Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Sunday, September 22, 2019

WEED WHACKING


My brief and quite obviously humorous post yesterday elicited no fewer than twenty comments, not counting my own response to one of them.  Perhaps I should say a few words by way of explanation.

In her scattershot and rather ebullient posts, Anonymous says at one point “Theory is good, beautiful, and easy. The hard part is to implement in the world a vision that both lifts the people economically and gives rise to beauty, thought, progress, knowledge, lively political conversations, freedom, and a truly better future.”  [I say “her” because I cannot tell from the post Anonymous’ gender, and the constraints of proper English require me to make some assumption.  If I am wrong he can correct me.]

I could not agree more with her sentiment, and indeed I believe I have said as much several times in this space, though perhaps not so eloquently.  Why then do I write about theory?  I might reply, as Kierkegaard did in the Preface to Philosophical Fragments:  “When Philip threatened to lay siege to the city of Corinth, and all its inhabitants hastily bestirred themselves in defense, some polishing weapons, some gathering stones, some repairing the walls, Diogenes seeing all of this hurriedly folded his mantle about him and began to roll his tub zealously back and forth through the streets.  When he was asked why he did this he replied that he wished to be busy like the rest, and rolled his tub lest he be the only idler among so many industrious citizens.”  Kierkegaard adds, “Such conduct is at any rate not sophistical, if Aristotle be right in describing sophistry as the art or making money.”

At Hampshire College in Massachusetts forty years ago or so, I gave a talk the thrust of which was that Philosophers had hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, whereas the point was to change it [a sentiment I lifted from Marx, needless to say.]  A student raised his hand and asked, “So why then do you write books?”  My response was no more than a prosaic version of Kierkegaard’s poetic vision.  “Social change requires many people doing many different things,” I replied.  “Some people organize protests, some people raise money, some people hand out fliers, some people lock arms and sit down to block traffic.  I write books.  It is not by any stretch of the imagination the most important task, but it has some utility, and I am good at it, so that is what I do.”

Now a word about CAPITAL.  Marx, like Jesus [and equally unfairly, I might add], has been burdened with responsibility for the inhumanities perpetrated in his name.  But Marx had nothing to say about the Bolshevik Revolution, which occurred fifty years after the publication of CAPITAL, nor did he offer comments on the Chinese Peasant Revolt thirty-two years further on, or the Cuban Revolution, yet thirteen years further still.  He did, on the other hand, have an enormous amount to say about the economic theories of his European predecessors.  Indeed, if we consider Volumes One, Two, and Three, and throw in the three volumes of the THEORIES OF SURPLUS VALUE, one might reasonably conclude that he had more to say about the economic theories of his predecessors than about anything else.  Anonymous may find theory easy as well as good and beautiful, but Marx did not think so, and he devoted much of his time in CAPITAL to struggling with it.

As I see it, Marx dealt with, among others, three big theoretical issues in CAPITAL.  The first was a problem recognized by Ricardo, namely that prices are proportional to labor values only when all sectors employ equal proportions of direct and embodied labor.  Marx believed he had a solution to that problem, but surprisingly he put off stating his solution until Volume III.

The second issue, dealt with immediately in Chapter One of Volume One, was Marx’s very important recognition that it is abstract socially necessary labor and not ordinary concrete labor that is at stake when one makes claims about the relation of prices to labor values or the distinction between necessary labor and surplus labor.  Marx’s intuitions here are spot on and mathematically very sophisticated, for all that he lacked the formalism to express them precisely.

The third issue, which goes to the heart of his central theory of exploitation, was that his predecessors were unable to explain why there is any profit at all in a fully realized competitive capitalist economy.  The first six chapters of CAPITAL are devoted to generating this problem, refuting the feeble explanations of his predecessors, and then presenting his solution, which turns essentially on the distinction, introduced by Marx, between labor power and labor.

My view is that Marx’s solution to Ricardo’s problem is brilliant and almost right.  His treatment of the second issue is dead right.  And his solution to the third problem is wrong, even though Marx’s most important inference from that solution is in fact correct, namely that Capitalism rests essentially on capitalists’ exploitation of workers, regardless of how enlightened, well-meaning, and woke they are.

I shall endeavor to communicate all of that to my students.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

DEEPER INTO THE WEEDS


In some religions, there is a distinction between the exoteric doctrines taught by the priests to the faithful and the esoteric doctrine reserved for the initiates.  The question posed to the priests is when, and whether, to lift the veil and allow the masses to glimpse the sacred Mysteries.

As I prepare my next lecture, I confront a version of this dilemma.  I shall, on Tuesday, rehearse Marx’s mocking debunking of the feeble and absurd explanations given by Vulgar Economists for the existence of profit in a capitalist economy [no, it is not that the entrepreneurs live frugal lives and save, nor is it that they earn the wages of management, nor do they all somehow manage to buy cheap and sell dear].  Then I shall reveal the Word, which is that profit is but the money appearance of the surplus labor extracted from the workers.  From which it follows that:

CAPITALISM RESTS ON THE EXPLOITATION OF THE WORKING CLASS.

It is a dramatic story, brilliantly told by Marx in the opening chapters of CAPITAL.  But there are secret truths, Mysteries known only to me and a tiny handful of others, truths unknown not because I have concealed them but because, alas, so few people have read the journal article in which I revealed them.

The secret truth is that Marx’s explanation of the source of profit is wrong, even though he is absolutely right that Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the Working Class.  My problem is this:  Shall I reveal this truth to my class?

Why ever not? You ask.  Considering the fortune they being charged for a Columbia education, do they not have a right to learn the Mysteries?  To be sure.  But just as the ancient Mysteries of Eleusis required fasting and mortification of the flesh, so the Mysteries of Marx require Mathematics, a mortification more painful than self-flagellation to most college students.

This dilemma has kept me up at night.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

INSIDE BASEBALL


I don’t know whether anyone is interested in this, but I will post it in case someone is.  I said in class on Tuesday that Ricardo could not figure out what to do with the case in which there are unequal capital/labor ratios [unequal organic composition of capital] and Marx had an answer that almost worked.  It worked when the economy is on what is now called a Von Neumann balanced growth path.  A graduate student in the course asked me where he could find an exposition of that and I drew a blank, so I wrote him this email:

            We start with Ricardo, who spent some time analyzing an imaginary economy with only one commodity – corn is Ricardo’s choice.  If there is only one commodity, then the only inputs into production are corn and labor.  One unit of corn is taken as money, the wage is some amount of corn, and the profit rate is paid in corn units.  Not surprisingly, everything in this model is simple and unproblematic.  Prices are proportional to labor values, the total profit in the system is equal, in corn money units, to the surplus labor extracted from the labor inputs, and so forth.

            Now fast forward to Sraffa, who not only wrote the very important monograph Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities [1960] but also edited the splendid 10 volume edition of the complete works of David Ricardo.  In his monograph, Sraffa analyses an economy with nothing but “basic” commodities and no “luxury goods,” a basic commodity being defined as a commodity required directly or indirectly in every line of production, and a luxury good being defined as a commodity that is not required, directly or indirectly, in the production of all commodities.  [Mathematically, this means that the square matrix of input coefficients is a non-negative non-decomposable matrix, although Sraffa never uses that language – is this clear?]

            Sraffa defines a notional complex commodity which he calls a “standard commodity”, consisting of quantities of all the basic commodities so chosen that the balance of the components of the Standard Commodity exactly equals the proportions of basic commodities in the economy when it is balanced, so that there is no excess or shortfall of demand.  Sraffa then proves that every economy with no luxury goods but only basic commodities can, by the workings of competition with each producer seeking to maximize profits, be brought into balanced form.  Thus it can be thought of as though a quasi-one commodity economy, the commodity being that Standard Commodity.  For details, see Chapter Six of my book, Understanding Marx, especially the Technical Appendix. 

            A Balanced Growth Path is a growth path in which the excess of each commodity in one cycle, which is to say the excess over and above what is needed to run the economy for another cycle at the same level, is just enough to expand production in the next cycle with no shortfalls or excesses of inputs.  Von Neumann proved a famous theorem about capitalist economies on a Balanced Growth Path which essentially shows [he did this before Sraffa, by the way] that any capitalist economy without luxury goods has a balanced growth path in which all surplus output in one cycle is reinvested in expanding the scope of production in the next cycle.  [If you Google “Von Neumann balanced growth theorem” lots of results pop up.]

            Now, it is easy to prove that in a Sraffian Standard Commodity economy or alternatively in a Von Neumann economy on a maximal Balanced Growth path, Marx’s claim is correct that total profits are proportional to total surplus labor.  This is obvious because such an economy is in effect a one commodity economy in which the inputs and outputs consist of quantities of the Standard Commodity.



LGA BLUES

Tuesday, after my class, I spent an hour with a student.  Then, at 5 p.m., I caught the M60 bus at Broadway and 116th street for LaGuardia.  I got home and into my apartment at 12:15 that night.  Just another seven hour trip courtesy of LaGuardia and its endless delays.  I love the teaching but the commute may kill me!

Monday, September 16, 2019

WHISTLING TO KEEP MY SPIRITS UP


One of the problems I have faced in preparing my up-coming Columbia lectures is that there is simply not enough time to say everything I want to say in the three remaining seminar meetings devoted to Marx.  Obviously one solution is to refer the students to the books I have written, but I was concerned that I might scare them away from the first book, Understanding Marx, if I mentioned that it had math in it.

Well, some years ago when I was working pro bono at Bennett College, an HBCU in Greensboro, I surfed the web until I found the state-wide standards promulgated by the North Carolina State Board of Education for all public schools K-12.  There I discovered that the math I use in the body of the text of my book is required to be taught in all North Carolina schools in grade 9.

So I shall say to my Columbia students, by way of encouragement, that if they made it through the Freshman year of high school, they can handle my book.

As teachers, we do what we can.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

IDLE SPECULATION ON A SLOW SUNDAY


Stymied in my lecture preparation by the fact that I have too much to say and not enough time in which to say it, I decided to relax by reminding myself of the rules governing the Iowa caucuses and by checking 538.com for the last month and half of Iowa polls.  It was as I thought.  Candidates getting less than 15% in the first round are eliminated and their supporters sort themselves, if they so choose, among the remaining possibles.  For the past six weeks, the polls indicate that only Biden, Sanders, and Warren would make it past the first round, freeing up anywhere from 45% to 28% of caucus goers to reassign themselves. Biden leads all the polls, save for one outlier, but the two crucial questions are obviously: First, which candidates can get their supporters to the caucuses? and Second, who is the second choice of those caucus goers freed up by the cut?

I think [which is to say, I hope against hope] that this is bad news for Biden.  If his current lead is more or less his ceiling, then Warren or Sanders should beat him out for the win.  Since the number of delegates at stake is tiny, what matters is the momentum and publicity of the win, not the actual group of delegates awarded.  My hope is that his huge lead among the African-American vote, based apparently on his popularity with older Black voters, will evaporate should he come out of the caucuses [and perhaps also the New Hampshire primary] a loser.

I really, really, really don’t want Biden.

IMPORTANT NEWS FLASH

The twin towers existed!  I have epistemically solid proof.  I just received this message from my son, Patrick:

"I can tell you how you can be pretty certain the Twin Towers existed. Anand played the 1995 World Championship match against Kasparov there, and I was Anand’s second, thereafter writing a book about the match. I went into one of those towers (I forget which one) many times."

Now, if my sister had only bagged a job in the West Wing ...

Saturday, September 14, 2019

EPISTEMOLOGICAL MUSINGS


I had intended to turn immediately to my Marx lecture this morning after my walk, but the discussion in the comments section proved too interesting, so let me say a bit about what, somewhat presumptuously, might be labeled popular epistemology.  In short, how do I know, indeed do I know, that 9/11 was the work of Al Qaeda terrorists seeking to strike a death blow to American Democracy?

I might think to begin by asking how I know that the twin towers were actually destroyed on September 11, 2001, but that would reveal a distressing credulity.  Clearly, I must first ask how I know that there ever were two tall buildings in lower Manhattan commonly referred to as the twin towers.  You think I jest, but I am serious.  How do I know that?  Indeed, do I know that?

I grew up in New York [well, Queens, which is not quite the same thing], and after leaving in 1950 for college, I returned in 1964 to teach at Columbia.  But Wikipedia says the World Trade Center was built in 1973 [if you can believe Wikipedia], and I left Columbia in 1971.  I never saw the twin towers in person, nor can I recall talking about them with anyone who saw them up close.  To be sure, I have seen pictures of them, but in some of those pictures King Kong is climbing up the side of one of them and then jumping to the other, so I am not sure I can rely entirely on those pictures.

Clearly, my belief in the existence of the twin towers depends on what in the old days was called the consensus gentium.  But that same consensus has it that the destruction of the buildings was the work of Al Qaeda, and I am a trifle puzzled how to know which bits of common knowledge to accept and which to reject.  I mean, I was alive when Jack Kennedy was assassinated, or at least when it is said he was assassinated.  I never met the man.  I went to college with his baby brother, Teddy, but I never met him either, so that is no help.  Maybe LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover spirited him away, put out the unlikely story that a loser named Lee Harvey Oswald shot him, and then kept him alive, wearing an iron mask, until he died during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  Stranger things have happened.

So I am reduced to assessing probabilities, since my personal knowledge is, speaking generally, inadequate even to establish decisively something as non-controversial as the existence of Iowa.  And I must say that it strikes me as implausible that Cheney and company arranged for a bunch of Taliban backed Saudis to slam some hi-jacked planes into two big buildings and the Pentagon so that they would have an excuse for attacking Iraq.  If that was the plan, why on earth didn’t they just recruit some Iraqis for the job?

More to the point, I have enjoyed enormously the contributions of Jerry Fresia to our on-going conversation, but I have never met Jerry, nor do I know personally anyone who has told me that he or she has.  I believe that Jerry is an accomplished artist with a doctorate from UMass, but maybe, in the immortal words of our glorious leader, he is a four hundred pound man in his mother’s basement.

Friday, September 13, 2019

CHANGING COURSE

In preparation for writing about Piketty, I did a search of this blog, initially to locate the dates of my original review, and discovered that I have written quite a lot about Piketty.  So I decided instead to return to the preparations for my next Marx lecture at Columbia.  I then found, as Hannah Arendt once said to me about Kant, that it is "so much more pleasant to spend time with Marx."

BEFORE I BEGIN


I promised today to revisit Piketty, but before I do, let me comment briefly on some of the reactions to yesterday’s post.  Jerry Fresia suggests that someone high in positions of power knew of the attack sufficiently in advance to plant explosives in a third building near those slated for attack, and this complicity extended even to news reporters who claimed the building was collateral damage of the attack while it could be seen standing behind the reporter.

This is an extraordinary, apparently incredible accusation.  What do I think of this?  Do I know whether it is true?  Of course not.  Do I believe it?  I am, on this question, agnostic.  If it is true, would it change my understanding of the world?

Well, if it is true then I would be compelled to acknowledge that Bush, Cheney, and their compatriots, whom I have always thought of as sinister, cruel, heartless, hypocritical criminals, are actually … sinister, cruel, heartless, hypocritical criminals.

Which brings me to Piketty.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

THREE LITTLE THINGS


I want later today to return to the Piketty book and talk about its implications some more, but first, brief comments about three things that arose while I was in New York:  9/11, the Taliban at Camp David, and the firing of Bolton.

9/11:   The attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 is universally considered the defining moment of modern twenty-first century America, the transformative event that has shaped everything that has come after, an event that people of all political persuasions memorialize by ritually recalling where they were when they first heard of it.

It was also, statistically speaking, not a very big deal.  Roughly 2,800,000 people die each year in America, which is to say somewhat more than 7,600 a day.  The three thousand or so deaths in the attack were thus a blip, the equivalent of a single day with ten extra hours in it.  That number is dwarfed by the body count of many other disasters:  the number of Americans who die each year because of the denial of readily available medical help, the number of Americans who die each year from opioid overdoses, the number of Americans who die each year from gunshot, the number of Americans who have died in wars ostensibly initiated in response to the 9/11 attacks, and so forth.

Just sayin’.

The Taliban at Camp David:  The bloviating classes were aghast at the insensitivity of even considering inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David in the very week of the sacred 9/11 remembrances.  Their collective horror at the thought somehow was transformed into the notion that the Taliban had something to do with 9/11 but that, of course, is nonsense.  9/11 was a Saudi Arabian manned operation, a fact that led the Bush administration to suspend the nation-wide grounding of commercial aircraft sufficiently to allow a bunch of high placed Saudis to fly home before public outrage trapped them in this country.

The Taliban are cutthroat religious fanatics, to be sure, but they are our cutthroat religious fanatics.  We did not create them, but we funded them and provided them with the shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles with which they could down the Soviet helicopter gunships that were wreaking havoc with the Mujahadin during the ill-fated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  [For movie fans, the go-to film is of course Rambo III.]

They have a greater claim to a Camp David invitation than does Prince MBS.

John Bolton:  Bolton is a genuinely dangerous man, and I am delighted to see him gone.  His summary dismissal highlights the odd but welcome fact that Trump is a dove.  A belligerent dove, a bullying dove, a bombastic dove, an ignorant dove, a feckless dictator-loving suck up of a dove, but a dove nonetheless.  This is a dangerous world.  We must take our comfort where we can find it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

NU,NU? VAT DENN?


I am back from New York, and as I anticipated, the opportunity to spend several hours teaching a group of bright undergraduates and graduate students has restored my equanimity.  This morning, while waiting At LaGuardia for my flight home, I had a chance to read through the many comments to my last two posts.  I am extremely grateful to the expressions of support, which mean a great deal to me.

A particular comment, by one of the anonymati, caught my eye.  Here it is:

Anonymous said...
Bob is not about to shut down this pulpit - every so often he likes to threaten to do so, in order that we will all tell him how much we adore him. Patterns, people: learn to recognize them.

To which the only possible response is, Well duh!  [Or is it doh?  I am never sure.]  The comment is presented as a snarky revelation, and yet nothing could be more obvious.  I take it this particular Anonymous is not an actor or a musician or a professional athlete or a university professor, or indeed anyone else who thrives on the applause of the crowd.  I have just spent several weeks following the U. S. Open tennis tournament on TV, and again and again I watched ferociously competitive players encouraging the crowd to cheer as a way of keeping their energy up.

Why on earth does Anonymous suppose I write a daily blog?  Not for the money, Lord knows, and at eighty-five, with my career more than a decade behind me, it is not in hopes of professional advancement.  As for such immortality as I may achieve, I leave that to my books.

Who among the academics in my readership will deny eagerly reading student evaluations to see what they say?  Almost seventy years ago, when I was an undergraduate, there were no official student evaluations, but at Harvard, the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, each semester issued the Crimson Unofficial Guide in which it reproduced, unedited and utterly unbalanced, undergraduate opinions of their professors.  Senior members of the Harvard faculty scorned such ephemera as infra dignitatem, but on the day that the Guide came out, they could be spotted slinking to the kiosk in the middle of Harvard Square to buy a copy.  I particularly recall the scathing pans recorded every term of a senior Government professor and Big Deal, William Yandell Elliott.  As you might expect, it was young Instructors and Assistant Professors who tended to get the most favorable reviews.

So, Anonymous and others, if from time to time, wearing my heart on my sleeve, I encourage the crowd to cheer, do not be surprised.

Now, as the preacher says in a Black church, can I get an Amen?




Monday, September 9, 2019

TIME TO COOL IT

I am off before dawn tomorrow to lecture on Marx at Columbia.  By the time I return, Wednesday morning, I shall be my usual implacable self.  Upon reentering this retirement community, I shall almost immediately go to a meeting of the Building and Grounds Committee of the Residents' Association to defend a controversial proposal put forward by myself and our building's representative on the committee calling for red dots to be placed on the list of residents posted at the elevator next to the names of people who, in the event of an emergency, will need help descending the stairs from the second and third floors.  This is a proposal fraught with complexities that must be debated publicly.

And you thought all I worried about was the transition from late capitalism to socialism.

WHY I AM UNHAPPY

I have been so upset by the tone and character of the comments section these past few days that as I walked this morning I gave serious consideration to closing down this blog, assuming I could figure out how one closes down a Google blog.  I have been especially angry at the sneering and insulting remarks of the person called Talha.  I shall remove every one of this person’s comments that I can find and ban him [?] from the blog.  If you are eager to interact with Talha, you can find another platform on which to do it.  Fair warning: it won’t be more than several months before you are the target of his contempt.

Meanwhile, I think it is worth taking some time to explain why I am upset.  First of all, let me assure Chris that I am not a snowflake who melts if someone says an unkind word to me.  In justification of Talha’s mean-spirited remarks, Chris invokes Lenin, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg!  Really?  Let us not get above ourselves!

This sort of infighting has a long, primarily religious history, in Christianity, in Islam, and for all I know in Buddhism and Shinto.  If one longs for eternal salvation and believes that every syllable of every word of revealed text is divinely inspired, then the fate of one’s soul may hang on the tiniest doctrinal quibble.  But there is no God of Revolutions who will bless us with Socialism if only we can find the correct position on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  There are only men and women who have made common cause in the struggle for justice.

Now, in that struggle, as I have said here before, what matters most of all is simply, Which side are you on?  Are you on the side of the exploiters, or on the side of the exploited?  Are you on the side of the oppressors, or on the side of the oppressed?  All of us who are on the side of the exploited and the oppressed are comrades, regardless of our judgments concerning tactics or the correct analysis of the facts.

In the quasi-religious version of politics that too often passes for ideological purity, it may be a matter of [figurative, never literal] life and death precisely which candidate for office you think best, or which reading of the Grundrisse you favor.  But in the real world of political action, accomplishing anything requires the solidarity of millions or tens of millions of people who have all chosen the same side of the struggle, even though they cannot even all agree on whether the sun rises in the East or the West.  It is self-defeating, not to say rude, to adopt a tone of contempt toward a comrade.

Now, the mistake I made, apparently, was to believe that all of us who read and comment on this blog are comrades in the struggle for justice in this country and around the world – not merely idle observers, but comrades.

But in the anonymous, dispersed world of blog commentators, is comradeship impossible?  Perhaps so.  I may simply be bound to earlier modes of human interaction that were prevalent when I was young.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

ESTABLISHING GUIDELINES

Talha, your abusive language is not welcome here.  I am going to remove your comment and ask you not to write in that vein again.  It is simply not acceptable on this blog.

Furthermore, I think it is cowardly of you to make such comments while hiding behind a pseudonym.  How on earth do you plan the change the world if you cannot even say whom you are?

Saturday, September 7, 2019

LIFE'S LITTLE PLEASURES


Many, many years ago, a group of German scholars in East Germany [before reunification] undertook to produce a complete scholarly edition of the works of Marx and Engels, adorned  with the full panoply of traditional Germanic scholarship.  Because this edition was, at least officially, intended for the Communist masses, the volumes were quite cheap.  For years I had a standing order at Blackwell’s Bookstore in Oxford for each new volume as it appeared.  The beautiful volumes, bound in blue, cost three or four dollars each, and the entire set sits on the shelves of my Paris apartment.  International Publishers then brought out, volume by volume, an English language edition, which sits on the shelves of my apartment in North Carolina.

One of the delights of these volumes is the identifications of individuals mentioned or included [in the case of letters] in the text.  Here is what I found this afternoon in the Name Index for Lincoln:

Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865)  American Statesman, a leader of the Republican Party; President of the United States (1861-85); under the influence of the masses carried out important bourgeois-democratic reforms during the Civil War, thus making possible revolutionary methods of warfare; was shot by a slave-owner’s agent in April 1865.

Ah, the good old days!

WHILE I CONTINUE MY LECTURE PREP


I have been overwhelmed these past few days by the unbridgeable gap between what I have to say about Marx and the amount of time I have to say it in the course Todd Gitlin and I are teaching.  Even so, I have been paying attention to the news, so herewith a few idle observations.  But first, yet another confession.  I actually did not know what a sharpie is until last week. 

My principal reaction to the altered weather map was that it was such a manifestly, transparently, embarrassingly childish act on Trump’s part that it bespoke a degree of mental deterioration that even I had previously not attributed to him.  What on earth did his addled brain think he was doing?  But I was much cheered by the fiasco because it makes Trump a laughing stock, which is just exactly what we want as the election draws closer.  [By the way, look up the etymology of fiasco.  Like that of baroque it is fascinating.]   Equally revealing was the fact that the White House staff, or what is left of it, was unable to stop Trump from making a total fool of himself.

Here at Carolina Meadows there is a special unit in the Assisted Living wing for residents who are suffering from dementia.  The Assisted Living wing is called The Fairways, and the Dementia unit is called the Greens, because they are adjacent to the golf course that wends its way through the Carolina Meadows grounds.  Perhaps Trump could be persuaded to sign himself in with the understanding that he would have dibs on tee times.

Serena plays for the title this afternoon.  Fingers crossed.

Friday, September 6, 2019

CONFESSION, IT IS SAID, IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL


I have a confession to make.  Although I have been blogging almost daily for more than ten years, during which time I have posted perhaps a million words, bogging is not at the core of my being.  Teaching is.  Now that I have once again begun making weekly treks to New York to teach at Columbia, my mind is utterly absorbed by plans for next Tuesday’s lecture.  The course begins with three classes by me devoted to Marx, and though this is not, as they say out west, my first rodeo, I desperately want to get it right, to say clearly, forcefully, coherently some portion of what I think about the greatest student of society ever to live and write.

That is not all I think about, of course.  A part of me is absorbed in Serena’s bid for her twenty-fourth major title.  Another part of me is enjoying Trump’s misadventures with a sharpie.  And in the background, casting a cloud even over Serena’s march to the title, are the real problems besetting the world.  But I cannot do much of anything about them, and I can do something about my teaching.

So it is that as I walk each morning I deliver, in my head, portions of my planned remarks, shaping them, making mental notes of details to check when I am again in front of my computer, editing out amusing stories that I love to tell but which take up too much precious time, wondering on occasion whether any of the twenty young men and women in the class can possibly care as much as I do about what I shall say.

This is when I am most fully alive.  So it has been since I began teaching sixty-four years ago, and so it will be until finally, regretfully, I must stop.


Monday, September 2, 2019

WHILE I AM AWAY


I have been puzzling over how to take up Jerry’s suggestion, and I have some problems.  For example, how can I keep track of how many people join in a group effort, such as calling Jeffries’ office?  I can handle half a dozen or even a dozen contributions to the Friday Lists, but not hundreds.  What else might we do?

Why don’t you all discuss it in the comments section while I go to New York tomorrow.

BROODING ABOUT BIDEN


I have three questions about Biden.  The first is a snap to answer, the second and third not so much.  The first question is, Do I want him to get the nomination?  Easy peasy.  The answer is NO.  Unfortunately, my preference counts for zilch.

The second question is, Will he get the nomination.  To be honest, I thought he would fade, but as John Malkovich as Teddy KGB says to Matt Damon in Rounders, Biden keeps hanging around, hanging around.  In this RealClearPolitics poll average, Biden gets 28.9%, Sanders gets 17.1%, Warren gets 16.5%, and the rest fall away from that.  The rules of the delegate selection process being what they are, these are the only three candidates currently scoring high enough in the polls to win delegates in state primaries.  But they only get 62.5% of the total vote in these polls, so the question is, where do the other 30+% go after the candidates at the bottom drop out?  I would like to think that those voters will go to Sanders or Warren, but I have no evidence at all for that belief.  The single most important factor is the preferences of Black voters, who now choose Biden so overwhelmingly that they are all by themselves propping him up.

I do think no one coming into the Convention will have a majority of the delegates, in which case we are in for quite a bumpy ride.

Finally, the third question is, If Biden gets the nomination, will he win the election?  There are two plausible answers, and I haven’t a clue which one is right.  The first answer is that the Democratic electorate is so fired up, so eager to vote Trump out of office, that the Democrats could nominate a plastic lawn ornament and it would win.  The second answer is that Biden inspires no excitement or loyalty whatsoever, and is therefore the only one of the top four or five contenders who could actually lose to Trump by failing to get the voters to the polls.

I am terribly fearful that some version of the second answer is true, which means taking the nomination away from Biden is crucial.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON A LABOR DAY WEEKEND


1.         I got hold of the Greg Grandin book, The End of the Myth from Amazon, and have actually read the first nine pages.  It looks really good, and I may have something to say about it when I have read some more.

2.         On Tuesday, before dawn, I drive to the airport and begin my semester of teaching at Columbia.  Thanks to an app called CourseWorks, I can look at pictures of the nineteen students who have signed up so far [limit is twenty.]  I also Googled them.  They look like a very interesting collection of undergrads and grad students.  On the first day I have decided to wear my old T-shirt that reads, in bold red letters, “Free The Fogg 19.”  I shan’t bother to explain here what that means, but if anyone is interested, the story starts at p. 576 of my Autobiography and runs for four pages.

3.         I have been brooding about Jerry Fresia’s suggestion that I try to mobilize calls to Hakeem Jeffrey’s office.  Do Representatives listen to calls from people not in their districts?  I am no good at organizing, for all that I am in favor of it, but this blog is a resource that ought to be used and this would not be the first time I devoted time and energy to something I am not good at just because I ought to.  What do people think?

Saturday, August 31, 2019

FRIDAY LIST #5, A DAY LATE


David Palmeter said:  Recurring contribution to DLCC.

Bryant Durrell said:  $25 to Warren, $25 to Castro.

Charles Perkins:  I attended an online training (on canvassing) for Elizabeth Warren's campaign.
I put my EW sign in my window.
I registered for another EW training (phone banking).
I made sure I was registered to vote in California and got my "REAL" ID (ugh) at the DMV ("ugh")— but now I can vote for Warren in the California primary.
I gave $5 to Elizabeth Warren.

Robert Paul Wolff:  I donated $100 to a local candidate for NC Secretary of State
I gave my usual small donation to Bernie
I signed up for some local political work
I curated the Friday List [this is cheaty, I know]

Thursday, August 29, 2019

EVERY SO OFTEN IT IS USEFUL TO REMIND OURSELVES

This link takes you to a news report of a wealthy donor fundraiser for Joe Biden last June in which Biden is quoted directly as saying "It’s all within our wheelhouse, and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change."

This was not a gaffe, this was the authentic Joe Biden.

GOOD GRIEF, IT IS THURSDAY

Time to assemble another Friday List.  I am still mulling Jerry Fresia's suggestion of ways to expand its reach and impact.

Send in your accounts of your doings.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

AS PROMISED, AN ANSWER TO TOM CATHCART


I promised Tom Cathcart an explanation of my cryptic remark that the NY TIMES’s 1619 Project was “the wrong story.”  I thought I could get away with referencing my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, but Tom has read that [one of the few!] and is still puzzled, so here goes.

The standard story of America is that it is exceptional, a nation founded on an idea, The Idea of Freedom, a land, to be sure with defects [brief allusion to slavery], but nonetheless dedicated over its long life to the gradual realization of The Idea of Freedom, first by the freeing of the slaves, then by the slow extension of suffrage to women, to Negroes, then by the modern Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the LGBTQ Movement and throughout by the steady, onward, upward perfection of the vision of the Founding Fathers.  For this reason, America has been and remains a City on a Hill, a model for all mankind, the Leader of the Free World, the Last Best Hope for Mankind.

For eighty-five years, going all the way back to W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, four generations of great scholars, Black and White, have been challenging and revising that story.  The 1619 Project is a splendid popular compendium of the results of their research.  The Project places the slaves and their descendants at the center of the American story rather than at the periphery.  But it is still a story of free White men and women and their slaves.  The story is so changed as to be almost unrecognizable, but it is still the same story.

The true story is different [and here I rely entirely on those very same scholars, for I have contributed not so much as a single brick to the edifice they have reared by their splendid work.]  From those earliest days in the 17th century, America was a colonial outpost built on unfree labor White and Black.  In early Colonial America, there were very few Whites whom we today would recognize as free, free to live where they chose, free to work as they chose, free to marry whom they chose.  At the outset, there was no clearly defined status of chattel slavery, for no such status existed in the English Common Law that the settlers brought with them.  Slowly, over almost two centuries, in inseparable interaction with one another, two legal, social, and economic statuses crystallized:  Free White Citizenship and Black Chattel Slavery.  The process was local, complex, messy, and never successfully carried through, for indentured servitude for Whites continued for a long time and there were, contrary to all theory, free Black men and women prior to the Civil War.  But the status of free citizenship for Whites was defined in contrast to and even in terms of, the status of chattel slavery for Blacks.

America has never been a City Upon a Hill, the Only Nation Founded On An Idea, the Last Best Hope on earth.  It was, at the outset, a White Settler colony built on unfree labor, White and Black, and that fact must be made central to any understanding of its nature today.

Something like that is the true story of America.

RESPONSE TO JORDAN

Jordan asks whether I might videotape and post the sessions of my course.  I think that would not be a good idea.  It would transform a course into a performance, and demote the students to an audience.  I have, after all, already posted fourteen YouTube lectures on Marx, Mannheim, and Wilmsen!  The world is not crying out for more.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

THE FALL SEMESTER UPON US

And come next Tuesday, I shall be flying up to NY every week to teach with Todd Gitlin.  For those who are interested, here is the syllabus:


Mystifications of Social Reality
SOCI GU4600
Fall 2019
Tuesdays, 2:10-4 pm
Pulitzer Hall 202
Instructors:  Professors Todd Gitlin (Sociology, Journalism, Communications) and Robert Paul Wolff (Philosophy, Afro-American Studies)
I.                    Rationale for the course
            The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were marked by the discovery of a new object of systematic inquiry in addition to Nature and the Individual:  Society.  First Economics, then Anthropology, Sociology, and Political Science developed strikingly new understandings of the actions, beliefs, and institutional arrangements of men and women in society, which were seen as obeying regular laws not derivable from, or reducible to, either the laws of nature or the laws of individual behavior.  But these new disciplines, which came to be called the Social Sciences, were different from their predecessors in one fundamental and centrally important way:  They revealed the study of society, and indeed society itself, to be mystified, ideologically encoded, shaped and distorted by the interests and beliefs of men and women even though those living in society or studying it often were oblivious of this fact.
            In this course we shall read in depth a series of texts by authors who explored the ideological mystifications of social reality in their disciplines.  The goal of the course is not merely to inform students of these authors and their ideas but to strengthen the ability of students to understand their own involvement in, indeed complicity in, ideological mystification.
II.                  Major Readings [there may be other assigned and suggested readings and videos]
  1. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One; Communist Manifesto; “Alienated Labor” [Economics]
  2. Max Weber, Economy and Society [Sociology, https://archive.org/stream/MaxWeberEconomyAndSociety/MaxWeberEconomyAndSociety_djvu.txt]
  3. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [Sociology, History; https://www.ttu.ee/public/m/mart-murdvee/EconPsy/1/Weber_Max_1930-2005_The_Protestant_Ethic_and_the_Spirit_of_Capitalism.pdf]
  4. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia [Political Sociology]
  5. Edwin Wilmsen, Land Filled With Flies [Ethnography]
  6. Charles Mills, The Racial Contract [African-American Studies]
  7. Robert Paul Wolff, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man [African-American Studies]
  8. Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams:  Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars [Sociology]
III.       Weekly assigned reading
Sept. 3:            Intro to seminar.  No assigned reading
Sept. 10:          Marx, Communist Manifesto (1848); “Alienated Labor” (1844)
Sept. 17:          Marx. Capital, Chapters 1-6
Sept. 24:          Marx, Capital, Chapters 7-10
Oct. 1:             Weber, Economy and Society, Part One, Chapters I and III, i-v
The Types of Legitimate Authority: The Basis of Legitimacy, The Three Pure Types of Authority: Traditional Authority, Legal Authority, Charismatic Authority; pp. 212-231,  241-254
Oct. 8:             Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
                        Short paper due
Oct. 15:           Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia, Parts I and II
Oct. 22:           Mannheim, Part IV
Oct. 29:           Wilmsen, Land Filled With Flies. Watch Professor Wolff’s four YouTube lectures on
                        Wilmsen. The first is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbU3yW2xIGE.
                          Students should bring comments and questions.
Nov. 5:             Mills, The Racial Contract
Nov. 12:          Wolff, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man
Nov. 19:          Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams (excerpts)
Dec. 3:             General discussion and afterthoughts
Dec. 14:           Final paper due
III.               Writing Assignments
Each student is required to submit a 7-10 page mid-term essay on a topic of the student’s choosing, and a 15-20 page final essay due December 13.  The topic of the final paper must be approved by the Instructors no later than November 12.  Students are asked to submit two hard copies of assigned work, one for each Instructor, along with an electronic copy.
IV.                Grading
 Roughly one-third of the grade will be based on the mid-term essay and two-thirds on the final essay, with adjustments made on the basis of class participation.
V.                Supplements
Students who wish to explore the subject matter of the seminar in greater depth are invited to read Professor Wolff’s two books on the thought of Karl Marx, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky and Understanding Marx, the remainder of his book on race in America, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, and to watch on YouTube his series of lectures on The Thought of Karl Marx and the other six lectures not assigned in his series of lectures on Ideological Critique.
It will also be beneficial to read Max Weber’s essays, “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation,” both online.

Monday, August 26, 2019

INTERESTING STUFF


I have been reading my new numbers guru, Rachel Bitecofer, and here are some takeaways.  Much of this is not surprising, but some is, at least to me.  You can check out her analysis here.  All of this rests on the well-known but often under-appreciated fact that voter turnout in American elections is astonishingly low – maybe 60% of eligible voters in presidential years and [usually] 35-40% in off years.  One might ask whether, with turnout like that, American voters deserve a democracy, but that is a discussion for another day.

Remember, even in solidly Republican House districts, with an off-year turnout of 35-40% there are large numbers of non-voting Democrats [often clumped together in big cities, college towns, and the like.]   Suppose in a Republican district with 400,000 eligible voters, the entire electorate breaks 55-45 for the Republicans, a seemingly unbeatable +10 advantage for the Rs.  This means there are 220,000 Republicans and 180,000 Democrats in the district.  If only 40% turn out, and there is equal enthusiasm on both sides, a ten point Republican victory means that 88,000 voted R and 72,000 voted D, a 16,000 margin.  But there are still 108,000 non-voting Ds!  If 15% of them can be motivated to get off their asses and vote, the Democrats win narrowly.  Common sense suggests that it may be easier to motivate 16,200 non-voting Ds than it is to turn 8,100 Rs to the D side.

OK, with that as background, let me summarize what Bitecofer says she has found.

First:  Contrary to Conventional Wisdom, the big Democratic House victories in 2018 were not driven by voter concern about health care, nor were they driven by Republican defections to the Democrats.  The victories were the result of an enormous surge in the turnout of reliably Democratic segments of the electorate driven by hatred of Trump.  This may sound unsurprising, but it has enormous implications for the choice of candidates up and down the ticket, including at the very top.

There is a hunger out there in the hearts and minds and stomachs of scores of millions of Americans for a chance to vote against Trump.  I saw this the day after Inauguration Day in 2017 when I attended the Women’s March in Washington.

Second:  the single most significant determinant of the relative popularity of candidates for the Democratic nomination is the astonishing, unfathomable, too easily overlooked sheer ignorance of the American electorate.  Bitecofer has some fascinating and rather complex analysis of the role of name recognition in the poll results we have all been seeing.

I recall many years ago, when I was living in Massachusetts, reading a news story about name ID among voters.  Various Democratic and Republican politicians had name IDs in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, but topping the list, unsurprisingly, was Teddy Kennedy, the senior Senator, who had the astronomical name ID score of 95%.  The author of the story oohed and aahed about this astonishing figure, but all I could think was, “Dear God!  One in twenty people I pass on the street have never heard of Teddy Kennedy.  What alternate universe do they live in?”

As Bitecofer shows, “Statistically, low levels of name recognition have massive impacts on polling data. It is not possible to compare favorability of low and high name ID candidates.”  Now, political preferences are relatively difficult to change, but name recognition changes considerably as more low information voters turn their attention to what we junkies think about obsessively every day.

A thought for the day



Sunday, August 25, 2019

THE 1619 PROJECT


I have now read 72 pages of the 85 pages of text of The New York Times1619 PROJECT, which appeared a week ago as the Sunday Magazine Section, and I want to respond to TheDudeDiogenes’ request for my evaluation of it.  I hope everyone reads what I say here carefully, because I suspect no matter what I do, a good many people will misunderstand me.

What do I think of the text?  I think it is terrific.  It is very well done, very powerful, very much up on the latest scholarship, and of course beautifully produced.  I don’t agree that it provides ideological cover for capitalism, which anyway has no need for such cover, so far as I can see, inasmuch as no one currently on the political scene, not even Bernie, poses the slightest threat to capitalism.

Indeed, the text is an enormously skillful and effective popular rendition of several generations of revisionist American historiography, the authors of which have been devoted to telling the American story in the most honest, confrontational, accurate, and racially sensitive manner possible.  It is vastly better than any of the American History textbooks I have seen, and would serve well as an assignment in high school and college American History courses.

Its only fault is that it is the wrong story.  I am not going to say here what the right story is, because I wrote a book about that subject, and although virtually no one has read my book, I am enough of an author and not propagandist to let that book stand as my say on the subject.

A RESPONSE TO TWO COMMENTS


Richard Lewis offers this comment on my animadversions against Columbia: 

“One theory favored by more neo-liberal types is 'Baumol Cost disease' whereby human labor intensive services get relatively more expensive over time as technology makes manufacturing, communications, transport, etc cheaper in relative terms. In other words, you can automate production of toothpaste but not nursing or university teaching, so costs in health and education will tend to rise relative to the technology intensive parts of the economy. The neo liberal aspect of this is a kind of 'automatic compensation' principle whereby fridges and airline tickets get cheaper while health and education get more expensive.”

I decided to do a little Googling to check this out, and my scattered investigations suggest Baumol is correct.  For example, in 1965 one year of Columbia tuition bought 1462 pounds of steak.  In 2019, one year of Columbia tuition will buy 8400 pounds of steak.  [And so forth for many other consumer items.]  But how does Columbia do compared with other labor intensive elite services?

Well, in 1965, Columbia tuition was $1900, and my psychoanalyst on the Upper East Side charged me $25 an hour, so one year of Columbia bought 76 hours of analysis [I will leave it to others to decide which was a better bang for the buck.]  Today, Google tells me that New York analysts are charging $200 an hour, which means that one year of Columbia buys 295 hours of analysis.  Somehow Columbia has managed to raise its prices almost 400% as much as Manhattan psychoanalysts.  I trust no one will accuse analysts of selling themselves cheap, so William Baumol to the contrary notwithstanding, Columbia’s dramatic escalation of its tuition requires some additional explanation.

Professor Goldfarb offers a more detailed objection.  I am afraid I have a long history, going back almost seventy years, of bad mouthing Harvard, and Professor Goldfarb has on sever al occasions taken me to task for my carping.  Here is his comment:

“Prof. Wolff posts on this topic regularly, but his point is completely undercut by his inattention to JKR's point. Sticker price is paid only by the well-off. The elite private institutions have very robust financial aid for most of their students. In fact, I am surprised that Prof Wolff does not applaud this highly redistributive arrangement. The colleges and universities bump up their sticker prices with an eye to how much the well-off can pay, and then give it back to the less well-off.  Here's an example. TwinBob is a senior at Forest Hills High School applying to Harvard in 2019. His father is a high school principal in NYC, in his third year in that position. His mother is a secretary at a non-profit. He has a sister already in college. As a guess, I'll take his father's salary to be $125,000, his mother's $45,000. According to the Harvard financial aid tool, he can expect a tuition scholarship of $51,400, making his tuition payment $7,520, about 12% more than what 1950 tuition would be in current dollars. Now the following year, TwinBob's mother has to retire due to health concerns, but his father gets a hefty seniority raise, so the family income is now $140,000. In that case, TwinBob pays $600 in tuition.  Financial aid at the elite institutions nowadays also eliminates the necessity for students to take out any significant loans.  The sad story, however, is in the public institutions. Here the sharply rising tuition costs are driven much more by legislative strangulation.”

First of all, let me say that this is an extraordinarily gracious and rather touching comment, drawing as it does on details of my family history to be found in my on-line Autobiography.  Now, I am and always have been an admirer of noblesse oblige, whether at Versailles under the ancient régime or in Cambridge in the elite redoubts of mature capitalism.  So I applaud Harvard’s redistributive efforts, even if they are made necessary by its inexplicable ballooning of the tuition it charges its undergraduates.  I confess that sitting here in North Carolina, far from Harvard Square, I experience a perhaps reprehensible suspicion that this is not just some clever scheme to soak the rich, but Professor Goldfarb is on the spot, and so I bow to his superior wisdom.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

THE FALL SEMESTER IS UPON US


In ten days, I shall start flying up to New York from North Carolina every Tuesday to teach at Columbia.  Once again, I shall co-teach a seminar in the Sociology Department with Todd Gitlin, a very well-known radical activist and author who was, among many other things, the third President of SDS and my student at Harvard in 1960.  The course, which I designed, is called Mystifications of Social Reality, and in it we talk about Marx’s demystification of capitalism, Edwin Wilmsen’s demystification of Ethnography, Karl Mannheim’s analysis of ideological and utopian thinking, Charles Mills’ demystification of social contract theory, my account of the demystification of the American Myth, and Todd’s critique of identity politics.

At the very end of the course, if time permits, I thought it might be fun to spend some time demystifying the Columbia undergraduate education, of which they are inordinately proud on Morningside Heights.  To start, I had three bits of incommensurable data: the tuition I paid at Harvard in 1950, the salary I earned as a new tenured Associate Professor at Columbia in 1964, and the undergraduate tuition charged this year at Columbia.  Clearly nothing much could be made of that collection of apples and oranges, so I went in search of some more facts, and with the very kind assistance of some research librarians in Butler Library at Columbia and a nominal fee of $30 to compensate someone for digging documents out of the archives, I very soon had in hand the tuition at Columbia every five years from 1950 to the present.  It turned out, by the way, that in 1950 Harvard and Columba charged the same tuition.  Here is what I was told:

1950
$600
1955
$750
1960
$1450
1965
$1900
1970
$2500
1975
$3680
1980
$5730
1985
$10,280
1990
$14,472
1995
$19,730
2000
$25,044
2005
$31,924
2010
$39,296
2015
$50,526
2019-20
$58,920

But that was not terribly helpful, because over that seventy year period, the dollar has undergone a considerable inflation, so I Googled a CPI Deflator [Consumer Price Index calculator, for the uninitiated], and tediously converted all the nominal dollars into 2019 dollars.  I then calculated the percentage real dollar rise over each five year stretch [more an amusement than a labor, to quote Immanuel Kant], and came up with this table:

1950
$600
$6309

1990
$14,472
$27981
14.9%
1955
$750
$7153
13.38%
1995
$19,730
$33043
18.1%
1960
$1450
$12568
75.7%
2000
$25,044
$36,992
12%
1965
$1900
$15426
22.7%
2005
$31,924
$41,207
11.4%
1970
$2500
$16362
6.1%
2010
$39,296
$46155
12%
1975
$3680
$17293
5.7%
2015
$50,526
$55469
20.2%
1980
$5730
$17501
1.2%
2019-20
$58,920
$58920
6.2%
1985
$10,280
$24354
39.2%




   Year            Tuition        in 2020 $     % increase    Year              Tuition            in 2020 $    % increase  

The first thing that pops out of this chart is that the education offered by Columbia [and Harvard] in 1950 cost $6309 a year in 2019 dollars, while the cost of a 2019 Columbia education in those same 2019 dollars is $58,920.  So in real terms, Columbia’s education costs 9.3 times as much now as it did in 1950.

How come?

Well, the first answer that comes to mind is that the education now on offer at 116th st. and Broadway in Manhattan is 9.3 times better than the education offered there in 1950.  So I thought about that.  To be sure, I was a student at Harvard, not at Columbia, in 1950, but I made the heroic assumption that the two educations then were roughly comparable.  As I am teaching at Columbia this year, I can judge firsthand the quality of the education it now offers.  It will perhaps not come as a surprise to you to learn that after careful consideration, I have concluded that the education Columbia now offers, even though I have a hand in offering it, is in fact not noticeably better than the education offered to me seventy years ago at Harvard.  [I shall resist the old man’s temptation to say that it was better then than now.  Just as good is all I need for this analysis.]

If the education is not nine times as good, then maybe it costs nine times as much to produce.  Well, in the Liberal Arts, the principal, indeed nearly the only, cost of an undergraduate education is the salaries of the professors who provide it.  Once again, I used the bits of data I had and sought out some additional data in an effort to evaluate this proposed explanation.  I wasn’t teaching at Columbia in 1950, but I was in 1965.  I was then a newly tenured Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department, and my salary in 1965 dollars was $11,000.  This was pretty much the bottom of the salary range.  Columbia did not have to bid up to get me.  If I may adapt an iconic line from Renée Zellweger in Jerry McGuire, they had me with hello.

Eleven thousand dollars in 1965 is the equivalent of a bit more than $89,000 today.  Google tells me a low end Associate Professor at Columbia these days is making upwards of $120,000, so there has been maybe a 33% increase in pay.  Columbia has of course responded, as any rational corporation would, by seeking cheaper labor, which it happily finds not overseas, which could create problems for office hours and such, but right on the campus.  In 1950, the jewel in the crown of Columbia’s undergraduate curriculum, Contemporary Civilization, or CC as it is usually called, was taught by professors.  [The course, even then, was 31 years old, having been created in 1919 just after WW I.]  Today, all but a handful of the 62 sections scheduled each semester are taught by graduate students and new PhDs who cannot find regular tenure track Assistant Professors. 

In short, Columbia does not charge nine times as much today for its undergraduate education as it in 1950 because the education is nine times as good, nor because it costs nine times as much to produce.  Why then?

That is the subject for another post, but I will offer one simple answer that might start us on the road to an answer.

Because they can.