue Families, forthcoming). The only way "to make sure every child in America gets the best possible education" is to provide free public education.

Jindal also addressed "the crisis in health care."

Republicans believe in a simple principle: No American should have to worry about losing their health coverage -- period.

We stand for universal access to affordable health care coverage. We oppose universal government-run health care. Health care decisions should be made by doctors and patients -- not by government bureaucrats. 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.

No one has a window to another's soul. We can only rely on how they act. Congressional Republicans do not act to ensure that "no American should have to worry about losing their health coverage -- period" or to provide "universal access to affordable health care coverage." Millions of Americans lose their coverage every year (an estimated four million since the official start of the recession).

Republican Governors like Jindal and Palin have opposed efforts to prevent these losses of health care coverage. They have opposed Obama's plans to provide medical care coverage to the millions of Americans that have no coverage.

The U.S. does not provide "universal access to affordable health care coverage." We went the wrong direction on access under Bush. Republican policies ensure that there will be no universal access. The system they protect makes insurance companies wealthy. Jindal's rhetoric: "health care decisions should be made by doctors and patients -- not by government bureaucrats" is doubly duplicitous. The assertion that "bureaucrats" make the health care decisions in other advanced nations is false, but his understanding of America is equally poor. Insurance company bureaucrats frequently make our health care decisions.

Poor and working class Americans that have no health care coverage do not cherish their "freedom" to decide. They are forced to ask themselves: is my child so sick that I should take her to the emergency room and pray that the bills won't force me to declare bankruptcy? Jindal's jingoism ignores the reality working class Americans live.

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.

It is strange that Jindal, in a speech emphasizing federal budgetary limitations, assumes that poorer Americans "can do anything" by ignoring their budgetary limits. Poorer Americans inherently cannot afford expensive health care or education. That is an economic fact that has nothing to do with partisanship. We can succeed, if we "work together" through government. Only government funding can make "private medicine affordable and accessible for every one of our citizens." Health care provides substantial positive externalities, so the private sector will not provide it adequately.

Jindal proclaims that we have "the most powerful military." We do -- because of federal government spending, funded by taxes. Jindal, implicitly, concedes that government action is essential and has been effective in this field. Here's his key phrase again, he asserts that government services represent a failure to "trust[] us to make wise decisions with our own money." What he misses entirely are the concepts of democracy and voter competence. We are bright enough to understand the concept of "public goods", "externalities" and "collective action problems." As a result, we realize (1) that we need an effective national defense, (2) that the private sector is incapable of providing it, (3) that we can direct our democratically elected government representatives to provide for that defense, and (4) that we must fund that defense through taxes. We are making "wise decisions" -- we use government to provide useful goods and services that the private sector cannot adequately provide. We follow Jindal's advice, because when we use democratic government to: "pull together, there is no challenge we cannot overcome."

It is Jindal that does not "trust" Americans and our democratic system of government. Americans can do anything if we work together. One of the essential ways in which we work together is through the government programs that produced each of the triumphs Jindal urges us to celebrate.