Bret Stephens Tells Gail Collins: “Liberals are often quite happy to defer to the wisdom of experts, whereas those of us who are conservative tend to be—skeptical.”

From the weekly conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens:

Gail Collins: Bret, here’s one question I don’t think I ever asked you before: What do you think of daylight saving time?

Bret Stephens: About the same way I feel about Volodymyr Zelensky. The light of the West.

Gail: Your ability to have everything remind you of foreign affairs is awesome.

I was sorta impressed the other day when the Senate voted unanimously to make daylight saving time permanent, year-round. What’s the last thing it agreed about that easily?

Bret: Invading Afghanistan?

Gail: I think switching back and forth is stupid. But many sleep scientists seem to think standard time — winter time — is healthier. So I’ll go with them, just to be difficult.

Bret: This is a major difference between liberals and conservatives. Modern-day liberals are often quite happy to defer to the wisdom of experts, at least when it comes to subjects like public health or economics. Whereas those of us who are conservative tend to be — skeptical. We prefer the wisdom of crowds, or markets, to the wisdom of the purportedly wise. It goes back to William F. Buckley Jr.’s famous line that he’d rather “be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty.”…

Gail: And you know, if the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory did take control, polls suggest we’d very likely be right in line for Medicare for all and universal early childhood education.

Bret: Isn’t that because people love liberal policy ideas until you show them the price tag?

On a gloomier subject, Joe Biden has now called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” a “murderous dictator” and a “pure thug.” Hard to disagree with the characterizations, but is it prudent?

Gail: Well, in the grand scheme of things, I’d say Biden could have been more … restrained.

Bret: I’m happy he said it. It reminds me of Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” which liberals once considered provocative but had the benefit of being absolutely true.

Gail: Ukraine’s troops seem to be doing way better than people expected, and even if average Russian citizens aren’t allowed to know about that, they can’t help noticing that their economy is cratering.

So what happens next? I’m just terrified Putin will feel cornered and drop a nuclear bomb or do something else that’s planet-destructive. Am I being paranoid?

Bret: The scary thing is that you’re being completely rational. If Russian forces are capable of firing on a nuclear power station, they’re capable of worse. And Russia’s battlefield incompetence, along with its mounting losses, is probably tempting Putin to use chemical weapons or even a tactical nuclear weapon to win a war his generals can’t.

Gail: Yep, that’s my nightmare.

Bret: On the other hand, it’s in Putin’s interest to make us think he’s capable of anything: It’s his version of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” of international relations, in which a leader cultivates the appearance of being capable of anything in order to terrify his adversary into backing down. The best thing Biden can do is continue to provide our Ukrainian friends with all the means we can offer so they can defend themselves by themselves, without us getting into combat directly. I understand why Biden is reluctant to impose a no-fly zone, but I don’t get why he won’t supply the Ukrainian air force with fighter jets or any other equipment it asks for.

Gail: Meanwhile, on the domestic front, have you been keeping an eye on the primary elections? There’s a big Republican fight coming up this spring in Georgia, where Donald Trump and his folks are trying to nominate Herschel Walker for a Senate race. Despite allegations of violent behavior toward his ex-wife and his recent demand to know why there are still apes if evolution works the way scientists say it does. And then there’s a primary this summer in Wyoming, where Liz Cheney is fighting to keep her House seat ….

Bret: People often forget that Cheney actually supported Trump in the 2016 election, only to become a convinced anti-Trumper after she saw the guy in action. Her main challenger in this race, Harriet Hageman, went in the opposite direction: from fervent Never Trumper in 2016 to a fervent Trumper today. Cheney has a big campaign war chest, and she could still pull off a win, at least if Wyoming Democrats switch parties to vote for her in the primary.

Gail: Well, if Wyoming Republicans can reward Cheney for her independence, I promise to stop complaining that a state with a population of less than 600,000 has the same number of senators as California, which has nearly 40 million.

Bret: I feel just the same way about Vermont and Texas. But about Cheney’s chances, I wouldn’t bet on them. A party with a cult-of-personality problem is like people with a substance abuse problem, meaning they’re going to ride the addiction to rock bottom.

By the way: Did you read The Times’s account of the government’s investigation into Hunter Biden’s tax and foreign-business affairs? The news here has less to do with Hunter himself and more with the fact that those emails recovered from the discarded laptop were his, despite the best efforts by Twitter and other social media and news media companies to bury or not look closely enough at that fact on the eve of the 2020 election.

Gail: I’m so glad our colleagues are still doing strong reporting on this story — Hunter Biden’s scummy business dealings shouldn’t be swept under the rug any more than anyone else’s.

Bret: Not to mention those paintings he tried to sell for up to $500,000 a canvas in nontransparent sales. Nothing at all fishy there.

Gail: That said, I have to admit I’ve never found Hunter’s behavior criminal — just very, very depressing. Fragile son in a family buffeted by tragedy grows up to have a drug problem and makes a lot of money by working for companies that presumably like to have a famous American politician’s relative to trot around.

Bret: The D.O.J.’s investigation will tell.

Gail: Some of Hunter’s behavior was obviously unseemly in the extreme. Any new evidence needs to be carefully examined to see if Hunter’s behavior ever went past that into actual criminality — did he claim, for instance, that he could deliver favors from the government because he was Joe Biden’s son?

So far, I haven’t seen it, but whenever Hunter’s name comes up, I do find myself holding my breath.

Bret: The book to read on this subject is “The Bidens” by Politico’s Ben Schreckinger. It’s no right-wing hit job, which makes its description of Hunter’s business dealings that much more damning. But what really bothered me was the not-so-subtle media effort to bury the email story right before the election as some kind of Russian disinformation campaign. If someone had discovered that, say, Ivanka Trump had left a laptop at a repair shop stuffed with emails about 10 percent being held “for the big guy”— to use a reference that appears to be to Joe Biden, which comes from one of the emails found on Hunter’s computer — would the story have been treated with kid gloves?

Gail: Well, Ivanka is a much tidier person. Your mentioning her does remind me that it’s never been clear to me exactly how much, if any, of the campaign donations Trump’s been piling up are going to his kids’ activities.

Not trying to downplay the Hunter story, but in the grand scheme of things, I still think his misdeeds are going to wind up as a sidebar on the Biden saga. Feel free to remind me I said that if half the family winds up indicted.

Bret: I honestly hope not. The world needs another White House corruption scandal like I need a hole in my head, to borrow a line from one of the better songs of the 1990s.

Gail: On another subject entirely — have you noticed that earmarks are back?

Bret: Don Young dies, but pork is forever. I don’t think pork is such a bad thing in the grand scheme of things. It brings projects to constituents who need them and makes politics a whole lot more fun to cover. What do you think?

Gail: Makes me sorta sad remembering John McCain’s long, long battle to get rid of them. The biggest problem, as I remember, wasn’t lawmakers trying to get some special bridge overpass for their district; it was lawmakers trying to get a contract for some big, unnecessary project that would go to one of their donors.

Now we’re stunned that the Senate can come together on daylight saving time. Guess things are just darker now than in the olden days.

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist and a former member of the editorial board, and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007.

Bret Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.


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