George Santos, the Most Novel Con of All

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From the Wanderland on The Dispatch

It was really the late 1990s when we started to see the emergence of the Novelty Cons—the people who figured out that there was a pretty good career path in Republican politics and conservative media that consisted simply of being something other than white and male while also being a conservative, or at least able to do a passable impersonation of a conservative. Of course, there had long been conservative women of several different stripes (Jeane Kirkpatrick, Phyllis Schlafly) and black conservatives (Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas), gay conservatives (a long tradition from Noël Coward to Marvin Liebman to a lot of people whose old friends still aren’t ready to hear about it), etc., but those were accomplished people with real portfolios. Nobody ever put Jeane Kirkpatrick on the cover of a book in a little black cocktail dress—nobody ever thought to, because readers reading a Jeane Kirkpatrick book knew why they were reading it.

No, the Novelty Con offers something else: “I’m a college-educated white woman/black man/gay man/Latina/[some combination of the previous] under 40, and I am ready to repeat today’s GOP talking points!” That is the entire value proposition, but it works. Why listen to the Novelty Con? Why put the Novelty Con on television or on a stage?

For the novelty, of course.

Republicans have long been starved for novelty. From its founding in the Little White Schoolhouse in 1854 until 2016, the Republican Party was fundamentally the same thing the whole time: the party of heartland businessmen’s conservatism. In the 19th century, it was a conservative anti-slavery party but not an abolitionist party until it was forced; in the 20th century, it was a free-trade and free-markets party in theory but one that made allowances for a considerable amount of corporatism when that served Midwestern business interests or, later in its history, agricultural interests. It was a party that welcomed a certain kind of right-wing populist-nationalist, but the really excitable ones still had to vote for Democrats (George Wallace) or independents (Ross Perot). It was a party for socially conservative white evangelicals, but they were outnumbered 3-to-1 by old-fashioned Protestants and Chamber of Commerce men who grew uneasy in church any time hands were raised above handshake level. It was a boring white-guy party in a time when white guys mostly were content to be boring. A certain kind of celebrity might run in Republican circles—Bob Hope, Sonny Bono, and other people with streets named after them in Palm Springs—but Richard Nixon was right: The GOP wasn’t the party of mink stoles but the party of cloth coats and the middle-class white people who wore them.

That wasn’t going to last forever, of course. Ruy Teixeira and John Judis may have got out over their skis in The Emerging Democratic Majority (Teixeira has been very frank in his reassessment of his earlier assumptions), but the changing electorate meant that the GOP was going to have to change, too. And, more to the point of the Republicans’ immediate electoral prospects, being seen as a white-man’s party hurt the GOP not only with non-white voters but with the much more numerous white voters, many of whom were not very interested in associating themselves with a party, formerly Lincoln’s, that had acquired a whiff of old-fashioned Archie Bunker racism. The Novelty Cons helped to fill a demand in the political marketplace. It would not be accurate or fair to call (most of) them tokens, but what they were—and, in many cases, are—is the political equivalent of human shields: “Go call Ronna Romney McDaniel a sexist, go call Michael Steele a racist, go tell Ben Carson how full of white privilege his life has been,” etc.

There is a kind of devolutionary force at work among the Novelty Cons. Ann Coulter may play a crazy person on television, but she is smart and did real work as a real lawyer before she started doing … whatever it is she does now. Ben Carson is a brain surgeon. Michael Steele didn’t just wander in off the street and get made head of the Republican National Committee.

George Santos, on the other hand, is pretty much a guy who wandered in off the street into the House of Representatives, saying, “Let’s put on a show!” Marjorie Taylor Greene is a QAnon kook who wandered in off Facebook. Lauren Boebert is a general-purpose incompetent who wandered in after accidentally poisoning people with bad pork sliders at a county fair in Colorado. Matt Gaetz’s grandfather died of a heart attack at the North Dakota GOP convention, being at that time a minor public official and, apparently, a clairvoyant. This gang represents what you might call the immaculate grift: grift liberated from the burden of trying to carry forward a real political program or philosophy, grift for grift’s sake, ars (of a sort) gratia pecuniae. Putting these people into Congress is like mashing up Carmina Burana with the Ghostbusters theme—yeah, you can do that, there’s no law against it as far as I know, but … why

Santos was—is?—whatever anybody needed him to be, the ultimate Novelty Con: Gay! Jewish! (or “Jew-ish.”) Latino! Whatever! He is the epitome of what the Republican Party stands for (“stands for”) in 2023: the willingness to say anything, however transparently dishonest, absurd, or self-abasing, in the hope of winning an election. He mustered some half-formed talk-radio grunts about inflation and crime and the like, but Santos was a pretty straightforward product: a gay Latino willing to put an “R” next to his name, the political version of whatever the opposite of a beard is. That Rep. Santos finally embarrassed the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and Lauren Boebert enough to get him expelled from the House is his only actual achievement in life. I had thought it was impossible to embarrass these people into action, and many of them have proved beyond embarrassment.

Our old friend Dan Bongino, who subsisted on taxpayer-funded salaries for the entirety of his career until about three minutes before he decided that “taxation is theft,” was on the radio last week lambasting Republicans for voting to expel Rep. Santos. “Politicians are tools,” Bongino insisted. Takes one to know one, I suppose. But he isn’t alone in his despair over Rep. Santos’ ejection from the House. Talk radio and the vast sewer that is social media are full of the same angst and wailing. And the majority of Republicans voted to keep Santos in the House.

The Republican Party used to be in the virtue business. Literally, Bill Bennett made a heap of money from his virtue empire before signing up as an apologist for serial adulterer/pathological liar/pornographer Donald Trump, who was very famous for … not for his virtue. Now, the Republican Party is in the sneering-at-virtue business, lambasting figures such as Mitt Romney for qualities that we are now supposed to regard as the opposite of real virtues: dignity, honor, gentlemanliness. The Republican Party—which used to actually be something of a republican party—has decided that what this country needs isn’t citizens but content-consumers, that the path to power (if that is what they actually want) is not policy but entertainment. In the age of social media, one need only be right for a moment—for one pithy putdown or quick comeback. That kind of superficial politics inevitably leads to figures such as Santos. Like any entertainer lacking in real talent, he simply showed himself willing to say or do anything his audience wanted, to tell them anything they wanted to hear and to pretend to be whatever they wanted him to be.

Political cynics are not wrong to take a generally instrumental view of politicians, but the problem with a hollow man is that you can fill him with anything. Does anybody think for a second that if Rep. Santos thought embracing socialism or some other crackpot agenda would keep him in Congress and out of the workforce that he would hesitate to do it? Santos does not matter very much to anybody except Dan Bongino and Bowen Yang, but the Republican Party does matter and, as terrible as it is to contemplate, the GOP has the same problem Santos does: It has become an empty vessel into which any kind of poison can be poured. If you believe that Donald Trump was the end of that, then you haven’t thought about it hard enough. Even in their current attenuated forms, the major political parties are weapons, and letting them lurch helter-skelter without any real guiding principles is like playing spin the bottle with a Glock.

Rep. Santos was a source of mirth and a figure of fun. But don’t be too sure that it’s going to be fun next time around.

Economics for English Majors

Game theory is not a method for picking up girls. It is a way of thinking in a formal and rigorous way about strategy and incentives, which can help us to understand everything from economic transactions to political ones. It is a kind of science of decision-making.

The classic starting point for game theory is the “prisoners’ dilemma.” There are different versions of it, but they all go basically like this: Smith and Jones, accomplices in a crime, have been arrested and are being questioned separately. The police do not have enough evidence to convict either of them without a confession by one of them. So, each is offered the following deal: If you confess and your partner does not, you will walk and your partner will do the time; if you both confess, you’ll both be convicted but will receive lighter sentences for your cooperation; a final possibility, possibly unstated by the police, is that if both refuse to cooperate, both will go free. The problem is that each prisoner is better off confessing, irrespective of what his partner does.

Think of it from Smith’s point of view: If you confess and your partner doesn’t, then you go free; if your partner confesses, then you get a shorter sentence if you confess, too, and a longer one if you don’t. You don’t know what your partner is going to do, but you know that he has the same incentives you do. So, while there is an option that sets both suspects free, that option requires a high degree of trust in the other party; absent that trust, the most likely outcome is the one that ends with both in jail. Some versions of the dilemma offer different sentence lengths for different outcomes, making things even more complicated.

The prisoners’ dilemma touches on many important socioeconomic issues: trust, the difficulty of coordinating action to produce preferred outcomes, the problem of information being local and contingent rather than universally accessible to optimization calculators, etc. All of which relates to a longstanding argument—sermon? homily?—of mine: that we talk about markets and market orders the wrong way because we think about them the wrong way. (Not the reverse; the reverse almost never is the case, in spite of what the clever issue “reframers” always insist.)

We think about markets as being mainly about material resources and competition—and they are about that. But in a much more important and profound way, markets are about organizing and distributing information for the purposes of enabling social cooperation. Prices are a way of letting producers know how much people actually value their product—not whether the product is good or excellent or better than something else, still less whether it is meaningful or morally significant or beautiful, but, with elegant simplicity, how much people value that product relative to all the other things for which they might exchange their own resources.

People do care about beauty and status and lots of other things, so markets do not have to make sense in any kind of narrowly pragmatic way. People’s preferences may be bonkers, and markets do not have anything to say about that: They simply reveal what those preferences are to people who might be in a position to help to satisfy them. This is, again, a simple thing, in a way—but extraordinarily valuable. If the prisoners in the game-theory dilemma can exchange information and make a deal, things turn out better for them; if they cannot share information about their preferences and what they are willing to do to secure them, then they end up in the pokey—i.e., neither party gets what he wants even though it is entirely possible for both parties to get what they want.

As F.A. Hayek and others of his school argued, the great problem with central planners—and with those who would try to direct the economy even in a less comprehensive way—is that they do not have access to information. Everybody knows about the shortages and misallocation—and famines—under planned economies, but economic steering does not work as well as its advocates would like you to believe in a generally liberal economy, either.

Pundits and partisans write and speak as though there were obvious, no-trade-off economic policies that would produce widespread prosperity and promote social goals such as economic equality (it is somebody’s social goal, not mine), balance the budget, etc., if only we would put the right clever people into the right offices and give them the power to act on their cleverness. If that kind of thing actually worked as advertised, then we would never have a recession or a financial crisis or problem inflation or anything like that, because—dark whisperings about Rothschilds and such notwithstanding—recessions and other forms of economic turmoil are not in the interests of any political incumbent, political bloc, or political constituency. If there were a magic formula for economic growth, stability, rising incomes, etc., then it would be enacted, because the political incentives for doing so would be overwhelming.

That is one of the reasons we have to tell ourselves that the other party is run by evil saboteurs: It is the only way to keep alive the myth of the obviously correct steering strategy. It is a little like time travel: The best indicator that we will never invent it is the fact that we haven’t met any time travelers from the future in which it is invented, our time being part of the past of a future in which time travel exists. (I know that some of our physicist friends have explanations for why this might be, and, in a multiverse of infinitely various realities, I am sure that there are at least a few universes in which they are entirely correct.) Economic steering of the kind envisioned by progressive fantasists is one of those things we almost certainly would do if we could, and the fact that we do not and have not done it across any meaningful period of time in any meaningfully effective way suggests very strongly that we can’t.

When libertarian-ish types say, “Markets work!” that is, of course, an oversimplification. But if you want to address the implicit question—compared to what?—the above is your answer: compared to a situation in which policymakers try to steer the economy from a position of general ignorance. Never mind political incentives, the self-interest of policymakers, and other possible sources of distortion: In a world of economic philosopher-kings, each of those kings still would be, in effect, a prisoner in his own cell, with a very clear idea of his own preferred outcome and absolutely no idea of what the guy in the next cell is going to do.

“Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.”

Words About Words

Inquiring minds want to know: “Since when has different from become different than?” E.g., a Washington Post headline: “Why Trump’s Georgia arraignment, trial could be different than the others.”

First of all: It’s different from. Almost always. Exception: “Apples are different from oranges, and hippopotamuses are even more different than apples.”

Than is a conjunction (and sometimes a preposition: “Smell the Glove is the album with the cover than which there is none more black”) used in comparisons, usually with a strong sense of degree rather than in yes/no situations: John is taller than I am, but not Sally is pregnanter than Jane. Different is usually a yes/no thing, and it works with from, a preposition used for many things, including to express distinction: My opinion differs from his or My view is different from his. So the from/than thing here mostly is a matter of degree vs. distinction. This is mixed up way back in the Anglophone mind with from used to express origin: From Blackstone, we get one approach to the law; from Dershowitz, we get a different one.

Different than has been commonly used in English for a long time—centuries—so it isn’t exactly a newcomer. And, if you really want to make heads spin, you could start using the British different to.

Elsewhere

You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto, here.

You can buy my other books here.

You can see my New York Post columns here, in case you haven’t heard enough from me about Santos et al.:

As was expected, Congress followed through with the expulsion of Rep. George Santos on Friday. The move raises an uncomfortable question that is going to be with us for the foreseeable future: What should institutions such as Congress do when “We the People” get it wrong?

The voters of New York’s 3rd Congressional District had no reason to be surprised by the fabulous fabrications of the Republican they sent to the House. While the New York Times and the rest of the national media made Santos a household name after the election, local newspaper The North Shore Leader had the scoop before Election Day, reporting on Santos’s financial misrepresentations and comparing him to the scheming villain of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.

The information was out there, but the people of the 3rd District chose not to act on it. Whether that was a matter of civic laziness or a cynical calculation that they still preferred the lying Republican to his Democratic opponent does not change the fact that the people made a choice. Such choices should not be overridden lightly.

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In Closing

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, when the liturgical colors turn to purple, a regal color, while the readings turn to one of the least regal figures in the Gospels, the hard-living, eccentric, and fanatical John the Baptist, the “one crying in the wilderness”:

His raiment

of camel’s hair, and a leathern

girdle about his loins; and his

meat was locusts and wild honey.

Things ended badly for John—Herod, Salome, head on a platter, all that—just as they ended badly for so many of Jesus’ followers: Peter, Paul, etc. On the day after Christmas, Christians celebrate the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr—it is that kind of a religion. I do not know what John the Baptist would make of our times, when everybody is an aspiring Herod and when Salome surely would have her own reality television show and a large social-media following. And who would want to hear what John the Baptist has to say?

O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

Hard words from a hard man in a hard world. How we got from there to Frosty the Snowman is a tale, indeed.

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