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Gail Collins: Bret, you recently assured me that you loved Joe Biden’s major spending initiatives. Do I remember it correctly? Are you still on the team?
I’m just looking for an update to brighten the day.
Bret Stephens: Gail, I’ll answer you in a moment, but I wanted to follow up on last week’s conversation and share another tidbit about President Chester Arthur that I learned from a reader. As a collector of the New York Harbor, Arthur hired one of his favorite writers, a bad-tempered, renegade writer named Herman Melville. It was about 50 years, after both men were long dead, before Melville was widely recognized as one of our greatest writers, proving, among other things, that our 21st President tasted better in letters than in whiskers.
Gail: I can see that one of our ongoing crusades in 2021 is going to be to increase the presidency of Chester Arthur. Much better hobby than tennis or collecting stamps.
Bret: One day you will have to tell me what you have against tennis. As for Biden’s spending plans, my feelings are mixed, especially now that I’ve seen the price. It reminds me of when my parents took me to FAO Schwarz, the toy Mecca in Manhattan at the time. I wanted everything. I have decided on a new Lego set. I think it’s up to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to be the parents in this scenario and tell the government to be a little more selective about their spending priorities.
What are you taking If you had to cut Biden’s wish list, what would you save and what would you cross?
Gail: Well, maybe I’d start by arguing that we can make it big and do the whole thing. I admit, I never thought Joe Biden would be a transforming president – but his vision seems spot on for our moment. The child tax break program will lift a large proportion of children out of poverty. The right to early education and community college could change the prospects of many young people.
How about you – give me two things you really like and two things you really don’t like.
Bret: My basic criterion is that I am in favor of programs that create jobs and leave lasting benefits, especially large and important infrastructure projects like the Gateway Tunnel project under the Hudson River.
Gail: Go gateway tunnel!
Bret: I am also in favor of investing in community colleges that help young people develop important work skills.
Gail: Still with you …
Bret: And I am against programs that have fleeting benefits and discourage work. So the program I oppose the most is the Child Tax Credit, which sounds like liberal nirvana but would be difficult to manage and has no work requirements, effectively reversing the country’s profits after Bill Clinton’s welfare reform. I’m also not that keen on the massive Medicare expansion, another noble sounding effort that will propel a financially strained program further towards bankruptcy.
Gail: The Clinton welfare reform was an attempt to quell the Reagan-instigated hysteria about undeserved “welfare queens”. I’ve always believed that it’s less about changing the system than changing the conversation.
Bret: Nice point, but if that’s true I wonder why liberals hated it so much back then.
Gail: Obviously, the ideal thing for Biden would be to quickly put every low-income family into a program that would protect the children from poverty while also providing jobs for the adults. But that would be a huge boost from the state: Slow to roll out and so large and complicated that it would drive even moderates crazy.
I would love to sign such a plan in the long run, but for now the families only have to pay for food and accommodation.
Bret: I agree with your first point. Big government programs always sound noble in theory, if only they weren’t accompanied by incompetent bureaucracies and unintended consequences.
My bigger concern here is that dramatic increases in federal spending, coupled with low Fed interest rates, will boost inflation in ways that harm the middle class and will soon require Volcker-style remedial action. Are you optimistic about the economy?
Gail: Yes, if the government can give a big boost, I’ll be optimistic in the long term. And once things are on their way to a serious, stable recovery, we can talk about pulling back on spending. But Biden is right: this is a moment to grow big and give the economy a boost.
Bret: I hope you are right because if not, we are going to have a really bad time. I remember runaway inflation from Mexico in the early 1980s. It leads people to make bad long-term decisions to avoid bad short-term outcomes, such as: B. Spend money instead of saving, because your money loses less and less of its value. It feeds dangerous populist political tendencies, as Germans know from history. And the sky high interest cure can be almost as painful as the disease.
Gail: In the meantime, to make it easier – the Olympics are starting! Do you have any predictions or do you just hate it?
Bret: I wish the athletes all the best, but I’m really mad at the games. Too many doping scandals and questionable medals, too much corruption at the International Olympic Committee, too many top athletes withdraw, too much unscrupulous abuse of young athletes, too much selfish nationalism. Perhaps someone could restore the original high-minded spirit of the Games, but I am struggling to see the point in these Games today, especially at a time when there is no shortage of venues for top international sport.
Gail: Hard to get excited about the Olympic Committee, for sure, but I still enjoy watching young people desperately compete in … badminton. Or fencing or water polo. Just celebrate what you have to do to win some of the more obscure sports.
Bret: I’m just waiting for the Olympic Committee to accept Enraging Readers as a legitimate sport so that I can get gold.
Gail: I have to admit that the games were a lot more exciting back then. We’re tired of the world right now. People are flying into space and everyone is yawning and saying, “Oh god, another rich stunt.”
Bret: I raise my hand in case Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos want the award, send the first expert into space and maybe leave him there. On another subject, Gail, what do you think of Joe Biden claiming Facebook “killed people” with Covid misinformation?
Gail: I think Biden once agreed that Putin was a murderer. Which seemed appropriate. But if you accuse Facebook with the same charge, you decrease the verbal attacks.
Bret: Yes, “Vladimir Zuckerberg” seems to be a bit off.
Gail: I can understand the president’s frustration. There are people who use websites like Facebook to spread terrible lies. Many of the digital leaders are trying to deal with this, but maybe not hard enough. You are much smarter than I am at these things – what do you think?
Bret: What Biden said was pretty unfortunate. First of all, an American president should always be on the side of defending the principle of freedom of expression. I think I remember a certain former president accusing the news media of being the enemy of the people, which was rotten. Now, Biden has made essentially the same charges against social media. Second, I believe Facebook was already way too active in censoring content, for example by banning mention of the laboratory leak theory of coronavirus in February of this year until it was forced to lift the ban than the theory broader was accepted.
Gail: You are making strong progress. Continue.
Bret: To grapple with the importance of free speech means grappling with the reality that free speech is sometimes used for purposes that we loathe. We protect bad speech because we understand that the alternative in the form of censorship is worse. We protect it because we have the humility to recognize that what seems bad to many of us in the present may seem right to many others in the future. We protect them because, as Jefferson put it, “my error can be tolerated when reason is free to fight it.” Bad language, like flies or mice, is part of the broader ecology of truth: to find out what is right you have to know what is wrong, and to know what is wrong you have to allow it.
If only Biden had said, “If you can get the vaccine and decide against it, your choice has been made: don’t ask for pity or money if you get sick,” he would have made his point much more effective.
Gail: You know, people always tell me that they like our conversations because we can fight without getting angry. But fights don’t really work unless there is some movement. I officially determine that you have made today’s victory point.
Bret: No, points can only be won for tennis.