Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Thursday, September 21, 2017

A VAGRANT THOUGHT

If the appalling devastation in Puerto Rico drives large numbers of Puerto Ricans to transfer to the States, as they have a right to do, inasmuch as they are citizens, their decision to move could alter the politics of several states.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID

Donald Trump stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and threatened to kill 25 million North Koreans.  He is a war criminal.  I do not have anything witty or insightful or scholarly to say about him or about the scores of millions of people who elected him.  We must do whatever we can to limit the damage he is able to inflict on this country and on the world.

Obviously no one of us can do much, but we have to do something.  Does anyone think it would be helpful for me to resurrect the Friday Lists?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

SAD NEWS

Nine days ago, I posted a lighthearted account of my engagement with jigsaw puzzles, in the course of which I referred to a resident of our building who, I said, is "the maven of the puzzles."  She is an eighty-five year old woman named Mary Ann Clarkson, a cheerful, heavyset woman devoted to progressive politics and the Rachel Maddow show.  When we moved in, Mary Ann informed me in a conspiratorial voice that there was a "deplorable" in the building [a Trump supporter] and that we did not talk politics when she was around.  Mary Ann has been my favorite among the many new acquaintances I have made since moving to Carolina Meadows.

Mary Ann suffers from congestive heart failure.  I learned this morning that she passed away suddenly yesterday while visiting her daughter.  Somehow, the light seems to have gone out over the puzzle table in the lobby.

Someone reading this blog alerted Mary Ann that I had referred to her in a post, and she was very pleased.  It is a small thing, but I am happy that in this way I was able to let her know a bit of what she had so quickly come to mean to me.

I shall miss Mary Ann Clarkson.

Monday, September 18, 2017

BRIEF RESPONSE

My elegaic remarks about my books elicited a lovely array of responses.  Clearly, as I would have suspected, I am not alone.  When I retired and moved from a house to an apartment, I went through something of the thinning out process that David Auerbach describes.  I was about to get rid of one book until I noticed that it was a presentation copy from the author.  Whoops!  I hung on to it.

Carl, my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, was indeed named for Barrington Moore.  Barry was his godfather, a fact that led to one of my favorite stories about Tobias when he was very little and still Toby.  His mother and I took him and his big brother, Patrick, to see Barry and Betty Moore at their Cambridge home.  When we got there, we discovered that Barry's closest friend, Herbert Marcuse, was staying with them.  Herbert had recently lost his wife and was rather lonely.  Barry had no idea at all what to do with a three year old [he had no children.]  All he could think to do by way of play was to talk German to to little Toby!  But Herbert was in his element.  He sat down on the floor, took a globe off a desk, and spun it around, pointing to one country after another.  Little Toby was enthralled.  When it came time to leave, we took the children out to the big old Chevy wagon parked at the curb.  Barry and Herbert came out to say goodbye.  As he was climbing into the back seat to be put in his car seat, Toby turned, looked up, waved his hand, and said "Bye, Herbie."  Marcuse was charmed.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

OLD FRIENDS

When I went off to Harvard in 1950, my parents and I had an agreement.  They would pay the tuition [$600] and the room and board [roughly the same, depending on which House you ended up in], and I would earn my pocket money by doing odd jobs.  I baby sat [and read Anatole France’s Penguin Island one evening], scrubbed floors, and twice a year inventoried the Robert Hall clothing store [a fabulous job that paid $1.25 an hour.]  I even sold hot dogs one Saturday at a Harvard football game, but since the concession was under the stands, I never actually saw a play.  I wanted to go down to New London to Connecticut College for Women to see Susie as often as I could, so I had precious little to spend on anything else. As a consequence, I never actually bought books in college.  I read them in Lamont Library and took notes.  One of the few books I acquired as an undergraduate was a handsome copy, two volumes in one, of Harry Austryn Wolfson’s magisterial work The Philosophy of Spinoza.  I read it in the library while taking his course my sophomore year, but that year I won the Detur Book Prize for getting good grades and chose Wolfson’s book as my reward.  Years later, I received a fund raising appeal from Harvard to support the Detur Fund, and even though I routinely threw away Harvard's endless appeals, I thought I owed them something and sent along a hundred dollars to the fund.  One result of this undergraduate poverty was that when I started to actually buy books, I grew quite fond of them.

By now, as you will imagine, I have acquired a goodly number of books.  Nothing like so many as some scholars, but enough to fill many running feet of floor to ceiling bookshelves. 



Here is a photo of one stretch of those shelves, to the left and behind my desk in my study.  This morning, I pushed back from my desk and swiveled to look idly at the shelves, and my eye fell on a three volume translation of a minor nineteenth century French novel, Les Mystères de Paris, by Eugene Sue.  This is one of the relatively few books in my collection that I have never actually read.  I bought it because Marx and Engels, in their hilarious juvenile work, The Holy Family, spend a good deal of time tearing it to pieces, and I thought I ought to own it.

Then I began to run my eyes over the shelves to spend some time visiting with old friends.  My favorite book of the entire collection is the stubby fat black-bound edition of Hume’s Treatise with Selby-Bigge’s indispensable and exhaustive notes.  I have a sensuous relationship with books, an antique passion that young people probably cannot comprehend.  The paper of Selby-Bigge’s Treatise is a light cream color with a slightly nubby feel to it.  I am an inveterate marginal commentator of the books I read and the pages of the Treatise absorb just enough of the ink to blur what I write ever so slightly.  My copy has been read and re-read, covered with red and black and blue underlinings and comments, until the binding has fallen off.  My first copy of the Kemp Smith translation of the Critique was a graduation present from my two undergraduate friends and fellow madrigalists, Richard Eder and Michael Jorrin, inscribed “Each even line from Dick, each odd line from Mike.”  When it too fell apart, I had it professionally re-bound, which preserved it but made it hard to open, so I bought a second copy.  When that fell apart, I replaced it with a paperback version, which survives intact.  The original copy is a living record of my struggles with that immortal work.  There are places where I have raised a mystified marginal doubt in one ink, next to which, in different ink, is written “Oh yes, I see now.”  After all these years, I have no idea either what my original puzzlement was or what the later enlightenment consisted in.

And so they march on, shelf after shelf.  Some are presentation copies, such as Barrington Moore’s great work, The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.  Others are beaten up second hand copies that I found in the recesses of bookstores, like my very own copy of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which, according to the flyleaf notation, I bought in January, 1959.  The Index is the Catholic Church’s official list of books the faithful are not to read.  It is a fascinating document, heavily loaded up with obscure works of deviant theology in Italian that the Vatican priests would have known about.  The only English novel I could find listed is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, I assume on the theory that if you list the first one, it follows recursively that all the others are included.  My copy came with a paperclipped page of addenda that did not make the edition.  The first item on that list is “Sartre, Jean Paul, Opera Omnia,” which pretty well takes care of him.


These are my friends, my oldest and best friends.  I do not visit them very often, but they are with me always and I know that should I grow lonely, they await me, quite forgiving of my lack of attention.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

IDLE THOUGHTS

While I try to think of something consequential to say, let me get a few vagrant thoughts off my mind and into cyberspace.

First:  In these terrible times, it is extremely important to take any pleasures life offers where and when they are offered.  Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Attorney-General of the United States, is arguably the most despicable person in America -- not the most evil, not the one first in line for eternal damnation, just the most despicable.  It is now reported that immediately upon the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, Donald Trump exploded and cursed out Sessions, calling him an idiot and suggesting that he resign.  Sessions later said it was the worst public humiliation of his life.  Now that isn't much, I admit, but God, it is something!  We must be thankful for small favors.  As William Kristol said when he first met Sarah Palin, it made a little thrill run up my leg.

Second:  I pose the following question as a general conundrum, suitable for debate on this blog.  Suppose it turns out that the 800,000 Dreamers can be saved from harassment and deportation at the price of an appropriation to build Trump's useless, worthless boondoggle, THE WALL.  Taking into consideration, on one side, the very real value of protecting the dreamers, and on the other side, the very real political danger of giving Trump any victories at all, should the Democrats take the deal?

Third:  Can anyone offer concrete, factual reasons for me to believe that Serena Williams will return from motherhood to play competitive tennis again?

Finally:  Can anyone explain to me the seemingly limitless TV fascination with The Undead?

Friday, September 15, 2017

WEALTH

Having taken my stroll down memory lane, let me now address the substance of the Institute for Policy Studies paper that provoked the memories.  The paper, 30 pages in all, is called THE ROAD TO ZERO WEALTH:  How the Racial Divide is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class.  The paper is a statistical analysis of the extraordinary racial inequality in household wealth, far more extreme than the better known racial inequality in household income, on which I commented several days ago.

The statistics are astounding.  Median household wealth, which is to say the value of possessions minus debt, is measured in two ways:  with or without so-called durable goods such as furniture and cars.  Median household wealth of white households [measured in 2013 dollars] is $134,000 with durable goods, $116,000 without.  Median household wealth for black households is $11,000 with durable goods, just $1,700 without!  Nor is education the great equalizer.  The median white household headed by someone with a high school diploma has $64,200 in wealth.  By contrast, the median black household headed by someone with a college degree has only $37,600 in wealth [$32,600 for an Hispanic family headed by a college graduate.]

The authors show that median household wealth for Black and Hispanic families has been declining for thirty years.  Employing straight line projections [which I consider somewhat questionable], they conclude that a generation in the future, as America becomes a majority non-white country, median household wealth for non-whites will approach zero.

This is what is known, in other contexts, as structural racism.  Charles Murray and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the contrary notwithstanding, the gap between white and non-white wealth is not traceable to personal failings, to cultural inadequacies, to a lack of educational credentials, or to drugs in the hood.

What does explain the astonishing disparities?  The authors of the study say very little about that, a fact that I found disappointing.  However, they do allude to one of the causal factors, namely the disparity in home ownership, and I think we can elaborate on that.

For most American households, home ownership is the principal way of accumulating wealth.  This is a very familiar fact, but it is worth spelling it out a bit.  Typically, a family buys a house by paying a down payment of as much as 20% of the purchase price, but more often 10% or even less, and then slowly buys the house – “pays off the mortgage” – over twenty or thirty years.  Each monthly payment consists of two portions:  the interest owing on the remaining principal, and a payment, very small at first, on the owed principal.  The mortgage is structured so that each monthly payment is the same, but over time, as principal owing is paid off, less and less of the payment goes for interest, more for principal, until, at the end of the term of the mortgage, the household owns the house outright.  A home mortgage is, in effect, a form of forced savings.  Households that rent do not, of course, accumulate any ownership at all.  After thirty years, the home owning family has a very large nest egg.  The renting family has nothing.

The equity in the house, as the paid off portion of the mortgage is called, can be used as collateral for a “homeowner’s loan.”  The household also can refinance the mortgage, in effect taking out its accumulated principal and starting over.  In hard times, should the homeowner lose his or her job [or, more often, their jobs], the equity in the home is a cushion.  Technically, of course, when a homeowner refinances, he or she is going into debt, but the interest rates on mortgage loans are extremely low, whereas the interest charges on credit card or other consumer debt are punitively high.

Starting at the end of World War II, the Federal government adopted a variety of policies designed to encourage home ownership, with great success.  The Federal Housing Authority [FHA] deliberately and openly discriminated against black households, making it very much more difficult for a Black man or woman to get a mortgage loan.  This policy, which continued for more than a generation, had extremely long term differential effects on the ability of white and black households to accumulate wealth.  The impact of this discrimination reached across generations, because white families, by refinancing their mortgages, could free up capital for their children to make the down payments on home purchases whereas black families could not [I work out an elaborate example in my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.]


This is just one of a number of structural disadvantages that help to explain the huge wealth differences between White and non-White households.  Rectifying this multi-generational structural discrimination cannot be accomplished by interracial sensitivity training or Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.  It requires carefully thought out structural changes designed not merely to correct the racially encoded disadvantages going forward but also to carry out redistributions of wealth and income.  It goes without saying that the place to start this redistribution is at the top, not at the bottom.