A month before Mt. Redoubt erupted in Alaska, Gov. Bobby Jindal scoffed at the idea of volcano monitoring. A year before Sen. David Vitter apologized for a “serious sin,” he claimed no issue was more important than protecting heterosexual marriage. And the summer before coastal Louisiana became the sea-rise capital of the world, Rep. Steve Scalise said the earth was in a cooling period.
These were not the keenest insights in recent political history.
Nonetheless, the public heard about them because they received local and national press. I disagree with these claims. In my view they are wrong, if not stupid (though I do hope Scalise is somehow right.) But I also think Jindal, Vitter and Scalise have uttered worse howlers.
Consider these assertions about economics made in February 2009, shortly after President Barack Obama entered office and the Great Recession approached a nadir verging on global financial collapse.
“History shows us that tax cuts have proven to grow the economy and increase revenues to the federal government while also creating jobs,” Scalise said.
“I don’t know anyone — Democrat or Republican — who wouldn’t trade in the current economy for the job growth that the Bush, Reagan and Kennedy tax cuts produced,” Vitter said.
“You look in our country’s history, when President Kennedy, when President Reagan and, yes, when President Bush cut taxes, you know what, they created jobs for our country. It caused some of the best economic times and prosperity for our country,” Jindal said as a guest on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Unfortunately, history hasn’t “proven” a correlation between tax cuts and job-creating growth. And it certainly hasn’t demonstrated that tax cuts increase revenues (especially if you adjust for population growth and inflation.) Celebrating George W. Bush as a job grower, simply because he cut taxes, is ludicrous. Granted, some modest job growth occurred midway through this century’s first decade, but that was during a housing mania. Let’s step back and review some brute economic facts.
During the second President Bush’s time in office public sector jobs grew by 1.7 million while private payrolls shrank by nearly 700,000. That means the total net jobs increase under Bush was one million — one million government jobs.
You don’t have to be an economist to know that’s the pits. For comparison, 10 million net jobs were created during the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter. Sixteen million accrued during Ronald Reagan’s administration. Twenty million were gained under President Bill Clinton. During George H.W. Bush’s single term, only 2.6 million net jobs were gained. But that meager total seems pretty fair next to the paltry numbers during his son’s administration.
President Barack Obama’s net jobs tally will probably reach 2 million next month. That’s a lousy number, especially four years after a deep recession. Lucky for him, lousy followed horrible, and he won re-election. To be fair, Obama’s total would be higher if 740,000 net government jobs hadn’t been cut due to declining government revenues and then sequestration. On a per capita basis government employment is lower than it was during Bush I, Bush II, Clinton, or even Reagan. (Even so, a Google search for “Socialist Obama” yields 50 million results. No other name comes close.)
These employment stats don’t tell the whole story, of course. Let’s add some historical context: Carter’s strong four-year jobs figure is marred because it occurred during high inflation, and then, in 1980, the economy fell into recession. Under Reagan, the Federal Reserve subdued that inflation with restrictive monetary policies that resulted in a severe recession in 1981-82. Reagan cut taxes (and then he raised them). Clinton inherited an economy recovering from a shallow recession under Bush I. He also raised and then lowered taxes. The dot.com bubble at the end of the century boosted his job numbers.
Bush II inherited a country heading into a shallow recession after the bubble burst. He signed tax cuts into law (that were set to expire in 2010.) The aforementioned housing mania preceded and helped trigger the Great Recession that began in December 2007. Obama inherited the tail end of that mess, and cut taxes (before raising them) as part of his stimulus program. His job numbers have been buoyed by an energy revolution spawned by hydraulic fracturing to tap natural gas.
We could complicate this summary further with descriptions of the wars, demographic changes and debt-financed spending priorities that characterized these various eras. We could add that not all “jobs” are created equal. Nor are all tax cuts, for that matter. Suffice it to say, it’s complicated and can’t be encapsulated in easy sound bites. To keep it short, though, let’s just say that conditions vary and presidents sometimes receive both more and less credit (or blame) than they deserve for the jobs picture on their watch.
Nevertheless, net job-growth numbers during presidential administrations are strong data. You can only massage those numbers so far. While it’s possible to put Reagan and Bush II in the pantheon of tax cutters, you can’t praise their wildly different net job numbers without seeming crazy or dishonest. It would be like saying you love great Saints quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Billy Joe Tolliver. People will check your head for lumps.
Or at least they should. But Jindal and Vitter and scores of other Republicans have felt compelled to praise Bush’s dreadful job-creation record because he cut taxes substantially. That makes him a darling in the eyes of tax-phobes like Art Laffer (and like-minded think tanks) who’ve been crowing for decades about the economic miracles that occur if corporate, capital gains or income taxes are reduced. Laffer is convinced the cuts are so stimulative that government revenues will actually swell, despite the lower rates. And if they don’t, then Laffer is off hailing a taxi.
Three years ago I thought the GOP had an opportunity to start over, and craft a new story about taxes. After all, Bush had cut taxes and none of his net private sector job gains survived the Great Recession. The Tea Party had injected the anti-spending movement with new energy. After Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney lost to Obama in 2012, the prospects for a Republican turnaround were wide open. Jindal wasted no time entering the vacuum created by Romney’s collapse. As leader of the Republican Governors Association, he advised the GOP to stop being stupid. He talked about rethinking government from the ground up, and made some proposals on health care. He said Republicans should be fiscally responsible, but also talk about opportunity for all who want to pursue the American dream. He urged states to lead the way as laboratories of ideas.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for an ambitious, innovative conservative to grab hold and redefine the Republican party, I argued. And it seemed like Jindal was going to give it a shot. But I was wrong. Instead of seizing the moment and trying something new, he has been genuflecting before the same old GOP tax-cut altar while mumbling the familiar litany of tired talking points scripted by the same old national GOP poobahs.
The results have been pretty dismal to date. Jindal tried to force an income tax cut that nobody had asked for and was soundly rebuffed by state legislators. I think many Louisianans who might be sympathetic to an income-tax cut opposed Jindal’s idea because it was rolled out in haste and reeked more of his personal ambitions for national office than of thoughtful solutions to the state’s real problems.
Now he looks helpless and friendless, and state legislators are emboldened. The rest of his second term will not be easy.
He should have trusted in himself rather than snuggling into the easy embrace of Laffer’s old ideas. I tend to think that if Jindal had been properly scolded in 2009 for repeating ludicrous GOP talking points crediting Bush’s tax cuts for job growth, he might have thought twice before making the mistakes that appear to be undermining not just his legislative agenda but his dreams of the presidency as well.
That’s another thing that should annoy previous supporters of Jindal. Didn’t we elect a whiz-kid governor who was supposed to bring his own ideas to the table? And didn’t he tell us he wanted to bring in bright talent from around the country, to lift our state out of the muck? If Jindal is content to mouth talking points fed to him by the GOP’s national establishment, why are we paying top-dollar salaries to his lieutenants? Are they no more than salespeople for secondhand ideas?
Jindal’s future looks dim now, but his example is relevant. Scalise currently heads the powerful Republican Study Group caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Who knows where his ambitions lie? Vitter, for his part, is a two-term senator who might have an eye on the governor’s mansion. Shouldn’t they, like Jindal, be forced to explain their views on economics and taxes without resorting to simplistic party-line scripts?
Louisiana deserves bottom-up, home grown economic reforms supported by real-world arguments.
This is the first of two columns on the theme. Next time we’ll take a look at Jindal’s tax cut strategy as it pertains to Louisiana, and ask the Democrats some tough questions.