Jindalmania

I saw Bobby Jindal talk last week at the National Press Club. He's being widely touted as McCain's potential running mate, though I agree with Ross that this would be a mistake--for Jindal. No one should run for office this year as a Republican who doesn't have to.

Mostly I was incredibly impressed. He looks like the president of the high school chess club, so it's something of a shock to my elitist coastal ears to hear a rich good-old-boy southern accent issuing from him. But he's a hell of a talker, and most of what he says actually makes sense.

One interesting thing I learned is just how far Jindal has come in fighting Louisiana's institutional problems. Bush detractors get mad when I say this, but it really is true that the total ineptitude of the state and local governments was a major reason that things went so tragically wrong during Katrina. FEMA is a small agency with a few thousand employees; it is a funding mechanism for recovery efforts, not some sort of Super EMT Squad. FEMA does well in states that have competent and responsive government agencies, and not so well in places that don't. (The staggering incompetence of rebuilding efforts is another rant--but also, a symptom of broader government problems rather than necessarily something specific to FEMA. But then as I say, that's another rant.)

With a river of federal money flowing in, Louisiana, which used to be stuck at the bottom of state corruption indices, could have gone back to business as usual while the politicians and the powers that be diverted a few rivulets to their own use. Instead, Jindal and the legislature passed anti-corruption laws that in a surprising turn of events actually seem to have done something about corruption--suddenly the state is getting the best scores in the country. They pushed through disclosure rules for all government officials--state and local, appointed and elected. He got a law passed that forbid legislators from doing business with the state. And he took on a tax and regulatory structure that had been built around the notion that companies couldn't go anywhere, and could hence be bled dry.

Huey Long deliberately built a bridge lower than standard so that boat traffic couldn't go upriver. The days when New Orleans could enforce that kind of dominance are long gone, but the old institutional structures remained. For example, Louisiana had special taxes on utilities, on new equipment purchases, on businesses that borrowed money. The unsurprising result was that companies deferred maintenance and refused to buy new equipment, making them uncompetitive unless they paid low wages. It's classic rent seeking behavior by the legislature, and Jindal actually got rid of it; new businesses are now locating there, and others are upgrading.

This reminded me very much of Jonathan Rauch's terrific book, Government's End. The book is a sort of basic primer for public choice theory, and a must-read for anyone who cares about policymaking. One of the things he points out is how lobbies tend to accrete over time, so that it becomes harder and harder for the government to do anything. He suggests that postwar Europe actually had more effective economic and political institutions because the war smashed the existing power structures, giving them more freedom to make policy. (I'd argue that at least since 1992, the EU has taken away their edge).

Katrina seems to have created a similar situation. With the old power networks disrupted, there was an opportunity to actually build institutions that functioned better than the old sclerotic ones. Louisiana seems to have been very lucky in getting a governor who is actually focusing on institution-building which will--if it works--give the state vastly more economic and political flexibility for years to come.

Of course, I'm just in that first flush of puppy love, when a journalist meets a handsome young politician who just might be The One. Soon enough, I'll undoubtedly find things about him to hate. But frankly, it's rare enough to meet one I like. True love may have to wait.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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