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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Thursday, October 31, 2019

TODAY'S LATIN LESSON


One of my favorite Latin tags is sub specie aeternitatis, under the aspect of eternity.  That, I learned three score years ago, is the way we philosophers are supposed to view things, reaching always for the eternal truths and shunning the intellectual fashions of the moment.  When I began this blog ten years ago and more, I spent days, even weeks, writing long detailed analyses of books and problems, content to leave comments on the passing scene to those not blessed with a philosophic temperament.  Well, to steal another Latin tag, this time from my favorite author, Karl Marx, quantum mutatus ab illo.  [How changed is Hector from before.]

Now, I experience each twist and turn of the news cycle as a lifetime. A day becomes a century, a week an era, a month an epoch.  I cannot type fast enough to write a comment on a tidbit of BREAKING NEWS before it is overtaken and consigned to the trash heap of history by a tidbit even newer.

 My favorite tidbit this morning is John Yoo’s abrupt reversal of his characterization of Lt. Col. Vindman’s actions as espionage.  Today Yoo says he was referring to the Ukrainians, that he honors Vindman’s service, and that what Trump did was indeed to offer a quid pro quo [we cannot seem to get away from the Latin.]  I infer that Yoo’s colleagues let him know that unless he took it back he might as well not return to the UC Berkeley School of Law. 

Meanwhile, I hang on very word of the MSNBC commentators, waiting to hear whether John Bolton will testify.  Bolton, it is my impression, has a more than ordinarily inflated ego, so I think we all ought to say loudly and often how absolutely crucial his testimony would be and how admirable we think it would be for him to come forward.

Sigh, it is no fun being a mayfly.  Would anyone be interested in a seventeen part post on Hume’s theory of our belief in the continued and independent existence of objects?

Monday, October 28, 2019

THE GANG THAT CAN SHOOT STRAIGHT AFTER ALL


The Beltway commentary on the Democrats has it that they are an unorganized group of feckless political ne’er do wells who cannot seem to fix on a message or follow through on a plan.  This is the twenty-first century version of Will Rogers’ famous old quip, “I do not belong to any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”  And yet, with a discipline and focus that would make a Republican proud, the House Democrats are proceeding steadily, deliberately, single-mindedly toward public hearings the week after next and a vote on impeachment before Thanksgiving.

I have no idea at all how it will turn out.  It begins to look as though much may depend on whether John Bolton testifies.  But the House will impeach Trump, and there will be some sort of trial in the Senate, all before the Iowa caucuses.

Say what you will about Nancy Pelosi, she is a Speaker for the ages.

I leave for Paris on December 6th.  I hope I do not miss the fun.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

BUTT-DIALING AND OTHER ARCANA

I have, I believe, already recounted my embarrassing encounter with the TSA in which they asked to see my elecronics [a random check] and burst out laughing when I showed them my little IPhone 5S.   I have never felt so inadequate.  Now comes Rudy Giuliani twice butt-dialing a reporter who recorded revealing conversations intended to be private..

I infer that if you put your IPhone 10 in your hip pocket and then sit on it, you can inadvertently speed dial someone.  But there is no way I could do that with an IPhone 5S.  So once again, I am revealed as hopelessly 2014.

The shame, the shame.

Friday, October 25, 2019

MY WEEK


In 1980, my first wife and I moved with our sons from Northampton to Belmont, Massachusetts so that she could take up a professorship at MIT.  For the next seven years, I commuted back to Amherst to teach at UMass, making the drive three times a week.  In the Fall of 1982, the New School in New York sought me for the chairmanship of their Philosophy Department, and for a semester I commuted down to New York every Tuesday to teach a course there while I negotiated with them.  So that semester on Sundays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I was in Belmont, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I was in Amherst, and on Tuesdays I was in New York.  It got so that I had to check my watch to tell where I was.  I feel a little like that this week, what with going to Columbia on Tuesday, running a Building 5 Precinct meeting on Thursday, and trying to keep up with this blog, all the while checking my IPhone or the TV every few minutes for the latest news about the impeachment investigation.

Well, the House will vote to impeach Trump, apparently before Thanksgiving.  Some sort of trial will then take place in the Senate, and at least now it seems all but certain that fewer than 67 senators will vote to convict.  Trump will grow more frantic, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to control the news cycle.  Will the process hurt Trump’s reelection chances?  I believe so, but Lord knows I am not a seer or even a pundit, so your guess is as good as mine.

Meanwhile, the Democratic nomination contest grinds on.  Biden’s decision to take PAC money suggests his campaign is on the ropes, regardless of the polls.  Bernie is back, Elizabeth continues her slow, steady rise, Tim Ryan has finally thrown in the towel and Tulsi Gabbard is apparently contemplating a third party run.  No doubt someone reading this blog will conclude that she is the true hope of real radicals, and will explain to us why Sanders and Warren are really tools of the ruling elite and are actually greater dangers than Trump, so that a protest vote for Gabbard risks nothing.  Ho hum.  I have seen this movie before.

Meanwhile the Yankees have for the first time in a century gone for an entire decade without making it to the World Series, so I can die happy.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY PEDAGOGY


I am home again after another tiring but rewarding trip to New York to teach at Columbia.  Next week I am carrying out a multi-media pedagogical experiment.  The reading is large chunks of Edwin Wilmsen’s brilliant ideological critique of the work of ethnographer Richard Lee and associates, and by extension of the entire field of Cultural Anthropology.  However, I shall not be lecturing.  Instead the students are instructed to watch on YouTube four of the ten lectures I posted on Ideological Critique – the four devoted to Wilmsen – and then to come into class with questions and comments.  This is the first time I have tried this.  We shall see whether it works.

Monday, October 21, 2019

JUST SO WE ARE CLEAR


Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria may cost him the presidency, but it is not an impeachable offense.  It is nowhere near as disastrous as the decision by Kennedy and Johnson to take over France’s colonial war in Vietnam, nor as disastrous as George W. Bush’s decision to initiate an offensive war against Iraq.  The Constitution clearly gives the president the right to make that sort of decision, so long as Congress cedes the warmaking power, which it did long ago.  The voters had opportunities to defeat Humphrey in the primaries, and later Bush in the general, and they [or at least the Supreme Court] chose not to.  On the other hand, Trump’s attempt to get Zelensky to meddle in a U. S. election clearly is an impeachable offence.

Nancy Pelosi was right that if we waited, Trump would impeach himself.  She could have added that he might very well convict himself in the Senate as well.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A GREAT WAY TO SPEND NINETY MINUTES

If you have Netflix, watch their latest creation, Laundromat, concerning the so-called Panama Papers.  Believe it or not, it stars Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, and Antonio Bandaras.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

MORNING WALK THOUGHTS


Well, I have finished reading the mid-term papers, so I thought I would say a few words about a subject much on the minds of candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, viz. universal health care.  As I walked this morning, I imagined myself engaged in a debate with an opponent of the idea.  [This was once I had successfully surmounted my Senior Moment and called to mind the name “Kareem Abdul Jabbar – never mind.]  Not having Google at my disposal, I could not fill in the statistics, but here is the structure of my argument.

I start with four propositions on which I hope there is universal assent [save for Evangelical Christians who believe in the Rapture and thus reject the first proposition]:

1.         Everyone dies.
2.         Other health related things being equal, it is better to live for a longer than for a shorter time.
3.         Other health related things being equal, it is better to be healthy than sick.
4.         Other health related things being equal, it is better for a country to spend less money than more on health.

Now some facts:

1.         The Germans, the French, the British, and the Americans all die.
2.         The Germans, the French, and the British live longer than Americans.
3.         While they are alive, the Germans, the French, and the British have fewer chronic illnesses than Americans.
4.         The Germans, the French, and the British spend much less per capita on health care than do Americans.
5.         The Germans, the French, and the British have universal health care systems.  The Americans do not.

Conclusion One, from facts 2-4:  The Germans, the French, and the British have better health care systems than do the Americans.
Conclusion Two, from Conclusion One and fact 5:  America should have universal health care.

Question:  Why does American health care cost so much more per capita than German, French, and British health care?  This is clearly a complex question requiring much more data than I have, but let me suggest five reasons:

1.         Americans pay much more for prescription drugs.
2.         The private American insurance system spends money on advertising.
3.         The private American insurance system pays exorbitant corporate salaries.
4.         The private American insurance system takes profits.
5.         American doctors earn much higher salaries than their German, French, and British counterparts.

How much of the difference in national health care costs is explained by these facts?  I do not know.

Clearly, moving from our current health care system to a national health care system would be extremely disruptive and very difficult, quite apart from the massive opposition that rich and powerful interests would mount.  But let me make one point among many that could be made, this one concerning employer based insurance.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, somewhat more than 156 million Americans have employer based health insurance, which is to say half the country.  Now, let us imagine a firm – United Whatever – with 10,000 employees that offers group health insurance as a fringe benefit of employment.  Let us suppose United Whatever pays Aetna $6000 per employee, or sixty million dollars a year, to Aetna, and suppose that $200 a month, or $2400 a year, is withheld from an employee's paychecks as his or her share of the cost.

The reality is that United Whatever is paying the entire cost.  Leaving aside tax consequences, which are complicated, it would not matter whether it paid the entire bill for health insurance and paid each employee $2400 a year less in wages, or raised each employee’s wage by $3600 a year and required the employee to pay the entire $6000 for the insurance.  The net effect would be the same.

Suppose the United States now shifted to universal health care with a saving of 20%, or $1,200 per United Whatever employee.  The only rational way to handle this would be to tax United Whatever sixty million dollars for the health insurance of its employees, less the 20% or 12 million dollars saved by shifting to universal health care.

That is where the money is going to come from to pay for universal health care.

Friday, October 18, 2019

I'M BAAACK


Once again, I find that the time I take away from this blog to travel to New York and teach coincides with developments so remarkable that before I can return to blogging the world has changed.  Now that Mick Mulvaney has issued an official, on camera, confession of guilt on behalf of his boss, President Trump, it remains only to draft the articles, listen to a few more rats scurrying down the ropes from the sinking ship, and present the articles for a vote to the full House.

What on earth is there to say about what has been happening?

Since I have no more information or insight than any of you, I will content myself with making some predictions, confident that most of them will prove incorrect.

1.  Trump will be impeached by the House, probably before Thanksgiving.  The House vote will be preceded by televised hearings during which a series of former and present Executive Branch officials will testify in vivid color.  This will cause the polls to shift against Trump, causing some Republicans to jump ship.  Nevertheless, no more than a handful of House Republicans will vote “aye.”  [Or is it “yea”?]

2.   The trial in the Senate will be accelerated, but this means held to two weeks or so, not to fifteen minutes as a humorously suggested a week or two ago.  Trump will be acquitted, but I confess I cannot now see whether any significant number of Republicans will defect and vote to convict.

3.    Biden will fade, Sanders will not surge, Harris and Buttigieg will languish, and Warren will win the nomination, gaining more Black votes as time goes on.

4.   Trump will not resign [I confess I am uncertain about this].  The campaign will rival those of the early 19th century in ugliness, and Trump will lose.  If the Democrats squeak through in Texas, which is possible, it will not be close in the Electoral College.  If they do not, it may be close.  Either way, Trump will rage, claim that the election has been stolen, and do everything he can to bring the entire nation down around his ears.  He will issue veiled or overt calls for revolution, and they will result in little or no actual domestic unrest.  He will actually vacate the White House, despite fears that he will resist.  He will also not resign after the election but before the Inauguration in order for Pence to issue a plenary pardon to him.  [This too is one I am unsure of.]

5.  In the longer term, I simply cannot figure out what the future holds for the Republican Party.

Now I must return to my real work, grading midterm papers.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

SUNDAY FIX


Some of you may, like me, have become so addicted to newsbreaks that you cannot get through a Sunday without a fix.  Here is today’s:

You will recall in the text message dump [last week’s news] one rather formal text message from Sondland to Taylor [EU Ambassador, Acting Ukraine Ambassador] in which, after Taylor texts that it is crazy to hold up aid until Zelensky agrees to investigate the Bidens, Sondland replies that there was no quid pro quo.  Trump trumpeted Sondland’s text as proof that the whole matter was a hoax.  Keen-eyed commentators noticed a 5 ½ hour gap between the two messages.

Now the Washington Post and the New York Times are reporting that when Sondland appears before several committees this week [and he will appear], he will testify that during that interim he called Trump and was told to say what he did, that he has no independent knowledge that it is true, that he can only testify that Trump told him to say it.

I believe the conventional response is that “the wheels are coming off the bus” and “the rats are deserting the sinking ship.”

Saturday, October 12, 2019

IDLE SPECULATION ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON


I have become accustomed to daily, even hourly, breaking news but it is the weekend, and for some reason Congress does not hold hearings on Saturday, so I thought I would try to get some perspective on the subject of impeachment by engaging in a thought experiment.

Suppose that some serious leftwing presidential candidate were to run for the nomination and win the presidency on a radical platform whose principal foreign policy plank was a rejection of the seventy year-long imperial project whose implementation has been the foundation of every president, Democratic and Republican, since Roosevelt.  There have been right-wing politicians like Rand Paul who have advanced something akin to such a rejection but the point of view has not, to my recollection, played a significant role in progressive leftwing electoral politics.  Certainly neither Sanders nor Warren has said anything like this.

Suppose this person was a serious, thoughtful, knowledgeable person who understood quite well how difficult the implementation of such a radical policy reorientation would be, how many solemn treaties would have to be abrogated, how many overseas military bases would have to be closed, how fundamentally the American defense establishment would have to be reconfigured and also, of course, reduced in size.

Suppose also that this person recognized that in the world as it is, the retreat of the United States from an international Imperial stance would open the way for China and other states to occupy the policy space abandoned.  The new president might, for example, believe that in the world as it is now economic power, properly deployed, is superior to military power.  [That seems to lie at the base of China’s current national policy, at least to some extent.]

What would be the consequences in this country were the new president openly, and after wide consultation, attempt to implement the dramatic policy reorientation on which he or she had run and been elected?

I think the answer is obvious.  There would be revulsion, charges of betrayal, accusations of treason, sober, serious principled opposition from the bureaucracy, the media, the corporate elites, and much of academia.  And very quickly, there would be calls for impeachment.

Needless to say, nothing remotely like this can be attributed to Trump.  This is not a thought experiment about him.  It is an effort to think hypothetically about the limits of policy change in modern American politics.  I think the policy reorientation I am talking about might in practice be impossible even for a President with a clear and sizable electoral mandate.

A NICE TAKEDOWN OF HUNTER BIDEN

by Hamilton Nolan here on The Guardian.

Friday, October 11, 2019

IS THAT THE GROUND SHIFTING UNDER ME OR IS IT JUST A PASSING DUMP TRUCK?

Once again I will observc that I have never seen politics shift this fast.  Asked yesterday whether Giuliani would be indicted, Trump said "I hope not" which is one small step from "He was with me for only a short time."  It is now a certainty that Trump will be impeached, and although McConnell has all but promised a fifteen minute Senate trial [hardly enough time for Chief Justice Roberts to hustle over from the Supreme Court to preside], I wonder how much more the winds will shift before the House actually takes its vote.

Rudy says the two shifty characters nabbed at the airport with one-way tickets are his clients.  I hope he kept receipts of their payments for legal counsel.  By the way, you may have missed the fact, dropped in the midst of yesterday's confusion, that there was a third passenger ticketed for that flight to Vienna:  Giuliani!

As you can tell, I am a trifle giddy.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

YUK YUK YUK


It is very difficult to think deeply and seriously about Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim while watching an impossibly small car drive into the center ring under the big tent out of which climb an endless stream of clowns in funny costumes with big noses and huge flapping shoes on their feet.

So two shady characters are picked up at Dulles as they attempt to flee the country, charged with various campaign finance violations and suspected of complicity in the Ukraine disaster and of course it turns out they were spotted yesterday at Trump’s Washington Hotel having lunch with Crazy Rudy.

Who wants ideological analysis?  What I need is a whoopee cushion with a buzzer that tickles your rear end when you sit on it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

ELIZABETH WARREN'S LATEST FIGHT

You will have noted Warren's claim that in the '70s pregnant women lost their jobs, a claim denied by the Right.  In 1968, my first wife lost her job in the Queens College English Department in New York because she had our first son, Patrick.  The stove-piping of Academia being what it is, I could not do anything about it since I was in Philosophy, so I did the next best thing, I got the APA to establish a Standing Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession.  [Jack Rawls declined to co-sign the letter to the APA.]

SOMETIMES I AM REMINDED OF THE FRAGILITY OF LIFE

Days after Bernie  suffers a heart attack, his forty-six year old daughter-in-law suddenly dies of cancer.  I am exhausted after one day of travel and teaching that pales in comparison to what he, and others, have been doing for months in pursuit of the Democratic Party nomination.  There is really nothing to say save that I hope he can survive these blows.  Today Bernie announced that he would be cutting back on the pace of his campaigning.

It is mean-spirited and beneath me to say that I hope Trump suffers comparable blows, but there it is.  Nobody ever accused me of being a nice guy.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

THE DEEP STATE


Now that I have completed at Columbia University my four week exposition of the thought of the greatest social theorist ever to live [a.k.a. Karl Marx] and Todd Gitlin is about to commence his wrestle with the second greatest social theorist ever to live [a.k.a Max Weber], I thought this would be an appropriate moment to say a few words about that bugaboo of the Far Right, THE DEEP STATE.

The deep state, according to Steve Bannon and his confrères in the Alt Right, is a malevolent collection of secret career government officials who, having wormed their way into the middle ranks of State, Justice, Treasury, and every other branch of the Federal Government, are now undermining Trump’s efforts to totally transform American domestic and foreign policy, thereby negating the will of the people.

Does this cadre of Civil Service boll weevils exist?

Of course it does!  As Max Weber taught us in his greatest work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, it is customarily called The Bureaucracy, and it is the universal structural feature of all modern societies, capitalist and [if there actually are any] socialist alike.  Every modern government is a bureaucracy.  Every modern army is a bureaucracy.  Every modern corporation, university and hospital is a bureaucracy.  The Roman Catholic Church is a bureaucracy [and has been for at least a millennium.]  The Boy Scouts are a bureaucracy, The Red Cross is a bureaucracy.   The Democratic and Republican Parties are bureaucracies. 

What we are witnessing today, newsbreak by newsbreak, is the revolt of the bureaucracy.  When the reformers I support win elections, they fume against the entrenched resistance of the bureaucracy, and entertain fantasies of digging it up, root and branch, so that the will of the people can be made into law.  But when evil men seize power and seek to destroy what remains of our fragile democracy, and dedicated Civil Servants step forward to bring them to account, I cry

            Thank God for the Deep State.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

LET US PRETEND I DID NOT SAY THIS

What in hell was Hunter Biden doing being paid $50,000 a month to sit on the board of a Ukrainian gas company?  

PASSING THE TIME


I assume that many of you are as mesmerized as I by the speed with which new information surfaces about Trump’s efforts to get foreign rulers to dig up dirt on his 2020 rivals.  There have been endless comparisons to Watergate, but I lived through Watergate, and for the most it was as riveting as the melting of a large pile of snow in the Spring.  This has more the character of a volcanic eruption.  It is hard for us bloggers to write about it because in the time it takes for me to tap out a comment on my keyboard new information will probably have surfaced on CNN or MSNBC.

Rather than try to tame a whirlwind, I thought I would pose two puzzles to which I would love solutions.  I am encouraged by the quality of the replies to my post on the vagaries of senior moments.

Puzzle 1:  Why do clouds develop in discrete layers, sometimes three deep and ranging from 20,000 feet down to 1000 feet?  Everyone who has taken an airplane has noticed this, but I have no idea at all why it happens.

Puzzle 2:  How does friction work?  For example, if I put on a T shirt, it slides smoothly over my back and settles properly on my torso.  But if I have just taken a shower and my back is still damp, it catches and bunches up and I must twist into contortions to grab the hem and try to pull it down.

Surely these are well understood phenomena.  Anybody have a clue?

Friday, October 4, 2019

MEANWHILE ...


I have been absent from this site for several days not only because of the effects of my weekly trip to New York but also because I have been transfixed by the rapid development of the impeachment process.  Tuesday evening, as I sat slumped in my seat at LaGuardia waiting for my flight, I saw on a TV screen the announcement that the State Department Inspector General had just delivered a cache of new materials to a Congressional committee.  Because my phone was about to die, I was forced to try to lip read the announcement by the CNN talking head.  What will happen next?  Lord knows.  Probably while I type these words with my two forefingers new revelations are being announced on the TV in the kitchen.  But the outcome is now certain.

Trump will be impeached by the House, probably before Thanksgiving and probably as well with virtually no Republican votes.  Then Mitch McConnell will take the Senate at breakneck speed through the Senate trial mandated in the Constitution.  I visualize the Senate trial as rather like a lovely scene from the old Danny Kaye movie, The Court Jester.  [I can still recall the famous phrase, “The chalice from the palace has the potion with the poison but the flagon with the dragon has the brew that is true.”]  At one point Kaye, the Court Jester, is challenged by a knight but he cannot fight because he is not a knight, so he is frog marched double time through the ordinarily leisurely knighting process in order to be eligible to take part in a duel.

Trump will be acquitted by the Senate.  That is a foregone conclusion.  The four or five Republican Senators up for election will have to make an impossible choice.  I suspect that whichever way they choose they will suffer in November 2020.

And then, everything will depend on the relative degree of eagerness to vote of the Democratic and Republican bases.  Right now, it looks good.

One final word, about Bernie.  I hope to God he is all right in the aftermath of his arterial procedure.  He and his wife will have to decide whether he can return to the crushing schedule and unreal effort of a full speed presidential campaign.