A few years ago, after the New York Times dubbed conservative pundit Ben Shapiro “the cool kids’ philosopher,” I wrote a widely-shared article showing why he was an intellectual fraud who did not actually believe in “logic, facts, reason, and debate” as he had claimed he did. (Shapiro has since evaded multiple challenges by leftists to debate him, and when he has accidentally allowed himself to encounter a moderately intelligent interlocutor, he has crumpled almost immediately.) In a rational society where, through the “marketplace of ideas,” good ideas prevailed over bad ones through an unfolding dialectical process of Habermasian public speech (or, if you’re not trying to use rapid-fire big words to sound smarter than you are, people talking to each other about important politics stuff), there would be an inverse relationship between the number of times Ben Shapiro has been proven wrong and his popularity as a public intellectual. Like so:
However, there is increasing evidence that we do not live in a society of perfect Habermasian whatever-it-was. Consider what the Top 10 most popular Facebook posts were on June 17th, 2021 (a day that occurred long after the point where the Rational Society Model would have predicted that Ben Shapiro ought to have been reduced to delivering his thoughts on trans athletes to none but his cats and long-suffering wife):
- Ben Shapiro
- Ben Shapiro
- Dan Bongino
- Ben Shapiro
- Dan Bongino
- Ben Shapiro
- Ben Shapiro
- Dan Bongino
- Fox News
(Dan Bongino, with whom we are not presently concerned, is a former Secret Service agent and unsuccessful Congressional candidate who has said his “entire life” is about “owning the libs.” He has called masks “an object on your face that does nothing to stop the transmission of [COVID-19].”)
You may think this top ten list conclusively falsifies the Rational Society Model and thus we must conclude we live in a world where free, accessible lies continue to triumph over costly, less available truths. But as social scientists, we must consider another story consistent with the data. Perhaps, in the time since we last encountered him, Ben Shapiro has become more sensible. If the quality of Ben Shapiro’s thought has improved, his popularity may be justified within a Rational Society Model:
To understand what kind of world we live in, then, it is necessary to test the position above by examining Shapiro’s recent output. He has recently begun producing a video series on his Daily Wire website called “Debunked,” in which he “dismantles or debunks a common leftist myth in 15 minutes or less.” He has also written these arguments into a series of articles for the site. (I will be referring to the written versions because watching the videos requires a $12.99 a month Daily Wire membership.) Let’s go through some of the points made in Shapiro’s first three “debunks,” in which he blows apart Leftist Myths using his trademark Facts. I will look briefly at his observations on minimum wages, transgender people, and public sector labor unions.
“Debunking Minimum Wages”
Shapiro says that minimum wages are “predicated on a very stupid notion,” which is that employers are “Scrooge McDuck”: they have a money pool called “profits” which could be shared with their workers if it was “pried open” through the use of law. Can you imagine such a thing? You probably can, because it is actually a description of the basic legal structure of a for-profit corporation. A corporation brings in a certain pool of revenue and is meant to direct as much as possible toward its owners; a corporation could also be legally mandated to change how the pool of revenue is directed. Whether this is a good idea has to be examined separately, but profits are a pool of money that can be directed toward owners or workers. (An example from my own experience: when I began Current Affairs, I could have structured it in such a way that its profits were directed toward an owner or shareholders. Instead, that pool of money gets redirected back into the business where it pays writers, editors, and artists more than they would receive if the money pool was being diverted elsewhere.)
Shapiro attempts to show that the minimum wage is a bad idea with harmful effects. In order to do this, he must try hard to make sure his viewers do not accidentally learn what professional economists generally think about the minimum wage—namely, that the traditional right-wing arguments against it do not hold up. Shapiro, like many conservatives, believes that minimum wages are stupid for a simple reason: employers pay what employees are “worth,” and if they have to pay more, they will cut hours and lay off workers. He says:
There’s a reason that a poll in February 2020—an economic boom time—found that 8% of small businesses said they would have to lay off workers if there was a massive increase in the minimum wage. Fourteen percent said they would have to cut worker hours, and 22% said there would be a loss of profit margin, which in the end would lead to hourly cuts or to employees getting laid off.
Now, a non-ideological person interested in finding the truth might be skeptical of small businesses’ self-reports, because the people who answered the poll are probably authority figures such as owners or managers rather than workers, and owners or managers stand to personally lose money from any raise to the minimum wage. Still, while the poll Shapiro is referring to is not cited in the written piece, another way of framing the findings he cites is that 92 percent of small businesses say jobs would be unaffected even by a “massive” increase in the minimum wage. That makes sense. Think about the operation of a restaurant. Business owners are already incentivized to squeeze as much labor as possible out of their workers. If it takes three servers, a busser, and two cooks to operate the restaurant each evening, then a business owner might grumble about having to put a greater portion of the take toward labor costs and a lesser portion toward themselves, but their options will be limited, which is why most businesses do not actually fire people in response to small mandatory hikes in wages. They might raise the prices of what they offer, but that’s not necessarily bad. If few people are going to make a decision about whether to go to a Mexican restaurant on the basis of whether a burrito costs $7 or $7.40, then the end result of a minimum wage hike might be the transfer of money from the more middle-class customer base to the working-class labor force. Shapiro says that “when you artificially boost the price of labor, people don’t just magically come up with the money. Instead, they fire a bunch of people.” But that’s a speculative story, and it’s easy to see why it might not be true. If doing the same work with a smaller workforce isn’t feasible, an owner isn’t going to fire a bunch of people: however, they might have to cut the share going solely to themselves.
The “Econ 101” myth about minimum wage increases is that they will necessarily raise unemployment. But working economists who had to take classes beyond 101 know that the real world is substantially more complex, and that new knowledge is always being added through research. A vast number of studies have tried to empirically assess whether in practice an increased minimum wage would necessarily increase unemployment: they have been unable to show that the predictions made by conservative alarmists actually come true. In fact, there are actually certain economic conditions under which raising the minimum wage can increase employment. It’s not clear whether a higher minimum wage definitively results in more or less employment, but the empirical findings have caused a major shift in the beliefs of economists over the years. As economist Noah Smith documents in an excellent article on why the $15 minimum wage is a fairly low-risk economic policy, in 1978, 90 percent of economists surveyed by the American Economic Association believed minimum wages substantially lowered employment among low-wage workers. In a 2015 survey of economists, only 26 percent thought a $15 minimum wage would have this effect. In theory, increased minimum wages could either raise or lower employment, and it depends on what kind of economy you’re in and how much the wage is being raised. An intelligent, disinterested commentator on the minimum wage would acknowledge this, even if it didn’t fully support their personal political beliefs. But Shapiro’s ideological commitments are fixed, meaning that he cannot entertain the empirical findings showing that the conservative scare story about minimum wages is unsupported.
Shapiro also does something common among conservative minimum wage opponents, which is that he wants to draw people’s attention to the costs of minimum wage increases and set aside the benefits. As Smith writes, it is a “huge mistake” to “center on the potential costs of the policy” because “ignor[ing] the benefits introduces bias to the discussion.” The minimum wage is meant to reduce poverty, and “many papers find that it does do this,” with one from 2019 finding that doubling the minimum wage could reduce poverty between 22 percent and 45 percent. Smith says it could “substantially increase income at the bottom of the distribution” even with the employment effects taken into account. This is huge, and it means that even if there is some increased unemployment as a result of a minimum wage increase (something that is not certain), it is accurate to say that choosing not to increase the minimum wage substantially increases poverty.
Given that it’s Shapiro who is either ignorant of the economic literature or deliberately concealing it from his viewers while confidently explaining the Facts to the stupid leftists, I have to confess his tone rankles quite a bit.
Amusingly enough, some of the best responses to Ben Shapiro’s “Debunked” video about unions can be found in the comments on the Facebook version of Shapiro’s video. Many commenters had personal experience with unions, and pointed out that Shapiro’s views did not comport with the realities they had witnessed in their own working lives:
- “Nothing is perfect, but since joining the IBEW in 2015 after 8 or so years working non-union in the electric utility industry (lineman), my income has doubled, some years tripled, my family gets employer paid health insurance vs. nearly $1000 a month premiums for trash coverage, I have over $150k in employer paid annuity in just 5 years (last statement), and us, the workers, get a say so on jobs, and quite often what we ask for if it’s reasonable. The safety standards and training on this side of the fence are light years ahead of non-union, and we don’t have many problems culling shitty hands. I’m sure there’s some dirty deeds at the top, but down low we take care of each other, and get compensated well, or we’ll pack our tools and drag. A union is only going to be as strong as its members make it. Remember, the union works for YOU.”
- “Yeahhh my family has probably only prospered as well as it has because of teamsters union. I’m not really down with anti-union propaganda; someone needs to stand up for the working class against the abusive corporations.”
- “I can’t complain about my union, they’ve treated me pretty fairly so far. Do I think there could be changes? Yes, I do. But all in all, I have job security amongst other key benefits.”
- “… I know as a member of a trade union many non-union guys in my area with more experience than me average making $10 less than I do now as an apprentice, with little to no benefits or retirement plan and often have to work 10-12 hour days with no overtime pay and no guaranteed breaks…”
In fact, it makes sense that union workers would object to Shapiro’s attempted takedown here, because being in a union is, generally speaking, objectively a good thing for workers. Collective bargaining increases the power of workers vis-a-vis employers, which is why union workers have higher wages and better benefits and also explains why employers have a strong interest in persuading workers that they don’t need unions (and why those employers come up with all sorts of nonsense about how a union will interfere with the Very Special Relationship the company has with its workers). The simple fact is that the presence of a union in your workplace is likely to give you more money in your pocket at the end of the day. This is a fact that does not appear in Ben Shapiro’s video, and that employers work hard to obfuscate—e.g. by pointing to union dues but not to the increased pay that results from those dues—but it is a basic economic reality.
How, then, does Shapiro “debunk unions”? Well, first, Shapiro is a bit slippery. The Facebook post may promise that Shapiro is going to expose unions, but the video is actually concerned with teachers’ unions specifically. Shapiro distinguishes between public-sector unions and private-sector unions, arguing that while private-sector unions “did a lot of good in the early 20th century” public-sector unions have “always been a blight on the republic.” This, he says, is because public-sector unions are inherently corrupt: they help to elect the very legislators who set their pay: “we have public sector unions actively working to collect union dues, use them to elect politicians, then negotiating with those politicians to take taxpayer dollars and pay the unions,” an “incredibly corrupt” arrangement. To explain why this is bad, Shapiro gives what is one of my favorite ever examples of a conservative saying something they think sounds bad but that to me sounds fantastic:
“Imagine, for example, if you could elect your own boss, and negotiate with him your salary, and then you just get to spend whatever money is in the kitty, because he doesn’t own that money.”
Yes, imagine the horrors of a world in which you, rather than your boss, owned the company, and the boss was accountable to the workers through an election. Imagine how horrible it would be to have strong leverage against your employer and be able to decide how the company’s money was spent. Imagine not living under virtual feudalism. IMAGINE IT.
As you will undoubtedly have noticed, Shapiro has inadvertently explained why we shouldn’t worry too much about public-sector unions negotiating with an entity that they themselves can also help to elect. Yes, electing the boss you negotiate with weakens the boss. “Economic democracy” certainly strengthens the hand of workers. But if you don’t believe that strengthening the hand of workers is a bad thing, because you want workers to be well-paid, then this kind of empowerment is to be celebrated rather than regarded as suspect.
Shapiro says the phrase “public-sector unions” a lot in the video, but as I said he is more interested in teachers’ unions rather than, say, police unions or prison guard unions (hard to say why: perhaps a substantial portion of his viewers are cops?). He levies only two real charges at teachers’ unions: 1) that they get unfair advantages from the fact that they elect the Democratic politicians who set their pay, and 2) that they made unreasonable demands when it came to COVID-19 protocols in a way that hurt students. This, as far as I can tell, is the sum total of the objection,1 and it is worth noting what Shapiro does not argue, which is that this “corrupt” arrangement results in teachers getting hugely generous sums of money and a cushy job. In fact, it is impossible to argue this, because teachers actually tend to earn slightly less than the average college educated worker, and a substantial number of them work unreasonably long hours. (Infamously, nearly all teachers end up spending part of their own income on school supplies.) If teachers’ unions have gotten a “corrupt” bargain, the fruit of that bargain has been a job that is difficult, time-consuming, and usually not particularly well-paid or well-respected. People do not become public school teachers for the big bucks. If this is corruption, they might need to start becoming better at it.
Very well, what about COVID-19 policy? Shapiro says that some demands by teachers’ unions have been unreasonable. He says: “Teachers unions have been saying that without proper ventilation, or more masking, or social distancing, they can’t reopen. The science does not agree with this.” He criticizes teachers for going beyond what the CDC recommends in asking for students to be vaccinated before returning. But interestingly, if you go to the CDC website and look up what it has to say about schools and COVID-19, you will immediately find that “[The] CDC’s school guidance for COVID-19 emphasizes 5 key prevention strategies: consistent and correct use of masks, physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and ventilation, and contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine.” Thus, most of the things Shapiro criticizes teachers for demanding are, in fact, exactly what the CDC recommends for safe reopening. And this is one of his central examples of teachers’ unions running amok with too much power.
Here is a fascinating passage from Shapiro’s anti-union diatribe:
“What do the teachers’ unions care about? They care about the same thing all other unions care about: getting the best benefits for their employees. The problem is that teachers’ unions are negotiating against students, because typically what they are negotiating is more money from taxpayers, less working hours, better working conditions. Some of those things are perfectly plausible, but you know where you’re supposed to address those sorts of issues typically: at the legislative level. You’re supposed to allow taxpayers to defend themselves. Instead, what public sector unions do is they end around the process.” [sic]
What’s interesting here is that it implicitly acknowledges that from the perspective of rational self-interest, teachers should unionize. Shapiro does not suggest that the union only cares about itself. He is at least honest enough to admit that the point of the union is to make sure teachers have higher salaries and better working conditions. He cannot argue that these things are bad, because they’re not. Nor can he argue that teachers have too much money and good working conditions, because they don’t. Instead he makes the argument that they are supposed to be addressed “at the legislative level.” But they are addressed at the legislative level. His problem is that teachers’ unions, like other interest groups, are allowed to exert some influence over the legislative process, even though he adduces no evidence whatsoever that this has caused them to become rich at the public’s expense. In fact, considering what working conditions for teachers are like, it is alarming to contemplate the state the profession would be in without unions.
At a couple of points in the video, Shapiro makes comments that should be lingered on, because they tacitly admit that unions are good for workers. He argues, for instance, that “the vast majority of employees would prefer to be treated as individuals rather than forced into collective bargaining circumstances.” But then he also says that the “cost of labor in union shop states is extraordinarily high and employers don’t want to be bound” by union-negotiated contracts. “The cost of labor,” of course, means workers’ salaries, meaning that the arrangements that employees supposedly don’t want to be “forced” into are contracts with higher salaries in which they have greater leverage over their employers. Naturally, Shapiro presents no evidence that if workers are presented with the kind of terms they would have under a union contract and the kind they would have under a non-union contract, they would opt for the non-union contract. If he went near this question, he might be faced with the kind of testimony his Facebook commenters have eloquently offered.
Intermission Activity: SPOT THE FALLACY:
In Shapiro’s union video, he asks:
“There has yet to be a single case of a teacher infected by an elementary school student and then dying of COVID, to the best of my knowledge, so why exactly are we still talking about schools remaining closed?” 2
Can you see why this reasoning is fallacious?
HINT: “There has not been a single death since we evacuated the area, so why did we evacuate the area?”
“Debunking Transgender Ideology”
Throughout his career as a Cool Kids’ Philosopher, Ben Shapiro has made the same argument over and over about transgender people: they are not the gender they claim to be, because Biology dictates what you are, and what you are is unchangeable. For a Man to become a Woman is the same as a Man declaring himself a Moose. In this video, he makes the argument yet again:
For advocates of the position that some biological men are women or vice versa, there is no standard that can be applied. A man can become a woman—or a woman a man—at any time without any stable definition of man or woman whatsoever… a man claiming to be a woman is making an unsustainable claim. He can’t even know what it is like to be a woman because he is not one. A man with surgeries and hormone treatment does not become a woman, nor does a man who simply declares himself a woman. All of this is insane propaganda that is being propagated for political purposes… This Cartesian notion that you can be a woman in a man’s body—a soul in the machine because your gender is separate from your sex—is utterly unsupportable at any level…. it is simply ridiculous to suggest that if a boy is effeminate, he’s actually a girl, or that if a girl is masculine, she might actually be a boy. But this is what gender theorists argue.
I don’t want to treat this argument at length because I’ve 1) discussed it before, and 2) it has been addressed more substantively by other people, such as in this excellent video by Natalie Wynn. Wynn devastatingly shows that at the heart of Shapiro’s “common sense” argument is a misunderstanding of how language works, that the meaning of words like “man” and “woman” are not fixed by nature. Nature is fixed by nature, but the terms we use to describe it can be adjusted to suit social needs. Shapiro thinks that transgender people are arguing for a different conception of biology, but they are not. They understand biology perfectly well—the great trans writer Julia Serano, for instance, who I cite frequently on these matters, is a scientist with a PhD in molecular biology—but they are arguing for a different set of terms.
To illustrate Shapiro’s confusion, Wynn cites the example of the word “parents.” The word “parents” can refer to biological parents or adoptive parents. Someone who calls their adoptive parents their parents is not “denying biology.” They are using the word correctly because the word “parents” does not solely denote those who have a particular biological relationship: it can also denote a social relationship. Likewise, the words “man” and “woman” do not necessarily denote chromosomal sex differences but can denote social categories. Shapiro insists over and over that this is not the case, that the words do refer to chromosomal sex differences and cannot refer to anything else. But this is an error: God did not make words, people did. People have been patiently explaining for years that “the categories were made for the man, not the man for the categories” but Shapiro still has not paused to think for a second and realize that what appears to him as mere “common sense” is in fact a misunderstanding of what words are. If we want pronouns to be based on people’s subjective sense of what fits, rather than their chromosomes, there is nothing “factually wrong” about that. Shapiro thinks there is some irrational “Cartesian” “soul in a machine” notion at work here, but there isn’t. The existence of subjective identity (e.g. does someone identify as a “New Yorker” or a “Christian”) does not depend on thinking the mind exists independently from the physical world, but only on believing that subjective identities do exist and are meaningful to the people who hold them. I noted in my 2018 article on Shapiro that he himself had to work to overcome his natural instinct to call Laverne Cox “she,” because he himself has unconsciously internalized the fact that everyday spoken gender categories do have much more to do with how people conceive of and present themselves than what their chromosomes are.
It is really not worth having this conversation with Shapiro, however, because it seems he’s so fully convinced that he holds a “common sense” position that he cannot hear the other side speak. (This is common among those who consider themselves Facts And Logic guys.) As Wynn points out, he has had the gender stuff explained to his face before and almost seemed to grasp it, but slipped back into this nonsense. He does not appear to be interested in learning. He will continue to be loudly, publicly ignorant.
The Debunked series promises to “guide you through a plethora of stats, studies, and facts” in order to expose leftist myths. As we have seen, the “facts” are not there to actually teach you what the world is like or to encourage you to think critically. Shapiro remains a propagandist; the Rational Society Model fails. The marketplace of ideas, in which free exchange leads to the triumph of the best ideas, is just as much of a myth as the “free market” of libertarian economics. As with economic markets, trickery and power can be used to ensure that garbage triumphs over the good. Most people simply do not have time to investigate every claim made to them, so someone who seems confident and authoritative and displays charts and graphs can do a good job hoodwinking a significant percentage of the public. Shapiro is a skilled propagandist because he is good at dressing up his ideology as “myth-busting” and the presentation of mere fact. This man’s ongoing popularity may be a sad comment on the quality of our public discourse, but he is apparently here to stay, and we must do our best to keep our friends and loved ones from being tempted to take him seriously.
Some people make the argument that teacher tenure means Bad Teachers get to stay employed longer than they should. In the video, Shapiro does not make this argument, but an important point is that taking away tenure—a.k.a. a basic measure of job security—makes teaching a less attractive job and thus may worsen the very problem it seeks to address. ↩
The best of Ben Shapiro’s knowledge is not very good. There are plenty of news stories about elementary school teachers dying of COVID-19, and while the source of their infection is often not identified, as this Florida Education Association report shows, the combination of dozens of deaths among Florida school staff and hundreds of thousands of positive COVID tests among public school students provide ample reason to believe school reopenings needed to proceed extremely carefully. ↩