Faithful readers of this blog will have noticed that I do not actually read very much, for all that I strive to lard my posts with arcane references, but at the moment, I am actually reading three books, one suggested by my sister, Barbara, one suggested by my son, Patrick, and one suggested [at my request] by my son, Tobias. Barbara recommended Frans de Waals’ Mama’s Last Hug, a book, as the subtitle says, about “animal emotions and what they tell us about ourselves.” Patrick recommended Modern Monetary Theory, by L. Randall Wray. Tobias recommended the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. I am a very slow reader, so I am only 25 pages into the de Waal, 102 pages into the Wray, and I have barely completed the Preface to the Sedgwick. I will let you know how they turn out.
Saturday, April 27, 2019
All my life I have been writing, talking, marching, donating for politics, but the truth is that I do not really enjoy it. I am not a happy warrior, and these days, I am in a more or less constant state of agitation, anger, outrage, frustration, and disappointment. All of this was brought home to me unexpectedly a day or so ago when I was driving home with Susie after running a series of errands. I turned on the car radio, which is tuned to a local classical music station, just as the announcer introduced an early baroque concerto for lute and flute. Quite unbidden, a feeling of peace descended on me as the music began, and for a few precious moments the agita that is my constant companion evaporated.
Afterward, I reflected that during my entire life, there have been two things, and only two, that can bless me with genuine inner peace. The first is early music. The second is laying out, in my mind, a complex, powerful, beautiful idea that I have managed to master until I can explain it so simply that my imaginary audience can see its power and beauty. Often when I am walking in the morning I will imagine myself addressing a group of students or a university audience about Kant, or Marx, or Game Theory, setting forth an argument transparently and quietly. I feel at peace.
I remember once seeing YoYo Ma at Tanglewood, playing a Bach Suite for unaccompanied cello. His eyes were shut, and he was leaning back away from the instrument as though he was not so much playing it as listening to it, having long since mastered the technique of playing and settled on an interpretation of that immortal music. I do not think I was wrong to think that he was at peace.
All of us are being counseled by our betters to suck it up, stop whining, and get on board for Uncle Joe because he is our best bet, perhaps our only bet, to beat Trump. It is worth reading this from Josh Marshall’s TPM before we take the pledge.
Friday, April 26, 2019
We all know that Joe Biden was a senatorial leader in passing the 1994 federal crime bill. This law, supported by members of the Black caucus and Bernie Sanders, by the way, in conjunction with state laws, effectively criminalized the purchase, sale, or use of certain drugs, resulting in millions of Black men being put in jail for long periods of time. It was part of the “war on drugs.” Those targeted were Black men and women and non-college educated drug pushers. The punishment for use of crack cocaine was much higher than for the use of other forms of cocaine, thereby effectively focusing law enforcement efforts on inner city Black communities.
Now, there is a new drug crisis, the excessive use of opioids. Scores of thousands of people are dying of overdoses of drugs even more dangerous than cocaine. Non-college educated White users are dying at so great a rate that the national life expectancy rates for White non-college educated men have actually declined for the first time in living memory.
This time, the excessive use of dangerous drugs is declared not a public safety or crime crisis but a “public health emergency.” The victims are White, and the pushers are doctors and corporate officials. No one is suggesting putting users in jail. Since the drugs are prescribed by doctors, it is not even clear that their possession is a crime. Opioid users do not lose their right to vote.
Does anyone see a pattern here?
Thursday, April 25, 2019
Sigh, so Joe Biden is in. His sole claim to the nomination is that only he can beat Trump. Is that true? I don't know. Maybe anybody can beat Trump. Maybe nobody can beat Trump. Maybe Bernie can and Kamala can't, or Kamala can and Bernie can't, or a ticket of Mayor Pete and Amy Klobuchar or Booker and Beto can. Maybe Biden should be every candidate's first choice for Vice President, since he has more experience at that job than anyone since Spiro T. Agnew.
I cannot tell you how depressing I find it all.
On the other hand, it is spring, and I saw a beautiful bright red cardinal this morning on my walk.
I cannot tell you how depressing I find it all.
On the other hand, it is spring, and I saw a beautiful bright red cardinal this morning on my walk.
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Well, that didn’t work, so I will move on to the subject of impeachment. In the past seventy –two hours I have read and listened to endless discussions of the question, many from people I respect. I am sure this is true of all of you as well. I am going to offer my opinion, painfully aware that it rests on predictions and factual estimates of which I am not at all confident.
In brief, here is what I think the Democratic majority in the House should do:
1. Launch detailed hearings in several different committees, supported by subpoenas and, if necessary, by legal proceedings to obtain as much precise, detailed evidence and sworn testimony as possible. It would be well if these proceedings extend well into the fall.
2. Meanwhile, continue drafting, holding hearings on, and passing legislation dealing with health insurance, drug prices, infrastructure, student loans, voter suppression, equal rights, minimum wage, and so on, clearly acknowledging that the Senate will not even take these bills up but presenting them as a promissory note to the American people, to be redeemed when the Democrats take back the Senate and the Presidency.
3. Some time in the fall, complete its investigations and vote to censure the President, an action I believe never before taken by either chamber.
4. Then, in late fall, launch full scale impeachment proceedings, leading early in 2020 to a vote to return a bill of impeachment against the president. Speaker Pelosi should deliver a speech on the occasion of the vote openly acknowledging that the Senate Republicans will not vote to remove the President from office and indeed may not even take the question up for deliberation.
Then, the Democrats should run on a robust platform of specific legislative proposals based on the bills already passed in the House, and call on their base to turn out in record numbers in order to complete the removal of Trump that the Republicans were too craven to carry out.
All of this is based on three assumptions: first, that the election will be decided by turnout; second, that our base is bigger than their base; and third, that we can motivate our base sufficiently to win. I am reasonably sure of the first assumption, quite sure of the second assumption, and not entirely confident about the third assumption. But I think what I have proposed gives us our best chance.
Monday, April 22, 2019
I promised I would write about impeachment, and I will, but first I would like to take a few moments to write about something that has long puzzled me, and which I think perhaps I now understand. It is this: Even in places like this blog, where almost everyone who comments is pretty much left of center, if not off in the weeds with me, whenever I or someone else says, for example, that it is a bad thing for the Russians to attempt to muck in our elections, there are readers who immediately and reflexively list some of the many ways in which America meddles in the internal affairs of other nations, up to and including overthrowing a democratically elected government and installing a friendly puppet, as in Iran.
Why do they do that? Are they suggesting that because America does it, it is all right for Russia to do it? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I don’t think they believe that America’s doing something makes it right, as though America were the moral exemplar for humanity. Do they think this blog is read by true blue patriots who believe that America is a Beacon of Freedom, a City Shining on a Hill? That seems implausible. Do they perhaps think that I myself have bought into the standard story that America was founded on the Idea of Freedom and has been steadily bringing its public actions into conformity with that idea for two hundred years? I will do them the courtesy of assuming they know that I wrote a whole book attacking that myth.
So why do they do it? Here is what I think. Living in a country whose politicians, public intellectuals, scholars, pontificators and bloviators all accept and endlessly repeat these smug, self-congratulatory, manifestly false myths drives some people a little crazy. It causes them such mental pain that it is as though they were condemned to a level of Hell inhabited by demons who spend all their time scraping their fingernails across slate blackboards. They are in a perpetual fury, and simply cannot control themselves when they hear something that sounds as though it were yet another knee-jerk praise of America, regardless of who is speaking or writing.
Now, I understand what it is like to suffer from this condition. Its symptoms first appeared in me sixty years ago, and in one early attack of the fever, triggered by an agitated, fruitless argument about nuclear weapons with a young Zbigniev Bzrezinski, I wigged out, had an anxiety attack, and came to running as fast as I could down Massachusetts Avenue toward Harvard Square sweating profusely. Several Valium and a retreat into the higher reaches of pure theory were required to reclaim my equanimity. One of the indirect consequences of that attack was In Defense of Anarchism.
So I am going to ask a favor. Would those of you afflicted with this entirely understandable disorder just assume that in this space, all of that may be taken as given?
An old friend vastly more knowledgeable in the law than I writes to correct me on one crucial point. Mueller did not say that he found no evidence of a conspiracy. He said that he found insufficient evidence to conclude that there had been a conspiracy, a very different thing. I stand corrected.
Sunday, April 21, 2019
I have now read the Mueller Report, all but one Appendix [see below]. You can find it here. Since I suspect very few of you will plow through it, I will spend this post giving you my take on it.
The Report is 458 pages long, and as one would expect in a document produced by lawyers, it is awash in footnotes, more than two thousand of them. It is divided into two Parts followed by four appendices. Part I considers Conspiracy, Part II considers Obstruction of Justice. Two appendices list acronyms and people mentioned. A third gives Mueller’s written questions to Trump and Trump’s “answers.” The fourth lists completed and on-going prosecutions. I did not read Trump’s “answers.” I don’t think I missed much.
Part I is 200 pages long, and it tells a story with which we are pretty much familiar. The Russians tried to get Trump elected. The entire Trump world welcomed the help and had endlessly many meetings and contacts with all manner of Russians, both about the famous emails and about the Trump Tower project. Did Trump and his coterie conspire with the Russians to corruptly influence the outcome of the election? Mueller concludes that they did not.
What about collusion? Recall the definition I surfaced on Google:
Collude: cooperate in a secret or unlawful way in order to deceive or gain an advantage over others.
Did they collude? Did they ever! Lord knows they tried. But I have had my say about that. What interested me was Part II, on obstruction, because here I learned something. Not about the facts, by and large. They are pretty well already known, thanks to some superb investigated journalism and a monumentally leaky White House. No, I learned something about the law, which I will now relay to you. I ask pardon of the lawyers among you, to whom this will be old news.
Obstruction of Justice is a crime with three elements. These are The Obstructive Act, the Nexus to an Official Proceeding, and Intent.
The obstructive act is the thing the person is accused of having done.
The nexus to an official proceeding is the connection to some legal or other official proceeding – a trial, a grand jury process, a Congressional hearing or investigation – that is obstructed or interfered with by the obstructive act. The official proceeding need not actually be under way. It is sufficient that it is reasonable to believe that such a proceeding – a trial, a grand jury hearing – will take place.
And the intent is the conscious and deliberate purpose of the accused corruptly to interfere with or obstruct the proper legal proceeding.
So, to prove, let us say, that someone is guilty of obstruction of justice for bribing a witness to give perjured testimony in a trial, one would need first to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused had offered money or something else of value to a prospective witness to lie under oath; then one would have to establish that an actual trial was taking place or could reasonably be expected to take place in which the individual could reasonably be expected to be called as a witness. And finally one would have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused understood all of this sufficiently actually to intend by the offering of the bribe to be soliciting false testimony.
Part II of the Mueller Report consists in the main of ten parts, in each of which a separate act imputed to Donald Trump is then subjected to this pattern of analysis. For example, the eighth act is: “The President orders McGahn to Deny that the President Ordered the Firing of the Special Counsel.” Each part begins with a brief Overview, followed by an extended statement of the relevant facts [with a gazillion footnotes], and then an analysis of the Obstructive Act, the Nexus to an official proceeding, and Intent.
In six or seven of the ten analyses [I was reading fast and did not keep track] Mueller concludes that the evidence establishes that each of the three elements of Obstruction is present. In the remainder, he indicates that the evidence falls short of establishing one or another of the elements.
In a normal prosecutorial proceeding, the next step would be for the prosecutor to seek a grand jury indictment of the accused on each of the six or seven counts that meet the evidentiary and legal threshold. But Mueller stops dead, and does not. Why? Because he considers himself bound by the opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
But couldn’t Mueller at least conclude by saying that Trump would have been indicted were he not a sitting president? This is interesting. Mueller says that the usual recourse for someone accused of a crime is to go to trial [to have his or her day in court, as the saying has it], where the accused can cross examine witnesses, put on an affirmative defense, make arguments to a jury, and be judged by “a jury of his peers.” But because Trump cannot be indicted, he does not have that opportunity, and Mueller says it would be unfair to accuse him. So Mueller walks right up to that line and stops.
In short, Mueller does not merely provide Congress with a “road map for impeachment,” as many commentators have said. He takes Congress by the hand and leads it right up to the finish line of that journey, and then says, “The next step is up to you.” If I may on Easter Sunday invoke an Old Testament image, Mueller leads the Democrats to the mountain top, shows them the Promised Land, but says he himself shall not go with them.
Saturday, April 20, 2019
OK, I have read Volume I [200 pages ugh]. Did the Trump campaign collude with the Russians?
Remember: Collude: to cooperate in a secret or unlawful way in order to deceive or gain an advantage over others.
See pages 185-188 of Volume I of the report, which makes it clear that the Trump campaign tried to collude, and also makes it clear why Mueller et al. chose not to prosecute under available statutes.
[spoiler alert: Don Jr. was too dumb to know that what he was doing was illegal.]
Remember: Collude: to cooperate in a secret or unlawful way in order to deceive or gain an advantage over others.
See pages 185-188 of Volume I of the report, which makes it clear that the Trump campaign tried to collude, and also makes it clear why Mueller et al. chose not to prosecute under available statutes.
[spoiler alert: Don Jr. was too dumb to know that what he was doing was illegal.]
Friday, April 19, 2019
I want to say something about the Mueller report, but I first I need to make at least a brief response to the many interesting comments sparked by my recent posts.
First things first. I am appalled, chagrined, and embarrassed to admit that I wrongly attributed the invention of Linear Programming to Wassily Leontief instead of to Leonid Kantorovich. Leontief invented input-output analysis. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Or, as they say in the neighborhood I came from, SCHMUCK!
Second, I hope it is obvious by now that regardless of my feelings about Mayor Pete, if the wins the nomination, I will work as hard for him as I did for Clinton, whom I hate. I can be rightly accused of many things [including ignorance – see above] but not of self-defeating political purity.
Finally, from the comments, including a fascinating screed passed on to me by Professor David Auerbach, it is obvious that I don’t know beans about Accounting. The example I gave in my essay was what we philosophers call a thought experiment, or as it is now referred to, a trolley car. However, the knowledgeable critiques of my cardboard example simply confirm my central point, which is that the sort of market based determination of economic decisions which von Mises argued would always be superior to socialist planning are now impossible, and have long been replaced by decision making that has an unavoidable quasi-political structure. There is much more to be said, but I want to talk about Mueller.
Some commentators on this blog have pooh-poohed the charges of collusion, insisting that there is no evidence of that, even though, to many of us, the evidence has been in plain sight. Now that the Mueller report is available, even with redactions, I think the facts are clear.
Let me begin with the word “collusion.” By now we all understand that there is no statute concerning collusion. There are statutes concerning conspiracy, including, but not limited to, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO statute. Mueller concluded that he did not have admissible evidence sufficient to make a case beyond a reasonable doubt of violations of RICO and other applicable statutes.
However, that does not even address the question whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. That is not a legal question [there being no statute criminalizing collusion]. That is a question of fact and ordinary English usage.
So, what is collusion? Or rather, what does the word “collusion” mean in ordinary English? Well, I asked Google, and this is what it told me:
“Collude: cooperate in a secret or unlawful way in order to deceive or gain an advantage over others.” [By the way, nice note: the word comes from the Latin meaning “to play together.”]
Did Trump and his campaign cooperate in a secret or unlawful way in order to deceive or gain an advantage over others? Did they ever! Mueller’s report is replete with countless examples of exactly that. I won’t go through them all. You can do that yourselves. With whom were they cooperating? With the Russians, with one another, endlessly, clumsily, eagerly, enthusiastically, sometimes successfully and other times not. Did they collude? From the detailed evidence of the Mueller report, they seem to have done very little else!
Did it do any good? Who the hell knows? It is hard enough to tell whether TV advertising helps a campaign, whether personal appearances help, whether free media help, whether having a deep baritone voice helps. But did they collude? Did they give it the good old college try?
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Something big is happening in the Roman Catholic Church. I speak as an outsider, a non-believer, but also as an interested observer of the oldest continuous functioning bureaucracy in the Western world. The Church has undergone two great and apparently permanent schisms [along with many smaller ones]: The schism of 1054, which separated the Roman Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome, from what became the Eastern Orthodox Church, originally with its headquarters in Constantinople; and The Reformation, which splintered the Church and produced Calvinists, Lutherans, Methodists, Pietists, Baptists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and even Quakers and Shakers. It is worth recalling that what we call The Reformation and date to 1517 was actually a three centuries long evolution, the eventual unfolding of which could not have been anticipated by John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jan Hus, Henry VIII, or any of the other significant players in that great drama.
The crisis now engulfing the Catholic Church has, it seems to me, three roots or causes, which are complicatedly intertwined. The first is of course the deep systemic corruption throughout the Church evidenced by the sexual scandals, which are so widespread and so completely implicate virtually the entire Church hierarchy that no palliative remedies can possibly succeed. The second, associated with the first, is the ever-greater difficulty of recruiting enough young men to staff the clergy and replace those dying out or retiring. The third is the attempt to bring the Church into the modern day by such reforms as celebrating the Eucharist in the vernacular, which, while to some degree successful, have triggered a powerful conservative backlash that reaches all the way to the Vatican.
As always, money, tradition, and entrenched interest operate against any fundamental change, but that was, if anything, more true half a millennium ago when the Protestant Reformation erupted, took hold, and split the Christian world.
I do not have a dog in this hunt, as they say down here in the Southland, so I am simply a fascinated observer. I rather doubt many of us will live long enough to see this play out to the end.
One of the things I have learned in my long, mostly uneventful life is that people are not stupid. They may be uneducated, they may be ignorant, they may be parochial, and of course they very well may be prejudiced in one or many ways, but they are not stupid. People can size one another up pretty accurately, even at a considerable distance, about the things that matter to them.
I first was made aware of this elementary fact relatively late in life when, in the seventies, I had a shot at a variety of academic administrative positions. Despite what I thought of as a pretty impressive resumé, I never got past first base. The reason finally dawned on me. The folks evaluating my credentials said publicly that they were looking for a candidate with experience, educational imagination, flair, and a strong vita, but whether they were honest to themselves about it or not, what they wanted to know at base was the answer to one question: If the students occupy the Administration building, will you be with them or with us? The question was never asked, of course, but every selection committee could smell at fifty paces that I could not be could not be counted on to say “I’ll be with you,” and that would end the interview.
I thought about this after reading that long take down of Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Current Affairs by Nathan Robinson. Here is one passage in Buttigieg’s autobiography, quoted by Robinson, that caught my eye:
“In April 2001, a student group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement took over the offices of the university’s president, demanding a living wage for Harvard janitors and food workers. That spring, a daily diversion on the way to class was to see which national figure—Cornel West or Ted Kennedy one day, John Kerry or Robert Reich another—had turned up in the Yard to encourage the protesters.
Striding past the protesters and the politicians addressing them, on my way to a “Pizza and Politics” session with a journalist like Matt Bai or a governor like Howard Dean, I did not guess that the students poised to have the greatest near-term impact were not the social justice warriors at the protests […] but a few mostly apolitical geeks who were quietly at work in Kirkland House [Zuckerberg et al.]”
“… [T]o this day,” Robinson observes, “it hasn’t even entered his mind that he could have joined the PSLM in the fight for a living wage. Activists are an alien species, one he “strides past” to go to “Pizza & Politics” sessions with governors and New York Times journalists. He didn’t consider, and still hasn’t considered, the moral quandary that should come with being a student at an elite school that doesn’t pay its janitors a living wage.”
As it happens, I was in Harvard Yard on April 21, 2001, the day the protest began. I had been asked by a young Philosophy Assistant Professor Susanna Siegel [now Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy] to meet with her class, which had just read In Defense of Anarchism. When I showed up at the class, Susanna told me that a group of undergraduates were planning to occupy Massachusetts Hall as part of the Living Wage Movement. I went along to their meeting in the basement of Matthews Hall [where, fifty years earlier, I had lived as a Freshman], and when they grabbed their cellphones, laptops, and water bottles and ran off through the Yard to Massachusetts Hall, I trotted along after them with my briefcase and umbrella [there was a threat of rain.] We all sat on the floor and sang songs while some Harvard bureaucrats bustled about fussily. The students stayed for days, as Buttigieg indicates, but I remained only for a few hours, before going back to Susie and UMass. When I left, I congratulated them, warned them that my experience suggested Harvard would never give in [it did not], and told them they were fighting the good fight.
That Mayor Pete was not with us that day is entirely forgivable. That it would never have entered his mind to join us is not.
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Herewith the last portion of the paper I have been serializing, for your amusement.
It would seem, if this argument is correct, that things are proceeding just as Marx anticipated. As capitalist social relations mature, the elements of socialist planning begin to develop deep within the corporation, which is truly the womb of capitalism. Why then are the prospects for social and economic justice so bleak? Why has the term “late capitalism,” once used by socialist theorists to describe what they confidently believed to be the death throes of the established order, now become a wry joke shared, with sighs and the rolling of eyes, by aging radicals like myself? Why have any signs of a true movement of the masses died out, to be replaced by an identity politics that is fundamentally assimilationist rather than revolutionary in its thrust? In short, if all is going as predicted, why aren’t we having any fun?
The answer, I think, is that along with everything that he got right, Marx got three big things wrong, with the result that the liberatory potential he saw in the internal contradictions of capitalism is nowhere in evidence today. Let me say something about each of these failures of analysis or prediction.
First, Marx completely failed to anticipate that the capitalist state would develop the ability to manage and, to some extent, to control the increasingly wild booms and busts that threatened to destroy the capitalist order. He quite presciently foresaw that the ever more rational organization of production within the firm would come into contradiction with the anarchic distribution of the market, resulting in crises of over-production and under-consumption. The great crash of ’29 was just what the good Doctor of Philosophy ordered, albeit too late to gladden his heart.
But Marx was convinced that capitalists, confronted with disaster, would be unable to coordinate their actions in order to save their skins. In an odd way, he was too much in thrall to the classical economic theory he had subjected to such a penetrating critique in Capital. It took imaginative theoretical and practical defenders of capitalism like Keynes and Roosevelt to see that with far-sighted fiscal and monetary policies, the state could sufficiently dampen the business cycle to enable capitalism to survive. To put the point differently, Marx, very much in common with the other economists of his day, failed to see how powerful the state had become under capitalism.
The pulse still quickens in the circles I frequent when the tech stock market bubble bursts or Paul Krugman forecasts a calamitous reversal in housing prices, the way old war horses flare their nostrils and stamp their hooves at the sound of distant trumpets. But the truth is that our corporate masters will never again allow a serious threat to the foundations of the economic house they have built.
Our mature capitalist economy is no longer the unplanned, unintended consequence of the playing out of market forces, for all the lip service that its apologists pay to “free enterprise” on festive occasions. Rational planning is as pervasive at the macro-economic level as it is within the firm. But that planning – far more sophisticated and nuanced than either Marx or the state planners of the
could have anticipated – is securely within the service of private interests,
not the public good.
The second obstacle to the development of a revolutionary working class movement has been the persistence of pre-capitalist passions and attachments that Marx was convinced capitalism’s invasive rationalization of economic life would weaken and ultimately destroy – nationalist loyalties, ethnic identifications, racial antagonisms, and religious faiths. The secularization of life seemed to be well under way in Marx’s time. The Catholic Church had lost its grip on public life in
, France , and Germany . The ancient antagonism of the urban and the
rural was dissolving, as Marx had indeed predicted. And the ever-increasing mobility of both
labor and capital bid fair to consign nationalist sentiment to public holidays
and political speeches. Italy
The optimistic confidence that class interests would defeat the irrationality of nationalism reached its height in 1914, as socialists world-wide – my grandfather among them – refused to believe that French and German workers would fight one another in the trenches at the behest of their capitalist masters. With the bloody refutation of that belief, something died in the heart of the socialist movement. To be sure, the unanticipated success of the Bolsheviks in Russia encouraged some to believe that despite all, the proletarian movement was on the march [though not my grandfather, who sided with Norman Thomas and the Mensheviks]. But the success first of the Soviet Union and then of Mao’s revolution in China, important as they were to the unfolding of the twentieth century, had nothing at all to do with the birth of socialism in the womb of capitalism.
, race had already opened a chasm in
the worker’s movement that, in a revised form, persists to this day. When four million Black men and women walked
out of slavery, prepared for the free labor market with agricultural, craft,
and industrial skills that they had used as slaves to make the South rich, they
encountered implacable hostility from white workers, whether immigrant or
native-born. White workers until after
the Second World War struck devil’s bargains with their employers, conceding
labor peace and low wages in return for whites-only hiring practices. This fact, perhaps more than any other,
doomed the American working class movement to eventual failure. United
At this nightmare moment in recent history, little need be said about the persistence and intensification of ethnic and religious antagonisms throughout the world. Try as we may, we socialists can no longer cling to the hope that class interests will unite men and women across national, ethnic, racial, and religious divides in a vibrant revolutionary movement to replace capitalism with a humane, just, egalitarian social order. Capitalists are doing their part. Not only are they crafting the elements of rational planning that a socialist economy would require. They are in the forefront of efforts to put the divisiveness of race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion behind us, for these divisions are not good for business. It is the people who remain mired in self-destructive and self-defeating irrationality.
Marx’s third and most serious mistake concerns the direction in which the labor force evolved as feudalism gave way to early capitalism, and then to the mature capitalism we see today. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when Marx was doing the British Museum research on which his hauptwerk was based, one of the most striking changes taking place in British society was the destruction of the old crafts – weaving, spinning, woodworking, and the rest – and the incorporation into machinery of the skills they once required. In late feudal and early modern times, a working man was known by the trade he plied, learned in a long apprenticeship and symbolized by the kitbag of tools he brought with him to the job. The complex social structure of crafts left indelible marks on the family names that so many Americans bear today – Wheelwright, Carver,
Taylor, Cartwright, Schneider, Schreiber, Weaver, Shepherd, Farmer, Smith. Chandler
Capitalism ate away corrosively at the craft tradition, deskilling artisans and turning them into a homogeneous pool of semi-skilled workers who could master the skills of a factory job in a few weeks and were thus available to be moved easily from job to job by the fluctuations in the market demand for industrial labor. Marx saw this progressive homogenization of the labor force as the correlate to the process by which small independent entrepreneurs were being crushed by competitive forces and absorbed into larger and larger firms driven to expand by a need to achieve control over their input and output prices. He foresaw a world in which a united industrial working class would confront concentrated capital, until finally, when a major crash had fatally weakened capital, labor would seize control of the means of production and substitute socialist planning for capitalist anarchy.
It was not only an inspiring dream, at least for some of us. It was also a quite plausible projection of trends that were working themselves out powerfully in Marx’s day. But it was not to be. On the side of capital, as Marx anticipated, relentless concentration did take place, leading to the world of vast multi-national conglomerates with which we are all familiar. To be sure, a subordinate domain of small business flourished, rather like the flora that live under the soaring canopy in an Amazon rain forest. Nevertheless, Marx got that part of the future right.
It is on the side of labor that things have not progressed as Marx imagined they would. For a time, the growth of industrial capitalism did indeed produce a vibrant labor movement that evolved very much as Marx expected. First individual factories, then entire industries, finally entire national labor forces were organized, giving rise in the
to the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial
Organizations, while in United States Europe the labor
movement was so successful that it was able to create and sustain major
But as industrial capitalism gave way to a complex mix of industrial and service firms with huge, bureaucratically managed assemblages of employees, the leveling and homogenization ceased. There came into existence a pyramidal hierarchy of job categories with sharply unequal wage, salary, and compensation schedules. Instead of a world in which the propertyless masses sell their labor and are poor, while the owners of capital hire labor and live on the profits from this unequal exchange, we see today an economy in which even the very rich, by and large, are salaried, and capital is owned by share holders who exercise little or no control over what is nominally their property. Indeed, comfortably compensated and securely tenured economists like Paul Samuelson, bemused by the reversibility of their equations, have taken to saying that it makes little effective difference to the economy whether capital hires labor or labor hires capital.
This highly unequal allocation of the rewards and burdens of labor has undermined that solidarity on which Marx was counting. Steel workers, miners, and textile operatives could forge some degree of unity, despite their geographic dispersion and the many differences in the nature of their jobs. Even hospital and hotel workers, secretaries and fast food workers, could find some common ground on which to stand in their struggle against the exploitation inflicted on them by capital. But whatever theoretical connections there might be between them and lawyers, middle managers, and tenured college professors, the gap in the salaries and conditions of labor between the two groups, the utter disparity in their life experiences and life chances, have made a fruitful solidarity out of the question. Workers have grown progressively less unified, until at long last, Organized Labor has come to be, and to be seen, as nothing more than an interest group, on a par with, but often less powerful than, gun owners, retirees, and fundamentalist Christians.
All of us are familiar with this world, for it is, after all, our world, and we understand intuitively that our life chances are determined not by whether we own the means of production, but rather by where on the pyramid of jobs we end up. It is worth taking a moment to look at a few facts and figures, simply to remind ourselves just how steep that pyramid is. I am referring not to the much-discussed explosion of compensation at the highest executive levels, but to the deeply entrenched inequality all up and down the pyramid. [These numbers come from Bureau of Labor Department tables, and date from 2004, the latest year for which the statistics are available on their website.]
In the town of
where my university is located, a teacher at the Massachusetts with a
Master’s Degree will, after fourteen years, earn $61,353 a year. If her husband is a fireman in town who is
also trained as an EMT, his salary will go up to $45,000 a year. Their combined family income will then be larger
than that of ninety percent of the families in the Amherst Regional
High School . Stop and think about that for a moment: a high school teacher and a fireman. If the teacher had married a professor at the
University, by the time he had risen to the rank of full professor and served
in that rank for a while, he might well be earning about $140,000 a year. Their family income would then be larger than
that of roughly 97% of all American families.
By any reasonable classification, they should count as among the rich,
and yet all of us are so conditioned by the meretricious images of the mass
media that we would unthinkingly describe them as a “middle-income family.” United States
Not surprisingly, the numbers are much worse for African-American families. Now that the federally mandated minimum wage is on its way up to $7.25 an hour, a Black husband and wife working fulltime minimum wage jobs can look forward to the time when their annual household income of $29,000 puts them solidly in the Black Middle Class, with more than forty percent of Black households doing less well.
The shape of the income pyramid in
changed very little in the past century and more, save to become somewhat
steeper. This in itself is odd, when we
reflect that over that period of time America has been transformed from
primarily an agricultural economy into to an industrial economy, then to a
service economy, and now to an information age economy. One might plausibly have expected that so
radical a series of transformations would work some alteration in the pattern of compensation, but it has not. America
Apologists for capitalism, who are now as common as houseflies, like to offer two connected explanations for the inequality in wages and salaries, which taken together are intended as a justification as well. The first rests on a misinterpretation of a famous eighteenth century mathematical theorem, the second on a common logical fallacy.
Leonhard Euler, the great Swiss mathematician, proved a theorem about linear homogeneous functions that was, in the nineteenth century, given an important economic interpretation. The theorem was construed as saying that under certain conditions, the wages paid to workers in a free and competitive labor market exactly equal their marginal contribution to the output of the firm for which they work, or, as it is sometimes called, their marginal product. Thus, if a vice-president in an executive suite makes more than a secretary in the steno pool, that is because the vice-president contributes exactly that much more to the productive activity of the firm. It would be both unjust and inefficient to take away some of the executive’s pay and give it to the secretary, even though they are both, no doubt, nice people and hard workers.
The problem with this rationale for unequal pay is that it turns out, upon closer inspection, not to apply to any known or even possible capitalist system. In the first place, the theorem holds only for economies whose production function is linear homogeneous [assuming that it even makes sense to speak of the production function of an entire economy], and as is easy enough to show, this is equivalent to saying that the economy is in long run equilibrium. But as Marx pointed out, and as every economist since has reaffirmed, capitalism is never in long-run equilibrium. A capitalist economy is always engaged in what Joseph Schumpeter, in a famous phrase, called creative destruction. Furthermore, it follows directly from Euler’s equation that a firm with a linear homogeneous production will, if it pays each of its employees his or her marginal product, make a zero profit, and a firm regularly making zero profit will of course cease to exist.
All of this is quite well known to all economists, but it has not dissuaded them and their epigones from wrapping themselves in the sanctity of mathematics whenever proposals for wage and salary equalization surface.
So much for mathematics. Now logic.
When economists are asked why some employees are so much more productive than others, and hence deserving of such inflated compensation, their standard answer is education, or, as they sometimes say in an attempt to make the answer sound more impressive, human capital. Actually, that last sentence inverts the real order of explanation, and thus participates in the ideological rationalization that I am attempting to debunk. Let me restate the point: When asked to explain the striking inequality in compensation schedules, economists begin by assuming that the inequality must be justified, for to think otherwise would be to call into question both the foundation of American society and their own comfortable compensation. Those of us at the top of the income pyramid must have a much greater marginal productivity, they conclude. And how can that in turn be accounted for? Education.
Now, it is demonstrably true that in
your level of education [or, to be more precise, the number of years of
schooling you have completed – not at all the same thing] powerfully affects
where on the income pyramid you end up.
Indeed, it may be the single most significant determinant. There are very few MBA’s working on the
loading dock, and very few K through Twelvers in the executive suites. America
But this fact does not imply that the shape of the income pyramid itself is in any way determined by the levels of educational attainment in the work force as a whole. If you have a college degree, your chances of climbing up the pyramid at least to the middle levels are quite good. But if everyone gets a college degree, the pyramid will not flatten out, because there are only so many jobs at the middle level.
To think otherwise is to commit what logicians call the Fallacy of Composition, which is simply the mistake of thinking that because something is true of each member of a group, it can be true of them all. Each of us, we may suppose, can with hard work and determination, be above average, but only in Lake Woebegone can all the children be above average.
Because the American economy is so large, it is easy to lose sight of this simple truth. For each individual, or for all immigrants, or for all African Americans, or even, within limits, for all women, it is indeed true that greater educational attainment will tend to lead to higher compensation, but that is only because the individuals or the group will over time displace some of those in the favored slots. If all the applicants for jobs at a corporation present themselves to the Human Resources Office with MBA’s, the Board of Directors will not terminate the positions of secretary, mail room clerk, and claims adjuster and make everyone a senior manager!
There is one way in which a dramatic educational upgrading of the entire workforce might conceivably trigger a flattening of the entire income pyramid. With better prepared workers available, corporations might shift to different and more profitable production techniques, and those new techniques might result in an array of job positions with more equal associated compensations. Economists would say that the positions defined by the new production function had more equal marginal productivities, which, as we have seen, is nonsense, but nevertheless, the end result might be a flatter pyramid.
Is this likely to happen? Well, for more than one hundred years, the average level of educational attainment in
as measured by number of years of schooling completed, has been rising. The level of education demanded by the
production techniques and job specialties in the American economy has risen
correspondingly. And the shape of the
pyramid has remained essentially unaltered.
Literacy, not to mention computer literacy, is today required even by
such poorly paid jobs as department store clerk. And yet, no flattening of the pyramid can be
What then does explain the shape of the income pyramid? A number of bright economists, willing to challenge the received wisdom, have been puzzling over this question for several generations. More than thirty years ago, Lester Thurow, the MIT economist who served there for a while as Dean of the
, published a
little book called Generating Inequality
that took a fresh look at the question.
But although it is possible to give partial explanations, especially of
an historical sort, for the pattern of compensation in this or that capitalist
economy, the seeming permanence of the steep pyramid, its imperviousness to
even the most striking changes in the world economy, remains a mystery. Sloan
Thus, there is little prospect for the labor solidarity on which a successful socialist transformation must be built. It is now the best of times and the worst of times. Economic rationality marches relentlessly on, while poverty and inequality harden into permanent injustice, and racial, ethnic, national, and religious rivalries tear the world apart.
What can we anticipate for the future? What will my grandfather’s great, great grandson, my grandson Samuel, inherit as he grows to maturity? The impetus within corporations to substitute economic planning for subservience to market forces will strengthen, as the managerial class responds to the imperatives of institutional rationality. Meanwhile, the obscene gap between the gilded life chances of the fortunate and the life-threatening poverty at the bottom of the world economy will persist and come to be seen as an inevitable concomitant of the rational workings of the market.
There will always be class traitors like myself who rail against the inequality from which they personally benefit. But though our excoriating tracts may bring us tenure and advancement, the revolutionary transformation they celebrate will seem as fanciful as the Chronicles of Narnia.
What then is the future of socialism? If socialism is the substitution of rational planning for the anarchy of the market, it is already upon us. If socialism is the achievement, at long last, of justice and equality, it is a dream that has been aborted in the womb of the old order.
Which brings us to the third and most problematic of the sources of accounting ambiguity, joint production, for that is precisely what is at stake when it comes time to allocate the cost of the space in which the two divisions carry out their productive activities. Speaking generally, joint production is the use of a factor input to produce two distinct salable outputs. In this case, the input is the company’s building and the outputs are cardboard and boxes. An oil refinery usually generates an entire array of products from its processing of crude, as does a slaughterhouse from its transformation of beef on the hoof into an assortment of meat products, hides, and other outputs. It is not too much to say that in a modern corporation, joint production is the rule rather than the exception.
The accountant, in preparing an annual report of a firm, is called upon to allocate the cost of the inputs that are used jointly in the production process. As Thomas demonstrates, there is no neutral pattern of allocations that can determine how much of the cost of such a factor is to be allocated or imputed to each unit of the several outputs in whose production process it is employed. The problems are manifold, as should by now be obvious. Thomas cites as one example an attempt to distinguish the cost of a building in which are carried out production processes having multiple outputs from the cost of the land on which it is built. The problem is that tearing down the building would so significantly alter the land values in the neighborhood in which the factory is located that the sale price of the cleared land would in no way reflect the cost to be allocated among the several outputs.
Well, enough is enough. Even these remarks, which might be characterized as accounting lite, are more than any sensible layman would want to read. Why does all this matter to someone like myself who is trying to assess Marx’s analysis of the transition from capitalism to socialism?
Perhaps the best way to begin is with the classic essay by Ludwig von Mises entitled “Economic Calculation in the
.” First published in the original German
version in 1920, and included in an English version in Friedrich von Hayek’s
widely read 1935 collection of essays, Collectivist
Economic Planning, von Mises’ essay is generally thought to be a
devastating dismantling of the socialist penchant for central planning. His thesis, in a nutshell, is that since the
free market does the best possible job of pricing factor inputs, through the
interplay of individual decisions to buy or sell, the very most that socialist
planners could do, in the ideal case, would be to mimic the operations of the market. Since in the real world they have no hope of
achieving that ideal, collectivist planning will always be inferior to free
market competition as a way of deciding how most efficiently to employ scarce
resources. Thus, contrary to the
expectation of Marx and his followers, socialist planning can never improve on
the unplanned outcome of the marketplace, but will fall disastrously short of
that standard, producing wastage, bottlenecks, shortages of necessary
productive inputs and calamitous failures to meet consumer demand. In the jargon of modern economists,
unfettered capitalism will tend to put an economy on its production possibility
frontier, while socialist planning will consign an economy to a position well
below and to the left of that desirable location. Socialist
The first thing to be said is that in 1920, von Mises was dead right, and I think it is a fair guess that Marx, had he been alive, would have agreed. Von Mises was of course looking at the fledgling Bolshevik government that had just seized power in
ostensibly in the name of Marx and communism.
was then still a late feudal economy with a tiny nascent capitalist sector
pretty much confined to a few cities west of the Urals. The social relations of capitalist production
had scarcely begun to grow in the womb of feudalism, and nothing remotely
resembling socialist relations of production could be discerned anywhere in Russia ’s
economy. The Bolsheviks were well aware
of this fact, and engaged in a lively – ultimately bloody – discussion about
whether it was theoretically possible to “skip a stage” and go directly from
late feudalism to socialism. Marx knew
that the answer was no, and so, I suspect, did they, but when one has
unexpectedly taken control of a vast nation at considerable personal risk, it
would have seemed unnecessarily doctrinaire to turn the state over to whatever
capitalists one could find and wait patiently for the slow evolution of new
social relationships to run its course.
Not surprisingly, what emerged in Russia , and later in the even
vaster peasant society of Russia ,
bore no resemblance at all to what Marx had in mind when he spoke of socialism
growing in the womb of capitalism. China
So von Mises was certainly right with regard to the world he was looking at in 1920. The market clearly did a better job of allocating scarce capital resources than any group of planners could, even though
numbered among its intelligentsia some of the best economists in the
world. [Indeed, it is said that some
years later when the young Wassily Leontief took his brilliant new technique of
linear programming to the Soviet Commissars and offered it as a tool for
sophisticated central planning, they dismissed his offer on the bizarre grounds
that since Marx only used addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division,
Stalin had decreed that his planners must do likewise. Leontief eventually moved to Harvard, where
his theoretical innovation assisted corporate planners to manage their
capitalist empires. Many years later, he
was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.] Russia
But von Mises was fundamentally wrong in his conception of the question under debate. Marx did not think that socialists could do a better job than capitalists of running a capitalist economy. Marx had only the greatest admiration for the explosive efficiency of capitalism. No one has ever penned more effusive panegyrics to capitalism than Marx. What Marx said was that inevitably, ineluctably, socialist relations of production would develop within capitalism, devised and advanced by capitalists, not by socialist moles burrowing into the heart of enemy territory in an effort to undermine their fortresses.
If market forces were adequate to the task of making rational allocations of scarce resources, there would be no internal impetus for the evolution of new ways of organizing production. But as we have seen, in a large modern corporation, the play of the market does not of itself resolve questions of allocation, resource use, and profitability. Capitalists do not develop internal planning models of economic decision making because they have been seduced away from the faith of their fathers by tenured radicals on effete Eastern campuses who have never met a payroll. They develop new modes of corporate decision making because their accountants and financial experts cannot tell them, in a neutral, objective fashion, which of the available alternatives will be most profitable. Our cardboard C. E. O., struggling to decide which of his division managers has made the most significant contribution to the firm’s profits, must somehow resolve the disagreement between the two over the proper allocation of the fixed costs of the building in which their production takes place, and over the proper amounts to be charged against the box division’s accounts when it draws its raw materials from the stocks produced by the cardboard division.
Once the firm’s president becomes persuaded by his accountant’s argument, he realizes that the disagreements between his division managers will have to be worked out politically – they will either have to be negotiated, or else he will have to decide them by an exercise of sovereign authority.
In either case, what has happened, even in this very elementary case, is that a decision originally made for the firm by the market, and then made for the firm by an accountant, now has been transformed into a political decision to be made essentially by some form of political mechanism. In short, economic calculation has been replaced by political planning.
No doubt, none of the actors in this miniature drama would consider it in the slightest appropriate for what is usually called the political system to get involved in deciding how fixed costs are to be allocated in the cardboard carton firm. But though there might be many other reasons for keeping the city, the states, or the federal government out of the process, the principal and most plausible reason has evaporated, namely that the decision, being economic in nature, is best made by the impartial working of market forces. The fact of the matter is that the decision isn’t simply economic – it is not actually an objective scientific decision at all. It is a political decision, required in order to resolve a conflict between the incompatible ambitions of the two division managers, one of whom is seeking to hold his job against the threat of replacement, the other of whom is trying to advance her career by demonstrating her ability to run a division profitably.
The situation we have analyzed in this hypothetical small firm is reproduced throughout the modern capitalist corporate world, with complications, elaborations, and variations that cannot even be hinted at in our example. A major multinational corporation, as has often been remarked, is better compared to a state than an entrepreneurial firm. Contained within it are huge bureaucratic systems and sub-systems in whose hallways and meeting rooms men and women live their entire working lives. The processes by which corporate-wide calculations of profitability are made involve considerations of tax codes, local ordinances, international trade, exchange rates, inflation rates and regional differential development patterns that are substantially indistinguishable from the corresponding considerations weighed by economic planners in centralized national economies.
The running of such a corporation requires systems of data acquisition and retrieval entirely beyond the capabilities of the eighteenth and nineteenth century capitalist firms on whose behavior the original models of capitalism were based. To manage such information systems, and thereby to coordinate the decisions, the purchasing and shipping patterns, the product development time-tables, and the promotional campaigns of the many divisions of the firm require an extremely high level of literacy – both linguistic and computer – on the part of lower and middle level, as well as upper level, employees. Until it is possible to get reliable answers quickly to questions about employee levels, warehouse inventories, price shifts, exchange rates and capital availability, those charged with the central planning of the corporation cannot even begin to carry out their tasks.
Nothing resembling this level of information flow, and consequent decision implementation, existed in the early capitalist firms, not even in those that grew to great size in the nineteenth century. The importation into capitalist industrial organization of the model of military command and control was due at least as much to the sheer unavailability of any alternative way of managing and coordinating the behavior of large numbers of people as to the ideological affinity of the early industrial magnates for militaristic modes of organization.
In short, when Marx talks about socialism, he has in mind an economy whose stage of development of technology and organization is so far advanced that national planning is technically possible. Such a stage exhibits both a certain level of technology of production, of data generation and retrieval, and of communication, and also a corresponding level of knowledge and skill on the part of workers at every level, not merely at the top. Although Marx failed to foresee the digital computer, it is not far-fetched to say that his conception of socialism presupposed it, or something equivalent.
Marx expected, for sound reasons, that the technology of production, communication, and management required for the central planning and control of an entire economy would develop first within capitalist firms, in direct response to the pressures of competition and the demands of profitability. And so they have. An immediate consequence of this process is the transformation of economic calculations into political decisions, within the firm. Thus, if by socialism we mean the rationally coordinated planning of an entire national economy in such a way as to transform the major economic choices of the society into political choices, responsive to the will of the people, then it is true that socialism has been growing within the womb of capitalism, or at least that the technical preconditions for socialism can be seen to be developing there.
The economic systems established in the
Union, in Eastern Europe, in the
People’s Republic of ,
and in a number of other nations self-described as “socialist,” were not in any
usable sense examples of socialism. This
description must be denied them not because of the character of their political
systems, but quite simply because they did not exhibit either the stage of
development of productive forces or the level of development of, and
rationalization of, relations of production pre-requisite for what Marx meant
by “socialism.” An economy cannot, with the best will and the strongest ruling
party in the world, move directly from a feudal or early capitalist economic
organization to socialism. The reason has nothing whatever to do with piety,
ideology, or the inexorable march of history, and has everything to do with the
impossibility of planning food production rationally when you cannot even find
out with any precision how many acres are under cultivation, or what the
pattern of crop yields is from county to county, and when your work force is
Note, by the way, that the development of efficient techniques of central planning within a modern capitalist corporation is advanced, not impeded, by the ambition, acquisitiveness, and egocentricity of the workers and managers. Switching over to a planning system in our carton factory does not require the development of socialist consciousness. It requires only that the objective structure of the firm make policy-neutral calculations of profitability theoretically impossible, as in fact they are once the second division of the firm starts to operate. Somewhat more to the point, the coherent management of large modern firms does not require that the capitalist mentality so often credited with the rise of modern capitalism be somehow transcended. The same men [and recently women] who manage the great corporations would, if they were suddenly to find themselves running small firms in a classically competitive environment, adopt precisely the calculations of profitability traditionally conceived as determined for them by the free market. They do not do so when managing large corporations simply because it is technically impossible to do so.
What, then, is the fundamental difference between socialism and capitalism at its most advanced, rationalized, and centralized? Under socialism, economic decisions would be treated [I use the subjunctive because there does not yet exist a socialist society] as collective political decisions, to be made democratically on the basis of the aggregated will of the entire people. In a capitalist society, decisions are taken privately, within the firm, in response only to the interests, the will, or the pressures of those who occupy positions of power within the firm.
The issues available for decision are not at all comparable in the two systems. A socialist society will be presented with choices among economy-wide investment policies or systematic wage policies that simply do not come within anyone’s ambit of decision in a capitalist economy. This, of course, is the principal source of the greater rationality of a socialist economy. But the mechanisms for the acquisition and management of information, and the consequent management of economic activity, will have been developed and tested within the capitalist firm – within the womb of the old society.