Glenn Beck’s Arguing With Socialists, which is formatted as a parody of a school textbook, opens with a cartoon. A man announces that he has a splitting headache. In the next panel, Bernie Sanders turns up to announce that “It’s not just about a single headache. We need to solve headaches for all!” Then Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes an appearance, to say “Headaches are caused by pollution. My Green New Deal will eradicate the problem.” Finally, Beck himself shows up in the last panel, to correct them both: “How about just giving the guy some aspirin?”
There is, to use the parlance of our times, “a lot going on here.” What is Beck trying to say? If Beck thinks we should give the guy some aspirin, does that mean he supports giving people free medical care? Is he saying that only one guy with a headache gets free treatment, and that Bernie is silly for trying to solve more than one person’s medical problems? Is he saying that all necessary medical care is affordable already? Is he saying that if we have empirical evidence that pollution has contributed to the man’s medical condition we should ignore it and simply hand out aspirin? WHAT IS HE SAYING?! Answers are not forthcoming.
These are the hazards of reading Arguing With Socialists as a person with a functional brain.
Glenn Beck has never been quite like the other conservative blabbermouths on television and radio. He has always had a certain—well, the generous word is “showmanship,” the ungenerous one is probably “clownsmanship.” When Beck has his infamously bizarre Fox News show from 2009 to 2011, he would weep on television, draw elaborate conspiratorial diagrams on chalkboards, and even jump on his desk wearing lederhosen and singing Edelweiss (as part of an effort to compare AmeriCorps to the Hitler Youth). Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh presented themselves as serious commentators. Beck’s show was more the heir of Pee Wee’s Playhouse than William F. Buckley’s Firing Line.
This reflected Beck’s origins in “morning zoo” Top 40 radio, as documented in journalist Alexander Zaitchik’s exhaustively-researched biography Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance. Beck was a radio prodigy, having developed an obsession with Orson Welles and the Golden Age of Radio as a child. At 19 he became the youngest morning zoo host and program director in the country. By 21, he had 8 years of professional radio experience under his belt and had built a reputation as a talented DJ.
Talented, but also deeply obnoxious and cruel: Beck was known for being willing to do anything for ratings, from calling a rival’s wife to joke about her miscarriage to firing a cape-wearing gerbil up the pneumatic tube system at a drive-through ATM, so that Gerry the Gerbil would be the “world’s first bank tube astronaut.” He specialized in what Zaitchik calls a “signature mix of Qaddafi songs, fat jokes, and racial impersonations.” Mexico was a “dirtbag country” with an economy based on “beans and big hats” while Middle Eastern nations were “camel countries.”
Beck’s radio career had ups and downs—by his own admission his drinking and drug use interfered with his performance—but really gathered steam in the Bush years, when he morphed fully from a right-leaning morning show goofball to a “nuke ‘em all” flag-waver, calling for “cutting the fingers off” terrorists and watching their “butts shoot blood.” Here he is in February 2001, getting a head start on the rhetoric that would lead us into the Iraq War:
“Bomb the living crap out of them until they have nothing but rocks. Why aren’t we going into that country and just blowing the bat crap out of that country? Carpet bomb Iraq and Yemen.”
And here he is describing what Bush’s election meant to him:
“The good news is we’re going to be a badass country again…. You mess with us, and we bash your head in. We need a mob mentality. We need to pound Baghdad’s face into the cement…”
Well, of course, Beck got his mob mentality and Baghdad got its pounding. After 9/11, Beck’s bloodthirstiness escalated.
“The man in me would love to drop a nuke on Palestine if they had anything to do with it… our response, when we find out who harbored [the terrorists,] should honestly make Desert Storm look like a picnic.”
But at this point Beck was still just one of a number of nationally-syndicated radio blowhards. His profile really took off, and his media empire expanded, when he switched to cable news.
It’s easy to forget that it was CNN that gave Beck his start on television. As part of its transition away from journalism, CNN hired Beck to host a nightly hour of frothing punditry (ABC also gave him a gig as political commentator on Good Morning America.) Beck presented himself as an “independent,” disgusted with Both Sides, but he was clearly a hard-right ideologue. There was immediate controversy upon his hiring at CNN, when audio surfaced in which he called Hurricane Katrina victims “scumbags.” The network plowed ahead with the hire, and he was soon airing CNN specials like Exposed: The Extremist Agenda (about Muslims) and Climate of Fear (about climate change). You can guess Beck’s attitude toward the environmental movement, which he compared to Nazism:
“That was Hitler’s plan. His enemy: the Jew. Al Gore’s enemy [and] the UN’s enemy: global warming… And you must silence all dissenting voices. That’s what Hitler did.”
As a ratings gambit, it worked, and CNN was pleased, despite Beck embarrassing the network by calling Hillary Clinton the “stereotypical bitch,” plus an infamous incident in which he challenged Muslim congressman Keith Ellison to “prove that you’re not working with our enemies.” Soon, however, Beck had moved to a more natural home, Fox News, where his show grew wilder and even more conspiratorial. This was where he declared Barack Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture” did deep dives into a century-long Progressive conspiracy that involved Che Guevara, ACORN, Obama, Woodrow Wilson, and something called the “Cloward-Piven strategy.” Beck swung between personas—as media writer Zev Chafets put it, from minute to minute he could be “nerdy professor, slap-stick comic, born-again preacher, shock jock, weepy recovering addict, man of destiny.” His rhetoric about Obama was especially vicious, suggesting the president was “marching us toward nonviolent fascism,” and going to establish “reeducation camps for young people.” He compared proposals to marginally raise taxes on the wealthy to slavery.
Beck’s departure from Fox was therefore somewhat surprising—the two seemed made for each other—but Chafets reports that Beck himself didn’t like being controlled from above, and Roger Ailes grew tired of Beck pissing off the wrong people, such as the Anti-Defamation League. Advertisers had also been dropping the show. Beck now runs The Blaze, a trashy tabloid site devoted mostly to whipping up hatred of the left (a sample headline on the main page as of this writing: “Disturbing viral photo shows Black Lives Matter supporter kneeling on crying baby’s neck”). The Blaze has a pay-per-view TV arm featuring pundits Steven Crowder, Mark Levin, and the scraggly man from Duck Dynasty. Beck originally meant to compete with Fox itself, but The Blaze has struggled, shuttering its cable channel in 2019 and undergoing multiple rounds of layoffs. (Beck even put his private jet up for sale.)
The most noteworthy recent phase of Beck’s career has been the “kinder, gentler” Beck that debuted in 2013 and lasted through about the end of 2016. Beck came out publicly and said he was done being a “flame thrower” and wanted to be a “bridge builder.” Beck appeared to dislike the divisiveness of Donald Trump. The media swallowed it whole, with ABC running a story on the “new” Glenn Beck. There were headlines in places like The Atlantic and the New York Times saying “Glenn Beck Wants To Heal The America He Divided One Hug At At Time,” “Glenn Beck Is Sorry About All That,” “Glenn Beck Tries Out Decency,” and“Glenn Beck’s Regrets.” Here’s NPR:
“A reflective Glenn Beck said Thursday he regrets that some of his fiery opinions caused division in the country over the last several years. He wasn’t fully aware of the perilous times and people “at each other’s throats,” said the conservative radio host… “
“Samantha Bee got together for a feel-good segment with both of them wearing fuzzy sweaters and lamenting partisanship. “We tear each other apart, and we don’t see the human on the other side,” Beck said. “By fits and starts,” Bee said, “Glenn Beck and I were becoming… allies?”
Beck evidently quickly noticed that principles aren’t terribly profitable. New Glenn was about as popular as New Coke, and so the old formula was returned to the shelves. He has lapsed back into demagoguery, perhaps even worse than before. Here’s Beck Phase III on coronavirus lockdowns:
“I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working,… Even if we all get sick, I would rather die than kill the country. Because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”
Of course, it would never be Beck that died. Beck will hide in a very expensive house. The people whose deaths he’s actually calling for are service workers. Beck has also spend a good deal of time ranting about how Black Lives Matter protesters. A representative recent tweet:
“The evidence is clear: Communists, radicals, and anarchists have teamed up with Islamists to further their revolution. Most of the young people marching with BLM march to a CATCH PHRASE with no idea how DEADLY the ideology.”
But there are signs Americans don’t care for this stuff as much as they during the peak of the Tea Party years. Beck is a more marginal figure now, thank God.
Still, as with Donald Trump and the Terminator, it is very unwise to count Glenn Beck as having been vanquished. Arguing With Socialists, his new book, is a lavishly-produced and highly effective assault on Bernie Sanders, AOC, and the new radical left. Glenn Beck might be a clown, but he knows how to put on a show, and Arguing With Socialists is a very cleverly-produced piece of propagandistic trash.
Arguing With Socialists displays a full reversion to vintage Beck, complete with caricatures of Bernie Sanders in Castro paramilitary gear and quotes comparing AOC to Hitler. He looks and sounds exactly the same as he did in the Fox years, only now he sports a white goatee that makes it impossible to look at him without thinking of Colonel Sanders. Reading it in light of Beck’s previous protestations that he was “sorry” about being a “divider” it becomes clear that he wasn’t sorry about anything; he just wondered momentarily if apologies could be a successful grift.
We call Arguing With Socialists “propaganda” because the arguments are utterly disingenuous and it’s clear that Beck’s writers have no interest in accurately presenting socialist beliefs. (Three “contributors” are listed at the bottom of the title page—Justin Haskins, Donald Kendal, and Stu Burguiere—and note in fine print inside the book informs us that “Glenn Beck” is a registered trademark of Mercury Radio Arts, Inc., so we’ll refer to “Beck” and “Beck’s writers” interchangeably in what follows.) A quick run through some particularly egregious examples should suffice to demonstrate that the book cannot be trusted.
First, take Beck’s writers’ discussion of the minimum wage. Here is how they present matters:
One of the signature issues for American progressives and socialists is increasing the federal minimum wage to at least $15 per hour. The idea seems simple enough to socialists: if greedy companies are forced to pay their workers more, then workers would be better off. But here’s the thing, huge amounts of data show boosting the minimum wage often results in negative economic consequences, the very people minimum wage laws are meant to help. For example, after Seattle increased its minimum wage to $13, lower-wage employees reported working 9 percent fewer hours and earned $125 less per month on average according to researchers at the University of Washington. Similar results have been experienced in other cities across the country as well, and the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2019 that increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour would result in as many as 3.7 million fewer jobs and a $9 billion decrease in real income in 2024—and that assumes a slower rollout of the $15 minimum wage than what many Democrats are now calling for.
Now, this all sounds quite authoritative. Congressional Budget Office! University of Washington! But if you open up the CBO report in question, what do you find? Well, right on the first page it concludes:
In an average week in 2025, the $15 option would boost the wages of 17 million workers who would otherwise earn less than $15 per hour. Another 10 million workers otherwise earning slightly more than $15 per hour might see their wages rise as well. But 1.3 million other workers would become jobless, according to CBO’s median estimate. There is a two-thirds chance that the change in employment would be between about zero and a decrease of 3.7 million workers. The number of people with annual income below the poverty threshold in 2025 would fall by 1.3 million.
We can see here that the Beck book has done a classic “cherry pick,” showing you the statistic that supports its conclusion and burying the ones that undercut it. Beck wants you to think that socialists are deranged and do not understand economics, that they would “hurt the very people they’re trying to help.” In fact, the CBO report concluded that a $15 minimum wage would boost the wages of 27 million workers, and would lift 1.3 million people out of poverty! It concluded that there were trade-offs to this policy, that some people would not have jobs who would otherwise have jobs—a trade-off that can be counteracted with a job guarantee or basic income, which socialists also want—but it’s pretty important that the CBO found a $15 minimum “would increase the wages of millions of low-wage workers, increase the average incomes of low- and lower-middle-income families, reduce poverty, shift money from corporate profits to the wages of low-wage workers, and reduce inequality.” As for the University of Washington study, Beck is describing it accurately enough, but he ignores a second study from the same university that complicated the picture and ignores this one from UC-Berkeley that flatly found that “the policy achieved its goal” of increasing the wages of the working poor and that the employment level in Seattle’s food service industry “was not affected.”
If you only present the part that suits your ideology, you are manipulating people. This is what conservatives constantly do in order to try to show that left policies will “hurt the people they’re supposed to help.” They tell you the downside and bury the upside, even when the upside often clearly outweighs the downside. (See, for example, Medicare For All, where they’ll tell you how much money it will cost you but will decline to tell you what you get for that money or the fact that because you’re no longer paying premiums, co-pays, and deductibles you will actually be richer than you were before.)
So, frequently in the book, the facts aren’t wrong, which is why the book is able to invite readers to check the sources for its facts. Instead, they’re selected carefully to produce misunderstanding. For example, at one point Beck says that the U.S. is only responsible for a small percentage of carbon emissions (14%, though that still makes us the second-highest producer after China). Beck uses this fact to conclude that the U.S. does not need to change its carbon emissions, because this would not make a difference, and the problem is non-Western countries. A critical fact is left out here: if you look at cumulative emissions, the picture changes, with the U.S. and Europe responsible for most of the problem. This means that it’s deceptive to treat climate change as a problem we didn’t cause. But it also doesn’t logically follow that from the fact that we only produce a fraction of present emissions, we do not have to do our part to stop them. If every country thought this way, the problem could never be solved. Making the United States carbon neutral would provide a powerful example spurring efforts at Green New Deals in other countries around the world. A future socialist government could also make demands for climate action a major part of future trade negotiations with other nations.
Another example of hiding facts: Beck also pulls the familiar trick of trying to convince you that we need to privatize our school system by pointing to poor U.S. school performance compared to other countries. Our government-run schools suck next to those of other countries, therefore we must “introduce competition” via school vouchers. What the argument always leaves out is that many of the school systems doing better than us are also public. Finland, for instance, not only has strong teachers’ unions but does not legally allow private schools, and outperforms the United States. The argument that the presence of “government” in education is causing the gap between the U.S. and other schools is therefore false in the most obvious way: government isn’t the difference between us and elsewhere! One thing that is different, though, is that many of these other countries have a consensus that quality public schools are a good thing, and they do not have the kinds of crazed right-wingers we find in the United States, who are constantly trying to destroy the entire school system and turn it over to for-profit corporations that will maximize the amount of money they can squeeze out of taxpayers and minimize the amount of education they have to give in return.
This should suffice to show that Beck’s writers’ cannot be trusted to represent their facts accurately. But let’s also look at some of the sophistical reasoning deployed. Here the writers argue that if socialists really hate wealth concentration they should hate government:
“If wealth really does equal power, then the federal government is already controlling society. The U.S. government has and spends more money than all of the wealthiest business and people in America—and it’s not even close… It always amazes me that socialists like yourself seem obsessed with taking wealth away from those who have it because you believe they have too much power over society, all while demanding we give even more power to government… If your goal is to decentralize power by decentralizing wealth , then the last thing you should want to do is to concentrate more wealth in the hands of the federal government, a relatively small group of people that controls much of the nation’s lands, wealth, natural resources, and laws. Congress, which is supposed to serve as the people’s representatives, is only composed of 535 people… Sounds an awful lot like “oligarchy” to me… it’s the federal government that owns the tanks, guns, and nuclear bombs—not Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.
As Beck’s writers might learn if any of them had ever actually had an argument with a socialist, this objection misses the point by a mile. State institutions exercise quite a bit of power in any non-anarchist society. Presumably even Glenn Beck doesn’t want to privatize America’s nuclear arsenal. The question in dispute between the Glenn Becks and the AOC and Bernies of the world, then, isn’t about whether the government should continue to govern. It’s about who should control the government. When socialists say that wealth equals power, our point is that if some citizens have vastly more wealth than others, the wealthier citizens will have more power over the government. If you care about democratic values, that’s a problem.
OK, Beck—or a version of Beck who actually cared enough about “arguing with socialists” to read socialist magazines—might say, but socialists don’t just want a more even distribution of wealth. We also want the government to take over parts of the economy that are currently private. Even Bernie Sanders wants to nationalize health insurance, for example, and some of us would like to nationalize things like big banks and power companies as well. Wouldn’t increasing the power of the state decrease in this way the power of ordinary citizens?
It’s possible to imagine hypothetical situations in which it would. If the American government were headed by a hereditary monarch but our economy were dominated by worker cooperatives, nationalizing private companies would lead to a decrease in the level of democratic control exercised by ordinary citizens over the economy. But the real situation is precisely the opposite. In a nation like the United States that combines a standard capitalist economy with an (imperfectly) democratic government, politicians are the only part of the power structure that have to be elected and re-elected by ordinary people. The obscene level of inequality generated by those capitalist economic structures makes democracy less meaningful than it would be otherwise. But privatizing public assets takes them entirely outside of the sphere of democracy.
To make this less abstract, consider a park or library. Beck would have us believe that because our city council only has 6 people on it, they are an oligarchy and clearly the parks and libraries should be controlled by the private sector. But we elect those six people. If we don’t like their policies we can run reform candidates against them in the next election.
Let’s say our town has seven parks and and three library branches and we sell one park or library branch each to ten wealthy citizens. We’ve increased the number of individuals who make decisions about the parks and libraries! But wait. Now if one of the new park-owners decides that you have to pay him to get into the park, or one of the new library-owners hates Toni Morrison and thus decides to remove all of her books from his library, disgruntled citizens of the town have no way of appealing these decisions.
The version of Beck who wanted to engage with socialists instead of lending his name to an “arguing with socialists” book seemingly written by people who have never met one might say that ordinary townspeople do have a way of changing these policies. We can vote with our dollars. Don’t like one library’s book-selection policies? Start patronizing another one! Of course, part of why libraries and public parks are such excellent institutions is that no one has to pay for them at the point of service, but perhaps Beck wouldn’t think this was a problem. At any rate, he shows himself to be a big believer in the power of the voting-with-dollars strategy in other contexts. Here, for example, is Glenn Beck’s take on public attitudes toward climate change:
“Assumes people want to enact the climate change policies proposed by progressives and socialists but that there are capitalist forces preventing them from doing so. But that’s simply not true. Anyone who wants to spend more to build ‘green’ housing, start a compost, or even live completely electricity-free can do so. Just ask the Amish. By opting not to go green, people are freely CHOOSING to prioritize more affordable energy over reducing carbon dioxide emissions. A free-market economy would create a CO2-free society if that’s what people truly wanted. But they don’t—at least, not enough to reduce US CO2 emissions down to zero.”
Now, it’s certainly true that a big chunk of the public doesn’t care about climate change. Many people in this category don’t believe that it exists, or that if it exists it’s overhyped. These aren’t beliefs they formed spontaneously in some sort of informational vacuum. It’s a result of a well-funded, decades-long propaganda campaign by the fossil fuel companies whose profits are threatened by the transition to renewable energy. Even very orthodox pro-capitalist economists will tell you that market decisions only reveal consumer’s underlying preferences—like, for example, how much someone cares about whether their future grandchildren’s quality of life will be greatly worsened by the effects of climate change—if those consumers have all the information necessary to make a rational choice.
But what about those of us who do believe that the scientists are telling the truth, and that the consequences of climate change could be catastrophic? Does the fact all of the millions of Americans in this category haven’t haven’t made millions of individual decisions to go off the grid and start living like the Amish show that we don’t “really” care about moving to a zero-emission economy?
Of course not. Think back to the Seattle minimum wage example. Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant beat four-term incumbent Richard Conlin in 2013 largely on the strength of the popularity of her call to raise the minimum wage to $15. Since then, she’s managed to hold onto that seat in three elections, even though in the last one Amazon spent an unprecedented amount of money trying to replace Sawant and other troublemakers on the Council with “business-friendly” candidates. The evidence strongly suggests that most Seattle voters like progressive policies like a $15 minimum wage.
So why didn’t the “free-market economy” in the city “create” a $15 wage floor without the City Council having to get involved? Applying Beck’s reasoning about climate change to this case, we should expect that the majority of consumers would have simply refused to patronize any Seattle restaurant that paid its staff less than $15 an hour. Of course, no one who lives in the real world would expect consumer behavior to work this way. Our day-to-day experience of life in a market economy adds up to an uninterrupted stream of counterexamples to the ludicrous idea that what’s produced reflects the large-scale moral and political preferences of a majority of consumers on issues like economic inequality and climate change. But it’s worth breaking down why this is so far from being how real markets work.
Even if you don’t go out to restaurants that often, you’ve probably made literally thousands of decisions over the course of your life about where to go out to eat–whether by yourself, on a date, or as part of a group of friends. I’m guessing that no one reading this has ever chosen Restaurant A over Restaurant B because A pays its staff $16 an hour and B only pays $12. For one thing, even finding out what the wage rates were in the first place would involve a lot of socially awkward conversations. For another, even if restaurants were required by law to post the hourly wage rate of their lowest-paid employee in huge letters in the front window–which is a pretty good idea, by the way–your decision about where to go for lunch wouldn’t be a pure referendum on your preferences about what the wage floor should be in the restaurant industry. If the place with $16 written in giant letters in the window is a Chinese restaurant and the one with $12 written there is Mexican, it’s also a referendum on whether you feel like Chinese or Mexican. Even if they’re both Mexican restaurants, it’s a referendum on your favorite menu items that you don’t think they do quite as well at the other place. If you only have half an hour to eat lunch and the $16 place is five minutes further away, it’s a referendum on how much time you want to give yourself to eat. If you don’t want to be mocked for making a big deal about the wage level–”I guess we can’t go to the steakhouse the rest of us want to go to since Bob just cares so damn much about the dishwashers’ pay rate”–it’s a referendum on that too. And since wage levels aren’t written on restaurant windows, that won’t even be one of the factors in the mix.
Unlike an actual referendum or even a legislative election, these “referendums” on consumer preferences aren’t “one person, one vote.” The distribution of consumer dollars is wildly unequal. Another difference between “voting with your dollars” and actually voting is that you don’t have months to make up your mind. You might spend whole minutes talking to your friends about where to go out to eat, but hardly anyone spends more than thirty seconds at the grocery store deciding what product to pull off the shelf.
Something similar is true even of the more consequential consumer decisions that Beck thinks would “create” a zero-emission economy if consumers only cared enough. When you moved into your most recent apartment and your landlord told you the company you needed to call to get the lights turned on, you probably didn’t ask a lot of questions about whether the power was going to come from solar, wind, coal, nuclear, or what. Maybe you would have if you’d been a better person. Someone impressed by Beck’s argument could say that everyone should stick up for their values even if it means never going out to eat because you spent so much money getting expensive solar panels installed on your house. (We’re not sure what the apartment-renter is supposed to do in the scenario we just mentioned. Break your lease and go live with the Amish, maybe?) But most people who would favor a Green New Deal don’t do any of these things, just as most people who support higher wages for dishwashers don’t investigate wage levels before deciding where to go for lunch. This doesn’t mean they don’t really support those things. It just means that the kind of “free-market society” that exists doesn’t actually “create” outcomes that conform to the big picture moral and political preferences of consumers. That’s exactly why socialists understand that introducing actual democracy to the question of what sorts of products we collectively produce requires reorganizing the foundations of the economy.
Beck, of course, regards the very idea of reorganizing the economy as a profound affront to personal freedom:
“Socialists believe that we can make the world a better place by taking property and wealth away from the people who have it and centralizing economic, political, and social power. But I believe America is best when individuals are empowered with the freedom to pursue their own hopes and dreams…. Maybe you’re an auto mechanic who hopes to one day open your own shop. Or maybe you’re a nurse who spends your free time studying to become a doctor… Whatever it is that drives you, that makes you feel excited about life–that’s your ‘American dream,’ and I believe that when we’re free to pursue our own unique passions and goals in life we’re all better off.”
We’re pretty sure that making higher education free as Bernie Sanders proposes would make it easier for that nurse to become a doctor. As to the mechanic opening his own shop, his dream might come into conflict with more radical socialist goals if his dream involves being a boss rather than cooperatively sharing power with others. But the person who dreams of being a boss is not the only one whose dreams are relevant here. Socialists, too, believe in freedom. We just believe that when your boss can fire you at will, you don’t have very much of it! When you actually think about the world more concretely, it becomes obvious why the libertarian capitalist conception of freedom is perverse. Beck talks about “taking property and wealth away from the people who have it,” but we’re actually talking about taking property away from people who have far more of it than anyone could ever possibly hope to use and directing that property toward far more socially beneficial ends. And if we think about what “pursuing your hopes and dreams” actually requires, it’s obvious that guaranteed medical care makes people’s lives much easier and gives them more time to think about the other things they want to do (spending hours on the phone negotiating with your insurance company is generally not anyone’s favorite activity).
Throughout the book, Beck asks questions like:
“STOP AND THINK: Have Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple made your life and the lives around you better or worse?”
Since many of us have Amazon Prime accounts and enjoy the free two-day shipping, we are supposed to think “Ah, corporations have actually done so much for me, why did I dislike them?” But this only works because Beck’s argument is based on a false dichotomy: do you want Amazon or do you want to not have anything Amazon provides? There is a third possibility, which is that we still have institutions designed to satisfy human wants, but we build them to conform with our values. For instance: Amazon could be unionized and publicly-owned, its drivers could operate under better conditions, and it would still be a package delivery service. We do not have to have either exploitative corporations or nothing.
Conservatives might object that we might not get kind of tech innovations that make our economy so dynamic if giant corporations like Amazon were taken into public ownership. But the empirical premise of this argument is dubious at best. Beck says on p. 374 that “[w]ithout the free market, Americans would have been able to build the internet,” but neglects to mention that the original ARPANET was developed not by “the free market” but by the Department of Defense.
Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski are very radical socialists who believe that in an advanced socialist society we could have a dynamic economy that would be entirely free of market forces. Their book People’s Republic of Walmart is required reading for anyone curious about the current state of play in the argument (sometimes called the Socialist Calculation Debate) about whether this is possible.
One striking figure cited by Philipps and Rozworski involves an example that conservatives normally love to bring up–the pharmaceutical industry. Conservatives are fond of this example because it lets them argue that even a modest socialist reform of society like moving to Canadian-style single payer healthcare would stifle innovations that are not only useful but life-saving. After all, pharmaceutical companies can make more money from dealing with private insurers than public ones so they would have less of an incentive to innovate if the United States, where so many life-saving drugs are produced, moved to a single payer system. The problem is that 70% of truly new drugs–New Molecular Entities (NMEs)–are already developed in government labs. Pharmaceutical companies are often incentivized by the market to slightly tweak molecular entities that already exist and sell the result as their own intellectual property. And even when they do innovate, Philipps and Rozworski points out, those innovations can’t be counted on to line up with our most urgent needs.
One of the passages in Arguing with Socialists that aged very badly in the time in between whenever Beck’s writers finished writing it and the book’s actual release in April 2020 is this one:
“When was the last time you went to the grocery store and stood at just how truly amazing these modern marvels are? …One hundred years ago, many homes still didn’t have electricity or cars or refrigerators.If you wanted to store food, you needed to pay an ‘ice man’ to come to your home to literally chip off a block of ice that could keep a small batch of produce cool. Televisions didn’t exist, and neither did computers.’ It was common for people to die of birth, and many died of diseases that essentially no longer exist in the United States. Something as simple as the flu could wipe out millions in a single year. The Spanish Flu of 1918 infected half-a-billion people worldwide, and killed more than 675,000 Americans.”
He’s right that by the time the book come out very few people were lingering in grocery store aisles marveling at how far we’ve come since that pandemic. If you’ve visited a grocery store lately, you’re probably trying to grab your groceries as quickly as possible while worrying that one of your fellow shoppers might walk too close to you without wearing a mask.
The reason that anyone who isn’t being sacrificed on the altar of capital as an “essential worker” hasn’t been able to go outside much in the last few months isn’t that pharmaceutical companies had no reason to worry about a new Spanish Flu-style pandemic. After SARS and MERS any version of that industry that was guided by the warnings of medical experts would have started pouring funds into research on respiratory ailments. They didn’t because unlike, say, the military, which gets every gruesome weapon of mass death on its wishlist from Congress because you never know what wars might be coming in the future, the pharmaceutical industry is incentivized to care less about long-term risks than short-term profits.
While just about any socialist thinks that vital industries like the production of pharmaceuticals should be taken outside of the market, not all socialists are as optimistic as Philipps and Rozworski are about the idea that we can ever transcend markets entirely. David Schweikart, for example, provides a model of socialism in his classic book After Capitalism in which private companies still exist, but instead of a private sector of hierarchical capitalist businesses financed by wealthy investors, there would be a private sector of worker-owned first financed with grants from publicly owned banks. We don’t need to speculate about what kind of innovation would exist in this kind of economy. We can simply point at existing examples like the R&D arm of Spain’s large and thriving Mondragon federation of worker cooperatives.
Beck would have heard of Mondragon if he’d ever actually asked a socialist what she thought about any of these issues. Instead, Beck and his writers show themselves to be spectacularly clueless about even the broad outlines of common arguments on the socialist side of the debate. On p. 27, he describes a hypothetical situation in which you are a restaurant worker being offered a promotion. You are currently on Medicaid. Your employer’s promotion does not include health insurance benefits, and because it would place you above the Mediaid income threshold, it would actually end up costing you more. “You decide you’re better off in poverty” is, Beck’s hands, a parable about the problem of an excessively generous welfare state. But if he’d ever spent twenty minutes chatting about healthcare with a Sanders supporter he’d quickly find out that it’s also a standard argument against means-testing and in favor of universal provision of social rights like healthcare.
Occasionally there are quotes from Bernie and AOC, presumably the result of sending some intern to Google with instructions to “find a quote from Bernie trashing capitalism so we can talk about freedom” or “find a good AOC quote to pair with this passage,” but there are no signs that any of Beck’s writers have ever picked up any books by socialist economists or political philosophers. One of the most remarkably signs of that comes when Beck says that when workers are paid low wages it’s perfectly OK and non-coercive because they “voluntarily agree” to work for those wages. If he had the slightest interest in actually arguing against socialist ideas, this would be a great place to do it by engaging with Marx’s ideas about exploitation.
Given the profound historical importance of those ideas to the socialist case about capitalism, you’d think that a book running well over four hundred pages and entitled Arguing with Socialists would say something about those ideas. Beck’s book doesn’t claim to be an academic monograph, of course, so we wouldn’t necessarily expect him to engage with, for example, the sophisticated explanation the twentieth century analytic philosopher G.A. Cohen gives in his paper The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom about why the claim that workers are collectively exploited isn’t undermined by the fact that some individual workers achieve upwardly mobility. But you would expect him to engage a little with all the reasons don’t buy the claim that capitalist employment relations embody the highest possible degree of human freedom.
He doesn’t. There’s no sign that Beck has even heard of any of the authors mentioned above. Nor does he engage with contemporary book length explanations of the other side of the argument like The Socialist Manifesto by Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara or The Case for Socialism by (ahem) Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson. He sees fit to quote the publication of a now-defunct Trotskyist sect in order to misleadingly quote-mine it to suggest the author, Jonah ben Avraham, supports “deplatforming” controversial speakers. (While the article sympathetically presents the argument for deplatforming, and this is the part Beck quotes, ben Avraham’s overall point seems to be that such tactics are counterproductive.) But the only time he mentions the exponentially more popular socialist magazine Jacobin is to redbait proponents of Modern Monetary Theory by quoting a Jacobin piece praising MMT. He ignores the anti-MMT material that Jacobin has also published. And neither Beck nor any of his writers seems to have heard of Current Affairs.
Instead of engaging with any of the things that socialists really say in either magazine, he litters the book with imaginary tweets from literal cartoon socialists who say ludicrous things that no socialist would ever think. “Rashida Resistance,” for example, says of the Chinese surveillance state that “This wouldn’t happen in America. Our government would never abuse technology like this and spy on its citizens.” Believe us, nobody named “Rashida” is ever going to be doubting the U.S. government’s inclination to engage in privacy violations. One of his fictional socialist interlocutors is literally named Clay Guevara. He might as well have called him “SocialistStrawman1917.”
This is where Beck’s total lack of interest in finding out what the socialists he supposedly wants to argue with actually think becomes astonishing. In most contexts we wouldn’t recommend that any writer sacrifice their sanity by looking at what people are saying about them on Twitter. The late Michael Brooks once memorably monologued to one of the authors of this article at a restaurant in Brooklyn about what a terrible idea it is to read the comments on YouTube videos. As is true in so many areas, we should all learn from his example. But if Glenn Beck wanted to learn what non-clay socialists actually think so he could argue against it, he wouldn’t have even had to read a single socialist book. He could have simply gone on Twitter, made some of the claims he makes in this book, and found out what the real-life analogues of Clay Guevara and Rashida Resistance are saying by reading the replies.
He would have found out pretty quickly that any real socialist would respond to arguments vaguely directed, as so many of Beck’s are, against “socialists and progressives” by pointing out that liberalism and leftism are very different things. When he illustrated those arguments by talking about the (real or imagined) failures of the Obama administration, as he does throughout the book, he would have heard a lot about how socialists felt about that administration. When Beck said as he says–it might sound like we’re making this up, but he really does say this–that in a “completely free market model,” instead of having a Nordic-style safety net “the private social structure—churches, Lions Clubs, PTAs, soup kitchens, Jerry Lewis telethons—to assist people who are incapable of supporting themselves,” Beck would hear a lot of comments dripping with acid about Clay Guevara’s brother-in-law who died because he couldn’t afford his insulin. (“Gosh, I wonder why the Lions Club didn’t take care of that.”) When Beck said that the Affordable Care Act showed that “government intervention” in healthcare is a bad idea, someone–or more likely several hundred someones–would have pointed out that Beck is equivocating. Medicare for All and a Rube Goldberg scheme like Obamacare, which started out as a Republican idea in the 1990s, might have in common that both would be examples of “government intervention” in healthcare, but that’s like saying that wars and peace treaties are both examples of “government intervention” in foreign policy so the catastrophic results of the invasion of Iraq show that we shouldn’t have a peace deal with Iran. The real Rashida Resistances of the world can be very entertaining about how they make these points.
We could go on but both of us are animal-loving vegetarians. We don’t go around beating dead horses.
You may think we’re wasting our time by giving Glenn Beck an argument at all. After all, we’ve shown Arguing With Socialists should be unpersuasive to anyone who thinks about what it is saying. A typical Current Affairs reader will probably not be surprised by this; they did not previously associate the name “Glenn Beck” with “argumentative rigor.” But having shown that Beck is wrong, and being disinclined to spend thousands more words exhaustively compiling every way in which the 400 pages of this book can be wrong, we move to a more interesting question about Arguing With Socialists: why does it work?
Because make no mistake: Arguing With Socialists is extremely well-done. It contains dozens of charts, hundreds of endnotes. It is filled with sidebars containing “Fun Facts” and “Things You May Not Have Known.” By combining statistical data with comics, anecdotes, and “vox pops” from little imaginary cartoon socialists who show up to challenge the writers’ arguments (it must be admitted that the one called Professor Tweed does not look entirely dissimilar from Ben Burgis), it manages to simultaneously seem like an intellectual policy discussion and accessible, digestible, and fun. The ghost of Karl Marx, looking like the Genie from Disney’s Aladdin, floats in from time to time to harumph and fume.
Rhetorically, it is extremely effective. If you are among those who would gladly choose “eating a giant bowl of spiders” over “picking up a Glenn Beck book,” you may never realize this. But the graphic design and artwork are first rate. The book is loaded with endnotes, it appears to make arguments, and it adopts a light, friendly, inviting tone. The “school textbook” conceit is inspired, because it makes Arguing With Socialists feel like it is offering you nothing but simple, factual, elementary common sense, stuff so straightforward and logical that a child could understand it. Beck even exhorts readers to do their own research, not to accept what he says at face value (“Don’t take my word for anything I say.”). Of course, this is just a rhetorical device. If people actually do their research and scrutinize the footnotes, they’ll find that half of what he says misrepresents the underlying sources. But conservatives have developed the presentation of bullshit as Just Facts And Logic into a fine art.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be so worrisome if we had a media that could be relied upon to expose this for what it is. But as the “New Beck” episode showed us, the supposed “liberal” media will often utterly fail to display the most basic skepticism, and they will help Beck pose as an “independent” who is “not partisan” even as he pushes a hard-right agenda. Within this book, there are arguments that having a basic social safety net will produce totalitarian misery, that climate change, while real, should not concern us enough to do anything about it, and that Basic Economics means we should leave corporate power almost completely unchecked. It’s all wrapped up in fun cartoons and creative graphic design, and the “I’m just giving you the facts” and “please, think for yourself” tricks are good at implying Beck is not an ideologue, just Someone Who Cares. Books like this should frighten us, because if their conclusion were widely accepted, we would live in a crueler and more dysfunctional society, but they have the power to convince. We need to argue back and we need to argue better.