Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Tuesday, April 28, 2020


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.


Anonymous said...


The sketch is nice but in my view quite idealistic. We are on a path to dystopia, and you are seeing glimmers of it presently. Its going to get worse. Minimum income, paid for by a wealth tax? The youth actively struggling for their betterment? The word struggle in that context does not exist, yes, exist for 18-24 yr olds. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. Soup and bread lines, moms abandoning their children, wandering men looking for work, we've been here before, except this time they all will be holding smartphones. With many older people dying next fall and winter, the young ones will lean toward war. Its going to take ninety more years to get us back to even, with no lessons learned. That is both a sketch and a prediction.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You may be right, of course, but there is nothing to be done but to struggle. I refuse to give up.

Anonymous said...

Bill Gates and Steve Balmer of Microsoft have been talking about minimum income for a very long time. I've heard Gates mention this as an equalizer for job losses due to machine learning and AI technology when similar ideas were floated by those who were at the time alarmed at the vast income disparity games off-shore shennanigams afforded the wealthy but not the essential worker. Apparently the techies have not come up with a better solution because Google and other recent global players are promoting similar minimum income ideas. Sustainable wages, health, and environment all go together. We can't have an accident of misinformation turn into a financial windfall (hedge funds) or economic disaster (like this current virus incident).

David Palmeter said...

Prof. Wolff,

I think you're right, and certainly hope you are. My (guarded) optimism is based on the fact that this is the biggest economic crisis we've had since the Depression. The response to the Depression, (e.g., Social Security, labor rights) was the basis for the growing equality of the 50s and 60s. If nothing else, this pandemic has shown a lot of people that government has an important role to play in all of our lives. It has shown the insanity of employer-based health care and the need for income guarantees of some sort--much, much more of a social safety net than the poor excuse for one that we now have.

s. wallerstein said...

This guy thinks that Trump can still make a come-back and win the election.

Why do I bother posting when no one responds? said...

It's not clear that the "coastal elites" (more specifically, college educated workers) will overcome their contempt for the working class (high school degree only), even in the wake of the pandemic. A researcher who blogs under the pseudonym Policy Tensor (a former Columbia University History PhD candidate who previously completed a math or physics PhD and is now either a ronin scholar or has a visiting position with Chomsky) has undertaken a study of the "elite mass" divide that led to the election of Donald Trump. Policy Tensor finds that a moralizing, hypocritical form of "Boasian antiracism" is at work. Here is the sociological smoking gun revealing the hypocrisy. Perhaps the contemptuous attitudes are more evident on Twitter, that roiling digital cesspit. There you will find people determined to give Trump a second term by voting for third party candidates, despite Trump's existentially catastrophic policy decisions that have advanced the doomsday clock, since voting for a presumed sex offender is worse than nuclear annihilation and the destruction of the climate. Many other examples of moral prodigies abound in social media--though this group seems to avoid them, perhaps wisely.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I read the smoking gun link and it is, on its face, quite striking. If we assume it shows what it claims to show, is there any evidence that this unacknowledged racial bias is reflected in voting patterns?

Why do I bother posting here? said...

Albena Azmanova offers a thin ray of hope in "Capitalism on Edge." Brian Leiter posted a helpful link to a review.

It may be more widely recognized that the "legitimacy deal" of capitalism has been violated, now that the CARES Act has facilitated the most massive corporate transfers from the public and their descendants (if there are any) in US history. That deal is supposedly that the risks that investors take should be rewarded unequally, provided losses are subject to "market discipline." In this case, (and not only this case), the government is actively reallocating investment risk to the public, many of whom are out of work during the pandemic.

Perhaps one of the regulars here can take up this post and the preceding one and either pretend they thought of them, or find some way of not acknowledging them (academics, and not only undistinguished academics, among others, are very practiced at this) so that they will have some chance of not getting altogether buried.

Why do I bother posting here? said...

The link is that the one of the two groups voted for Trump (mostly) and the other against Trump. One has to track through Policy Tensor's posts to get at this...My apologies for whining.

CDB said...

I foresee at least three scenarios.

Best-case scenario:
• Biden wins the 2020 election and basically follows and implements Bernie’s platform (or a large part)
• Truly universal health insurance (e.g. Medicare for All)
• Green New Deal
• Increased top marginal income tax rate (e.g. 45-50%)
• Increased corporate income tax (e.g. 30-35%)
• Increased estate tax
• Increased, progressive capital gains tax
• Modest wealth tax (e.g. 1% on fortunes above $50 million, 2% above $1 billion) but it’s a stretch
• Maybe basic income (universal or means-tested) but it’s a stretch
• Wall Street and the stock market do decently (but not great) in the medium- and long-term
• The middle and lower classes do significantly better than before
• However, Wall Street and the billionaire class overall will fight this agenda tooth and nail. Like Trump, they will be utterly ruthless, cynical, sociopathic, and nihilistic. Do not underestimate their ruthlessness.

Middle-case scenario:
• Biden wins the election and basically runs an administration like that of Bill Clinton or Obama
• Expansion of Obamacare (public option) without being truly universal
• Improved climate change policy without a Green New Deal
• Increased top marginal income tax rate (e.g. 40% like under Clinton and Obama)
• Increased corporate income tax (e.g. 25-28%)
• Increased estate tax
• Overall, a huge improvement over the Trump administration but not social democracy or FDR liberalism
• Wall Street and the stock market continue to do well in the medium- and long-term, as they did during the Clinton and Obama administrations
• The middle and lower classes stagnate, do slightly better, or do slightly worse. It depends on the particulars.

Worst-case scenario:
• Trump wins re-election
• A continuation of what we have now: one disaster after another
• Trump gets impeached again
• America becomes a fully fascist regime?
• Trump becomes absolute dictator?
• Climate change will wreak havoc on the planet. But the super-rich can always flee to their bunkers or private islands, as some have done during the pandemic.
• Wall Street and the stock market will continue to perform well in the medium- and long-term. Those with a lot in stocks will benefit. Those without will suffer.
• Like the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, the middle and lower classes will continue to get screwed over and hollowed out

Probabilities based on my opinion:
Best-case scenario: 5%
Middle-case scenario: 47.5%
Worst-case scenario: 47.5%

I think it’s very unlikely that Biden will win and implement (a large part of) Bernie’s agenda. If Biden wins, he will likely govern like Bill Clinton and Obama: from the center or slightly left of center.

I would not assume that Trump will definitely lose the election. His supporters are so utterly brainwashed, irrational, and nihilistic that they do not care how badly he handles the COVID-19 pandemic, even if 100,000 - 1,000,0000 Americans die or even if he publicly suggests injecting disinfectant into the body. If the stock market comes roaring back and if the economy improves significantly over the next six months, then that will persuade many moderate/independent swing voters and Trump may very well win re-election.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth:

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

A couple of quick observations:
1 - the overall economic debacle that is happening will require a serious tax increase for the wealthy if for no other reason that at least 20% of workers are unemployed and a large number of small businesses will go bankrupt.
2 - lacking a national policy on dealing with the pandemic, states that open up early, face a real chance they will have to shut down again, thereby extending the economic impacts while increasing the costs of dealing with the pandemic. Naturally, Wm Barr is comparing shelter at home orders with house arrest and is willing to take governors to court for not opening up the economy. So this battle between pandemic control and economic activity will continue through the summer and fall.
3 - The current Supreme Court will likely rule against Congressional oversight of the Exec. branch and should there be a Biden administration that tries some progressive things, there is a good chance the court will be an obstacle. So like FDR, the next president may have to actually pack the court, or scare it so badly they moderate their ideological bent.
4 - Contrary to CBD's take, the economy will likely not be roaring back anytime soon, and even if it is recovering, that will not change the orientation of educated suburban republican leaning voters who have seen Trump's incompetence and ignorance magnify the impacts of the pandemic. They went Democratic in 2018 and will do so again in greater numbers. The leading political indicators are still in favor of a Democratic landslide.

Anonymous said...

Why do I bother posting here?

Now, that's a really good question and because of that I will throw you the bone you were begging for.

I confess, I am utterly unable to answer that question.

Why that unhealthy, obsessive, desperate, pathetic, burning hunger for acknowledgement? Isn't there anyone on this whole planet willing to notice you, to pay you any attention? Family? Friends? Any one?

I also must confess, I do not share Prof. Wolff's enthusiasm for Freud and psychoanalysis, but what do I know? Perhaps you should try that.


So, there. Get your bone, wag your tail happily and stay away from the table.


Anonymous said...

While I understand the attraction of a "guaranteed minimum income" funded by taxing the rich, I don't think it such a good idea. More importantly, I don't think it feasible.

Dean Baker explains it very well here:

MMT and Taxing the Rich

A reason why I don't like a guaranteed minimum income separate from employment is that if the income is enough to assure an acceptable minimum standard of living, it would render its recipients into mendicants, isolated, irrelevant, deprived of any power. They would become yet more parasites feeding from society.

If, on the other hand, the guaranteed minimum income assured less than that, it would force recipients into employment at wages lower than those the market offers.

Put differently, it would act in effect as a subsidy to employers.

R McD said...

Since I'm /economically almost illiterate I thought to post this on the off chance that it might be interesting:

CDB said...


"A reason why I don't like a guaranteed minimum income separate from employment is that if the income is enough to assure an acceptable minimum standard of living, it would render its recipients into mendicants, isolated, irrelevant, deprived of any power. They would become yet more parasites feeding from society."

"Mendicants"? "Parasites feeding from society"? This is basically the (sociopathic) conservative or libertarian view of welfare. The Republicans have infused the word "welfare" with a very pernicious, toxic connotation, just as they have with the words "estate tax" (calling it the "death tax," even though the overwhelming majority of Americans pay zero estate tax when they die).

In fact, a superior, more neutral, more primordial definition of "welfare" is "the good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity, etc., of a person, group, or organization; well-being."

In any case, universal or means-tested basic income would not turn its recipients into "mendicants" or "parasites feeding from society." The recipients would have greater disposable income and, for many, they would largely spend that disposable income on stuff: housing, groceries, health insurance, transportation, electronics, etc. The money that they would spend would go towards capitalists or capitalist businesses (e.g. landlords, mortgage-lending banks, grocery stores, insurers, etc.), which will benefit the overall macro-economy.

Overall, the recipients would have greater power and relevance, not less.

Danny said...

'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'

I guess it has to be one or the other, fine, but hooray for both.