Economic Update: Making Critical Arguments

[S9 E41]
The first half of this week’s episode of Economic Update features updates from Professor Wolff on the U.S. housing crisis as a systemic failure using the example of the homeless LA opera singer, Greta Thunberg's critics, how the Europeans benefit from the U.S. – China trade war, the Sackler family's "donations" to museums and universities and how capitalists have taken over Sports Illustrated Magazine.
In the second half of this week’s episode of EU, Professor Wolff interviews Professor Ben Burgis of Georgia State University’s Perimeter College and ‘The Debunked’ segment of “The Michael Brooks Show” about critical arguments for the left.
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Ben Burgis is the author of 'Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left.' He's a regular weekly contributor to Jacobin magazine and he does a weekly segment called The Debunk on The Michael Brooks show. He teaches logic and other philosophy classes at Georgia State University Perimeter College.



Transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives – debts, incomes, jobs – and those facing our children coming down the road. I'm your host, Richard Wolff.

I want to jump in today with a story that I imagine some of you came across, but it certainly stopped me in my tracks. It turns out that a few days ago, a police officer, patrolling in the subway of Los Angeles, came upon a homeless woman. And this homeless woman, seeing the police officer, began to sing. Let me introduce you to her. She's 52 years old, has been homeless for three years, and she has a name: Emily Zamourka. What she began to sing was so entrancing. It was, namely, an aria from Puccini's opera, which (since I'm a bit of an opera fan myself) I can tell you was sung in the manner of a professionally trained opera singer. The police officer was also touched. He whipped out his camera, took a picture, made a video, and the police department in Los Angeles circulated it. And it has gone around the world more times than I can mention to you. Here's what the story meant to me: Everybody in this world has something to contribute. Many people have a lot to contribute. But they are affected by the way this society works. So that rather than being in a position to share the talents, the passions, the things they've learned, with others, enriching all of our lives, they are instead forced in this society to live as Emily Zamourka has, pulling along a cart with her belongings, in a subway tunnel, waiting for a kind policeman to make her known. She has since gotten offers to help.

Here's what it means: We have a problem of homelessness. Millions – let me underscore that – millions of Americans, during any given year, find themselves homeless: without a place to live, with all of the support, the security, the safety that goes with it. And we either tend to ignore it – that is, it becomes routine, so we literally don't see those folks hiding in the doorways or in the subway tunnels – or we come up with detailed excuses, or maybe even detailed plans to adjust this law or that regulation. And I want to call a stop to that, because this is not a complex problem. Every society that has ever existed has had to take care of one of the most fundamental problems any society faces: namely, housing for the people who live in it. Any economy can be, and should be, judged by how well it solves that problem. You know, it's like the problem of feeding your people, or clothing them – housing them. 

So in a society in which markets are the dominant institution, let's take a look at how we're doing. The way to solve the problem of housing in a market society is to create on the one hand enough purchasing power in the hands of the people who need housing, and a price system for the houses that get built, so that we put these two together in a proper way. We get the houses built so that the people can then live in them, either paying rent or buying the home. We have failed as an economic system. Or to be more precise, capitalism isn't doing the job. It doesn't give the mass of people enough money to afford the houses at the prices that capitalists who build houses charge for them. Hence the disconnect, meaning that millions of people live without a home. Millions of others – many more millions – live spending much more on their monthly housing expense than the 20 to 30 percent that is deemed to be appropriate and livable. 

That's what the story of Emily Zamourka teaches us. And we all lose out, not only because our fellow citizens have no place to live, but because all that they could give us, and make our lives better, is lost to us because of what homelessness, or paying more for your home than you ought to, does to us.

My second story has to do with Greta Thunberg (I believe is how you pronounce her name), the young woman who came to the United States to talk about climate change, having become something of a celebrated person over in Europe. I'm not going to repeat the stories of her. Most of you have seen those and know that she demands attention to climate change in the name of her generation, that's going to have to live with the climate we leave to them. I just wanted to comment on the reactions of Mr. Trump on the one hand, and Mr. Putin on the other. Mr. Trump was concerned that a young woman of her tender age, 16, should be traveling the ocean all by herself. That Mr. Trump, who puts immigrant children in cages, was really concerned about the safety and well-being of that young woman. Sure. He also referred to her as an actress. Mr. Trump, being very good at that particular profession, noticed it in Miss Thunberg. Mr. Putin went even further. He said he found her to be unrealistic. I thought that was charming. Mr. Putin is the heir of a revolution in 1917 that found Russia at the time to be unrealistic, and made a lot of demands which were called unrealistic, until the government was overthrown and those unrealistic people made the Russia that Mr. Putin now leads. It's always true that the people fighting for basic change are denounced as unrealistic just as Mr. Putin did, who told us that the problems of the climate are very complicated. Very helpful, Mr. Putin, we thought they were simple. And now you're going to use that as an excuse to continue doing as little about them as the people in charge around the world have, in fact, been. 

The next item on my list has to do with Mr. Trump's trade war with China. And here are a couple of aspects of it that you may not have picked up on. The Europeans have been advising the Chinese and the Americans to work out their differences, rather than to have a trade war. But their comments to that effect are vague and weak, and I want you to understand why. And the answer is simple: The Europeans benefit from it. That's right, they benefit. When China cannot sell its goods in the United States because Mr. Trump puts a tariff on them, they move and sell them to Europe. When Europe finds that dealing with the United States is becoming difficult  (which I'm going to get to in a moment), they will shift to China. Many of the costs that are being borne by the American people – who have to pay those tariffs, and lose those opportunities to sell in China because of China's tariffs – are suffering (the Americans), but the Europeans are picking up that business. And they're making sure that they won't lose it when the trade war is over. 

And you can see the difference when, just recently, the World Trade Organization found that Europe had unfairly subsidized the Airbus. The Airbus is Europe's competitor to the Boeing Company here in the United States. And the World Trade Organization found that the European governments had unfairly subsidized a competitor of Boeing, namely Airbus. So Mr. Trump immediately imposed tariffs on the Europeans as a punishment for their behavior – something, by the way, not required by the World Trade Organization law, something Mr. Trump used as an excuse. So now airplanes from Europe coming here – Airbus airplanes – will have to pay a tariff, making them more expensive. And that will increase your cost to ride on an airplane in the United States, as everybody in the business takes advantage of this situation.  It likewise means the Europeans will retaliate. And so the French and Italian wines you may have been interested in, or the cheeses you may have been interested in, and so on, will also cost you more money, as the importer has to pay those tariffs. The Europeans are very upset by all of this, and threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs. And they will likely have the chance, because in the spring of this coming year, the World Trade Organization will rule on the European claim that the American government has unfairly subsidized Boeing. Just watch. We live in a strange society, where the big capitalists in the airplane business lobby their friends, the politicians, lying and case studies, and lawyers figuring out how to work out their arrangements. And our job is to watch, shut up, and pay. That's a system you and I live in.

My next update has to do with the Sackler family, the people who own and operate Purdue Pharmaceuticals, and who are on the hook these days for having funded and produced the opioids that have killed so many people – hundreds of thousands in the United States. Turns out, with new research being done and lawsuits being filed, that the Sackler family, to cover what they were doing, gave a good bit of money to lots of museums and universities – in particular, Imperial College in London, Sussex University in the UK, Yale University here in the United States, and the Rockefeller University in New York City. Some of these recipients got caught, and have returned some of the money. Most haven't done so. And it leads one to the question, not only was the money given to clean the reputation – that's fairly clear – but was the money effective in delaying the exposures, leaving so many more to die? That would be the question that ought to be asked, but that hasn't been.

My last update for today is about Sports Illustrated magazine. It used to be part of the Time magazine empire, and many of you who are familiar with that journal know that it became a major journal for people interested in sports, for many years. Time magazine, having financial difficulties, then began to shop it around. Two or three other organizations bought it, and then sold it. And in the first week of October, a new buyer came in, bought it, and immediately fired most of the journalists – or at least many of them – rearranging the magazine. And I wanted just to comment on it. Here is a magazine important to millions of Americans. Here is a magazine that provides income and jobs to a bevy of some of the finest sports journalists in the business. And here comes a capitalist with money. And guess who decides whether the magazine lives or falls. Who decides what's in it? Who decides who keeps the job? The capitalist who buys the business. For the rest of us, we live with whatever they do. The customer, the worker – excluded from what happens to something that is important in their lives as consumers, and even more important in their lives as an employer. Not the way a system that calls itself democratic could ever work. And the problem isn't the particulars in Sports Illustrated. It's just a wonderful example of who calls the shots in a capitalist system, and who lives with the results without having any options at all.

Well, we've come to the end of the first half of today's Economic Update. We'd like to thank, as we do, our Patreon community for the extraordinary support they provide. We ask you also to check our website, and also to follow us on social media, and in particular Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But before signing off, I also want to remind many of you, we have produced here at Democracy at Work (the producer of this program) our first book. We hope it will be one of a series to come out. It's called Understanding Marxism, and was written by myself in order to respond to the many questions that come to us about Marxism, what it is, and what its relevance might be to the issues and problems facing the world today. And Lord knows, with the capitalist system that works the way we describe it, it is time – overdue – for this kind of a book to be written. If you haven't had a chance to get a copy, please. You'll see the information: lulu.com is the publisher, Understanding Marxism is the title, I'm the author. It's something we think you will benefit from checking out. Stay with us; we will be right back.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. Before we get into a remarkable interview for today, I wanted to let you know that Economic Update is supported by The New School in New York City, where I, myself, am a visiting professor of international affairs. The New School offers master's degree programs in international affairs that are rooted in progressive, interdisciplinary scholarship. They prepare engaged global citizens to build a more just and sustainable world. The New School students focus on challenges such as the rise of authoritarian regimes, refugee crises, jobless youth, and climate change. Students have unique learning opportunities at the United Nations and at field locations around the world.

WOLFF: My guest today is Ben Burgess. He's the author of a relatively new book called Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left. He's a regular weekly contributor to Jacobin magazine, and he does a weekly segment called The Debunk on The Michael Brooks Show. He teaches logic and other philosophy classes at Georgia State University in Atlanta, at its Perimeter College. So welcome, Ben. Thank you for coming and joining us.

BURGESS: Yeah, thanks for having me.

WOLFF: All right, that's a remarkable book title, Give Them an Argument. So tell me why you wrote it and what it tries to do.

BURGESS: Sure. So one of the things that spurred me to write this was the way that a lot of people on the political right have in a very cynical, bad-faith way, I think, co-opted the language of arguments and logic, and even the phrase "logic, facts, and reason," you know, which they use sort of as a mantra. And a lot of people who are on our side, who sort of respond to that, have learned to respond to that by kind of rolling their eyes, you know, and being very dismissive, which I think is understandable. But I also think it's a missed opportunity. So what I try to do in the book is both urge people who share my, you know, leftist and socialist commitments to spend more time showing exactly what's wrong with these right-wing arguments and also to make more explicit arguments for our positions, you know, for everything from social equality to workers' control of the means of production.

WOLFF: Well, you know, you're a philosophy professor, so in a way you study philosophy, but you also try to teach it to young people going to the university there in Atlanta. Tell me a little bit about why this problem that you tried to address in the book, why did it arise? What has happened in the, perhaps in the so-called culture wars here in the United States, that has made people perhaps distant from, or cynical about, argument.

BURGESS: Yeah, so I think that part of it, you know, is that over the course of the last few decades, you know, of those culture wars, people have sometimes rightly (right?) become suspicious that people arguing for other positions are just being biased by their circumstances. They can't see, you know, the perspective, you know, that other people are coming from. That's not entirely wrong (right?). But I also think that there's an element of it which has to do with what I think of as the pathologies of powerlessness. That it's been so long since the left – especially the socialist left – has been anywhere near the levers of real power – especially here – that oftentimes people sort of prefer to have to sort of signal their moral commitment to left goals rather than to really worry that much about persuading people who aren't on board and doing the things that they would have to to make our goals attractive to people, and to try to actually win (right?). So I think that once you take seriously the idea that I think is more on the table now because of, you know, certainly the Bernie Sanders campaign and other things like that, that no, no, no – like large numbers of Americans actually are on board with these things, you know, that we could win – then I think you have to really start thinking about okay, well how can we persuade – not everybody can be persuaded – but how can we persuade the people who can be persuaded? And that's what the book tries to do. You know, to try to say all right, all of these, you, know all of these arguments that people make against our positions – if we never get around to showing exactly what's wrong with them, that makes it look to people who might be sitting on the fence as if maybe we just don't have good responses to these. And I don't think we need to do that. I think we have excellent responses, and we should make them.

WOLFF: Very interesting. I want to draw out one point. Would it be fair to say the following – your argument but in different words –


WOLFF:  – that the American left kind of resigned itself over time to being a marginalized group, and so in upset, or anger, or resignation, or some combination gave up the constant effort to persuade, and that are now thinking that, because obviously people are open to it, it's now time to get back to it?

BURGESS: No, I think that's absolutely right. I think that between the, you know, the long decline of the labor movement, the exile of even the mildest social democrats, you know, from political power, you know, all too often people got used to just thinking of this as a matter of expressing moral commitments, you know, that we're going to hold our protest signs, and denounce things, and that's about all we can do. And I think that you start to hear, like sometimes when people on the left will say things like oh it's not my job to explain such and such to you (right?). Well actually, if you want to win (right?), if you want to persuade people, if you have, like, political goals that you take seriously in real life, it's precisely your job to try to explain things to people. And instead of sort of saying well, if you were a better person, you would already get it (right?), you know, which is often the implication. And I think that's a really unhelpful kind of moralism, and that we should be really using every tool at our disposal to try to persuade the people that can be persuaded and to try to build power. 

WOLFF: And you mean it literally. It's everybody's job. It's not – there aren't experts whose job it is to make the arguments. It's necessary for everybody, in his or her mind, to frame it and phrase it as it makes sense in their lives.

BURGESS: Absolutely. Yes.

WOLFF: Tell me a little bit about this dichotomy, that we used to hear more than we do now, between rational argument and quote-unquote "emotional argument." That's an old dichotomy, but you seem to think it's important, at this point, in getting your notion of argument across.

BURGESS: Yeah, it's an old dichotomy, and one of the things that I try to do – actually one of the major themes of the book – is that people often think about this wrong. That, you know, that they think that there's this sort of conflict between, you know, logic, or your reason, on the one hand and emotion on the other. So Ben Shapiro, for example (one of the major villains of the book), has this catch phrase: Facts don't care about your feelings. And oftentimes he seems to use it to imply that, you know, people like him are deriving their political conclusions from just looking at the facts, you know, whereas, you know, fuzzy-headed leftists like us, you know, we're just like sort of feeling our way through the world, you know, with our emotions. And I think that's a false dichotomy. And I think in some ways, Star Trek probably has a lot to answer for here because it gave generations of television viewers the vague idea that there was something called logic that was in conflict with emotion. 

But I think if you read your David Hume, you know, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, on facts and values, what it will tell you is that what reasoning about the facts can tell us is how to achieve the things that we care about, the goals that we care about. It can't tell us what to value in the first place. So when these people pretend that they're just sort of reasoning from the facts, well the facts by themselves won't tell you what your moral values are. They won't tell you what your political goals should be. So, you know, if you don't care about outcomes, if there's no way that you want, that you're invested in saying the world should be this way, then all of the reason about facts in the world won't tell you anything about politics because it won't tell you what we should be aiming at. Once we agree on what we're aiming at, then we can use the facts to look at what works and what doesn't work, and we can have an argument about the facts. But the idea that, like, emotionally caring about trying to bring about a better, fairer, more just world is somehow in conflict with logic, I think is just fundamentally confused.

WOLFF: Yeah, you know, I had a teacher once years ago when I was a student of philosophy who put the same argument slightly differently. He said the facts are too many; the facts are infinite. When you say you're going to consult the facts, the first reaction is: which ones? You can't confront them all, nobody can, so your brain is always selecting which facts to focus on. And there your values come into play because they're part of the selectivity. So the notion that you can have value-free fact analysis is a misunderstanding of what the brain does.

Anyway, give us an example. You've done that, I know, on the air before, but I wonder whether either the minimum-wage debate, or the way the press handles the Chavez/Maduro history in Venezuela illustrates your point about making arguments and how that works. 

BURGESS: Sure. So . . .

WOLFF: Either one would be fine.

BURGESS: . . . okay. Well, I think that, you know, I recently co-wrote this article with mutual friend Michael Brooks about Venezuela. And there the point really is just like a straight factual correction, because the way that the debate about Venezuela is presented all too often just ignores – you know, selects away – this huge part of the relevant facts, which is that we pretty much act as if this happens in a vacuum and American imperial meddling in Latin America just has nothing to do with anything. That if, you know, that the difference between Venezuela and Norway is just that Venezuela is ruled by bad people and Norway is ruled by good people, rather than that the space in which people make political decisions in Venezuela is heavily constrained by American meddling, that it's impossible to do almost anything in terms of left-wing reforms without provoking reactions like attempted military coups. 

Just real briefly, on the minimum-wage front, that's actually a case where Rashida Tlaib, the DSA congresswoman from Detroit, said that while when we first started talking about a $15 minimum wage $15 made sense, since then $15 isn't what it used to be. That in particular, by the time these laws come into practice, it's not going to be what it used to be. So we should be aiming a little bit higher, like $18, $20 an hour. And a lot of conservatives kind of mocked that. So like well, 20? Why not 25? Twenty-five? Why not 50? And 50? Why not 1,000? Right? You know, we should just have $1,000 an hour. And what I think this really is is an example of a logical mistake called the continuum fallacy, which is where you say because you don't know exactly where the cutoff is, therefore there's no real distinction (right?). You know, that if, like, $1,000 an hour wouldn't be economically viable, and you're not quite sure where between 18 and 1,000 the cutoff is, therefore it's just all equally ridiculous – which is, of course, absurd. That's like saying that if you start with a head of hair like mine, you take off a hair, you take off a hair, you take off a hair, eventually I'd be bald. And we don't know exactly how many hairs it takes to not be bald. But that doesn't mean there's no real difference between baldness and not baldness. And similarly, of course, you know, just because $1,000 an hour wouldn't be viable, and we don't know exactly what the dollar amount of the cutoff would be, that doesn't mean that $18 or $20 wouldn't be fine. 

WOLFF: Right. So for me as an economist, it's always delightful to see people bent out of shape by the notion that the world would be different if people got $30 an hour. It would: They wouldn't need to take out a loan to get a car; they wouldn't need to go into debt – yes. And then there would be companies that would be difficultly impacted. But then your job is to weigh those. But the idea of just dismissing it as if it's unimaginable simply means your imagination isn't well developed.

Are you hopeful? As we run out of time here, are you hopeful that the left is learning your lessons? Do you sense any development of a commitment to persuade and so on? You implied that you did, that Bernie and so on, but I wanted to see what you see is going on right now.

BURGESS: Yes. I mean, I definitely see some progress. I think, you know, attempts like I'm making maybe make a contribution to that. I certainly hope so. But I also think that just the fact that people really see the possibility of real world power, and that, you know, people don't look at you like you're crazy if you say that you're a socialist anymore, I think by itself is nudging people in in the right direction on this stuff. Because once you see that you might actually win, instead of making a posturing moralistic point about how it's not my job to explain these things to you, that maybe if I did a better job of explaining these things maybe we would win over some of these winnable people, and then we would have a better coalition, and we could get done some of what we want to do politically.

WOLFF: Thank you very much, Ben. Much obliged for the service you're doing to everybody who's critical of this society. Lord knows, it needs the criticism – to persuade others, but also to develop our own understanding.

I hope all of you share the sense that this is an important issue. I certainly do, and I hope that this kind of critical thinking and persuading is something we all do more of. Thank you again for your attention, and I look forward to speaking with you again next week.


Transcribed by Marilou Baughman
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