Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is considered one of the most wonkish of the Republican Party’s class of rising stars. Most politicians get involved in policy after getting involved in politics, which is why they know so little about it. Jindal took the opposite path. As a Rhodes Scholar, he focused on health policy at Oxford and led planning at the Department of Health and Human Services during George W. Bush’s administration. Then he ran for office. He is, in other words, the rare politician who can work a spreadsheet.
Which is why it’s so disappointing when he says things like this: “I suspect that many in the Obama administration really don’t believe in private enterprise. At best, they see business as something to be endured so that that it can provide tax money for government programs.”
You can explain it away with all the normal political excuse-making and curve-grading. Jindal was speaking to an audience of rabid partisans at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Chicago. He’s trying to show the campaign of likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney that he can play the role of attack dog, a crucial qualification for any vice president. It’s just a throwaway applause line.
But that’s why it’s such a shameful display: He knows better. Or he should.
Consider what it would mean for Jindal to believe what he’s saying. It would mean he thinks there are real, living, breathing humans in the Obama administration who unhappily endure Apple’s existence because it leads to tax revenue, or who walk into their local hardware stores and can stomach the experience of buying a hammer only because they know deep down that some percentage of that purchase is headed to Medicare’s coffers. No one in the Obama administration thinks like that. These days, no one in China even thinks like that. To find anyone who actually thinks like that, you need a Hot Tub Time Machine set for the Soviet Union in 1973.
What Jindal probably believes, rather, is that this kind of over-the-top comment speaks to something genuine in the conservative id. But it does so by ignoring the reality of the Obama administration’s policies.
Let’s start with the idea that the administration views businesses as piggy banks. Since 1950, corporate tax receipts have averaged 2.7 percent of gross domestic product. In the Obama years, they’ve averaged 1.16 percent.
Much of that is a consequence of the recession. But some is a consequence of policies the administration has proposed and passed. The original stimulus package included billions of dollars in tax cuts for businesses, including allowing them to write off 50 percent of the cost of any depreciable capital purchases — think tractors and wind turbines — made in 2009. In 2010, the administration upped that to 100 percent. In 2011, it proposed the American Jobs Act, which sought to halve payroll taxes on the first $5 million of a company’s payroll and eliminate payroll taxes on any new workers a business hired. Republicans blocked it. Going forward, Obama’s budget envisions corporate tax receipts rebounding to about 2.4 percent of GDP — again, below the historical average.
And it’s not just tax cuts. The administration’s first act — during the transition period after Obama was elected — was lobbying congressional Democrats to release the second tranche of Troubled Assets Relief Program funding to save the financial industry. Later, it passed a health-care bill that not only abandoned the long-held liberal dream of single payer, but jettisoned even a public option. During financial reform, when the left was urging the administration to break up the biggest banks or at least pass a new Glass-Steagall measure, they went with a more incremental approach.
If these policies have caused serious distress, it’s hard to detect in corporate bottom lines. After taxes, corporate profits amounted to 6.9 percent of GDP in 2010 — the highest level since 1966. That speaks to the underlying reality of this recovery: Corporate taxes are near all-time lows and corporate profits are near all-time highs. That’s a mighty odd outcome for an administration that supposedly considers the existence of private businesses an unpleasant side effect of the government’s need for tax revenue, don’t you think?
That’s not to say that businesses like everything the administration has done or wants to do. And they really don’t like everything it has said. The president has matched a pro-business record with occasionally populist rhetoric, and that has angered chief executives and financiers who want their wealth to be viewed as evidence of their worth as people and contributors to societal progress.
But that’s the real debate we’re having. Both parties agree that most everything should be done by the private market. Democrats want slightly higher taxes and universal health care based on the Massachusetts model, and Republicans want somewhat lower taxes and a more spartan safety net. Jindal knows all this, or at least he should. And, as one of relatively few politicians who is a bona fide policy wonk, he should be explaining the policy debate to his base, not caricaturing it.
For previous columns by Ezra Klein, go to postbusiness.com.