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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Why We Are In Iraq

By now, we are all familiar with the ever-shifting rationales advanced by the Bush/Cheney junta for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. First it was weapons of mass destruction [itself a fiction, since only nuclear weapons are appropriately labeled thus], then deposing Saddam, then it was bringing democracy to the Middle East, then it was fighting Islamo-fascism, and lately it is that getting out would be a disaster. Each time the factual presuppositions of a rationale are shown to be false, or inoperative, the Administration moves on to the next rationale, with no observable alteration in strategy or behavior.

Now, it is easy, and in a sad way, fun to expose the absurdity of each explanation, and watch the momentary squirming and denial before the next explanation is put forward. But the more interesting question is this: If none of these really is the reason Bush and Cheney invaded Iraq [and I think we can take it as established that none of them is], then just what is the reason?

This question has of course been asked, and the answer almost always given is OIL. As I shall suggest, there is some truth in that answer, but offered by itself, it fundamentally misses the point of what we are doing. Remember, the world oil production is totally fungible -- a barrel of oil pumped out of the ground in Iraq joins the flood of oil in the world market, and is available to us whether we occupy Iraq or not. Indeed, the sanctions imposed at our behest by the United Nations had the effect of reducing Iraq's oil production. Whatever else Saddam might have been likely to threaten, keeping his country's oil off the market was never even the slenderest possibility.

The clue to the correct answer to our question lies in the enormous construction project that we have undertaken during our time in Iraq. I have in mind not the abortive, mismanaged, and as yet almost totally stalled reconstruction of the Iraq economy and infrastructure, but rather the network of huge, self-sufficiant military bases that we are in the process of building at great expense. The vast Embassy in Baghdad is the most visible of these construction projects, but it is in fact the least important. The bases, for those you who have not been paying attention, are designed to be completely autarchic, in the old Greek sense. They have their own power supply, fast food restaurants and recreational facilities, airfields, and perimeter defenses. They are the exact counterparts to the garrisons that the old Roman Empire built in its conquored territories.

Why are we building these bases? To grasp their significance, we must think geo-politically, in the fashion of old-time political scientists like Hans Morgenthau [whom I had the pleasure of knowing, back in '61-'63, at the University of Chicago.]

Looking at the world as a whole [as those who think geo-politically routinely do], we can see that there are a number of spheres or contiguous areas that great powers seek to dominate, either by installing governments, or through a direct military presence. Latin America is one such sphere, over which the United States has successfully asserted hegemony for the past two centuries, now deposing governments, now installing clients, now establishing bases, and always warning away other powers seeking to establish a presence as well. [That was the real reason for the Cuban Missile crisis, and is also the reason why we opposed Castro rather than embracing and controlling him].

The Middle East is one, or more accurately contains two, such spheres. The first is what used to be called the Near East [or the Fertile Crescent], and the second is the Middle East proper, with Iraq lying pretty much at its center. At an earlier time, when England and France were major players in this area, the foci of conern was the Suez Canal in the west, and the high passes linking Afghanistan in the East [pace Kipling's great imperialist novel Kim.] Great powers seek to control these areas in part for economic reasons -- shipping, later oil -- but also for military reasons. The French, British, Germans, and Russians were for several centuries engaged in an endless jockeying for power in the sphere that stretched from Western Europe east through Russia and south to the Near East, the Middle East, and the Indian sub-continent.

With the decline of the imperial power and ambition of the British and French, and the temporary incapacity of the Russians [caused in part by their disastrously unsuccessful effort to control Afghanistan't internal affairs], something of a power vacuum came into being in the Middle East.

The invasion of Iraq was an attempt by the Bush/Cheney regime to seize the opportunity opened up by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the retreat of the French and British. The Administration seeks to plant itself militarily, firmly and as permanently as possible, right in the heart of the Middle East. America's alliance with Saudi Arabia has proven only partially satisfactory, and rather unstable. But a chain of mega-bases in Iraq, backed up by airfields in Kazakhstan and other parts of the former Soviet Union, will make it possible [or so they believe] to dominate one of the three or four major geo-political spheres of the world. In light of the growing power of the Chinese, who clearly consider East Asia, including Southeast Asia, as their own equivalent to our Western Hemisphere, it is essential to America's dreams of world hegemony to control as many of the major spheres as possible.

Notice that to accomplish this end, it is entirely unnecessary for Iraq to be stable, let alone democratic. Indeed, a stable, democratic Iraq would almost certainly challenge America's maintenance of such a system of bases. An Iraq beaten into submission will do quite nicely.

This, in my opinion, is the real explanation for the invasion of Iraq, and for the desperate desire of Bush, Cheney and others to invade Iran as well. Needless to say, wanting is not the same as having. America pretty clearly does not have a large enough military to achieve these objectives, even with the use of hundreds of thousands of mercenaries, nor is it politically viable for an American administration to reinstate a draft in order to expand its forces.

Furthermore, such evidence as is available to outsiders like myself strongly suggests that a president elected on a Democratic ticket will pursue essentially the same policy as one elected on a Republican ticket. The only candidate in either party who has clearly foresworn the foundational principles on which this hegemonic project rests, so far as I can tell, is Ron Paul, Lord love him.

So if you get a chance to ask a question of an aspirant to the presidency [which can only mean that you live in Iowa], ask him or her this question: if elected President, will you dismantle the megabases now being built in Iraq?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

La Fete de la Musique de Paris

Today is the first day of summer, and for the twenty-sixth time, all of Paris will come out into the streets this evening to celebrate by making music. On every street corner, amateur rock groups will set up their loudspeakers and do their thing for little gatherings of listeners. Here and there, a solitary oboist or accordianist or violinist will serenade the night air. Down by the Seine, the toffs, all dolled up in formal wear, will assemble on a barge for a luxury music and dancing cruise up and down the river, watched from the quais by hordes of on-lookers. At noon, the early music group Ultraia, whose concerts we attend faithfully, will give a free concert in the courtyard of the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages. At eight p.m., those who can wangle the tickets will gather in the auditoreum of the splendid Musee D'Orsay to hear Kurt Mazur lead the national orchestra in a free concert of Beethoven's Fifth.

This is what the public life of a nation is supposed to be. This is what Paul and Percival Goodman and Jane Jacobs were trying to teach us in the United States when they wrote their beautiful books about what makes cities great. I have already posted my analysis of such dry subjects as comparatuve unemployment rates, but tonight here in Paris we can see and hear what makes Paris a city so much superior to New York or Chicago or San Francisco or Dallas.

It is not just this once a year festival, of course. Every time I go to the market to shop for dinner [as I will later today], I am reminded that shopping in Paris is an entertainment, a delight, an adventure, while shopping in Amherst is a chore. To be sure, one can go to Whole Foods in Amherst and endure the high prices and atmosphere of political correctness to get slightly tastier provisions. But the tuna still looks as though it had been genetically engineered in a factory. At the open air market half a block from our apartment, every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I can have the fish man slice a piece from the hind half of an enormous tuna, so fresh that it drips with blood. I can buy thirty different spices in little packets, or splendid heads of lettuce too big to fit into my knapsack, or a whole Dorade Royale which is filleted for me on the spot.

In the Place Maubert, Susie and I can sit for hours in the cafe Le Metro, nursing a tiny cup of "deca" or a kir, and enjoying the street life of a quartier hundreds of years old. At lunch time, the cafes are full of people enjoying two hour mid day meals. Incidentally, all the statistics show that French workers are actually a trifle more productive than their American counterparts, measured on an hourly basis. They simply do not believe that the purpose of life is to work oneself to death.

There is, heaven knows, a great deal very badly wrong with France, as the riots in the banlieus made painfully clear. This is a racist society, an elitist society, and when it had the chance, an imperialist nation to boot. But they do know how to live!

Tomorow -- the gardens of Paris

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We'll Always Have Paris

Inasmuch as Susie and I are spending June at our pied-a-terre in the 5th arrondisement in Paris, it occurred to me that I ought to write some posts for my blog on the city of lights. There is a great deal to say, but obviously one must begin with food. So, here are some of my favorite restaurants, and also an account of several lovely dishes I have prepared in our little fully equipped kitchen [Susie graciously lets me do the cooking whenever we are in Paris.]

Where to begin? Perhaps I should start with restaurants within one block of our apartment at 17, rue Maitre Albert, and work out. These are all modest establishments [one crossed knife and fork, in Guide Michelin symbolism]. One of our worst dining experiences ever was at L'Ambroisie, a world-famous ritzy three star restaurant in Place des Vosges. They treated us dismissively and carelessly as the tourists we were, and cured me forever of the fantasy that I like designer food. So, if you love old-fashioned French cuisine, hearty, lovingly prepared, meant to be eaten, not photographed, this is your blog!

Just around the corner on rue des Grands Degres is Le Reminet, a very small restaurant where, if you are lucky and the weather holds, you can bag one of the three tables outside. They do wonderful things with fish, vegetables, rabbit, pork, all served quickly and graciously. With an entree [i.e., a starter -- I don't know how that term came to be used in America for the main course], a main course, and some coffee afterwards, with a glass of wine for each of us and a bottle of l'eau gazeuze [i,e, carbonated water], the bill, all included, will be less than 100 Euros. Now this is not chicken feed, but Paris is a big city, not the Western Massachusetts backwater where we live, so that is a good price.

Closer still, just at the end of the block before you turn left to go to Le Reminet [and after you spend some time looking at the neignborhood church, Notre Dame, which is just across the Seine on ile de la Cite], is Atelier Maitre Albert, a secondary restaurant of a famous chef, Guy Savoy. It is essentially a rotisserie and wine bar. The best thing on the menu is the saladier du moment [which has that name even though it is always there], with deliciously grilled chicken livers in a green salad -- marvelous. The ambiance is a bit better than the food, but especially if you are looking for someplace romantic, this is tops. A bit pricier than Reminet.

Three blocks away, in the direction of the Institut du Monde Arabe [best view ever of old Paris from the 7th floor terrace], on rue de Pontoise, is our very favorite restaurant, Le Petit Pontoise. This is a warm, friendly little place with the menu of the day on a number of chalk boards positioned around the room. The very best thing on the menu is joue de porc -- pig jowels -- a rich wine stew of pork to die for. If you are lucky enough to be there on a night when they are also featuring pommes dauphine au gratin, the combination is heavenly. The quail is another great choice. The first three times we were there, the same man was sitting all alone at a little table eating and reading. I finally got up the courage to ask, in my fractured French, who he was, and learned that he is a bouquiniste [i.e., one of those chaps who has a book stall on the left bank of the Seine]. I think he must have a special deal with them to eat there every night.

Moving another two or three streets down Boulevard Saint Germain, to the intersection of the Boulevard with rue des Deux Ponts, you come to Chez Rene, a classic old-fashioned Bistro with the best coq au vin in the world. You will probably sit at a long table with paper table cloth, next to other diners. Order a simple bottle of red wine and they will only charge you for what you drink. The coq comes in a copper tureen drenched in rich wine sauce. This is a real coq, not a twelve week old chicken force fed somewhere obscene. I guess you could order something else to start, but it is all I can do to handle the coq. I have never felt the need for dessert afterward.

If you like oysters, clams, mussels, periwinkles, and other assorted shellfish, you can pig out [if that is not a logical contradiction] with an enormous platter on heaping shaved ice, at the Bar des Huitres. You get there by going in the other direction on Boulevard St. Germain [i.e., west, not east], to the point where rue St Jacques and rue Dantes come together at a point in a little square. In the right months, you can actually have oysters standing up on the street outside. The same dining experience, but in a famous Belle Epoque establishment in Place de la Bastille, can be had at Bofinger. It is reputed to have a gorgeous ladies' room, but I wouldn't know.

Two nights ago, we stumbled across a new restaurant, just on the next street over from us [rue de Bievre], called Bistro de la B. Rue de Bievre, which backs on the building that our apartment is in, is famous for having been the location of the residence of Francois Mitterrand, President of France. That was before our time, but we are told the security really screwed up traffic on this lovely little ancient street [named after the river that once ran where the street now is.] Anyway, Bistro de la B is unusually low priced, but actually rather elegant, with very fine food and service. I had some herring in wine sauce and a Boeuf Bourguignonne, and it was really very good. They even brought a little amuse bouche to start [a freebie to whet the palette]. I am talking it up in the hope that it will survive.

OK. That merely scratches the surface, but I am getting hungry, and must repair to our kitchen to start cooking the dorade royale I bought at the open air market. With some braised leeks and little potatoes, a Sancerre blanc for Susie and a Beaume de Venise for me, we should do quite nicely. As Julia Child would say in her signature squawk, bon appetit.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Iceland, Transparency, and Language

Last Sunday, Susie and I arrived in Iceland, en route to Paris, for a three day visit with Pall Skulason and Ardur Brigitsdottir. Pall is a philosopher, and the former Rector of the University of Iceland. He and I met through a common interest in the philosophy of education, and Susie and I have spent time with Pall and Ardur in Paris and in Metz. The stopover in Iceland was arranged so that I could give a talk at the University on "The Completion of Kant's Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre." [don't ask.]


Tuesday was devoted to a sightseeing ride across the Icelandic countryside -- very bleak, very beautiful, enlivened by a visit t0 an extraordinary waterfall. It rained on and off, and the wind was at gale force, so we spent a good deal of time in the car rather than wandering about on foot.


During one drive, Pall said a series of things about the difficulty but also the virtue of trying to write philosophy in Icelandic -- things that connected up with remarks he had made about the history of Iceland and his experience of it. These remarks triggered in me a series of thoughts related to the [as yet unwritten] third volume of the trilogy I planned long ago on the thought of Karl Marx. The first two volumes have been published -- Understanding Marx, an exposition of the mathematical foundations of Marx's economic theories, and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, a reflection on the literary and philosophical significance of the first ten chapters of Das Kapital. The third volume, tentatively titled The Mystification of the Capitalist World, is intended to unite the mathematical economics and the literary analysis of the first two volumes with a socological and philosophical explication of capitalism, in order to illuminate the way in which capitalism's mystifications defeat our efforts to create a more humane and just society.


The purpose of this post is to try to put down in coherent form the thoughts triggered by Pall's extrordinarily interesting observations about Icelandic history, the Icelandic language, and the unique experience of trying to do philosophy in Icelandic. Whatever there is of interest in these remarks is owed directly to him.


All of this began the day before, during a visit to Iceland's national museum. Pall observed that Icelandic is a very ancient language pretty much unchanged by time -- a fact that he demonstrated by reading without difficulty a 9th or 10th century text exhibited at the museum. He observed that Iceland's history is transparent [his term]. Its founding can be traced to a known date in the 10th century [I may have some of this wrong, for which I ask Pall's forgiveness, but the details are not important], and since the population is very homogeneous, most Icelanders can trace their lineage back many centuries. The origins of the country do not recede into the mists of legend, as do those of France, England, or Germany. I remarked that Americans make the same claim, but that their inability to confront the fact of slavery makes their story of origins mythical and mystified. [I have explored all of this at length in Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, the book I published several years ago about my experiences as a White man in an Afro-American Studies department.]

The next day, as we drove, Pall talked about the challenges posed by his attempt to write philosophy in Icelandic. The problem is that Icelandic lacks the words for many of the key philosophical terms that play so large a role in European philosophy, especially of the past two centuries. One solution to this, which he rejects, even though most of his colleagues adopt it, is simply to bring a number of loan words into Icelandic, taking them for the most part from the German, but also from the French. Now, Icelandic, as Pall explained, is a transparent language. Because it is pure, exhibiting very little in the way of influences from other langages, and really tracing itself back to a proto-Indo-European, when a native Icelandic speaker uses an Icelandic word, he or she can see immediately and without any obscurity exactly what its roots are, and what their original meanings are [since they continue to have those meanings in modern Icelandic.]

This is, when you think about it, an extraordinary fact. If a word used for philosopical purposes is derived via a metaphor from some common root, then the Icelandic ear hears that fact immediately. Since I am the world's worst linguist, I cannot give very good examples of this, but here is one. The German word for "object" is "gegenstand." Now, gegenstand literally means "standing [over] against," which, if I am not totally mistaken, is not far from the root meanings of the Latin words from which "object" is derived.

Imagine, if you will, trying to write philosophy using only words that carry their metaphorical origins, as it were, on their sleeves. I observed that the effort, which was essentially what Pall was attempting by writing philosophy using only Icelandic words, would force you to think through exactly what you were trying to say, and it would stop you from writing something that realy was meaningless but sounded good, because it was expressed in words whose origins were obscured both from the writer and from the reader. [Something like "In the Post-Modern world, the de-centered self interogates meaning by (dis)joining ego and other."]

What does all this have to do with capitalism, exploitation, and the price of gas? Well, if Marx is right [see Moneybags], the exploitative nature of capitalist economic relations is concealed from us, for the most part, by the opacity of the wage-labor relationship and the misrepresentation of commodities as quanta of objective value. Seeing through that mystification to what is really going on, Marx thought, requires not only a critique of economic theory and an unillusioned description of the sphere of production [pace Capital chapter 10] but also a clear-eyed examination of the language with which we talk about our work, commodities, profit, and a society that rests on them.

Perhaps it requires that we try to talk about our own world, as Pall is trying to do philosophy in Icelandic, in a way that makes all the metaphors manifest, all the dissimulations apparent, and all the ideological rationalizations so transparent that they immediately lose their force. The central task, for a radical critic like me, is to speak as much as possible in that fashion, as a way of combating the dominant mystifications of the public discourse of our society.

Just a thought.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

La Belle France

Inasmuch as Susie and I shall be going to Paris for four weeks next Saturday to spend time in our pied-a-terre in the 5th arrondissment, I have been thinking a good deal about the recent election there, and the conventional wisdom of the mainstream media concerning that lovely country. The universal view of the talking heads is that although France is a nice place to visit, it has no future unless it gives up its quasi-socialist Gallic ways and adopts the American economic model. The only disagreement among the commentators seems to be over the likelihood that Nicholas Sarkozy will be able provide the requisite tough love to the pleasure-loving French, hooked on short work weeks, long vacations, and leisurely lunches en plein air.

The statistic most frequently trotted out to support the conventional wisdom is the unemployment rate in France, which last year had come down to 8.7%, making it a bit less than double the rate in the United States.

A contrarian to the core, I decided to gather some statistics from the web, and do a somewhat more careful comparison of the employment situation in the two countries. Herewith the results, as briefly and with as little pain as possible.

The United States had a population of 301 million and a civilian labor force earlier this year of 152.6 million. The labor force includes 145.8 million employed persons and 6.8 million umemployed persons. It does not include 1.4 million persons who are described in the Bureau of Labor Statistics publications as "marginally attached to the labor force," meaning that they have looked for work in the last year, but not in the last two or three months, and would like jobs, but are "discouraged" by their persistant failure to find them.

France, in 2006 [the statistics do not exactly correspond, but are adequately comparable for my purposes], had a total population of 61 million and a labor force of 27, 638,000, including 2,717,000 unemployed. [I have no figures for the "discouraged."] This comes out to an unemployment rate of 8.9% [why the documents list the rate as 8.7% I do not know.]

However: France has a total prison population of about 52,000, whereas the prison population of the United States is roughly 2,194,000. Since the population of the United States is almost exactly five times that of the United States, there is, in a manner of speaking, an "excess" U. S. prison population of 1,930,000. There is a corresponding "excess" population of correctional officers [prison guards] of 425,000.

Now, suppose we add the excess prisoners and guards to the ranks of the unemployed, and see how that changes the unemployment rate. The extra prisoners increase the size of the labor force, but the guards do not, since they are already included in it. The result, as the reader can confirm, is an unemployment rate of 5.9% If the persons marginally attached to the labor force are also included, the real unemployment rate is 6.77%

Now, there is a significant difference between 8.9% or 8.7% and 6.77%, a difference that corresponds to a great many men and women [disproportionately young and Muslim in France] who cannot find work. Balanced against this difference is the vastly more generous system of social services, including child care, health care, and a vibrant public life. Incidentally, I have read [but do not have in front of me] statistics that show that the productivity of French workers is quite as high as that of American workers. Even though they work a thirty-five hour week and take long vacations, they are not lazy or incompetent -- simply more concerned with living a good life.

One final bit of information -- I also took a look at the relative size of the two military establishments. The American military is, to be sure, five times that of the French, but since that is the population ratio as well, it seemed tendentious to include some of the American militaru in this recalculation of unemployment rates.

By the way, lest anyone imagine that this way of studying an economy has anything new about it, I will note that I am simply borrowing a mode of analysis from Adam Smith, who in his great work, On the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, contrasts the unproductive labor of the servants of the landed aristocracy with the productive labor of the employees of agricultural and industrial entrepreneurs.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Once More Into The Fray, Dear Friends

All politics are local, as Tip O'Neill would have said had he been a bit more punctilious about his grammar. Hence, while the nation has been fixated on Iraq, Gonzalez, Goodling, and the proposed halving of Paris Hilton's jail sentence, we in the Hampshire County region sometimes referred to as "happy valley," have been caught up in a parochial struggle over the future direction of the University of Massachusetts -- a bit like events in the Shire, with Mordor looming in the far distance. To be sure, there have been echoes of a larger evil -- the mostly Republican university trustees, appointed by fomer governer Mitt Romney, chose with perfect tone-deafness, to award an honorary degree to Andrew Card, thereby uniting the university community in opposition and mobilizing our politically engage graduate students. But the real action has focused on the efforts of the university president and the Chair of the Board of Trustees to pull off a covert, imperial reorganization of the university that includes the unceremonious firing of the Chancellor of our flagship campus in Amherst, the reshuffling of the chancellorships of the other four campuses, and the imposition of a new model of organization that would merge the presidency with the Amherst campus chancellorship.

Assuming that I have not lost my three or four readers at this point, their eyes glazing over with boredom, I shall give a summary account of these events, and then struggle to find a larger meaning in them. [My mind wanders, in Tristram Shandy fashion, and I am reminded of the anxious televsion producer in Hard Day's Night, who moans in desperation. when Ringo is late for the final run-through, that if the errant Beatle doesn't show up in ten minutes, he will be consigned to doing "the news in Welsh."]

The plan seems to have been for Jack Wilson, the President, to keep the reorganization secret until a June 21st Trustee's meeting, when the faculty and students would be dispersed for the summer. The assumption, surely, was that by September, it would all be old news and a fait accompli. A press leak three weeks ago revealed their machinations, and all hell broke loose on the Amherst campus. Fifteen days ago, at a meeting of the Faculty Senate, Wilson showed up and was excoriated by the faculty [including yours truly. The next day I walked into a local restaurant with Susie's son, daughter-in-law, and grandson, who had come for a visit, and was applauded by a table of administrators -- my first Standing O, and needless to say catnip to my ego, which no one has ever accused of being undersized.] Perhaps the most remarkable moment in that first Senate meeting was a fifteen minute assault on the President by our long-time State Senator and most faithful university friend, Stan Rosenberg. Stan is a rather mild-mannered little man, who lives in a modest apartment in Amherst, and no one had ever heard him raise his voice before. Since the principal job of the University President is to appeal to the Legislature for money, his success in alienating our best legislative friend was prima facie evidence of utter incompetence.

The flaying of the President was cut short by the fire marshall, who announced that the horde of non-senators who had attended the meeting, along with the regular members of the Faculty Senate, exceeded the safety limits for the room.

Immediately after the meeting, several of us in Afro-American Studies [Michael Thelwell, Ernest Allen, Jr., and I] launched an effort to call a special meeting of the entire faculty for the purpose of voting no confidence in the President and Board of Trustees. After some complex negotiations [too tedious even for this parochial account], the meeting was called, and the President agreed to attend. Two days ago, perhaps a third of the entire faculty showed up [in a room quite large enough to hold us all without ruffling the feathers of the marshall], and in good order we voted no confidence in the President and in the Board of Trustees, with only one negative vote. [Amherst is a bit like Brigadoon -- it is permanently trapped in the Sixties, all sandals and candles -- and during my thirty-six years here, the university has rarely sported more than one, or perhaps two, right-wingers, which is to say conservative Democrats. Every two years, someone throws in a few votes for Republican candidates in elections, but I do not know anyone who can claim actually to have met the folks who do that.]

The very next day [yesterday] was Graduate Commencement, a festivity I had been anticipating with pride and pleasure, inasmuch as eight of our graduate students in Afro-American Studies would be receiving their doctorates. As always, the event was held in the Mullin Center, where two nights earlier Susie and I had attended a performance of Riverdance. [a bit disappointing, that -- highly professional, but without any real stage magic.] On an unseasonably hot day, we gathered outside in our academic regalia, while hundreds of graduate students protesting the Andrew Card degree handed out anti-Card decals, which we all attached to our robes.

When our Chancellor, John Lombardi, was introduced, he was cheered to the echo -- a first for him, as he has many opponents on campus. Then the President was introduced, and the huge hall erupted in boos and catcalls. It was the first time in half a century that I have seen a University president booed at a Commencement. This was followed almost immediately by the awarding of the degree to Card, and this time the booing and shouting filled the space. Many of my colleagues on the platform waved yellow signs that had been handed out as we marched in. I was in the front row [so that I could greet our doctoral students and give them roses as they walked by to receive their degrees], so I chose to stand in my bright crimson Harvard robe and turn my back on Card, exhibiting a quiet and dignified disdain during the awarding of the degree. Then, as quickly as it had erupted, the demonstration stopped, with an astonishing discipline, so that the students receiving degrees would once again be the focus of attention.

My friends know that I am not sentimental about young people in general -- it has been pointed out to me that I am not the first seventy-three year old radical to think that the younger generation has gone soft -- but I was proud of those students yesterday. They managed to stage a demonstration that was both boisterous and absolutely disciplined.

Well, what if anything can we conclude from all of this for the world beyond the happy valley? Another old leftie who marched out with me observed how dramatically the war in Iraq had changed the domestic political landscape, and I think she is right. There is no logical connection between the Iraq disaster and the events at UMass, but people are once again angry, mobilized, and ready to stand up to authority, whether at the national level or in our own neighborhood.

For some while I have had that slight tingling in my scalp that I first felt as the Sixties heated up. The great slumbering American public is stirring, and although we have seen very little of the anti-war marching and protesting that preceded the invasion of Iraq, we have had one small electoral revolution, in 2006, and I think we may be on our way to a second next year. All of this is of course quite unscientific [although, as my old friend Herbert Marcuse pointed out in One-Dimensional Man, one of the functions of quantitative social science is to rob protest of its liberatory potential], but I have a feeling something is happening in America.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Boy Friend

In one of the great comic masterpieces of the world of film, Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, there is a transformative scene, midway through the movie, in which Chloris Leachman, who takes the crazy cigar smoking violin playing housekeeper over the top, finally reveals her secret to Gene Wilder, Teri Garr, and Marty Feldman. Speaking of her former employer, the mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein, she blurts out in her faux Transylvanian accent, "HE WASS MY BOYFRIEND."

I have been reminded of this memorable cinematic moment by the stories about Paul Wolfowitz's troubles at the World Bank. Every reporter and news medium persists in referring to Shaha Riza as Wolfowitz's "girlfriend." Now, I do not want to appear to be a pinky-hoisting Francophile RadLib simp [although I will cop to Francophile and the first half of RadLib], but is there not some more appripriate way to refer to a pair of fifty-ish professionals who have entered into an intimate relationship? Will the New York TIMES now take to describing Riza and Wolfowitz as going steady? Is she pinned? Has he asked her to the prom?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

An Elementary Plan for Democratic Electoral Victories

Herewith a plan for Democratic Party victories in elections.

Let us begin with several observations, and a few simple assumptions.

1. Only about 50% of the eligible voters actually vote in a presidential year, and rather fewer in the off years.

2. The geographically based winner-take-all structure of the American electoral system, combined with the high degree of residential segregation by income, by race, and to a lesser extent by ethnicity and religion, produces a patchwork of communities -- wards, precincts, parishes -- that are lop-sidedly either Democratic or Republican, even in Congressional districts or states that are fairly evenly divided.

Since this is central to my plan, let me take a moment to make sure this is clear. At the ward and precinct level, one sees electoral districts that are heavily Democratic or Republican, because voting is closely correlated with income, education, race, and to a lesser extent religion and ethnicity, and communities small enough to comprise a single ward or precinct tend to be quite homogeneous in this respect. Rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, Catholic neighborhoods and Jewish neighborhoods, Black neighborhoods and White neighborhoods. Sometimes these homogeneous areas are located in Congressional districts that are largely homogeneous all the way through. These districts are so lop-sidedly Democratic or Republican that frequently they are not even contested and the incumbent runs unopposed. There is no point in the Republican Party putting up a candidate against Charley Rangel, for example.

Many relatively evenly balanced districts, however, have intensely one-sided pockets of Republican and Democratic voters, and this is especially true at the level of Senatorial campaigns. Hence the familiar phenomenon, on election night, of waiting for the vote from upstate or downstate or the inner city or the suburbs to come in. Seasoned election watchers know where the pockets of votes are that favor their candidates, and will not concede a seat until those precincts have been heard from.

3. Now an assumption, based on the combination of residential segregation and the correlation between voting patterns and the characteristics on which that segregation is organized: I think it is extremely likely that the non-voters in a ward or precinct, were they to vote, would break down pretty much in the same proportions as those who do actually vote. If a ward goes 75% for the Republican candidate, and half the eligible voters go to the polls, then it is very likely that the other half would vote Republican in roughly that proportion, were they to vote.

Do I have evidence for this assumption? No, but I think it is sufficiently plausible to serve as the basis for a serious experiment.

4. It is a fact that in many Republican Congressional districts, or Republican Senatorial states, there are wards and precincts that are heavily Democratic -- and vice versa, of course.

5. We come finally to the crucial question: Are there Republican Congressional districts or Republican Senatorial states that in recent years have been closely enough contested by the Democrats so that if a dramatic increase took place in the proportion of voters coming to the polls in the heavily Democratic wards and precincts, the balance of new Democratic voters over new Republican voters from those wards and precincts would be enough to swing the seat into the Democratic column?

If the answer is yes, then a precisely targeted get out the vote campaign might produce dramatic results. What is more, such a campaign could circumvent campaign finance laws by being strictly non-partisan. No attempt would need to be made to persuade new voters to vote Democratic. By targeting districts already known to be heavily Democratic, we could pretty well count on most of the new votes going for our candidates. Now, to be sure, this effort would result in an increase in the Republican vote total. If a district is 75% Democratic, and we get a thousand new voters to the polls, then 750 or so will vote with us, and 250 against us, so the net gain will be only 500. But that is fine, because all we care about is whether we are adding more Democratic than Republican votes.

Such a campaign would have no use for television advertising, which is so expensive, because there is no way to confine television advertising precisely to a single ward or precinct, and that is crucial to the success of the plan. Instead, the campaign would have to rely on hordes of foot soldiers, drawn if possible from the district itself, who would go door to door and try to bring people to the polls.

To prepare for such a campaign, we would first need a precise computerized database of the election results for the past two cycles or so from every single ward, precinct, and parish in America. This is not readily available, as I discovered when I tried to get this data just for Massachusetts. The Office of the Secretary of State in Boston stores the results in useful form only at the level of towns and cities, which is not fine-grained enough. But precinct breakdowns tend to appear in local newspapers a day or two after an election. Through the magic of the internet, it would not be hard to mobilize a nation-wide effort to secure the results for every single voting unit. Then some fairly simple data manipulation would suffice to tell us whether a 10% increase in turnout in selected wards and precincts would suffice to tilt an election, whether a 20% increase would suffice, and so forth.

Because the campaign would be strictly non-partisan in operation, I think it would circumvent financing restrictions, and since it would not use television, it would be inexpensive enough to be financed by several left-leaning multi-millionaires [or billionaires].

Couldn't the Republicans do the same thing? of course. But I think we would probably have an edge, because not only party loyalty but also voting behavior is strongly correlated with income. To put it another way, among that 50% who don't vote, there are almost certainly more Democrats than Republicans. That by itself does not settle the issue, of course, because the real question is this: Are there more Republican districts vulnerable to this sort of targeted get out the vote campaign than Democratic districts? I simply do not know, but it might be worth doing the data collection necessary to find out.

The Mess at Justice

Product Warning: What follows is rank speculation, uninformed by any inside knowledge whatsoever.

More than forty years ago, my first wife and I spent a summer in England while she did archival research on Puritan diaries and saints' lives for her doctoral dissertation. We had only been married for two years, and were still at that stage when one is accumulating household belongings [I am now, at the other end of my life, trying to unload some of what has piled up over the years.] We were much taken by eighteenth century antiques, and spent some time in places like Alresford looking for bargains. Like many amateur antiquers, I dreamed of stumbling on a fabulously valuable piece whose true nature was unrealized by the country shopkeeper. After a while, it dawned on me that if I spent a few hours on the odd Saturday looking for antiques, and the shop owner spent all of every day buying and selling antiques, it was actually quite likely that he or she knew more about them than I, and would therefore realize that a chair was genuine Chippendale, even if it had a coat of dust on it.

I drew from this early experience a lesson that has stood me in good stead in the years since, as I observe the passing political scene. Very simply, people who spend all their time doing something know exactly what they are doing, and have thought a good deal about the consequences. They may be wrong -- disastrously wrong -- but they are never just thoughtless.

As the scandal unfolds at the Department of Justice over the firing of eight -- or is it now nine -- U. S. attorneys, there is as yet no hard evidence that the firings were part of a deliberate, carefully thought out plan to use the Department of Justice as an instrument of intimdation to depress the turnout of voters likely to vote for Democratic candidates in hotly contested races in the 2006 bi-elections. But it is, at least to me, transparently clear that just such a coordinated plan of intimidation was under way. The Republican Party has a long history of targeting minority voters in an attempt to tilt the electoral balance [as did the Democratic Party in the South before it, of course.] Recall that the late distinguished Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, got his start in politics as a party operative accosting African-American voters at the polls and trying to scare them into leaving with groundless threats of legal action.

It is easy, but mistaken, to see Alberto Gonzalez as a hapless fool, cluelessly, fecklessly presiding over a major government department with no idea what his underlings were doing. But that is surely wrong. The reason for his seemingly endless string of "I do not recall" responses in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, despite weeks of intense preparation, is, I think, obvious: what he would recall, if he were, against all odds, to answer the questions honestly, is a carefully crafted plan, overseen jointly by himself and Rove, to tilt the balance to the Republicans in as many Congressional and Senatorial races as possible.

This is not unusual, of course. When I was young, the consensus among politics watchers in Illinois, for example, was that the outcome of any statewide election depended on whether the Republicans could steal enough votes downstate to compensate for the votes that the Daley machine stole in Chicago. In a way, it was a crude but effective test of their relative competence and hence fitness for office.

Friday, May 11, 2007

This is not a blog

Two evenings ago, I emceed a dinner for the students and faculty in a program I run for minority Freshmen. As I sat at table with half a dozen folks, I mentioned my blog. "Is it self-absorbed?" one person asked. "Do you post pictures of yourself? Do you comment on every passing thing that is in the news?" "No," I replied. "I try to keep that out of the blog. I aim for a deeper analysis of fundamental questions." With one voice, they replied, "Then it isn't a blog!"

Apparantly, I have, withoujt knowing it, violated several of the well-established norms of the blogosphere, for which I apologize. But although I find myself fascinating, it seems a trifle implausible that anyone else does. So I shall slog on in my blog, with the hope that a few intrepid souls will find my postings of some interest.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

On The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I spent last weekend anxiously following three breaking stories: the French presidential election, the unraveling of Paul Wolfowitz, and Tiger Woods' successful run for his fifty-seventh tournament victory. Measured purely by the intensity of my psychic engagement in these three stories, Tiger ranks first, the French election second, and Wolfowitz third. The Tiger story fed my fantasies of effortless mastery; the French election evoked my Marxist leanings, intensified by my ownership of a pied-a-terre in the 5th arrondisement; and the Wolfowitz story, illuminated by insider communiques from my sister, who worked for many years at the World Bank, gratified my ever-present penchant for schadenfreude.

Once again, I was reminded of a fact that has troubled me for many years: My life is so affluent, so secure, so protected from the effects of even the most horrific tragedies or the most egregious buffoonery in public office, that it is impossible for me to make a connection between my deeply held political beliefs and my quotidien existence. I earn an extremely fat salary [somewhere in the neighborhood of $175,000 a year], I have had tenure since 1964, and as a public employee in Massachusetts, I have excellent health insurance and a secure pension. In short, nothing that has happened in the larger world in the past forty years has in any real way threatened my comfort or security, let alone my safety or life, or indeed that of my children.

My politics are therefore a spectator sport, indistinguishable in a fundamental way from my rooting for Tiger. I vigorously opposed Ronald Reagan and his right-wing spawn, but the simple truth is that I benefited from the tax cuts that they enacted. I raised money for the NAACP Voter Registration Fund to defeat George W. Bush in Florida in 2004, and included maybe eight thousand dollars of my own in the packet; I am in despair at the carnage in Iraq; I weep for the evisceration of civil liberities in America -- but I cannot point to a single way in which these disasters have changed my daily life.

I do not think I am alone in thus experiencing a disconnect between my politics and my life. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men and women in America who have managed to secure for themselves and their families comfortable, secure lives protected from the evils against which they march, protest, and campaign.

My colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts, by way of contrast, themselves have experienced the insults and assaults against which they have spent their lives struggling. For my entire adult life, I have believed that fundamental change in my society would only come about through the organized efforts of those directly injured by the injustice on which America is founded. I have resisted the pressure to substitute identity politics for class conflict, convinced that Marx's fundamental insight is right -- that capitalism rests on exploitation. But like so many upper middle class old lefties, I find myself longing nostalgically for a working class movement to which I can attach myself. I am reminded of the lament of my old friend, Herbert Marcuse, in the preface to One Dimensional Man, that his analysis is necessarily abstract because there is no movement on the ground in which it can be rooted.

It is a part of the genius of late capitalism [as we old socialists longingly, hopefully describe the current stage of economoc development] that it quite succesfully fragments the forces opposed to it and so eviscerates them.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Noah's Ark; A Deeper Reflection

Having allowed myself the indulgence of a facetious smirk at the anti-evolutionary stance of Tom Tancredo, Mike Huckabee, and Sam Brownbeck, I feel that I owe my imaginary readership a somewhat more reflective response to what must surely be one of the odder turns in recent American politics.

Let me advert to an episode of William F. Buckley's television program, The Firing Line, that I watched twenty or more years ago [I have tried unsuccessfully to locate it using Google]. Buckley invited onto his show several parents, from the rural South as I recall, who had gone to court to protest the fact that their children were being taught about the evolution of species. Now, Buckley was actually on their side, having expressed reservations about or opposition to the theory of evolution as incompatible with his religious beliefs. But, to my surprise, he gave these folks a very hard time.

After a bit, I figured out what was really going on. Buckley was a famously aristocratic man -- educated at Yale [for all that he had his issues with that university], given to hosting elegant dinner parties in his New York apartment at which, it is said, he performed Bach quite creditably on the harpsichord. His stock in trade was a perpetual sneer, and a voice dripping with languid scorn that seemed to come right out of a novel by Evelyn Waugh.

Despite his ideological leanings, Buckley manifestly found his guests simply egregiously gauche. They were stiff, nervous, utterly without irony, dressed in what were clearly their very best clothes. Their objections to the education being forced on their children were as much a product of class resentment as an expression of fundamentalist Protestant faith. And despite himself, Buckley could not refrain from allowing class to trump ideology.

I was prodded to this memory by the article that appeared in the NY TIMES a few days ago written by Patricia Cohen. Headlined "A Split Emerges as Conservatives Discuss Darwin," the article focused principally on the attempt by various authors to enlist Darwin on the side of conservative prejudices. We need not engage with this latest version of Social Darwinism. Anyone who imagines that the theory of evolution provides a scientific defense of capitalism and male-dominated marriages is not really an interesting debating opponent.

But in the body of the article, both George Will and Charles Krauthammer are quoted as trying to distance themselves from their inerrant fellow right-wingers. As I read what Cohen quoted them as saying, I thought back to Buckley. Thomas Frank has a point. There are a great many people in this country who know, intuitively and with certainty, that the affluent people who have gone to the best schools look down on them as, in H. L. Mencken's immortal phrase, the Booboisie.

I am rather of two minds as to how to respond to this split in the concervative ranks. On the one hand, speaking as an upper middle class Ivy League educated intellectual, I share Buckley's disdain for people who want their children to be taught that Joshua did indeed stop the sun in the sky, that Jonah did spend an extended period in the belly of a big fish without lasting harmful consequences, and that, pace Bishop Usher, the world was created in 4004 B. C. On the other hand, speaking as a radical champion of the working class against the depredations of the bosses, I salute this rather unanticipated version of Local Control of Neighborbhood Schools.

Those of us on the left who long for company in our struggles against the forces of reaction would do well to reflect for a bit on the contradiction between our class position and cultural affinities on the one hand, and our political leanings on the other.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Noah's Ark

I know I said I would not comment on each passing outrage, but there are moments when the only way to keep one's sanity is to say something. Two days ago, during the ten-man Republican debate among presidential hopefuls, the question was asked, "Who doesn't believe in evolution?" Three candidates raised their hands.

My guess is that none of them has a clue what evolution is, but quite appropriately they are seeking to reflect the will of their actual and potential consituents [which is to say the fundamentalist Christian inerrants who make up a significant fraction of the Republican primary voters.] So this question is put to these three distinguished gentlemen as a way of asking it of the millions of Americans whom they represent:

When the lions get off the ark after forty days and nights of rain, they are hungry, I think we can assume. What do they eat?

Those of us who have been on safari, or have watched the Nature Channel, know that lions eat African buffalo, or impala if they can't get buffalo. They also, on occasion, eat wart hog, giraffe, and zebra. But each of these animals is a mammal and can reproduce only if there are a male and a female. What is more, their gestation periods are reasonably lengthy. [Fourteen months for a giraffe, if Google can be trusted.]

It is of course possible that the Lord was sufficiently foresighted to arrange for all the female mammals to be pregnant when they boarded the ark [or to get pregnant on the ark -- there is never much to do except eat on a cruise], but lions kill every three or four days, so by the time the first week is up in the new postdiluvian world, several species will have gone extinct.

I know, I know, this sort of pettifogging misses the point of religion, and since I am after all an atheist, I can legitimately be accused of not getting it.

I was just asking.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Sudoku

For those who care about such things, I have figured out a systematic method for solving sudoku puzzles at the highest ["evil"] level of difficulty. I will be happy to share it with anyone who is interested.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Politicians, Statesmen, and Democracy

Before I begin this post, a word to my readers [always assuming that there are any, of course]. Unlike many political bloggers, I shall try to avoid commenting on the latest outrage immediately after it surfaces. I do not think I have any greater wisdom about George Tenet, Virginia Tech, Anna Nicole Smith, or even Iraq and Iran than scores of other bloggers. For breaking news with a leftward tilt, I recommend www.huffingtonpost.com. www.antiwar.com is a rightwing libertarian site whose politics, given the current state of affairs, are often indistinguishable from those on the left. The most knowledgeable commentator on the Iraq mess is Juan Cole, whose site, www.juancole.com, is an invaluable source of information about what is appearing in the Arabic language press. My goal in these posts is to offer reflections at a somewhat deeper level, directly relevant to our immediate situation but informed [or so I hope] by a more systematic theoretical framework of analysis. In short, I am going for sage rather than scold. We shall see.

Which brings me to today's subject: statesmen, politicians, and democracy.

For as long as I can remember, commentators on American politics have distinguished between those public figures who, in their eyes, qualify as Statesmen and those who are dismissed as mere Politicians. J. William Fulbright is a Statesman. Mitt Romney is merely a Politician. And so forth. The mark of the true statesman is thought to be the courage and character to take a principled position and stand by it despite public disapproval as revealed in opinion polls or periodic elections. A politician who changes his or her stand on an issue of public policy in an attempt to curry favor with some segment of the voting population is viewed as, and described as, a panderer, a flipflopper, a craven arriviste with his or her finger to the wind.

By this measure, far and away the most statesman-like public figure of the past generation is George W. Bush, who gives every evidence of being willing to withstand abysmal approval ratings and sharp electoral rebuffs in pursuit of a foreign and military policy that has made him possibly the most widely hated and contemned public figure in the world today.

Inasmuch as this is a thoroughly unacceptable conclusion for any self-respecting progressive to endorse, the Left is left with only two alternatives: Either assert, against all the evidence, that Bush is merely a puppet sitting on Dick Cheney's lap, with neither opinions nor convictions of his own; or else mumble embarrassedly that by a statesman we mean someone who stands by convictions we happen to share.

As is often the case when we find ourselves caught in this sort of conceptual morass, the problem is an unexamined presupposition on which the entire discussion rests. This will take a bit of time to sort out, but the conclusion is simplicity itself: Elected officials should always behave like politicians, never like statesmen.

I am afraid that I must begin with a brief summary of some of the arguments of my little book, In Defense of Anarchism. Those who have read it can skip over this part of the post.

There is a deep contradiction between the authority claimed by the state [virtually every state] and the autonomy of decision and action that reason commands that the individual agent exhibit. Every state claims the right to issue commands, in the form of law, and to use force to ensure that those over whom it claims authority comply with those commands. States do not merely assert the power to compel compliance [as a highwayman might, who says, "your money or your life"]; states claim a moral right to the obedience of their subjects.

But reason dictates that each moral agent make choices based on reasons that the agent judges to be compelling, and the mere fact that the state has issued an order is not such a reason. This is not lawlessness, or amorality. Rather it is autonomy, which literally means self-legislation or giving law to oneself.

On the face of it, there seems to be no way of making the claims of the state compatible with the individual's duty of autonomy. And in such a clash, the claims of autonomy must take precedence for any moral agent. But Democratic Theory asserts that there is in fact one way that state authority can be made compatible with individual autonomy -- namely in the special case in which the individuals whose obedience is commanded are identical with the individuals who issue the commands. For in that case, one obeys only oneself in obeying the law, and is thus free while yet submissive to the authority of the state. In short, the resolution of the conflict between authority and autonomy is self-rule, or democracy. In the words that have come to have iconic status in American life, the resolution demands that government be not merely for the people, but of and by the people. The will given expression in the laws of the state must be the will of the people, who are thus both subjects and legislators, which is to say citizens.

Ideeally, the legislature in a democracy should consist of the entire adult citizenry, for autonomy strictly understood requires that one group of people not make laws for another. That is tyranny. But in a large nation, it is impossible for the entire citizenry to participate in the making of the laws. The necessary compromise is representative government -- the periodic selection, through the electoral process, of representatives who make the laws in the name of those whom they represent.

We may think of our representatives as our agents, to whom, by our votes, we have given, as they say in the law, power of attorney. [Leave to one side the question how we are to understand the relation of a citizen to an elected representative for whom he or she did not in fact vote. See In Defense of Anarchism for an extended discussion of that subject]. When I execute a power of attorney, let us say for a lawyer who will represent me at a real estate deal, I commit myself to abide by the terms of the contract that she negotiates for me. If I ask, after the papers are signed, why I should consider myself bound by a contract I did not myself conclude, the proper and reasonable answer is, "Because your agent, whom you authorized to represent you, concluded the contract in your name with your authority."

Now imagine that your lawyer, armed with your power of attorney, decides that in fact it is not in your best interest to purchase the property you have selected, but that instead the cashier's check you gave to her would be more wisely spent buying a different property, or perhaps some shares of stock. Indeed, suppose she decides that the money really would be better used as a donation to a charity you have never heard of. Clearly you would be outraged. The last thing you would think is that her actions showed her to be a statesman!

The U. S. Senate has a long-standing collegial custom called "pairing." If a senator cannot be present for a vote, he or she will ask a senator on the other side of the question of pair with him or her. The two are then reported as paired, leaving the outcome of the vote unchanged. This custom is observed even in razor-thin votes on crucial issues. Thus it is that when the Senate voted recently, 50 to 48, in favor of setting time limits on our involvement in Iraq, Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat, who is recovering from brain surgery, was paired with a Republican colleague. This made it unnecessary to carry him in on a stretcher so that his vote could be recorded [something that actually happened during the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, when Senator Grimes was carried onto the Senate floor on a stretcher to cast the deciding vote against removal of Johnson from the presidency.] If the senator paired with Johnson broke his word and voted against limiting the war, no one would praise him as a statesman.

And yet, when elected representatives vote against the expressed will of their constituents, they are acting like the lawyer who ignores her client's charge, or the senator who breaks faith with a colleague. By voting contrary to the will of their constituents, elected representatives rob them of their role in legislating the laws by which they are, as citizens, bound, and thus destroy whatever legitimacy the state may have.

But, someone might object, suppose that what the representative votes for is actually better than what the constituency favors. Surely, when war and peace, abortion, gay rights, taxes, or the death penalty are at issue, the Republic is better served by thoughtful and courageous public servants who vote what they know to be right and for the general good, rather than by mere recording clerks who transmit unthinkingly the will of a public that may be ill-informed or in the grip of irrational prejudice or jingoist fever!

You may well think so, but let us be clear that if you do, you are simply saying that in some circumstances dictatorship is preferable to democracy. Thus deprived of its legislative will, the citizenry has no more moral or political obligation to obey the laws enacted by its erstwhile representatives than it does to obey the laws handed down by the ruler of some foreign autocracy. It is not the goodness of the laws that lays upon us an obligation to obey them, but the fact that those laws are the expression of our own will, and hence that in obeying them, we are merely obeying ourselves, and thus remain free.

So the next time you reflexively agree with the Washington pundits that representatives who defy constituent pressure are admirable statesmen, while those who change their positions on major issues in response to opinion polls or election results are miserable flip-flopping politicians, take a moment to reflect that you are expressing a preference for benevolent dictatorship.

Let me close with a story. In 1960-61, I was in the last year of a three year Instructorship at Harvard. When Kennedy was elected, a number of young people whom I had come to know were tapped for subordinate positions in the new administration. The next summer, before moving on the the University of Chicago, I decided to see Washington, D. C. for the first time. It was August -- not at all the best time to go to the nation's capitol -- and when I arrived it was boiling hot. I made the rounds of administrative offices, visiting Dick Barnet at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Barbara Bergmann, who was on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Marc Raskin, who sat in the Executive Office Building as Mac Bundy's assistant [I knew Bundy, but after my falling out with him over Cuba, I doubted he would give me the time of day.]

All three of these folks, and others whom I knew, were bright, idealistic, engaged people, committed to doing the best job they could for their country and the Kennedy administration, but after a few days I became more and more uneasy. The tone of the offices I visited reminded me of what I had read about Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. Speaking a bit hyperbolically, it was as though they got up each morning and asked, anxiously, "Did the king have good night? Did he frown when he was awakened? Is his urine clear?" if I may put the same point a good deal more prosaically, they were like academics on soft money appointments who depend each year on the good opinion of the Provost, as opposed to professors in tenure-track positions.

I decided to visit the Senate, and because it was cool in the building, despite the absence of air conditioning [this was 1961], I returned several times. I watched mesmerized as Wayne Morse of Oregon harangued an empty Senate about the efforts of the Catholic Church to influence his vote. I gloried in a hilarious imitation by the wizard of ooze, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, of a duck landing on a pond at dusk, all in opposition to an attempt by duck hunters to get a five million dollar appropriation for the preservation of wetlands. [It seems the duck hunters had asked for, and received, a voluntary five dollar duck hunting license on condition that the money be used for wetlands, and the Eisenhower administration had then put the money into a fund to dry up the wetlands so that they could be residentially developed! Dirksen was all for duck hunting -- hence the imitation -- but was on a budget cutting campaign.] On my last visit, I had the good fortune to see the entire Senate on the floor at one time, voting on the extention of the Civil Rights Commission.

These men and women, some of whom I despised for their racist politics or anti-labor stand, seemed to me genuinely free in a way that my friends in the executive branch did not. Because their authority came from their constituents, not from the favor of a king or president, they were empowered to stand on their feet and speak their minds. I reflected, as I watched them whispering to one another on the Senate floor, that it was not Wayne Morse who was talking to Paul Douglas, but the people of Oregon who were speaking with the people of Illinois.

I fell in love with representative democracy at that moment, and lost my admiration for even the best intentioned executive administrations. Five years later, when I wrote the essay that eventually became In Defense of Anarchism, I regretfully relinquished that love, as logically unsustainable, but to this day, my heart beats a bit faster when I see the members of the House or Senate standing against the tyranny of the presidency with the full weight of their constituents behind them.

Can the dream of rule by the people themelves be rekindled?

That is a subject for a future post.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Value of a Harvard Ph D

This June will mark the fiftieth aniversary of the day on which I was awarded a doctorate in Philosophy by Harvard University. Over the intervening years, many people have indicated that they were impressed by this fact. It seems, therefore, an appropriate time to say a few words about the real value of a Harvard Ph D. A brief story from the first volume of my unpublished memoirs will set the record straight.

After earning my degree, and serving six months in the army as part of my six year commitment to the Massachusetts National Guard, I returned to Cambridge and spent 1958-61 as a Instructor in Philosphy and General Education. I was quite young, and not yet ready even to call my colleagues by their first names, inasmuch as they had, only a year earlier, been my professors.

At one of the infrequent department meetings [in my first year, if I recall correctly], Raphael Demos laid a problem before the assembled faculty. Demos at that time was near retirement, quite the oldest member of the department. It seems that he had heard from a former student who had left the department twenty-five years earlier without a doctorate. This man had made a career and a life for himself teaching philosophy at a small Canadian college. Now his college had decided to become a university, and it was retroactively requiring all of its faculty to have Ph Ds. The chap had sent Demos some material he had been writing on Kant and wanted to know whether he could submit it as a dissertation.

Demos said he had read it, and that it was simply awful. It was utterly unacceptable, and could not be made acceptable by any amount of revision that Demos could imagine. What were we to do? This poor man had a wife and children, he was too old to start another career, and he was about to be fired. We all pulled our chins and pondered. Finally, young Bert Dreben spoke up. [In order to appreciate the story, you need to know that Dreben had been a Junior Fellow at Harvard, and had never himself earned a doctorate]. "Look," he said. "There is only one thing to do. Let us all shut our eyes, except Rod [this was Firth, who was Chairman that year.] We will then vote on the motion that we are to give this man a Ph. D. forthwith, on condition that he never show his face again in Cambridge. Rod will count the votes, and without saying who has voted how, he will announce whether the motion has passed." We all looked at one another for a bit and decided that this was as good a way as any to handle the mess, so we shut our eyes, and when Rod called the vote, we either raised our hands or not as we privately chose.

Apparently, enough of us voted aye, because the motion passed and the man was awarded a Harvard doctorate in Philosophy.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Poverty, Education, and the Fallacy of Composition

It is true of each person at a concert that he or she can walk into the auditoreum's single door at precisely 8 p.m., but it is not therefore true that the entire audience can walk through the single door of the auditoreum at precisely 8 p.m. Each student in a class, I like to think, can with luck and hard work write the single best final exam, but it does not follow from this that all of the students can write the single best exam. Logicians have a name for the mistake in reasoning that consists in inferring, from the fact that a proposition is true of each member of a group, that the proposition is true of all the members of the group. They call it The Fallacy of Composition.

The belief, endlessly echoed and virtally universally believed, that education is the key to the elimination of poverty, rests on a very simple but seductive commission of the fallacy of composition.

Think of a company -- National Porta-Toilet Corporation, let us say -- in which there are a thousand jobs, ranging from President and CEO to mail room clerk. The jobs, we shall suppose, can be arranged pyramidally according to the salaries or wages associated with each position, with a small handful of top jobs carrying high salaries and lavish perks, a slightly larger number of upper management positions, more middle management slots, down to a goodly number of production jobs, secretarial jobs, and the like, with correspondingly lower salaries, and maybe not even health benefits or paid vacations.

If this is a typical American corporation, then it will almost certainly be the case that there is some level of educational credentials associated with each position. A high school diploma or equivalency may be required on the loading dock, a college degree for the middle management positions, and an MBA or other advanced degree for the top executive slots.

If an individual wishes to improve his or her chances of getting one of the favored jobs, therefore, a good strategy is to stay in, or go back to, school, and earn some more degrees. Leaving aside nepotism, bias against women and minorities, and other market distorting facts of American life, there is no question that getting more education [or, more precisely, more degrees -- not at all the same thing, of course] is a first-rate strategy for moving up the job pyramid. Those at the bottom of American society are, taking all in all, those with the scantiest educational credentials.

This strategy is also a good one for some relatively small sub-group of the National Porta-Toilet workforce -- African-Americans, say -- who, we may suppose, are disproportionately represented in the lower wage and salary levels. But it takes only a moment's thought to realized that this cannot possibly be a successful strategy for the ENTIRE workforce.

Imagine, if you can, that in a burst of focused ambition, every single worker below the level of upper management at National Porta-Toilet goes to night school and earns an MBA. Will the company now promote them all to senior management? Of course not. Who would then make the porta-toilets, load them onto trucks for delivery, file the invoices, and answer the phones?

Now think of the entire American economy as though it consisted of one vast corporation -- a sort of cross between GM, Boeing, Google, Microsoft, Archer Daniel Midlands and all, run wild -- a corporation with somewhat in excess of a hundred million employees, having both public and private sectors, and generating the totality of the goods and services produced in America.
Clearly, any individual wishing to make his or her way in this great mega-corporation will do well to get as many educational credentials as possible, but although that is a splendid strategy for an individual who wishes to make more money and get a better job, it cannot possibly be a national anti-poverty strategy for raising the entire bottom of the workforce so that all Americans are in the middle class. The reason is simple: the jobs exist BEFORE they are filled, and are defined, with wages and salaries and benefits associated, according to the operational needs of the processes of production and distribution of goods and services, not the other way around. If there are an unexpectedly large number of people with MBAs, this does not provoke an expansion of the ranks of upper management. So education cannot be the solution to poverty, save for some, and then only so long as others fail to pursue education.

Immediately, objections will arise.

The first objection is that it is perfectly possible for an entire nation to raise itself out of poverty through education, as witness the economic successes of some of the Asian tigers. But such success is possible only so long as there remain hundreds of millions of men and women elsewere in the world who can be consigned to the low-paying jobs that the successful nation has eschewed. The real meaning of globalization is that entire continents become the low-wage working class of the world system.

Because the world economic system is so large and complex, it is easy to imagine that the poverty wages of Africa or Latin America or Asia are a consequence of their inadequate educational attainments, and that every country in the world could undergo an economic miracle, with appropriate capital investment, a strong civil society, and universal education up through the tertiary level. But who then will do the low-paying jobs on which the more affluent depend for goods and services?

Neo-classical economic theory suggests a second objection. The assumption underlying the mathematics of that theory [the details, although quite lovely mathematically, need not trouble us here] is that each firm has an endless array of techniques available for the production of whatever goods or services it sells, from among which it chooses techniques according to their profitability at current market prices for inputs and labor. If the educational attainments of the labor force change [and assuming that with that change actually comes a change in the kinds of jobs workers are capable of performing], employers can shift to techniques of production that require a better educated labor force, and this, it is thought, will result in a flattening of the income pyramid. Instead of a GM with many manual laborers and relatively few "suits," one will move toward an economy of Microsofts and Googles. The bottom will be pulled up, and low wages will become more and more a thing of the past.

There is obviously a good deal of truth in this objection. The patterns of compensation of the work forces of information age companies are quite different from those of the old rust belt. And clearly, this upgrading of educational attainments has been going on for a very long time in America. The father of my first wife never finished high school, and yet he ended his career as a Vice President of Sears, Roebuck. Today, he would not make it into a management trainee program with less than a college degree. A hundred years ago, the American labor force was primarily agricultural. Today, fewer than 2 percent of the labor force provide food and fiber for the entire nation, and service jobs vastly outnumber production jobs. Techniques of production have been transformed [except in higher education, where I and my colleagues still use today the same basic pedagogical techniqes that my professor's professors used at the turn of the nineteenth century!]

We might therefore expect to see, over that time, a steady flattening of the pyramid of wages and salaries. The truth is completely the opposite. The total wealth produced by the American economy has soared, but the shape of the distribution has remained essentially unchanged. For a while, in the 70's and 80's, the pyramid flattened; lately, it has sharply steepened. But these changes have been almost entirely due to changes in federal tax policies and welfare programs, not to technique substitutions triggered by changes in the educational attainments of the labor force.

Think for a moment of the consequences of the dramatic layoffs and downsizings in the corporate world that turned the lives of so many employees upside down in the eighties and nineties. Companies laid off hundreds of thousands of middle managers and other workers with superb educational credentials. As a result, there was a surplus of well trained unemployed workers in the labor force. But this did NOT trigger a massive shift in choice of production technique. Instead, these workers by and large were forced to take less well compensated jobs in which, quite often, their skills and education were under-used. In that situation, getting more young people to stay in school and earn college degrees simply made the situation worse. To be sure, getting more educational credentials was still a good strategy for an individual -- indeed, in the face of the competition for the favored jobs, degrees, especially from well-known colleges, became ever more valuable assets. But education was not, and could not be, a systemic solution to the problem of poverty.

A little thought experiment, prompted by the insights of Karl Marx, might be helpful here. Instead of thinking about how much money people make and spend, think instead about how much of other people's labor time they consume. When I travel, I stay at hotels. Each day, my room is straightened up, my bed is made, and my bathroom is cleaned. [a quick read of Barbara Ehrenreich's great book, Nickled and Dimed, is useful here.] It is intuitively obvious that the women who perform the maid service in the hotels cannot possibly afford to stay there as customers.

An even more immediately obvious example is a full time household worker. Since it takes her a day's labor to earn what she needs [we may hope] for food, clothing, and shelter, she cannot possibly herself afford to hire a full time household worker to clean her own dwelling, look after her children, as she looks after her employer's children, and so forth.

Some elements of a household's "market basket,' as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls the array of goods and services we purchase, can be made to require less and labor for their production by machines. This is why even poor people in the United States can afford decently made clothing and television sets. But health care, for example, which is labor intensive, is costly in labor time, and hence difficult for poor people to afford.

In short, even in an America of superbly educated men and women, as things now are, the comfort and convenience of the well-to-do can only be secured by the poverty of those who provide important elements of that comfort and convenience.

What can be done? Is the Good Book right? Are the poor always with us, no matter what we do?

That is a subject for another post.

The Medium is the Message

My only appearance on a tv talk show was an ill-fated effort back in the 60's, when I was a professor of philosophy at Columbia. Along with four other young lefties, I did a turn on a David Susskind show devoted to academic radicals. The five of us tore into Susskind as a lily-livered liberal, raked him up one side and down the other, protested the absence of women on the panel by calling one of our female compatriots onto the stage from the audience, and in general did everything we could think of to disrupt what we imagined to be his plan for the show. We were pretty pleased with ourselves until, as the credits were rolling at the end of the half hour, he turned to us with a big smile and said, "Great show." Suddenly the scales fell from my eyes, and I realized that we were, from his point of view, a collection of useful idiots helping him to keep his ratings up. Since this was his show, he would be back next week with some other panel, while we would be back in our cubicles. He wasn't worried that we would say dangerous radical things. His only fear was that we would be boring and his audience would flip to another channel. We had done exactly what he had hoped. "Great show."

As Marshall McCluham had observed only a few years earlier, the medium is the message. Or, as Aristotle argued two milennia earlier, it is form rather than matter that determines the nature of a thing.

These thoughts are prompted by the extraordinary transformation that the blogoshpere is working in the realm of mainstream media punditry. For decades, I along with the rest of politically engaged America, have been listening to the pontifications of pundits left, center, right, and troglodytic on everything from nuclear war to the unfortunate Anna Nicole Smith. David Broder, George Will, Cokie Roberts, Juan Williams, Mark Shields, David Brooks, John McClaughlin, Tony Blakely, George Stephanopolous, Tim Russert -- on and on they go, clogging the airwaves with their opinions. It is an odd career -- pundit. One is paid a large salary to have opinions, as though having an opinion were an accomplishment, like playing the Beethoven violin concerto. Some pundits started life as actual reporters, nosing about, going to foreign countries, making themselves knowledgeable about some area of public policy. But the stock in trade of many of them seems to be nothing more than the ability instantaneously to form, express, and then conveniently to forget an opinion on absolutely anything.

Collectively, the ability of the chattering classes to define the parameters of public discourse is enormous. But having a political opinion is actually a rather minor talent. It is not much more diffcult than having a preference for beers or ice cream flavors. Virtually everyone who is paying attention at all has opinions.

Now, it is natural to suppose that those who become pundits are wiser, more knowledgeable, more privy to generally inaccessible information than the rest of us, and hence that their opinions are, taking all in all, significantly worthier of attention than are ours. And this supposition is lent weight by the common practice on television news shows of putting on camera ordinary men and women whose expressed opinions are manifestly less well-expressed and apparently less well-informed than those of the pundits.

Enter the blogosphere, which gives unlimited numbers of people the opportunity to express their opinions, at whatever length they choose, in a format exactly as easily accessible as the opinions of the publicly important. I surf the web a good deal, reading many of the blog postings to which I am directed by the Daily Kos or Arianna Huffington or antiwar.com, and what I find there is at least as intelligent and knowledgeable as the offerings of the punditry. Indeed, in some instances -- Juan Cole's Informed Comment is a case in point -- what one finds on the web is so far superior to anything one can hear on television that it becomes absolutely essential to an understanding of what is happening in the world.

The formal structure of the web is through and through anarchic and anti-hierarchical. The lowliest blog [this one, for example] is exactly as accessible as the the official website of the Federal Government. It is as though everyone from NBA superstars to grade school kids had been condemned to play one dimensional basketball, in which no one had any height. There are thousands, if not scores of thousands, of men and women in this country whose opinions on this or that matter of public concern are as strong, solid, insightful, and original as any that can be heard coming from the mouths of the Broders and Russerts and Friedmans.

I am convinced that over time this structural fact will work to transform American politics in ways that I, as an anarchist, welcome and find entirely healthy.

So, this is now my blog. Will anyone read it? Will anyone link to it, pass the link on, bring into being an audience? I have no idea. Will it matter that I am known in some circles for things I wrote forty years ago? Not a bit. There is something scary and genuinely invigorating about the prospect.

I shan't attempt to add a post every day, or comment on every passing event. I welcome comments, and assuming that my success as a blogger is as modest as I expect it to be, I will undertake to respond to every one.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Am I the only person in America who noticed that the last two Democratic senatorial candidates in 2006 to be confimred as elected were named Burns and Allen?

Say goodnight, Gracie.