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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

ENNUI, AND THEN SOME


When I was young, the go to phrase to express boredom was, “That’s about as exciting as watching paint dry.”  Along about now, I would pay for a livecam shot of paint drying!

Monday, March 30, 2020

ROLLING MY TUB


Why do I blog when my country is threatened with the death of millions?  I can give no better answer than this passage from the Preface to Kierkegaard’s 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 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 all the rest, and rolled his tub lest he should be the only idler among so many industrious citizens. Such conduct is at any rate not sophistical, if Aristotle be right in describing sophistry as the art of making money. It is certainly not open to misunderstanding; it is quite inconceivable that Diogenes should have been hailed as the saviour and benefactor of the city."


Sunday, March 29, 2020

A DEADLY SERIOUS QUESTION


I want to ask a question to which I really do not know the answer.  It may sound on first hearing like a heartless question, but it is in fact exactly the opposite.  It is a question asked out of anxiety bordering on terror.  Here it is:

In 2018 there were about 2.8 million deaths in the United States from all causes, and I think the deaths in 2019 were comparable.  Obviously, many of the people who died were old people like me and everyone else who lives where I do.  Dr. Fauci has offered the informed guesstimate that between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans will die from COVID-19.  Does that mean that he expects the 2020 death figures to be 2.9 million or 3 million rather than 2.8 million, or are some of those expected to die from the disease people who, statistically speaking, could have been expected to die from other causes?

Second question.  By the time we are done with this disease, it is estimated by many experts that between 30% and 60% of Americans will contract it, which is to say between 100 million and 200 million people.  World-wide, the mortality rate for the disease seems to be 1% to 1.2%.  If that is right, then we could expect between one and two million Americans to die from COVID, not between one hundred and two hundred thousand.  Does that mean that 2020 will see 3.8 to 4.8 million American deaths rather than 2.8 million?

Does anybody know?

THE GOOD USE TO WHICH I AM PUTTING MY EXTRA TIME


Just in case anyone is under the impression that I am using this enforced seclusion to reconsider the lesser Greeks or finally finish reading Ὰ la recherche du temps perdu, let me just say that I have, on this computer, played a total of 6087 games of FreeCell.  I have a winning percentage of 97.4 and for some time I have been striving to raise it to 97.5, but a sacattering of losses has slowed my progress.

Now, back to my lecture for tomorrow on chapters XI-XIV of Capital.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

THE EFFECTS OF THE VIRUS


Some of you may recall that ten months ago, on May 3, 2019, I had a go at telling you what I had learned of Modern Monetary Theory from a book by L. Randall Wray.  I was rather taken by what I had read, although quite unfit to form a reliable judgment of the book.  The theory goes very much against the grain of establishment Economics, and I have seen Paul Krugman refer dismissively to it from time to time.

Yesterday, as I was listening to the reports of the unanimous Senate vote and almost unanimous House vote for a 2.2 trillion dollar stimulus, emergency, bail out, or whatever bill, it occurred to me that one of the unanticipated side effects of COVID-19 has been to make MMT mainstream. 

BIRD WATCHERS ARE ODD DUCKS


On my walk this morning, I saw a crow.  Nothing remarkable about that, I see crows all the time, sometimes a dozen all at once.  But it reminded me of the fact that crows hold absolutely no interest for bird watchers, who will go wild over an unremarkable finch or a confusing fall warbler [that is what the bird books call them, and there are dozens  of them, all virtually indistinguishable.]  I observed the same disdain for blue jays when I lived in Massachusetts [there don’t seem to be any blue jays down here in North Carolina.]

Now crows and blue jays are impressively large birds, and blue jays, at least, are strikingly colored.  So why the disdain?  Familiarity, one might think, but blue birds have lots of street cred among bird lovers, and at least where I live, they are quite common visitors to our window bird feeders.

If you want to see a beautiful bird, take a look at this:




I took this picture on a safari in the Okavango Delta of Botswana in 2014.  It is a lilac breasted roller, and at least in the Okavango they are quite common.  By the way, Botswana safaris are extremely expensive, even after you get to Botswana.  Susie and I could afford it because I was still making big bucks at UMass and my textbook was selling.  But if you are affluent and old and have a bucket list, put a Botswana safari on it.  It is the only tourist attraction I have ever experienced that exceeded the hype of the advertisements.

Friday, March 27, 2020

LFE IN THE TIME OF COVID

I am reminded of the old Chinese curse:  May you live in interesting times.  What are my three principal concerns today?

1.  Do I need to wash the Food Lion grapes with soap as well as water after antiseptically removing them from their plastic bags and carefully discarding the bags?

2.  Do I need to quarentine the medicines delivered to my door by the local pharmacy for 3 days or 4 before unpacking them?

3.. Which passages shall I read and comment on from chapters XI-XIII of CAPITAL when I meet my class on Monday via zoom,com using my newly acquired microphone headset?

This is not exactly like wandering down to the Agora to meet Glaucon and Adeimantus for a chat.

WHAT AMERICAN COMPANIES CAN DO IF CALLED ON BY A REAL WARTIME PRESIDENT

During World War II, the federal government mobilized America's industry to provide for the war effort.  One of the notable products of this effort were dubbed Liberty Ships.  These were large [by the standards of the day], fast, stripped down cargo vessals that carried war material to Europe and the Pacific.  In a dramatic show of patriotic spirit, one shipyard built a Liberty Ship from start to finish in slightly over four days.  Here is the story.

It would take that long today for the White House to draft a memo.

AN OBVIOUS FACT THAT I HAVE NOT SEEN REMARKED ON

Trump has refused, in response to the pandemic, to use the very great presidential powers that existing laws give him.  Why?  Well, thus far the COVD-19 "hot spots" have all been in heavily Democratic states that he has no chance of carrying in the election.  A second fact:  a number of governors have made requests for federal medical supplies; the only governor whose requests have been fully met is Republican DeSantis of Florida.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

I AM NOT SURE WHAT ELSE I CAN DO


Stir crazy from the forced isolation of my retirement community, depressed by the news, frustrated by my knowledge that I can do nothing about the turmoil tearing the world apart, I thought to distract myself and my readers with a trifle linking the gig economy to Marx’s Capital.  Did it amuse?  Did it distract?  Did it for a moment remind us of better times?  Not a bit of it.  Instead it elicited a series of comments that, I must honestly admit, made my heart sink just a little.

Oh well, no one ever accused me of being a minor league Mel Brooks.  I shall content myself with helping my fellow residents of Building 5 to combat the loneliness caused by the closing of the dining rooms, which has reduced us to eating alone the meals the management efficiently delivers to our doors.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A BRIEF RESPONSE TO ANONYMOUS


With regard to my exaggerated respect for Marx, who has, as you observe “been dead for almost 150 years,” you must remember that I am a philosopher.  We philosophers tend to think that although Plato has been dead long enough for us to form an opinion about him, Hobbes is scarcely cold in the ground after three centuries.  Marx?  A newcomer, almost a contemporary. 

Also, it does seem a trifle harsh to say “I think your time would be better spent pointing to contemporaries who have advanced the analysis and the argument” to someone who spent 9000 words reviewing Thomas Piketty’s important book.  Lordy, you probably think me tediously stuck in the mud for harboring a fondness for the original Star Trek.

By the way, neither I nor Marx have any objections to accumulations of capital.  It is private ownership of the capital collectively produced by generations of workers to which we object.  I am with you whole-heartedly on the 100% inheritance tax for estates above, say, the equivalent of a millennium of the median annual family income [which is to say, estates above fifty million or so.]

As for “anonymous,” if I were having dinner with someone, I would want to know my dinner companion’s name.  If I were playing a game of chess, I would want to know my opponent’s name.  If I were having sex, I would want to know my partner’s name.  Is it really outré to want to know with whom I am having a conversation?

WHINES OF A WANNABE

Now that the President of Columbia University and his wife and Prince Charles have tested positive, I am beginning to feel left out.

A REFLECTION ON THE WAY THINGS ARE


Capital is not a difficult book, at least not in the way that the Critique of Pure Reason, for example, is a difficult book.  The central thesis of the book can be stated in a simple declarative sentence of nine words: Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.  But although it is not a difficult book, it is a mysterious book because in it Marx undertakes a task of the very greatest difficulty that no one before – and I venture to say no one since – has fully comprehended let alone attempted.  Marx tries first to show the reader that capitalism is deeply ideologically mystified and he then attempts to demystify it by revealing both its exploitative foundation and the ways in which that exploitation is concealed by the ideological rationalizations of its professional apologists.  Both Marx’s greatest predecessor, David Ricardo, and his most brilliant successors, the neo-classical economists, conceived capitalism to be complex, but not mysterious, presenting puzzles requiring sophisticated solutions but not mysteries calling for unmasking.

The central ideological mystification of the apologists of capitalism is their representation of industrial workers as legally free producers of a commodity – their own labor – which they bring into the market as though it were cloth or bread or iron, to be exchanged in a free, uncoerced equal exchange for the commodities of other free producers.  The theoretical, dramatic, and literary pivot of the entire book is the concluding paragraph of Chapter VI, “The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power.”  It is worth quoting:

“This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.
On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.”

[This passage is, among other things, a brilliant inversion of the most famous philosophical metaphor of the distinction between Appearance and Reality, namely the Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic, but that is neither here nor there.]

In much of the remaining three-fourths of Volume One, Marx shows us in extraordinary detail the historical process, stretching over many centuries, by which ordinary men and women have been deprived of control over their means of production, their work processes, their tools, their laboring, their very bodies, until, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, they are trapped in a machine spitting out product and making profits for the capitalists.

Throughout this process, the professional Economists have persisted in propagating the mystified justification that the workers are free agents, small commodity producers no different save in the magnitude of their operations from the owners of mills or factories.  Marx makes it clear that there is no going back to an imaginary Merrie Olde England in which the workers were supposedly owners of small farms or workshops.  The only way forward is for the workers to unite, to form unions, to confront the factory owners as the political manifestation of the generalized Worker that the development of capitalism has created in the workplace.  As Marx says in the great Chapter X, The Working Day, “ in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.”

And so they did, by the tens of millions, in Europe and in America.  In a century of struggle, unions compelled capitalists to shorten the work day, raise wages, make work safer, even provide paid vacations, pensions, and family leave.  As the old bumper sticker said:  “Unions – they brought you the weekend.”  In this country, by the 1960s, a third or more of full time wage earners were members of unions. 

Capital fought unionization every step of the way, sometimes in the courts, sometimes in the streets with clubs and guns.  Embracing fully the ideological mystifications so brilliantly exposed by Marx, they described labor unions as “combinations in restraint of trade.”  If it was to be illegal for producers of sugar or automobiles or hand sanitizers to collaborate in restricting output in order to drive up prices above their natural competitively determined level, then it must be equally illegal for the producers of labor, the workers, to collaborate in withholding their product from the market to restrict supply and drive up the wage. 

Capital responded first with Right to Work laws, and then with outsourcing any stages in the production process that could be carried out in foreign low wage countries, and for a time this worked.  But as more and more manufacturing was transferred overseas, America shifted to a “post-industrial” service economy.  In response, Capital transferred more and more of its labor services to workers having no regular, permanent contractual relationship to the firm.  By switching to “independent contractors,” the firms were relieved of any obligation to provide pensions, health insurance, paid vacations, safe working conditions, or guaranteed employment.

Workers were forced to become independent “small businesses” offering their own labor as their “product.”  Isolated from fellow workers, they were unable to bargain collectively.  Benefits and protections won over a century of dangerous, painful struggle evaporated.    The exploited were unable to secure any limits to the number of days a week or the number of hours a day that they worked. What began as a merely theoretical ideological rationalization for the exploitation of workers in factories became an instantiation of that ideology in the daily lives of larger and larger segments of the working class.

The Gig Economy had arrived.



Tuesday, March 24, 2020

THE OLD WAYS ARE BEST


Well, I did it.  I zoomed my class yesterday.  I can’t say I like that format, although my students were very patient with me.  It just doesn’t seem right to be talking at a computer screen, looking at little box pictures of the students [or their names, if they choose to mute their video – there has got to be another word besides “mute” for that.]  I had trouble with the sound, and my students told me I needed to get a mike headset that plugs into my computer, so I ordered one from Amazon that will be here on Friday.  I will put it under a blanket in my study unopened, and by Monday morning any virus on it should be dead.

One rather nice consequence of this new format:  I find that in philosophy classes the men dominate the discussion and the women, especially undergraduate women, fade into the background, but when they are all little faces on my screen of equal size I can see the women clearly, and their reactions are often more lively than those of the men.

My retirement community has closed the exercise room until further notice so I can no longer do my 4x a week cardio.  I am back to my morning walk and this morning I had a long conversation with myself about the way in which the gig economy completes the ideological mystification of capitalism which Marx brilliantly anatomizes in the opening chapters of Capital.  I thought that later this afternoon, I would lay this out on my blog, in preparation for lecturing about it next Monday.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

DAILY LIFE


After a lifetime offering my opinions on virtually everything for money – which is to say, as a professor – I retired, and almost immediately started offering my opinions on virtually everything for free – which to say, I started a blog.  Now, after eleven years of blogging about politics, economics, ideology, and even literary criticism, I am confronted with something that actually affects my life directly, and dangerously.  I find that my impulse is not to offer my opinions about it, but rather to concentrate my energies, such as they are, on making as sure as I can that my wife and I are provided for, with laundry detergent, cat litter, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.  It is desperately important to me that my wife should have adequate supplies of her medications, that for as long as possible we keep the virus from our doors.  “Social distancing” does not begin to describe the isolation that is now our daily routine.  Fortunately, we live in a rural area, so we can venture out on drives into the country and even get out of the car for brief walks.

If I were forty again, or even sixty, I could view this as an interesting adventure, but at eighty-six, this is not how I would have chosen to spend one of the relatively few years I have left.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A LONG, VALUABLE MESSAGE FROM MY SON, PATRICK


Friends,

It’s been really wonderful to connect and reconnect with many of you over the last several days. I hope you are well and you are able to relax at least a little this weekend.

In this email, I would like to consider the wisdom of the current response in light of the terrible economic damage it will cause, characterize the nature and scope of that damage, and speculate on how things may proceed from here. There are three sections to this email:

  1. Why must we do this?
  2. What is happening economically and financially?
  3. How might the economic and financial consequences proceed from here?

Why must we do this?

The dramatic social distancing response of governments around the world will take a terrible toll on the economy, and the damage to the economy will take a terrible toll on people’s lives. We should therefore ask whether the medicine is worse than the cure. Why are we choosing to do this?

I think there are two reasons.

The first reason is that, politically, there is in reality no choice. China initially neglected the epidemic, and when it started to rage wildly the government responded with an even more aggressive social distancing campaign than we are doing. When Northern Italy saw the disease get out of control, it shut down the entire country. The example of Italy frightened most of the West into the posture of social distancing, but England initially thought it could go a different way, to “keep calm and carry on” and maintain a more normal economy. Yet within days the political will for that approach crumbled. What we have seen across cultures and political systems is that as the public realizes the danger, the government is compelled to respond as aggressively as possible. Had all the governments of the world developed better approaches in advance (like South Korea did, for example), there would have been more sophisticated tools available to choose from. But since social distancing is the only weapon of consequence available to us, it is the one we are forced to use.

This is not a satisfying answer, since it means we are taking extraordinarily radical action without a careful analysis of the consequences – it substitutes “must” for “ought”. But I also think it is simply true that from a realpolitik perspective, the choice is not “act or do not act,” but rather “act now or act later.” Given that reality, against an enemy that operates on exponential time, the only possible choice is to act now.

But I do think there is a second reason as well, and this reason – while it is not the real reason we are tumbling down this rabbit hole – is very plausibly the right reason. I had been forming these thoughts over the last day, and then I received an email from a good friend who is both generally wise and specifically knowledgeable in this area. He said it better than I could, so let me quote him:

COVID-19 will prove to be a positive shock for society because it is forcing us to learn how to adapt and respond to future pandemics.  COVID-19 is priming society's immune response so that we are better prepared and equipped for the next pandemic.  We have learned the importance of masks, respirators, social distancing, fast response, decisive quarantines -- and as a society, we have a mental map of how to respond. A pandemic was inevitable. It was only a matter of time. So thankfully, this pandemic is a good "first" pandemic in the modern era. COVID-19 is dangerous enough to warrant a mass response -- a full scale war, as you described it.  But this particular virus is, in the scheme of things, relatively benign.  Even if the impact is 10x the flu, one can easily image a much more dangerous pandemic -- higher death rates, more dangerous to children, harder to test.  COVID-19 is the best case in the terrible bucket of a terrible, global virus disaster.

The key idea is not just that COVID-19 is lethal enough to warrant an aggressive response, but also that only by responding aggressively can we adapt and learn to deal with future pandemics. It is of course impossible to prove the counterfactual: one could claim that if we kept the economy going and allowed this virus to rage, we would nevertheless still learn how to anticipate future pandemics. But I doubt that is true. I believe a posture of avoidance would reinforce avoidance in the future. Only by engaging fully with this menace will we truly learn. And we are going to learn some terrible lessons: not just about viruses, but also about the economic damage that social distancing can inflict and how to minimize and recover from that damage. Let’s hope we learn those lessons well.

What is happening economically and financially?

Those of you who work in finance and markets may find this next section blindingly obvious, so I hope you will bear with me. I think many people who are not similarly trained do not appreciate the full gravity of the situation.

We are in the process of a worldwide, dramatic deleveraging that may be even greater and more rapid than what happened in 2008 and 2009. It is this deleveraging that most threatens our economy.

Ask yourself this question: Who in their right mind right now would borrow money to buy a house, fund a business, finance capital expenditures, or do anything else in the current environment? Nobody but a very few exceptions, of course. So it is not just the laid off waitress or bartender who will be spending less money: it is just about everyone in the world. With less spending, there will be less income; with less income, there will be less spending, and so on.

One of the most important components of our modern economy is confidence in the future. You borrow money to buy a house because you are confident you will have enough income to pay the mortgage, and because you are confident the surrounding economy will be good enough to validate the price you are paying. A business borrows money to buy durable equipment because it is confident there will be enough demand in the future to justify the investment. By contrast, if you believe the immediate future looks dark, and if you have no idea when things will get better, you will hoard cash and postpone investment. In the span of less than a month, everyone around the world has dramatically downgraded their assessment of the future and is headed for the exit simultaneously. When combined with the present-day drop in demand from social distancing, this is shrinking the economy substantially.

Some companies have strong enough balance sheets that they can afford to take the long view and will endure, even if they spend less today. But a lot of companies are overleveraged – they made the bet that since the economy was good and no apparent threats loomed on the horizon, the chances of a dramatic drop was remote. But what once seemed remote is now here, and those overleveraged companies now lack the cash to make it on their own – and with everyone so justifiably pessimistic about the future, they are unlikely to find anyone willing to lend them the money they need. The failure of those overleveraged companies will result in more layoffs, more lost activity, and less confidence in the future.

Financial markets are pricing in this reality. And because the markets do not know when things will get better, prices need to fall farther than may otherwise be justified. Eventually, prices will go low enough that nobody will want to sell any more. You will not be able to buy Apple for a dollar. But there may still be some ways to go before prices reach their bottom, and everyone who looks at their investment holdings will discover they had less savings than they thought – which of course will not help anyone’s confidence.

How might the economic and financial consequences proceed from here?

This depends critically on the government.

In times like these, only the federal government can inspire the needed confidence. Uncle Sam isn’t going away: the government can send out as many dollars as people need and can make enough investments and commitments to restore confidence. And in this very special case – very unlike most recessions – the federal government could do wonders by explaining to people exactly when and how the virus will be sufficiently tamed to allow people to stop social distancing. But whether it will do so is another question.

It is certain that governments around the world will provide a huge amount of economic stimulus, including here in the US. But two things are much less certain:

  1. Will the stimulus be effectively designed?
  2. Will governments explain to citizens when and how the virus will be defeated?

The situation around policy design reminds me much of 2008. It is easy in hindsight to nitpick at the mistakes that were made then, but in the moment it was extraordinarily difficult to figure out how to deal with the situation. The good news is that the memory of 2008 is still fresh, and so everyone understands the need to go very, very big. But the bad news is that events are moving faster and the economic shock is greater. Also, while the leadership at the Federal Reserve is very capable, I’m not sure how true this is for the rest of Washington. We will have to see what the economic stimulus bill looks like. I very much hope it is effective.

Even more frustrating is the extraordinarily poor communication from the White House. Unfortunately, it is hard to talk about President Trump without triggering people’s partisan feelings; people either feel he is the enemy and leap to attack him, or they feel Democrats are the enemy and leap to defend him. And as full disclosure you should know that I do not like Mr. Trump. But I do believe it is objectively true that this is a moment in history where the communication skills of the President could make an enormous difference for good or ill, and at this moment unfortunately we find ourselves in the latter category.

What people need more than anything is to know what the plan is. How long will this last? Why are we taking these actions? What progress can we expect on what timescale? How will we know when we have made enough progress that we can return to work? A clear, credible, fact-based plan, relentlessly communicated, would make a world of difference. Yes, people would still hold off on future plans, but they would do so with a definite timeframe in mind, rather than an indefinite one. Plans and commitments could be preserved: workers could be furloughed rather than laid off, businesses could be paused rather than shuttered. And everyone could cooperate and comply more readily – not just out of fear, but out of understanding and patriotism. All of this hinges on the communication from our leadership. Great leaders excel at this; competent leaders try. And then there is Trump.

One of my best friends shared with me a theory that strikes me as highly plausible. He believes that the critical path to lifting social distancing is manufacturing ventilators. While a vaccine may be 18 months away and the time line for effective anti-viral drugs is uncertain, simply having sufficient ventilators to handle critical cases plus enough beds and trained attendants will save most lives who contract a critical case of COVID-19. And ventilators are not hard to produce: on the timescale of months, many can be produced from repurposed manufacturing plants. A little Googling turned up this story in Wired magazine that seems to me to support this theory: https://www.wired.com/story/ventilator-makers-race-to-prevent-a-possible-shortage/. If true, this is an example of a critically important thing for every single person to understand. Why is nobody telling us? But anyone who pays attention knows why, of course.

There is a wide range of possible paths forward for the economy. We may be facing a temporary, sharp slowdown with a sharp rebound, we may be facing a severe, drawn-out recession, or anywhere in between. No matter which path ultimately unfolds, we will certainly eventually recover. But the economic pain that results could be greatly multiplied, with deep implications for the lessons we learn, depending upon which path we follow.

Patrick

Friday, March 20, 2020

WHOOPS

Sorry.  That is a line, but it is not the last line.

MOVIE MEMORIES


Since I am recalling lovely cinematic moments, let me mention one of my favorite last lines.  At the end of Men in Black, after Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, and Linda Fiorentino have defeated the gigantic cockroach [played brilliantly by Vincent D’Onofrio], they head back to headquarters.  Jones mentions that Dennis Rodman is actually an alien from some star system or other.  Fiorentino has the last line, and it is a beauty.  She remarks as she gets into the car, “Not a very good disguise.”

ART IN A TIME OF CRISIS


Since I no longer cook, shop, or indeed leave Carolina Meadows at all, I find there are many more hours in the day.  Yesterday afternoon I watched a three part BBC rendering of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility on Netflix.  Some of you may have seen the great 1995 movie version of that novel starring Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood.  The movie is immortalized in my memory for one luminous moment almost at the very end – what is sometimes called a “recognition scene” – when Edward Ferrars reveals that it is his brother, not he, who has married Lucy, and that his heart is and always has been Elinor’s.  For the entire movie Elinor has kept her volcanic feelings under total control while she deals with the melodramatic but rather shallow romantic attachment of her sister Marianne to the unworthy Willoughby.  Now, the controls break and Thompson, as Elinor, sobs uncontrollably until she turns, her face in a radiant smile, and looks at the man she has loved virtually since they met.  It is an acting tour de force that lifts the film to the ranks of true art.

The BBC version is not bad, for all that it lacks Hugh Grant as Edward and the always splendid Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon.  But the actress who plays Elinor, although she does an entirely creditably job, simply cannot match Thompson’s brilliance.  The scene in question is staged almost identically in the BBC rendition, but while it satisfies, it does not electrify.

I am a great fan of such cinematic moments.  I am sure my readers have their favorites.  In these terrible times, as we wait to see how many of our fellow Americans will die of the virus, pure art can lift us and soothe us and excite us.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

LET'S ALL TAKE A DEEP BREATH

My last posts seem to have struck a nerve.  Let me suggest that everyone take a few minutes to read my paper, "The Future of Socialism," and then we will see whether we can have a quiet conversation about the ideas laid out in it.  Meanwhile, stay safe.  Things are going to get a great deal worse before they get  better.

A RESPONSE TO AN INTERESTING COMMENT


There were several interesting responses to my outrageous effort to evaluate Piketty’s new 1000 page book on the basis of a close reading of the first 8 pages.  One comment, by Asgeir, raises questions that have long interested me and on which I have written [in my essay, “The Future of Socialism”], so I thought I would respond while waiting to take a walk with my wife to combat our cabin fever.  Asgeir writes this [I am sorry – I searched the enormous Word database of special characters and could not find a capital A with an acute accent]:

“One question, Professor: If the political-ideological sphere is not autonomous, isn't it completely pointless to agitate for social change, especially socialism? How can one be a Marxist, if it is committed to the negation of Piketty's thesis, and think that political work is worth engaging in in the first place? If the "iron laws of history" are so rigid, how could we even try to abolish capitalism?

In a footnote in one of his papers "Why Marxism still does not need a normative theory", Brian Leiter seems accept the premise of my question and writes: "All the professed Marxist revolutionaries of the 20th-century—Lenin, Mao, Castro, others—clearly had no understanding of the explanatory theory, or every one of them would have instituted a free market economy in their agrarian and preindustrial societies. Why they were such incompetent readers of Marx is a topic for a different day."

Is that really plausible, that all these luminaries were such bad readers of Marx? And doesn't Leiter's point also apply to Marx himself—and most marxists, for that matter?”

There is a lot to unpack here.  Let me start by noting that there actually was a vigorous debate among the early Bolsheviks [i.e., the members of the majority in the Russian Social Democratic Party.  “Menshevik” means “member of the minority.”] about whether it was possible to go directly from Russia’s feudal economy to a socialist economy without first going through a capitalist phase.  This was called “skipping a stage.”  Those who said it was impossible were of course correct, but when you have just seized control of an enormous sprawling country at great personal risk and confront a foreign military effort to defeat you and put you to death, it seemed, how shall I put it, a trifle quaint to say:   “We have conquered Mother Russia.  Now we must scare up a few capitalists and turn things over to them for several generations before our grandchildren can return and take up the struggle for socialism.”  So the Bolsheviks did the only thing they could.  They instituted state capitalism and called it communism.

One of the more bizarre misreadings of Marx has it that he thought capitalism would turn into socialism behind our backs, as it were, regardless of what anyone did.  Marx was a social scientist.  He was not an Old Testament prophet, he was not a soothsayer, he was not a moralist, he was not, God help us, a neo-classical economist.  Did Marx think it was pointless to agitate for social change?  Of course not!  He thought such agitation was essential to bringing about social change.  But he also thought, quite correctly in my judgment, that irrespective of this agitation, capitalists were presented with choices and challenges that led them to make changes in the way they did business, changes that, unintended by them, prepared the way for new forms of capitalism and eventually for the possibility of socialism [not its “inevitability.”]

What sorts of changes?  Well, bringing carders and spinners and weavers out of their cottages and into factories [“manufactories,” i.e places where things are made by hand] to make woolen cloth; routinizing that work so that some people only carded and others only wove; substituting steam powered looms and spinning wheels for those operated by hand.  And so on and on.  In the early stages of the evolution of capitalism, the impersonal “higgling and jiggling of the market,” in Adam Smith’s wonderful phrase, was a better determinant of efficient pricing than any central plan could be, but by the middle of the 20th century the internalization within the firm of intermediate stages in production made it literally impossible to rely on market prices to determine corporate decisions, so a form of proto-planning had to be adopted within the firm.  The conditions of the new order were growing in the womb of the old.  [See my paper, “The Future of Socialism,” for a much more elaborate version of this sketch.]

Well, time for my walk.

Stay safe.



A QUESTION POSED ANXIOUSLY


I have a question, and inasmuch as I am 86 and my wife is 87, I do not ask merely out of idle curiosity.  Roughly 2.8 million people die in the US each year.  Obviously many of them are "people in their eighties with underlying conditions.”  A significant proportion of the people living in my retirement community are in their eighties with underlying conditions.  My wife is among them.  Another significant proportion are in their seventies or nineties with underlying conditions.

There is a great deal of rather terrifying talk about COVID 19 causing one million deaths in the United States, mostly among people "over seventy with underlying conditions."  Is that a prediction that the annual US death total during the Coronavirus epidemic will be 3.8 million rather than 2.8 million?  Or is it a prediction that some of those who would have died from other causes will die of the virus, while others who would not have died at all will die of the virus?  If it is the latter, what is the estimate of the additional deaths?

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

A VERY PRELIMINARY BOOK REPORT WHILE I WAIT FOR WHOLE FOODS DELIVERY


The new Piketty book, Capital and Ideology, landed on my desk today with a thud, all 1093 pages of it.  I have now plowed through the first eight pages and I am prepared to offer a preliminary opinion [no one ever accused me of being a scholar!]  It looks to me to be a sophisticated, massive, cross-cultural twenty-first century elaboration of the Historical Idealism through whose heart Marx spent his life trying to drive a stake.  To illustrate my reasons for this judgment, I am going to ignore the protests of my two forefingers and laboriously hunt and peck into this blog post a lengthy selection from pages 7-8, the outer limit of the portion of the book I have read thus far.  Bear with me.  This is going to take a while.

This comes from a subsection of the Introduction titled “Taking Ideology Seriously.”  [Piketty has already explained, way back on page 3, “I take ‘ideology’ in a positive and constructive sense to refer to a set of a priori plausible ideas and discourses describing how society should be structured.”]  Piketty writes:

“Inequality is neither economic nor technological: it is ideological and political.  This is no doubt the most striking conclusion to emerge from the historical approach I take in this book.  In other words, the market and competition, profits and wages, capital and debt, skilled and unskilled workers, natives and aliens, tax havens and competitiveness – none of these things exist as such.  All are social and historical constructs, which depend entirely on the legal, fiscal, educational, and political systems that people choose to adopt and the conceptual definitions they choose to work with.  These choices are shaped by each society’s conception of social justice and economic fairness and by the relative political and ideological power of competing groups and discourses.  Importantly, this relative power is not exclusively material; it is also intellectual and ideological.  In other words, ideas and ideologies count in history.  They enable us to imagine new worlds and different types of society.  Many paths are possible.”

Note well the use of the verb “to choose” in the middle sentence of this passage.

Then, after a de rigueur paragraph contra the conservatives, Piketty continues:  “Nevertheless, the approach taken in this book – based on ideologies, institutions, and the possibility of alternative pathways – also differs from approaches sometimes characterized as ‘Marxist,” according to which the state of the economic forces and relations of production determines a society’s ideological ‘superstructure’ in an almost mechanical fashion.  In contrast, I insist that the realm of ideas, the political-ideological sphere, is truly autonomous.”

After another bit adorned with the phrase “more or less mechanical” [my fingers are giving out], Piketty wraps up a long paragraph with the brave statement, “Clearly stating the alternatives may be more useful in transcending capitalism than simply threatening to destroy it without explaining what comes next.”

I am tempted merely to sigh and move on, but before I do, let me offer one observation [it remains to be seen how much further into the book I will manage to plod.]  I trust you all recall my 9000 word review of Piketty’s first book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a book I very much admired.  The central thesis of that book, which ran counter to the received wisdom in the academic Economics profession, was that the roughly 30 year period of reduced economic inequality following World War II was not the new normal of mature capitalism nor a consequence of the victory of a more enlightened ideology [in Piketty’s “positive and constructive” sense] but rather was a temporary anomaly caused by the destruction of physical and financial capital during the Great Depression and the War, an anomaly that was rapidly being replaced by ever-greater inequality in every advanced capitalist country regardless of its ideological and political “choices.”

I take Piketty’s new book to be a Giant Leap Backward.

Stay tuned.

AN EXCHANGE WITH ZIXUAN WU

Following is an email exchange I had earlier this morning.  The last line is the kicker.

Dear Prof. Wolff,

Greetings!  In one of your anecdotes in your online lectures you talked about a Polish professor who is a logician giving a lecture at Harvard in the 80s. That prof introduced a symbol that is like an upward arrow unifying AND OR NOT the three logical connectives. However with very hard work, weirdly, I still cannot find it on Google. What was that symbol! Was I out of my mind?

Thank you very much!

Best wishes,
Zixuan Wu

[He? then added]:  In fact I was out of my mind. I kept thinking of Tarski Stroke when in fact it is Sheffer’s Stroke. God bless. Wish you all the best and good tidings.

[I replied]  Indeed it is the Sheffer Stroke,  But my  anecdote was incorrect [and it was the 60s, not the 80s!!!  That is how old I am.]   It was not Alfred Tarski.  It was Alonzo Church.  My mistake. 

Nah prof. It was me who made the mistake because my brain is messed up at the time. You were right otherwise I could not get it right at all. Thank you Prof I love your videos great companions to reading Kant! 

Are you a student? here? 

Yes, I am! I go to a school west of UMass at Boston College. I watched yours on YouTube.   

I saw bc.edu and thought it might be Boston College. Stay safe!

Thanks, you too! Funny thing is I’m diagnosed positive for COVID thing and I’m hospitalized in China. Thanks anyways. Was watching your video today I guess it helped.

WILL WONDERS NEVER CEASE!


First they put out the hand sanitizer dispensers.  Then they cancelled all gatherings of more than twenty people.  Then they closed off the section of the Assisted Living facility reserved for the sickest residents, banning even husbands or wives save in what is delicately called an “end of life” situation.  Yesterday they closed two of the three entrances to the community so that they could closely monitor who comes in.  And yesterday evening they served the last meals in the three dining rooms.  Starting today, there will be four prepackaged alternatives for dinner, to be picked up and taken back to our apartments.  A notice went out that residents could request food and other supplies from the Office of Resident Services, which would place the orders online with Lowe’s Food and Walmart and deliver them to our doors.  We were strongly advised not to leave the community to shop ourselves at local stores.

Having my doubts about Lowe’s Foods, I went on line to see whether the local Whole Foods delivers.  Of course it does.  What is more, it recognized me when I navigated to the site and knows everything I have ever bought there!  It displayed tasty pictures of my favorite fruits, vegetables, and cheeses with a little clickable “buy it again” box underneath the picture.

Once again, I am the last person in the civilized world to know about this.

Monday, March 16, 2020

DESPERATION

In a desperate effort to/ fill the void of my life, I have ordered Piketty's new 1000+ page book from Amazon.  I have seen or heard two reviews that incline me to read it: a positive one from my sister and a negative one from Paul Krugman.  If I can push myself through it, I will report back from this self-imposed isolation.

TV REVIEW


No meals out at restaurants, no movies, no gatherings here at Carolina Meadows of more than twenty people, no NBA, no March Madness.  Beleaguered, bereft, marooned, house bound, I watched the debate last night, or at least the first hour.

The contest for the nomination is over.  Biden won the debate hands down.  He stood tall, he smiled, he radiated Oval Office confidence, he had plans, he expressed concern, he was what America yearns for in these dark days.  Bernie only had one thing going for him, and it was not nearly enough.  He told the truth, and Biden lied through his teeth.


Now I must do whatever I can to distance myself and my wife from the virus.  The data gathered worldwide thus far indicate that people in our risk group who contract the virus have a 15-20% probability of dying from it.  We shall have to postpone our trip to DisneyWorld.  

Sunday, March 15, 2020

I WAS BORN ON THIRD AND HAD THE WIT TO KNOW I HAD NOT HIT A TRIPLE


There is a great deal to talk about these days, but I want to begin by responding to the heartfelt comment that was posted anonymously at 6:17 a.m. today.  I urge you to read it.

I have long been painfully aware that I was, to put it as simply as possible, just plain lucky to have my academic career coincide with the glory days of American higher education.  I and the others who came along when I did had no difficulty getting good tenure track jobs, and then tenure, with good pay and low teaching loads.  This was not true for the generation that preceded us and it is not true now.  By the time I was a tenured professor, in the sixties and seventies, graduate students were getting tenure track jobs almost before they were ABD [“all but dissertation,” for those of you not in the trade.]  Publishers would pester us for book ideas and offer contracts on the basis of a title.

Academics who got their degrees in the pre-war generation often did not get tenure even when they could find jobs, and many of them were compelled to teach in high schools. In 1947, when I entered Forest Hills High School in Queens, NY, the chair of the Math department was Dr. Frank and the star Biology teacher was Dr. Brandwein.  Bad for them but great for us kids.

Two things made life cushy for those of us who came along in the ‘50s and ‘60s:  the explosion of public higher education after WW II, and the Cold War.  The first rapidly created new campuses and enlarged old ones, producing an insatiable demand for professors.  The second led the federal government to pump money into area studies, applied science programs, and those Social Science departments [Economics, Sociology, Political Science] that could contribute to the struggle against Godless Communism.  Little bits of this money slopped over even into Philosophy, Lit Crit, and other useless fields. 

Because there were so many more campuses, each with a library, publishers could not lose money on a scholarly title.  By the time the author had distributed copies to his or her extended family and the libraries had sent in their orders, the publishing house had recouped its costs.  If they were lucky enough to bag a star, like Herbert Marcuse or C. Wright Mills, they cleaned up.  Textbooks were money printing machines.

In those days, there was a universal military draft.  Men who were 1A were eligible until age 26.   If you were a full time student in good standing, you could get a deferment, and although technically that made you eligible until 35, the Army did not really want to deal with Buck Privates in their thirties, so if you made it past 26, you were home free.  Suddenly, a whole generation of young men found that they had an academic calling.

As the decades passed, things turned sour, though of course not for those of us who already had tenure.  Universities started replacing scholar-administrators with business leaders, and more and more they decided to “cover” classes with cheap, unbenefited labor.  Academic departments, which admitted many more degree candidates than they could possible place in tenure track entry level jobs, flooded the market, creating the academic equivalent of what Marx famously called the reserve army of the unemployed.  Some departments responsibly cut back on graduate admissions, but many [at Columbia, for example] continued to admit large classes of doctoral students because that guaranteed enrollments in professors’ graduate courses.

The person who wrote the anonymous comment gives us a vivid, painful picture of the current state of things in Academia.

I was lucky.  Not smart, not creative, not brilliant, not deserving, just lucky.




Saturday, March 14, 2020

GAFFES, SENIOR MOMENTS, AND JOE


When I was interviewed forty years ago for the deanship of Amherst College, I was asked what changes I would institute if I were Dean.  I said I would make public everyone’s salary, as was routinely done at UMass, where I was then teaching.  When I said that, the temperature in the room dropped ten degrees and I lost any chance at the deanship.

That was a gaffe.

This morning, as I planned today’s post during my morning walk, I could not recall the name of the great American soprano Kathleen Battle.

That was a senior moment.

When I wonder whether Joe Biden, almost certainly the Democratic candidate for the Presidency, has suffered sufficient cognitive decline not to be able to handle the campaign without disastrously imploding, I am not concerned about gaffes or senior moments. 

I live in a community of senior citizens, many of whom are mentally sharp but some of whom exhibit signs of cognitive decline.  This decline takes many forms.  Sometimes it is a loss of short term memory.  Sometimes it is becoming confused when trying to follow a series of instructions, such as a recipe or directions for finding a building.  Sometimes it is repeating stories one has already told [hem, hem, cough, cough], or conflating several stories confusedly, or being unable to complete a thought or a sentence.  And sometimes it is growing defensive or belligerent when challenged.

Biden has exhibited all of these in recent months.

I worry.

Friday, March 13, 2020

IMMORTALITY AWAITS

It seems there is in fact a way to record a Zoom class and upload it to the cloud for all eternity, so if I can figure out how to do it, I will record the final five meetings of my course at UNC and immortalize them, where they will reside with endless clips of Young Sheldon.

A DEEPLY PERSONAL POST


Shortly after Susie and I moved into this retirement community in July 2017, we were invited for wine and snacks to the apartment of the lady who lives just below us.  Frances [whose last name I will keep private] had also invited another couple whom she thought we ought to meet.  Frances is the grande dame of the entire community, the person who has lived here the longest.  She is a devout Episcopalian of progressive political leanings, the widow of a man who for many years was the Treasurer of the Episcopal Church of Boston.

Frances is now ninety-seven, a tiny, elegant woman, almost blind and almost deaf but fully alert, bright, cheerful, well-informed about everything that takes place here and in the larger world, and – honesty compels me to say – something of a bully about such things as where on the lobby Christmas tree each ornament should be placed during the annual decorating ceremony.

For many years, each morning at six a.m., Frances has gone to the section of our community’s health center where the sick and dying are cared for, to visit them, to cheer them, to attend to their needs.  Each Sunday, she worships at the church she attended as a girl, sitting in the same pew her family occupied a century ago.

Frances saw something in me that I did not see in myself and promoted me for the position of Precinct Representative of Building 5, offering me an opportunity in my old age for something akin to community service.

For some time, Frances has been wearied by her failing eyesight and hearing, by her weakening physical condition, and by the sheer effort of continuing her long life.  Characteristically unwilling to submit to a process she can no longer control, she consulted deeply with her sons and made plans.

This morning, dressed as though for a social event, pushing her three-wheeled walker before her, Frances went to the Health Center, there to end her life on her own terms.

I shall miss her more than I can say.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER DISASTER


There is so much to say, so little time for my two fat forefingers to type it on my keyboard, and my saying it has so little effect on the world.  At any rate, here are my reactions to the last 24 hours.

First, a triumph.  The techies at UNC Chapel Hill have patiently explained to me how to access and use zoom, and on Monday I shall give it a go.  How I wish my eleven year old granddaughter Athena were here.  She could lead me through it. 

All right, Bernie and Biden.  The race is over.  Biden will be the nominee.  Bernie did something that no other Democrat in my lifetime has done.  Almost single-handedly, while twice failing to secure the party nomination, he has transforming the policy orientation of the Democratic Party.  But not at all surprisingly, there has not been a majority of going-to-the-polls Democrats prepared to vote for him.  Now we must all choke back the bile, put a smile on our faces, and work our asses off to elect good ole incipient-senile Joe.  Living as I do in a community where one-tenth of the residents, more or less, die each year, I have no illusions about getting out of this world alive, but there have been good moments since I first got involved in politics in 1948.  I think there is a good chance that the election will be a Democratic blowout, and if we continue to work at the grassroots, as Obama did not, we could make progress.  Take heart.  Maybe Joe will pick a strong progressive woman as his Veep and then fail to make it through the first term.

And then there is the virus.  I shall have to cancel my monthly Precinct meeting because the CEO of this CCRC has cancelled all gatherings of more than 20 persons.  I enjoy those meetings; they give me an opportunity to do my impression of a Borscht Circuit tummler.  But we must all make sacrifices.  The immediate economic impact on America’s poorest workers is going to be horrendous, even if the House Democrats manage to force Trump to accept some of what they are proposing to ease the worst of it.  The federal structure of American politics is a boon now, as it allows Governors to do what Trump is incapable of doing.

There are bright spots.  The stock market is plummeting.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

IS THERE A PSYCHOANALYST IN THE HOUSE?


It is now a commonplace among the left-leaning Commentariat that Trump is a malignant narcissist, a pathological liar, a misogynist, a crook, an incipient fascist, and also, by some medical standards, morbidly obese.  All true, to be sure, but none of this quite captures what I find to be his most genuinely weird trait, a trait that, I am sure, has a place in an Encyclopedia of Psychopathology, if such exists.

I am referring to his repeated descriptions of himself as a genius, as knowing more about war than the generals, as knowing more about the coronavirus than the doctors, as having a brilliant intuitive understanding of whatever subject is raised in discussion.  This is not boasting, it is not resumé inflation, it is not braggadocio.  It is  crazy [to use a technical term.]  It would be pathetic or risible were it not so poisonous.

Has anyone come across a really good analysis of the phenomenon?


THE OLD PHILOSOPHER GOES HYPER-MODERN


I live in a Continuing Care Retirement Community just south of Chapel Hill, NC, a CCRC as it is now common to say.  When people ask me what it is like I say it is a collection of upper middle class old white people well looked after by working class black and brown people.  Pretty much all seven hundred residents are over seventy, many like myself are over eighty, and a considerable number are over ninety or even one hundred.  Most of us have “underlying medical conditions,” and many of us have “compromised immune systems” as well.  In short, we are a nightmare target for the coronavirus.

At the moment UNC Chapel Hill is on spring break, but we reconvene on Monday, and my course on Marx is due to meet at 1 pm on that day.  I have been stewing for days over the advisability of my spending two hours in a small seminar room with twenty young people who have just returned from God knows where.  I have been worried not only for myself but also for my wife and for all the other residents of this CCRC.  Today, I resolved my anxieties with a giant leap into the twenty-first century.

It seems UNC has something called Zoom, which I am apparently the last person on earth to hear of.  Tomorrow morning I will be tutored in its use, and starting Monday, until the end of the semester, I will teach my seminar from the desk chair where I am now sitting.  My students will be able to see me, and I believe I and the others will be able to see a student who asks a question or makes a comment.

If this works, I could teach a course at any college or university in the country!  Any takers?

Monday, March 9, 2020

I THINK I'VE DONE IT!

OK, go to the top of the page and tell me whether the new box link works.

THIS IS A TEST

Try this and see whether it gives you access to the archived materials.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

A PROBLEM

Suddenly, when I try to access my archive of essays using the box.net link at the top of this blog, I get the list but cannot bring up any of the essays.  Could someone try it and report whether this is true of others?  Thank you.

MUST READ

I have just read the technical article referenced by Michael Hobart in his comment very early this morning.  I strongly recommend it.  It is quite easy for a layperson like me to understand, and extremely helpful.  Here is the link.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

CAUSE FOR CONCERN

The accumulating evidence suggests a death rate of 1% or less for COVID-19, but some studies being done quickly show death rates of 30-40% for persons over 80, especially those with compromised immune systems.  I live in a Continuing Care Retirement Community.  Most of the 700 residents are over 80 or near to it.  And many of those here have compromised immune systems for one reason or another.  If the virus were to enter the community, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

LITERARY MUSINGS

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made …”  The Great Gatsby

This morning, I watched a bit of Joe Scarborough blustering and fulminating at Bernie surrogate Bill de Blasio about the positive things Sanders has to say about the Castro revolution in Cuba, and what came to mind was the passage above by F. Scott Fitzgerald from his most famous novel. 

I am old enough to remember the corrupt US-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista, with its intimate ties to the American mafia and its subordination of Cuba’s economy to US sugar interests.  When Fidel Castro and Che Guavara led a successful overthrow of the Batista regime, America’s response was first to plan a CIA-funded invasion of Cuba under Eisenhower and then to launch the disastrous abortive Bay of Pigs attack signed off on by Saint Jack in the first months of his presidency, two years before his 1963 martyrdom inspired a generation of cold war liberals. 

Having subordinated Cuba’s economy to that of America during the Batista reign, America now imposed a crushing embargo on the land “ninety miles off the American mainland,” forcing Castro to seek help from America’s cold war foe, the Soviet Union.  Despite the embargo, the Castro regime made great strides in building a diversified and independent Cuban economy, developing its medical sector so successfully that Cuban doctors actually traveled to other countries to bring medical assistance. 

Over time, the Castro regime became repressive and thoroughly undemocratic.  Indeed, one of the most famous political prison camps in the world is located on its territory.  Prisoners are held there for endless years without hope of trial or release.  It is called Guantanamo.

Having done its best to smash Cuba, America retreated back into its money or its vast carelessness or whatever it is that keeps Americans together, and let other people clean up the mess it had made. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

THE IDEOLOGICAL DISTORTIONS OF SENSE PERCEPTION

The current delegate score is not Biden 513 Sanders 481 as I said.  It is Biden 513 Sanders 461.  Next, I suppose, I shall think I am six feet tall.  

LOGIC, LOGIC


A propos the failure of the young to turn out for Bernie, during the twenty-five years that I was running my South African scholarship organization, I learned an important truth that I expressed in the form of what logicians like to call a “miserable tautology,” viz:  people who give money give money.  Certain groups are responsive to fund raising appeals almost regardless of the cause, and certain other groups are unresponsive even to appeals for causes one would have thought were close to their hearts. 

Old people vote.  Young people don’t.  If your candidate’s appeal is to old people, you are golden.  If your candidate’s appeal is to young people, you are screwed.  Biden appeals to old people.  Bernie appeals to young people.  Bernie said repeatedly that if he could bring hordes of young people to the polls he would win.  He was right.  But he couldn’t.  It wasn’t his fault.  Nobody can.

FOR THE DIE HARDS

There are still perhaps 450 delegates to be allocated from yesterday, and at the moment, according to this useful site, Biden has 513 and Bernie has 481, with a goodly number of California delegates not yet announced.  There is a good chance Bernie will exit the day with a small lead.  That does not alter the picture, I believe.  But still ...

THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY


It is too early to know the delegate count, but it is now clear that Biden will be the nominee.  Bernie performed remarkably well in the Latinx community, but failed to get any substantial portion of the Black vote.  Bloomberg will drop out at some point and throw a billion dollars behind Biden, who, you will recall, began his run by assuring a private meeting of Wall Street bankers that they would be all right and nothing would change.  I feel like Charlie Brown and the football.  Oscar Wilde famously observed, “Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.”  One could, without too much trouble, adjust this to my enthusiasm for Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 runs.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

DEPRESSED BROODING WHILE AWAITING THE VOTE RESULTS


I cannot now recall any time in my lifelong obsession with politics when the Democratic Party establishment has moved with as much speed, efficiency, and sheer naked urgency to crush a left-wing insurgency.  I think it is clear that Bernie cannot win 1991 delegates before the Convention, and regardless of his delegate plurality, he can never prevail at the Convention itself.  Note that behind the scenes Obama played a critical role in mobilizing the tsunami of Biden endorsements. My last gasp of hope is that Warren garners enough delegates to make up Bernie’s shortfall and cuts a deal for the vice-presidency, but that, I fear, is a wishful fantasy.

So it will be Biden [whom I declared to be toast only a few days ago, let us remember], and the campaign will be fought over the twitching corpse of his son, Hunter.