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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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Wednesday, August 30, 2017


I have been inundated with questions about whether I shall do a series of videotaped lectures on Marx this Fall [well, two people asked.]  The short answer is no.  I am thinking of doing a series of six two hour videotaped lectures on Marx on the Columbia campus in the Spring 2018 semester, but that is still up in the air.  Tomorrow I shall make my first trip to Morningside Heights [which is where Columbia is] for some exploratory talks.  We shall see how that all develops.


There is an old story about a dirt poor Jewish peasant – let us call him Moishe – who lives in a tiny one room hovel with his wife, his mother-in-law, his two children, and a dog.  His sole possession is a pig, which roots about in the yard.  Moishe is beside himself at the crowding of his little home, so he goes to seek guidance from the rabbi.  The rabbi listens to Moishe’s tale of woe and then asks. “Moishe, don’t you have a pig?”  “Yes,” says Moishe, “he lives in the yard.”  “Fine,” says the rabbi, “bring the pig into your home.”  “But rabbi,” Moishe begins to protest.  ‘Moishe,” the rabbi says sternly, “bring the pig into your home.”  Moishe goes home, shaking his head, but the rabbi is the wisest person in the village, so he does as the rabbi says.  Well, now things are completely unbearable.  With his wife, his mother-in-law, his two children, and the dog, he could barely turn around in his home, and now the pig is rooting everywhere in the tiny room, getting under foot.  Moishe goes back to the rabbi and says, plaintively, “Rabbi, I did what you said, and now my life is even more miserable, if that could be imagined.  The pig is sleeping in my bed! What should I do?”  The rabbi strokes his beard and replies, “Put the pig in the yard.”  The next Sabbath, after services, Moishe grasps the rabbi’s hand, tears in his eyes, and says, “Rabbi, I cannot thank you enough!   Life is wonderful now that the pig is in the yard.”

For the past three months, I have been dealing with increasing pain in both hands and wrists.  The medical consensus is that I have osteoarthritis, not exactly unknown in someone my age.  I have had a series of tests [next week something called an EMG test, in which they put needles in me and measure electric conduction or some such thing, sort of like acupuncture without the incense].  The problem with my hands is not exactly life-threatening, but it does hurt a good deal, and would have a serious impact on my golf game, if I played golf.  Then, last week, during my morning walk, as I was looking up at a hawk perched on a power stanchion, I tripped and took a really hard fall on the pavement.  My main injury was a blow to the inside of my left knee, which swelled way up.  As the swelling began to go down, a big bruise appeared and it began to hurt really, really badly.  When I got up in the morning, it hurt so much I could hardly walk.  I went to the UNC same day clinic, and a young resident, after looking at it and consulting with his supervisor, gave me the official medical judgment:  I had fallen and bruised the inside of my knee.  In time it would get better.  I was, of course, grateful for this high-powered medical judgment, and went home to take some more Tylenol.  This morning, for the very first time, it seemed that the pain was less severe, and I felt a great sense of relief.  This put me in a much better mood, even though the pains in my hands had not in any way diminished.  And so I thought of the story with which I began this post.

Then it occurred to me:  For at least sixty of my eighty-three years, I have been complaining about everything that I find appalling about the country in which I live:  the brutal treatment of African-Americans, the discrimination against women, the exploitation of workers, the destructive imperial adventures of the government.  Now, in what was supposed to be my golden years, I must deal with a despicable fascistic narcissist in the White House and the daily abominations he visits on the world.  I daydream endlessly about what a relief it would be were to resign, or be impeached, or die.  How nice it would be to see him removed from office, so that we could go back to the way things were before he won the presidency.  What a relief to put that pig back out in the yard.

Monday, August 28, 2017


At the conclusion of a long and very interesting two-part comment Austin Haigler asks:  “does anyone try to think about how best to communicate and engage the people that they least agree with and MORE SO don't even share the same conceptualization of objects and their meanings with? I know we all can have a tendency to write off conservatives, evangelicals, Trump supporters as uncanny, stupid, backwards, immoral, regressive, etc, but being from the southern rural areas I am from, I see and know the good mixed up with all the bad in these peoples' lives and ideologies. There has to be a way to reach them and it be effective in SOME way.”

This question cries out for an answer, and I am going to make an effort to begin thinking one through in this post.  I invite my readers, especially those who do not usually comment, to chime in.  Although Haigler poses the question in a very simple, direct way, we must not make the mistake of imagining that there is a simple answer, a turn of phrase that will do the trick.  Of one thig I am certain:  a jargon-laden response full of “interpellation” and “dialectical” and “ideological” and “(re)volution” is worse than useless.

Let me begin with an observation.  Most people have a pretty good grasp of the world they encounter in their daily lives.  They know how to get to the grocery store, who the good guys and the bad guys are at work, who in the neighborhood is living high on the hog and who is just scraping by.  They are not stupid and they are not ignorant.  They may have quite bizarre beliefs about things they do not see or hear or smell or touch.  They may think that the universe was created by a sentient, caring God.  They may think human beings once walked with dinosaurs.  They may believe they live in a land of the free and home of the brave.  They may even imagine that they are paid a wage equal to the marginal product of their labor, a belief far more fanciful than any of the others I have just mentioned.  But be that as it may, they are nevertheless able to go to the grocery store without getting lost.

If you try to argue with someone who believes that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and spirited into America as a Manchurian Candidate, you will probably have very little success and will certainly find the experience intensely frustrating.  But if you disagree with him or her about how to get to the grocery store – you saying you turn left off Main onto Elm and she saying you turn right off Main onto Broad – the two of you will probably figure out quite quickly a way to settle the dispute, and once settled, my guess is that the loser in that dispute will not persist in maintaining the truth of his or her directions.

Some disputes are disagreements about the way the world is, and some are conflicts between people with opposed interests.  To take an old example that lies at the heart of The Wizard of Oz, if a nineteenth century mid-western farmer and an eastern banker are arguing over the desirability of the Gold Standard, the farmer, who carries a big mortgage on his farm, will argue for going off the Gold Standard, which will increase the rate of inflation and progressively lighten the burden of his monthly payments in real dollars, while the banker will argue for remaining on the Gold Standard, which will keep inflation down and maintain the value, in real dollars, of the mortgage payments he, as the lender, receives.  This is a genuine conflict of interest, not a confusion on someone’s part over the nature of social reality.

What conclusion do I draw from this archaic example?  Well, perhaps it is best to begin a discussion with a Trump supporter by doing two things:  First, find out what she cares about in her immediate daily life, and tell her what you care about in your daily immediate life; Second, ask her whether she believes that Trump will make it easier for her to get what she wants, and if she says yes, find out why she thinks that.  Then tell her what you care about in your immediate life, and explain why you think Trump will make it harder for you to get what you want.

Now, it may well be that at that point, you will both see that what you have is not a disagreement about the way the world is but a conflict of interests.  But it is at least possible that you will be able to show her ways in which Trump is going to make it harder for her to get what she wants.  [I hesitate to suggest that she might be able to show you that Trump is going to make it easier to get what you want.  I mean, let’s be serious.]

This will clearly be the beginning of a very long discussion.  But it is probably going to be more successful than simply pointing out to her that she is a despicable racist fascist.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


One of the incidental benefits of having really smart children is that they are a go-to source of wisdom on many subjects.  There has been a good deal of talk about the possibility that Trump would seek to frustrate the Mueller investigation by pardoning everyone in sight as soon as Mueller got close.  TV commentators oponed that should Trump do this, the recipients of the pardons would then have forfeited their 5th Amendment rights and could be compelled to testify before Congressional committees.  This led me to ask the following question of my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, who is, among other things, one of the leading experts of his generation in the legal field of Civil Procedure:

“Suppose Trump pardons, say, Manafort, for whatever, and Congress compels his testimony, denying him the privilege of taking the 5th because he has been pardoned.  Suppose Manafort refuses to answer and is charged with Contempt of Congress.  Does Trump have the power to pardon him for that as well?”  Back came the following reply:

“Yes, that lies within the powers of the presidency, but with some caveats. First (and stating the obvious) that would presumably put rocket fuel under the calls for impeachment. The Supreme Court has held explicitly that the pardon power extends to criminal contempt proceedings in federal court. The same ruling would apply to contempt of Congress. In that ruling (Ex Parte Grossman, from 1925), the Court also indicated that an abusive use of the pardon power in such cases, if such a thing were to happen, would be remediable through impeachment:

"If it be said that the President by successive pardons of constantly recurring contempts in particular litigation might deprive a court of power to enforce its orders in a recalcitrant neighborhood, it is enough to observe that such a course is so improbable as to furnish but little basis for argument. Exceptional cases like this if to be imagined at all would suggest a resort to impeachment rather than to a narrow and strained construction of the general powers of the President."

It is entirely possible that the unstable madman in the Oval Office has told Manafort that he should stick by him no matter what and he will engage in extravagant uses of the pardon power, but I think it would result in his removal by impeachment very quickly. In addition, the pardon power can only nullify criminal liability. In that same ruling of Ex Parte Grossman, the Court made clear that the pardon power has no impact on civil contempt proceedings. This is a  distinction that is not widely understood. When a person refuses to testify and gets put in jail until he is willing to comply with the court's order (like in the high-profile cases involving reporters), that is a civil contempt proceeding, not criminal contempt, even though jail is involved. I address this issue in my casebook, as it happens. Here is the section where I lay out the basics of the doctrine:

Contempt sanctions can be either "civil" or "criminal" in nature, though this terminology can be somewhat counterintuitive. The distinction between civil and criminal contempt does not arise from the nature of the underlying proceeding — a civil lawsuit can give rise to either civil or criminal contempt. Nor does it depend primarily on the nature of the actions undertaken by the individual who violates the injunction, nor even on the use of imprisonment as a sanction, which courts can employ in a limited fashion in a civil as well as a criminal contempt proceeding. Rather, the distinction between "civil" and "criminal" contempt refers to the goal that the court seeks to accomplish by imposing the sanction.

Civil contempt sanctions are remedial in nature and aim to secure compliance with the court's order. When a court imposes fines in a civil contempt proceeding, it does so in order to compensate the injured party for the harm it has suffered as a result of the violator's actions, which may include attorneys' fees and other costs associated with enforcing the order. Courts may also impose a prospective schedule of fines to secure compliance and deter future violations, providing, for example, that a party will be fined some substantial sum of money for every day that it violates the injunction going forward. Courts can even imprison a party who refuses to abide by a court's order. One controversial example of this form of civil contempt can occur when a reporter refuses to comply with a discovery order or subpoena requiring her to reveal her journalistic sources or otherwise disclose information she has promised to keep confidential. Jail time is a proper part of a civil contempt sanction only when it aims to secure compliance with the court's order. Thus, a reporter who is jailed in a civil contempt proceeding retains the ability to release herself at any time by complying with the order of the court, and her imprisonment cannot last longer than the underlying proceeding in any event, since the remedial purpose of her imprisonment ceases once the order or injunction is no longer active.
Criminal contempt sanctions, in contrast, aim to punish parties for flouting the authority of the court. The basic tools of enforcement available to the court in a criminal contempt proceeding — fine and imprisonment — are the same as they would be in a civil proceeding, but the sanctions that the court imposes in a criminal proceeding are not limited to strictly remedial purposes. Thus, a court can impose a period of incarceration in criminal contempt proceedings that will last well beyond the termination of the underlying action, and the target of the criminal sanction cannot win her release by agreeing to comply with the court's order in the future. Similarly, when a court imposes a fine as a criminal contempt sanction, the defendant pays the fine to the court as punishment for his actions, rather than to his adversary as compensation.
So, even if he is willing to abuse the powers of his office without restraint, there are some limitations on his ability to subvert the rule of law prospectively — providing that Congress is prepared to enforce those limits. And Manafort, who has real lawyers (unlike the grifter), is probably aware of those limitations.

I think you can take that one to the bank.


Having taken note recently on this blog of a thirtieth wedding anniversary and a sixty-ninth first date anniversary, it occurred to me that I ought also to observe another anniversary, this one of my service in the U. S. military.  At this time sixty years ago, I was approaching the end of my eight week stint in Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.  I have devoted an entire chapter of my Autobiography to the experience, so I shall not re-tell my stories of that six month hiatus in my career.  I am virtually the only philosopher I know of my generation or younger to have served in the military, but many of those half a generation older saw real and very dangerous service during World War II.

I can still recall sitting at a table at an annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, having a cup of coffee and listening wide-eyed to Sylvain Bromberger and Jack Rawls swap war stories.  Sylvain, born in Belgium, actually fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge in the winter of ’44-’45, and Jack served in the South Pacific.  Sylvain and I were graduate students together at Harvard and then colleagues for two years at Chicago.  He taught for many years at MIT, where he is now Professor Emeritus.  When my first wife and I drove to Cambridge from Chicago so that I could do a visiting year at Wellesley, he helped us load the UHaul van.  Sylvain is one of my favorite people in the world, and I was delighted to visit with him briefly during my talk at MIT a year or so ago.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Thirteen months ago, five-time student deferred Donald J. Trump said of John McCain, "I prefer people who don't get captured."  It was a gratuitous, ugly, cheap remark that earned Trump universal condemnation, but of course did not cost him either the nomination or the election.  A few words of background.  John McCain was a young ne'er do well much pampered, the son of a famous admiral when he entered the Navy Air Corps.  He crashed four or five planes before earning his wings, and was then shot down over enemy territory and captured during the Viet Nam War being held a prisoner  for five years.  In the prison camp, he was tortured, as were the other men held there.  When the Viet Namese discovered the identity of McCain's father, they offered to release him as a propaganda move, and McCain refused unless all of the other men were released as well!  You can say anything you wish about the legitimacy of the war, the morality of serving in it, or McCain's long and appalling political career, but that was an act of extraordinary heroism, and he deserves all of the praise he has had from it since.  Has he dined out off it, as we say?  Used it for political advantage?  Of course.  But I don't care.  That was an act of great and totally admirable heroism and self-sacrifice.  So Trump trashed him for it.  And McCain, who was in the midst of a difficult re-election campaign, bided his time. 

Did McCain forget that insult?  Hardly.  Did time heal the wound?  Not a bit.  McCain waited until the moment when Trump's fondest dream depended on McCain's single vote, and then, in the most dramatic fashion possible, he shafted Trump.

Now Trump has pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and the first voice to condemn the pardon is that of  John McCain. 

I will offer a prediction.  Every time McCain finds himself in a position dramatically, publicly shaft to Trump -- which, in light of the balance of votes in the Senate may be rather often -- he will do so.  Trump will fume, rage, storm, tweet, and McCain will just keep shafting him.

Pass the popcorn.


Having managed to complete the NY TIMES crossword puzzle this morning, I idled some time away watching the third lecture on Ideological Critique that I recorded some time ago and put up on YouTube.  In that lecture, as a wrap-up to my exposition of Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, I went through his account of the ideology of time-consciousness, which I think is the most brilliant bit of ideological analysis I have ever read.  Then, in the lecture, I offer my own analysis of the ideology of space-consciousness, a natural extension of Mannheim's theory for a Kant scholar like me.  Needless to say, my bit of analysis cannot hold a candle to Mannheim’s but it isn’t bad, and I watched myself with that innocent narcissistic pleasure that an infant gets from contemplating his own feces.

I had totally forgotten the conclusion of the lecture, however.  Without warning, I cut at the very end of the lecture to a clip of the immortal Pete Seeger singing that old union song, “Which Side Are You On?”  I have to tell you, it brought tears to my eyes.  Those were better days, when I was young, despite the evils of segregation, the oppression of women, and the criminalization of gay Americans.

Friday, August 25, 2017


Today, Susie and I celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary.  In November, I will take note of the anniversary of our first date in 1948, about which I wrote on this blog on August 24, 2015.  On October 6th, I shall fly up to New York to deliver a lecture at Columbia's Heyman Center, my maiden performance as a new member of Columbia's Society of Senior Scholars.  

The date with Susie was an outing to the Thalia Movie House on the Upper West Side, where we saw a revival of the pre-war Marcel Pagnol film, Cesar.  GoogleMaps tells me that the Thalia still exists, now enlarged and rechristened as SymphonySpace.  If there is time, maybe I will walk down to 95th street and take a look at the site of that fateful date sixty-nine years ago. 

Maybe there is something to the theory of Eternal Return.

Thursday, August 24, 2017


With startling speed, public commentary about Trump has moved to open expressions of doubt about his mental stability and the threat that this poses to the safety of the world.  A number of cable news commentators have expressed the hope that the generals with whom Trump has surrounded himself – Kelly, Mattis, McMaster – will dissuade him from launching a nuclear attack on North Korea in a fit of pique.  This speculation was given new currency by the dire warnings of James Clapper, an Army Lieutenant General who is recently retired from a seven year stint as Director of National Intelligence.  I think it is important to understand why this speculation is misguided, and why General Clapper is so worried.  The readers of this blog may all understand these matters, but since this is quite literally the most important subject in the world just now, a little repetition will not hurt.

During the Cold War, American military planners believed the nation to be in perpetual danger of a preemptive nuclear attack by the Soviet Union [whether this was true is irrelevant for what I am saying, as will become clear.]  The received scientific wisdom was that there was no defense against such an attack, once launched.  Hence it was essential to deter the Soviet Union from attacking by so arranging America’s nuclear arsenal that it could respond with absolute certainty and reliability to an attack, regardless of the extent of the damage.  Despite the existence of a fleet of American nuclear submarines perpetually on patrol in the world’s oceans, armed with half-megaton missiles capable of being fired with sufficient accuracy to obliterate a Russian city, there were considerations that seemed to American planners to necessitate circumventing the ordinary military chain of command.

Under normal non-nuclear circumstances, when the order to launch an attack of some sort is given by the President in his or her role as Commander in Chief, the order goes to the Secretary of Defense, who conveys it to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in turn conveys it to the Chief of Staff of the appropriate service [Army, Navy, or Air Force], who sends it down to the commander overseeing the unit tasked with the attack, who then communicates the order to the field commander of the men and women actually selected to carry out the attack.  This is the chain of command, and everything in the military rests on it.

But military planners believed that it might prove impossible to rely on this chain of command in the event of a nuclear attack.  They recognized that if the Russian attack came by way of intercontinental ballistic missiles, there would be at most eight or ten minutes between the time when the missile launches were detected by radar and the time when the missiles struck the United States.  This posed a series of problems:

First, the President might be killed, leaving a constitutional vacuum with no settled way to determine who now had the authority to order a counterattack with such weapons as survived the first strike.  Second, key individuals in the chain of command might be killed, disrupting the orderly transmission of a Presidential order.  Third, communications might be interrupted physically or electronically, making it impossible for a lawful launch order actually to reach the missile silo personnel or the Captain of a nuclear submarine.  Fourth, even if a lawful order did reach the military personnel actually in a position to fire the nuclear weapons, it might be impossible for those men and women to double check the order by communicating back to headquarters before carrying out the order.

For all these reasons [and some others besides,] the deliberate decision was made entirely to circumvent the normal chain of command and place at the hand of the President the ability unilaterally to order a nuclear strike immediately and without the chance for second thoughts or countermanding or even slow walking down the chain.  Hence the oft mentioned “nuclear football” containing the launch codes, carried by a uniformed officer who accompanies the President everywhere.  Hence also the training and clear orders to missile silo personnel or nuclear submarine Captains designed to guarantee that once the launch order is received with the proper codes, it will be immediately carried out.

Now, if General Kelly or General McMaster or General Mattis happens to be in the room when Trump decides to launch a nuclear attack, the general can try to dissuade Trump.  He can even go against a lifetime of training and experience and physically try to wrestle Trump to the ground and stop him from giving the order.  But should Trump be alone when he gets it into his head to start a nuclear war, there is nothing between him and the men and women who will actually launch the attack.

General Clapper knows all of this, of course.  That is why he is worried.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


As I have observed before in this space, the Viet Nam War nearly destroyed the U. S. military, forcing the generals to end the draft and move to an all volunteer army.  With the threat of conscription removed, the general populace ceased to care very much about foreign military entanglements.  The cloying practice grew up of saying “Thank you for your service” to anyone in uniform.  It thus became politically possible to commit American troops abroad in an endless series of “wars,” the term now used for projections of power around the globe.  Neither Obama then nor Trump now was compelled to explain to “our brave men and women in uniform” exactly why they are being sent in harm’s way, inasmuch as they are all volunteers.  The fact that the United States created and armed the Taliban to fight against the Russians is neither here nor there.  That is the way an imperial power is supposed to operate.


Sandwiched in between comments on the eclipse and May-December romances were as number of interesting comments on my socialist musings, to which I should like to respond.  First of all, my apologies to Jerry Brown.   Of course social savings means the allocation of a portion of the annual product to investment.  I was not suggesting that society should build fallout shelters stocked with forty years of groceries.  I am afraid I was just assuming everyone would understand that.  And yes, Howie Berman, there is money, there are art museums [assuming people want them], there will, I should imagine, be small businesses, and perhaps some big ones as well.  Stock markets?  Interesting question.  In a huge, complex economy like that of the United States, there have to be institutional mechanisms for allocating investment capital.  Capital?  Of course.  Without capital, we will all be ranging across the foraging for nuts and berries.

Let me begin by recalling the central point of my essay, “The Future of Socialism.”  [There really is no convenient way to talk about an extremely complex subject without assuming an acquaintance with what one has written previously.  This is not a subject for sound bites.]  I built that essay around Marx’s brilliant insight that new economic formations develop “in the womb of the old.”  I argued that central planning and the substitution of quasi-political decision making for simple response to the workings of the market was happening right now exactly where Marx would have predicted, not in government departments or on collective farms but in the executive offices of great corporations.  This transformation, a necessary precursor to socialism, is, I argued, not a consequence of the brainwashing of corporate executives by their rad-lib Ivy League professors.  It is a transformation demanded by institutional developments within corporations as they internalize decisions that can no longer be made merely by heeding market signals. 

The evolution of capitalism into an economic system suitable for socialism is happening right now.  True socialism cannot be imposed on a capitalist system unprepared for it, any more than mature capitalist production could have been introduced into medieval France by an inspired king.  Whether socialism will replace capitalism is, alas, not inevitable, or even likely, for reasons I outlined in the essay I have several times referenced.  But it is possible.

A second point, derived from my reading of Thomas Piketty’s important book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, about which I wrote and posted a 9,000 word review three years ago.  For reasons that Piketty undertakes to explain, hereditary – or, as he calls it, patrimonial – capitalism has historically been the norm and is reemerging now, after an uncharacteristic retreat in the generation and a half after the two world wars and intervening depression of the twentieth century.  When I ask myself:  What single dramatic step would, more than anything else, move America towards socialism?,  the answer that comes back is:  Impose a 100% inheritance and gift tax on all estates greater than fifty times the median annual income of American households [roughly 2.5 million dollars].  The wealth thus taxed would become the property of the state.  Over not too much time, vast swaths of accumulated capital would be collectively owned and managed.

A response to F. Lengyal’s comment about wage incentives [I apologize for picking and choosing which comments to respond to – there were many worthy of extended replies.]  Let me talk personally about this subject of incentives to work.  [Never mind so-called Game Theory analyses, all of which strike me as simply useless.]  Leaving aside university teaching, which, as Kant says about something else in the Preface to the First Edition of the First Critique, is “rather an amusement than a labour,” I have had a total of four real jobs in my life.  The first, as a sixteen year old high school graduate, was as a waiter in a posh summer camp.  The second, as an eighteen year old after my sophomore year at Harvard, was as a Copy Boy on the old Herald Tribune.  The third, as a nineteen year old college graduate, was as a counselor at a benighted summer camp in Vermont.  And the fourth was my six months in the U. S. Army.  I have never worked in a factory, or in a business office, or in a hospital.  I have never driven a semi, or harvested grapes, or ridden a garbage truck.  So my personal knowledge of the work world is confined to observation.  Here is what I have observed.

Most people work very hard [leaving to one side professors], especially people who earn low wages.  Raising workers’ wages does not lead them to shirk their work, or goof off, or “choose leisure over income.”   For nine years, before moving to a retirement home, my wife and I hired a firm called Molly Maids to clean our apartment every two weeks.  Two women spent the better part of two hours on this job, for which we paid Molly Maids $108.  I asked one of the women how much she made, and she said just under ten dollars an hour.  Since I believe that $15 an hour ought to be the minimum wage, I took to paying each of them ten dollars extra, to bring them up to that minimum.  This was not a tip, it was a wage supplement.  After I started this practice, there was not the slightest change in the character of their work.  If their employer had raised their wages to fifteen dollars an hour, I am absolutely certain they would have done an identical job in every house or apartment they cleaned.  They simply would have made fifty percent more money.

Let me give another counterexample.  Pay in the U. S. military is rigidly determined by rank and years of service in rank [leaving aside housing allowances and some other things of that nature.]  The top pay, for a four-star general with lots of years in grade, is $186,998.40 a year [assuming that I am reading correctly the chart I found on line.]  To reach this rank requires not only a good deal of work but also, almost certainly, service in a war zone, probably a number of war zones, where one can quite easily be blown up or maimed for life.  That is not quite as much as a second year Associate, two years out of law school, makes at Cravath, Swaine, and Moore, a big time law firm.  And yet, the U. S. Army is one of the best run, best managed huge conglomerates in the world.  Lord knows, it is better run that Sears, Roebuck, where my first father-in-law served as Vice President of Public Relations for a while.

The talk about incentives, tricked out with pseudo-math or Game Theory gobbledygook, is a transparent ideological rationalization for keeping the wages of workers low so that profits can swell.  I have a great many uncertainties about socialism, but workers goofing off is not one of them.

Monday, August 21, 2017


Inasmuch as I have absolutely nothing at all to say on the matter of Roman Polanski, which seems to be of the very greatest concern to the readers of this blog, I thought I would spend some time, while awaiting the eclipse, musing about what a democratic socialist society might look like.  This is not exactly a matter of pressing concern, needless to say, but it interests me, so I shall spend a few moments on it.  If anyone wants to follow me down this rabbit hole into Wonderland, I would suggest taking the time to read my essay, “The Future of Socialism,” archived at

I do not have settled views on this matter.  Neither did Marx, of course.  He was dismissive and scornful of the various utopian socialist fantasies floated by his contemporaries, believing, as I understand him, that just as capitalism could not have been foreseen in its details by even the most prescient thinker of the feudal era, so we who are thoroughly entangled in capitalist society can only speculate on what socialism would be, grounding our speculations in a rigorous analysis of the reality of capitalism.  Consider these remarks therefore in the nature of an old man’s schw√§rmerai.  [Oh, by the bye, even a true democratic socialist state would not be de jure legitimate, as I defined that term in In Defense of Anarchism.  Socialism cannot overcome the contradiction between the autonomy of the individual and the authority claims of the state.  But that is a subject for another day.]

First, some definitions.  By “socialism” I mean an advanced industrial or post-industrial economy and society in which there is collective ownership, management, and control of the principal means of production.  Understood in that way, there are now no socialist societies nor have there ever been any.  By socialism, I do not mean a capitalist economy with a strong safety net and a low Gini coefficient.  Nor do I mean a community of poets and novelists doing a little kitchen garden farming and animal husbandry, nor even a big kibbutz, or a society of kibbutzim.

By a democratic socialist society, I mean a society in which the fundamental decisions about the rate of savings [and consequent economic growth rate], the structure of wages and salaries, and large scale capital goods projects rest with the people as a whole and, in some manner, with their elected representatives.  I am not talking about worker control of individual factories or offices, or local agricultural, industrial, and service collectives, admirable as those undoubtedly are.

I am assuming that inherited wealth [not the family homestead] is prohibited, and I am agnostic about whether an individual, within his or her lifetime, will be permitted to accumulate considerable wealth.  [If I may make a parenthetical nod to a well-known book by my old friend now sadly departed, Robert Nozick, if sports fans want to shower great wealth on LeBron James, I don’t care, so long as he doesn’t get to invest it in shares of or leave it to his kids.]

The single most important collective decision that a democratic socialist nation would make is the social rate of savings:  the proportion of the social product to be reinvested in economic growth, as opposed to being consumed unproductively by the members of society for their pleasure, amusement, or edification.  [I have at times been quite critical of the work of John Rawls, so I ought here to note that he seems to be the only major political theorist, other than Marx himself, who has understood the importance of this social decision.]  In a capitalist economy, the social rate of savings is not the object of anyone’s decision, but rather is the consequence of the decisions of countless capitalists or corporate managers, indirectly influenced nowadays by governmental decisions about tax rates or interest levels.  In some modern states, most notably China, which seems to have in effect a state capitalist economy, a very large social rate of savings has been deliberately chosen, sacrificing the consumption of the present to the comfort of the future.  In a state with an expanding or aging population [or both], an appropriate social rate of savings is essential simply to maintain current consumption levels.  Note, by the way, that this is entirely separate from the need to set aside some portion of current production for depreciation of the capital stock.

The second important collective decision is wage rates, assuming [as I do] that a considerable share of individual consumption will be paid for out of pocket rather than, as in the case of health care and education, by social spending.  It goes without saying that the income pyramid should be very much flatter than at present, even in those European nations with a well-funded social safety net.  Would the present situation prevail, in which, to put it in shorthand slang terms, suits make significantly more than shirts?  The universal justification among sociologists and economists for this state of affairs is that higher wages are required to attract into socially important jobs those with the special talents or education for them, but I am deeply skeptical of this familiar rationale.  The unstated assumption is that we would all rather be day laborers or garbage collectors, but could be wooed away from those jobs into the offices of doctors, lawyers, or professors by sufficiently lavish salaries.  Absent those salaries, it is presumed, not many would choose actually to teach classes or see patients or, for that matter, manage factories rather than working on the assembly line or cleaning toilets.  Maybe so, but I doubt it.

Perhaps the most important question is this:  with the really important decisions being decided in the public square rather than out of sight in boardrooms and corporate getaways, how would we keep those elected to public office on the straight and narrow, so that they do not use their power, as corporate managers now do, to rob us all blind?  I am absolutely convinced that some of them will try.  I have no expectation that socialism will somehow turn ordinary human beings into paragons of Socialist Man or Woman.  [I have lived through the liberation of South Africa, the glory days of Mandela, and the decline and corruption of the ANC, so I am without illusions.]

The greatest challenge facing advanced capitalism is the progressive substitution of mechanical or robotic production for human production, and the creation thereby of a larger and larger segment of the population whose labor is not required by capitalism.  That, I believe, is a challenge that socialism is uniquely prepared to face.  Properly managed, it can mean the steady diminution in necessary unpleasant labor and its distribution across the entire population, rather than its concentration in one disadvantaged segment of the population.

Well, the eclipse approaches.  I shall be curious to see how the birds respond.


Something called ALEXA measures the standing of each blog site, according to its hits, I guess.  The Huffington Post ranks 273rd.  This blog, you will be excited to learn, is ranked 4,909,739!  So be careful what you say.  The world is watching.

Sunday, August 20, 2017


So many important questions have been raised in the comments of the past several days that I find myself somewhat overwhelmed.  Rather than even try at this moment to respond to all of them, let me offer a modest suggestion that has been lodged in the back of my mind for some time now, concerning how to respond on a college campus when a Nazi sympathizer or White Supremecist comes to speak.  The response I propose would require self-discipline and coordination, perhaps beyond what students are capable of, but it would be very interesting to observe its effect.

Suppose, to take an extreme example, that David Duke is invited to speak at Duke [a local university in the next town over from where I live].  There should be not a word of objection or condemnation from anyone on campus.  When he arrives, those opposed to him should pour out and take every available seat in the venue.  If necessary, they should line up days in advance, trying to freeze out any KKK supporters, including those who invited him.  Once in the auditorium, the opposition should sit quietly and neither by word or action evince the slightest response to what Duke says.  There should be no signs, no placards, no chants, no laughter, no booing.  Just dead silence.  Regardless of what Duke says, the audience should remain inert.  When the speaker is done, everyone should get up silently and walk out, leaving a palpable hole in the air, a nothingness.

Trust me.  As one who has given hundreds of public speeches over a long life, I can testify that this would be unnerving.  As a public demonstration it would be far more effective than a noisy confrontation fit for television.  It would be a non-event.  If some Duke supporters get into the event, let them shout their lungs out while all around them is dead silence.  If they are denied the validation of opposition, after a while they will start to feel foolish.

As I say, this would take discipline and coordination.  But it would be vastly more powerful than interfering with Duke’s freedom of speech.  Let us recall that the right to speak does not carry with it a right to be paid attention to, to be taken seriously [this too I can attest as a one-time public speaker!]

This is just a thought, but it would be interesting to see it play out.

Friday, August 18, 2017


Some natural law must be operating here of which I am unaware.  On many occasions I have written and posted lengthy discussions running to several thousands of words which have occasioned at most a languid comment or two.  Two days ago I posted thirty-three words with an embedded link, thereby provoking one of the longest and most interesting threads of comment in the history of this blog.  Perhaps if I just posted “So?” the comments space would overflow.

Out of the wealth of ideas finding expression in those comments, let me single out just one, the free marketplace of ideas, for some discussion.  The metaphor of a free market of ideas raises all manner of problems, and it might be fun to explore some of them for a bit.  The notion underlying the metaphor is of course that in a real marketplace, where goods and services are offered for sale, consumers, who are presumed to be excellent judges of their own pleasures and pains, very quickly learn which commodities yield a pleasure commensurate with their price and which do not.  Consumers’ unconstrained purchasing choices, which when aggregated with the choices of others constitute some level of effective demand, determine the prices at which the commodities sell, and hence the profits made by their producers.  Commodities sought by consumers establish themselves in the market; those shunned are unprofitable and are soon withdrawn. 

By analogy, we are asked to believe, opinions compete for acceptance in the way that goods and services compete for buyers.  Hence the familiar expression, “I’ll buy that,” meaning “I will accept that as true.”  Good ideas compete with bad ideas, with the good ideas gaining wider and wider acceptance as the bad ideas, like Betamax, are driven from the intellectual marketplace.

There are so many things wrong with this analogy that it is truly difficult to understand why it has gained such currency [itself an interesting metaphor, by the way.]  Consideration of a proposition is nothing like consumption of a commodity, and the conclusion that the proposition is true is nothing like the experience that the commodity yields pleasure [although a deep exploration of the psychological links between the oral incorporation of food and the intellectual acceptance of an idea might actually be interesting.]

Let me focus on just one problem.  In the modern world, consumers are presented with a completely unmanageable multiplicity of commodities whose safety, purity, and reliability it is beyond their ability to assess.  No one [save Rand Paul perhaps] seriously claims that the invisible hand of the free market can be relied on quickly, and with acceptable safety, to weed out faulty or poisonous products by the unfettered workings of competition.  Hence we rely on the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to maintain product safety and purity standards enforceable by law. 

If one takes the metaphor of the free marketplace of ideas seriously, the clear implication is that the government ought to institute a Facts and Theories Administration, or FTA, whose responsibility it would be to regulate the dissemination of ideas, enforcing standards of evidentiary solidity and conceptual purity to protect us from dangerous ideas that are potentially fatal to our intellectual well-being.

Hmm.  That is not exactly what the folks have in mind who push the notion of the free market of ideas.

I am an absolutist when it comes to freedom of expression, because long experience has taught me that in this society, it is more than likely going to be my ideas that are squelched, my voice silenced, when limits are placed on what can be said in the public sphere.  But what would I say in the socialist society of my dreams?  Ah well, that is a post for another day.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Those of you who followed the link in my previous post to the chilling VICE video featuring an interview with Charlottesville protest organizer Christopher Cantwell really have to watch this.  I am speechless.


Despite their seeming unimportance in the larger scheme of things, the events in Charlottesville may well prove a seminal moment in recent American public life, for at least three reasons.  First, Trump’s clearly expressed sympathy with the neo-Nazi demonstrators is an indelible stain on his presidency that may have significant consequences.  Second, the decision of the neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers to go unmasked, lit by their own torches, and eager to be interviewed on television personalizes them and makes it increasingly difficult for apologists and temporizers to claim, as Trump did, that there were “many good people” in their ranks.  Third, the neo-Nazis were openly and vocally anti-Jewish, not merely anti-Black, and that rather old-fashioned obsession puts a number of people in Trump’s administration, including his son-in-law and daughter, in a rather difficult position, to put it as delicately as I can.

A news outlet called Vice produced a more than 20 minute report on the affair, including a brilliant interview with one of its organizers, Christopher Cantwell.  I understand that there is ferocious competition for your attention, but I strongly urge you to watch this lengthy report.  Don’t miss Cantwell’s little exchange with the interviewer at roughly 3:40 – 4:00.  You can be sure that Jared and Ivanka have seen that.  I would love to be a fly on the wall when Ivanka asks her daddy whether this is one of the good people there to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

There is a great deal to be said about the so called alt-right, its emergence into the sunlight, its integration into the Republican Party, the cowardly timidity of Republicans in continuing to support Trump, and the question whether this will provoke defections from the White House staff.  Others with bigger megaphones than mine have been shouting about this for six days now.  I should like to make just one point that has not, so far as I know, been a part of the commentary.

The alt-right, it is said over and over again, is fueled by hatred and anger.  What struck me most forcefully about the interview with Cantwell was that he did not seem consumed with anger.  He seemed cheerful, happy, pleased with himself and with how the protest unfolded.  He was having a very good time.  I was reminded of the films I have seen of the Hitlerjugend, their eyes glowing, their faces lit with happiness.  To be sure, they had hatred in their hearts, but it was, if I may put it this way, a cheerful hatred, an intense pleasure at expressing openly, in accord with their fellows, their contempt for inferior humans, for Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, foreigners – for anyone not blond and blue-eyed [like Hitler or Goering or Goebbels, hem hem.]

The mostly young men marching in Charlottesville with Nazi paraphernalia were clearly on a high, exultant, happy, pleased with themselves and with what they were doing.

That is worth thinking about.

Monday, August 14, 2017


My post on the Charlottesville event has elicited two comments, both of which, in different ways, are I believe misguided.  Here are the two comments:

Frank said... Professor Wolff, Does your critique extend to white racists who are not within any positions of power (social, economic, or political)? If so, I'm wondering how one could square the view of white supremacy for the power it provides white people with the fact that many of the people holding up Nazi symbols and whatnot in Charlottesville likely do not hold any position of power or privilege in this society.
Anonymous said...
"The Africans were not seized, brought to the Americas and enslaved because they were thought to be inferior. Quite to the contrary, they were enslaved because they were thought to be good workers, and hence well worth their price and the cost of their upkeep."  What an odd assertion. To be sure, the motivation to enslave was not black inferiority, any more than a farmer's motivation to employ a mule is the inferiority of the beast. But the status of the mule as beast is the cause of its employment by the farmer, just as the perception of blacks as something inferior was the cause of their enslavement. Blacks were enslaved because they were thought to be inferior (your strange "quite to the contrary" notwithstanding).

To Frank, I respond:  You are mistaken.  All of the people “holding up Nazi symbols and whatnot in Charlottesville” hold a position of power and privilege in this society, one that is, I would imagine, desperately important to them, and which they feel is threatened.  What position of power and privilege?  They are White.  That fact by itself, regardless of their education, wealth, or position in the economy, confers on them in America a position superior to that of Black people.  You think not?  When was the last time a White father had to have “the talk” with his White son?  It is precisely their lack of status and position and wealth in White society that makes it so desperately important to them to be superior to any Black man [or woman – that raises other issues as well] in America.

To Anonymous:  You are simply wrong.  The West Africans sold into slavery were not selected to be sold by the local Black bigwigs because they were perceived as inferior.  They were captives in local wars or were otherwise vulnerable.  Some were in fact local nobles who had been captured.  Hence such names as “Prince” given to male slaves by the American owners.  The American slave owners tried to enslave Native Americans but for various reasons that did not work well.  They also did their best to enslave indentured English servants, but there was sufficient protection by the English Common Law to make that unfeasible.  The White characterization of the slaves as inferior was an ex post rationalization, not an ex ante reason for or cause of their enslavement.


The events next door in Virginia have brought a certain amount of clarity to the issue of race in America.  It might be useful to remind ourselves of some facts that, although well known, are often forgotten.  Africans were brought to this continent against their will for one reason, and one reason alone:  to serve as a controllable source of labor for Europeans seeking their fortune in the New World.  The legal institution of chattel slavery developed slowly during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  New World slavery was unlike traditional European and Asian slavery first in being hereditary, and then, over time, in being racial in its definition.  The Africans were not seized, brought to the Americas and enslaved because they were thought to be inferior.  Quite to the contrary, they were enslaved because they were thought to be good workers, and hence well worth their price and the cost of their upkeep. 

The slave owners did not hate their slaves, any more than they hated their mules or horses.  Because some of the slaves were used as servants – cooks, nurses, nannies, footmen, hairdressers, and handmaidens – the slave owners lived in very close proximity to at least some of their slaves, and on occasion they developed a fondness for them.  The male slave owners were often sexually attracted to their female slaves and forced themselves on them, thereby cheaply increasing the size of their slave holdings.

The slave owners drove their slaves mercilessly in the fields and beat them cruelly at will for the slightest disobedience, but they were by and large extremely careful not to kill them or maim them in ways that interfered with their work, because the slaves were expensive pieces of property, and a man would no more hang his slave on a tree by the neck than he would kill a recalcitrant mule.

All of this changed once the slaves were freed.  The slave owners could be easy and intimate with their slaves because there was a legally enforced absolute divide between the legal status of a white man and the legal status of a slave.  After liberation, the Whites were perpetually terrified of “uppity negroes,” of the divide being bridged, of Black men and women behaving as though they were the equals of White men and women.  What we now call segregation was the result:  separation of Whites and Blacks and domination of Blacks by Whites, maintained by law, by custom, and by force.

North America was a White Supremacist society from the early seventeenth century until the founding of the United States in the late eighteenth century.  The United States was then a de jure White Supremicist state – what is in other contexts called a White Settler state – for the first three quarters of a century of its existence, and then a de facto White Supremicist state for at least an additional century or so.  White Supremacy has been formally illegal and socially in question for only the past fifty years or so.

Hatred has fundamentally very little to do with White Supremacy.  White Supremacy is a policy of domination and economic superiority of Whites in a multi-racial society.  African-Americans are not worried about whether White people want to be friends.  Most of the African-Americans I know have quite enough friends, thank you very much.  African-Americans demand legal, economic, and political equality.  And that terrifies many Whites, who do not want to give up the superior legal, political, and economic position in American society that they acquired through being born White.

For all of these reasons, the Charlottesville events have been usefully clarifying.  It is not at all surprising that there is a very large and enthusiastic audience for Trump’s racism.  Anyone familiar with the history of this society both before and after the founding of the United States would expect as much. 

In the words of the old union song, Which side are you on?

Sunday, August 13, 2017


There has been a good deal of chatter online lately about the future prospects of the Democratic Party, focusing principally on the growing conflict between progressive and centrist groups and tendencies.  Not at all surprisingly, the Clinton forces, heirs to the Democratic leadership Council, have been badmouthing the Bernie supporters, who in turn have been dissing the Clintonite Establishment.  A cottage industry of Kamala Harris supporters has sprung up, hearts beat faster whenever Elizabeth Warren surfaces, Joe Biden has dipped his aging toe in the water, and meanwhile an astonishing increase in the number of local Democrats interested in public service has hopes for 2018 rising.  All of this is just what any observer of American politics would predict.

I would like to offer my amateur opinion about all of this, taking care to make clear that I am no sort of expert on the subject at all.  I have never run for any public office more exalted than School Committee [ran third in a three way race for two seats, lost on a recount by twelve votes], I have never worked for any political campaign beyond knocking on doors and entering data, and the closest I have ever come to big league politics was attending a lunch in Shutesbury, MA with a small circle of equally inexperienced lefties to discuss with Sam Bowles his chances for running for the 1st Congressional District when Silvio Conte retired [Sam decided against it, and the seat was won by John Olver, who held it for many years until he was redistricted.]  With those caveats, let me plunge in.

First, I think we should focus on 2018 and leave 2020 to the professionals and the wannabes for the time being.  The political situation is extremely unsettled, it is at this point an open question whether Trump will serve out his term, and the 2018 off year elections offer very exciting chances for those of us on the left.  For reasons I will lay out, I think this is an ideal time for an extremely forceful left-wing political push, even though I think the somewhat longer term prospects for left politics are questionable if not dim.  Let me explain.

Off year elections are determined by turnout.  Only a third of eligible voters actually bother to go to the polls in the off years.  Hence, voter enthusiasm is all.  Two things have given the left an enormous advantage in the competition for off year turnout.  The first, of course, is Trump himself whose appeal beyond a small base is dwindling, and who inspires loathing across a wide swath of the remainder of the electorate.  The second factor is health care.  Never mind the facts, the history, the details.  The American people have gotten it into their heads that the Republicans want to take away their health care.  Without giving the matter very much serious thought, they have come round to the conviction that health care is a natural human right.  Lefties have been saying that forever, alienating the chattering classes, appearing uncontrollably radical, losing elections.  All of a sudden, it seems that everyone agrees. 

MEDICARE FOR ALL.  That is a platform we can run on in 2018, it is a platform we can win on.  Never mind that there is not the slightest chance in the world of anything remotely like that being enacted.  A tidal wave of Democratic wins in 2018 would produce a usable majority in the House and a miniscule majority in the Senate.  Radical health care reform might pass a Democratically controlled House but it could never win fifty-one votes in the Senate, let along 60 votes to break a filibuster.  It doesn’t matter.  An anti-Trump pro-Health Care platform in 2018 could dramatically alter the political complexion of Congress.

If we actually took back the House and even the Senate, would it be enough?  I am reminded of the wise words spoken by a sobered up Paul Newman to a young, inexperienced Robert Redford in The Sting.  Redford wants Newman to teach him the Big Con so that he can get back at gangster Robert Shaw, who had Redford’s buddy Luther killed.  Newman agrees, but cautions him:  When it is all done, even if you take Shaw down, it won’t be enough, but it is all you are going to get, so you have to be willing to take it and walk away.

This is our moment on the left.  With Trump as the enemy and health care as the issue, we can win big.  Even if we do, it will not be enough, but it is what there is, and we will have to be willing to take it.


The polite, mannerly, country club racism of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is at base indistinguishable from the Alt-Right White Supremicist Neo-Nazism on display in Charlottesville, VA yesterday, save that the perpetrators of the Charlottesville violence run the risk of being arrested, whereas Sessions is the Attorney-General of the United States.  Let me say that again.  Sessions is the Attorney-General of the United States.  This is an appalling country.

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Those among you who live in the United States have probably seen reports of the confrontation in Charlottesville, VA between white supremicists and members of the Ku Klux Klan on one side and protesters against them on the other.  There has been a good deal of commentary to the effect that Trump’s presidency is empowering and legitimating the racists, and of course that is true.   But it is useful to remember that the American colonies were built on slave labor [as well as other forms of unfree labor] and lying at the heart of the United States is structural racism that persists to the present day.  Indeed, one of the reasons why America, alone among advanced capitalist nations, has never had a strong, successful socialist movement [my grandfather’s efforts to the contrary notwithstanding] is that after the slaves were freed, and four million men and women well prepared for industrial, agricultural, and craft labor entered the free labor market, white labor unions struck a devil’s bargain with employers accepting lower wages in return for an exclusion of the Black workers from the workplace.  Even such low wage jobs as department store sales clerk were for a long time closed to Black women, and the reason why Black Pullman Sleeping Car porters were often leaders in the Black community is that those service jobs were the best available to Black men, and hence drew the smartest and ablest men from the Black population.

The election of a Black president aroused, and right-wing media legitimated, already widespread deep seated racial prejudice.  Progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders need to embrace Black members of the working class, along with White workers who are prepared or can be brought to make common cause with them.  Identity politics is not in conflict with class politics.  In the United States, they are inseparable.

These are depressing times.


This report is worth reading.  The war fever being stoked by Trump is not matched by any change in U. S. military actions or preparations.   Also,  "Hey Man"'s observation is entirely correct.  Supposedly sober types like General Mattis speak casually of the genocidal destruction of the entire population of North Korea as though it were simply a technical matter.

Meanwhile, it appears Trump will offer Joe Manchin a cabinet job, allowing the newly declared Republican governor of West Virginia to appoint a Republican replacement, after which the Senate can pass their horrendous health care bill.  This is monstrously bad news.

Friday, August 11, 2017


The lives of millions of South Koreans, North Koreans, Japanese, and Americans depend on the ruler of North Korea being more rational than the President of the United States.  Can no one rid us of this narcissistic uncontrolled child?

Thursday, August 10, 2017


The down side of living in a retirement home [or CCRC, as we like to say] is that everyone is old.  The up side is that everyone is old [and still alive.]  Yesterday, while Susie and I were doing our bit on the communal 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle in the lobby of our building, a sprightly, pulled together lady walked up and introduced herself as a long time resident of the building.  She allowed as how she is ninety-nine!  I began to reevaluate my chances of living to see a turn to the left in American politics.


When Black people were dying of drug overdoses, it was a criminal justice problem, and the solution was to put in jail ever Black man the police could nail with a joint.  Now that White people are dying of drug overdoses, it is a public health problem, and the solution is counseling and medical treatment.


The little dog followed me home again this morning, so after Susie and I once more drove him home, I decided it was time to act.  Google tells me that the big gated house [4992 sq. ft. !] is owned by a Duke hospital surgeon.  I wrote the good doctor a letter explaining that much as I enjoy my quality time with his dog, I cannot keep driving him home, so unless he is confident that the dog can get home on his own [it is a male – my mistake], I think he should take steps [the doctor, not the dog, although Mike may be right that the dog has the upper hand in all of this.]  I shall be sorry to see him go.  


I was deeply saddened to read that F. Lee Bailey, the famous defense attorney, is nearly broke and working over a hair salon.  Why do I care? you might ask.  Because F. Lee Bailey was one of my classmates at Harvard in the early '50s.   I never knew Bailey, of course. Nor did I know Ted Kennedy or John Updike, also my classmates.  [I did actually know Wally Gilbert, who went on to win a Nobel Prize.]  Bailey never graduated.  He left after two years to join the Air Force  [it was during the Korean War.]  All of this was more than sixty-five years ago, and I could probably get away with claiming that I knew them all, but to quote Richard Nixon, "that would be wrong."

Wednesday, August 9, 2017


My remarks about North Korea prompted a number of interesting comments.  Let me address just one relatively minor but important issue.  At the height of the cold war between Russia and America, there was a very great deal of serious concern among the American military about the possibility that a Russian nuclear attack would, in several different ways, disrupt communications and the chain of command.  What would happen, American military planners asked, if Congress was “taken out” by a Soviet strike, making it impossible for even a select committee of the Senate to sign off on the use of nuclear weapons?  Mightn’t a Soviet attack disrupt communications between the President and the Joint Chiefs, or between the central military high command and the Commanders of nuclear submarines on patrol under the waters of the Atlantic or Pacific?  Would it prove impossible for the soldiers stationed in hardened ICBM silos in the Dakotas to double check a command to fire their missiles?  Would it be unfeasible to reprogram missiles to new targets after an attack?

These and many other questions were debated in think tanks, but the answers were hardly academic.  Software and hardware had to be designed to implement whatever strategic response the President and top military planners decided in advance in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

In the end, certainty was given priority over flexibility, and systems were designed and put in place to ensure: first, that only the President had the authority and capability to order the use of nuclear weapons; and second, that once a Presidential order was issued it would be conveyed without intermediation or delay to the military personnel charged with carrying it out.

As a consequence, if Trump were to order a nuclear strike, there would be no period of debate, delay, reconsideration, and double checking before the order was carried out.  Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis would not be able to slow walk the order while Trump was calmed down, flattered, reassured about the size of his hands, and propped up in front of an ego-confirming crowd of supporters.  We could of course hope that if Trump demanded the nuclear codes, someone would offer him a dud phone into which he could shout orders like a crazy street person yelling into an unconnected handset in a street corner booth.  We could hope, but nothing in the system in existence offers much reason for confidence.

One other matter of great importance about which I will say only a word or two.  As part of an interesting exchange in the comments section, LFC writes:  “The definition of 'existential threat,' as with the definition of any threat, should take into account what can reasonably be known with a high degree of confidence about intentions, not simply capabilities. Thus, for example, far from the UK and France posing an existential threat to every country in the world as the post says, the UK and France do not pose an existential threat to any country since there is no evidence at all that the UK and French governments, or really any conceivable UK and French govts, intend a first use of their nuclear weapons. (Indeed I'd guess that UK and French nuclear doctrines explicitly renounce or abjure first use, though I'd have to check on that.)

To say that every nuclear armed country by definition poses an existential threat to every other country is like saying that anyone who chooses to carry a gun in a place where that is legal poses an existential threat to everyone who does not carry a gun. That's not the case; it depends on the intentions, and the mental condition, of the gun carrier.”

I am afraid in my haste I did not make myself clear.  The term “existential threat” was meant to convey not the likelihood of the threat being actualized but the magnitude of the threat and the impossibility of defending against it.  Of course one must use what information one has when estimating the likelihood of a threat being actualized.  The point is that a single madman in a President’s chair can, in a world of conventional weapons, start a world war, which is terrible indeed.  But a single madman in the President’s chair of a nuclear armed nation can start a civilization ending war, which is to say that such a person poses an existential threat.  Do France and Great Britain have mad rulers?  No.  Could they?  Well, America does.


I need to say more about the North Korean crisis, not because I know any more, but simply because it is far and away the most serious threat now confronting the world.  Let me repeat what I said yesterday.  Every nation armed with deliverable nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to every other nation in the world, because nuclear weapons cannot be defended against.  I wrote and spoke and argued and protested about this almost sixty years ago as a young man, and nothing has changed.  Russia poses an existential threat to every nation in the world.  The United States poses an existential threat to every nation in the world.  China, Great Britain, France and Israel pose existential threats to every nation in the world.  Pakistan and India pose regional threats [I do not know whether they possess intercontinental ballistic missiles or long range bombers or nuclear submarines].  When North Korea succeeds in weaponizing usable long range missiles, it too will pose an existential threat to every nation in the world.

Nuclear weapons cannot be defended against.  The only thing any nation can do is to try to deter nuclear armed nations from attacking it.  Any nuclear armed nation whose government and military forces fall into the hands of a suicidal or irrational, hence undeterrable, ruler can at any moment launch a nuclear attack even if the cost is that ruler’s own destruction.

For reasons that I shan’t trouble you with now, the command and control structure of America’s nuclear forces is deliberately and intentionally designed to make it very difficult to delay or countermand a presidential order to launch a nuclear attack.

It is within the realm of possibility that Donald Trump, obsessed with negative press coverage and ill-tempered because rain is interrupting his golf, could from his vacation retreat issue an order to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons.  If he does that, it is extremely unlikely that the trio of generals around him will intercede to reverse or simply “mislay” that order.

It is my armchair guess that Donald Trump does not care at all about the lives that such an attack would cost, American lives as well as North Korean, South Korean, and Japanese lives.  My guess is that he cares about nothing save whether he looks big and important and powerful on television, in social media, and in the tabloid press.  This is the second biggest crisis since World War II [the biggest was the Cuban Missile Crisis, brought to us by young, handsome, well-educated charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy.]

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


We are at a very dangerous moment in the world.  Let me be clear.  It would be better if North Korea did not have nuclear weapons.  It would also be better if the United States, Russia, Pakistan, India, France, the United Kingdom, China, Israel, and Iran did not have nuclear weapons.  But they do [save for Iran, apparently], and there is no reliable defense against nuclear weapons, which means that mutual deterrence is our only hope for a world not devastated by them.  There is nothing special about North Korea.  It is just one more nation, the seventh by my count, that has chosen to invest money and effort in the old technology of deliverable nuclear weapons.

What can we do about North Korea?  The same thing we can do about Israel or France or Russia, and the same thing they can do about us:  we can make it clear that we do not challenge North Korea’s existence, and will respond to a nuclear attack with a nuclear response.  This is called Mutual Assured Destruction, appropriately referred to as MAD. 

Is there any way to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?  Inasmuch as I do not speak or read Korean [although one of my books has been translated into that language] and have never been, I believe, within a thousand miles of that nation, I have not a clue, but I would guess not, since if they were to do so, the United States might very well undertake to overthrow the ruling government.

At this moment, we are dependent on a trio of generals to manage and control the impulsive narcissistic child in the White House.  That summarizes pretty succinctly the miserable state to which we have fallen.


My new morning walk takes me, after a series of little streets in Carolina Meadows, out onto Whippoorwill Lane, a country road most of which, after the Farrington Mill intersection, is a long secluded dead end   The entire walk, to the end of Whippoorwill and home again, is roughly 3.6 miles, a bit shorter than my old walk, but quite pleasant nonetheless.  Near the end of Whippoorwill, I walk past a grand house [grand for this neighborhood] with a pair of gated driveways, guarded by a large Great Dane who cannot, I trust, get through the gates.  The Great Dane has siblings, a little calico cat and a small black cheerful dog of mixed ancestry who once trotted across the street to say hello.

Yesterday, I walked earlier than usual, starting at about 5:15 a.m.  When I passed the big house, the little black dog came over again to say hello.  I scratched her behind the ears, petted her, and told her how lovely she is.   Then I continued on my way.  The little black dog followed along, wagging her tail.  I thought, “Well, she will stop after fifty feet and go back,” but she kept on right to the end of Whippoorwill Lane.  Then she turned as I did and walked back with me to her house.

But she did not stop when we had reached her home.  She kept right on trotting beside me.  I tried telling her to go home, but she just took this as more attention and wagged her tail even more vigorously.  She followed me past the corn field, past the riding stables, all the way to the intersection with Farrington Mill.  By this time I was getting worried.  Although she is well fed and obviously a house dog, not a stray dog, she has no collar, no i.d. tag. 

She followed me to the entrance to Carolina Meadows, she followed me as I turned from street to street, she followed me into my building, she followed me onto the elevator, she followed me off the elevator, and she followed me right into my apartment, delighting and astonishing Susie.  We gave her some water and took her back down to our car, which she hopped into as though she had done it a hundred times.  Then we drove back to the gated house, pushed her out of the car, and drove away very fast.

This morning it started to rain before I reached the gated house and I turned back.  The flesh is weak, and tomorrow, if she follows me home again, I cannot be certain that I will do the right thing and take her home.  I mean, they can’t be very nice to her if she is so ready to follow me home, right?

Monday, August 7, 2017


David Auerbach’s amusing summary of a sci-fi story published sixty-three years ago in Galaxy took me on a trip down memory lane.  My second venture into print [the first was a letter to the Harvard Crimson] was a fervent defence of Aristotle, published in Galaxy’s principal competition, Astounding Science Fiction. As a boy, I was an avid reader of science fiction. In the 40’s and 50’s, the leading sci fi publications were two stubby little monthly magazines with nubby pages called Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction. All the big names appeared there, including L. Ron Hubbard, who announced the birth of his new psychological therapy, Dianetics, in a pair of what were at least supposedly non-fiction articles. (Trouble with the law for practicing medicine without a license led Hubbard to transform Dianetics into the religion of Scientology, protected by the First Amendment.) One of the oddities of the sci fi world in those days was the popularity of something called Non-Aristotelian logic. There was even a famous novel by the great sci fi writer A.E. van Vogt, which, if memory serves, appeared originally as a serial in a predecessor to Astounding Science Fiction. All of this was connected in some mysterious manner with the then fashionable theories of Count Alfred Korzybski, which went by the name “General Semantics.”

By 1953, I was a serious student of Mathematical Logic, and the casual slandering of Aristotle by those entranced by many-valued logics and other arcana offended my deeply conservative soul. The result was this letter to Astounding Science Fiction.

To the Editor:

I am a student of Logic and Philosophy at Harvard University. I have been reading and enjoying science fiction for many years, now, and generally have no complaints or criticisms to make. For some time, however, I have read with increasing annoyance the many editorials, and the like, on so-called “Aristotelian Logic,” and the proposed Null-A logics. Your editorial of April, ‘53, seems to provide as good an opportunity as any to get a few simple facts straight, so that we can dispense with this nonsense about non-Aristotelian logic.

Your editorial, in effect, says that while all human action is governed by, and completely describable in the framework of, an Aristotelian Logic, human thought is capable of “grays and shadings and tones,” which it is even possible to communicate to other human beings. You then go on to make the error, apparently indigenous to science fiction, of asserting that these “grays and shadings” are characterised and governed by a multivalued logic. I do not know just what the fascination of multi-valued logics is to the modern scientist and science-fiction writer, but their misuse and incorrect application is perhaps the most common modern error. Since most of your stories are chemically, physically, and biologically correct wherever possible, I think we ought to set the record straight for logic.

First let me say unequivocally that not one of the conditions mentioned by you in this or any other article, nor any of the conditions ever described or alluded to in your magazine or any other magazine, can be characterised by anything but two-valued Aristotelian Logic! Furthermore, probably 99% of the errors can be traced to one fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and claims of two-valued logic.

Let us consider the old situation of the three buckets of water, filled respectively with hot, lukewarm, and cold water. Now, it is said, this is a situation in which we need three values to describe the situation, for it is not a true-false, on-off, hot-cold set-up, but a yes-maybe-no, hot-medium-cold one. That this point of view is subscribed to by you can be seen from the passage in which you say of Aristotelian logic that it “insisted that everything in the world was either pure white or pure black,” and later, that “his every act must necessarily be on a yes-or-no basis.”

In other words, you seem to think that Aristotle was unaware of greys, or lukewarm water, or of indecision. You also seem to think that he, and Aristotelian logicians, wish to restrict the world to what in ordinary language are called “opposites.” Your view, however, is the result of the most elementary misreading of Aristotle and the logicians. In fact, it is so simple a mistake that I am afraid it will almost come as an anti-climax. To state it as simply as possible, no one ever claimed that water was either hot or cold. They either claimed that it was hot or not-hot. And by not-hot is meant anything but hot, including lukewarm. Similarly, no one has ever claimed that things are either black or white. They have claimed only that they are either black or not-black, where not-black may include any shade of grey, green, chartreuse or purple you like. It may even include those things which are not any colour at all, like sounds or tastes – there, incidentally, would have been a more convincing argument for three-valued logics, although it would have been equally incorrect.

As for your shadings of human thought, the same applies. Just as the existence of thousands of alternative actions in a given situation does not change the fact that any given one of them is either done or not-done, so too the existence of even a continuous shade of feelings and states-of mind does not change the fact that for any given one of them, a person either feels or not-feels it.

Perhaps one of the sources of your error is the failure to notice that the values, truth and falsehood, are applied by logicians to sentences, not to situations. Thus, one may have a description sentence for each of a thousand possible events, each one stating that that event has taken place, but once those sentences have been composed, it is absolutely and unequivocally true that each one is either true or false. The shading comes not in the “values” but in the situations described by those sentences, and Aristotelian logic is as alive to such facts of life as modern science fiction.

In short, the solution to the “problem” stated at the end of your editorial is that it doesn’t exist. Our actions and feelings are equally shaded, and equally characterisable completely within old-fashioned Aristotelian Logic. As for why that fact is so, the best answer I have seen to date can be found in Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” but that is another, and vastly more complicated, question – Robert Wolff.