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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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Thursday, May 23, 2019


I really am taking what they call in kindergarten a “time out” but something happened yesterday that was too delicious to ignore.  I learned what “hectocotyliferously” means.  A word of explanation is called for.

Seventy years ago, when Susie and I were high school girlfriend and boyfriend, we used to read together the poems of e. e. cummings [lower case intentional.]  cummings was the son of a Harvard professor and a graduate of Harvard.  One of our favorite poems [#201 in Susie’s copy of Collected Poems] is a hilariously cruel portrait of a Radcliffe student.  It is one of cummmings’ longest poems, filling two pages.  The opening lines are:

" Gay " is the captivating cognomen of a Young Woman of cambridge, mass.
to whom nobody seems to have mentioned ye olde freudian wish;
when i contemplate her uneyes safely ensconced in thick glass
you try if we are a gentleman not to think of(sh).

the world renowned investigator of paper sailors — argonauta argo
harmoniously being with his probably most brilliant pupil mated,
let us not deem it miraculous if their(so to speak) offspring has that largo appearance of somebody who was hectocotyliferously propagated. 

Those lines have stuck in my memory for almost three-quarters of a century, but in all that time it never occurred to me until yesterday to find out what “hectocotyliferously” actually means.  Well, Google supplied the answer and it was worth the wait.

hec·to·cot·y·lus  noun  a modified arm used by male octopuses and some other cephalopods to transfer sperm to the female.

I shall return to my self-enforced silence.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019


I have been blogging regularly and at great length for ten years, with the occasional break for a safari or a trip to Paris.  I began in a bad mood.  Let me quote a paragraph from my post of October 4, 2009:

“The truth is that at seventy-five, I am simply weary of being constantly, gut-wrenchingly angry all the time. I started getting angry in the late Fall and early Spring of 1960-61, over the impending invasion of Cuba. I worked myself into a permanent frenzy over the threat of nuclear war. I got angrier about Civil Rights and the Viet Nam War. I exploded in rage at the outrageously discriminatory professional treatment of my first wife, which triggered my successful effort to get the American Philosophical Association to establish a standing committee on the status of women in the profession. I was livid about Nixon, furious about Reagan, contemptuous of the first Bush, appalled by the second Bush. As Lily von Shtupp [Madeline Kahn] sings in Mel Brooks' immortal movie, BLAZING SADDLES, I'm tired!”

And here I am, ten years later, beside myself at eighty-five, as I was at seventy-five, sixty-five, fifty-five, forty-five, thirty-five, and thirty [I was pretty laid back when I was twenty-five.]  Now, I am not a low energy guy, but it takes it out of you being mad for more than half a century.  When I was a boy, “late capitalism” was an analytic category.  Now it is a sad in-joke.  Bad as things were then [and they really were godawful if you were Black or female or gay or poor], I honestly thought they could get permanently better.  Seventy years later, I am not so sure.

It is well understood here in the retirement community where I live that it takes old folks longer to recover from injuries.  Usually, that is a reference to breaking a shoulder or a hip, but it is true for injuries to the spirit as well.

So I am going to take a little time off to heal.  I have already explained that I will be unable to blog for about a month, due to plumbing work in my building combined with a two week trip to Paris.  I am going to add a bit more time, and bid you all adieu until July 5th, when I shall be back from Paris and, I hope, an Eeyore no more but a Tigger reborn.

Before I go, I have one brief comment on a recent event.  Two days ago, Doris Day died.  The stories said she was ninety-seven.  My first reaction, when I read that, was “Wow!  How old she was.  Extraordinary!”  But then I reflected, the lady who lives across the hall and the lady who lives in the apartment under us are both ninety-six, and they are chipper, very witty, a bit slowed down to be sure.  I don’t see either of them leaving us any time soon, and next year they will both be ninety-seven.  That is old, but it is not that old.  Good lord, I may be blogging for another ten years.

See you after the Fourth.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019


There is increasing reason to fear that some time in the next year, the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade.  I leave it to you to check the news and seek out Justice Breyer’s warning that the High Court seems increasingly ready to overturn precedent.  This would be a disaster for untold numbers of women.  What can be done?

I leave to one side fantasies about a car crash on the way to the Inauguration of President-elect Warren in which Justices Kavanaugh, Thomas, and Gorsuch are killed, and also pie-in-the-sky plans to increase the Court by two positions.  Let me suggest a radical but perhaps manageable plan that could adapt to the new legal landscape.

According to Google [citing the Guttmacher Institute], there are maybe 930,000 abortions a year in the United States,  Many of them are performed in states where abortions would continue to be legal if Roe were overturned.  Inasmuch as California and New York are among many the abortion friendly states, I will assume that perhaps 400,000 of the yearly abortions are in states intent upon criminalizing the procedure.  Now, it is of course legal for a woman in one of those benighted states to take a plane to another state and have the abortion there, and I am sure even now, when states like Texas have made it so difficult to obtain an abortion, there are a good many upper middle class women who can afford to do just that.  Let us assume that leaves 300,000 women a year needing abortions for whom arranging and taking such a trip is either very difficult or in fact impossible.

What to do?

Here is an idea, bizarre but legal and, with sufficient organizing skill and enough money, manageable.  Suppose a national organization were to be formed, using many social media platforms, to offer an abortion assistance service.  Once the organization was contacted, it would send a representative to the woman’s home [in a random, unmarked, ordinary unnoticeable car].  With the driver would be someone trained to administer a pregnancy test.  If it is positive, and if she can produce proof that she is not a minor, the driver will either drive her to another state and call ahead to arrange for the abortion at a safe clinic, or book a flight for her to an abortion-friendly state, where she will be met and taken to a clinic.  She will stay overnight and be taken home.  If she is a minor, she will have to be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.

What would this whole business cost each year?  For 300,000 abortions, I am guessing 1 billion dollars [$3,300 each] should cover it.

So, the plan would require the public to donate a billion dollars.  That is a lot of money, but it is entirely doable, with sufficient public relations promotion.  Perhaps Planned Parenthood could run the whole thing.

Obviously anti-abortion forces would do a variety of things to disrupt the operation.  It would be a struggle.  But if Roe is overturned, the ground level outrage is going to be deafening.

Lord knows, I cannot organize such an effort.  But someone could.

Sunday, May 12, 2019


In the flurry of heated comments on this blog in the past several days, one stuck in my mind and piqued my curiosity.  Two days ago, in what I am pretty sure was meant as a devastating criticism of me and my blog, Talha wrote:  “If one were to seek a definitive "jump the shark" moment for this blog, this would be it.”  I thought to myself. “Now what exactly does that mean?”  I knew it had something to do with Happy Days, Fonzie, and water skiing, but pretty clearly the expression had taken on a larger life.  So, as I always do when I am puzzled, I Googled.  Here is what I found:

“Jumping the shark is the moment when something that was once popular that no longer warrants the attention it previously received makes an attempt at publicity, which only serves to highlight its irrelevance.”

Huh.  That was odd.  Was I once popular but now no longer warrant the attention I previously received?  It was pretty clear that Talha did not intend to pay me a compliment – I got that.  But the rest of it puzzled me.

Once popular.  This blog occupies a tiny backwater off a trickle of a stream that never quite makes it as far as even a secondary waterway.  For some years now, if Google metrics are accurate, it has been attracting between 1000 and 1500 views a day.  Allowing for the faithful who click multiple times and the occasional visitors who nod in from time to time, there might be as many as 2000 folks worldwide who come to visit, among whom maybe a dozen comment with any frequency [that last may be a bit generous.]  Every so often, Brian Leiter links to something I have said, and for a day the views soar to 3000, but then things settle down and putter along.

Now, 1000-1500 a day is fabulous if you are standing in front of a classroom, but in the Blogosphere it is pathetic.  The serious blogs record daily visits in the scores of thousands or even millions.  My total viewership would be within the margin of error of a real blog.  However – and on this I take my stand – it is constant, neither growing nor dwindling. 

I am afraid that expression is like many that once had a precise meaning but now simply convey a generalized scorn.  Sort of like gaslighting.


My old friend, William Polk, has just circulated an important essay on Trump's policy toward Iran.  I have uploaded it to, accessible via the link on this page, where it is listed as "Essay on US."  I strongly recommend it.


This doesn't sound technocratic to me.


One of my ways of preserving some semblance of sanity is to do the TIMES crossword puzzle each day.  Mondays are dead easy, then each day is a bit harder, until Friday and Saturday are really challenging.  I do them in ink, since pencil does not read as easily.  The Thursday puzzle always has an interesting gimmick in it, sometimes very hard to decipher. The Sunday puzzle is very big but only about as hard as the Wednesday puzzle.

On Sunday, there is sometimes a DoubleCrostic, and that is where the problem arises.  I love doing DoubleCrostics but I hate filling in the letters and I am constantly making mistakes.  I have long thought that if I were as rich as Bezos, I would hire someone whose whole job would be to fill in the DoubleCrostic letters for me.

And then it struck me:  This is a perfect job for an App.  It should be child’s play to design an App that automatically links the letters in the answers to the clues to the places in the puzzle where they go.  Surely there must be an online DoubleCrostic site that does that.


Saturday, May 11, 2019


Paul has written a long and very serious three-part criticism of my recent despairing post, criticism that I think has a good deal of merit.  I want to try to address it here.  His comment takes the form of first stating three claims that I often make, and then responding to each in turn.  I want to incorporate his words into this response, so this will take a while, but I think it is important.  Bear with me.

He begins:

Professor Wolff: there are three claims in this post, claims that make frequent appearance in your posts these days, that I want to call into question.

“(1) You claim that Trump poses a grave threat to “democracy as we know it” in America. Specifically, you claim that if he’s elected in 2020, American democracy stands a reasonable chance of being left in tatters. And should he lose, he will attempt to engineer a coup to invalidate the election.

(2) You claim that the American left will survive a Biden presidency. More to the point: we shouldn’t be too terribly worried about a Biden presidency compared to a Trump one, because in the former case, we stand a much better chance of regrouping to take power eventually. Therefore, if Biden appears to have the best shot at beating Trump—I assume you mean if pre-nomination polls bear out that he does best head-to-head with Trump—then we should support him.

(3) You contrast Biden with “Warren or Sanders or Harris.” I take it that you mean this latter group to be the group of real lefties, or real progressives, in the race. Therefore, you take Kamala Harris to be a progressive or lefty on par with Sanders and Warren.”

Let me deal with the third point first, because it is easiest.  I think Paul is correct about Harris, and I confess he knows a great deal more about her record than I do.  Let me grant the point and remove her from the list of electable progressives.  I actually think Warren is better on the issues than Sanders, but that is unimportant in this context.  Now to the real meat of Paul’s comment.  Against point 1, he responds:

“The argument here is not that you’re being “too pessimistic” or otherwise “too cautious” or something else of the like—that is, I’m not saying that you’ve basically gotten Trump right (in kind) but have overstated things (in degree). Rather, I think you’ve just got Trump flat wrong in kind. Moreover, the mistaken conception has bad consequences. It leads us to think of the sort of political action we should be doing in misguided terms. Here’s how you’ve gotten Trump wrong: he does not fit the model of an authoritarian would-be dictator bent on seizing total control of the state. He lacks both the specific ideological vision and the tenacity required for that. Instead, Trump is better thought of as a more-or-less standard Reaganesque Republican president prone to self-aggrandizement and petty arguments, but reticent to engage in deep-cutting, long-term struggles for power. How do we know this? Well, note that the Republican congress and leadership has pretty much stymied all of his signature (that is: non-standard) promises. They’ve refused to fund his wall, failed to repeal Obamacare, refused to fund a major infrastructure program, and refused many of his budget requests. On each of these occasions, Trump has (occasionally) lashed out with insults on Twitter or at a press conference, only to ultimately drop the issue. Furthermore, with an ongoing investigation that threatened to potentially impeach him carried out by his own justice department(!), he couldn’t even pull a Richard Nixon and fire everyone. In short, the actual record simply doesn’t support your framing of Trump. I think your framing of Trump is a significant mistake because it fails to understand the actual political moment we’re in, and what our best options are.”

I agree that Trump does not fit the standard model of a would-be dictator, but I disagree that he is a more-or-less standard Reagenasque Republican [although God knows, Reagan was bad enough.]  I think, or rather I fear, that Trump is a good deal more dangerous than that.  I think he is desperate to survive and avoid all manner of legal dangers to his wealth [such as it is] and his freedom, and he is showing some skill at using the enormous inherent power of the modern presidency to protect himself and attack those he sees as enemies.  I think he will probably fail, pretty much for the reasons you advance [that was the point of my seemingly off-the-wall remarks about the Secret Service and the army.]  But I think he will try, and I am frightened of what that will bring.  For several years now, all of us have been counting on what Bannon and company call the Deep State to protect us, or what used to be called the Establishment, and I hope our confidence is well-placed.  Once again, I am frightened.

Finally, Paul writes this lengthy analysis of Biden’s real significance and of our current situation.  I agree with much of it, so let me reproduce it verbatim:

“A Biden presidency would be disastrous—and not simply because of the opportunity cost of a lost Sanders or Warren presidency. No, a Biden presidency would be disastrous because if we properly understand our current political moment, we can see it would lead to potentially devastating consequences. Therefore, Biden should be seen as our political enemy too. Why? Well, if you have an understanding of the Trump presidency that doesn’t view him as an out-of-nowhere aberration but instead conceives of his appeal in the history of American political economy, we can see that Biden just represents a further step down the disastrous neoliberal trajectory we’ve been on. Trump’s appeal in large part derives from the bankruptcy the public feels—the sense of a bitter, repressed outrage—toward standard US politics post-Reagan. That standard politics (let’s call it “neoliberalism”) is embodied best by politicians like the Bushes and Clintons whose agenda was oriented around foreign imperialism, the curtailment (or even retrenchment) of gains by the civil rights and labor movements, a belief in the market and skepticism/demonization of government “welfare” programs, and big, big money all around. It’s the bankruptcy of *that* politics that leads to our situation, where people above all just want something different, want to flip the bird to standard politicians. This means that there are political openings for both more leftist and more revanchist styles of politics. Trump represents the first step of the latter—though as I discussed above in (1), he represents *merely the first step*. But if we elect a stupid standard politician like Biden *again*, and the public becomes even *more* disenchanted than they were under Obama, the natural next step is for a more genuinely revanchist, more scarily competent and tenacious politician, than Trump to take power. Then we really will be in the sort of situation you seem to think Trump’s put us in. But a Biden (or Beto, or anyone-but-Sanders-or-Warren) presidency will take us further down that path. So even if polls bear out that vs. Sanders they have a better shot at beating Trump, we should not devote our energies toward nominating these people—*if* they’re nominated, then we have a different conversation. But we should strive to avoid that catastrophe at all costs.”

I agree with virtually all of this.  I think we are, or may be, in one of those rare moments when genuinely progressive politics have a chance to win big, and perhaps make some really major changes in this country.  [I say perhaps because such changes would require a solid left majority in the House and Senate as well as a progressive in the White House, and that is much dicier.]

Leaving aside the matter of Harris, where Paul is right and I was wrong, I think the difference between us is that I am a good deal more frightened of Trump than he is.  I hope he is right.  If I may echo Alfred Doolittle from My Fair Lady, I’m willing for him to be right, I’m wanting him to be right, I’m waiting for him to be right.  I may just be old and too often disappointed, or maybe I don’t get out enough.  The dismay I have felt at the arrival and early success of Biden has really taken it out of me.  Look, maybe he will wilt under the lights during a debate, wander a little, show his age [God knows I know about that!], and the faithful will drift away.

Meanwhile, I will donate my little bits of money to Biden and Warren and keep hope alive.

Thank you, Paul, for a valuable contribution to the debate.

Friday, May 10, 2019


I would like to talk realistically for a while about the prospects for the rule of law in America.  Trump may be impeached by the House, but he will not be convicted by the Senate.  Either then he will or he will not be defeated in 2020.  If he is not defeated, I think it is an open question whether democracy, such as we now know it in America, will survive.

If he is defeated, he will gin up conspiracy theories to the effect that the vote was rigged.  There are, by my count, 83 days between the election and the inauguration of the president.  He will spend all of that time claiming that he was cheated out of a victory, and declaring that he will not accept the results of the election as announced.  He will persuade some millions of people that he is right, and he will encouraged armed insurrection.

Will he succeed in seizing control of the state?  It depends on two things:  the behavior of the Secret Service and the behavior of the troops stationed in and around Washington DC.  If the Secret Service and the Army refuse to obey his unlawful orders, he is cooked.  His supporters may have lots of guns, but they are unorganized and untrained, and many if not most of them are blowhards who will collapse in the face of organized military force. 

The power of a modern president consists entirely in his or her ability to get very large numbers of people to accept his or her commands.  It depends, if I may borrow a phrase from myself, on the president’s possession of de facto, not de jure, legitimate authority.  To put it crudely, it depends on whether when he says “fire!” they fire.

Trump has done virtually nothing to cultivate loyalty to himself personally among either the members of the Secret Service or the military at the colonel/general level.  It helps us in this matter that he is personally a coward.

So everything depends on defeating him sufficiently decisively so that the matter does not go to the Supreme Court, as it did in 2000.  It is too early to tell which Democratic hopeful has the best chance.  That should become clearer by the late fall.  If it is the despicable Biden, so be it.  If it is Warren or Sanders or Harris, all the better.  There is a progressive movement afoot in the country, and it can survive a Biden presidency.  It may not survive a Trump second term.

Does this sound like a counsel of desperation?  Damn right.


As I watched my senior senator, Richard Burr, exhibiting the barest sign of a spine, issuing a subpoena for Don Jr. and holding firm against the contumely of his Republican colleagues, I thought back to my first visit to Washington, DC in the summer of 1961, my eleventh and last year at Harvard.  I wrote about the experience in my Autobiography, and posted it on this blog nine years ago.  I was young in ’61, not yet an anarchist and still filled with a longing for genuine popular democracy.  I think it is worth re-posting.

I spent that last summer finishing my manuscript and preparing to leave Cambridge.  In late August, I wrapped up the book and decided to take a little vacation.  Since I had never visited Washington D. C., and now knew several people in the new Kennedy Administration, I took the train down to spend a week there.  I checked into a hotel near the train station and went round to various office buildings to visit my friends.  They were tremendously excited by their new jobs, but as I spent time with them, I grew more and more uneasy.  It was all a bit like the court at Versailles under the ancien rĂ©gime.  There was a great deal of gossip, and a constant anxiety about the thoughts, the feelings, the preferences, the moods of one person, the President.
When I went over to the Capitol to take a look at Congress, my view of the government changed entirely.  I spent several days in the visitors' gallery of the Senate, watching debates and votes.  The fact that it was the one cool place I had found in a steamy town may have had something to do with my reaction.  I watched with great amusement as Everett Dirksen protested his love of duck hunting and hunters, imitating to great effect a duck settling onto a pond at sunset.   Apparently the government had imposed a tax on duck hunting in order to raise money for wetlands preservation, and then had used the money to drain swamps for development.  The duck hunters of America wanted a five million dollar appropriation to make things right, and Dirksen, who was opposing all spending that week on grounds of fiscal responsibility, was trying to convince the duck hunters of Illinois that he felt their pain.  I watched the great maverick, Wayne Morse, bellow to an empty chamber that he was not going to kowtow to the Catholic Church, with regard to what I can no longer recall.  And I watched as all but two of the senators came to the floor to vote on the renewal of the Civil Rights Commission.
What attracted me so greatly was the fact that each of these men and women was an independent person, beholden only to his or her constituents, and not subservient to the President, regardless of how charismatic and powerful he might be.  These were men and women with honor, not servile courtiers hoping to be given pride of place on a balcony or in a presidential jet.  Exactly the same sentiments welled up in me as I watch octogenarian Robert Byrd deliver speech after speech calling George W. Bush to account for the damage he did to the U. S. Constitution. 
It was fun visiting Marc Raskin in the Executive Office Building, and listening to the rumors about Kennedy and Marc's secretary, Diane DeVegh.  It was interesting hearing Dick Barnet talk about the inside story at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.  But it was ennobling to watch the debates on the floor of the Senate.  I think it was that week in a hot Washington summer, rather than any of the books I had read, that once for all time soured me on the Imperial Presidency.


I will be going to Paris on June 14, returning July 4th, and as you know, I am unable to blog from Paris.  However, two weeks before we go, Susie and I must move out of our apartment so that the management can redo the plumbing.  They are doing the entire three story building, one stack of apartments at a time, and our turn is coming up.  So it may be that from May 27th or so until July 4th, I will go dark, as they say.  There is no telling what disasters will befall America in that time, but if the very last scene of The Truman Show is correct, you will all just click to another site and never miss me.  I will miss you, I fear.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


CALLICLES:  How you keep on saying the same things, Socrates!
SOCRATES:   Yes, Callicles, not only the same things, but also about the same subjects.  Gorgias 490e

Tuesday, May 7, 2019


I am now eighty-five years old, and save for a wanderjahr in Europe as a student and a number of short overseas trips, I have spent all those years in the United States.  Despite my unflagging interest in politics, I have in my long life never actually met [or seen in person] a sitting Senator, although I did meet Elizabeth Warren for ninety seconds when she was still a law professor [my son, Tobias, knew her.]  I met my Congressional Representative once in Western Mass, John Olver, because I bought four and a half acres from him so that Susie and I could build a house after we got married.  And I met David Price once, the safely and regularly reelected Representative from Chapel Hill.  I have also never met a sitting Governor, or any member of any Cabinet, and as for the media, I once shook hands with E. J. Dionne at a Harvard Social Studies reunion.  And that is it!

So I often wonder what all these important people are really like, what they really think, how they describe the world in private, when they are speaking openly.  This morning, as I was walking, I recalled an experience I had almost sixty years ago that might offer a clue to answering those questions.

It happened either in 1959-60 or 1960-61 at Harvard, where I was a young Instructor.  Those of you old enough to recall those days may remember something called the Pugwash Conferences.  These were annual unofficial international gatherings of bigwigs of various political persuasions who came together to discuss the threats to peace and survival posed by nuclear weapons.  They were organized by Bertrand Russell [whom I had met], among others, and were named after the tiny shoreline town in Nova Scotia where the first conference was held.

I had gotten to know Richard Barnet, a disarmament expert who was then at the Harvard Russian Research Institute.  Dick shortly afterward teamed up with Marc Raskin to form the Institute for Policy Studies, a leftwing DC think tank that still exists.  When Walt Rostow got back from the Pugwash Conference that year, he appeared on TV and made a number of bellicose statements about the Soviet threat that seemed to me totally unconnected to reality.  Then Dick told me that Rostow was going to give a private briefing on the Conference to the Institute regulars, and asked whether I wanted to go along as his guest.

I jumped at the chance.  Now I would get to find out what Rostow really thought.  So I went along and sat quietly in the back, observing.  [This from my Autobiography]  Everyone was there - Alex Inkeles, Adam Ulam, Zbigniev Brzeszinski, all the hotshots.  I listened with dismay as Rostow used the same hackneyed jargon that had characterized his public appearances.  Worse still, the responses from the experts were couched as well in cold war boilerplate.  It dawned on me that this was the way they actually thought.  There was no real insider story that they shared only with fellow experts.  They actually believed the nonsense they shoveled out to the public.

In the immortal words of Gertrude Stein describing Oakland, CA, there was no there there.  Or to invoke an even more famous line from Maya Angelou, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

From these two wise women and my own experience from long ago, I draw the conclusion that the Clintons and Schumers and Bidens of the world are just the bought and paid for Wall Street flacks that they seem to be.

It is going to be a long hot summer.

Monday, May 6, 2019


Yesterday was Marx's 201st birthday.  Not a bad run for a little Jewish boy from Trier.


From 1980 to 1987, I lived in the Boston area while continuing to teach at UMass.  During that time, I was a regular at the lectures put on by a center for the History and Philosophy of Science run by Bob Cohen and Marx Wartofsky, two wonderful members of the BU Philosophy Department.  The lectures were delightful affairs, on every conceivable topic under the sun, and a distinctive feature of them was that no matter how obscure the topic, somehow a leading expert would show up in the audience to challenge the speaker.  One evening, as I recall, a member of the Worcester based UMass Medical School gave a talk on Aztec medicine, leaving us all to wonder what we could possibly ask during the question period.   Not to worry!  A young man stood up, declared himself to be of Aztec heritage, and proceeded to grill the speaker.

The last few days has made me feel a little bit as though I were back at BU.  My son tells me to read a book on MMT.  I do so, write a blog about some ideas in it out of my profound ignorance, and Tom Hickey pops up to put us all in the picture with a series of long, enormously knowledgeable comments.  It really is wonderful.

I am going to stop blogging about MMT because I almost immediately exhausted my fragile grasp of it, but one thing Tom Hickey said triggered some thoughts that I should like to lay before you.  Here is the passage, from one of his comments:

“Addressing inequality is a social issue more than an economic one, but it is also an economic one that needs to be addressed for optimization. Economically, this would involve taxing away economic rent as "windfall profit," that is, gain from ownership rather than productive contribution. Economic rent includes financial rent, land rent, natural resource rent, and monopoly and monopsony rent, as well as socialized negative externality.”

It is the word “rent” on which I wish to expand, from a Marxist perspective.  These remarks will pull together several things I have said here before.  I first encountered discussions of rent in Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  Smith was of course writing about land rent, the price the landed gentry charged entrepreneurs who wanted to grow crops on their land.  Smith is scathing in his critique of the gentry, whom he views as leeches sucking the life blood out of England [of course, he may be more than ordinarily negative because he was Scots].  He draws a sharp distinction between the work done by the farmers employed by the entrepreneurs, which he calls productive labor, and the work done by the clouds of servants waiting hand and foot on the gentry, which he calls unproductive labor.  The first sort of labor creates wealth, and is thoroughly praiseworthy; the second gobbles up wealth, and threatens to lead England to ruin.  Ricardo, forty-one years later, echoes Smith in his Principles and warns that the rents charged by the gentry threaten to bring economic growth to a standstill.

It was well understood by both Smith and Ricardo that in the division of the annual product – the “wealth of the nation” – the interests of the entrepreneurs and the workers were diametrically opposed.  What went to one class as profits diminished what was left to the other class as wages.  Rents, Ricardo demonstrated, came out of profits, not out of wages.

Speaking more broadly, a rent is a payment demanded by the legal owner of a scarce and non-substitutable resource entirely independently of any contribution made by the owner to the productive enterprise in which it is used.  The gentry didn’t do anything for their rents.  They just owned the land and demanded payment before allowing it to be used, a demand backed up by the law, the police, and if necessary the army.  Owners of patents do the same thing, as do owners of broadcast frequencies, and mines.

In the early days of capitalism, when most often the owner of a firm also managed it and perhaps invented some of the productive techniques used by the firm, it was easy to imagine, as both Smith and Ricardo did, that the entrepreneurs earned their share of the firm’s income.  The entrepreneurs saved up their money by skimping on their household spending, and lived upright, frugal lives [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, anybody?]  They went to their factories and managed them for long hours, directing the labor of their employees.  Oftentimes, they invented new productive techniques, or adapted existing ones in more economical fashion.  In short, from any reasonable point of view, they earned their take from the enterprise, which economists called profit.

But things changed as capitalism developed, until now, almost the entire contribution to production by the owners has been internalized in the firm.  I have written about this before on this blog and will not repeat myself [although I do enjoy the reference to an old Burt Reynolds movie.]  These days, what do capitalists do?  They give permission.  They allow their employees to use the capital that they own, a permission for which they charge a price.

In short, they collect rents.

Capitalists qua capitalists [as we say in the Philosophy trade] collect rents.  To be sure, some of them – the Steve Jobs’s and Jeff Bezos’s of the world – do other things as well, and God bless them for that.  But the vast preponderance of capital in the world these days is collecting the equivalent of the rents that the idle gentry demanded from the go-getting entrepreneurs in the good old days.

So, do we need capitalists?  No.

Don’t take my word for it.  Go read a really fine book, now thirty-nine years old, by David Schweickart, called Capitalism or Worker Control?

Sunday, May 5, 2019


I think I accidentally deleted a comment about Goldsmith.  Did I?


In late September 1950, I began my undergraduate education at Harvard.  Taking the advice of Herb Winston, who had preceded me to Harvard from Forest Hills High School, I enrolled in Philosophy 140, Willard Van Orman Quine’s course on symbolic logic.  We used Quine’s own book, Methods of Logic, in which at one point he introduces a quick and dirty method of ascertaining the validity of certain inferences to which he gives the name “fell swoop.”  The phrase comes from MacBeth and originally meant the cruel, quick killing dive of a hawk or kestrel hunting for rodents and other small prey.  Quine had an unexpectedly puckish sense of humor, and at one point observed that there was an inverse to the fell swoop procedure, which, he suggested, could be called a “swell foop.”  The characteristic and astonishingly fast hunting dive by raptors is called a stoop.  So a fell swoop is a stoop.  I have often wondered whether the 18th century Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith had that meaning in mind when he wrote She Stoops to Conquer. 

Saturday, May 4, 2019


I am delighted to see that my MMT post has triggered a lively series of comments.  I have a good deal to say in response and in further elaboration, so let me get started.  By the way, Tom Hickey obviously understands all of this vastly better than I do, so I invite him to weigh in whenever he sees me going off the rails.

MMT is simple, easily stated, and absolutely counterintuitive.  That is true, I find, of many powerful ideas.  MMT turns upside down everything that we think we understand about the most familiar thing in the modern world:  money.  It is not complicated, it does not require a grasp of differential calculus to understand, and yet what it says strikes us as just plain wrongheaded.

Let me begin with LFC’s vigorous and utterly sensible comment.  Here it is:

“To simplify things, let's boil matters down to one dollar. The Treasury Department prints out one dollar. According to the post, the government has thereby incurred a debt; it has issued an IOU, a promise to pay. But a promise to pay *what*? What exactly has the government promised to pay and *to whom*? It's not as if someone with a dollar in his or her wallet can call the Treasury Dept. and say "I have a dollar, I have an IOU issued by you [the government]. So you owe me! Pay up!" If someone called the Treasury Dept and said that, the person at the other end of the line would presumably start wondering about the caller's mental health. So in what sense is a dollar bill a *promise to pay* by the government (as opposed to a piece of paper that, by accepted social convention, can be exchanged for something of value, though admittedly these days a single dollar bill can't be exchanged for much)?”

Strange as it may seem, LFC has it exactly right.  Let us assume that deep in the bowels of the Treasury Department is a bright, well-educated career official with a somewhat puckish sense of humor.  [Washington DC is full of such people, as David Palmeter and my sister, Barbara, discovered when they taught in the OLLI program there.]  When LFC calls the Treasury Department, he is routed to this career official, who says, “Yes sir, you are quite correct.  If you will come to the following address, the Treasury Department will be happy to pay the debt it has incurred to you.”  So off LFC goes, and when he knocks on the door, the Treasury official admits him and she says, “If you will present the IOU that we issued, I will be happy to redeem it.”  LFC, somewhat belligerently, we may imagine, takes out the dollar bill and presents it to her.  She examines it carefully and ascertains that it is indeed a genuine IOU issued by the United States government.   After having LFC sign some papers, she hands him … a dollar.  LFC splutters, and says, “But you have just given me back a dollar, which is another IOU.  How is that paying the debt you have incurred?’  And the Treasury official points to the place on the dollar where it says “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private.”  “That’s it? says LFC.  “You pay your debts with your own IOUs?”  And she replies, “Yes.  That is what it means to have a sovereign currency.”  As Wray wryly observes [I assume this is an old joke in MMT circles], if you go to the Queen of England to cash in a five pound note, she will hand you … a five pound note.

All of this is trivial, to be sure.  It took me only 1119 words to say in my post, and if I had had to, I could have gotten it down to a tweet.  But trivial though it is, it seems not to be understood these days by anyone in Washington [except AOC and her colleagues, but that is another matter.]  Even really smart people like Obama seem not to have grasped it.  Oddly enough, it used to be understood by economists as different in their policy preferences as Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, or so Wray writes.

So all right, it is a little weird, but suppose we agree that it is true.  Then what?  Well, as my son Patrick observed, MMT is not a theory, it is an analysis.  Absent considerations not part of the analysis, MMT does not imply any particular concrete policies.  But it does refute certain supposed constraints on possible policies.  In particular, it shows that it is literally never the case that the government does not “have enough money” to pay for something it wants to do.  And in Washington these days, that is a pretty big cudgel with which to beat off naysayers.

This is not the end of the matter, it is really just the beginning.  In my next post, I will try to say some useful things, drawing on some ideas I first encountered in a fine old book by an old friend, David Schweickart.

Friday, May 3, 2019


I have not finished the Wray book on MMT [Modern Monetary Theory, or Modern Money Theory, depending on whom you ask] but I am more than 200 pages into it and ready to tell you what I have learned.  My son, Patrick, who recommended Wray’s book, says it is not so much a theory [with models, predictions, evidence, and so forth] as an analysis, and I think he is right, but whatever it is, it is striking, surprising, counterintuitive, and – interestingly enough – not new, as Wray makes clear.

Here we go, the blind leading the sighted.  Stop me if I bump into something.

Big, strong, no-nonsense nations issue their own currency and will take no other.  They have sovereign currencies.  That is what I shall be talking about.  Wray dutifully spends a good many pages talking about all the weenie countries that are unable to issue sovereign currencies, and also about the rather odd case of the Euro, but that is not what he is really interested in, and neither am I.  Furthermore, we are talking about floating currencies, not currencies tied to a pile of gold or silver or cowrie shells or whatever.

We can boil the entire book down to two propositions, the second of which follows from the first.  They are simple propositions, and they are, once you think about it, obviously true, but the second in particular is these days utterly rejected by everyone, left, right, and center.  The policy implications will be immediately obvious.

The first proposition is that in a country like the United States with a floating sovereign currency, the currency – say, a bag full of dollars – is a collection of IOUs issued by the government.  IOU, recall, is short for I Owe You.  It is a promise to pay, issued, for example, by someone who loses big at a friendly poker game and doesn’t have enough money to pay the debt, or by a heavy drinker who runs a bar tab.  The issuer of the IOU has assumed a debt by issuing the IOU.  The recipient of the IOU [the bar owner, say], by accepting the IOU, has acquired a credit.  It is an obvious accounting truth that the sum total of all the debts assumed by IOU issuers and the credits acquired by IOU acceptors is 0.  There is nothing deep or puzzling about this, it is just a trivial conclusion from the meaning of IOU.  If the debtor pays the debt, the IOU is returned to him or her by the lender.  The debtor is now in possession of the original IOU, which cancels out the debt.  The little piece of paper on which is written “IOU $10” can now be crumpled up and thrown away.  Bank loans are just like IOUs, except that they are kept track of nowadays with key strokes, not pieces of paper.  A bank loan is an IOU issued by a borrower to the bank, by a home buyer, perhaps, or maybe a small business owner.  A bank deposit is also an IOU, but this time it is an IOU issued by the bank to the depositor.  When I have money on deposit at a bank, the bank owes me.

Now, in a country with a floating sovereign currency, all of the money circulating, whether in coins or bills or checks drawn on banks or whatever, consists of IOU’s issued by the government.  Take out a dollar bill and look at it.  On the front in the upper left, printed in small letters, are the words “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”  That means that both the government and private lenders must accept this dollar bill as payment of, or cancelling out, a one dollar debt.

So far, this is pretty simple and not at all controversial.  That is what dollars are.  But why should anyone want to have dollars, in whatever form?  This is slightly trickier, so follow along.  The simple and obvious answer is, “to buy stuff with.”  But why should someone selling stuff be willing to give it to me for these pieces of paper [or keystrokes – it doesn’t matter]?  The superficial answer is, “because with it he or she can buy from someone else something that he or she wants.”  But that is really not any sort of answer, Wray suggests.  It just kicks the can down the road.  Au fond, as the French like to say, why does anyone in America want dollars?

And now Wray lays his big surprise on us [or at least on me -- maybe this was obvious to the rest of you.]  Ultimately, Americans need dollars because the United States imposes taxes on us and, being sovereign, can get away with only accepting dollars in payment.  Now dollars, as we have seen, are the government’s IOUs, and in order to pay our taxes we need these IOUs issued by the government.  And the way we get the IOUs is by having the government put out these IOUs, which is to say by spending.

Which brings us to Wray’s second proposition, the real humdinger:

Governments do not tax in order to spend.  They must spend in order to tax.

When a government taxes, it collects up IOUs it has already issued.  How did the people paying the taxes get those IOUs with which they pay their taxes?  Well, this is a nation with a floating sovereign currency, so nobody else is issuing IOUs which the government will accept, and there is nothing like gold that can serve as a substitute.  Those IOUs are out there, available to pay taxes, only because the government has bought something, spent some money, and paid for it with an IOU!

And that is fundamentally the whole story.  There is a lot of mind-numbing stuff about the Fed and the Treasury and the difference between them and the relationship between them, along with more detail than I can or want to absorb, but the whole story resides in those two propositions.

Does Wray think therefore that sovereign governments can spend without limit?  Yes, they can, but it may not be wise to do so, because once you have hit full employment, more spending is simply inflationary.  And so forth and so on.  Does Wray think this analysis entails any particular social policy?  No, but it does lay to rest certain objections to social policy proposals that seem now to be accepted by everyone [except Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes and friends, but that is another matter.]

Anyone who objects to government spending on the grounds that the government has run out of money simply does not understand what money is in a nation with a floating sovereign currency

Thursday, May 2, 2019


Stephen Darling points me to this blog post by Bill Mitchell, Wray's co-author [but not of the book I am reading], responding to Marxist critics of MMT.  I found it extremely interesting.  Three quick thoughts:  One, Mitchell gets Marx right;  Two, this is deeper into the weeds than I want to go;  Three, it looks to me as though Marxists and MMT defenders ought to be natural allies, not opponents.  They both criticize mainstream economists for the same fundamental failing.

United Front, anyone?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


Yesterday was a loss, because of local health issues, but I am back at it plowing through the Wray book on MMT.  I am halfway through, and in Chapter 5, the book explodes into very exciting stuff.  There is even a long quote from my old colleague at UMass Rick Wolff!  Stay tuned.


I realize that bloggers are expected to have opinions about everything, but I have my limits.  Could someone who acually understands the Venezuelan situation offer some  guidance?