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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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, April 30, 2020

TWO THINGS


As readers of this blog know, I have two sons, of whom I am inordinately proud.  The younger is Tobias Barrington Wolff, who is now the Jefferson Barnes Fordham Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.  But he was not always thus.  Forty years ago, he was a tow headed little boy called Toby, who had a difficult time getting a word in edgewise at a dinner table with a father who was a professor of Philosophy, a mother who was a professor of Literature, and a big brother who was a chess prodigy.  When little Toby noted a lull in the conversation, he would, like as not, stick up a finger and say “two things …,” staking a claim to his share of air time.

On this slow Thursday afternoon, I find myself raising a finger and saying “two things,” to make a little room for myself before the comments flow in.

First thing, the future of higher education.  Todd Gitlin, with whom I have been co-teaching these past two years, tells me that Columbia will not even announce plans for the fall semester until July.  One plan being floated is to skip the fall semester entirely, push it to the spring, and use next summer for the spring semester.  Columbia is rich, of course, and although their six billion dollar new Manhattanville campus has caused a budget freeze for Arts and Sciences, they have lots of money to ride out the disruptions.  But a great many of America’s 4,600 college and university campuses are not so fortunate.  I have been especially worried about the fate of the historically black colleges and universities, the HBCUs as they are called, some of which might be forced to close if they lose as little as one semester of tuition.  Howard and Spelman will be just fine, but I am not at all sure of Bennett, where I spent a volunteer year seven or eight years ago.  After the Congress gets done pouring hundreds of billions into the bottomless pockets of the airlines, the cruise ship companies, and Trump’s hotels, I hope they can spare a few score millions for the HBCUs.

Second thing, a word of praise for some genuine political leadership.  Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today a program, starting next Wednesday, of daily sanitizing of the Greater New York City area’s subways and commuter rail system.  This will be done between one and five a.m., during which the subways and commuter trains will be closed.  Since many of the First Responders travel to or from work at that time, a system of free busses, limos, and ubers will be available to transport them.  Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appeared with Cuomo by zoom at today’s press briefing, observed that this would mean rousting the homeless men and women who ride the subways all night long to get indoors.  The city, he said, would us this opportunity to work with the homeless, to counsel them, to get them into city shelters, and perhaps in this way more effectively to address their needs.  I almost teared up as I listened to him.  It warmed by heart to see this sort of caring, thoughtful using of a terrible crisis in a generous fashion.

My old Afro-Am Department Chair [and later Bennett College President] Esther Terry would describe this in her down home North Carolina way as “making chicken salad out of chicken shit.”  It gave me a moment of hope for this often disappointing country.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

NEW ESSAY IN BOX

With the aid of Professor Jennifer Lamborn of the University of Wyoming Philosophy Department, I have just been able to upload to Box.net my old essay on the relation of Kant's CRITIQUE to his ethical theory, should anyone be interested.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

THE DREAMS OF MY YOUTH


In this blog post, I shall make an attempt to analyze and forecast one possible outcome of the current public health and economic crisis we are now confronted with in America.  This is not a prediction.  Rather, it is a sketch of a possible future for this country.  I think we are fast approaching a moment, an inflection point, quite unlike anything we have seen since the Great Depression ninety years ago.  I invite thoughtful responses.

Sitting here in North Carolina in comfortable quarantine, it is easy to lose track of time, so I need to remind myself that my current isolation is only five or six weeks old, but will almost certainly last through the summer, perhaps well into the fall or beyond.  Already, national unemployment has reached Great Depression levels, and the inevitable wave of business failures and foreclosures has scarcely begun.  I believe the short term political consequences are clear.  Trump will lose the Presidency, the Democrats will hold the House, and it is increasingly likely that the Democrats will take the Senate.  But that, welcome though it will be, is the least of it.

Because we are facing an economic crash brought on by a pandemic, not by financial malpractice or a war, we are experiencing a once in a lifetime thoroughgoing redefinition of our collective socio-economic reality.  This is nicely captured by the now ubiquitous phrase “essential workers.”  To be sure, the focus of our attention is quite properly on doctors, nurses, EMTs, and the like, all of whom are required to have college degrees of some sort and many of whom are well paid.  But suddenly, out of the shadows have emerged supermarket employees, food service deliverers, meatpacking workers, bus drivers, and a host of other low paid, overlooked men and women whose labor turns out to be, as it always has been, absolutely essential to the survival of high paid, college educated post-industrial professionals like me without whose services it turns out the society can actually get along quite well, at least in the near term, while we “shelter in place.”

I have previously observed, somewhat puckishly, that the crisis has abruptly transformed Modern Money Theory from a fringe heresy to unquestioned orthodoxy.  Many commentators have recognized that when it comes to combating a pandemic, universal health care is the rankest self-interest, not a nutty European idea made more or less kosher by the farthest left of candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.  But I believe we are actually witnessing something dramatically more way out than that, namely the crisis-driven beginnings of the de facto implementation of a guaranteed minimum income.  Not a minimum wage, that necessary product of the last great inflection, but a guaranteed minimum income, separate from employment.  How to pay for it?  The answer is a wealth tax, something unthinkable until now in the political mainstream.

More fundamental still is a rebirth of the idea of a union of the college educated, privileged one-third of the work force and the non-college educated two-thirds.  This virus may, at least in the near term, bring back the old now-discredited ideal of solidarity.  Is this possible?  I do not know.  Is it probable?  Perhaps not.  Could it happen without a titanic struggle?  Absolutely not.  But is it worth the struggle.

Oh yes.

Monday, April 27, 2020

VIOLATING THE HIPPOCRATIC OATH

"I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course."

This is a part of the Hippocratic Oath.  In my judgment, by sitting quietly while Trump floated the idea of injecting cleansing agents into COVID-19 patients, Deborah Birx violated this oath.  I think she should be stripped of her medical degree.

YOUTHFUL MEMORIES


In the summer of 1953, after graduating from college, I worked as a counselor at Camp Winamac in New Hampshire [I think].The oddest camper was a boy from New York who was a pathological liar.  He told huge, absurd, self-aggrandizing obviously false lies about himself and his family, a practice that made him a constant butt of ridicule from the other campers.  I had never encountered anyone like him, and his behavior puzzled me.  He clearly had nothing to gain from the lies; quite the contrary.  I could not tell whether he believed them, in any usable sense of the word “believed.”  There was no point to them, no consistency in them.  If we were going swimming, he would claim he had once swum the English Channel.  If parents’ weekend was approaching, he would say his father was the richest man in America.  If we arranged for some campers to go horseback riding at a nearby stable, he would say his parents had twenty horses on their estate, one of which had won the Kentucky Derby.

That was sixty-seven years ago, and I have never encountered another compulsive liar of that sort, at least not until now.  I wondered then, and I wonder now, what twisted, abortive, punitive, crippled childhood produces them.  At least that little boy did not grow up to be President of the United States.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A PREDICTION

Trump is an empty human being, obsessively, insatiably in need of confirmation, approval, sadistic relief from an inescapable inner conviction of his worthlessness.  He does not have purposes, strategies, or goals, just an immediate need for approval.  His political rallies provided relief until the pandemic forced their cancellation.  His daily briefings served as a substutute until [I hope I am using this phrase correctly] he jumped the shark with the inquiry about internal LYSOL cleansing.

I predict that very shortly Trump will become desperate for approval.  He will use the excuse of the May 1st "reopening" to schedule one or more rallies, and from those rallies will come COVID-19 hot spots.

CALLING ALL TECHIES


Nothing is ever easy in cyberworld.  It seems there is a way to livestream a lecture on YouTube and then post it there permanently, but I cannot figure out how to do that.  I need a YouTube account, which I apparently have, but then what do I do?  This does not allow for interaction, as zoom, does, so I am not sure I want to do it, but I would like to know how.

Anybody really know?  Can you explain it so that your grandfather can understand?

Saturday, April 25, 2020

PLANS


I am making progress, I think, on the technical plans for the zoom-to-YouTube Hume lectures.  I thought, when I start in a week or two, that 2 p.m. Eastern time on Saturdays would be good – a weekend for those who work, 11 am on the West Coast, middle evening in Europe.  This would of course be impossible for Charles Pigden, should he be interested.

If only a half dozen or a few more sign in, I can unmute everybody and take comments and questions as I go, but if, by some miraculous combination of terminal boredom and philosophical interest, thirty or forty folks show up, I would have to mute everyone until a question period at the end.

How does that sound?

THE OLD ORDER PASSETH


Yesterday, I received my copy of Harvard Magazine, the alumni publication Harvard puts out in its endless and very successful effort to raise money [if you manage to get in and show up for at least a week, you are ever after considered a member of the class, even if you promptly drop out – Harvard takes the long view of these matters.]  As has become my custom, I turned immediately to the obituaries at the back of the magazine, and there found two familiar names.

The first was “Stephen Joyce.”  Steve shared a triple in Eliot House with two friends, Paul and Sadri. [that is to say,  a suite with a living room, and bathroom, and three small bedrooms.]  Paul was Paul Matisse, the grandson of Henri Matisse.  Sadri was Saddrudin Aga Khan, grandson of the Aga Khan and nephew, if I have this right, of Rita Hayworth.  Steve was the grandson of James Joyce.  Three less serious students it would have been impossible to find.  I visited their room once [my close friend, Mike Jorrin, knew Steve.]  On Sadri’s desk was a photo of a New York chorus girl in a skimpy outfit.  It was signed, “To Sadri, with all my love, Bubbles.”  Steve was named Joyce’s literary executor, and he created an international scandal in the literary world by carrying out his grandfather’s testamentary instructions to destroy all of the great writer’s personal letters.  Literary scholars never forgave him.

The other name was “Robert Tracy.”  Bob was a big, bluff, good-humored Comparative Literature graduate student who wrote his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Harry Levin.  Levin was an officially Big Deal, but he was hard of hearing and did not pay much attention to his students.  Bob, as I recall, was writing on the performances of Chekhov in England and America.  When he had finished the first half, on the performances in England, he turned it in to Levin and then went to see him for comments and criticism.  As Bob told the story to all of us in the Winthrop House Senior Common Room, Levin had very little to say about what Bob had turned in, but several of his comments made Bob suspect that Levin had forgotten that the project was supposed to deal with England and America, so when Levin said that with a few emendations it was OK, Bob kept his mouth shut, ditched the American half, turned in what he had already written, and got his degree.  Bob spent his career at Berkeley, so I guess it didn’t hurt him any.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

PROGRESS REPORT

I am deep in email conversations with the UNC IT person about how to set up zoom sessions for the Hume lectures.  Stay tuned.  It is a little like her trying to explain to a prehistoric hunter gatherer how to use a wheel.  Sigh.  I wish I were fifty years younger.

AN INNOCENT AMUSEMENT

One of my most sophisticated friends, a medievalist who arranged for me to teach at Columbia, sent me this link to a brief YouTube upload that captures what we more refined, intellectual, culturally sophisticated observers of the passing scene think about the current crisis.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

IDLE HANDS ARE THE DEVIL'S WORKSHOP


I still have a set of papers coming in, but then I really will be at my leisure.  Two questions:  First, if I deliver a short series of zoom lectures on Hume, how many people can join?  Second, is there any way I can record them and upload them to YouTube?  I know that when the managers of Carolina Meadows, where I live, hold a Virtual Town Hall, as they do each week, 300 or more residents join.

Anybody?

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

INVITATION


In the lovely remake of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightly as Elizabeth Bennet and the always wonderful Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet, there is a moment at the very end of the movie, after Mr. Bennet has consented to the marriage of Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy, when Sutherland, seated alone in his study, says to no one in particular [roughly] “If there are any other suitors for my remaining daughters, send them in.  I am quite at my leisure.”

Yesterday I taught my last zoom class at UNC, so, like Donald Sutherland, I am quite at my leisure.  If anyone else in the world wants me to teach a course, send them in.


[Thanks to Carl for the spelling correction.]

Monday, April 20, 2020

SIMPLE PLEASURES

I just spent a delightful hour watching this lecture by Noam Chomsky delivered seven years ago.  This is not the political Noam, but rather what I think of as the real Chomsky, the linguist.  His mind is so clear, so sure, so elementary, so powerful, it was a great pleasure watching.  I recommend it.

MY DAY


Thank you all for your concern.  On this rainy Monday, when my morning walk has been canceled, let me spend a few minutes detailing the current circumspection of my life.  The Continuing Care Retirement Community in which Susie and I live has been on modified lockdown for four weeks now.  Two of the three entrances are closed, and the third is monitored.  The main building is closed, all meetings have been cancelled, and our dinners are delivered to our door.  We have been told not to leave the CCRC save for vital doctor’s appointments and the like, and if we do, we are supposed to self-quarantine for fourteen days.  Several residents who have been making repeated trips under false premises have been threatened with expulsion.  Visitors are allowed only to drop things off at a resident’s door.

I leave my apartment four times a day:  to take my early morning walk, to take a short later walk with Susie, to go downstairs to get my mail, and to take a bag of garbage to the chute at the end of my hall.  When deliveries arrive from Amazon, I quarantine them under a blanket – one day for paper and cardboard, three days for plastic.  Then I wash my hands.  Deliveries from the local supermarket are sanitized.  I bring in the NY TIMES from my door each morning, quarantine it for a day, wash my hands, and read yesterday’s paper.

Until now, I have not been sanitizing the dinners and other supplies from the central kitchen, but I shall now begin doing so.

I never see other people save on my walks, when I am wearing a mask and am a fair distance from them.

I teach via zoom [last class this afternoon], I spend endless hours on my computer, I write for this blog, follow the comments, and amuse myself imagining ever more baroque humiliations for Trump.

I suspect this will go on for at least two or three more months.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

IT WAS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME


While I was meditating in my deep philosophical fashion on the larger meaning of the current pandemic, news came that one of the staff here at Carolina Meadows had tested positive.  He last worked here on April 10th, and since has been furloughed [on full pay].  Ten of his fellows who worked in close proximity to him were furloughed on Friday.  He worked taking phoned dinner orders from residents and packing the bags with dinners that are delivered each early evening to our doors.  Has he infected other workers?  Residents?  Have I been successful in protecting my wife and myself?  Time will tell.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

DAY DREAMING


I have already voiced my belief that out of the present crisis there might emerge a dramatic progressive leap forward in American politics, like that which many of us recall nostalgically as Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Bored out of my skull on a lovely spring day in quarantine, and curious to see how that great transformation in our collective public life was launched, I Googled a bit and came up with the Platform of the Democratic Party adopted at the 1932 National Convention that nominated FDR.  It is an interesting document in many ways [one of which is the central position given to agricultural policy, a reminder of how fundamentally the American economy has changed in 88 years.]

At the very beginning of a long list of policies and proposals appear these sentences:

“We advocate an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than twenty-five per cent in the cost of the Federal Government. And we call upon the Democratic Party in the states to make a zealous effort to achieve a proportionate result.
We favor maintenance of the national credit by a federal budget annually balanced on the basis of accurate executive estimates within revenues, raised by a system of taxation levied on the principle of ability to pay.”

A 25% cut in government expenditures and a balanced budget.

I think perhaps we should not worry too much when Ole Joe issues a moving call for a Return to Normalcy [Warren G. Harding’s campaign slogan in 1920.]

Friday, April 17, 2020

BLISS WAS IT IN THAT TIME TO BE ALIVE


There have been quite understandable efforts to compare the current COVID crisis to the 2008 crash or to 9/11, but I suspect those comparisons are mistaken.  More and more, I am coming to believe that in its impact on the country and also on our politics, the proper comparison is to the Great Depression.  I think we can all agree that Joe Biden is no FDR.  So be it.  But I do not see how the Republican Party survives this governmental debacle.    I have already observed that the efforts to deal with the economic crisis have elevated MMT from a barely respectable fringe hobbyhorse to an operational necessity.  Universal health care is now taken for granted.  If Biden can fight off dementia long enough to be inaugurated [something Reagan did quite successfully], the stage is set for at least the possibility of a once in a century transformation of American politics.

It better come quickly.  I am not getting any younger.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME WOULD SMELL AS SWEET


Good lord, here I was worrying about whether one day in quarantine is long enough before taking the NYTIMES out of the kitchen cabinet to read it, and a debate has broken out about what to call me!  Well, I prefer to be addressed or referred to as “Professor,” just as doctors prefer to be addressed as “Doctor,” lawyers prefer to be addressed as “Counselor,” policemen and women prefer to be addressed as “Officer,” and trolley car conductors prefer to be addressed as “Conductor.”  But there is really more to it than that.

I am rather old-fashioned about terms of address, and I care as much about how I address others as I do about how others address me.  My primary care physician is Dr. Thomas Keyserling.  He is, I would guess, thirty years younger than I am.  But it would never cross my mind to address him as “Tom.”  I dislike the practice so often adopted by nurses and physician’s assistants of calling patients by their first names, regardless of their age.  First of all, I think it is disrespectful for a young person to address an old person he does not know by the first name.  I mean, the patient, if a women, is probably a mother, a grandmother, maybe a great grandmother.  What is more, she may be semi-naked, wearing one of those wretched backwards gowns.  And on top of that, she is probably apprehensive about some health problem, real or imagined.  A little respect wouldn’t hurt.  Oh, I know it is an American tradition, born of a rejection of European inherited titles and the associated tugging of the forelock.  But still.

Too casual an attitude toward titles also derives one of opportunities for deliberate acts of disrespect.  My favorite example comes from the spring of ’68 when a group of students occupied Columbia University’s administration building, Low Library.  Columbia’s president at the time was a pompous ass named Grayson Kirk.  The leader of the students was Mark Rudd, a young man not too deeply versed in revolutionary theory but pitch perfect when it came to generational conflict.  One day, he distributed an Open Letter to President Kirk.  It began, “Dear Grayson.”  The letter was reported to have driven Kirk bonkers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

GAME OVER


I can still remember in 1994, when South Africa’s black majority was finally able to vote, the seemingly endless lines of Black men and women waiting long hours to cast their vote.  I thought of that when I read of the Wisconsin upset yesterday.  I think Trump is finished, even against Biden.  People are deeply angry, and they will not be denied the chance to drive Trump from office.  This terrible pandemic has transformed the election into a referendum on Trump, and he is finished.

Monday, April 13, 2020

ADVICE FOR ANONYMOUS


Every now and again, this peaceful backwater of the great Blogosphere Ocean is momentarily roiled by an angry, abusive post, often directed not at me but at the small group of people who comment regularly.  I don’t enjoy such eruptions, but more than being troubled by them I am mystified by them. 

Google, in its beneficence, tells me how many page views this blog gets each day, as well as a good deal else that I find of interest.  A page view cannot be assumed to be a reading, of course.  This blog might simply be a waystation on a surfing mission.  Be that as it may, the number has for a long time settled between 1000 and 1500 a day.  If Brian Leiter links to this blog on his blog, the number spikes to 2000 or more and then falls away again rather quickly.  Lately, what with everyone staying home, the number has risen to between 1500 and 2000.  Anecdotal evidence from comments and personal emails suggests that the readership is scattered across the globe, but the overwhelming preponderance is in the United States [Chile makes a showing in Google’s table of geographical distribution, but I suspect that is simply multiple page views by S. Wallerstein.]

Now, this is all very satisfying to a retired professor whose classes tended to run to 20 or so each, but it cannot even be called peanuts in the world of online bloviating.  Major league news sites get millions of page views a day.  I am not a big frog in a small pond.  I am a spring peeper in a puddle.  

Why on earth do the authors of these abusive screeds care so deeply about what is said here?  We are, after all, just a handful of folks, predominantly but not exclusively on the left, chatting with one another.  As Callicles said scornfully of Socrates in the Gorgias, “whispering in a corner with a few lads” [and lasses, but not in ancient Greece].

Back in ’88, shortly after Susie and I married and built a house in the tiny town of Pelham just to the east of Amherst, we got ourselves elected as Jesse Jackson delegates to the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention.  We accomplished this impressive feat by loading up our car with two like-minded neighbors and defeating our opponents at the town party canvas 4 to 3.

My response to the abusive anonymati is simple:  Pick on someone our own size.

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT


There is something that has been eating away at me for a long time now, and I have decided on this stormy Monday morning, when I cannot go for my early walk, to get it off my chest.  It has nothing to do with COVID-19, or with Trump, or with Bernie and Biden.  It does not even have anything to do with the comment by Anonymous, about which more later.  It concerns something the estimable David Palmeter said. 

Two weeks ago I posted a brief comment about my struggle to raise my FreeCell win percentage to 97.5, and Palmeter remarked that his win percentage was 99.  But he uses the undo facility, and takes back moves when he loses, trying again until he wins.  Now, I freely admit that I do that in Spider Solitaire, although never beyond the point of a new deal of cards.  BUT I NEVER, EVER, DO AN UNDO IN FREECELL.  This is not the first time I have stated this.  I said it also on October 12, 2015, as I am sure you all recall.

There.  Now I feel better.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

A WORD ABOUT SAM BEER

I took Soc Sci 2 with Sam Beer my freshman year, and he was dynamite, with his shock of red hair and dramatic red mustache.  In the succeeding ten years, I never actually met Beer, but I did wax his floors once.  I got the job through the Harvard Student Employment Office, and while I worked [wax on, wax off, as Mr. Miaga would say], Mrs. Beer told me a wonderful story that opened my young eyes to the behind the scenes life of the Harvard faculty.  It seems that shortly after Beer joined the faculty, she gave a tea for the wives of the senior members of the department.  She brought out the good china and silver, and thought all was well, although after a while she sensed some tension in the assembled ladies.  Afterwards, one of the older wives took her aside and explained that she had seated the wife of an Associate Professor nearer the head of the table than the wife of a Full Professor.

Soc Sci 2 met in New Lecture Hall, which was then, and perhaps still is, one of Harvard's largest venues.  It was packed, with scarcely an empty seat.

A RAY OF HOPE ON EASTER SUNDAY


These are hard times, and we must take such comfort as we can find.  Yesterday I watched a segment on MSNBC in which Nicole Wallace interviewed Joe Biden by phone, she in her basement and he in his.  As a mental exercise, I stifled my dislike of Biden and tried to listen to him as I imagined most MSNBC viewers, and by extension most Americans, might hear him, and after a bit I realized that on the day before Easter, his homely, stumbling, aw shucks expression of faith was exactly what most Americans would want to hear.  Next fall, America will probably be experiencing a resurgence of the virus, and Trump, if he has not already come totally unglued, will be blustering and congratulating himself and repeating his absurd claim that he kept the virus away by banning Chinese from coming to the United States [never mind that since his ban, 40,000 people have come from China to America.]  I think Biden will have just the anodyne persona for that moment.

Then, if he can get through the oath of office without forgetting his lines, we can turn our attention to the real needs of the country.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

REFLECTIONS FROM A FUDDY DUDDY


I have now had several experiences with zoom teaching and as I have indicated, I do not like it.  But perhaps I am simply exhibiting my age and my ungetoverable mid-20th century limitations.  Are the zoom students missing something?  Inasmuch as I do not actually exchanged bodily fluids with any of my students, perhaps not. 

Well, I wondered, can I get some insight into the matter by reflecting on whether there is anything I myself would have lost by pursuing my own education online, had that been an option seventy years ago?  Assuming a reasonably smoothly functioning capability for questions and answers, what, if anything at all, did I gain by actually being in the same room with my professors?

A great deal, I concluded, but not in any ordinary informational sense.  From Harry Austryn Wolfson’s books and zoomed lectures, I could have learned some slight sliver of what he knew about the tradition of philosophical debates from Plato to Spinoza, including the great Arabic thinkers, but I would have missed something not found on the printed page or in my copious lecture notes.  In my memory, that missing element is captured in a moment from his Spinoza course in the spring of 1952.  Wolfson had decided to try a new-fangled mode of instruction he had heard his colleagues talking about – class discussion.   So he put a question to the class:  Was Spinoza an atheist?  As the graduate students pitched in, eager to distinguish themselves [we undergraduates sat silently], Wolfson grew visibly more distressed.  Finally, he called the discussion to a halt.  It seemed that when he asked such a question, he meant “What were contemporary 17th century Dutch opinions on the matter?” and when he realized that none of us had read any 17th century Dutch authors [in the original, needless to say] he decided we did not know enough to have a discussion, so he went back to lecturing.  It is an amusing story, but for me it was more.  It was a moment that taught me what it meant truly to be a scholar, and I have carried it with me for a lifetime.  That is why I always make it clear that I am not a scholar, whatever others may imagine.

Another memory from that same semester comes to mind.  I was taking Willard Van Orman Quine’s seminar on mathematical logic, in which we students were called on to make class presentations.  One evening, a graduate student launched into an exposition of his semester project, complete with several blackboards covered with symbols, and about twenty minutes into his spiel, he got hopelessly tangled up.  Something was wrong with what he had put on the board.  Quine let him struggle for several minutes and then interrupted, saying “All right, all right, just go on with it.”  As the hapless young man soldiered on, Quine sat sideways in his wooden armchair, his legs draped over one arm, seemingly listening intently.  Fifteen minutes later, he stopped the student, went to the board, and sorted out the logical confusion that had brought the exposition to a halt.  It was a spontaneous display of the quickness and power of Quine’s mind, and I have never forgotten it.  If I had merely read his elegant books and listened to his rather formal and stilted lectures, I never would have had that insight into his mind.

I would imagine every one of us has his or her own memories of this sort.  Sometimes, the old ways really are best.


Friday, April 10, 2020

MUSING IDLY


Sitting in my study in virtual quarantine on a lovely, cool spring afternoon, musing on what I might write about for my blog, my thoughts turned, as they often do, to the beautiful Preface to Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments, more particularly to this passage:

“But if anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine.”

It is strange to host a blog, a site where one is expected to post not news or scholarly analysis or even poetry but one’s opinion.  It is rather like being an influencer in the online marketplace of ideas.  Since one has nothing to offer but frissonerie, if I may coin a word, there is an almost irresistible temptation to reach for the outré, the daring, the apocalyptic. 

I genuinely have no idea what the next six months will bring.  To be honest, my energies are almost entirely devoted to ensuring that the 1600 square feet to which my usable world has shrunk is safe for Susie and myself. 

On Monday I shall conduct the next to last online meeting of my UNC course on Marx.  The reading for the class is my essay, “The Future of Socialism.”  No one can deny that I am an optimist, a Tigger in a world of Eeyores.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

A CHEESEPARER'S RESPONSE TO A CHEESEMONGER


Dominic Coyte writes this from London:

“Dear Mr Wolff,
I am currently enjoying similar house arrest in London. I am a cheesemonger by trade, but like you enjoy reading Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant (although, the net enjoyment is likely neutral). I find the critical enterprise of Kant inspiring. I find the transformational thrust of Marx equally so and, according to the weakness of a philosophical bent, feel inclined to merge them both in a view of the world that harmonize my prejudices.  Freedom seems the key. Rightly or wrongly, I am pursuing the Labour Theory of Value to yield the common arch stone. This I will continue because it interests me. However, this morning I heard Joseph Stiglitz on the radio talking of the financial impact of Covid-19. Contrary to how I had been thinking about the aftermath of the pandemic - what to do with the debt - he presented this crisis as a historic catalyst to reforge economies and propel the new Green Deal. Many thoughts spring to mind on the back of this, but I wondered what you thought about this?
Hope you are well. I'm just off to make myself a cheese sandwich.
Regards
Dominic Coyte”

First, let me say that although I am comfortably ensconced in my Retirement Community quarantine, the one thing I have been unable to obtain is edible cheese.  Would that zoom could be enhanced to provide assistance!

I am delighted to learn that Stiglitz, the best of the American Nobel economists, sees this hope.  I agree completely that this health and economic disaster creates the possibility for dramatic positive changes in America’s plutocratic society.  Lord knows, Biden is about the worst possible Democratic nominee to fight for, or indeed even desire, such changes, which, in addition, would take a Democratic House and Senate and a Senate Majority Leader willing to abrogate the filibuster.  Nevertheless, coming out of this disaster America is going to be in really bad shape, and conceivably the pressure may be irresistible.

As I sit here struggling to keep my wife and myself safe, all the while preparing for a zoom-facilitated visit this evening to a University of Wyoming class studying the Critique, it is comforting to imagine that some good may come of it all.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

GENUINE SADNESS

I have just this minute finished watching Bernie's concession speech.  It was, I thought, the best speech I have heard him give.  Lord, let him be right that he, and we who supported him, have won the ideological battle.  Now we must support Joe Biden, who, on the best day of his long career, could not have given such a speech.  Sitting here in a comfortable version of house arrest, which will continue for at least two more months, I have made a personal pledge to myself to do whatever I can to advance the vision Bernie articulated.  

My first great political disappointment came fify-nine years ago, the day after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.  There have been so many since that I have lost count.  One of these days, I am going to win one.  

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A RAY OF LIGHT

In these dark times, when the world as we know it is fast falling apart, it is reassuring to find one small evidence that the old, familiar ways endure, offering us something, however slight, to hold on to.  It is for that reason that I greeted with deep gratitude this news that Trump has a small stake in the French company that makes the Malaria drug he has been touting as a miracle cure for COVID-19.  

Monday, April 6, 2020

KEPT WAKE BY NUMBERS


Another troubled night, this time agitated by arithmetic.  Yesterday evening, I heard Wolf Blitzer say that exactly one month ago [i.e. March 5th] there were 11 confirmed COVID deaths in the U. S. and now [last night] there are 9600.  Since a logarithmic graph of this increase, as I found it with a little Googling, is essentially a straight line, it follows that the number of deaths is doubling every 3+ days.  [That is, in one month it doubles between 9 and 10 times, or goes up more or less by a factor of 900.  9600 is roughly 900 x 11.]  If we are two weeks from the peak, that means total deaths to that point will go up by a factor of 16 [ = 2 x 2 x 2 x 2] to ~150,000.

Now, in the bell-shaped curve with which we have all become familiar, the x axis measures days, the y axis measures numbers of deaths on that day, and total deaths are represented by the area under the curve from the origin to that point.

Which means that if the curve really has the shape portrayed, total deaths when the pandemic has died down will be TWICE the total at the peak, or, in our estimation, 300,000.  And that is just over the period March-May!  By comparison,  2.8 million Americans die each year from all causes.  That is about 700,000 in the March-May timespan.

I am not sure we have yet comprehended the social impact of COVID deaths on that scale in that compressed time frame. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

SPECULATIONS


What follows, let me emphasize, are speculations, not predictions.  All of these speculations are optimistic.  At a time when thousands are dying and perhaps hundreds of thousands will follow them to the grave [or to the freezer truck], it is no effort to forecast the worst.  Consider these not even speculations, but rather a call to action. 

In most great natural calamities, some species of animals and plants perish.  One thinks of the Permian-Triassic Extinction, in which 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species disappeared.  The COVID event is not in that league, but it may claim one hardy species of faux raptor, the Great Republican Deficit Hawk.  After the fourth, fifth, and sixth multi-trillion dollar “stimulus” packages are passed unanimously by the Senate and signed into law, the once-feared deficit hawk may have retreated to a protected sanctuary in the Cato Institute, only to reappear on ritual occasions to preen, fluff its feathers, and utter its distinctive “cuuuut, cuuuut” cry.

As the Deficit Hawk dies out, small timid MMT theorists may emerge from their safe havens in second tier university Economics Departments and, as often happens during such upheavals, evolve into fearsome saber toothed Ivy League professors.  The genera, sub-genera, families, species, and sub-species of Marxists, who have survived by identifying and cultivating less hostile backwaters in State universities, will in all likelihood not benefit from the COVID extinction.  Since they prey mostly on one another they are ill-suited to take advantage of openings in the intellectual ecosystem.

Which brings me to health care, or, as the virus is revealing, the lack of health care.  If I may continue the evolutionary metaphor, the development of the American health care unsystem is a classic example of the speciation that Darwin discovered on his famous sea voyage.  Separated from the rest of the world by two large oceans, America has developed a completely distinctive, utterly inefficient, but on the other hand exorbitantly expensive way of caring for its citizens’ health care needs.  The struggle to rectify this disaster has consumed the energies of Democrats for a large part of the seventy years.  Improvements have been achieved, to be sure, by means of a mode of evolution that the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Goud called Punctuated Equilibrium.  That is to say, long periods of stasis interrupted by brief bursts of change.  It looks to me as though we may emerge from the COVID extinction with an overwhelming consensus in support of rapid fundamental change.  Joe Biden, who is probably ideally situated to benefit politically from what will come to be called the Trump Die Off, is perhaps the worst Democrat in America to lead such a period of change, but as he seems not to have any identifiable convictions, he can be counted on to sign whatever a Democratic Congress puts before him.

I shall now put behind me the biological metaphor, which has outlived its usefulness.  Quite the most interesting political development of the past month is the shift taking place before our eyes in the relative power, status, and energy of the federal government and the state governments.  In the past 90 years, the powers of the presidency have been so enlarged and those of state governors so diminished that it would have been a brave prognosticator who would have suggested as recently as February that the Office of the Presidency would be reduced to a clown car sideshow while a governor would become the voice of the people and the hope of the nation.  Only a President as uniquely ungifted as Trump could have accomplished such a reversal.  Whether it will in any form survive the present crisis is difficult to say.  Surely it is unlikely, but perhaps it is not impossible.

Finally, what does this all mean for the election?  In closing, I will make an actual prediction.  Things will look worse and worse for Trump in April, May, June, and even early July.  By deep summer, the virus will have receded, people will be going back to work, Trump will claim victory, and those of us on the left will despair.  Then, as fall follows summer and the election looms, the virus will return, just in time to crush Trump’s chances for reelection. 

A BRIEF INTERLUDE


After yet another night troubled by dreams of COVID-19, I will later today take a crack at forecasting the large changes I foresee as possible outcomes of the virus, but first, I should like to share with you a lovely moment from last evening.  It may lift your spirits.  A word of background explanation is necessary.

I have a stuffed bear, who sleeps with me and even on one occasion accompanied me to New York for my Columbia class.  He is a pretty standard Winnie the Pooh bear, complete with little red coat.  His name is Howard.  Howard is named after a famous movie star, Jonah’s bear in the almost forty year old romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.  The movie is, among other things, a cinematic homage to the great old Cary Grant Deborah Kerr tearjerker An Affair to Remember.  It ends, appropriately, on the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building, where Jonah has gone in hopes of finding Meg Ryan.  After he leaves, Ryan finds Jonah’s forgotten backpack with his bear in it, and in the romantic conclusion to the movie, she returns it and asks Jonah the bear’s name.  “This is Howard,” he says, and the three go off together to what the Director, Nora Ephron, makes clear will be a happily ever after.

Yesterday evening, having watched as much news commentary as I could stomach, I lay in bed surfing the web, looking for anything to distract me.  Somewhere in the clutch of movie channels provided by my Spectrum subscription, I stumbled on the last 40 minutes of Sleepless in Seattle.  I watched it happily with Howard perched on my chest.  Howard was overjoyed, or at least as overjoyed as a stuffed bear can be.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

RUMBLINGS


More and more strongly I am coming to suspect that America will emerge from this medical crisis changed in significant ways.  Perhaps better, perhaps worse, but changed.  Changed economically, changed politically, changed socially.  I was born in the fourth year of the Great Depression and grew up as a boy during the Second World War.  Those two events changed America fundamentally.  I do not yet have anything like a coherent analysis or set of expectations, simply a suspicion.  This is different, different from the Oil Shock, different from the Great Recession, different even from the Viet Nam War.

PRIVACY


Several of the comments on this blog have made it clear that I really, really rub some people the wrong way.  I must say I am rather reassured by that.  As a young man, I was, shall we say, a trifle provocative at times, and though I know I have mellowed, I am pleased to discover that I still have the ability to drive some people nuts, even as I am smiling and seeming to be just a regular nice guy.

Let me say a few words about an issue raised in the minds of several commentators by my naïve enthusiasm for zoom.  Some people have what strikes me as an odd ambivalence about the privacy of their communications.  On the one hand, they think nothing of communicating with one another by the use of their cellphones, which are essentially spiffy modern versions of the shortwave radios used by ham radio enthusiasts a century ago.  On the other hand, they are shocked, shocked [if I may steal a phrase from Casablanca] to learn that the world is listening in.  If you want privacy, or something pretty close to it, try snail mail, for heaven’s sake.   When you communicate with the functional equivalent of a megaphone, it is a bit odd to get upset that folks can hear you.

For most of the two hundred thousand years or so of the human race, people had no more privacy than a pride of lions or a gaggle of geese.  For almost all of recorded history, which is to say for the last six thousand years, give or take, most people lived in villages or nomadic tribes small enough so that everyone knew everyone, and knew everyone’s business besides.  In such a setting, you knew who was being born and who was dying, who was courting, who was planting, who was tending sheep, who was shooing horses, who was good with a sword, who could play the lute, and who baked really good pies.  You also knew as soon as a stranger came to town.  One of the distinctively unusual features of the eighteenth and nineteenth century frontier in America was the possibility of starting afresh, taking a new name, leaving old connections behind.

The big anonymous cities that we all now take for granted were anomalies, but today they are the norm.  During the seven years that I taught at Columbia, I lived at 415 W. 115th street, apartment 51.  There were 24 apartments in the building, and in those seven years I only met the occupant of one other apartment – Bob Belknap, who lived in apartment 52 and taught Russian Lit at Columbia.  One day I tried to explain to him my excitement about Kenneth Arrow’s General Possibility Theorem, which showed that there was no majority-rule type decision procedure that avoided possible contradictions.   He looked at me uncomprehendingly and said, “But life is full of contradictions.”  I guess reading too much Dostoyevsky will do that to you.



Friday, April 3, 2020

THERE IS SOMETHING GOOD ABOUT ZOOM

Next Thursday I shall spend an hour visiting a class on the Critique being taught by a professor at the University of Wyoming.  Not bad.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

WHO KNEW?

I do a little armchair speculating and in comes not a breath but a hurricane of fresh air from the real world.  I received this today from a reader of this blog.  It is self-explanatory.  I feel like an MSNBC commentator on the pandemic who just interviewed Dr. Fauci.  I think the revolution is going to take a bit longer than I had hoped.

                                                                       Guest Post


Back in 2015—a few years after Prof. Wolff commented on a chapter of my dissertation thanks to a comment I left on this very blog—I got a job as a program director for a group of credit-bearing programs in the continuing education division of a large public university. (Mine was a smallish unit in a very large continuing education division.) My role was to plan and staff around 200 open-enrollment courses per year, taught by ~120 adjunct instructors, across the humanities and social sciences. My unit had around 4,000 enrollments per year. The divison's mandate is to be self-supporting: it receives no state funding for any of its offerings (and reimburses the main university for any expenses used, e.g. classroom space).

I'm going to keep names out of this post so that google results don't come back to haunt me in some way down the line, but all the numbers below are actual numbers, from a 2017 planning spreadsheet.

I went from the armchair to monitoring enrollments, managing budgets, and making really, really painful decisions to cancel courses due to low enrollment. I left after 3 years, and while I'm happy to have learned a lot from the experience, I'm also happy not to have to cancel people's classes (and income) for low enrollment any more.

We were not the leanest possible higher ed organization that could exist in the actual world, but we were pretty darn lean. Keeping that in mind, you might find it interesting to hear some of the actual numbers that went into making what we called "go/no-go" decisions at the individual section level.

Consider one individual course. Make it a social science course where we can expect better enrollments, which gives us a little more breathing room to pay the instructor more (which we'll have to, if we want to get an economist to expend their valuable labor teaching a continuing ed course).

Predict total enrollment of 15 students. Tuition (in 2017) was $698 for the course. (We really did try to keep our fees low and accessible.) You'll gross $10,740 in tuition.

Let's pay the instructor, say, $3528 for the course. That's on the low end of market value for a quarter-length course, but we'll probably be able to staff the course.

There's your direct expense. Now comes the overhead:

* You'll need to allocate $1,960 for departmental staffing overhead. This pays for the salaries and fringe benefits for myself (the program director) and 1.5 department administrators (one full time, one splitting half their time between this and another program). Those administrators onboard instructors into the payroll system and the online learning management system; answer student inquiries about our courses and do advising on, e.g., where our courses are accepted for transfer credit (which is the reason many students take our courses); and complete many other clerical tasks (which are unevenly distributed among courses and instructors: some instructors are very, shall we say, high maintenance, while others are basically totally independent). That also includes a fraction of the salary for a 'business services' finance person who has a much larger portfolio and processes financial transactions—an accountant, basically (moneybags the continuing education nonprofit administrator must be so lucky!). THE KICKER with these costs: all these people are on payroll regardless, so if enrollments start to decline (as they did when I was there: the decline in humanities enrollments hit us like it did everyone else) and you offer fewer courses, the expense allocated to each individual course goes up rather quickly.

* $3,692 for an "Administrative and Institutional" allocation: this pays for the general institution-wide expenses: electricity, lights, furniture, repainting once in a while, etc. Also the dean's office, HR, the registrar, a student record database system (which is not cheap!) to make sure you can get students accurate transcripts, and many other things. For a time when I was there, the institution was also trying to sock away enough money to pay for our office building to be retrofitted to be seismically sound. Also, in general, as a nonprofit you want to have around 6–12 months of expenses in reserves so that a downturn won't force you to close overnight. All that saving-for-a-rainy-day-and-maybe-not-to-die-in-an-earthquake funding comes out of this bucket.

* A marketing assessment of $1466: this can seem fairly high but is absolutely essential if you're doing course-by-course open enrollment as we did. I don't care how wonderful your course is, if you don't market it, too few people will enroll and you'll have to cancel. This covers creating a course catalog and an institutional website as well as some course-by-course marketing through e-mails, social media ads, etc.

* A classroom assessment of $1,047, which, at the time, weirdly, was socialized across all courses—online or in person. The idea was to remove incentives for program directors to choose online or in-person modalities based on cost, so that we'd be more responsive to what students actually want.

* An ITAV assessment of $209: this pays for that IT guy. Actually, a really good IT department that went above and beyond to support our mission.

* An assessment by the Office of the President (yes, for the whole system) of $127. Sheesh.

Overall, you have $3528 in instructor expenses and $8036 in overhead. That's a little top-heavy because our enrollments were dropping, which meant fewer courses running, which meant the staff costs (the first item in my list) were higher per course. The "Administrative and Institutional" costs were also a little high when I was there; when I heard people talking about the absolute leanest we had ever been, they would cite a number about 20% lower.

Anyway: with 15 students, and all costs allocated, this course "loses" $824. To show that the course is self-supporting, you'd need 2 more students to enroll. I'd probably run the course with 15 students anyway, since a lot of those costs would stay around even if we cancel the course; but to have a healthy unit, it would be good to have higher average enrollments (or, sigh, cut staffing costs).

Now, a caveat: with a large number of part-time adjunct instructors, we needed slightly more staff positions to handle academic planning (me) and making sure that all the clerical items get done (the other staff) than you'd find in a regular university context. I was the only one you could call overpaid; the other admin staff worked their butts off to keep things running.

I'm not trying to defend this way of thinking about higher education. Still, I found it eye-opening to be in a context where I was expected to systematically think about all of our costs, which people had attempted to distribute in a somewhat-reasonable way to specific courses.

WOW, 1,000 words? I guess I had some things to get off my chest…

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

ARMCHAIR SPECULATION FROM AN ARMCHAIR PROFESSOR


Now that I have taught two sessions of my course using zoom, I quite naturally consider myself an expert on distance education, so I would like to put my newfound mastery of this subject to use by imagining a way in which we could apply it to the solution of two problems that currently bedevil American higher education:  the high cost to students and the miserable pay and working conditions of the hordes of adjuncts who have been substituted for tenure track faculty by cost cutting university administrations.

There is one major problem with the following proposal:  it cannot provide students with laboratory science classes.  I do not now have a solution for that problem.

Consider an on-line undergraduate college offering the full range of Humanities, Social Science, and non-laboratory science courses.  Its faculty consists of retired professors like myself [although not so old, of course] and young men and women with doctorates who have not been able to secure tenure track positions at regular colleges and universities.  The educational credentials and academic accomplishments of its faculty will obtain it accreditation from the appropriate bodies.

This college offers only small distance courses via zoom, by means of which students and faculty can meet regularly and interact as though [more or less] in a classroom.  Each course is limited to 20 students, meets for 14 weeks, and carries 3 academic credits.  A full course load for a student is 5 courses a semester or 10 courses a year, as in most ordinary colleges.

The college has no dorms, no classroom buildings, no fraternities or sororities, no sports teams, no dining halls, no health clinic, no admissions office, no Provost, no Associate Provost, no Deans, no Assistant Deans, and one President, elected by the entire faculty.  Each Department is run collectively by all of the people teaching courses in that discipline.  Young faculty work on five year appointments.  Retired faculty like me teach on one year renewable contracts, in recognition of the fact that they may keel over at any moment or simply lose their marbles.

The college has no endowment and no fixed costs.  Its income is the fees paid by the students and its only cost [save for a little IT] is the salary and benefits of the faculty.  So, what would it cost, and what would the faculty earn?

Google tells me that “the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2019–2020 school year was $41,426 at private colleges, $11,260 for state residents at public colleges and $27,120 for out-of-state students at state schools, according to data reported to U.S. News in an annual survey.”  Let us take the $11,260 as our point of comparison.  I am arbitrarily going to set tuition at our on-line college at $900 a course or $9000 for a full year of five courses per semester or ten courses per year.  That is 80% of the average in-state tuition, a considerable saving.

With 20 students in a course, each course generates $18,000 in income for the college.  How much shall we pay the faculty?  Well, I am being paid $10,000 this semester by UNC Chapel Hill.  Last semester I was paid $15,000 by Columbia, thanks to a special arrangement involving money from the Society of Senior Scholars, of which I am a member, but of course out of that I had to pay the costs of traveling from North Carolina to New York City thirteen times [an expense that is not tax deductible, by the way.]  Let us suppose we pay each professor, whether a retiree like me or a young itinerant adjunct, $13,000.  That is gravy for the likes of me and $78,000 a year for the young adjuncts with a 3-3 teaching load, which is not what they could make as college or university professors but much better than the miserable pay they are getting now.

What about fringe benefits?  The retirees don’t need them.  They have pensions and Medicare.  The extra $5000 a course over and above the Instructor’s salary could easily pay for health insurance and TIAA-CREF pensions for the former adjuncts, with the relatively small administrative costs paid for out of the extra $5000 per retiree-taught course.

There is, of course, a major drawback:  no Senior Prom.