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Monday, July 2, 2018


It is said that misery loves company.  Perhaps that is why I found David Palmeter’s lengthy comment so comforting.  At any rate, it prodded me to continue my assessment of the current disaster.  I have devoted a lengthy post to the international changes now seemingly under way [or, to be precise, under weigh].  Today I shall try to back off and evaluate the domestic situation.

First, just a word about an intriguing idea that crossed my attention yesterday.  Ignorant as I am of American history [save for African-American history,] I was quite unaware of the fact that Congress changed the size of the Supreme Court six times before 1869.  If Trump appoints a pro-life justice, and Roe v. Wade is either overturned outright or threatened, a Democratic President and Congress could respond by increasing the court to eleven and establishing a liberal majority.  Would I be in favor of this blatantly political use of the judicial system?  You bet!  Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.

Several days ago I amused myself by explaining what a Gini coefficient is.  The dominant economic trend worldwide is the steady increase in the inequality of income and wealth, particularly of wealth.  To those with reasonably long personal memories, this appears as an undermining of the relatively more equal pattern of distribution of the post-World War II period, but as Thomas Piketty convincingly demonstrates in his important book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the growth in inequality is in reality a re-establishment of a level of inequality typical of the past two centuries and more, which is to say virtually the entire capitalist era.

The social safety net we have come to treat as normal in the United States – Social Security, Medicare, minimum wage, union rights, and the rest – was actually a product of the Great Depression and an anomalous post-war period during which the modern Middle Class came into existence.  Capital has been clawing those protections back ever since, seeking with ever greater success to impoverish all but the wealthiest ten or fifteen percent.  The result world-wide [including in modern China] is a return to what Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism, which is to say the dominance of inherited wealth.  One anecdotal example may put flesh on these bare bones for some of you put off by economic abstractions.  Steve Jobs was one of the iconic founders of the modern digital age, making a fortune in the process.  His widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, inherited his 20 billion dollar estate, without herself having done much of anything to create it.  She is admirably progressive in her politics, and is doing many fine things with Steve’s money, but the fact remains that she is a beneficiary of patrimonial capitalism.  Somewhat less heartwarming is the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune created by Sam Walton, their father.  Collectively they are worth 140 billion dollars, and not even the most enthusiastic cheerleader for the capitalist system would suggest that they earned it.  [Piketty’s favorite example is Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the l’Oréal fortune.]

Piketty argues – persuasively, in my judgment – that the fundamental structure of world capitalism, summarized by him in the simple relationship r>g, is driving each national economy towards ever greater inequality.  What, if anything, can those of us on the left propose in response?

I can see only two answers.  The first, and politically most plausible, is a re-establishment of a broad, vigorous social safety net, paid for by much higher taxes on the wealthy [including me, by the way, since my annual household income puts me at the bottom of the top 10%].  There are people now alive [people even younger than I!] who can remember an America of which this was true.  That is not the Holy Grail for those of us on the left, but it would also not be chopped chicken liver either.

The other answer is an assault on capitalism itself, on private ownership of the means of production, a socialization of accumulated capital [and no, Bob Nozick to the contrary notwithstanding, this does not mean robbing LeBron James or Serena Williams of their well-earned wealth.]  Only a few years ago, I would have considered such an idea a sad private joke among old lefties still playing Woody Guthrie recordings late at night.  But desperate times call for desperate measures, and it may just be that my grandfather’s dreams are gaining some plausibility, however marginal.  Just don’t wait for Chuck Schumer to embrace them [or Barack Obama, for that matter.]

Well that is about as much Tiggerishness as I can muster.  Now I will get a cup of coffee and listen to the reports on MSNBC that Michael Cohen may be ready to sell out his patron.


s. wallerstein said...

Why have sports stars earned their millions?

Aren't they part of the whole society of spectacle, circuses for the masses, to keep them
"entertained" and unthinking?

I'm not claiming that everyone who watches sports is unthinking, merely that the social function of televised professional sports is to keep the masses passive and happy about vicarious triumphs and successes.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Lighten up! Even when socialism comes in all its glory, there will be room for sports heroes, and yes even for rock stars. Let us not confuse socialism with puritanism!

s. wallerstein said...

Expressing his skepticism about whether any lasting revolutionary change would come out of May 1968 in Paris, Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian and one of the few people who knew as much about Marxism as you do, comments that revolutions are puritanical.

The French revolution was puritanical as were the Russian revolution and the Cuban revolutions. Since it seems highly unlikely either of us will live to see a socialist revolution in the U.S., there's no way of knowing whether a revolution there will be different.

LFC said...

I will have a comment about one of the Waltons a bit later (since they are mentioned in the OP).

David Palmeter said...

I continue to be puzzled by the fact that Piketty’s r>g has rarely been heard of since his big splash a couple of years ago. I found his argument totally convincing. I know politicians have to operate in a world where things must be simplified, but the right had its Laffer curve, supply side economics, and all the rest. The case for these ideas was made repeatedly by conservative think tanks, by conservative columnists, in op-ed pieces, and even by politicians in more policy oriented venues than the election stump. They sold these ideas to a large segment of the electorate. The left has done no such thing with Piketty. So far as I can see, he has been ignored.

Charles Pigden said...

On a lighter note there is much pleasure to be derived from Michael Cohen's self-serving bullshit
"I want to regain my name and my reputation and my life back.”

Well, he may get his life back but only on condition that he acquires the name and reputation of of a former crook who has now become a rat.

"I put family and country first,”

“To be crystal clear, my wife, my daughter and my son, and this country have my first loyalty,”

It is great to know that his decision to flip is totally untainted by anything as sordid as self-interest or a deeply-held personal desire not to spend time in the slammer.

It's also inspirational to discover that Trump had such a deeply patriotic and altruistic family man on his staff.

I know it's a cliche but in this case it is true: LOL

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Now Charles, remember the story of the prodigal son. We must open our hearts to the repentant sinner. :)

LFC said...

So, on the Waltons: collectively worth 140 billion according to the post, and I doubt that many of them are doing great things w the money.

However, one of them, Alice Walton, has spent enormous sums creating an ambitious museum of American art in Bentonville, Ark. (her hometown and Walmart's hq.). The museum is called Crystal Bridges, designed by Safdie, situated scenically, surrounded by trails etc. Admission is free and it's in a part of the country where this kind of institution is unusual. (There was a piece about it on the News Hour recently.)

Politically progressive? Well, not exactly, but it's not retrograde either.

Carl said...

Are you aware that by the early '90s Nozick had repudiated the politics of "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" and become a typical Cambridge liberal?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

no, where?

Carl said...

He didn't write about it, to my knowledge.

Jerry Brown said...

I am all for a re-establishment of a broad, vigorous, social safety net. The thing is, the US Federal government does not need your money, or the money of the Waltons, or Lebron James, or Steve Jobs, or any of the rich in order to do that. It makes the darn money in the first place, and you can double check that by looking at a dollar bill if you want to. If we as a society think that there is an injustice that some have so much while others have so little, then yes we can choose to tax those and take some of it away- but the US government never ever needs to do that to pay for what we want it to do. And that includes a strong social safety net. Piketty's R greater than G or whatever does not change that at all. This is the real lefty response or proposal and it has the advantage of being 100% true and does not require taking the assets of the wealthy or the government socialization of the means of production which probably would amount to a civil war of sorts.

Unknown said...

RE: Nozick's (mild) repentance, see his later book The Examined Life. If I remember correctly, he argues for a strong inheritance tax!