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Shoulda, Coulda, Oughta
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Shoulda, Coulda, Oughta

Our elected officials would rather complain about problems than solve them.

Immigrants keep warm by a fire at dawn after spending a night alongside the U.S.-Mexico border fence on December 22, 2022 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (Including those of you who are just reading this to avoid your crazy uncle’s holiday rantings),

My favorite scene in Christopher Best’s A Mighty Wind is a bit obscure. Ed Begley Jr. is kibitzing in the control room for the big TV special that’s about to start very soon. He starts telling the director how great it would be to have a crane. “Another great thing would be one of those shots where you pull back to see the enormity of the event and the venue—would be a crane. Do we have a crane standing by?”

“No, we don’t have a crane.”

Begley keeps talking about how great it would be to have a crane, as if the key to getting one is persuading the director that it would be good to have one. “You know those swooping shots where it goes over the audience and hammers in on a shot of one of the musicians playing?”

The director replies, deadpan. “That would be great.”

Begley keeps trying to sell him on it. “It would be,” he gushes. “Or when they pull back, kind of like a California Adventure ride where you see the whole thing, that would be nice too.”

“It would be,” the director tersely concurs.

The scene hit very close to home for me because it captured a big part of my experience as a television producer. My old boss, Ben Wattenberg, would come up with various ideas—some good, some very bad but all way, way, too late to act on them. And when I’d say it’s too late to do it, he’d assume I was saying I didn’t like the idea, when I was merely pointing to the reality of the situation.

We once shot several episodes of his show Think Tank in Japan. Filming in Japan was very difficult, especially in the early days of the internet, in the pre-iPhone, pre-Google maps era. You’re basically a toddler, incapable of even looking up basic information or reading street signs. The culture is very difficult to navigate. So we tried to produce everything in advance, because arranging new interviews or locations would be so difficult and expensive. Anyway, as we were flying to Japan, Ben came back to my seat and said, “I’ve been reading the scripts and I think we need to add an interview.”

“Okay …?” I said nervously. 

“I think we need to find a retired World War II general who really regrets losing the war and can talk about that.”

Caught a bit off guard, I nonetheless tried to explain that this would be difficult for a great many reasons, not least that Japanese generals willing to go on the record about their shame and remorse at losing a war are not super easy to find—above ground, at least. 

But Ben just continued trying to sell me on the idea.

Anyway, this came to mind because I think a great deal of our politics is bedeviled by a similar is-ought disconnect. 

Politicians and pundits alike are very comfortable talking about what our policies ought to be or not be. We—and I say “we” because I am guilty of this too—bring a high level of abstraction to our preferences and our complaints. This can be useful, even essential. Before you can work out the nitty gritty of how to implement a policy, you first have to figure out what the policy should be. 

The problem comes when the debates over abstract disagreements wander away from the actual facts on the ground and the decisions that need to be made. 

This week, Congress coughed up another slimy hairball of an omnibus spending bill. I hate these things and I agree with nearly everyone who complains about them. But the question remains: What’s the alternative? Not in the abstract—“Hey it would be great if we did things differently” sense—but in the practical, real-world, sense. Go ahead and vote no on this monster. But if all that does is mean having to vote on a similar monster in 2023, what’s the point other than virtue signaling?

Kevin McCarthy and the Heritage Foundation crowd insist that they’re opposed to giving Ukraine more “blank checks” when it comes to aid. Okay, me too. But the fact is that we never gave Ukraine a blank check or anything like one in the first place. It sounds like a serious position and a serious complaint. But it’s really a non-sequitur masquerading as a tough position. McCarthy could also say that he opposes giving Ukraine thermonuclear weapons or genetically modified rottweilers with lasers strapped to their heads—-and it would be just as germane.

Or consider energy policy. There are all sorts of colorable arguments in favor of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels. But even if every single argument were correct in every regard, the fact is, we still need fossil fuels and will for a long while. The question, therefore, is: What is the best way to use fossil fuels while we need to use fossil fuels? Because the Biden administration likes the argument against fossil fuels in the abstract, it would prefer to get more oil from Venezuela than Texas. If the carbon emissions are going to be the same no matter what, that’s idiotic. 

As an aside, I love the people who say that they’ll never buy a Tesla because they don’t like Elon Musk. Fine. But it does highlight how much of the Tesla fad was an exercise in virtue signaling. “Climate change is an existential crisis but I’ll be damned if I’ll give the guy ruining Twitter the satisfaction!”

Anyway, the best example of “ought” crowding out “is” these days is immigration policy. In the abstract, I am very pro-immigration. I also favor a generous and compassionate asylum policy. But my abstract position is relatively meaningless. Let’s say I favor admitting 2 million immigrants per year. Or 4 million. Or 10 million. By picking a specific number I’m also saying that any number higher than that number is too many. If you don’t have a concept of too many, you don’t really have a concept of “enough.” And that’s the same thing as saying you don’t have a policy at all. 

Likewise, I am open to literally any reasonable argument about what our asylum rules should be. But whatever rules we come up with, those have to be the rules. 

Of course, if you want to say economic refugees—i.e. poor people looking for better opportunities—should be given asylum, I’ll disagree with you and so will most voters. But if that’s your policy, you should be willing to say what you really mean: American citizenship is available to any poor person who can make it here. I have libertarian friends who say that’s economically sustainable. I disagree. But that’s beside the point. It’s politically unsustainable. So if you want to prevent unreasonable immigration policies in the future, you have to enforce reasonable ones now. 

I can’t say with confidence that the Biden administration agrees with these points or not because it seems like their statements are drawn from a hat filled with a thousand different scraps of paper with different positions scrawled on them. The White House has been in a defensive crouch on this problem from the outset because the policy necessities run afoul of their pronouncements of principle.  

Outside a small group of experts with little sway with politicians, U.S. immigration “policy”—the quotation marks are intended to convey scorn and ridicule—has been a 20-year dorm room fight about abstract positions with little to no connection to reality. For instance, the law says DHS “shall detain” aliens here unlawfully. Lots of Republicans want the Biden administration to enforce that law. But, as Justice Brett Kavanaugh recently noted, Congress has, for decades, offered no funding to actually do that. Writing laws that say the executive branch “shall”—i.e. must—do something without providing the resources to actually do it is the same as being for something in principle but opposed to it in fact. 

I have some sympathy for the administration—and a lot of sympathy for the migrants—but sympathy isn’t a policy. I have less sympathy for Congress as an institution. By refusing to legislate based upon real world problems, they’ve allowed first order questions to be dealt with by bureaucrats twisting and mutilating random administrative laws on the books. I mean how stupid is it that the CDC is running a big chunk of immigration policy under “Title 42”? 

Republicans insist the pandemic is over, but they want a pandemic rule to be kept in force with regard to the southern border anyway. I understand why, and heck, given the cocked-up predicament, they might be right. But if the issue is migrants bringing COVID to America, we should have health officials at O’Hare and Hartsdale blocking tourists, too. After all, COVID doesn’t know the immigration status of its human hosts. 

Of course, COVID and immigration are just facets of the colossal disco ball of Congress’ institutional failure, under Democrats and Republicans, radiating across the land. Joe Biden is using obscure authorizations Congress never intended to allow anything like blanket forgiveness of student loans. Republicans in Congress are furious about it, spouting all sorts of claims about abuse of power and violations of the Constitution—and they’re right. But you know what Congress could do? Write new laws. Don’t like what a president does on loans, immigration, or trade? Take back the power you gave the president.  

Yeah, yeah, I get that Republicans right now don’t have the votes. But when Trump was in power, Democrats did. They didn’t revoke Trump’s imperial powers. They didn’t even try. 

There are always partisan imperatives. But Congress is supposed to be where policy is made. And this craptacular parliament of pundits would rather pound the table about abstractions and “issues” than actually deal with policies and facts. When their party has the White House, they want a czar. When the other party has the White House they want to bitch and moan about how the president shouldn’t be a czar. 

This institutional abdication should be a national scandal. Instead, I keep hearing how Nancy Pelosi is one of the greatest speakers and legislators in American history and how Kevin McCarthy will get to the bottom of Hunter Biden’s laptop if he gets the gavel. Fine, rake Hunter and Fauci over the coals, I really couldn’t care less. But the fact remains neither party has the courage or seriousness required to deal with our systemic problems. 

Everyone wants to talk about how great it would be to have a crane, but nobody wants to do the work or spend the money on getting one when there’s still time to get one. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: We are still struggling to get Zoë’s lump taken care of on an expedited timetable. But so far she doesn’t seem to have any discomfort. She is getting very bossy though. Beyond that, the girls had a wonderful time with Kirsten while we were gone, but they are definitely happy to have the full pack back together. They love Christmastime, even if they don’t like everything that comes with it. 


And now, the weird stuff


Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.