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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Thursday, May 23, 2019

THIS IS NOT A BLOG POST [TO STEAL A LINE FROM MAGRITTE]


I really am taking what they call in kindergarten a “time out” but something happened yesterday that was too delicious to ignore.  I learned what “hectocotyliferously” means.  A word of explanation is called for.

Seventy years ago, when Susie and I were high school girlfriend and boyfriend, we used to read together the poems of e. e. cummings [lower case intentional.]  cummings was the son of a Harvard professor and a graduate of Harvard.  One of our favorite poems [#201 in Susie’s copy of Collected Poems] is a hilariously cruel portrait of a Radcliffe student.  It is one of cummmings’ longest poems, filling two pages.  The opening lines are:

" Gay " is the captivating cognomen of a Young Woman of cambridge, mass.
to whom nobody seems to have mentioned ye olde freudian wish;
when i contemplate her uneyes safely ensconced in thick glass
you try if we are a gentleman not to think of(sh).

the world renowned investigator of paper sailors — argonauta argo
harmoniously being with his probably most brilliant pupil mated,
let us not deem it miraculous if their(so to speak) offspring has that largo appearance of somebody who was hectocotyliferously propagated. 

Those lines have stuck in my memory for almost three-quarters of a century, but in all that time it never occurred to me until yesterday to find out what “hectocotyliferously” actually means.  Well, Google supplied the answer and it was worth the wait.

hec·to·cot·y·lus  noun  a modified arm used by male octopuses and some other cephalopods to transfer sperm to the female.

I shall return to my self-enforced silence.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

HAIL AND FAREWELL


I have been blogging regularly and at great length for ten years, with the occasional break for a safari or a trip to Paris.  I began in a bad mood.  Let me quote a paragraph from my post of October 4, 2009:

“The truth is that at seventy-five, I am simply weary of being constantly, gut-wrenchingly angry all the time. I started getting angry in the late Fall and early Spring of 1960-61, over the impending invasion of Cuba. I worked myself into a permanent frenzy over the threat of nuclear war. I got angrier about Civil Rights and the Viet Nam War. I exploded in rage at the outrageously discriminatory professional treatment of my first wife, which triggered my successful effort to get the American Philosophical Association to establish a standing committee on the status of women in the profession. I was livid about Nixon, furious about Reagan, contemptuous of the first Bush, appalled by the second Bush. As Lily von Shtupp [Madeline Kahn] sings in Mel Brooks' immortal movie, BLAZING SADDLES, I'm tired!”

And here I am, ten years later, beside myself at eighty-five, as I was at seventy-five, sixty-five, fifty-five, forty-five, thirty-five, and thirty [I was pretty laid back when I was twenty-five.]  Now, I am not a low energy guy, but it takes it out of you being mad for more than half a century.  When I was a boy, “late capitalism” was an analytic category.  Now it is a sad in-joke.  Bad as things were then [and they really were godawful if you were Black or female or gay or poor], I honestly thought they could get permanently better.  Seventy years later, I am not so sure.

It is well understood here in the retirement community where I live that it takes old folks longer to recover from injuries.  Usually, that is a reference to breaking a shoulder or a hip, but it is true for injuries to the spirit as well.

So I am going to take a little time off to heal.  I have already explained that I will be unable to blog for about a month, due to plumbing work in my building combined with a two week trip to Paris.  I am going to add a bit more time, and bid you all adieu until July 5th, when I shall be back from Paris and, I hope, an Eeyore no more but a Tigger reborn.

Before I go, I have one brief comment on a recent event.  Two days ago, Doris Day died.  The stories said she was ninety-seven.  My first reaction, when I read that, was “Wow!  How old she was.  Extraordinary!”  But then I reflected, the lady who lives across the hall and the lady who lives in the apartment under us are both ninety-six, and they are chipper, very witty, a bit slowed down to be sure.  I don’t see either of them leaving us any time soon, and next year they will both be ninety-seven.  That is old, but it is not that old.  Good lord, I may be blogging for another ten years.

See you after the Fourth.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

ROE V, WADE


There is increasing reason to fear that some time in the next year, the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.  I leave it to you to check the news and seek out Justice Breyer’s warning that the High Court seems increasingly ready to overturn precedent.  This would be a disaster for untold numbers of women.  What can be done?

I leave to one side fantasies about a car crash on the way to the Inauguration of President-elect Warren in which Justices Kavanaugh, Thomas, and Gorsuch are killed, and also pie-in-the-sky plans to increase the Court by two positions.  Let me suggest a radical but perhaps manageable plan that could adapt to the new legal landscape.

According to Google [citing the Guttmacher Institute], there are maybe 930,000 abortions a year in the United States,  Many of them are performed in states where abortions would continue to be legal if Roe were overturned.  Inasmuch as California and New York are among many the abortion friendly states, I will assume that perhaps 400,000 of the yearly abortions are in states intent upon criminalizing the procedure.  Now, it is of course legal for a woman in one of those benighted states to take a plane to another state and have the abortion there, and I am sure even now, when states like Texas have made it so difficult to obtain an abortion, there are a good many upper middle class women who can afford to do just that.  Let us assume that leaves 300,000 women a year needing abortions for whom arranging and taking such a trip is either very difficult or in fact impossible.

What to do?

Here is an idea, bizarre but legal and, with sufficient organizing skill and enough money, manageable.  Suppose a national organization were to be formed, using many social media platforms, to offer an abortion assistance service.  Once the organization was contacted, it would send a representative to the woman’s home [in a random, unmarked, ordinary unnoticeable car].  With the driver would be someone trained to administer a pregnancy test.  If it is positive, and if she can produce proof that she is not a minor, the driver will either drive her to another state and call ahead to arrange for the abortion at a safe clinic, or book a flight for her to an abortion-friendly state, where she will be met and taken to a clinic.  She will stay overnight and be taken home.  If she is a minor, she will have to be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.

What would this whole business cost each year?  For 300,000 abortions, I am guessing 1 billion dollars [$3,300 each] should cover it.

So, the plan would require the public to donate a billion dollars.  That is a lot of money, but it is entirely doable, with sufficient public relations promotion.  Perhaps Planned Parenthood could run the whole thing.

Obviously anti-abortion forces would do a variety of things to disrupt the operation.  It would be a struggle.  But if Roe is overturned, the ground level outrage is going to be deafening.

Lord knows, I cannot organize such an effort.  But someone could.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

LITERARY MUSINGS


In the flurry of heated comments on this blog in the past several days, one stuck in my mind and piqued my curiosity.  Two days ago, in what I am pretty sure was meant as a devastating criticism of me and my blog, Talha wrote:  “If one were to seek a definitive "jump the shark" moment for this blog, this would be it.”  I thought to myself. “Now what exactly does that mean?”  I knew it had something to do with Happy Days, Fonzie, and water skiing, but pretty clearly the expression had taken on a larger life.  So, as I always do when I am puzzled, I Googled.  Here is what I found:

“Jumping the shark is the moment when something that was once popular that no longer warrants the attention it previously received makes an attempt at publicity, which only serves to highlight its irrelevance.”

Huh.  That was odd.  Was I once popular but now no longer warrant the attention I previously received?  It was pretty clear that Talha did not intend to pay me a compliment – I got that.  But the rest of it puzzled me.

Once popular.  This blog occupies a tiny backwater off a trickle of a stream that never quite makes it as far as even a secondary waterway.  For some years now, if Google metrics are accurate, it has been attracting between 1000 and 1500 views a day.  Allowing for the faithful who click multiple times and the occasional visitors who nod in from time to time, there might be as many as 2000 folks worldwide who come to visit, among whom maybe a dozen comment with any frequency [that last may be a bit generous.]  Every so often, Brian Leiter links to something I have said, and for a day the views soar to 3000, but then things settle down and putter along.

Now, 1000-1500 a day is fabulous if you are standing in front of a classroom, but in the Blogosphere it is pathetic.  The serious blogs record daily visits in the scores of thousands or even millions.  My total viewership would be within the margin of error of a real blog.  However – and on this I take my stand – it is constant, neither growing nor dwindling. 

I am afraid that expression is like many that once had a precise meaning but now simply convey a generalized scorn.  Sort of like gaslighting.

AN IMPORTANT ESSAY ON IRAN

My old friend, William Polk, has just circulated an important essay on Trump's policy toward Iran.  I have uploaded it to box.net, accessible via the link on this page, where it is listed as "Essay on US."  I strongly recommend it.

JUST SAYIN'

This doesn't sound technocratic to me.

CALLING ALL TECHIES


One of my ways of preserving some semblance of sanity is to do the TIMES crossword puzzle each day.  Mondays are dead easy, then each day is a bit harder, until Friday and Saturday are really challenging.  I do them in ink, since pencil does not read as easily.  The Thursday puzzle always has an interesting gimmick in it, sometimes very hard to decipher. The Sunday puzzle is very big but only about as hard as the Wednesday puzzle.

On Sunday, there is sometimes a DoubleCrostic, and that is where the problem arises.  I love doing DoubleCrostics but I hate filling in the letters and I am constantly making mistakes.  I have long thought that if I were as rich as Bezos, I would hire someone whose whole job would be to fill in the DoubleCrostic letters for me.

And then it struck me:  This is a perfect job for an App.  It should be child’s play to design an App that automatically links the letters in the answers to the clues to the places in the puzzle where they go.  Surely there must be an online DoubleCrostic site that does that.

Anybody?

Saturday, May 11, 2019

PAUL'S CONTRIBUTION AND MY RESPONSE


Paul has written a long and very serious three-part criticism of my recent despairing post, criticism that I think has a good deal of merit.  I want to try to address it here.  His comment takes the form of first stating three claims that I often make, and then responding to each in turn.  I want to incorporate his words into this response, so this will take a while, but I think it is important.  Bear with me.

He begins:

Professor Wolff: there are three claims in this post, claims that make frequent appearance in your posts these days, that I want to call into question.

“(1) You claim that Trump poses a grave threat to “democracy as we know it” in America. Specifically, you claim that if he’s elected in 2020, American democracy stands a reasonable chance of being left in tatters. And should he lose, he will attempt to engineer a coup to invalidate the election.

(2) You claim that the American left will survive a Biden presidency. More to the point: we shouldn’t be too terribly worried about a Biden presidency compared to a Trump one, because in the former case, we stand a much better chance of regrouping to take power eventually. Therefore, if Biden appears to have the best shot at beating Trump—I assume you mean if pre-nomination polls bear out that he does best head-to-head with Trump—then we should support him.

(3) You contrast Biden with “Warren or Sanders or Harris.” I take it that you mean this latter group to be the group of real lefties, or real progressives, in the race. Therefore, you take Kamala Harris to be a progressive or lefty on par with Sanders and Warren.”

Let me deal with the third point first, because it is easiest.  I think Paul is correct about Harris, and I confess he knows a great deal more about her record than I do.  Let me grant the point and remove her from the list of electable progressives.  I actually think Warren is better on the issues than Sanders, but that is unimportant in this context.  Now to the real meat of Paul’s comment.  Against point 1, he responds:

“The argument here is not that you’re being “too pessimistic” or otherwise “too cautious” or something else of the like—that is, I’m not saying that you’ve basically gotten Trump right (in kind) but have overstated things (in degree). Rather, I think you’ve just got Trump flat wrong in kind. Moreover, the mistaken conception has bad consequences. It leads us to think of the sort of political action we should be doing in misguided terms. Here’s how you’ve gotten Trump wrong: he does not fit the model of an authoritarian would-be dictator bent on seizing total control of the state. He lacks both the specific ideological vision and the tenacity required for that. Instead, Trump is better thought of as a more-or-less standard Reaganesque Republican president prone to self-aggrandizement and petty arguments, but reticent to engage in deep-cutting, long-term struggles for power. How do we know this? Well, note that the Republican congress and leadership has pretty much stymied all of his signature (that is: non-standard) promises. They’ve refused to fund his wall, failed to repeal Obamacare, refused to fund a major infrastructure program, and refused many of his budget requests. On each of these occasions, Trump has (occasionally) lashed out with insults on Twitter or at a press conference, only to ultimately drop the issue. Furthermore, with an ongoing investigation that threatened to potentially impeach him carried out by his own justice department(!), he couldn’t even pull a Richard Nixon and fire everyone. In short, the actual record simply doesn’t support your framing of Trump. I think your framing of Trump is a significant mistake because it fails to understand the actual political moment we’re in, and what our best options are.”

I agree that Trump does not fit the standard model of a would-be dictator, but I disagree that he is a more-or-less standard Reagenasque Republican [although God knows, Reagan was bad enough.]  I think, or rather I fear, that Trump is a good deal more dangerous than that.  I think he is desperate to survive and avoid all manner of legal dangers to his wealth [such as it is] and his freedom, and he is showing some skill at using the enormous inherent power of the modern presidency to protect himself and attack those he sees as enemies.  I think he will probably fail, pretty much for the reasons you advance [that was the point of my seemingly off-the-wall remarks about the Secret Service and the army.]  But I think he will try, and I am frightened of what that will bring.  For several years now, all of us have been counting on what Bannon and company call the Deep State to protect us, or what used to be called the Establishment, and I hope our confidence is well-placed.  Once again, I am frightened.

Finally, Paul writes this lengthy analysis of Biden’s real significance and of our current situation.  I agree with much of it, so let me reproduce it verbatim:

“A Biden presidency would be disastrous—and not simply because of the opportunity cost of a lost Sanders or Warren presidency. No, a Biden presidency would be disastrous because if we properly understand our current political moment, we can see it would lead to potentially devastating consequences. Therefore, Biden should be seen as our political enemy too. Why? Well, if you have an understanding of the Trump presidency that doesn’t view him as an out-of-nowhere aberration but instead conceives of his appeal in the history of American political economy, we can see that Biden just represents a further step down the disastrous neoliberal trajectory we’ve been on. Trump’s appeal in large part derives from the bankruptcy the public feels—the sense of a bitter, repressed outrage—toward standard US politics post-Reagan. That standard politics (let’s call it “neoliberalism”) is embodied best by politicians like the Bushes and Clintons whose agenda was oriented around foreign imperialism, the curtailment (or even retrenchment) of gains by the civil rights and labor movements, a belief in the market and skepticism/demonization of government “welfare” programs, and big, big money all around. It’s the bankruptcy of *that* politics that leads to our situation, where people above all just want something different, want to flip the bird to standard politicians. This means that there are political openings for both more leftist and more revanchist styles of politics. Trump represents the first step of the latter—though as I discussed above in (1), he represents *merely the first step*. But if we elect a stupid standard politician like Biden *again*, and the public becomes even *more* disenchanted than they were under Obama, the natural next step is for a more genuinely revanchist, more scarily competent and tenacious politician, than Trump to take power. Then we really will be in the sort of situation you seem to think Trump’s put us in. But a Biden (or Beto, or anyone-but-Sanders-or-Warren) presidency will take us further down that path. So even if polls bear out that vs. Sanders they have a better shot at beating Trump, we should not devote our energies toward nominating these people—*if* they’re nominated, then we have a different conversation. But we should strive to avoid that catastrophe at all costs.”

I agree with virtually all of this.  I think we are, or may be, in one of those rare moments when genuinely progressive politics have a chance to win big, and perhaps make some really major changes in this country.  [I say perhaps because such changes would require a solid left majority in the House and Senate as well as a progressive in the White House, and that is much dicier.]

Leaving aside the matter of Harris, where Paul is right and I was wrong, I think the difference between us is that I am a good deal more frightened of Trump than he is.  I hope he is right.  If I may echo Alfred Doolittle from My Fair Lady, I’m willing for him to be right, I’m wanting him to be right, I’m waiting for him to be right.  I may just be old and too often disappointed, or maybe I don’t get out enough.  The dismay I have felt at the arrival and early success of Biden has really taken it out of me.  Look, maybe he will wilt under the lights during a debate, wander a little, show his age [God knows I know about that!], and the faithful will drift away.

Meanwhile, I will donate my little bits of money to Biden and Warren and keep hope alive.

Thank you, Paul, for a valuable contribution to the debate.



Friday, May 10, 2019

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?


I would like to talk realistically for a while about the prospects for the rule of law in America.  Trump may be impeached by the House, but he will not be convicted by the Senate.  Either then he will or he will not be defeated in 2020.  If he is not defeated, I think it is an open question whether democracy, such as we now know it in America, will survive.

If he is defeated, he will gin up conspiracy theories to the effect that the vote was rigged.  There are, by my count, 83 days between the election and the inauguration of the president.  He will spend all of that time claiming that he was cheated out of a victory, and declaring that he will not accept the results of the election as announced.  He will persuade some millions of people that he is right, and he will encouraged armed insurrection.

Will he succeed in seizing control of the state?  It depends on two things:  the behavior of the Secret Service and the behavior of the troops stationed in and around Washington DC.  If the Secret Service and the Army refuse to obey his unlawful orders, he is cooked.  His supporters may have lots of guns, but they are unorganized and untrained, and many if not most of them are blowhards who will collapse in the face of organized military force. 

The power of a modern president consists entirely in his or her ability to get very large numbers of people to accept his or her commands.  It depends, if I may borrow a phrase from myself, on the president’s possession of de facto, not de jure, legitimate authority.  To put it crudely, it depends on whether when he says “fire!” they fire.

Trump has done virtually nothing to cultivate loyalty to himself personally among either the members of the Secret Service or the military at the colonel/general level.  It helps us in this matter that he is personally a coward.

So everything depends on defeating him sufficiently decisively so that the matter does not go to the Supreme Court, as it did in 2000.  It is too early to tell which Democratic hopeful has the best chance.  That should become clearer by the late fall.  If it is the despicable Biden, so be it.  If it is Warren or Sanders or Harris, all the better.  There is a progressive movement afoot in the country, and it can survive a Biden presidency.  It may not survive a Trump second term.

Does this sound like a counsel of desperation?  Damn right.

YOUTHFUL LONGINGS


As I watched my senior senator, Richard Burr, exhibiting the barest sign of a spine, issuing a subpoena for Don Jr. and holding firm against the contumely of his Republican colleagues, I thought back to my first visit to Washington, DC in the summer of 1961, my eleventh and last year at Harvard.  I wrote about the experience in my Autobiography, and posted it on this blog nine years ago.  I was young in ’61, not yet an anarchist and still filled with a longing for genuine popular democracy.  I think it is worth re-posting.

I spent that last summer finishing my manuscript and preparing to leave Cambridge.  In late August, I wrapped up the book and decided to take a little vacation.  Since I had never visited Washington D. C., and now knew several people in the new Kennedy Administration, I took the train down to spend a week there.  I checked into a hotel near the train station and went round to various office buildings to visit my friends.  They were tremendously excited by their new jobs, but as I spent time with them, I grew more and more uneasy.  It was all a bit like the court at Versailles under the ancien rĂ©gime.  There was a great deal of gossip, and a constant anxiety about the thoughts, the feelings, the preferences, the moods of one person, the President.
When I went over to the Capitol to take a look at Congress, my view of the government changed entirely.  I spent several days in the visitors' gallery of the Senate, watching debates and votes.  The fact that it was the one cool place I had found in a steamy town may have had something to do with my reaction.  I watched with great amusement as Everett Dirksen protested his love of duck hunting and hunters, imitating to great effect a duck settling onto a pond at sunset.   Apparently the government had imposed a tax on duck hunting in order to raise money for wetlands preservation, and then had used the money to drain swamps for development.  The duck hunters of America wanted a five million dollar appropriation to make things right, and Dirksen, who was opposing all spending that week on grounds of fiscal responsibility, was trying to convince the duck hunters of Illinois that he felt their pain.  I watched the great maverick, Wayne Morse, bellow to an empty chamber that he was not going to kowtow to the Catholic Church, with regard to what I can no longer recall.  And I watched as all but two of the senators came to the floor to vote on the renewal of the Civil Rights Commission.
What attracted me so greatly was the fact that each of these men and women was an independent person, beholden only to his or her constituents, and not subservient to the President, regardless of how charismatic and powerful he might be.  These were men and women with honor, not servile courtiers hoping to be given pride of place on a balcony or in a presidential jet.  Exactly the same sentiments welled up in me as I watch octogenarian Robert Byrd deliver speech after speech calling George W. Bush to account for the damage he did to the U. S. Constitution. 
It was fun visiting Marc Raskin in the Executive Office Building, and listening to the rumors about Kennedy and Marc's secretary, Diane DeVegh.  It was interesting hearing Dick Barnet talk about the inside story at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.  But it was ennobling to watch the debates on the floor of the Senate.  I think it was that week in a hot Washington summer, rather than any of the books I had read, that once for all time soured me on the Imperial Presidency.


FAIR WARNING

I will be going to Paris on June 14, returning July 4th, and as you know, I am unable to blog from Paris.  However, two weeks before we go, Susie and I must move out of our apartment so that the management can redo the plumbing.  They are doing the entire three story building, one stack of apartments at a time, and our turn is coming up.  So it may be that from May 27th or so until July 4th, I will go dark, as they say.  There is no telling what disasters will befall America in that time, but if the very last scene of The Truman Show is correct, you will all just click to another site and never miss me.  I will miss you, I fear.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A RESPONSE TO LFC


CALLICLES:  How you keep on saying the same things, Socrates!
SOCRATES:   Yes, Callicles, not only the same things, but also about the same subjects.  Gorgias 490e

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

LESSONS MY MOTHER WOULD HAVE TAUGHT ME HAD SHE KNOWN HOW I WOULD TURN OUT


I am now eighty-five years old, and save for a wanderjahr in Europe as a student and a number of short overseas trips, I have spent all those years in the United States.  Despite my unflagging interest in politics, I have in my long life never actually met [or seen in person] a sitting Senator, although I did meet Elizabeth Warren for ninety seconds when she was still a law professor [my son, Tobias, knew her.]  I met my Congressional Representative once in Western Mass, John Olver, because I bought four and a half acres from him so that Susie and I could build a house after we got married.  And I met David Price once, the safely and regularly reelected Representative from Chapel Hill.  I have also never met a sitting Governor, or any member of any Cabinet, and as for the media, I once shook hands with E. J. Dionne at a Harvard Social Studies reunion.  And that is it!

So I often wonder what all these important people are really like, what they really think, how they describe the world in private, when they are speaking openly.  This morning, as I was walking, I recalled an experience I had almost sixty years ago that might offer a clue to answering those questions.

It happened either in 1959-60 or 1960-61 at Harvard, where I was a young Instructor.  Those of you old enough to recall those days may remember something called the Pugwash Conferences.  These were annual unofficial international gatherings of bigwigs of various political persuasions who came together to discuss the threats to peace and survival posed by nuclear weapons.  They were organized by Bertrand Russell [whom I had met], among others, and were named after the tiny shoreline town in Nova Scotia where the first conference was held.

I had gotten to know Richard Barnet, a disarmament expert who was then at the Harvard Russian Research Institute.  Dick shortly afterward teamed up with Marc Raskin to form the Institute for Policy Studies, a leftwing DC think tank that still exists.  When Walt Rostow got back from the Pugwash Conference that year, he appeared on TV and made a number of bellicose statements about the Soviet threat that seemed to me totally unconnected to reality.  Then Dick told me that Rostow was going to give a private briefing on the Conference to the Institute regulars, and asked whether I wanted to go along as his guest.

I jumped at the chance.  Now I would get to find out what Rostow really thought.  So I went along and sat quietly in the back, observing.  [This from my Autobiography]  Everyone was there - Alex Inkeles, Adam Ulam, Zbigniev Brzeszinski, all the hotshots.  I listened with dismay as Rostow used the same hackneyed jargon that had characterized his public appearances.  Worse still, the responses from the experts were couched as well in cold war boilerplate.  It dawned on me that this was the way they actually thought.  There was no real insider story that they shared only with fellow experts.  They actually believed the nonsense they shoveled out to the public.

In the immortal words of Gertrude Stein describing Oakland, CA, there was no there there.  Or to invoke an even more famous line from Maya Angelou, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

From these two wise women and my own experience from long ago, I draw the conclusion that the Clintons and Schumers and Bidens of the world are just the bought and paid for Wall Street flacks that they seem to be.

It is going to be a long hot summer.

Monday, May 6, 2019

HOW SOON THEY FORGET

Yesterday was Marx's 201st birthday.  Not a bad run for a little Jewish boy from Trier.

RENTS, SPRAINS, FRACTURES, AND OTHER INSULTS TO THE BODY POLITIC


From 1980 to 1987, I lived in the Boston area while continuing to teach at UMass.  During that time, I was a regular at the lectures put on by a center for the History and Philosophy of Science run by Bob Cohen and Marx Wartofsky, two wonderful members of the BU Philosophy Department.  The lectures were delightful affairs, on every conceivable topic under the sun, and a distinctive feature of them was that no matter how obscure the topic, somehow a leading expert would show up in the audience to challenge the speaker.  One evening, as I recall, a member of the Worcester based UMass Medical School gave a talk on Aztec medicine, leaving us all to wonder what we could possibly ask during the question period.   Not to worry!  A young man stood up, declared himself to be of Aztec heritage, and proceeded to grill the speaker.

The last few days has made me feel a little bit as though I were back at BU.  My son tells me to read a book on MMT.  I do so, write a blog about some ideas in it out of my profound ignorance, and Tom Hickey pops up to put us all in the picture with a series of long, enormously knowledgeable comments.  It really is wonderful.

I am going to stop blogging about MMT because I almost immediately exhausted my fragile grasp of it, but one thing Tom Hickey said triggered some thoughts that I should like to lay before you.  Here is the passage, from one of his comments:

“Addressing inequality is a social issue more than an economic one, but it is also an economic one that needs to be addressed for optimization. Economically, this would involve taxing away economic rent as "windfall profit," that is, gain from ownership rather than productive contribution. Economic rent includes financial rent, land rent, natural resource rent, and monopoly and monopsony rent, as well as socialized negative externality.”

It is the word “rent” on which I wish to expand, from a Marxist perspective.  These remarks will pull together several things I have said here before.  I first encountered discussions of rent in Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  Smith was of course writing about land rent, the price the landed gentry charged entrepreneurs who wanted to grow crops on their land.  Smith is scathing in his critique of the gentry, whom he views as leeches sucking the life blood out of England [of course, he may be more than ordinarily negative because he was Scots].  He draws a sharp distinction between the work done by the farmers employed by the entrepreneurs, which he calls productive labor, and the work done by the clouds of servants waiting hand and foot on the gentry, which he calls unproductive labor.  The first sort of labor creates wealth, and is thoroughly praiseworthy; the second gobbles up wealth, and threatens to lead England to ruin.  Ricardo, forty-one years later, echoes Smith in his Principles and warns that the rents charged by the gentry threaten to bring economic growth to a standstill.

It was well understood by both Smith and Ricardo that in the division of the annual product – the “wealth of the nation” – the interests of the entrepreneurs and the workers were diametrically opposed.  What went to one class as profits diminished what was left to the other class as wages.  Rents, Ricardo demonstrated, came out of profits, not out of wages.

Speaking more broadly, a rent is a payment demanded by the legal owner of a scarce and non-substitutable resource entirely independently of any contribution made by the owner to the productive enterprise in which it is used.  The gentry didn’t do anything for their rents.  They just owned the land and demanded payment before allowing it to be used, a demand backed up by the law, the police, and if necessary the army.  Owners of patents do the same thing, as do owners of broadcast frequencies, and mines.

In the early days of capitalism, when most often the owner of a firm also managed it and perhaps invented some of the productive techniques used by the firm, it was easy to imagine, as both Smith and Ricardo did, that the entrepreneurs earned their share of the firm’s income.  The entrepreneurs saved up their money by skimping on their household spending, and lived upright, frugal lives [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, anybody?]  They went to their factories and managed them for long hours, directing the labor of their employees.  Oftentimes, they invented new productive techniques, or adapted existing ones in more economical fashion.  In short, from any reasonable point of view, they earned their take from the enterprise, which economists called profit.

But things changed as capitalism developed, until now, almost the entire contribution to production by the owners has been internalized in the firm.  I have written about this before on this blog and will not repeat myself [although I do enjoy the reference to an old Burt Reynolds movie.]  These days, what do capitalists do?  They give permission.  They allow their employees to use the capital that they own, a permission for which they charge a price.

In short, they collect rents.

Capitalists qua capitalists [as we say in the Philosophy trade] collect rents.  To be sure, some of them – the Steve Jobs’s and Jeff Bezos’s of the world – do other things as well, and God bless them for that.  But the vast preponderance of capital in the world these days is collecting the equivalent of the rents that the idle gentry demanded from the go-getting entrepreneurs in the good old days.

So, do we need capitalists?  No.

Don’t take my word for it.  Go read a really fine book, now thirty-nine years old, by David Schweickart, called Capitalism or Worker Control?

Sunday, May 5, 2019

GOOD GRIEF

I think I accidentally deleted a comment about Goldsmith.  Did I?

IDLE THOUGHT


In late September 1950, I began my undergraduate education at Harvard.  Taking the advice of Herb Winston, who had preceded me to Harvard from Forest Hills High School, I enrolled in Philosophy 140, Willard Van Orman Quine’s course on symbolic logic.  We used Quine’s own book, Methods of Logic, in which at one point he introduces a quick and dirty method of ascertaining the validity of certain inferences to which he gives the name “fell swoop.”  The phrase comes from MacBeth and originally meant the cruel, quick killing dive of a hawk or kestrel hunting for rodents and other small prey.  Quine had an unexpectedly puckish sense of humor, and at one point observed that there was an inverse to the fell swoop procedure, which, he suggested, could be called a “swell foop.”  The characteristic and astonishingly fast hunting dive by raptors is called a stoop.  So a fell swoop is a stoop.  I have often wondered whether the 18th century Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith had that meaning in mind when he wrote She Stoops to Conquer. 

Saturday, May 4, 2019

AND OFF WE GO


I am delighted to see that my MMT post has triggered a lively series of comments.  I have a good deal to say in response and in further elaboration, so let me get started.  By the way, Tom Hickey obviously understands all of this vastly better than I do, so I invite him to weigh in whenever he sees me going off the rails.

MMT is simple, easily stated, and absolutely counterintuitive.  That is true, I find, of many powerful ideas.  MMT turns upside down everything that we think we understand about the most familiar thing in the modern world:  money.  It is not complicated, it does not require a grasp of differential calculus to understand, and yet what it says strikes us as just plain wrongheaded.

Let me begin with LFC’s vigorous and utterly sensible comment.  Here it is:

“To simplify things, let's boil matters down to one dollar. The Treasury Department prints out one dollar. According to the post, the government has thereby incurred a debt; it has issued an IOU, a promise to pay. But a promise to pay *what*? What exactly has the government promised to pay and *to whom*? It's not as if someone with a dollar in his or her wallet can call the Treasury Dept. and say "I have a dollar, I have an IOU issued by you [the government]. So you owe me! Pay up!" If someone called the Treasury Dept and said that, the person at the other end of the line would presumably start wondering about the caller's mental health. So in what sense is a dollar bill a *promise to pay* by the government (as opposed to a piece of paper that, by accepted social convention, can be exchanged for something of value, though admittedly these days a single dollar bill can't be exchanged for much)?”

Strange as it may seem, LFC has it exactly right.  Let us assume that deep in the bowels of the Treasury Department is a bright, well-educated career official with a somewhat puckish sense of humor.  [Washington DC is full of such people, as David Palmeter and my sister, Barbara, discovered when they taught in the OLLI program there.]  When LFC calls the Treasury Department, he is routed to this career official, who says, “Yes sir, you are quite correct.  If you will come to the following address, the Treasury Department will be happy to pay the debt it has incurred to you.”  So off LFC goes, and when he knocks on the door, the Treasury official admits him and she says, “If you will present the IOU that we issued, I will be happy to redeem it.”  LFC, somewhat belligerently, we may imagine, takes out the dollar bill and presents it to her.  She examines it carefully and ascertains that it is indeed a genuine IOU issued by the United States government.   After having LFC sign some papers, she hands him … a dollar.  LFC splutters, and says, “But you have just given me back a dollar, which is another IOU.  How is that paying the debt you have incurred?’  And the Treasury official points to the place on the dollar where it says “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private.”  “That’s it? says LFC.  “You pay your debts with your own IOUs?”  And she replies, “Yes.  That is what it means to have a sovereign currency.”  As Wray wryly observes [I assume this is an old joke in MMT circles], if you go to the Queen of England to cash in a five pound note, she will hand you … a five pound note.

All of this is trivial, to be sure.  It took me only 1119 words to say in my post, and if I had had to, I could have gotten it down to a tweet.  But trivial though it is, it seems not to be understood these days by anyone in Washington [except AOC and her colleagues, but that is another matter.]  Even really smart people like Obama seem not to have grasped it.  Oddly enough, it used to be understood by economists as different in their policy preferences as Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, or so Wray writes.

So all right, it is a little weird, but suppose we agree that it is true.  Then what?  Well, as my son Patrick observed, MMT is not a theory, it is an analysis.  Absent considerations not part of the analysis, MMT does not imply any particular concrete policies.  But it does refute certain supposed constraints on possible policies.  In particular, it shows that it is literally never the case that the government does not “have enough money” to pay for something it wants to do.  And in Washington these days, that is a pretty big cudgel with which to beat off naysayers.

This is not the end of the matter, it is really just the beginning.  In my next post, I will try to say some useful things, drawing on some ideas I first encountered in a fine old book by an old friend, David Schweickart.

Friday, May 3, 2019

MMT IN 1119 WORDS


I have not finished the Wray book on MMT [Modern Monetary Theory, or Modern Money Theory, depending on whom you ask] but I am more than 200 pages into it and ready to tell you what I have learned.  My son, Patrick, who recommended Wray’s book, says it is not so much a theory [with models, predictions, evidence, and so forth] as an analysis, and I think he is right, but whatever it is, it is striking, surprising, counterintuitive, and – interestingly enough – not new, as Wray makes clear.

Here we go, the blind leading the sighted.  Stop me if I bump into something.

Big, strong, no-nonsense nations issue their own currency and will take no other.  They have sovereign currencies.  That is what I shall be talking about.  Wray dutifully spends a good many pages talking about all the weenie countries that are unable to issue sovereign currencies, and also about the rather odd case of the Euro, but that is not what he is really interested in, and neither am I.  Furthermore, we are talking about floating currencies, not currencies tied to a pile of gold or silver or cowrie shells or whatever.

We can boil the entire book down to two propositions, the second of which follows from the first.  They are simple propositions, and they are, once you think about it, obviously true, but the second in particular is these days utterly rejected by everyone, left, right, and center.  The policy implications will be immediately obvious.

The first proposition is that in a country like the United States with a floating sovereign currency, the currency – say, a bag full of dollars – is a collection of IOUs issued by the government.  IOU, recall, is short for I Owe You.  It is a promise to pay, issued, for example, by someone who loses big at a friendly poker game and doesn’t have enough money to pay the debt, or by a heavy drinker who runs a bar tab.  The issuer of the IOU has assumed a debt by issuing the IOU.  The recipient of the IOU [the bar owner, say], by accepting the IOU, has acquired a credit.  It is an obvious accounting truth that the sum total of all the debts assumed by IOU issuers and the credits acquired by IOU acceptors is 0.  There is nothing deep or puzzling about this, it is just a trivial conclusion from the meaning of IOU.  If the debtor pays the debt, the IOU is returned to him or her by the lender.  The debtor is now in possession of the original IOU, which cancels out the debt.  The little piece of paper on which is written “IOU $10” can now be crumpled up and thrown away.  Bank loans are just like IOUs, except that they are kept track of nowadays with key strokes, not pieces of paper.  A bank loan is an IOU issued by a borrower to the bank, by a home buyer, perhaps, or maybe a small business owner.  A bank deposit is also an IOU, but this time it is an IOU issued by the bank to the depositor.  When I have money on deposit at a bank, the bank owes me.

Now, in a country with a floating sovereign currency, all of the money circulating, whether in coins or bills or checks drawn on banks or whatever, consists of IOU’s issued by the government.  Take out a dollar bill and look at it.  On the front in the upper left, printed in small letters, are the words “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”  That means that both the government and private lenders must accept this dollar bill as payment of, or cancelling out, a one dollar debt.

So far, this is pretty simple and not at all controversial.  That is what dollars are.  But why should anyone want to have dollars, in whatever form?  This is slightly trickier, so follow along.  The simple and obvious answer is, “to buy stuff with.”  But why should someone selling stuff be willing to give it to me for these pieces of paper [or keystrokes – it doesn’t matter]?  The superficial answer is, “because with it he or she can buy from someone else something that he or she wants.”  But that is really not any sort of answer, Wray suggests.  It just kicks the can down the road.  Au fond, as the French like to say, why does anyone in America want dollars?

And now Wray lays his big surprise on us [or at least on me -- maybe this was obvious to the rest of you.]  Ultimately, Americans need dollars because the United States imposes taxes on us and, being sovereign, can get away with only accepting dollars in payment.  Now dollars, as we have seen, are the government’s IOUs, and in order to pay our taxes we need these IOUs issued by the government.  And the way we get the IOUs is by having the government put out these IOUs, which is to say by spending.

Which brings us to Wray’s second proposition, the real humdinger:

Governments do not tax in order to spend.  They must spend in order to tax.

When a government taxes, it collects up IOUs it has already issued.  How did the people paying the taxes get those IOUs with which they pay their taxes?  Well, this is a nation with a floating sovereign currency, so nobody else is issuing IOUs which the government will accept, and there is nothing like gold that can serve as a substitute.  Those IOUs are out there, available to pay taxes, only because the government has bought something, spent some money, and paid for it with an IOU!

And that is fundamentally the whole story.  There is a lot of mind-numbing stuff about the Fed and the Treasury and the difference between them and the relationship between them, along with more detail than I can or want to absorb, but the whole story resides in those two propositions.

Does Wray think therefore that sovereign governments can spend without limit?  Yes, they can, but it may not be wise to do so, because once you have hit full employment, more spending is simply inflationary.  And so forth and so on.  Does Wray think this analysis entails any particular social policy?  No, but it does lay to rest certain objections to social policy proposals that seem now to be accepted by everyone [except Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes and friends, but that is another matter.]

Anyone who objects to government spending on the grounds that the government has run out of money simply does not understand what money is in a nation with a floating sovereign currency

Thursday, May 2, 2019

QUICK RESPONSE

Stephen Darling points me to this blog post by Bill Mitchell, Wray's co-author [but not of the book I am reading], responding to Marxist critics of MMT.  I found it extremely interesting.  Three quick thoughts:  One, Mitchell gets Marx right;  Two, this is deeper into the weeds than I want to go;  Three, it looks to me as though Marxists and MMT defenders ought to be natural allies, not opponents.  They both criticize mainstream economists for the same fundamental failing.

United Front, anyone?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

INTERIM REPORT

Yesterday was a loss, because of local health issues, but I am back at it plowing through the Wray book on MMT.  I am halfway through, and in Chapter 5, the book explodes into very exciting stuff.  There is even a long quote from my old colleague at UMass Rick Wolff!  Stay tuned.

REQUEST FOR HELP

I realize that bloggers are expected to have opinions about everything, but I have my limits.  Could someone who acually understands the Venezuelan situation offer some  guidance?

Sunday, April 28, 2019

BOOK REPORT


Faithful readers of this blog will have noticed that I do not actually read very much, for all that I strive to lard my posts with arcane references, but at the moment, I am actually reading three books, one suggested by my sister, Barbara, one suggested by my son, Patrick, and one suggested [at my request] by my son, Tobias.  Barbara recommended Frans de Waals’ Mama’s Last Hug, a book, as the subtitle says, about “animal emotions and what they tell us about ourselves.”  Patrick recommended Modern Monetary Theory, by L. Randall Wray.  Tobias recommended the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet.  I am a very slow reader, so I am only 25 pages into the de Waal, 102 pages into the Wray, and I have barely completed the Preface to the Sedgwick.  I will let you know how they turn out.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

THE PEACE THAT PASSETH ALL UNDERSTANDING


All my life I have been writing, talking, marching, donating for politics, but the truth is that I do not really enjoy it.  I am not a happy warrior, and these days, I am in a more or less constant state of agitation, anger, outrage, frustration, and disappointment.  All of this was brought home to me unexpectedly a day or so ago when I was driving home with Susie after running a series of errands.  I turned on the car radio, which is tuned to a local classical music station, just as the announcer introduced an early baroque concerto for lute and flute.  Quite unbidden, a feeling of peace descended on me as the music began, and for a few precious moments the agita that is my constant companion evaporated.

Afterward, I reflected that during my entire life, there have been two things, and only two, that can bless me with genuine inner peace.  The first is early music.  The second is laying out, in my mind, a complex, powerful, beautiful idea that I have managed to master until I can explain it so simply that my imaginary audience can see its power and beauty.  Often when I am walking in the morning I will imagine myself addressing a group of students or a university audience about Kant, or Marx, or Game Theory, setting forth an argument transparently and quietly.  I feel at peace.

I remember once seeing YoYo Ma at Tanglewood, playing a Bach Suite for unaccompanied cello.  His eyes were shut, and he was leaning back away from the instrument as though he was not so much playing it as listening to it, having long since mastered the technique of playing and settled on an interpretation of that immortal music.  I do not think I was wrong to think that he was at peace.

SORRY ABOUT THAT. HERE IT IS.

Great piece on the problem of Joe Biden, but there is another big problem—really big.
I grew up and live in Iowa and have been to every caucus since 1980—I’ve chaired every caucus in my present precinct for over 20 years. The thing about Iowa, for obvious reasons, is that you can get really involved in presidentials and through those years, there have been a handful of them that I have thrown myself into in addition to the local stuff. One of those years was 1988, for Joe Biden. I respected him and, still single no kids, young professional living in downtown Des Moines—walking distance from his campaign headquarters, I threw myself into the race.
Everything you wrote is accurate, but there is one other aspect to Biden: he is a lousy presidential campaigner. Lousy. A lot of Democrats are rightfully worried about Bernie in a general election, but they should be also be worried about Joe—Trump will kill him. It’s more than the speaking before thinking, though that is a part of the problem. It is also in his indecision, his inability to focus on a strategy, his call with Anita Hill, all which have been on display already in this race. He is just not good at this. Great guy; great senator; great VP—and he would make a great president, too. But he cannot run a decent race for president. Maybe it is the years of running a small-state, safe-seat campaign, maybe it’s something else. But, he is unlikely to get the nomination and if he does, he is highly unlikely to beat Trump.
In 1988, he staffed up with rather snooty east-coasters and then he killed his own campaign—even his decision to get out wasn’t done well. He ran a laughably poor caucus campaign in 2008. By 2008, a serious candidate had access to the resources and know-how to at least make a basic organizational effort at running here, if he or she wanted to. He didn’t seem to have the ability to do anything other than try to ride in on his name ID. In many precincts (including mine), he wasn’t viable, which means poor organization and his supporters didn’t know what to do after that happened, which means poor training. If you want to run here, at least lock down the basics.
The guy is just a lousy presidential campaigner. I’m okay with being proven wrong on this, because I would love to have him be president. But, I won’t support him in the primary—particularly with so many good alternatives—and I fear for the party if he is our nominee.

CAUTIONARY NOTE


All of us are being counseled by our betters to suck it up, stop whining, and get on board for Uncle Joe because he is our best bet, perhaps our only bet, to beat Trump.  It is worth reading this from Josh Marshall’s TPM before we take the pledge.

Friday, April 26, 2019

JOE SUPPORTED THE CRIME BILL, BUT THAT WAS A DIFFERENT TIME


We all know that Joe Biden was a senatorial leader in passing the 1994 federal crime bill.  This law, supported by members of the Black caucus and Bernie Sanders, by the way, in conjunction with state laws, effectively criminalized the purchase, sale, or use of certain drugs, resulting in millions of Black men being put in jail for long periods of time.  It was part of the “war on drugs.”  Those targeted were Black men and women and non-college educated drug pushers.  The punishment for use of crack cocaine was much higher than for the use of other forms of cocaine, thereby effectively focusing law enforcement efforts on inner city Black communities.

Now, there is a new drug crisis, the excessive use of opioids.  Scores of thousands of people are dying of overdoses of drugs even more dangerous than cocaine.  Non-college educated White users are dying at so great a rate that the national life expectancy rates for White non-college educated men have actually declined for the first time in living memory.

This time, the excessive use of dangerous drugs is declared not a public safety or crime crisis but a “public health emergency.”  The victims are White, and the pushers are doctors and corporate officials.  No one is suggesting putting users in jail.  Since the drugs are prescribed by doctors, it is not even clear that their possession is a crime.  Opioid users do not lose their right to vote. 

Does anyone see a pattern here?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

SAY IT AINT SO JOE

Sigh, so Joe Biden is in.  His sole claim to the nomination is that only he can beat Trump.  Is that true?  I don't know.  Maybe anybody can beat Trump.  Maybe nobody can beat Trump.  Maybe Bernie can and Kamala can't, or Kamala can and Bernie can't, or a ticket of Mayor Pete and Amy Klobuchar or Booker and Beto can.  Maybe Biden should be every candidate's first choice for Vice President, since he has more experience at that job than anyone since Spiro T. Agnew.

I cannot tell you how depressing I find it all.

On the other hand, it is spring, and I saw a beautiful bright red cardinal this morning on my walk.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

IMPEACHMENT


Well, that didn’t work, so I will move on to the subject of impeachment.  In the past seventy –two hours I have read and listened to endless discussions of the question, many from people I respect.  I am sure this is true of all of you as well.  I am going to offer my opinion, painfully aware that it rests on predictions and factual estimates of which I am not at all confident. 

In brief, here is what I think the Democratic majority in the House should do:

1.         Launch detailed hearings in several different committees, supported by subpoenas and, if necessary, by legal proceedings to obtain as much precise, detailed evidence and sworn testimony as possible.  It would be well if these proceedings extend well into the fall.

2.         Meanwhile, continue drafting, holding hearings on, and passing legislation dealing with health insurance, drug prices, infrastructure, student loans, voter suppression, equal rights, minimum wage, and so on, clearly acknowledging that the Senate will not even take these bills up but presenting them as a promissory note to the American people, to be redeemed when the Democrats take back the Senate and the Presidency.

3.         Some time in the fall, complete its investigations and vote to censure the President, an action I believe never before taken by either chamber.

4.         Then, in late fall, launch full scale impeachment proceedings, leading early in 2020 to a vote to return a bill of impeachment against the president.  Speaker Pelosi should deliver a speech on the occasion of the vote openly acknowledging that the Senate Republicans will not vote to remove the President from office and indeed may not even take the question up for deliberation.

Then, the Democrats should run on a robust platform of specific legislative proposals based on the bills already passed in the House, and call on their base to turn out in record numbers in order to complete the removal of Trump that the Republicans were too craven to carry out.

All of this is based on three assumptions: first, that the election will be decided by turnout; second, that our base is bigger than their base; and third, that we can motivate our base sufficiently to win.  I am reasonably sure of the first assumption, quite sure of the second assumption, and not entirely confident about the third assumption.  But I think what I have proposed gives us our best chance.

Monday, April 22, 2019

A MODEST REQUEST


I promised I would write about impeachment, and I will, but first I would like to take a few moments to write about something that has long puzzled me, and which I think perhaps I now understand.  It is this:  Even in places like this blog, where almost everyone who comments is pretty much left of center, if not off in the weeds with me, whenever I or someone else says, for example, that it is a bad thing for the Russians to attempt to muck in our elections, there are readers who immediately and reflexively list some of the many ways in which America meddles in the internal affairs of other nations, up to and including overthrowing a democratically elected government and installing a friendly puppet, as in Iran.

Why do they do that?  Are they suggesting that because America does it, it is all right for Russia to do it?  Perhaps, but I don’t think so.  I don’t think they believe that America’s doing something makes it right, as though America were the moral exemplar for humanity.  Do they think this blog is read by true blue patriots who believe that America is a Beacon of Freedom, a City Shining on a Hill?  That seems implausible.  Do they perhaps think that I myself have bought into the standard story that America was founded on the Idea of Freedom and has been steadily bringing its public actions into conformity with that idea for two hundred years?  I will do them the courtesy of assuming they know that I wrote a whole book attacking that myth.

So why do they do it?  Here is what I think.  Living in a country whose politicians, public intellectuals, scholars, pontificators and bloviators all accept and endlessly repeat these smug, self-congratulatory, manifestly false myths drives some people a little crazy.  It causes them such mental pain that it is as though they were condemned to a level of Hell inhabited by demons who spend all their time scraping their fingernails across slate blackboards.  They are in a perpetual fury, and simply cannot control themselves when they hear something that sounds as though it were yet another knee-jerk praise of America, regardless of who is speaking or writing.

Now, I understand what it is like to suffer from this condition.  Its symptoms first appeared in me sixty years ago, and in one early attack of the fever, triggered by an agitated, fruitless argument about nuclear weapons with a young Zbigniev Bzrezinski, I wigged out, had an anxiety attack, and came to running as fast as I could down Massachusetts Avenue toward Harvard Square sweating profusely.  Several Valium and a retreat into the higher reaches of pure theory were required to reclaim my equanimity.  One of the indirect consequences of that attack was In Defense of Anarchism.

So I am going to ask a favor.  Would those of you afflicted with this entirely understandable disorder just assume that in this space, all of that may be taken as given?

Thank you.

CORRECTION

An old friend vastly more knowledgeable in the law than I writes to correct me on one crucial point.  Mueller did not say that he found no evidence of a conspiracy.  He said that he found insufficient evidence to conclude that there had been a conspiracy, a very different thing.  I stand corrected.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

THE MUELLER REPORT

I have now read the Mueller Report, all but one Appendix [see below].  You can find it here.  Since I suspect very few of you will plow through it, I will spend this post giving you my take on it. 

The Report is 458 pages long, and as one would expect in a document produced by lawyers, it is awash in footnotes, more than two thousand of them.  It is divided into two Parts followed by four appendices.  Part I considers Conspiracy, Part II considers Obstruction of Justice.  Two appendices list acronyms and people mentioned. A third gives Mueller’s written questions to Trump and Trump’s “answers.”  The fourth lists completed and on-going prosecutions.  I did not read Trump’s “answers.”  I don’t think I missed much.

Part I is 200 pages long, and it tells a story with which we are pretty much familiar.  The Russians tried to get Trump elected.  The entire Trump world welcomed the help and had endlessly many meetings and contacts with all manner of Russians, both about the famous emails and about the Trump Tower project.  Did Trump and his coterie conspire with the Russians to corruptly influence the outcome of the election?  Mueller concludes that they did not.

What about collusion?  Recall the definition I surfaced on Google: 

Collude:  cooperate in a secret or unlawful way in order to deceive or gain an advantage over others.

Did they collude?  Did they ever!  Lord knows they tried.  But I have had my say about that.  What interested me was Part II, on obstruction, because here I learned something.  Not about the facts, by and large.  They are pretty well already known, thanks to some superb investigated journalism and a monumentally leaky White House.  No, I learned something about the law, which I will now relay to you.  I ask pardon of the lawyers among you, to whom this will be old news.

Obstruction of Justice is a crime with three elements.  These are The Obstructive Act, the Nexus to an Official Proceeding, and Intent

The obstructive act is the thing the person is accused of having done. 

The nexus to an official proceeding is the connection to some legal or other official proceeding – a trial, a grand jury process, a Congressional hearing or investigation – that is obstructed or interfered with by the obstructive act.  The official proceeding need not actually be under way.  It is sufficient that it is reasonable to believe that such a proceeding – a trial, a grand jury hearing – will take place. 

And the intent is the conscious and deliberate purpose of the accused corruptly to interfere with or obstruct the proper legal proceeding. 

So, to prove, let us say, that someone is guilty of obstruction of justice for bribing a witness to give perjured testimony in a trial, one would need first to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had offered money or something else of value to a prospective witness to lie under oath; then one would have to establish that an actual trial was taking place or could reasonably be expected to take place in which the individual could reasonably be expected to be called as a witness.  And finally one would have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused understood all of this sufficiently actually to intend by the offering of the bribe to be soliciting false testimony.

Part II of the Mueller Report consists in the main of ten parts, in each of which a separate act imputed to Donald Trump is then subjected to this pattern of analysis.  For example, the eighth act is:  “The President orders McGahn to Deny that the President Ordered the Firing of the Special Counsel.”  Each part begins with a brief Overview, followed by an extended statement of the relevant facts [with a gazillion footnotes], and then an analysis of the Obstructive Act, the Nexus to an official proceeding, and Intent.

In six or seven of the ten analyses [I was reading fast and did not keep track] Mueller concludes that the evidence establishes that each of the three elements of Obstruction is present.  In the remainder, he indicates that the evidence falls short of establishing one or another of the elements.

In a normal prosecutorial proceeding, the next step would be for the prosecutor to seek a grand jury indictment of the accused on each of the six or seven counts that meet the evidentiary and legal threshold.  But Mueller stops dead, and does not.  Why?  Because he considers himself bound by the opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

But couldn’t Mueller at least conclude by saying that Trump would have been indicted were he not a sitting president?  This is interesting.  Mueller says that the usual recourse for someone accused of a crime is to go to trial [to have his or her day in court, as the saying has it], where the accused can cross examine witnesses, put on an affirmative defense, make arguments to a jury, and be judged by “a jury of his peers.”  But because Trump cannot be indicted, he does not have that opportunity, and Mueller says it would be unfair to accuse him.  So Mueller walks right up to that line and stops.

In short, Mueller does not merely provide Congress with a “road map for impeachment,” as many commentators have said.  He takes Congress by the hand and leads it right up to the finish line of that journey, and then says, “The next step is up to you.”  If I may on Easter Sunday invoke an Old Testament image, Mueller leads the Democrats to the mountain top, shows them the Promised Land, but says he himself shall not go with them.

Which raises the next question:  Should the House Democrats impeach Trump?  That will be the subject of my next post.