My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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

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Thursday, October 28, 2010


I am in the last hours of preparation for the two week bird watching safari Susie and I will take starting on Saturday. I went back and checked. This will be my thirty-first trip to the continent of Africa! It truly feels like my second home.

I shall keep my eyes peeled for lilac breasted rollers, Kori Bustards, and Bataleurs [a form of eagle]. Also, of course, ostriches, elephants, lions, leopards, cheetah, impala, and African buffalo.

If my new combination binoculars and digital camera work, I shall have some pictures to post when I return. I shall stop the passing hyena to find out how the election has turned out.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I went door to door canvassing last weekend, trying to get out the vote for the Democrats here in North Carolina. I hate door to door canvassing. I am basically a shy person, contrary to my public image as a show-boater, and knocking on a stranger's door, a smile plastered on my face, every pocket stuffed with campaign literature and early voting information, is my idea of hell. Still and all, I did it, though I doubt I had much effect on anyone.

The highpoint of the afternoon came on a sunny, lovely suburban street with large houses and well-kept lawns. In the driveway of one house on my Obama-For-America list, three young men were hard at work with welding torches and such, constructing a huge iron contraption. Since the whole idea of door to door campaigning is to be friendly, I chirped up with a hearty hello and asked what they were doing.

It seems they were preparing for a competition in Delaware. Their hope was that their machine would throw an eight pound pumpkin at least two thousand feet.

No kidding! When I told Susie this, incredulous, she said, "Oh yes, I read about it in the newspapers. It is a very big sport in these parts."

I guess not everyone is as focused on the election as I am.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I should like to talk to you today about a very serious matter -- a fundamental change in the socio-economic structure of American society that has been under way for almost three decades and is now accelerating as a consequence of the current economic crisis. These remarks are triggered by a very interesting article on the website, by the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnson. Two caveats: First, this is not a subject on which I am any sort of expert, although at various times in my life I have spent a good deal of time poring over Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on earnings and income; and Second, this has nothing in particular to do with the election next week, or with the question now absorbing all news junkies, of whom I am one, namely whether the Republicans will seize control of the House and/or the Senate. The changes I shall be describing are structural, not ephemeral. They are also, in my judgment, disastrous to American democracy and social justice. Reversing the direction of these changes would take decades and would require a mobilization of political will that seems to me extremely unlikely in contemporary America.

A little background is required to place the changes in context. Before the Second World War, the class structure of American society was quite clear -- the easiest way literally to see it is to watch old movies. There was a large working class, one major portion of which was marginalized and disadvantaged because of race, a smaller middle class, and a small upper class of the rich. The differences among the classes was encapsulated in the terms "blue collar," "white collar," and "top hat."

Working class, or blue collar, Americans earned wages, paid weekly or, in some cases, even daily. They lived pretty much from pay packet to pay packet, paid in cash, earning just enough in good times to cover food, clothing, shelter, and a few extras. These families had little or no disposable income left after the necessaries were paid for. Their employment was extremely insecure, subject to periodic interruptions due to seasonal or other layoffs. They did not, by and large, enjoy paid vacations or guaranteed health care, and their employment made no allowance for old age pensions. As a consequence, the last years of life were liable to be marked by poverty and uncertainty. Families typically shouldered the burden of caring for the elderly.

Middle class, or white collar, Americans earned salaries, paid monthly by check. They enjoyed considerably greater security of employment, and salaries sufficient to allow for some coherent economic family planning and the enjoyment of non-essential goods and services. They owned their own homes [save for those living in the big cities, who might rent apartments on long-term leases], were able to take vacations, could afford medical care, and more and more were able to keep their children in school through the completion of high school and even to send them to college. Their jobs frequently included guaranteed pensions as fringe benefits, making it possible for middle class Americans to enjoy a secure and reasonably comfortable old age. Middle class Americans could afford cars, electric refrigerators, gas stoves, even dishwashers and washing machines, all of which relieved the women of much backbreaking labor.

The rich, or Top Hat America, along with those whom we might call the upper middle class, lived lives of luxury, owning second homes, hiring servants, traveling to Europe, and purchasing expensive luxury goods like fine paintings, fine home furnishings, and even yachts.

Starting in the thirties, continuing during the Second World War, and accelerating in the fifties and sixties, a series of changes took place in this set of social arrangements that had the effect, to put it colloquially, of making America a "middle class nation." The principal agent of change was a strong and combative labor movement. Against great opposition, frequently violent, labor unions fought for and won a series of contractual concessions from large employers that had the effect of bringing middle class security and affluence to working class families. Unions forced employees to raise wages, to curb layoffs, to make available paid vacations and old age pension plans. Blue collar families started to own their own homes, buy cars, take vacations, and even send their children to college. This last benefit was made possible by the explosion of public higher educational institutions that completely transformed Academia in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Social Security laid the foundation for a more secure old age, but with slowly increasing life spans went a dramatic rise in medical care in the last years of life, a development that kept large numbers of older Americans in poverty. Medicare lifted this burden from the elderly, allowing people with modest earnings records to live the sorts of decent and comfortable final years that in previous generations had been reserved for the rich.

Much of the muscle for this radical change came from the Federal government, which was for most of this time controlled by a Democratic Party whose strongest and most reliable ally was the Labor Movement.

Not all Americans experienced this transformation into middle class status -- what the French might call the embourgoisement of America. African-Americans, most notably, were left out of the transformation for a long time, principally because of deliberate social and governmental policies of discrimination. [For a long time during the thirties, forties, and fifties, the Federal Housing Authority, in its official publications, proscribed the writing of mortgages for persons of color in predominantly White communities, with the result that Black families, even as they succeeded in closing the income gap between themselves and White families, still -- to this day -- exhibit a striking wealth gap. They were shut out of the home ownership through which most White families were able to accumulate capital assets.] There was also, of course, a very big gap between the pay packets and benefits of workers in strongly unionized industries, like automobiles and steel, and the large numbers of workers in non-unionized sectors.

Over time, the social landscape of America was totally transformed, and the familiar world of suburban malls, vacation destinations, middle class entertainments, and consumerism came into being. Among the many features sustaining this lifestyle was the dramatic expansion of credit, which in turn made possible a smoother, easier management of household finances. The practice of "lay away" accounts at local stores, through which families could pay a little each month into a fund until they had accumulated enough to buy an expensive item like a bedroom furniture set, virtually disappeared, to be replaced by credit cards. [Small personal note: as late as 1968, when I was a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, I did not have a credit card, so that when I had to rent a car while my VW was in the shop, I had to put down a $50 cash security deposit. My usually quite taciturn psychoanalyst was so astonished by this that he advised me to go out and get a credit card, which I did.]

As David Johnson's article shows, the inflection point, or moment when things began to change, was 1981. which is to say the beginning of the Reagan presidency. Some of you may recall that Reagan's first major domestic act as president was to break the air traffic controller's union. The tide began to turn, although it took decades before it was clearly visible. The underlying economic fact, that went hand in hand with the anti-union efforts of the Republicans and some Democrats, was the globalization of production. In brief, capital went looking overseas for cheap labor, which it found in Latin America and in Asia. The availability of that cheap labor enabled companies to break the unions, with the result that pay and benefits stagnated or plummeted, jobs disappeared, and workers were forced from well-paid unionized sectors into service jobs that were typically les well paid and not unionized.

Families typically struggle very hard to maintain their style of level character of life. As the well-paid, well-benefited unionized jobs disappeared, more and more families sent second or even third wage earners into the labor market. The opening up of professional careers to women is undoubtedly one of the great triumphs of the past quarter century, and it has received a very great deal of attention in the public discourse, but most of the White women who flooded into the job market were not pursuing careers as doctors, lawyers, or corporate managers. They were taking low paid jobs in sales or offices so that their households could sustain the middle class life they had only one generation earlier managed to achieve.

The strains on newly middle class families can be seen in the steady rise in consumer card debt, in the refinancing of family homes for the purpose of extracting equity, and in the large burdens of debt taken on by college students whose parents cannot afford actually to pay for the tertiary education their children need to secure middle class jobs in the next generation.

The collapse of the housing bubble and the current economic crisis have together dramatically undermined the middle class status of millions of Americans. This can be seen in three developments that, together, are fundamentally altered the social structure of America. The first is the disastrously high unemployment rate, which, as Johnson notes, is really about double what is most commonly reported in the media. The second is the foreclosure crisis, which is robbing millions of Americans of the family home that has for three quarters of as century been the mark of middle class status. And the third is the evaporation of pension plans and savings accounts, which will in time consign millions of Americans to a diminished old age.

Along with these changes, as Johnson notes, goes an explosion in the wealth and income of those at the very top of the American pyramid. He cites one statistic that is simply startling: In 2009, the highest paid seventy four people in America made as much as the lowest paid nineteen million workers.

These changes are not simply a consequence of a temporary economic recession. They are, I believe, permanent. Millions of Americans who have lost their jobs will never again find secure employment. Tens of millions of Americans will never enjoy the secure old age that they believed they had made provision for. Middle Class America is being hollowed out and depopulated.

This fact, which dwarfs everything else that is happening in America, is concealed from view because of a fact peculiar to America, a consequence of its racial history. For the past three hundred years, White Americans have measured their social, political, and economic status essentially by contrasting themselves with Black Americans. "I am free, White, and twenty-one," the old saying goes, meaning I can do as I please. Before the Civil War, this meant, "I am a free man, not a slave." But in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, as Black Americans were forced by restrictive covenants and other legal and extra-legal constraints to remain in the inner city as White Americans moved to the suburbs, "lower class" came to mean "Black." It was desperately important to White Americans not to see themselves or be seen as Black. As a consequence, the term "middle class" was drained of all economic meaning, and came to signify simply "respectable, proper, decent -- NOT BLACK." As a consequence, in the midst of an economic crisis that has already destroyed the economic security of tens of millions of Americans, those who are themselves being worst hit insist on self-identifying themselves as "middle class." Hence the fact that everyone in the political world talks about the problems of "the middle class," despite the fact that the real problem is the loss of middle class status.

We are becoming a Banana Republic, with a tiny, obscenely rich upper class, a smaller and smaller professional middle class, a large working class, and a larger and larger mass of those left out of the economic all together. Because of the globalization of production, even in the service industries, there are now tens of millions of Americans who are, in effect, surplus population. They are not needed by capital, not even as a "surplus population of the unemployed" holding down by their existence wages for those employed.

This is a politically explosive situation. Judging from twentieth century history, it is a situation more likely to produce fascism than socialism. I honestly do not know what can be done now to reverse the trend, given the enormous hostility and opposition in the political class to labor unions and mass organization of the working class. At a minimum, those who are now driven into the insecurity of the working class must give up their pretensions to middle class status and embrace the reality of their situation. Perhaps a vibrant and expanding labor movement might be able to attack the wealth of those at the top and start the reconstitution of the large middle class that was, for several generations, the foundation of a decent life for scores of millions of Americans.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Aaarrrggghhh! This is the second time I have confused David Pilavin with David Sucher. My profound apologies to everyone. From now on, commentators to this blog will bge allowed only unique first names!!!!! I think I am ready for a vacation.


When I said that the Qur'an was not like what people think, after reading 2%, I did not mean that it was benign [no one would ever accuse the Old Testament of being benign]. I meant that it is more deeply embedded in the tradition of the Old Testament than people think who conceive Islam as an utterly alien religion. And that, I am confident from paging through it, is not just a feature of the first 2%.


I take as my text for my meditation this morning Ecclesiastes 12:12 "By this, my sonne, be admonished: of making many bookes there is no end, and much studie is a wearinesse of the flesh."

This was apparently written roughly twenty-three hundred years ago, give or take a century, when there were, to put it mildly, fewer books about. Now, books are as common as tribbles. Quite often, after I have finished writing a book, I will walk past a bookstore and see the hundreds of brand new books on offer. "Oh Lord," I think, "does the world really need or want another one?" And yet, I never feel so alive as when I am writing. Last Spring and early Summer, when I was writing two books simultaneously [my Memoir and my tutorial on Formal Methods in Political Philosophy] and posting them, as I wrote them, on my two blogs, I was in a fever of composition. My mind never stopped composing sentences, even while I was shopping, or cooking dinner, or taking my morning walk.

I am comforted by Mark Twain's observation that "the man who does not read great books has no advantage on the man who cannot read them." Still and all, the good that men do is oft interred with their bones, as Antony tells us in his great eulogy to Caesar, and I am afraid the same is true for their books, though of course that might in some circumstances count as evil, which, Antony assures us, lives on. What long-living parrots are to ephemeral mayflies, so books are to blog posts. As some of you have reminded me, not everyone who nods in at this blog takes the time or has the interest to read the entire history of its daily posts.

Perhaps I am ready for our two week safari to Kenya, which starts this Saturday.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


In response to several [well, two] requests, herewith a short reading list of first-rate works on the history of African-Americans. Needless to say, this is neither exhaustive nor definitive. It is not even scholarly, because I am no historian. But I have read all of these books, and can personally report that they are interesting and enormously informative. Feel free to supplement this list in many ways, and to add or subtract from it as you see fit.

You might begin by reading quickly John Hope Franklin's widely used and many times revised text, FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM. This is not a scholarly work so much as an overview of the entire story of the experiences of Africans and their descendants in the United States. That story now extends almost four centuries [the first slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619], and it is useful to get a synoptic overview before reading works more narrowly focused on one period or one topic.

There are many books on the institution of slavery. Let me suggest several. Charles Joyner's DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE is an extremely interesting study of slavery on the rice plantations in South Carolina along the shores upriver from Charleston. There are several reasons to read Joyner, aside from the fact that it is simply a first-rate piece of historiography. First of all, South Carolina is an extremely important locus for ante-bellum slavery. Secondly, Joyner shows that the West Africans enslaved and brought to the Carolinas to work on the plantations were already skilled in rice agriculture, and in fact knew a great deal more about it than their English masters, who had no experience of growing rice at all. Without the knowledge and skills brought from West Africa, the plantations would have failed. Furthermore, because disease and insects drove the owners of the plantations into the city for much of the year, the slaves in effect ran the plantations. This is a view that contradicts the traditional Southern myth that the slaves were ignorant children incapable of surviving without the firm hand and guidance of their cultured White owners. With Joyner, read also Peter Wood's classic work on South Carolina slavery, BLACK MAJORITY.

Slavery was an economic institution supported and rationalized by an elaborate system of laws. In my view, the indispensable book on this subject is SOUTHERN SLAVERY AND THE LAW by Thomas Morris. This is not an easy read [I got it put on the first year reading list in the UMass Afro-American Studies doctoral program, but the students hated it and got it taken off.] However, I believe it is well worth the effort. Let me say just a few words about what I learned from it. The principal legal tradition for the colonists was of course English Common Law, in which there was no recognized category of chattel slavery. This posed all manner of problems for the colonial slave-owners. Here are just three: In the Common Law tradition, the legal condition of the offspring followed that of the father. But the slave-owners wanted to assert property rights in the offspring of the female slaves raped by them [slaves were extremely valuable property], and so the rule was reversed, and the condition of the offspring came to be determined by that of the mother. Second, even if the slaves were chattels, it made a good deal of legal difference whether they were chattels movable [like livestock, furniture and jewelry, etc.] or chattels immovable [i.e., land]. When an estate was being settled, the creditors could demand that the chattels be sold to pay off existing debts. Land was the last thing to be sold off, because without the land, the widow or sons had nothing. But without slaves to work the land, the land was useless, so there was pressure to classify slaves as chattels immovable, like land, even though that flew in the face of reason. Third, although the slaves were legally property, like horses and chairs, they were actually human beings [this is of course the central contradiction of the institution of slavery]. As property, they had no standing in court, no rights that could be a cause of action. But as human beings, they might be the only witnesses to a legal dispute between two white men [such as whether one of them had stolen the horse of another.] So the courts struggled with whether the testimony of slaves could be admitted into evidence. Morris goes into all of this in fascinating detail. If you really want to know how slavery operated as a legal, economic, and social system on the ground, as it were, there is nothing better, in my judgment.

With Morris, you can also read the much better known, but also much less rigorous and detailed, book by the distinguished Black Federal Appeals Court judge Leon Higgenbotham, IN THE MATTER OF COLOR.

The second major period of the story of African-Americans is of course the Civil War and its aftermath. I can recommend several wonderful books, over and above the classic work of Du Bois already mentioned on this blog. Leon Litwak is the author of two simply beautiful books, rich, incredibly detailed, full of splendid vignettes of the period. The first is BEEN IN THE STORM SO LONG, which deals with the period of the war and Reconstruction. The second is TROUBLE IN MIND, which does the same sort of job for the Jim Crow era. For a straight narrative account of the crucial period of Reconstruction, with emphasis on the political developments both in Washington and in the Southern states, by all means read Eric Foner's definitive RECONSTRUCTION. I have already alluded to the important work by Ira Berlin, Barbara Fields, and a big team of faculty and graduate student researchers at the University of Maryland, summarized in the three essays that served as introductions to the volumes of original documents they surfaced from the National Archives, SLAVES NO MORE.

For a detailed account of workers, Black and White, over the entire sweep of American history, you must read Jacqueline Jones' great book, AMERICAN WORK. It will forever put out of your minds the myth that African-Americans are somehow inferior to Whites as workers.

Since this is, surprise surprise, running on too long, let me move rapidly to the twentieth century. I strongly recommend the classic work of urban sociology by St. Clair Drake and Horace Clayton, BLACK METROPOLIS [really mostly written by the young Drake], a study of the Black community in Southside Chicago in the period before World War II. And of course for the full detailed story of the series of court challenges to Jim Crow leading up to and including Brown v. Board of Education, read SIMPLE JUSTICE by Richard Kluger.

Ok. enough. This will certainly get you started. I have not said anything about Black literature, art, music, and so forth, nor have I even mentioned the Civil Rights Movement. Not only does this list make no pretence to be complete or definitive, it does not even claim to cite the best books available. Suffice it to say that it is a list of some of the books I read to prepare myself to serve as the Graduate Program Director of what became the best doctoral program in Afro-American Studies in the world.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Michael asks for a list, short or long, of books that have influenced my study of society. A tall order. Here are a few suggestions [since I do not read very much, I am very bad at suggesting bibliography, but much of what I read has a big effect on me -- otherwise I do not read it -- so these are all worth a look, in my judgment.]

As Michael indicates, Volume One of CAPITAL by Marx looms large for me. There is a good deal by Marx that is worth reading, including his letters to and from Engels, but certainly read THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. For sheer fun, not to learn anything much, read THE HOLY FAMILY, a youthful attack by Marx and Engels on some of their fellow left Hegelians.

Getting serious now:

Start with the great classical sociologists. Read as much of Max Weber's monumental work, ECONOMY AND SOCIETY [WIRTSCHAFT UND GESELLSCHAFT] as you can manage, but especially the famous discussion of types of legitimate authority. Most certainly read all of Karl Mannheim's IDEOLOGY AND UTOPIA. It is filled with extraordinary insights. [It is worth noting that both Weber and Mannheim were conservatives. I do not pick and choose great books on ideological grounds.] Along with these classics, which just about anyone would recommend, I would certainly spend some time reading THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF REALITY by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman -- not a great book, but very useful, I find.

I strongly recommend reading some Freud. Long and difficult as it is, THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS is well worth the effort. With it, read Richard Wollheim's splendid book, SIGMUND FREUD for an overview. Then read Erik Erikson's CHILDHOOD AND SOCIETY, one of the loveliest books ever written. I learned a great deal from it. For fun, read some Erving Goffman. He wrote several short books [THE PRESENTATION OF SELF IN EVERYDAY LIFE, ASYLUMS, among others], and they are all worth reading.

Anything by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who all by himself has redeemed the Economics Nobel Prize from ignominy. The serious study of economics is, of course, essential to an understanding of society. For an analytical exposition of the Classical Political Economists -- Smith, Ricardo, Marx -- I really think you cannot do better than my book, UNDERSTANDING MARX.

This may strike some of you as odd, but I would strongly recommend spending time reading serious history -- especially the sort of institutional history written by the great historians of the ancient and medieval worlds. My own reading of history has been heavily tilted toward the history of Western Europe, but you ought also to read something about the history of China and the history of Islam. The libraries are filled with wonderful books of serious history, and I have only scratched the surface. If anyone is interested, I will be happy to mention some of the books I found especially fascinating.

During most of my life, I found American history utterly boring, but once I joined the Afro-American Studies Department at UMass and started to read the history of African-Americans, my attitude changed completely. There again, if anyone is interested, I will be happy to suggest ten or fifteen titles, all well worth the effort, beginning with W. E. B. Du Bois's classic work, BLACK RECONSTRUCTION IN AMERICA: 1860-1880.

Well, that should keep Michael busy for a while.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Now that my fifty page response to Luke's Mother is ended, I can return to the follies, foibles, and foolishness of the political class. Those of you who are, like me, obsessively involved with the ephemera of the passing political scene will be familiar with the latest flap surrounding the egregious Republican candidate for Senator in Delaware, Christine O'Donnell. In her debate with her Democratic opponent, at one point she challenged his statements about religious tolerance and the separation of church and state by asking, "Where is the separation of church and state in the Constitution?" When Chris Coons read her a little lesson about the First Amendment, she plowed right in again. "Are you telling me that separation of church and state is in the First Amendment?" The audience, composed mostly of law students and faculty, groaned and laughed, and she flashed them a triumphant smile, all perfect teeth and hair, as if to say, "I really showed him, didn't I?" This little vignette then went viral, being played so often you would have thought she had flashed a breast. Rachel Maddow did an entire segment on it in her nightly show. The kicker came when reports surfaced that O'Donnell and her team thought she had scored a knockout punch in the exchange, and were astonished to discover that the rest of the world thought she had lost badly.

I think I know what is going on here, and since Rachel Maddow is really, really smart [I cannot speak for the rest of the punditocracy], I would be willing to bet that she knows too. It is actually worth spelling it out, even though it will take a little while, because it is a perfect example of the alternative world in which the rightwing lives. It is also a good example of the sort of deep thinking that leads conservatives to say that the Republican Party is the "party of ideas."

Elementary facts first. Christine O'Donnell is perfectly correct that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution [or in the Declaration of Independence, or even in Jefferson's Letter on Toleration."] What does appear is the following phrase: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." To eighteenth century Englishmen, the clear reference of this phrase is to the Established Church of England, the Anglican Church. In a state with an established church, the law requires those holding government office [no matter how local and insignificant] to be communicants of the official church. [That is why Karl Marx's father, a lawyer and the descendant of a long line of rabbis, converted to Christianity before Karl's birth.] In such a state, the law requires that the ruler be the head of that church and it may forbid the practice of any other religion. Iran and Saudi Arabia are states with an established religion. So are Israel and the Vatican. In England, what was at issue was the status of dissenting religionists -- Presbyterians, Unitarians, Congregationalists, Quakers, and the like. It was taken for granted that everyone would be Christian, even the hated Catholics. As for the Jews, they were tolerated when the crown needed money and driven out of England when it did not. Needless to say, Muslims did not come into it at all. To the American Colonists, many of whom were descended from settlers who had left England to avoid the disadvantages and proscriptions of Establishment, that first clause of the First Amendment clearly ruled out the sort of Establishment of religion from which they had fled. [All of this gave rise to endless debates, with some people defending establishment, some attacking it, and some attacking those who attacked it. This gave rise to what as a boy I learned as the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism.]

A long series of Supreme Court cases has substantially broadened the scope and application of that clause in the First Amendment, but there are a great many Americans on the right who are bitterly opposed to that broadening. They wish to have it proclaimed and enforced that America is a Christian nation, in which non-Christians of any sort live on sufferance and as second-class citizens. They are quite well aware of the legal history, but they think, stare decisis to the contrary notwithstanding, that the Supreme Court should reverse that history and return to the "original intent" of the Founding Fathers. In their Right Wing think tanks, in which they endlessly rehearse these arguments, echoing one another's convictions, a shorthand way of summarizing their view comes to be the one-liner, "Where do the words 'separation of church and state' appear in the Constitution?" At the end of a long day decrying the evils of secularism and liberalism, they repair to a nearby pub to relax. After a few rounds, when the lamest retort is starting to sound witty, they regale one another by saying, "Where are the words separation of church and state in the Constitution?" This is accompanied by much snarking and snickering and yuks all around.

Enter Christine O'Donnell, all teeth and hair and naked ambition, but with not a great deal in the way of brains. She spends one intense life-changing week at a rightwing seminar on Constitutional Law at an Institute in Claremont, where she no doubts picks up this catchphrase, though perhaps not with much in the way of background and explication. In the circles in which she travels, that one-liner is always good for nods and applause and smiles of approval, so when she appears in a televised senatorial debate -- clueless about the context or the sentiments of her audience -- she seizes the opportunity to drop this tested line on her opponent, and turns to the audience, awaiting the approval and applause that she has come to expect.

That, I think, explains what happened during that debate, and her puzzled reaction to the universal scorn she reaped as her reward.

Is this important? Not really. She will lose, and then live for many years off the unspent campaign funds she has collected [that seems to be her principal source of income.] But I do think it is useful for us on the left to think our way into the minds of our enemies, from time to time.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I just wasn't up to my four mile walk this morning, so instead I spent some time reading the Qu'ran. Or rather, I spent some time reading an English translation of the Qu'ran, just as yesterday I read an English translation of Revelation. It was legitimate for me to read Revelation in translation, because what interested me was the impact of the text on American Fundamentalist Christians, almost all of whom also read that and other books of the Bible in English translation. But devout Muslims insist that the Word of God ought only to be read in the original Arabic, which of course I cannot do. I find the King James translation of the Bible inexpressibly beautiful, but then I am in general entranced by the language of English authors of that period -- Shakespeare, Donne, et al. I have read that those fluent in Arabic find the Qu'ran very beautiful, simply as Arabic, and I am certainly prepared to believe them, but I can make no independent judgment of its literary merits on the basis of the translation I am reading [nor can I, of course, of the literary merits of the Old or New Testaments in their original languages].

Starting at the beginning, with the first Sura, I have read only a bit -- as far as verse 121 of the Second Sura [if that is the correct way to refer to passages in the Qu'ran.] That appears, in my translation, to be no more than 2% of the entire text, so obviously I have a long way to go. Three things strike me, as a lay reader, in my initial engagement with the text. First, the religious sentiments and doctrines seem virtually indistinguishable from those of the Old Testament: Monotheism, the admonition to love God [Allah is, I believe, the Arabic word for God, not in any sense God's name], the promise of paradise for those who love God and punishment for those who do not, the warnings to those who fall away from the true faith, and so forth; Second, the moral injunctions are benign and unexceptional: deal honestly with others, do not turn away those who are in need, honor your father and mother, and so on; and Finally, and I suppose most unexpected for a truly naive reader [which I cannot truthfully say I am, after half a century teaching the history of Western philosophy], the incorporation into the doctrine of Islam of the Old Testament traditions -- the Creation, the temptation of Adam, God's covenant with Moses, the line of the Old Testament prophets, and even the prophetic status of Jesus.

Save that the language, at least in English, is different, and hence would be recognized as not biblical, I venture to guess that Fundamentalist Christians could easily mistake many passages in the opening Suras for biblical passages with which they were unfamiliar -- passages from the Prophets, I should think, not from the narrative portions of the Old Testament.

What, if anything, is the significance of this initial engagement with the Qu'ran? Hard to say. It is not anything like what the hysterical anti-Muslims in America imagine, but then I could have figured that out without ever looking at the Qu'ran. I have yet to get to the passages in which specific dietary, sexual, economic and other prescriptions and proscriptions are laid down. My guess is that they will be as absurd and objectionable as the corresponding passages in the Old Testament [Leviticus, anyone?] Surely the most striking difference between Islam and either Judaism or the primitive Christianity of the New Testament is its universalism. In this respect, Christianity in its earliest form is, I think, a halfway point between the tribalism of Judaism and universalism of Islam.

Well, the sun is up and the day has begun, so perhaps I should check the latest pre-election polls.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Yesterday, while I was waiting to go to my last root canal appointment, I idled away the time by reading Revelations, the last book of the New Testament, and hence the final words of the Bible. Although I was, of course, familiar with many parts of it, I had never actually read Revelations from start to finish in one sitting. Not surprisingly, it was a powerful experience. All the familiar images are there: The pale rider on a pale horse, the grapes of wrath, the Whore of Babylon, the seven seals, Armageddon, the New Jerusalem. What struck me most powerfully was the violence of the metaphors. I do not mean by this that the text is filled with images of violence, although that is of course true. I have in mind rather what a literary critic might have in mind, namely the comparing metaphorically of things that are very unlike. [One sees this sort of thing in Shakespeare all the time -- in the scene in which Lear wanders on the heath in a storm, the violence of the storm is represented not by the rattling of sheets of metal offstage, but by the increasing violence of the metaphors -- the likening of things very unlike.] Thus, the city of Rome, which when the Book of revelations was written was the center of the persecution of followers of Jesus, is figured as the Whore of Babylon who sits upon seven mountains and seduces her inhabitants with her lasciviousness and uncleanness. [In recent centuries, some Protestant interpreters have construed the Whore as the Roman Catholic Church, but that is pretty obviously wrong, for a variety of reasons.]

There are scores of millions of Americans who describe themselves as Fundamentalist Christians or Born Again Christians, and the text of Revelations, more than any other part of the Bible, is their principal source of inspiration. I really do not think one can think one's way into the mindset of these folks, and see the world as they see it, without steeping oneself in Revelations [and other biblical texts]. You have to try to imagine what it would be like not merely to read Revelations, but to read it and re-read it, to hear it quoted and referred to every Sunday, to search in its [pages for words and phrases with which to make sense of the quotidian world.

One of the things that occurred to me is that perhaps here we can find the source and rationale for the manifestly absurd things such people are prone to say about Obama. "Barack Obama is a Muslim" can be construed as a violent metaphor, akin to "Rome is a great whore." "Her streets are filled with all manner of filth" does not mean that the sanitation department of Rome is doing a bad job. Quite to the contrary, Rome was the civic wonder of the ancient world.

Central to the message of Revelations are two ideas: That God will elevate his chosen few [one hundred and forty four thousand, according to the text] and cast all others into a fiery pit for all eternity; and that The time of this final judgment is nigh. Now, try really hard to imagine how the world will look to someone who takes this message with deadly seriousness [I am assuming that there are few if any Born Again Christians among my faithful readers.] The sophistication and worldly learning of the secular rulers of this nation will look like so much filth and whoring, and the simple faith of the true believers, however naive and unlearned they are, will be recognized as a mark of election and salvation.

The next time all of us snicker at Christine O'Donnell's ignorance, it might help to keep all of this in mind.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Herewith some thoughts in response to the comments by JP and Mike on the final Study of Society post:

First to JP: A merely nominal change in the money supply is unproblematic, although a general inflation in fact affects people differentially [some people have cost of living escalator clauses built into their wages, some do not, etc.] Some years ago, France went from what it then called Old Francs to New Francs. The New Francs were simply the Old Francs divided by one hundred, so a price of 500 Old Francs became a price of 5 New Francs. That, needless to say, is not interesting.

To Mike: Your two questions are, or so it seems to me, variations on one fundamental question, which is, to put it simply, In what way is the study of society different from the study of nature? That is really the underlying theme of my entire series of posts, so let me try to address the question directly. Along the way, I think, I will at least touch on the several specific questions you ask.

I am what I would call a realist with regard to the study of nature, by which I mean that the natural world is what it is independently of our conceptions of it or interactions with it [although in studying nature, our interactions may of course affect nature -- pace Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.] In a quite direct and unproblematic sense, there are facts about nature that it is our job as investigators to discover. The laws of nature are what they are, irrespective of the existence of sentient beings to learn them. The world was governed by those laws before life arose, and will be governed by them after life disappears.

But although we experience the social world in much the same way, as an independent reality governed by laws that it is our job to discover, in fact that is not a correct description of it. The social world is a collective human product, a product of human choices, habits, expectations, beliefs, repetitions, and misperceptions. It is a world that does not simply exhibit conflicts of interest, as for example the East African savannah exhibits a conflict of interest between predators and prey, but that is constructed out of the conceptions and representations and mystifications of those conflicts of interest. Rousseau and his brethren to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no such thing as Natural Man who can stand outside of society and contemplate it or study it objectively. Each one of us is constituted as we grow up by the internalization of certain historically formed social forms [mother, father, child, peasant, lord, priest, etc.] that carry with them evaluative and justificatory components. Nothing like this is true of nature.

Thus, when we undertake to study nature, we are necessarily engaged in an attempt to achieve some perspective on and understanding of our social reality from the inside, as it were. This involves not merely questioning and observing and calculating and inferring, all of which are modes of reasoning employed in the study of nature, but also critique, which is the self-reflective calling into question of who we are and how we unreflectively understand our social world. That, it seems to me, is what all the great social scientists do, most notably Karl Marx, who is, in my judgment, the greatest of all the social scientists.

My purpose in talking at length about the unemployment rate and the Consumer Price Index was to explicate this theme by way of two very specific examples. I may have failed to convince you of my general thesis, but that was the point of those two discussions.

Now, in studying society, there are of course better and worse ways to do it, and that certainly applies to the specific task of defining and calculating the CPI. One of my purposes in repeatedly praising the performance of the BLS was precisely to indicate my conviction that there are better and worse ways to do these things, the BLS being, in my judgment, a good example of the best way to do them. But it would in my judgment be a very bad mistake to suppose that because there are better and worse ways of studying society, therefore the study of society is not different from the study of nature. There are indeed facts of the matter about economic performance, to echo your words, but that is not at all good enough for an objective study of society. Marx does an ideological critique of capitalism much better than some other people [such as me, for example], but it does not follow from that that the study of capitalism is, epistemologically speaking, on a par with the study of evolutionary genetics.

Well, I will stop there, because two weeks devoted to one subject is way more than is customary in a blog, where, as I have been reminded, not everyone who visits this site has read everything I have posted on it in times past. [alas.]

Thank you all for interesting comments.


Well, Susie and I voted yesterday [straight Democratic ticket -- I have only voted for a Republican once in my life -- for Governor in Massachusetts, with the awful John Silber on the Democratic ticket, but I was young and foolish.] I have given over three thousand dollars to various candidates this cycle, which I can hardly afford. I have canvassed, and talked to people and written about the election. Now I am going to get out of the hemisphere for election day to someplace that does not even have internet access, so that I don't have to sit and listen while we go down in flames. Starting October 30, we will be on safari in Kenya, birdwatching and such. Unless a passing hyena has the news, I won't know what happened until we return to civilization on the 12th. I realize that this is a total cop-out, but my tolerance for pain has decreased as I have grown older.

Later this morning I will try to respond to the two comments on my final post in the series on the study of society.

Monday, October 18, 2010


I followed the link Wallyver gave us [in his comment on the previous post], and it was quite interesting. Sabina Alkire is an impressive person. The multidimensional poverty index she has co-developed owes a great deal to the inspiration of the work of Amartya Sen, who, all by himself, almost redeems the Nobel Prize in Economics. [I have had the very great pleasure of meeting Sen, although only once, and of communicating with him in connection with my scholarship organization. He is a real class act!] The core idea in the work of Sen on which Alkire crafts her index is that poverty both consists in, and is caused by, an impoverishment of powers and opportunities, not just of money. As Sen was the first person to point out, famines are caused by a breakdown of social distributuion, not by a shortage of food, and the best protection against them is not full graineries but democracy. I encourage anyone interested in this subject to follow the link provided. Thank you again, Wallyver [and also, my sister, Barbara, but then I owe her a good deal more than I can adequately thank her for -- including teaching me to read seventy-odd years ago.]


Twelfth Post

I am back from the Big Apple, and ready to wrap up this seemingly interminable series of posts. One preliminary word: I had an email from my big sister, Barbara [for whom, some readers will recall, I threw that Paris birthday party last summer]. Barbara is currently teaching courses on the latest developments in Evolutionary Biology, but before she retired, she worked for many years at the World Bank. She tells me that among developmental economists and others, there is now a very vigorous discussion about precisely the sorts of covert ideological presuppositions contained in economic indices that this series of posts is about. It would seem that I am reinventing the wheel once again. She mentioned Herman Daly and Sabina Alkire, among others. Who knew?

Anyway, let us continue. [A rational person would put his exposition on hold and go to the library to read what these folks have written. I shall do that eventually, but I am having too much fun spelling out my own understanding of this important question. Oh well, No one ever accused me of being a scholar.] There are serious problems even getting a handle on what is happening to the prices of commodities in one of the vast number of categories one could define, problems of simplification and sampling. These problems are similar to those we encountered in talking about the measurement of unemployment. But there is another much deeper problem that is, in fact, completely intractable.

Put simply, the problem is that for purposes of policy formation as well as comprehension, we need some way to measure the general movement of prices, not merely the movement of the price of a single category of commodity. Obviously, if all prices are moving in the same direction at the same rate, there is no problem. Suppose the BLS carries out its surveys of ten thousand categories of commodities and services [still a massive simplification] and finds that in each and every category, the price of a sample commodity or service has increased by 3% over the previous month. They are then on pretty safe ground announcing that the country as a whole has experienced an inflation of rate of 3% this month.

But of course this never happens. Instead, they find that some commodities and services have risen 3% in price, some have risen 6%, some have soared 20%, and some have actually declined. What is more, over time, the very categories into which commodities are sorted change in fundamental ways. Some commodities and services simply become unavailable [buggy whips and public stables, perhaps] while others [automobiles] are now widely available. It may be impossible in most cities and towns to find a usable block of ice for the icebox, but on the other hand every big box store is selling electric refrigerators. The old commodities and the new may perform the same function [transportation, or keeping food cold], but are they therefore the same commodity? Intuitively the answer is no.

It would of course be possible for the BLS simply to issue an enormous book of statistics every month recording what they have found about movements of prices for every single one of the categories they are tracking. In fact, they do. But that book, fascinating as it is, cannot possibly help us either to grasp what is happening to prices in general, nor can it serve as a guide for actions by the Federal Reserve Board or the Congress. What we need is some way of amalgamating all of that information into a single measure, an Index. We need to be able to say whether prices in general have risen or fallen, and by how much. In short, we have finally come to that point in this discussion at which we really cannot avoid talking about apples and oranges.

Here is what the BLS does. It defines what it calls a "market basket of goods and services" which its surveys suggest more or less mirrors what many people buy with their money in a week or a month: one quart of milk, three pounds of potatoes, a trip to the doctor, enough catfish to serve four at dinner, rent or a mortgage payment, and so on. Then they track what this market basket of goods and services costs, month by month, using the data they have assembled on the movements of the prices in each of their categories. The month by month or year by year change in the market basket then is defined as the "Consumer Price Index" -- "consumer," because this is a market basket of goods and services conceived as being bought by families, not by businesses [there is a Producer Price Index for them]; "price," because the market basket is measured in dollars, not in quarts or pounds or dozens; and "index" because the heterogeneity of the prices and quantities in the market basket is converted by this process into a uni-dimensional number, and that is ;precisely what an Index is.

Well, it doesn't take much brains to figure out the problem with this sort of index. Assuming we can solve the aggregation and sampling problems attendant on tracking the prices of individual commodities and services [a large assumption, to be sure, but one I am willing to make to keep the discussion going], the CPI does a very good job of measuring changes in the price of the particular collection of specified quantities of specified goods and services that have been defined as The Market Basket. The question is, What does that have to do with whether it is getting more expensive to live in America?

Here is the problem in a nutshell: The CPI does not tell you anything about the impact of price changes on you unless you happen to consume the particular market basket of goods and services they are tracking. If you don't eat meat, what good is it to you that steak is relatively cheap. Can you believe that when I was young, lobster was a budget meal? Now, if I want fresh tuna or swordfish from Whole Foods, I have to take out a homeowner's line of credit, but I can get good beef for less than it costs to eat catfish or tilapia.

Let us consider briefly a really important example of this problem -- housing. In the old days, the rule of thumb was a week's wages for a month's rent. Now housing consumes up to half of a household's monthly budget. But changes in housing costs have wildly different differential impacts on Americans. If you own your own home -- 65% of American households, but 83% in Ireland and only 43% in Germany -- then like as not you have a mortgage. Now -- this is for my foreign readers -- in the United States it is possible, indeed, usual, to get a long-term mortgage whose cost to you does not change for the entire life of the mortgage. This is called a fixed-rate mortgage, and the typical term of such a mortgage is thirty years. It is literally the case that with such a mortgage, you will pay exactly the same number of dollars each month for thirty years. Over that same period of time, through good times and bad, the CPI may soar. Since 1980, thirty years ago, the urban CPI has gone up 240% [yes, the BLS even differentiates between urban and rural price changes -- it really is a state of the art operation.] But if you have had a thirty year fixed rate mortgage for those thirty years, then your last payment is exactly the same as your first payment. Now, during that time, housing has increased dramatically in cost, even taking into the account the collapse of the housing bubble of the past two years. BUT NOT FOR YOU. Thus, a BLS market basket that includes housing, used to measure price inflation, will completely misrepresent the impact of price changes on you, but it may accurately reflect those changes if you rent, or if you are now buying a new home.

Let me stand back from these details and summarize what we have found. The concepts we use to get an epistemic handle on social reality are unavoidably shaped by our conception of the way society is and the way it ought to be. We saw that in our analysis of the concept of unemployment, and we have seen it again in our analysis of the Consumer Price Index. The categories we apply to our social experiences [teacher, wife, president, terrorist, bus driver, child, even man and woman], are shaped by social expectations, habits, customs, and institutions. It is always possible to trivialize the problem by simply stipulating the definitions of these terms and making no claims about their relevance to an understanding of society, but in fact no one -- I repeat, no one -- every actually uses the concepts in that antiseptic manner. Not even science fiction writers trying to imagine alien races living in alternative universes are able to disentangle themselves from the rich, complex self-understanding through which we experience and conceptualize social reality. That is why, when those authors imagine first encounters between humans and aliens, it is always numbers or physical constants or musical tones [Close Encounters of the Third Kind] and not social categories ["take me to your vise-president"] that serve as the means of communication.

The challenges to received wisdom, the radical rejections of inherited behavioral norms, the religious inspirations that call into question quotidian reality -- all are themselves completely embedded in an existing culture and recognizable as such.

So Luke's Mother, that, in brief, is how to study society.

Next question?

Friday, October 15, 2010


While I make last minute preparations for my brief trip to New York, I would like to take a moment to put into words something I have been thinking about for a bit. [By the way, my son has made a reservation for us this evening at what looks like a very upscale restaurant south of Houston called Public -- on Elizabeth Street. Anyone ever been there?]

As many, many people have observed, there seems to be an epidemic of sheer anti-rational craziness abroad in the land, manifesting itself both in the expressed views of the general public and in the statements of right-wing political candidates. Let me simply list some of the more egregious forms of nuttiness. Pride of place must be given to the Fundamentalist Christian [or, as some commentators have started to call it, Christianist] belief that the earth is only ten thousand years old, that there has been no evolution of life forms, that human beings walked the earth with dinosaurs, and that the end times forecast in Revelations are upon us. Frequently associated with this is the denial of global warming. Both of these determined refusals to recognize simple facts have been with us for some time. More recently, we have seen millions of Americans claiming to believe that Barack Obama is not a native born American, and that he is a Muslim [or, as the folks at like to say, "a muslin."] This led The Onion to post a wonderful little spoof asserting that 18% of Americans now believe that Obama is a cactus [I may have the percentage wrong]. Add to this, if you wish, the weird belief that Sharia Law threatens to replace the American legal system, and any number of other nuttinesses.

These bizarre beliefs are associated with a level of sheer free-form rage that was not seen in America even during the height of the Red Scare in the 50's. There have already been a handful of violent acts apparently traceable to these beliefs, and there may well be more. We are seeing a political form of road rage.

Now, it is easy enough to scoff at the people who express these beliefs, or to laugh at them, or to call them simply ignorant or stupid. But what interests me is something different, namely, the fact that all of these beliefs seem to be abstract and functionally irrelevant to the behavior of the people who express them. Let me explain.

If you believe that the end times are upon us, and that the rapture will occur at any moment [a belief shared by scores of millions of Americans, if you are to believe their responses to pollsters], then presumably you will not buy life insurance, or invest in a retirement plan, or continue with your schooling, or take out a mortgage, or save for your children's schooling, or have regular dental checkups [since when the rapture comes, the fillings will be left behind.] There have over the millennia been many people who both expressed millenarian or fundamentalist beliefs and also acted on them. In this country, the nineteenth century Christian Science sect started by Mary Baker Eddy led many people to refuse medical treatment for themselves or their children on the grounds that the body is unreal and only spirit is real. In some cases, this resulted in the death of people whom even in those days primitive medical science could have saved. Somewhat less dramatically and more charmingly, we see the Plain folk, the Amish and Mennonites, who incorporate their religious beliefs into the daily conduct of their lives. But there is no evidence of which I am aware of Fundamentalists neglecting their studies or declining to contribute to their 401(k)'s on religious grounds. The beliefs that they espouse so vehemently seem to be totally disconnected from their daily behavior.

The same can be said of the scores, if not hundreds, of millions of people in America and overseas who deny the reality of evolution and the age of the world and demand that it not be taught to their children in school. Now, virtually all of modern medicine is so intimately intertwined with the theory of evolution that it would probably be impossible to find any high-powered modern medical treatment that does not rest in one way or another on that theory. Every time you get a flu shot, every time you are given antibiotics, every time you get radiation therapy or an MRI, you are, in effect, behaviorally acknowledging the truth of evolution, in one way or another. But there are no reports of scores of millions of Americans demanding to be treated with nothing more than leeches and purgatives. Once again, there is a total disconnect between the beliefs that vast numbers of people angrily assert and their observed daily behavior.

Starting with the Frankfurt School and the work of Horkheimer, Adorno, and others, it became fashionable in philosophical and literary circles to look askance at the Enlightenment, to see it as a covert project for domination, to call into question what came to be viewed as its naive faith in the power of reason. Well, be careful what you wish for. I for one am enough of an Enlightenment man to wish that we had a good deal more old-fashioned rationalism and skepticism of superstition. We have seen this sort of free-floating irrationalism and anger before. The last time round, it was called fascism, and even though the trains ran on time, it did not end well.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Eleventh Post

My purpose in embarking on an extended discussion of the unemployment rate was to illustrate my thesis that the concepts we use when thinking about a large, complex society are embedded in a conception of society that is normatively and ideologically shaped. By using the carefully crafted BLS definition of unemployment, we are in effect accepting a John Galt conception of work, the labor market, capital, and all that goes with it. Quite obviously, I have not persuaded all of you [a condition with which I am long familiar, inasmuch as I am an atheist, an anarchist, and a Marxist]. So be it.

Now, I turn to a much more intractable problem. To put my claim simply and up front, the concepts we use to get a conceptual handle on a huge, complex, multi-faceted social reality cannot possibly be given a value neutral interpretation without reducing them to tautological triviality. Once again, I shall focus on a familiar concept to illustrate my claim. This time, it will be the Consumer Price Index.

I think it is fair to say that the Gross Domestic Product, the Unemployment Rate, and the Consumer Price Index are the three most widely used and cited social indices in discussions of the health or sickness of the American economy. The Consumer Price Index, or CPI, and a number of closely associated indices, are used as measures of the rate of inflation, and major economic decisions are taken by the Federal Reserve Board and the Congress on the basis of what happens to the CPI. So, let us spend a little time exploring what the CPI is, and how it is defined and calculated.

All of us, I take it, are familiar with the notion of price inflation [and some of us are even old enough to have heard old wives' tales of price deflation.] To put it simple-mindedly, inflation is a general devaluing of currency that results in smaller quantities of commodities being purchasable by the same nominal unit of money. A long, slow inflation took place over many centuries in medieval and early modern Europe as a result of the influx of quantities of gold from the New World, with the result that landed aristocrats became land poor and were forced to allow their serfs to convert their labor services into money rents, with dramatic consequences for the economic evolution of the continent. In 1960, Karl Heider, a fellow member of the Winthrop House Senior Common Room at Harvard, made ready to join an anthropological expedition to uplands New Guinea to study the nDani, a headhunting people who used cowrie shells as their currency. Cowrie shells, which were widely used in this manner in various parts of the world, are sea shells that were traded up from the New Guinea coast. A nice old lady in Lexington who knew the leader of the expedition gave them her prize shell, a monstrously large exemplar. At the farewell dinner for Karl, we joked that if he showed up among the nDani with that shell, he would inflate the currency. Sure enough, he wrote back some months later that although, when they arrived, one shell would buy a pig, after some months of their interactions with the locals, it took a number of cowrie shells to buy a comparable pig.
In the American economy, there are thousands upon thousands of distinguishable commodities and services, each priced in dollars. Some are clearly changing in price, either seasonally or persistently, regionally or nationally. Think, to take only one example, of the endless fluctuations in the price of a gallon of gasoline. How are we to grasp these bewildering changes conceptually?

Intuitively, it is obvious to all of us that prices have been rising over time. When I was a boy, my weekly allowance was twenty-five cents. With that quarter I could buy a ticket to the Saturday matinee at the Main Street Movie Theater [twelve cents], where I could see two main features, an episode of a serial, the News of the Week in Review, previews of coming attractions, and four or five Loony Tunes cartoons. That left twelve cents for a chocolate ice cream sundae with chocolate sauce on top, and a penny for mad money. Today, a senior citizen ticket costs me six dollars at the local Regal Cinema, and even allowing for the possibility that movies have gotten better, so that I am really paying for a superior product [a thesis that I will deny to my dying day], pretty clearly something is happening to the currency.

What to do? How can our trusty Bureau of Labor Statistics get a handle on what is happening nation-wide to prices, so as to determine definitively whether prices really are inflating, and if so, by how much?

There are really three distinct questions, all of which must be answered before we can attempt to identify and measure inflation. These are: What are we measuring? How do we measure it? And, most problematic of all, How do we translate what we have measured into a usable indicator of inflation?

The first question may seem trivial, but is in fact rather problematic. There are tens of thousands, if not millions, of distinct commodities and services offered in the America marketplace, and they carry different prices. Shoes? What sorts of shoes? Dress shoes, sneakers, flip-flops, heels, hiking shoes, hip boots, loafers, red shoes, brown shoes, shoes with tassels, shoes with wing tips? Is a shoe for sale in Boston a different commodity from the same shoe offered for sale in L.A.? Does a dress for sale at a designer boutique become a different commodity when it is remaindered at a discount house? Are organic tomatoes a different commodity from non-organic tomatoes? Is local produce at a farmer's market simply more expensive than the same local produce at a supermarket, or is the experience of shopping at the farmer's market part of what one is paying the higher price for? Does a designer label on a pair of slacks make that pair a different commodity from a pair of slacks turned out in the same Chinese factory without the designer label?

Services are no less difficult to classify. "A doctor's visit" is one thing at Massachusetts General Hospital and another thing at a storefront clinic [I decline to suggest which is the superior service.] Not all plumbers are equal, nor are all lawyers, or all rotorooter servicemen.

The only solution is to group commodities into classes and categories, and then try to track changes in the price of the category. But, as it will surely occur to you, this is going to pose very difficult problems, because the prices of some items in a category may move in one direction while the prices of other items in the same category may move in an opposite direction.

The BLS does just that. It groups commodities and services into categories, pretty finely broken down, and then checks regularly to see how prices in each category are changing. It should be obvious that this grouping encodes a certain way of understanding social reality, and very such way of understanding excludes other alternative and perhaps equally defensible ways of understanding. Just to take one example of many: Should commodities or services produced in accordance with religious laws be grouped together, and differentiated from commodities and services not so produced? [Is it relevant to the classification whether items are kosher or not?]

Once the grouping and classifying has been accomplished it is time to find out what is happening to each category of good or service. Now, in economics texts, all markets clear and all exemplars of a commodity sell at a price determined, we are assured, by the intersection of a demand curve with a supply curve. But as everyone knows who actually shops, nothing remotely like this is true in the real world. When I shop for dinner, [as I do each day, since I do the cooking in our little household], I buy staples at the Harris Teeter across the street, and then I drive to Whole Foods for the fish, because their fish is really of better quality. When I walk through the produce section on my way to the fish counter, I idly notice the exorbitant prices for zucchini [$2.2.9 a pound, as compared with $1.79 at Harris Teeter] or asparagus [a bunch of anemic asparagus at Whole Foods costs so much it ought to have its own lay away plan!] last week, I decided that I needed a barebones pair of spare glasses to take with me on trips in case something happened to my regular glasses. The local oculist, after some pressure, allowed as how they could do an absolutely basic pair of glasses in my prescription for $75 -- a bargain, considering that one can easily drop $800 there for a fancy pair. Walmart did it for me for $49.

What does the BLS do? Well, it identifies a sample of retail outlets and service providers, and sends interviewers fanning out across the land to find out what goods and services are going for in all the different categories in those sampling points this week. Once again, the BLS is well aware of all the problems I am talking about, and actually generates regional as well as national figures, to take account of the fact that, as we say, the cost of living is different in different parts of the country.

Well, this is running on, so I will stop for the moment, and get ready for my trip tomorrow to New York to give the keynote address at a Teachers College conference. I will try to resume this multi-part blog on Sunday.

There is an old joke about the little son of a philosopher who asks his mother, "Mommy, what are rainbows?" She is busy, and tells him, "Go ask your father." He replies, "I don't want to know that much about rainbows." Well, Luke's Mother, did you think this was what you would get when you asked me about studying society?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


Tenth Post

Before moving on to Index Numbers, let me pause briefly to reply to the comments posted by Noumena and Amato to Part Nine. The easier one first: Amato asks where I stand on the question of the inevitability of world revolution. The simple answer is, I don't think it is going to happen. This is actually one of the central questions of my paper, "The Future of Socialism," which is available on the web. As far as Materialist Dialectics is concerned, I think that is just lousy nineteenth century metaphysics. But Marx did have a substantive set of reasons for expecting a socialist revolution, growing out of his analysis of directions in which capitalism was evolving.

Briefly, he thought the following [I go into this in more detail in that paper]: First, capitalism will continue to evolve in the direction of larger and larger accumulations of capital; Second, progressively, the traditional hierarchical structure of the working class will be destroyed as more and more workers become semi-skilled machine operatives, thus facilitating class unity; Third, the corrosive rationalizing effect of capitalism will eat away at all ethnic, racial, national, religious and other forces that might tend to isolate capitals from one another and workers from one another; Fourth, ever greater booms and busts will afflict capitalism -- crises of over-production and under-consumption; Fifth, the dog eat dog competitiveness of capitalism will stop capitalists from cooperating to save capitalism from these periodic crises; Sixth, the rationalization and internationalization of capitalism on the side of capital will generate an ever more unified and international working class; and Seventh, there will finally come a world economic collapse from which no segment of capital is protected, in the wake of which the organized and more and more self-conscious international working class will rise up and seize the now fully developed forces and means of production.

This was not a stupid analysis or series of projections, given the world Marx was looking at in the 1850s and 60s. Some of it he got right [the ever greater centralization of capital, the internationalization of capital.] He even correctly predicted a world-wide economic crash, although it came somewhat later than he expected. So what did he get wrong? Well, to put it in a nutshell, World War I, Keynes, and the Income Pyramid. The willingness of French and German workers to march docilely into the trenches and slaughter one another demonstrated that the forces of irrationality -- nationality, race, religion, ethnicity -- are very much more resistant to dissolution than Marx thought. My grandfather and other American socialists were appalled by the failure of the workers of Europe to resist the capitalist war. Furthermore, when the predicted crash came, capitalists proved capable of working together to manage the gyrations of capitalism. Keynes and Roosevelt saved them from themselves. And the working class, rather than becoming homogenized, remained set in a pyramidal structure of wages and salaries that persists to the present day. As I have often remarked, we old lefties used to describe the stage of economic development we were living in as "late capitalism." That phrase is now a wry joke.

OK, now for Noumena. Noumena asks two questions. The first can be parodied like this: So if capitalism is so mystified, how come you can see through it? The second is more provocative: "Why not think that Marx was to state capitalism what Adam Smith was to laissez-faire capitalism -- an optimistic early apologist for what turned out to be just another way for the wealthy and powerful to exploit the poor and oppressed?" Oof! With friends like that, who needs enemies?

The second question first. Marx wrote in excess of five thousand pages of economic analysis of capitalism, and no more than a few pithy phrases about what socialism would be like. He said that socialism would only be possible after the productive forces of capitalism had been fully developed, and that socialism would develop "in the womb" of the old order. Neither Russia nor China was, or even now is, ready for socialism. I could not care less what the Bolsheviks or Mao said they were doing. They were not instituting a socialist economic order. State Capitalism is as good a name as any, and it is not at all what Marx was talking about. I do not blame Marx for Stalinism and Maoism and more than I blame Jesus for the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials. By the way, that is a misreading of Adam Smith also, but who cares?

Now on to mystification. Just as there have been many men and women who could penetrate the veil of mystification cloaking the Altar and the Throne, so there are people who manage to penetrate the mysteries of the marketplace. But the crucial point here, which I make at some length in Moneybags, is that even those who succeed in seeing the mystification of commodity production are still in its grip. All of us experience commodities as quanta of embodied value, even though to think that way is, as Marx says in CAPITAL, verruckt [crack-brained.] Let me give you a personal example of what I am talking about.

Across the street from my condo building is a supermarket, in front of which is a parking lot. A while back, I noticed a car with the North Carolina license plate "116 Bway." This intrigued me, because Broadway and 116th street is where Columbia University is located. When I walked over to look at the car, I discovered that it was a Bentley. Now, that particular model Bentley goes for around $250,000! I am as sophisticated a critic of capitalism as you will find, but nevertheless I experienced a tingle of commodity fetishism when I realized that I was looking at one of the most expensive cars in the world. [By the way, although it has lavish soft leather seats, it is otherwise not especially gorgeous.] I feel the same way in the Louvre when I see the Mona Lisa, even though I do not much like the Mona Lisa. The point is that we experience the world of commodities as mystified even while we are analyzing the mysteries and attempting to dispel them. As Marx realized and said, it is not enough to understand the mysteries of commodity fetishism. To defeat its power, you must change the world.

Well, as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers say on National Public radio, I have wasted another entire blog post without getting to index numbers. Tomorrow, I promise I will start. Then I will take off a couple of days to go to New York and deliver the keynote at a one day Teachers College conference.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Susie and I went to see The Social Network, the new movie about Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of FaceBook. I will not say it was a good movie, but it did have its moments, one of which was a deadly Larry Summers by some actor named Douglas Urbanski. There can't be much call for that turn, but he was marvelous. Zuckerberg comes across as brilliant, totally socially dysfunctional, mean-spirited, two-faced, and, if I have done my math right, currently worth about six or eight billion dollars. I think what I liked most was the fact that Zuckerberg did to his closest friends and associates all the really hideous things that the great Robber Barons and iconic American tycoons have always done. The movie manages to make him seem deviant in this regard, but in fact he is as American as John D. Rockefeller [whose father, let us recall, got the family started on the way to great wealth by buying defective rifles during the Civil War and selling them back to the Army as good to go.] If you have a deeply repressed urge [or maybe not so deeply repressed] to give the finger to Final Clubs, Harvard, inherited wealth, Academic Review Boards, lawyers, or venture capitalists, this is your flick.


Ninth Post

And so we come to the Marx family, the last stop on this imaginary examination of competing conceptions of unemployment [which, you will recall, is intended merely as an illustration of only the first of the two fundamental obstacles to the formulation of an objective and ideologically neutral conception of society, the second being the problem of index numbers. That is still to come.] By way of the Waltons, we looked at what unemployment might mean in a pre-capitalist society. Next, the iconic figure of John Galt stood in for an examination of unemployment in a capitalist economy. The Marx family is supposed to lead us into a consideration of how unemployment would be conceptualized and understood in a socialist economy.

Immediately we encounter a problem. We know what a pre-capitalist economy would look like. History is for the most part the story of such economies. And since we live in a capitalist economy, we need simply look around us, intelligently and insightfully, to arrive at an understanding of unemployment in capitalism. But there never has been a socialist economy, the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba to the contrary notwithstanding, so we must at this point engage in genuine speculation. [I really do not want to have an argument about whether the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China were ever socialist economies. Read my paper, "The Future of Socialism," for some insight. I am old, and tired, and I have had this argument too many times in my life. If you think they were socialist, because they said they were socialist, then you probably also think the Holy Roman Empire was holy, Roman, and an empire. In any case, you need to seek out another blog.]

A socialist economy is an advanced industrial economy [not a utopian commune like a Kibbutz!] in which the forces of production have been developed to the point at which it is genuinely possible to engage in society-wide economic planning. It is an economy in which the means of production are owned or are otherwise within the control and oversight of the society as a whole. It is a society that is governed democratically by the people as a whole, not by the representatives of capital masquerading as representatives of the people. And it is a society in which economic activity is understood as a human activity satisfying and valuable in its own right as well as for its ability to meet the needs of the people as a whole. It is a society in which the rate of economic growth is determined by the people as a whole, within the constraints of technological possibility and resource availability, not by narrow and local calculations of short-term profitability.

In a socialist society, the needs of the people, not of capital, are primary. Capital exists to serve the people; the people do not exist to serve capital. What is more, it is the needs of ALL of the people that are to be taken into account, not merely the needs of those people who serve the interests of capital accumulation.

Almost certainly, a true socialist economy is not possible in one country surrounded by a world of capitalist countries, because when the forces of production and social relations of production have achieved a high level of development, as is now the case in the world, capital is thoroughly international in its organization and reach. It would be as futile to attempt to maintain an advanced socialist economy in one country as it would be to try to maintain one level of the water in the ocean while all around the rest of the water is at a different level.

A truly human socialist society would organize itself so as to support and facilitate the natural life cycle of birth, childhood, maturity, old age, and death. In such a society, it would be understood that all men and women have productive roles to play in the society, and all have needs that it is the purpose of the economy to satisfy as well as possible. It would be understood that all human production, even that of the corporate magnate or the architect [pace Galt] or the artist, is fundamentally social and grounded in the historical and collective achievements of humanity. Everyone comes into a world that is already rich in history, technology, and conceptual resources. No one, American popular culture to the contrary notwithstanding, is a Self-Made Man. The labor of mothers is as crucial to the on-going well-being of humanity as the labor of farmers or craftspeople or corporate managers. Children have an appropriate role preparing themselves for productive labor, and the elderly, having lived productive lives, deserve a decent and fulfilling final stage of their particular enactment of the human life cycle.

In such a society, the concept of unemployment has no appropriate place. Broad tolerance is desirable for the widest possible diversity of life trajectories, even for those trajectories that seem to reject the responsibilities that come with accepting the food, clothing, and shelter produced by others. But just as every Walton, from Grandpa and Grandma to the youngest child, can be expected in some way or other to contribute to that family's well-being, so in a socialist society there ought to be, and there is, a way for every person to make some contribution to the well-being of society.

In a socialist polity, there will be vigorous debates and disputes about the best way to allocate and develop the society's resources and productive capabilities. Neither Economics nor Philosophy can provide objective, scientific answers to those questions. They are by their nature political, and are the appropriate subject for public argument. But in a socialist society, the wide disparities in wealth and income will disappear. No one will control vast accumulations of capital, and corporate managers [for there will of course have to be people who perform the functions of management] will not be permitted to use their positions of control to lavish on themselves rich rewards.

In all previous social formations, the concepts people use to understand their social reality have been crafted, either consciously or otherwise, to serve the interests of the ruling portion of the society, to justify its rulership and to justify as well its appropriation of the lion's share of the available product. But in a true socialist society the people as a whole will rule, and the concepts they use to understand their social situation will not need to be mystified.

Or so it would seem. But we are about to examine a more intractable conceptual difficulty whose fundamental insolubility seems to guarantee that even in a socialist society, our self-understandings will be inflected, normatively non-neutral, indeed perhaps ideological.

Tomorrow, we confront the daunting problem of Index Numbers.