How to think about Lou Dobbs

Andrew Gelman Oct 11 '10

I was unsurprised to read that Lou Dobbs, the former CNN host who crusaded against illegal immigrants, had actually hired a bunch of them himself to maintain his large house and his horse farm. (OK, I have to admit I was surprised by the part about the horse farm.)

But I think most of the reactions to this story missed the point. Isabel Macdonald’s article that broke the story was entitled, “Lou Dobbs, American Hypocrite,” and most of the discussion went from there, with some commenters piling on Dobbs and others defending him by saying that Dobbs hired his laborers through contractors and may not have known they were in the country illegally.

To me, though, the key issue is slightly different. And Macdonald’s story is relevant whether or not Dobbs knew he was hiring illegals. My point is not that Dobbs is a bad guy, or a hypocrite, or whatever. My point is that, in his setting, it would take an extraordinary effort to not hire illegal immigrants to take care of his house and his horses.

That’s the point. Here’s Lou Dobbs–a man who has the money, the inclination, and every incentive to not hire illegals–and he hires them anyway. It doesn’t matter to me whether he knew about it or not, whether he hired contractors in a wink-and-nod arrangement to preserve his plausible deniability, or whether he was genuinely innocent of what was going on. Either way, he did it–even though he, more than most people, had every incentive not to.

For Lou Dobbs, as for so many other American individuals and corporations, going without illegal immigrants is like trying to live a zero-emissions lifestyle: it might sound like a good idea but it’s too much work to actually do!

This does not mean that Dobbs’s goal of reducing illegal immigration is a bad idea–but it does suggest that his attacks on illegal immigrants and their U.S. employers are simplistic, at best.