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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

YET ANOTHER REPLY TO ONE OF THE ANONYMATI


Another [?] of the Anonymati asks this:

“I'd love to know, Bob, what it is about the zero-sum game that you find so compelling. You have repeatedly mentioned it over the years. I am no game theorist, but as an economist I know enough to know that nothing you say here or in your previous post is at all original - what is it about the idea that inspires you so? Or is it just to admonish that we should use the term "correctly"?”

Here is the answer.  For almost sixty years, I have been interested in the ways in which nuclear deterrence theorists, economists, philosophers, political theorists, legal theorists and others cloak their partisan arguments in formal garb as a way of claiming an objectivity that they do not [and could not] have, and to cow non-technical readers into thinking that something objective, mathematical, scientific has been said.

I first came upon this phenomenon in the very early Sixties when I was totally absorbed in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the rise of non-military Deterrence Theorists like Herman Kahn arguing for First Strike nuclear policies.  In the summer of 1962, I wrote a short book, The Rhetoric of Deterrence, in which I tried to expose these fallacies, a book I was unable to get published [even though Noam Chomsky, after reading it, urged me to do so.]

Later on, I published criticisms of Bob Nozick [in an essay review of Anarchy, State, and Utopia], Jack Rawls [my book Understanding Rawls] and Jan Elster [in my review essay “Methodological Individualism and Marx: Some Remarks on Jon Elster, Game Theory, and Other Things”], all focused on what I saw as the same failing.

In the mid-Seventies, at UMass, I several times gave a course entitled “The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy” in which I first taught the students the formal materials and then showed them how they had been misused by Nozick, Rawls, and others.

Later still, when I turned my attention to Marx, I found the same phenomenon in the invocation by neo-classical economists of the notion of marginal product as an ideological justification of capitalist profit.

I freely admit that the wanton and invariably incorrect invocation of The Prisoners’ Dilemma and Zero-Sum Games bugs me, and since both phrases are so frequently misused in public discourse, I tend to react allergically to their appearance.  But the larger issue is the ideological use of formal mathematical arguments to cloak partisan defenses of powerful interests in the garb of mathematics, to misrepresent them as science and hence not subject to political debate.

You might say that all of this work is a fiercely partisan footnote to C. P. Snow’s famous 1959 lecture, “The Two Cultures.”

Saturday, March 30, 2019

A REPLY TO ANONYMOUS


One of the anonymati, in the course of a lengthy comment on yesterday’s post, made this request:  “I would love to see you take a step back from the mathematical details and give a more general discussion of what your mathematical exposition means to those of us who don't really want to get down into the technical details.”  I am more than happy to do so.

It is a long story, and it begins with Jeremy Bentham’s statement of Utilitarianism in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, published in 1789.  In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill cites Bentham’s dictum as “everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one.”  Bentham himself does not write these words in the Principles, but since he was little John Stuart’s godfather, and inasmuch as John’s father, James, raised Mill virtually from birth to be a crusader for Utilitarianism, I think we can take Mill’s account as accurate.

Two centuries later, when Utilitarianism is as familiar and unthreatening as bagels and lox, it is difficult to remember just how revolutionary and dangerous Bentham’s dictum was and was perceived to be.  The problem was that there were so many peasants and workers and so few lords and ladies.  No matter how you looked at it, the pains of the masses were going to outweigh the pleasures of the classes, and that implied frightening economic policies that were clearly not on, as the British would say.

Oh, they tried.  It was widely believed in the drawing rooms and men’s clubs of London that the toffs were so much more sensitive than their servants that a place by the fire and a mess of gruel, which was more than enough to make a scullery maid happy, would cause excruciating anguish to her mistress [hence Hans Christian Andersen’s princess and the pea.]  Mill himself had a go at this defense [slipping a shiv between the ribs of his godfather all the while,] distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures, and delivering the immortal line “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

The problem was that there were so bloody many pigs [which is to say, the unwashed] and fools.  No matter how you twisted and turned, the Greatest Happiness Principle was going to require some serious redistribution of wealth.

What to do?  As is so often the case in such crises, Philosophers stepped up to protect their employers.  They discovered the Problem of Other Minds.  Each of us knows the magnitude of his or her pleasures and pains by an act of introspection, and each of us has access to the results of such introspection for him or herself alone.  If I cannot know with certainty the contents of any mind save my own, then I cannot give to the pleasures and pains of others a weight commensurate with that of my own pleasures and pains, so it is simply impossible for me to let everyone count for one as I go about legislating in Parliament.

Buoyed by the assurances of their philosopher brethren, who surely could not be accused of any covert ideological parti pris, the economists relaxed and devoted themselves to the arcana of unanimity quasi-orderings, Pareto optima, and indifference curves.  To the rebels who complained that the masses were miserable and the masters gleeful, serious students of capitalism could reply, “That is not a matter of science, and Economics is, after all, a Science.  It even has Nobel Prizes.”

This defense was given canonical imprimatur in 1932 by Lionel Lord Robbins, in his classic work An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science:  There is no means of testing the magnitude of A’s satisfaction as compared with B’s” he wrote, italicizing for emphasis.

And that was that.

Enter John von Neumann.  There was, von Neumann demonstrated, one tiny but theoretically interesting exception to Robbins’ dictate.  In the very special case of two individuals with strictly opposed preferences for probability combinations of prizes, preferences obeying a set of extremely powerful axioms, it could be demonstrated that one could carry out an arithmetic sum of A’s satisfaction with B’s.  Indeed, with suitable permissible transformations, it could be shown that their satisfactions from the prizes associated with the outcome of a game added up to zero, despite the general impossibility, pace Robbins, of testing the magnitude of A’s satisfaction as compared with B’s.

That is the general significance of the mathematical details to which I devoted yesterday’s post.

Friday, March 29, 2019

GIVE THE OLD MAN A BREAK

Here is the simple, shameful truth:  I don't much like politics.  It is infuriating, frustrating, desperately important, and I cannot really do anything about it.  What I like is ideas, which are simple, pure, eternal, and as satisfying as a Baroque fugue.  I talk about politics because I think I should, but I would rather talk about ideas.

So today, I am going to talk about an elegant much-misunderstood idea:  the idea of a zero-sum game.  Now, as it happens, I have already done just that, nine years ago, but it was on my other blog, which most readers of this blog do not even know exists.  So, herewith, from that blog, my formal explanation of the concept of a zero-sum game, very lightly edited.  Even if it does not grab you, perhaps you will be able to appreciate its peaceful clarity:



At long last, we are ready to state the six assumptions about someone's preferences, or Axioms, as von Neuman and Morgenstern call them, the positing of which is sufficient to allow us to deduce that the person's preferences over a set of outcomes can be represented by a Cardinal Utility Function. There is a very great deal of hairy detail that I am going to skip over, for two reasons. The first is that I want there to be someone still reading this when I get done. The second is that it is just too much trouble to try to get all this symbolism onto my blog. You can find the detail in Luce and Raiffa. O.K., here we go.

    Assume there is a set of n outcomes, or prizes, O = (O1, O2, ...., On)

AXIOM I: The individual has a weak preference ordering over O, with O1 the most preferred and On the least preferred, and this ordering is complete and transitive. Thus, using R to mean “prefers or is indifferent between,” for any Oi and Oj, either Oi R Oj or Oj R Oi. Also, If Oi R Oj, and Oj R Ok, then Oi R Ok.

AXIOM II: [A biggie] The individual is indifferent between any Compound Lottery and the Simple Lottery over O derived from the Compound Lottery by the ordinary mathematical process of reducing a compound lottery to a simple lottery.

    This a very powerful axiom.  In effect, it says that the individual has neither a taste for nor an aversion to any distribution of risk. The point is that the Compound Lotteries may exhibit a very broad spread of risk, whereas the Simple Lottery derived from them by the reduction process may have a very narrow spread of risk. Or vice versa. The individual doesn't care about that.

AXIOM III: For any prize or outcome Oi, there is some Lottery over just the most and least preferred outcomes such that the individual is indifferent between that Lottery and the outcome Oi. A Lottery over just the most and least preferred outcomes is a Lottery that assigns some probability p to the most preferred outcome, O1, and a probability (1-p) to the least preferred outcome, On, and zero probability to all the other outcomes. Think of this as a needle on a scale marked 0 to 1. You show the person the outcome Oi, and then you slide the needle back and forth between the 1, which is labeled O1 and the 0 [zero] which is labeled On. Somewhere between those two extremes, this Axiom says, there is a balancing point of probabilities that the person considers exactly as good as the certainty of Oi. Call that point Ui. It is the point that assigns a probability of Ui to O1 and a probability of (1 - Ui) to On.

    We are now going to give a name to the Lottery we are discussing, namely the Lottery [UiO1, (1- Ui)On]. We are going to call it Õi . Thus, according to this Axiom and our symbolism, the player A is indifferent between Oi and Õi.

    If you have good mathematical intuition and are following this closely, it may occur to you that this number between 1 and 0, Ui, is going to turn out to be the Utility Index assigned to Oi in A's cardinal utility function. You would be right.

    This Axiom is essentially a continuity axiom, and it is very, very powerful. It implies a number of important things. First, it implies that A does NOT have a lexicographic preference order. All of the outcomes are, in A's eyes, commensurable with one another, in the sense that for each of them, A is indifferent between it and some mix or other of the most and the least preferred outcomes. It also implies that we can, so far as A's preferences are concerned, reduce any Lottery, however complex, to some Simple Lottery over just O1 and On. The Axiom guarantees that there is such a Lottery. Notice also that this Axiom implies that A is capable of making infinitely fine discriminations of preference between Lotteries. In short, this is one of those idealizing or simplifying assumptions [like continuous production functions] that economists make so that they can use fancy math.

AXIOM IV. In any lottery, Õ can be substituted for Oi. Remember, Axiom III says that A is indifferent between Õi and Oi. This axiom says that when you substitute Õi for Oi in a lottery, A is indifferent between the old lottery and the new one. In effect, this says that the surrounding or context in which you carry out the substitution makes no difference to A. For example, the first lottery might assign a probability of .4 to the outcome Oi, while the new lottery assigns the same probability, .4, to Õi. [If you are starting to get lost, remember that Õi is the lottery over just O1 and On, such that A is indifferent between that lottery and the pure outcome Oi.]

AXIOM V. Preference and Indifference among lottery tickets are transitive relations. So if A prefers Lottery 1 to Lottery 2, and Lottery 2 to Lottery 3, then A will prefer Lottery 1 to Lottery 3. Also, if A is indifferent between Lottery 1 and Lottery 2, and is indifferent between Lottery 2 and Lottery 3, then A will be indifferent between Lottery 1 and Lottery 3. This is a much stronger Axiom than it looks, as we shall see presently.

    If you put Axioms I through V together, they imply something very powerful, namely that for any Lottery, L, there is a lottery over just O1 and On, such that A is indifferent between L and that lottery over O1 and On. We need to go through the proof of this in order to prepare for the wrap up last axiom.

    Let L be the lottery (p1O1, p2O2, ...., pnOn), with the probabilities p summing to 1.
    Now, for each Oi in L, substitute Õi. Axioms III and IV say this can be done.
    So, using our previous notation, where xIy means A is indifferent between x and y,

    (p1O1, ..., pnOn) I (p1Õ1, ..., pnÕn) so, expanding the right side,
    (p1O1, ..., pnOn) I (p1[U1O1, (1-U1)On]), ...., (pn[UnOn, (1-Un)On) or, multiplying
    (p1O1, ..., pnOn) I ([p1U1 + p2U2 + ... + pnUn]O1, [p1{1-U1} + .... + pn{1-Un}On]) or
    (p1O1, ..., pnOn) I ([p1U1 + p2U2 + ... + pnUn]O1, [p1{1-U1} + ... + pn{1-Un}]On)

    if we let p = p1U1 + p2U2 + ... pnUn then we have:

    (p1O1, ..., pnOn) I (pO1, (1-p)On) In other words, the lottery, L, with which we started is indifferent to a lottery just over the best and worst outcomes, O1 and On.

AXIOM VI The last axiom says that if p and p' are two probabilities, i.e., two real numbers between 1 and 0, then: (pO1, [1-p]On) R (p'O1, [1-p']On) if and only if p ≥ p'

    This Axiom says that the individual [A in our little story] prefers [or is indifferent between] one lottery over the best and the worst alternatives to another lottery over those same two alternatives if and only if the probability assigned to O1 in the first lottery is equal to or greater than the probability assigned to O1 in the second lottery.

    Now, let us draw a deep breath, step out of the weeds, and remember what we have just done. First, we started with a finite set of outcomes, O = (O1, O2, ...., On). Then we defined a simple lottery over the set O as a probability distribution over the set O. Then we defined a compound lottery as a lottery whose prizes include tickets in simple lotteries. At this point, we introduced five AXIOMS or assumptions about the preferences that our sample individual A has over the set of outcomes and simple and compound lotteries of those outcomes. These are not deductions. They are assumptions. Then we showed that these five Axioms, taken together, imply a very powerful conclusion. Finally, we introduced a sixth Axiom or assumption about A's preferences.

    That is where we are now. von Neuman now takes the last step, and shows that if someone's preferences obey all six Axioms, then that person's preferences can be represented by a cardinal utility function over those outcomes that is invariant up to an affine (linear) transformation. I am not going to go through the proof, which consists mostly of substituting and multiplying through and gathering terms and all that good stuff. Suffice it to say that when von Neuman gets all done, he has shown that one way of assigning utility indices to the outcomes in O in conformity with the six Axioms is to assign to each outcome Oi the number Ui [as defined above]. This is then "the utility to A of Oi." Remember that this is just one way of assigning A's utility indices to the outcomes in the set O. Any affine transformation of those assignments will serve just as well.

    All of this has to be true about A's preferences in order for us to say that A's preferences can be represented by a cardinal utility function.

I want now to take some time to make sure that everyone understands just how strong these assumptions are, and also exactly how to interpret them. The first point to understand is in a way the hardest. You might think that our subject, A, decides how she feels about all of these simple and compound lotteries by carrying out expected utility calculations and then saying to herself, "Well, since this one has a greater mathematical expectation than that one, I prefer this one to that one." You might think that, because, good heavens, how else could she possibly decide which she prefers to which? But if you thought that [which of course none of you does], you would be WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! TOTALLY WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! That would be, to use correctly a phrase that these days is almost always used incorrectly, begging the question. It would be assuming what is to be proved, and thus arguing in a circle. What von Neuman actually supposes is that our subject, A, looks at the outcomes O1, O2, etc and decides how she feels about them. She ranks them in order of her preference. She then looks at the infinitude of simple lotteries and compound lotteries and decides how she feels about them as well. She merges this all in her mind into a single complete, transitive ordering of all of those outcomes and simple lotteries and compound lotteries. Then von Neuman posits that her preferences, thus arrived at, in fact obey the six Axioms. If that is so, then, von Neuman shows, her preferences can be represented AS THOUGH she were carrying out expected utility calculations in her head in accordance with the axioms.

    We are talking here about an enormously powerful set of idealizing and simplifying assumptions, as powerful in their way as the assumptions economists have to make before they can talk about continuously twice differentiable production functions [which they need in order to prove their nifty equilibrium theorems.] Let me draw on something I said earlier to show you just how powerful these Axioms are. Look at Axiom V, the transitivity axiom, and let us recall the eye doctor example. 

Suppose that the lotteries A is comparing are big Amusement Park wheels, on which are marked off different sized wedges [each defined by two radii], each one of which is associated with one of the outcomes in the set, O. It would be no problem at all to construct a whole series of wheels, each of which is such a tiny bit different from the one next to it that when A is shown the two wheels together, she looks at them and says, I am indifferent between those two lotteries." But suitably arranged, the series of wheels might very slowly, indiscernibly, alter the size of the wedges associated with two prizes or outcomes, Oi and Oj, until, if we were to show A the first and the last in the series, she would look at them and say, flatly, I prefer the one on the left to the one on the right. Whoops. No transitivity! Axiom V rules out any such state of affairs.

    Well, you can think about each one of the Axioms and see whether you can imagine a situation in which the assumption of that Axiom clearly requires something very strong and even counterintuitive. But rather than go on about that, I am going to take the next step.

    We are now ready to extend our notion of strictly opposed preference orders. Recall that we describe the preference orders of A and B over a set of outcomes, O, as "strictly opposed" when A prefers Oi to Oj or is indifferent between them if and only if B prefers Oj to Oi or is indifferent between them. We will describe the preference orders of A and B over the infinite set of lotteries, simple and compound, over the set of outcomes, O, as "strictly competitive" when A prefers Lottery L1 to Lottery L2 or is indifferent between them if and only if B prefers L2 to L1 or is indifferent between them. This means that A and B not only rank all of the outcomes in exactly opposite ways. They also rank all of the lotteries, simple or compound, over those outcomes in exactly opposite ways.

    In this very specific set of circumstances [where all six axioms apply to both A's preferences and B's preferences, and A and B have strictly competitive preferences], we can normalize the utility functions of A and B so that for any lottery, L, simple or compound, over the set of outcomes, O, the sum of the utility index assigned to L by A's utility function and the utility index assigned to L by B's utility function is a constant. This is what is meant by saying that a game played by A and B is a constant sum game.

    Rather than grind out an algebraic proof, I will offer a simple, intuitive proof that should be easy to grasp. We shall use u(L) to mean the utility that A's utility function assigns to L, and u'(L) to mean the utility that B's utility function assigns to L. Now, we are permitted arbitrarily to let A's most preferred outcome, O1, have a utility of 1, and A's least preferred outcome have a utility of 0. Since A and B have strictly opposed preferences for outcomes, B's most preferred outcome is On and his least preferred outcome is O1. We are permitted to set B's utility for On equal to 1 and for O1 equal to 0. So the utility assignments of both A and B can be portrayed as lying along a line that runs between 1 and 0.

    No matter what lottery, L, we have chosen, we know from the Axioms that it is equivalent, for A, to some lottery over just O1 and On whose probability weights are u and (1-u) for some u. Think of that as a point somewhere on the line running between 1 and 0. [Remember that for the best and worst alternatives, O1 and On, the point is an endpoint of the line.] The same thing is true for B. We are now going to prove that the point on the line representing A's utility for L and the point on the line representing B's utility for L are the same point. To prove this, we will assume the contrary and derive a contradiction with our assumption that A and B have strictly opposed preferences. So, let us choose a point representing u(L) and a different point representing u'(L), and then choose some point that lies between those two points, which we shall call S. Here is a picture of the situation. The line runs from 1 to 0 for A, and from 0 to 1 for B:
                                                                                                                     1                                                                                   0
         |---------u(L)---------------S-------------u'(L)-------------|
         0                                                                                   1

    The point S represents a lottery, Ls, with weights S for On and (1-S) for O1. Now, just from looking at the diagram, we can see the following:

    (i) A prefers L to Ls, because L puts greater weight on O1 than Ls does. [u(L) is closer to the 1 than S is].

    (ii) B prefers L to Ls, because L puts greater weight on On [his favorite] than Ls does. [u'(L) is closer to his 1 than S is.]

    But this means that A and B do not have strictly opposed preferences, since they both prefer L to Ls. And this contradicts the assumption. So no matter which lottery L we choose, there cannot be a point S between u(L) and u'(L), which means they are the same point.

    But if they are the same point, then A's utility is u and B's utility is u' = (1-u), regardless of which lottery, L, we choose. and:

    u + u' = u + (1-u) = 1 
   
    Now, B's utility function is invariant under an affine (linear) transformation. So let us introduce the following affine transformation:

    u'' = u' - 1    

    What this does is to re-label B's utility assignments so that instead of running from 1 to 0, the run from 0 to -1. This means that A's and B's utilities for any arbitrary lottery L are no longer u and (1-u).  Instead, they are now u and -u. And the sum of u and -u is zero.

    THIS, AND ONLY THIS, IS WHAT IS MEANT BY SAYING THAT A GAME PLAYED BY A AND B IS A ZERO-SUM GAME.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

THE REAL WORLD INTRUDES


While the world talks about the Mueller report, finding in the news whatever confirms previous expectations, my life goes on regardless.  I am coming off a week from hell that started with oral surgery requiring three lengthy sessions in the dental chair and then got worse with news of a leak from the apartment above mine in Paris that caused most of the false ceiling to fall just as two renters arrived.  The statements from William Barr just capped it all off.

Now my attention turns to the meeting this afternoon of the residents of the building in which I live in my retirement community.  I am the “Precinct Representative,” which means I must conduct the meeting and keep up everybody’s spirits as we contemplate the beginning of plumbing work that will require groups of us in turn to move to temporary lodgings.  Since several of my neighbors are ninety-six years old, this is not a trivial undertaking.  I realize that my teeth and the affairs of Building 5 are not the stuff of news flashes or Twitter storms, but they are my actual life.

The only good news this week was word that Trump has decided to celebrate his victory over the Deep State, the Fake News, and Robert Mueller by launching an all-out assault on the health care of tens of millions of Americans.  If pursued with his characteristic vigor and sadistic energy, this should all but ensure his defeat and the defeat of his party across the board next year.  Alarmed Republicans are trying to dissuade him from this suicidal plan, but they will fail, I predict.  Needless to say, this has nothing to do with policy or even with politics.  Trump feels emboldened, and so he has set out to settle scores with McCain.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

ETYMOLOGY

William Barr quotes Mueller as saying that he has not exonerated Trump.  This got me thinking about the word "exonerated," which seemed to me related to "onerous," and thence to "onus."  To exonerate is to lift a burden [onus] from someone.  That led me to think of "excruciating," which means "from the cross" and describes Jesus' pain when he was crucified, i.e. nailed on a cross or crux.  I then thought of explode, and implode, of exact, extirpate, and examine.

I read once that English has several times as many words as French.  Some of them are truly delicious.

MUSIC HATH CHARMS TO SOOTHE THE SAVAGE BREAST

My very first venture into YouTube was a ten-part series of lectures called Ideological Critique.  Unlke all my subsequent YouTube efforts, which have been filmed and uploaded by Alex Cambell, a UNC Philosophy doctoral student now writing his dissertation, I recorded those lectures myself in my study, edited them, and uploaded them to YouTube.  In the third lecture, after explaining Karl Mannheim's brilliant analysis of the ideological encoding of time itself, from IDEOLOGY AND UTOPIA, I offered my own ideological critique of four modes of space consciousness, ending with an account of the revolutionary experience of space.

If you will follow this link to the lecture, and skip forward to 1:07:00, which is to say to the last six minutes or a bit more, you will, I think, hear and see something that will lift your spirits in these difficult times.

Monday, March 25, 2019

AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOLK LORE


Regular readers of this blog will recognize the name “Esther Terry.”  In 1992, Esther invited me to join the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, and was Chair of the department during the entirety of my wonderful sixteen years there.  Esther grew up in rural North Carolina in the town of Wise, near the Virginia border, and after an undergraduate degree at Bennett College in Greensboro [where she participated in the famous Woolworth Lunch Counter sit-in] and an M. A. at UNC Chapel Hill, she came north to Amherst, did a doctorate in English, and went on to be a founding member of the Afro-Am Department.  Despite this sophisticated educational career, Esther retains some of the linguistic tropes of her youth.  Faced with a departmental mess, she would say, “Well, we shall just have to make chicken salad out of this chicken shit.”  In this post, I propose to make chicken salad out of the pile of chicken shit we have just been handed by Robert Mueller and William Barr.

We are all going to have to survive the choruses of self-congratulation from Trump and his supporters.  If I were a religious man, I would say that a little humility is good for the soul, but since I am a non-believer, I will just call it what it is:  chicken shit.

However, I do honestly see the makings of a quite edible chicken salad here.  Let me explain.  If the report had been as devastating to Trump as we all hoped and expected, Congress would have had no choice but to move toward impeachment.  It is still possible that the full report, when it is released, as it inevitably must be, will make a chargeable case for obstruction of justice.  But it will not matter.  The headline is “NO COLLUSION” and that is all that anyone will read or hear.

Impeachment would have been a political disaster, I have always believed.  It would pass in the House, fail in the Senate, and leave Trump, at some point next fall, triumphant.  What is infinitely more important, it would leave his supporters maximally enraged and energized, and bring every last one of them to the polls in 2020.  By an odd quirk of American political life, Trump’s victory now will calm his followers and lower their voting percentages.  Contrariwise, his triumph and the current humiliation of all the rest of us will keep alive the extraordinary energy now manifesting itself on the left.  Deprived of the quick fix of impeachment, we will be driven by our anger to vote in record numbers.

Trump will not be able to run on today’s victory because it has happened too soon.  There are nineteen months until the election, and “No Collusion” will be old news by June.

Now, would anyone care for a nice cold glass of Riesling with your scoop of chicken salad?

Saturday, March 23, 2019

TIME OUT

I am going to stop blogging about Mueller and what he did or did not find.  It should be obvious that I have no first-hand knowledge, and people I like and enjoy communicating with on this blog have dramatically different views on the matter.  Inasmuch as I cannot do anything at all to affect the course or outcome of the affair, and I since I do not enjoy fighting with my friends, I am going to move on.  In due course, we will see.  Or we won't.  Whatever.

There is one point I would like to make that I think is important.  For whatever reason, the election of Trump triggered a massive surge in ground level organizing and protest that started with the Women's March the day after  Inauguration, which I attended, and which continues unabated to the present day.  That energy has led unprecedented numbers of women to run for office at local, state, and national levels.  It has produced a series of by-election upsets and a big blue wave in 2018.  Although many of those elected ran on moderate platforms [and would not, in my judgment, have been elected had they not], a number of dramatically progressive candidates have emerged, and the national debate about policy has moved sharply leftward for the first time in several generations.  The media frenzy about the Mueller investigation has not, so far as I can tell, derailed or diverted that movement, and it gives no sign of doing so now.

In the presence of this movement, the best thing for all of us to do is to join it, donate to it, work for it, cheer it on, and hope it is enough both to defeat Trump and to elect legislators committed to enacting progressive legislation.

All else is persiflage, to the effusion of which I am on this blog a leading contributor.  No more.

Now, about Duke and Zion Williamson ...

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?


In advance of the release of such parts of the Mueller Report as we get to see, I am going to try to summarize what we know.  Two stipulations before I begin.  First, I am trying to get clear about what we know, not make moral or political judgments about its significance.  Second, I am going to rely on what I believe is well known.  If someone wants to say, for example, that the indictments brought by Mueller against Russians are simply invented out of whole cloth, or even that there is no one named Robert Mueller nor has there been any investigation conducted by this fictional character, I have nothing to say in response, save Go with God.

All right, let us start simple:

1.         Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.  He lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.

2.         Agents of the Russian government sought to influence the outcome of the election to the detriment of Hillary Clinton both by hacking into email accounts and by social media efforts.

3.         There is no direct evidence at all that the efforts by the Russians swayed so much as a single vote.  There is also no direct evidence that either the Democratic or the Republican Party or the two candidates and their campaign staffs by their efforts swayed so much as a single vote.  That is the nature of the secret ballot.  There have been credibly confirmed efforts criminally to sway American elections, most recently right here in good ole Carolina in the NC 9th CD, but not in the most recent presidential election.

4.         We can infer that Mueller did not find evidence of a conspiracy involving the Russian agents and Donald Trump or those associated with him to influence the election.  We can infer that because, although Department of Justice regulations would have barred Mueller from indicting Trump for such a crime, it is impossible to imagine that such evidence, if Mueller had it, would not also have implicated those around Trump, and Mueller says there are no further indictments to come from him.

5.         Did Trump and those around him collude with the Russians to influence the campaign?  “Collude” is not a legal term of art, it is an ordinary English word.  Did Trump and those around him know about the efforts of the Russians?  Yes.  They were told so in the email that triggered the Trump Tower meeting.  There is other evidence, but that will suffice.  Did Trump approve and encourage the Russian actions?  Yes.  How do I know?  I watched him do so on national TV [“Russia, if you are listening, etc. etc.”]  Let me pause to emphasize this.  Suppose Trump had vehemently denied knowing anything about hacked emails and Russia.  And suppose Mueller and his team had unearthed a handwritten note from Trump to someone in Russia, with his DNA on it, saying “Russia, if you’re listening etc. etc.”  From an evidentiary standpoint, there is no difference between the two.  They would have dramatically different psychological effects, but that is a different matter.

            Is this collusion?  Well, that depends on how you use the word.  If you use at as a synonym for “conspire, as defined by law” then the answer appears to be no.  If you use it to mean “know about and encourage,” then the answer is yes.

6.         Did Trump obstruct justice by seeking, with corrupt intent, to interfere with or terminate Mueller’s investigation?  How do I know?  Because Trump told me so [and also everyone else in the world] on Lester Holt’s show.  And also because he tried to get Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, and he ordered Don McGahn to fire Mueller, etc. etc.

So, I conclude that Trump colluded with the Russians but did not, so far as we know, conspire with them, that Trump obstructed justice, that the Russians tried to influence the American election, and that we have no idea whether they succeeded.

Why do I care?  First, because elections are one of the very few tools that people like me have to change this country, limited though those tools are.  And Second, because I hate Donald Trump and would enjoy seeing him humiliated and brought low.

Meanwhile, I wait to see what of the Mueller Report will be released.

Friday, March 22, 2019

WRONG AGAIN

Mueller has submitted his report and apparently has indicated there are no more indictments to come.

Sigh.  We shall have to do it the old fashioned way, by winning the election.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

FOOLS RUSH IN


An old Christian superstition has it that graveyards are dangerous places because the damned souls of the departed linger there.  It was thought that angels shunned such places for this reason.  In early eighteenth century London, St. Paul’s Churchyard, which is to say its burial ground, was the center of the book trade.  In his great poetic work, An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope attacks the literary critics of his day, for whom he had a bottomless contempt.  At one point, alluding to their involvement in the book trade, he writes of them that Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

And so, despite Pope’s warning, I rush in to offer predictions.  I shall spare you the disclaimers, which would be otiose. 

Mueller’s grand jury meets on Fridays.  There has been no news that the grand jury has been dismissed.  The role of grand juries is to hand up indictments.  I infer that there are more indictments to come.  It is the practice of the Justice Department not to call before a grand jury someone who is a target of an investigation, which is to say someone who is in jeopardy of being indicted [because such a person would simply invoke the right not to incriminate himself or herself.]  Donald Trump Jr. has not been called before the grand jury, despite having participated in the much discussed Trump Tower meeting.  I infer that Donald Trump Jr. will be indicted.  It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Mueller will ask the grand jury to hand up a RICO-style set of indictments of Americans engaged in a conspiracy with Russians already indicted to defraud the United States of America by illegally interfering with the 2016 election.  If such a blanket indictment were to be handed up, it would probably be the final legal act by the Mueller team before the submission to the Attorney General of the report required by the terms of Mueller’s appointment.

Therefore, keep an eye out for news that the Mueller grand jury has been dismissed.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

AN IMPORTANT BIT OF INFORMATION

I am sure we are all interested in the lively discussion about Hegel prompted by my remarks, but we must not lose sight of what is the most important tidbit of information to emerge from the fog.

CHRIS IS FINISHING UP HIS DISSERTATION!

Congratulations to Chris.  I wrote a letter in support of his application to graduate school, and now he is about to finish up!

I hope, Chris, that in this brutal job market, you bag a good tenure track job somewhere.

I feel as though one of my children has taken a first step.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A RESPONSE TO TALHA


In the midst of a quite complimentary, indeed even fulsome [in the original sense] reference to me, Talha says this:  “Why Prof. Wolff should despise Hegel so much is a fun mystery!”  Talha goes on to note that I draw insights from and praise the work of Karl Mannheim, Herbert Marcuse, and others who were themselves deeply influenced by Hegel.  So what’s up with my hate on Hegel?

I think it is worth replying, not merely to clarify my personal preferences [a rather minor matter, after all], but to spell out my views on how one ought to do philosophy, which may be of interest to a slightly larger audience.

Personal matters first.  I hate Hegel because he makes relatively clear ideas obscure, whereas I have spent the last sixty years trying to make difficult and puzzling ideas as clear and transparent as I am able.  I freely acknowledge that Hegel had some interesting ideas.  I just can’t stand reading his exposition of them.  So sue me.  I don’t like Mahler either.

Now let me try to be a bit more serious.  I was introduced to philosophy at a relatively early age [from sixteen to nineteen] by a group of very gifted philosophers in what was then called the analytic tradition:  Willard Van Orman Quine first, then Nelson Goodman, after that Henry Aiken and Morton White, and then most importantly of all, Clarence Irving Lewis.  By the time I was old enough to get a driver’s license, I had internalized standards of clarity and precision that have stayed with me to this day.  Some were rather trivial: never to confuse use and mention, always to make sure I had the same number of left and right parentheses in a logical formula.  Some were a good deal more important: always to struggle to say what one had in mind as simply and transparently as possible, never to be satisfied with a metaphor that I could not, if called upon, cash in for a literal assertion.

Quine and Goodman and White struck me as supremely intelligent but lacking a certain moral urgency, a deep conviction that what they were doing was important as well as interesting.  It was in Lewis that I, at the age of eighteen, found a satisfying combination of intelligence and moral passion.  To this day, I cherish his comment on the term paper I submitted to his graduate seminar in epistemology.  I had written a paper on Hume, ripping various of his more questionable claims to shreds.  Lewis treated my efforts very gently, and after remarking that "in this paper, it would be out of place to ask that [the points] should 'add up' to something in conclusion," he wrote, "I should hope that this general character of the paper is not a symptom of that type of mind, in philosophy, which can find the objection to everything but advance the solution to nothing."   If I could be described, rather extravagantly, as having had a revelation on the road to Damascus, that was it.

Once I began my own philosophical work, I was guided both by the demand for clarity and precision and by Lewis’ inspiration.  My first major effort was a struggle to come to terms with the Critique of Pure Reason.  I could chop logic with the best of them, but I sought, like Gandalf in the Caves of Moria, to dive deep and struggle with the Balrog to discover the argument lying at the heart of Kant’s great work.  Like Jacob, I wrestled with the book and would not let go until it bless me.  I insisted [and here the voices of Quine and Goodman spoke to me] that what I found within it must be stated by me in clear, precise English, capable of being presented in the shape of a valid formal argument without losing the depth of Kant’s insights.

I brought the same need to Das Kapital, which was, I found, much more difficult to cope with because to succeed I needed to deploy not only the resources of philosophy, economics, mathematics, and history but also the insights of literary criticism.  I brought the same need for both clarity and depth to the writings of Mannheim and Marcuse, in  both of whose works I found insights and arguments of great power.

When I read the writings of Gerald Cohen, Jon Elster, and the other so-called Analytic Marxists, I found that they had achieved clarity and precision at the expense of Marx’s deepest insights, a disappointment I expressed in my essay on Elster [to be found in Box.net].

I can easily imagine that were I to bring to Hegel the same generosity of spirit that has animated me in the reading of these other authors, I would find much to value.

But you must allow an old man his crotchets.



Saturday, March 16, 2019

COMMENTING ON THE COMMENTS, AKA NOT HAVING ANTHING TO SAY TODAY

I have read with interest and some amusement the series of comments triggered by my remark about Paul Krugman.  I was particularly struck by one of Chris's observations, both because I think it is absolutely correct and because I do not recall having seen anyone else make it.  It is something that first crossed my mind a long time ago.  Here is what Chris wrote:


"Chomsky is a genius yes, but you know as well as I do, besides his encyclopedic memory, his genius is almost largely relegated to linguistics. His political commentary, while often correct, is actually transparently simple. I don't think the general public struggles to understand his political points. So we don't have to say genius in politics must be tantamount to Chomsky's genius in linguistics (which the general public would and should find confusing - 'merge' is infuriatingly difficult for me to wrestle with)."

Noam's capacity for absorbing and remembering factual detail is phenomenal, and since he is supremely intelligent and clear-minded, his mustering of that detail is impressive and usually overwhelming.  But he speaks and writes from the standpoint of a disillusioned moralist.  He does not seem to possess, or at least to deploy, the sort of deeper insight into capitalism that Chris and I more or less take for granted.  If I may attempt something approaching a bon mot, he unfailingly locates everyone's clay feet but seems not to grasp the distinction between base and superstructure.

On the other hand, his grasp of grammar is transformative.

Friday, March 15, 2019

DUE DILIGENCE

OK, so I watched the Netflix documentary on the Fyre fiasco [well, sort of watched it -- I clicked through and watched maybe thirty minutes of it, quite enough to get its gist.]  For me, it was like watching one of those old National Geographic travel documentaries about strange "primitive" people with incomprehensible customs not wearing much in the way of clothes.

Is Ja Rule a big deal?

EVEN A STOPPED CLOCK IS RIGHT TWICE A DAY


Inasmuch as the Good Book tells us “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” [Matthew 20:16], we ought to celebrate Paul Krugman’s recognition today of the fact that the deliberate destruction of labor unions is a significant cause of income inequity in the United States.

To be sure, Krugman did write, on the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, that “By my reckoning, Karl Marx made about as much contribution to economics as Zeppo Marx made to comedy.”

Let us grant that Paul Krugman has a good heart.  It is his brain that fails him.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

LIVE AND LEARN

The college entrance scandal has intrroduced me to a new social category.  The daughter of one of the actresses, whose college entrance [the daughter, not the actress] was facilitated by hefty bribe payments, is described in news stories as an "influencer."  

Am I the last kid on the block to learn this term?

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

MY J. D. SALINGER MOMENT


I have often wondered over the years what it is like to be Ralph Ellison – an author who wrote a great book young and then spent the rest of his life giving readings from the book, and listening to people wondering what he was going to write next.  Our perception of such an author is completely different from our perception of an author who writes his or her great work late in life.  And yet, in each case the authorial output is the same.

What on earth got me thinking about this today?  Well, if you leave aside the fact that I am not a great author, I was brooding during my morning walk about the big college admissions scandal.  I wanted to write something serious about it, and then it occurred to me that in fact I had.  Some years ago, I gave a talk at Teacher’s College at Columbia, in which I said – rather well, it seemed to me – some things I had thought about education for a long time.  “Why don’t I post that today?” I reflected.  So when I got home, I reread the talk.  I still liked it, though I did think I could leave out one or two of the stories.  But out of an excess of caution, I checked to see whether I had ever posted it before.  And by God, it turned out I had.  Twice!  AND THE LAST TIME ON MAY 30, 2018, ONLY TEN MONTHS AGO.

Socrates remarks to Callicles that he does indeed talk about the same things, and in the same way too.  Kant responded to critics who said the Moral Law was nothing more than the Golden Rule by observing that since the truth never changes, of course what he says has been said before.  And Kierkegaard built an entire book around the thesis that although the essence of the aesthetic is novelty, the essence of the ethical is repetition.

But the blogosphere cares nothing for Socrates, Kant, or Kierkegaard.  It asks only, What have you tweeted in the last nanosecond?

So I shall remain silent about the admissions scandal, having had my say.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

COLLEGE ADMISSIONS [OR SHOULD I SAY CONFESSIONS]

By now you have all heard or read about the massive college admissions scam just busted up by the feds. If not, read it here.  I know that I am supposed to pull a long face, say tut tut and shame, and then opine seriously about the deeper meaning of it all for capitalist society, but I am having trouble controlling my giggling.

I will make a little bet:  the students who were fraudulently shoehorned into the elite schools by this RICO-style conspiracy are doing just as well as the ones who were legitimately admitted.

Monday, March 11, 2019

FREE COLLEGE FOR ALL!


Earlier today, I posted a lighthearted comment about the reappearance of the word “socialism” in mainstream discourse.  I alluded to several of the most popular proposals grouped under that heading – universal health care, etc. – but purposely omitted free college, so that I could say something more serious about that a bit later.  Herewith that more serious comment.

Free public education is a form of social investment [I am here once again drawing on the insights of James O’Connor’s 1976 work The Fiscal Crisis of the State.]   Literacy and math skills are required by the workers in all but the most elementary production processes.  In a capitalist economy, making them available to children and young adults at state expense is a way of socializing what would otherwise be capitalist expenses.  Since the schooling is paid for by taxes, it is in effect a socially invisible way of lowering wages.

In nineteenth century America, grade school literacy was adequate for all but a very small fraction of the labor force.  Many adults in the early years of the 20th century did not have a high school education.  The father of my first wife, for example, never finished high school, and yet ended his work life as a Vice President of Sears Roebuck.  In the first half of the 20th century a nationwide movement made free high school available, and in cities like New York it was actually mandatory that students remain in high school until age sixteen.

During this time, going to college was extremely rare in America.  As I have noted here before, when I applied to colleges in the fall of 1949, only about 5% of adults had college degrees – so unusual was it to go on to college from high school that in New York City students entered and exited the el-hi system twice a year, in January and June, depending on their birthday.  As a December baby, I was slated to graduate from high school in January, and had I not accelerated, I would have had to wait six months before going to college.

But the transformation of the American economy made college level skills more and more necessary for the productive operation of capitalist enterprises, and by the 1950’s, public colleges and state university campuses were expanding rapidly.  They were rarely free, of course, although when my father went to City College in New York all the way back in 1919, it was free.  But even Harvard in 1950 charged the equivalent of only $6000 tuition in 2019 dollars.  Many state universities were much cheaper than that.

The explosion in the cost of a college education occurred in the aftermath of the Viet Nam War, and though I have no evidence to support my belief, I am convinced that the latent function of the soaring college costs was to burden young college graduates with a more or less permanent debt that made it impossible for them to do rebellious, countercultural, politically unsettling things.  The debt not only effectively lowered their wages but also made them behave themselves.

The “socialist” demand for free college is neither pie in the sky nor truly radical.  It is one more effort to socialize the costs of capital.  Inevitably, the cost will come out of the wages of labor.  But because the proposal comes at a time when the college graduate cohort – roughly 35% of the adult population these days – has been given a life sentence in a no-walls debtor’s prison, it feels liberatory.

The explosion in the cost of college, by the way, is traceable to the unconscionable bloating of the non-educational departments of the college or university, but that is the subject for another post.

WORLD FAMOUS IN POLAND

Well, the Rawls lecture has now hit 1000 views, which is nice and cozy in a small way.  I should explain something that was more or less obvious in the lecture but may not be noticed by those who really care about Rawls.  What interests me about Rawls' argument is that he claims, with all his hedges and caveats and hemming and hawing, that it is a theorem in bargaining theory.  That is, in my estimation, an excting claim.  It turns out to be false, which is also interesting.  Beyond that, I find Rawls rather boring.  That may put me on the wrong side of history, but there it is.

BEYOND THE FRINGE


I attended the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of 1954, at the beginning of my fellowship-underwritten wanderjahr after earning my M.A. at Harvard.  By then seven years old, the festival was supplemented by an assortment of low-cost uninvited unofficial performances collectively known as the Fringe.  That was mostly where I hung out, since I could not afford more than one or two of the toney shows that were part of the official festival.  Something quite similar sprang up in New York after WW II.  Young actors and playwrights who had not yet succeeded in breaking into the Broadway scene set up shop in low cost venues Off Broadway.  Eventually, wannabees who could not even get invited to perform Off Broadway started mounting shows Off Off Broadway.

Those of us who espouse one or another variant of socialism have for some decades now been living on the intellectual and political version of Off Off Broadway.  Indeed, we might lay claim to the title of a very successful post-war Dudley Moore vehicle, Beyond the Fringe.  Convinced that we are smarter, deeper, more trenchant, more interesting than mainstream theorists and talking heads, we debate with one another endlessly about what, with pathetic yearning, we call Late Capitalism, blithely oblivious of the fact that no one beyond our little circle cares.

Suddenly, in what can only be considered a world-historical joke, “socialism” has come to mainstream Presidential politics.  I write “socialism,” not socialism, because it is entirely unclear what those who celebrate it, condemn it, vote for it in polls, or put it on their yard signs mean when they use the word, but we who lurk beyond the fringe cannot afford to be picky.

The principal “socialist” demands – a higher minimum wage, universal health coverage, massive green infrastructure spending – are little more than 1940’s New Deal Light.  I have yet to hear anyone utter those fateful words, “collective ownership of the means of production.”  Still and all, I must be grateful for crumbs.  Perhaps I can pitch a talk show to MSNBC.  I could call it “The Wolff is at the Door.” 

Friday, March 8, 2019

FRIENDS, ROMANS, COUNTRYMEN


I should like to say something more about the Ilhan Omar flap, particularly in response to the impassioned anonymous comment to yesterday’s post.

I have virtually no first-hand knowledge of Israel.  Some years ago, my wife and I made a three day detour there on our way to Paris, but though I visited some world historically significant sites, such as the garden at Gethsemane, I met and talked to almost no one.  However, I know a number of Israelis, and my impression of the country is that it is a vibrant, exciting place where political life and the life of the mind are both fully alive.  Indeed, it is my impression that the most knowledgeable and devastating critics of Israel’s policy toward the huge number of Palestinians it imprisons and oppresses are Israelis living in that nation.

The foreign country I know best is South Africa, which I have visited more than forty times.  I first went to South Africa in 1986, four years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the liberation process was begun.  I found it a vibrant, exciting place where political life and the life of the mind were both fully alive.  The most knowledgeable and devastating critics of South Africa’s policies toward the huge number of Black, Coloured, and Asian residents whom it oppressed and exploited were South Africans living in that nation.

In those days, Israel and South Africa were allies, and Israel supplied South Africa with sophisticated military assistance.

I grew up and have spent my entire life in the United States, a vibrant, exciting place where political life and the life of the mind are both fully alive.  The most knowledgeable and devastating critics of policies of the United States are Americans living here.  The United States is a settler state, built on land the settlers seized from the indigenous population, whom they then tried to exterminate, and developed with a labor force it imported from Africa and then enslaved.

In these days, the United States and Israel are allies, and the United States supplies Israel with military assistance.

We do what we can, in a world we did not make, in the knowledge that the evil will live after us.  We can only hope that the good will not be interred with our bones.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT, i GUESS I HAVE TO SAY SOMETHING

I am referring to the enormous, self-defeating, dishonest flap about Ilhan Omar's remarks about Israel.  Pretty much everything I have to say has already been said by Paul Waldman in this fine Washington Post column from two days ago.  By a bizarre twist of fate, Born Again End Times Evangelical Christians have gotten it into their God-besotted brains that  the Second Coming and associated final time-ending clash between Good and Evil can only take place in an expanded, reunited, Old Testament Israel from which the Palestinians have been expelled.  Since these folks are the base of the Republican Party, in alliance on this matter with AIPAC, which pretty much owns the Democratic Party, there is a United Front in America against anyone who talks sense about Israel.  Never mind that both Israel and America are full of Jews who condemn the policies of Bibi and his brethren.

Now, I invite readers to condemn me as a self-hating Jew.  Knock yourselves out.

IT'S UP

Okay, nerds, the Rawls lecture is up on YouTube.  You can find it here.  Be the first one in your neighborhood to watch it.  I think the best thing about it is Geoff Sayre-McCord's intro.  He is a prince!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

TODAY

At 5 pm today, I shall give a lecture at the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy Department entitled "A Game Theoretic Analysis and Critique of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice."  With the assistance of Alex Campbell, it will be recorded and put on YouTube, there to join the thirty other lectures I have posted.  When it is up, I shall provide a link.

Monday, March 4, 2019

GOOD NEWS

[My natural Tigger cannot be repressed for too long!]  While going through my files, I found the original of my Honorable Discharge from the Army National Guard in 1963.  It confirmed my memory that my service number was NG 21268121.  Considering the nature of my tour of duty, it is probably not necessary that people I meet in the supermarket say to me "Thank you for your service."  Still, I wore the uniform longer than most Republican members of the House.  Through diligence and attention to duty, I eventually rose to the rank of E-4 [the old Corporal].  I was busted back to E-3 for ducking out of summer camp early in '62 to go on my honeymoon, but managed to regain my rank before being discharged a year later.  As I note in my Autobiography, I learned a good deal about the art of teaching while in uniform.

AND NOW, A WORD FROM EEYORE

In 2016, Trump won the popular vote decisively, if you leave out California.  Just let that sink in for a moment.  He did not merely win the rural Midwest, or Texas.  He won the whole country, minus California.  Yes, it is fun to watch Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's debut on the national scene.  And it gets the blood pumping to read that a sizeable minority of the American electorate is prepared to talk favorably about socialism.  But Trump won the popular vote outside of California.

What does this mean for 2020?  I haven't a clue, save that if Trump makes it that far, he might very well win the popular vote again outside California.  To be sure, a little more targeted attention by the Democratic candidate to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania might defeat him.  And all bets are off if the economy turns south in early 2020, as it well may.  But let us not kid ourselves.  This is a godawful country.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

ARMCHAIR SCIENCE


There being a limit to how much I can obsess about quotidian political trivia or opine about ideological arcana, I thought today I would write about a scientific curiosity that has puzzled me for decades.  I shall offer an explanation, and since I am a philosopher by training, I shall attack this problem philosophically, which is to say I shall address it by thinking about it rather than doing research.

The curiosity is this:  when I take a shower, I run the water until it is hot.  Then I pull the little plunger atop the bathtub faucet that switches the water to the shower head and wait a few moments for the water to run hot.  Then I turn the water off, step into the bathtub, start the water again, and pull up the plunger to start my shower.  Even though I have waited for the water to run hot, when the water hits me, for the slightest split second it feels cold before it feels hot.

Why?

Here is my theory, carefully insulated from any actual facts.  Temperature is essentially a measure of the speed with which molecules are vibrating.  There is what we may call a microclimate around my body, consisting of the first few molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and so forth interacting with my skin.  Since under normal conditions my body is hotter than the surrounding air, this microclimate’s temperature is higher than that of the rest of the air in the bathroom.  When the first bit of water from the shower head hits me, it brushes away those molecules, and so for a split second the microclimate around my body is actually cooled down.  I experience this incorrectly as the water being cold.  Then the hot water warms up the surface of my skin, and I feel warm.

This, presumably, is why even on a hot day a breeze feels cool at first.

I should be glad to be corrected if someone reading this blog actually knows something about the subject.  

Saturday, March 2, 2019

WHO KNEW?

Bernie Sanders graduated from the University of Chicago in 1964.  I taught there from 1961-63.  But I checked, and alas, he was not in any of my classes.

Still ...

Friday, March 1, 2019

SUFFICIENT UNTO THE DAY

This is a word of advice from an old bull to Young Turks.  I sense from some of the comments an impatience with the attention I paid to the Cohen appearance before Elijah Cummings' House committee.  How important can it be when a mob lawyer turns on his mob boss?  Not very important in the world historical scheme of things.   It may be an appropriate subject for a movie, but is it fitting that someone puffing himself up as a Serious Thinker should pay the event any heed?

Let me answer, not as The Philosopher but as an eighty-five year old man who has been fighting the good fight, or at least has been trying to, for sixty-five years.  It is hard, really hard, not to give up over all that time, especially when every victory is followed by a string of defeats.  What is more, it wears on you to be angry for six decades.  It is not good for the digestion.

So it is simply self-defense to relish the confusion of one's enemies, the little momentary triumphs of one's friends.  Is the electoral victory of a few self-declared socialists the first light of a New Dawn?  No.  Will cruel things be done and exploitation pursued by rich and powerful people even so?  Yes.  How then can I make much of the appearance of Michael Cohen before a House Committee?

Because it is fun.  It feels good.

But won't my pleasure in the spectacle weaken my resolve, make me settle, lead me to abandon The Cause?  Well, it didn't when I sat in the lounge of William James Hall at Harvard during my first graduate year and watched Joseph Welch say to Joseph McCarthy, "At long last, have you no sense of decency?"  It dd not when I read of the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  It  did not when I sat in my third floor study, watching the spot announcements of Spiro Agnew's resignation.  It did not when I saw Bill Clinton humiliated by a stained dress.  And it will not now that I have had the momentary frisson of seeing Michael Cohen put up an enlarged photo of a hush money check signed by Donald J. Trump.

Gather ye rosebuds where ye may.