This Week’s Conversation Between New York Times Columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens

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

Gail Collins: Bret, let’s relax and talk about long-term goals that we totally do not share. For instance, how would you feel about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour?

Bret Stephens: Why not raise the standard of living for everyone by making the minimum wage $100? Just kidding. I think the correct figure is $0.

Gail: If your goal is a self-supporting populace that doesn’t depend on government aid, you’ve got to make sure employers are shelling out at least minimal survival salaries. The current bottom line is $7.25 an hour. Nobody can live on that.

Bret: I’m taking my $0 cue from a famous Times editorial from 1987, which made the case that “those at greatest risk from a higher minimum wage would be young, poor workers, who already face formidable barriers to getting and keeping jobs.” The editorial may be old, but the economic logic is right. Raising the minimum wage is a well-intentioned idea that won’t help its intended beneficiaries. It will hurt them by giving companies like McDonald’s additional incentives to move toward even more automation.

Tell me why I’m wrong.

Gail: Well, I could quote an editorial from 2020 that said raising the minimum wage “ought to be a priority of economic policymakers.”

And you know, I was once the Times Opinion editor, and the editorial page does evolve in its outlook. Back when the Civil Rights Act passed in the 1960s, our editorial writers made fun of the idea of applying it to gender employment discrimination, theorizing that federal enforcers “may find it would have been better if Congress had just abolished sex itself” and warning it could lead to male bunnies at the Playboy Clubs.

Bret: I’m sure we agree that The Times has been wrong about many things in the past — and might even be wrong about a thing or two in the present. I’m still not seeing how the economics have changed since the 1980s.

Gail: A higher minimum wage might cause some employers to reduce the number of jobs, at least temporarily. But the danger there is always way overplayed, and those higher-paid minimum wage workers will be spending their new money to lift the economy.

Bret: We are living through a period of deep labor shortages, especially in service industries, that allows workers to bargain for higher wages. That makes raising the minimum wage a faulty solution to a fading problem. But I see your point, and this is one of those issues on which conservatives and liberals will argue forever — or at least until automation and robots make it moot.

Gail: Meanwhile, on a totally completely different subject, last week we missed the chance to converse about the Slap. Any lingering thoughts about Will Smith hitting Chris Rock at the Oscars?

Bret: The truly nauseating part was the standing ovation Smith got for his interminable, self-pitying acceptance speech after hitting Rock. It’s a good reminder of why the American romance with Hollywood is coming to an end, as our colleague Ross Douthat reminded us recently. The best thing the Oscars could do now is to cancel itself.

Gail: I have to confess, my husband and I are really into the Oscars. Not the program, which I acknowledge is frequently dreadful. But all the run-up publicity encourages us to catch some fine movies in the more obscure categories like foreign films. I’ll bet you haven’t seen “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.”

Bret: Should I? The only movie I’ve seen in ages is “King Richard,” which, I have to admit, I liked.

Gail: I truly hated Will Smith’s performance in “King Richard.”

Bret: Really?

Gail: Really, from the start. Don’t know why he turned me off, but acting-wise, I’d go with the yak from “Lunana” every time.

As to the Slap, one of the many things that ticked me off was the whole gender aspect. If a female comedian made fun of an actor’s hair loss, would anybody expect his wife to come storming up and slug the offender? No, in part because a guy going semi-bald is regarded as normal. In part because physical violence is still sort of accepted for men.

Bret: If the other Rock, Dwayne Johnson, had made the same joke in Chris Rock’s place, it would have been interesting to watch Smith try to slap him.

Gail: Chris Rock’s joke was in bad taste the way a lot of the jokes you hear in public performances are in bad taste. It’s presumed that some people’s feelings may get hurt. Someday I’m going to make a list of all the age-related laugh lines comics in their 40s make about people who are older.

Bret: Speaking of tasteless jokes, how about Madison Cawthorn?

Gail: You mean the part when the young congressman from North Carolina claimed Washington was a wild place where people he admired invited him to orgies and snorted cocaine? I want to say right off the bat that Cawthorn’s behavior should not be a blot on the reputation of 26-year-olds in general.

Bret: To fall afoul of House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, as Cawthorn did, is like having George Carlin rebuke you for an excessively foul mouth.

Gail: Cawthorn’s Republican colleagues in the House sure are ready to dump him, but Donald Trump seems to still be in his corner.

Sort of amazing how consistent our former president is in gravitating to the worst politicians imaginable.

Bret: If, by some miracle, Democrats hang on to one or both houses of Congress this November, it will be because of Cawthorn, Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and other would-be G.O.P. candidates trying to be just like them — the Radioactive Republicans. Trump’s embrace of these characters diminishes his chances of being renominated in 2024.

In that respect, my money is on Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, winning the Republican nomination and facing the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, in the general, with Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado as their respective running mates. Placing any bets of your own?

Gail: Impressed by your long-range thinking. If for some reason Trump doesn’t run again — which I can’t really imagine — DeSantis certainly has positioned himself to be next in line. By being as loathsome as possible. I find him completely appalling, but you’re mainly opposed to him as a Trump backer, right? How would you rate him as governor?

Bret: I’m no fan of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. But Democrats underestimate DeSantis at their peril. Florida is hopping, Miami feels like the hottest destination in the country, and barring some scandal or mishandled crisis, DeSantis is going to crush his most likely Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, in his race for re-election this fall. DeSantis also has a genius for baiting liberals and the media, and he’s figured out a way to triangulate between the evangelical, business and Trumpian wings of the Republican Party.

Long and short of it: If Joe Biden doesn’t dramatically turn his presidency around to boost the Democratic brand and Trump doesn’t torpedo DeSantis’s candidacy out of spite — two big ifs, I’ll admit — DeSantis is going to be awfully hard to defeat in a general election. How would you propose to beat him?

Gail: As far as his current re-election race in Florida goes, this is one of those contests where the impartial experts, asked to comment on the opposition’s chances, say things like, “There’s always hope.” Don’t think I’m going to invest any energy in dreaming of a DeSantis defeat this year. But definitely going to keep watching him warily on the national level. I’m kinda fascinated that right now he’s at war with Disney over the Magic Kingdom’s defense of gay rights. Who’d have thought?

Bret: Strange to say this, but one of the few things Trump did to the G.O.P. that I liked was try to push it to embrace gay rights. So much for that.

The larger question here is how far private companies like Disney should go to take politically divisive positions, especially when corporate executives are dealing with a more politically active work force. My general sense is that it’s a bad idea for them to do so — but an even worse idea for politicians to punish them for essentially making business decisions. If people are offended by Disney’s stances, they’re free to skip Disney World.

Gail: Florida aside, it’s gonna be a heck of an election year. One of my own fascination points is Ohio, my old home state, where there seem to be more Republicans running for the Senate than squirrels in Central Park. Recently one of them tweeted that when it comes to Ukraine, “We’ve got our own problems.”

Bret: You’re referring to J.D. Vance of “Hillbilly Elegy” fame, whose political views seem to spin about as fast as the revolving doors at Macy’s. The last time I saw him, right before the election in 2016, we were on Fareed Zakaria’s show agreeing that Donald Trump should lose. One of us stuck to his guns.

Gail: Any contest you’re focused on at the moment? If you want a break until the end of March Madness, I would totally understand …

Bret: The only contest that really matters to me right now is the one between Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin, between democracy and darkness. On this, I’m happy that you and I and most Americans are on the same page — whatever people like Vance, Tucker Carlson and the rest of the mental wet-burp gang happen to think.

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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