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Wednesday, March 4, 2015


A contest was announced to see who could do the best job of carving up a side of beef.  The judge was announced as a famous chef, who had earned two Michelin stars.  Attracted by the prize money, a butcher and an analytic philosopher entered the contest.

The Analytic Philosopher went first.  A fresh side of beef was placed on a large wooden table, and he approached to begin.  He was dressed in freshly pressed chinos and a button-down shirt.  The Analytic Philosopher laid a leather case on one corner of the table and opened it, revealing a gleaming set of perfectly matched scalpels, newly sharpened.  He selected one scalpel carefully and addressed the side of beef.  After inspecting its surface carefully, he raised his hand and made the first cut, a precise slice in a perfectly straight line.  Working steadily, but with meticulous care, he proceeded to make slices and cross slices until he had completed the carving of the beef, a task that took him the better part of an hour.  When he had finished, he stepped back, wiped the scalpel clean on a piece of paper toweling, replaced it in the case, and with a bow to the judge, withdrew.

The butcher was next up.  Her side of beef was on a table next to that on which the Analytic Philosopher had been working.  She was dressed in overalls and a butcher's apron, on which one could see spots of blood and stains from her work.  She took out a cleaver, a saw, and a sharp butcher's knife, and went to work on her side of beef, wasting no time.  Bits of fat and gristle flew here and there, some ending up on her apron and even in her hair, which she had covered with a net.  She whistled as she worked at the table, until with a flourish, she put down her saw, bowed to the judge, and stepped back.

The judge examined each table for no more than a moment, and then without the slightest hesitation, handed the prize to the butcher.  The Analytic Philosopher was stunned.  "But," he protested, "there is simply no comparison between the results on the two tables.  The butcher's table is a shambles, a heap of pieces of meat, with fat and bits of bone and drops of blood all over the place.  My table is pristine -- a careful display of perfectly carved cubes of meat, all with parallel sides and exactly the same size.  Why on earth have you given the prize to the butcher?"

The Judge explained.  "The butcher has turned her side of beef into a usable array of porterhouse steaks, T-bone steaks, sirloin steaks, beef roasts, and a small pile of beef scraps ready to be ground up for chop meat.  She clearly knew where the joints were in the beef, how to cut against the grain with the tough parts, where to apply her saw.  You, on the other hand, have reduced a perfectly good grade-A side of beef to stew meat."

Moral:  When butchering a side of beef, it is best to know something about what lies beneath its surface."
Observation:  This is also not a bad idea when doing Philosophy


I need to say this.  If anyone wants to call me a self-hating Jew, so be it.

Israel is far and away the militarily most powerful nation in the entire Middle East.  It has a large, fully functional nuclear arsenal with appropriate delivery systems, and a well-trained army with a large Ready Reserve.  If Israel wants to start a war with Iran, let it put its own young men and women at risk, instead of adopting a belligerant stance and inviting the United States to shed our blood and spend our treasure making good on Israel's threats.

Monday, March 2, 2015


On Wednesday, I give my last lecture before Spring Break.  On Thursday, Susie and I fly off to Paris for a brief twelve day stay, returning just in time for me to resume lecturing.  I shall be carrying with me a set of short [ten page] papers submitted by the students, which I shall read and grade while sitting in my favorite cafe sipping a glass of wine or a "deca allonge."  [I am unable to add accents when writing in Google.]  It takes me back a good many years to the day when I sat in a cafe in Place de la Bastille composing my essay, "The Future of Socialism."

France is in turmoil politically, as a result of the weakness of the putatively socialist President, Francois Hollande, the really troubling rise of the slick, attractive right-wing fascist, Marine le Pen, and the recent murders committed by Islamic fanatics.  In Paris, as in Chapel Hill, the surrounding political ugliness has little or no effect on the felt quality of my daily life, a fact that I find both disturbing and reassuring. 

The two week hiatus in my course comes at an appropriate time.  After lecturing for several weeks about the literary interpretation of Marx's language in CAPITAL, I shall when I return pick up the thread of my analytical and mathematical reconstruction of the argument.  Since the course ranges widely across the intellectual and academic spectrum [Philosophy, Economics, History, Psychology, Sociology, Mathematics, and Literary Criticism, at a minimum], I anticipate that the papers will be extremely diverse.  Reading them should be interesting.

As we land at RDU, March Madness will be just beginning, so Susie and I shall probably O.D. on basketball for a bit.  Susie has a long-standing sentimental identification with the TarHeels and a secondary loyalty to the Blue Devils [UNC Chapel Hill and Duke, for those of you not clued up], and like any good husband I have adopted those teams as my own.  I am still in private mourning for the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers to the West Coast, a betrayal that occurred in 1957 just as I was getting my doctorate.  Despite half a lifetime in Massachusetts,  I never really took the Red Sox to my heart.

The political equivalent of Spring Training has begun, so very soon I shall have to clear the cold ashes out of the pot-bellied stove and fire it up for the first meeting of the Hot Stove League.  This year we may yet again see two Republicans running against each other for the Presidency.  Indeed, if Jeb Bush succeeds in snagging the nomination, we will be treated to the edifying spectacle of a contest between a candidate considered a RINO by true Republicans and a candidate considered a DINO by true Democrats.  I sometimes think that whoever invented democracy has a lot to answer for.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


Am I the only person who thinks that Scott Walker looks just plain weird in every photo of him that appears in the newspapers, on television, or in the Internet?  He looks like a twenty-first century version of Alfred E. Neuman.


Turner Classic Movies is devoting today to classic musicals that won or were nominated for Oscars.  At the moment, they are screening The Music Man.  This has always been one of my favorites, not only because of Robert Preston's inspired performance, but also because I have appeared with the movie's female lead, Shirley Jones.  Naturally, you will scoff.  What?  Robert Paul Wolff trod the boards with Shirley Jones?  Well, not quite "trod the boards," and certainly not "co-starred with," but she and I did appear together in a for-real theatrical production which people paid good money to see.  It happened like this.

Back in the fifties [the nineteen fifties, that is], Harvard made Sanders Theater available to a series of summer stock touring shows.  I saw Siobhan McKenna there doing a brilliant turn in Shaw's Saint Joan.  Well, in 1956, while I was hard at work writing my doctoral dissertation, Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones, recently married, came to town in a summer stock mounting of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera.  A call went out for locals to sign up to sing in the pit chorus, paying a dollar a night during the six or seven performances.  I volunteered, auditioned, and was hired.  They dressed us in rags as beggars, made us up to look disreputable, and put us down in the pit at one side of the orchestra.  When we weren't singing our numbers, we were to crouch down and make like inmates in a debtor's prison.

Shirley Jones was radiant, needless to say, but the hit of the show was a basso who sang the part of Peachum [father of Polly, one of MacHeath's several inamoratae.]  When the lights went up at the opening of the show, he was revealed to be sitting at a table with his drinking buddy, Lockit.  His very first line was a belch that could be heard throughout Sanders.  To this day, I do not know how he managed it.

Saturday, February 28, 2015


My remarks on the subject of human capital have provoked some interesting comments and links, so it occurs to me that I ought to say  something more on what is actually a complex subject.  Let us begin with the fiction on which the ideological rationalization of capitalism is founded, namely that workers are petty capitalists who produce the commodity labor-power, which they bring to market and offer for sale, like other commodity producers, in competition with other producers of the same commodity.  Marx's anatomization of this fictio juris is exquisite, and cannot be improved upon.  The treatment of workers as producers of the commodity labor-power is of course crazy, as Marx very nicely shows us.  To think in that fashion is to suppose that the worker's body is her fixed capital and her food and clothing her circulating capital.  The problem is that a worker who notices that she is not earning the economy-wide equilibrium profit rate on her capital, "and who, like any prudent capitalist, wishes to shift to a more profitable line, will find it necessary to separate herself ("alienate herself," to use the technical legal term) from her body. And by a quite unfortunate metaphysical accident-which, however, can scarcely be blamed on capitalism itself! -she is unable to survive that particular liquidation of her investment!"  [to quote myself from my essay A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value -- see the archive at]

Economic theory, of course, cooperates in the fantasy that workers run small businesses producing the commodity labor power.  And The Law in its majesty enforces wage bargains as though they were contracts between capitalists who meet as equal participants in the free market.  But The Law is not an ass, and when a worker with more book learning than is good for him comes before the bar and requests that he be permitted to deduct on his income tax return the cost of "doing business" -- which is to say, his food, clothing, shelter, and other expenses incurred in the course of producing his commodity for the market -- the Law sniggers behind its hand and denies his request.

Enter Gary Becker, who resurrected the concept of "human capital" to take account not of the worker's body or her food and clothing but rather to incorporate into Economic Theory the important fact that in a modern capitalist economy, some categories of workers regularly earn wages significantly higher than the standard pay for semi-skilled machine operatives, as a consequence of their educational credentials and the skills supposedly thereby represented.  These workers, it is suggested, have invested in themselves by holding themselves off the labor market while they acquire further education, often at considerable expense, thereby accumulating "human capital." .  They are thus like business owners who use a portion of their profits [or take loans] to purchase more sophisticated machinery, the cost of which, amortized over the life of the machines, is a good deal less than the market value of the additional product churned out by the improved capital goods.

This modern version of the old notion of human capital allows economists to blame the low wages of unskilled workers on their own improvident failure to invest rather than consume, an interpretation of poverty that is quite comforting to those sitting atop piles of accumulated capital.

But the analytical concept of human capital has other interesting uses in our attempts to understand modern capitalism, which exhibits a segmented and highly pyramidal wage structure.  It can, for example, be deployed to make sense of the notion of relative exploitation.  High wage workers can be understood as both exploited by their employers and exploiting lower wage workers, a construal that seems to comport with our intuitive sense that corporate executives, lawyers, professors, and such like high wage employees occupy a social position more akin to the owners of capital than to hourly wage earners at the bottom of the income pyramid.

In the essay referenced earlier, I tried to build a simple mathematical model that would capture some of these ideas formally, as a substitute for the classical labor theory of value, which, as I show, is fatally flawed.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Robert Vienneau's comment on a previous post exactly paralleled the points I am planning to make in the next lecture of my Marx course.  He writes:

"I thought Professor Wolff's discussion of the literary nature of Marx's Capital very apposite for that discussion.

Under capitalism, as far as a share holder is concerned, there is no difference, at a certain level of abstraction, in a corporation's expenditure on equipment or training for the workforce. Both are capital investments, with expected payoffs and risks (of obsolescence resulting from inventions during the life of the investment, of breakdown of equipment, of worker's changing their employment). So the phrase "human capital" captures a real illusion thrown up by capitalism.

But the phrase obscures the fact that workers laborer under the direction of others who are always trying to extract more value out of the worker. "

This is exactly right.  The entire comment is perfectly encapsulated in the phrase "a real illusion."

By the way, Robert Vienneau has a very interesting blog called "Thoughts on Economics."  It is not for the faint of heart, but he does some very interesting things there.  I recommend it.