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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Total Pageviews

Friday, September 27, 2013


In 1977, I ran for a seat on the Northampton, MA School Committee.  There were two open city-wide seats [the other six seats represented Wards], and three candidates.  I came in third.  That pretty well settled any question of my political talent.  School Committee Member was not quite Dogcatcher, but it was pretty close.  So let's agree that I am unfit to offer any one advice about practical electoral politics.  But I was a university  teacher for fifty-three years, if one counts my time as a graduate Teaching Fellow, and I will ask you to take my word for it that I was a really good teacher.  So I do think I am competent to offer advice about how to teach.  And the simple fact is that despite his many talents, not least among which is his truly astonishing gift for electoral politics, Barack Obama is a really lousy teacher.  I noted this fact about him a long time ago, but I have been thinking about it in the past week or two as an argument has raged about funding the Federal Government and raising the debt ceiling.

Good teaching has very little to do with an engaging classroom manner, a fund of funny stories, or even mastery of the subject matter [as I demonstrated during my first teaching job by adequately teaching a subject about which I knew practically nothing, namely European History.]  The secret of good teaching is knowing what your students do and don't know, and then telling them at each stage what they need to know to understand what you are saying and to follow you to the next stage in the unfolding of the subject.  It is important to know both what they do know as well as what they do not know, so that you do not alienate them by explaining what they already understand or lose them by assuming what in fact they do not understand.

Consider the current argument about whether to raise the debt ceiling [I call it an argument because it has not risen to the level of a debate.]  Any marginally aware American with even the most modest grasp of the elements of the American political system knows that the U. S. debt is the total of all the expenditures that past Congresses have authorized and that past Administrations have then spent in accordance with the instructions of Congress, over and above those monies that past Congresses have caused to be raised by enacting bills imposing taxes on American individuals and corporations.  Had past Congresses chosen not to authorize those expenditures, or had they chosen to impose taxes sufficient to cover those expenditures, there would be no U. S. debt.  Every two years, Americans decide whether to send back to Congress the men and women who have been authorizing the expenditures and imposing the taxes.  Any time the American people want to stop the country from running up the size of the debt, they are free to do so by electing Representatives who will either hold down the spending authorizations to the level of taxation, or else raise taxes to cover the level of spending they choose to authorize.  Raising the debt limit does not constitute an authorization to make new expenditures, nor does it constitute the imposition of new taxes.  It simply authorizes the Treasury to cover those most recent expenditures that exceed the most recent taxation levels by borrowing from the people around the world who are willing to lend money to the United States.

I say that any marginally aware person knows these things, but there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that perhaps two hundred to two hundred and fifty million Americans do not know these things.  How can they not know them, inasmuch as they are so obvious?  Well you may wonder.  But pretty clearly they do not.  What then do they think insofar as they pay any attention at all to the argument about raising the debt ceiling?  I would be willing to bet good money that enormous numbers of Americans think that raising the debt ceiling is a way of authorizing the President to spend money -- to spend it on Medicare, or on Obamacare, or on food stamps, or on environmental regulations, or even on the army and the navy.  This is not true, of course.  Quite to the contrary, raising the debt ceiling has no effect whatsoever on future spending.  Its sole effect is to enable the U. S. government to pay for things that this very Congress has voted to spend money on.

President Obama understands this, of course.  He understands it, I would imagine, with a degree of detail and depth that is shared by a relatively small fraction of the American people.  But I really think he does not know how many people in this country do not understand this. 

No, that is not quite correct.  The truth is rather more complicated.  I think he cannot credit, cannot take seriously, cannot think it his job to speak to the people who do not understand something as elementary as this because deep down, inside, he has a quite understandable contempt for people this dim about the simplest and most obvious facts of public life.  "But," you will object, "he has given speech after speech in which he has said that we must pay our debts, must not allow the United States to default, that all he is asking is that we pay for what we have already spent."

He has indeed made those speeches, but listen carefully to one of them some time.  As he says these things, he tilts his head a little to one side, he smiles, his voice rises with an undertone of an incredulous laugh, all of which conveys very clearly something like the following:  "We, you and I [speaking to his audience], understand, as anyone must, that  [and now insert everything I laid out four paragraphs ago], and the Republicans really understand these things as well, but the scoundrels are pretending that they do not understand them in an attempt to blackmail me into agreeing to policies that they were unable to win approval for in the last election, and I am not going to let them get away with it."

Now you and I may enjoy this shared sense of superiority over the dastardly Republicans [except for Chris -- don't even bother, Chris, I know], because you and I are among the fifty million or fewer folks who understand all of this and are therefore able to join with him in his amused contempt for those ne'er do well Republicans.  But the other two hundred and fifty million Americans hear the scorn in his voice and know that it is directed at them as well as at the Republicans.  They may not know why he is looking down on them, but they know he is, and they don't like it.

That is the mark of the bad teacher!  I have seen small scale classroom examples of this same thinly concealed contempt countless times.  As I observed in my Autobiography when talking about the members of the UMass Philosophy Department, the characteristic facial expression of the contemporary Analytic Philosopher is the smirk.  That is why I was so enchanted, on my first day in the UMass Afro-American Studies Department by the sound of a genuine belly laugh.

It is interesting to contrast Obama with Bill Clinton.  Clinton, I suspect, is quite as smart as Obama.  They are both very smart men.  But Clinton never speaks in a way that excludes the two hundred and fifty million.  He does not speak down to them.  He speaks to them.

It is, I believe, a genuine character flaw in Obama that he cannot speak to the people whose support he needs.  They are not in fact stupid, and whatever the shortcomings of their grasp of the Congressional processes for authorizing spending, they are hypersensitive to condescension, in all its forms. 

How will all of this play out?  I have no idea.  But I really hope that Obama decides to mint that trillion dollar coin.


Don Schneier said...

Not that it is to Obama's credit, but is teaching, or even informing, what these speeches are designed to accomplish? Aren't they, rather, good old-fashioned political rhetoric, with a contemporary Madison Ave. twist, the aim of which is to 'signal', via easily digestible distinctive tropes? Clinton, too, when he was in office, though, for the most part, not these days.

Michael Llenos said...

Interesting article, Dr. Wolff. Perhaps President Obama, as a former Law Professor, didn't like teaching any kind of undergtaduate studies, but instead liked to teach graduate students instead because of their maturity and lack of undergraduate ignorance. Or maybe he respects public opinion because it is useless to instruct those who do not care to be taught anyway. I also don't think he has the time to teach courses in economics to the American people since he is pressed for time as it is. And maybe we should forgive a fault or two of his just based on his calm demeanor. As that old adage from the Talmud reads: A man who holds back his temper, is forgiven all of his sins.

Michael Llenos said...

Although, in my above post I was condoning Obama's actions, I didn't mean to sound condescending to Professor Wolff and my fellow citizens. I guess I should have edited my comment more.

Don Schneier said...

To follow up on my above point--note that the verb currently pervasively used to characterize a campaign for a policy is "sell". So, I'm inclined to allow that Obama has recognized that, even as Caesar rendering unto the Romans, he must do as the Romans have chronically been doing. He also may have learned, as Clinton before him did, that vicious cycles are not broken in a day.