Define Lines
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 at 03:55PM

A reader of Thank You for Arguingwrote saying he had been tongue-tied during an argument over the minimum wage. “My opponent, whom I had only just met, claimed 7 million Americans would lose their jobs if we raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while I said that number wasn’t supported by the data. We both claimed the same CBO study as our reference point, which made for a “yes it will/no it won’t” farce. Attempts to move the argument along kept being brought back to the fanciful job loss number. It wasn’t fun, or convincing, for anyone. And now I think my colleague’s wife hates me.”

When a spouse is nearby, the best thing to do is simply to pour more wine and ask about the kids. But if you really want to argue in a situation like this, try skipping the statistics. One technique the Greek sophists used—it helped get Socrates a death sentence, mind you—is to seek definitions.  I sent the reader the following suggested dialogue. Let me know what you think.

Opponent: Raising the minimum wage would cost 7 million jobs.

You: 7 million! That’s a lot of jobs.

Opponent: Right.

You: So what do you mean by “jobs,” exactly? What defines a job in your view? And is a job always a good thing to have?

Opponent: What kind of question is that? A job, obviously, is work that earns a paycheck.

You: So work that doesn’t earn a paycheck isn’t a job? I have a friend who runs a hospital. She works seventy hours a week for a dollar a year; she doesn’t need the money. Yet she works really hard running an important institution. She doesn’t have a job?

Opponent: You’re splitting hairs. Most people work for a paycheck.

You: My friend gets a paycheck. It’s one dollar.

Opponent: Your friend is a volunteer.

You: So if she made $50 a year, would that make her employed? Would her work count as a job?

Opponent: Not really. What’s she going to do with $50?

You: I guess what I’m trying to establish is how much money counts as a paycheck that defines a job.

Opponent: That depends on the work, of course. A kid in Bangladesh might be happy to earn $3 a day in a sweatshop.

You: So that kid would, by your definition, have a job.

Opponent: Sure. 

You: My son is 12 years old. He doesn’t work in a sweatshop. In fact, he doesn’t have a job at all, by your definition. He just goes to school.

Opponent: So?

You: If given a choice between going working in a sweat shop and going to school, I would guess he’d prefer school.

Opponent: Of course he would.

You: So in his case, not having a job is better than having a job.

Opponent: Well, that’s different. He’s a kid. He’s a student.

You: My parents are retired. They don’t have a job either.

Opponent: Well, they earned their retirement.

You: The Koch brothers don’t have a job either. They just invest.

Opponent: What’s your point?

You: I’m wondering why jobs are so important to you. 

Opponent: Without jobs we wouldn’t have an economy.

You: But the economy has risen above pre-recession levels, while jobs haven’t. So the health the economy doesn’t necessarily depend on jobs.

Opponent: OK, not entirely.

You: And if people get money in other ways—from parents, or investments, or retirement income, or the government…

Opponent: The government shouldn’t pay people not to work!

You: Including my parents? Half their income comes from Social Security, and their health care is almost entirely paid for by the government.

Opponent: That’s different.

You: OK. You said that raising the minimum wage would cost 7 million jobs. But you never fully defined a job. Is a job work for a paycheck someone could live off? And if the person can’t live off it, what’ the point of the job? And if the economy doesn’t depend simply on the number of people employed…tell me again why jobs are the highest priority.

Opponent: So people can work.

You: Whether they want to or not? 

Opponent: Every able-bodied person should be required to make a living.

You: Except for my able-bodied son and my able-bodied parents, presumably. OK. But we still haven’t established the definition of a job. If a job is nothing but work, then millions of slaves lost their jobs after the Civil War. Most of them didn’t seem to mind.

Opponent: I said that a job is work for a paycheck! We’re not talking slavery!

You: But when I mentioned my friend’s one-dollar paycheck, you said that wasn’t a job. You mentioned the sweatshop pay. Is $3 a day the minimum that defines a job?

Opponent: I don’t like talking about minimums at all!

You: Well, then you need to do better in defining what a job is. You still haven’t, you know. And while you’re at it, you might define what a job is for. Is it because you’re offended by able-bodied people—certain able-bodied people—not working? Why does that offend you?

Probably, you’d drive him crazy. So there’s that.

Article originally appeared on Figures of Speech (
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