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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Monday, December 31, 2018


If you are mystified at the flood of comments about all manner things, it is because I just transferred them from Spam.  There are fascinating comments that are eight years old!!!  Arrgghhh!  The world wide web is not yet perfect.


I was checking comments, and by accident I clicked on Spam.  I found there, along with a good deal of garbage, several real comments that I would have liked to see and read when they were posted.  Does anyone know how the Google spam filter works?


Well, it is New Year’s Eve again, and fog has descended on Chapel Hill, making the whole world look like one of those old sepia toned photographs.  I have never liked this time of year.  The days are short, the sun never  rises very high in the sky, and between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, every day seems like Sunday – no mail, school closed down, everybody on vacation.  When I was young, I would go to the meetings of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, which always met over my birthday [but not, I finally decided, for that reason.]   Since I have reached that stage in life when I retell old stories, perhaps I can cut and paste a story from my autobiography about the very first APA meeting I ever attended, in December 1951.

“My second year, as I recall it, the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association held its annual meetings in New York City. ….  I decided to attend, as I was home for the holidays.  The first day, I was standing with a group of Harvard philosophy graduate students, trying desperately to look older than my just-eighteen years, when Quine walked up to the group.  We all snapped to attention, as his eyes ran around the circle.  Then he looked at me and said, "Well, Wolff.  You must be the youngest person here."  I was utterly mortified.  “Yes," Quine went on, "It's good to see you here.  The sooner you start coming to these things, the sooner you will realize they are not worth coming to," and with that, he walked off, leaving me to wish that the earth would open up and swallow me.”

To this day, I can recall the circle of students and Quine’s look of mordant amusement.  It is difficult to believe that it was 67 years ago.

Sunday, December 30, 2018


Light rain this morning, so no walk.  Instead, I did the TIMES crossword puzzle and noodled around on the internet.  The thought crossed my mind to wonder whether I had ever exchanged letters with Noam Chomsky, whom I knew sixty years ago when he was a Junior Fellow at Harvard.  In my files, I found a long single-spaced letter dated October 26, 1965.  He had written to me about a book manuscript I had sent to him.  In the summer of 1962, I wrote a short book called The Rhetoric of Deterrence about the ways in which defense intellectuals like Herman Kahn deployed putatively value neutral mathematical analyses as ideological tools to push one or another justification for the use of nuclear weapons.  I couldn't find anyone to publish it, and asked Noam to take a look at it.  It is characteristic of him that he devoted more than two single spaced pages to a detailed response.  [He liked it and thought it should be published, but it never saw the light of day.]

In those days, I was still possessed of the mad belief that reasoned argument could have some effect on important matters of public policy.  It took the better part of half a century for me to give up that fantasy.  Ah, youth.


Someone conducted a poll of Democrats and Independents asking for each of maybe fifteen potential Democratic presidential candidates whether the respondent was enthusiastic or unenthusiastic about the prospect of the named person running for the presidency.  Name recognition being what it is, Biden and O’Rourke topped the list on the enthusiastic side.  Pretty much everyone got more enthusiastic votes than unenthusiastic votes, except for one.  Seventy percent said they were unenthusiastic about Clinton running again!  So, in the immortal words of Richard Nixon, I think we won’t have Hillary Clinton to kick around anymore.


The response to my request for enlightenment about FaceBook et al. has been extremely helpful.  Thank you all.  It demonstrates two things:  First, that the readers of this blog know a great deal more about social media than I do [not a surprise]; and Second, that the readers of this blog know a great deal more about social media than the members of Congress do [also perhaps not a surprise, but considerably more distressing.]  One more evidence that  in this generation, unlike all previous generations of the human story, the young teach the old how things work.  After all, it took my son to explain to me how to access the flashlight on my IPhone.

Saturday, December 29, 2018


OK, these two responses really help.  Jerry's spells out how someone can buy access for an ad or other material to a targeted selection of users.  Presumably the data FaceBook uses to comply with Jerry's purchase is proprietary.  They own that data, and they sell a subset of it to Jerry for a fee, or rather he gets to use a subset of it for a fee.  I assume Jerry has to have a checkable identity to buy the data, which explains the need for that poor shlub who got busted by Mueller for selling phony on-line IDs to whatever that company's name was.

Which brings me to Dean the Librarian.  S/He talks about 'bots, which I assume is short  for robots.  Does whoever controls and launches the 'bots [the Sorcerer's Apprentice, in the great old movie Fantasia] need to buy data from FaceBook?  How else can the controller shape the audience?  

I am getting closer to understanding, but I am not there yet.

Let me explain the hunch, or intuition, behind all of this.  It occurred to me that maybe the FaceBook executives could quite easily control the use of their platform, contrary to what they said to Congress, but that it would cost them money in lost revenues to do so.  Is that so?


My way of thinking about something that puzzles me is to try, in my mind, to explain it to an imaginary audience that I figure as ignorant of what I am explaining but very smart and insistent.  Sort of like really bright kids.  So I start at the very beginning with something I know my imaginary audience is familiar with and understands already, and then proceed step by step until I hit a snag – a step I cannot make clear.  At that point, I pause and try to puzzle it out.  If I do, I continue on, in my mind.  If I am stuck, I know I do not really understand whatever it is that I am explaining, so I stop.  Once the whole story is clear in my mind, each step simple and transparent, I am ready to write, and at that point I just tell the story as fast as my two fingers can type.  That is how I have written books on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the economic theories of Karl Marx, on liberalism, on the theory of the state, and on university education.  That is why I enjoy my morning walks.  Each walk is an uninterrupted one hour interior monologue to an imaginary audience.

Today, I want to try this method here with respect to a subject that I do not fully understand, namely how media giants like FaceBook and Google and Twitter and SnapChat make their money, and how people use phony identities [bots?] to carry out scams of various sorts, sometimes, but not exclusively, for political purposes.  I am not concerned here with whether this is a good or bad thing, just with how it works.  I should warn you that I am flying blind here, because I do not ever use Twitter and SnapChat, and I only check FaceBook to read my son’s posts there.  I am counting on the readers of this blog to know vastly more than I on the subject, and to correct me when I go wrong or carry on beyond where I get stuck.

Let me begin with pre-history, namely with newspapers and magazines.  A newspaper makes money in two ways:  by selling copies to readers, and by selling advertising space in its pages.  A newspaper that sells lots of copies can claim to have a large readership [a claim that may actually be difficult to confirm, of course], and on that basis can charge lots of money for ads.  Newspaper advertising can be a trifle deceptive.  When I was in high school, Mr. Zissowitz had us bring in copies of New York area newspapers so we could count the number of column inches of ads.  The New York Daily News was the big winner.  But the surprise was that the classified ads at the back generated much more income per page than the flashy department store ads in the front of the newspaper.

FaceBook and Google don’t cost anything to use.  But the companies make lots of money -- $40 billion for FaceBook and $110 billion for Google, both in 2017.  How do they do it?  By selling advertising.  So far, so good.  Now I wander off into the weeds.  As I understand it [is this right?], such companies are able to keep track in incredible detail of the interests, preferences, purchases, friendships, etc. of literally billions of people.  And they can offer to an advertiser the opportunity to place its ads only on the digital pages of people whose past surfing history in some way or other indicates that they would be interested in the advertiser’s products.  So I buy pajamas from Amazon, and the next day pajama ads appear on pages I click to.  [Is this correct?]

The key here is the specificity and scope of the data, and its accessibility to the companies selling the ad space.  It is one thing, if you are the advertising director of a pricey Caribbean tourist getaway, to buy ads in a travel magazine or an upscale fashion magazine and hope you are reaching people looking to vacation somewhere warm.  It is quite another thing to have your ads placed on all and only the pages of people who have recently Googled “Caribbean vacation.”  And so forth.

Enter the scammers.  Because all of this is digital, hence utterly impersonal, although possibly also very private, it is dead easy to impersonate someone with totally different interests or financial resources from oneself.  It is also dead easy to create phony people who click endlessly on certain sites, thereby creating the false impression that there is real interest out there for a product that in fact very few real people want to buy.

So, an entire digital world can come into being that is a distorted representation of the real world, or even no representation at all of the real world, distorted or not.

OK, at about this point in my walk I grind to a halt because I do not really understand how this relates to the sort of thing that is done by people trying to influence elections.

Would anyone like to join me on my walk and continue the explanation?


Several of the comments on my post concerning the Steele dossier appear to assume that I am endorsing the reports in the dossier as true, despite my explicit statement to the contrary.  [Steele, note, does not endorse any of the reports.  His only claim is that he is reporting accurately what was said to him.]  Let me explain my attitude toward the dossier.

I am an old man.  I know I mention that a lot, but eighty-five will do that to you.  For somewhat more than sixty years I have been protesting against, bemoaning, demonstrating against, and generally decrying the things being done by the government that putatively represents me.  Now, for my efforts, I am visited in my dotage with Trump. 

I want to see him brought low, I really really want that.  Will that make everything all right?  Are you kidding?  We get rid of Trump and we get Pence, who is a monster.  But I really really want to see Trump humiliated and destroyed.  There is nothing noble or uplifting about that desire. It is mean-spirited of me, I freely confess.  And God knows, it would not restore America to its role as Shining City Upon a Hill and Leader of the Free World.  It was never either of those things anyway.  Think of the destruction of Trump and his entire extended family as item one on my fantasy bucket list.

If the things said by various unnamed informants to Steele turn out to be true, Trump is toast.   So I hope they are true.  It is as simple as that.  Indeed, I would settle for those things being false but nevertheless believed.

Is that perfectly clear?

Friday, December 28, 2018


Well, the government is shut down, the days are painfully short, I am on hold until Susie and I go to Paris on January 3rd, so having nothing better to do I surfed the web and located a complete text of the famous Steele Dossier.  I read it all, from start to finish, working past the occasional strings of typos which I recognized as a consequence of the document having been scanned into a word processing program.  You can find it here.

I was prompted to engage in this bit of background research by the news that evidence has surfaced confirming the dossier’s claim that Michael Cohen met with Russian agents in Prague.  Apparently his cellphone pinged off a Prague cellphone tower.  [Stop for a moment to contemplate how many terabytes of data must exist in the cloud for that fact to be discoverable!  It is astonishing.]

Keep in mind what this document is.  It is a report by Steele of raw intelligence.  Steele makes no attempt at any point to evaluate the data, to argue for or against its accuracy, and certainly not to estimate its significance.  Nor does he organize it into a coherent story.  The dossier is a series of discrete reports of what he has been told by sources.  I am not going to try to summarize the dossier, because inevitably that will make it appear that I am endorsing it, vouching for it, and I have absolutely no basis whatsoever for doing that.  I urge you to take the time to read it yourself.

Thus far, portions of the dossier have been confirmed in detail by Mueller’s indictments, and none of its reports have been disconfirmed.  I do in fact believe those indictments, but that is just me.  

Two things struck me in the dossier, one potentially very big, one small.  Big first.  One of Steele’s informants asserts that the Cohen meeting in Prague [confirmed by the cell phone ping] was for the purpose of arranging payments from Trump to the hackers.  If that is ever confirmed, it is game over.  The small bit is that twice in the dossier Jill Stein is identified as someone the Russians were using to try to weaken Clinton’s election chances.  It is also claimed that the Russian IT team were targeting young educated Bernie supporters in an attempt to use their dislike for Clinton to get them either to vote for Trump, vote for Stein, or just not vote.

Inasmuch as Mueller has had this document for a year, I suspect we will fairly soon learn what more, if anything, he has been able to confirm of its reports.

Thursday, December 27, 2018


To Steve Tracy, Tom Cathcart, and Andrew Rosa, all of whom did something mysterious and incomprehensible called "posting on my timeline."  Who even knew I had a timeline?  They wished me a happy birthday and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, their wishing it made it so.

Thank you.


Thanks to all of you who are trying to reconstruct my Wikipedia page.  Whether in the end it works or not, I really appreciate it!  The picture of me looks ominous.  Kant scholars are scary.  😊

Now for the plea.  I do not use FaceBook, although I seem to be on it, along with two billion others.  But an old colleague and an old student posted birthday greetings, and I cannot figure out how to reply.  I realize my ten year old granddaughter has been doing this since she was three, but I am embarrassed to ask.  Someone?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018



It is now a matter of days before a House committee will subpoena Trump’s tax returns, so I do not have much time left to make a prediction based on my groundless speculation.  Here goes.

I have a feeling that Trump is cash poor.  That is to say, he owns many expensive properties, all of which are mortgaged to the hilt or tied up as collateral for large loans from foreign lenders.  He has a steady stream of income from franchising his name and from rentals at his hotel properties, but [I suspect] has a very large nut, which is to say very large regular monthly expenses.  Therefore he needs the relatively small amounts of money [small for a billionaire] that he gets from things like his MAGA hats and room rentals at Trump Washington.  I do not think he is just stingy and grabby – that goes without saying.  I think he is constantly trying to make ends meet, but at a level of expenditure the rest of us would consider lavish.

So I am not merely saying he wants every last penny he can squeeze out; I am saying he needs every last penny to keep afloat.

We shall see.


The second of the archived pages Dean found is superior [i.e., says more about me :) ]  I very quickly found these sources that can serve as scholarly confirmation of elements of the archived page.

I think this is what passes for scholarship.


Someone asked for a picture of me, so I had a haircut and my wife did the honors.  It captures my inner essence, which I describe as retired KGB agent.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018


Merry Christmas, one and all [as an atheist, I feel free to give the traditional Christian greeting.]  This morning at 6 a.m. to celebrate the holiday I took my old walk along Whippoorwill Lane.  The only traffic was a flow of cars going to Mt. Carmel Baptist Church for Christmas morning services.  As I walked, I brooded about something that has been nagging at me for a while now.  It is of absolutely no importance whatsoever, but I cannot pin it down.  I invite any psychiatrists reading this blog to offer their professional opinions.

We are all familiar with Trump’s endless crazy over the top bragging, which seems to stem from an insecurity so deeply embedded in his psyche that it is utterly beyond treatment.  I am so smart, I am so rich, I know more about ISIS than the generals, I am the world’s greatest deal maker, I alone can fix it, and so on and on.

But there is one bit of bragging that strikes my ear as utterly off key, as odd, as seriously demented.  Trump said on one occasion [and maybe others], “I have the best words.”  That is just weird.  He treats words as though they were objects, possessions, things, not at all as a medium of communication [or of thought, God forbid.]

Sometimes it is very small things that are signs of mental disorder, and this strikes me as one of them.  I would really like to have a better understanding of what this signifies clinically.

Can anyone help me out?

Monday, December 24, 2018


At this special time of year, you are of course all looking for the perfect gift for moi.  So I am going to tell you what I want.  Not world peace, or an end to global warming, or successful impeachment.  I mean something you can really give to me personally.

Here goes [I cannot believe I am saying this.]  Some years ago, someone created a Wikipedia page on me.  It was fairly detailed, and also, I am afraid, a trifle complimentary.  But it mentioned where I had studied, where I had taught, my scholarship program [USSAS], and the fields to which I had made some contribution.  Then one of Wikipedia's gnomes went into it and deleted almost everything because it was not footnoted and sourced.  I felt as though I had been excised from the collective memory of the world.

For my eighty-fifth birthday, I would love it if one or several people could reconstitute the page.  "Just the facts, ma'am," as Sgt. Friday would say on Dragnet.


It is December 24th, and to most Americans, that means Christmas Eve, but to me it means three days until my birthday.  It is quiet here and sunny, so this seems like a good time to get something off my chest that has been bothering me for seventy-five years.

The simple fact is that I never got as many presents as my big sister, Barbara, who was born in August.  She would have a birthday party in the summer and get lots of presents, and then four months later, she would get Christmas presents too.  Not me.  Oh, my parents would say that I was getting an extra-big present for Christmas plus my birthday, but I was not fooled.  I could tell.

Now, my parents are gone, all my uncles and aunts are gone, my cousins couldn’t care less, and I haven’t had a real birthday party since I threw one for myself in 2003 to commemorate my seventieth.

I still remember one birthday present, my all time favorite.  I must have been twelve or so.  My father had taken me to the Jamaica branch of the New York Public Library, and I had checked out a book containing all sixty of the Sherlock Holmes short stories and novels.  I read it with delight and the next December, as my combined Christmas/birthday present, I got my very own copy.  It was fat and stubby with a red cover, and I adored it.  I read it over and over until I knew the stories almost by heart – The Red-headed League, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson, the Jezrail bullet, Mycroft and the Diogenes Club, Mrs. Hudson, and of course Irene Adler, the only woman Holmes ever loved.  The fascinating thing about the Holmes stories is how non-violent they are.  Indeed, there are even stories in which no actual crime is committed.  Quite different from the modern genre, in which it seems murders pop up every few pages.

I even joined The Baker Street Irregulars when it was formed in 1946, an organization of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, among whom were numbered some distinguished literary figures of the Thirties and Forties.  Four times a year I received the Baker Street Journal, filled with faux scholarly articles on Holmesian minutiae.  Like all religious cults, the Irregulars were organized around a founding myth, in this case the shared pretense that Holmes was real.

My grandson, Samuel suffers from the same affliction.  His birthday was Saturday, three days before Christmas, and wouldn’t you know it, his sister was born in August.  I am always meticulously careful to get Samuel two presents at this time of year.  No extra-big single present from me!  Samuel has expressed an interest in Philosophy [he has just turned thirteen], and last year, I gave him an autographed copy of In Defense of Anarchism, so that years from now, perhaps after I have died, he will know who his grandfather was.  This year I gave him a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.  His father says he was delighted.  [His father also said he was explaining to Samuel Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, but I am not sure exactly what that means.]

Russell’s History was the first serious book of philosophy I read.  I think I was fourteen or fifteen.  I had read Irwin Edman’s two chatty books, Philosopher’s Holiday and Philosopher’s Quest, but I did not consider either of them very serious.  It was a trifle startling many years later to join the Columbia Philosophy Department and discover that Edman had been a member.  After reading Russell’s History I read his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy when I was fifteen or so, not too long before going to Harvard and launching my college education with W. V. O. Quine’s logic course.

Well, the sun is up, the stock market is open, and I am going to get a birthday haircut, always something of an indulgence since there is not much hair to cut.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


All right.  What is to be done, in light of the analysis I cobbled together from Piketty and others?

The central message of Piketty et al. is that capitalism is essentially a system for pumping profit, a.k.a. surplus value, out of the efforts of laborers and into the pockets of capitalists.  Piketty’s summary expression of this truth is the simple inequality r>g.  Taking into account everything, including depreciation, the rate of profit is greater than the rate of growth, resulting in ever greater inequality.

What can be done about this?  There are really only two answers.  Either get a new system, one in which capital is not privately owned, or else generate sufficient political support for an array of pre-tax and post-tax transfers from capitalists to laborers that will ameliorate the steepness of the inequality pyramid.  In short, socialism or the New Deal [speaking now of America.]

Maybe it is just that I am four days away from my eighty-fifth birthday, and hence do not put much faith in full-scale revolutionary change, but socialism does not seem to me to be just over the horizon.  Which leaves substantial pre- and post-tax transfers.

Now mind you, there already are in the advanced capitalist countries substantial transfers, a fact that Piketty, Saez, and Zucman document for the United States.  But the proportional magnitude of those transfers has dramatically declined, and they are now constructed so as to benefit primarily the middle 50-90% and the elderly among the Bottom Half [Medicare and Social Security.]

A dramatic revision and ramping up of such transfer programs would be an unambiguously good thing, in my opinion.  But it would simply slow, not reverse, the increasing inequality.  What is more, as Piketty made clear in his book, with the passage of time, a larger and larger share of the accumulated wealth is inherited rather than “earned” [if you will forgive the term].  In short, we are well on the way to full-scale patrimonial capitalism.  [Think of the piles of wealth that will be inherited by the young Bezos’s, Zuckerbergs, and Gates’s, and the piles already inherited by the Waltons.]

I am one hundred percent in favor of increased transfers.  Every dime that the minimum wage is raised puts $200 a year in the pockets of the poor.  A guaranteed national minimum income would also be an enormous advance toward social survival, if not social justice.  These are things worth fighting for.

But they do not change the underlying reality.  They soften it, but they do no change it.

I do not see collective ownership of the means of production growing within the womb of capitalism, not even in China, which pays lip service to Marx and not much else.

As I prepare myself for turning eighty-five [why does this seem so much more consequential than turning eighty-four?], this is the best I can offer.

Thin gruel at Yuletide, for sure.


Before continuing to Part Two of What Is To Be Done, let me respond very briefly to of the interesting responses to my open-ended post Some Questions.  One of the anonymati refers me to a lengthy essay by Walt and Mearsheimer in which the authors offer at some length a policy framework they call Offshore Balancing.  I do not disagree with the authors.  As I indicated, I do not know what to think. But their essay at many points raises a question to which they do not provide an answer, and it is precisely the question [or more accurately set of questions] that leaves me without an answer to my questions.

The authors suggest intervening militarily in foreign lands only when America’s national interest is at stake.  But that immediately raises the following questions:  What [not who] is America?  Does America have a national interest?  What is that national interest?  How is it decided whether there is such a thing as America’s national interest [not what that interest is, but whether it exists]?  Is it, for example, in America’s national interest to see a balance of power maintained in the Middle East?  Is that different from the question whether it is in my interest to see such a balance maintained?  If I choose to take an interest in the economic development or political liberation of groups of men and women in the Occupied Territories, and if the democratic processes operating appropriately in America bring to power men and women who determine that it is in America’s national interest to support the current Israeli government, does that mean I am not really an American?  Could California or Missouri or New Hampshire have a State Interest different from and taking precedence over America’s national interest?

In short, I do not find the underlying and unexamined assumptions of the Walt and Mearsheimer essay to be true.  That, in a word, is why I am puzzled and why I raised Some Questions.

Friday, December 21, 2018


I had intended this morning to write the second half of my post What Is To Be Done, but the events yesterday compel me to say something about them.  Perhaps this afternoon I can return to my two-part post.

I imagine many of you are having some version of the complex feelings I have experienced at the news of Trump’s abrupt decision to pull out of Syria, Mattis’ remarkable resignation, and the word that Trump also intends to pull most of our troops out of Afghanistan.  On the one hand, anything that weakens and damages Trump is welcome to me.  On the other hand, I am repelled by the virtually universal condemnation of his decisions by those who for decades have advanced an American imperialist policy, most particularly in the Middle East.

But what broad foreign policy do I think the United States ought to pursue?  Never mind for the moment whether there is any chance that it will be implemented.  What should be America’s relation to the rest of the world?  Here are three possibilities.  I do not know what I think, so I welcome discussion.

1.         America could maintain its enormous and enormously expensive military establishment and deploy it around the world in support of genuinely progressive regimes where they exist.  Support Mossadegh, rather than overthrowing him and installing the Shah.  Support the Sandanistas, not the Contras.  And so forth.  This would involve sending American troops into battle, and on occasion getting bogged down in endless local wars between factions no one of which is in any recognizable way progressive or truly socialist, or whatever .  In short, America could try to be a good empire rather than a bad empire.  Could this possibly happen without first a fundamental change in America’s economy, society, and politics?  Good question.

2.         America could dramatically reduce its military spending and the size of its military forces, forge close military alliances with Western European nations “like us,” and leave China to fill the void thus created [as it already is trying to do.]  Let us not fool ourselves.  If we retreat from our imperial stance, someone will take our place.  That is the reality of geopolitics.  Would the world be better off under Chinese hegemony than under American hegemony?  Interesting question.

3.         America could adopt what used to be called a Fortress America policy.  No entangling alliances, even with England or France, no foreign military bases, a dramatically reduced military budget, and a refusal to be drawn into foreign involvement even when refugees are being slaughtered, small countries are being invaded, ruthless dictatorships are being set up.  We protect our borders, threaten to rain destruction on anyone who seeks to breach them, and otherwise leave the rest of the world alone.  This is the Rand Paul proposal, as I understand it.  It is safe, it does not get Americans killed, and it is uncomplicated.  Do we wish to stand by as decent people are enslaved and slaughtered by vile dictators [like us, as some would say]?  Also a good question.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


This post will be a lengthy reflection on what I have learned from Piketty in the context of what I long ago learned from Marx, all in the service of attempting to advance my thinking about what one can work for and hope for in the years to come.  Since I do not see these matters clearly, I welcome comments and disagreements both from the usual suspects and perhaps also from some of the lurkers out there who have not yet chosen to post comments.

Let me begin with some general observations about capitalism, first in its classic form and then in its modern configuration.  Capitalism is a system of social relations of production characterized by legally free labor, private ownership of the means of production, and production of commodities intended to be sold at a profit.  As a consequence of this basic set of arrangements, capitalists – which is to say the legal owners of capital – accumulate additional capital in each cycle of production.  This is not a failure of the system; it is the system.  As time goes on, the accumulation of capital grows ever larger, while what is owned by the workers [this is still the classic form] is consumed in reproducing their labor, which is to say in staying alive and raising the next generation of workers.  Inasmuch as capital is in all capitalist economies legally inheritable, over time there emerges a class of capitalists whose relationship to the production process is purely one of inherited ownership.  This is what Piketty, following the French fashion, calls patrimonial capitalism.  Fairly quickly, as capitalism develops, the wealth gap between capitalists and workers becomes enormous and seemingly eternal and inevitable.

As capitalism develops, ownership of capital, which carries with it, at least theoretically, a right to a share of the profits, is separated from day-to-day or even intermittent control of the use of capital, through the introduction and spread of joint stock limited liability corporations.  The classic study of this epochal shift in the structure of capitalism is a book now eighty-six years old, The Modern Corporation and Private Property by Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means.  As a result of this shift, capital in the form of private corporations comes to be directed by salaried managers who only in the rarest of cases actually personally own more than tiny fractions of the totality of shares in the corporations. 

Contrary to Marx’s expectation, which he based on his observation of capitalism as it functioned in the middle of the nineteenth century, as capitalism develops, along with it there develops a seemingly immutable and sharply pyramidal structure of work paid for by wages or salaries.  To a considerable extent, the lives, the prospects, and hence the subjective experiences of those at the top or in the middle of the pyramid differ so widely from those in the lower half of the pyramid that these men and women, although they are all wage earners in a capitalist economy, neither have nor experience themselves as having common interests and needs.  Mainstream economists, following the work of Gary Becker, talk of some workers as having acquired “human capital” in the form of education or specialized skills, the implication being [whether they intend it or not] that a portion of their compensation is in the form of profit, rather than wages.  This theoretical analysis has led Marxist economists like [the young] Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis to develop theories of relative exploitation, the idea being that just as capitalists exploit workers, even including those earning high salaries, pace Marx, so high salaried employees exploit lower paid workers, in effect gaining a portion of their higher salaries not from their capitalist masters but from their less well prepared underlings.

Enter Piketty.  As Piketty demonstrates in his important work Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, the ever-more unequal distribution of wealth that characterized as much of the industrialized world as he had the data to study was sharply reversed in the years after World War II.  It appeared to academic economists, writing in the sixties and seventies and even later, that mature capitalism had solved the problem of inequality and had forged a social compact that brought ever greater wealth and income to workers as well as capitalists.  Piketty decisively demonstrated that in fact the post-war period, what the French called les trentes glorieuses, was in fact an historically temporary phenomenon caused by the material and value destruction of the Great Depression and the war.  The inexorable march of ever greater inequality resumed after that period of reversal, and now reaches levels of inequality comparable to those of the Gilded Age, the late nineteenth century.  There was, Piketty noted, one great difference in the sources and shape of the inequality, namely the role of enormously inflated corporate salaries.  The managers of the great corporations use their de facto unregulated control of the corporations they manage to divert a share of the profits to themselves in the form of inflated salaries and bonuses.  The magnitude of this diversion makes it more and more difficult for economists to defend the theoretical nonsense that the salaries of those at the top are merely their “marginal product.”

Enter Piketty a second time, with his colleagues Saez and Zucman.  Starting roughly during the Reagan years [or the Carter years, as Jerry Fresia argues], the compensation for the Bottom 50% flattens, the compensation for the next 40% rises slowly but steadily, and the compensation for the top 10% [and even for the top 1% or 0.1%] soars off the charts.  The social welfare programs, the so-called “safety net,” that buoyed the Bottom Half through a variety of pre-tax and post-tax transfer payments cease to function as they had in the preceding fifty years.

I find it interesting to connect this development with an old book to which I have alluded before on this blog:  The Fiscal Crisis of the State, by James O’Connor, published in 1973.  Briefly, O’Connor argues that federal expenditures in a capitalist America serve two quite different functions.  The first function is to socialize some of the necessary expenditures of capital, such as the education of workers.  The second function is, in effect, bread and circuses to keep the turbulent masses quiet.  O’Connor argues that the cost of the second function is outrunning revenues, threatening a fiscal crisis.

O’Connor seems to me to have been right, but writing in 1972-73 [which is to say, during what we now call somewhat inaccurately “The Sixties”] he failed to anticipate that capital would be able simply to cancel the circuses and stop distributing the bread.  In short, he failed to foresee the flatlining of the compensation of the Bottom Half that Piketty et al. demonstrate in their recent essay.

What, if anything, does all this tell us about the way forward for those of us on the left?  I shall pause, post this, and return to the subject tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


Someone self-identified as “In The dark” offers this response to my reposting of my son’s FaceBook post of Professor Steve Locke's account of his experience with the police:

In The Dark said...
I get how frustrating and terrifying it is to be detained by the police (and I know all too well how they will slip past your rights if you let them), but I don't get what these officers did wrong. No, you just saying you aren't the suspect isn't going to clear you of suspicion. But why should it? Isn't that a ridiculous thing to expect? And the eye-witness testimony of another person doesn't "decide" you're a criminal--the court does that--and I see no reason to think the cops were going to let the woman decide that. And if she positively IDed him during the detention, my understanding is that that would have been probable cause to arrest him.

What am I missing here? Please explain it to me. I really do want to understand.”

All right, let me explain it to you.  This is not simple, so you will have to be patient and exercise a certain amount of imagination.  You are going to have to be willing to keep in mind a good deal of background information that was immediately and painfully available to Professor Locke, but may not in the same way and with the same urgency be available to you.

Your question is, “what did the officers do wrong?”  Let us suppose I were stopped in that fashion by two police officers who had received word of a breakin by an old white man wearing jeans and a sweater. [Parenthetically, let me note that there are virtually no cases of an innocent old white man being shot dead by a policeman because he reached into his pocket for ID and the policeman thought he was reaching for a gun.]  Suppose that when old white men are stopped by policemen [something that rarely happens], they are treated politely and with respect, even with a certain deference, because that is the way police routinely treat old white men, especially those  who look upper middle class.  Would the policeman address me as “Hey my man”?  Not likely.  Would he unsnap the holster of his sidearm as he addressed me?  Also not likely.

After I had identified myself, would the policeman say that the victim had to identify me as well, or would he apologize and continue looking for the alleged perpetrator?  I rather suspect the former.

Now look at it from the point of view of Professor Locke.  Did his father have “the talk” with him when he entered his teen years?  I would guess yes.  [If you do not know what “the talk” is, you really need to look it up, in order to broaden your understanding of American society.]  Did you note, in Professor Locke’s account, that before reaching for his wallet to show ID he asked the policeman whether that was all right?  Do you understand that that simple question was Professor Locke’s desperate effort to avoid being shot by a policeman with an itchy trigger finger?  Do you understand why he was terrified of getting into the police cruiser, even though he is a college professor? 

What might the officers have done differently?  Well – and this is complicated – the entire American police force might fundamentally change the way it interacts with African-Americans.  But, you protest, these two officers cannot change the way the entire criminal justice system interacts with Black men!  And this is where things get difficult.  That was not only an interaction between one Black college professor and two white policemen.  It was an interaction between the Black population of America and the entire criminal justice system.  And it cannot be understood unless one grasps this fact.

All well and good, you may say, but in the moment, right then and there, how should they have acted differently?  And the answer is: While these two policemen were, so to speak, waiting for all of America to change, they could themselves have chosen to interact with Professor Locke as though they were interacting with a white man.  Had they done so, the entire interaction would have gone differently and in a non-threatening manner for Professor Locke.  But they did not.

That is what they did wrong.

Let me close with an old, bitter joke told by my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies department at UMass Amherst:

What do you call a Black man with a Ph. D.?

Answer:  Nigger.


I am copying this from the FaceBook page of my son, Professor Tobias Barrington Wolff.  I had intended to spend today writing a lengthy post bringing together what I have learned from Piketty and Marx and others, but then I read this and I just felt sick inside.  The words before the picture are those of Tobias.

This man is a career academic. I am a career academic. We share a vocation and a professional status. And yet, I have never had anything remotely like this happen to me, and I am able to lead my life without ever having to worry that something like this will happen to me.
Please read Professor Locke's entire narrative.
Tray John
This is a professor, who has the tools to articulate how this encounter affected him. He also has the age and wisdom that allowed for him to maintain his composure and not lose his life. Now, imagine a YOUNG Black person, who is not equip with either.
Steve Locke wrote:
"This is what I wore to work today.
On my way to get a burrito before work, I was detained by the police.
I noticed the police car in the public lot behind Centre Street. As I was walking away from my car, the cruiser followed me. I walked down Centre Street and was about to cross over to the burrito place and the officer got out of the car.
“Hey my man,” he said.
He unsnapped the holster of his gun.
I took my hands out of my pockets.
“Yes?” I said.
“Where you coming from?”
Where’s home?”
How’d you get here?”
“I drove.”
He was next to me now. Two other police cars pulled up. I was standing in from of the bank across the street from the burrito place. I was going to get lunch before I taught my 1:30 class. There were cops all around me.
I said nothing. I looked at the officer who addressed me. He was white, stocky, bearded.
“You weren’t over there, were you?” He pointed down Centre Street toward Hyde Square.
“No. I came from Dedham.”
“What’s your address?”
I told him.
“We had someone matching your description just try to break into a woman’s house.”
A second police officer stood next to me; white, tall, bearded. Two police cruisers passed and would continue to circle the block for the 35 minutes I was standing across the street from the burrito place.
“You fit the description,” the officer said. “Black male, knit hat, puffy coat. Do you have identification.”
“It’s in my wallet. May I reach into my pocket and get my wallet?”
I handed him my license. I told him it did not have my current address. He walked over to a police car. The other cop, taller, wearing sunglasses, told me that I fit the description of someone who broke into a woman’s house. Right down to the knit cap.
Barbara Sullivan made a knit cap for me. She knitted it in pinks and browns and blues and oranges and lime green. No one has a hat like this. It doesn’t fit any description that anyone would have. I looked at the second cop. I clasped my hands in front of me to stop them from shaking.
“For the record,” I said to the second cop, “I’m not a criminal. I’m a college professor.” I was wearing my faculty ID around my neck, clearly visible with my photo.
“You fit the description so we just have to check it out.” The first cop returned and handed me my license.
“We have the victim and we need her to take a look at you to see if you are the person.”
It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die. I am not being dramatic when I say this. I was not going to get into a police car. I was not going to present myself to some victim. I was not going let someone tell the cops that I was not guilty when I already told them that I had nothing to do with any robbery. I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially. I knew this in my heart. I was not going anywhere with these cops and I was not going to let some white woman decide whether or not I was a criminal, especially after I told them that I was not a criminal. This meant that I was going to resist arrest. This meant that I was not going to let the police put their hands on me.
If you are wondering why people don’t go with the police, I hope this explains it for you.
Something weird happens when you are on the street being detained by the police. People look at you like you are a criminal. The police are detaining you so clearly you must have done something, otherwise they wouldn’t have you. No one made eye contact with me. I was hoping that someone I knew would walk down the street or come out of one of the shops or get off the 39 bus or come out of JP Licks and say to these cops, “That’s Steve Locke. What the F*CK are you detaining him for?”
The cops decided that they would bring the victim to come view me on the street. The asked me to wait. I said nothing. I stood still.
“Thanks for cooperating,” the second cop said. “This is probably nothing, but it’s our job and you do fit the description. 5′ 11″, black male. One-hundred-and-sixty pounds, but you’re a little more than that. Knit hat.”
A little more than 160. Thanks for that, I thought.
An older white woman walked behind me and up to the second cop. She turned and looked at me and then back at him. “You guys sure are busy today.”
I noticed a black woman further down the block. She was small and concerned. She was watching what was going on. I focused on her red coat. I slowed my breathing. I looked at her from time to time.
I thought: Don’t leave, sister. Please don’t leave.
The first cop said, “Where do you teach?”
“Massachusetts College of Art and Design.” I tugged at the lanyard that had my ID.
“How long you been teaching there?”
“Thirteen years.”
We stood in silence for about 10 more minutes.
An unmarked police car pulled up. The first cop went over to talk to the driver. The driver kept looking at me as the cop spoke to him. I looked directly at the driver. He got out of the car.
“I’m Detective Cardoza. I appreciate your cooperation.”
I said nothing.
“I’m sure these officers told you what is going on?”
“They did.”
“Where are you coming from?”
“From my home in Dedham.”
“How did you get here?”
“I drove.”
“Where is your car?”
“It’s in the lot behind Bukhara.” I pointed up Centre Street.
“Okay,” the detective said. “We’re going to let you go. Do you have a car key you can show me?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going to reach into my pocket and pull out my car key.”
I showed him the key to my car.
The cops thanked me for my cooperation. I nodded and turned to go.
“Sorry for screwing up your lunch break,” the second cop said.
I walked back toward my car, away from the burrito place. I saw the woman in red.
“Thank you,” I said to her. “Thank you for staying.”
“Are you ok?” She said. Her small beautiful face was lined with concern.
“Not really. I’m really shook up. And I have to get to work.”
“I knew something was wrong. I was watching the whole thing. The way they are treating us now, you have to watch them. ”
“I’m so grateful you were there. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Don’t leave, sister.’ May I give you a hug?”
“Yes,” she said. She held me as I shook. “Are you sure you are ok?”
“No I’m not. I’m going to have a good cry in my car. I have to go teach.”
“You’re at MassArt. My friend is at MassArt.”
“What’s your name?” She told me. I realized we were Facebook friends. I told her this.
“I’ll check in with you on Facebook,” she said.
I put my head down and walked to my car.
My colleague was in our shared office and she was able to calm me down. I had about 45 minutes until my class began and I had to teach. I forgot the lesson I had planned. I forget the schedule. I couldn’t think about how to do my job. I thought about the fact my word counted for nothing, they didn’t believe that I wasn’t a criminal. They had to find out. My word was not enough for them. My ID was not enough for them. My handmade one-of-a-kind knit hat was an object of suspicion. My Ralph Lauren quilted blazer was only a “puffy coat.” That white woman could just walk up to a cop and talk about me like I was an object for regard. I wanted to go back and spit in their faces. The cops were probably deeply satisfied with how they handled the interaction, how they didn’t escalate the situation, how they were respectful and polite.
I imagined sitting in the back of a police car while a white woman decides if I am a criminal or not. If I looked guilty being detained by the cops imagine how vile I become sitting in a cruiser? I knew I could not let that happen to me. I knew if that were to happen, I would be dead.
Nothing I am, nothing I do, nothing I have means anything because I fit the description.
I had to confess to my students that I was a bit out of it today and I asked them to bear with me. I had to teach.
After class I was supposed to go to the openings for First Friday. I went home."
~Steve Locke

Sunday, December 16, 2018


Both S. Wallerstein and Jerry Fresia ask penetrating questions in response to my rueful post, “What we have lost,” but before I try to reply to them, let me offer another data point in my effort to flesh out the implications of the Piketty et al. essay.  This table shows the evolution of the federal minimum wage over its lifetime, normalized to 2014 prices.  The change between 2014 and now is small, of course.  Notice that the minimum wage rose steadily from 1938, when it was introduced by Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression, to Johnson’s final year in office, 1968.  It then declined in real terms [because periodic raises did not keep pace with inflation], sinking during George W. Bush’s second term to a level it had not seen since Truman was in office.  It is now $7.25 an hour, which is two-thirds what it was, in real terms, fifty years ago.  In short, the minimum wage fifty years ago had a much greater equalizing effect on the American economy than it has now. 

One of the many proposals being discussed on the left is the guaranteed minimum income.  When I googled around, I discovered to my amusement and astonishment that among those who have advanced versions of this proposal are the first imam of Islam, Abu Bakr, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Paine, and Paul Samuelson.  The only person missing from this list is Jesus, and I think his miracle of the loaves and the fishes can be taken as a step in that direction.


As some of you are aware, I spent a good deal of time in the early nineties sorting through the trove of family papers I inherited at my father’s death and writing two books from them, one about my grandparents and one about my parents [neither of which, of course, I published.]  I was especially fascinated by my father’s father, Barnet Wolff, who devoted his life to the Socialist Party and was one of its leaders in New York City during the first three decades of the 20th century.  As part of my research on his political career, I dug up the platforms for several years of the Socialist Party [the Norman Thomas organization, for those who are deep into this stuff] and observed that save for the proposal to collectivize the ownership or production, most of its planks had actually been enacted during the New Deal by the Democratic Party under the leadership of FDR.

This morning, as I was turning over in my mind ways to continue the discussion I started on this blog a few days ago, I checked in with the Abbreviated Pundit Roundup on The Daily Kos and found this striking account.  It details a number of revolutionary proposals, now being advanced by the most progressive wing of the modern Democratic Party, that were actually put forward by Roosevelt and in some cases in some form written into law.   Tears came to my eyes [I cry easily] as I reflected on how much we have lost in the course of my long life.  Rather than struggle to identify radical new themes to set the course of a resurgent progressive movement, we could save ourselves a good deal of time by simply resurrecting this seventy-four year old document.

Friday, December 14, 2018


My continuing reflections on the essay by Piketty et al. have elicited a number of interesting and suggestive responses, including those of S. Wallerstein and Jerry Fresia.  Rather than respond to their comments, with which I largely agree, I should like to add to the discussion by going into several matters that may help us to advance our thinking about the present situation.  By the way, I am well aware that major developments are unfolding in many parts of the world, including China, India, and a number of European nations, but I simply do not know enough about these matters to form or to express intelligent opinions.  My silence is not at all a judgment on their significance, simply a consequence of my ignorance.

First of all, let us keep in mind that there are three elementary facts about any society that, more than anything else, determine its economic and political trajectory.  The first is the proportion of the working age population in agriculture.  The second is the proportion of the total population of working age.  The third is the rate of growth of the population.  The first determines how many people of working age are freed up to engage in manufacture or services or other productive activities.  The second determines how heavy the burden is on the working age population of supporting the non-working age share of the population in addition to supporting itself.  The third determines [or at least shapes] the rate of social saving required to expand the total output to accommodate the additional people.

The so-called Neolithic Revolution took humanity from a hunting/gathering or foraging stage of existence, by means of the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals, into a productive stage that freed up people to build cities, form governments, muster armies, fight large scale wars, build places of worship, and also, most important of all, write philosophy books.

The Industrial Revolution dramatically reduced the share of the population engaged in agriculture and ushered in the world in which virtually everyone on earth lives.  In my view, far and away the most consequential revolutionary change of the past half century has been the transformation of China and India [and other smaller nations] from primarily agricultural to primarily industrial or post-industrial economies.

This interactive chart shows the percentage of the population of working age, by country, over the past forty-eight years.  The United States is in the middle of the pack with Korea at the top and Israel at the bottom.  The working age share of the U. S. population has risen and fallen between 62% and 66% [roughly] over that time.

The next thing we need to know is the proportion of the working age population in the labor force.  This requires some explanation, as it is not obvious what that means.  [In my multi-part tutorial, entitled “The Study of Society,” accessible via the link at the top of this blog, I talk for a bit about how this notion changes for pre-capitalist, capitalist, and socialist societies.]

The U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], as you probably know, keeps track of monthly and yearly changes in the unemployment rate, defined simply as the proportion of the population in the labor force that is not employed full time.  To determine this, it selects a carefully crafted sample of 50,000 households, and sends people out each month to ask of the working age people in each household, “How many working age persons are there in this household, and of those, how many were employed full time last month?”  According to this chart, 73.3% of America’s working age population is in the labor force.  [Once again, the U. S. is more or less in the middle range among nations in this regards]

Now the BLS is well aware that there are people who would like to work but have given up looking because they cannot find jobs.  It dubs these folks “discouraged workers,” and it keeps track of them by asking, in its monthly surveys, “Have you looked for work in the previous twelve months.”

Needless to say, in every conceivable category, things are worse for African-American and Hispanic workers.

Why does all of this matter?  Because the people not in the labor force are people, as are the unemployed and the discouraged workers, and they are mostly part of what I have been calling the Bottom Half.  [Obviously, wives of rich men are not, but an ever larger proportion of working age women are in the labor force, and as you would expect, they are disproportionately at the lower end of the income spectrum.]  If we are trying to think through policies designed to alter the steeply unequal [and unjust] shape of the income distribution, we need to figure out how to bring more working age unemployed men and women into the labor force and prepare them for and offer them decent jobs.  This is not the same thing as lowering the official unemployment rate, which is currently at a multi-decade low.

Mind you, I do not have viable, politically feasible proposals in my back pocket, but I think it helps to set the scene in this way for our thinking, so that we can move beyond the usual proposals, admirable as they may be.

I will close by saying that I agree both with S. Wallerstein that it will be extremely difficult to build solidarity between those in the Bottom Half and those in the 50/90 range, and with Jerry Fresia that we must look at the bipartisan corporate neo-liberal consensus on which America’s party politics have rested since Carter [I would have said “since Reagan,” but there is only a few years’ difference there, and I bow to his superior memory.]