Gail Collins and Bret Stephens Agree That This May Not Be the Year of the Optimist

From a New York Times conversation between columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “This Is Not the Year of the Optimist”:

Bret Stephens: Happy Easter, Gail. The news has been so depressing lately. A crazy guy opens fire in a subway in Brooklyn. The Russians are committing atrocities in Ukraine and are about to start a major offensive in the east. And my tuna melt on rye costs $21 at a not-much-to-look-at New York City diner, not including the tip.

Gail Collins: Happy holidays to you, Bret. This is one of the many times in recent years when I’ve appreciated the role professional sports play in our lives. You meet a friend who starts listing all the things about the world that could plunge anyone into depression and at some point you can break in with: “But say, how about those Mets?”

Bret: The Mets are off to a strong start but give them a few months and they’ll be depressing you as well.

Gail: Otherwise, I guess it’s reasonable to at least note that winter’s over, job openings are way up in the past year, and the subway shooting was miraculously — miraculously! — without fatalities.

Bret: “Crazy Guy Aims, Shoots, Misses” could also be a contender for the next Russian national anthem.

Gail: Love the way you think.

Bret: The strong employment numbers are obviously good news. But let me put the dark cloud inside your silver lining: The Wall Street Journal reports that roughly three million Americans have dropped out of the work force, often for health reasons, and that that labor shortage is going to keep inflation high. This strikes me as yet another good argument for offering every Ukrainian refugee a green card.

Gail: Even before the pandemic, we were moving into an era in which our birthrate was just not providing enough future workers to keep the economy going. Immigrants shouldn’t just be tolerated; they should be welcomed with marching bands.

Bret: The other big story of last week, Gail, is Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter at $54.20 a share. Half the punditocracy seems to think this would be great; the other half thinks it’s the apocalypse. Where do you come down on this?

Gail: Am I nuts to think this is not going to happen?

Bret: You’re not nuts. The Twitter board seems determined to stop him, and Musk has been known to pull stunts like this before.

Gail: Lord help us. Even if Twitter tanked, wouldn’t there be some new post-Twitter communications system coming around the bend soon? You’re 10 times smarter than me about this stuff, so tell me what you think and I’ll adopt it as my theory.

Bret: Maybe in the distant future a big media company will create a platform in which non-unhinged adults can exchange ideas, air their disagreements without rancor, make a few jokes, have their claims fact-checked before they are published and then go out for a friendly drink.

Gail: Hope Musk is listening.

Bret: I’m sympathetic to the idea that social-media companies should try to honor the spirit of the First Amendment, even if they aren’t legally bound by it. But the idea that Twitter is a good forum for speech is silly. Trying to communicate a thought in 240 characters isn’t speaking. It’s blurting. You don’t use Twitter for persuasion. You use it for insults and virtue signaling. A healthy free-speech environment depends on people talking with each other. Twitter is a medium for people to talk at others. The best thing that could happen to Twitter isn’t an acquisition, by Musk or anyone else. It’s bankruptcy.

Gail: Wow, I’ve always pretty much avoided Twitter, but it was mainly out of laziness. Now I’m cloaked in righteousness and am deferring to you on all Twitter topics.

Don’t suppose you’d be willing to respond by deferring to me on health care?

Bret: You’ve laid a trap, Gail. What’s on your mind?

Gail: I appreciate Joe Biden’s call for increasing government aid to those who don’t have good private coverage, and putting a lid on the prices pharmaceutical companies charge for drugs people have to buy whether they want to or not. This would bring me back to my cheer for limiting the price of insulin to $35 a month.

Bret: The high cost of insulin is a national scandal. But I don’t think price controls are ever a good answer. The biggest roadblock is the dearth of so-called biosimilars, which is largely a function of regulatory and legal roadblocks, including abuse of the patent system by some of the big pharmaceutical companies, as well as insufficient pricing transparency.

Here is the moment where I can almost hear our readers screaming, “Price controls are how other countries do it!” But that almost inevitably leads to health care rationing and wait lists. Would you rather us be Canada?

Gail: You know, I’ve heard that Canada threat for decades and generally my reaction is — that’s our worst danger? Obamacare did a lot to make our health care system more efficient, but the system is still way too clogged with duplicative management and other administrative failings.

Bret: Obamacare’s many problems are the high road toward Medicare-for-All, which is why I was opposed to it in the first place.

Gail: Go Bernie Sanders!

I guess we should move on to politics for a bit. Next month there’ll be big Senate primaries in places like Ohio — where Republicans will have to choose between the newly anointed Trump favorite J.D. Vance of “Hillbilly Elegy” fame and a bunch of non-celebrities, and Pennsylvania, where they’ll have the option of selecting Trump’s man, Dr. Oz of Oprah fame, or a half-dozen alternatives without reality-TV careers.

Anybody you’re rooting for? And what’s the chance the Republican Party is going to become the Home for Unwillingly Retired Entertainers?

Bret: My favorite Republican these days is the governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, who recently described Donald Trump as “crazy,” with a pungent modifier to go with it. Being able to say that out loud should be a litmus test for any serious conservative. Other litmus tests include the willingness to connect the words “evil” with “Putin,” “legitimate” with “2020 election,” “president” with “Biden,” and “supercilious twerp” with “Tucker.” All the rest is commentary.

Gail: Your vision of unshackling the Republican Party from Trump is stirring and about as likely as a snark-free Twitter.

Bret: Of course it’s easy to make fun of Republicans for their insanity. But isn’t it the Democratic Party that could use a bit more introspection, as it heads into what looks like a wipeout in the midterms?

Gail: Well, things certainly don’t look good. It’s ironic that the Democrats’ huge flaw is an inability to get anything serious passed in Congress — because of the, um, lack of Democrats in the Senate. Which will probably cost them several more Senate seats.

But one of the other things Republicans seem to be counting on is a right-wing revolt on social issues, especially abortion. Is there any way for the pro-choice faction of the party to combat that or is it just way too much of the Republican brand now?

Bret: Political parties often lose when their cultural values get too extreme for the mainstream. That’s what happened to Democrats in 1972 (“amnesty, abortion and acid”) and to Republicans in 1992 (Patrick, J., Buchanan). Right now it feels as if Democrats have become the party of wokeness, which is how they got hammered in last year’s governor’s race in Virginia and why they are losing votes over anti-police posturing. But that could change if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. As we discussed last week, that decision will be bad for women but probably good for Democratic candidates, since most Americans still want abortion to remain legal.

The other big court decision will be on affirmative action. Any thoughts on how that will play out, politically, if affirmative action is ruled unconstitutional?

Gail: Not sure about the politics, since it’s always easy to sell the idea that the people with the top scores/grades/extracurriculars should be the top choice. But for the country, ending affirmative action would be a disaster. We have to be sure that people from all races, creeds and economic backgrounds are part of the population that’s moving up.

Bret: Agree about the importance of diversity in many walks of life. Disagree that affirmative action is the right way to get there. Looks like we’re going to have to debate this when the decision is handed down.

Gail: There’s one other huge Supreme Court decision coming around the bend — on New York City’s gun control laws. I’m terrified the conservative majority is going to declare the government has no right to prohibit people from carrying concealed weapons in public. Do you think it’ll happen?

Bret: Yeah. And I think the decision will be 5-4, with John Roberts joining the liberal wing in dissent on states’ rights grounds. Hey, it’s never too late to move to Canada.

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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