New York Times Columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens Ask “How Much Will the Supreme Court Change the World?”

From a conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “How Much Will the Supreme Court Change the World?”:

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. The Supreme Court is back in session, and later this month it will hear oral arguments in a pair of cases challenging affirmative action policies in college admissions. My guess is that the court will end up forbidding universities from considering race in selecting their student bodies. What are your feelings about this?

Gail Collins: Bret, I’m sure you will be shocked to hear that I’m totally against this kind of change. Universities consider all sorts of factors when they’re picking their next student body — it’s not as if everybody just takes a test and the top 10 percent get to talk to the admissions folks at Harvard.

Bret: That would actually be my preferred approach, but go on.

Gail: If you’re moving on to a college career, you’re going to want to meet a lot of different kinds of people — kids with different talents, different histories, different stories to tell. The idea that racial diversity shouldn’t be an admission goal is just crazy.

Bret: One of the reasons these cases have proved so effective is that the plaintiffs have amassed a lot of evidence that while elite universities do more to admit some students on the basis of race, they wind up discriminating against other students on the basis of race. For instance, Harvard admits 12.7 percent of Asian Americans with the highest grades and test scores — while it admits 15.3 percent of similarly qualified white applicants, 31.3 percent of Hispanics, and 56.1 percent of African Americans. Also, as The Times’s wonderful Anemona Hartocollis reported a few years ago, Asian American students at Harvard were portrayed in the admissions process as “standard strong” and “busy and bright,” which smack of the stereotypes that schools like Harvard or Stanford once used to discriminate against gifted Jewish kids. It’s hard for me to see any possible justification for it.

Gail: Some Asian American groups have argued fiercely that Asian American students have actually benefited from schools’ focus on inclusivity. And in general, there’s a very good case to be made that inclusive institutions perform better in general — whether it’s schools, corporations or the military.’

Bret: Assuming the court rules against Harvard, how would you recommend universities respond?

Gail: Whatever they do has to be based on the fact that the country has an education system that discriminates against kids from low-income areas where the tax revenue just isn’t good enough to support high-level schools. Or areas where the citizens just aren’t fair-minded enough to pay what’s necessary.

Bret: I would feel much better about affirmative action if it were structured on the basis of class, not race, to lend a hand to poorer young scholars irrespective of skin tone.

Gail: If you want a bottom line on responding to this wrongheaded court, I’d say it’s a signal that taxes need to rise to fund a very sizable rise in education spending, so kids from underprivileged areas get a fair break.

Care to rally around a federal tax hike for schools — maybe a Bad Education Elimination Tax? I know something called BEET doesn’t sound intellectual, but at least it’d be memorable.

Bret: It’s an attractive suggestion! But the U.S. spends more per student at both the grade school and university level than most other developed countries, for mediocre results. Money isn’t always the answer, especially when so many of our public and private universities look like country clubs on the outside and feel like conclaves of the Socialist International on the inside. What’s really needed is better academic leadership, especially when it comes to creating environments of genuine intellectual diversity, challenge and freedom. That … and the abolition of college football.

Gail: Make killing college football your crusade and you’ll definitely get, um, attention. Although I’m recalling that when I went to Marquette, I arrived around the time it was eliminating the football team. Did not hurt a bit as far as I could tell — the students and alum rallied around the much cheaper basketball program.

Bret: I went to the University of Chicago. Our first Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger in 1935, was, mercifully, our last. What we lost in football glory we made up in … atomic reactions, actually. On a different subject, Gail, any lingering thoughts on the Senate race in Georgia, now that we’ve had time to watch the debate?

Gail: Been thinking about it a lot. Georgia seems to have put itself in a position where Herschel Walker wins any debate in which he doesn’t simply stare at the camera and moan. He appeared to be pretty well prepared for this one. What’s your reaction?

Bret: The debate dynamics reminded me of the paradox that when nothing is expected much is forgiven, and when much is expected nothing is forgiven. So in that sense, Walker had the hidden advantage and he seized it. He also had the advantage of being able to tie Raphael Warnock to the Biden economy, which is … no bueno. I’m afraid it could tip the election to Walker, especially if food, rent and gas prices keep going up. Any feelings about why the Inflation Reduction Act isn’t … working as the name claimed it would?

Gail: A lot of the problems have to do with the international scene — Russia-Ukraine, and of course the Saudi oil price hike. It’s working fine on some levels, although the results will be in the long term. I can’t think of anything more important than encouraging clean energy — and the act addresses this in part through your fave, tax reduction.

Bret: Ah, “clean energy,” the kind that gets us to stop pumping dirty oil and start digging dirty lithium, copper, cobalt and rare earth metals. Sorry, go on ….

Gail: Conservatives have made a huge row about the way the bill will increase I.R.S. spending, but in the long run that, too, will be a big plus — making it quicker at helping law-abiding taxpayers and ferreting out the sneaky evaders.

The bill will help senior citizens afford prescription drugs, to which I say yay. On the downside, it’s hard to reduce inflation when deficit spending is high and it’s hard to get that under control without significantly higher taxes on folks like … prescription drug manufacturers.

Bret: When Chuck Schumer got Joe Manchin to sign on to the bill, I thought it was clever to put it under the title of “inflation reduction,” as opposed to climate. Now it looks like political malpractice, since it gives Republicans a campaign punchline as inflation stays high. That, plus forecasts for a steep recession next year, the migration crisis, the spendthrift and shambolic student-loan forgiveness plan, and high crime rates, are going to put a lot of wind in Republican sails in the next few weeks. I mean, a Republican might even win the governor’s race in Oregon! And the Democrat who is going to turn around the party’s fortunes is …

Gail: Sorry to say it won’t be Joe Biden. I think history will give Biden a lot of points for the way he brought us out of the Trump presidency but his strong points — good at bipartisanship, powerful history of congressional negotiating, fatherly image — aren’t holding up well in the current still-quite-Trumpian political world.

Bret: History will definitely remember him as a transitional president, but whether it’s as George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford or John Adams — all former veeps, I might add — remains to be seen.

Gail: I’m still hoping Biden will change his mind about his vow to run again and open up a competition among the more promising Democrats. That would include the names we’ve been tossing around for some time, like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris — although I absolutely do not think Harris’s position as vice president should give her automatic support.

Bret: Of those three, the only one I think of as a strong contender is Klobuchar, who is smart, experienced and competent, her salad-eating habits notwithstanding. Another favorite of mine is the commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo. But like so many would-be centrist politicians, she could win handily at the national level but would have no chance of making it through the primaries. It seems to be part of a larger problem we have in this country, which is that, in one institution after another, it’s almost impossible for the best people to rise to the top.

Gail: The current senatorial races are encouraging me with the show of talent like Tim Ryan in Ohio or already-a-Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona — who of course has the advantage of a disastrous Republican opponent.

And, you know, anything for a silver lining …

Bret: Silver lining being that we will have elections in early November and results in early December?

On a better note, Gail, please don’t miss our colleague Patrick Healy’s gorgeous reminiscence of the late, great Angela Lansbury, and what she meant to Patrick as a person and his family as an actress. Obit, he wrote. Among the essay’s other virtues, it is a good reminder of how much we can learn from vulnerability — our own, our parents’ and colleagues’, and especially the vulnerability of those who, in advancing years, handle it, as she did, with supreme grace. Rest in peace.

Gail Collins is an Opinion columnist, is 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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