Coming Soon:

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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




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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ANOTHER BRILLIANT ESSAY BY MY YOUNGER SON, PROFESSOR TOBIAS BARRINGTON WOLFF

One of the great pleasures of my dotage is bragging about the astonishing accomplishments of my sons.  By now, anyone who is paying attention knows that I have two sons, Patrick Gideon Wolff and Tobias Barrington Wolff.  Tobias is the University of Pennsylvania Law Professor, a Civil Proceduralist and the leading gay legal rights theorist in America.  He has just written a devastating review of a new book by New York TIMES reporter Jo Becker.  It has now been published by The New Republic, and you can read it here.   As all the fathers out there will understand, I tend to take credit for all the remarkable things my sons do, so you will perhaps forgive me if I say that he gets his talent for satire from me.  hem hem

This is, I believe, an important essay.  It sets the record straight about the most important recent advance in Civil Rights in America, a subject that Booker managed to get entirely wrong.  Take a look at it and see what you think.

*******************

No sooner had I posted this than my son, ever a stickler for precision [these lawyers, you know] pointed out that although he might perhaps be considered one of the leading gay legal rights theorists in the country, it would not be true to say he is the leading gay legal rights theorist. 

I suppose he also will not permit me to say that he is the handsomest gay man in America.

I mean, if you can't go a bit over the top about your kids, what can you go over the top about?

Oh well, let us agree that he is one of the leading gay legal theorists and one of the handsome gay men in America.  There.  Who could possibly object to that?

SILVER LININGS


My old Afro-American Studies Chair Esther Terry used to say, echoing her rural North Carolina upbringing, "Robert, we have to try to make chicken salad out of chicken shit."  Mindful of the wisdom of that injunction, I have been trying to find something positive to take away from this week's recrudescence of raw, unfiltered racism.  Sitting as I am at the moment under storm clouds [but no tornados, Praise the Lord], I am searching the skies for silver linings.  Here are the glimmerings I have glimpsed.

Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling are authentically American.  They articulate eloquently the inner voices of scores of millions of White Americans, voices that have been with us for hundreds of years.  This is, after all, a nation in which promoters sold tickets to lynchings at which enthusiastic spectators cut off body parts of the victims as souvenirs.   In recent decades, it had become less socially acceptable [but by no means unknown] for those Americans to make themselves heard in public spaces.

Then, two things changed.  First, the election of a Black President drove many millions of Americans wild with despair and rage.  They came slouching out of their caves to say again in public what they had always believed, but lately had been forced by the soft tyranny of public opinion to reserve for private conversations.  Second, modern technology made virtually every private conversation potentially public.  The occasional open microphone, bane of the aspiring politician, became the ubiquitous cell phone, seemingly capturing not merely the private speech but even the private thoughts of the unwary.  So we have Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling.

Well, I think it is a good thing.  Nothing has ever been gained by the Pollyanna blathering of the chattering classes about a post-racial America.  This is now, as it always has been, a deeply racialized society in which White contempt for Black men and women has never been absent.  Far  better to confront that fact, so that we can continue to fight against it.  Racism is learned, it is not inherited.  The more we expose it, and having exposed it, condemn it and those who embrace it, the less likely is it to be passed on to the next generation.  Bundy and Sterling will never change, but they will die, Praise the Lord, and perhaps their heirs will be more decent human beings.

And now, as I write, I see a just a touch of blue on the Western horizon.

OFF TO CLASS

This morning I teach the third class on Plato's Gorgias in Duke University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute [OLLI], a learning-in-retirement program where I have taught a number of courses as a volunteer.  I really like teaching in OLLI.  The students are all senior citizens, and they have lives, they are actually people, not just bundles of potentiality.  The trouble with spending fifty years teaching undergraduates and graduate students is that although at first you and your students are roughly the same age, after half a century, you have grown rather older and they are still the same age they were when you started teaching.

For a while, I bridged the gap with references to Star Trek, but that grew old in about the '90s.  Now, I am so out of touch with the cultural references of the young that when they make an allusion, I cannot tell whether they are talking about a rock group or a venereal disease.

My worst moment came several years ago when I taught a required graduate seminar for the UNC Chapel Hill Public Policy Department on "Normative Dimensions of Public Policy."  The students were bright and serious and had done a number of fascinating things in government or the non-profit sector before coming to graduate school, but they were clueless about certain things that I took for granted.  One day, a propos I cannot recall what, I made a passing reference to Gilbert and Sullivan.  It turned out that not a single student in the class had ever heard of Gilbert and Sullivan.  I am afraid I failed to conceal my dismay.

Today should be fun.  I will be talking about Plato's hilarious theory of true and false technes, or "arts."  After I finish with Socrates' claim that the laws urged on Athens by Pericles are to the souls of the Athenians as cosmetics are to their bodies -- making them look fit and healthy when in fact they are politically flabby and out of shape -- I will draw parallels to the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon presidential campaign.  I shall not have to tell the class who Kennedy and Nixon are.  They were there.

Monday, April 28, 2014

THE CONCEPT OF A PRODUCTION FUNCTION, OR TAPDANCING OVER NIAGARA FALLS WITHOUT A NET


Operating on the theory that when you dodge a bullet, the thing to do is to put another target on your chest, I am going to write something now about the concept of a production function, which, when I first encountered it, puzzled me for some long while, until I thought it through.  I think in an odd way I benefited from never actually taking an economics course [although I did teach Introductory Microeconomics at UMass -- see my Autobiography!]  I am encouraged in this foolhardy undertaking by Magpie, who, in his very kind response to my rant about marginal productivity, referenced John Bates Clark and Joan Robinson.

The first thing I had to get clear in my head when I started studying Economics was that economists -- whether classical or neo-classical -- never seem to talk about how stuff is actually made in factories or on farms or in mines or in offices.  Indeed, I think it is fair to say they don't know much at all about how stuff is made.  The closest they come is to specify the collection of physical inputs and the amount of labor required to produce one unit of this or that -- the "unit input coefficients" as they are sometimes called.  But how all those inputs are combined exactly is left to someone else -- the engineers, presumably, who, even though they are located in the Faculty of Science, are at the absolutely bottom of the status hierarchy there and can therefore be ignored.

Now, here is the really important thing to understand.  All economists simplify, just as do all physicists and all geologists and all microbiologists.  If they did not, if they went on endlessly about every single detail of every market or factory or consumer or producer or sector of the economy, they could never carry out any interesting reasoning at all.  But it matters a great deal just how one decides to simplify.  To be specific, the Classical Political Economists [Smith, Ricardo, Marx] assume that at any given time, there is one dominant  technique for making each commodity that is produced in a factory or on a piece of agricultural land.  They know this is not quite true, of course.  There might be two or three ways to make straight pins or to set up the power looms in a fabric factory or to use oxen and seed corn and plows on a field, but they just abstract from that, figuring that one of the available techniques will be more profitable, and that fact will become known to all the entrepreneurs in that line of business, who will then shift to the best technique.  They also know that from time to time, innovations are introduced, so that for a while there will be two techniques going rather than one, but they expect that an innovation will either make a bigger profit for its innovator, in which case it will be adopted throughout the industry, or it will prove less profitable and be dropped.

Neo-classical economists make exactly the opposite "simplification."  They assume that there are actually an infinite number of ways in which inputs can be combined to produce the output of an industry.  These different ways will not only use different amounts of the same inputs in varying and differing ways, they may also use all manner of alternative inputs.

Now, if you think about it at a very high level of abstraction [where economists, like Sherpas, feel most comfortable], there are a finite number of possible inputs into any line of production, and each of them, including labor, can be added in any number of different ways.  For example, suppose you are in the business of growing wheat.  On an acre of arable land, you can throw a cupful of seed at the acre of land from a corner of the acre, cover the acre with tarpaulins so that no water gets to the ground, and hire one worker to look at the field every month and cross himself piously.  That is indeed one way of growing wheat.   The inputs here are a cupful of seed, one man-day of labor per month, and a stack of tarpaulins big enough to cover an acre.  The output using the inputs in this manner will be zero bushels of wheat.  But there are many other ways of combining those exact same inputs for the purpose of growing wheat.  One of them, for example, is to have the man walk across the field for a day the first month poking holes with his fingers and planting the wheat seeds, and stacking the tarpaulins in a corner of the field so they do not get in the way of whatever rain should come, and then spending a day a month weeding.  The output will, we may assume, be several bushels of wheat.  There are infinitely many possible combinations of all the available inputs [which, of course, includes cyanide, firecrackers, Hope Rain Dance outfits, and much more besides], and many many different ways of technically combining each set of possible inputs, and each combination with each way of combining them has some amount of output of wheat associated with it.

A Wheat Production Function is a mapping of each of the infinite number of possible combinations of inputs onto the maximum amount of wheat producible by that combination of inputs, using one or another of the finite but very numerous possible techniques that can be run with that combination of inputs.

Now, here is the crucial thing to grasp, which it took me a very long time to figure out, since none of the books I was reading talked this way at all.  To say that the production function is continuous, and therefore differentiable, is to say that if you hold all but one of a set of possible inputs constant, and increase the remaining input a little bit, the maximum amount of wheat producible with this slightly altered set of inputs will also be a little bit bigger.  BUT THERE IS NO ASSUMPTION BEING MADE AT ALL THAT THE MAXIMALLY PRODUCTIVE TECHNIQUE WITH THAT SLIGHTLY ALTERED SET OF INPUTS WILL LOOK ANYTHING LIKE THE MAXIMALLY EFFECTIVE TECHNIQUE WITH THE ORIGINAL SET OF INPUTS.

Go back and look at the John Bates Clark example cited by Magpie.  Clark imagines that a group of men are working on a field of grain, and supposes that if you add one man [a small increase of one of the inputs] you can grow a little bit more grain [presumably because when one man gets tired the extra hand can step in and keep the work going, or something like that.]  But that example encourages us, quite incorrectly, to assume that the new technique, with the extra man, will in some natural way look quite like the old technique without him.  And the concept of a production function totally abstracts from any such natural way of thinking about the matter.

Joan Robinson pointed out that if you add one shovel instead of one man, you will not increase the output because there will be no one to use the shovel.  [This was not quite fair, of course.  The shovel might come in handy if one of the workmen broke the handle of his shovel,  but never mind.]  But even Robinson took it for granted that the techniques would look quite similar.

In order for economists to use Euler's Theorem and all the other really nifty stuff they hijacked from elementary calculus, they have to assume that the production functions they are working with are continuous, and hence partially differentiable.  But when you set aside Clark's just-so stories of men working a field, there is no reason at all to suppose that the mapping of vectors of inputs onto the scalar of maximum output is in any way, shape, or form continuous, even as an approximation.  No reason at all.

Let me give you a real historical example that played a rather important role in the American South in the latter years of slavery and the early years of freedom.  Large Southern plantations used an organization of agricultural labor called the gang system.  Slaves were lined up in a row at one end of a field and moved forward in a coordinated fashion planting or weeding or harvesting.  This was much more efficient, for obvious reasons [they could come to the end of a row and wheel in a coordinated fashion], but to maintain the order of the line required an overseer, a slave driver with a whip, who walked behind the line of men and women and whipped them if they lagged.  [Yes, Virginia, there really were slave drivers -- not office bosses who demand that secretaries finish their typing before going home, but men with whips who drove the slaves like oxen.]  After liberation, when the slaves were freed [and for a brief time actually had something resembling the rights of free men and women], they refused to work in this fashion, regardless of the pay offered by desperate plantation owners.  This was a marginal change in input -- one worker fewer, namely the slave driver -- but it resulted in a large change in output, not a marginal change.

The concept of a production function, which is central to modern Economics, is loaded with [or, as people like to say these days, fraught with] difficulties and implausibilities, none of which, so far as I can tell, is ever mentioned in Economics textbooks or classes.

Well, that concludes my rant about production functions.  But I thought I would add one little note about the claim economists make that their field is scientific.  Martin Feldstein is one of the most influential economists in America.  Currently a Professor at Harvard, he served for four years as Reagan's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.  Feldstein in those days taught Economics 10, the enormous intro course with lectures by himself and a gazillion sections taught by grad students and young Instructors.  While he was away in Washington, some leftie grad students succeeded in persuading the person who stood in for Feldstein to allow them to teach a certain number of "alternative," or as Krugman would say heterodox, sections in which something other than orthodox economic theory was presented to the lucky students.  When Feldstein returned, he discontinued that practice, saying, "The purpose of Economics 10 is to teach students that the market works."

NOT HOW THE MARKET WORKS, BUT THAT THE MARKET WORKS.  Savonarola could not have put it better!

 

 

MILESTONES

This blog is now almost five years old, having begun in all seriousness on June 1, 2009.  Later today, if Google's Total Pageview Counter is accurate, it will pass a major milestone.  Google will record the one millionth page view!  To be sure, that is astonishing, but a little perspective is in order.  The Huffington Post apparently records that many page views every five hours or so [and actually racks up more than one million unique visits per day, meaning that more than a million different people -- or at least a million different computers -- visit the site once or more than once every day.]  Still, a million total page views is not chopped chicken liver, as folks used to say where I grew up.

Now that I have settled into the blogosphere and looked around to see what other bloggers are doing, it has struck me that what I do is really rather unusual.  Indeed, it may very well be unique.  Would any other blogger post a nineteen part essay on the thought of Karl Marx, or a fourteen part essay on the thought of Sigmund Freud, not to speak of a sixteen part essay on Ideological Critique, or a 261,696 word autobiography presented almost daily for fourteen months?   Logorrhea does not begin to capture it.

I know, from comments and emails, that the blog reaches at least six continents [no news from Antarctica as yet].  I cannot figure out how many people follow it more or less regularly, but it seems to be somewhere between one and three thousand.  Periodically Brian Leiter links to the blog and page views spike dramatically for a day or two [Leiter really is a successful blogger -- heaven only knows how many page views he gets.]

But you never know.  When I went back a second time to see the very nice bi-lingual Paris doctor I found on rue de Pot de Fer, she told me her daughter had called her attention to the nice things I had said about her on my blog.  And considering that Piketty's translator, Arthur Goldhammer, recently posted a comment, I flatter myself that just possibly Piketty himself took a look at my five part review.  [I mean, he watches Desperate Housewives, judging from a reference in his book, why not me?]

As I have observed before, it is like having a large permanent class, in which I lecture every day to a shifting assemblage of scholars, students, artists, and free-form intellectuals.  [I am reminded of the great line from a song in Guys and Dolls -- "It's the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York."]  I may not reach as many people as Arianna Huffington, but I would bet you the average I.Q. of  my readers is higher.

By the time I am ninety, I may hit three million.  Of course, by then, people will be reading this on their eyeglasses.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A WILD RANT ABOUT MARGINAL PRODUCTIVITY


In the wake of the Piketty tsunami, there have been a good many references to marginal productivity, particularly to the claim that the stratospheric salaries of the "supermanagers" are justified on the grounds that they are merely earning their marginal product, which is therefore [this is always a very large leap] fair.  The low wages of common workers are explained by their low marginal productivity.

I am now going to do a complicated dance on a high wire without a net.  If I go splat, I hope some of you more knowledgeable than I will clean up the mess.  I should explain that in the Spring of 1978, during one of my very rare sabbatical semester leaves, I sat in on Donald Katzner's graduate microeconomics course at the University of Massachusetts, plowing my way through Henderson and Quandt and doing all the exercises [though not handing them in to be corrected by the long-suffering Katzner, who put up graciously with my presence.]  My knowledge of the subject of marginal productivity derives entirely from that thirty-six year old experience, so you can see this is a real reach for me.  I mean, I was out of my depth when I was fifty-four and in my prime [as Miss Jean Brodie would say.]  At this point, I am desperately twiddling my toes to tread water and stay afloat.  Ok, enough excuses.

The concept of marginal productivity is somewhat misleadingly simple, at least as it is explained to undergraduate students taking an elementary Micro course.  The idea is supposed to be this:  There are a number of inputs into any production process -- land, raw materials, tools, and of course labor.  Clearly [this is so far from being clear that it is actually almost always false, but never mind that for a moment], if we hold all but one of the inputs constant, and add one more unit of the remaining input, there will be some increase in output.  That increase is called the output at the margin, or the marginal output, and this marginal increase in output attributable to the addition of one unit of a factor is called that factor's marginal product.  We could as easily ask how much output would be lost if we held all but one of the inputs constant and decreased the remaining input by one unit.  Intuitively, this will not in general be the same quantity as the quantity of output gained by the addition of an extra unit, but [and here we go again with the little assumptions on which total ideological rationalizations are erected] if we assume continuity of inputs and outputs and continuity of the production function of the process [which is not the same thing at all as the assumption of continuity of the inputs and outputs, but never mind for the moment], then as we make the units smaller and smaller, the difference between the two vanishes.

Everybody still with me?

Now comes the thing that gives economists secret erotic thrills and convinces them that they are not merely scientists but Philosopher Kings fit to rule a modern society.  An eighteenth century Swiss chap named Leonhard Euler [a very big deal in Mathematics] proved a theorem about what are called homogeneous functions.  Briefly, to make this as simple as possible, a homogenous function in a number of variables is a function in which the sums of the powers to which the variables are raised in each term are equal.  Thus, if we have a function in three variables, f(x,y,z) = (x2yz3 + xy4z + x1/2y1/2z5) then the function is homogenous of order 6, because if you add up all the little superscripts or powers in each term (including the 1's, which I did not bother to put in), in each term they total 6.

Brief pause to permit the math averse to get a breath of fresh air or read a Dickinson poem. 

Euler proved that if we take the partial derivatives of the function, f, and multiply each one by the value of that variable at a given point x = (x1 , y1, z1), then the value of the function at that point times the order of the homogeneity is equal to the sum of all those partial derivatives multiplied by the value of the variable at that point.  Or, in symbols, where m = the order of homogeneity:

 

mf(x1, y1, z1) = (df/dx1)x1 + (df/dy1)y1 + df/dz1)z1

 

Now, when the order m = 1, the function f is called a linear homogeneous function, and in this case:

 

f(x1, y1, z1) = (df/dx1)x1 + (df/dy1)y1 + df/dz1)z1

 

Well, the term on the left is simply the output of the product for some level of inputs of x, y, and z, and the each term on the right can be interpreted as the marginal product of that factor, because it is the amount of output yielded by holding everything else constant and increasing or decreasing that input marginally.  So the total output of the product for the inputs x1, y1, z1 is just exactly equal to the sum of their marginal products.  Now, the income or receipts from selling the product is of course the quantity sold times the price.  If we pay each input into the production of that output an amount proportional to its marginal product, then the entire monetary return from selling the product will just exactly be used up paying each factor of production its marginal product.  In the simplest case, there are two factors of production, capital and labor, and assuming that the society-wide production function relating inputs of capital and labor to total social output is linear homogeneous, then clearly the fair, efficient, rational, and one might go so far as to say divinely ordained thing to do is to pay capital its marginal product in the form of profit, and pay labor its marginal product in the form of wages.  Ta Da!

It would not be an exaggeration, I think, to say, that when economists looking for some way to justify low wages hit on this interpretation of Euler's Theorem, it was as though the heavens had opened up and the heavenly choir had started to sing to them.  Pythagoras could not have asked for more.  Pure Mathematics justified, indeed required, that capital get its profits and labor be satisfied with its wages.

Sigh.  It really is a thing of beauty, this little bit of formal by-play.  And thanks to the fact that most Americans are essentially illiterate when it comes to math, it hasn't been difficult for economists, who do really know better, to spend three quarters of a century or so teaching their idiot students in Intro Econ courses that minimum wage laws and taxation of profits and such like will just disturb the divine harmony of marginal productivity and produce unimaginable inefficiencies and counter-productive consequences.  The grad students learn better, but they also learn not to talk too much about what they have learned, except to other initiates with doctorates in Economics.

Here's the thing.  It does not take much additional math to prove some rather unsettling conclusions about economies governed by linear homogeneous production functions in which, to be sure, Euler's Theorem applies.  One thing that falls out of the math is that such economies exhibit what is called constant returns to scale, which means there is nothing to be gained by expanding the scope of production in a company.  That is equivalent to saying that the economy is in long run equilibrium, which means no capitalist has any incentive to enter or exit any particular line of production.  It is also true that in such an economy there is a zero rate of profit [not a zero rate of interest -- that is something different].

Say what?  Does this sound at all like the American economy, or indeed any capitalist economy that has ever existed?  Well, er, no.  But the math, the math, look at the math, isn't the math beautiful?  And it is absolutely one hundred percent valid, that math.

It is all a fraud.  A beautiful fraud, an elegant fraud, but a fraud nonetheless. 

Nobody in America is paid his or her marginal product, save by accident, and we wouldn't know it if it happened, because there is no plausible way of calculating the society's production function.  What is more -- this is a topic for another post -- the very notion of a continuous production function is about as close to nonsense as you can get.  [The great Joan Robinson and her associates in Cambridge, England pointed this out long ago.]

Well, if all of this doesn't drive you away from this blog permanently, I will be very grateful.  I promise to return to more graceful and enjoyable topics tomorrow.

WHO NEEDS CAPITALISTS? -- CONTINUED


As we have seen, one of Thomas Piketty's principal concerns is the return of what he calls patrimonial capitalism -- the domination of the economy by inherited wealth.  In the United States, there is a long tradition of accumulated wealth being used to establish charitable foundations, whose purposes, at least initially, are specified by the wealthy donors, particularly in death-bed bequests, but whose programmatic giving over time has a tendency to take on a life and rationale of its own.  The Rockefeller, Mellon, Ford, and Gates Foundations are among the largest and best known of more than 75,000 charitable foundations created by patrimonial wealth. 

In the contemporary world, America seems to stand out in the tendency of its rich to bequeath their wealth to charitable foundations.  During my quarter century of work in South Africa, I was repeatedly struck by how little there was in the way of local foundation money available for what we would think of as good works.  The big mining companies offered university scholarships, but they were a form of indentured servitude, going to students of mining engineering and having attached to them a requirement that the recipients agree to work for a certain amount of time for the company.  It came as a great surprise to me to discover that my tiny effort, bringing no more than $50,000 in a very good year to the University of Durban-Westville, was the largest private benefactor of the university.

There are other examples throughout history, of course, of the rich making some sort of social contribution.  In the late Roman Empire, owners of the great latifundia were expected to erect statues and monuments in the local towns, and in eighteenth and nineteenth century China, the merchants who reaped enormous profits from their state-granted monopoly of the import/export trade were expected to make "voluntary" contributions for flood relief when the Yellow River overflowed its banks.

How much money are we talking about?  According to a report I surfaced on the web by something called The Foundation Center, which keeps track of such things, the accumulated assets of the more than 75,000 foundations, in 2007, came to about $682 billion.  This dropped the next hear to $565 billion, thanks to the market crash, but was already recovering in 2009, and by now, I would imagine, is back where it was, if not higher.  By way of comparison, the  endowments of American colleges and Universities total somewhat more than $300 billion.

In the continuation of my comments on Piketty, I raised a question that he does not directly address:  granted that society needs capital, why does it need capitalists?  The trillion dollars or so of foundation and academic endowments is a very small part of the total capital assets of American society, of course.  Suppose individuals were allowed to accumulate as much as they could in their lifetimes, but were forbidden to leave it to individuals as bequests in their estates.  They would either have to create genuinely independent charitable foundations or leave the capital to the American government.  Suppose, in short, after some generous allowance for the family home, the family farm, the family small business, or the family car, that capital reverted to the society on the death of the owner.  What would be lost, aside from the creation and sustaining of a new jeunesse dorée?  What would the state do with the enormous quantities of capital it would come into by such an arrangement?  Well, what do private individuals do, aside from living lives of idle luxury?  The state could lend it to wannabe entrepreneurs, as banks now do.  It could devote it to public works -- roads and bridges, wind farms and hydroelectric projects, space exploration and a search for a cure for cancer.  Or it could distribute a portion of it on a regular basis in the form of a universal guaranteed minimum income, thus ensuring a high level of consumer demand, which in turn would stimulate economic growth.

Charitable foundations and private colleges and universities [as well as churches, of course] already demonstrate that at least some accumulated capital can be put to good uses without the active intervention of private owners of that capital.  Why could we not generalize that experience?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A BIRD IN THE BUSH, WORTH TWO IN THE HAND

 
Lilac-Breasted Roller

WOLFF CONTRA KRUGMAN AND WREN-LEWIS -- A MANIFESTLY UNEQUAL CONTEST


Well, I have now figured out what notes I am supposed to be playing in the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, so maybe I can spend a few minutes talking about Simon Wren-Lewis' remarks about mainstream and "heterodox" economics.  [I do not mean to suggest, by the way, that I can play the notes.  Just that I have at least managed to figure out what notes I am supposed to be playing.  This is a challenge because substantial portions of the viola part are written in the treble clef, whereas viola music is usually written in the alto clef.  I played violin as a boy, all of the music for which is in the treble clef, and when I took up the viola fifty years later, I worked very hard to stop seeing the notes on the page as in the treble clef, so that my fingers would go in the correct places.  It is really mind-bending suddenly to have to go back to the treble clef.  These are the trials of the not-so-hot amateur violist.]

Wren-Lewis, as I mentioned, is an Oxford Don and a Fellow of Merton College who sounds, from what I have just read by him, to be a likeable and open-minded chap.  But buried in his discussion are some assumptions that I think need to be challenged.  Here are the opening two paragraphs of the post on his blog to which James provided a link.

"I read the Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society’s (PCES) critique of economics education in the UK with a bewildering mixture of emotions. (Claire Jones has a short FT summary here.) It is eloquently and intelligently written, but I believe in some respects fundamentally misguided. It is indicative of a failure of mainstream economics education, but not (as it thinks) a failure of mainstream economics. Yet even after all these years, it is a position I can empathise with.

"At its heart the critique is an appeal for plurality in economics. Rather than pretend that there is one right way to do economics (what the critique calls neoclassical), the critique says we should recognise that there are many alternative perspectives which have significant worth (and which therefore undergraduates should have significant exposure to). These alternative perspectives have become marginalised within economics over the last few decades, and the critique suggests that the financial crisis is evidence that this process should be reversed. This is not an unusual complaint, and I hear it frequently from those working in other social sciences."

After again expressing sympathy for the underlying motivations of the protesting students, Wren-Lewis offers a three-part response.  The heart of his response, to my way of thinking, is this sentence in the statement of the first part of the response:  "I agree with Roger Farmer here: economics is a science."  Wren-Lewis is happy to grant that Economics is not always taught well, especially at the undergraduate level; that its scientific discoveries are sometimes misconstrued as justifications for conservative [or any other ideologically encoded] policies; that it progresses more slowly than we might wish, more slowly indeed than the natural sciences.  But it is science, it is "progressive" [in the sense that it moves forward to new truths], and it is, he thinks, therefore the only intellectually defensible game in town.  Wren-Lewis ends with what I consider an unfortunate ad hominem attack on the defenders of "heterodox" economics:

"At first reading, heterodox writers can seem like a breath of fresh air, because they are more holistic and often less formalist. But while many complain, with some justice, that mainstream economics can be resistant of radical ideas, I have personally found at least as much intolerance on the other side. Some heterodox economists appear to reject almost everything that is mainstream, which is frankly just silly."

First of all, a word about orthodox and heterodox Economics.  This language reeks of theological disputes, and that is not, in my judgment, just an unfortunate faҫon de parler.  Would a Physicist or Biochemist or Microbiologist speak in this manner of orthodox and heterodox Physics or Biochemistry or Microbiology?  I think not.  In the very act of denying that there are, or could be, schools or sects or ideologically opposed approaches to the rational study of the economic affairs of a society, Wren-Lewis introduces into the discussion by his choice of language questions of orthodoxy and heresy  [which, after all, is what heterodoxy is.]

I have argued on many occasions on this blog that the study of society is unavoidably ideological, in the sense that every rational analysis of social reality encodes certain fundamental evaluative presuppositions and choices.  It is for this reason that I have argued that the most fundamental decision each of us makes in life is our choice of comrades -- those men and women with whom we stand, and with whom we struggle for justice.  I have devoted several books and much of a lifetime to arguing against the view advanced most powerfully by Kant and echoed in the twentieth century by John Rawls that there is a neutral pou sto from which, by rational deliberation alone, we can decide the appropriate principles of distributive justice on which to base a social order.  I will not repeat my arguments here -- they can be found in The Autonomy of Reason, my commentary on Kant's Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Understanding Rawls, my anatomization of A Theory of Justice, in my tutorial "How to Study Society," archived at box.net, and in many of my other writings.

Because Economics is preeminently the study of the distribution of the social product, it is directly and unavoidably ideological.  An Economist's choice of concepts, models, and modes of analysis, his or her decision which facts to foreground and which to leave in the background, cannot help but embody some fundamental and ultimately partisan set of choices of comrades and enemies.  This is not at all a weakness or failing of Economics.  It is the necessary condition of doing Economics at all.  Those like Wren-Lewis who deny this central truth, whether they intend it or not, whether they know it or not, are serving by their denial to further empower the powerful.  To elaborate on a lovely phrase from John Kenneth Galbraith, they thereby afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable, instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

For this reason, Economics can never be a science, nor should it pretend to that status.  Economists should use mathematics, of course, as much as is useful [but not more!]  And we may surely be permitted to hope that Economists will pay attention to data about the real world [even though that may cost them a certain amount of status in the profession.]  But the world would be a better place if they would recognize and acknowledge that their work is driven by powerful evaluative commitments.

Those who base their work as Economists on different commitments are not heterodox, nor are they heretical, though they may very well be subversive [at least we can hope so.]

 

ANOTHER BLOG RECOMMENDATION

In my never-ending effort to help you navigate the cloud, I offer another blog recommendation.  Heather Digby Parton, blogging as Digby, has a splendid blog called Hullabaloo, which I have started reading regularly.  To make room for the link on my list of Favorites, I deleted my shortcut to Andrew Sullivan's blog, because his obsession with Christianity had become a bit of a bore [and because he now charges people for full access to his site, which offends the freeloader in me.]

BRAGGING RIGHTS

Arthur Goldhammer, the distinguished translator of Piketty's opus magnum, posted a comment to my blog post yesterday.  So maybe this is not quite as obscure a blog as some think.  :)

WORTH LOOKING AT

James offers this link to a discussion by the Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis of the dispute between orthodox economists and what he and Krugman and others called "heterodox" economists [i.e., anyone who doesn't think the Neo-Classical Synthesis is the Second Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ.]  I am locked in a death struggle at the moment to learn the viola part of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, a showy piece of music that is really beyond my capabilities, so I doubt I shall be able to get to the Wren-Lewis business today, but it raises very important questions, on which I offered some thoughts yesterday, so I shall try to comment on it soon.  Meanwhile, if this sort of thing grabs you, you might take a look at Wren-Lewis' post and some of the quite interesting commentary that it elicited.

Friday, April 25, 2014

THOUGHTS BEYOND THE LIMITS OF MY COMPETENCE

I just read an interesting blog post here by Krugman.  It would take too long to summarize, but the essence of it is that heterodox economists [as he refers to them] are wrong to think that he and other orthodox macro theorists should be kicked to the curb because of the failure of the economics profession to predict the crash of 2008 and other things.  The problem is not with our theory, Krugman says, but with those of us to paid too little attention to the evidence, preferring instead to elaborate elegant mathematical fantasies of perfect rationality and such.

Krugman alludes to people I have not read [and had not heard of, to be honest], and in any case I am not competent to evaluate his claims.  But his remarks raise a question that I find quite interesting, so I will say something about it.  [By the way, Krugman seems to be feeling just a tad defensive in the wake of the Piketty tsunami, even though he has been admirably generous in his praise of the book.]

The point is this.  Any rich and complex economic model of the economy will almost certainly be flexible enough to allow those who use it to discuss almost anything with its aid, but that does not mean that the models are equally valuable.  Each model directs the attention of its users to certain facts and structures in the economy and away from certain others.  Hence the choice of model is important, for all that one can, with some effort, take account in one's own model of anything that people are saying who use other models.

The classical model developed by Smith and Ricardo and brought to its height [in my judgment] by Marx made a series of choices in its formal development that had the deliberate effect of highlighting two questions about the economy:  How is the social product divided among the three great economic classes of society? and What are the conditions of sustained economic growth?  These two issues -- distribution and growth -- are virtually thrust on anyone using the classical model.  If you are doing economics a la Smith, Ricardo, and Marx, it is simply impossible not to notice that the interests of workers and capitalists are opposed, that what goes to one class is taken from the other.  It is also impossible not to notice that luxury consumption detracts from growth.

The neo-classical model pioneered by Walras, Jevons, and Menger highlights two quite different questions:  How are relative prices set in the market, and how do these prices direct producers in their allocation of scarce resources having alternative uses? 

The question of price determination can certainly be studied in the classical model, but that study is simply a means to studying the distribution of the social product.  By the same token, growth and distribution can be studied in the neo-classical model, but that is not its easiest or most natural use, and the model directs attention away from the fact that the interests of the working class and the capitalist class are necessarily opposed.

Heterodox economists who criticize standard economics [and by implication Krugman, although I would be surprised if he were their principal target] are not, I suspect, saying that the standard model is incapable of finding a place within it for inequality and economic instability.  In all likelihood, they are saying [or, at least, they ought to be saying] that the standard model directs attention away from those issues instead of drawing our attention to them.  And that is a legitimate criticism of an economic model, which is, after all, nothing more than an intellectual device for focusing our attention and directing it to what is important.

But of course, what counts as important is a matter of evaluative judgment, which means that Economics cannot be a value-free science.  And that really is a challenge to Krugman as well as to the rest of the Economics profession.

CUT ME A LITTLE SLACK

I am afraid if you are going to read this blog you will just have to come to terms with the fact that I am an incurable optimist.  Cool reason and a little historical awareness caution me to treat the Piketty phenomenon as a passing fad, a blip, a momentary breath of not entirely rancid air, but the Tigger in me keeps wanting it to be something more.  It won't hurt anyone if I die believing the world is about to put paid to capitalism.  At my wake you can sit on the ground and tell sad stories about the death of kings.

PIKETTY, PIKETTY, PIKETTY


As a philosopher, I am trained to view Being sub specie aeternitatis, but as a blogger [even an obscure one] I am expected to have the attention span of a Mayfly, so you will perhaps forgive me if I continue to go on about Piketty.  Today's Op Ed page of the NY TIMES features dueling columns, one [printed on the right] by Paul Krugman, the other, printed on the left, by David Brooks.  [OK, so the compositors at the TIMES have no sense of decorum.]  Brooks' column is, in a small way, a triumph.  It actually manages to make Ross Douthat's column on Piketty sound thoughtful.  Brooks exhibits an insularity so profoundly self-referential as to give narcissistic personality disorder a new lease on life.  His thesis, if I may call it that, is that the popularity of Piketty derives from the envy well-off professionals feel for the much richer.  Here he is describing the life experiences of the mildly lefty young professionals whose admiration he secretly craves but somehow cannot manage to earn.  "If you are a young professional in a major city, you experience inequality firsthand.  But the inequality you experience most acutely is not inequality down toward the poor; it's inequality up, toward the rich.  You go to fundraisers or school functions and there are always hedge fund managers and private equity people around."

Never mind the rest of the column.  You can read it here if you have a mind to.  What mesmerizes me is Brooks' casual assumption that the world in which he travels is the world of "young professionals" -- which is to say, medical techies, adjunct college instructors, and high school teachers [yes, they really are "young professionals," at least if they are young] -- very few of whom, I venture to say, run into hedge fund managers when they go to parents' night at their child's public elementary school.

Let me quote Brooks' concluding paragraph.  "The reaction to Piketty is an amazing cultural phenomenon.  But it says more about class rivalry within the educated classes than it does about how to really expand opportunity.  Of course, this perspective could just be my own prejudice.  When it comes to cultural analysis, I, like Piketty, am quasi-Marxist."

Now, if you can stop gagging on those last five words, pause for a moment to reflect on what a victory this is for those of us who are genuinely on the left.  When the David Brooks' of this world feel that they must lay claim to quasi-Marxism in order to get some street cred, I begin to think there is hope for us yet.

Quick responses to some comments.  Tom Llewellyn suggests that "Eminent professors (and talking heads) are surely in the top 10%, and maybe in the top 1%."  He is quite right.  In 2012, $114,000 a year would get you into the top 10%.  $161,000 got you into the top 5%, which includes virtually all the senior professors at elite universities and many at lesser schools.  You needed $394,000 to make the top 1%, which certainly includes "talking heads" on Television, and the best paid professors as well [never mind speaking fees and book royalties.]  In case anyone is wondering, my pensions and social security and royalties put me comfortably in the top 10%, and in a really good year I might sneak into the top 5%.  I am what in the good old days was referred to as a "class traitor."

Ian J. Seda Irizarry, who was trained in the best Marxist Economics Department in America [by some of my old colleagues at UMass], offers this comment:  "A dear friend had the following description of all that is happening and I agree: "piketty not the first to notice basic story. he is the first person to have noticed AND be noticed by liberal wonks"

Ian and his friend are of course correct.  I take this as a victory.  When the liberals start plagiarizing the ideas of the Marxists and claiming them for their own, we have won!  I share the desire to wave my hands and yell "Hey, Hey!  We have been saying this for years!!"  But sufficient unto the day. 

And let us remember, Piketty does not just take a page or two from Marx's playbook, he adds a massive accumulation of data, elegantly analyzed.  That really does pay homage to old Marx.  It was Marx who chose, in his hauptwerk, his magnum opus, to devote more than a hundred pages to a detailed description of life in the new capitalist factories, drawn from his years in the British Museum reading the Reports of the Parliamentary Factory Inspectors.  Piketty has done exactly what Marx would have recommended he do, and if Piketty needs to ritually separate himself from Marx in the process, so be it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

THE LINK

Mike G. sent me the link to a YouTube video of the CUNY affair I blogged about.  Many thanks.

Here it is.

AND EVEN MORE ABOUT PIKETTY

I just watched the video, online, of an event at the City University of New York at which Piketty spoke and then Stiglitz, Krugman, and several others commented.  I thought Krugman was the most coherent of the commentators, by the way.  As I watched, something struck me that I wanted to say a few words about.  [I managed to lose the URL.  Can anyone supply it in a comment?]

To put it as simply as I can, nobody was angry.  I mean, Piketty's data are simply appalling.  I observed at length on this obscure blog [as Bjorn calls it] that according to Piketty the bottom half of the population of all modern capitalist societies has no net wealth at all, and the concentration of increasingly inherited wealth at the very, very top is appalling and grows steadily worse.  Yet not a single voice at this session was raised in anger.  Indeed, not a single voice was raised in anything.  All was witty, amused, relaxed, casual.  The speakers were comfortable in their skins and were talking to an audience of people equally comfortable.  Everything in the format and atmospherics of the event communicated quite clearly that anger would be considered very much out of place.

That is just awful!  I have every reason to believe that Stiglitz and Krugman have their hearts in the right place when it comes to evaluations of the desirability of this sort of inequality, but both of these gentlemen, accomplished as they are, seem to have lost the capacity for simple outrage.

This is one of the things I don't like about what the academic world has become.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A COMMENT ON A COMMENT ON A COMMENT


In response to my apologetic response to JD's thoughtful reaction to my snark at Ross Douthat [so much for provenance, as they say in the art world], JD himself and Bill Glenn, Jr. posted thoughtful and rather moving comments about what we might call true, as opposed to faux, conservatism.  Together, these comments raise very important issues about which I have tried on occasion to write on this blog, though not, I think, with great success.  Rather than react to the latest Supreme Court decision or to a Ukrainian situation that I genuinely do not understand, I thought I would try today to expand on what JD and Bill Glenn, Jr. said.  My deeper purpose is to address once again what most concerns me, namely how, if at all, we can mobilize an effort to derail the disaster of American capitalism.

Both JD and Bill Glenn, Jr. give expression to a powerful sense of loss.  JD puts it this way:  "personally I feel doomed to wander a world cut off from my ancestors, which is thereby in a certain way stale, lacking dimension, left to feasting in a crowd where the only song we all know by heart is likely to be "The Bohemian Rhapsody." " Bill Glenn, Jr. adds:  "The completely amoral capitalism that reemerged under Reagan drove out the last vestiges of the post-war capitalism that was at least partially constrained by moral and social norms and did contain some of the communal values JD recognizes we now lack."

I think both of them are right.  Let me begin my meditation on their voiced discontent by referring to a movie I saw maybe ten years ago.  It is called Seabiscuit, a rather saccharine account of the Depression-era successes of an unlikely race horse by that name, whose come-from-behind victories on the race track captured the imagination of a nation struggling with poverty and historic levels of unemployment.  I could as easily pin my thoughts to the much, much finer movie, The Grapes of Wrath, the Henry Fonda vehicle made from John Steinbeck's great novel.  But in Seabiscuit, the director Gary Ross made the inspired decision to intercut the conventional Technicolor sequences with grainy black-and-white stills from the Depression itself  of striking workers, bread lines, soup kitchens, and street scenes of ordinary working men and women.  I am not much for racing, whether it is horses or cars, and I would rather watch the weather channel than a NASCAR event, but I wept openly at those pictures of the Depression.  I wept not because of the poverty and misery they showed, but for the lost fellowship, the comradeship, the community of those whose response to hard times was to band together and form labor unions, who saw poverty not as a shameful condition to be hidden from view, but as an evil inflicted on good men and women by the toffs wearing the fancy clothes and driving the fancy cars.

America during the Depression and World War II, and into the early years of the Post-War era, was a society in which the objectively real class divisions found immediate surface expression in such things as the clothes people wore.  Go back and watch some of the films -- the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classics, the endless comedies of life among the rich, the Edward Arnold vehicles in which that wonderful old actor strutted his villainous best.   The rich wear evening clothes to dinner or a nightclub, they drive cars that look different from the cars driven by ordinary people.  Their voices are different, they look different, and you know with a visceral certainty that if smellovision had ever caught on, they would have smelled different.

Remember, that was a time when almost no one went to college, when most jobs were blue collar, not white collar, when working men wore caps, men in the lower middle class wore fedoras, and the rich wore top hats.  You could place a man or a woman economically and socially at fifty paces.   This was the heyday of the American labor movement.  A few statistics tell the story.  In 1954, union membership peaked at 35% of the labor force.  By 1983, three years into the Reagan disaster, this had declined to 20.1%.  Today the figure stands at 11.3%, with more than a third of public employees in unions and only 6.7% of workers in the private sector in labor unions. 

The very term "working class" has disappeared from public discourse.   Politicians on the left as well as the right cannot stop talking about "Middle Class America," even though, by any rational definition of Sociological or Economic categories, most Americans are Working Class, not Middle Class.  Why this terminological obfuscation?  The short answer is race.  "Middle Class" in today's political discourse carries the unspoken but inescapable meaning "not Black or Hispanic."  White people earning the minimum wage and qualifying for food stamps refuse to self-identity as Working Class, let alone Poor, for fear they will be mistaken for light-skinned colored folks.

What happened?   Why did two-thirds of unionized workers leave the only collective organizations committed to fighting for their interests?  And how did it come about that clear class lines, visible to the naked eye, dissolved, so that the rich could pass as jes' folks, despite their trust funds and gated communities and private clubs?

The answer is complicated, and only a suitably nuanced answer can begin to capture the historical and social reality.   The first factor was the transformation of the American economy into a post-industrial economy with an ever-expanding Service sector, a shrinking industrial sector, and a vanishing agricultural sector.  This transformation was accelerated by the outsourcing of production jobs as corporate managers went in search of ever cheaper labor unfettered by health and safety regulations.  A second factor was the dramatic expansion of post-secondary education, raising the proportion of the adult population holding a Bachelor's Degree from 5% shortly after World War Two to 35% or so today.  These two changes sundered the intergenerational solidarity between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.  The old dream was for the father to arrange for his son to apprentice in a craft job and gain membership in the father's labor union.  The new dream was for the father to underwrite his son's college education, thereby gaining for him an escape from hard manual labor, however well-paid and protected by union contracts.

At a critical moment in this transformation, Republicans launched an assault on the labor unions themselves, symbolized by Reagan's successful effort to break the Air Traffic Controller's union.  A raft of "Right to Work" laws undermined the ability of labor unions to organize, and the comfortable, established, well-paid condition of the union leadership drained the movement of its revolutionary and liberatory potential.

All of this went hand in hand with a quite striking cultural transformation.  It started [if I may be shamelessly superficial] with Jack Kennedy's decision not to wear a hat on his inaugural walk from the Capitol to the White House.  That sartorial quirk, a showman's demonstration of his youthful vigor, overnight killed the haberdashery industry.  Men stopped wearing hats!  In 1958, in an unsuccessful effort to look older than I was when going to teach a class, I affected a fedora.  By 1960, when my hat was stolen from the University Luncheonette on Mass Ave while I was having coffee, it seemed pointless to replace it and thereafter I went bareheaded.  At first, in the sixties, the rebellious young started wearing their hair grow long and substituting jeans for dress slacks or dirndl skirts.  You could still tell someone's politics, if not his or her social class, at fifty paces.  Ten years later, everyone was wearing jeans, and facial hair had made a comeback not seen since Edwardian days.  Endlessly inventive, albeit lacking any really distinctive politics, the young started piercing various body parts and getting tats, until they too became upscale fashion accessories.

Music too underwent a de-politicization.  In the old days, Black people had jazz, white people had syrupy ballads, and radicals had folk songs.  Grown-ups and the young listened to entirely different music.  Then the Beatles came to town, and it all changed.  I was, as you might imagine, considerably behind the times, for all that I had seen Hard Day's Night in Trafalgar Square in 1964.  Even in the 80's, when my older son was a teen-ager, I did not know whether Hall and Oates was a breakfast cereal or a singing group.

Where have all the flowers gone? as Pete Seeger asked in 1955.  JD and Bill Glenn Jr. really are right.  Things have changed, for all that new clothes and songs have come along to replace the old. 

Well, now I have managed to make myself sound like a cranky old geezer, so I shall pause and leave it to younger and livelier souls to comment.

 

 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A CHASTENED RESPONSE TO JD


On Sunday last, I posted some sarcastic remarks about the NY TIMES Op Ed column by Ross Douthat.  Rather than respond in kind, JD penned a thoughtful defense of Douthat that rather put my cheap shots to shame.  I think JD deserves a serious response.  Let me begin by reprinting JD's comment, which, in my opinion, makes a better case for Douthat than Douthat made for himself.  Herewith JD:


"It seems like a rather coherent column to me; a form is readily discernible. I'm not equipped to comment on the issue he takes with Piketty's economic analysis– his criticism is brief, and it's likely you could answer it much better than I can say whether it is true or false.

However, his point is clear. In fact, his point is only a suggestion (a suggestion, however, that he clearly takes to be the case): a neglected victim of capitalism's destruction has been the cultural and spiritual resources which past generations have relied on and which are counted as some of the dearest fruits of civilized societies. He is suggesting that these goods are more imminently threatened than even economic equality and that the left, due to a neglect of questions of spiritual care and the importance of shared culture, has failed to see this and so even presently fails to have a clear view of the crisis of our times. He is suggesting not just a crisis of means but a crisis of values, ethos and community sustaining mythos. He is chalking up some of the right's recent successes to its ability (if only in rhetoric) to tap into these insecurities and fears that we are losing, or have mostly lost, the spiritual and cultural goods which give money and means more than their base, sub-human value."
 

This is an eloquent statement of an old, familiar, and honorable tradition in political theory, a tradition that has a right to claim for itself the adjective "conservative."  The Myth of the Golden Past is, of course, as old as Western Civilization, but the particular form of it that JD invokes was born in the late eighteenth century as a reaction to the rise of what eventually became known as capitalism.  Marx correctly observed that capitalism is the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the world.  In eighteenth and nineteenth century England, and a bit later on the Continent, it undermined the authority and the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, transformed London and the other great cities of England, ate away at and finally destroyed the age-old division between city and countryside, and threw up a class of New Men who, in a single generation, without family  connections or landed estates, became unimaginably wealthy.

Speaking broadly, there were three thoughtful responses to this phenomenon.  The first was the response of those who were called Liberals, writers who celebrated the changes and wrote confidently that the manifest evils of the young capitalism -- urban slums, brutal factory work, an economic cycle of booms and busts -- were merely the growing pains of a brave new world,  soon to be replaced by a stable order of endless growth.  The second response was that of the Socialists, who welcomed the destruction of the old order but insisted that the chaos of capitalism must be replaced by rational management for the common good.  Marx was not the first to voice this vision.  He was simply the most brilliant and the most penetrating in his anatomization of the inner exploitative structure of capitalism.

The third response, which appeared in England and France as early as the end of the eighteenth century, was that of Conservatives.  There were many observers of the passing scene who looked with horror on the destruction wrought by capitalism, seeing it not as a force for growth and liberation but rather as the enemy of all they held dear.  I do not think I will elicit much protest from my brethren on the right if I say that greatest among these voices was that of Edmund Burke.  In 1797, Burke wrote an impassioned response to the events in France under the title Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Let  me quote at length the most famous passage from that seminal work, for it says eloquently what Douthat was reaching for and what JD very nicely summarized.  Here is Burke, answering the claims of the social contract theorists of his day.  I have highlighted the portion of the passage that is most often quoted:

"Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primæval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen, but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion, and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule; because this necessity itself is a part too of that moral and physical disposition of things, to which man must be obedient by consent or force; but if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow."

The England whose loss Burke was lamenting was in fact a land of servitude and grinding poverty for the many and inherited wealth, leisure, elegance, and culture for the few.  But that was not an image worthy of Burke's eloquent invocation.  It was at roughly at this time that there was born the fantasy of Merrie Old England, a time of maypole dances and madrigals, of soft summers and manageable winters, of simple pleasures blessed by a benevolent Church.  [Not by Burke, by the way!]

This is the sensibility to which Douthat is appealing, and in his column, it is thoroughly disingenuous and dishonest.  First of all, Douthat is not harking back to medieval England, or even Colonial America.  His Golden Age transparently is the Fifties, a world in which the  Roman Catholic Mass was still celebrated in Latin and Rosie the Riveter had turned her tools over to returning servicemen and had gone back to the kitchen, a world in which June and Ward Cleaver slept in separate beds and had sex only the requisite two times to produce Wally and The Beaver.  It happens also to be a time, as Piketty shows us, in which wealth was, temporarily, less unequally distributed than it had been earlier and would be later, a time of rapid economic growth to replace what had been lost in the depression and war years.

But of course Douthat's American version of Merrie Old England was also a time of quasi-slavery for African-Americans, of back street abortions and stifled ambitions for the female half of the population, a time of the closet for gay and lesbian men and women.  Douthat neither cares about nor bothers to recall these unpleasant facts, and I rather imagine does not even consider  them truly unpleasant.

When all is said and done, what is Douthat's column really about?  Quite simply, he is worried that Piketty might encourage people to take away some of the great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few and spread it around to those whose labor actually created it.  And along the way, they might once again take notice of the role played by the Church in blessing and sanctifying the exploitation of working men and women.

That, or something like it, is what was in my mind when I penned my cheap shots at Douthat.  I apologize to JD for not taking the time to spell it all out, and I thank him or her for recalling me to my better self.