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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, January 30, 2010

IS DEMOCRACY POSSIBLE

There are times when I wonder, seriously, whether this country is ready for self-rule. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a poll. Here are two results: Twenty-six percent of those polled knew that it takes sixty votes to break a filibuster in the Senate. Thirty-two percent knew that no Republican Senators had voted for the health care reform bill [estimates by those polled ranged from five or ten to twenty and more].

Now, it is popular on the left to claim that the mass media are in the pocket of conservative corporate interests dedicated to keeping the truth from the American people, who, it is imagined, would rise up and demand immediate change if only they knew the facts. But let us be serious. For almost a year now, the dominant story in the mass media has been one variant or another of the struggle by the Democrats to find and hold that sixtieth vote so that the health care bill could not be filibustered. The endless stories about the Al Franken Norm Coleman election, the countless Olympia Snowe stories, the Lieberman fiasco. This was not just a secret well-kept by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, for God's sake! Fox News was full of it. I don't care what slant they put on it -- whether the Republicans were mindless obstructionists or fearless defenders of the faith. All of those stories were built on the simple fact, endlessly repeated, that it takes sixty votes to break a filibuster in the Senate. And the net result of all of that newsprint and air time is that three-fourths of Americans DON'T KNOW THAT IT TAKES SIXTY VOTES TO BREAK A FILIBUSTER.

Under these conditions, democracy as political philosophers analyze it is simply not possible. It is pointless to cavil about the slant of Rahm Emmanuel or the nuances of Obama's tactics.

Here is a factoid to send shivers up your spine: Only forty-five percent of college graduates knew that it takes sixty votes to break a filibuster. MORE THAN HALF OF THOSE WHO HAVE SOMEHOW SURVIVED FOUR YEARS OF COLLEGE DO NOT KNOW THAT SIMPLE FACT.

I have spent most of my life defending the philosophical doctrine known as anarchism. But I am beginning to understand, for the first time, the great appeal in Communist circles of something known as Democratic Centralism, which means, more or less, Politbureaucracy [i.e., rule by the Politburo].

IN MEMORIAM

Two men with whom my life intersected have passed away in the last forty-eight hours. The first, Howard Zinn, is, I am sure, known to most of you. Howard was for half a century and more a voice of all that is good and decent and sane on the left. He worked in a World War II shipyard before going to college, and there became deeply involved with working class movements in a way that persisted until his death, at the age of eighty-seven. Many people on the left knew Howard much better than I, and beautiful tributes have appeared from the pens of Bob Herbert of the NY TIMES and Daniel Elsberg. When I was young, in the 50's, there were few men and women of mature years on the left who could serve as role models to those of us who were unwilling to believe that to grow old was to turn to the right. For all the decades since, Howard offered young people that model.

The second man who has just died is Dr. Bertram Schaffner, who passed away peacefully at ninety-seven. Those who read this blog will know that Schaffner was my psychiatrist in the late 40's when, as a troubled teenager, I was sent to him by my parents to treat obsessive and terrifying fears of death. In ways I could never have anticipated, his life and mine crossed and recrossed. Like me, he went to Harvard at an early age [he at fifteen, I at sixteen]. Like my sister, he completed his undergraduate education at Swarthmore College in their splendid Honors Program. Like my son, Tobias, Schaffner was gay, and although he was forced to keep that fact secret for many, many years, he worked with gay patients and was among the first psychiatrists to treat patients who had contracted the AIDS virus. He was a gentle, decent man.

Erik Erikson has a beautiful passage in his great work, Childhood and Society, that can serve as a fitting epitaph to the lives of both Howard Zinn and Bertram Schaffner:

"[The possessor of integrity] knows that an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history; and that for him all human integrity stands or falls with the one style of integrity of which he partakes."

requiescat in pace

Friday, January 29, 2010

THE INCORRIGIIBLE OPTIMIST

It seems I cannot sustain a serious funk for more than a few days. I really am a Tigger. I just spent a few moments while eating my lunch watching Obama field questions at a Republican retreat [no snarky puns, please]. He is so smart, so cool, so balanced, and has so many facts and figures at his fingertips, that he simply outclasses them all. He needs to do as many of these as the Republicans are dumb enough to allow him to do. He is even better in that sort of back and forth than he is giving a set speech.

And the Joint Chiefs are now moving to end DADT ["don't ask, don't tell," for those of you who are not totally inside the Beltway.]

Well, hope springs eternal. On the other hand, check out Krugman today. America is in deep long term trouble, economically.

Oh yes, by the way, the Tea Party Convention is in bad trouble. Bachman has pulled out [that gives you some idea], and Palin, who is getting big bucks for her appearance, is going to be left holding the teabag.

Meanwhile, a big winter storm is heading for North Carolina, and this time we may actually get snow. In anticipation, all school has been cancelled until 2013. [Just kidding].

I will try to return to serious blogging soon.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

WHY I AM SO UPSET

Punditry differs from blogging in this one fundamental respect: Pundits attempt to pass off their ephemeral subjective reactions to the passing scene as deep eternal objective truths. Bloggers couch their insights into deep, eternal, objective truths as ephemeral subjective reactions to the passing scene. As a philosopher, I am of course inclined to pontificating, which is the pedagogical version of punditry. But as a blogger, I must strive for the ephemeral, the evanescent, the personal. So it is that I shall offer my analysis of the current American political situation in the form of an explanation for the fact that I have been suffering the blahs. Since I will be teaching this evening [Marx's theory of surplus value], I shall miss Obama's first State of the Union address to Congress, so this blog post can be taken as my response, in advance of having heard the speech. Somehow, that seems appropriate in our hyper-reactive electronic age.

As readers of this blog know, I have been deeply bummed out for the past week or more over the Massachusetts by-election, the perilous prospects of the health care reform process, Obama's announced intention to call for a spending freeze, and other things. Since I am by nature cheerful and optimistic [which, as I am a radical Marxist, says a good deal about my casual relationship to reality], I am unaccustomed to being down, and it has taken me a while to figure out just what lies at the root of my low spirits.

Here it is, in a nutshell: The 2008 election was a triumph -- one to which I committed both a good bit of my money and a fair amount of my time. Obama is pretty much the very best we can hope for in the way of a political leader in this country at this time. AND YET, here we are, one year later, hopes dashed in every direction.

We [which is to say, the Democratic Party] seized a substantial majority in the House of Representatives, and yet, even with a strong and effective Speaker, the most we could get in the way of a health care reform bill from that body was a watered down compromise, burdened with the hideous Stupak amendment, and all of that by a two vote margin. After winning several Senate seats that we had no real reason to expect we could take, we squeaked into a sort of sixty vote victory for an equally compromised bill whose fate has been called into question by the unexpected loss of one seat.

There is absolutely no reason to think that the stars will be as well aligned any time in the foreseeable future as they were in 2008, or that even in a 2012 presidential election we can do any better than we did in '08. So what we have now is just about as good as we could have hoped for. AND IT IS AWFUL.

I do not blame Obama for this. He is not Dennis Kucinich, to be sure, but we all know how much chance even an attractive Dennis Kucinich would have of being elected president. I think Hillary Clinton might well have lost the election, had she been nominated, and she was far and away the strongest of the pack after Obama.

Nor do I fault Obama for putting forward an inadequate plan to save the American economy. Paul Krugman is a good economist, and I think his calls for a stimulus package twice the size were probably right. But does he recall how hard it was to pass the bill that actually was brought to the floor? Is there anyone who seriously thinks that Snowe would have bought a 1.5 trillion dollar bill, or that Nelson, Landrieu, et al. would have stayed on board for it? It is a testament to the terror that afflicted the Senate at the prospect of the collapse of the American economy that we got the bill that passed.

Obama's decision about Afghanistan was, as I said at the time, a mistake, and he will have to deal with its consequences in the next eighteen months. But foreign and military policy, contrary to popular pundit opinion, is not at this point the focus of the popular unrest now roiling the country.

No, we won the election, taking more seats in both houses than we had any reason to expect, and yet it was not enough to translate campaign rhetoric into genuine reform and change.

What has me so bummed out is simply that I cannot imagine any plausible scenario that turns out better. A second Obama term? I rather suspect it will happen, especially if the Republicans continue their love affair with the crazies. But it is in the first term of a two term president, not the second, that one looks for major, dramatic change.

Will Obama's rationality, sobriety, competence,, and aversion to polarizing politics eventually work a sea change in Washington? It sure doesn't look like it!

To work against the odds, to hope against hope for implausible victory, to keep one's spirits up in the face of loss after loss -- that is the portion of any self-respecting radical. But to win the big one, at long last, only to discover that it just is not enough -- that is cause indeed for a serious case of the blahs.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A TERRIBLE MISTAKE

Obama's decision to call for a spending freeze is a disastrous mistake. It would reproduce the mistake that Roosevelt made during the depression, a mistake that triggered the second downward turn then. And it is politically tone deaf. It aligns him with the Republicans and sets him against everyone calling for a massive jobs program to pull the people [not the banks] out of the hole we are in.

At long last, I have concluded that Obama has lost his way. This is exactly the wrong thing to do right now. I am sure it is what Rahm Emmanuel and Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers are advising him to do, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I never thought Obama was a man of the left, but I was convinced that he was politically smart and emotionally centered, capable of following a course of action even in the face of withering criticism from the right. Perhaps I was wrong.

Monday, January 25, 2010

AVATAR

Well, Susie and I went off yesterday afternoon to the fanciest multiplex around and saw Avatar in 3-D [even for seniors it was $8.50 a ticker]. It was an extraordinary experience. The special effects, 3-D and 2-D, are over the top, spectacular, a whole new level of technical achievement. But James Cameron spent so much on them [two hundred million, apparently] that he had no money left to hire a writer. So instead, he recycled every tired old film cliche imaginable. The movie is a mish-mash of Dances With Wolves, Star Wars [the Ewoks against the mechanical walking machines], King Solomon's Mines, Tarzan of the Apes, and even Alien. [Cameron also skimped on star power to save money, so the only recognizable face was Sigourney Weaver, doing a great turn as a cigarette smoking scientist]. After a while, I took to whispering in Susie's ear what was going to come next, and when I had to make a quick trip to the Men's Room, I knew I would not miss anything. It is not nearly as gorgeous a film as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the other films of that genre whose names I cannot recall, but which are the most sensually beautiful films I have ever seen. There is a lively debate in the blogosphere about whether the film is a progressive environmentalist tract or a reactionary White Settler putdown of native peoples, but that gives it way too much credit for having a brain.

Oh yes, the best bit of technical shtick was that when you leave the theater, if you forget to put your glasses in a bin, an alarm beeps, like at the library. I kind of liked that.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

FALLING OFF A CLIFF

The loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat and the subsequent manifest disarray of the White House and the Democratic Party have left me massively depressed. I feel as though I have fallen off a cliff, and I can scarcely bear to read the Op Ed pages of the NY TIMES or watch the various news shows that had become my staple diet.

This is a puzzling reaction, especially because I have been saying in this blog, and believe, that the sixty vote super majority was inevitably fragile and was unlikely to stand beyond the next election cycle. Nor am I one of those left-wing types who had exaggerated hopes for Obama's presidency and thought that some secular version of the Second Coming was at hand. I have, I like to think, been patient, mature, wise, and reserved in my expectations, as all of you who read this blog can attest.

So why do I hide under the covers each morning, hesitant to get out of bed until my cats pester me for their morning meal? Why have I taken to re-reading the books I wrote, comforted by the familiarity of my own words, rather like an infant playing happily with his feces?

I brood about things like this during my hour-long morning walk, and I think I have arrived at some idea of the root source of my distress. The reason, to put it simply, is this: Obama put all of his chips on a massive drive for as major health care reform bill, in his first year. The Republicans openly stated that they would oppose anything he put forward in an attempt to make his presidency a failure, regardless of the substantive content of the proposals or the objective need for reform.

Obama has lost control of the public discourse, with the result that if the House Democrats do not pass the Senate version of the bill, the country will see him as having failed, and the Republicans as having won. And I simply cannot abide that. As a Marxist sop far to the left that I must always guard against falling off the edge of the earth, I should, I know, take a superior view that they are all swine, and it makes no difference which pack of them is on top at any moment.l But I really do not believe that. It makes a huge difference to the people who, unlike myself, are at risk in this fragile economy. It matters deeply to everyone with a pre-existing condition, or whose medical insurance is about to be cancelled, or whose mortgage is under water, or whose job is evaporating.

There is, however, a possible up side to all of this [I simply cannot remain totally depressed forever]. If the House gets its act together and passes the damn bill, Obama's first year will have been a success, the Republicans will have lost their gamble, and the public discourse will instantaneously be transformed, REGARDLESS OF WHAT IS ACTUALLY IN THE BILL.

I just hope the Democrats in the House can get over themselves long enough to recognize that fact.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Leeks

This is a brief post, to pass the time while I try to come to terms with the meltdown of the Obama presidency that is taking place at the moment.

I am making blue fish fillets this evening, and I decided to add to them a dish of fresh leeks that I found at Whole Foods. I split the leeks lengthwise, and then split them again. Then I cut them into lengths perhaps four inches, to make a nice big pile. Then I peeled and diced two large shallots [I am very partial to shallots], and three cloves of garlic, which I minced. Now, some olive oil in a lovely large non-stick pan Susie just got for me, and I first saute the shallots and garlic until they are turning brown and giving of a lovely aroma. Then in go the leeks, which I saute on high heat until they are really starting to caramelize. All of this has fresh ground pepper added to it, and some Basil [I do not cook with salt, for health reasons, so something must be done to tart up the taste]. When the leeks are turning a lovely brown, I add a can of chopped tomatoes, and on high heat allow the liquid to boil off. Oregano is added for flavor, and some more pepper. Now this all cooks down and blends and merges into a very tasty dish. Some fresh snow peas, steamed, and I grill the bluefish under the broiler with a bit of fish spice sprinkled on top, and with a cheap but quite drinkable bottle of Cabernet, we have a meal.

There are other things besides politics in the world, happily.

Friday, January 22, 2010

KRUGMAN -- WHAT HE SAID

In the aftermath of the looss of the Massachusetts seat, Krugman is calling for the House to suck it up and pass the Senate version of the health care reform bill. He is dead right. Pass it, and then tweak it as the years go by. Ten years from now, that will appear to be the best decision the House made this session. One can but hope.

STRAW IN THE WIND?

Many people, including my son, Patrick [who knows about these things] have been distressed that Geithner and Summers, rather than Volcker, have had the inside track in the White House on economic matters. The reemergence of Volcker, by Obama's side, announcing a get-tough policy on the banks, suggests that perhaps things are taking a turn for the better on economic policy. Let us hope so.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I received a long, interesting email message from my older son, Patrick [the famous chess player and Hedge Fund manager] about my comment that Obama has lost control of the public discourse, and it started me thinking about why this is so. I have been so stressed out over the Massachusetts loss that I have been unable to watch the usual cable news commentators, or read the usual blogs -- it is just too painful. Think of this post, therefore, as a form of lay therapy. [I am also preparing to lecture today on Freud's Interpretation of Dreams -- hence the association to therapy].

The problem, if I can put it this way, is that Obama, despite his many gifts, is actually not a very good teacher. I have been teaching for fifty-five years, and as a Philosopher, I have spent most of that time explaining things. I have given a good deal of thought to what it takes to be a good teacher. It is quite possible to be very smart, to understand a subject really well, and yet to be very bad at teaching it or explaining it. I think that is Obama's central problem.

The first and most important prerequisite for good teaching is the ability to put oneself in the place of one's students and understand, from their point of view, what they know and do not know, what they understand and do not understand. [All of this applies equally to writing clearly and well, of course, with "reader" substituted for "student."] Bad teachers spend a great deal of time explaining things that their students already understand, while totally failing to explain what their students do not understand, and must understand in order to grasp what the teacher is saying.

One sees evidences of this all the time in the discourse of experts who are so completely interior to their subject that they forget even to explain the meaning of acronyms that they are accustomed to using when talking to other experts.

Let me give one trivial example from the class I taught last evening on the mathematical analysis of Marx's economic theories. I had written up and handed out some sheets with little systems of price and labor value equations on them, and was going through the algebraic process of calculating the labor values and prices, to see whether, as David Ricardo claimed, the prices were proportional to the labor values. I thought I was doing a splendid job of explaining this rather complex subject, when one of the students, who is manifestly quite bright, but with no experience of economics, asked, "Why does the equation have in it the term (1 + pi)?" [i.e., the Greek letter pi -- my blog program does not seem to allow me to switch to different alphabets.] I explained that the capitalist must get back from the sale of his product an amount equal to what he paid for his inputs, including labor -- hence the 1 -- and also an additional amount that constitutes a percentage profit on that investment -- hence the pi. Thus, the price of the output must equal 1 times the cost of the inputs plus pi times the cost of the inputs, or (1 + pi) times that cost. Hence the term (1 + pi). As soon as I said this, she nodded, and it was clear that she understood. The point is, I should have realized that she, and other students, might not understand this, and so I should have taken a moment to explain it. Without that explanation, the equations were simply a mystery to her.

When Obama talks to the nation about the bailout of the banks, for example, it is obvious both that he understands the subject and that he really has not a clue what his audience understands. Indeed, he manages to communicate his sense that they ought to understand these things, and that it is either their fault or the fault of unscrupulous right-wing ideologues if they do not. And that sense, not surprisingly, comes across as condescending and elitist.

But it really would not be hard to explain. He might not persuade everyone that what he is doing is wise, or the right choice, but they would understand it, and it would then be incumbent on his opponents to explain equally clearly why they oppose what he is doing.

I have listened to a great many speeches by Obama -- uplifting speeches, inspiring speeches, deeply felt and moving speeches -- but I do not think I have ever heard him give a speech in which he just explains some policy question clearly, and in a way designed genuinely to clarify the issue in the minds of his audience.

I could tell him how to do it. But I suspect his inner circle would look askance at the idea of bringing on an atheistical, anarchistic Marxist as a White House advisor.

Oh well, there is always blogging.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

IF I WASN'T SO OLD, I WOULD CRY

There is no way of construing the loss of Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat as anything but a stinging defeat for the Democrats and for Obama. There is plenty of blame to go around, and it is being dished out generously this morning. I want to try to get some perspective on the event, if only for my own sanity. I spent a very troubled night.

I have already indicated why I believe that the sixty vote majority was inevitably temporary. That margin in the Senate simply does not correspond to the balance of forces in the country right now. It was the result of some brilliant campaigning, some cold-eyed compromises in the choice of candidates, and the fallout from the disaster of the Bush years.

Health care reform hangs in the balance. Perhaps the House will pass the Senate bill, which would make it law. I tend to think they will, though that is by no means certain. As I have many times observed on this blog, the messy and distressing compromises written into both the House and Senate versions of the bill were inevitable. Neither the House and Senate leadership nor Obama is in any way to blame for those defects.

But what dismays me is the fact that Obama has, at this point, almost completely lost control of the public discourse, despite the fact that he has been doing an extremely mature, intelligent, creditable job of running the country. I remember the campaign -- it was only a year and a bit more ago. Obama offered Americans an adventure, a movement, an uplifting transformation in American politics. That is why so many people, myself included, worked so hard for his election.

He conducted that campaign brilliant -- no one in several generations has done as well. But since taking office, he has failed to sustain the emotion and commitment of that campaign.

My guess is that the severity of the economic crisis, which was really unprecedented, so absorbed his energies and attention that he was deflected from the role of cheerleader-in-chief. I think he could have sold the necessary compromises to his progressive supporters, had he undertaken to explain to them clearly why those compromises were necessary.

There is simply no way that we should have lost a Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Will Obama learn from this defeat? On the evidence of the campaign, I would say probably yes. But you don't have to be a fly on the wall in the Oval Office to know that the inner circle is busy explaining why the loss isn't their fault. That, I would imagine, is their primary concern at this moment. It ought not to be, of course, but people who make it to that level in politics are always more concerned about justifying themselves than they are about solving problems. If they weren't, they would long ago have been weeded out at the lower levels.

The upside of all of this is that, come what may, Obama is President for three more years, and, if the Republicans continue on their current self-destructive path, seven more years. In a Parliamentary system of government, Obama would be in danger of losing a vote of confidence at this moment. Chalk one up for the Founding Fathers.

On a lighter note, here is a picture of my grandson at his fourth birthday party. Pretty cool!



Tuesday, January 19, 2010

THE GLORY OF THE KING JAMES VERSION OF THE BIBLE

I spent some time this morning comparing different English translations of the beautiful passage in Luke that recounts Satan's temptation of Jesus after the Son of God returns from wandering for forty days in the wilderness [I know, I know. Don't start with me. If you cannot feel a tingle of divinity when reading the Bible, you are dead to language]. Here is a portion of that passage, from Luke 4:5-8 [pardon the orthographic irregularities]:

5And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. 7If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. 8And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

Here is the same passage from something called The Contemporary English Version:

5Then the devil led Jesus up to a high place and quickly showed him all the nations on earth. 6The devil said, "I will give all this power and glory to you. It has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7Just worship me, and you can have it all."

8Jesus answered, "The Scriptures say: `Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!' "

The first passage is sublime, especially the phrase "get thee behind me, Satan." The second passage is pedestrian, tone deaf. "I can give it to anyone I want to" sounds like a kid in a playground handing out M&Ms.

I have long thought that of all the miracles associated with the Bible -- the multiplying of loaves and fishes, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the stopping of the sun in the heavens -- far and away the greatest is the writing of the King James version by a committee. I have seen the dead resuscitated on ER, and Adam Smith long ago explained how a cornucopia of commodities could issue from the dark recesses of a factory, but no one, to my satisfaction, has explained the sublime beauty of the King James Bible.

What I wouldn't give to have written one of those passages!

TWEET TWEET

Yesterday, I had a visit from Dr. Tanya Mears. Tanya is a former student in Afro-American Studies who wrote her doctoral dissertation on a body of literature written in Colonial Puritan New England on the occasion of the public execution of a condemned criminal. The sermons, "last words," and poetry are called, collectively, Execution Literature, and Tanya's dissertation [which I directed] deals with the subset of that literature written about persons of African descent. Now Tanya is turning her dissertation into a scholarly monograph, and her visit was for the purpose of our strategizing on how best to do that. I directed only two dissertations during my twelve years as Graduate Program Director in Afro-American Studies [it is, after all, not my field], and the first has already been published as a book, by Dr. Jennifer Jensen-Wallach, so once Tanya's book comes out I will be batting a thousand.

Tanya is a tall, vivacious, witty Black woman, seriously Catholic [she graciously forgives me my atheism], totally plugged in to the modern culture, and something of a fashionista. Some years ago. she prevailed upon me to coordinate the color of my socks, my pants, my shirts, my shoes, and my belts, and she has been after me for years to get Instant messaging, something I seem not to be able to accomplish on my computer. It was under her influence that I signed up for FaceBook, and though I now have a circle of friends [mostly former Afro-Am students], I never write on my wall [is that the correct phrase?], to Tanya's manifest irritation.

Anyway, after a long planning session, she joined Susie and me for dinner at Azure, a pretty good restaurant across the street, and over entrees, she arm-twisted me into joining Twitter. She assured me that I would acquire "followers" and that the traffic to this blog would increase exponentially.

So I am now on FaceBook and Twitter, Lord help me. I just checked, and I do not yet have a single follower. What ever happened to the leisurely reading [and writing] of books?

Monday, January 18, 2010

DEFENSIVE MANEUVERS

This blog post has two purposes, neither of them very elevated. The first is to pass the time until the Massachusetts by-election tomorrow. The second is to prepare myself for a defeat there, and to reassure myself that the sky is not falling. I have sent emails to everyone in the UMass Afro-Am Department urging them to get out the vote, and I have donated a hundred dollars to a campaign that is awash in money. But in truth, there is nothing I can do about my former friends and neighbors, except wait and hope.

So, here is what I am thinking. Two years ago and more, Howard Dean articulated a fifty state strategy for the Democratic Party that ran contrary to the conventional wisdom of the old timers. The Party went out and searched for conservative Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats, who could make a run for House and Senate seats that would ordinarily be conceded to the Republicans. The Party was particularly successful in locating military personnel with unimpeachable war records who were willing to stand for public office. The strategy was a brilliant success and produced not only a healthy House majority but also, barely, by the skin of our teeth, a sixty vote Senate majority, including the egregious Lieberman, the admirable Sanders, and, after the longest count in U. S. history, the newly serious Franken.

Anyone looking carefully at the line-up of Democratic senators could see that when it came time to legislate, getting all of them to agree on anything was going to require heroic efforts and major compromises. What is more, despite some statistical advantages in 2010 [having to do with which senators are up for re-election], it was obvious that this sixty vote edge was unlikely to survive another election cycle.

Obama, after all, received only 53% of the popular vote, in an election that followed eight years of the worst president in American history and featured a chaotic Republican campaign with a polarizing and alienating Vice-Presidential candidate. Optimists [like me] who saw Obama's victory as the start of a new progressive era should really have recognized how deeply and evenly split the country is.

So, if Martha Coakley manages to lose a safe seat to a nonentity, it will be a disaster, but not quite a calamity. I still believe that health care reform will pass, even without that magical sixtieth vote, but further major reforms were always going to be dicey. As I have often observed here, blaming Snow or Nelson or Landrieu or Lieberman for the impossibility of radical progressive reform misses the point. They are the product and reflection of the resistance to reform in this country, not the cause.

Just today, Paul Krugman once again criticized the Obama administration for not having made the stimulus bill much bigger. I remember, and surely he must also, how near a thing was the passage of the inadequate bill we got. What on earth makes him think a much larger bill was ever a possibility? He has it in for Summers and crew, and he is, I think, totally correct to view them as incompetent clowns. But if Krugman had been sitting where Summers does, and had argued for a one and a half trillion dollar stimulus bill, he would have been totally unsuccessful in getting the Congress even to consider it, let alone pass it.

The sad fact is that we progressives are trapped in a fundamentally non-progressive era, when we must make do with what we have, and try to accomplish as much as the Congress will allow. So, if tomorrow turns out badly, we will simply have to suck it up and soldier on. The one bright spot in all of this is the self-destructive behavior of the Republicans, who are clearly quite unwilling to put forward candidates at the national level who can win. I prayed that I would live long enough to see a progressive president elected. It happened. Now, I pray that I will live long enough to see Sarah Palin nominated by the Republicans. You take your pleasures where you find them when you reach my age.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

PUZZLES

This being Sunday, my first thought is the NY TIMES crossword puzzle. A good deal of my waking life -- more than one might wish to admit -- is spent solving puzzles. Crossword puzzles, Doublecrostics, Sudoku puzzles, Ken Ken puzzles, Puns and Anagrams puzzles, London TIMES type puzzles -- all are grist for my mill. The first thing I do upon taking my seat on an airplane is to check the seat pocket for the airline's magazine, in hopes of finding several puzzles in the back pages.

Puzzles of this sort exercise on me what aesthetic theorists in mid-twentieth century philosophy used to call an objective demand. Faced with an empty puzzle, I feel a compulsion to attack it. Working on a puzzle is for me a peaceful activity, and when I finally finish the puzzle, no matter how easy it has been, I experience a satisfying sense of completion and fulfilment. The world is now ordered rightly.

The NY TIMES puzzles were my first addiction. Will Short arranges things so that they start very easy on Monday, and grow progressively harder as the week passes. The Thursday puzzle always has something quirky about it that one must guess to solve the puzzle. The Friday and Saturday puzzles are genuinely hard. Sometimes, I cannot at the start solve a single clue, but almost without exception, I manage to finish them all. The Sunday puzzle is actually rather easy, but it is enormous, and hence takes a long time to finish [half an hour or more, I find.] Naturally, I do them in ink, and, as even the most naive reader can surely tell, I am immensely vain about my ability to solve them.

Sudoku puzzles, a relatively recent import from Japan, are quite different. Although they are written using numbers, they are logic puzzles, not mathematical puzzles. One could without any essential alteration replace the numbers 1 through 9 with letters or symbols of some sort. At first they were very challenging, but I have now devised ways of solving them that make it merely a matter of time. Still and all, as I enter the last number in the last box, I feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment. Ken Ken puzzles, an even newer import, are genuine arithmetic puzzles, and require a totally different set of reasoning tools.

DoubleCrostics are complex word puzzles, the one drawback of which is that one must fill in the letters from the clues in the body of the text. I am terrible at doing that, and routinely put letters in the wrong places, which screws things up in a big way. At one point, frustrated by my incompetence at filling in the letters, I decided to try solving them in my head, without filling in the letters, but just solving the clues. I can do it, but it requires enormous concentration, and is not really worth the effort just to avoid the secretarial work of entering the letters in the text.

I think there must be a connection between this addiction to puzzles and the way I do philosophy, by telling myself stories about ideas until the stories are perfectly clear in my mind, but I do not quite see what that is.

Well, tomorrow, we start all over with the easy Monday puzzle. Hardly worth the effort, it only takes me about five or six minutes. But so long as it is there, it has to be solved!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

VAMPING 'TIL READY

Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed that I have not put up any new posts in the past several days. In part, this is because I have been busy preparing for, and delivering, a ninety minute lecture on Freud and a two hour lecture on Marx. [Yes, even I actually spend time preparing, for all that it may not seem that way as I ramble on in class.] But the principal reason is that the news, these past days, has all been about the horrible catastrophe in Haiti. Blogs are, by the nature, chatty, snarky, personal, opinionated. But in the face of a tragedy of this magnitude [not enormity -- that means something else], I simply have not had the heart to snark or chat. I could, I suppose, go off on the despicable things that Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh had to say, but that is so disproportionate to the human suffering we are witnessing that it seems inappropriate, somehow. Each of us can donate some money to the relief effort, and that is a good thing to do, even though at this time the problem is not lack of resources but the difficulty, not to say impossibility, of actually getting them to the people who need them the most. So I have been silent.

Today is Susie's birthday. She and I were both born in 1933 -- she on January 16th and I on December 27th. Each year, there are twenty days when we are the same age. Here is an odd fact that I do not know quite how to explain. My father's father, the socialist leader Barnet Wolff, was a year younger than his wife, Ella Nislow Wolff, although when Ella was in her nineties, a quarter of a century after Barney died, she tried to shave a year off her age. My father and mother courted at Circle One of the Young People's Socialist League [YPSL -- hence they were known as Yipsels]. She was born in 1900, and he in 1901, so she too was a year older than he. When I fell in love with Susie in 1948, I was fourteen and she was fifteen. At that point, I did not even know about the ages of my grandparents. Go figure.

Anyway, I bought Susie a really nice present for her seventy-seventh. It is a necklace of what are called "African trade beads." These are brightly colored beads, made in Venice and elsewhere of glass and other materials and brought by European traders to the West coast of Africa, starting in the fifteenth century. They were traded for slaves, ivory, gold, and other "goods," and then were re-traded into the interior, where in some cases they came to be used as currency. Susie saw the necklace in a Carrboro bead store a few weeks ago and admired, it, but the price was outrageous, so she moved on. Generally speaking, it is considered rather gauche to tell your wife what you paid for her birthday present, but since Susie likes a real bargain almost more than she likes the present itself, I told her I had bargained the store down to about 40% of the asking price, and that considerably added to her pleasure.

Well, while we wait for the outcome of the Massachusetts by-election, I shall go back to preparing next week's lectures.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

NAVEL-GAZING

A lifetime as a professional philosopher is not a good preparation for blogging. As I have remarked before, philosophy considers things sub specie aeternitatis, whereas blogging is essentially a form of gossip. Some of you may be old enough to remember the great old musical comedy film, Bye, Bye, Birdie, a send-up of the Elvis mania. Early in the movie is a marvelous song "Have you heard about Hugo and Kim?" [sung by a group of high school students calling one another on the phone to gossip about the fact that Hugo has "pinned" Kim --you have to be of a certain age to know what "pinned" means. It does not refer to wrestling.] Anyway, most of what passes for political commentary in blogs, and on television, for that matter, is really just a variant of "Have you heard about Hugo and Kim?"

All of which creates major problems for me as a blogger. I ought to be blogging madly just now about Harry Reid's injudicious remarks about Obama, about Steve Schmidt's revelation that Palin did not understand why there are two Koreas, about Harold Ford's flirtation with a run for the Democratic Party nomination for Gillibrand's Senate seat, about Tiger Woods' meltdown, about the Jay Leno/Conan O'Brian kerfuffle. But the sad fact is that I really do not care about any of these things. They are completely absorbing the attention of the blogosphere right now, and in six or seven minutes they will be replaced by half a dozen equally uninteresting non-events, which will give way to another group, and so on ad nauseum.

I am quite capable of blogging about less than world-shaking matters -- witness my repeated references to the health of my cat, Murray. But I do feel an underlying obligation to devote my blog posts to matters either of real intellectual interest [such as the origins of the notion of Natural Law] or to issues of political and public policy about which I think I have something worthwhile to contribute to the public discourse. And, opinionated though I am, such things do not arise reliably on a daily basis.

Several things are happening just now that are worthy of comment, but about which I have little or nothing to say. Most important, I would say, is the terrible earthquake that has just devastated the capital city of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. I hope against hope that the loss of life is not too great, but all I, or any of us, can do, is sit and wait.

On the legal front, the most fascinating event now unfolding is the trial in California challenging the Proposition 8 overturning of the California Supreme Court's legitimation of same-sex marriage. This challenge, led quite surprisingly by conservative lawyer and Bush v. Gore victor Ted Olsen, has been widely viewed in the LGBT legal rights community as an unwise and precipitous suit, carrying with it the grave danger that at the Supreme Court level same-sex marriage could be declared by this Court as definitively not a right guaranteed by the Constitution, thereby setting back decades of efforts. Yesterday, an extraordinary exchange took place in the court. The upholders of Proposition 8 have chosen to take their stand on the claim that same-sex marriage threatens the stability of heterosexual marriage. This has always struck defenders of same-sex marriage as a bizarre claim, and in court, the judge forced the lawyer defending Prop 8 to answer the question, "How does same-sex marriage threaten heterosexual marriage?" After a pause described by spectators as long, the lawyer replied, "I don't know, I don't know." It was, however this all turns out, a memorable moment.

On the political front, the gossip lately has all been about the supposed meltdown of the Democratic Party, signaled by the decision of Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan not to seek reelection this year. I do actually have something to say about that matter -- not about the decisions of Dodd and Dorgan, but rather about the context in which those and other similar decisions should be viewed. I will try to sort that out tomorrow.

But this is the day on which I begin teaching a research study group [i.e., non-credit course] in the UNC Philosophy Department on Karl Marx's economic theories. Tomorrow, I give my first Freud lecture at Duke. Strange as it may seem for someone with half a century and more of teaching experience, I am actually a trifle nervous. This morning, I started re-reading Chapter Two of my book, Understanding Marx, and I was both impressed by how much I once knew about the subject and appalled by how much I have forgotten. I see that I shall have to do some serious preparation to keep up with the interesting assortment of graduate students and faculty who have signed up for the study group.

Oh, by the way, Murray seems to be doing just fine.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

TIME SETTING

OK. Eoin sent me an email and told me how to correct the weird time problem. Let us see whether it works. Here goes.

TECHNICAL GLITCH

If you look at the little indication on each post of the time when it was posted, it would appear that I do most of my writing in the middle of the night, and that it takes hours for the post to appear. Not so. The post appears immediately. The time is off by about five hours, and I cannot figure out how to re-set it. Sorry about that.

REPLIES

Three of my posts have provoked comments or criticisms from quite disparate regions of the blogosphere, and while we all sit and wait for the behind the scenes health care reform negotiations to play out, I thought this might be a good time to respond to them.

I. The first comment was posted by Maciek in Poland, to my remarks about natural law. From the evidence of his comment, Maciek is extremely well read in this controversy, and I suspect actually remembers it better than I do. Rather than get into the details of the dispute between H. L. A. Hart and Lon Fuller, I should like to try to sketch my own view of the nature of law. I hope this will speak both to his very interesting comment about Polish government officials from the old regime, and to Ann's comment. From a purely formal point of view, laws are commands by the state that have a universal rather than a particular nature. When a drill sergeant shouts, "At ease!," he or she is addressing only the particular soldier or group of soldiers who are, at that moment, under his or her command. A soldier walking by on the parade ground is under no compulsion to stop and strike the characteristic at ease posture. The command is not in its nature universal. But when the state highway commission posts a sign at an intersection that says "Stop" [or a symbol having the same meaning], that command is intended to apply to any driver approaching the intersection, regardless of who he or she is. The command is by its nature universal. It does not apply to all persons, of course. A pedestrian or a fire engine is not required by the command to stop. Instead, it applies to all persons who are, in the relevant ways intended by the law, identical. It applies to all drivers of private or commercial vehicles, let us say. This is the formal character of law. It was what makes a command a law. States characteristically claim the right to promulgate any laws they choose within the territory and over the population they claim to rule. That is what it is to be a state. When I say that I am an anarchist [a claim, as we shall see, that real anarchists view with some disdain], I mean quite simply that for the reasons set forth in my little tract, In Defense of Anarchism, I hold that all such claims are everywhere and always false. Both sides in the Hart/Fuller controversy, it seems to me, accept the claims of at least some states under some circumstances. The natural law advocates hold, in addition, that only such state claims as meet certain substantive tests [that those claims aim at what is objectively good, or are in conformity with God's law, or whatever] are valid claims. In the modern era, the administration of state law is embedded in an extremely complex system of bureaucratic regulations and formalities, which most of the time are taken by all participants as prima facie evidence of the legitimacy of the commands contained in the laws. Thus, to speak to Maciek's remark about Poland, the judges and government officials in the former regime by and large conformed their actions to the structure of bureaucratic regulations in place during that time, and so they believe that what they were doing was "within the law," and earns them the right to have their pensions, even though, as a result of the revolution, those laws have all been abrogated and the state that issued them has been overthrown. If you accept the foundational claim of democratic theory, that representative democracy confers legitimacy on the commands of the state, then you will believe that in the case of democracies, and only in the case of democracies, laws are morally binding, not merely enforceable by the police, on those whose representatives have enacted them. If, like me, you reject that claim, then you will view the laws of a representative democracy as no different in moral status from the commands of a benevolent dictator.

II. Google, Amazon, and the Intelligence Community

I was idly googling myself the other day to see where I had cropped up in the past week, and discovered to my surprise that my somewhat facetious remarks about Google and Amazon had sparked some comment on another blog, http://distributedrepublic.net On that blog, my remarks were quoted and attributed to "ex-[left] anarchist Robert Paul Wolff." [Oh well, as they used to say, so long as you spell my name correctly.] But several regular readers of that blog wrote in with quite intelligent objections to my claim that Google and Amazon could have done it better. Let me summarize their objections, expand on them a bit, and then comment. The first objection is that I am confusing designing a new system with retrofitting or revising an existing one. It is always easier to design a new system, this commentator observed, but that is not the problem that confronted homeland security. This is quite correct. It helps to explain why the [new] Japanese steel industry was able to produce steel so much more efficiently than the older American steel industry, which was heavily invested in existing equipment and could only introduce new techniques on the margins. It explains the paradox that a country whose economy has been devastated by war is sometimes in a better position to build anew and compete successfully. But forty billion dollars has been spent since 9/11 on this problem. It is at least worth asking whether it wouldn't have been better to scrap the existing systems and design a new one, writing off the considerable investments in the old system as a sunk cost.

The second objection [more interesting, in my view] was that what Google and Amazon are doing is totally different from what the intelligence commmunity is doing. Google and Amazon are quite happy simply to ignore any portions of their potential market that pose particularly intractable technical problems if they calculate that fixing those problems would cost more than would be returned in income. The intelligence community, on the other hand, cannot afford, in effect, to say, "Well, Yemen is a real problem, so let's forget about them and ramp up our surveillance of Boise, which poses no serious technical issues." This is a really good point. Let me expand on it a bit. Many years ago Seymour Melman, writing about the difficulty of converting wartime production facilities to peaceful use, pointed out that the tasks set a design engineer in private industry were totally dfiferent from those posed to a design engineer in a defense industry. The private sector engineer, let us suppose, is asked to design a toaster that is attractive, can toast bagels as well as slices of bread, can handle three slices at a time, can be adjusted to different degrees of done-ness, will fail no more than once every 15,000 times it is used, and can be sold for $49.95. The defense engineer is asked to design a pilot ejection seat that can fit into a fighter jet, will eject the pilot in .4 seconds far enough from the plane to avoid injury to the pilot, has an automatic parachute, and has enough failsafe backup systems so that it will NEVER fail. This last is crucial, because a pilot's life is at stake. When the engineer asks about cost, he or she is told, "Keep the cost down as much as you can but without sacrificing performance or safety." This is the equivalent of telling Google, "design a system that will work in Yemen as well as Boise, even if that dramatically runs up the cost, because there might be someone in Yemen plotting to blow up an American airliner." This is, I think, a very telling objection to what I said [for all that what I said was facetious, and an expression of my exasperation with the intelligence community.] But the truth is that I do not think technical problems are at issue here at all. Rather, the problem is turf wars, bureaucratic infighting, struggles for budgets and new positions.

The third objection on the website was that my proposal would violate the Constitution and the rights of individuals. Indeed. So does everything the intelligence community does. if you do not want surveillance , on the grounds that it violates individual rights, ok. But inefficient surveillance is as intrustive as efficient surveillance. It just works less well.

III. The third comment came in an email from Mitchell Freedman, who also has his own blog: http://www.mitchellfreedman.blogspot.com Mitchell [if I may] came upon my story about Marty Peretz, Mike Walzer, and Al Gore [apparently, someone emailed part of it to someone at the Nation. How things get around!] He said something in his email to me that was deeply troubling, and that I had simply never thought about. If the Supreme Court had not, by a judicial coup, taken the presidency away from Gore, we would have had a President whose closest advisor was Marty Peretz and whose Vice-President was Joseph Lieberman. How would such an administration have responded to the 9/11 attacks, had they not been stopped by a more alert response? That is a really troubling question. I have no doubt Gore would have been better than Bush. A ham sandwich would have been better than Bush. But it is at least worth noting that the issue Gore has made his signature, and that has made him the darling of the left, is in a certain sense non-political, and has nothing to do with Israel, the Middle East, etc. To put it simply, Gore is no Jimmy Carter.

Well, there are my comments on my commentators. Thank you all for caring enough to respond to my maunderings.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

THE LAWS OF NATURE AND NATURE'S GOD

My younger son, Tobias, who is teaching Conflict of Laws this semester at NYU Law School, asked me some questions a few days ago about a debate that has gone on for a long time in the jurisprudential world concerning the nature of law, a subject related to some scholarship he is engaged in. I talked to him for a bit about a debate between the English legal theorist H. L. A. Hart and the American Lon Fuller, a debate that was very much on the minds of philosophers when I was a graduate student and Instructor at Harvard. Fuller was a defender of what is known as the Natural Law tradition in legal theory, a point of view deeply rooted in Continental European legal theory but very much out of fashion with analytic philosophers in the middle of the last century.

The thesis that there is a law written by God into the fabric of nature and revealed to us by our human power of reason was of course a fundamental tenet of the belief system of the men who wrote the American Constitution, a fact that modern day conservative legal theorists remind us of on every occasion, but that liberal legal theorists would rather forget. Recall the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

That phrase, "laws of nature," has become so embedded in the discourse and political theory of the Western tradition that we tend to forget, if we ever knew, that when first introduced into that tradition it was presented as a deliberate paradox designed to affront the readers and make them reject their settled convictions. The phrase appears for the first time in Plato's great middle dialogue, the Gorgias. The speaker is Callicles, the third of the three opponents of Socrates in the dialogue. He reminds us of the contrast, familiar to Greeks of the time, between physis, or nature, and nomos, or convention. That fire burns is a fact of nature, of physis, and is unchangeable by our will or desire. That theft is wrong is a convention, invented by men and as easily changed. But, Callicles declares, it is natural that the strong should rule. A. E. Taylor, the great Plato scholar, glosses this rather nicely in his book, Plato: The Man and his Work [p. 117, footnote]. He writes: "The first occurrence, so far as I know, in extant literature, of the ominous phrase 'law of Nature.' Callicles, of course, intends the words to be paradoxical --'a convention, if you like, but Nature's convention, not a human device."

It was the Stoics, several centuries later, who took up the notion and provided it with a theoretical foundation. God, they taught, created the world and imposed on it a rational normative order, dictating both how nature must act and how men ought to act. This same deity implanted a spark of the divine logos in man as the power of reason. Because the objective normative order of the universe and the subjective power of human reason were expressions of this same divine logos, man's reason is capable of apprehending the objective normative order. Thus, as John Locke claimed in the 17th century, the Law of Nature is written into nature and is known by man prior to and independently of any social and political order that he may choose to establish. It is the obligation of those who guide a state, or indeed for those who establish one de novo, to write into its conventions, its positive laws, its constitution, the objective normative order that their rational power apprehends.

The natural law theorists maintain that only those human conventions or positive laws [laws, that is to say, by virtue of the position of those who proclaim them] that conform to the Laws of Nature are truly laws and hence are binding on us. This view was extremely attractive in the 1940's and 50's to legal theorists who were struggling with the fact that the horrific acts of the Holocaust had all been carried out according to laws promulgated by the German state and administered by distinguished judges who abided in every way by the legal formalities of which they were universally acknowledged to be masters.

Why on earth am I writing all of this in my blog? Because it is interesting, conceptually interesting, and after a while I begin to feel a revulsion at the mindless superficiality of the political commentary that dominates our public space. It refreshes my mind and, as it were, cleanses my intellectual palate, to devote a few minutes to writing about something that it is actually worth the time of an intelligent person to contemplate.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN -- A CAUTIONARY TALE

The American film director, Frank Capra, made a number of movies during the Great Depression that captured perfectly the populist anger of America's small town common folk at fat cats, city slickers, and big time politicians. Among the best were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the 1936 classic, Mr Deeds Goes to Town. Sentimental old lefties like me love those films, because they capture a rebellious, progressive spirit that, for an historical moment, seemed to have a chance of transforming America from a rapacious capitalist state into something very like a seedbed for socialism.

This morning, as I was making the bed, I turned on the television set and switched to TCM -- Turner Classic Movies -- just in time to catch the last few minutes of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. The plot line is not important to this comment -- you can Google it easily enough, if you have never seen it. The boffo ending is a scene in which Deeds, who is accused of mental incompetence because he wants to give an unexpected twenty million dollar inheritance to thousands of poor families so that they can have their own family farms, is vindicated in front of a courtroom of his boisterous working class supporters, to the dismay and discomfiture of a group of city slickers in suits and ties.

My first reaction, as I watched the scene, was a tingle of that old time socialist feeling, a nostalgia for my early years when popular culture was sympathetic to the progressive ideals of my grandfather. But then, a troubling thought cropped up in my mind and would not go away. If you abstract from the specific content of the film, and just feel the emotion being expressed in that scene, you could be watching a rightwing Tea Party demonstration from this past summer. Both the movie sequence and the demonstrations breathe with the same resentment of the high and mighty, the same anger at the smug condescension of the haves and their contempt for ordinary people, the same belief that there are simple solutions for complex problems, and the same frisson of not yet quite open violence hovering on the edges of the scene. It was that anger [mobilized by what was once called a "traitor to his class"] that helped to elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I do not for a moment mean to suggest that there is the slightest substantive connection between the progressive thrust of the Capra movies and the reactionary politics of the Tea Baggers. But the feeling tone, the emotion, is virtually identical. And that fact scares me, because in Nazi Germany and elsewhere we saw what those feelings could produce.

The complex logic of American electoral politics being what it is, the populist movement on the right that has been spawned by Obama's election may actually result in Republican losses, rather than gains, in the next two election cycles. I will blog about that at a later time. But it would not surprise me at all if this movement turns violent.

I mean, let's face it. When you watch Mr Deeds, which characters in the movie do you and I actually look and sound more like, Deeds' supporters, or the fat cat bad guys?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

THIS ONE'S FOR MILTON

One of my very dearest friends is Milton Cantor, a distinguished historian of American radical movements and labor history who, like me, is now an Emeritus Professor from the University of Massachusetts. For years, Milton has twitted me about my seemingly unconquerable optimism, which stands in marked contrast to his darker view of current events. In the circle of professors who, at Milton's behest, would meet periodically for lunch in Amherst, MA, I was viewed as an irrepressible Tigger, bouncily anticipating good things even as the world lurched from disaster to disaster.


Even I have my limits, however, and the time has come to look squarely at some of the deep-rooted problems that confront America. I have had my say about Afghanistan, which I consider Obama's one clear policy mistake. The latest news confirms the bleak anticipation that I have shared with many other far more knowledgeable critics of that policy. But I do not wish to write about that today. Nor will I add my voice to the chorus of climate change Cassandras, though I agree with them completely. Instead, I shall focus on two bits of data that, taken together, make manifest the seriousness of the economic distress now afflicting Americans.


The first datum is this: In the decade just ended, there was no net gain at all in the number of jobs in the economy. During the same decade, the population of the United States grew by roughly twenty-four million. Even allowing for increased numbers of retired persons, these numbers imply an enormous increase in those who are truly unemployed [as opposed to those who are counted as unemployed by the somewhat peculiar methods of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.] The lack of any job growth at all during a decade of supposed economic prosperity implies structural deficiencies in the economy that no short-term stimulus packages can address.

In a structurally healthy economy, a sizable core of working-age adults produces the goods and services that are consumed by children not yet ready for the work world and senior citizens who have left that world. The balance among these three groups in the population is one of the two key indices of the health and structure of an economy [the other is the proportion of the population engaged in the production of food and fiber, but that is not at issue here].

For a very long time in the economic development of the United States, labor was needed to till the fields, staff the factories, and carry out the other productive activities of the economy. Unemployment was always the consequence of a failure of the economic system to coordinate production and distribution -- what Marx quite properly called "contradictions." The principal debate among professional economists, business executives, and government officials was whether to allow the contradiction to work itself out through a severe contraction of the economy [the classical laisser-faire view] or to manage the recovery through deliberate government stimulation [the Keynesian view]. But all sides in this debate took it for granted that during periods of economic expansion, those who had been laid off would be brought back into the economy. The statistics of the past decade show that this shared expectation is no longer correct. In effect, the United States now has tens of millions of working-age men and women are simply not needed by the economy, in good times or in bad. This has long been true for Inner City young men and women, among whom unemployment always stands at disaster levels. Now that structural failing has spread to the economy at large.

Old lefties a good deal more optimistic even than I may see this as a formula for socialist revolt, but I think a fascist reaction is far more likely. Let me repeat: the failure of the economy to create more jobs during a decade of economic growth suggests very strongly that none of the stimuli proposed either by the Obama team or by left critics like Paul Krugman is likely to change the underlying structural defect.

The second datum that weakens my natural optimism is this: Right now, one quarter of all homeowners in the United States are "under water." That is to say, they owe more on their home mortgages than their houses are worth on the real estate market. For those of you who do not own a home, let me explain by way of a simple illustration. Suppose a family bought a home three years ago for $250,000, and took out a 90% mortgage to finance the purchase. They put down $25,000 and assumed a mortgage for the remaining $225,000. In the first three years of a mortgage, very little of one's monthly payments goes to pay off the principal of the debt. Only in the out years is the principal reduced each year in any significant fashion. If the loan was a 6% 30 year fixed rate mortgage, then after three years only about $9,000 of the principal has been paid off, so the family still owes $216,000. But in the present real estate market, their home probably cannot be sold for more than 80% of what they paid for it, which is to say $200,000. In some parts of the country, the drop in resale value has been a good deal sharper. In short, they owe sixteen thousand dollars more to the bank than they can get for the house. Were they to sell, they would have to find that $16,000 somewhere. If, during the go-go years of the past decade, they borrowed against the $25,000 invested in the house by taking out a second mortgage [usually in the form of a Line of Credit], then they are more deeply under water still.

If one has a secure job and a steady source of income, being under water is not, in the short term, a serious problem. No bank is going to attempt to foreclose on a mortgage that is, as they say, performing, merely because at the moment the security put up for the loan [the house] is not worth as much as is owed. But for two quite different reasons, having fully one quarter of homeowners in this situation is very serious indeed.

First of all, it severely restricts the labor mobility on which the efficient operation of a capitalist economy rests. Ever since the rise of capitalism ion the eighteenth century, the structural assumption of the system has been that as capitalists alter their investments, in response to shifts in effective market demand, workers will be free to move to the new jobs created by the investment shifts. The steady movement of workers off the farms and into the factories, the migration of workers westward to the booming economy of California, the growth of new employment concentrations like Silicon Valley all depend on the ability of workers to respond to changes in the labor market. But if one quarter of the home owning families are trapped in their houses by underwater mortgages, then the entire economy will exhibit a kind of friction in the labor market that will interfere with economic growth.

The second problem with underwater mortgages is more long term, but in its way a good deal more serious. A very sizable portion of the American population has been losing work-related pensions and counting on the inflated resale prices of their homes to take the place of the pensions. As the adults in the family approach retirement age, they will find themselves forced to hang onto their jobs longer than they had anticipated. But as we have already seen, the economy really does not need them. Indeed, the economy is unable to absorb the normal population growth that has taken place in the last decade.

Neither of these problems is a consequence of a temporary imbalance in the economy, and neither can be addressed very effectively by the sorts of policies realistically available to the Obama administration [or any other administration, for that matter.] A slow recovery of house prices can alleviate much of the short term problem of the underwater mortgages, but not the longer term retirement problem. And to address the first problem would require a total transformation in this country's conception of the nature of capitalism and the role of the state.

Good luck!