Brooks and Capehart on new COVID-19 variant, inflation, Ahmaud Arbery verdict

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart join William Brangham to discuss the week in politics, including the new COVID- 19 variant, inflation, President Biden's leadership decisions at the Federal Reserve and the verdict in the death of Ahmaud Arbery.

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  • William Brangham:

    Even though it was a quiet week in Washington this holiday week, with Congress and the president away, inflation and now this new COVID variant have made many Americans uneasy.

    For some perspective on all of this, we turn to the analysis of Brooks and Capehart. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart, columnist for The Washington Post.

    David Brooks, welcome back. Good to see you.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Welcome back, David.

  • David Brooks:

    Good to be here.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's talk about this new COVID variant.

    Again, as we heard earlier in the broadcast, there's no — we don't need to be panicking just yet, but if things were to get bad again, and more severe restrictions were called for by our public health officials, do you think that our experience of this past pandemic has so, I don't know, poisoned the body politic, that we couldn't deal with this if we needed to?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, I think if we tried to close schools again, I think you would have armed revolution in the streets.

    But I have been away for a few weeks. I have been traveling, mostly doing some reporting and speaking and other things. And one is struck by just how different, different places are.

    So, I'm in Wisconsin. We're all masked. I'm speaking with a mask. I'm in Tulsa, Oklahoma, no mask. I was Florida twice, no mask, Texas, no mask.

    So, it's like, parts of the country are having COVID. Parts of the country are not having COVID. And so I think — I imagine that this polarization would continue if this variant turns out to be another Delta.

    And the thing to look at, I have read from better experts than me, is not how many cases, but how many deaths. We just have so many more tools to deal with anything that comes along. So, I think it would be — it would be tending toward to a normal in which we're just constantly struggling against this thing, but we're not — I don't think we're ever going to go back to where we were in March 2020.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan, same question to you.

    Do you feel like we have the capacity that, if the government said, look, this really is bad — and, again, let's be clear about this. We don't know that that's going to be the case.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    Could we deal with that?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    No.

    But if the government gets to the point where it says this is really bad, we need to shut down, it would have to be really, really bad for the American people to say, OK, we get it.

    I think that we have been through this for so long, that we have sort of — those of us who are taking it seriously, we have figured out how to live with it, how to guard against as best we can getting COVID, getting the vaccination, getting the booster, making sure that our loved ones get vaccinated and boosted, wearing masks if we're unsure, taking precautions that help protect our own health, but also protect the health of our communities, whether we live in apartment buildings or whether our children go to schools.

    I don't have kids, but, if I did, I would be mindful of my actions and how they would impact me, my family and the people my family comes into contact with.

    So, I'm happy to hear Dr. Jha say, hey, everyone, just relax. Calm down.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Let's give this a few deep breaths, a few days.

    But if it turns out that the new variant or — I like Omicron, which is the other name for it — if it turns out that it is bad and it is serious, I do think the American people, by and large, are ready to deal with it when it comes. But they're not — don't close the schools. Don't do all that other stuff. We have got to figure out a way to live with it.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the other things, David, that we're living through is this — is a seemingly two-faced economy, people genuinely concerned about inflation, alarmed about gas prices.

    And yet we got some pretty great jobs numbers in the recent days. How do you see the economy? Is it this dual two-faced monster?

  • David Brooks:

    Yes, they're related, though.

    And I see it sociologically. So, I'm a journalist who covers things sociologically. And for the past 15 years, I have seen a society coming apart, widening income inequality, large regions of the country getting left behind, and people dropping out of the labor force.

    So, to me, I want a white-hot economy, I want a white-hot economy that will raise wages at the bottom, which is happening, that will bring people back in the labor force, which is happening, which is spreading wealth around the country, not concentrating it in a few cities, which is happening.

    The cost of that is that, since we can't really fine-tune an economy, we're probably overheating. And we're getting inflation. And the question, the crucial question becomes, what kind of inflation? Is it post-COVID inflation, we have got a lot of supply chain problems, and it'll get ironed out in a year, or is it 1970s inflation, which builds on itself?

    And so I have high tolerance for inflation in this kind of economy, because I think we need it as a society to heal. But if it turns out to be accelerating 1970s inflation, that becomes its own monster.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • David Brooks:

    And I don't think we know enough. I have read a zillion economists on the subject. And, believe me, they don't know.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    President Biden, to try to address some of this, we saw he released millions of gallons of fuel to try to lower prices. He reappointed Jerome Powell at the head of the Fed.

    Do you think that those efforts are going to be enough to get us through this phase?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Yes and no.

    The no is the Strategic — the releasing of the oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Every president when faced with high gas prices, there's always this pressure to do it, while, at the same time, the story notes, usually 10th or 11th paragraph, it will have a negligible effect on gas prices.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    It's more political. It's more of showing the American people that you take the fact that gas is above $4, you take it seriously and doing everything you possibly can to address it.

    When it comes to Jerome Powell, Chairman Powell, he is somebody who a lot of progressives and liberals were like, you cannot re-up this guy.

    But when you have high inflation, and when you have people who are worried about what's happening with the economy, as David just terrifically explained, do you really want to upend the person who's in charge of monetary policy? Do you want to send the signal to the markets that things are so unstable in the United States, like, we're worried about a future insurrection and you're going to get rid of this guy?

    It was about sending a message that this is fine. We are going to keep things — we're going to keep things in place.

  • William Brangham:

    Steady hand on the wheel kind of thing.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thank you very much, because that's the phrase…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    That is the phrase I was looking for.

    But it is this weird time that we're in. At the macro level, there are all these great signs about the economy doing so well. But for workers whose wages have gone up because of inflation, those wages — those wage increases have been slashed. So, at the kitchen table, at the micro level, everyone's like, where is that great economy for me?

    And that is the problem for the country, but particularly politically for the president.

  • William Brangham:

    David, another big piece of news this week was the conviction of these men in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

    Again, this was another one of these cases where, absent this cell phone video, we never would have really known what had gone down, and it's likely that it would have been brushed over, as we saw it was initially.

    Do you think that that verdict helps salve some of the wounds of the last year-and-a-half?

  • David Brooks:

    No. No, I don't.

    I think what we avoided this week was a real social catastrophe. If the verdict had not come back what it was, for a lot of people — and I have certainly been speaking to and reading a lot of African American writers — they would — that was the final straw. This is ridiculous.

    And so we avoided that. And so we got a thing where — and we got a prosecutor who just stuck to the facts, didn't turn it into a drama, stuck to the facts, and won her case well. And so we got to a place where what should have happened did happen. That's not exactly cause for celebration.

    And so we can convict people who are pretty obviously guilty in a racially charged case, but — maybe Jonathan has a different view — I don't see this as a huge win. I see it as avoiding a gigantic loss.

  • William Brangham:

    Is that right? Do you see it that way?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Yes.

    It's a celebration because it so rarely happens. I mean, in this case, as you just talked about, two prosecutors opted not to arrest these guys, opted not to press charges.

  • William Brangham:

    These were the people initially presented with the case, who thought, nothing to see here.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Right. And one of those prosecutors was indicted for not doing her job.

    This was going the way of basically every lynching that has happened anywhere in America, certainly pre and during civil rights, where what happened to Ahmaud Arbery would happen, the people who did it would get away with it. If they were arrested and put on trial, they would be found not guilty in a matter of minutes.

    In this case, the two prosecutors opted not to do anything. And so they had to go all the way to Atlanta to get this prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, who did such a superb job by relying on the facts, not — there's a lot of being made of the fact that she didn't make race a huge part of her case.

    She didn't need to. She put her trust in the facts. And she put her trust in the jury. And a lot of African-Americans, myself included, although compared to the Rittenhouse case, I had a lot more faith in what would happen in the Arbery case, but for a lot of African-Americans, to put their fate, even though we're not on trial, but we could — some — one of our loved ones could have been Ahmaud Arbery.

    To put our fate in the hands of 11 white people in the Deep South, given the history of this particular case, is a lot to ask for. And the fact that we got guilty verdicts for all three, yes, it's worthy of a celebration. It is relief.

    I agree with David. If they had been found not guilty, we would be having a completely different conversation right now. But we still need to have these conversations, because what we're talking about right now, there are a lot of people around this country who consider what we're talking about Critical Race Theory…

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    … when all we're trying to say is, like, look, there's a reason why people…

  • William Brangham:

    There's a history here and a legacy here.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Exactly.

    And there's a reason why the Arbery case was followed so closely and why you had those Black ministers in the gallery with the family. But you won't understand that if you don't take the time out to learn the history, to allow your children to learn the history.

  • William Brangham:

    In just the last minute we have left, I can't help but note it was Thanksgiving yesterday.

    And if you don't mind, I would just — I'd be curious to know what — at your Thanksgiving table yesterday what you said you were grateful for.

  • David Brooks:

    Well, I — we have had my family together for the first time since COVID, so extended family, my oldest friend in the world and his kids.

    And so what I was grateful for, we played basketball, and I got clobbered.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Brooks:

    We played ping-pong, and I got clobbered.

    And I got clobbered in every competitive thing. You can't compete against 22-year-olds, it turns out.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    I know all too well.

  • David Brooks:

    So, I'm very grateful to be defeated so badly in almost everything I have done over the last 48 hours.

  • William Brangham:

    But by friends and family, yes.

    And how about you?

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    I guess I — well, I think I'm thankful for just being able to be with my mom and be with my husband and be with my really good friend, who everyone — I call — they call me her gay husband…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    … to all be together, and also because my mother just turned 80 last week, and we celebrated in Italy when I was away.

    But the idea of all being together, after what we have been through the last year-and-a-half, really, that's what made me thankful.

  • William Brangham:

    It's a beautiful thing.

    Great to see you both.

    Jonathan Capehart, David Brooks, thank you.

  • David Brooks:

    Thank you.

  • Jonathan Capehart:

    Thank you.

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