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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Friday, July 19, 2019

LIFE'S SMALL PLEASURES

As reports start to come in for the Friday List, I continue to seek solace from the daily trauma in life's small pleasures.  Today's soothing delight is reading about Alan Dershowitz's effort to defend himself against the charge that he had sex with several of Jeffrey Epstein's victims.  Reading Dershowitz's decription of his "perfect sex life" is not quite up there with a Purcell aria or a Paul O'Dette lute solo, but, as the Good Book says, it is sufficient unto the day.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

THE REBIRTH OF THE FRIDAY LISTS


Among the many interesting responses to my doleful post asking What can I do? was Charles Perkins’ suggestion that I resurrect the Friday Lists.  For those who have forgotten or who have migrated to this blog quite recently, the Friday Lists were a series of weekly posts on which I simply listed what readers reported they had done politically in the preceding week.  The idea of the lists was to encourage people to take concrete steps of any sort to influence our politics, however minimally, and to strengthen their resolve by having what they had done reported publicly.  That was a brilliant suggestion, and I am hereby declaring the resurrection of the Friday Lists.

What sorts of things are you invited to report?

Here is a short list, intended merely as suggestions:

1.         Donations of money to candidates or political campaigns and committees
2.         Phone calls to state, local, and national office holders
3.         Emails, texts, tweets, or letters to state, local, and national office holders
4.         Campaigning for candidates [raising money, walking door to door, office work, etc.]
5.         Contacting friends or associates to encourage them to do any of the above
6.         Attending rallies, protests, campaign events
7.         Putting up a lawn sign [if you have a lawn]
8.         Putting a bumper sticker on your car [if you have a car]

Some restrictions, qualifications, and caveats:

1.         American citizens or permanent residents only.  I don’t want to run afoul of campaign finance laws and such.

2.         No Republicans.  This is not a Good Government exercise.  If you are a Trump supporter, I urge you to swear off politics and retreat to your basement to converse with the four hundred pound hacker you are hiding there.

3.         This is still primary time, and will be for a full year.  The purpose of this project is to encourage you to participate, not to foster internecine political warfare.  For example, I signed up some time ago to make a $9 a month donation to Sanders in perpetuity.  I also donated $500 to Warren a week ago.  There are undoubtedly Harris, Biden, Buttegieg, Castro, Yang, O’Rourke and Klobuchar supporters among my readers.  Until the party chooses a candidate, this website will not discriminate.  I will of course express my preferences, but not by editing the Friday Lists.

4.         This is not a competition.  Think of it as a cross between crowdsourcing and a flash mob.  The point is not to be seen to be doing more than anyone else.  The point is to encourage each of you to do something.

Instructions:  During the week, report your doings either with a comment or by email to me, at rwolff@afroam.umass.edu.   I will keep a list in the order in which reports come in, and post it each Friday.

Finally:  there are maybe a dozen or so regular commentators to this blog [depending on how you individuate the anonymati], but if Google’s metrics are accurate, there must be between 1000 and 2000 discrete individuals who visit the blog more than occasionally.  I am really really eager to hear from some of you as part of this effort.  Email me if you prefer not to post a comment.

First list:  July 26, 2019.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

SOBER THOUGHTS


When I was quite young, I became obsessed with the stories of wealthy Jews who could have escaped the Nazis had they been ready to forfeit their wealth, but who hesitated until it was too late and ended up in the death camps.  What I fixated on was not the money but the notion that there might be times in my life when I had to recognize a threat [or indeed an opportunity] in time and had to act at that moment if at all.  In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I recognized that this was one of those moments.  If I delayed getting out of Hyde Park [I was teaching at the University of Chicago], by the time I tried to leave the roads would be jammed and it would be impossible to get a flight.  I had reservations on flights to Canada and Mexico [depending on which way the wind was blowing] and stocked my VW bug with a Geiger counter and dried food.

Thirty years later, in 1992, when Esther Terry invited me to transfer from the UMass Philosophy Department to the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, I instantly saw that my welcome into the department would depend on my eagerness to join it, and instead of saying judiciously “Well, that is a very interesting idea.  Let me think about it.” I said “yes” without missing a beat, and spent the last sixteen years of my career happy as a clam.

This time feels that way to me.  I am very fearful that if Trump wins re-election, my world will be made irreversibly worse in major ways.  I do not want to look back, during my last years on earth, and regret that I did not do more to stop him.

WHAT CAN I DO?

This is not a rhetorical question.  I mean it as a serious request for suggestions.  There are perhaps sixty to seventy million adult American citizens, eligible to vote and by any reasonable definition of the terms racist xenophobes who deeply, angrily, hate the fact that America is becoming less White and are prepared to support a would be dictator who is hell bent on using the power of the presidency to destroy such legal and other protections as we have against fascism.  I am an eighty-five year old well educated affluent man whose personal obligations place significant constraints on travel or other actions that take me from home.

What can I do?

I can vote.  I do.

I can give money to political candidates.  I do.

I can work locally for candidates.

I do.

I can speak publicly, at least if the Web is considered public.  I do.

What else can I do?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

INSIDE BASEBALL


I think AOC and her colleagues missed an opportunity yesterday during their joint press conference, an opportunity to expand their real institutional influence beyond what their very small numbers have gained them.  They could have started with a full-throated endorsement of Nancy Pelosi, saying that their policy differences pale into insignificance beside the vicious racism of Trump.  This would have put Pelosi in their debt, and Pelosi, who is a superb institutional player, would know that and would reward them with committee assignments or other forms of genuine political power that, over the long haul, would increase their real importance.  It would have been a sophisticated move of which AOC is, I believe, quite capable.

Oh well.

Monday, July 15, 2019

ONE FINAL NOTE


As a footnote to the discussion of pay inequality, consider the salary inequalities in the United States Army, arguably [I would say] one of the most efficient and successful large corporate structures in the world.  A Four Star General earns about $180,000 a year [plus various perks], which is roughly six times the salary of a Corporal [E4] who has been in rank for several years.  Imagine a private corporation in which a secretary earned $40,000 and the CEO earned $240,000 a year – not $24 million, but $240,000.  Unimaginable!  A Master Sergeant with a whole sleeve full of hash marks indicating time in grade can make $70,000 a year.  And these are people who risk their lives, not just their weekends, for advancement.

IT CANNOT BE REPEATED OFTEN ENOUGH

The number of people who voted for Obama in 2012 and for Trump in 2016 is significantly smaller than the number who voted for Obama in 2012 and simply did not vote in 2016.  We do not need a moderate closet Republican as our nominee.  We need someone who will inspire the sort of turnout we saw in 2018.

THIS AND THAT


1.         The comments on my wage disparity posts [comments invoking Nash equilibria and such like arcana] suggest that I failed to make myself clear.  I was not at all offering an answer to the question, What explains the current structure of wages and salaries in America?  I was merely offering an argument against the assertion by countless economists and sociologists, and presupposed by Rawls, that unequal compensation is required to draw into key jobs the people best suited to perform them, thereby maximizing the collective social output.  I may have missed something, but I did not see a comment that directly engaged with that argument and sought to rebut it.

2.         We need to stop talking about White non-college educated males as though they are a niche segment of the electorate, like Soccer Moms.  Sixty-five percent of White males 25 and older do not have bachelor’s degrees.  They are two-thirds of all White males.  It might be much more helpful to speak of White male racists, which helps to overcome the natural tendency for those of us on the left to suppose that blatant racism must have its source in economic disadvantage.

3.         If I believed that Biden is far and away our best chance of defeating Trump, I would be prepared to swallow my bile and support him, but I really think that in addition to being deeply objectionable, Biden is also simply a lousy candidate and a very weak horse on which to put our money.  But I doubt he can get the nomination, so we probably need not worry about him.

Friday, July 12, 2019

MORE ON WAGE INEQUALITY


I should like today to expand on my rather facetious example of Shamus Kahn and Winston Gordon III [see July 4th above] because I seem not to have made myself adequately clear.  The question is whether, leaving aside the costs of preparation, the present structure of inequality in wages and salaries is required to attract the right people into the appropriate jobs.  This is going to take a while, so get yourself a cup of coffee and settle down.

Human beings, as Marx observed, live by purposefully and collectively transforming nature so as to satisfy their needs and desires.  For at least the last ten thousand years and maybe more [we do not know], they have done this by differentiating these activities into roles and functions so that no individual, not even a farmer or hunter, does by himself or herself all of the things required to live.  In a capitalist society, in which some own or control the means of production and hire others to use those means to produce goods for sale – which is to say commodities – most men and women live by holding down a job and being paid a wage or a salary.  In virtually all modern capitalist economies the structure of wages and salaries is steeply pyramidal, with large numbers of low wage jobs, rather fewer middle wage jobs, and a small percentage of high or even stratospheric salaried jobs [numerically large, of course, in a country with 330 million people.]

To what extent, if at all, is this inequality in compensation necessary to motivate those with special and rare skills to prepare themselves for, and then to fill, those jobs whose effective performance requires those rare and special skills?   And can that supposed necessity explain the existing structure of compensation?

First things first.  We know that the current structure of compensation is not necessary because not too long ago [at least as old guys like me measure time, which is to say in the Fifties and Sixties of the last century ] the structure of compensation was a good deal less unequal in the United States with no measurable shortfall in efficiency.

Second, let us please not commit some form of the inverse of what logicians call the fallacy of composition.  No doubt if all else is held constant, a single company [or university] will have to pay a big salary to hold onto an employee in demand or to woo one away from a competitor. I am asking a different question:  Is the structure of unequal compensation required to get the people in society in general who are best suited for the jobs currently highly paid to seek out and take such jobs?  I am suggesting that the answer is no.

One way to think about this is to imagine that the entire American economy is one vast corporation – USA. inc. – with agricultural, manufacturing, service, technology, educational and other divisions whose total output each year is the Gross Domestic Product.  Suppose as well that there are no corporations elsewhere in the world that might bid for some of the employees of USA inc.  Each year, young people are tested by the employment office to determine which jobs at USA inc. they are best suited for.  Jobs requiring further schooling carry with them scholarships to pay for that preparation.  Don’t get hung up on the details.  Tweak this any way you wish to suit your cavils.  Now, let us suppose pay is to be equal, save when higher pay is needed to attract the right people into the key jobs.  What would happen?

Well, if too few people choose to be maintenance personnel, sweeping floors, emptying trash baskets, cleaning toilets, and washing windows, then it might be necessary to raise the wages of those jobs to fill them.  If a great many people want to be division managers, and if testing shows that there are more well suited people wanting those jobs than are needed, then it will not be necessary to raise the pay associated with those jobs above the social norm.  And so forth.

Note, by the way, that in such a system, the social norm would probably be a good deal higher than the current median wage, and way higher than the wages now paid to scores of millions of low wage workers.

In such a system, would anyone at all choose to be a brain surgeon or a tech software developer or a corporate manager or a Sociology professor?   I suspect they would when confronted with the list of all the other available jobs. 

What should those folks be paid?  In thinking about this question, it is extraordinarily difficult to break away from our deeply embedded assumptions about the lifestyles appropriately associated with certain jobs.  Since no one reading this blog is a corporate bigwig, I imagine, it is easy for us all to nod and say, “Yes, there is no reason why a corporate CEO needs a yacht and a private jet.  Why shouldn’t he or she be content with a three bedroom house in a nice suburban neighborhood?”   But if I suggest that perhaps a board certified oncologist and a seamstress should live comparable lives, the soul rebels.

By the way, note a related point not always acknowledged:  the larger the pool of young people considered appropriate candidates for the key jobs – the more women or African-Americans or Latinx, or LGBTQ people one includes – the easier it will be to fill those key jobs and accordingly the less likely it is that higher salaries will be required to lure enough suitable candidates to apply.

Well, turn these remarks over in your mind and see whether they somewhat alter your settled assumptions about the rationale for the wage and salary pyramid.



MEA CULPA


Since I have thoughtlessly and offhandedly insulted someone [Magee] who is apparently a good guy, let me begin by apologizing to him and to all of you.  Now, if I can extract my foot from my mouth, I will try to explain what prompted my casual insult.  One of Chomsky’s most striking and powerful insights, I believe, is his observation that every normal speaker of a natural language has the ability to utter well-formed sentences that no one has ever uttered before and which are immediately understandable by the other speakers of his or her natural language.  Furthermore, with suitable definitions of terms that may not be found in some second language, every one of those utterances is translatable into any other natural language and is comprehensible to a native speaker of that second language.  When you think about it, this is really astonishing, and I believe, though I may be wrong, that Chomsky was the first linguist to grasp this fact in its full significance.

MaGee kept pressing Chomsky on what he thought were the constraints placed on what we could say by the innate hard-wired nature of human linguistic capabilities.  But he was unable to say what we could not say, because of course to do so he would have had to say it, and in saying it, he would have been immediately comprehensible by Chomsky and everyone watching the video.  And MaGee seemed not to get that.

That is what prompted my rude remark.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

A GOLDEN OLDIE

Wandering about on YouTube I came upon this Noam Chomsky interview from forty-one years ago.  It is Noam as I remember him from the old days.  The interviewer strikes me as a dork, but Noam is fun to listen to.

SERENA WHO?


A fair weather friend is someone who is with you when you are up but doesn’t know you when you are down.  I would like to think that I am not a fair weather friend, but I am very definitely a fair weather fan.  

I rooted for Tiger Woods intensely, spending endless hours watching golf, which is basically a tedious game – a good walk ruined, as Mark Twain called it.  But once Tiger started losing, I dumped him unceremoniously.  I have enough grief in the real world; I don’t need the pain of seeing my hero lose.

This morning I watched Serena Williams demolish her semi-final Wimbledon opponent and on Saturday I will be rooting for her to beat Halep and tie Margaret Court’s ancient record.  But if Williams loses, I will be like “Serena who?”

I know, I know, I am lower than pond scum.  But there it is.

QUICK RESPONSE TO PROFESSOR PIGDEN

My principal engagement with Kant's ethical theory is in my commentary on the Grundlegung, called The Autonomy of Reason.  It seems like yesterday, but it was actually published in 1973, forty-six years ago!  How time flies when you're having fun.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

AN EXTENDED RESPONSE TO MATT


OK, I have rehung our bird feeders, which were taken down to allow the windows to be washed, so now I have some time to attend to a less urgent matter, namely, the foundation of morality.  Let me begin by reprinting the comment of Matt, who very nicely poses the issue for us.  He starts by quoting a line from my post and then responds:

“Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?” You cannot determine the fundamental principles of morality by reasoning about them. You must make an existential choice. 

“I have recently been reading the (in)famous work _The Concept of the Political_ by Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, and will admit that this sounds uncomfortably close to his take on politics as based around an a-rational friend/enemy distinction. I don't mean this to be a guilt by association claim, and it's not that I think that Schmitt's views are false because they are dangerous, but rather that they are dangerous because they are false - it's not the case that these choices are a-rational, or existential, or based or necessarily based on this sort of "friend/enemy" basis. It's a choice to see and base politics that way, and an optional one. But, seeing it that way very predictably leads to bad results, even if you're on a fundamentally good side. wallerstein's example of people being hesitant to criticize Stalinism is a fine example of it, I think. If you see politics this way, you'll tend to see anything done by "friends" as good, and anything done by "enemies" as evil, and will see the other side as something that needs to be crushed. But, the other side will see the same, leading to endless conflict, needless repression, and so on. There are other ways to see politics - as looking for ways that people with diverse conceptions of the good and nonetheless live together, for example. This seems to me to be a better approach. This need not mean that you accept anything. People who reject the idea of living together in some way must be, at best, quarantined. But, it does mean rejecting the decisionist, a-rational, approach to politics.”

Rather than respond immediately to Matt, I should like to take time to remind us all of the history, at least in the Western tradition, of this debate about the foundations of morality.  The oldest view of which I am aware is that our knowledge of the principles of morality is grounded in Divine Revelation.  The Lord gives to Moses the Ten Commandments and the debate is over.  To be sure, later philosophers fussed over whether God said the Commandments were the truth about morality because they were right or, alternatively, that they were right because God said they were to be obeyed.  “Whatever …” as young people are prone to say today. 

An alternative view was put forward in the Gorgias by the dramatic character Callicles as a deliberate and provocative paradox which later was embraced by the Stoics as foundational truth, namely that there are normative as well as descriptive laws of nature, or Natural Laws, which are grounded in the natural order.  This Natural Law tradition has had a long and distinguished career, most recently in the theorizing of Roman Catholic scholars.  The theory played a central role in post-war debates about the Nazis and the operations of the Nuremburg trials.  [Thus, Matt’s reference to Carl Schmidt is quite apposite.]  I first became aware of this debate sixty-one years ago when it took the form of an argument in the pages of The Harvard Law Review between two legal theorists, Lon Fuller and H. L. A. Hart.

There have, of course, been other attempts to find an objective grounding for our moral convictions, most notably in the writings of the Utilitarians in the British Isles and those of Immanuel Kant on the continent.  As some of you know, I spent a good deal of time and effort in the ‘60s and ‘70s trying to find a defensible version of Kant’s claim that the Moral Law, as he called the fundamental principle of morality, can be demonstrated a priori to be unconditionally biding on all rational agents as such.  My failure is what led me to the position Matt disputes.

Before I turn directly to Matt’s remarks, let me re-tell a story about a dinner I had during my first visit to South Africa, in 1986.  I quote, with excerpts, from my Autobiography:

Quite the eeriest episode of my first visit to South Africa was my dinner in Pretoria with Koos Pauw, a philosopher then serving as the number three man in the Ministry of Education.  I had gone to Pretoria to meet with the director of the Human Studies Research Council….That evening I had dinner with the Director and Koos Pauw.  Our dinner table conversation was an eye opener for me.  Pauw was intelligent, relaxed, well-spoken, and utterly evil.  I imagined it was what it would have been like to dine with a sophisticated Nazi.  I challenged him about apartheid [my parents, you will recall,  had taught me to speak up if anyone passed an anti-Semitic remark at a dinner table, and this was the closest I had ever come to putting their advice to use], but he was totally unfazed by my objections, all of which he had of course heard many times.” 

It was obvious to me that no philosophical argument could bridge the gap between us.  Since I had chosen to throw in my lot with, to make common cause with, to choose as my comrades those who had committed their lives to the defeat of Apartheid, Koos Pauw were enemies.  Oh, I did not stab him with my dinner knife, nor would I have slipped poison into his beer if I had been carrying some.  Perhaps some of you will find “enemy” needlessly provocative and strong.  But we were on opposite sides of a struggle and we were there because we had made choices.  Were there Afrikaners who rejected Apartheid?  Indeed there were.  Were there Americans who chose to cooperate with the Nationalist government?  Of course there were, including the then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

Matt and I do not disagree at all in the belief that we ought always to “look… for ways that people with diverse conceptions of the good [can] nonetheless live together.”  The alternative is civil war, and although there are times when civil war is unavoidable, Americans should know as well as any people what its costs are.  But the effort to find peaceful resolution of differences does not rest – it cannot rest – on the belief that there are sound arguments for fundamental principles of morality, because such arguments do not and cannot exist.

Let us be specific for a moment.  There is a large group of Americans [a minority, fortunately] who are deeply, irreconcilably, religiously convinced that the termination of a pregnancy at any stage is the murder of a person with an immortal soul, and hence that both the doctor who performs the abortion and the woman who seeks it are murderers who should be charged, tried, convicted, and punished as such. Matt suggests that “[p]eople who reject the idea of living together in some way must be, at best, quarantined.”  Really?  The passive voice of that sentence leaves it quite undetermined who does the quarantining and who gets quarantined.  There is a large group of Americans [happily no longer a majority] who say it is wrong for my son to marry.  There are still very large numbers of people, most of whom keep their mouths shut, who believe that Black people are getting too uppity and should be held down.  And even now most of the people whose voices are heard in the modern version of the public square believe that no claims on a share of the product of our common labors can be allowed that threaten the monopoly ownership currently exercised by a small group of entitled men and women.

There is no objective pou sto when it comes to morality, not Revelation, not Natural Law, not Utilitarianism, not Kantian reason, not even the Original Position.  When all is said and done, each of us must decide,

Which side are you on?


I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE AND IT IS SCARY


There have been a number of interesting responses to my “Which side are you on?” post, and I want a little later today to write something rather lengthy about the subject, but first I must take a moment to gasp at the depth and breadth of the Cloud.  I ask, in a facetious aside, whether a hundred years from now people will wonder how Noam Chomsky could eat meat, and instantly there comes back a link to a YouTube post in which Noam is quizzed about just that!  Is this what it will be like when we are all, Borg-like, mergers of flesh and technology?  What will become of those of us who made a living as scholars when everyone knows everything there is to be known?

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

STOP THE PRESSES!! MAJOR MILESTONE!!

A bit less than three years ago, In September 2016, I began a series of nine weekly public lectures at UNC Chapel Hill on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  The lectures were recorded by Alex Campbell and posted on YouTube as they were delivered.  A few moments ago, the first lecture had its one hundred thousandth view.  As is, I think, customary in such situations. each subsequent lecture has had fewer views, with the concluding ninth lecture currently recording a bit more than 7400 views.

Over the intervening years, I have heard from a good many folks who have watched some or all of the lectures.  The people who have been kind enough to write have been here in the United States, in England, in Australia, in Scotland, in India, in Iran, in Turkey, and in many other parts of the world.  For some time now the views have held steady at about 2,500 a month, and it seems conceivable that this will continue even after I am dead.

Those of you who are teachers will understand what an extraordinary experience it is to reach so large and dispersed an audience with lectures devoted to one of the most difficult books in the philosophical canon.  I joke from time to time that these views cannot compete with the views of Big Bang clips, but this is Kant, for heaven's sake!

No kidding, I am way proud.

A RESPONSE TO SOME COMMENTS


I will begin, as I often do, with a facetious reference to an old and rather bad movie, viz Demolition Man, starring Sandra Bullock as a cop from the future and Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, who have been defrosted and are going at it.  Early in the movie [which, unusually for Stallone, is a comedy] Stallone’s character gets flummoxed by the toilet of the future, unable to understand something that is obvious to every child then.  Are we like Stallone?  Are we oblivious to issues of morality or politics that those of the future cannot imagine not understanding?  Will someone in 2119 ask, incredulously, “How could Noam Chomsky eat meat?” 

Perhaps we are asking the wrong question.  Let us not ask, Had I been a member of the Continental Congress would I have accepted a United States based on slavery?  Let us instead ask, Had I been a slave in 1787, would I have accepted a United States based on slavery?  We know the answer to that question, because we have an historical record of the statements and actions of slaves.  The answer is No.

All well and good if you had been Black.  But suppose you had been White.  What then?  Well, the correct answer, I believe, can be found in that old Pete Seeger union song, “Which side are you on, boys, which side are you on?”   You cannot determine the fundamental principles of morality by reasoning about them.  You must make an existential choice.  Who are your comrades?  Who are your enemies?  Regardless of the circumstances into which you were born, do you choose to make common cause with the oppressors or with the oppressed, with the exploiters or with the exploited?  In the end, this is a choice, not an inference, regardless of what Plato or Aristotle or Hobbes or Rousseau or Kant says.  Trust me, I have danced with all of them.

Were there White men and women in the eighteenth century who chose to make common cause with the slaves rather than with their owners?  Indeed there were.  Thomas Jefferson could have done the same, had he so chosen.

Let me close with a remark on an entirely different matter, the Jeffrey Epstein arraignment and associated scandal.  It does not surprise me at all that Alan Dershowitz was one of Epstein’s lawyers, or that the Clintons were buddy buddy with Epstein.  Then again, perhaps it is not really a different matter at all.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XEnTxlBuGo

Monday, July 8, 2019

AN IDLE THOUGHT

My very first scholarly publication, aside from two brief Notes in MIND, was the Appendix of my doctoral dissertation, which appeared in the January-March issue of the JOURNAL OF THE  HISTORY OF IDEAS under the title "Kant's Debt to Hume via Beattie."  The Beattie was James Beattie, whose popular 1770 book An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of the Truth played a critical role, I showed, in Kant's knowledge of Hume's sceptical attacks on causal inference.  The attack brought Kant up short and led him to develop the deepest and most original doctrines of the Critique of Pure Reason.

I was scornful of Beattie, whose arguments against "sceptics," among whom he included Descartes, were, I thought, jejune.  It took me much of a lifetime to notice and pay proper attention to the fact that whereas Hume and Kant were blatant racists, Beattie was [in that very book] a strong opponent of the Slave Trade.

Live and learn.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

IDLE SPECULATION


Having nothing better to do on a hot Sunday morning in the Southland, I have taken to speculating on why Pence was called back from New Hampshire.  It was not the 25th Amendment, alas, so in service of my speculation, I put together three apparently unrelated facts:  First, the polls show Trump losing the woman’s vote in 2020; Second, Mueller testifies before Congress July 17th; Third, Trump has scheduled a rally for that day to begin as Mueller ends his testimony.

My purely non-fact based conclusion: Trump will, at the rally, announce that he is dumping Pence and choosing a woman as his running mate.  Whom will he choose?  The obvious answer is Nicki Halley, but I suspect she would decline.  And so?

My favorite answer is Ivanka, who would then take over as President in 2024 for a combined 16 year Trump dynasty.  The only Constitutional obstacle would be that the New York electors could not vote for both of them, but since even Trump does not expect to carry New York, that  is not a problem.

You heard it here first.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

A NIGHT AT THE MOVIES


Yesterday evening, sick to death of the endless political commentary on MSNBC and CNN, I flipped to Turner Classic Movies and watched most of two old 1939 classics, both with a strong political and economic theme.  The first was a romantic comedy, Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, about a loyal Soviet diplomat who comes to Paris to arrange for the sale of some Czarist era jewels and falls in love with a Count who is trying to return them to the countess who originally owned them.  I knew of the movie, of course, but I had never seen it, though I had seen the 1957 musical remake, Silk Stockings, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.  The premise of Ninotchka is fine, but the movie is a drag because there is zero on screen chemistry between Garbo and Douglas.

The second movie is a fantasy, this time based on the struggle in the late 1890’s between western farmers and eastern bankers in America.  The farmers wanted free silver, which would have inflated the currency and eased the burden of their mortgages after the crash earlier in the early ‘90s.  The bankers wanted to stay on the Gold Standard, which stabilized prices and guaranteed that the dollars they got back from the farmers were as valuable as the dollars they had loaned when the mortgages were taken out.  The hero of the farmers was William Jennings Bryan, represented in fantasy form in the movie, whose electrifying speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention [“You shall not crucify us on a cross of gold!] won him the nomination, although not the presidency.  The movie is an utter delight, and is considered by movie lovers to be one of the greatest American films,

I refer, of course, to The Wizard of Oz.

Friday, July 5, 2019

BUT WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY? A MEDITATION


One of the effects of great age is a penchant for reflecting on the arc of life.  As Erik Erikson observes in one of the most beautiful passages of his great work Childhood and Society, “An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."  None of us chooses where in the unfolding of human history he or she will be born, but very little is as important in determining the arc of life.  Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”  Edmund Burke was sixty when the Revolution broke out [or fifty-eight, depending on when you date it from], and that fact, as much as anything else, may have contributed to his jaundiced view of it.

I was born in December 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression.  World War II was the first big geopolitical event of which I was at all aware, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was, for the first eleven years of my life, Mr. President.  My father was born in 1901, during the Gilded Age, and my two sons were born in 1968 and 1970, during the Viet Nam War.  None of us chose the moment for our particular life cycle to begin, of course, but nothing could have been more significant in shaping our different perceptions of the world.

Since so much of my life has been devoted to the production of words, and since I wrote so much when I was young, I have always been especially fascinated by the life experiences of authors who made a splash early and then lived off the fame, as it were, for decades on end.  I think of J. D. Salinger, who published The Catcher in the Rye at thirty-two, went into seclusion shortly thereafter, published his last work at forty-six, and died forty-five years later at ninety-one.  Or Ralph Ellison, whose one and only novel, the great work Invisible Man, was published when he was thirty-nine.

How strange to be so successful so young and then to depend for a sense of oneself on that fame as the decades pass by.  I have always thought it must be rather like having a great sports career as a young man or woman and then being forced by the inevitable aging of the body to retire at thirty-five, just about when those in other lines of work are beginning to have some success.  If you are an old baseball star, you can open a sports bar and sit around signing autographs, or if you are a basketball immortal, like Michael Jordan, you can open a Nissan dealership in Durham, NC, not too far from the site of your earliest triumphs.  I suppose if you are a novelist who peaks early, you can always teach Creative Writing to undergraduates. 

Salinger strikes me as somehow a failed writer for having written nothing during the last forty-five years of his life.  But suppose he had been born in 1879 rather 1919 and had published all of his work in the last fifteen years of his life.  I would view his career as a triumph of persistence and ultimate success.  And yet, the words on the page and the dates of publication would in either case be the same.

In 1981, when I was offered a professorship in the Brandeis Philosophy Department so that I could follow my first wife to Boston as she took up a position at MIT, the appointment was vetoed by Brandeis President Marver Bernstein.  In his letter of denial, Bernstein wrote that I had done some good work when I was young but that I was played out.  It is the only time I have ever paid any attention to what critics said about me, and the words really stung.


Thursday, July 4, 2019

MORE ON INEQUALITY


Today I return to the subject of income inequality.  For the overwhelming preponderance of Americans, income inequality is a consequence of the inequality of the wages and salaries attached to the jobs they perform.  I shall talk today not about the causes of wage and salary inequality but about what justification, if any, can be given for that inequality.  I am not concerned here only with the enormous disparity between the compensation of production or service workers and that of the CEOs of the companies for which they work but also with such disparities as the fact that a senior professor in a state university earns three times as much as the department secretary, a doctor in a hospital earns four times as much as a Registered Nurse and ten times as much as a hospital orderly, and so forth.

Two justifications traditionally are given for wage disparities. The Human Capital justification is that some require lengthy and expensive training, lasting in some cases for nine or ten years, and a higher salary is required to compensate workers for assuming the expense of that training and for foregoing wages during the training period.  The second justification is that there are some jobs whose excellent performance is important to the productivity, and hence to the overall well-being, of the society, and higher salaries are needed to attract to those jobs young people who are especially talented or suited to them.  Those familiar with Rawls’ work will recognize that his Difference Principle is a version of this justification.

Neither of these justifications holds water, in my judgment.  The Human Capital justification first.  It is of course true that almost every job requires some level of skill or prior preparation.  In a modern capitalist economy, much of the cost of that preparation is socialized, borne by the state.  That is the real purpose of public education, after all. In some capitalist countries even university education or advanced medical or technical training is similarly socialized, and there is really no reason why it should not be in this country.  Currently, the median annual income for full-time workers in the United States is roughly $44,000.  If a job requires a college degree [say elementary school teacher or big city police officer or Walmart store manager] then a young man or woman must forego $184,000 to acquire the degree [let us suppose, just to make this simple.]  To make that back over a forty-five year work life [leaving aside inflation, amortization, etc etc etc] the job would have to pay $4000 more a year than a job not requiring a college degree, such as elementary school crossing guard or small town police officer or Walmart store greeter.  I trust it is obvious that currently the actual wage differentials are vastly greater.  Ah, you say, but what about the cost of the schooling, the crushing student loan debt?  Average student loan debt in 2018 was a bit more than $33,000.  I leave it to you to figure out that these data do not serve to justify the enormous wage disparities that characterize modern American life.

The Human Capital justification for the steepness of the wage and salary pyramid is nonsense.

Which brings us to the claim that large disparities in wages and salaries are needed to draw the ablest and best suited young people into the jobs requiring the scarcest and most demanding skills.  This justification for wage disparities is so deeply rooted in the way we think about modern society that for the most part it never occurs to anyone actually to defend it.  You don’t get more thoughtful or sophisticated than John Rawls, and yet he rests his entire theory on the claim without ever thinking to offer an argument for it.

In order to focus our attention and make the argument concrete, let me take as an example the Columbia University Sociology Department in which I shall again be teaching this fall.  There are upwards of forty members of the department, including many distinguished scholars, and a support staff of four.  Since Columbia, unlike UMass, is a private university, it is of course impossible to find out easily how much each of these folks makes [whereas at UMass this is public knowledge], but I think we can assume that there is a considerable pay gap between the senior professors and the departmental secretaries – maybe three hundred percent or more.  How can this be explained and justified?

The standard answer is that it takes both long preparation and really rare talent to be a Columbia Sociology Professor, and the big bucks are needed to get the right people into those jobs.  I freely grant that being a Columbia Sociology Professor requires long preparation and really rare talent.  But do you need to pay big salaries to get the best people into those jobs.  [Alert:  I am going to ignore the effect of competition among universities in all of this.  I trust it is obvious that that consideration can be bracketed for the purposes of this analysis.  If it isn’t obvious, sit and think about it for a bit before you rush to comment.]

Well, think about it.  Setting to one side the cost of job preparation and the foregone income [see above], suppose we ask Shamus Kahn [currently Department Chair] whether he would prefer to remain as a Professor of Sociology or take over the job of Winston Gordon III [one of the support staff.]  Leave aside being Department Chair, which Shamus, like any sensible academic, could do without [or so he told me.]  As a Professor, he would be expected to be on campus 32 weeks out of the year, two or three days a week.  He would be in class 4 or 5 hours a week, would hold office hours 2 hours a week, would prepare lectures, and [ugh] would grade papers once or twice a semester.  He would also be encouraged [but not required] to do any independent research he wished and every so often to publish the results.  Contrariwise, as a departmental staff member, he would be expected to be on campus 48 weeks a year, five days a week, seven hours a day.  He would answer the phone, file papers, respond to student inquiries, assist professors with secretarial tasks, run errands, and perhaps manage the finances of the department.

In order to explain why it is necessary to pay Shamus three or four time as much as Winston, we must assume that if Shamus were to be offered the same salary as Winston, he would respond, “If it is all the same, I would just as soon do Winston’s job.”  Since the excellence of the Columbia University enterprise really requires that Shamus agree to be a Professor, we may suppose that a negotiation would ensue, with Shamus offered more and more money until finally, he replies, “Weeell, all right, but only if every seventh year you give me six months off from the grind; call it a sabbatical.”

Seriously?  You can do the same thought experiment for a corporate manager and the man who cleans the toilets in the home office.  To get the right people into the right jobs, you need to test them and sort them and sift them.  But do you also have to pay the suits so much more than the shirts?

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

BE STILL MY HEART

Be honest.  Did your heart skip a beat when it was reported that the Vice President had been ordered to abort his New Hampshire trip and report to the White House for an "emergency"?

MORE OF THE SAME


What is to be done about the extreme and increasing inequality of income and wealth that characterizes, and is structurally integral to, capitalism?  What indeed?

First, a brief clarification of my allusion to the 1932 work of Berle and Means.  In The Modern Corporation and Private Property, the authors describe the transformation of relatively smaller owner-operated companies into modern huge joint stock limited liability corporations in which legal ownership of the corporation, in the form of shares of stock, is divorced from management of the corporation and widely dispersed.  The effect of this transformation is to isolate the managers from the control, oversight, or even periodic review by the legal owners of the corporation, who are numerous, more or less anonymous, and completely divorced from corporate decision making.  This divorce in practice extends even to decisions concerning how much of the corporation’s profits will be distributed as dividends.

Liberated from owner oversight and control, chief executive officers [who are, it is sometimes difficult to remember, employees] have in the past fifty years raised their salaries from roughly 20 times that of the typical production worker in 1965 to more than 370 times today.   By and large, corporate managers have large stock holdings in the companies they manage because they are corporate managers; they are not corporate managers because they have large holdings of stock in their corporations.  For example, Rex Tillerson, our recent and unlamented Secretary of State, joined EXXON as a civil engineer in 1975 and ascended to the top position thirty years later.  He is worth [in one sense of that term] $300 million, all of it coming from executive compensation and stock options.  [Do not be misled by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and their ilk.  They are the exception, not the rule.]

Now to the question at hand:  what can be done about the inequality in the distribution of income and wealth? 

Income first, because it is easier conceptually, as well as politically.  There are two ways to reduce income inequality, both of which in fact are currently being done, albeit inadequately.  The first way is to pay people more for the jobs they do.  The second is to leave their pay alone but take from the rich and give to the poor [or at least to the less rich].  In short, minimum wages laws and income transfers.  These work, they really do, and we ought to do a great deal more with them.  I won’t bother to list all of the possibilities.  I assume you are familiar with them.  But let us be clear.  Neither pushing up wages nor increasing transfer payments will eliminate large scale inequality of income.  They will simply make things less bad.  Don’t get me wrong.  Less bad is good, and it may be, as Paul Newman says, all we are going to get.  But still.

Wealth, on the other hand, is a bitch.  Without touching the basic structure of capitalism, there are three ways to reduce wealth inequality.  The first way is to help those who have little or no wealth to get some, most easily by assisting families to own their homes, so that the equity they build up as they pay off their mortgages becomes a form of personal wealth that can be used as collateral for loans or to pass on to one’s children.  As I argued in the third chapter of my little book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, the federal government’s deliberate encouragement of White home ownership and discouragement of Black home ownership after the Second World War contributed to the astonishing difference by race of the household wealth of families with comparable wages and salaries.

The second way is to tax the wealth [not the income] of the wealthy, as for example the French do, and use the receipts to redistribute the wealth downward in the form of tax rebates, transfer payments, or services in kind.  This reduces the wealth of the wealthy and increases the income of the poor.

The third way is to impose confiscatory inheritance taxes on large estates to interrupt the intergenerational transfer of wealth.  As a rule of thumb, we might prohibit anyone from leaving at his or her death more than an amount equal to a thousand years of the median household income, which would tax away everything in an estate above $58 million dollars.  Seems reasonable.

The last of these ways of addressing wealth inequality would generate vast amounts of government tax revenues, which could be used to finance a substantial minimum individual income underwritten by the state.  This would at the least undermine patrimonial capitalism.
And that is it.  As Porky Pig says at the end of a Loony Tunes cartoon, “Th-Th-The, Th-Th-The, Th-Th... That's all, folks!"

Tomorrow I will say something about the shaky rationale for wage and salary inequality.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

THE WAY WE ARE NOW


Alerted by Jim’s evocation of Frederick Jameson’s minatory words, I shall not here attempt to imagine the end of capitalism, but I shall begin a general analysis of the present situation, drawing, as I indicated, on the work of Marx and the data of Piketty et al.

We human beings at all times and in all places live by purposefully and collectively transforming nature as well as ourselves in order to meet our needs and gratify our desires.  Capitalism organizes this activity by placing ownership of the means of production in private hands, thereby enabling the owners to demand a ransom for the use of the means of production from those who actually use it to do the work.  The ransom is called profit.  This arrangement is enforced by the police power of the state and its courts, and is rationalized and sanctified by religion, philosophy, literature, mass media, and neo-classical economics.

Part of the ransom is re-invested to expand the scope of production in hopes of increasing the flow of profit; part is devoted to maintaining the life style of the owners of the capital; and more and more as the years go by, a part of the ransom is simply accumulated in monetary form but neither re-invested nor spent on luxury goods.

Ever since the emergence of the modern joint-stock corporation, as memorialized by Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means, it has become common for the class of managerial employees to hi-jack a portion of the profit and pay it to themselves in the form of exorbitant salaries and stock options, comfortable in their insulation from the shareholders who are, in legal theory if not in economic practice, the owners of the ransom.

It is immediately obvious that this set of arrangements guarantees that the owners of capital will, barring a temporary Depression or a destructive World War, grow steadily richer.  At some times, those doing the work will be successful in demanding a larger share of what they produce, either in the form of higher wages or in the form of government transfer payments.  At other times, the share of those who do the work will be driven lower.  But always, structurally, inevitably, ineluctably, the owners will grow richer.  This is the outcome that Marx’s theory predicts and that Piketty’s data confirm.

Since capitalists are mortal but capital is not, over time an ever larger share of the ransom is passed on to young men and women who, though no doubt of sterling character, have had no hand at all in its accumulation.  In Piketty’s term, derived from the French, there emerges the patrimonial economy.  This is an eminently satisfactory state of affairs if you are one of those born to the purple.  For the rest of us, not so much.

Species in which individuals of one sex is very much larger than individuals of the other are said to be sexually dimorphic.  A striking example is the blanket octopus.  According to the National Geographic, “Males are about the size of a walnut—less than an inch long—but some females can reach a whopping six feet long.”  Capitalism, we might say, exhibits a monstrous economic dimorphism.  The aggregate net worth of the lower one half of all American households is zero:  the totality of the value of their assets, be they homes, cars, bank accounts, television sets, cell phones, or household furnishings is offset by the totality of their debts – mortgages, credit card debt, student loans, and the like.  Bernie likes to say, for effect, that America’s richest three people have more wealth than the bottom half of the population, but that actually underestimates the disparity, if Piketty, Saez, and Zucman are to be believed.

What to do?  I shall address this vexing question tomorrow.



Monday, July 1, 2019

THE BEGINNING OF A THOUGHT


The two greatest problems facing the human race are, in order of their seriousness, global warming and the inequality of wealth and income.  About the first I have nothing new to say.  The threat is existential, the causes are known, the appropriate response is clear, and the failure of large segments of the plutocracy to respond appropriately would, if there were a God, damn them to eternal hellfire.

I have written at length about the second on this blog, most recently last December, drawing on the insights of Marx and the recent work of Piketty, Saez, and Zucman.  Piketty et al. make it statistically evident that capitalism is structurally organized to generate ever greater inequality, despite the contrary appearance of the three decades or so after the Second World War.

Nobody running for President has made this fundamental insight a part of his or her campaign, not even Bernie, for all his welcome animadversions against what Teddy Roosevelt called the malefactors of great wealth.  I am all for taxing the rich and redistributing the proceeds, something that we already do, of course, but such taxation does not in the slightest address the root causes of the income and wealth inequality central to capitalism.

Even to begin to think concretely and not merely formulaically about an alternative to the structure of capitalism is a task that would give a young radical pause, and I, alas, cannot be described as young by any contortion of ordinary English, but perhaps in the next day or two I will say a few words by way of introduction to the subject.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

CHANGING DIRECTION


I am not comfortable with the acrimony that has crept into this blog, and since it is my blog, I bear the principal responsibility for it.  I am not by nature a happy warrior.  I do not enjoy fighting, especially with those with whom I share both a world view and a normative orientation toward that world.  During the more than six decades of my career, I have derived my greatest pleasure from thinking through complex ideas until they are clear to me and then showing those ideas, in their elegant and beautiful simplicity, to my students and to my readers.

I first recoiled from the acrimony of public political debate fifty-five years ago.   Deeply frightened by the threat of nuclear war, I had for some years been writing, speaking, and arguing in favor of nuclear disarmament with ever greater urgency until, in the midst of an angry argument in Harvard’s Freshman Union – I think with Zbigniew Bzrezinski – I snapped.  I must have wigged out, because I found myself running as fast as I could down Massachusetts Avenue toward Harvard Square, hyperventilating.

It was obvious that I had to step back from the daily struggle if I was to survive, and so I did what seemed most natural to me – I retreated into political theory.  The first result was a lengthy essay written a year and a half later that, five years further still, was published as a little book called In Defense of Anarchism.  After the events of ’68, I left Columbia for much the same reason, happily rusticating at UMass Amherst where I plunged deeply first into Kant’s ethical theory, then into the thought of Karl Marx, and finally into the creation of a doctoral program in the Afro-American Studies Department.

Now, in my dotage, I seem to have stumbled into a role that is quite unnatural for me, that of a political inside dopester, to resurrect a lovely term invented by David Riesman and Nathan Glazer.  But I am not really any sort of expert on politics.  As the cowboy humorist Will Rogers liked to say, all I know is what I read in the papers.  If I still have a contribution to make, it must be to the clarification of complex ideas, not to the handicapping of political races or to the decrying of the manifest and intractable evils of the world.

I apologize for the tone of this blog these past months.  The current political scene has once again driven me a little bit crazy.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

BY WAY OF EXPLANATION


All right, let’s take this slowly.  First, my post had nothing to do with decorum or polite manners, either of the slave plantations of the old South or of the chi chi dinner parties of the Upper East Side.  My elementary example of poll watchers and precinct workers should have made that clear.  I was talking about the norms that attach to and guide countless bureaucratically defined roles and functions, in the judicial system, in corporations, in hospitals, in universities, in labor unions, in Department of Motor Vehicle registries and unemployment offices.  I was talking about the norms that are expected to guide the actions of FBI agents and House committees and police departments.  I was talking, rather more significantly, about the universal assumption that after the votes have been counted and certified, the losers will quietly vacate their offices and make way for the winners.  If you don’t think that last is an important norm, take a look around the world at all the countries where that quiet transition of power cannot be counted on.  This has nothing to do with decorum, as that word is customarily used.  Furthermore, laws by themselves are not sufficient to ensure the requisite behavior, either in a capitalist democracy dominated by the rich and powerful or in a socialist democracy responsive to the will of the people.  In addition to laws there must be a widespread acceptance and internalization of norms of expected behavior.  If textual references will help, spend a little time reading Max Weber on bureaucracy.

My point was that when one spends so much time and energy, as I have, calling out and fuming against those who sanctimoniously celebrate these norms while secretly or even openly violating them, it is difficult to keep in mind that the better world we desire would depend essentially on the enactment and maintenance of those very norms.  Hence it is important to embrace them and repeatedly celebrate them even while condemning all those who violate them.

As for the insult.  Here are the words:  “Is it possible the decorum and demeanor you appreciate and revere is tantamount to the charm of the slave holding South?”

Let’s not be na├»ve or disingenuous about this.  Those words accuse me of embracing a Gone With The Wind ideal of proper behavior, with all that implies.  That is what in other circumstances would be called a blood libel, and I took offense.  I accept the apology.

BROODING


I have been brooding about something for a long time, and I have decided to try to think it through in the medium of this blog.  I do not see my way clear on this matter, so somewhat uncharacteristically you will see me feeling my way to a conclusion in public, as it were.

My question can be stated simply:  How should I think about American politics and public life?  I do not mean by this which candidate should I support or what policies should I favor or what practical political action should I engage in?  I mean rather how should I think in an ongoing way about the norms and modes of behavior that are desirable in the public and political life of the country in which I live?

Let me begin, as I am wont to do, by reviewing briefly the arc of my own long engagement with public affairs.  My grandfather was a lifelong socialist of the Eugene Debs Norman Thomas variety, and my father and mother courted at Circle One of the Young People’s Socialist League in New York City, but by the time I was a little boy, they were FDR New Deal Democrats, although they did send me to a red diaper pre-school, the Sunnyside Progressive School.  I was a Henry Wallace supporter at fourteen, in 1948, but my serious involvement in public affairs did not begin until ten years later, when as a young Harvard Instructor I became deeply committed to nuclear disarmament, a cause I spoke publicly for and published on both at Harvard and later at the University of Chicago.  I have always dated the turning point in my political life as the morning of April 18, 1961, the morning after the unsuccessful effort of CIA backed Cuban exiles to overthrow the new Castro government.  Until that point, despite my vocal leftwing politics, I considered myself a Liberal.  But Kennedy was a Liberal and he had invaded Cuba, so I was forced to recognize that I was something else.  As a place holder, I called myself a Radical, with very little idea what that might mean.

It has been fifty-eight years since that day in April, and much has changed in the world and in my understanding of it.  I have devoted a good deal of time thinking about, writing about, and in small ways taking action in response to the seemingly endless series of evil things the American government has done domestically and abroad.  I need not catalogue them; you know them all.  But until quite recently, I gave very little thought to the norms of public behavior that were presupposed and served as the backdrop for my political activity.

Let me give you a very simple example.  Let us suppose I am a dedicated supporter of Bernie Sanders, as a consequence of which I volunteer to canvass for him in the North Carolina  Democratic primary, which this year is part of Super Tuesday, March 3rd, and hence is very politically consequential.  Despite my thoroughgoing disenchantment with the United States and my deep knowledge of the endlessly evil ways in which American local, state, and federal government officials have acted for the past 232 years, I expect the local volunteer precinct workers actually to count the votes for Bernie that I have corralled and guided to the polls by my efforts.  I will be alert to the possibility of fraud, perpetrated perhaps by malign Biden supporting poll workers, but I will be righteously angry if I detect such fraud.  I will not smile a superior, supercilious smile and say that since America is a slough of hypocrisy, I am neither surprised nor outraged.  

In short, despite my deep disagreements with mainstream political commentators, I share their professed belief that a democracy depends for its success and survival on norms of civic behavior whose public flouting and endless violation pose a threat to the possibility of social justice.  And this is true not only for precinct poll workers but for Senators, Congresspersons, Presidents, judges, Cabinet officers, and everyone else who plays a role in the public life of a democracy.

Many of those commentators earlier in their careers served in Democratic or Republican administrations whose hands drip, Picture of Dorian Gray style, with the blood of countless victims, and I am so accustomed to shouting this fact at the TV screen that I forget how completely I believe in and indeed count on the norms of public discourse and behavior that they and their political employers have violated.

I say I want socialism.  Well, socialism can replace capitalism either peacefully or violently.  If peacefully, then the electoral processes by which this happens will require that countless thousands or tens of thousands of public officials adhere to those norms even when the votes are going against them.  What is more, the administration of a socialist state will demand a level of public honesty greater than anything we see in the administrations of capitalist democracies.

If violently, then there may well be an exciting period of transition during which commitment to The Cause substitutes for quotidian norms of public behavior.  But as Max Weber noted in another context, all too soon we see the routinization of charisma, and as the ecstasy of revolution gives way to the grind of administration, our protection against the inevitable lure of corruption and oppression will be those same norms, even if they are now rechristened Socialist Morality.

It is for this reason that I really do believe Donald Trump is an existential threat to the ideals I still cherish at eighty-five, and that it is a serious mistake to say, albeit perhaps merely for the sake of provocation, that a Beto presidency would be worse than a second Trump term.



Friday, June 28, 2019

BACK IN THE SADDLE


Although preoccupied with personal problems that necessitated my premature return from Paris, I have been following the lengthy discussion in the comments section concerning commodities, metaphysical entities, and opportunity costs.  Inasmuch as I have written two books, half a dozen lengthy journal articles, and tens of thousands of blog words about these topics, I shall refrain from repeating myself [even more than I am wont to do.]  So let me return to blogging with some observations on the political scene as it has unfolded since I went to Paris two weeks ago.

As we have just experienced the two-day long first debate among the two dozen or so folks competing for the Democratic nomination, I shall start there.  I did not watch the debates [past my bedtime], but I watched the morning after sound bites.  The conventional wisdom is that Warren shone on the first night and Harris scored big against Biden on the second night.  Whether this will hurt Biden remains to be seen.  It must be hard for him to repeat his customary claim as a lifelong champion for Civil Rights when an actual Black person is on the stage.  Not really fair, I imagine ole’ Joe is thinking.  He does seem to be as weak a campaigner as everyone says, but I do not know whether that will hurt him.

I remain convinced that it is existentially important to defeat Trump so that we can go back to fighting the endless battle for the marginal improvements that we are forced to substitute for our true goals.  We are currently experiencing an exhilarating moment of radical political energy at ground level, energy that has already elected some first-rate men and women to the House and may carry a number more to victory in 2020.  These victories, should they materialize, will fall far short of the fulfilment of our dreams, so I shall repeat the caution that I have voiced before.  It was said best by Paul Newman playing the legendary grifter Henry Gondorff in The Sting.  [Long time readers will know that I have invoked this reference at least twice here in the past ten years – I really only have about four strings in my bow.]  Newman is holed up in a whore house when he is sought out by the young and inexperienced Robert Redford.  Newman warns Redford of the difficulties and dangers of playing the Big Con against the gangster Robert Shaw, and then he says:

“I don't want a hothead looking to get even, coming back saying......"It ain't enough."  'Cause it's all we're gonna get.”

If you want to be active in the radical political lane for life, you must take this advice to heart, because it is the truth, bitter as the taste may be that it leaves in your mouth.  If we beat Trump, there will still be more than sixty million Americans who have voted for him and perhaps one hundred million who support him.  That is a terrifying fact, one that we must reckon with as we fight to accomplish some of the things we believe in.

Meanwhile, it looks as though Sanders, Warren, and Harris have a shot at the nomination.  Things could be worse.