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Tuesday, December 18, 2018


Someone self-identified as “In The dark” offers this response to my reposting of my son’s FaceBook post of Professor Steve Locke's account of his experience with the police:

In The Dark said...
I get how frustrating and terrifying it is to be detained by the police (and I know all too well how they will slip past your rights if you let them), but I don't get what these officers did wrong. No, you just saying you aren't the suspect isn't going to clear you of suspicion. But why should it? Isn't that a ridiculous thing to expect? And the eye-witness testimony of another person doesn't "decide" you're a criminal--the court does that--and I see no reason to think the cops were going to let the woman decide that. And if she positively IDed him during the detention, my understanding is that that would have been probable cause to arrest him.

What am I missing here? Please explain it to me. I really do want to understand.”

All right, let me explain it to you.  This is not simple, so you will have to be patient and exercise a certain amount of imagination.  You are going to have to be willing to keep in mind a good deal of background information that was immediately and painfully available to Professor Locke, but may not in the same way and with the same urgency be available to you.

Your question is, “what did the officers do wrong?”  Let us suppose I were stopped in that fashion by two police officers who had received word of a breakin by an old white man wearing jeans and a sweater. [Parenthetically, let me note that there are virtually no cases of an innocent old white man being shot dead by a policeman because he reached into his pocket for ID and the policeman thought he was reaching for a gun.]  Suppose that when old white men are stopped by policemen [something that rarely happens], they are treated politely and with respect, even with a certain deference, because that is the way police routinely treat old white men, especially those  who look upper middle class.  Would the policeman address me as “Hey my man”?  Not likely.  Would he unsnap the holster of his sidearm as he addressed me?  Also not likely.

After I had identified myself, would the policeman say that the victim had to identify me as well, or would he apologize and continue looking for the alleged perpetrator?  I rather suspect the former.

Now look at it from the point of view of Professor Locke.  Did his father have “the talk” with him when he entered his teen years?  I would guess yes.  [If you do not know what “the talk” is, you really need to look it up, in order to broaden your understanding of American society.]  Did you note, in Professor Locke’s account, that before reaching for his wallet to show ID he asked the policeman whether that was all right?  Do you understand that that simple question was Professor Locke’s desperate effort to avoid being shot by a policeman with an itchy trigger finger?  Do you understand why he was terrified of getting into the police cruiser, even though he is a college professor? 

What might the officers have done differently?  Well – and this is complicated – the entire American police force might fundamentally change the way it interacts with African-Americans.  But, you protest, these two officers cannot change the way the entire criminal justice system interacts with Black men!  And this is where things get difficult.  That was not only an interaction between one Black college professor and two white policemen.  It was an interaction between the Black population of America and the entire criminal justice system.  And it cannot be understood unless one grasps this fact.

All well and good, you may say, but in the moment, right then and there, how should they have acted differently?  And the answer is: While these two policemen were, so to speak, waiting for all of America to change, they could themselves have chosen to interact with Professor Locke as though they were interacting with a white man.  Had they done so, the entire interaction would have gone differently and in a non-threatening manner for Professor Locke.  But they did not.

That is what they did wrong.

Let me close with an old, bitter joke told by my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies department at UMass Amherst:

What do you call a Black man with a Ph. D.?

Answer:  Nigger.


I am copying this from the FaceBook page of my son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff.  I had intended to spend today writing a lengthy post bringing together what I have learned from Piketty and Marx and others, but then I read this and I just felt sick inside.  The words before the picture are those of Tobias.

This man is a career academic. I am a career academic. We share a vocation and a professional status. And yet, I have never had anything remotely like this happen to me, and I am able to lead my life without ever having to worry that something like this will happen to me.
Please read Professor Locke's entire narrative.
Tray John
This is a professor, who has the tools to articulate how this encounter affected him. He also has the age and wisdom that allowed for him to maintain his composure and not lose his life. Now, imagine a YOUNG Black person, who is not equip with either.
Steve Locke wrote:
"This is what I wore to work today.
On my way to get a burrito before work, I was detained by the police.
I noticed the police car in the public lot behind Centre Street. As I was walking away from my car, the cruiser followed me. I walked down Centre Street and was about to cross over to the burrito place and the officer got out of the car.
“Hey my man,” he said.
He unsnapped the holster of his gun.
I took my hands out of my pockets.
“Yes?” I said.
“Where you coming from?”
Where’s home?”
How’d you get here?”
“I drove.”
He was next to me now. Two other police cars pulled up. I was standing in from of the bank across the street from the burrito place. I was going to get lunch before I taught my 1:30 class. There were cops all around me.
I said nothing. I looked at the officer who addressed me. He was white, stocky, bearded.
“You weren’t over there, were you?” He pointed down Centre Street toward Hyde Square.
“No. I came from Dedham.”
“What’s your address?”
I told him.
“We had someone matching your description just try to break into a woman’s house.”
A second police officer stood next to me; white, tall, bearded. Two police cruisers passed and would continue to circle the block for the 35 minutes I was standing across the street from the burrito place.
“You fit the description,” the officer said. “Black male, knit hat, puffy coat. Do you have identification.”
“It’s in my wallet. May I reach into my pocket and get my wallet?”
I handed him my license. I told him it did not have my current address. He walked over to a police car. The other cop, taller, wearing sunglasses, told me that I fit the description of someone who broke into a woman’s house. Right down to the knit cap.
Barbara Sullivan made a knit cap for me. She knitted it in pinks and browns and blues and oranges and lime green. No one has a hat like this. It doesn’t fit any description that anyone would have. I looked at the second cop. I clasped my hands in front of me to stop them from shaking.
“For the record,” I said to the second cop, “I’m not a criminal. I’m a college professor.” I was wearing my faculty ID around my neck, clearly visible with my photo.
“You fit the description so we just have to check it out.” The first cop returned and handed me my license.
“We have the victim and we need her to take a look at you to see if you are the person.”
It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die. I am not being dramatic when I say this. I was not going to get into a police car. I was not going to present myself to some victim. I was not going let someone tell the cops that I was not guilty when I already told them that I had nothing to do with any robbery. I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially. I knew this in my heart. I was not going anywhere with these cops and I was not going to let some white woman decide whether or not I was a criminal, especially after I told them that I was not a criminal. This meant that I was going to resist arrest. This meant that I was not going to let the police put their hands on me.
If you are wondering why people don’t go with the police, I hope this explains it for you.
Something weird happens when you are on the street being detained by the police. People look at you like you are a criminal. The police are detaining you so clearly you must have done something, otherwise they wouldn’t have you. No one made eye contact with me. I was hoping that someone I knew would walk down the street or come out of one of the shops or get off the 39 bus or come out of JP Licks and say to these cops, “That’s Steve Locke. What the F*CK are you detaining him for?”
The cops decided that they would bring the victim to come view me on the street. The asked me to wait. I said nothing. I stood still.
“Thanks for cooperating,” the second cop said. “This is probably nothing, but it’s our job and you do fit the description. 5′ 11″, black male. One-hundred-and-sixty pounds, but you’re a little more than that. Knit hat.”
A little more than 160. Thanks for that, I thought.
An older white woman walked behind me and up to the second cop. She turned and looked at me and then back at him. “You guys sure are busy today.”
I noticed a black woman further down the block. She was small and concerned. She was watching what was going on. I focused on her red coat. I slowed my breathing. I looked at her from time to time.
I thought: Don’t leave, sister. Please don’t leave.
The first cop said, “Where do you teach?”
“Massachusetts College of Art and Design.” I tugged at the lanyard that had my ID.
“How long you been teaching there?”
“Thirteen years.”
We stood in silence for about 10 more minutes.
An unmarked police car pulled up. The first cop went over to talk to the driver. The driver kept looking at me as the cop spoke to him. I looked directly at the driver. He got out of the car.
“I’m Detective Cardoza. I appreciate your cooperation.”
I said nothing.
“I’m sure these officers told you what is going on?”
“They did.”
“Where are you coming from?”
“From my home in Dedham.”
“How did you get here?”
“I drove.”
“Where is your car?”
“It’s in the lot behind Bukhara.” I pointed up Centre Street.
“Okay,” the detective said. “We’re going to let you go. Do you have a car key you can show me?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going to reach into my pocket and pull out my car key.”
I showed him the key to my car.
The cops thanked me for my cooperation. I nodded and turned to go.
“Sorry for screwing up your lunch break,” the second cop said.
I walked back toward my car, away from the burrito place. I saw the woman in red.
“Thank you,” I said to her. “Thank you for staying.”
“Are you ok?” She said. Her small beautiful face was lined with concern.
“Not really. I’m really shook up. And I have to get to work.”
“I knew something was wrong. I was watching the whole thing. The way they are treating us now, you have to watch them. ”
“I’m so grateful you were there. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Don’t leave, sister.’ May I give you a hug?”
“Yes,” she said. She held me as I shook. “Are you sure you are ok?”
“No I’m not. I’m going to have a good cry in my car. I have to go teach.”
“You’re at MassArt. My friend is at MassArt.”
“What’s your name?” She told me. I realized we were Facebook friends. I told her this.
“I’ll check in with you on Facebook,” she said.
I put my head down and walked to my car.
My colleague was in our shared office and she was able to calm me down. I had about 45 minutes until my class began and I had to teach. I forgot the lesson I had planned. I forget the schedule. I couldn’t think about how to do my job. I thought about the fact my word counted for nothing, they didn’t believe that I wasn’t a criminal. They had to find out. My word was not enough for them. My ID was not enough for them. My handmade one-of-a-kind knit hat was an object of suspicion. My Ralph Lauren quilted blazer was only a “puffy coat.” That white woman could just walk up to a cop and talk about me like I was an object for regard. I wanted to go back and spit in their faces. The cops were probably deeply satisfied with how they handled the interaction, how they didn’t escalate the situation, how they were respectful and polite.
I imagined sitting in the back of a police car while a white woman decides if I am a criminal or not. If I looked guilty being detained by the cops imagine how vile I become sitting in a cruiser? I knew I could not let that happen to me. I knew if that were to happen, I would be dead.
Nothing I am, nothing I do, nothing I have means anything because I fit the description.
I had to confess to my students that I was a bit out of it today and I asked them to bear with me. I had to teach.
After class I was supposed to go to the openings for First Friday. I went home."
~Steve Locke

Sunday, December 16, 2018


Both S. Wallerstein and Jerry Fresia ask penetrating questions in response to my rueful post, “What we have lost,” but before I try to reply to them, let me offer another data point in my effort to flesh out the implications of the Piketty et al. essay.  This table shows the evolution of the federal minimum wage over its lifetime, normalized to 2014 prices.  The change between 2014 and now is small, of course.  Notice that the minimum wage rose steadily from 1938, when it was introduced by Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression, to Johnson’s final year in office, 1968.  It then declined in real terms [because periodic raises did not keep pace with inflation], sinking during George W. Bush’s second term to a level it had not seen since Truman was in office.  It is now $7.25 an hour, which is two-thirds what it was, in real terms, fifty years ago.  In short, the minimum wage fifty years ago had a much greater equalizing effect on the American economy than it has now. 

One of the many proposals being discussed on the left is the guaranteed minimum income.  When I googled around, I discovered to my amusement and astonishment that among those who have advanced versions of this proposal are the first imam of Islam, Abu Bakr, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Paine, and Paul Samuelson.  The only person missing from this list is Jesus, and I think his miracle of the loaves and the fishes can be taken as a step in that direction.


As some of you are aware, I spent a good deal of time in the early nineties sorting through the trove of family papers I inherited at my father’s death and writing two books from them, one about my grandparents and one about my parents [neither of which, of course, I published.]  I was especially fascinated by my father’s father, Barnet Wolff, who devoted his life to the Socialist Party and was one of its leaders in New York City during the first three decades of the 20th century.  As part of my research on his political career, I dug up the platforms for several years of the Socialist Party [the Norman Thomas organization, for those who are deep into this stuff] and observed that save for the proposal to collectivize the ownership or production, most of its planks had actually been enacted during the New Deal by the Democratic Party under the leadership of FDR.

This morning, as I was turning over in my mind ways to continue the discussion I started on this blog a few days ago, I checked in with the Abbreviated Pundit Roundup on The Daily Kos and found this striking account.  It details a number of revolutionary proposals, now being advanced by the most progressive wing of the modern Democratic Party, that were actually put forward by Roosevelt and in some cases in some form written into law.   Tears came to my eyes [I cry easily] as I reflected on how much we have lost in the course of my long life.  Rather than struggle to identify radical new themes to set the course of a resurgent progressive movement, we could save ourselves a good deal of time by simply resurrecting this seventy-four year old document.

Friday, December 14, 2018


My continuing reflections on the essay by Piketty et al. have elicited a number of interesting and suggestive responses, including those of S. Wallerstein and Jerry Fresia.  Rather than respond to their comments, with which I largely agree, I should like to add to the discussion by going into several matters that may help us to advance our thinking about the present situation.  By the way, I am well aware that major developments are unfolding in many parts of the world, including China, India, and a number of European nations, but I simply do not know enough about these matters to form or to express intelligent opinions.  My silence is not at all a judgment on their significance, simply a consequence of my ignorance.

First of all, let us keep in mind that there are three elementary facts about any society that, more than anything else, determine its economic and political trajectory.  The first is the proportion of the working age population in agriculture.  The second is the proportion of the total population of working age.  The third is the rate of growth of the population.  The first determines how many people of working age are freed up to engage in manufacture or services or other productive activities.  The second determines how heavy the burden is on the working age population of supporting the non-working age share of the population in addition to supporting itself.  The third determines [or at least shapes] the rate of social saving required to expand the total output to accommodate the additional people.

The so-called Neolithic Revolution took humanity from a hunting/gathering or foraging stage of existence, by means of the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals, into a productive stage that freed up people to build cities, form governments, muster armies, fight large scale wars, build places of worship, and also, most important of all, write philosophy books.

The Industrial Revolution dramatically reduced the share of the population engaged in agriculture and ushered in the world in which virtually everyone on earth lives.  In my view, far and away the most consequential revolutionary change of the past half century has been the transformation of China and India [and other smaller nations] from primarily agricultural to primarily industrial or post-industrial economies.

This interactive chart shows the percentage of the population of working age, by country, over the past forty-eight years.  The United States is in the middle of the pack with Korea at the top and Israel at the bottom.  The working age share of the U. S. population has risen and fallen between 62% and 66% [roughly] over that time.

The next thing we need to know is the proportion of the working age population in the labor force.  This requires some explanation, as it is not obvious what that means.  [In my multi-part tutorial, entitled “The Study of Society,” accessible via the link at the top of this blog, I talk for a bit about how this notion changes for pre-capitalist, capitalist, and socialist societies.]

The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], as you probably know, keeps track of monthly and yearly changes in the unemployment rate, defined simply as the proportion of the population in the labor force that is not employed full time.  To determine this, it selects a carefully crafted sample of 50,000 households, and sends people out each month to ask of the working age people in each household, “How many working age persons are there in this household, and of those, how many were employed full time last month?”  According to this chart, 73.3% of America’s working age population is in the labor force.  [Once again, the U. S. is more or less in the middle range among nations in this regards]

Now the BLS is well aware that there are people who would like to work but have given up looking because they cannot find jobs.  It dubs these folks “discouraged workers,” and it keeps track of them by asking, in its monthly surveys, “Have you looked for work in the previous twelve months.”

Needless to say, in every conceivable category, things are worse for African-American and Hispanic workers.

Why does all of this matter?  Because the people not in the labor force are people, as are the unemployed and the discouraged workers, and they are mostly part of what I have been calling the Bottom Half.  [Obviously, wives of rich men are not, but an ever larger proportion of working age women are in the labor force, and as you would expect, they are disproportionately at the lower end of the income spectrum.]  If we are trying to think through policies designed to alter the steeply unequal [and unjust] shape of the income distribution, we need to figure out how to bring more working age unemployed men and women into the labor force and prepare them for and offer them decent jobs.  This is not the same thing as lowering the official unemployment rate, which is currently at a multi-decade low.

Mind you, I do not have viable, politically feasible proposals in my back pocket, but I think it helps to set the scene in this way for our thinking, so that we can move beyond the usual proposals, admirable as they may be.

I will close by saying that I agree both with S. Wallerstein that it will be extremely difficult to build solidarity between those in the Bottom Half and those in the 50/90 range, and with Jerry Fresia that we must look at the bipartisan corporate neo-liberal consensus on which America’s party politics have rested since Carter [I would have said “since Reagan,” but there is only a few years’ difference there, and I bow to his superior memory.]

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


I should like to return yet again to the Piketty, Saez, Zucman paper, about which I have written these past two days, because it is centrally important to my thinking about American politics, but first I must respond to the interesting questions posed by Michael S. concerning the turmoil in British politics [see the comments section on yesterday’s post.]  I realize that I am violating one of the sacred principles of blogging by saying this, but I simply do not know enough either about the British parliamentary system or about Brexit to have a coherent opinion regarding the possibility of a second referendum.  I could, of course, pontificate – what else, after all, is a Blog good for? – but I am so clueless on this issue that I would not even know which is the reliably left-wing side of the issue, let alone [as Michael S. asks] the anarchist position.  There, I have said it.  There are some things I just don’t know anything about.  I hope Google will not decommission my Blog as a consequence.

Without endlessly repeating myself, let me come back to the broad outlines of the Piketty et al. paper, and try in this post to think about what it tells us about the lived experiences of the several groupings on which it concentrates.  Specifically, how do the experiences of the Bottom 50th in the last two generations differ from those of the Middle 40th  to 90th?  I refer to “two generations” rather than a span of time [roughly 1980 to the present] because I am interested in what it is like to grow up and grow old in one or another of those segments of American society. 

Remember, the central and defining fact of human existence is the endlessly repeated life cycle:  birth, childhood, young adulthood, mature adulthood, old age [assuming you are fortunate enough to make it that far].  As Erik Erikson and many others have noted, our lived experience of what happens to us is powerfully shaped by what we learn to expect when we are young and then either have confirmed or disconfirmed by what happens to us as we grow older.

To those born roughly when my parents were young, in the years before the First World War, the defining experiences were that war, the boom years that followed, and then the Great Depression.  People of that generation could see the poverty and fragility of old age, and then experienced the threat of unemployment, only lifted by the Second World War.  The Social Security Administration was established in 1935, and by the time the war years were behind us, people were seeing the radical alteration in the arc of the life cycle that it brought.  Thirty years later, in 1965, Medicare began, and that, coupled with increases in life expectancy, transformed the expectations most people had of retirement and old age.  By the end of World War II, life expectancy in the U.S. was barely up to the age at which Social Security kicked in, although of course if you made it past early childhood the prospects were much better. 

Putting all of this together, we can conclude that children and young adults of the Bottom Half in the early ‘80s could see, looking around them, large numbers of grandparents and aging parents whose Golden Years were protected by Social Security and Medicare.  This was simply a part of the background expectation of their lives.  They did not think of these transfer programs, as economists like Piketty et al. do, as part of their income.  They took them for granted.  So when, for the next thirty years and more, their cash-in-pocket income either barely kept pace with inflation or actually declined, they did not say, “Ah, but we must take into account our future Social Security and Medicare.”  Instead, they felt things slipping away.  What is more, they completely lost the easy confidence of their parents that each generation would have things better than the generation just before.

The life experiences of the Middle Class, so called, were completely different.  Social Security for them was not the only thing between decent old age and desperate poverty.  Rather, it was a convenient add-on to pensions, investments, and other protections of the non-earning phase of the life cycle. 

The Bottom Half watched as politicians ceased to concern themselves with their needs and anxieties, and instead spoke endlessly, obsessively, about a Middle Class of which they were not really members.  To be sure, for reasons of race, White members of the Bottom Half identified themselves as “Middle Class,” by which for the most part they meant “Not Black.” But they were not really part of that ever-better-off 50th to 90th, and they knew it.
As has happened so often before in many, many countries, they turned their anger not on the 50th to 90th, whose life chances continued to improve, nor on the Top 10th, whose wealth soared into the stratosphere, but on the Black and Brown fellow Bottom Halfians, who by and large were doing even worse than they.

These are the realities that have shaped American politics for two generations.  Even Bernie’s clarion call for Free College spoke to the burdens of debt of the 35% of Americans who earn college degrees, or maybe to the 55% who start college, whether they finish or not.  It had nothing to say to the thirty-five or forty percent or more who never enroll.

The challenge we on he left face is to craft an integrated program of legislative proposals designed to alter the basic 50/40/10 shape of the American economy.  Clearly it will require major inroads into the already accumulated and relentlessly accumulating wealth of the top 10%, but it will as well require breaking down the division between the next 40% and the bottom 50%.

I do not have a clear vision of what those proposals might be, and I welcome discussion from all of you reading this blog.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


Yesterday, I discussed an extremely important essay by Piketty, Saez, and Zucman.  Today, I want to quote several passages, and comment on their significance for American politics.  [By the way, I had no recollection of having read it before and having linked to it on August 31 of this year!  Clearly, I am losing it.  I mean, it is amusing when I discover in my files something I wrote thirty years ago and have since forgotten I wrote, but this is ridiculous.  Maybe it is not such a bad thing that I am in an old people’s home.]

Here are three passages, each from the last pages of the essay.

(1)  p. 601   “In 2014, payroll taxes amount to 11.3% of pretax income, significantly above the next largest items—federal and state income taxes, 6.6% of pretax income, and sales taxes, 4.7%.  Although payroll taxes finance transfers—Social Security and Medicare—that go in part to the bottom 50%, their increase contributes to the stagnation of the posttax income of working-age bottom 50% Americans.”

So in effect, the payroll taxes paid by the lowest waged half of the population are going to subsidize the improvements experienced by the better off half.  In short, this is massively regressive taxation.

(2)  Also from p. 601 “Transfers. One major evolution in the U.S. economy over the past 50 years is the rise of individualized transfers—monetary and more importantly in-kind.  While public goods spending has remained constant around 18% of national income, transfers— other than Social Security, disability, and unemployment insurance, which are already included in pretax income—have increased from about 2% of national income in 1960 to close to 11% today. The two largest transfers are Medicare (4% of national income in 2014) and Medicaid (3.4%); other important transfers include refundable tax credits (0.8%), veterans’ benefits 0.6%), and food stamps (0.5%).  Overall, individualized transfers tend to be targeted to the middle class. …  Despite Medicaid and other means-tested programs which entirely go to the bottom 50%, the middle 40% receives larger transfers than the bottom 50% Americans, in particular because Medicare largely goes to the middle-class. In 2014, the bottom 50% received the equivalent of 10.5% of per-adult national income, the middle-class received more—14%—and the top 10% received less—about 8%.”

(3)  p. 603  “The middle class appears as the main winner of redistribution: while it receives growing individualized transfers, its effective tax rate has remained stable at around 30% since the late 1960s. Transfers have played a key role in enabling its income to grow in recent years.  Without transfers average income for the middle 40% would not have grown at all from 1999 to 2014. In fact it grew 8%, thanks to an increase of 32% in transfers received excluding Social Security. Tax credits—the 2008 Economic Stimulus Payments, the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the Making Work Pay Tax Credit, and Health Insurance Premium Assistance Credits (in the context of the Affordable Care Act)—played a particularly important role during the Great Recession. Without transfers the average income of the middle class would have fallen by 11% between 2007 and 2009; thanks to transfers the decline was limited to 3%.  In contrast, given the dynamic in their pretax income, transfers have not been sufficient to enable bottom 50% incomes to grow significantly.”

Read these three passages carefully and then think about the rhetoric and the policy priorities of the Democratic Party in the last several election cycles.  Democratic candidates talk incessantly about “the Middle Class,” and their policy proposals deal with the sorts of transfer payment programs that have benefitted the 50th to 90th percentiles of the American population.  Their efforts have been successful, as the statistical analysis of this essay demonstrates, both in making possible increases in real posttax income for that 50-90% income group over the past two generations and, equally important, in cushioning the blows of economic downturns for the same group.   No one in American politics has been looking out for the bottom half of the population.

All of this long predates the faux populism of Trump and, unless there are major changes in existing transfer programs, will continue unaltered after he passes from the scene.  The Democratic Party has survived, and perhaps is even flourishing, essentially by pursuing policies that help that “middle” group from the 50th to the 90th percentile, while being visibly non-racist and non-sexist, which brings to its support millions of Americans who are not actually very much helped economically by its policies.

Limiting ourselves to the politically possible, as opposed to the ideologically desirable, what policies might the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party embrace in an effort actually to help the bottom 50%?  It is not hard to think of some, in fact.  Here are four:

Raise the wage limit on social security taxes and use the additional monies to decrease the tax on the first 30 or 40 thousand dollars of earned income.

Dramatically raise the minimum wage so that, adjusted for inflation, it at least recaptures what it has lost to inflation over the past thirty years.

Medicare for all, with the cost means tested so as to constitute a transfer payment from the top 50% to the bottom 50%.

Cancel the recent tax decreases for the rich and impose new inheritance taxes to pay for the rise in transfer payments to the bottom 50%.

If we are serious about our socialist longings, we need to take Piketty, Saez, and Zucman to heart and shape our policy priorities accordingly.

Monday, December 10, 2018


As you may have read, the southland was hit by a snowstorm yesterday, and at 2 p.m. or so, while Susie and I were working on the jigsaw puzzle in the lobby, the power went out [a falling tree limb hit a power line.]  Each of the buildings in my retirement home is supposed to have an emergency generator, but the switch-over mechanism in the generator for Building 5 was faulty, so we were pretty soon without any power at all, even for the elevator.  I went door to door in my building, checking on everyone to make sure they were o.k. [as I have mentioned, the office of Precinct Representative for Building 5 is the only thing I have ever been elected to, and I take my duties seriously.]  Then Susie and I ate in the main dining room while the generator was being fixed and afterward, guided only by the flashlight built into my IPhone, we fed the cat and went to bed, even though it was only 6 p.m.  The apartment was quickly getting colder [no heat] and there did not seem to be anything else to do.  At 7:05, just as we were drifting off to sleep, the power came back, lights went on, and I got up to reset all the clocks.

The power is still on, but we got a good deal of snow and freezing rain which continues as I write, so today I am snowbound.  Early this morning, as I surfed the web, checking the NY TIMES and the Washington Post, I came across an Op Ed by the economist Robert Samuelson, with an arresting tagline:  We’ve become addicted to the income stagnation story. It’s probably not true.”  Seeing as how I am one of those addicted, I thought I had better read the column.  In it, I found a link to a new article by Thomas Piketty and others ostensibly providing evidence for Samuelson’s claim. Well, readers of this blog are aware that I was very impressed with Thomas Piketty’s book, CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Century, even going so far four and a half years ago as to write a four-part 9,000 word review, so I followed the link, and have spent the past two hours reading a fascinating and very lengthy essay published in the QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ECONOMICS for May, 2018, entitled DISTRIBUTIONAL NATIONAL ACCOUNTS: METHODS AND ESTIMATES FOR THE UNITED STATES, by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman.  I don’t know what Samuelson has been smoking, as we used to say back in the day, but the essay by Piketty, Saez, and Zucman presents a detailed and, I think, politically very important story of American income stagnation in the past thirty-five years.  My aim in this brief blog post is to tell you a bit of what I learned from the essay.  If this is a subject that interests you, I strongly urge you to read the entire thing.  You can find it here.

The focus of Piketty’s 2014 book was the growth, or rather the re-emergence, world-wide of extreme inequality of income and wealth, with most of the attention on the top 1%, or 0.1%, or 0.01%, or even 0.001%.  The new essay deals with trends in income across the board in America, not just among the rich.  The authors divide the American population into three groups:  the Bottom 50%, the “Middle Class,” identified as the 50th to the 90th percentiles, and the rich – the top 10%. 

Now, it is, if you think about it, extremely peculiar to call those in the 50th-90th percentiles “the middle class.”  Surely it would make more sense to call those, say, in the 30th-70th percentiles “Middle.”  But the authors have a method in their methodological madness, and it is, I think, deeply and deliberately political.

If I may summarize 50 pages of statistics, diagrams, and methodological cautions in a phrase, Piketty et al. show that in the last thirty-five years in America, the bottom half has stagnated, the 40% above them have done well enough to make them feel that the system is working for them, and the rich have made out like gangbusters.

The authors are able to break the statistics down so that they can track income pre- and post-tax, income by age, and even income by gender.  The post-tax income includes government transfers and redistributions, principally, but not solely, in the form of Social Security payments and Medicare and Medicaid.  They are able to show that whatever post-tax improvement there is over the years in the income of the Bottom 50% can be traced almost entirely to Social Security and Medicare.

What does all of this mean for politics?  [You realize that I am rushing past vast quantities of fascinating and important detail.  You really must read the essay yourselves.]  Well, think of it in human terms, as I think Piketty and company intend us to do.  For more than thirty years, fully half of American adults have seen no material improvement in their life chances and experiences.  They are better off when they get old – indeed, in real terms, they are sometimes better off old than when they were young – and that means, among other things, that when they are in middle life, they are not burdened with caring for their indigent parents.  But they have no reason to think that their children will be better off than they are.  What is more, they can see all around them that the “Middle Class” is in fact doing better and better, which is manifestly and infuriatingly unfair.

Piketty has some statistics about the higher educational credentials of those in one or another of the three groups, and not at all surprisingly, those in that 50th to 90th group are far more likely to possess those credentials than those in the Bottom 50%.

There really are Three Americas.  The authors do not present any statistics on intergenerational mobility, but it is almost certainly the case that upward mobility depends heavily on education, which in turn depends on the income level of the parents. 

The adult American population probably numbers around 200 million [the authors count those 20 and older as adult, rather than those 18 and older], so we are talking about one hundred million men and women whose life chances have been essentially flat since Reagan was elected.

The political implications of this simple fact are enormous.

Sunday, December 9, 2018


No walk this morning.  Down here in North Carolina, home of Republican voter fraud, we are snowed in.  It will be days before I can drive, let alone take my morning walk.  So naturally, like any obsessive news junkie, I have been listening non-stop to the commentary on Mueller’s court filings this last week, along with that of the Southern District of New York.  Mueller’s documents were rather disappointing, inasmuch as they contained fewer juicy details than hoped for.  There was a good deal of discussion of the fact that the Southern District’s filing identified Trump as having committed a felony, but the felony was violation of laws regulating campaign finances, and no one thinks that is really big news.  So the commentators were reduced to picking over the unredacted portions of the documents for hints and clues of what Mueller has on Trump.

I will leave that exercise to the experts, of whom there is no shortage on MSNBC and CNN.  Rather, I would like instead to hark back to the July 2018 indictment of a dozen Russian GRU officers handed up by Mueller’s Grand Jury.  That was one of the most extraordinary public documents I have ever read, and it tells me more about what Mueller has on Trump than any of the hints and winks and nods of last week’s filings.

The July indictment made it clear that Mueller knew what the Russians did.  He knew exactly to the minute when they did it.  He knew their names.  He knew their ranks.  He knew the addresses where they worked.  He knew their login IDs.  He knew whom they were talking to.  I suspect he knew what they ate and when they took bathroom breaks.  And he knew all this in Russian!

Can anyone have the slightest doubt that Mueller has at least as much detailed knowledge about the doings of Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, or Donald J. Trump himself?

Were these folks, and many others besides, part of a conspiracy to defraud the United States government, as defined by the statutes?  I would be happy to place a money bet that they were, and that Mueller can prove it.

Two final points, called to our attention by Rachel Maddow.  First, the court filing says Trump stood to make “hundreds of millions of dollars” from the Moscow Trump Tower” project that was the focus of many of the Trump/Russia communications through the middle of 2016.  For many years now, Trump has been signing leasing deals lending his name to real estate projects around the world.  These leasing deals have been paying him one, two, maybe five million each.  The Moscow deal was several orders of magnitude larger than anything he had been engaged in.  We may be sure he knew absolutely everything that was done in furtherance of the deal.

Second, the Russian bank designated as the lending agent for the project is a bank under sanctions by the U. S. government and hence ineligible to underwrite the Moscow project.  That, almost certainly, is why Trump was on board with lifting sanctions.

Stay tuned.

Friday, December 7, 2018


Let me add a few words about a subject on which Jerry Fresia, David Palmeter, and S. Wallerstein have had something to say.

Over the past two and a half millennia, there have been three broad sets of questions addressed by philosophers under the general heading of Ethics or Moral Philosophy.  The earliest question, very much front and center in the writings of Plato, is “What is the nature of the good life?”  The Greeks themselves offered an array of answers:  A life of reason uncontaminated by passion or desire;  A life in which desire has its place but is subordinated to reason;  A life free of pain;  A life that includes as much pleasure as possible [these last two pessimistic and optimistic versions of the same answer];  A life of honor.

The second question, quite different from the first is, roughly:  Is there a rule or a technique by the use of which we can make hard decisions in which it is not clear what we ought to do because there are weighty considerations or strong arguments sending us in opposed directions?  The ethical theory known as Utilitarianism is the best known answer to this question.  It offers some hope of transforming moral disagreements into processes of calculation.  Not surprisingly, its deployment most often occurs in debates about public policy rather than in private deliberations about individual action.  Bentham and Mill, in the English speaking philosophical community, are the names most often associated with this view.

The third question, identified with Kant, is:  “Can we find a moral principle binding on all rational agents as such for which a persuasive argument can be given entirely a priori, and hence grounded in reason alone?

In the jargon that has become widespread among academic philosophers, these three approaches are labeled Virtue Ethics, Teleological Ethics, and Deontological Ethics.  Since they seek answers to three quite different questions, they do not exactly stand in opposition to one another.  It is not at all odd to argue about what the correct answer is to a question once it has been asked, but it is, I should think, a trifle odd to argue about what question ought to be asked. 

Plato’s Dialogues, particularly the early and middle ones, present us with brilliant images of individuals who, in their life choices and modes of self-presentation, embody competing visions of the Good Life.  Although the Dialogues are filled with arguments – indeed they seem to consist of nothing but – in the end I think it is Plato’s genius to elicit from us the response “Ah, yes, Socrates is the sort of person I should strive to be if only I have the courage and the honesty to do it.”

Bentham and Mill leave us thinking, “Ah, that is a good way to resolve hard cases and determine, taking all in all, how we ought as a community to choose and act.”

And Kant inspires in at least some of us the thought, “Now I understand the grounds and justification for what I already believed I ought to do.”  Indeed, he said that the Moral Law is no more than a formal statement of the old rule, Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Thursday, December 6, 2018


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote wisely, "When you strike at a king, you must kill him."  Until there are twenty Republican senators ready to vote to remove Trump from office, it would be madness for the House to impeach him.  What would move those senators to vote for conviction?  Only the clear-eyed judgment that their personal survival in the 2020 election requires it.  Nothing else.  Will that time come?  It is too soon to tell.


In response to my brief response to MS, anonymous writes “Is it possible to disagree with a literary critic? It seems that they refuse to accept that a text may be uninteresting, despite the often considerable effort devoted to its interpretation. Do they make any falsifiable statements at all?”  Absent an accompanying emoji, it is difficult to determine in what tone of voice this question is asked, but since it raises some interesting issues, I will respond as though it was a genuine request for an answer.

Let me begin by distancing myself from the high priests of Lit Crit who, in a desperate grasp for dominance, have advanced the absurd view that a text is indeterminate and hence their interpretation of it is more important than the text itself.  I sympathize with their dilemma, which is that they spend their entire careers discussing the productions of creative types and yet themselves never create anything original at all.  For a senior tenured member of an elite private university, this must be a terrible blow to the ego.  But though I feel for them, I cannot take their claims seriously.

Do literary critics make any falsifiable statements at all, asks anonymous.  Well, the simple answer is that of course they may very possibly do so.  A literary critic who calls John Steinberg the finest English satirist of the earlier eighteenth century can reasonably be said to have mistaken Steinberg for Swift, perhaps because of the similarity of their first names.  And another who describes War and Peace as a trenchant Spanish novella has also clearly gone astray.

But that is not what anonymous means.  He [?] means, are their literary analyses factual assertions capable of falsification?  Are they aesthetic judgments answerable to some defensible norms of interpretation?  Or with them, as the Cole Porter song says, is it that Anything Goes?

To answer this question, we need to be a bit clearer about the function of literary [or musical] criticism, or indeed of any sort of aesthetic criticism.  Opinions differ, needless to say, but my own view is as follows.

The primary activity in the field of art is the creative effort of the artist.  That effort produces a poem, a tragedy, a novel, a painting, a sculpture, a carving, a dance, a symphony, a song, or some other object or action or installation that is intended as an act or product of creativity.  The work of art may be offered to an audience to be experienced, appreciated, enjoyed, reviled, exalted, condemned, or whatever. 

There is no limit to what can count as art, and there is no authority who gets to say what is and what is not real art.  Some efforts to create art will be welcomed and enjoyed, celebrated and revered by others.  Some efforts will, as David Hume said of his immortal Treatise, “fall stillborn from the presses.”  Some will never be recognized as art by anyone else, and some may even not be intended to be shared with anyone other than the creator.

The function of the literary critic, insofar as literary critics have any function at all, is to say things about a work of literary art that readers or listeners may find illuminating, insightful [or inciteful], helpful, amusing, profound, scholarly, shrewd.  At its best, literary criticism may improve the experience of reading a text.  At its worst, literary criticism can all but ruin a reader’s enjoyment of a text.

Think of literary critics as akin to those audio guides that some museums offer to their visitors, for a price.  If you want someone’s opinion of what you are looking at, rent one.  But there is nothing stopping you from simply walking through the galleries on your own.

My interpretation of The Color Purple was offered in that spirit.  If you find it suggestive, I am gratified, but for heaven’s sake, do not view it as a substitute for reading the novel!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


No, the essay on The Color Purple has not been revised.  Why then re-post it?  For two reasons.  First, because I like it.  I wrote it, and I like it.  So I re-posted it.  Second, because the two previous postings elicited only one comment, which was not really on point, and hope springs eternal.  I trust it is obvious that no one is required to read what I post even the first time.  If I had been so inspired as to compose the B-Minor Mass, I would whistle it whenever I got the chance [although I believe, sadly, that Bach never heard it performed.  I think it was salvaged from the ash heap of history by Mendelssohn.]

Monday, December 3, 2018


Two Observations on the Structure and Voice of The Color Purple

First Note:

Since its publication in 1982, Alice Walker's The Color Purple has attracted a good deal of critical commentary in addition to a wide general audience.  The MLA International Bibliography lists better than half a hundred journal articles and contributions to books, and there have, in addition, been a number of significant extended discussions in books devoted to Afro-American literature, among them The Afro-American Novel and its Traditions, by Bernard Bell, The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, and Inspiriting Influences by Michael Awkward.

Commentators have focused on several themes, including, most notably, Walker's relation to Zora Neale Hurston in general and Their Eyes Were Watching God in particular, on Walker's use of vernacular speech, and on the themes of lesbianism, male violence toward females, and the refiguring of Christian religiosity.  But although several commentators have discussed Walker's use of the epistolary genre, almost no attention has been paid to the purely formal and structural aspects of The Color Purple.  The purpose of these brief observations is to call attention to certain striking formal or structural features of Walker's novel, in an effort to complicate somewhat our reading of it. 

The Color Purple consists of a single line of direct discourse, uttered, we assume, by the man whom the main character, Celie, knows as Pa, followed by a series of ninety-two letters, several of which are embedded within other letters, and five of which are somewhat ambiguously introduced by a comment from Celie, italicized.  Fifty-five of the letters are written by Celie to God [or "G-o-d" in one case];  twenty-two are written by Celie's sister, Nettie, to Celie;  fourteen are written by Celie to Nettie; and the last letter is addressed by Celie "Dear God.  Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples.  Dear Everything.  Dear God."

[The opening line of direct discourse, for those who do not recall or have not read the novel, is:  "You better not never tell nobody but God.  It'd kill your mammy.]

The first fifty-five of Celie's letters to God are unsigned.  Now, a letter to God is, in the Christian tradition in which Celie is situated, a prayer.  And the appropriate ending for a prayer is the expression of affirmation, "Amen."  So the absence of the word "amen" from these fifty-five letters can be taken by us, I think, as Walker's formal expression of Celie's inability to affirm or accept or consent to the God in whom she has been told by Pa to confide.  She writes the prayers, but she is unable to bring them to a satisfactory, and satisfied, closure.

In Celie's forty-ninth letter to God is embedded Nettie's first letter to her.  There follow fourteen more letters from Nettie to Celie, interspersed with Celie's letters to God, until, in her fifty-fifth letter, Celie packs it in with God.  "You must be sleep," she writes abruptly.  Now she turns her epistolary attentions to Nettie.  Her first letter to Nettie is unsigned, but Nettie's sixteenth letter to Celie, which comes next in the series, ends with the injunction "Pray for us."  Celie's very next letter, her second to Nettie, begins with the flat, dramatic announcement, "I don't write to God no more, I write to you."  And this letter, in which Celie reports an extended conversation with Shug in which her conception of God is radically called into question, is signed "Amen"!  Celie is finally able to utter this word, though only as an affirmation of her relationship with her sister, not as an affirmation of God's presence.

Celie now writes six more letters to Nettie signed "Amen," [including the fourth in the series, in which we get the characteristic call-and-response of the Black church, "Amen, say Shug.  Amen, amen."]  In the ninth letter to Nettie, Celie announces that Pa is dead, and this letter is not signed "Amen," nor are any of the subsequent letters to Nettie.

At the very end of the novel, after Celie has written herself into existence as a sexually, morally, and socially complete woman;  after she has gathered about her the whole extended family of players in her complex, self-assured psycho-drama; after her proper sister Nettie has returned from her brush with Spelman College, W. E. B. DuBois, President Tubman, Africa, missionary work, New York, and all the other icons and symbols of socially acceptable Negro upward mobility -- in short, after Walker has established dramatically that true self-discovery requires the courageous taking possession of an authentic authorial voice, and after Celie has successfully recreated God in a form suitable to be the object and recipient of prayer, NOW Celie can finally undertake and complete the act of prayer.  And so we get the final letter of the novel, which is indeed a prayer to God, concluded by the word "Amen."

A few words about this analysis before I move on to the second Note.  The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, which is to say a novel consisting of a series of letters.  Every doctoral student in any English Literature program learns that the epistolary form was the first form of the novel, exemplified by the classic eighteenth century novels of Samuel Richardson, Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison.  [I never studied English Literature, but I was married for twenty-three years to a distinguished scholar of the subject, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, whose doctoral dissertation was on Samuel Richardson, later published as Samuel Richardson and the Eighteenth Century Puritan Character, so I absorbed all of this as pillow talk, as it were.]  Now, for as long as I can recall, scholars of literature have been alerted to the significance of the formal structural features of works of fiction or poetry, and they are forever explaining to naive readers that one cannot really understand what a novel is about unless one pays attention to narrative voice and all the rest of that stuff.  For a late twentieth century author to adopt the form of the epistolary novel is a clear signal to any sophisticated reader that something important is happening here to which attention must be paid.  It is simply astonishing that not one of the extremely sophisticated critics I have cited even so much as asks the question, "Why did Walker choose to write an epistolary novel?"  These critics would never make the mistake of failing to examine the form of Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake.  Indeed, they would not even make the mistake of failing to ask such questions about Invisible Man.  So why on earth did they not ask it about The Color Purple?

I really do think there is only one possible answer.  The Color Purple is a novel by a Black woman in which themes of lesbianism and abusive treatment of Black women by Black men come up.  It just never occurs to the critics, including such sophisticated writers as Henry Louis Gates, that Walker might actually be a thoughtful, self-aware, intelligent author whose authorial choices are made deliberately for some deliberate artistic purpose.

Second Note:

A number of commentators on The Color Purple have written critically or disparagingly about the contrast between the power and immediacy of Celie's narration and the stilted formality of Nettie's letters, with their implausibly proper English and lengthy, tedious, quasi-Ethnographic accounts of the African people in whose midst she spends so many years as a missionary.  Once again, in this day of super-sophistication about matters of literary voice, none of the commentators has thought to ask why Walker, who clearly has the authorial skill to create the compelling voice of Celie, chooses to conjure so unappealing a voice as that of Nettie.  Walker's choice may, of course, be a literary mistake, but it is manifestly impossible that it is a mere accident or oversight.

There are some clues in Nettie's letters to which we ought to pay attention in our attempt to discover Walker's aims.  Consider first of all the contrast in diction and grammar of the two sets of letters.  These are sisters, after all, raised in the same household and educated, such as may be, in the same school.  Yet one writes in a direct, forceful, compelling, semi-literate dialect, and the other writes in stilted, educated, boring correct English.  Later on, I will suggest that this is one of the clues to what the novel is about, what its message is, but for the moment, let us simply note that since Walker wrote both sets of letters, she could perfectly well have made Nettie's letters as compelling as Celie's, had she chosen to do so.

The letters written by Celie exhibit a subtle progressive development, whereas those written by Nettie might all have been written at the same time.  One example will suffice.  Celie always refers to the man to whom she has been married as "Mr. -----."  In the earlier letters, she consistently misuses the possessive case, writing "Mr. ----- children" on page 25 or "Mr. ---- daddy" on page 58.  Then, in the dramatic and pivotal letter to Nettie, in which she announces that she is not writing to God any longer, she uses it correctly. -- "Mr. ----'s evil" on page 179, thereby signifying linguistically a growth in self-command and assurance.  Nettie, on the other hand, uses the possessive correctly from the very beginning -- see her second letter, p. 119 -- "the Reverend Mr. ----'s place."

Nettie follows a path in the novel that is stereotypically the correct path -- what today we would call, in a different context, P.C.  She leaves the rural South, goes North, becomes involved with Christian missionaries off to do good works in Africa.  The couple she joins are virtually a caricature -- the woman, Corinne, went to Spelman Institute [later Spelman College];  her husband, Samuel, met the young W. E. B. DuBois.  The two of them met President Tubman in Liberia [which, as it happens, is historically impossible.  Tubman did not become president of Liberia until much later.]  Nettie's letters are filled with pseudo-anthropological accounts of African customs -- in which, incidentally, can be found striking parallels to Celie's life, marked by direct and unmistakable verbal echoes.  [One example:  Nettie says of the Olinka:  "There is a way that men speak to women that reminds me too much of Pa.  They listen just long enough to issue instructions."  Celie, in one of her letters, says "I know white people never listen to coloured, period,  If they do, they only listen long enough to be able to tell you what to do."]

One would expect Nettie, who has escaped from the degradation of her childhood, to return and take Celie away to Harlem at the end of the novel.  Instead, Walker inverts the expected conclusion by having Celie gather Nettie and the rest of her extended "family" about her at the end of the novel.  It is Celie, not Nettie, who has actually taken the longest and most productive journey.  Surely, it seems to me, this central structural feature of the novel must signal Walker's rejection of [or, as they say in literary circles, revision of] the dominant literary tradition and dominant theses of the Harlem literary renaissance.  I am not simply calling attention to Walker's reversal or revision of the representation of male and female roles within the Afro-American literary tradition.  At stake here too is the role of the rural South versus the urban North, etc.  What is especially interesting is that Walker, the person, followed Nettie's path, but she has written a novel in which Celie is the compelling central figure.

In short, a great deal is going on in the Color Purple, as in any novel.  But it seems clear from these elementary facts about the formal structure of the work that Walker has chosen to write a story about the process by which a Black woman can achieve the possibility of successful prayer, and at the same time, to call into question standard evaluative assumptions within the Afro-American literary tradition about the centrality of the Southern rural experience and the Northern flowering of the Harlem Renaissance.  It is also possible that attention to these formal features of the novel will help readers to resist the temptation to construe it as a naive expression of Walker's unmediated attitudes toward Lesbianism or the mistreatment of Black women by Black men.