My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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

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Saturday, September 30, 2017


The situation in Puerto Rico is appalling and Trump's response is despicable.  All  the things that have been said by progressive commentators are true.  What more is there to say?  It will be a miracle if Puerto Rico recovers sufficiently to sustain a genuine economy and community.  My "vagrant thought" of September 21st may well prove true.  Once again I am reminded how little difference it makes that I [and countless others] express opinions.

As for ex-Secretary Price, what matters is not his luxury trips but his successful efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act.  Across this nation, ugliness and racism and wanton cruelty reign.  Our only hope is to somehow persaude millions of slackards to take the trouble to vote in the next round of elecions, so that we can regain some measure of political power and begin to reverese the damage.

Yesterday, our across the hall neighbor, Addie Posner, had a birthday.  She is a friendly lady with macular degeneration that interferes with her sight.  It seems she has just turned ninety-five!  It gives me hope that I can live long enough to see a somewhat better world before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Friday, September 29, 2017


In 1990, I founded University Scholarships for South African Students, or USSAS, a one-man effort to raise money for bursaries for poor Black young men and women in South Africa who been admitted to historically Black universities but could not afford to matriculate.  Over the next twenty-five years, during almost forty trips to South Africa, I met a wide assortment of South Africans.  Quite the most unforgettable character was Renfrew Christie, a White English-speaking political scientist with an Oxford degree who spent a number of years in jail for his part in the effort to blow up a nuclear power reactor.  For many years, Renfrew served as the Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of the Western Cape, one of the best historically Black universities in the country.

Since his retirement, Renfrew has been circulating interesting material to a circle of friends, among whom I am privileged to count myself as one.  Yesterday, he sent me a link to a fascinating document, prepared by a firm called CapGemini, which I recommend to you.  It details the growth world-wide in the numbers and affluence of HNWI, which is to say High Net Worth Individuals.  Its concern is not, as you might expect, to highlight the appalling wealth inequality in the world, but rather to warn wealth managers that BigTech, which is to say data driven advice about investing, is cutting into the market share and profits of traditional money mnanagers.

I cannot create a link, but if you Google World Wealth report 2017 and go to Capgemini, you can find it.

Take a look at some of the tables and charts and such.  The amount of money floating around the world looking for a home is staggering.  CapGemini predicts that it will soon reach one hundred trillion dollars.  


Kyla Lafleur writes "Oh Bob, your arrogance squeals like nails on a chalkboard between and within the lines of almost everything you write on this blog. But we think you are great anyway.”  This very much reassured me that my readers understand me.

The answer to the Pop Quiz is this:  Each of us has a public face, a front, as we say, which means not only our official persona but the front of our bodies [as opposed to the back or the behind, which is private, covered up, dirty, but secretly enticing and exciting].  We try very hard to communicate the lie that this front is the real person.  But we are always fascinated, when we look at other people, by what lies behind that public face, that front.  Most often, the discovery of what lies behind a person’s front causes us to lower our opinion of the person, to say, disapprovingly or dismissively, “Oh, that front is not what he or she is really like.”  However,  with some people, to whom we accord a special or elevated status, this process of re-assessment is reversed.  When we discover the secret weaknesses or foibles of someone we admire, those imperfections make him or her more human, more accessible, without lowering our opinion at all.

When I speak openly about aspects of my personality or behavior that would ordinarily be kept private so as not to incur disapproval, I am implicitly asserting that I am one of those special people whose private failings amuse us or make the person seem human.  In short, my confession of envy of Rawls’ reputation is an expression of arrogance.

Well, enough about me.  Let’s talk about you.  What do you think of me?

Thursday, September 28, 2017


I am curious about my readership.  This business of blogging is very hard for me, because I cannot see you, see how you respond, hear you as you comment.  It is all really odd.

So here is my pop quiz.  In my last post, I confessed that I am envious of Rawls' fame.  Is there  anyone among my readers who understands that this confession [not the envy, the confession of it] is an expression of my arrogance?


I should like to take a few moments to respond to several comments and also to explain my approach to Rawls’ work. I talk a good deal about Rawls’ A Theory of Justice for four reasons:  First, because he is by common agreement the most influential social and political theorist in the Anglo-American philosophical world during the last one hundred years and as a political philosopher, I feel a certain obligation to engage with his theories in whatever way I think is appropriate; Second, because Rawls’ theoretical efforts bear an interesting relationship to Kant’s moral theory, which I have of course been very engaged with for sixty years, and I find it rewarding to think through the structure of his argument in that regard;  Third, because Rawls claims, and really never deep down gives up the claim, that he is proving a theorem in Bargaining Theory, a subject about which I know a good deal, and I enjoyed writing a book showing that the theorem was invalid [this, pace Jerry Fresia’s comment about puzzles];  and Finally because I am secretly envious of Rawls for achieving the reputation that I never did in the field of political philosophy [O.K., so now it is not so secret.]

I am actually not at all taken by Rawls’ interminable, endlessly revised elaborations of the fretwork and detail of his bloated theory.  A Theory of Justice is, as I have several times remarked, a slender monograph in Game Theory wearing the philosophical equivalent of a cinematic fat suit.  Since I am not particularly sympathetic to Rawls’ view of modern society, his opinions about all manner of things do not arouse my interest.  But his original idea, to overcome the standoff between utilitarianism and intuitionism by invoking the social contract tradition modernized by Game Theory, was brilliant, in my judgment, and that is worth discussing.

So, whether Rawls did or did not endorse the Welfare State or Democratic Socialism at some point in his career is of no importance to me.  If I seek inspiration of a socio-political sort, I read Marx rather than Rawls, or even Mannheim and Weber [neither of whom Rawls gives any evidence of having read seriously.]

With regard to my little thought experiment about what U. S. Gross Domestic Income would amount to if divided equally among all 330 million Americans, the point was not to suggest that as a realistic political platform, but to raise doubts about the unquestioned assumption that big league inequality in income is somehow required to get the right people into the right jobs.  My point was that because America is so phenomenally productive [as is every other modern post-industrial national economy], relatively small variations in wage levels could probably do the job rather well.  Certainly nothing remotely resembling the present income pyramid is required

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


I have just received a request from a professor of philosophy teaching in Qom, Iran, for permission to translate my book on Kant's First Critique into Persian!  He notes that Iran does not recognize copyright laws but feels that it would be "moralic" to ask for my permission.  Needless to say, I agreed.

Monday, September 25, 2017


I clicked on the wrong thing and deleted a long comment about my last post.  Would the person who posted it please re-post it.  My apologies.  I am such a klutz!


Is the US economy sufficiently productive so that an absolutely equal distribution of Gross National Income to the 330 million Americans would offer each worker enough so that he or she would be willing to do the job for which he or she was best suited, assuming some small adjustments for night work and the like, as suggested in comments?  Well, GNI is currently about 18.75 trillion dollars.  That works out to a bit less than $60,000 per person per year, or $240,000 for a household of four.  I think the answer is Yes.  Oh, I am down with paying LeBron James more, and also Serena Williams and Meryl Streep and Bill Gates and Keith Olberman.  What the hell.  


My remarks about Rawls sparked a quite interesting flurry of comments.  There is one point I want to make in response.  LFC says, “if in fact there are no inequalities that will work to the advantage of 'the least favored', or no inequalities that are necessary, for example, to induce talented people to take certain jobs, then his principle(s) will yield an equal distribution of income and wealth. “  That is correct, and it explains why some people have chosen to read Rawls as proposing, or at least legitimating, a radically egalitarian alternative to contemporary society.  

It is clear that Rawls does not think no inequalities are required to induce the right people to compete for the jobs for which they are superbly suited, but then, it is often the case that philosophers argue for theses whose implications and applications are other than what they expected.  For me, inasmuch as it is the logic of Rawls’ argument that interests me, the important point is that Rawls’ argument for the Two Principles requires that there be significant inequalities.  I do not want to go too far into the weeds to show that, but those interested can take a look at paragraph 6 of section 26 of A Theory of Justice and try to figure out why what Rawls says there has the consequence I say it does.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


A bit more than two years ago, on July 12, 2015, in a post discussing John Rawls’ well-known theory of justice, I introduced the notion of an inequality surplus, which I suggested lies at the heart of that theory.  On my walk this morning, I was delivering, in my mind, a talk that I called “A  Game-Theoretic Analysis and Critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice,” in which I made much of this notion of an inequality surplus and called it into question.  When I coined this term, my focus was on Rawls, not on the larger question of what a socialist society might look like, but the analysis I offered there is directly relevant to this very important matter, and it occurred to me that I ought perhaps to revisit my remarks and expand upon them.  Let me begin by quoting some of what I wrote two years ago:

“The centerpiece of the theory is the two principles for the general regulation of society that, according to Rawls, would be unanimously chosen by individuals engaged in what Game Theorists call a Bargaining Game.   Here is the passage in which Rawls first introduces those principles:

The conception of justice which I want to develop may be stated in the form of two principles as follows: first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone's advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.

The central idea of these principles is this:  Modern society consists of large-scale bureaucratic organizations -- corporations, universities, hospitals, government offices, armies, and so forth -- in which there are clearly defined roles to which attach specified duties and compensations.  The default baseline situation, we may imagine, is one in which all the roles receive the same compensation -- a situation of absolute equality.  However, if the ablest individuals with the best sets of talents and skills are drawn into certain key positions, the institutions will function much more efficiently -- to be put it as simply as possible, the net output of the institution will be higher.  Now, to ensure that these especially talented or well-prepared individuals end up in those key positions, it is necessary to pay them higher salaries, and this is an element of inequality.  But the gain from their greater efficiency will be such that after they receive their added compensation, there will be something left over that can be given to everyone else [or to the least advantaged representative individual, depending on which version of Rawls' theory we are considering.]

Let us call this something extra the "inequality surplus" [not Rawls' term, by the way.]  Assuming, as Rawls does, that the individuals in the society are "not envious," which is to say assuming that those getting less in the way of compensation than the key individuals do not begrudge them their higher salaries so long as they themselves are getting more than they would without the productive efforts of those key individuals, everyone will endorse this system.  And that, in a nutshell, without all the baroque elaborations, is Rawls' argument.

Since this is rather abstract, let me restate it by way of a hypothetical example.  Consider a manufacturing firm that makes washer-dryers.  The employees, we may suppose for simplicity's sake, are divided into executives who direct the operations of the firm, production line workers who assemble the washer-dryers from components delivered to the factory, and loading dock workers who unload the components when they are delivered by truck to the back door of the factory and load the finished washer-dryers onto trucks waiting to take them to retail outlets.

Clearly, the earnings of the company will be much greater if those with special skills, training, and talent for corporate management are assigned to the executive jobs, and that fact will make it possible to raise everyone's salary.  But there is a problem.  Rawls does not identify this problem, but his theory makes no sense at all unless we assume that the problem exists, so we are justified, I think, in assuming it.

The problem is this:  After the professionally administered aptitude tests are scored, and the individuals with special management talents are identified, they are offered jobs as managers.  But when the selected individuals are invited into the executive suites, they say, "Thanks, but no thanks.  I would rather work on the loading dock." 

"What is this?"  you say incredulously.  "Where on earth does Rawls say that in A Theory of Justice?"  Well, nowhere of course.  But he must be assuming it, even though he doesn't know it, because if those tapped for management actually prefer to be in management [or, technically, are indifferent between executive suite and loading dock, but never mind that], WHY PAY THEM MORE TO TAKE THE JOBS?

"But it is not just to pay them no more than loading dock workers, and Rawls says his theory is a theory of justice!” you protest.  "Ah," I reply, "you have not read Rawls as carefully as you ought.  Rawls does not start with a pre-systematic concept of justice that he assumes without argument.  He starts with a collection of rationally self-interested individuals who, according to him, will out of self-interest choose these two principles, and the fact that they will out of self-interest choose these principles MAKES THEM the principles of justice."

There is no reason for me, a rationally self-interested individual, to approve a system of unequal compensation unless I believe that doing so will draw into key positions individuals whose greater efficiency will end up benefitting ME.   

Does anyone at all really believe that offered a choice between corner offices in the executive suite and nine-to-five jobs on the loading dock, potential executives will opt for the loading dock unless they are paid hefty salaries well above that of their lesser brothers and sisters out back?  Rawls does.  He must.  Otherwise the centerpiece of his theory collapses.”

The central notion is the inequality surplus.  Unequal compensation, Rawls believes, is required to draw into key jobs those with special talents or acquired abilities, whose superior performance increases output more than what is required to compensate them, leaving a surplus that can be distributed to others in a manner that leads everyone to prefer the structure of unequal compensation to the baseline of equal compensation with lower total output and hence universally lower compensation.  In short, Rawls assumes, self-interest will lead everyone to prefer inequality, including those who get the short end of the longer stick.

Rawls’ focus is on the motivation of the losers in this competition.  They too must prefer the outcome in order for his argument to work.  But let us focus instead on the winners, those who secure the better paid positions.  Rawls, following virtually everyone in the field of Sociology of his day, simply assumes that higher pay is required to get the especially talented to take the demanding jobs.  Is this even notionally plausible?

Let us set to one side one irrelevant consideration, namely the cost in time and effort and money required to acquire the productive skills.  Clearly, the self-interested individuals assumed by Rawls’ theory will not spend many years and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on special education or training unless they are in some way compensated for that expenditure.  But in a well-run socialist society such costs will be socialized, as indeed many of them are even in capitalist societies.

In effect, we can imagine talented young men and women being asked the following question:  Would you rather spend four or six or eight years learning to be a manufacturing executive or a doctor or a lawyer or a college professor, during which time your room, board, tuition, and pocket money will be paid by the state, after which you will work until age 65 [or whatever] as a manufacturing executive or doctor or lawyer or college professor, or would you like to start working right now as a garbage collector or office secretary or production line worker or truck driver, working until age 65 [or whatever], earning in either case the same salary with the same benefits? 

In order for Rawls’ argument to make any sense at all [even before we get into the arcana of the Veil of Ignorance and the Strains of Commitment and the rest], he must assume that the specially talented young men and women will in general reply, “Well, if the pay’s the same, I’d just as soon be a truck driver, thank you very much.”  In which case, a bidding war starts, with society raising the pay for doctors and professors and business executives until their indifference between those jobs and truck driving or garbage collection or whatever is overwhelmed by their desire for the higher salary, and they say, reluctantly, “Well, all right, if you put it that way, I will consent to spend my life as a Professor of Philosophy rather than as a departmental secretary in a Philosophy Department.”  I say “reluctantly,” because Rawls’ theory requires that they be paid just enough to get them to consent.  Anything beyond that would, he says, be unjust [which is to say, would not be chosen by the rationally self-interested actors in the Original Position.]

I suggest that put this way, the assumption, one that Rawls shares with the entire world of sociologists and economists, is downright nutty.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


My preparations are now complete for the talk I shall give at Columbia a week from next Friday.  Here is the poster that has been created for the event.

After reviewing several familiar defenses of liberal education, I shall offer an entirely new and rather unexpected defense, riffing on a passage in Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.  I shall be very interested to see the response.  The talk will be recorded, by the way, and uploaded onto YouTube.

Thursday, September 21, 2017


If the appalling devastation in Puerto Rico drives large numbers of Puerto Ricans to transfer to the States, as they have a right to do, inasmuch as they are citizens, their decision to move could alter the politics of several states.


Donald Trump stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and threatened to kill 25 million North Koreans.  He is a war criminal.  I do not have anything witty or insightful or scholarly to say about him or about the scores of millions of people who elected him.  We must do whatever we can to limit the damage he is able to inflict on this country and on the world.

Obviously no one of us can do much, but we have to do something.  Does anyone think it would be helpful for me to resurrect the Friday Lists?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Nine days ago, I posted a lighthearted account of my engagement with jigsaw puzzles, in the course of which I referred to a resident of our building who, I said, is "the maven of the puzzles."  She is an eighty-five year old woman named Mary Ann Clarkson, a cheerful, heavyset woman devoted to progressive politics and the Rachel Maddow show.  When we moved in, Mary Ann informed me in a conspiratorial voice that there was a "deplorable" in the building [a Trump supporter] and that we did not talk politics when she was around.  Mary Ann has been my favorite among the many new acquaintances I have made since moving to Carolina Meadows.

Mary Ann suffers from congestive heart failure.  I learned this morning that she passed away suddenly yesterday while visiting her daughter.  Somehow, the light seems to have gone out over the puzzle table in the lobby.

Someone reading this blog alerted Mary Ann that I had referred to her in a post, and she was very pleased.  It is a small thing, but I am happy that in this way I was able to let her know a bit of what she had so quickly come to mean to me.

I shall miss Mary Ann Clarkson.

Monday, September 18, 2017


My elegaic remarks about my books elicited a lovely array of responses.  Clearly, as I would have suspected, I am not alone.  When I retired and moved from a house to an apartment, I went through something of the thinning out process that David Auerbach describes.  I was about to get rid of one book until I noticed that it was a presentation copy from the author.  Whoops!  I hung on to it.

Carl, my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, was indeed named for Barrington Moore.  Barry was his godfather, a fact that led to one of my favorite stories about Tobias when he was very little and still Toby.  His mother and I took him and his big brother, Patrick, to see Barry and Betty Moore at their Cambridge home.  When we got there, we discovered that Barry's closest friend, Herbert Marcuse, was staying with them.  Herbert had recently lost his wife and was rather lonely.  Barry had no idea at all what to do with a three year old [he had no children.]  All he could think to do by way of play was to talk German to to little Toby!  But Herbert was in his element.  He sat down on the floor, took a globe off a desk, and spun it around, pointing to one country after another.  Little Toby was enthralled.  When it came time to leave, we took the children out to the big old Chevy wagon parked at the curb.  Barry and Herbert came out to say goodbye.  As he was climbing into the back seat to be put in his car seat, Toby turned, looked up, waved his hand, and said "Bye, Herbie."  Marcuse was charmed.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


When I went off to Harvard in 1950, my parents and I had an agreement.  They would pay the tuition [$600] and the room and board [roughly the same, depending on which House you ended up in], and I would earn my pocket money by doing odd jobs.  I baby sat [and read Anatole France’s Penguin Island one evening], scrubbed floors, and twice a year inventoried the Robert Hall clothing store [a fabulous job that paid $1.25 an hour.]  I even sold hot dogs one Saturday at a Harvard football game, but since the concession was under the stands, I never actually saw a play.  I wanted to go down to New London to Connecticut College for Women to see Susie as often as I could, so I had precious little to spend on anything else. As a consequence, I never actually bought books in college.  I read them in Lamont Library and took notes.  One of the few books I acquired as an undergraduate was a handsome copy, two volumes in one, of Harry Austryn Wolfson’s magisterial work The Philosophy of Spinoza.  I read it in the library while taking his course my sophomore year, but that year I won the Detur Book Prize for getting good grades and chose Wolfson’s book as my reward.  Years later, I received a fund raising appeal from Harvard to support the Detur Fund, and even though I routinely threw away Harvard's endless appeals, I thought I owed them something and sent along a hundred dollars to the fund.  One result of this undergraduate poverty was that when I started to actually buy books, I grew quite fond of them.

By now, as you will imagine, I have acquired a goodly number of books.  Nothing like so many as some scholars, but enough to fill many running feet of floor to ceiling bookshelves. 

Here is a photo of one stretch of those shelves, to the left and behind my desk in my study.  This morning, I pushed back from my desk and swiveled to look idly at the shelves, and my eye fell on a three volume translation of a minor nineteenth century French novel, Les Mystères de Paris, by Eugene Sue.  This is one of the relatively few books in my collection that I have never actually read.  I bought it because Marx and Engels, in their hilarious juvenile work, The Holy Family, spend a good deal of time tearing it to pieces, and I thought I ought to own it.

Then I began to run my eyes over the shelves to spend some time visiting with old friends.  My favorite book of the entire collection is the stubby fat black-bound edition of Hume’s Treatise with Selby-Bigge’s indispensable and exhaustive notes.  I have a sensuous relationship with books, an antique passion that young people probably cannot comprehend.  The paper of Selby-Bigge’s Treatise is a light cream color with a slightly nubby feel to it.  I am an inveterate marginal commentator of the books I read and the pages of the Treatise absorb just enough of the ink to blur what I write ever so slightly.  My copy has been read and re-read, covered with red and black and blue underlinings and comments, until the binding has fallen off.  My first copy of the Kemp Smith translation of the Critique was a graduation present from my two undergraduate friends and fellow madrigalists, Richard Eder and Michael Jorrin, inscribed “Each even line from Dick, each odd line from Mike.”  When it too fell apart, I had it professionally re-bound, which preserved it but made it hard to open, so I bought a second copy.  When that fell apart, I replaced it with a paperback version, which survives intact.  The original copy is a living record of my struggles with that immortal work.  There are places where I have raised a mystified marginal doubt in one ink, next to which, in different ink, is written “Oh yes, I see now.”  After all these years, I have no idea either what my original puzzlement was or what the later enlightenment consisted in.

And so they march on, shelf after shelf.  Some are presentation copies, such as Barrington Moore’s great work, The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.  Others are beaten up second hand copies that I found in the recesses of bookstores, like my very own copy of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which, according to the flyleaf notation, I bought in January, 1959.  The Index is the Catholic Church’s official list of books the faithful are not to read.  It is a fascinating document, heavily loaded up with obscure works of deviant theology in Italian that the Vatican priests would have known about.  The only English novel I could find listed is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, I assume on the theory that if you list the first one, it follows recursively that all the others are included.  My copy came with a paperclipped page of addenda that did not make the edition.  The first item on that list is “Sartre, Jean Paul, Opera Omnia,” which pretty well takes care of him.

These are my friends, my oldest and best friends.  I do not visit them very often, but they are with me always and I know that should I grow lonely, they await me, quite forgiving of my lack of attention.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


While I try to think of something consequential to say, let me get a few vagrant thoughts off my mind and into cyberspace.

First:  In these terrible times, it is extremely important to take any pleasures life offers where and when they are offered.  Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Attorney-General of the United States, is arguably the most despicable person in America -- not the most evil, not the one first in line for eternal damnation, just the most despicable.  It is now reported that immediately upon the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, Donald Trump exploded and cursed out Sessions, calling him an idiot and suggesting that he resign.  Sessions later said it was the worst public humiliation of his life.  Now that isn't much, I admit, but God, it is something!  We must be thankful for small favors.  As William Kristol said when he first met Sarah Palin, it made a little thrill run up my leg.

Second:  I pose the following question as a general conundrum, suitable for debate on this blog.  Suppose it turns out that the 800,000 Dreamers can be saved from harassment and deportation at the price of an appropriation to build Trump's useless, worthless boondoggle, THE WALL.  Taking into consideration, on one side, the very real value of protecting the dreamers, and on the other side, the very real political danger of giving Trump any victories at all, should the Democrats take the deal?

Third:  Can anyone offer concrete, factual reasons for me to believe that Serena Williams will return from motherhood to play competitive tennis again?

Finally:  Can anyone explain to me the seemingly limitless TV fascination with The Undead?

Friday, September 15, 2017


Having taken my stroll down memory lane, let me now address the substance of the Institute for Policy Studies paper that provoked the memories.  The paper, 30 pages in all, is called THE ROAD TO ZERO WEALTH:  How the Racial Divide is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class.  The paper is a statistical analysis of the extraordinary racial inequality in household wealth, far more extreme than the better known racial inequality in household income, on which I commented several days ago.

The statistics are astounding.  Median household wealth, which is to say the value of possessions minus debt, is measured in two ways:  with or without so-called durable goods such as furniture and cars.  Median household wealth of white households [measured in 2013 dollars] is $134,000 with durable goods, $116,000 without.  Median household wealth for black households is $11,000 with durable goods, just $1,700 without!  Nor is education the great equalizer.  The median white household headed by someone with a high school diploma has $64,200 in wealth.  By contrast, the median black household headed by someone with a college degree has only $37,600 in wealth [$32,600 for an Hispanic family headed by a college graduate.]

The authors show that median household wealth for Black and Hispanic families has been declining for thirty years.  Employing straight line projections [which I consider somewhat questionable], they conclude that a generation in the future, as America becomes a majority non-white country, median household wealth for non-whites will approach zero.

This is what is known, in other contexts, as structural racism.  Charles Murray and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the contrary notwithstanding, the gap between white and non-white wealth is not traceable to personal failings, to cultural inadequacies, to a lack of educational credentials, or to drugs in the hood.

What does explain the astonishing disparities?  The authors of the study say very little about that, a fact that I found disappointing.  However, they do allude to one of the causal factors, namely the disparity in home ownership, and I think we can elaborate on that.

For most American households, home ownership is the principal way of accumulating wealth.  This is a very familiar fact, but it is worth spelling it out a bit.  Typically, a family buys a house by paying a down payment of as much as 20% of the purchase price, but more often 10% or even less, and then slowly buys the house – “pays off the mortgage” – over twenty or thirty years.  Each monthly payment consists of two portions:  the interest owing on the remaining principal, and a payment, very small at first, on the owed principal.  The mortgage is structured so that each monthly payment is the same, but over time, as principal owing is paid off, less and less of the payment goes for interest, more for principal, until, at the end of the term of the mortgage, the household owns the house outright.  A home mortgage is, in effect, a form of forced savings.  Households that rent do not, of course, accumulate any ownership at all.  After thirty years, the home owning family has a very large nest egg.  The renting family has nothing.

The equity in the house, as the paid off portion of the mortgage is called, can be used as collateral for a “homeowner’s loan.”  The household also can refinance the mortgage, in effect taking out its accumulated principal and starting over.  In hard times, should the homeowner lose his or her job [or, more often, their jobs], the equity in the home is a cushion.  Technically, of course, when a homeowner refinances, he or she is going into debt, but the interest rates on mortgage loans are extremely low, whereas the interest charges on credit card or other consumer debt are punitively high.

Starting at the end of World War II, the Federal government adopted a variety of policies designed to encourage home ownership, with great success.  The Federal Housing Authority [FHA] deliberately and openly discriminated against black households, making it very much more difficult for a Black man or woman to get a mortgage loan.  This policy, which continued for more than a generation, had extremely long term differential effects on the ability of white and black households to accumulate wealth.  The impact of this discrimination reached across generations, because white families, by refinancing their mortgages, could free up capital for their children to make the down payments on home purchases whereas black families could not [I work out an elaborate example in my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.]

This is just one of a number of structural disadvantages that help to explain the huge wealth differences between White and non-White households.  Rectifying this multi-generational structural discrimination cannot be accomplished by interracial sensitivity training or Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.  It requires carefully thought out structural changes designed not merely to correct the racially encoded disadvantages going forward but also to carry out redistributions of wealth and income.  It goes without saying that the place to start this redistribution is at the top, not at the bottom.

Thursday, September 14, 2017


Obsessive readers of this blog will have noted David Palmeter’s comment, four days ago, about disparities between Whites and Blacks in wealth, far greater than the disparities in income, and my approving reply.  The next day, I came across a link to an extremely interesting research paper on that topic published by the Institute for Policy Studies, or IPS.  I shall write something about that paper, at which point I shall provide a link, but first, I want to reminisce for a while about my connections with the two founders of IPS, Marcus Raskin and the late Richard Barnet, both whom were my friends.

I got to know Dick Barnet during the later ‘50s, during my Instructorship at Harvard, through our shared commitment to the cause of nuclear disarmament.  Dick was a fellow at Harvard’s Russian Research Institute [the academic home of Barrington Moore, Jr., with whom I co-taught a Social Studies tutorial seminar during the ’60-’61 academic year.]  Dick published a very useful little book, Who Wants Disarmament? In 1961.  It was through Dick that I was introduced to a fundamental and important truth of the world of public affairs, a truth that can be summarized by Gertrude Stein’s famous observation about Oakland, CA, “there is no there there.”  It happened like this.

In those days, there was an annual meeting called the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, named after the town in Nova Scotia where it was first held in 1957.  In ’60, I think it was, Walt Rostow, later LBJ’s National Security Advisor, returned from a Pugwash Conference and gave several TV interviews on the nuclear disarmament discussions there, which I watched.  Rostow was invited to give a closed door briefing on the proceedings for a select group of distinguished Harvard experts at the Russian Research Institute, and Dick managed to get me in.  I was very excited, believing that at last I would find out how the experts talked about nuclear weapons and Soviet-American relations in private when they were among the cognoscenti.  It was an impressive gathering.  All of Harvard’s big names in Soviet Studies were there, including Alex Inkeles, Adam Ulam, and Zbigniev Bzrezinski.  As I listened to the discussion, I was dismayed to discover that when these big wigs were talking privately to one another, they uttered exactly the same ridiculous ideological hogwash that they put out to the press and public.  There was no esoteric doctrine, no there there.  They really thought that way!  Admittedly, I was young [twenty-six], but it was an eye-opener that I have never forgotten.

The next Spring, after Jack Kennedy’s election, Dick went to the Disarmament Agency in Washington.  In August of ’61, after my Instructorship ended, I made a first visit to D.C., to see Dick and several other people I knew who had left Harvard for the new Administration.  Dick introduced me to Marcus Raskin, a young man my age from Chicago whom McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, had hired as his assistant.  Marc, who was located in the Old Executive Office Building, was supposed to be Bundy’s in-house critic from the left, raising doubts about the policies he was pushing to Kennedy [such as the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.]  Marc’s secretary was a rich, well-connected young woman named Diane DeVegh, rumored to be Kennedy’s mistress, who had been placed there to be nearby should the President have need of her services.  Fourteen months later, I was teaching at the University of Chicago, where, among other things, I offered a course in the Political Science Department on Military Strategy and Foreign Policy.  I was at that point very deep into the whole business of the threat of nuclear war, and I was terrified.  When the crisis hit, I loaded up my VW bug with a Geiger Counter and dried food, and made plane reservations for my wife and myself on flights to Canada and Mexico so that we could make an immediate escape north or south, depending on which way the prevailing winds were blowing.  Marc called me from his office to ask what I was doing to help avert a war.  I told him about my escape plans, and he was sternly disapproving, saying that I had an obligation to do whatever I could to work for peace.  I responded by asking him what he was doing, keeping in mind that he sat at the elbow of the chief national security advisor of the President.  He said in a soft voice, as though he were leaning into the phone and shielding his voice so as not to be overheard, “We are trying to reach the Pope.”  At that point, I got really, really scared.

The next year, Marc and Dick started IPS, and it exists to this day.  

Monday, September 11, 2017


Back when I was a lad, the notion of a gestalt was hot in moral philosophy.  [I associate the term with Franz Brentano.  Is that right?]  As opposed to the associationism of Hume and his followers, who viewed perceptions as agglomerations of separable atomic individual sensations, gestalt theory taught, roughly, that certain perceptual presentations made seemingly objective demands on us.  For example, it was said, when presented with a line drawing of most of a circle, with a small arc or segment omitted, one experiences a demand that the circle be completed.  This fact showed something or other about the objectivity of moral judgments [I may be misremembering this – it has been sixty years, and I was never much impressed with the argument in the first place.]

Which brings me to jigsaw puzzles.  The Continuing Care Retirement Community where Susie and I now live has six apartment buildings, each with twenty-seven apartments, and in addition several hundred little one-story dwellings rather grandly called “villas” [use and mention, as Quine pounded into our heads.]  We live in Building 5.  On the first floor of building 5 is a lobby, in the lobby is a table, and on the table at any given time is a jigsaw puzzle of between 500 and 1000 pieces.  Residents stop by the table to chat, to gossip, and, if they are so moved, to try to put a piece or two in the puzzle.  I have never done jigsaw puzzles; my tipple, as I have mentioned, is crossword puzzles.  But the damned things exercise a demand on me that would warm a gestalt theorist’s heart.  Susie seems to be similarly afflicted, and we have quickly become known in the building as relentless puzzlers.  It is not uncommon for me to say to Susie, “I am going downstairs to do the puzzle” [we live on the third floor,] and like as not she will join me.  The only other thing in the world that exercises that sort of objective pull on me is an apple pie.  I feel it to be a sin to leave an apple pie only partly eaten.

We are now in the very last throes of a 750 piece puzzle, and there is serious trouble.  We are down to seven remaining pieces, none of which fits comfortably into the remaining spaces.  Clearly, somewhere, there are some wrong pieces, but I have not yet managed to find them.  The maven of the puzzles, a woman a bit older than myself who has lived in our building for eleven years, says one must simply move on, but I return to the table again and again, trying to spot the misplaced pieces that can be swapped out for those remaining.  It just seems wrong to leave the puzzle uncompleted.

Maybe there is something to gestalt theory.


When I began blogging eight years ago, I was quite unprepared for the Internet’s insatiable craving for content.  I was accustomed to sitting quietly in my study, unhurried and unharried, writing another book.  Only when a book was completed would I venture into the public square to publish what I had written.  Because I had all but died to the world, no longer attending professional meetings or giving invited talks, I felt no pressure to produce.

In 2009, my pen had been silent for almost two decades, save for a short book about my experiences in UMass’s Afro-American Studies Department, the endless new editions of a textbook written in the ‘70s, and the unpublished first volume of my autobiography.  But with the announcement of The Philosopher’s Stone, I launched into a frenzy of writing on all manner of things, posting my words for all to read virtually as they were written.  Over the next two or three years, I wrote about Marx and I wrote about Freud.  I wrote about Kant, and I wrote about Hume.  I wrote about Kierkegaard, about Mannheim, about Durkheim, about Erich Auerbach, about Emily Dickinson.  I wrote on line an entire book about Rational Choice Theory, Game Theory, and Collective Choice Theory.  I even wrote about myself, completing and posting daily the second and third volumes of my autobiography. 

When I looked up from my keypad, I discovered that I had unwittingly become committed to an endless production of daily short essays, asides, and animadversions at the passing scene.  If I failed to post something for two or three days, I would get worried messages from friends and family:  “Are you all right?”

I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s ironic and mocking remark in the Preface to The Philosophical Fragments, a work to which I return repeatedly:  “It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest that it becomes difficult to judge how far he serves merely himself and how far the public good.”

For most of my life, words have flowed from me almost unbidden.  I leave it to others to judge whether they emanate from a bubbling spring or a suppurating wound.  But lately, the endless horrors of the world threaten to make me run dry.  Oh, I imagine I shall continue to blog.  After all, I seem to have no difficulty finding something to say about the fact that I have nothing to say.  But the joy threatens to leave me.  In my earlier days, it was different.  As Wordsworth said of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven.”

Perhaps I should say something about jigsaw puzzles.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


David Palmeter's comment about disparities in household wealth is exactly correct.  If you wish to see its causes illustrated by a hypothetical example, take a look at pp. 91ff of my 2005 book Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, which is available on Kindle from Amazon.  Needless to say, I am very far from being the first person to point this out.


My remarks today are a corollary to, not an argument for or against, the essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates to which I posted a link.  There has been a vigorous debate about whether the progressive wing of the Democratic Party should focus its attention on what is called identity politics or should advance policies targeting the needs and interests of the working class.  I find this debate unhelpful, and Coates’ essay helped me to become clearer about the reasons.

My theme is a simple one:  The great preponderance of Black and Hispanic Americans are working class.  Their race or ethnicity is not a substitute for their class position.  It does not somehow make their class position politically irrelevant.  There are long standing reasons, reaching back to the period shortly after the Civil War, why here in America white and black workers have so rarely formed a united front against capital, reasons about which I have several times written on this blog.  But the simple objective facts remain.  Let me take a moment to offer a few numbers, by way of setting the stage.  These data come from 2015 and 2016, but very little has changed in the intervening time.

Median household income in the United States is somewhat more than $56,000 a year.  For those who are utterly innumerate, this means that half of all households earn less than $56,000 each year, half earn more.  [Average or mean household income is about $17,000 higher, basically because when Bill Gates walks into a neighborhood bar, the average net worth of people in the bar goes up to several billion each – beware of numbers.]   The median income of White households is almost $63,000.  But that of Hispanic households is about $45,000, and that of Black households is about $37,000.  [That of Asian households is better than $77,000, by the way.]

It doesn’t take much brains to figure out that most Black and Hispanic households are working class.  The median weekly wages or full-time Black and Hispanic workers are $678 and $624 respectively, which means that fully half of all fulltime Black and Hispanic workers are earning roughly fifteen dollars an hour or less, and most of course are earning a good deal less.  A national minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour would dramatically improve the economic fortunes of large portions of the Black and Hispanic population.  The median wages for fulltime White workers are significantly higher -- $862 – which means that the fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage would benefit a much smaller share of the white working class [although perhaps numerically more people.]

My point is that Black workers are workers.  Hispanic workers are workers.  A progressive political program targeting working class voters will necessarily target large segments of the Black and Hispanic communities. 

I have many times observed that educational credentials are, in this country, the royal road to the middle and upper middle class.  It is worth reminding ourselves therefore of the wide racial and ethnic disparity in the proportions of the population holding a four year college degree.  When I was a teenager going off to college, only 5% of American adults 25 years old or older had a four year degree.  So few young people went to college that high schools in New York graduated students twice a year, in January and June.  The G. I. Bill, the explosion of public higher education, and the Cold War [which led the Federal Government to pour money into universities “for the struggle against godless communism”] produced a sharp upsurge in college attendance, so that today, roughly a third of adults 25 and older hold college degrees.  But two-thirds of adult Americans do not have four year degrees, which means that a large majority of Americans have no hope at all of becoming doctors, lawyers, professors, corporate management trainees, college professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers [!] or, for that matter, F. B. I. agents.

These are the figures for all Americans.  As we might expect, the figures vary considerably by race and ethnicity.  Here are the data:  32.5% of all adults have four year degrees.  For Whites, the figure is 36.2%, for Backs 22.5%, for Hispanics 15.5%.  This means that fewer than one in four Black men and women and one in six Hispanic men and women can even aspire to be elementary school teachers or corporate management trainees.  Thus, a political platform calling for free college education will benefit young Black and Hispanic men and women even more than young White men and women.

A political platform targeting the needs of working class men and women, and demanding an end to racial and ethnic impediments to decent work, is a winner.  That is what we on the left should be agitating for.

Friday, September 8, 2017


This essay by Ta-Nihisi Coates, is the best thing I have ever read about American politics.  Reading it is irritating because of the slowness with which it comes up, but be patient, it is well worth the effort.  I tried to say many of these things in my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, but I did not say them as well.

Thursday, September 7, 2017


Several friends and relatives have contacted me, asking whether I am all right, seeing as how I have not blogged for several days.  I am fine.  I have just been so angry and depressed by Trump’s attack on the 800,000 or so young people protected by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrival, or DACA, program that I could not gin up the animal spirits to write something.  That, together with the horrific news about these two hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, has left me hiding out a bit.  But the news has unaccountably taken a turn, and I wish at least to say a few words about the weird events of the past twenty-four hours.

First, however, I must take note of the reports of Hillary Clinton’s attack on Bernie Sanders in her forthcoming book about the election.  Apparently, if the leaked portions are accurate, she claims that Sanders’ criticisms of her during the primary season did “lasting damage” to her and “paved the way” for Trump’s victory.  I understand that one must be forgiving and charitable toward someone who has suffered a great loss, but this is a load of hogwash [what is hogwash anyway?].  It is transparently an effort by the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party to reassert its accommodationist politics and prepare the way, God help us, for a 2020 Clinton run for the nomination.  There is nothing especially surprising about this attack.  Despicable, to be sure, but not surprising.  Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Or so I thought.  But then came Trump’s bizarre, unanticipated, incomprehensible surrender to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi yesterday.  I have no idea at all why this happened, so I shan’t speculate, but I do think, as Willy Loman’s wife says in Death of a Salesman, that attention must be paid.

My American readers will all be aware of what took place [not what transpired – that means literally breathed about, or more colloquially, what came to light.]  But this is all a bit of inside baseball, and my overseas readers may be somewhat mystified, so a brief summary is in order.  The Congress has been unable actually to prepare, debate, and pass a budget for the Federal Government for longer than my younger readers have been alive, so periodically, to keep the government functioning [or pretending to function], they pass what is called a Continuing Resolution, or CR, which for a specified time authorizes the government to keep doing what it has been doing at the same level of expenditures.  The time has arrived for another CR.  Also, since the Federal Government regularly runs a deficit, periodically it approaches the limit placed on the national debt by previous legislation.  So long as the debt falls under that limit, the Treasury is authorized to borrow money by issuing Treasury Bills and other instruments of debt, thus allowing the government to pay its bills.  Once that debt limit is reached, as a consequence of the Congress failing to raise revenues sufficient to cover the expenditures it has already authorized, either the debt limit must be increased by the Congress or the United States government will be forced to stop paying the bills.  In short, the USA will default.  That time has also arrived.

This ought to be a no-brainer, and when the Democrats control Congress, it is.  But there is a sizeable minority of House Republicans who are desperate to cut government spending, and who use the advent of a debt limit increase to threaten to vote against the increase unless they get their way.  This is transparently self-destructive behavior, but they are convinced that they can work their will by threatening to hold their collective breath until they expire, as it were.  Because of this behavior, the leaders of the House Republican caucus are compelled to seek Democratic votes to pass a debt ceiling rise and a CR.  This gives the otherwise powerless Democrats a brief moment of leverage which they could theoretically use to win some sort of legislative concessions from the Republicans, such as, perhaps, a regularization of the DACA program.

Meanwhile, the devastation caused by Harvey [and about to be caused by Irma] creates a politically unstoppable demand for federal relief funding.

The Republicans, understanding all of this, proposed to combine the CR and the debt limit increase with hurricane relief funding in one grand package, to be passed this week.  They proposed an eighteen month CR and debt increase, figuring, quite rationally, that the Democrats would have to agree so as not to be seen as voting against hurricane help.  The 18 month extensions would take them past the midterm elections, leaving them free to work on such tasty items as tax cuts for the rich without there being any time soon when the Democrats would again gain leverage during a debt limit/CR crisis.  The Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, and the House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, publicly proposed a three month CR/Debt increase, obviously designed to give them leverage again, after the hurricane season is over, to get some concessions otherwise impossible to obtain.

O.K.  Got that?

So, yesterday Donald Trump, still nominally President, called all the Congressional leaders to the Oval Office to arrive at some sort of deal.  Schumer and Pelosi offered their three month proposal, which House Speaker Ryan had scornfully rejected in a public appearance before the meeting … and without blinking an eye, Trump agreed to it.  As the Republicans sat there, stunned, blindsided, betrayed, aghast, Trump invited his daughter, Ivanka, into the room, presumably as light entertainment and to signal the end of the “negotiations.”  It is not reported whether she performed a belly dance.

What is going on?  Nobody knows.  It is reported that as the Congressional Republicans left the White House, staffers who were caught as off guard as the Republicans quietly apologized.  Will the agreement stand, or is Trump, as I write, tweeting that he never said it?  Who knows?  Can the Dreamers be saved?  No one knows that either.

Should the Democrats accept a package of concessions in return for a vote to fund the wall?  I shall leave that debate for another day.

Saturday, September 2, 2017


I have talked on the blog in the past about my old friend, Judith Baker, who, after a career in the Boston school system, has devoted many years to promoting literacy among African children.  Some of you may recall my description of her brainchild, the African Storybook Project, for which I was privileged to raise some money through my USSAS network.  I just received this circular e-mail letter from her about her current trip to Southern Africa.  It offers a fascinating insight into the on-the-ground problems she and others face in bringing literacy to African children.

"Hello Family and Friends,

I didn’t have decent enough email in Nigeria to communicate but now I’m in South Africa with a very good connection so I want to write and see how you all are and tell you a bit about my last week.

Travel to Nigeria was very exhausting for me and travel from there to Johannesburg almost as bad. We left the hotel yesterday at 10am and I only got into the B&B here at 6am. Ethiopian Airlines is one of the few that seems to fly to Nigeria these days and it’s certainly not what one calls comfortable, and the food isn’t really edible, so even though I got in at 6, I stayed awake to have breakfast.

But the time in Nigeria was very good. I worked very hard for most of the conference, because even though the host, Reading Assoc of Nigeria, is very capable, conference logistics are sort of a nightmare. People arrive late or not at all, visa problems abound, things begin hours late and the schedule has to be rewritten every half day to accommodate everyone. I think there were over 150 papers scheduled in basically 5 sessions, so I really couldn’t attend many of them because I was too busy assisting. I did manage to get to a few though, and they were quite fascinating. People study all sorts of uniquely African problems in the schools - no books, teacher shortages, no buildings, no electricity, on and on, plus each clan or area has very definite cultural expectations.

Here is one story, shortened, that my friend from the Karamoja area is grappling with: When the British ruled Uganda, in the 1880’s there was an outbreak of cattle disease among a large tribe of herds people so the British decided to vaccinate the cows and wrote down every cow that was vaccinated on paper. However, the cows died anyway. Then in WWI, the British recruited members of this tribe, a very strong and sometimes warlike people, into the army to fight in Europe, and again signed people up on paper using pens. Most of those young men were simply cannon fodder and never returned. So the Karmajong people decided that ink was deadly to them and held a ceremony in which they broke and buried the pens. They vowed never to allow their children to go to school.  Now, the educators are trying to convince them to change their minds, and it has been very difficult to do that.

Another story: Many deep rural cultures have agreed to send their children to school and become educated. But the problem that very often arises is that those children go off to higher education and of course they never return to their home villages. This means that the tribes or clans have been losing their most talented children, the ones who should become the leaders and eventually elders.

So African educators try hard to find better ways to educate without destroying cultures and communities.

Anyway, things are always more complicated than outsiders, even well wishing ones, imagine, and many foreign interventions can be unexpectedly quite negative.

My own experience with the Pan African is that I have made many good friends in many countries by working on this conference. My volunteer job for over 10 years has been to run the google group that sends out announcements. We have almost 1000 people on this list. But when we set it up, it didn’t occur to me that my own name would be what appears on the ‘from’ line - so there are many people who think of me as a friend who haven’t even met me. I did not intend that and I tried to change it so that the conference itself appeared, but I couldn’t figure it out, and now it’s too late.

The conference committee gave me a lovely special thank you for all these years of work, really took time to honor me, and I was very embarrassed but will send a photo - well I guess I’ll have to put photos on FB since I can’t get this to send them by mail.

This week I’m working in Joburg, and Brook arrives Thursday. Next week we go to Zimbabwe to each do our own work, then we’re on to Durban which is too far in the future for me to think about at the moment.

Feel free to share this since I don’t have unlimited bandwidth.