Gail Collins: Bret, some of our readers were very impressed by your report last week that you biked from your home to the George Washington Bridge. That’s about what — 10 miles? Is this going to be one of your coronavirus things?
Bret Stephens: At least until they lock us down further, which I’m half-expecting might happen this month. I need the long rides to stave off the gloom, which now includes my fears that hundreds of thousands will die, Donald Trump will be re-elected and the world will go into an economic depression that makes 1929 seem quaint.
Gail: Gosh, if that’s your mood I guess the rides should be longer. Maybe to Connecticut?
Bret: I borrowed my wife’s Dutch bike, so Connecticut might be a stretch. Maybe New Jersey.
I thought 9/11 was going to be the single worst event, historically speaking, of my lifetime. Now I think that the attack was more spectacular than it was significant, in the grand scheme of things, whereas Covid-19 is going to be epochally significant without being spectacular.
Am I too pessimistic? Anything to make us feel better?
Gail: Well, looking back on 9/11 now what I remember is the incredible solidarity. It’s a lot harder to join together when you’re not allowed within six feet of each other.
But you’re right that this will probably be going on for months, in some form, and I truly think people are going to find new ways to bond … from a distance.
Already discussing a hell of a lot of plans for virtual drinking parties.
Bret: A good friend of mine, a brilliant doctor named Peter Bach, wrote an op-ed in The Boston Globe last week suggesting that we temporarily ban alcohol sales while we’re in lockdown. Maybe he has a valid point, from a public health standpoint, but I had to pour myself a second glass of Sauvignon blanc to suppress my indignation.
Seriously, though, the side effects of sustained isolation are not good, and I don’t think Zoom or Skype are going to be our salvation. Human connection and normal physical contact do not have a satisfying digital alternative. I’m intensely mindful of the effect of this pandemic on all the people who live alone and whose loved ones may not be close by. The longer this goes on, the more debilitating the effects will be on them, even if they are kept safe from the virus.
Gail: Yeah I guess my position is just that we ought to be as optimistic as possible given that … here we are.
Bret: Somehow you’ve reminded me of the old joke: Pessimist: “It can’t get worse!” Optimist: “Sure it can.”
Gail: But there’s one thing I know we agree on. This would all be so much easier if we had a leader we could respect. I didn’t think there was any way for my opinion of Donald Trump to drop any lower, but when he announced he wasn’t going to wear face masks because he didn’t want to look funny, that did it. New cratering.
Bret: Leading by non-example. His crowded-stage press conferences were another example.
What I find so frustrating is how little accountability there has been for him, at least among so many conservatives. Didn’t they notice that he was the guy saying he had solved the problem by imposing travel restrictions on China?
Gail: If I hear that story about China one more time I will … throw something. Not at the TV, I guess. Really need that TV.
But about Trump. Any more venting? Feel free.
Bret: I realize you probably don’t find this remotely surprising, but the refusal of so many conservatives to hold the president accountable for anything continues to stagger me, more than three years into this presidency. At this point, the G.O.P. ought to be renamed the L.P.: the Lemming Party.
Gail: I like that a lot. We need a visual. Mitch McConnell as Lemming majority leader.
Bret: Meanwhile, Democrats need to get their act together, starting with having a formal nominee with a well-funded operation. When is Bernie getting out of the race? And when is Mike Bloomberg going to step in with the kind of money he was prepared to spend on himself?
Gail: I actually have mixed feelings about the Democrats. Part of me yearns to drop partisan politics for a while and just rally together. But that would require a president who knows how to govern without partisanship.
Bret: Uh …
Gail: Or just govern.
By the way, what do you think Congress should do next? I’m deeply, deeply dubious about Trump’s infrastructure idea. He’s gone through a million infrastructure moments, days, weeks, months — and nothing’s ever come of it.
Bret: I’m all for infrastructure, whether Trump is serious about it or not. If this goes on for another year we’ll need to dust off our textbooks about the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and think hard about what we do as a country when tens of millions of people find themselves in need of a job. If we can get another Golden Gate Bridge or Hoover Dam out of it (or even just a direct subway line to La Guardia) then why not?
Gail: I’m good with the “why not?” as long as the government also throws in a lot of shorter-term spending. It’s gonna be a while before any bridge-building can be up and running — and staffed with virus-free workers.
Bret: But since our readers want us to argue every so often, I’d also favor some traditional conservative recipes. How about a tax holiday for every self-employed person or business employing fewer than 100 people for the current tax year?
Gail: Trump has said a lot about getting rid of the payroll tax temporarily — I’d be willing to listen to that idea if it came from a president who had a strong commitment to Social Security. But with this guy, no no no.
And in general, you will not be shocked to hear, I’d say let’s make sure we get as much money from the wealthy as possible to fund all the new government programs we need.
Bret: Except when the wealthy are those small-business owners whose initiative and know-how the country depends on to create millions of jobs.
Gail: Businesses that are being devastated by the pandemic would of course not be paying any taxes anyway.
Bret: You’re absolutely right. We should turn the tax holiday into permanently lower rates to speed their return to profitability and growth. I also think this is a good time to rethink some of the regulatory red tape that weighs on the cost of doing business. And — here I’m going to really upset some of our readers — should we also suspend minimum wage rules for small businesses that will inhibit a lot of hiring?
Gail: Aaaah! The upshot of suspending the minimum wage rules would be a lot of workers losing their jobs so their owners could replace them with men and women making starvation wages.
Bret: Or people gaining jobs and benefits that otherwise wouldn’t exist because they’d be lost to automation or reluctance to hire.
Gail: There’s this sort of fairy-tale vision of employers deciding that — with just a little bit of tax incentive — they want to commit themselves to new workers who would get at least the minimum wage and protections against old age and health care crises.
Bret: We’re having an argument at last! Maybe we can see some kind of grand compromise between McConnell and Nancy Pelosi, a mix of big and small government measures to blunt the impact of the economic blow so many millions of Americans are about to experience (if they haven’t already).
Gail: A grand compromise is fine, but not one that the Republicans use to shred the social safety net. People who don’t get coronavirus are still going to have to support their families.
Bret: I certainly don’t want to shred the social safety net. I don’t even think Trump does: Unlike a lot of laissez-faire types, including me, he hasn’t exactly been keen on Social Security reform or other staples of what used to be the Robert Bartley-Jack Kemp-Paul Ryan wing of the conservative movement.
Gail: That’s just because he doesn’t have an actual political vision. He’s in favor of whatever his base — and the Fox News Channel — likes the most.
Still, all this seems a bit far afield from where things stand now. For weeks it feels like we’ve been walking toward the Covid-19 precipice and now we’re at the edge. One of the most heartbreaking features in The Times these days is the “Those We’ve Lost” obituaries for those who have succumbed to the virus. The ages of the victims range from 30 to 108, each with an extraordinary personal story. And the list is going to get much, much longer.
Gail, it’s trite to say this but here goes: Our days are precious. Best to make the most of them with the people we love most, whether near or far.
Gail: You’re right. And I’m grateful for the chance to say, thanks for the conversation, to you. The most important thing about times of crisis and danger is that they help us focus on what really matters — family, friends, community (not to mention pets, Netflix and that faithful Cabernet).
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