David Brooks on the immigration reform push and the second Republican party
HH: Joined now by David Brooks, New York Times columnist, author of The Social Animal. David, Happy New Year to you, good to have you back.
DB: Same to you. Good to be back.
HH: David, I’m making a push today, and have been all week, and will for many weeks to come, that immigration reform is actually the opportunity for education reform, and pointing to the American Enterprise Institute study of the Uno Charter School system that came out yesterday, and many other things. But I don’t know that Republicans are in the mood to do that. What do you think about the fact that we have a million children under the age of 18 who are not in the country legally, four and a half additional million children who have one or more parents who are not in the United States legally, that this is an opportunity for us to do something to reform the system in which they are educated, as well as make them legal?
DB: You know, that’s an interesting point. I hadn’t really thought about that. I’ve been focusing on how to use it as a tool to boost economic growth. The first thing that comes to my mind is the Katrina storm sort of disrupted the New Orleans school system. And it turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise, because they had a chance to really reform that system, and with a lot more charters and stuff like that. And it’s produced incredibly impressive results. So in some ways, tackling this problem could lead to more disruption of the education system, and that’s bound to be good.
HH: That is my view, is that given that it’s federal immigration law, they have Constitutional authority to actually intervene into education, traditionally a state and local school preserve in much the way that Section 8 housing works. They could mandate that these kids go to any public school they want to. They could give them vouchers, usable in any private school. But I don’t know that the Republicans are thinking out of the box. They think of immigration reform, David Brooks, as a nightmare as opposed to an opportunity to do many interesting things.
DB: Yeah, no, and the more I think about it, what they could say is, you know, the Obama administration doesn’t want to give you choices. And here’s our bill to give you choices of what school to attend. And I’m watching the Obama education department, which in general, I think has been one of the better parts of the administration, more reform oriented, but they’re still feeling the heat from the teachers unions, and sometimes objecting when districts want to close schools. So they’ve been a little more of a status quo force than I think they need to be, and this would certainly be an opportunity to outflank them on the reform front.
HH: And to do it for the right reason. Arthur Brooks, whom I’m sure you have the same degree of admiration for as I do, talks about Republicans have to actually want to do good for the poor if they’re going to do well with the poor. They actually have to really want to help them. And there’s no place where that is easier to accomplish than education reform. I think in The Social Animal, and you’re a social science wonk for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t, hasn’t read The Social Animal yet, you read all these different studies. Those early primary years are simply extraordinary opportunities to influence for the good the arc of these lives.
DB: Yeah, Jim Heckman of the University of Chicago, who won a Nobel laureate in economics, his phrase is learners learn, and skill begets skill. So it’s like compound interest. If you can reform the education system early on, then they become learners. And they become better learners all the way along, and you get this compound interest effect. And so I do think A) it’s a good way to help the poor, B) you know, I’m looking for growth opportunities, and I’m for tax reform. I’m just not sure we’re going to get it over the next couple of years. So if we want to get ourselves out of the growth doldrums we’re in, there are really very few levers. I think a trade agreement with Europe would be one, but immigration would be one. And I think it’s important to push that, both to improve our human capital, but also to get the high-skilled workers. That’s got to be the thing that’s going to boost growth the fastest. It’s like importing money almost. I saw a study that if you import a hundred men and women with PhD’s, that generates about 84 downstream jobs. And that’s got to be a growth agenda, I think.
HH: I was talking today with the waiter who was taking care of me at lunch. And I know him. His name is Pepe. He’s a legal resident of the United States from Mexico. His son is an engineering student as a university in Mexico. And it seems to me, David Brooks, that that’s exactly the sort of immigrant that we would encourage chain immigration from, where a high skills, high knowledge worker wants to come into the United States.
DB: Yeah, I’m looking at what’s coming out in the Senate, in the sort the strategy the administration talked about, and so far, I guess so far I don’t see as much emphasis on that. Now they’re going to increase the number of visas for the high skilled, and that’s all to the good. But if you compare the profile of our immigrants to Canada and Australia, it doesn’t compare. We’ve got a very small percentage of high skill immigrants as a percentage of the people we’re going to take in compared to them. And the reality is, we’re not going to take in unlimited numbers of people, and that’s to the good. And so we’ve got to choose who we’re going to take in, and I’m feeling a little more ruthless these days that we’ve got to take in the people who will boost growth.
HH: I agree with that, and I hope you get a chance to read that David Feith study over at AEI about Uno Charter Schools. I want to move onto other subjects with you, but to shine a light on these folks, we can do this. Public education can actually work for this immigrant community, and Republicans don’t have to be afraid of it. I think it might upend the bill, because teachers unions, what is their general view toward this?
DB: Yeah, I confess I haven’t talked to them specifically about this, but I can imagine. I mean, I know some pretty well. They are for dragging slow reform, if at all. And so something that would do something pretty rapidly is not going to be to their liking.
HH: Now your column yesterday about a second Republican party argues that within the Republican party, there has to develop sort of a different, a different set of ideological priorities from that which animates the current power centers. I think one of those is education reform. But what do you think is the crucial ideological center of that second Republican party?
DB: First, let me agree with you about education reform. I asked a senior Republican in California over the weekend, you know, how can we rebuild the California Republican party, and he said education. That’s part of it. I’d say more broadly, if you’re in the South and the rural West, I think you do tend to look at government, you know, you’re living in a wide open space, you value individual freedom, and you look at government as encroaching on your freedom. And that’s really the central concern for you. If you live in a big city, especially in the Northeast, parts of California, parts of the upper Midwest, Chicago, Illinois, Wisconsin, I don’t think you have quite the same mentality. We’re a very diverse country. And so I think the two things bothering you are one, what Charles Murray talks about, the coming apart of America, which is part of education, and two, just this stagnation and the aging of our institutions, our tax code, our regulatory code, the welfare state. And so I think a Republican party that could appeal in the Northeast, along the California coast, in Chicago and Illinois, wouldn’t be so much as much anti-government as the rest, the other Republican party, but it would emphasize these two problems, the coming apart of America and the stagnation of our institutions. And I think that could win some trust in those places where right now, the Republican party really isn’t competing.
HH: Did you, by chance, hear Peter Theil’s speech at the National Review Institute?
DB: I was at the conference for a while, but I didn’t get to hear Peter’s speech.
HH: That is very similar to what you just said. I mean, what beglooms his life, I don’t know him, but he was one of the gloomiest speeches I’ve ever heard, is the fact that actual innovation and growth in the United States is declining precipitously behind a thin veneer of online activity. And you wanted to slit your wrists after listening to him, but you’re right. We have to reengage engines of intellectual and productive growth.
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HH: David Brooks, today Matt Lewis put out a column, a very perceptive writer, about how Twitter had become a dark place. And he’s talking about sort of the casual endless abuse that occurs, and just the level of acrimony that invades the space. And I knew you were on the agenda to talk today, so I started to think about you. It’s interesting, as a conservative who works at the most visible liberal media institution in the United States, you would think that no matter what you thought, conservatives would support you. But I was thinking about you in the context of Twitter. I doubt there are many conservatives who take as much abuse as you do from conservatives, as opposed to support. Is that in fact true?
DB: Well, I don’t know if I want to compare myself to others. I take a fair bit of abuse, I think, for two reasons. One is you know, on some issue, I’m more moderate than a lot of other conservatives. I think I have a pedigree. I worked for the National Review…
HH: The Weekly Standard.
DB: Wall Street Journal editorial page, Washington Times, Weekly Standard. But I’m more of a Hamiltonian conservative instead of a Jeffersonian, so I love capitalism, but I think government can do a little more than some others to help people get into the capitalist race. So I understand that. The second thing is you know, my audience is pretty liberal, and I’m trying to persuade. And sometimes, I get frustrated with people who are living within the conservative world and who are pure, and I understand that. It’s kind of easy to be pure within the conservative world. But if you’re out there with an audience that’s 98% liberal trying to persuade, well, you try and do it in a way that’ll be persuasive and sensitive to your audience. And so when people accuse me of sort of selling out or wimping out, I get a little frustrated with that, because I’m actually out there in the wider world taking it, believe me, taking a lot of abuse from the left, because to a lot of my readers, I’m as far right as anybody they’ve ever heard.
HH: You bet, and this is what brings me to the Lewis proposal, which is the amplification of anger may be actually intimidating people, even though it is representative of a very small slice of the political spectrum. And I think on immigration, this is particularly true. Now I do not lump under the category of angry those who oppose immigration reform necessarily. But there is a lot of anger that amplifies through the new media. And I think it creates false positives for political leadership.
DB: That’s a good point. I would say in general, one of the things…I love Twitter. I follow a lot of Twitter, but one of the things, when somebody’s career is ruined, for whatever reason, immediately across the Twittersphere there’s this eruption of joy and schadenfreude, and it’s kind of, sometimes people’s ugly side get out. As for the false negative, one thing that matters, and this is a good part of our system, is that Congressmen and women really find it hard to vote against the calls that come in. And if they’re getting flooded with calls, whether it’s representative of the wider country or not, they’re really not going to want to vote against the people who are calling in, and that may not be representative, but people who are active, and who make the calls, they get influence. And so I do think on this issue, some of the most vocal people are on one side, and they’ve been able to prevent legislation that frankly, I supported. I supported the George W. Bush comprehensive immigration reform. I think we would have gotten something better then than we’re likely to get now.
HH: Oh, interesting. I opposed the 2007 bill because of the Z visa problem. And I’m hoping that we do better this time. And they didn’t have any border security or any fencing, but that’s a different…
DB: Yeah, that’s fair enough.
HH: Yeah, I think we’re going to get a bill this time, actually, but we’ll see who’s right or wrong on that. Let me ask you about the last subject on my list before we run out of our minute here. The Reagan era conservatives, from which you and both came, had a, always an eye on the Department of Defense and national security, and the idea that we would arm ourselves so we would not have to use them. Is that wing of the party gone? Is it dead?
DB: Yeah, I’m concerned about that, because I think we’re about to see Defense cuts unlike any we’ve seen before. The country is really ready to pull in. And you used to have a strong Republican base saying no, it’s still a dangerous world out there, we have to arm. We have to be ready. And I don’t see that on the right as much. It’s still there, but not as much. It’s really not on the left, and it’s not on the country as a whole. And so I think we’re going to see tremendous, tremendous cuts. And I’m for some cuts, but I think we’re going to go overboard. And I’m already beginning to see a situation where our foreign policy is dictated by our budgets, where we have enemies in the world, but we just can’t take them on because we can’t afford it.
HH: This is an area where that second Republican party is actually the original one from the 80s, and it needs to come back. David Brooks of the New York Times, thanks for joining me. I hope you’ll come back early and often throughout 2013.
End of interview.