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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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


Having made some progress in my preparations for the second Marx lecture, and having nothing to say about Trump’s inaugural State of the Union message to Congress, I thought I would spend a few moments talking about the concept of a deep state. The term has been popularized by Steven Bannon but it was introduced into modern sociological discussions, under a different rubric, by the great German theorist Max Weber.

In his extensive and groundbreaking discussion of bureaucracy, which takes up a good deal of his posthumous work Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Economy and Society], Weber identifies the bureaucratic organization of government, and also of the economy, the military, the church, and the Academy, as the distinctive feature of modern capitalist society.  A bureaucracy is a functionally differentiated system of roles defined by written and unwritten rules that are independent of the persons who occupy the roles.  The authority exercised by the role occupants derives not from their personal characteristics – strength, height, intelligence, age, individual prowess, charismatic appeal – nor from their race, gender, family connection, ethnicity – but from rules that define the scope, functions, and authority of the roles they occupy.

It is characteristic of a bureaucracy that most of the roles are occupied by persons for whom those roles are their profession and source of income.  The persons in the command positions of a bureaucratically organized operation may come and go, appointed for relatively brief periods by some superior military, corporate, religious, academic, or governmental process, but the professional bureaucrats stay on, continuing to perform their rule-defined functions.

Inevitably, the permanent bureaucrats develop institutional loyalties and memories and a resistance to interference by those they view as amateurs or interlopers.  They resent such interference and, having an intimate knowledge of the bureaucracy, are frequently able to frustrate the policy plans of those who are technically their superiors.  Tenured professors, middle managers, local archbishops, master sergeants are all examples of career bureaucrats who function in this manner.  I was constantly amused, during my thirty seven years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, by the inability of the Chancellors, each recruited from the outside and staying no more than five or six years, to make much of a dent in the ongoing activities of the departments.  By the time the Chancellors found their way to the executive washroom, as it were, and had convened an all campus select committee to consider dramatic [and mostly unwelcome] changes to the institution, they were only two or three years from moving on to their next job.  It was child’s play for those of us who wanted no interference with our activities to slow walk administrative proposals until the next chancellor arrived on campus with his or her own exciting plans for reinventing UMass.

The United States Federal Government is an enormous cluster of bureaucratically organized departments, the regular career participants in which are protected from higher interference not only by the logic of bureaucracy but also by laws explicitly blocking the political class from reaching into the bowels of an office or department and directly removing individuals whom the powers that be consider inimical to their policies.  These career bureaucrats, who number in the tens or hundreds of thousands, are supporters of both principal political parties, but they are all partisan defenders of the same post-World War II policy consensus that has reigned more or less unchallenged for seventy years and more.  How could they not be?  They have been the creators and curators of that consensus!

There is nothing sinister or malevolent in this situation.  It is, as Weber taught us almost a century ago, an inevitable consequence of the foundational bureaucratic organization of modern mass capitalist society.  Steve Bannon, if we can take him at his word, seeks to overthrow that consensus, and he quite correctly judges that his principal enemy is not the political class – the elected representatives and the president – but the deep state, the bureaucracy itself.  The good news is that he will fail.  The bad news is that so would we, were we to win control of the Congress and the Presidency.

Would things be dramatically different in the socialism of my dreams?  Of course not.  Kibbutzim, communes, and love-ins to the contrary notwithstanding, a socialist state overseeing a modern post-industrial economy would necessarily, unavoidably be a bureaucracy.  The best we could hope for is a bureaucracy whose guiding principles were more just, more humane, and less exploitative.  But you may be certain that after the revolution, as we used to say when I was young, the men and women leading a socialist America would have to contend with the mort main of bureaucracy.


The first Marx lecture is up on YouTube here.  Enjoy, and tell all your friends.  It is better than Trump's State of the Union address, anyway.

Monday, January 29, 2018


The first Marx lecture has been recorded, and should be up on Wednesday.  I shall provide a link when that occurs.  I am eager to get feedback.


Professor Froomkin’s comment about morbidity rates reminds me that I promised to explain why on earth I was looking into the statistics on life expectancy.  The reason is the bearing of those statistics on the debate over immigration.  One of the most important statistics concerning a country’s economy is the proportion of the population that is economically productive.  In the standard life cycle model, the population is divided into those too young to enter the labor force, those who are retired from the labor force, and those who actually produce the goods and provide the services that we all need to survive.  When Social Security was instituted, only a small fraction of the adult population could be expected to live more than a few years beyond a retirement age of 65.  With the improvements in child mortality and early adult health, even the increasing numbers of retirees could be supported adequately by the labor of those in the productive years intermediate between childhood and old age.  [I am simplifying all of this to keep down the length of this post.]  But as those who make it out of childhood live longer and longer, the balance shifts.

Look at it this way.  If you are in your thirties or early forties, then most of the men and women who will, when you are seventy, grow your food, truck it to your local supermarket, care for you when you are sick, and amuse you when you are not have not yet been born.  If there are too many oldsters like you, say in 2055, and too few young ‘uns, then regardless of how much you put into your 401k, you are going to be in trouble.

What is the most natural solution?  Let in a whole bunch of immigrants who are either children or else of childbearing age, and make sure they get enough to eat, good health care, and good educations.  That way, when you are a senior citizen like me, you won’t starve to death or die for lack of a doctor to look after you.

In short, a steady flow of immigrants is in the rational self-interest of those already here.  Without immigration, the situation is only going to get worse, as it has for example in Japan.

Sunday, January 28, 2018


I was Googling around on this overcast day looking for some statistics to support a post I want to write about immigration when I stumbled on some striking numbers that rather surprised me.  Life expectancy for U. S. white males in 1900 was 47; in 2000 it was 75, a dramatic increase [it is even higher now.]  But the life expectancy for men 84 [that's me] has increased in the past 110 years by only between 4 and 5 years.  Which means that if you were born in 1816 and managed make it to 84 by 1900, your life expectancy was only five or so years less than it is if, like me, you were born in 1933 and are now 84.  In a century, all that high-powered medicine has only added a few more years to those who make it to 84.  The big difference, of course, is in how many of us do in fact make it this far.

By the way, I checked.  Right now, my life expectancy is 6.2 years, which means I figure [on average] to live to be 90.  But if I make it to 90, my life expectancy will be [roughly] 4,4 years, so I will have a pretty good chance of making it to 95.  And of course if I make it to 95, odds are I will live almost to 98.

Well, enough of these morbidity speculations.  Later on I will explain what got me started on all of this.

Friday, January 26, 2018


This will renew your faith in the transformative potential of art.  Jerry Fresia, take note.

Thursday, January 25, 2018


When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, as the poet says, I anguish about this blog and whether it is reaching out to the people I want to talk with, there is an exchange, like that between Debra Campbell and Jerry Fresia [commenting on a previous post] and my faith in the internet is renewed.  Thank you both!


Nice, quiet unassuming Dana Milbank has developed a rather deliciously mordant sense of humor.  As evidence, I link to this column in today's Washington Post.  It is not easy these days to say something humorous about the news.  Milbank, I think, succeeds.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


As I prepare for my first Marx lecture, I turn naturally to the Bible for passages I shall quote.  Re-reading the opening lines of the Gospel According to John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” in my head I hear the lovely Yiddish accent of the great scholar Harry Austryn Wolfson speaking about the Preexistent Logos of Neo-Platonic philosophy, and that in turn leads me to reflect how extraordinarily fortunate I was, as a young teen-ager, to sit at the feet of three great teachers:  Willard Van Orman Quine, Harry Austryn Wolfson, and Clarence Irving Lewis.  From Quine, during my very first semester as an undergraduate, I learned standards of clarity and precision that became a beacon for me as I went on to write philosophy myself.  From Wolfson, I learned what it is truly to be a scholar, and I understood that that honorific title would forever and appropriately be denied me.  From Lewis, I learned that it was possible to combine philosophical rigor and clarity with a passionate commitment to the truth.  I have spent a great deal of time and energy struggling against Harvard’s inadequate commitment to principles of justice, but I must confess, after all these years, that I got a pretty good education there two-thirds of a century ago.


It is disorienting to prepare for an extended series of public lectures on the thought of Karl Marx while simultaneously obsessing over the minute-by-minute reports of the negotiations regarding the government shutdown.  I can understand why Marx holed up in the British Museum for years while preparing to write Capital.  I am reasonably comfortable about the lectures; the shutdown not so much.

Did Chuck Schumer do the right thing or was he a traitor to the cause?  Lord, I don’t know.  I have never so much as served on a town recycling committee.  My practical experience with negotiations does not extend farther than getting all of the Den Mothers of the Northampton Cub Scout Pack on the same page in the planning for the annual bake sale and auction.  The Democrats are in a very weak position legislatively.  They got the Children’s Health Insurance Program renewed for six years at the cost of a weekend shutdown that was probably less disruptive than a winter storm.  In seventeen days it will all happen again, unless the bipartisan group of Senators can bring a DACA fix to the floor of the Senate and pass it.  If that happens, will the House go along?  It hardly seems likely, in which case we could never have gotten a DACA fix in the first place.

Cable News commentators are talking disapprovingly about the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party, so that is good news.  The North and South Koreans are going to field a joint ice hockey team, which gives me hope [does anyone know whether they are any good?]

It is all too much for my aged brain.  I am going to return to Chapter One of Capital.

Monday, January 22, 2018


I will just point out, modestly, that Andrew Blais wrote his doctoral dissertation under my direction, and I therefore take credit for all the good things he has done since, hem hem.


I was, I confess, surprised and a little disturbed by the responses to my sunny post of yesterday.  I find hope a more powerful motivator than despair, and so, in advance of a battle, I concentrate on what can be won rather than on the likelihood that we will not win everything.  The history of popular progressive uprisings makes it clear that even when they are successful, they fall short of the aspirations of those who make them.  I have written about the deeper reasons for this, most recently in my Columbia talk, so I shan’t repeat them here.  But it is worth reminding ourselves of the consequences of the movements we have been a part of in our lifetimes.  The Black Liberation Movement accomplished an enormous improvement in the daily life chances and experiences of African-Americans.  But it was unable to overcome institutional racism deeply embedded in the structure of the American economy, and of course it left capitalism untouched.  Was it worth the effort?  I think the answer to that question should be left to Black respondents.  The Women’s Movement made astonishing changes in the life chances of women, and seems poised to dramatically shift American politics leftward.  But as the #MeToo movement makes clear, women continue to suffer daily assaults on their bodies, on their dignity, on their very lives.  Has the Gay Liberation Movement been worth the effort?  As the father of a proud gay man, I have seen close up the changes in the status and acceptance of LGBT men and women in just his adult lifetime.  I will leave it to him to say how much remains.  If we cannot recognize, acknowledge, and bear up under the disappointments attendant upon these victories, we might as well leave field and repair to our studies, where we can daily remind ourselves of the vast evils and injustices of this world.

Do liberal votes count for less than conservative votes?  Of course they do.  The sainted Founding Fathers designed the Constitution to guarantee that result.  Just to be extra careful, they made amending the Constitution to change that fact almost impossible.  Does Gerrymandering systemically diminish the power of Democratic votes?  Of course it does.  The only remedy is to turn out extra-large votes for state Democratic candidates.  Are liberal votes wasted by being cast in coastal urban enclaves?  To be sure.  Unless a quasi-religious movement catches fire among Liberals exhorting them to move to West Virginia and Utah “for the good of the party,” there is nothing to be done but suck it up, order another half caf skim milk latte with two shots of vanilla, and try to persuade some of the two-thirds of Democratic voters who do not bother to turn out for the mid-term elections that they might consider spending an hour every two years dropping in at their local polling station.

So stop complaining and organize!

Sunday, January 21, 2018


When I attended the Women's March in Washington just one year ago, I was stunned by the seemingly endless river of people marching.  I had never been a part of anything remotely like it.  Even so, a small voice in my head said, "This is lovely, but will it last?"  Well, one year later, after Virginia and Alabama and #MeToo and the endless series of horrors of the Trump presidency, the answer appears to be, Yes.  There is not the slightest evidence that the resistance has flagged or grown weary.  If we keep this up, in ten months' time we shall swamp the Republicans and retake enough of the Government to inflict holy hell on Trump and his minions.  He has done vast harm, and will continue to do so, but if we can avoid a brutal, terrifying, and unnecessary war, I think the sun may once again shine in my heart as it now shines in Chapel Hill.

Friday, January 19, 2018

APOLOGIA PRO LABORE SUA [forgive the bad Latin]

I must confess I was rather surprised by the response to my brief post about my preparations for my forthcoming lectures on Marx.  Anonymous [sic] said “Bob, will there be anything genuinely original in what you have to say, as far as you know? Why trek through the thought of another fellow long dead, whose corpus has been mapped and remapped ten thousand times? Is this a showy intellectual exercise, a public tour-de-force you aim to undertake, but one that leaves everything the way it is and nothing new under the sun? What can Wolff add to Marx? Why Wolff on Marx/Kant/Freud? Why not just leave them to speak for themselves?”

Why indeed.  Why has anyone in the last 2,500 years bothered to write about Plato, considering that his first student, Aristotle, was undoubtedly his best?  Even if I think I have something of interest to say about Marx, why on earth bother when I have already written two books and a number of journal articles about his thought?

Two answers.  Make of them what you will.  First, my attempt to bring together in an integrated fashion the most sophisticated mathematical reinterpretation of Marx’s political economy and Marx’s extraordinary literary performance in Capital is, I honestly believe, quite literally unique.  I challenge anyone to cite another author who has attempted such a reading, one that seeks to read the irony into the equations.  Second, for reasons that are simply beyond my comprehension [that, just so we are clear, is an ironic utterance, okay?], not everyone interested in Marx has read my two books.  Indeed, if publishers’ reports can be trusted, almost no one has read my second book.  So perhaps videotaped lectures posted on YouTube will reach a few folks who might otherwise be unaware of what I have written.

Needless to say, you are free to watch clips from The Big Bang Theory instead.


I have been working on the outline of my Marx lectures, preparing a series of pages that Staples will enlarge to 36 x 24 inches so that they can be displayed behind me during each talk.  As I do this and arrange in my head the order in which I am going to explain things, it becomes clear to me that what I have to say will be way more complex than my lectures on Kant's First Critique, difficult though that was.  My goal will be to capture in these lectures my vision of Marx's thought as an integrated fusion of history, political economy, political sociology, philosophy, revolutionary practice, and mathematics, all articulated in an ironic authorial voice that is indispensable to the expression of his understanding of the mystifications of capitalism.

It should be a hoot.

Thursday, January 18, 2018


Now that the arrangements have been made, I am hard at work preparing my first Marx lecture for a week from Monday.  It  feels good to be back again preparing to lecture.  As soon as this lecture series is completed, probably in early or middle April, I will start teaching an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute [OLLI] course here at Carolina Meadows, under the auspices of the Duke branch of OLLI.  The topic of the short six week course will be An Introduiction to the Dialogues of Plato.  No heavy lifting:  The Euthyphro, Crito, Apology, and Gorgias.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


Here and here if you want your politics mixed with Grand Opera. 


Austin Haigler asks whether locals [i.e., non-UNC folks] will be able to sit in.  Sure.  Nobody is going to check IDs at the door.  As for questions, I discovered during previous videotaped lectures that the little lavalier mic I use picks up questions from the audience perfectly, so of course I will encourage people to ask questions and make comments.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


I shall be delivering and videotaping a series of lectures this semester on The Thought of Karl Marx.  The lectures will take place on Mondays in the same room where I lectured on The First Critique.  As before, the lectures will be posted each week several days after they are videotaped.  I am hoping to start on Monday, January 19th, but that is not yet definite.  I would imagine there will be perhaps eight or nine lectures in all, maybe more.

Stay tuned.

Monday, January 15, 2018


Well, we have now endured three days of intense, thoughtful discussion of the urgent question, “Is Donald Trump a racist?”  This very quickly metastasized into the question, “Are Trump’s supporters racists?” and the subordinate question, “Are Trump’s policies racist?”  Trump has announced that he is not a racist, but for some reason that statement has not been considered dispositive, so I suppose I have a certain responsibility as a blogger to weigh in.

My first problem is that everyone engaged in this discussion speaks or writes as though being a racist were a psychological trait, either inherited, like perfect pitch, or acquired, like a love of oysters.  People who have the trait racist are said to be prejudiced, which means literally that they prejudge others, in advance of getting to know them, solely on the basis of their skin color and other associated physical characteristics.  One can, of course, be prejudiced in favor as well as against, but nobody seems to think it is a bad thing to be prejudiced in favor.  I am, for example, unthinkingly inclined to view with approbation persons who speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences.  Is this disgraceful or blameworthy?  Well, perhaps, inasmuch as it probably inclines me to undervalue the opinions of what Gramsci would have called organic intellectuals.

Racism is talked about as a trait that can be difficult to ascertain, even for the person who is said to possess it.  So we are all enjoined to examine ourselves for elusive signs of it, rather like seventeenth century Protestants who wrote spiritual diaries in an effort to suss out signs of election or damnation.

Now, all of this is simply nonsense.  What is more, it is seriously counterproductive nonsense.  So let me offer a few observations designed to change the discussion somewhat.  To keep this to a manageable length, I am going to rely on things I have written and published, most notably in my book Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, archived under the title “Black Studies Book” at  People of African origin were brought forcibly to this country as prisoners for the purpose of extracting from them hard physical labor, first in agriculture and later in virtually every branch of production and personal service.  As my old colleague in Afro-American Studies, John Bracey, remarked one day in our first year doctoral seminar when I was going on about the racist prejudice of the slave owners, “Bob, the settlers did not come to this country, look around, and then say, ‘this is a beautiful and fertile land. It has everything we need except for some Black people to hate.  Let’s get some and bring them here so that we can discriminate against them.’”  Black people, like white indentured servants, were brought to these shores to work so that those who brought them could get rich, as indeed some of them did.  Over a period of a century and more, the status of Black prisoners was transformed into hereditary chattel slavery while the status of White indentured servants was transformed into legally free citizenship.

The slave owners did not hate their slaves, any more than they hated their horses, cattle, or shoes.  Since the slaves were, in fact if not in law, persons, some slave owners developed human sentiments about them, both positive and negative, but that in no way altered the legal status of the slaves as things.  The slaves did not want to be liked.  They wanted to be free.

After the emancipation of the slaves, an elaborate structure of law and custom was erected for the purpose of extracting cheap labor from the Freedmen and Freedwomen while denying them any political power.  A century and a half of dangerous and painful struggle by Black men and women somewhat, but by no means fully, challenged those laws and customs.  It is still the case today that the descendants of the slaves, as well as many others who look like them physically, are paid less for their work, are educated in inferior schools, are denied equal access to the rungs of the steep job ladder that characterizes America’s unequal economy and society.

It is of little interest or significance whether White people like Black people in America, and it certainly makes no difference how Donald Trump feels about Black People.  What is of interest and significance is that Black people are systematically treated less well than White people in America, and that the people Donald Trump has chosen for his Cabinet and senior Administrative offices are doing everything in their power to make that unequal treatment worse as fast as they can.  Leaving entirely to one side the fact that he presides over the federal justice system in America, could any self-respecting person, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Green, or Puce care what Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III feels about him or her?

It is instructive to compare the subject of racism with sexism.  For at least as long as there have been historical records, women have been systematically treated less well than men in virtually all walks of life.  Until quite recently, women have been excluded by law and custom from every aspect of social, economic and political life that carries with it wealth or power or social honor:  from politics, from the military, from business, from the Academy, from law, from medicine [at least since medicine was actually able to do something about illness.]  But the men carrying out and benefiting from this exclusion have mothers, wives, daughters, mistresses, concubines.  No doubt some of them are woman-haters.  There is no accounting for taste.  But the second class status of women is not a consequence of animus, and it is not sustained, even today, by a personality trait called sexism

So it does not matter what Donald Trump feels in his heart [assuming he has one.]  It only matters how people of color are treated.  Black people can live with the fact that White cops hate them, just so long as those cops don’t gun the[RW1] m down.

Saturday, January 13, 2018


One of the secondary consequences of the Trump presidency is insomnia.  I lay awake at two a.m. last night obsessed by daydreams of magical powers that enabled me, anonymously and instantaneously, to make Mar a Lago, Trump Tower, and every other object associated with Trump disappear suddenly and permanently, causing Trump excruciating psychic pain [I have an active fantasy life.]  After a while, my thoughts migrated naturally to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.  By now fully awake, I turned the matter over in my mind and concluded that it would be both unwise and unnecessary to try to remove Trump from office by that constitutional device.

Since this may take a while, let me begin by reproducing the text of the Amendment:

Section 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
Section 2. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.” 

The principal purpose of the amendment is to handle situations in which the President is temporarily or permanently physically incapable of performing the duties of the office.  This could be because he or she was to undergo general anaesthesia.  [Interesting side note:  When I was growing up in a small row house in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, there was an alley behind the house that separated our row from the next street over and gave access to tiny garages.  In the house behind us lived a big kid, Eric Goldstein, who grew up to change his name to Eric Cassell and have a distinguished career as a professor of medicine.  Eric did some fascinating research using the theories of child cognitive development of the great Child Psychologist Jean Piaget, showing that adult patients recovering from general anaesthesia took a long time to regain an adult level of cognitive abilities, as measured by Piaget’s tests.  Eric helped me make a splendid layout for the model trains I bought with the hundred dollars my parents gave me as a substitute for a bar mitzvah.]  The Amendment also deals with cases of permanent but not fatal incapacitation, brilliantly lampooned in that great old Kevin Kline/Sigourney Weaver movie Dave, with Frank Langella in an over the top performance as the evil Special Assistant to the President.

Trump’s erratic and despicable behavior and the widespread desperation anent his presidency has sparked discussions of invoking the 25th Amendment on the grounds that Trump is unfit mentally to hold the office of President.  Let me address first the issue of Trump’s malign effect on America’s domestic life, and then discuss separately the cataclysmic threat his presidency poses to the very survival of modern civilization, thanks to his access to and control of America’s nuclear arsenal.

I begin by reminding us all that just short of sixty-three million Americans voted for Trump, despite, or perhaps because of, having available to them everything anyone could ask for in the way of information about his character and behavior.  Is he a racist?  Of course he is, as evidenced by his embrace of the birther myth.  Is he a sexist predator on women?  On the Access Hollywood tape, he tells us himself that he is.  Is he a xenophobe?  His announcement speech declares as much.  Is he a trash-talking bully?  His debate performance settled the question.  Is he a crook, a cheat, and a deadbeat?  The evidence was public and overwhelming before the election.  And yet, sixty-three million Americans voted for him.

If we are to take seriously the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment, we must distinguish these characteristics from the quite separate question of mental incapacitation, of early stage dementia.  Now, moving into a Continuing Care Retirement Community has given me, as a layman, a new insight into the issue of dementia and associated incapacities of old age.  Dementia and its precursors are a regular part of life in a CCRC.  Indeed, in the Assisted Living section of the community, there is a wing devoted to dementia patients in which thoughtful and kind care is given to residents who have reached that stage in the deterioration of their cognitive faculties.

What are the evidences of a decline in cognitive faculties?  Well, one sign is scattered memory loss – senior moments as they have come to be called, although I like to say that we old people have trouble remembering things simply because we know so much more than young folks.  Losing your keys repeatedly, struggling to recall what day it is, putting something on the stove to boil and then forgetting about it, so that the water boils away and the pan is scalded – all of these are or can be signs.  But judging from my layman’s observation, a man or woman who suffers the onset of dementia does not suddenly go from being a pleasant, moderately progressive, somewhat garrulous codger to being a flaming racist or warmonger or narcissistic bully. 

Trump may be ignorant, a braggart, incapable of focusing for more than a moment on anything but himself, but it would appear that he has always been that way.  After all, he was in full possession of such cognitive faculties as he ever had when he called newspapers, posing as his own publicist, to tout his success with women.

If you re-read the 25th Amendment, reproduced above, you will see how high a bar would have to be cleared politically to invoke that Amendment successfully.  But what worries me most about the 25th Amendment route is the certainty that once it had been used to oust Trump, it would be used by conservatives, moderates, and most supposed progressives if we ever succeeded in electing a President committed to real collective-ownership-of-the-means-of-production democratic socialism.  Would such a commitment be taken as evidence of diminished cognitive capacity?  Well, it is so taken now in most of America’s university Economics Departments.

I conclude that so far as domestic affairs are concerned, the response to a Trump is a wave mid-term election.

Which brings me to the matter of nuclear war.  Readers of this blog will know that I am genuinely terrified by the danger that Trump, either in a fit of pique or to divert attention from the onslaught of the Mueller investigation, will launch a nuclear attack.  Literally anything that can stop this from happening is worth doing.  But the 25th Amendment is a slow, unwieldy political process, quite incapable of interrupting a catastrophic Trumpian action.  Read the Amendment.  By the time its requirements were met, the bombs would have done their damage.

What then can we do?  I think there is an answer.  It would require a greater degree of bi-partisan cooperation than seems remotely conceivable, but less than the degree of bipartisan cooperation required by the 25th Amendment.  The present control system of nuclear weapons was designed at a time when it was believed that there was a serious threat of a nuclear first strike from the Soviet Union that would so completely disrupt American governmental and military communications that the normal chain of command would be shattered.  So it was arranged that the President could circumvent that chain of command and order the use of nuclear weapons directly within minutes of news of an in-coming missile attack.

It would be perfectly possible – and infinitely to be desired – for the Congress to pass a law restoring the normal chain of command for the use of nuclear weapons.  This would require a smaller majority than is called for by the 25th Amendment, and it would permanently reverse a policy for which there is no longer a justification.

Will this happen?  Alas, no.  Hence we are forced to hope that we survive while we work to regain control of the House of Representatives.

Friday, January 12, 2018


All of you by now have heard Trump’s characterization yesterday, during an Oval Office meeting on immigration, of the nations of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America as “shitholes.”  At times like these, I reach for my Bible.  The deafening silence from the leaders of the Republican Party in Congress called to my mind what Jesus had to say about the Pharisees, as quoted in Matthew 23:27  “for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.”  We atheists are impoverished by the unavailability to us of the theological category of evil.

Thursday, January 11, 2018


Matt says he cannot find Autobiography of an Ex-White Man on  It is there, under the title "Black Studies Book."  I should have checked before I sent people to look for it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018


The comments engendered by the colloquy between Professor Pigden and myself has been, to my way of thinking, uncommonly thoughtful, scholarly, and interesting, even by the rather high standard maintained in the give and take of comments on this blog.  I was particularly taken by Musing Marxist’s thought experiment about South Africa, in part because of my thirty year long experience there.  Rather than pick at this and that point in one or another of the comments, I thought I would tell you briefly about the context of the joke about Mr. Shapiro’s Wedding Suit with which I began the second chapter of my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.  It will help to frame the general response I wish to make. 

The book is an affectionate testimonial to my colleagues and students in the UMass Afro-Am department, from whom I learned so much and with whom I spent the happiest sixteen years of my half century long teaching career.  In the first chapter, I told the story of how I came to join the department and what I learned there.  I then undertook first to tell the received story of America, and then to follow that with a rendition of the true story of America, as my colleagues had taught it to me.

The device I chose to set the stage for my account of the true story of America was an analysis of the changes that were introduced into the treatment of slavery in successive editions of the three most prestigious and successful American History college textbooks of the middle of the twentieth century:  America:  The Story of a Free People, by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager;  The Growth of the American Republic, by Samuel Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager;  and The American Pageant, by Thomas A. Bailey.  Nevins, Commager, and Morrison, as some of you surely know, were giants of the academic History profession, Pulitzer Prize winners, multiple times presidents of the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.  Bailey, whose textbook was as successful as theirs, was not quite as revered as they, but he was nevertheless honored by his profession with presidencies and awards.

Each text went through many editions and was used in classrooms over periods of forty years or more.  I managed to track down almost all the editions of each, and I read through their treatments of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and [in the latest editions] the Civil Rights Movement.  The emendations to those parts of the text, edition by edition, were extraordinary, a documentary testament to the changes taking place in the larger society and to the pressures the authors were under to make their texts palatable to successive generations of students.  I shan’t try to recapitulate here my account in the second chapter of my book.  You can take a look at it if you wish by following the link on this site to

What I found so striking was this:  each text began, in the first edition, with a reverential rendering of the standard story of America as a City Upon a Hill, an exception to the nations of Europe or Asia, the only nation founded consciously as the embodiment of an idea, The Idea of Freedom.  Slavery was treated as a “peculiar institution,” as an afterthought, as a minor blemish on a nation conceived in Freedom.  The slaves were described as child-like, happy, well-treated by their loving and thoughtful masters.  Very slowly, a word or a phrase or a paragraph at a time, each new edition was revised, until, by the sixth or eighth or tenth edition, the original account of slacery was all but obliterated.  And yet, at no point was the premise of the story challenged.  America remained The Land of Freedom, the exceptional land, the only nation self-consciously established as the embodiment of an idea, the Idea of Freedom.

It seemed clear to me that even these distinguished and enormously accomplished historians, despite their command of all the latest scholarly research, were so deeply in thrall to a fundamentally false story of America that they were incapable of writing the simple truth of America so long as they clung to that original story.  Struggling to capture the peculiarity of this literary and conceptual situation, I hit upon the device of the old joke about Mr. Shapiro’s wedding suit. 

The central point of my little book was that it was not reading thousands of pages and swotting up masses of facts that enabled me to liberate myself from that false story.  It was actually moving across campus, joining a new department, making a life commitment to the fate of the collective academic and political project on which my new colleagues had embarked, and thus in the precise literal sense of the expression adopting a new standpoint, a new point on campus where I stood [and sat, and taught] that opened my eyes.

Now, clearly, if the times call for it, I can do what Professor Pigden suggests.  I remind you that only fourteen months ago, I was walking door to door in Durham, canvassing for Clinton, for whom I felt a deep contempt, cheerfully encouraging people to come out and vote for her.  But what I find difficult, if not impossible to do is to issue a full-throated call for all of us to be true to the ideal of America as a Land of Freedom, as the Leader of the Free World, as the Last Best Hope for Mankind, and struggle to make American what it has always been and aspired to be, A City Upon a Hill.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018


It seems somehow appropriate that a lengthy, well-thought out critique of my recent post about the true story of America should come from the other side of the world.  Professor Charles Pigden, of the University of Otago Philosophy Department in Dunedin, New Zealand emailed me the following extremely interesting essay, inviting me to post it here.  I do so with great pleasure, and shall endeavor to respond tomorrow.

"The ‘Oxford Philosophy’ sketch from Beyond the Fringe concludes with something like the following snatch of dialogue (I say ‘something like’ because I haven’t been able to track down a script on the web):

First Philosopher:
So can philosophy be of assistance in everyday life?

Second Philosopher:
Oh yes, I think  so. Just the other day I was in a shop and the assistant replied to some query with  ‘Yes’ . ‘What do you mean by “yes”?’ asked the customer.  ‘I mean “yes”’ replied the assistant. And here I felt that we had some ordinary people  – quite, quite ordinary – discussing an issue with real metaphysical implications   and that I, as a philosopher, could actually help them.

First Philosopher:
And did you? Help them I mean?

Second Philosopher:
Well no, they were both in a bit of a hurry.

Now although Professor Wolff is himself a distinguished philosopher, it does seem to me in this instance that I, as another philosopher, can be of assistance to him in solving a problem of everyday life,  namely how to deploy a certain line of anti-Trump (and, more broadly, radical) rhetoric with a clean intellectual conscience.  The line of rhetoric can be summed up in the slogan ‘Trump betrays everything that is best in the American Way.’ My point is that so long as you think that there are SOME things in the American political tradition that you can celebrate, then this a line you can honestly take,  since Trump is against almost everything in the American tradition that can reasonably be regarded as good.  Now although Professor Wolff’s response to this is based on a wealth of historical knowledge which I cannot hope to equal (much of it acquired in his period as a Professor of Afro-American Studies), it is also based on what seems to me to be a philosophical mistake.   Subtract the mistake and the history will not  prevent him from adopting the rhetorical strategy  that I suggest.

The nub of his response is the story of Shapiro’s suit. On the morning of his daughter’s wedding, the tailor Schneider supplies the unfortunate Mr Shapiro with a suit so asymmetrical and apparently badly cut that it can only be made to ‘fit’ him if he limps about like Quasimodo or the title character in  a particularly hammy production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.  But this is not incompetence on Schneider’s part. No, no, it is all  part of Schneider’s fiendish plan to entice customers to his establishment, by impressing them with his  apparent to cut  a suit to fit somebody as badly deformed as Shapiro must needs appear to be.  From Schneider’s point of view the unequal pants legs and the excessively large waist are not defects but features,  things he engineered into the suit on purpose as part of his insanely devious plan to advertise his talents as a tailor.   So too with the American political tradition.  It is not a tradition founded on an ideal of freedom that has been very imperfectly realized.  It is not like a suit designed to set off the (reasonably acceptable) frame of Mr Shapiro on his daughter’s wedding day but which fails to do so because of  the tailor’s spectacular incompetence.  Just as Shapiro’s suit was DESIGNED to look a mess from the word ‘Go’, so the American system was DESIGNED from the word ‘Go’ to promote and perpetuate racial inequality and (perhaps) economic inequality and plutocracy as well. 

‘America is not, was not, and never has been a country founded on the Idea of Freedom, imperfectly realized at first and then, through struggle, little by little brought into greater conformity with its founding ideal.  America was, from Colonial days, a Settler State built from the 17th century onward on unfree labor.  … As the saying has it in this digital age, slavery was a feature of America, not a bug, and today, a century and a half after the official end of slavery, racial inequality remains a feature of American society, not a bug.’

 Professor Wolff clearly thinks that the American system is analogous a ) to a suit and b) to a computer program (hence the ‘bugs and features’ terminology).  But both suits and computer programs  are typically designed in a top-down sort of way by one or more people in accordance with a coherent  plan. (No coherent plan, no suit; no coherent plan, no program; though, as we shall see, the latter is subject to some qualifications.) This means that there is a fact of the matter  which makes  it true or false whether this or that is a bug or a feature.  Something is a feature if it is a part of the plan and a bug if it is inconsistent with the designers’ collective intentions.  Thus the uneven pants legs on Shapiro’s suit are features from Schneider’s point of view, even if they are bugs from Shapiro’s, since they force the unfortunate Shapiro to hobble about like Marty Feldman’s Igor in The Young Frankenstein. If Schneider had been an honest man and not the insanely devious scoundrel that he is, they would have been bugs since an honest Schneider  would have been trying to deliver  what Shapiro’s thought he had been paying for,  that is, a decent suit which would make him look good as the father of the bride.

But consider this example.  Suppose the well-known Silicon Valley firm of Ali & Roberts has developed an encryption system, ‘SuperEnigma’ which is designed to preserve the confidentiality of their clients’ emails.  Emails are automatically encrypted at source and then sent in a code (which is programmed to update itself on a daily or even an hourly basis) to a protected server which then passes them along to their intended recipients at which point they are automatically decrypted.  Ali & Roberts’ system is supposed to protect not only the contents of their clients’ emails but also their meta-data since it is supposed to be impossible for a third party to determine who they have been communicating with.  Developing SuperEnigma was a massive task and Ali & Roberts subcontracted some of the coding to Pamela Wong Associates.  But unbeknownst to Ali & Roberts, Wong is secretly in the pay of the FBI.  And she builds in a ‘trapdoor’  which enables the FBI to intercept and decode selected emails and to recover the meta-data of A&R clients of whom they are suspicious.   Now is the fact that the system is now penetrable by the FBI a bug or a feature of the SuperEnigma system? . It seems that there is either no answer or two answers to this question.  No answer, because the SuperEnigma system was not designed in accordance with  a single coherent plan but in accordance with two plans one of which was inconsistent with the other.  This means that there is not a coherent set of collective intentions such that  FBI-penetrability is either part of the plan or inconsistent with the plan. Thus there isn’t a truthmaker either for the claim the penetrability is a bug or for the claim that penetrability is a feature.   Two answers, because penetrability by the FBI is a bug according to some of the designers (Ali & Roberts Inc) but a feature according to others. (Pamela Wong Associates). 

OK so now for the philosophical mistake which I would suggest undermines Professor Wolff’s response.  His argument presupposes that political traditions are similar to suits or to unsubverted computer programs, that is that they are analogous to artefacts designed in a top-down sort of way in accordance with a consistent set of intentions.  It is for this reason that he can use the terminology of bugs and features and it is for this reason that he can illustrate his view with the story of Shapiro’s suit.  But political traditions, polities and even constitutions (whether these are construed as living documents or as time-bound artefacts) are not like Shapiro’s suit nor are they like the general run of computer programs.   Instead they are like my imaginary SuperEnigma program only very much more so.  They are the products of opposing forces that push and pull in different directions. They are not designed in a top down sort of way by people with a consistent set of intentions. On the contrary, the key creators of a political tradition are often not consistent either with one another or with themselves.  It is not just that the creators as a group don’t have a consistent set of intentions. It is often the case that the intentions of the individual creators do not form a consistent set.  To take an obvious example you can be a slave-holder such as Jefferson who disapproves of slavery without wishing to give up his own slaves.   Thus you develop an ideological stance which implicitly undermines slavery without doing anything very practical to put it into effect. (Jefferson and others were, so to speak, a collection of political St Augustines ’Lord, make us abolish this iniquitous institution  - but not yet!)  To begin with maybe it’s the ‘but not yet’ that is effective but over time the universalist (and hence anti-slavery) principles may come to predominate. Even a less ambivalent slave-holder than Jefferson may be compelled by circumstances to adopt an ideological stance that is in tension with his practices as a slave-holder.   Thus in order to defend yourself against a potential oppressor  you may find it necessary  to appeal to an ideology of universal human rights which can subsequently be used against you and your heirs either by the people that you currently oppress, or, later on, by their descendants and their champions. Hypocrisy is the homage the vice pays to virtue but a process of ideological debate can gradually compel vice to  approximate the virtues that  it hypocritically professes, especially if the balance of power shifts against it.  (Interestingly much the same kind of process can work in the opposite direction. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx  shows how, in order to maintain their class power, the Party of Order [in the Second Republic]  had to systematically undermine the Liberal principles to which their socialist and democratic opponents appealed, leaving themselves ideologically and politically defenseless when Napoleon III struck them down in his proto-fascist coup of the 2nd December 1851.)  A more interesting case of is that of actors whose intentions are formally consistent but unrealizable in practice (hence contingently inconsistent) .  Again Jefferson supplies an example.  What he seems to have wanted was that the Western lands should be settled without injustice to the indigenous population.  The two objectives are not logically inconsistent but they could not both be realized in anything approximating the actual world. The Western lands were indeed settled  but the injustice was horrific. However, it is still possible for Native Americans nowadays  (as the Maori have done rather more successfully in Aoteroa/New Zealand) to appeal to settler principles to condemn settler practices and in some cases to extract a measure of compensation for past wrongs. 

My real point  however is this.  Since traditions, polities and constitutions are the products of differing and inconsistent intentions,  there is often no fact of the matter (or too many facts of the matter) to determine whether one of their products  is a feature or a bug.  At best we can say that it is a feature according to some and a bug  according to others.  Thus it is with slavery and the subsequent history of racial inequality in America. These are features according to racist politicians and their supporters  and bugs according to those who condemn the policies pursued in the name of the principles professed (and sometimes partially implemented). The fact that those who signed the Declaration of Independence were ambivalent, if not downright cynical, about the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights  does not mean that you cannot appeal to the Declaration of Independence to condemn either racial inequality or the violation of Human Rights.  Sure, these things were features of the system for some, but they were also bugs for others.  And you can appeal to what is best in the tradition  - to the intentions and the rhetorical tropes according to which  these things are bugs - to condemn those for whom they are features.   And you can do it furthermore without intellectual dishonesty.  This was the strategy of Dr Martin Luther King, and through we could wish that it had worked better, it one of the few strategies that has worked at all.  Witness his ‘I Have a Dream’  speech which represents the culmination of a life-time of political activism: 

“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
It would not have been helpful, and – in the absence of the appropriate truthmakers – it would not even have been TRUE  if a much younger Dr Robert Wolff had piped up. ‘Yes, Dr King but racial inequality is not a bug but a feature of the American political tradition.’ For the American political tradition is not the kind thing that can have  either unequivocal bugs or unequivocal features." 

Monday, January 8, 2018


Austin Haigler offers this comment and question regarding my lectures on Mannheim:

“I am really intrigued by Mannheim's distinction that time consciousness is ideologically encoded. As well as your subsequent ideas towards space consciousness being likewise. Question, given you had remarked that the space consciousness ideas you laid out were rough drafts or outlines, what is the more official take on these two ideas? Any interesting work done by philosophers or sociologists about the application of them? Or, critique?”

I think Mannheim’s extended discussion of the ideological encoding of time consciousness is the most brilliant section in one of the best books of social theory ever written.  As a Kant scholar, I am of course attuned to the idea that space and time are part of the fundamental structure of experience, and Mannheim was clearly consciously signifying on Kant [as we say in Afro-American Studies] in that discussion.  In my lectures, I had a go at trying to construct a parallel ideological critique of our experience of space.  My effort was in the nature of a jeu d’esprit, hardly at the level of Mannheim’s discussion.  I have never tried to elaborate on it [please feel free], and so far as I know, no one has ever noticed it in print or discussed it.

If anyone is interested in my idea, you can find it written out and archived at


One of the many ways in which I was massively underprepared for my twelve year stint as the Graduate Program Director of the UMass doctoral program in Afro-American Studies was my blindness to the central role of religion in the American Black community.  Although not a single one of my new colleagues exhibited the slightest tinge of belief in the divine, half or more of our doctoral students were seriously religious.  One of the young men, who was married to a preacher, had a message on his answering machine that blessed you three times before you got to the beep.  This failing on my part was brought home to me one rainy evening in the spring of 2000, four years after the launch of the program.

I had decided that the complete lack of mention of Marx in the departmental curriculum required fixing, so I announced a series of non-credit lectures on Marx, scheduled for the evening in order not to conflict with our regular courses.  Quite a few of our students turned out for the series.  One evening, we met during a heavy spring thunderstorm, which I ignored as I plodded through my exposition.  At some point, for reasons I cannot now recall, I remarked as an aside, “Of course, there is no God.”  At that precise moment, there was an enormous thunderclap.  The next day, one of the students informed me that half of the class was absolutely convinced this was God’s expression of disapproval of my denial of Him.

Teaching in that department was a hoot.

Sunday, January 7, 2018


I detect an ironic undertone in the two comments on my last post.  Can it be?  Surely not.


I just watched Lecture Nine in the series of lectures on Ideological Critique that I posted on YouTube some while ago.  I say without a hint of modesty that it is friggin brilliant.  You can watch it here.  The last ten minutes or so is especially good.  Trust me, it is better than re-runs of MSNBC obsessing over Michael Wolff's book, although it is definitely not superior to clips from The Big Bang Theory.


David responds to the Leonard Pitts Op Ed to which I linked with this powerful quote from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son:

"The only real change vividly discernible in this present, unspeakably dangerous chaos is a panic-stricken apprehension on the part of those who have maligned and subjugated others for so long that the tables have been turned ….  Out of this incredible brutality, we get the myth of the happy darky and Gone with the Wind. And the North Americans appear to believe these legends, which they have created and which absolutely nothing in reality corroborates, until today. And when these legends are attacked, as is happening now--all over the globe which has never been and never will be White--my countrymen become childishly vindictive and unutterably dangerous. The unadmitted icy panic of which I spoke above is created by the terror that the Savage can, now, describe the Civilized: the only way to prevent this is to obliterate humanity."

A personal story about James Baldwin.  In 1992, when I transferred from the UMass Philosophy Department to the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, I was assigned an empty office down the hall from the Departmental office, on the third floor of New Africa House.  UMass was [and still is] an underfunded state university and there were not many amenities, but each professor did get a little name plaque that was mounted on one’s office door.  My new office had very little in it save a wooden desk and some chairs.  In the desk drawer I found a stack of name plates that had belonged to former occupants.  As I flipped through them, curious to see who had sat in my chair before me, I came across a plate with the name “Chinua Achebe” on it.  The great Nigerian novelist, author of Things Fall Apart and other important works, had been a member of the department.  A few nameplates later, I found one that read “James Baldwin.”

I was walking in the footsteps of giants.


I  do not usually link to Op Ed pieces.  Life is too short.  But this essay today by Leonard Pitts is worth a few minutes of your time.  I confess I had completely overlooked the fact that Mueller's grand jury is in D.C., which is essentially a Black city.  Enjoy.


I  walked for an hour this morning in 7 degree weather.  That is at least five degrees colder than my previous low.  Not bad for eighty-four.

A long time reader and commenter sends me an email remarking, with regard to Trump, that it is very hard to fake being psychotic.  An interesting observation.  

Notice that there are endless reports of those close to Trump describing him as stupid, ignorant, childish, petulant, utterly self-absorbed.  Each quote can be challenged as to its accuracy since they are all unproven.  But there seem to be no reports of those close to Trump describing him as intelligent, knowledgeable, studious, engaged, sober, thoughtful, mature, or caring.

His media defenders attack Michael Wolff, which is rather like attacking the thermometer because it is cold outside.

Saturday, January 6, 2018


Michael Wolff's book or at least the snippets from it quoted on TV, had me worried about our president, but today, in an impromptu press conference, he set matters to right.  "My two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart," he said.  So we can stop worrying.


Not the weather, which is frigid but clear and sunny here.  I refer to the prospects for America.  I had never heard of Michael Wolff before his latest book appeared, and I accept uncritically the apparently universal judgment that he is, as a journalist, something of a sleezeball.  But his picture of Trump is judged to be accurate by Washington reporters who say they have been hearing the same things off the record for months.  One tiny item quoted from the book caught my attention.  

"At Mar-a-Lago, just before the new year, a heavily made-up Trump failed to recognize a succession of old friends."  It is the phrase "heavily made-up" that struck me.

The man is clearly in very bad shape psychologically.  

Thursday, January 4, 2018


Power out in half of the apartment, including the heat, so I have booked a room at a nearby Marriott.  More anon.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


This morning, Trump responded to Kim Jong-Un's provocative assertion that he has a nuclear button on his desk with the response that his [Trump's] button is larger, and it works,  This is transparently a taunt that his [Trump's] genitalia are larger than Kim's and furthermore that he [Trump] can maintain an erection and is not impotent.  Let us leave to one side the demented character of this response and take note that Kim at the same time sought to re-open cross-border talks with South Korea in advance of South Korea's hosting of the 2018 winter Olympics.  If Kim Jong-Un is successful in weakening the long-standing USA/South Korea military alliance, he will have achieved an enormous victory.  It seems at least possible that this will also stabilize the region and reduce the risk of an extremely destructive conventional war or a catastrophic nuclear war.  There is not the remotest chance that this possibility has even crossed Trump's mind [such as it is], and such a rapprochement would be in direct contradiction to traditional American foreign and military policy, but it is conceivable that it might be the best outcome for the incorporation of a nuclear armed North Korea into the regional geopolitical system.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018


I thought I would start the new year by reproducing the passage to which Professor Rossi referred in his very complimentary comment about my Black Studies book.  Keep in mind that it was written almost twenty years ago, so the numbers would have to be updated.  Here goes:

One of the paradoxes of the post-Civil War era is that it saw the development of a greater degree of distance between the races than had existed under slavery.    The physical closeness of slaves and masters gave way to an increasing separation.  In the North, Black people were segregated in urban communities from which they found it impossible to move even if they had the money to afford better housing.  

At first, these all-Black sections of the big Northern cities were vibrant and functional working-class neighborhoods, with a wide range of small black-owned establishments – beauty parlors, funeral parlors, shops, restaurants, pool halls, churches, newspapers and even on occasion local banks.  There were networks of social relationships that knitted the neighborhoods together, and although the inhabitants were economically consigned to the lowest level jobs, these neighborhoods functioned successfully as communities.

But as the structure of the American economy shifted after World War II, the jobs at the low end of the economy began to disappear.  At the same time, the growth of all-White suburbs radically changed the racial composition of the big Northern cities.  Just as Blacks gained admission to industrial jobs only when those industries were declining, so Blacks gained access to urban political power only when Mayors were losing the tax base they needed to support programs for their constituents.  

Why didn’t the Blacks in the cities move to the suburbs and buy homes?  Were they too carefree and spendthrift to save the money needed for a down payment?  Did they lack family values, the desire to have a home of their own on which they could lavish care and attention?  Did they suffer from a ghetto mentality?

Well, one reason is that White people deliberately adopted the policy of denying them the mortgages they needed to get a start.  In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, the Federal Government established the Federal Housing Authority for the explicit purpose of underwriting home ownership.  The FHA put out an Underwriting Manual as a guide to its loan officers in selecting suitable families for mortgage loans.  As a matter of official government policy, the manual directed loan officers not to extend loans to Black applicants.  Here is the language of the manual: “if a neighborhood is to maintain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.”  The manual recommended “restrictive covenants” as a useful device for preserving residential racial purity.  One result of this policy, which was in force until February 15, 1950, was that all 82,000 residents of the famous Long Island suburban development, Levittown, were White.

The impact of this discriminatory policy has reached across half a century beyond its official termination, depriving Black families unto the third generation of an equal stake in the rising American economy.  Prompted by the analysis by Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro of the enormous gap between the assets of Black households and those of White households, I worked out a little thought experiment to demonstrate just how far-reaching the continuing effects of past discrimination can be.  

Everyone in America lives somewhere, even the homeless.  And everyone who is not homeless either owns or rents.  In this little example, I am going to trace the asset accumulations of two lower-middle class American families over a thirty-year period.  The first family is Joe and Mary Smith, who are White, and their two children, Skip and Jane.  The second family is William and Esther Robinson, who are Black, and their two children, Michael and Carolyn.

In 1950, after World War II, the Smiths buy a small house in a new suburban community, aided by an FHA insured mortgage.  They pay $10,500, and secure a thirty year 6% fixed rate loan for $10,000, the remainder scraped together from money Joe has saved in the army.  William Robinson has also saved $500 from his army pay, but he is denied a loan under the Federal Government’s explicit and official policies of racial discrimination.  Unable to buy a home, the Robinsons rent an apartment for their family, at an initial rental of $120 a month.

Both Joe Smith and Bill Robinson find jobs in post-World War II America, and they make, let us suppose, exactly the same wage.  What is more, let us imagine that over the next thirty years they get identical raises, and are never out of work.

Now let us trace over a thirty year period the housing expenditures and asset formation of the Smith family and the Robinson family.  I am going to make some reasonable simplifying assumptions about changes in rental rates, insurance rates, and real estate taxes, and also about the savings propensities of families with disposable income.  Let us see what happens to the Smiths and the Robinsons.  Remember – the families have identical starting assets, they are the same age, they have equivalent jobs, they get the same raises, and – I shall assume – have identically stable homes with identically responsible and committed bread-winners.

The Smiths first.  The annual cost of a 6% fixed rate 30 year mortgage is $72/1000, or $720 a year.  Since this is a fixed rate mortgage, that amount never changes over the entire thirty year period of the loan, despite the fact that between 1950 and 1980, the Consumer Price Index rose by 341%. [The CPI for housing actually rose more than that, but let us keep this simple.]

In the thirty year period from 1950 through 1979, Joe and Mary Smith pay out a total of $21,600 in monthly mortgage payments.  They also pay insurance and real estate taxes, of course.  I will assume that taxes and insurance start at $260 a year, and rise slowly to $1300 a year by the time the mortgage is paid of at the start of 1980.  Suppose these items, over thirty years, total $22,550.
So, in thirty years the Smiths spend $44,150 on housing.

But much of that is tax deductible, thanks to federal policies designed to encourage home ownership. For example, $11,600 of the mortgage payments is interest [the total paid out less the original loan.]  In addition, roughly $17,500 of the taxes plus insurance is deductible real estate taxes.  So over the years, the Smiths have enjoyed a $29,100 tax deduction, which we will assume, at an average marginal rate of 25%, returns to them $7,275.  Thus, the net cost to the Smiths of housing has been $36,875.

The Smiths put $2,000 of this tax break in the bank, and spend the rest on such things as college educations for their children, Skip and Jane.

In 1980, the Smiths have a bank account of $2,400 [including bank interest], and a home which they own free and clear.  In the intervening thirty years, real estate has soared, and their little house, even though thirty years old, is now worth $50,000 on the housing market.  So the total assets of the Smiths add up to $52,400.

Meanwhile the Robinsons have been living in their apartment and paying rents that rise steadily, thanks to inflation.  In 1950, they pay $120 a month for their apartment, but over thirty years, the rent rises to $350 [this is of course a very modest assumption.  Real rents have risen considerably more.]  Assuming a schedule of gradual rises, we can estimate that at the end of thirty years, the Robinsons have paid a total of $82,200 for housing.  This is $43,325 more than the Smiths paid, even though the Smiths were paying off the mortgage on their home, and the Robinsons were renting an apartment.

What assets have the Robinsons accumulated in thirty years?  The simple answer is none.  They have had no tax breaks from their rental payments, they do not own the apartment in which they have lived for thirty years, and because of their rising rents, they have been unable to save a portion of Mr. Robinson’s salary.

Thus, purely as a consequence of discriminatory policies adopted explicitly by the Federal Government in the 1930's, the Smiths, who are White, have net assets of $52,400 in 1980, and the Robinsons, who are Black, have net assets of zero.

 The long-term effects of the original discrimination do not end here, however.  They are transmitted to the next generation - to Skip and Jane and Michael and Carolyn [all of whom, note, have grown up in stable, secure lower middle class homes with two parents and good family values.]

First of all, the Smiths have been able to divert a considerable portion of their income to the education of their children, because of the beneficial laws and policies governing housing.  This advantage shows up in the higher incomes the Smith children are able to earn, as compared with the equally talented, but less well educated Robinson children.

Secondly, the Smiths are in a position to make available to their children the advantages of home ownership.  By 1950, when Skip is thirty-two, housing has risen so much that a new small house costs $100,000, not $10,000.  Skip needs a $10,000 down payment to secure a mortgage loan, and even though he has a good job – better than his father was ever able to obtain – he simply cannot save the $10,000 out of his paycheck.  But his father can now help him out.  Refinancing the family home, which the Smiths now own outright, Joe Smith takes a $10,000 mortgage and gives his son [tax free] the down payment.  In effect, the Smiths are advancing a portion of the children’s inheritance to them in this form.  Skip buys a home, and begins to enjoy all the advantages that his parents were able to secure thirty years earlier.  

Michael, on the other hand, even though he has as good a job as Skip, will never be able to buy his own home, for his father has no assets that may be deployed to give him the down payment.  The disadvantages of the fathers are visited upon the sons.

Thoughtless social commentators will wonder why Skip is doing so much better by the year 2000 than Michael is, and will come up with elaborate cultural and psychological explanations, blaming low self-esteem [if they are liberals] or the lack of a suitable work ethic [if they are conservatives], but all of their fancy explanations will be wrong.  The real explanation is the generations-long effects of explicitly discriminatory policies of previous eras, which continue to manifest themselves in dramatic inequalities of wealth, even after inequalities in income have been corrected by the marketplace or even by affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws.

This is one story – many others could be told – that shows the persistent effects of the four centuries old division of American society into two unequal racial groups.  As I was writing these words, I came across a story in the New York TIMES about a study that shows that black buyers of Nissan cars consistently pay considerably more than white customers for their car loans. [NY TIMES, 4 July, 2001 – Independence Day.]   There are countless such systematic disadvantages built into the fabric of American society, which taken all together more than account for the disparities between the wealth accumulation of black and white families.

Joe and Mary Smith are hard-working people who have a very keen sense of entitlement to the secure and comfortable life they have built for themselves and their children.  In their eyes, people like Bill and Esther Robinson – if, indeed, the Smiths ever take notice of them – must be irresponsible, or wasteful, or lacking in Middle Class values, if after thirty years they still live in an apartment and cannot afford to send their children to college.  The politicians who represent Joe and Mary Smith, from their City Councilor all the way up to the President of the United States, tell them as much every chance they get.

Bill and Esther Robinson see the American story differently.  They recall quite vividly the day on which Bill was turned down for an FHA-secured home mortgage.  The Smiths, if they were told about that event from the distant past, would probably wonder why the Robinsons insist on dwelling on ancient history.  After all, the policy they blame for their lack of assets was reversed ages ago.  The Robinsons know differently.

Fifty years ago, when I was a young sophomore at Harvard, Carl Sandburg came to lecture.  New Lecture Hall was packed to the rafters, and I was barely able to find a spot to stand in the aisle.  He sang a few songs and read a bit from The People, Yes, and then he told a story about two cockroaches.

It seems that these two cockroaches were brothers, and they were riding into the city on the back of a truck one day when the truck hit a bump.  One brother fell on top of a dung heap, and the other fell down a sewer drain.  Now, a dung heap is very heaven to a cockroach, and that brother waxed fat and prospered.  He just sat on that dung heap for a year, getting bigger and shinier.  The other brother nearly drowned, and spent the same year slowly, painfully dragging himself out of the sewer back onto the street.  By the time he got there, he was emaciated and his shell was mottled and sickly looking.  Looking around, he saw his brother on top of the dung heap, and greeted him.  “Brother,” he said, “look at you!  I am half-dead, and down to a third of my normal weight.  You are fat and shiny and fine looking.  How on earth did you get so prosperous?”  His brother looked down at him, preened himself, and replied, “Brains.  And hard work.”