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Tuesday, May 31, 2016


In his greatest work, The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud introduces an extremely useful concept, “overdetermination,” that previously had found employment only in mathematics.  Using his signature therapeutic technique of free association, Freud would lead his patients to engage in spontaneous unedited verbal association to elements in the dreams they reported to him, revealing thereby repressed contents of the mind.  By this means, Freud was able to get at the unacknowledged memories, wishes, fears, and libidinal urges whose presence in the patient’s unconscious were the causes of his or her neuroses.

Because it was impossible to anticipate what associations would be triggered by a dream element [“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” he once remarked sardonically], Freud would persist until either each dream element had yielded up its associations or else the flow of associations simply had run dry.

As he conducted his clinical work, Freud made an odd and fascinating discovery.   On occasion, he found, an element in a dream would trigger a series of associations that completely explained the presence of the element in the dream, but would then continue to yield new associations that resulted in a second completely adequate explanation of the dream element.  This dream element, Freud said, was not simply determined by the materials revealed through the associations; it was overdetermined.    Its presence in the dream had two independent explanations, each one all by itself sufficient to explain that presence.

The mathematical analogue is a system of linear equations in which there are more equations than unknowns [for example a system of five equations with three unknowns.]  As those familiar with a little math know, such a system has a consistent solution only if the equations are not linearly independent.  [Louis Althusser, by the way, in his discussion of Marx’s supposed economic determinism, screws this up by using “overdetermined” to mean “multiply determined” or “determined by several cooperating causes,” a fact that I tried without success to point out to my UMass friends and colleagues Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick.]

All of which, it may perhaps surprise you to learn, brings me to my decision to resign my full professorship in the Columbia University Philosophy Department in 1971 and transfer to the University of Massachusetts, where I spent the remaining thirty-seven years of my fifty year teaching career.  As I settle comfortably into my eighties, I find, reflecting on the arc of my life, that my decision to leave Columbia was genuinely overdetermined. 

At the time, I thought I understood quite clearly why my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, and I decided to move to Western Massachusetts.  Our first choice as a place to work and live had always been Boston, but that did not work out.  Neither of us was thrilled with New York, but we both had good jobs, and we were both undergoing psychoanalysis, so we settled for Manhattan in the middle sixties.  In ‘66 we bought a summer home in the Berkshires, and then in ’68 our first son, Patrick, was born.  Upon arriving in New York in ’64, we had moved into a Columbia-owned apartment half a block from the campus that can best be described as upscale-slum.  Only in New York would a senior member of an Ivy League university department feel grateful for such digs.  We knew that we did not want to raise Patrick in a Manhattan apartment, arranging play dates, hesitating to buy him a bike, and worrying about schooling.  Then in the summer of ’69, when Cynthia was again pregnant and we were taking daily drives from our Berkshire house to nearby Northampton so that Cynthia could get a Big Mac [the only thing she could keep down with morning sickness], we happened upon a magical little street called Barrett Place where we were clearly meant to live.  Later that summer a beautiful three story brick Federal style house on Barrett Place came on the market.  Without a moment’s hesitation, we bought it the day we saw it, sold our summer home two days later and – if you can believe it – only then commenced looking for jobs in Western Massachusetts!  Two years later, we both transferred to UMass.

I was of course well aware that a move from Columba to UMass would be viewed by the academic world as déclassé.  Indeed, I even joked that whereas people had been saying “Boy, Bob Wolff must be pretty good, he is at Columbia,” now perhaps they would say “Boy, UMass must be pretty good, Bob Wolff is there.”  I also knew that at UMass I would be deprived of entrée to the Upper West Side circle of Public Intellectuals, which I was being offered in the late ‘60s.  But that was not a world I very much lusted for.  Indeed, my principal concern was that although in ’71 the teaching load at UMass, like that at Columbia, was two courses a semester, a big underfunded state university might find itself forced to go to three courses a semester.  I was willing to accept that [though it never happened in the subsequent four decades.]

So we moved into our beautiful house on Barrett Place with Patrick and now Tobias.  In time, the boys got bicycles, which they rode freely all over town.  They went to the local schools, I spent three years as Cubmaster of the Northampton Cub Scouts, I even ran for town school committee [and lost by twelve votes].  Never once did I regret leaving Columbia.

And that is a complete explanation of my decision.  But with the benefit of almost half a century of hindsight, I now realize that it is not the only complete explanation, for my decision, as Freud would have said, was overdetermined.  The best way I can explain this is by reference to a wonderful 1991 movie, Tous les Matins du Monde, which features both Gerard Depardieu and his son.  The movie centers on the life of the great 17th century viola da gamba player Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, played by the French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle [who had a small part in The Da Vinci Code.].  After Sainte-Colombe’s beautiful young wife dies, leaving him with two young little daughters, he withdraws from the world to his country estate and devotes himself entirely to perfecting his musicianship.  He has a little hut built on the grounds of the estate where, for long hours each day, he practices, experimenting with a seventh string on his instrument and inventing new phrases and techniques of playing.  He refuses an invitation to play for Louis XIV at Versailles and plays in public only for the local gentry.  When a young man comes to him asking for lessons [this is Depardieu’s son], he sends him away, saying that although the young man may have a successful career at court, he is no musician.  Sainte-Colombe does not even deign to publish the compositions he has written, considering them merely exercises.

Looking back on my life, I realize that in leaving Columbia and the center of academic life, I was in a very small way doing what Sainte-Colombe did – withdrawing from the public world with its seductions, rewards, and demands, so that I could pursue the ideas in my head wherever they might lead me, regardless of their reception by the larger world.  Now, this is of course embarrassingly self-aggrandizing, but all of us, I think, look to literature for an understanding of our own unimportant lives.  Who among us has not felt some kinship with Elizabeth Bennett or Julien Sorel or Juliet or Ivan Karamazov -- or Alexander Portnoy?  As the years passed in Western Massachusetts, I died away to the academic profession, ceasing to attend annual meetings, no longer “keeping up” with the journal literature, receiving fewer and fewer speaking invitations, until finally I became quite convinced that other philosophers thought I had died [a suspicion reinforced by Wikipedia, whose page on me, when it first appeared, began with the words “Robert Paul Wolff was …”]

I was quite content with this state of affairs, and even moved from a Philosophy Department to a Department of Afro-American Studies for the final sixteen years of my teaching career.

As I look back, I can see quite clearly that leaving Columbia in 1971 was one of the best decisions of my life.  And quite clearly, it was overdetermined.

Sunday, May 29, 2016


In 1979, my Harvard classmate Ted Kennedy [Class of ’54, I never met him] announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for President.  He was interviewed by the fine old TV reporter Roger Mudd.  Mudd asked Teddy the one obvious softball question that everyone aspiring to the Presidency can expect to be asked:  “Why do you want to be President?”  Teddy’s utter inability to give a coherent answer killed any chance he might have had of following in the footsteps of his martyred older brothers Jack and Bobby.

This afternoon, as Susie and I were sitting in the café, I was musing on the epic awfulness of Hillary Clinton as a candidate, I remarked that no one watching her could answer that simple question:  Why does she want to be President?  When asked, she gives a perfectly crafted laundry list of practical policies she would attempt to implement, but never is she able to give a simple one sentence answer to the question that rings true, and that, I think, could be fatal for her chances.

There is in fact an answer she could give, if she could bring herself to give it.  It would be clear, straightforward, and immediately recognizable as true, but she would have to discipline herself not to tack onto it a fifteen sentence list of focus group tested addenda designed to assemble a winning coalition.  It would be a narrow answer, a direct answer, an answer that did not speak to every constituency she needs for a win, but it would have the extraordinary virtue of being true, and giving it would establish her as an authentic human being.

What would that answer be?  Here it is:

“I want to be President so that I can spend the next four years doing everything I can to make sure that now, at long last, after more than a century of struggle, women in this country will finally get all of the rights they deserve and have so long been denied.”

That is, I really think, the one thing Hillary Clinton the human being actually believes.   But there is not the slightest chance that she will ever say it just that directly and simply.

It is a pity.  It would be a winner.


In the classic Billy Wilder romantic comedy, Sabrina Fairchild, the chauffeur’s daughter, tells business hotshot Linus Larrabee that the first  time one sees Paris, it must  be raining, because Paris is at its most beautiful in the rain.  Well, maybe that is true if you are Audrey Hepburn and you are talking to Humphrey Bogart, but this morning, twenty minutes into my walk, it started to rain.  I turned right around and walked home for twenty minutes getting wet.  I could have used that umbrella Sabrina tells Linus he must not carry in Paris!

Saturday, May 28, 2016


It is a rainy Saturday afternoon in Paris, Serena Williams’ third round match at the French Open has been suspended, the two cuisses de canard with five spices and mandolined sweet onions are slowly cooking in the oven, and it seems a good time to reflect a bit on the state of the endless presidential race.
Let me begin with the latest State Department report about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.  I confess that I find this affair simply incomprehensible.  When Clinton assumed the position of Secretary of State, she knew she was going to make another run for the Presidency [I know she says she had not yet decided, but seriously!]  She knew that if she secured the nomination, she would be the object of endless attacks.  She stupidly refused simply to maintain two Blackberrys [Blackberries?] in order to keep her official e-mails separate from her private e-mails, and sure enough she got in trouble for that idiotic decision. At that point, she must have known that this would become a thing when she ran for the presidency.  Why in the name of God did she not, right then, release everything, apologize, and put it behind her?  I mean, this was not her first supposed scandal.  It was her tenth or twentieth.  She is an intelligent person.  Does she literally learn nothing from experience?

Will this sink her chances in the election?  No.  Will she win, nevertheless?  Christ, I hope so.  All the objective evidence suggests that she will either win respectably or overwhelmingly.  But how sheerly blindly mind-numbingly stupid is she?
On to Bernie.  I think he is doing the right thing by fighting hopelessly to the bitter end in the primary battle.  Why?  For two reasons.  First, I think it is politically useful to give all of his enthusiastic supporters the opportunity to go to the polls and vote for him.  The American political system is a winner-take all system that creates vast numbers of what Professor Lani Guinier, in several well-known law articles about that system calls “wasted votes.”  Wasted votes are votes beyond the 51% needed to win that, when cast, do not change the outcome.  The electoral college system compounds the phenomenon of wasted votes – winning New York or California with 60% gets a Democrat no more electoral votes than winning with 50.1%   If Bernie is really building a movement, he needs to fire up his large mass of supporters so that he can keep them engaged even after he concedes and calls on them to vote for Clinton [as I am confident he will.]  Giving every supporter in every state the chance to vote for him will serve that end.

Secondly, there is a real struggle for the control of the Democratic Party going on, and it is fundamentally generational in nature.   Victories in primaries that are meaningless with respect to who will win the nomination can nevertheless play a very important role in consolidating the insurgency seeking to take the party to the left.  None of this, of course, will have the slightest effect on how Clinton governs, if she wins the election.  After moving left to inspire Bernie’s supporters during the campaign, she will snap back to the center-right as soon as she is inaugurated.  That is all right.  Such are the realities of American politics, and I do not hold that against Clinton at all.  She is who she is.  But her election will not be the end of this insurgency, or so I hope and pray.  Bernie’s run for the nomination is one more stage in that insurgency, just as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter have been.
And so we come to Trump, whose behavior is so counter-productive as to confound [I mean, what can he hope to gain by attacking a popular Latina governor who is the Chairperson of the Republican Governor’s Association?]  I have been brooding about this behavior, and I am beginning to understand it.  Here is the conclusion I have come to:  Trump actually has no identifiable political or ideological views whatsoever.  What he has is a set or complex of sociopathic obsessive needs – to bully those around him, to brag about and promote himself, to dominate men and humiliate women sexually, to deny that his hands are small [I am not kidding].  He is incapable of moderating these needs for more than an instant, even when it is in his self-interest to do so.  It is utterly pointless to probe his statements for any underlying beliefs about the world at all.  The only beliefs he holds with any firmness are beliefs about himself, at a psychodynamic level that is infantile.

Well, the duck is almost done, and I must sauté the courgettes

Friday, May 27, 2016


With the aid of the wheelchair, Susie and I paid a visit to the Jardin du Luxumbourg.  There is a lovely artificial lake in the middle of the jardin where, on weekends, children sail boats that can be rented at a stall next to the lake.  On Sundays, grown men arrive with serious little boats, some powered by sail and some by engines.  They seem to know one another.  The last time we were in Paris I saw something so remarkable that I captured it on my IPhone.  I think I posted the photo, but here it is again for those who missed it.

Believe it or not, this is a toy submarine, cruising beneath the surface of the lake, presumably to prey upon the toy boats of the other men.

Charles Addams, where are you when we need you?

Thursday, May 26, 2016


I think I have written here on my bout with something called polymyalgia rheumatic, or PMR.  I was in very bad pain for two months until my new doctor diagnosed it and prescribed Prednisone.  In two days I was pain free and launched on a more than year long slow reduction in the dosage, from an original 20 mg a day down, month by month, to 17.5, 15, 12.5 10, 9, 8, 7, etc etc until finally I will take 1 mg a day for a month and then quit.  When I left for Paris ten days ago I was taking 12.5 mg a day but was scheduled to go down to 10 mg last Monday.  Fearful that I might suffer a recurrence of the pain [that sometimes happens], I brought not only exactly enough Prednisone for the four week stay in Paris, but also an entire bottle of 5 mg tablets -- a three month supply -- just in case.

Well, Susie's MS has been getting suddenly much worse, so much so that she has been almost unable to walk.  This morning, I went to rue Danton and rented a wheelchair.  Susie has also been suffering an intensification of a painful condition referred to by MS patients as "tingling and burning."  I put in an overseas call to her doctor in Durham, NC, and while I was waiting to make a connection with him, Susie mentioned that when she had her very first MS attack, before we were married 29 years ago, her doctor had prescribed Prednisone.

So I asked her doctor, after we made contact, and when I mentioned that  I had a bottle full of the medication, he prescribed 20 mg a day to see whether it would help, .  In a day or two we shall see whether it does.

I mean, do I know how to pack for a trip or what?


Jeffrey Sachs has a must-read op ed in today's Washington Post.  I pay to get access to the Post but if you do not, here it is [I imagine this is illegal, but what the hell]:

Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute and a professor at Columbia University.

Mainstream U.S. economists have criticized Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s proposals as unworkable, but these economists betray the status quo bias of their economic models and professional experience. It’s been decades since the United States had a progressive economic strategy, and mainstream economists have forgotten what one can deliver. In fact, Sanders’s recipes are supported by overwhelming evidence — notably from countries that already follow the policies he advocates. On health care, growth and income inequality, Sanders wins the policy debate hands down.

On health care, Sanders’s proposal for a single-payer system has been roundly attacked astoo expensive. His campaign (for which I briefly served as a foreign policy adviser) is told that his plan will raise taxes and burst the budget. But this attack misses the whole point of his health proposals. While health spending by the government would go up in the Sanders health plan, private insurance payments would disappear, generating huge net savings for the American people.

Countries such as Canada, Germany, Sweden and Britain all follow something like a single-payer approach and pay much less for health care than the United States does. While the United States spent 16.4 percent of gross domestic product on health care in 2013, Canada paid only 10.2 percent; Germany, 11 percent; Sweden, 11 percent; and Britain, 8.5 percent. U.S. overspending is about 5 percent of GDP, or nearly $1 trillion as of 2016, mainly because of the excessive market power of private health insurers and big drug companies. An authoritative study by the U.S. Institute of Medicine confirms this extent of excess costs, finding losses of about 5 percent of GDP in 2009. Critics of Sanders’s health plan have failed to recognize or acknowledge the huge savings and cost reductions that would accompany a single-payer system.

On economic growth, Sanders also easily wins the debate. While President Obama opted for a short-term stimulus that peaked after two years and disappeared by the end of his first term, and Hillary Clinton has proposed a modest infrastructure program over five years, Sanders calls for a much bolder public investment program directed at the skills of young people (through free college tuition) and at modernizing and upgrading America’s infrastructure, with a focus on renewable energy, high-speed rail, safe drinking water and urban public transport. Sanders’s growth strategy would get back to fundamentals: a long-overdue increase in productive investments to underpin good jobs and rising worker productivity.

Sanders’s mainstream critics are mostly Keynesians. Their focus is on total spending, whether it’s consumption or investment. Sanders, instead, focuses on investment because long-term growth depends on more rapid capital accumulation (including in skills and technology). America’s slow growth is no mystery. The U.S. net investment rate has declined to about 5 percent of GDP, down from about 10 percent of GDP during the 1960s and 1970s. Sanders’s plan would restore a high-investment economy and, with it, a higher growth rate.

On income distribution, Sanders accurately argues that U.S. income inequality is uniquely high among the rich countries. Only the United States has deep poverty alongside soaring wealth. Only the United States tolerates a hedge-fund industry in which poorly performing money managers (not to mention quite a few crooks) take home billions of dollars in pay, backed by unconscionable tax breaks pushed by Democratic and Republican senators who live off of the largesse of Wall Street.

Consider the most basic measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient. This measures the inequality of income among households, with zero signifying complete equality and 1 complete inequality. For high-income countries, a Gini coefficient below 0.3 reflects a low degree of income inequality; between 0.3 and 0.4, a moderate degree; and at 0.4 or above, a high degree. According to the most recent data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. Gini coefficient stood at 0.40, with Canada at 0.32; Germany, 0.29; Sweden, 0.27; and Britain, 0.35.

What accounts for this striking difference? Most important, U.S. inequality has soared in the past 35 years, since the start of the Reagan era. The U.S. Gini coefficient stood at 0.31 in 1980. All countries have faced market pressures pushing toward more inequality — especially increased trade with low-wage countries such as China and automation that has claimed the jobs and wages of workers with only high school educations. Yet only in the United States have these pressures turned into massive inequality of income.

The reasons are clear. The United States unleashed the power of CEOs to enrich themselves with mega-salaries, weakened trade unions and gave massive tax breaks to the super-rich. Sanders’s policies would go after all of these unconscionable moves, bringing the United States back into line with the rest of the high-income world. He would, in short, end the age of impunity in which the rich and the powerful get their way, while the rest suffer. Sanders’s policies include higher taxes on the rich, strengthening unions, raising the minimum wage, supporting families, providing free tuition at public universities and cracking down on financial crimes.

There is nothing magical or utopian about Sanders’s recommendations. He is advocating policies of decency long ago adopted by other prosperous high-income countries. Our own neighbor, Canada, is a case in point. Canada has lower-cost health care, a life expectancy two years higher than in the United States, much lower college tuition, far lower poverty rates and, not surprisingly, more happiness (ranking sixth in the world in life satisfaction, behind Scandinavia and well ahead of the United States, which is 12th).

Mainstream economists long ago lost the melody line. Their models are oriented to the status quo and underemphasize the benefits of public investment. They take America’s bloated health-care costs as a given, not as the result of the influence of the U.S. private health lobby. They treat low growth as natural (“secular stagnation”) rather than as the result of chronic underinvestment. They have come to accept cruelly rising income inequality and rampant impunity for financial crimes. Sanders knows better, based on worldwide experience, an abiding sense of decency and a strong and accurate vision for a brighter economic future.