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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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




Total Pageviews

Sunday, February 28, 2010

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU

Ten days ago, I posted a comment about the Tea Partiers in which I attempted to get some sense of what motivates them. Today, NY TIMES columnist Frank Rich, far and away the best op ed columnist in newspapers, had a long piece on this subject, which I strongly recommend to you. Later this morning, as I was channel surfing, I stumbled on a TCM screening of Frank Capra's great Depression era screwball comedy, You Can't Take it With You, starring Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, a very young Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Eddie Anderson, and a host of other wonderful old movie actors. In order not to bore you all, I am going to assume that you have seen the movie, and can recall at least its feel and outlines. [If this is not true, then by all means get it from NetFlix or wherever, and watch it.]

All us Roosevelt era lefties have a soft spot in our hearts for the Capra movies -- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and all -- and when we see the common people rise up against the rich nabobs [always dressed, at any time of day or night, in tuxes and tails], we cheer, and then sob a bit for the good old days when these populist sentiments flourished, and the rich and powerful were immediately recognizable as the villains.

As I watched the movie, tears threatening to cloud my glasses, it occurred to me that its sensibility is really not so different from that of the Tea Partiers. Not the same bitterness and anger, to be sure. In Capra's movies, the common people seem always to be having a better time, for all their poverty. Nor is there the strong streak of sheer craziness that afflicts the Tea Partiers. Capra's common folk are not in the grip of Birther style paranoia. Furthermore, the Partiers' thinly veiled, or even openly proclaimed, violence, of which Rich so rightly makes much, is missing from the Depression movies. It is the rich and powerful who deploy violence to crush the folk. But the same suspicion of government infuses Capra's movies. When Lionel Barrymore explains to a befuddled IRS representative why he has not paid taxes for twenty years, he does it with such wit and charm that all of us in the audience laugh and cheer him on. But substantively, if not cinematically, it could be Michelle Bachman or Glen Beck talking.

Here is my problem. I am absolutely convinced that I am right to side with the Sycamore family and their wacky hangers-on in the movie, and I am equally sure that I am right to side with Frank Rich in his excoriation of the Tea Partiers. Since I have a deep lifetime commitment to sanity, which at a minimum means sheer consistency, I need to explain to myself just how the Sycamores differ from the Tea Partiers, so that I can cling to my seemingly contradictory gut instincts.

I have already mentioned two differences -- the Sycamores are sane [wacky, but sane], and they are not violent [even though one of them sets off fireworks in the basement.] They do not think black helicopters are about to arrive carrying League of Nations storm troopers [were there helicopters then?] They just think Edward Arnold should not be permitted to evict an entire street full of decent hard-working poor people so that he can make a killing in a development deal. If the Tea Partiers were committed to stopping banks from foreclosing on homes with under water mortgages, I would be with them one hundred percent. Even more important, Capra's common folk have no inclination toward mindless, random violence.

All of this is not nothing, but it is also, in a way, beside the point. Let us recall that the Tea Party movement had its origin in opposition to health care reform. And that reform, in all its messy complexity, is aimed at prottecting ordinary folk like them from an insurance industry and a health care delivery system that is rapacious and out of control. As Thomas Frank so tellingly argued in his 2004 book, What's The Matter With Kansas?, this is a populist movement in the service of the rich and powerful, not the poor and downtrodden.

I return to the observation I made on this blog some time ago. At the root of the anger and paranoia of the Tea Party Movement is an all-consuming resentment of the scorn and condescension which they feel is directed at them by the jeunesse d'oree in our society, those with access to the elite colleges, the gilded career paths, and the dominant media. It is not even so much the economic disadvantage some of them have suffered as the fact that they feel looked down on, WHICH THEY ARE

Let us be honest. They are right to think themselves scorned and condescended to. They get plenty of media coverage, to be sure, and they are wooed in openly self-interested and dishonest ways by Republican office holders -- a fact of which they are perfectly well aware. But anyone with even the most rudimentary capacity for textual interpretation can see that what is written about the Tea Partiers is culturally and intellectually condescending and dismissive, if not openly scornful. This is as true of elite rightwing commentators like George Will as it is of leftwing commentators like me. Because, if I am being honest with myself, I must admit that I am condescending and scornful toward the Tea Partiers, in a way that I am definitely not toward Frank Capra's characters. I will fight to the death for their right to decent health care and good wages and a clean environment. But do I want to spend an hour or two talking with them? Would I like to have a glass of wine with them? Hardly.

Now, to some extent I may be a special case. For all my good cheer and optimistic outlook, I am pretty much of a loner. There aren't that many people on the left with whom I really want to have a glass of wine or an hour's chat, after all. Still and all, there are real class divisions in our society, and education, cultural preferences, the decorum of speech and self-presentation, are the markers of those divisions as surely as they are in England or France [or, for all I know, in China and Japan].

One of the real oddities of contemporary American society is that a very sizeable portion of the cultural upper class -- maybe even a majority -- is politically liberal rather than conservative. Michael Moore is the exception, not the rule. Hence people like me find ourselves fighting for the interests of people with whom we have very little in common. My social and cultural attitudes are not aligned in any rational fashion with my politics. Those who are affronted by the attitudes of people like me naturally end up opposing our politics, even though our politics are designed to advance their interests.

I welcome comments. This is puzzling to me, and troubling, and I suspect I shall return to it on a number of occasions in the future.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

THE MAGIC OF THE WEB

Hey! My post about insurance and Republicans and Democrats and Christianity just showed up on a blog site called http://www.badattitudes.com/ I had no idea. How cool is that? Some time before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I would like to plumb the depths of the internet revolution. I really do think that anarchism may make a comeback, after all, and I wouldn't mind being its Godfather.

THE PRODIGAL SON

When my copy of The New Yorker arrived, I paged thought it, as I always do, to look at the cartoons. Along the way, I came to a long article about Paul Krugman, but I turned the page [I very rarely actually read The New Yorker], and continued on my way. Several of you have now written me emails asking whether I had seen the article, so this morning, over breakfast, I soldiered through it. As you might expect, it put me in mind of The Gospel According to St. Luke, Chapter 15. [That is a bit of show-boating on my part. I actually had to do a bit of Googling to locate the parable of the prodigal son].

Leaving aside all the fluffy stuff about the Krugman's Caribbean getaway, and such, what the article reveals is that for most of his professional life, this supposedly brilliant man was mind-numbingly stupid about American politics and just about everything else in the real world that does not relate to his particular millimeter of the intellectual spectrum. His reward for being clueless is a Nobel Prize in Economics [nothing unusual there] and a New York TIMES column. The rest of us, who have always known how the real world works, are expected to kill the fatted calf and welcome home the prodigal son who spent most of his life squandering his intellectual patrimony. for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. Amazing grace indeed.

As it is in heaven, so is it in this benighted land. The good sons [and daughters], those of us who said from the outset that the Bay of Pigs invasion was wrong, that the overthrow of Mossadegh was wrong, that the Viet Nam war was wrong, that the support of the Contras was wrong, that the Iraq war was wrong, that the Afghanistan war was wrong, that Wall Street was a den of thieves, that the health system was broken -- all of us, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, who have been decrying the evils of American foreign and domestic policy for our entire lives, are derided when we first speak, and then ignored when we have been proven right. Meanwhile, the prodigal sons, who squander America's moral and economic patrimony, are welcomed with the tinkle of bells and the clanging of cymbals and the killing of the fatted calf when, late in the day, they come to the truth and announce it as though no one before them could or did see it.

Well, the Lord may work in mysterious ways, but I don't. I will forgive Krugman for his lifetime of ignorance and stupidity after he acknowledges, in print, all those who saw and said the truth during those long years when he was blind.

I am tempted to add some well chosen words about the appalling stupidity of the Economics profession in the United States, but too many people have done that already. These economists, after all, are the people who snigger condescendingly whenever Karl Marx's name is mentioned. [The great Paul Samuelson on Marx: "a minor post-Ricardian autodidact." Inasmuch as Samuelson was the author of the most successful textbook ever written, I have always thought that this sneer had more to do with Marx's being self-taught than with the content of his writings.]

Selah

Friday, February 26, 2010

BOOK REPORT

Yesterday, I pulled William Golding's 1955 novel, The Inheritors, off my shelves and started to re-read it. All of you know of Golding's most famous novel, Lord of the Flies, and most of you no doubt have read it. The Inheritors is utterly different. It is a beautifully realized account, told from their point of view, of a small group of Neanderthal men, women, and children who encounter a group of far more culturally advanced group of Cro-Magnon homo sapiens sapiens, or men. Golding imagines the Neanderthal as simple, fun-loving, loyal, and possessed of a primitive form of telepathic sharing of visual images. The novel can be read in many ways, not least as raising questions about whether the evolution of the human race was an advance over what preceded it.

If you are looking for a good read, I recommend it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

HCR THE UNDERLYING ISSUE

I thought it might be worthwhile to try to clarify what I think is the underlying issue in the health care reform debate. Despite the distortions introduced by electoral politics, there really is, I believe, a fundamental ideological dispute operating here. [I am a bit hesitant to call it a "philosophical" dispute, seeing as how I am a professional philosopher. Anyway.]

Consider first the nature of insurance. Insurance is a gamble, in which you win if the insured against bad thing happens, and lose if it does not happen. Suppose you buy fire insurance for your home. If you do not suffer a fire, then you are out the cost of the premiums. You lose, in a manner of speaking. If you do suffer a fire, you "win", because what you recover as a consequence of your insurance is more than what you paid as a premium.

In order for insurance to be sustainable, total premiums must at least equal total payments to those insured. In order for it to be profitable, total payments must exceed total payments to those insured. Now, speaking somewhat technically, when I buy insurance, I am comparing the certainty of one loss [the cost of the premiums, which I pay up front, or ex ante, as they say in the trade], with the possibility of another loss [from the fire], discounted by its probability. If I anticipate that a total loss from fire will cost me $500,000, let us say, and I estimate that in any given year, I have one chance in five thousand of such a total loss, then the cost to me is the expected value of the total loss ex ante, which is to say $100 [i.e., $500,000 times 1/5000]. So I ought to be willing to pay any premium up to $100 for insurance against a total loss from fire. But people regularly pay more than the expected value of the loss for the insurance. Why?

Here is why. If I have unlimited amounts of money and unlimited time in my life, then it makes no sense for me to buy insurance. I can do better by setting aside $100 a year, and, in effect, insuring myself. Over an unlimited time, my gains and losses will balance out, and I will come out neutral. If I set aside as much as the premiums would cost me, I will come out ahead. That, after all, is what the insurance company does.

But I do not have unlimited money and time, and if I am unlucky enough to suffer a catastrophic loss before I die, the remainder of my life will be miserable. So I buy insurance against that hideous possibility. To put the matter technically, I have, over a certain stretch of possible outcomes, increasing, not declining, marginal utility for money.

OK. So, I decide to buy fire insurance. Clearly, it is in my interest to buy fire insurance whose price is calibrated to the fact that I have a brick home, not a wooden home, that I live within half a mile of a fire department station and a hundred feet from a fire hydrant, and that I have never had a fire before, and hence am probably marginally a safer home owner. Correspondingly, insurance companies will have an interest in wooing my business by offering me discounts for all of these pre-existing conditions or lack thereof. Why should they not? They can calculate, as easily as I can, that I am a relatively unlikely candidate for a catastrophic fire. Equally, it makes sense for insurance companies either to refuse insurance to, or else to demand high premiums from, people living in tinderboxes far from fire departments with long histories of carelessness when it comes to fire.

Clearly, the premiums charged to people in high risk homes can be lowered by including them in a pool of people living in safe well-protected homes. Such an arrangement constitutes a transfer of money from one group of people -- those in safe homes -- to another group -- those in tinderboxes.

None of this is controversial or open to debate. It is simple logic and mathematics.

Now translate all of this into health care. The logic and mathematics do not change. The only serious question is this: Do we want to live in a country in which the fortunate [medically speaking] accept additional insurance costs in order to provide for the unfortunate? Or do we wish to live in a country in which the fortunate are permitted to separate what happens to them from what happens to the unfortunate? Notice that by "fortunate" and "unfortunate" I do not mean "those who do not get sick" and "those who do get sick." That would be looking at the matter ex post. I mean by fortunate "those less less likely ex ante to get sick," and by "unfortunate" I mean "those more likely ex ante to get sick." We are still talking probabilities here, of course. Even the young and healthy sometimes get cancer and have heart attacks. They just do so much less often. And by the same token, even multiple cancer sufferers sometimes go cancer free for the rest of their lives. But that too occurs much less often.

When we clear away all the bafflegab, all the confusion, all the posturing and bickering and procedural wrangling, all the political maneuvering, what we find is that the Democrats want America to be a country in which the fortunate shoulder some of the burdens of the unfortunate. And the Republicans want America to be a country in which they do not. In short, if I may put it this way, the Democrats want America to be a Christian country, and the Republicans want America to be a Godless country.

Who knew?

THE HEALTH CARE SUMMIT

I have been watching the health care summit this morning, and it is, in a morbid way, fascinating. Obama has trapped the Republicans into trying to look reasonable, and they are laboring mightily to appear willing to compromise. There is, as Obama keeps pointing out, a considerable overlap of issues on which they are in substantial agreement. And yet, we all know that when it comes time again to vote, they will vote unanimously against anything placed before the Congress. The simple truth is that the Republican Party has no interest at all in health care reform of any sort. If they were, there are numerous compromises that could have been worked out. As we fuss over Obama's handling of this or that aspect of the process, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the Republicans, as a Party, have set themselves the goal of making Obama's presidency a failure, regardless of what that does to the needs of the American people.

For a truly heartfelt and wrenching testimony, I strongly recommend Keith Olbermann's lengthy comment last evening about his father's situation. To watch it, go to MSNBC.com.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A SAD DAY

Today we came to the end of a long road with Murray, our cat. Despite heroic efforts by a superb veterinary hospital, we simply could not stabilize him so that he could continue to live with us at home. We spent a long time saying goodbye to him, and then left him to be euthanized as humanely as can be accomplished. I wept.

We first got him when he was a kitten so small that he could sit in my hand. I named him after a television star -- Murray the dog in the Paul Rieser Helen Hunt comedy, Mad About You. I taught him to talk [in a manner of speaking], and lavished him with love.

He was a good cat.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

SENIOR MOMENT

From time to time, people in my age bracket have difficulty calling a name, a place, or a fact to mind. It is called "having a senior moment," and is widely viewed as the very first hint of dementia. I have had such moments, myself -- or at least I think I have. I cannot recall just now. But I have a totally different and quite new theory of why they happen. You see, people my age know an enormous amount more than young people. This fact was borne in upon me one day when I was doing the NY TIMES crossword puzzle, which I finish, in ink, on all but the very rarest of occasions [hem hem]. My son, Tobias, who is ferociously smart and superbly educated, asked me how I knew something or other which came up in one of the clues, and I replied, "because I was there." It concerned something I had lived through, so if course I new it.

People my age know, or at least can recognise, simply vast numbers of names of old movie actors, political events from the 40's and 50's, long forgotten sports figures, and minor television shows too trivial even for Trivial Pursuit. Of course we forget things from time to time. Anyone can remember the last six or eight years of ephemera. But sixty years of ephemera is a feat of memory.

You youngsters out there -- how many of you know that "cute as a bug" refers to June Allyson? Or that Randolph Scott was gay. [Do you even know who Randolph Scott was?]

I rest my case. Now, what did I have for breakfast?

QVELLING ONCE AGAIN

In 1988, the great World Chess Champion, Gary Kasparov, played a simultaneous exhibition in New York against six high rated junior American players, one of whom was my twenty year old son, Patrick. In what has become a rather famous game, Patrick, playing Black, won. It was, I believe, the shortest game Kasparov ever lost [short in moves, not in time]. A videotape was made of the event, complete with interviews and commentary, and in three portions, was posted on YouTube. If you have any interest in chess, it is worth a look. Patrick is the young man in the dramatic white hat.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgHBFgyhGvg&NR=1
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3dWHH3aCNc&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCGBee8pvhQ&feature=related

THERE AND BACK AGAIN

[With apologies to Bilbo Baggins].

I am home from the West Coast, where I had a lovely visit with my son, Patrick, and his family. Diana took pictures, some of which I shall try to post when she sends them. On the trip home, I received a call from our vet, who told me that Murray is again very sick. This may be the end of the road for us with Murray, and I am deeply upset. Now, Murray is a cat -- charming, personable, affectionate, for a cat -- but a cat. How can he mean so much to me? As I have remarked before on this blog, there are people who find this incomprehensible, and people who completely understand and sympathize. The contrast started me thinking about how and why we come to care so much not only for cats, but for dogs, for trees, and indeed even for little children.

In the case of other adults, our caring concern might be explained by what they give to us emotionally, although I think that is actually not much of an explanation. But cats are a special case. Even domestic cats are not very domesticated. They have not evolved over fifty thousand years or more, as dogs have, to relate to and respond to humans, to show manifest delight at their presence, and to shower humans with affection. If one is honest, one must acknowledge that cats for the most part tolerate humans. And yet, I miss my cats when I am away, and I am hungry for every scrap of apparent affection they deign to express. Heaven knows, I am not like that at all with human beings!

A part of the explanation is that I enjoy showing affection, caring, looking after someone or something else, and cats are at least willing sponges of that sort of outpouring. Now Susie and I face a difficult decision -- whether to put Murray in a hospital, for the third time, with no assurance at all that he will finally be able to live a good life when he comes out, or to opt for a humane euthanasia, as our vet calls it. When Susie returns this evening from Seattle, where she was visiting her grandchildren, we shall have to think long and hard about what to do.

To those who consider this anguish pointless and dispensable, my only response is to ask, Would you really rather be someone who does not care about other beings? That way lies a living death, I think.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

OFF TO SAN FRANCSICO

At the crack of dawn tomorrow [or before, actually], I shall be off to San Francisco to see my son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. I return late Monday evening, so this blog will be inactive until next Tuesday. But I will be able to check the site for comments, so keep them coming.

THE TEA PARTIERS

Gail Collins has a NY TIMES column today -- delightful, as always -- triggered by the call by Tea Partiers for nullification at the State level of Federal legislation to which they are opposed, and, if that fails, for secession. As Collins points out, this takes us right back to 1854.

Now, leave to one side the supposed constitutional basis of the calls for nullification, and set aside as well consideration of the likelihood that anything remotely like nullification or secession will result from these calls. What puzzles and interests me is simply what on earth the Tea Partiers are so terminally bent out of shape about.

Let us recall that the last serious call for nullification and secession was occasioned by a threat to the institution of slavery. Now, there were large numbers of slaves in the Northern states -- at one time, New York was the largest slave city in America. But the North was not a slave society. It was a society with slaves. The South was a slave society, which is to say the entire economy of the South rested on slave labor. Whatever you may think of slavery as an institution [I do hope we are not about to refight that war], it is not difficult to see why Whites in the South, faced with a threat to the foundation of their wealth and power, would respond by calling for secession from the Union. You would think that only something this big, this important, this fundamentally life changing, would drive people to talk of nullification and secession.

What is it that has brought so many people out into the streets and has driven them so wild that nothing short of leaving the union will do? The Tea Party movement started last summer as a reaction to the prospect of health care reform. Now, health care reform is huge, messy, complicated, and in almost every part of it, controversial. But it is not a hot button issue like same sex marriage or gun control or abortion. Indeed, it is so complicated that the only frenzied, fanatical positions possible with regard to it are either Pass it now no matter what! or Stop it dead in its tracks whatever it takes! A week before health care reform legislation was proposed in the several committees of the Congress, it simply was not a matter of controversy or passion, save among a very small circle of experts and politicians. It played a big role in the presidential campaign, but mostly in the Democratic primary as a point of difference between Obama and Clinton.

The Tea Partiers are enraged at the very existence of the Federal Government, quite irrespective of the fact that many of them have government jobs, receive Social Security pensions, and get their health care through Medicare. They seem not have been enraged thirteen months ago when the same Federal Government was in Republican hands. And yet they are very chary of identifying with the Republican Party. Indeed, many of them are hell bent on creating a third party. So just what on earth is eating at them?

Here are three answers, all of them quite familiar. For all I know, one or more of them is correct, but I have to say honestly that I do not know whether any of them is right, and all three of them seem somehow incommensurate with the phenomenon they are intended to explain.

First Answer: It's the economy, stupid. Unemployment is soaring, people are losing their jobs, their homes, their pensions, and their health care. They are frightened and furious and lashing out at hose who seem to have the power to do something about it all, but are failing to do so. Maybe so, but then why focus your anger on Obama, the one man in the government who seems most eager to take an activist stance?

Second Answer: It's a Black man in the White House. The overwhelmingly White cast of the Tes Party movement, its roots in the South, and its invocation of faux Confederate shibboleths -- nullification, secession -- lend some credence to this answer. But reporters who have attended Tea Party meetings and have talked at length with the participants are virtually unanimous in saying that this theory, which was initially quite popular, just does not match what they hear from the Tea Partiers. At the very least, I am convinced that Obama strikes many of these demonstrators as utterly alien to them and their world -- hence the viral popularity of the Birther nonsense about whether he is a natural born citizen.

Third Answer: It is the bubbling to the surface of a longer standing and more deeply entrenched conviction on their part that the world is leaving them behind, unfolding in ways that alienate them and mystify them and anger them. This conviction has its roots two generations ago in the fundamental changes to American society that took place in the 60's and early 70's. The economic crisis and the advent of a Black man in the White House are simply the final blows to their self-understanding, and they are lashing out at the established, the powerful, the people whose manner bespeaks a belief that they are superior.

Are any of these answers true? I don't know. Are they all true? Maybe. Of one thing, I am absolutely convinced. This is not a sinister Republican plot, hatched in a K street or J Street or A or B or C street room somewhere. The Republicans have been as surprised by the movement as the Democrats, and they are massively suspicious of it, because they are unable to control it and know it may end up costing them as many seats as it costs the Democrats.

THE FUTURE OF SOCIALISM

In my recent three part post, I made reference to my unpublished paper, "The Future of Socialism." Well, these days, nothing is truly unpublished. It seems that when I delivered the paper at the University of Pennsylvania Law School [courtesy of my son, Tobias], they posted the paper on their site. So, if you are interested in reading the paper, click on this link http://www.law.upenn.edu/academics/institutes/ilp/200708papers/WolffFutureofSocialism.pdf and up it will come. When my daydreams start showingf up in hyperspace, I am going to get seriously worried.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

ADDENDUM

One more thought about the previous post. Inevitably and unavoidably, we use a variety of statistical indices in our attempts to get a conceptual grasp on the complexity of large scale social realities. All of us are familiar with at least some of these indices: The Gross National Product, the Gross Domestic Product, the Consumer Price Index, growth rates, inflation rates, unemployment rates, birth and death rates, rates of educational attainment by race, class, sex, religion, or national origin, and so forth. Some of the indices we use are so arcane that it requires a sophisticated understanding of mathematics to translate them into an image of society: changes in the rate of growth or decline of an index [technically, the second derivative of a function]; specifications of the margin of error of an index [a concept almost always misunderstood by commentators on the passing scene].

Without these indices, we are reduced to anecdotes. If I happen to pass an unusually large number of parents pushing baby carriages, I think I am seeing an increase in the birth rate. If several people I know pass away, I think I am experiencing a surge in the death rate. The great old city reporter and social critic, Lincoln Steffans, told stories about how big city newspaper reporters, when things were slow, would create an apparent crime wave simply by reporting every robbery and murder on the police blotter.

Now, indices are attempts to synthesize changes in heterogeneous magnitudes. The Consumer Price Index, for example, is an attempt to figure out whether prices are going up or down, and if so, by how much. But there are uncountably many different goods and services being offered in the market, and at any moment, some of those prices are moving up, others down. Some goods are no longer being sold [buggy whips, VCR players, dial telephones], and others are coming on the market for the first time [IPhones, 2010 automobile models, every new book or CD or movie]. So economists create a theoretical "market basket" of goods that is meant to reflect the typical bundle of purchases of a typical household. They really have no alternative, even though the effort is necessarily doomed to failure. To see why that is, consider the following example, chosen from my own experiences. In 1970, my first wife and I bought a house in Northampton, Massachusetts when we accepted teaching positions at the University of Massachusetts. We obtained a thirty year fixed rate mortgage at 6%, and moved in. During the later 70's, the United States experienced raging inflation, according to the movement of the Consumer Price Index. But because housing costs are a major component of the market basket on which the index [CPI]is based, and because we had a fixed rate mortgage [like many others, of course], the increase in OUR CPI was substantially lower.

A great deal of ink has been spilled by economists and statisticians over the generations on this problem of index numbers, but the upshot of their efforts can be summarized quite simply: There is no solution to the problem. There is no way to construct an index that does not, in one way or another, bias the result in some substantive direction.

To put the point in a deliberately provocative but technically correct way, every index number has some ideological presupposition built into it. And this is simply a neat mathematical way of saying something of the greatest importance with respect to the problem of evaluating social states which I explored in my earlier blog: THERE IS NO NEUTRAL AND OBJECTIVE CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK FOR APPREHENDING A COMPLEX SOCIAL REALITY. EVERY CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK IS [as the French theorists like to say] GUILTY.

This implies that one cannot FIRST acquire a conceptual grasp of social reality AND THEN formulate an ideological stance with regard to it. The ideology is inevitably built into one's conceptual framework.

This, at the very deepest level, is what Marx means when he says that capitalism is mystified.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

WAS IT GOOD FOR YOU?

With this post, I hope to initiate a discussion about a question of the very greatest importance that has perplexed me for many years. Put as simply as I can, the question is this: How should we judge or evaluate the relative merits of two different socio-political and economic states of affairs? Was America a better place during the Great Depression than it is now? Is Swedish society superior to American society? Were the Iraqis better off under Saddam Hussein than they are now? Has television made American life better or worse? Is political freedom worth some amount of human suffering? A great amount? Any amount? Is security and prosperity under a dictatorship preferable to hard times in a democracy? Are Russians better or worse off now than when Stalin and his successors ruled?


Like all of us, I constantly ask, or perhaps simply assume the answers to, such questions, and virtually all of my concrete political action is grounded in some set of beliefs about these matters. But once I attempt to think openly and systematically about them, I discover how difficult it is to arrive at answers that satisfy me. And that perplexity is entirely separate from the problem of persuading others of my opinions. More often than not, I find that I just don't know what I think.


The problem seems not to arise in quite the same puzzling way at the individual or familial level. Like all professors of philosophy who have taught Ethics, I have spent my share of time discussing test cases in which we are forced to choose among competing interests and claims. Should I endure the discomfort of a trip to the dentist in order to forestall the potentially greater distress of losing some of my teeth? Are the sacrifices required for a professional education compensated for by the career that follows? Should we cancel a long awaited vacation because one child is under the weather? Should we make the same decision in the case of a sick pet? How should we respond when an aging parent starts to show signs of enfeeblement and dementia and needs a level of care that will compromise the lives of the entire extended family? [I worry a bit more about this one these days, needless to say.] All of these, and countless others, are difficult questions, but they seem to me to be different in kind from the questions I raised in my first paragraph.


The philosophical doctrine that most directly addresses this problem is Utilitarianism, as articulated by Jeremy Bentham at the end of the eighteenth century and elaborated by John Stuart Mill a generation later. Faced with a choice among alternative laws or social policies, Bentham says, Choose the one that promises to produce "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," with happiness construed as pleasure, and in the calculation, each person in the society to count for one." This last specification was, in its day, revolutionary, for it meant that the happiness or unhappiness of the poor was to weigh as heavily in the social balance scales as that of the aristocracy.

There is a great deal that is wrong with Bentham's rule, not least of which is the sheer logical impossibility of maximizing two or more independent functions simultaneously [namely, the "utility functions" relating outcome to happiness for each person]. But its intuitive appeal forces it into our thinking whenever we struggle to form a summary evaluation of a major social policy, or even an era. The most serious objection, almost all philosophers would agree, is the failure of utilitarianism to make a place for considerations of justice or human rights. Bentham's rule seems to tell us that oppressing, torturing, or even killing a few is acceptable, even required, if it will yield greater happiness for many. Would slavery be morally clean if we reduced the numbers of slaves sufficiently and took full account of the great pleasure that it yielded to the slave owners? I certainly think not. Just such considerations led John Rawls, in his widely acclaimed book, A Theory of Justice, to try to make an intuitive notion of fairness central to the principles regulating a society.

I am led to these reflections by the reports now current in the press about the impact of the financial crisis on American society. It would be easy for those who never lived through the Great Depression to imagine that what we are now experiencing cannot be anything like that disaster because American society, despite the bad numbers, seems to be in reasonably decent shape overall. But that would be a mistake. Let me explain.

I was born during the Depression, and was three weeks away from my eighth birthday when American entered Word War II. My father was a New York City high school teacher and my mother was a secretary and office worker. Both were employed full time until 1950, when my mother's first heart attack led her to stop working. We had quite adequate food, clothing and shelter, and a small car. We spent summers in the Catskills, renting a converted barn. Although we were, as a family, not at all affluent, we were essentially untouched by the economic crisis. The same was true for most Americans, of course, inasmuch as unemployment reached 25%, which means that 75% of the work force was employed. If you take a look at the movies of that era, you will find that they are filled with beautiful people who seem to spend all of their time in evening gowns and tails. John Ford's great 1940 movie, The Grapes of Wrath, with its unforgettable images of displaced Mid West farmers driven to the edge of starvation, is not at all what most of America looked like, even though it was an absolutely accurate portrayal of the lives of millions of Americans.

We are in the grip a similar perceptual illusion today. One fourth of all men of prime working age are unemployed. Unemployment among Black youth exceeds fifty percent. Millions of Americans either have lost their homes or are in danger of doing so, and millions of older Americans will never know the retirement they planned for and had every reason to expect. It will certainly be five or ten years, and perhaps a generation, before employment reaches pre-crisis levels, and the middle levels of the economic pyramid are being hollowed out.

And yet, despite a certain amount of reporting of these disasters [how else would I know about them, comfortably fixed as I am], our collective public image of America today completely fails to capture the depth of the misery that the crisis has inflicted on scores of millions of people. Part of the problem, as I suggested in passing in a blog several days ago, is that we have no summary index, analogous to the stock market index, that measures the happiness and unhappiness of an entire nation. [You see, now, why I alluded earlier to utilitarianism.] We are reduced to anecdotes and symbols in our efforts to grasp the reality of our own situation. Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber and Bernie Madoff and the Tea Partiers and the bonuses of hedge fund managers dominate our thinking, rather the quiet misery of millions.

If we are guided by Bentham's rule, even adapted to some notion of fairness, then we ought to prefer, to our present condition, a state of affairs in which unemployment is minimal, old age is secure, health care is universal, and our military is a rudimentary force useful only for repelling actual invasion, even if at the same time our literature is uninspired, our films are banal, our popular culture is imitative, and our role in the larger movements of world history next to non-existent. In short, we should prefer to be Canada.

But do we? In wonder.

IN THE BEGINNING

Reflecting on the exchange between Ann and myself about economists and the study of imperfect competition, I was reminded of a fact that has long struck me concerning the ways in which our understandings of the social world arise and then, like as not, are lost. The purpose of this little post is to share these thoughts with you.

Let me start with a wonderful story, possibly apocryphal, about the great French philosopher Rene Descartes, who was born in 1596 and died in 1650. In 1641, Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy [which is to say, the questions discussed by Aristotle in the work that now bears the name Metaphysics], a slender book of six chapters or parts that turned western thought on its head and defined the central themes of philosophy for the next three hundred years. As soon as the Meditations were completed, Descartes sent copies to all of the greatest philosophers of the age [the work was in Latin, so there were no translation problems], with a set of strict instructions. The recipients were to spend one day reading each of the six Meditations [resting on The Lord's Day, presumably]. Then they were to go back to the beginning and spend one week studying each Meditation. After they had completed this regimen, Descartes said, he would welcome their comments and responses. To his horror, written objections to his arguments started coming in virtually by return mail. Descartes, it is said, was furious, but he wrote out lengthy replies to each of the objections, and sent them back.

The objections and the replies have been preserved, and can be read today in an English translation. They are, or used to be, a standard reading assignment in graduate philosophy courses, and constitute an extraordinary Continental seminar on the most important questions of philosophy. The Meditations themselves have been read and studied now for three and a half centuries. The astonishing fact -- and the point of this long anecdote -- is that virtually every one of the most powerful objections that three hundred and fifty years of philosophers have been able to discover to Descartes' theses can be found right there in the responses that flowed in virtually immediately after their publication.

It is a fact that those first presented with a new phenomenon or a new argument are frequently better able to see deeply into its significance than those who come later, at a time when the phenomenon or argument has become old news. Marx, writing when capitalism was in its infancy, saw more deeply into its essential nature than generations of economists who have come after him, even though many of those later scholars have been his equal in intelligence [if not in literary skill and encyclopedic knowledge]. The very earliest Chruch Fathers saw clearly all of the deepest problems with the new Christian doctrines of the Trinity, of the Incarnation and Godhead of Christ, of salvation and damnation. And -- this is what got me thinking -- economists in the first third of the twentieth century recognized the challenge that oligopoly and imperfect competition posed to their theories of laisser-faire virtually as soon as those phenomena appeared.

The same, at a very deep level, can be said about the understanding of bourgeois economy and society achieved by Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, Frederick Tonnies, Werner Sombart, and the other sociologists writing at the dawn of the contemporary era. Modern sociologists, with their penchant for public opinion surveys and other ephemera, have actually lost that depth and complexity, with the result -- contrary to received opinion -- that we now understand less about our social world than our predecessors did.

All of which is an old man's argument for not overlooking the wisdom of the graybeards sitting around the communal fire.

Monday, February 15, 2010

SERIOUS THOUGHTS ABOUT THE FUTURE PART THREE

Capitalism is, but its nature, in a constant stake of change. Schumpter described it as "creative destruction." Corporations are driven by competition and the aspirations of their managers to contrive ever more efficient arrangements for producing and selling their wares, and these innovations, inevitably, prepare the way for a rationally planned economy. Two familiar examples will suffice. One source of inefficiency and cost in production is the necessity of maintaining large stocks of factor inputs -- fuel, raw materials, partially processed components, and the like -- which are available as they are needed in the course of the production process. Through careful analysis of the flow of production, aided by computerized tracking of components, major industrial undertakings like automobile plants can manage much more efficiently with "just in time" sourcing -- the shipping to the production site of required inputs just at the time when they will be incorporated into the finished product. Just in time sourcing allows for major savings, as the corporation is not required to keep capital tied up unproductively in stockpiles for weeks, or even months. The system also permits the suppliers to plan their own production processes, with the result that at every stage, gluts and bottlenecks are eliminated. Compare these arrangements with the management of inputs of early companies, which might buy their supply of a factor input monthly, or even annually, and then simply store it at considerable cost while waiting to use it.
The second example is the computerized management of inventory in retail operations with enormously large numbers of different products. We are all familiar with barcodes, which are now ubiquitous. By means of them, a supermarket or a Walmart store can track precisely the flow of each individual category of item, telling the manager in a glance which items need to be restocked. The last time I bought little cans of cat food at a PetSmart outlet, the checkout clerk had to scan one can from each case, even though they were all the same price, so that inventory management would know which brands and items to reorder.
These homely examples may not strike you as terribly interesting, but they, and countless others like them, constitute a revolution in capitalism that makes rational planning at long last feasible. Once we have reached the point at which a single firm can track its inventory and plan its production by these means, it is a small step to integrating the sales of many outlets and the production of many firms into an economy-wide plan. Capitalists do not intend these innovations to prepare the way for a planned economy, but they do nonetheless. This, in part, is what Marx means by a new order growing in the womb of the old.
We come now to the financial crisis, which concerns neither production nor distribution of commodities, but rather the flow and management of financial capital itself. The world is at this moment in the midst of a major financial crisis that is very far indeed from having been managed. All of us in the United States have been watching the slow-motion train wreck of the American financial sector, but the crisis reaches across the globe. The latest focus of attention is the deep trouble of the Greek economy, and its ripple effects throughout the Eurozone. A year ago it was the Icelandic banking sector that collapsed. There is no reason to think that we have seen the last of it.
I do not pretend to be able to predict the course that this crisis will take, nor can I even estimate the scope of the damage that it will inflict on millions, if not billions, of people around the world. Speaking only of America, it is clear that uncounted millions of Americans have lost, or will lose, their homes and their retirement savings, and will lead lives as senior citizens that are devastatingly less comfortable than what they had planned for and expected. There is no familiar index, analogous to the Dow Jones Index of Industrial Stocks, that tracks the well-being of Americans [though economists have made some stabs at creating one], and it is difficult therefore to grasp quantitatively and synoptically the scope of the human suffering inflicted by the financial crisis.
Two things are certain, however, I believe. First, the managers of financial capital will seek institutional arrangements for managing the vast international flows of capital, in order to protect themselves and the interests they serve from future crises. And Second, when they do so, they will unintentionally be creating the foundations for a planned economy.
Contrary to Marx, I do not believe that there are mechanisms in place that will engender the counter-movements leading to an overthrow of capitalism and the installation of socialism. But I do believe that as capitalism, both industrial and financial, rationalizes itself in order to pursue profit and avoid crises, it will bring into being structures that can at least in theory be turned to social ends, humane ends, collective ends, despite the intentions of those who created those structures. In short, while I believe that capital is capable of rational self-transformation, as it always has been, I do not believe that it can with any certainty protect itself against a rising tide of demands for the socialization of the ends, as well as the means, of economic activity.
Democratic political arrangements are well-suited for the collective expression of demands for socialization of the economy, even though, at least in the United States, those demands are probably better voiced with the use of the word "socialization."
As always, I end these perorations with a single word: Organize.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

SERIOUS THOUGHTS ABOUT THE FUTURE PART TWO

In capitalism's early days, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the social relations of production, as Marx called them, were quite primitive. It took a long time for markets to develop sufficiently to support a theory of the determination of prices and profit rates. The techniques of production were also undeveloped. But as time passed, the institutional arrangements -- laws, accounting procedures, market clearing mechanisms, futures markets, and the like -- evolved, and so did the theoretical understanding of them. Improved communications and accounting procedures were needed by capitalists seeking to gain an advantage in the marketplace, and so were the actual techniques of production. The development of joint stock limited liability firms -- corporations, as they came to be called -- dramatically altered both the scope and the flexibility of accumulations of capital. Eventually the law recognized the existence of corporations as, in effect, immortal institutional persons, whose managers were no more than the jockeys riding the thoroughbred horses in an endless race around the free market track.


With the relentless horizontal and vertical integration of productive activities, corporations grew to enormous size, eventually rivaling small countries both in the value of their annual output and in the complexity of their internal organization. [Horizontal integration, for those unfamiliar with the jargon, is the merging of many firms producing a certain commodity into one -- many shoe manufacturers becoming one, many cloth manufacturers uniting. Vertical integration is the merging into one firm of the several stages of intermediate production leading to final output -- fabric manufacturers making their own spindles and looms, growing their own flax or cotton, tailoring themselves the clothing made from their cloth.]

For reasons too complex to explain here [but set forth in my earlier paper], a time comes when it is no longer possible for the managers of large integrated firms to guide their economic decisions solely by the prices dictated by the market. Although they continue to pursue the goals of expanded production and profit, they are forced internally to make personnel and allocation decisions that are, in their logical structure, essentially political rather than economic in nature. A new social order is growing within the womb of the old.

Marx predicted, on the basis of what he was observing in England in the middle of the nineteenth century, that this process of expansion and integration of capital would be paralleled by a corresponding expansion and integration of workers' organizations, leading eventually to labor unions that would organize the entire working class. For a while, his expectations seemed to be fulfilled, but in the past half century we have seen a decline in the scope and power of unions, with a consequent increase in the imbalance between the power of capital and that of labor.

I wrote my earlier paper at a time when it seemed that capital had solved the problem of managing the booms and busts on which Marx counted as the causes of an eventual collapse of capitalism. For that reason, among others, I was deeply pessimistic about the ever greater internal integration of the great corporations leading to anything remotely resembling socialism. In effect, I concluded that Marx was right to expect the new to grow in the womb of the old, but I expected the new social order to be as inimical to the genuine human needs and interests of the great mass of the popualtion as the old order manifestly had been.

However, we radicals are as hopeful of a world-wide economic collapse as the Born Agains are of Armageddon, so a faint flutter of optimism has been engendered by the recent disasters that have smitten the financial world.

Tomorrow, I will attempt some amateur analysis of those disasters and some predictions as to where they will lead.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

SERIOUS THOUGHTS ABOUT THE FUTURE Part One

A good many years ago, I wrote a long paper entitled "The Future of Socialism." It was occasioned by reflection on a famous passage from Marx's Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, an 1859 work that served as a preliminary sketch for Capital. Here is the passage, from the Preface:
"No social order disappears before all of the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material components of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society."

In this passage, which expresses one of his deepest and most valuable insights, Marx was thinking primarily of the centuries-long process by which capitalist social relations grew "within the womb" of feudalism, eventually resulting in a series of violent upheavals that permanently put paid to the old feudal order and established capitalism as the dominant economic form of his world, and ours. But it occurred to me that we could only evaluate the possibility of a socialist future by trying to think through what it would look like for the material of new, higher relations of production to mature in the womb of capitalism.

My focus in that paper was the capitalist firm, and I drew for my analysis on some apparently unpromising materials from the specialist literature of financial accounting theory. I never published the paper, and had it not been for two invitations several years ago to speak -- one at the City University of New York, the other at the University of Pennsylvania Law School [arranged, of course, by my son, Tobias] -- its arguments might never have seen the light of day.

I should like now to return to Marx's provocative insight and try whether it can help us to understand the direction in which the world is being led by the current financial crisis. I should caution my readers that I am entirely an amateur when it comes to the theory and practice of international finance, but despite that fact, I think I may have some ideas to lay before you that you will find useful and suggestive.

First, let me explicate Marx's statement, as I understand it. A social order, such as feudalism or capitalism, is a complex structure of productive activities, with their associated systems of law, religion, and politics, and even philosophy, art, literature, and family relationships. In every social order about which history provides us any information, more is produced in each cycle of production than is required simply to keep people alive and conduct the next cycle of production. The existence of this surplus immediately poses three questions, the answers to which define the nature of the social order. The three questions are: First, who gets the surplus? Second, how do the surplus getters get the surplus? and Third, what do the surplus-getters do with the surplus when they get it?

In a capitalist economy, the answers to these three questions are as follows: First, the surplus is for the most part appropriated by entrepreneurs, financiers, and their hangers-on, although under conditions particularly favorable, some portion of the surplus may be wrested from their hands by the workers; Second, capital appropriates the surplus by excluding the workers from ownership of or access to the means of production, forcing them to work longer and more arduous hours than would be required merely to reproduce their conditions of existence -- This forced labor, or exploitation, is masked by the appearance of what is referred to as a "free market" for labor, which appears to make the wage-labor bargain a freely entered into contract completely analogous to the contracts entered into in the marketplace by entrepreneurs in their exchanges with other entrepreneurs; Finally, in a capitalist social order [but not, for example, in a feudal social order], capital, while paying itself lavish rewards and living luxuriously, devotes most of the surplus to expanding the sphere of production. It is compelled to do so by the pressures of competition, thus fueling rapid rates of economic growth unlike anything seen under earlier social orders. [Notice that I speak of Capital, rather than of capitalists. I adopt this facon de parler, echoing Marx, to convey the fact that in analysing a social order, it is the structural features of that order rather than the personal characteristics of the individuals who occupy the several positions in it that are important in understanding how the social order functions.]

How does a transition take place from one social order to another? Marx asks. Clearly not simply as the result of a fiat from a powerful ruler. A visionary Charlemagne, inspired as he took office on Christmas Day, 800 A.D. by the dream of a capitalist order, could not have "skipped a stage" and ordered pre-feudal Europe to proceed directly to the establishment of a laisser-faire market economy. None of the conditions required for the emergence of a capitalist economy existed at that time. Virtually the entire population was illiterate and innumerate, save for the Clergy. Such markets as existed were primitive, episodic, and dominated by mere barter of goods or periodic sale of luxury items. Not before these and many more elements of a capitalist economy had developed "within the womb" of feudalism was it possible for merchants to undertake [the literal translation of "entreprendre"] production of commodities for profitable sale in a free market.

Exactly the same general proposition is true with regard to the possibility of a transition from capitalism to socialism. The distinguishing mark of capitalism is ever greater rationalization of the sphere of production combined with ever greater irrationality in the sphere of distribution. Gluts in the presence of famine. Men and women homeless while home starts dwindle to virtually nothing. Empty hospital beds as the sick die for lack of health insurance.

It is not difficult to see that capitalism is massively irrational, inflicting absolutely needless suffering on those whose needs could easily be met by its productive capacity. Nor is it difficult to imagine an alternative social order in which the productive capacity of society would be rationally managed and planned in such a manner as to serve the needs of the population, rather than merely endlessly to expand the accumulations of wealth held in private hands. But although we can imagine such a society, it is not the case that it can merely be wished or legislated into existence. Indeed, it is not even the case that it can be made to exist by brute force, any more than Charlemagne could have imposed capitalism on Europe at the swordpoints of his paladins. A debate about just this question broke out among the sophisticated leaders of the Bolshevik revolution. Suddenly finding themselves in command of a vast nation whose economy was essentially feudal, with a nascent and undeveloped capitalist sector in European Russia, they asked themselves whether they could skip the capitalist stage and move directly to the establishment of socialism. The simple answer, of course, was No, but it is not difficult to see why these men, having at great risk seized control of their country's government, did not then simply turn it over to the few capitalists they could find, saying, as they walked out of the Kremlin, "call us when you have managed to advance Russia to a stage of Late Capitalism." The result, predictably, was a command economy neither capitalist nor socialist. Marx was right, even though his most successful epigones refused to acknowledge it.

More tomorrow.

MATTHEW CHAPTER 23

One of my favorite passages in the New Testament is Matthew, Chapter 23 [yes, I read the Bible, rather often, and have favorite passages. It is not necessary to be an uncultured boor simply because one is an atheist.] It is too long to type into this blog [there are 39 verses], but verse 27 will give you the sense of it, if you don't have your Bible handy:

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outside, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness." [The Revised Standard gives us "white-washed tombs," which is a correct translation, but has no poetry. "Whited sepulchres" is one of the great phrases in the English language.]

As you might guess, it is Jesus speaking, and he is really ticked off at the scribes and Pharisees. I like the passage because it gives voice to my feelings about Fundamentalists and Inerrancers who deny evolution, claim to believe that the world was created six thousand years ago [4004 B.C. according to Bishop Usher], and then have no hesitation about availing themselves of medical treatments that depend essentially on the contrary assumptions. I have in mind, for example, people quite willing to have radiation therapy for cancer, even though the therapy presupposes things about the half-lives of radio-active substances that make no sense in a recently created world, or people who deny the fact of evolution while availing themselves of vaccines whose development assumes that one must protect oneself against mutating viruses. And so on.

When I am having a bad day [as I am today], I find myself wishing that all these people would summarily be denied medical treatment until they publicly forswear their loony beliefs. I will give the Christian Scientists this: they have the courage, unto death, of their absurd convictions. [A propos, if you have never encouintered Mark Twain's hilarious short book, Christian Science, I srongly recommend it.]

If the mainstream media had any guts and intelligence [qualities incompatible with their profession, I know], they would hunt down every Born-Again Christian Senator who has received such treatment, or has a child who has, and confront them on it. I wojuld watch the evening news for that show.

NAVEL-GAZING

I have been trying to figure out why I have been so dispirited lately. Things are going badly in the world, to be sure, but things have been going badly for as long as I can remember. The Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Korea, the threat of nuclear war, the abortive invasion of Cuba, the endless overthrows of progressive leaders engineered by the CIA, stagflation, the attack on unions, Nixon, Watergate, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, this Iraq War, that Iraq War, on and on it comes. Through it all, I have fumed, I have fulminated, I have protested, I have marched, I have written books [pretty much a waste of time, that], but I have not been dispirited in the way that I am now.

After some extended brooding, I realize that what I am experiencing is conflicted feelings, and that drains me more than simple rage ever did. For many decades now, I have kept alive the belief that an electoral triumph could make matters so significantly better that I would be able to enjoy the evening news, welcome the headlines, luxuriate in the feeling that I and my kind had finally gotten our day in the sun.

Well, last November, that finally happened. I pinned all my hopes, in the twilight of my life, on an Obama Administration, and it came to pass. But things are still awful. And yet, I cannot happily turn my anger on Obama, for two reasons, one of which is rational and the other purely emotional. The rational reason is that very little of what is wrong now is Obama's fault. We on the left have hated the Republicans for so long that we tend to forget the extent to which they really are to blame for most of what is wrong with our political life. We treat them merely as a given background condition, and focus all of our attention on relatively minor ways in which we wish Obama had acted or chosen differently. The Republicans, not Obama and his Administration, are to blame for the compromised content of a Health Care reform bill that, in the end, may not pass. The Republicans are to blame for the lack of strong climate control and alternative energy policies. The Republicans are to blame for blocking strong nominees for countless positions in the Administration. The lone major bad decision for which Obama is clearly to blame is the decision to expand the war in Afghanistan, and that, I must recall, was something he promised to do during the campaign.

The emotional reason for my inability simply to pivot into a stance of opposition to Obamais that if I turn my anger on Obama, I am left without anything at all on which to pin my hopes, and I am simply unable to live in a condition of permanant hopelessness. If we look in a clear-eyed and unillusioned way at American politics, I think we must conclude that Obama is far and away the best political leader we can hope for, given the nature and attitudes of the American people. Does anyone seriously think that someone farther to the left than Obama by any significant measure could win the Democratic nomination and then a presidential campaign? I don't. Does anyone who has watched the trainwreck of Congressional politics in the past twelve months think that Obama could have won approval for significantly more progressive legislation, no matter how he deployed his "mandate?" I don't. The Republicans are responsible fior the obstructionist use of the filibuster, not Obama. And with half a dozen or more Democratic senators prepared to block almost any sort of rational legislation -- never mind all forty-one of the Republicans -- Obama's options are so severely limited that he may be unable to accomplish anything of note.

This is, after all, a country a sizeable minority of whose residents believe that the world was created six or seven thousand years ago! It is a nation a sizeable minority of whose residents think Obama is a socialist born outside the United States. There is no credible evidence whatsoever that this country is ready for democracy. And yet all of us are stuck here, condemned to live out our lives in a country populated largely by mean-spirited ignorant bigots.

So, as I say, I am feeling somewhat dispirited. I realize that my mood is not improved by the advent of a third snowstorm in a part of the country that is, I was assured, snow free.

After another post or two in which I allow myself to give voice to my dissatisfactions, I am going to try my hand at something more interesting: a reflection on the current world-wide financial crisis and the way in which it may be leading to something with at least a distant kinship to socialism.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

MSM CONFIRMATION

That is "mainstream media," for those of you not plugged into the blogosphere. No sooner did I voice my hope that Palin will secure the Republican nomination for president in 2012 than the Washington Post reports in a new poll that more than 70% of Americans consider her not fit to be president. Go Sarah! As Napoleon is reputed to have said to one of his Marshals during a battle, "When your enemy is making a mistake, do not interrupt him."

On a totally unrelated matter, I am still waiting for the folks at Marist College to post my lecture there on a server and send me the link. If, after I have reviewed it, I decide that it is not totally embarrassing, I will provide the link for my readers. Those who were once my students may then take a stroll down memory lane, and those whom I have never met can put a face and a voice to these words.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

FUNERARY MUSINGS

Like many people my age, I regularly read the obituary columns, to see who has passed [which is to say, whom I have outlived.] Twenty years ago, seventy-five seemed a respectable age. Now, I view those who barely survive into their eighties to have been cut off in their prime.

This morning, I read that the wonderful English actor Ian Carmichael died at 87 [an acceptable age to me at this point in my life]. I rushed right home and ordered "I'm All Right, Jack" from NetFlix. For those of you too young to remember, that movie is a hilarious send-up of labor-management relations in post-war England, with Peter Sellars doing a priceless turn as a Communist labor leader with an absurdly nubile daughter. I strongly recommend it.

I was also reminded of an idea I have had for an on-line business, though my son, Patrick, who is a serious hedge fund manager, has been less than enthusiastic about its prospects. All of us obit readers have wondered what our own obituaries would look like, and indeed whether we would even rate an obituary not submitted to the classifieds by the grieving survivors. Unfortunately, up 'til now, it has been necessary to die in order to rate an obituary, a fact that makes reading it difficult. Large newspapers, like the NY TIMES, maintain elaborate files of prospective obituaries, of course [appropriately stored in a room called by reporters "the Morgue"], and, at least in the case of important public figures, regularly update them, so that as soon as someone pops off, the text is ready to print. But I do not think one can present oneself at 620 8th Avenue and ask to see one's obituary.

So, here is the idea: For a fee, OnLineObits.com, a subsidiary of HaveYourCakeAndEatItToo, Inc., will prepare and post a full-scale obituary, complete with capsule reviews of any publications or other creative works, a summary of academic honors [if any] and military service [if any], and a fair and balanced account of one's marriages or other significant relationships. A space will be reserved for anticipatory eulogies. For an additional fee, subscribers will receive a printed copy, suitable for framing. the service will be rigorously objective, and no self-prepared texts will be accepted. You pays your money and takes your chances.

Any takers?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I MAY REGRET THIS, BUT ...

I simply cannot help feeling that were Sarah Palin to capture the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, it would virtually guarantee a rout of historic proportions. If the American electoral system were capable of registering intensity of preference, I would worry big time. But one passionate vote by a God-fearing Tea Party Birther counts for exactly as much as one desultory vote by a languid, over-confident Obama supporter. And there are vastly more of us than there are of them.

Let me tell a story. Back in the 80's, I was invited to speak at a panel of the Socialist Scholars' Conference on my new book, Understanding Marx. I found my way down from Western Mass to Manhattan Community College, on the Lower West Side of New York. When I entered the large reception hall, absolutely packed to overflowing with socialists, I exulted. Just for a moment, I thought "My God! Look at us all! We are going to take over the world!" Then it occurred to me, "This is all of us. And we fit into one large room." We did not take over the world.

Sarah Palin can pack a room. She can, with enough planning, fill a plaza. But in a country of more than three hundred million people, that won't even get you elected to the Senate from a reasonably populous state.

If the economy has not come back big time, a Mitt Romney could pose a real threat. But the Republicans, Lord love them, will not go for Romney. They just may rush over the cliff carrying Palin banners.

From my mouth to God's ear.

FOLLOW UP

This is a further elaboration of the reply I posted to Ann's comment on my long post, "Where We Are Now." It is natural to focus one's attention on the Tea Partiers, and to decry their looniness. But it would be a very serious mistake to imagine that the fundamental shape of American foreign and domestic affairs has been importantly shaped by them and their many predecessors. If one wishes to locate the roots of our policy of permanent war, look to the Foreign Affairs Council, to the sober, respectable, moderate, thoughtful men and women of American public life, to William Fulbright and Mike Mansfield, to Joe Biden and Madeleine Albright, to Hillary Clinton and Zbigniew Brzezinski, yes even to Henry Kissinger. Look to every Senator who has ever chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or Senate Armed Services Committee, to every Secretary of Defense since the post was created. I cannot think of a single major public figure since World War II who has questioned the foundations of American foreign policy [with the possible exception of Henry Wallace, but I am not sure about him --- I was only fourteen at the time.]

For a while, to be sure, American military policy was driven by the objective technological facts of the delivery of nuclear warheads. But that technology settled down forty years ago. [If anyone is actually interested in this, I would be happy to post a long explanation. At one point in my life, I was an expert on the subject, and wrote a book about it that I never succeeded in getting published.]

The crazies in American politics are dangerous, but they are not the explanation for the shape of post-World War II American foreign and military policy. Nor, needless to say, are they and their ilk the cause of economic inequality in America, any more than fever blisters are the cause of an infection.

BRAGGING

I have won 130 games of FreeCell in a row, and counting, without using the undo feature. Not bad for an old guy! And you thought I just meditated on the eternal verities.

Monday, February 8, 2010

WHERE WE ARE NOW

It is difficult, in the midst of the flood of information and commentary on public affairs, to maintain any distance from the immediate moment. As a philosopher, I am supposed, professionally, to view things sub specie aeternitatis, or at least within a time frame more extended than that of a Mayfly, but I do not have a Merlin who can change me into a mountain, as he did to Wart [the little Arthur] in The Sword in the Stone, so that the future king could see things from their perspective.


Nevertheless, in this post, I propose to step back from the moment and ask, of this country and its people, Where are we? And, perhaps more to the point, Why are we? I am now seventy-six years old, and though that does not give me the perspective of a mountain, or even of a redwood tree, it does allow me to achieve some distance from the affairs of the moment.


The first thing to recognize is that the United States has been continuously at war for close on to sixty-eight years, and there is in this country neither the will nor the interest in bringing this condition of war to an end. It might be objected that though, to be sure, there have been periods during that seven decades when we were at war, there have, after all, been as well periods of peace. But I think that is a faulty construal of the situation in which we find ourselves. Since the seventh of December, 1941 [a day, as Franklin Roosevelt said, that shall live in infamy], this nation has been on a war footing. Indeed, it has been at war. I take as my authority here the great English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who, in the thirteenth chapter of the First Part of his masterpiece, Leviathan, wrote these words:


"For WAR consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time, is to be considered in the nature of war; as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather, lieth not in a shower or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war, consisteth not in actual fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE."


Why have we been at war continuously for seven decades? The conventional answer is that we have been confronted first by the threat posed by the Soviet Union, and then, when that passed, by the threat [conveniently] posed by militant Islam. But neither of those claims is true. The Soviet Union was a territorially continuous empire whose rulers exhibited no interest in engaging militarily beyond the contiguous area they ruled at the end of the Second World War. Unlike the United States, which has repeatedly sent troops beyond its borders since 1945, and indeed has permanent garrisons of its troops in nations around the world, the Soviet Union ventured only once beyond its contiguous sphere of influence, and that, after all, was into a country -- Afghanistan -- that has common borders with three of what were then Soviet Socialist Republics -- viz., Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.


The permanent war footing of the United States since World War II has wrought enormous, devastating, and irreversible changes in the politics, economics, and culture of this country. The most immediately obvious effect of the endless war is a dramatic shift in the power exercised by the three branches of government. The Constitution was written so as to severely rein in the powers of the executive. Although the President was designated as Commander in Chief, the power to declare war was reserved for the Congress, and that, together with their control of the purse strings and the power to impeach, try, convict, and remove officers of the other two branches guaranteed, the founders thought, the ascendancy of Congress in the American political system. This balance was upset during the Civil War, but then immediately reestablished itself one the war was ended. In our world today, the Presidency looms large, with unlimited power to make war, total control of the information needed to judge the wisdom of military action, and -- with the current compliant Supreme Court majority -- liberty to ignore the few restraints on presidential power that have survived three quarters of a century of war. Let us understand that this is in no way a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans. The permanent war was launched under Harry Truman, continued [though with hesitation and concern] by Dwight Eisenhower, expanded by Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and reaffirmed by every subsequent president, up to and including Barack Obama. War has long since become its own justification in America.

The economic dislocations occasioned by permanent war have distorted American society in two ways: First, unimaginable quantities of resources, over seventy years, have been diverted from socially productive uses to what is essentially waste, thereby dramatically lowering the standard of living of most Americans and all but destroying the public infrastructure of America; and Second, the processes of allocation and expenditure of these vast sums has made every state in the Union, and therefore every politician in America, dependent on the continuation of the war economy. It is not even possible, save by the sort of fantasy thinking that economists call economic modeling, to form a coherent idea of what America might look like now, had it not embarked seventy years ago on a policy of permanent war.

As for the culture of America, it is thoroughly steeped in and interpenetrated by martial imagery. America has become the Sparta of the modern world.

The second thing that stands out as we strive for perspective on the condition of America is that this country no longer has a strong, effective labor movement capable of constraining and combating the pernicious effects of unrestrained capitalism. [I am not talking about a revolutionary movement, aimed at replacing capitalism with another form of economic organization. I reserve such dreams for the night time hours.] It had such a movement at one time, of course, even though labor unions have never managed to organize the preponderance of American workers. The pyramidal distribution of wages and salaries in the United States has remained fundamentally unchanged for a century, save for a widening of the gap between the rich and everyone else in the past twenty years. But despite the frenzied and absurd right wing talk about "Obama the socialist," there is no serious energy anywhere in America for an overturning of the present structure of economic inequality.

In summary, America is a nation on an unnecessary and unjustifiable permanent war footing, with an economy characterized by large and growing inequality. It is, to state it clearly and openly, not a country I can happily call my own. My time horizon is necessarily somewhat foreshortened, since even under the best of circumstances I have only another two decades or less to live. But it is impossible for me to imagine that these two fundamental facts about America -- permanent war and deep inequality -- will change in any significant way in the lifetimes of my children, or even of their children.

What is to be done? [If I may echo Lenin.]

Despair is not a plan. It is a sentiment. Revolution is not an option. It is a fantasy. What remains is incremental action to ameliorate evils, reduce suffering, and protect the vulnerable, all the while recognizing that even many successes will not alter the framework within which we are condemned to live our lives. There is some comfort for me, but precious little, in the knowledge that I have been questioning the justifications offered for the war footing and for the economic inequality at least since the late 1950's. Were I fortunate enough to believe in God, I could comfort myself with thoughts of a heavenly reward. As it is, the most I can do is utter a loud and self-justificatory "I told you so!"