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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, January 31, 2019

FUN STUFF

This will give you a laugh.

A RESPONSE TO MICHAEL KATES


In response to my post about Rawls, Michael Kates writes:  “Isn’t the implication of your critique, then, that Rawls’ theory of justice is far more egalitarian than most people assume it to be? After all, if no one needs a monetary incentive to take such a job since it’s already inherently desirable, then doesn’t that mean that the Difference Principle wouldn’t license such an inequality in the first place?”

The simple answer is:  Yes.  But that is not the end of it.  Indeed, the comment opens up a large and, at least to me, fascinating field of inquiry.  In this post I will try to sketch some of the lineaments of that inquiry.  By the way, Mr. [Prof?] Kates’ observation is not original, I believe, although none the less important.   I am also reminded of the fact that despite Hegel’s reactionary celebration of the Prussian monarchy, there were young students in the 1830’s and 40’s who found revolutionary inspiration in his writings – the Left Hegelians, as they were sometimes called.  I believe there are also Left Rawlsians [among whom one can even find the later Rawls himself in some of his incarnations.]

To begin my response to this pregnant question, let me go back [as I so often do] to the situation confronting Marx when he undertook his anatomy of capitalism.  There had long been a hierarchical social and economic structure in Western Europe, with the landed aristocracy and the rich Catholic Church dominating a terrain on which one found very large numbers of poor peasants, guilds of craftsmen living in the walled cities [or bourgs, hence bourgeois], merchants and traders, lawyers, and of course royal courts presided over by more [or in some cases less] wealthy and powerful kings.  In the early days of the development of what would become capitalism, small-scale enterprises sprang up using legally free laborers to produce goods to be sold in the market for a profit.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the landed aristocracy was in retreat, and larger and larger profit-making enterprises were beginning to emerge from the welter of small businesses.  On the basis of what he saw happening before his eyes, Marx was convinced that over time, large capitals would gobble up small capitals, and wage labor would displace traditional craft labor.  The world would more and more become a bi-polar confrontation of Capital and Labor with the ever-greater rationalization of the means of production in conflict with, or in contradiction with, the irrationality of private ownership of those means of production, leading eventually to a world-wide economic crises and a seizure by the now-organized workers of the means of production – in short, to socialism.

Marx got some big things right, and he got some big things wrong.  Marx predicted the progressive centralization of capital, leading even to internationalization of capital.  He got that right.  He also anticipated the progressive homogenization of the labor force, facilitating ever more extensive labor mobilization and ever greater solidarity of the working class.  He got that wrong.  A century and a half after the publication of Das Kapital, we see vast, almost unimaginable concentrations of capital, but also a steep hierarchy of jobs and wages that has fatally undermined any possibility of genuine working class solidarity.

Generations of economists, sociologists, political scientists, have devoted their considerable talents to justifying this steep pyramid of jobs and compensations.  It would be tedious yet again to expose the absurdity of the notion of marginal product, or to anatomize Gary Becker’s Nobel Prize winning concept of human capital.  Rawls’ Bargaining Game/Difference Principle rationalization of broad wage disparities, with its concomitant failure to confront the private ownership of the socially produced means of production, is simply the philosophically most sophisticated contribution to a long tradition of intellectual rationalization.  What makes Michael Kates’ comment especially valuable is that it confronts us with the unsustainability of the central thesis of that tradition, even in its most elegant version.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A RESPONSE TO J. W. F.


J. W. F. has posted a lengthy and knowledgeable criticism of my post about Rawls, and I should like to respond.  Here is what J. W. F. wrote:

“One of the weaker aspects of Understanding Rawls was your decision to read Rawls’ argument for the difference principle in A Theory of Justice primarily in relation to the 1958 “Justice as Fairness” article. And while it may have seemed germane in the late seventies, it would now be highly idiosyncratic to do so. The final statement of the argument, of course, is the one presented in 2001’s Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.

I would also suggest, that it is clear (in light of the full Rawlsian corpus) that Rawls does not think the use of the maximin rule for choice under uncertainty is a knock-down argument for the difference principle; in part I of A Theory of Justice, the appeal to the maximin rule is used to vindicate the choice of a conception of justice that accepts the priority of liberty (the two principles of justice) over those that do not (classical utilitarianism and average utilitarianism).

Rawls came to see, and state more explicitly, that the primary competitor of justice as fairness (as he saw it) was not utilitarianism per se, but so-called “mixed conceptions” which accept the priority of liberty (or some suitable version of the first principle) but replace the difference principle with some form of restricted average utilitarianism. In chapter V of A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues that mixed conceptions, since they must set some social minimum, must rely on ad hoc considerations in order to do so; and, whatever principled basis might be used to set a social minimum might be just an unconscious application of the difference principle. In Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Rawls indicates that he is less impressed with this argument, but introduces considerations of publicity, reciprocity, and stability to argue that the difference principle would be chosen as the second principle rather than a principle of restricted average utility.

A further question turns on to what degree the difference principle is in fact a justification of inequality at all. On this score, chapter 4 of G. A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality (“The Difference Principle”) is worth consulting. (The whole first half of the book, really.)”

Leaving aside the last paragraph [I have not read Cohen’s book], let me respond.  I find Rawls’ work interesting, insofar as I do, because I think the idea of trying to bridge the divide between utilitarianism and intuitionism by combining the social contract tradition with the methods of Game Theory is imaginative, indeed brilliant.  I do not find Rawls’ general discussion of social, economic, and political theoretical issues interesting or suggestive.  This is obviously a subjective response, not a balanced scholarly judgment.  All my work for the past sixty-five years or more has been guided by the same sorts of subjective considerations. 

From my point of view, Rawls' original idea, and its early development, is worth engaging with.  All the rest is, from my point of view, skillful, elaborate, rather tedious, and not worth engaging with.  It goes without saying that I do not for a moment suggest that anyone else has an intellectual obligation to follow me in these personal explorations of ideas I find interesting.

I do actually think, just as a matter of fact, that Rawls clung to his original idea through all the baroque elaborations, revisions, specifications, qualifications, and concessions that fill his writings, but as I said to him in a letter I wrote to him about a different matter, “You are the world’s leading authority on what you believe, so if you tell me you do not think that, of course I accept that as true.”  Thus if somewhere Rawls said, “Forget the device of the bargaining game – that was just a youthful jeu d’esprit and I renounce it,” then I would immediately acknowledge that I was wrong in thinking he clung to the original idea.

I realize this is not the way academics are accustomed to talking about someone’s writings, but it is my way, and at eighty-five, I am afraid it is too late to change.

GETTING READY


I think I have mentioned that I shall be giving a talk to the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy Department in five weeks with the title “A Game-Theoretic Analysis and Critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.”  The talk is pretty well prepared in my head [I wrote a book about the subject forty-two years ago, after all], but one small matter that is new in the talk has been bugging me, and I thought I would talk it out here.  What is at issue actually is rather important for a good deal more than Rawls, so it may be of interest.

Rawls’ theory [if one leaves to one side the baroque elaborations that fill most of the book, as I shall], turns on the notion that I have called the “inequality surplus.”  The baseline payoff for practices chosen by the rationally self-interested individuals in the bargaining game at the heart of the theory is an equal distribution of rewards – money, or goods, or, in Rawls’ rather odd final version, an Index of Primary Goods.  But inequalities will be allowed, indeed will be chosen by the bargainers, so long as they work to the benefit of everyone [in the original version] or to the benefit of the least advantaged representative individual [in the final version.]  I am aware that in the final version it is not the arrangement of practices, like factories or universities, but rather the arrangement of the entire society, that is at issue, but that notion is so unhinged from the original idea of the bargaining game that it makes no sense at all, so forget it.

The core idea in Rawls’ theory is that it may be necessary to pay certain individuals more to induce them to fill roles for which they are especially well suited and in the filling of which they will increase the total output of the practice.  If the unequal extra pay needed to draw them into these roles is less than the total extra output of the practice with them in those roles, then there will be an inequality surplus that can be spread around to make everyone [or the least advantaged representative individual] better off.  And since they are by hypothesis not envious [this is the point of that ad hoc assumption], they will prefer the practice with the unequal rewards.

OK, got it?

Now let’s try to imagine how this is supposed to work out.  Let us assume the practice in question is a firm that buys semi-finished components of widgets and assembles them for shipment to wholesalers.  Suppose the firm has 100 employees:  one CEO, four middle managers, ninety assembly line workers, four loading dock loaders and unloaders, and one cleaning person who mops the floors, empties the waste baskets, and cleans the toilets.  Let us assume that with no differentiation in pay, all one hundred employees earn the same annual wage:  $30,000.

In comes a time and motion expert who studies the factory and gives aptitude tests to the employees.  He then reports that if someone especially talented at corporate management is tapped for the job of CEO, which is currently filled by random assignment, the output of the factory can be sufficiently improved so that every employee can make $40,000 a year.  [You will notice that this is a philosophical argument, which is to say no effort at all has been made to achieve realism.]   Everyone prefers that state of affairs, of course, because they all have positive marginal utility for money, or an Index of Primary Goods, or whatever.  More generally, if each person in the firm is assigned to the job for which he or she is best suited, the resulting increase in firm income can be spread around equally so that everyone prefers the new system of assignments to the old random assignments.  If some jobs require special training, the costs of that training can be socialized, paid for by the firm as a whole.  Everyone is better off.  What’s not to love?

But there is a problem [there has to be a problem of this sort, because otherwise Rawls’ entire theory is unnecessary.] The time and motion expert reports that the person best suited to fill the position of CEO is Genevieve, the cleaning lady.  And Genevieve does not want to be CEO.  She wants to keep her mop and pail and sponges.  “But you will make an extra $10,000 a year if you are running the company.  So will everyone else, but that does not concern you, of course, because you are rationally self-interested.  But surely you prefer the extra money, because you have positive marginal utility for an Index of Primary Goods, and in this case the only Primary Good at issue is money.”

“What will I have to do to prepare myself to run the company?”

“Well, first you will have to get a BA, which we will pay for and then you will have to get an MBA, which we will also pay for.”

“So I am supposed to give up cleaning toilets to read Shakespeare and Austen and Rousseau and Marx, and study microeconomics, and then I have to quit mopping the floors and sit in a corner office and give orders, and all for a lousy ten thousand extra?  No thank you.  I prefer dusting the machinery and emptying the waste baskets.”

“Suppose we pay you $139,000 instead of $40,000 and get the extra $99,000 by reducing the other workers to $39,000 each?  They will still prefer that to the $30,000 they are earning now.”

“Well, all right, but no art classes.  I draw the line at that!”

I know this sounds silly, but think about it.  Rawls’ theory depends completely on some situation like this, and so does all of modern economics and sociology!  The ideological rationalization for economic inequality is that the top jobs are so unpleasant that talented people have to be bribed to accept them.

But that is just nonsense.


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

AN IRRELEVANT FACTOID

Of all the people who have run for or have announced for or have been spoken of as possible candidates for the presidency in my entire lifetime, the only one I have actually met personally and have spoken to is Elizabeth Warren.  Not even Teddy Kennedy, who was my Harvard classmate.  Indeed, I think I am correct in saying that she is one of only two of that large group whom I have seen personally, not merely on television or in the movies [the other is Obama.]

So much for Direct Democracy.

ON THE MEND

Since my complaints about my back elicited both sympathy and, sadly, stories of your own back troubles, I think I owe it to my readers to report that I seem to be on the mend.  Not yet able to resume my morning walk, but no longer as desperate as I felt the first day.  Walking upright is not anatomically natural, and I suspect proto-humanoids have been paying the price for several million years.

On another matter entirely, I have found during this unhappy time that it is completely impossible to make a cat feel guilty or even sympathetic.  Dogs yes, but not cats.  I suspect there is a deep life lesson there, but I choose not to heed it.

Monday, January 28, 2019

OK, I GIVE UP

To hell with it.  Use any pseudonym you wish, post anonymously.  But do you understand how strange this is for me?  I put myself out there, with my name on everything I say.  I post videos of myself lecturing on all manner of subjects so that everyone can see the facial twitches and tics that have mortified me since I was five.  I open myself to anyone's criticism.  And back come all manner of comments from ghosts, from faceless writers.  To be sure, some of you are people I have met, some are people whose life stories I can reconstruct, but the rest of you might as well be wearing masks.

I may be old-fashioned, out of date, a certified old fogey, but I find that weird.

I DON'T KNOW

There seems to be no point in saying something on a blog.  No one pays any attention to it.  I wasn't endorsing Harris.  I was saying something about her announcement speech.  She does not, on the evidence of the articles cited, have a progressive record as DA and Attorney General of CA.  OK.  I did not say she did.  Doesn't anyone read anymore?

By the way, I am sick of anonymous comments.  If you are moved to plunge into the public debate and offer strong opinions [or snide remarks], then have the decency to put your name to them.  If you are in a parlous situation and dare not identify yourself, then send me a private email and explain why.  I am tired of self-righteous pontificating from people who hide behind pseudonyms and "anonymous" bylines.  I have been making public statements about matters of public policy for 68 years, as an undergraduate, as a graduate student, as a buck private in the Army, as an untenured Instructor, as an untenured Assistant Professor, as a tenured Associate Professor and Professor, and as a retired professor, and not once in all that time have I failed to identify myself.  Three times, I have been denied jobs I wanted because of my political opinions.  It never crossed my mind to express them anonymously, or to refrain from expressing them at all.

Maybe I just find it hard to take when my back hurts, but cut it out.

KAMALA HARRIS

Yesterday I watched Kamala Harris's speech launching her campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.  I am not going to offer an evaluation of her candidacy.  In 1948, when I was fourteen, I gave my heart to Henry Wallace.  Since then, it has been up and down.  But her opening line was, I thought, one of the best I have ever heard, and I wanted to take note of it.  Harris's campaign slogan, by the way, is For The People.  After graduating from Howard, she did a JD at Hastings, and began her elective career as DA of San Francisco.  In her speech yesterday, she said that the first five words she uttered, after entering a courtroom for the first time, were "Kamala Harris for the people."

I thought that was inspired.

We shall see.

Oh yes, if that idiot billionaire who used to run Starbucks does run as an Independent, I will make the ultimate sacrifice and stop drinking Starbucks coffee.  

Sunday, January 27, 2019

THOUGHTS WHILE SUPINE


One of the oddities of my back trouble is that when I am lying flat on my back, I am pain free.  In that position, I can hear, but not see, the television set mounted on the wall opposite my bed, which is fine for listening to cable talk shows but not for watching basketball games [the commentary is not brilliant!]  Not able to take my morning walks, I have been idling away the time thinking, and something, I do not recall what, got me thinking about rent.  Suddenly, I saw a way to connect up themes in classical Political Economy with my shtick about the Burt Reynolds movie Stick and its significance for the theory of socialism.  So, here goes.  I apologize if some of this seems old hat.  It is hard to be smashingly original when you hurt.

A striking theme in Adam Smith’s foundational work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is Smith’s contempt for the landed aristocracy, who live off the rents paid to them by go-gettem entrepreneurs for the use of their otherwise unused land.  Smith characterizes the labor performed by the aristocrats’ clouds of servants as unproductive, in contrast with the virtuous productive labor performed by the men and women employed by the entrepreneurs to grow crops for market.  The theorists following in Smith’s wake worried a good deal about what they called the “steady state,” a condition in which the rise in population would drive up land rents until nothing was left over for profit, thereby bringing economic growth to a halt.  Malthus’ writings on population contributed to this theoretical anxiety, which bothered Smith’s greatest successor, David Ricardo.  Smith’s message, were it reduced to a bumper sticker on a horse-drawn cart, would read “Profit good, Rent bad.”

Neoclassical economists, despite their mathematical sophistication and scientific pretensions, have retained this good old moralistic attitude toward rent, which they have generalized to include such things as patents, labor unions, and other restraints on the morally admirable and socially valuable capitalistic pursuit of profit.  In order to overcome the unpleasant and potentially disruptive suggestion that the interests of the capitalists are opposed to the interests of the workers, an idea central to the classical Political Economy of Smith and Ricardo and taken over with dangerous effect by Marx, the neo-classicals reached back to eighteenth century mathematics and converted an elegant theorem proved by Euler about functions of real variables into the happy news that in a capitalist economy, capital and labor are each paid their marginal product, which is to say a fair share determined by their respective contribution to the wealth of the society.  Rent seekers do not appear in the equation, and thus are relegated to the status of leeches on the body politic.

Three and a half years ago, on June 1, 2015, I wrote a post designed to debunk this moral justification of profit, in the course of which I quoted some lines from the Burt Reynolds movie.  I argued that the profits of modern capitalists, like the rents of the bad old landed aristocrats, are nothing more than a ransom collected by those who hold the capital of a society hostage until they are paid to release it so that it can be put to productive use.

In short, capitalists are rent seekers, backed by the law and the force of the state, just like the eighteenth century aristocrats.

Now, where did I put that Tylenol.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY

Now that Roger Stone has been arrested and indicted, soon to be arraigned, it might be useful to remind ourselves of a little bit of history.  Surely we all recall the Florida recount and subsequent Bush v. Gore Supreme Court Case that stole the 2000 presidential election and gave us, among other things, the Iraq War.  Politics buffs will even recall the "Brooks Brothers riot" by Republican operatives that succeeded in halting the recount that, had it gone on, would have tilted the election to Al Gore.

Well, Roger Stone was one of those Brooks Brothers goons, and as he said memorably about John Podesta, this is his time in the barrel.  You can read about it here.  [It is worth noting that another participant was a man who now regularly appears on cable TV as a "Republican consultant":  Matt Schlapp.]

Spare me your reminders that Al Gore is no Che Guevara.  I am an old man suffering, at the moment, from crippling back trouble.  I take my pleasures where I can find them.

Friday, January 25, 2019

THAT'S TWO

Defeats for Trump.  The suffering of ordinary people didn't do it.  What made the difference was the threat of delays at Washington National Airport.  I really think the Trump regime is coming unglued.

THAT'S ONE

Early this morning, Roger Stone was arrested in Florida.  Later today he will be arraigned.  The day is young.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

TWIDDLING MY THUMBS

For months now, I have been holding my breath each Friday waiting for Mueller's grand jury to hand up some more indictments.  Today, it seems, the grand jury is having an unusual Thursday meeting, which suggests that indictments will come down tomorrow.

One can but hope.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

SMALL PLEASURES IN A DIFFICULT TIME

It is heartwarming to see Nancy Pelosi give Trump the finger about the State of the Union address.  It is a small thing, but pleasant nonetheless.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A BRIEF THANK YOU

I asked a simple non-rhetorical question and got a number of extremely knowledgeable, helpful answers.  They were, collectively, more than I ever knew about British politics.  Thank you all.  This blog really is like a grand faculty seminar.

Monday, January 21, 2019

A REQUEST FOR INFORMATION

During my time in Paris, I watched a good deal of coverage on several English language news stations of the controversy over Brexit, including live coverage of the several votes in Parliament.. Although most of the discussion focused on the Prime Minister's disastrous defeat, a wide variety of commentators had very negative and dismissive things to say about Jeremy Corbyn.  This made me very suspicious, but I simply lacked the background to form an independent opinion.  Could someone who knows the British political scene clue me in about Corbyn?

FRENCH IMPRESSIONS [NOT IMPRESSIONISTS]


My computer tells me it is 17 degrees outside, so I think I will skip my morning walk and spend a few moments offering my impressions of France.  The big news while I was there was of course the continuing gilets jaunes protests, named after the yellow emergency jackets French drivers are required to carry in their cars, and which the protestors have been wearing as their emblem.  The protests have been extremely violent by French standards, with cars being torched and store fronts being smashed, both in Paris and in a number of other cities around France.  The protests were triggered by two actions of the Macron government:  a rise in the gas tax and the termination of the wealth tax.  The latter is not an inheritance tax or an income tax, but a tax on accumulations of wealth.  Rich French citizens have been moving their legal residence to other countries to avoid the tax, and middle class French have been stuck with paying it.  While taking a cab from the airport I passed a gas station and amused myself by translating liters to gallons and euros to dollars.  I came up with something slightly less than $6 a gallon, which is pretty close to what the web says.  A word of explanation is called for.  Paris is sort of like America turned inside out.  In America, the poor live in the inner city and the rich live in the suburbs.  In Paris, the rich live in the inner city and the poor live in the suburbs, or banlieus.  A rise of the already very high gas tax hits provincial working class and petit bourgeois French especially hard, as they drive to work.  The wealth tax does not generate much money, or so I am told, but it symbolizes a redistributionist political philosophy that is very important to the ordinary French.

With all of that as background, let me offer some subjective and entirely personal impressions.  I want to emphasize that I know very little about the realities of French political economy, and while I was in Paris, I did not read up on it in newspapers like Liberation [the Socialist party voice] or Le Monde, so these really are impressions – sensory impressions.  If any of my readers actually know something about this subject, speak up and correct me.

Watching the images on the television set while sitting in our favorite café, I was struck by a certain similarity between France and America.  Both are highly stratified societies, stratified by wealth but also by education.  Indeed, France is more highly stratified by education than is America.  Roughly the same proportion of adults have Bachelor’s degrees in both countries – one-third, more or less – but just as there is an enormous difference in America between merely having a degree [which already separates you from two-thirds of the country] and having a degree from an elite institution, so in France an ordinary university degree counts for very little in the centers of power.  What matters is a degree from one of a small number of super-competitive institutions, if anything more competitive even than our Ivy League, called les grandes écoles.  When I first met my French relatives, Andre and Jacqueline Zarembowich, both retired science professors, I committed a terrible social gaffe by asking whether they had gone to the Sorbonne.  Aghast at the very thought, they replied stiffly that they had studied at a grande école.  This educational stratification seems to include those who serve in socialist governments as well.

I have written repeatedly about the educational and economic selectivity or stratification in America manifested on television and in government across the political spectrum from extreme left to extreme right.  [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, remember, won second prize in the Intel science competition and holds a degree cum laude from Boston University.]  America has always been economically and socially stratified, of course, but back when I was a boy, and only 5% of adults had a college degree, the stratification was not so markedly educational as well.

Watching on TV as provincial mayors were invited to meet with President Macron in Paris [remember, these are impressions, literally sense impressions], I was reminded of the William F. Buckley Firing Line TV show I have three times described on this blog, most recently last July 21st.  [Three times for the same story seems to me enough, even for a garrulous old coot like me, so I will let those of you who do not recall it look it up.]  The cultural, educational, and economic gulf between Macron and those mayors seemed immediately obvious.

One final bit of personal narration before I end this and turn back to the never-ending saga of the government shutdown.  One day, Susie and I were sitting in our customary place in the café when we noticed a line-up of ten police vans and cars across Place Maubert.  Since this looked like the prelude to a gilets jaunes manifestation, we sat for quite a while and watched.  At one point a bus came down rue Monge into the Place with GILETS JAUNES written on it, but in the end, nothing much happened.  When we got up to leave, we walked over to rue Monge and looked up the street toward a big building called Maison de la Mutualité, where there were indeed several hundred people gathered, apparently for a meeting, not a protest.  The Maison is right next to Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, a big ugly Catholic church famous as the headquarters of the extremely right-wing old school branch of French Catholicism that rejects the celebrating of the mass in the vernacular and all other such like abominations.  I later learned that the meeting that day had been address by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing nationalist National Rally party.  It seems all three of her children were baptized in Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet.

Well, that’s it for personal impressions.  Except that I made a fabulous dinner of Coquilles St. Jacques and served them up to Susie and myself in two of the shells, which I got the fishmonger to save and give to me.  It was delicious!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

SUFFICIENT UNTO THE DAY

Well, my plea did not produce a restored Wikipedia page, but it did produce a better photo.

Sufficient unto the day...

HE'S BAAACK


I am back, not so jetlagged in this direction, of course, and ready to resume my blogging.  As usual, the world has gotten along just about as well or badly during my absence.  But before I resume my commentary on the passing scene, I had planned to tell you all about an exciting and innovative new thing in Paris, yet one more evidence that Paris is better run than our American cities.  Except that it turns out this new thing is all over the United States, even here in the benighted Southland, and I am simply the last person on the face of the earth to hear about it.

I refer to electric scooters, run by LIME and BIRD and maybe some other companies.  They are lying or standing all over Paris on the streets, and with an app on your phone, you activate one, ride away, and drop it anywhere you wish, paying by the minute.  Every night, enterprising young men and women fan out across the city, locate the scooters using a geolocation signal sent out by the scooter, and pick them up to be recharged.  The scooter hunters are paid by the scooter, and apparently sometimes turf wars break out over who got to an abandoned scooter first.

LIME scooters came to Paris last June, just after Susie and I left, and are now ubiquitous.  All manner of folks ride by:  young people, mature folks dressed in the height of fashion, sometimes even couples on one scooter, though that looks a trifle dangerous.  So to the rent-and-drop-off electric cars and velib bicycles, add electric scooters as one more blow for eco-friendly transportation in the inner city.

I myself would not dream of trying one.  At eighty-five, I am delighted simply to be upright on two feet.  But there is something inexpressibly dashing about seeing people scoot by on their LIMEs or Birds.

Well, so much for my news.  I imagine all of you are fully aware of the electric scooter fad, and some of you perhaps have ridden them, even picked up some quick cash by free-lancing their retrieval at night.

Now, if someone could just tell me who R. Kelly is.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

A QUESTION

I am vaguely aware of what is called photoshopping, and of course I have watched innumerable movies with special effects -- Avatar, for example.  My question:  Can a frame by frame, pixel by pixel examination of such productions reveal that they are not real unaltered photographs?  For example, if a seemingly realistic video surfaced of Trump talking with Kushner about dirty dealing with Russia, could an examination of it show whether it was real?

I need answers for my fantasy life.

ON THE WAY OUT THE DOOR

A nice Op Ed in today's TIMES about what it is like to have French health care.  Worth a read to know what we are missing.  And it is massively cheaper too!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

NOBODY'S PERFECT


Tomorrow I leave for two weeks in Paris.  I found instructions, on a vagrant slip of paper, for accessing my blog in Paris.  If they work, I shall report from there.  Otherwise, I shall return late on January 18th.   What could go wrong in two weeks?

Today, I want to spend time writing about something that genuinely puzzles me.  If I were still a philosopher in good standing, I would call it an epistemological puzzle.  The puzzle takes many forms.  Let me start by putting it this way:  How do I know that Austin is the capital of Texas?  I have never been to Austin.  Aside from changing planes at Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, I have been to Texas only once.  Many years ago, I gave a talk at Trinity University in San Antonio [but that is another story.]  So how do I know?

Well, I recall that it is, and while writing this blog I checked with Google [also ascertaining that whereas Austin is the capital of Texas, the state government is headquartered in the capitol.]  What is more, I have heard Austin referred to countless times as the capital of Texas.

All right, but how do I know that a man has walked on the moon?  As it happens, on July 20, 1969, I was with my wife and our one year old son, Patrick, in a summer home we owned briefly in Worthington, MA.  We had a little black-and-white TV set with a movable antenna called “rabbit ears,” and on it I watched the film of that first moonwalk.  It was the same sort of set on which I had watched Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald [actually, you couldn’t see the shooting because of the crush in the courthouse, but I watched the event live.]

But there are people who say the moon walk was a hoax, that it never happened.  And for all I know, there are people who say Ruby did not shoot Oswald.  So how do I know?

Let me be clear, this is not a bit of familiar Philosophy 1 Cartesian skepticism.  I am not leading up to a dramatic cogito, ergo sum.  There are lots of things I do know, about which I have no doubt whatsoever.  For example, I know that all the streets here at my retirement community are named for trees:  pear tree, apple tree, maple, oak, and so forth.  How do I know?  Every morning, including this morning, I take a long three mile walk around the entire community, in the course of which I walk for at least a bit on every street, and I can read the street signs as I turn into or out of each street. 

I know the names and at least something about the physical appearance and personality characteristics of each of the people who live in Building 5, where Susie and I have our apartment.  I also know my sister, Barbara, my sons Patrick and Tobias, Patrick’s wife Diana and their children Samuel and Athena.  I knew my parents and my uncles and aunts and I know [or, in two cases knew] my cousins.

There is nothing remarkable about this knowledge.  For most of the two hundred thousand or so years that genetically modern humans have existed, that is the sort of knowledge people had.  First-hand knowledge, hands on knowledge, knowledge drawn from personal memories or from the reports of people one had known all one’s life.  Human communities were small and face-to-face.  A new face in town was big news, and called for some pretty intensive and sophisticated checking out.  Travelers might tell stories about fabulous monsters or people with strange customs.  Sometimes they were believed, sometimes not.

All this started to change ten thousand years ago, give or take.  By several hundred years ago things had totally changed.  People still had hands on face-to-face knowledge, just as they do today.  But there built up in people’s minds a vast, complex social and natural world about which they had no hands on face-to-face knowledge at all.  Which raises a question never put to rest:  How do I know it is not a hoax?

I return to my original question about Austin, Texas.  But now let me change the question:  How do I know that agents of the Russian government used social media to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign?  There really is no epistemological difference between this question and the question how I know that Austin is the capital of Texas, or for that matter how I know that a man walked on the moon.

Of course, to answer the original question, I can take down an atlas [if I am so retro actually to have a physical atlas] and show a sceptic the map of Texas with Austin marked as capital.  But if she says the book was written by someone who is part of a conspiracy to push the patent falsehood that Austin is the capital of Texas, or the even larger falsehood that there is a state named Texas, I do not have any hands on face-to-face knowledge to offer like my knowledge of the street names of Carolina Meadows.

And having changed the question, I can cite the contents of the indictment brought against a group of Russian agents by a grand jury guided by Robert Mueller [or at least I can do that so long as I am not challenged to prove the truth of the report that such an indictment was in fact handed up.]  But if someone claims that Mueller [is there really a person answering to that name?] is part of a deep state conspiracy to destroy Donald Trump and thereby to protect the financial interests of the corporate class who have owned and directed the American government since the end of World War II [assuming there really was a World War II], I have no hands on face-to-face knowledge with which I can successfully rebut that assertion.

Look, we all know there are climate change deniers, there are Holocaust deniers, there are walk-on-the-moon deniers.  How are they any different from Robert Mueller deniers or World War II deniers, or Austin-is-the capital-of Texas deniers?

Let us be clear.  These questions are not somehow in principle unanswerable.  Buzz Aldrin knows whether man walked on the moon.  He did it [though not first – that was his fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong.]  If I knew Buzz Aldrin, if he and I had grown up in the same village [he is three years older than I], if I had a lifetime of direct experience interacting with him and forming a judgment of his truthfulness, and if he told me he had walked on the moon, then I would know [remember, this is not a Phil 1 class on Cartesian skepticism.]

Did Russians hack into the DNC emails?  Someone knows.  Just not anyone I know, not even anyone who is known by someone I know [Kevin Bacon and degrees of separation and all that.]

So what can we do?  One possibility, which I have considered and rejected, is simply to stop thinking about anything I cannot confirm by hands on face to face experience.  Which leaves me where I am, compelled endlessly to double check what I read, to try to determine over time which reporters in the public space have turned out to be accurate, to try not to allow what I want to believe to substitute for what I have reason to believe [this is really hard], and to use such common sense as I have.

None of which is foolproof.  Let me close with a story.  My father was a New York City high school Biology teacher [later a high school principal.]  In 1938, when I was four, he and a colleague published Adventures With Living Things, a textbook that went through a number of editions.  Needless to say, I read it when I got old enough.  It was in our family a Big Deal.  When I grew up, I pretty much forgot what was in the book, except for one fact that stuck with me:  the human cell has forty-eight chromosomes.  Many years later, I came across a reference to the forty-six chromosomes in the human cell.  I called up my father and asked him, if I may paraphrase, “What the hell is going on?”  “Yes,” he said ruefully,” it is forty-six.  Early staining techniques to prepare a microscope slide were not very good, and they made the twenty-three pairs look like twenty-four.”

Nobody’s perfect.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

BERNIE AND THE BLACK VOTE

According to this piece, which accords with my memory, Bernie did slightly better with young Black voters than Clinton, but lost overwhelmingly among older Black voters -- who are a good deal more likely to vote.  I do not think that is a deal breaker against Trump, for various reasons, but it is a problem.

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES

This is a link, courtesy of David Auerbach, to a very interesting piece by a young man named Benjamin Studebaker completing a doctorate at Cambridge.  It is an argument, which I find quite persuasive, that in 2020 we should nominate Bernie [or Jeff Merkley, but that is a non-starter.]

I think Bernie can beat Trump [I also think he would have won in 2016], despite the fact that he has a serious deficit with people of color.  I have already indicated why I think he is one of only four or so people who can actually get the nomination.

He would have to up his game, I think, but perhaps he can do that.  read the piece and tell me what you think.


JUST SAYIN'

The first of my nine lectures on Kant's First Critique has now drawn 83,458 views.  That compares very favorably with the Marvel Studios Avengers official trailer, which was posted three weeks ago and has had 78 million views.  It is important in these matters to acknowledge one's limitations.  😔


ADDENDUM


After posting my New Year’s greeting, I went looking for some hard data to supplement my observations about the race now being launched for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination, and very quickly made my way to this year’s version of the Green Papers, which I used to good advantage in 2016.  You can find the relevant page here.

A quick look reveals that by the time the March 3rd primary votes have been counted, slightly more than 40% of the delegates will have been chosen, which, elementary arithmetic tells me, means that 80% of the delegates needed to win will have been chosen.  If I am right, three or four hopefuls will have scarfed up the lion’s share of that 80%, posing a prohibitive obstacle to anyone else gaining enough delegates to make it into the circle of genuine possibles.  It is not obvious to me that this is a good thing, but the numbers do not lie.

Because of the costs of competing in Texas and California, the ability to raise big money quickly from small donors will, I think, be crucial.  I assume that advantages Warren, Sanders, and O’Rourke to the detriment of Harris, but I may be wrong.  Biden?  I still don’t believe it, but I could be kidding myself.

AND AGAIN, HAPPY NEW YEAR


Here in the U. S. Eastern time zone, we are now nine hours and twenty-nine minutes into the new year.  It occurred to me to wonder on how many other January firsts I have wished my readers a happy new year, and a quick search revealed four:  2009, 2011, 2015, and 2018.  My well wishes last year contained the following passage:

“If Trump can be restrained from launching a nuclear war, I believe the prospects for the new year are good.  Mueller will indict some more members of the transition and administration, the Democrats will win the House and even, God willing, the Senate, Trump will be impeached and put on trial by the Senate, another dozen or more politicians will be outed as sexual predators, and The Philosopher's Stone, along about April Fool's Day, will pass the three million mark in total views.”

That is six predictions, three of which have come true and a fourth that could still be confirmed.  Not a bad record of armchair prognostications.  This morning, during an extremely foggy and uncharacteristically warm walk, I gave some thought to how the race for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination might play out in this new year.  [I shall get to more important matters a little later.]  A dramatic move by the DNC not much commented upon as yet will upend our settled expectations about that race.  A word of explanation.

For as long as I can remember, we politics junkies have obsessed about the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, despite their numerical irrelevance to the outcome of the nomination race, for reasons too well known to require rehearsal.  This year, the state primary schedule has been completely revised.  On March 3rd, exactly one month after the Iowa caucuses, nine states will hold primaries, including California and Texas!  What is more, voters in California, a state with a large mail-in ballot share, will start sending in their ballots at just about the time when those Iowa caucuses are occurring.

California and Texas are huge states.  They have big pots of delegates and take huge sums of money to be competitive.  Early name recognition will play a big role on March 3rd.  So you can forget about twenty candidates shaking hands with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.  By the time March 3rd is over, the field will be winnowed down to a handful of candidates.

Cui bono?  Pretty clearly, Kamala Harris in California and Beto O’Rourke in Texas.  Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders because of pre-existing name recognition and a proven ability to raise money.  Joe Biden?  I just can’t see it.  The Anita Hill disaster will come back to haunt him big time.  Most of the rest are either running for Veep or wasting their time.

If I had to predict the ticket now, a year and more before the first votes are cast, I would say some combination of the following folks in the top or second spots:  Warren, Harris, O’Rourke, and Sanders.

By this time next year, we will know a great deal more.