Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Thursday, January 31, 2013


While I have been absent from this blog, caring for Susie, politics in America has taken an interesting turn.  Obama has now staked out three big issues as his agenda for the second term:  climate change, immigration reform, and gun control.  One of these -- climate change -- is a matter of the very greatest importance on which the United States by itself can have some effect, but not an enormous effect.  The other two issues are relatively minor in comparison with economic recovery and the rampant growth of inequality in America, but they are both important, and in each case there is some reason to hope for positive legislative steps.

Far and away the most important political news is the decision by the Obama campaign machine to turn over its enormous database to a new lobbying organization, Organizing for America.  As I have said repeatedly on this blog, the only real prospect for any sort of progressive movement in this country is the mobilization of the scores of millions of people who are already persuaded of some form of progressive politics.  Let us be clear.  This has nothing to do with reversing the sixty year old imperial thrust of U. S. foreign policy, nor does it have anything to do with advancing the prospects for the emergence of socialism from the decaying carcass of capitalism [I love saying things like that].  But we on the left have been playing defense for so long that it feels good even to think about winning a few small victories.

Those of you who cannot be bothered trying to make the world just a little bit better can go on saying "A pox on both your houses."  I have several times explained why I choose not to follow that course.  Bad as things are in this country -- and they really are very, very bad in a variety of ways -- there is a serious possibility that they will get a very great deal worse unless we can stop those who are trying to complete the transformation of America into a gated banana republic. 

I think there are reasons for hope.  But even if we are successful beyond our wildest dreams, this country will still be nothing like what I would want it to be.  For example, even if the proponents of a single payer health care system had won the day in Obama's first term -- and it is clear that there was never the slightest chance of that happening -- we would still only have managed to put in place an expensive variant of the health care system that is routine in Europe and elsewhere.  That tells you a great deal about how limited our real options are.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


My apologies for being absent from this site.  Looking after Susie with her broken shoulder is more time-consuming than I had anticipated, and in my spare time I have begun writing the remarks I will offer to the Duke group eventually.  Who was it who said, "If I had had more time, I would have written a shorter letter"?   [The web credits it variously to Hemingway, Cicero, Voltaire, Mark Twain, and Blaise Pascal!]    It turns out to be extremely demanding to compress forty years of work into a forty-five minute presentation.  Nevertheless, the effort is worthwhile, because I have never before attempted to bring together in a single integrated narrative my literary critical exegeses from Moneybags and "Narrative Time," my mathematical reinterpretation and revision of Marx's economic theories from Understanding Marx and "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value," and the arguments of "The Future of Socialism" and "The Indexing Problem."  My only hope is that someone in the audience will find what I have to say suggestive.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Some folks from several Duke University departments have organized something that they call "The Political Theory Working Group."  They meet regularly throughout the year and then hold a two day conference in the Spring.  One of the organizers, Michael Gillespie, recently invited me to speak at this year's conference, in April.  I was, needless to say, flattered by the invitation, and my initial inclination was to agree.  But then he told me something of what they have been focusing on, and I started to have doubts.  "This year's theme for the conference," he wrote to me in an email message, "is 'Community and Emergent Order in Non-State Spaces: Cinematic, Literary, and Philosophical Approaches.'"  Right away, I began to have qualms.  What on earth do I know about cinematic, literary, and philosophical approaches to community and emergent order in non-state spaces?

My doubts morphed into dismay when Gillespie told me what the group has been up to this year.  " Over the course of the academic year, the Working Group will have watched a dozen films/TV episodes that have been paired with theoretical and philosophic readings dealing directly or indirectly with non-state spaces: The Wild Bunch & Deadwood (readings by you and from Anderson and Hill's The Not So Wild Wild West); Hotel Rwanda & The Battle of Algiers (readings from Fanon and Thucydides); Serenity & Avatar (readings from Rousseau's Second Discourse and James C Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed); The Godfather & The Wire (readings from Hobbes's Leviathan and Franz Oppenheimer's The State); The Bridge on the River Quai & One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (readings from R. A. Radford on the "Economic Organization of the Prison Camp" and from Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness); Rabbit-Proof Fence and Beasts of the Southern Wild (readings yet to be determined, but likely from Pierre Clastres and Rebecca Solnit)."

Readings by me in conjunction with The Wild Bunch and Deadwood?  I had to Google them to find out what they are.  [One is a Sam Peckinpah movie from 1969.  The other is a TV show.]  It was obvious that I was way out of my league.  What on earth could I possibly talk about that would have the slightest connection to this kind of sophisticated kulturkritik?

I demurred, Gillespie said all manner of kind things to reassure me, and I finally allowed as how I wanted to talk about the relationship between language and social reality in Marx, with my remarks touching on economics, linear algebra, literary criticism, and commodity fetishism.  "Swell," he said, and I was well and truly sunk.

For my entire career, my worst nightmare has been standing up at a lectern and droning on about something the audience really does not want to hear.  Only several times in the past fifty or sixty years has that nightmare come true.  Once was at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where I presented myself to deliver an invited lecture, only to find the large hall in which I was to speak deserted save for a scattering of perhaps eleven souls, five or so of whom got up in the middle of the talk and walked out.  It was not until after the disaster was ended that my hosts explained:  It seems that the Baltimore Colts were playing a crucial game at precisely the hour of my talk, and it was, they said soothingly, a testimony to my star quality that anybody at all had shown up.

What am I going to say, come April?  Well, I am going to pull together a number of things I have written about Capital, in two books and several articles, and try to explain in forty-five minutes what I mean when I say that Marx needed to find a language and a mathematics sufficiently rich in syntactic and rhetorical resources to give expression to his complex understanding of capitalist social and economic reality.  Are there "cinematic approaches" that can be paired with this talk?  Maybe Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times [which I have not actually seen straight through], or the famous episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucille Ball struggles to keep up with a conveyor belt in a cake factory.

Something tells me this is going to be another disaster, on a par with the UMBC fiasco.

Monday, January 21, 2013


My seven year old son Samuel has become a rabid fan of his home town football team, The San Francisco Forty-Niners.  This threatened to pose a problem of major proportions, because if the Niners won their NFC championship game against the Falcons and my team, the New England Patriots, won their AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, as they seemed sure to do, Samuel and I would be rooting for opposing teams in the Super Bowl two weeks from now.  Well, the Niners beat the Falcons, but my Patriots, despite being up 13-7 at halftime, managed to lose to Falco and the Ravens.  Whew.


All of us, I trust, recall the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings, entitled "The Scouring of the Shire."  Frodo and his intrepid little band of hobbits have returned to the Shire from their extraordinary adventures to find a pair of scalawags terrorizing their idyllic community.  Grima Wormtongue, the evil, twisted, conspiratorial advisor to King Theoden, and Saruman, the powerful wizard who turned to Sauron and what in other contexts would be called the dark side of the Force, have been defeated and deposed.  They are now reduced to  tyrannizing over innocent hobbits with cheap magician's tricks and schoolyard bullying.  Frodo, Sam, Merry and the others have no difficulty rousting them and driving them from the Shire.  I have long cherished this lovely fillip at the end of the saga as a literary representation of pomposity and self-importance brought low.

This was called to my mind this morning by yet another circular e-mail from Henry Louis Gates.  I have made it onto what is undoubtedly an enormous distribution list compiled by Gates, presumably because my email address still identifies me as a member of the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts.  Gates burst on the scene with a genuinely interesting book, The Signifying Monkey, and after a bit of academic peripatetics, settled at Harvard as Chair of their languishing Afro-Am Department.  Gates proceeded to assemble what he rather grandiosely called his Dream Team [a term appropriately applied to the group of American superstars who won the first Olympic basketball competition.]  In short order, the department launched a doctoral program most notable for the fact that it required all of its graduate students to earn an M. A. in another department [thereby making clear the department's belief that it was not the home of a real academic discipline.]  After his maiden publication, Gates has never done another serious piece of real research, instead spending his time on endless editing efforts and television promotions, all of which are characterized by an insatiable hunger for publicity and a singular absence of taste.  In those early years at Harvard, one of his proudest boasts was that he had lunched with Tina Brown, then the editor of The New Yorker.  One of the interesting aspects of Gates' career is that he has no discoverable relationship to the Black community, unlike his quondam colleague, Cornell West, who, despite his pyrotechnic self-promotion, has genuine roots in the Black church.

The email is titled "Amazing Fact #15: Where Was the First Underground Railroad?"  It is to this that the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University is reduced.  It can surely not be long before a line of commemorative coins, "suitable for framing," appears under his name, together with a collector's edition of Little Black Sambo. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Today I should like to celebrate two anniversaries.  The first and far and away more important of the two is that today, January 16, 2013, is the eightieth birthday of my wife, Susie.  Faithful readers of my autobiography [of whom there may be one or two] will know that Susie and I met sixty-five years ago as high school sophomores, at Forest Hills High School in Queens, New York.  I fell in love with her then, and we "went steady" [as one used to say] for five years, until, at about the time I was graduating from Harvard, we broke up.  Fast forward thirty-five years.   When my first marriage ended, I went looking for her, we found we were still in love, and in 1987 were married.  This is a rather bittersweet moment because a week ago, while taking a walk, Susie slipped on some wet leaves and fractured her shoulder.  She does not need surgery, thank heaven, but the injury is very, very painful and doctors say it will be six or eight weeks before she is healed.  Nevertheless, by late Spring, she will be fit again, and we shall set off for Paris.

The second anniversary is not pegged to this day, but rather to all of 2013.  It is now just fifty years since I published Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, the first of what would eventually be twenty-one books.  One is always somewhat soft on one's first born, and I still think, after all these years, that it is a good book. 

There are several events scheduled today with Susie's children and grandchildren to celebrate her eightieth.  No events have been scheduled for the book.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


I am an early riser.  I get up at five, sometimes earlier.  This is considered virtuous, but of course it is nothing of the sort.  After all, I go to bed typically at eight p.m. or so [with an hour or more up in the middle of the night-- when you are seventy-nine, you will understand.]  It was not always so.  As a young student at Harvard, in the very early fifties, I did not even begin to study until close to midnight.  Then I would work feverishly until four or five a.m., and fall into bed exhausted.  In those days, bankers kept bankers' hours, and banks closed at 2 p.m.  I had to make plans to get to the bank on time to make a withdrawal [this was before ATM machines.]


The Army changed all that.  In Basic Training, they got me up roughly when I had been accustomed to go to sleep.  After six months [that was all the active duty I had to put in as a member of the Yankee Division of the Massachusetts National Guard], I was totally turned around.  By the time my Instructorship started at Harvard, I was getting to my office at 7 a.m. to prepare for my ten o'clock class.  [I needed that much time because I was teaching European History, a subject about which I had known nothing when offered the job.]


All of which explains why I never see prime time television.  I cannot even manage to stay up long enough to see The Rachel Maddow Show from eight to nine.  I catch it the next day on my computer.


But I have Netflix, and in addition to movies, Netflix offers runs of evening adventure and cop type shows.  A while back, I stumbled on Bones.  I watched about seven seasons of the show, several a day or even more, waiting with bated breath for Seeley Booth and Temperance Brennan to get it on.  When they finally fell into bed and had a baby, I sort of lost interest.


My latest obsession is Alias, a rather weird spy show that ran from 2001 to 2006 and made Jennifer Garner a star.  [One of the odd things, for me at least, is that "Jennifer Garner" is the name of the Associate Registrar at Bennett College, a lovely lady who, to the best of my knowledge, is not adept at kick-boxing and is not a double agent for the CIA -- but then, how would I know if she were?]  I did not even know that Alias existed until Netflix, which keeps careful track of what I click on, suggested several weeks ago that I might enjoy the show.  I am probably the only sentient human on the face of the earth who was unaware of the show's existence, but since it is totally unhinged from reality, it does not really matter whether I watch episodes as they appear or ten years later.  I have now worked my way through the first season [twenty-one episodes] and am well into the second season.


Like all successful shows, whether Soaps or prime time series, Alias is essentially an endless examination of the interpersonal relationships of a dysfunctional family [cue the opening line of Anna Karenina.]   In the case of Alias, the core family is a CIA double agent [the father] who has infiltrated a rogue operation masquerading as a CIA off-the-books black ops shop but is really part of an international alliance of bad guys rather unimaginatively called The Alliance, a KGB secret agent who seduced the CIA agent in order to obtain information about a plan to train six year old kids as spies, bore the CIA agent a daughter, faked her own death, and has been a super bad guy ever since [the mother], and the star of the show [the daughter], who is, like all little girls, trying to sort out her feelings for her mother and her father.  The daughter is a double agent who specializes in kick-boxing and seems to speak about eighteen languages flawlessly.  Her cover is that she is doing a doctorate in English Lit, which -- this is the only realistic element in the entire show -- does not take much of her time.


Stylistically, the show is a crossed between the James Bond movies, with each episode featuring travelogue-quality scenes of exotic locations, and the Mission Impossible movies, in which the main character is adept at every possible special skill useful to spies, from lock-picking and bomb-defusing to rappelling down skyscrapers and performing on-the-spot surgery.


Jennifer Garner is lovely and suitably forlorn as the heroine, but I have really fallen in love with Lena Olin, who surfaces late in the first season as the mother [her husband, Ken Olin, seems to have directed a good many of the episodes.]  Olin is beautiful, and enough closer to my own age to permit me the sorts of fantasies I could never have about someone as unformed as Jennifer Garner.  She is also a terrific actress, so that just watching the succession of expressions that flicker across her face is a pleasure.


The show is rather complex and ambiguous morally [the principal bad guy gets a lot of screen time and is touchingly devoted to his wife, which makes hating him a bit challenging], but the plotting is formulaic to the max.  The fourth or fifth time Jennifer Garner disarms a professional assassin holding a gun on her with an implausible kick-boxing move, your suspension of disbelief becomes a bit less willing.


The show has once again confirmed my basic judgment about great works of literature, which is that they are well-written soap operas or crime shows.  I mean, the torments of Oedipus and Hamlet are not, psychodynamically, that different from those of Nick Newman in The Young and the Restless. 




Let me turn, finally, to a third example drawn from a very different sphere, namely Gerald Cohen’s attempt in his important book, KARL MARX'S THEORY OF HISTORY, to define an objective measure of the increase in productivity of an economy. Cohen undertakes to defend a quite orthodox, uncomplicated version of Marx’s theory of historical materialism, one that many would call economistic, technological, and determinist. After distinguishing, by some careful conceptual analysis and textual exegesis, between the productive forces of an economy and the social relations of production, Cohen summarizes his version of Marx in two theses, which he labels the Development Thesis and the Primacy Thesis.

            The development thesis states that ‘the productive forces tend to develop throughout history.’ The primacy thesis offers a functional explanation of the social relations of production in terms of their suitability for furthering the development of the productive forces. The thesis states: ‘The nature of the production relations of a society is explained by the level of development of its productive forces.’ [Cohen, p.134] Cohen then goes on to give an original and controversial defense of functional explanation in terms of what he calls consequence laws.

            Most of the comment on Cohen’s book, not surprisingly, has concentrated on the notion of consequence laws, but there is, it seems to me, a prior problem concerning the development thesis, a problem which, oddly enough, involves the same issue of indexing that we have been examining in connection with Rawls' work and the problem of wage determination and comparable worth.

            At the risk of appearing to have wondered away from Professor Buchanan’s work into a critique of Cohen, let me elaborate a bit the structure of Cohen’s argument, so that we can see precisely where and how an indexing problem arises.

            At this point, since the precise statement of Cohen’s thesis will become rather involved, I will ask you to refer to the handouts distributed at the beginning of my remarks.

            According to Cohen, consequence laws have the following doubly hypothetical form: {see handout, number 1}

IF   it is the case that if  an event of type E were to occur at t1, then it would bring about an event        of type F at t2

THEN  an event of type E occurs at t3.

            To put the matter less technically and more provocatively, what explains the occurrence of event E is the fact that if it were to occur, it would bring about event F. Or, even more succinctly, E is explained by the fact that it is functional for F.

            Using this formal structure we can now state Cohen’s primacy thesis in proper consequence law form, namely:

IF        it is the case that if the production relations conductive to the use and development of the productive forces available in a society at that time come into being, then the productive forces available at that time will be used and developed,

THEN the production relations conductive to the use and development of the productive forces available in that society at that time come into being.

            To defend his primacy thesis, Cohen must do four things. First, he must explain what he means by ‘productive forces available in a society’ and ‘production relations of a society’ with sufficient precision and clarity that we can tell them apart, and also ascertain, for a given society, what productive forces are available and what the production relations are in the society. Second, he must explain what he means by the 'development’ of productive forces, and specify some way of telling as between two states of affairs in society, which constitutes a higher development of the productive forces. Third, he must defend explanation by consequence laws in general. And finally, he must offer some evidence or argument in support of the particular consequence laws that express the primacy thesis. It is in his attempt to meet the second of these needs that Cohen runs of afoul of the indexing problem, in my judgment.

            Cohen defines an increase in productivity as an increase in the quantity of product or output that can be produced with a given amount of direct labor. For example, in a simple one-commodity economy that uses corn and labor to produce corn, an increase in productivity is an increase in the net output of corn per unit input of labor.

            This measure of productivity becomes problematical, as Cohen recognizes, as soon as there are two or more commodities being produced, for a new technique might permit us to produce more of the first commodity but less of the second, with a given quantity of labor. Would this be an increase, a decrease, or no change in productivity? Some technological innovations, of course, might enable us to produce more of every commodity with the same labor, or at least more of some and no less of others. In those cases we could appeal to a Pareto principle to establish a rank ordering of relative productivity. But in the general case, some way must be found to make what Cohen calls ‘global productivity’ comparisons. Here is Cohen’s solution:

            Of course, if everything producible at stage s1 is producible at stage s2, and each thing at s2 in less time than s1, then we need no common measure of the magnitude of products to claim that productivity is higher at s2. But suppose forces at s2 outclasses those at s1 with respect to some products, and are less powerful with respect to others. How can we then make a global productivity comparison between s1 and s2?

            In certain instances of the type just identified comparison will still be possible without a common measure of product size. Thus supposed that at both s1 and s2 twelve hours per day is the length of time each producer is able to labor productively: marginal product is negative beyond that point. Imagine that there are just three products, p, q, and r. At s1 it thakes 3 hours to produce a unit of p, 4 hours to produce a unit of q, and 5 hours to produce a unit of r.  At s2 it takes 2 hours to produce a unit of p, 3 hours to produce a unit of q, and 6 hours to produce a unit of r.  Then s2 is more productive with respect to p and q, and less productive with respect to r.   Note, however, that only 11 of the 12 hours available at s2 are used up when it produces one unit each of p, q, and r.  Suppose the remaining hour were allocated to producing r: then as long as some r were produced in that hour, we should be able to say that s2 is globally more productive than s1, even though we have stated no ratios between units of one product and units of any other. [Cohen, p.57]

            But Cohen’s argument is quit incorrect. To see why, let us suppose that the technologies of s1 and s2 are just as Cohen specifies, but that final demand for commodities p, q, and r is different from that assumed by Cohen. In other words, let us suppose that these societies, using these technologies, do not wish to produce one unit of each p, q, and r.

            Instead, let final demand be .75 units of p, .5 units of q, and 1.5 units of r.  In that case, s1 is globally more productive that s2, for the desired final demand requires 12 units of labor in s2 and only 11.75 units of labor in s1.

            Now assume final demand to be one unit of p, 4/9 units of q, and 13/9 units of r.   In that case, s2 and s1 are equally globally productive, for the desired final demand requires just 12 units of labor in each system.

            But ‘global productivity’ is supposed to be an objective measure of the level of development of productive forces, independent of consumer taste and final demand. Thus Cohen’s measure is unsatisfactory.

            It should be obvious that this result is perfectly general. For any two technologies, one of which is more productive with respect to commodity i and the other of which is more productive with respect with commodity j, there will always be some final demand that makes the first technology globally more productive, and yet a third final demand that makes them equally globally productive.

            In fact, of course, we are presented here with exactly the same need for a normative or evaluative principle as the basis for our indexing rule. Either we must assume that the final demand manifested in the market by consumer behavior has a moral sanction, so that consumer tastes will ultimately determine the relative productivity of two stages of capitalist development – an assumption which undermines any attempt to mount a critique of the formation of consumer tastes- or else we must simply stipulate that some commodities are worthier that others, and hence will count for more in the index by which we measure productivity. For example, suppose that the advent of industrialization and the decline of craft skills made it less costly in labor hours to produce food, but more costly to produce hand-carved furniture. Is that technological change an advance in productivity or not? It depends on our moral evaluation of the relative importance of food and beautiful furniture.

            Lest we imagine that this is a purely theoretical quibble, let us reflect that current debates about the effects of the economy on the environment are, from a certain point of view, really arguments about the proper weights to use in an index designed to measure increases in productivity.

            I hope it is clear from these three examples – Rawls, comparable worth, and Cohen – both that the indexing problem arises repeatedly in theoretical and practical contexts, and that it is always impossible to solve it in a value-neutral manner. Here, as in so many other cases, supposedly objective formal methods of analysis carry with them covert evaluation presuppositions which, if not acknowledged, serve the ideological function of rationalizing particular political or economic positions. I take this as one important example of the general truth that politics cannot be reduced to rational administration, or class conflict to impartial calculation.  

Monday, January 14, 2013


The same indexing problem surfaces in a quite different context, in the proposal currently being debated to award women equal pay for jobs comparable in worth to those performed by men. It may not be immediately obvious that the comparable worth dispute is really an argument about indexing, but a few moments of reflection will make this clear.

            Consider a firm that employs three groups of workers: machine operators, truck drivers, and office clerks. What wages shall it pay? The answer popular with neo-classical economists is, of course, Let the labor market decide. The firm should offer the lowest wage with which it can secure competent help. If the going market price, say for machine operators, is so high that the firm cannot make a profit when paying that wage, then it must either shift to a different production technique or else go out of business. If some extremely simplifying assumptions are made about the production techniques available to the firm, the behavior of workers and consumers, and the motivation of the firm’s managers, then in long-run equilibrium, each worker will earn a wage precisely equal to his or her marginal product, which, under some additional strong assumptions, might plausibly be construed as a fair wage.

            There are essentially three things wrong with this story, which you will all recognize as the standard story told in beginning courses in economic theory. The three things wrong with the story are, First, that it fails to establish its normative claims even in the impossibly restrictive theoretical case of which it is supposed to hold, Second, that it does not hold at all for theoretical cases whose assumptions are somewhat less restrictive, and Third, that it bears no relation at all to what happens in the real world.

            For a demonstration of the first claim, I refer you to the first chapter of David Schweickart’s fine book, CAPITALISM OR WORK CONTROL?   The third claim, that marginal productivity theory totally fails to predict what actually happens, is widely acknowledged.  For an extended discussion, you can consult Lester Thurow’s suggestive work, GENERATING INEQUALITY, or a forthcoming Oxford Press Book, CHOOSING THE RIGHT POND, by a young Cornell economist, Robert Frank.

            I wish to focus my attention on the second problem – the inadequacy of marginal productivity theory for more complicated theoretical cases. What I wish to show you is that under certain theoretical assumptions designed to model more accurately the modern firm, a problem of wages policy arises which, in its broadest outlines, is inescapably normative, and in which the issue of comparable worth plays a central role. There, as we shall see, indexing again proves to be the stumbling block.

            So long as firms are small, single-product producers purchasing all inputs, including semi-finished parts, at competitive market prices, performing a single transformation on the inputs, and selling the output at the same competitive prices, the theory of wage determination is relatively simple. But things go seriously awry as soon as firms grow large enough to engage in multi-stage production processes with joint product outputs.

            Consider a meatpacking firm, for example, that fattens the cattle, slaughters them, butchers the carcasses, packs the cuts of meat, and tans the hides. The managers of the firm must ascertain, by means if their internal accounting system, how much of the total cost of the firm to allocate to each final product, and also what prices to place on intermediate products within the firm for purpose of cost accounting.

            Under these circumstances, it is theoretically impossible to determine the marginal productivity of a worker. Indeed, as firms grow into large bureaucratically organized institutions, it may in practice be impossible to identify any change in final output that can be associated with the presence or absence of a particular employee. Clearly, what is required is a positive wage policy which dictates what level of compensation is to be associated with each position in the firm.

            The first rule that suggests itself – a normative rule, be it noted – is equal pay for equal work, where equal work is interpreted as meaning the occupying of bureaucratically identical positions. All beginning truck drivers, all clerks of grade three, all machine operators working the same machines, will receive equal pay. It is a good deal harder than one might think to come up with a moral rationale for this principle, although considerations of prudence and labor/management peace might suggest it. If the firm were dispensing justice, then one might invoke familiar considerations of procedural fairness, but in a competitive economy, mutual self-interest, and not justice, is supposed to regulate the relations between labor and management.

            But equal pay for identical job position, although a principle capable of revolutionary potential in some circumstances, does not even begin to solve the problem of formulating a wages policy. From a formal point of view, that principle merely groups the workers into equivalence classes, without saying anything about the relative circumstances to be paid to the several classes. Paying all truck drivers the same wage and all file clerks the same wage leaves undetermined which class shall make more, and by how much.

            Some progress can be made by invoking Pareto comparability, assuming that there is agreement on the dimensions along which different positions are to be compared. If machine operating requires the same physical effort as truck driving, more responsibility, at least as much dexterity, and more attentiveness, and if these are the only qualities or characteristics of the work process which ought to count in determining wage levels, then we can agree that machine operators ought to make more than truck drivers.

            But now the old familiar indexing problems reappear! How shall we compare machine operators with office workers, whose job demands greater literacy skills, less physical effort, more independence of judgment, less manual dexterity, and roughly the same degree of attentiveness? Once again, we must define an index which allows us to map heterogeneous characteristics onto a one-dimensional measure.

            This is by no means an issue of purely theoretical significance; you may be interested to learn. In a number of large corporations in this country, top management has found it necessary to develop a detailed policy of compensation and raises which will possess some objective bureaucratic rationale and be perceived as fair by the employees affected. In response to this need, a number of management consultant firms, such as the Hay Company, have developed systems of job evaluation designed to generate a unidimensional index, or numerical measure, of the relative difficulty of the jobs performed by employees, particularly at the lower and middle management levels.

            Consider, as an example, Sears, Roebucks, and Company, the great retail merchandising firm. Sears employs thousands of men and women who occupy such job positions as store manager, large appliances salesman, overhead fan buyer, truck driver, cashier, and vice president in charge of the Middle Western states. These are manifestly incommensurable jobs, requiring skills, talents, efforts and personal characteristics that vary along many dimensions. Sears faces two problems with regard to formulating a compensation policy in the face of this diversity: First, at any given time, what wages or salary shall it pay each position, and how shall it justify that compensation; and Second, how shall it determine what relative raise to give each position annually?

            Along comes the Hay Company with a systematic answer. A middle level executive at Sears – who, as it happens, is currently my brother-in-law – is assigned the task of evaluating each of the hundreds of positions in the Sears system. This executive travels around the country making on-site inspections. He assigns to each job so many points for the amount of physical effort required, so many points for the manual dexterity required, so many points for independence of judgment, imagination, responsibility, direction of subordinates, and so forth, all according to a complex process provided by Hay.  He totals the assignments and arrives thereby at the index of Hay points [as they are called] associated with each position. The top management then decides how many dollars in compensation will be paid per Hay point throughout the corporation, and a simple multiplication gives the salary the Sears will pay to anyone occupying the position. If the position of manager of a “B” store earns 5,134 Hay points, and if Sears decides to pay eleven dollars a point, then any manager of a “B” store will be paid 56,474 dollars.

            As for raises, Sears at the end of each year chooses an amount – let us say 87 cents – which it will pay per Hay point as a raise. Our store manager then receives a raise of 4,466.58.

            How does the Hay Company, or my brother-in-law, decide, when implementing this system, how much weight to assign to industry, initiative, independence, manual dexterity, or the ability to operate a word processor? It should by now be obvious that the answer cannot possibly be in terms of relative profitability to the firm of its employees’ possession of these various characteristics. If anyone could actually ascertain directly such a measure of profitability, there would be no need for the Hay system.

            In fact, as we might expect, the system embodies a number of normative or evaluative presuppositions which are only thinly concealed by a putatively impartial rationale. Head work is routinely assigned more Hay points than hand work. Any position requiring its holder to direct or control the performance of others is valued especially highly. It is not too simple to say that the Hay Company has constructed an index designed to confirm and legitimate the greater worth and hence higher salaries of the positions at the top of the executive ladder, by assigning the greatest weight to whatever talents, skills, traits of character, or modes of activity are in fact performed by those executives.

            But how could it be otherwise? During the Culture Revolution, the Chinese counterparts of the Hay Company dictated an alternative set of evaluations, declaring manual labor to be superior to mental labor, and so forth. The result may have been morally superior – I leave that to your own judgment – but it was not, and could not be, more ‘objective.’

            As should be obvious, the existence in actual operation of practical systems of job evaluation like that of the Hay Company constitutes a continuing source of rueful embarrassment to conservative business men, like my brother-in-law, whose politics incline them to look askance at the demands by organized women workers for equal pay for comparable worth. One cannot operate the Hay system and claim that the concept of comparable worth is economically meaningless without badly fouling one’s own nest! Nevertheless, the real thrust of my remarks is that my brother-in-law is right. Any system for the indexing of incommensurable tasks presupposes a set of normative or evaluative assumptions. Bringing those assumptions to light does not permit us to eliminate them, for without them we have no way of carrying out the indexing process.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


With this post, I begin a three-part posting of the essay I wrote in  1985 for delivery at the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association.  The paper appears to have been prepared as part of a panel duscussing a recent book by James Buchanan, who the next year won the Nobel prize in Economics for his work on public choice, but I confess that I have compeletly forgotten the details.


             Professor Buchanan has explicated for us, both in his paper today and in the book which this session serves to celebrate, the limitations of the sorts of unanimity partial orderings to which Vilfredo Pareto has given his name. In my remarks today, I should like to explore some of the ways in which economists and philosophers have sought to extend the scope of inter-systematic comparisons, and to suggest reasons for believing that intersystemic comparisons must always implicitly or otherwise embody some evaluative presuppositions. My thesis is one more instance of a much broader theme, to which I have many times returned in writing and teaching, namely that supposedly value-neutral models of formal analysis usually contain powerful unacknowledged value assumptions which shape their formal structure as well as their substantive content.

            The problem with unanimity partial orderings is that although they are transitive, they are not complete. If everyone at our picnic prefers chocolate ice cream to vanilla, then we can be sure that switching the dessert from vanilla to chocolate will produce an increase in social welfare, assuming that everything else remains unchanged, and that there are no externalities. Furthermore, if we all prefer vanilla to pistachio as well, then the transitivity of individual preference guarantees that we will all prefer chocolate to pistachio, and therefore a switch of the dessert from pistachio to chocolate must increase social welfare.  But suppose some of us prefer chocolate to vanilla and the rest prefer vanilla to chocolate. How shall we evaluate the move from vanilla to chocolate, as a collective or group decision? 

            Obviously, it becomes necessary, at the very least, to ask how much the chocolate lovers prefer chocolate to vanilla, and the vanilla lovers vanilla to chocolate. Some cardinal measure of preference intensity, pleasure, welfare, preference priority, or even, a la Plato and Mill, the relative objective value of the desire for chocolate versus the desire for vanilla, will have to be invoked if we are to aggregate the preferences or desires of the individuals at the picnic into a single group ranking suitable for the making of a collective social choice. In short, we shall have to define an index.

            Bentham assumed that pleasure is the only good, pain the only evil, and that pleasure and pains, no matter whom they afflict, are intersubjectively comparable and hence commensurable. These assumptions do not, of themselves, suffice for the construction of an index, of course. It was still necessary for Bentham to stipulate an aggregation rule or, in the modern jargon, a social welfare function. His version of utilitarianism is just such a rule. We might state it in modern terms something like this:

1.  As between two policies, actions, or states of affairs, A and B, if B provides to each individual in the society at least as much net happiness as does A, and if there is at least one person to whom B provides more net happiness than does A, then assign B a higher index number than A.

2.  As between two policies, actions, or states of affairs, A and B, one of which provides more net happiness to some individuals and the other of which provides more net happiness to other individuals, measure the amounts of happiness accorded by each alternative to each individual, using the same scale of measurement. Then [this, strictly speaking, is the aggregation or indexing rule], following the rule ‘everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one,’ add the quantities of net happiness accorded by each alternative to all the individuals in the society, and assign to A or B whichever has the larger sum.

            We are accustomed, in the light of the New Welfare Economics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, to focus our attention on the phrase, ‘using the same scale of measurement,’ and then to invoke the supposed logical impossibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility as a reason for rejecting classical utilitarianism. But as Sen, Suppes, Harsanyi, and a number of other theorists have shown us, there are ways of getting around the problems of interpersonal comparisons which pose no greater philosophical difficulties than the extreme solipsism that generates the problem in the first place. The real problem is the purely normative clause, ‘everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one.’ We can defend the assumption that the welfare of the society consists in the arithmetic sum of the welfares of its individual members only by positing the moral and political premise that all individuals are equally important, or that each individual's happiness deserves to be given equal weight in the social sum.  And this premise simply begs all of the questions of policy that utilitarianism was designed to resolve.

            Let us take a look, now, at a number of practical and theoretical contexts in which the indexing problem arises. My aim is to show you that in each case, a resolution of the problem requires a normative or prescriptive premise which must be exogenously introduced, as economists like to say.

            My first example is drawn from the work of John Raw1s. Raw1s, you will recall, undertakes to extract a normative principle of distributive justice from non-normative, or minimally normative, premises, by means of the conceptual device of a bargaining game among rationally self-interested agents. In order to avoid certain theoretical difficulties which stand in the way of his establishing the principle that he wishes to promulgate, Raw1s introduces into his theoretical construction a limitation on the knowledge available to the participants in the bargaining game which he labels ‘the veil of ignorance.’

            Unfortunately, the veil of ignorance deprives the players in the game of so much information that they no longer have any rational reason to care about its outcome. So Raw1s is forced to re-equipped them with knowledge that they have coherent life–plans whose fulfillment they are rationally committed to pursuing. But even this information is insufficient, for what one wishes to bargain for depends on what in particular one has chosen as a life plan. Hence Raw1s must add the notion of primary goods, which is to say those things – ‘rights and liberties, opportunities and powers, income and wealth’ – which, as he says ‘ a rational man wants whatever else he wants.’ The idea is simply that no matter what life plan one turns out to have chosen, possession of these primary goods will serve to advance it.

            But now the indexing problem rears its head. Clearly, as between two principles of distributive justice, A and B, if B promises at least as much of each primary good as does A, and more of at least one, then B is to be preferred to A. But suppose B promises more opportunity and less wealth, or greater income but less power. How then shall the rational man behind the veil of ignorance choose? [I say ‘rational man,’ because as a careful reader of A THEORY OF JUSTICE will discover, Raw1s' world contains only men.] The answer is to construct an index of primary goods. It is this number which the individuals in the original position bargain over.

            Although Rawls is aware of the problems of indexing, he glosses over them, admitting that we must ‘rely on our intuitive capacities.’ Nevertheless, he stands by the fundamental claim on which his entire philosophy rests, namely that his theory allows him’ to replace moral judgments by those of rational prudence…’ [THEORY OF JUSTICE p. 94]

            Raw1s’ actual discussion of the indexing problem is arbitrary in the extreme. First he stipulates, with very little ground, that bargainers in the original position will choose to make rights and liberties lexically prior to all other primary goods. This has the effect of eliminating the need for an index that aggregates rights and liberties with the other primary goods, for lexical priority stipulates that any increase in rights and liberties, however small, will take precedence, for example, over any loss of wealth or income, however large. 

            This still leaves the problem of aggregating wealth and income with opportunities and powers. Since this is manifestly impossible – how, for example, shall we compare an increase of ten percent in the opportunity to pursue a medical career as against a decrease in income of five thousand dollars a year? – Rawls make yet another simplifying assumption. Reminding us that the Difference Principle concerns itself primarily with the least well-off representative man, Rawls simply asserts that the least advantaged tend to have both the least wealth and income and the least powers and opportunities. In Short, Raw1s assumes away any indexing problem at all.

            But clearly the issue is not so simple resolved. One of the major points of controversy in modern social welfare policy concerns precisely the relationship, in the lives of the least advantaged, of income or power. Radical critics of current welfare practices have argued that transfer payments, particularly payments in kind, have the effect of depriving the poor of social and political power, and indeed may even have that as their purpose. Hence, as between two social policies, one of which increases the income of the least advantaged while making them impotent clients of the welfare bureaucracy, the other of which increases economic or political power but at the cost of a lowered income, it becomes a matter of substantive and evaluative social philosophy which to espouse.

Rawls himself has finally recognized the inescapably normative element in his notion of life plans and primary goods. In a recent volume of essays titled UTILITARIANISM AND BEYOND, edited by Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, Rawls returns to the subject in an essay on ‘Social Unity and Primary Goods.’ In the following passages, Rawls virtually acknowledges that the formation of an index of primary goods presupposes normative constraints on what will count as an acceptable life plan.

Imagine two persons, one satisfied with a diet of milk, bread and beans, while the other is distraught without expensive wines and exotic dishes. In short one has expensive tastes, the other does not. If the two principles of justice are understood in their simplest form (as I assume here), then we must say, the objection runs, that with equal incomes both are equally satisfied. But this is plainly not true…. The reply is that as moral persons citizens have some part in forming and cultivating their final ends and preferences. It is not by itself an objection to the use of primary goods that it does not accommodate those with expensive tastes. One must argue in addition that it is unreasonable, if not unjust, to hold such persons responsible for their preferences and to require them to make out as best they can. But to argue this seems to presuppose that citizens’ preferences are beyond their control as propensities or cravings which simply happen.

And Rawls continues:

The idea of holding citizens responsible for their ends is plausible, however, only on certain assumptions. First, we must assume that citizens can regulate and revise their ends and preferences in the light of expectations of primary goods. [And so forth]

            In short we can hope to arrive at a usable definition of an index of primary goods, only if we require that our prudentially self-interested bargainers constrain their life-plans by considerations of fairness and, as Rawls says a bit later in the same essay, the higher-order interests of moral persons.’ I think we can fairly conclude that Rawls has failed, in his own words, ‘to replace moral judgments by those of rational prudence.’

Saturday, January 12, 2013


Tomorrow I shall start posting the paper I mentioned, "The Indexing Problem," in sections.  It should take three days in all to post.  Today, I am going to say a few words about the background of the paper, which is one small part of what I now realize has been a theme of much of my work for more than half a century, and which came to be the central focus of what I think of as my Middle Years -- the late 1970's to the early 1990's.

 As long ago as 1962, I became aware of the many ways in which modes of social analysis, especially as expressed in mathematical form, conceal normative presuppositions, thus passing themselves off as value neutral or objective.  Indeed, I came to believe that this presentation of the normative as value neutral is the distinguishing mark of what is usually called ideology.

My very first attempt to explore this idea took the form of a book manuscript growing out of my deep engagement in the nuclear disarmament movement of the 1950's and 60's.  That manuscript, The Rhetoric of Deterrence, was deemed unpublishable by the presses to which I showed it, but it can be found online at, accessible by following the link at the top of this blog page.  Even at that very early date, when I was not yet thirty, I had begun trying to bring into useful conjunction the insights of philosophy, literary criticism, and mathematical economics.  No doubt this will sound strange, and I am not aware of anyone else, with the notable exception of Karl Marx, who has ever undertaken such a fusion, but to this day I remain convinced that this approach is the only proper way to understand the complexity of human society.  Indeed, it is this, more than anything else, that I have learned from my long engagement with Marx's writings.

In 1975, I offered a graduate course on "The Use and Abuse of Formal Models in Political Philosophy."  My analysis in that course of Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia eventually was published in the Arizona Law Review [see] and my lectures on Rawls' A Theory of Justice appeared with Princeton University Press as Understanding Rawls.  I argued that Nozick and Rawls used the formalism of Game Theory to lend an air of objectivity to what were, in both cases, unacknowledged and inadequately defended normative presuppositions. 

Two years later, I offered a graduate seminar on "Classics of Critical Social Theory," devoted to  works by Marx, Freud, and Mannheim.  In preparation for the seminar, I re-read Volume One of Capital, which I had first read in 1960 in preparation for a Sophomore tutorial at Harvard that I was co-teaching with Barrington Moore, Jr.  Reading Capital this time around was a revelatory experience.  I had what I can only describe as an eclairecissement, a sudden insight into the rich complexity of Marx's analysis of capitalist economy and society.  It seemed to me that there was an essential connection, never adequately understood by his commentators and disciples, between Marx's formal economic analysis of capitalism, his critique of the mystifying forms and appearances of bourgeois society, and the extraordinary language in which he expressed his insights, language that stood in marked contrast to the language of the Classical Political Economists [the Physiocrats, Smith, Ricardo] whom Marx conceived himself to be both building on and subjecting to critique.

With great good fortune, I had a one-semester sabbatical leave in the Spring of 1978 [one of only three sabbatical leaves in my fifty years of teaching].  After a month spent teaching myself Linear Algebra, I launched on an intensive study of mathematical economics, concentrating on a series of brilliant books written by a world-wide network of economists devoted to rendering Marx's insights in modern mathematical form.  Rather quickly, I formulated a grand plan for a systematic reinterpretation of Marx's economic theories, bringing into fruitful conjunction philosophical, mathematical, economic, literary, historical, and sociological methods and insights.  I began reading widely in the voluminous writings of Marx and Friederich Engels, including not only such juvenile works as The Holy Family [a real hoot, if you have a taste for a send-up of Hegel] but also volume after volume of the letters Marx and Engels exchanged over the many years of their collaboration.

Eventually, I decided to sort my thoughts out in the form of a trilogy [my first wife and my good friend Robert Ackermann persuaded me that there was not much of a market for a single book that was half literary criticism and half mathematical economics.]  The first volume in the projected series was Understanding Marx, my reconstruction and simplification of the mathematical economists' rendering of Capital.  The second volume, delivered at UMass as a series of Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa lectures, appeared as Moneybags Must Be So Lucky. 

But Moneybags, if I may appropriate the lovely phrase of David Hume, fell stillborn from the presses.  No one reviewed it and no one read it, so far as I could make out.  By now, America had gone through eight years of Reagan, and whatever transformative impulse had ever existed in the late 60's and 70's was extinguished.  My disappointment was such that I never wrote the third volume of the trilogy, in which I had intended to draw together the themes of the first two volumes and lay out their interconnections.

In the late eighties, however, as Moneybags was being written, I did begin work on that third volume, and odd though it may sound, my first task was to carry out a careful study of the history of the development of index numbers.  Index numbers?  Why index numbers?  Indeed, what are index numbers?

What, first.  Index numbers are one-dimensional measures of a multi-dimensional aggregate.  The Consumer Price Index is an index number.  The Unemployment Rate is an index number.  A brief explanation, for those to whom this is not, as the saying goes, mother's milk.  There are thousands upon thousands of commodities offered regularly in markets, and their prices vary a good deal from day to day or year to year.  A loaf of bread [but then, there are countless kinds and brands of bread], a jug of wine [Merlot, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc?], and even thou [sex being, after all, a commodity with its market price.]  The prices of commodities do not move in lockstep.  From Monday to Tuesday, grapes may go up, bread may go down, and Corn Flakes may remain unchanged in price.  What, if anything, can we say about "the movement of prices" in the face of such complexity of fluctuation?  The answer is an Index.  Economists, after careful study of consumer behavior, design an imaginary market basket of goods and services meant to reflect the "typical" or "average" or "customary" mix of items that consumers spend their money on.  They then sample prices at a large number of retail stores to discover what that notional market basket would cost on a given day.  Changes in that price are said then to reveal "the movement of prices."  If the price of a market basket of goods and services increases by 3% from last January 12th to today, while the goods and services themselves remain unchanged in quality and quantity, then prices are said to have undergone a 3% rise, and the headlines the next day read "inflation running at 3%."

Now, it takes very little wit at all to realize that an index of this sort has a great deal of arbitrariness built into it.  There are in fact probably very few households that spend their money for just precisely the collection of goods and services in the economist's notional market basket.  If meat prices soar, do vegetarians experience sharp inflation?  Presumably not.  If I own my own home and have no intention of moving, peaks and valleys in housing prices are without significance to me. 

Strange as it may sound, this commonplace observation, suitably expanded and complicated, holds the key to the proper analysis of the ideological encoding of our cognitive appropriation of social reality.  [God, don't you just love to write phrases like that?]  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that there is no social reality that is objective, value-neutral, and independent of our ideological representations.  Because society is a collective human product, and because we unavoidably employ concepts in appropriating that social reality that are normatively encoded, society itself is inevitably mystified.  Even those of us who have fought our way to a knowledge of this fact are incapable of separating ourselves from our ideological awareness.  Not even Marx, had he lived to see a socialist society [from my mouth to God's ear!], could ever have managed to experience society as other than mystified.

Well, all of that is the background to the little paper I am going to start posting tomorrow, a paper I wrote in 1985 just when I was giving the Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Lectures.