Opinion | Ukraine Is a Test We Cannot Fail – The New York Times


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The Conversation
Gail Collins and
Ms. Collins and Mr. Stephens are Opinion columnists. They converse every week.
Gail Collins: Bret, let’s start our look back at the week with President Biden’s State of the Union speech. What do you think? Did he set the right tone on Ukraine? And hey, what about all the domestic stuff?
Bret Stephens: I’d give it a B–. The section on Ukraine was strong, and I liked his call for pairing border security with a path to citizenship for Dreamers and other migrants.
But I also thought he missed an opportunity and flunked a subject. The missed opportunity was the absence of a memorable one-liner, like Bill Clinton’s “the era of big government is over.” Had it been up to me, I would have made it: “To save democracy abroad, we have to show it can work at home.”
Gail: You didn’t like “Go get ’em”? Sorry, I’m being flippant. Continue.
Bret: I admired his Irish.
The flunked subject was inflation. I’m all for strengthening our manufacturing sector. But the idea that companies will lower costs by building in America — where labor costs, permitting costs, regulatory costs and so on are usually much higher than in, say, Mexico — is fantasy. The problem right now is that Congress and the administration pumped far too much money into a growing economy, and inflation will probably get even worse whenever the supply-chain issues finally unwind.
How about you? How would you grade the speech?
Gail: Wish I could argue for an A, but you’re right, it’s not gonna live on in history.
On the other hand, I don’t think the president flunked inflation. He had to talk about it — it’s the dark cloud hanging over everything else. But he can’t actually do much about it. The Fed is gonna have to raise interest rates.
Bret: Agreed. And by a lot more than a quarter of a percentage point.
Gail: I know we’ll disagree on this — hey, that’s our job — but I liked his assault on drug prices. Absolutely no reason a cancer drug in the United States should cost more than twice as much as it does in France, as Biden likes to point out.
Bret: Sure, but are price controls a good answer? In every other sector of economic activity, they simply create shortages and discourage innovation. In the case of insulin, which Biden focused on, a big part of the problem has been the absence, until fairly recently, of lower-cost generics and biosimilars. That strikes me as a good argument for more competition and a more expedited approval process from the F.D.A., not for capping prices.
Speaking of parts of the speech you liked, I bet you also agreed with his efforts to raise taxes on American companies.
Gail: We’re talking, of course, about companies that are making a ton of profits. And yes I do like those moments when we take from the rich to give to the poor — so I’m happy that Biden mixes a tax on people making more than $400,000 a year with aid to low-income families with children.
Bret: As inflation leads to both higher prices and soon to higher wages, a lot of middle-class families not currently in that bracket are going to wind up there, only to find (if they live in a high-tax state like New York) that something like half their income goes to taxes. Careful what you wish for.
Gail: Also happy to make the F.D.A. more efficient. One thing we’ve learned over the last couple of years is that regulating drugs for safety is a real good plan.
Bret: Well, sure, though that same logic also helps explain why so many people were hesitant about getting a vaccine that had been rolled out in record time and wasn’t even fully F.D.A.-approved when many of us got it.
Gail: The best news for the Biden administration has been the dramatic decline of Covid — which would be even more spectacular if some states weren’t dragging their heels on vaccinations. Do you think the president will get credit or deserves to?
Bret: Neither, I think. Credit for the vaccines has to be shared pretty widely, including drug companies like Moderna and Pfizer and, yes, the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed. Biden was mainly the beneficiary, not the author, of those successes.
Gail: Well, more than three-quarters of the population has gotten at least one dose of the vaccine and it’d be a whole lot more if the crazy right wing wasn’t pretty much waging war on … prevention in general.
Bret: Also Robert Kennedy Jr. and Louis Farrakhan and lots of alternative-medicine types of no obvious political persuasion.
Gail: Thanks to Biden, lots more free testing kits are on the way. Wish it’d been faster, but let’s give some credit there.
Bret: Another thing: I’d love to see the end of mask mandates, which increasingly feel like a purely performative exercise that might assuage anxious minds but appear to have done very little to stop the spread of Covid. It’s hard to look at the Omicron spike we’re just coming out of and say, hey, all that masking worked!
Gail: We’re in agreement about our hatred of masks, but I’m outraged by the way the right has turned wearing them into some sort of political crime.
Bret: True, although it works the other way around, too.
Gail: At this point I’d remind you about Ron DeSantis chastising a group of students for wearing masks at an event. But I believe you share my contempt for Florida’s governor.
Bret: I can’t accept any Republican who won’t say clearly that Donald Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6 permanently disqualifies him from office.
Can I switch topics? Does New York City feel any safer to you since Eric Adams became mayor? The other day I was waiting for an uptown local at the City Hall subway station when the train door opened. Someone had set a gym bag on fire. The other week, five people were stabbed in the subway system in just over 24 hours. This January saw an almost 40 percent increase in overall crime over last January, including a 33 percent increase in robberies and a 32 percent increase in shootings. What should Adams be doing?
Gail: Well, since Adams ran as the former cop who could bring safety to the city, he’s certainly got a lot to answer for. It’s not surprising we’re having an uptick in crime as people emerge from various forms of Covid shutdown, all restless and cranky. But the subway story is just terrible. Many New Yorkers think of it as just a homeless problem, but it appears that there’s not always a connection.
Bret: I’d love to see the data. The other day a homeless guy attacked a woman in a subway station with a bag of poop. In January another homeless man killed a woman in the Times Square station by shoving her in front of a train. It’s beginning to remind me of the subway I first encountered in the 1980s.
Gail: The obvious answer is deploying a whole lot of new police officers and outreach workers through the system. But so far, that doesn’t seem to be working. I don’t have a good answer to the crisis myself, but then I didn’t run for mayor promising to fix it.
Bret: Adams has only been mayor for two months, but he needs to turn this around fast. Having cops present is a start, though it won’t do much good if the city won’t prosecute quality-of-life crimes. Reforming the misbegotten bail reform laws, which allow dangerous people to go free — including the poop guy, it turns out — should also be a priority in Albany.
Gail: We’ve gone a long way now without talking about Ukraine. I appreciate your following my longstanding rule about not discussing foreign affairs, but I know this is a special case.
Things look like they’re just going to get worse, and the stories of civilian deaths are heartbreaking. What should — or can — we be doing?
Bret: We need to make it clear to Vladimir Putin that he will never, ever win this war; that he can seize ground but will never hold it. We should provide the Ukrainian Army with real-time surveillance of Russian Army movements, if we aren’t already. We probably won’t impose a no-fly zone, but we should organize a humanitarian Kyiv airlift, like the Berlin airlift of 1948 and 1949, so that Putin can’t starve the city into submission. We should arm Ukrainian soldiers with anti-tank missiles (an effort that has already begun), antiaircraft missiles, sniper rifles, ammunition and body armor. We should set up bases in Poland and Romania to train Ukrainian partisans for a long guerrilla war. We should warn Russia that we will sanction its entire energy sector if it conquers Kyiv or kills President Volodymyr Zelensky.
And we should stop telling Putin what we won’t do, so he doesn’t think he can act with impunity. We won’t fight Russia directly, but we can do what we can to turn this into a strategic fiasco for Putin and encourage him to declare victory and go home. If we fail to react strongly now, the horror in Ukraine is just going to be the opening chapter to something equally awful, like China invading Taiwan.
Gail: You’ve convinced me to refrain from talking about what we won’t do, at least here in our conversation. My real obsession is worrying about whether Putin’s gone so bonkers he could do something … very terrible.
Bret: He already has. With the invasion of Ukraine, we’ve had our century’s version of Sept. 1, 1939 — after another “low dishonest decade,” to borrow a phrase. Now it’s up to Biden to save us from another Dec. 7, 1941.
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