Unions 'Own the Democratic Party'

Contrarian author, blogger, and senatorial candidate Mickey Kaus on interest-group politics, immigration, and the Velvet Underground


The Kaus family was deeply intertwined with California politics and culture long before journalist/blogger Mickey Kaus made a longshot bid to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer in the 2010 Democratic primary.

Mickey's father, the Viennese-born Otto Kaus, was a well-respected jurist who sat on the California Supreme Court from 1981 to 1985. His brother Stephen is a prominent Bay Area civil litigation attorney and a commentator for The Huffington Post. Mickey's maternal grandmother, Dorothy Huttenback, was a musical prodigy who headed up the Los Angeles Music Guild for three decades, and Dorothy's son Robert served as chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Both sides of the family were part of the historic wave of German-speaking Jews who fled the Nazis for Southern California in and around the 1930s, injecting a distinctive, semi-alienated yet intensely patriotic intellectual style to the Golden State's civic conversation.

Mickey Kaus' position within the national public policy discussion has always been that of a tweak-your-own-side contrarian. He was part of the group of writers at the left-of-center Washington Monthly in the 1980s who hatched what they called "neoliberalism"—a qualified rejection of interest-group politics and Keynesian economics in favor of policies intended to harness rather than oppose market forces. That frame led him to The End of Equality, a seminal 1992 book that stressed opportunities over outcomes and took on the liberal sacred cow of welfare. Kaus certainly hadn't abandoned the liberal fold—among other things, the book called for a federal jobs program, universal health coverage, and compulsory national service—but he wasn't an ordinary Democrat either.

By the end of the 1990s Kaus' name was synonymous with political blogging. He had launched one of the first and most influential journalist blogs, Kausfiles, which for most of its lifespan has been published by Slate. In 2005 he helped kick-start the video debate site Bloggingheads.tv with his friend and frequent sparring partner Bob Wright. There and elsewhere, Kaus has distanced himself from his own Democratic Party on unionism, health care reform, public sector pensions, and especially immigration.

In 2010 Kaus decided to put his money where his mouth is and run against Boxer, the powerful three-term senator, as a way to advance the discussion about modern Democratic priorities. Just before this issue went to press, Kaus finished in a distant third place, with 5 percent of the vote.

reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie spoke with Kaus in May, a month before the primary and just after Arizona passed a controversial law about checking the immigration status of anyone who comes into contact with law enforcement. For a video version of this interview, go to reason.tv

reason: Why are you running for Senate?

Mickey Kaus: I think the Democratic Party has been captured by its interest groups. The unions are the main one. They own the Democratic Party of California.

reason: Which unions in particular?

Kaus: The big ones are the teachers unions and the SEIU. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers basically runs the L.A. Department of Water and Power. The prison guards are very important. The Indian casinos are very important, too. They're like Wall Street. They've bought both parties.

reason: There is effectively no Republican Party in California anymore, right?

Kaus: No, there is one. It's up for grabs. It's a very weak party structure. Both parties are weak, and the Republicans maybe are even weaker than the Democrats.

reason: So the Democrats have been captured by their interest groups, particularly the unions.

Kaus: But there's also this pandering to the Latino lobby. There's a big Latino caucus in the legislature and they have immense power. 

reason: What constitutes pandering to Latinos?

Kaus: Comprehensive immigration reform is in the news now. Obama keeps threatening to revive it, and then he pulls back, and then he threatens again. It's a combination of amnesty and enforcement, which is a terrible idea. We tried that in '86. It failed. The amnesty part works, and the enforcement fails under legal assault from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Chamber of Commerce and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and various people.

So we amnestied all the people who were here before '86. Then we got another 12 million illegals coming in after that. Amnesty is a surefire draw to people. If you were living in Latin America and somebody said they're giving amnesty in America, you'd say, well, maybe I'll go there and get the next amnesty. So it's pandering to propose something that's bad for America solely to attract votes.

reason: What was the negative outcome of the 1986 Immigration Reform Act?

Kaus: The negative outcome is we have 12 million illegals that we're now trying to figure out what to do with, and it's a real problem.

reason: Why is it a problem?

Kaus: Here's the way I like to look at it. Why not have open borders? Nice! It's sort of a libertarian idea.

reason: Yeah, very much.

Kaus: People want to come here. They want to work. They're not a threat to national security. They don't carry diseases. 

reason: You're describing a horrifying vision of the future.

Kaus: There are three reasons that's bad. First, half the world would move here. It would drive down wages for unskilled Americans. I wrote a book called The End of Equality about how to be a liberal when incomes are growing more unequal and there's nothing you can do about it. The reason there's nothing you can do about it is because in the global economy people without skills in industrialized countries do very badly because that work is done in India or Bangladesh or somewhere else, so their only hope is that there'll be enough jobs that have to be done in America that wages will stay at a decent level. If even those jobs are done by the rest of the world pouring into America, those people especially—people who are rising out of poverty, for example, people we wanted to leave the welfare rolls and go to work—you won't be able to be an unskilled American and make a decent wage.

The two other things: There would be vast inequality. My whole book was designed to say we shouldn't worry about inequality, and then Bob Shrum, the Democratic consultant, said, "Have you ever been to Latin America?" Latin America, if you're middle class or rich, you live in an apartment building and there's a guy with a machine gun on every floor. I don't want to live in that kind of society. We would immediately have the inequality of Rio de Janeiro in Los Angeles. 

reason: Immediately?

Kaus: Well, immediately in historical terms, in 10, 20 years, I think. In 10 years, 20 years, L.A. would look like Rio de Janeiro. There'd be huge slums, rich people would have to hire people with machine guns to defend them. That's not what we want America to look like.

And the third thing—which is very controversial, which you can't bring up—is we're right next door to Mexico. Fifty percent of our illegal immigrants are from Mexico. In any other place in the world, you would say that's a recipe for trouble, to have huge influxes of Mexicans living in an area that is adjacent to Mexico. One day they may want to be part of Mexico and they want more of an affiliation with Mexico.

reason: So you worry about a reconquista?

Kaus: Reconquista is a little—a little extreme. If you talk to people in Mexico, I'm told, if you get them drunk in a bar, they'll say we're taking it back, sorry. That's not an uncommon sentiment in Mexico, so why can't we take it seriously here?

reason: Do we worry about Germany taking back America?

Kaus: No, Germany isn't next door. This is like a Quebec problem if France was next door to Canada.

reason: Question: During the '90s and most of the 2000s, immigrants went to places that had lower than average unemployment because they go looking for jobs.

Kaus: Right. 

reason: They don't go to places with sick economies. How did, say, San Francisco not benefit from an influx of immigrants, whether it's legal immigrants from other parts of the U.S. or from Mexico? Crime rates did not go up. Welfare rolls did not go up. Most illegals, in particular, are kept from being on the welfare rolls.

Kaus: I'm not one who stresses that illegals lead to crime and welfare and bankrupt the state, but they definitely had a bad effect on education.

reason: In what way?

Kaus: Because they don't speak English, a lot of them, and you have to send your kids to class with people who didn't speak English. And as a result, there was a demand for bilingual programs, which we recently managed to get rid of a bit.

reason: With the help of Latinos.

Kaus: Right. No, but it's still, if you have a kid, you would rather he goes to school with people who already speak English.

reason: You're talking to somebody whose mother didn't speak English until she went to grammar school, and I'm not sure she was speaking English at the end of her life either. I mean, seriously, so immigrants did not cause an unemployment problem. People did not lose wages.

Kaus: People did lose wages.

reason: No, no, at a very, very small level because of the level of unskilled workers. Who was cutting the grass in California before Mexicans?

Kaus: All economists agree overall, whatever happens with immigration, maybe it's—

reason: It's a huge benefit.

Kaus: It certainly benefits the rich. It benefits overall, but it hurts those at the bottom of the wage scale. A classic example, people who put up drywall. A very common job for unskilled blacks in L.A. used to pay, I'm told, about twice what it pays now. OK? That's a big hit, and those are the people the Democratic Party should be helping. That's why I'm not for it.

reason: You'd have to put in huge infrastructure, including a wall, including enforcement, including all sorts of drags on the economy. Why not give black Americans better access to education so that they can move up the skill ladder?

Kaus: There will always be somebody at the bottom of the skill ladder, and society has to incorporate those people too and ensure that those people have a decent life. And the only way to do it is to get the situation we had at the end of the '90s, the best five years black America has ever had. We had a tight labor market.

reason: We also had a lot of immigration, and people were worried about illegal immigration. So it doesn't seem to me that immigration is the issue.

Kaus: Right, but if you could control immigration, you can get a tight labor market even when the economy is not booming.

I'm not saying stop immigration forever. We just want to have control of it so we let them in when we can absorb them and we don't let them in when we can't.

reason: Then there's the question of whether or not American cities will start to look like South American cities. You do notice South American cities look the way they do even though they're not big on immigration, right? I mean, it may be something that has to do with South American social, political, and economic structures, rather than American ones which have been on and off accepting huge numbers of immigrants and generally creating a pretty open society.

Kaus: You go to San Diego, you'll see the beginnings of Latin American–style cities.

reason: What do you do to control the border that doesn't turn us into another type of Latin American dictatorship where we're showing papers, where everybody has to be registered in a worker database? You, given a little sun, and me, given a little sun, we're pretty swarthy. Are we showing papers everywhere?

Kaus: I have papers in my pocket. If a cop stops me on the street driving my car, I'm going to have to show him papers. We've already crossed the papers threshold.

reason: And verification for work. That once you're in the U.S., you should be able to be stopped by police at any point in order to verify your citizenship.

Kaus: No, I don't think at any point. This Arizona law, for example, that just passed—

reason: You're for it?

Kaus: I want to give it a try. If I thought it would lead to police sweeping through Mexican areas and asking everybody for their papers, I'd be against it. I'm for letting the people who are in the shadows stay in the shadows. Let them live their lives in peace. But I don't think it'll happen. They have to have a reason to stop you and then they can ask for your papers.

reason: And one of the reasons will become whether or not you don't seem to be a citizen.

Kaus: Not, that's not it. They have to come up with some excuse. They have to say what they say to me when they stop me. You know, your taillight's out. 

reason: Can you point to a time where a heavily militarized border, typically with a fence and wall checkpoints, led to a flourishing society and a free economy?

Kaus: Well, sure. A free economy? Well, Israel is one example. They have a wall. They're not just stopping honest, hardworking illegal immigrants. They're trying to stop people with bombs who are trying to kill them. It seems to work. Israel's economy is flourishing. The Great Wall of China worked for a couple of centuries.

reason: But the Great Wall of China also was designed as much to keep peasants and serfs in, right?

Kaus: I thought that was something with the Mongol hordes. 

reason: What do you do with the 12 million illegals here?

Kaus: I know a lot of real right-wingers and when you get them drunk in bars, they will tell you most of these people are going to get to stay. They're not going to be deported. We need to take effective border control measures and have some legal mechanism for unskilled workers to come from Mexico as a safety valve.

reason: How many unskilled workers should be allowed in the country if you're talking about cutting off the supply?

Kaus: The bias should be more toward skilled, but we need unskilled workers too. I mean, I can see that unskilled immigrants make Los Angeles run. You can't live in Los Angeles and not appreciate the contribution of these people, so no dispute there. We need some of them. I don't know, what do we have, like 450,000 immigrants a year? I don't know what percentage unskilled, but the point is we should do that, secure the borders, send the message to the world that the game is changed. 

reason: Would you get rid of birthright citizenship?

Kaus: I think birthright citizenship is sort of a crazy idea. I mean, people sneak across the border and have a kid.

reason: So is freedom of the press, right?

Kaus: No. Freedom of the press is a good idea. 

reason: Let me put it this way. The First Amendment is one of the defining characteristics of America. Isn't birthright citizenship? There's virtually no other country in the world that has that.

Kaus: I take your word for it, but it's a little wacky if you're trying to discourage illegal immigration to say, but if you can make it to America and have a kid across the Rio Grande, suddenly you're home free. Because what happens then is that the parent gets to stay here, too, because who's going to throw out the parent of a legal American citizen? That's why they're called "anchor babies." I know people whose gardeners' wives have snuck across the Rio Grande and had a baby, and that's how they solve their problem, so it happens.

reason: How does all of this play with your Mexican friends?

Kaus: I don't talk to my Mexican friends about it. I have no friends. I'm a blogger.

reason: So you've solved that.

Kaus: I'm a blogger. I work alone. The only Mexican guys I know are the guys who play in my softball league. They're all trying to break into the entertainment business. We don't talk about immigration.

reason: Let's talk about unions.

Kaus: I do think unions have done a lot for people, but I think they're a form that has now outlived its usefulness. What unions do is give workers democratically the right to choose a bargaining representative who's then their exclusive representative. That's the whole key to unionism. What are going to be the first demands of an honest democratic workforce? They're going to demand you can't fire me without notice and a hearing because we don't want arbitrary firings. And when people gather in a group, they say we don't make invidious distinctions by merit, we want promotion by seniority and layoff by seniority. Two perfectly reasonable things. They happen to be terrible for an organization that wants to succeed because the due process hearings for firings inevitably become cumbersome and you basically give up firing people, and promotion by seniority means you only have to do well enough not to get fired and you'll advance. There's no incentive to doing really well. General Electric would not be General Electric if it had these two policies.

So, right off the bat, unions do not contribute to productivity. The question is, what all do they do that's so good that compensates for this effect? I don't see it anymore.

Public employees is a much worse situation. If a private sector union asks for too much and the company gives it to them, the company will disappear, as half of General Motors disappeared. That incentive or disincentive doesn't have impact in the public sector. All the union has to do is get some politician to vote a tax increase to pay the increased salary, and boom—they're back in business. That's what happened year after year and now it's all coming to a head because cities and towns and states all across America are starting to go bankrupt under the weight of these generations of wage increases and pension increases that unions have won for themselves.

Public employees didn't used to be able to organize. They had civil service protections. That was enough. It was only starting in the last quarter of the 20th century that politicians gave them the right to organize. That could be repealed.

reason: Would you support something like that?

Kaus: I probably would support it, but I'm not making that a centerpiece of my campaign. Right now, I'll settle for a politician who can tell the unions no.

reason: How does that play with Democratic faithful?

Kaus: The teachers union part plays very well. Pretty much everybody hates the teachers unions now. People who have kids in the public schools, people who are paying through the noses, $20,000 a year to get out of the public schools, send their kids to private schools, hate the teachers unions. I was at the California Democratic convention. There was a whole sort of mini-convention of charter school advocates who hate the teachers unions, including four very charismatic black politicians. There were hundreds of Democrats denouncing the teachers unions at the Democratic convention.

reason: What journalist-running-for-office stunt most inspired you and which one do you think in the past has had the most impact on an actual political debate?

Kaus: It's interesting—I wasn't looking at the past for inspiration. I mean, people say, oh, you should read William Buckley's book about running for mayor, which I couldn't find. It's apparently very good. They asked him what he would do if he won and he said he'd demand a recount.

Gore Vidal ran in California and got 11 percent of the vote. That's pretty impressive, actually. 

reason: Norman Mailer ran. Jimmy Breslin.

Kaus: None of those people, as far as I can see, had much of an impact on the debate.

reason: Do you think Arianna Huffington did when she tried to jump into the gubernatorial recall in California?

Kaus: She had an impact on the debate. I'm not so sure it's the net impact she wanted to have. I think her impact was to help Schwarzenegger, but she became a much, much bigger figure and that helped her start her business. She's a powerful voice in national politics now; certainly it helped her with that. But the immediate impact was that Schwarzenegger became popular because he put her down in the debate and people sort of sensed that this is the decisive sort of guy we want. 

reason: How is that working out for California?

Kaus: Schwarzenegger's been a huge disappointment. The whole structural reason you like Schwarzenegger was because, yes, the legislature's controlled by Democratic interest groups, all these lobbies, but he could go over the head of the legislature to the people and get them to reverse the legislature so we would have more power than the normal government. He tried to do that and he got his hat handed to him by the unions, so once that happened, he was emasculated. He became sort of half a Democrat.

The one thing he has achieved is to eliminate gerrymandering of districts, a long-term structural reform of state districts that might be extended to congressional districts.

reason: Let's talk about new media. What prompted you to start Kausfiles? You had been a conventional kind of policy journalist/analyst. You'd written books. You worked for The New Republic.

Kaus: It's like with this campaign. You see an opportunity and you have nothing left to lose, so you take it. If I had a wife and kids and a mortgage, I wouldn't be able to take a flyer on these things. I'd worked for Newsweek and for Slate, and in '98 I was through with the stint at Newsweek and I couldn't get a job that I liked. I mean, there was no place I wanted to work that would hire me, so I figured as a last resort, I'll just start slapping stuff up on the Web and see what happens.

reason: How do you make money off of Kausfiles?

Kaus: I don't make money now. I made money when it was part of Slate because Slate sold ads and they gave me a chunk of that. They actually paid me a salary and they took the risk of would they sell the ads or not. 

reason: How do you support yourself? Are you a male escort as the rumors have it?

Kaus: I told my salary to The New York Times, $82,000. I thought people were going to say, Kaus, you chump, Andrew Sullivan makes hundreds of thousands of dollars! That wasn't the reaction. The reaction was how could they justify paying you that amount of money? But I can live on $80,000.

reason: You get that from Slate?

Kaus: I did. I've given that up and I don't think it's coming back because salaries are going down, not up.

reason: Sure, because of those unskilled Mexican bloggers. 

Kaus: No, because Web ads don't pay as much as everybody thought they would.

reason: How did Bloggingheads come about?

Kaus: Bloggingheads was something Bob Wright and I had talked about for years. "Hey, the next thing that's going to happen is somebody's going to start slapping video dialogues up on the Web. Let's be the first." It involved designing a crucial piece of software that lets you meld these two streams together. I tried to invent it in partnership with a friend of mine and we failed. Bob succeeded, so Bob controls the crucial piece of software and it's his baby. I support him and I'm part of it, but he has nurtured that whole thing.

reason: Are you optimistic about media? We live in an age of unrelenting media sob stories.

Kaus: The conventional media is dying, but I think people will be able to get the information they need, and there'll be more of it, and it'll get to them more quickly. I think the bloggers are good. I think even as they've helped destroy paid opinion journalism and are also helping to destroy conventional mainstream media, the net effect is better than what was there before. I mean, The New York Times no longer has a stranglehold on what the public finds out about, so I'm reasonably optimistic.

Somebody has to do investigative reporting. It's very expensive, so that moves to the universities and it becomes, like, the Michael Isikoff Graduate School of Journalism.

reason: Let's get to the most important thing. You got the Velvet Underground to play at your high school. What was your high school and what year are we talking about?

Kaus: I went to Beverly Hills High School, something I can never mention on the campaign trail. It's like death. Beverly Hills High School is just like Scarsdale west. It has a few movie stars, but it's basically a very good rich Jewish high school. At least it was when I went there.

This was the early days of pot in 1968, I guess, or '67. I went to the Shrine Auditorium and saw this group, the Velvet Underground. What Jonathan Richman says about them is true: They're four people dressed in black standing there very formally making these incredible sounds. They're like this infernal machine of sound. How the hell did they make that much sound? And they were very charismatic. The songs were truthful and I thought Lou Reed was charismatic and I just loved them.

I was student body president at the time, and I decided: Why not try to get these guys to come to the high school? They were in town so I called up the Whiskey A-Go-Go. They transferred me to the motel where they were staying. I called them at the motel. This was the day after they recorded their third album. Their manager, who was a totally crazy man, swore to the school's vice principal that there were no drug references in any of their songs. "I'm Waiting for My Man" is just about a homosexual pick-up, nothing to do with drugs. And she bought this, and I later got to distract her while they were singing "Heroin" on the stage.

So they showed up. You remember, they were a failed band, right? So they were desperate to have an audience.

They'd just finished the album the night before. I don't think they'd gone to sleep. Maybe some drugs were involved, I don't know. They played very well. Then we had a panel discussion with the Velvet Underground, the school psychiatrist, me, and the leader of the school marching band. I wish I had a film of this. Lou Reed and the psychiatrist got into this incredible pissing match. The psychiatrist said, "I did like your music but it's too loud. It hurts lab rats." And Lou Reed said, "If I was a lab rat, maybe I'd care," or something. They just hated each other and they were all jerks, Lou Reed and everybody else. It was considered a disaster because they weren't getting along; we were supposed to have sweetness and light and there was contention. But in retrospect, it was a neat thing.