EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (including those of you born in Canada),
I guess we should start there. I find this birther stuff to be a lot like women’s prison movies: compelling, entertaining, and totally ridiculous.
But imagine if it did? Imagine that your American-born mother just happened to give birth to you in Canada or Belize while on vacation. Your American-born mom and dad bring you home days later and raise you exactly as they would have had they been in Cleveland the whole time. Now imagine there are also all sorts of jobs you are barred from having. Not only can you not be president, but you can’t be, say, a chiropodist or an embalmer. Pick your restrictions: You can’t go to certain colleges or you can’t get the best ESPN bundle. Americans born abroad can’t buy basset hounds. Unless you were born here, you can’t get cheese on your hamburger. Whatever. It really doesn’t matter.
If that were the case the Constitution would be amended — either properly or through interpretation — to get rid of this distinction instantly (which means this would have happened centuries before the invention of ESPN, but you get the point).
My point is simple: This issue remains unsettled because it matters so little.
Most of us don’t expect to be president of the United States, so what do we care about whether or not we — or our kids — are “natural born citizens”? That provision in the Constitution was put there to prevent foreign-born characters from being influenced from abroad.
While I am certainly open to theories about how Ted Cruz is the Manitoban Candidate, hiding in plain sight until he can impose the metric system on our children and make us all passive-aggressively polite, my hunch is that’s not the case.
If any of us were actually affected by this distinction in a meaningful way, we’d have gotten rid of it a long, long, long time ago. Personally, I don’t think it should be in the Constitution — at least not anymore. But I’d hardly go through the bother of taking it out either.
It seems obvious to me that Ted Cruz is a natural-born citizen, and if the Constitution really says otherwise, I think the Constitution is wrong. But just because the Constitution is wrong doesn’t mean it loses its authority.
Even less plausible than Cruz’s not being a natural-born citizen: that Donald Trump actually cares about this or any of the other attendant constitutional niceties.
Even less plausible than Cruz’s not being a natural-born citizen: that Donald Trump actually cares about this or any of the other attendant constitutional niceties. Personally, I think it is hilarious the way Trump pretends he’s only raising the issue out of “concern” for “Ted” and the GOP.
I’m honestly curious if anyone, anywhere, actually believes Trump is being sincere. This is a different question from whether there are people who think he’s right. I know those people exist. But does anyone actually think Trump’s explanation for how he’s bringing up Ted’s “problem” to help Ted is genuine?
I’ll take my answer off the air.
New York Values
I’m writing this from Baltimore (actually, I’m in my car parked near Camden Yards smoking a cigar), where I lived briefly (not in the car, but in Baltimore). But everyone is talking about New York.
I find the whole GOP-debate-inspired conversation about New York values kind of fascinating and full of ironies. Since I’m already running very late here, I’ll run through a few of them bullet-point style and in no particular order (Pay no heed to the cardinal numbers! They’re meaningless!).
1. Politically, I think Donald Trump won the exchange hands down, even though argumento ad nine-elevenum® is a pretty weak rebuttal logically. But we live in a populist moment and argumento ad populum is everywhere.
2. I think it’s really interesting that Cruz went with this line of attack. It was widely reported that the Cruz campaign has been testing different lines of attack with Iowa voters. That this is the one that seemed to be the most effective is revealing. It also shows that it means something to at least some Iowa voters.
3. And it should. For instance, when people say “blue-state values,” they mean something pretty specific. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t people with “red-state values” in blue states and vice versa. Adam Baldwin lives in Santa Monica, I’m pretty sure. And he’s a conservative. That doesn’t mean there’s no basis whatsoever to speak of “Santa Monica values.” When we speak about large things (I mean in terms of concepts, not things like André the Giant’s liver or Barack Obama’s ego), we of necessity simplify them. Without doing so we are left with all noise and no signal, or what William James called “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.”
4. I was actually quite surprised that Cruz — who knew Trump’s answer was coming, since he already gave it earlier in the day — didn’t have a good comeback. I’m not sure what he could have said that would have worked, but he could have acknowledged that there are plenty of hard-working, decent, conservative — and liberal — people in New York, and then added something like, “There’s a reason why Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate as a New York carpetbagger instead of from Arkansas. There’s a reason why Bill de Blasio, a man to the left of Bernie Sanders, is the mayor of New York. There’s a reason why you can’t buy a gun in New York City.” Instead, Cruz was left lamely applauding Trump’s tribute to 9/11 first-responders. If he was unprepared to push back, he shouldn’t have leveled this line of attack in the first place.
5. It’s ironic that Cruz’s argument boiled down to innuendo, given that innuendo has become Trump’s most effective mode of attack.
6. Another irony is that Trump has always been a bridge-and-tunnel populist in New York. He began his career by taking on the snooty world of Manhattan real estate and he’s always been on the New York Post side of the yawning cultural divide in the Big Apple. Because of that, even though he is constantly prattling on about how exquisite his tastes are, he’s never seemed snooty himself. Cruz’s attack would have worked fine on Michael Bloomberg or Bill de Blasio, because they’re more what people think of when they hear “New York values.”
7. Trump’s point about William F. Buckley was a good one, but Bill would be the first to concede that “New York values” is a defensible shorthand for a certain kind of politics and a certain kind of culture.
8. That’s another irony about New York. It produces quite a lot of conservatives, some natural born, others naturalized. (Heh.) I was born there. So was my dad. My mom is a consummate New Yorker now, but she’s from Virginia. John Podhoretz, Bill Kristol (not to mention their parents), Rudy Giuliani, Andy McCarthy, General Jack Keane, et al were born in New York, too. As someone who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the right-wing Goldbergs were like Christians in ancient Rome, I can tell you I understand immediately what people mean when they refer to “New York values.”
9. In fact, I would argue that there’s a certain advantage (and many disadvantages) to growing up — or living as — a conservative in a liberal place. It forces you to know yourself and your beliefs in a way that you might not if conservatism is just in the air you breathe. It’s analogous to my longstanding argument about being a conservative (or libertarian) on a liberal college campus. You develop muscles when you swim against the tide. The best learning is Socratic, and when you are constantly having your beliefs and assumptions questioned, you either cave in to the conventional wisdom or you force yourself to develop arguments for why the conventional wisdom is wrong. The smartest liberals at Harvard or Yale rarely meet a professor — or administrator — they actually disagree with on a fundamental philosophical level. Meanwhile, if you can make it out of those schools having been a politically engaged conservative, it means you’ve sharpened your thinking against a lot of whetting stones. Ted Cruz went to Harvard Law School, but that doesn’t mean he’s a hypocrite when he criticizes the values of Harvard Law School — it means he probably knows what he’s talking about.
Our Weak Overlords
My column from yesterday is on how all of the talk about how our political system has been bought by the “billionaire class” is simplistic nonsense. If “big money” rules, why is Jeb Bush at 6 percent in the polls? Why is Bernie Sanders poised to beat Hillary in New Hampshire and maybe Iowa?
I definitely think the system is designed in a way that benefits rich people (that’s a significant theme of the book I’m working on), but that has not much to do with the preferred policies of a bunch of mustache-twirling fat cats. Indeed, the whole notion that rich people are ideologically homogenous is little more than the grimy, greasy, stain left behind from Marxism’s departure down the toilet bowl of history. There are rich people — and some big corporations — that are for limited government and there are rich people — and far too many big corporations — that want to expand the role of government.
My very short, partial, explanation for why the system seems rigged for the benefit of rich people has to do with the fact that complexity is a subsidy. The more rules and regulations the government creates, the more it creates a society where people with resources — good educations, good lawyers, good lobbyists, and good connections — can rise while those without such resources are left to climb hurdles on their own. On this basic point, Donald Trump is indisputably right. Bribing politicians to come to your wedding may seem insecure and weird, but there’s no doubt the ability to do so comes with payoffs. Big government by its very nature helps people who know how to game the system.
I wrote about this the other day as applied to Obama’s gun-control push:
Whatever you may think about the policy objectives involved, it seems pretty obvious to me that this is a boon to the gun industry. Let’s say the government comes out and puts lots of burdens on the sales of used cars, particularly person-to-person sales. Who benefits the most from that? New car dealers. I don’t see why the same thing wouldn’t happen with guns. The more onerous you make it to sell a used gun, the more likely it is you will send buyers to get new guns.
The Second Amendment issues aren’t really what I find so interesting here. It’s the nature of regulation itself. Whenever the government gets involved in regulating the economy (or trying to make its citizenry “legible”), it tends to benefit the big players. That’s because the big players can absorb the transaction costs better than the smaller ones.
As Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein put it:
It’s very hard for outside entrants to come in and disrupt our business simply because we’re so regulated. We hear people in our industry talk about the regulation, and they talk about it with a sigh about the burdensome of regulation. But in fact in some cases the burdensome regulation acts as a bit of a moat around our business.
This is a phenomenon I’ve written quite a bit about before. Progressives claim to dislike corporatism because they think it means “rule by corporations.” It doesn’t. The reality is they love it. They love having the “stakeholders” around one table so they can be coopted and bought-off.
Back to the Billionaires
One point I didn’t have room to fit into the column concerns the Koch brothers. To listen to the Democrats, you’d think the Koch brothers are the poster boys of capitalist greed and anti-democratic string-pulling. This has always struck me as utter nonsense. If you think Charles Koch wrote a book on market-based management for the book royalties, you know less than a rock about the book business. The more obvious and accurate explanation is that the Kochs actually believe what they believe and they think the world would be better if they could convince other people to believe it, too. For instance, they make more money from the existing regulatory regime, because it makes it harder for other businesses to compete with their refineries. And yet, they steadfastly believe that the free market would be better for other people.
The real irony about the liberal demonization of the Kochs is that the Kochs are actually precisely the kind of conservatives concern-trolling liberals constantly say they want more of.
Stop me if you have no idea what I’m talking about. There’s a kind of person . . . no, that’s not quite right. There’s a kind of argument, nay a lament, made by lots of different kinds of people. It goes something like this: “Why can’t Republicans just drop the hardcore social issues and stick with fiscal conservatism? I would totally vote for a socially liberal, fiscally conservative GOP.” Sometimes, the phrase “fiscal conservatism” is thrown out — rightly — and replaced with “free market policies” or “limited government” etc.
Now, I’ve written so many times about this I could cut-and-paste my way through it like Buffalo Bill making his lady suit in Silence of the Lambs. (By the way, if that movie came out today, some reviewer at Salon would probably complain about how outrageous it is that Buffalo Bill couldn’t use the women’s bathroom!)
First: If you get rid of the social issues — however defined — the GOP loses millions of Evangelicals, orthodox Catholics, and other social conservatives while gaining . . . who? The Huntsman family and Meghan McCain?
Second: The social conservatives are the ones who disproportionately show up — to stuff envelopes, plant yard signs, knock on doors, etc. Woody Allen was mistaken when he said, “Let’s adopt another kid. What could go wrong?” But he was onto something when he said 80 percent of life is about showing up. That’s a low-ball estimate when it comes to politics. Politics is all about turning up and turning out. People who whine that the GOP doesn’t reflect their concerns should probably go to a few more meetings.
The least-reliable politicians on economic issues also tend to be the least reliable on social issues. Does anyone remember Arlen Specter being of any great use holding the line against tax hikes?
Third: Social conservatives are more “fiscally conservative” than social moderates. There’s an assumption behind so much of this talk that moderate Republicans represent the economic-conservative leg of the Republican stool. This is closer to a different kind of stool, of the bovine variety. From the U.S. Congress to state legislatures, the most reliable opponents of tax hikes and excessive spending are for the most part the same folks who are also pro-life. The least-reliable politicians on economic issues also tend to be the least reliable on social issues. Does anyone remember Arlen Specter being of any great use holding the line against tax hikes? Jim Jeffords? How about Susan Collins? The simple fact is that if you’re squishy on some parts of conservatism, you’re likely to be squishy elsewhere.
Fourth: The following point shocks a lot of people in places like Washington, New York, and LA because there are many libertarian-ish people on Wall Street, in journalism, in Hollywood, etc.: A lot of the donor class is very libertarian on social issues, immigration, and economics. But, I’m sorry to tell you, the voters aren’t.
Fifth: One last point: Socially liberal people aren’t (necessarily) libertarians. There’s this vexing myth that if Republicans become libertarian on social issues, socially liberal voters would be attracted by our economic message. I won’t rant about this here (though I have here and here), but the basic truth is that liberals are just as un-libertarian in the social realm as they are in the economic realm. Just look around: from the gay-wedding-cake baker, to bans on Halloween costumes, to campus speech codes, to attempts to “integrate” males into female bathrooms. I ask you ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Do these look like libertarians to you? William F. Buckley’s old line summarized it well: Liberals don’t care what you do so long as it’s compulsory.
Again, lots of people make this argument. I’ve heard it from Wall Street billionaires and ramen-noodle-fueled college kids alike. But the people I have the least patience for are the ones who don’t offer it as an expression of their frustration with a party they want to vote for, but instead offer it as serious-minded analysis from a loyal opponent. On any given day, it’s easy to find some liberal somewhere, writing on the Interwebs or saying on Morning Joe, that if only Republicans threw out their social conservatism they would become an electoral powerhouse. Sometimes this “analysis” is offered as concern-trolling b.s. Sometimes it’s probably sincere.
So, the next time you have this conversation, try this.
Concern Trolling Liberal: I just wish Republicans would get rid of the religious crazies and become socially liberal, fiscally conservative.
You: Oh, like Charles and David Koch?
CTL: No! Not those right-wing whackos. I mean Republicans should be pro-choice . . .
You: Like the Kochs?
CTL: . . . and pro-gay rights! . . .
You: Kochs, Kochs, Kochs.
CTL: . . . And pro-immigration . . .
You: The Kochs are way to the left of Bernie Sanders on immigration.
CTL: . . . and they should oppose all of these foreign wars and being the world’s policeman.
You: Kochs again.
CTL: But they’re racists! They support the drug war and locking up young black men!
You: Actually, they oppose the drug war and . . .
CTL: But, but, but…
[ End scene.]
Now I don’t agree with the Kochs on everything, nor do the Kochs agree with liberals on everything. But you see the point, right? If liberals were sincere in their claim that conservatives should become more socially liberal, they would celebrate what the Kochs are trying to do.
Various & Sundry
At the end of this month, I will be attending the Foundation for Economic Education’s third annual retreat in Florida. FEE is one of the great foundational institutions for economic liberty in America, and I’m thrilled to be speaking there. I’ll bring my pencil (some of you will get it).
On March 11, I have the honor of being the speaker at the Pacific Research Institute’s Baroness Thatcher Dinner, in Newport Beach. If you’re in the area, please come out. It’s for a great cause.
On February 6, I’ll be joining my NR colleagues and my fellow GLoPers for National Review’s “Quadrennial New Hampshire GOP Debate Night-a-palooza.” Details here. It’s always a lot of fun.
My first column of the week was on how Jeb Bush’s failure to cultivate the base of the party — as all previous successful establishment front-runners have — explains much of the chaos in the GOP primary right now.
Doggy Update: Not much to report this week. The Fair Jessica is finally back from Hawaii and things are getting back to normal somewhat. I wasn’t there this morning for our normal pre-dawn sortie. And I was enraged to learn that once again the beasts consider the pre-dawn part a dad thing. They wake me up between 5:30 and 6:00 as if there are few seconds to spare before the squirrels complete their work on a nuclear weapon. They usher me out of the house like canine secret-service agents carrying the president to a bunker during a terrorist attack. But for my wife? They lazily wait for her to get the human child fed and off to school before they make their leisurely way to the woods for some care-free relaxation time. It’s terribly unfair.
Sign of the Apocalypse: Man fathers 800 children