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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT

I just finished watching The Queen's Gambit and I will freely confess that I was moved to tears by it.  It evoked so many lovely memories of my son, Patrick, when he was a little boy and a young man. And having the special connection with it that I mentioned in a previous post was rather overwhelming. One of my personal and unexpected delights was discovering that the actor who plays one of the central male characters was, when he was a little boy, the actor who played Liam Neeson's son in the charming movie Love Actually.


As you live through the last 75 or 80 hours until the first results start coming in on Tuesday, I can strongly recommend this as a binge watching experience.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

ANOTHER WAY OF LOOKING AT IT

In many colleges and universities, courses regularly meet either on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays or else on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you are teaching a Tuesday – Thursday course, then since this is Thursday, your course would next meet on election day, assuming classes are not canceled on that day. That's not too long a wait, is it?


Now to be sure, Susie and I once went to Paris for the spread between a Thursday class and a Tuesday class. What happened was this: I flew all the way to Australia to watch Patrick play in the World Junior Chess Championship. (I changed planes in Los Angeles and walked past a bar where a television set was showing the debate between Lloyd Benson And Dan Quayle in which Benson got off the classic line "I knew Jack Kennedy, Senator,  and you are no Jack Kennedy".)  The airline was having a triple frequent flyer miles special and I picked up so many frequent flyer miles that I could take Susie and me to Paris but the restrictions on when I could use it were so severe that we finally decided to use up the miles by leaving for Paris after my Thursday class, spending the weekend in Paris, and returning in time for my Tuesday class.  So the spread between the Thursday class and the Tuesday class is not nothing but still, I am sure I can last that long.



POINT OF PERSONAL PRIVILEGE

In my endless quest for ways to pass the time until the votes start coming in, I found on Netflix a miniseries called The Queen's Gambit.  Based on a novel, this is the story of an orphan girl who is a chess prodigy.  The series has seven parts, each one almost an hour in length, and the last part (I have only seen three parts thus far) is devoted to a game that she plays against a strong Russian Grand Master.


That fictional game is based on an actual game that was played in 1993. The Russian Grand Master was Ivanchuk, a very strong player. His opponent was… my son, Patrick Wolff.  Not a bad way to pass the time!

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

CONFESSIONAL

Before I return to our current obsession with the election, I thought I would say something about how I think about the work of a great philosopher. Truth to tell, I don’t have anything novel or important to say about the election, no inside information, no report of my conversations with unnamed sources in the White House or in the Biden campaign. I have never so much as seen a presidential candidate in person, except of course in 1952 when I took part in the Harvard Square I Go Pogo rally and Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo, drove by in an open car.

 

Why on earth would anybody be interested in how I think about the work of a great philosopher? Well, this is a blog, which is to say a web log, which is to say a record of my private thoughts on a wide variety of subjects. So here goes.

 

Let me begin by observing in a seemingly irrelevant fashion that although there are many wrong ways to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto there is no single right way. The wrong ways of course are endless: to begin with, you can just play the wrong notes or you can play them out of tune or you can pay absolutely no attention to Beethoven’s markings of tempo and such. But if you are presented with Hilary Hahn and Itzhak Perlman playing the Concerto, it would be absurd to say that one of them must be doing it wrong since they are doing it differently. I believe that the same can be said of the interpretation of a great work of philosophy. There can be endlessly many wrong ways of reading it but there is surely no single right way. Indeed, the case of interpreting a work of philosophy is even more complicated than that of playing a great work of music.

 

I am really not interested in what I philosopher believes. I am only interested in whether he or she can make a powerful argument for some interesting thesis. In short, I am really not interested in what is rather oddly called “the history of ideas.” I have in my long life engaged deeply and seriously with the thought of only three great thinkers: Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Karl Marx. In each case – I am not sure why – something in their writings seized me and virtually compelled me to struggle with those writings. As the Good Book says, Genesis chapter 32, in each case I have wrestled with the text and have refused to let it go unless it blessed me.

 

In each case, I begin by intuiting, if I may put it that way, a deep and very powerful claim that the author is making, a claim that I find interesting and exciting. Quite obviously, this is a subjective response. It is typical of great works of philosophy that serious readers approach them in many different ways, finding in them different theses that excite them and that they wish to explore. Once again, as with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, there are any number of theses that cannot plausibly be found in the work or that are not capable of sustaining an interesting interpretation, but among the powerful theses there is no single one that must command the attention of any serious reader. Indeed, on the basis of my experience I believe very strongly that the most interesting and powerful thinkers often have their hands on ideas that they cannot with complete success articulate, but which they are unwilling simply to give up so as to make their writings superficially consistent. Thus, as I see it, the challenge confronting the serious reader is to seize on one or several of these claims and struggle with them, looking in the text and even beneath the text for the argument that will establish the claims.

 

In launching on such an adventure, the reader must be willing simply to brush aside passages that conflict with the central claim and which – this requires judgment on the reader’s part – are of secondary importance and can safely be ignored. The idea, as I see it, is to plunge into the depths of the caves of Moria (if I may use that analogy) and wrestle with what one finds there, relentlessly, doggedly, until one emerges with a coherent argument, changed inevitably as Gandalf was by the experience.

 

Now all of this sounds intolerably pretentious and self-important, but as I observed when I began this is a blog and of one is not going to be honest about what one is seeking to do, then why bother having a blog?

 

Well, it is a little bit past 11 in the morning and if we count this day as already in the books, then ignoring election day itself there are five days left. Someone with a serious commitment could hold his breath that long surely!

Monday, October 26, 2020

LET US TALK FOR A MOMENT ABOUT SOMETHING TRULY IMPORTANT

When you are cooped up in an apartment, as I have been for more than seven months, you quite naturally cast about for sources of amusement. This quest has led me to some pretty bad movies on Netflix, to some interesting brief lectures about Paleolithic man on YouTube, and also to a number of the interviews and lectures that have been posted there featuring Noam Chomsky. It is difficult actually to know when the original interview or lecture took place because the date given is simply the date on which it was uploaded, but by watching Noam age and his hair grow somewhat longer, it is possible to take a guess as to whether what I am watching is five years old or 40 years old. After a while, I noticed that he repeats himself, sometimes using the very same linguistic examples. How could it be otherwise? Even for someone like Noam who has virtually transformed an entire field by his work and has ranged across the world in his political commentary, there have to be times when he seeks to say the same things in slightly different ways.

 

In a much diminished fashion, I face a similar problem. After publishing 21 books, writing eight or 10 others that have not been formally published, and posting well over a million words on this blog, I find myself saying things that at some time, somewhere, in some form or other, I have said before. Last night as I lay awake at about 3 AM, I began to think about the deep contradiction that exists between Kant’s theory of knowledge and his ethical theory, a fact that I think is essential to an understanding of his work. I have actually published an article on this subject, but it appeared in a book so obscure that I am not sure anybody still alive has ever read it. Curious as to whether I had talked about this on my blog, I used the search facility it provides and sure enough found that at the end of the 19 part series on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason posted in August 2011, I had indeed discussed this subject in a relatively brief form.

 

Now, nine years is several lifetimes in cyberspace and there cannot be many current readers of this blog who were actually around when I posted that series and furthermore who read it, so it occurred to me that as we all await the results of the election, this might be a good time to step aside from that tension producing enterprise and once again explain why I believe that there is an insoluble conflict between Kant’s theoretical philosophy and his moral philosophy. I have no idea whether anyone reading this blog these days will find the subject of any interest whatsoever but I surely do and it is my blog so here goes. We shall see how long I can keep myself diverted from an obsessive examination of the latest poll results.

 

Let me begin with what theoretical physicists call a gedankenexperiment.  Let us suppose that a professor of creative writing is teaching a class of 12 students to whom she gives the following exercise: write a short story about this class, being sure that your story satisfies two requirements, first, that every member of the class appear by name in the story and second, that the story be in the form of a first person narration with the narrator being the character in the story who represents you, the author. In general, we may assume, the twelve students will write twelve quite different stories but it is imaginable that by some fluke (or, as Leibniz would say, by a preestablished harmony), all twelve stories will be word for word identical (I assume that the author refers to himself or herself by name rather than by the word “I”.)

 

Even in this unlikely event, the stories will differ each from the other in one fundamental respect. In each story, the character who represents the author will be different. In Lydia’s story, the character named Lydia will be the appearance in the story of the author, who is Lydia. In Nathan’s story, the character in the story who is the appearance of the author will be Nathan, and so forth. Leaving aside cheating or joint authorship, is there any way that two characters in numerically the same story could each be the appearance in the story of its author? The answer is self-evidently no.

 

But in order for Kant’s ethical theory to be logically compatible with his theory of knowledge, the answer to this question would have to be yes. How so? I will explain.

 

As I trust we are all aware, Kant believes that the Moral Law is binding on and applies to persons, which is to say to things in themselves, or more precisely to selves in themselves, not to phenomenal appearances. As an appearance in the realm of phenomena, I like every other appearance stand under universal causal laws. Just as one can with sufficient knowledge predict the movement of billiard balls or stars or leaves falling from a tree, so with sufficient knowledge one can predict the behavior (not, notice, the actions) of human beings.

 

The Moral Law is the universal principle, knowable a priori, that binds absolutely all rational agents as such, whether human or otherwise. The law is experienced by we who are humans and who are only imperfectly rational, as a categorical imperative or command but if there are perfectly rational agents, such as angels, they would experience the Moral Law in much the way that logicians experience the laws governing the syllogism. I may be tempted to break a promise, hoping that I can get away with it, but no logician is tempted, when no one is looking, to decide that if some A are B, and some B are C, then some A are C.

 

What is more, my duties are to other persons as rational agents, not to their appearances in the realm of phenomena. It is this fact, understood if not articulated, that gives rise to the familiar trope in science fiction of the explorer on a foreign planet who wonders which of the objects she encounters are the local inhabitants and which are merely part of the fauna and flora.  Is Jar-Jar Binks a rational agent to whom I owe debts of truth and equity or just an odd looking plant?  It may take a while to figure out that Chewbacca is indeed a person worthy of respect. (I pass over in silence Kant’s views on duties to oneself, such as the duty to develop one’s talents and not to abuse oneself. I can understand why some parents may think that a dutiful son should practice the violin and not masturbate but I do not think that rises to the level of universal ethical theory.)

 

And now the problem should be clear. According to Kant (or at least the interpretation of his philosophy to which I committed myself more than 60 years ago and from which I have never deviated), the transcendental ego synthesizes the manifold of intuition in such a manner as to impose upon it necessitated regularities that constitute the laws of nature. As Kant says in a famous passage in the first edition Deduction, “the understanding… is itself the lawgiver of nature.… However exaggerated and absurd it may sound to say that the understanding is itself the source of the laws of nature, and so of its formal unity, such an assertion is nonetheless correct and is in keeping with the object to which it refers, namely experience.”  (A126-7)

 

On reflection, it should be immediately obvious that just as it cannot be the case that two students in the class are each of them the author of numerically the same short story, even if each writes a story that is word for word identical with that written by the other, so it cannot be the case that two different noumenal agents, through their synthesizing activities in their role as transcendental egos, bring into existence numerically the same field of experience. Which means that no morally responsible agent, no person, can ever encounter in his or her or its field of experience the phenomenal appearance of another moral agent.

 

One could of course try to save Kant’s moral theory by arguing that it is not false but merely vacuous. The moral law would bind me if I could ever encounter someone to whom I could make promises or to whom I could tell the truth or with whom collectively I could enact the laws of the realm of ends, but by an obstacle impossible to overcome, I can never in principle be in a position to put the Moral Law into action.

 

I am quite certain that Kant himself was never aware of this problem and it is my impression, unsupported by an adequate reading of the secondary literature, that the problem is not widely recognized even today by Kant scholars.

 

Well, enough of that. Back to dissecting the polls.

A NON-GEOMETRICAL SPECULATION ABOUT LINES

As we all know, the early voting in this election has been off the charts. By the end of today, in all likelihood, 40% of all the votes that will be cast in this election will already be in. There have been endless stories on television about long lines, people waiting as much as 10 hours to cast their votes. And, of course, the burden of this extended wait time falls most heavily on minority voters.

 

But in all the commentary, I think something is being missed that is significant and rather cheering. Standing in line to vote has become a thing, a social event, something to do. There have been delightful stories of people bringing chairs to sit on and umbrellas to sit under, of good Samaritans handing out bottles of water and snacks, of musicians playing for the folks in line. I even saw a story about a group of people on line who started to do the wave as though they were at a baseball game.

 

When you think about it, standing in line for long periods of time is not in itself more difficult or more burdensome than waiting to get into a rock concert or standing by the side of the road to see a politician drive by or even jamming into a stadium to watch a football game being played way down on the field dozens of yards from where one is sitting.

 

I am reminded of the scenes at the first genuinely free election held in South Africa when Africans, some of them very old, waited all day long in long lines to cast the first vote in their lives.

 

Once the cultural shift takes place so that waiting in line to vote ceases to be a burden or pain in the neck and becomes an outing, an event, a badge of honor, then all of the voter intimidation in the world will not stop people from getting their votes registered. I think we may be seeing the first suggestions of a tsunami. God willing…

Sunday, October 25, 2020

NINE DAYS

Well, we have nine days to go and I have completely run out of deep, thoughtful, provocative things to say. I am reduced to binge watching godawful offerings on Peacock.  I did find a little toy that might amuse you.  538.com has an app that allows you to pick a state, click on it to make it blue, and then watch as their computer recalculates the probability that Biden will win. You can find it here.  Right now, they are giving Biden an 87% chance of winning the election, but if early in the evening North Carolina is put into Biden's column, then you go to the app, plug that in, and it tells you that now Biden has a 99% chance of winning with a likely electoral vote count of 377.


I realize this does not compare in interest with a lengthy essay on what Theodor Adorno can tell us about the current uprising in Nigeria, but it is the best I can do.


One thing I will comment on about Biden. I have been much cheered by his repeated celebration of labor unions and his emphasis on the importance of creating good union jobs. That is not something I heard from either of the Clintons or indeed from Obama or from Carter, so far as I can recall. Maybe electing a president who is two generations past his prime has something to be said for it.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

RUNNING ON EMPTY, GASPING FOR AIR

Twelve days.  I can hold my breath for 12 days, can't I?  So it comes down to this. After 11 years of blogging, well over 1 million words, 4.25 million views, the question is can I wait 12 more days? Perhaps I could get my doctor to put me in a medically induced coma. Would Medicare pay for that? 


If Biden is leading Trump by three or four points in three or four polls in a state and in each of those polls three or four points is "within the margin of error" is the fact that there are three or four polls any evidence that he is actually leading?


Having run out of things to speculate about, I have started making my plans for election night. From my favorite take-out Chinese restaurant, I will get General Tso's chicken and I will open a bottle of inexpensive Cabernet and I will prepare to stay up all night.  The good news is that both Florida and North Carolina are early count states and we should have their results by 9:30 or 10 PM.  It Biden takes both of them, as now seems genuinely probable, perhaps I will get some sleep.


I have a vague memory of two things that I believe Aristotle said somewhere. The first is that shit does not have a form.  The second is that the prime mover has knowledge only of general principles but like the overlord of an estate, does not trouble himself with the details that his estate manager deals with. If these memories are correct, then perhaps I ought to stop trying to say something philosophical about what can only be described as a rancid pile of dung.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

MAKING AMENDS

After my exuberant post yesterday in which I explored various successful outcomes of the election, I spent a difficult night worrying that my optimism had somehow influenced the gods of elections to punish my hubris. This morning, as I took my walk, I rehearsed various forms of Internet self abnegation in the hope that I could make amends.  “Oh,” I said to no one in particular, “I would be content if we simply took the Senate barely by 50 votes.” Then, fearing that that to was too daring, I acknowledged that I would be satisfied if we were simply to defeat Trump.

 

It all put me in mind of a conversation I had around the dinner table more than sixty-seven years ago. I was sitting in Adams House at Harvard with several friends. All of us were scheduled to graduate in June and we were worried about whether we would earn honors degrees. Bennie, who was a bright mathematics student and a royal pain in the ass, said in his high voice “well, I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a summa.” We all groaned and looked into our coffee cups. Someone else said, “I would be more than happy with a magna.” Then Wally said, “Magna! If I could only just get a cum.” That was Walter Gilbert, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

 

I believe the Irish do something similar when they are worried about the potato crop.  It involves saying "wurra, wurra.” 

Monday, October 19, 2020

EGGS BENEDICT

As a longtime poultry fancier, I thought I would try my hand at counting some chickens before they are hatched. As I see it, there are three likely alternative outcomes to the election that is now only two weeks away: first, that the Democrats elect Biden but the Republicans hold the Senate; second, that the Democrats elect Biden and just manage barely to take the Senate with 50 or 51 senators; and third, that the Democrats elect Biden and emerge from the election with 52 senators or more.

 

The first alternative is so horrible that I shall not comment on it here unless and until it happens. The second alternative poses a serious problem because senators Joe Manchin and Diane Feinstein have said they will not vote to eliminate the filibuster. I can imagine some political horsetrading that would get them to come around but I don’t honestly know how likely that would be. The third alternative opens up great possibilities and also poses interesting problems. Let me talk about that one (when you are counting chickens before they hatch, you get to choose the most promising eggs.)

 

If the Democrats hold the House, take the Senate with 52 votes or more, and win the presidency what is likely to happen? When Biden takes office on January 20, he will face a double crisis that demands immediate action, namely the medical crisis and the economic crisis. Although his natural instinct, honed by a lifetime in politics, will be to reach across the aisle to his friends on the Republican side and work to form a bipartisan consensus, a process that would take 6 to 9 months and end in failure, he is not going to be able to take that route because the crises will be both immediate and overwhelming. Since he will get no cooperation from the Republicans, certainly not in the first month or two of his presidency, he will be compelled to push for an end to the filibuster and then for rapid passage of a series of measures designed to save the country. This will include some major revision of the Affordable Care Act well before the Supreme Court hands down the decision on its constitutionality and also an immediate multitrillion dollar stimulus package of the sort that the Congress has already passed once before.

 

On the basis of Biden’s rhetoric, which I tend to believe, he will also seek to pass major economic legislation including an infrastructure bill, and here the normal political negotiation and give-and-take will occur.

 

After the first several months of heady bill passing, with Democratic Party self-congratulation and mutual back slapping all around, the currently papered over deep splits between the progressive and centrist wings of the party will quite naturally reemerge and then the real long-term work of those of us on the left will begin. How that turns out in the end will depend not on the character of Joe Biden but on the energy we can generate, the organization we can maintain, and the number of votes we can draw in the midterm elections of 2022.

 

Meanwhile, something weird is going to be happening to the Republican Party and I really have difficulty figuring out even in a speculative mode what that is going to be. A great deal depends on whether Trump fades from view and ceases almost immediately to be an important factor in American politics, which I think is genuinely possible, or whether on the other hand he remains a force commanding as much as 20% of the voting public. I am absolutely convinced that when he loses (God, I hope I am not jinxing things by saying "when" rather than "if") he will turn his fury on those whom he thinks betrayed him, and that means not the Democrats – whom he views as enemies – but his fellow Republicans. Ben Sasse and Ted Cruz have already started positioning themselves for the 2024 presidential race but unless the Republican Party can keep together the 45% of the voting public that supports them, neither of them nor any other Republican candidate will have the slightest chance of winning a national election. I cannot at this point imagine a realignment of the parties that would make a place for the Trumpy 20%.

 

Well, I have broken enough eggs to make an omelette so perhaps it is time to stop.

 

 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

A DARK OBSERVATION ON A SUNNY DAY

One of the most famous taglines in the Marxian corpus is the opening of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon:

 

“Hegel remarked somewhere that all great, world – historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

 

Thurgood Marshall was replaced on the Supreme Court by Clarence Thomas and now Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be replaced by Amy Coney Barrett.

 

We live in diminished times.

Friday, October 16, 2020

EIGHTEEN DAYS

There is an old Cuba Gooding Robert De Niro movie, Men Of Honor, about the first black man to train successfully as a master diver in the United States Navy. Near the beginning, as I recall, De Niro sends the trainees into a pool to test how long they can hold their breath underwater and Gooding stays underwater so long that De Niro is afraid he has drowned.  It is now 18 days until the election and I have been wondering idly whether I can hold my breath for that long.  Probably even Cuba Gooding couldn't. But what on earth is there left to say?  This Sunday early in person voting starts in North Carolina and I thought I would drive to the early voting site in northern Chatham County just to see whether there are long lines. Having already voted, and being essentially in quarantine as I have been for seven months now, there's not much else I can do. Oh, I keep giving money and I suppose that is something but one of the problems with popular democracy is that each individual doesn't really count for that much. I guess there is something to be said for dictatorship if you happen to be the dictator.


I think the odds are improving that late on election night or early the morning after we will have a winner, thereby avoiding at least some of the authoritarian moves Trump has been musing about. In my book on black studies I wrote at length about the myth that the United States is in some way an exception to the general truths about democracy and dictatorship that have been derived from observing the European experience so I will simply say that perhaps our Trump episode will begin to put that myth to rest.


We must keep firmly in mind that even if Trump loses in a landslide, he will still get perhaps 45% of the vote which means, let us say, 70 million votes to Biden's 80 million. Those 70 million people will still be with us on January 20 and for decades thereafter and Trump will not be the last con man with authoritarian fantasies to come along.  The real work will begin on January 21.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

YOU MUST TAKE THE TIME TO LISTEN TO THIS THREE PART STATEMENT AT THE HEARINGS BY SHELDON WHITEHOUSE

You will find it here.

EXPAND THE DAMN COURT

After several painful hours watching the committee proceedings for Amy Barrett, I think the case has been made.  FOUR MORE JUSTICES, regardless  of what Biden wants!

A LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

Inasmuch as I have written a book and a journal article and I have also posted a lecture on YouTube dealing with the views of John Rawls, I will take a pass on responding to the discussion of that aspect of my blog post.

 

However, I do want to call attention to one piece of potential good political news: the folks at electoral–vote.com, whose daily analysis and posting of polls I read regularly, make the point that since Pennsylvania and North Carolina are so-called fast count states (meaning that they count absentee ballots as they come in rather than waiting until election day) it is entirely possible that we will actually have a winner declared three weeks from today on election night. We would still have to wait several days, in all likelihood, to know about the outcome of the Senate but having a winner on election night could save us a good deal of anguish and trouble.

 

It is just three weeks to go and Trump is looking weaker by the day. This is not going to be a squeaker. If you haven’t voted, for God’s sake get out and vote early.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

FOR THE RECORD

There being a limit to how much I can obsess about the election, now scarcely more than three weeks away, I have decided today to put down on paper – or the electronic version thereof – some thoughts I have had for more than 40 years. I have laid out portions of this in one form or another but I do not think I have ever pulled it all together in a systematic and coherent fashion and I would like to do so now -- for the ages, as it were. If I may characterize this effort in general before undertaking it, I will be attempting an ideological critique of a standard sociological and, in some forms philosophical, explanation of the extreme income inequality that characterizes modern forms of capitalist economies.

 

To begin at the beginning, the distinctive mark of human existence, at least for the past 12,000 years or so and perhaps for much longer, is functional differentiation of productive activities, or as Adam Smith memorably labeled it, the division of labor. Leaving aside our prehistoric ancestors, for whom inadequate evidence exists, all of us eat food we have not grown and processed, wear clothes we have not spun and woven and tailored, live in houses we did not construct, drive in cars we did not assemble, and dictate to a computer using programs we did not write.

 

Marx’s focus was on the contrast between capitalists and workers, and he seems to have believed that as capitalism developed we would move more and more into a world in which owners of capital stood over against a mass of semiskilled and more or less interchangeable workers. The key to his analysis of this situation was the concept of exploitation. But one of several important developments in capitalism that Marx failed to anticipate was the permanent existence of a steeply pyramidal array of unequally compensated jobs, all of which in the account books of corporate firms stand on the side of “labor” but whose compensation can vary, in the United States, from a minimum-wage of $7.25 an hour to managerial salaries of millions of dollars a year.

 

The most sophisticated ideological rationalization of the exploitative character of capitalism is the theory of marginal productivity, buttressed by a misinterpretation of a famous theorem by Euler. I have had my say about that bit of flannery elsewhere and shall not repeat it here. But there is a more recent “explanation” (which is to say ideological rationalization) of the job and salary pyramid that owes its origins to early 20th century sociology and has gained credence in philosophical circles by being taken up in the work of John Rawls. The key to this “explanation” is the notion that I have labeled the “inequality surplus.” (I first introduced this phrase in my little book on Rawls published more than 40 years ago.)

 

I am going to develop my argument by considering in very elementary fashion an imaginary firm that I shall call Universal Widgets, Inc. I do not believe that what I have to say will be in any way be weakened by this bit of creative imagination. Universal Widgets, I shall suppose, is a firm with 100 employees. Ninety of them perform such functions as making the widgets, boxing the finished product and putting it on trucks for delivery, cleaning toilets, emptying wastebaskets, serving as secretarial staff, and so forth. The other ten are management and run the company. All of them are employees and for purposes of this analysis I am ignoring the question of company ownership.

 

To begin, let us suppose that with these hundred workers randomly assigned to the 100 jobs, there is enough money left over after paying for such things as raw materials and utilities to pay each worker $20,000 a year – a total labor cost of $2 million. However, it turns out that if each worker is assigned to the job for which he or she is best suited, the increased efficiency thereby achieved will swell the sum available for wages to $4 million. Quite obviously, the most natural thing to do is to assign each person to his or her appropriate task and then raise everybody’s wage from $20,000 a year to $40,000 a year.

 

There are, however, two problems with this plan, one of which can actually be solved fairly easily, the second not so much. The first problem is that some of the positions in the Corporation require fairly extensive training, of the sort that may take years. Let us suppose, for the sake of simplicity, that the secretarial positions require a four-year college degree and the managerial positions require an MBA in addition, while the manufacturing, loading, and cleaning tasks only require as much training as is currently provided by universal free secondary education.  Those workers whose natural talents and abilities mark them for secretarial or managerial positions may be unwilling both to undertake the expense of college or postgraduate education and also to be off the labor market for four or six years during which they would otherwise be earning a wage. The first of these problems can of course be solved by making college or postgraduate education free, as primary and secondary education now is in the United States. In addition, the society can provide support of an appropriate sort for those who have been selected for this extended period of education.

 

So much for the difficulties easily handled. The real problem, of course, is that the people identified as suitable for managerial positions may not want to take them. Even though they have talents and abilities that will make them enormously productive in those positions, thereby increasing the total fund available for wages so much that every worker’s wage can be doubled from $20,000-$40,000, they may simply not want those jobs. Indeed, even after it is explained to them that by accepting those jobs they will be doubling their wages (we will assume that they do not care about the well-being of their fellow workers), they may be so disinclined to serve as managers that they refuse to accept the assignment. “This is not the Army!” They may protest. “I am a free American citizen. You can’t make me take that job.”

 

What to do? Well, the story goes, we can induce them to serve as managers and to undergo the undergraduate and postgraduate education required to prepare them for that position, by offering them a salary larger than $40,000 a year. Let us suppose that in order to get the ten individuals best suited for management to agree to serve as managers, we must pay them $130,000 each, or an additional $110,000, which means that he wages fund must rise $1,100,000. This is where the concept of an inequality surplus enters the analysis. With the ten individuals best suited for management serving as managers, at a salary of $130,000 a year each, the wages fund available for distribution will rise not $1,100,000 but actually $2 million. When the additional $1,100,000 paid to the managers is deducted from this fund, there will be $900,000 left over, which means that each of the remaining 90 workers will experience a rise of his or her wages from $20,000 a year to $30,000 a year. The additional $900,000 available to be distributed to the 90 nonmanagerial workers is an inequality surplus. That is to say, it is a surplus that remains after the unequal wages paid to the managerial workers are taken account of.

 

Now then, assuming that the 90 workers are not so envious of the managerial workers that they would actually prefer to make $20,000 a year so long as no one makes more than that rather than make $30,000 a year even though 10 people are going to be making $130,000 each (this is the origin of Rawls’ odd and unexplained assumption of non—envy), the unequal structure of wages in the company will, by a happy coincidence, be both explained and justified.

 

To see how bizarre this explanation actually is, let me change the example a trifle. Suppose that instead of the Universal Widgets Corporation, we are talking about a philosophy department at a university – oh, let us say the Harvard University philosophy department. The department we shall suppose consists of a number of full professors, several staff persons, and (although no one ever bothers to notice this fact) several people who clean Emerson Hall, empty the wastebaskets, maintain the grounds and do other assorted tasks.

 

Imagine a young man and a young woman in their third year of undergraduate study who are told that the needs of the society being what they are, their career options are either to be a secretary in the Harvard University philosophy department or a full professor in that department. The two are given a battery of aptitude tests and it is determined that the young man would be best suited for the secretarial position and the young woman for the professorial position. These positions they are told are equally compensated. (At this point I have to fudge with reality by pretending that the Harvard University philosophy department is a profit-making operation with the wages fund determined by the income generated by its employees – bear with me.)

 

“Well,” asks the young woman, “what are the terms of these two jobs? What does one have to do in each of them?” The person administering the battery of tests gives the following answer:

 

“If you become a secretary, you will be expected to work 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year. You will sit at a desk, handle departmental correspondence, manage grade sheets, answer the telephone, perform a variety of secretarial tasks for the professors in the department, and respond to student inquiries. If you become a professor in the department, you will be expected to teach two courses or seminars in one semester and one course or seminar in the other semester. A course meets either three times a week for 50 minutes or twice a week for 75 minutes. A seminar meets once a week for two hours. Each semester, allowing also for final examinations, is 15 weeks long. So you will work 30 weeks a year and have the other 22 weeks completely free of official duties. In addition to teaching, you will have other obligations including class preparation, office hours, administrative duties, and – several times each semester – grading of student papers and examinations. Taking all and all, and allowing for the fact that once you have prepared a course teaching it a second time is much less time-consuming, your weekly duties during the 30 weeks a year that you are working will consume roughly 20 hours each week. To sum up, the secretarial position calls for you to work 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year, and the professorial position calls for you to work 20 hours a week, 30 weeks a year. The positions are equally compensated. If you are assigned to these positions without reference to your abilities, then the income of the department will make it possible to pay each of you $30,000 a year.”

 

“Well,” the young woman replies, “I would rather be a secretary if that is what is involved.” The young man is more agreeable and says he would happily accept either position. Notice that it is essential to this argument that the young woman prefer the secretarial position because if she too is agreeable to either job, then the maximum productivity of the department could be achieved by making the young man the secretary and the young woman the professor. But the young woman doesn’t want to be a professor, so some way must be found to persuade her that does not require actually lowering the salary of the young man.

 

The young woman is offered $100,000 a year, $150,000 a year, $180,000 a year, and still she cannot be persuaded. Finally, someone has the clever idea of offering the young woman a semester off every seven years – the person with the idea calls it “a sabbatical.” Happily, this is enough to persuade the young woman to agree to be a professor rather than a secretary and at $180,000 a year, there is an inequality surplus in the department sufficient to raise the young man’s salary as secretary to $50,000 a year. Everybody is happy and the pay structure of Harvard University is simultaneously explained and justified.


Do I needs to argue that this is nonsense?

 

Let me end, as I so often like to do, with a little personal story. My big sister, Barbara, who has just had her 90th birthday was a phenomenally good student. In 1947 – 48, her senior year in high school, she was the grand national winner of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, later the Intel Science Talent Search. The victory gave her a prize of $2400, sufficient to pay four years of tuition at Swarthmore College where she graduated in 1952 summa cum laude in mathematics. She went on to earn a doctorate in biology at Harvard and ended a long and successful career by serving as the Ombud of the World Bank. As a teenager, Barbara took an aptitude test arranged for by our mother who was a secretary at an organization called the Child Study Association. When she finished the test, the psychologist who was administering it said to her “you have many great abilities and will go far but don’t ever be a secretary. You are completely unsuited for that position.”

 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

IDLE THOUGHTS ON A DAMP MORNING

Rain today, no walk. As I was lying in bed, I found myself thinking about this election cycle’s favorite meme, “white suburban college-educated women.” To hear the commentators tell it, this crucial block of voters is the key to the outcome of the election. What proportion of the electorate, I wondered, actually is white suburban college-educated women? So I spent a little time after I got up googling and here is what I came up with. These numbers are not precise and in one case I was forced to guess but I think they are reasonably accurate.

 

Fully fifty percent of Americans live in the suburbs. (Who knew?) Sixty percent of Americans are white non—Hispanic and (this is the guess) I am going to suppose that actually 70% of suburban Americans are white. Back when I was young it would have been much larger but the suburbs have been changing and I think this is perhaps even somewhat of an overestimate. Still, that means that 35% of Americans are white non-Hispanic suburbanites. A bit more than half of that group or women, so let us call that 18%.

 

Well, about 35% of adult white women have college degrees so, putting this altogether, 6% of the electorate is white college-educated suburban non-Hispanic women. The polling results vary but they all agree that there has been a massive shift in this group toward the Democrats, a shift that is widely touted as the key to Biden’s potential victory. Let us suppose that the shift has been 20%, which is truly massive. Well, 20% of 6% is 1.2% so all the fuss is about a 1.2% shift in the American electorate toward the Democrats.

 

These are dangerous times and I will happily take anything we can get in the way of a movement of votes away from Republicans and toward Democrats but 1.2% is not exactly a landslide or an earthquake. It is more like a gentle tidal shift.

Friday, October 9, 2020

YOU NEVER KNOW

As I have often remarked, blogging is a strange form of communication. Sometimes, I work hard on a post, thinking it through as I walk, trying to get my thoughts precisely in order. If I am fortunate, when I put those thoughts on line, they elicit three or four brief comments. Last Tuesday, gob smacked by the succession of bizarre events, I put up a lighthearted post in which I made reference to a 72 car crash on an icy road. That post has elicited, at last count, 77 comments, some of which are longer than the post itself.

 

Several of those who commented thought it would be just lovely to hear me give a Marxian analysis of a 72 car crash. Alas, would that I could. If I were Karl Marx himself, I would dash off The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, an immortal work occasioned by a similar moment of madness. As my old friend and former department chair, Esther Terry, would have said, Marx was adept at making chicken salad out of chicken shit.  But I know my limits.

 

That was Tuesday – three days ago. Since then, the entire West Wing has become infected, Trump has pulled out of the second debate, Trump has personally destroyed any chance of another desperately needed stimulus bill, taking personal responsibility for its demise, a group of right-wing terrorists have been arrested for plotting the kidnapping, trial, and death of a sitting American governor, Trump has publicly called for his Attorney General to arrest his opponent in the election, and, oh yes, a fly has landed on Mike Pence’s head. I don’t need Karl Marx to analyze this. I don’t even need Groucho Marx. I need Mel Brooks.

 

Meanwhile, time passes, I cross days off my mental calendar, and Lindsey Graham is in the fight of his life in South Carolina!

 

I spent much of my life attempting high domed large-scale analyses of Euro-American capitalism. Let me enjoy just a few days watching the clown car at the circus.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

THE MORNING AFTER THE NIGHT BEFORE

I think I deserve some sympathy. It is extremely difficult these days to blog about what is going on in the world. I mean, nobody wants a Marxist analysis of a 72 car wreck on an icy highway or philosophical reflections on a category five hurricane. Searching about for something to comment on that had not already been worked to death in social media, print, and cable news, I hit upon one very curious moment in Trump’s triumphal return to a Covid 19 – hollowed out White House. I am sure all of you have seen the video of him ascending the stairs and posing on the balcony like a two bit dictator while he saluted the departing helicopter. But you may have switched to something else before hearing him deliver a brief address to the nation in which there appeared the following words:

 

“We have the greatest country in the world. We’re going back. We’re going back to work. We’re going to be out front. As your leader, I had to do that. I knew there’s danger to it, but I had to do it. I stood out front. I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk. There’s a danger. But that’s okay, and now I’m better. Maybe I’m immune.”

 

There is a technical term in literary criticism for this statement: it is bat shit crazy. Trump is saying that there was a terrible enemy attacking our nation and that as our leader he had to don his armor and go forth to confront it, knowing that there was danger involved, but nevertheless standing out front and leading. He had returned from that epic struggle having conquered the enemy and won immunity from it.  Now, thanks to his courage and fortitude the rest of us were safe.

 

My first thought was that this was clearly an effect of the steroids he had received as part of his treatment, that he was in a manic phase of delirium. But then I recalled something that a young Donald Trump said many years ago. He described having an active social life in New York during the AIDS crisis as “my personal Vietnam.” This recollection comforted me. It was clear that the drugs had not induced in him an artificial craziness. He was the same old crazy Donald Trump that we have always known.

 

One final word about recent news. Two national polls taken after the first debate show Biden with a 14 or 16 point lead over Trump. This is obviously unsustainable, but it means that as the polls drift back to normal, that normal will continue to be a 7 to 10 point lead which, I genuinely believe, is large enough to defeat voter suppression, vote theft, and even the dreaded Electoral College.

WHO KNEW?

Am I the only one just learning that the White House doctor is a D.O. [Doctor of Osteopathy] not an M.D.?

Monday, October 5, 2020

STAKING MY CLAIM

Careful readers of this blog will have noticed that recently a person signing himself “MS” has been posting a number of lengthy quite intelligent comments, exhibiting a particular expertise in the law. Exercising the right of all aging professors, I should simply like to point out that this person, more than 50 years ago, was for a very brief period my student. I therefore take full credit for both the intelligence and the knowledgeability of the comments. Those of you who are yourselves professors will understand that this is one of the perquisites of the profession. 

RE;IGIOUS REFLECTIONS

From my careful reading of the Old Testament and the New Testament I had gained a sense of the Lord God as a vengeful God, a relentless God, even, to be sure, a forgiving God. But I confess that until now I had failed to realize that He is also a God with a sense of humor.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE

Several days ago, I watched Joe Biden deliver a talk to members of The United Farm and Commercial Workers, a union with 1.3 million members. It was a good old-fashioned New Deal talk of the sort that one used to hear from Democrats in the 1950s. He talked about a $15 an hour minimum wage, he talked about creating millions of new jobs to rebuild America’s infrastructure, he talked about creating more millions of jobs to retrofit buildings and substitute clean energy for fossil fuel energy. I am not sure that any of the other men and women who ran for the Democratic nomination this year would ever have given that talk, with the possible exception of Bernie. It made me feel good listening to it and if we take control of the Senate and get rid of the filibuster, there is no reason why programs of that sort can’t be enacted and put into place.

 

There are all sorts of structural and historical reasons for the decline of unionization in the United States but a strong push for re-unionization combined with legislation to undo the baleful effects of Right to Work laws and with an expanded Supreme Court ready to uphold such pro – union legislation, maybe we could rebuild the Democratic Party into something like what it once was.

 

You have to give the devil his due.

JUST TRYING TO KEEP MY HEAD ABOVE WATER

I don’t think I am alone in finding the events of the past week exceedingly strange and confusing. There is an eerie calm that has settled over the nation, despite the flurry of misinformation about Trump’s medical condition. This is, after all, the last four weeks of the campaign and yet the campaign seems to have disappeared from view. As one of my friends pointed out, part of the reason for the calm is the absence of an endless series of disruptive statements, tweets, outbursts, lies, and blustering by Trump.

 

Since I am of course utterly incapable of making any knowledgeable judgment about the medical information we have received, let me focus on just two brief moments that I found striking or suggestive. The first is the 18 second videotaped statement that Trump issued from the White House before he was airlifted to Walter Reed Hospital; the second is the four-minute recorded video that he put out from the hospital – on Saturday, I believe it was, although it has been hard to keep track of these things.

 

One wag called the 18 second video a “proof of life” video, the sort of thing kidnappers offer when demanding a ransom to prove that their victim is still alive. All it lacked was Trump holding up the front page of that day’s Washington Post to prove that the video was current. More interesting was the four-minute video he put out from the hospital.

 

Am I alone in having found it quite unlike any other statement Trump has made? It was oddly subdued and completely lacking in belligerence or bluster. Trump went out of his way to comment on the bipartisan support he had received and several times said that he would not forget this support. I had the very powerful sense that he was frightened. At any rate, he was completely off his usual game.

 

Trump’s actual medical condition remains an utter mystery. Earlier today the doctors said that he would be kept at the hospital for “another period of time,” whatever that means. But just a few moments ago I saw a TV report that he might go back to the White House tomorrow, and there was commentary to the effect that he had insisted on this despite the fact that he is in the midst of a five day course of medication which is supposed to be monitored in a hospital setting. Since rather unexpectedly it was Mark Meadows who contradicted the official doctors’ report and told reporters that Trump was having serious problems, we can perhaps look forward to Trump replacing yet another Chief of Staff.

 

I eagerly await the first round of polls taken after the first debate and then a round of polls taken after the announcement of Trump’s illness. I find it impossible to believe that this will be good for his polling but people are so frozen into their positions that we may not see much of an improvement in Biden’s polling after these two disasters. Notice that the news of Trump’s illness has completely knocked off the news the anguished discussion of his support of white supremacists.

 

Twenty-nine days to go.

 

 

 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

FURTHER THOUGHTS

I watched the briefing at 1:30 PM by the White House doctor and the Walter Reed staff very closely, and several things struck me. First and most important, they let slip the fact that Trump was diagnosed 72 hours ago, which clearly means before he went to that fundraiser at his golf club. Think about that for a minute.


The second thing takes me a bit into the weeds and I thought I had a scoop here until I saw that Andrea Mitchell picked up on the same thing.  Two points: First, one of the doctors said that Trump had had his experimental cocktail 48 hours ago which means on Thursday, not yesterday as the White House doctor's office clearly suggested in their announcement. Second, the White House physician kept repeating, in answer to questions, that Trump is not on oxygen now. When he was asked whether Trump had been on oxygen on Thursday or Friday, he replied disingenuously and quickly that he was not on oxygen on Thursday. What is more, it is clear that Trump started the Remdesivir therapy yesterday.


From all of this, I infer that on Thursday night and Friday morning Trump was doing so much less well that he was put on oxygen and also started on the five day course of Remdesivir, which I gather is given to assist patients who are having trouble breathing and are on oxygen.


In light of all of this, it is impossible to say just how sick Trump was or how sick he is.


Meanwhile, this morning we learned that Sen. Ron Johnson has tested positive and so has Chris Christie. I am a little bit sensitive about using the word "obese" for men whose body mass index is a trace above normal but there is no question about Christie.


This gets more and more interesting.



A DAY TO REMEMBER

Yesterday was the strangest day I have spent in quite some time. It started at 1:30 AM when, during a nocturnal bathroom break, I read on my iPhone that Trump and his wife had tested positive for Covid. The next morning I waited anxiously for the news that Joe and Jill Biden had tested negative. The White House first said that Trump had mild symptoms, then that he had moderate symptoms, then that he had received an infusion of an experimental drug, and then that he would be helicoptered to Walter Reed Medical Center. As the evening wore on, word came out of other persons who had fallen ill, including the president of Notre Dame University. At one point, we learned that my very own Sen., Thom Tillis, had tested positive. I finally went to sleep at 8:30 PM trying to recover some of the sleep I had lost the previous night. The long day ended at 1:30 AM this morning when, once again, on a nocturnal bathroom break I learned that Kellyanne Conway and Trump’s current campaign manager, Bill Stepien, have tested positive.

 

What does it all mean? I have not a clue. People continue to vote early in record numbers but I have not the slightest idea whether this will alter the polls. The speed with which the White House went from “mild symptoms” to “infusion of an experimental drug” and then “transfer to Walter Reed Hospital” makes me wonder just how sick Trump really is. The “several days” may stretch out to weeks. A picture of the Rose Garden ceremony at which Trump introduced his Supreme Court nominee, edited with little red circles around the individuals who have been reported to be positive for the virus, indicates that those five or six people were all sitting quite close to one another in two rows near the very front, which leads me to wonder how many of the other people in those front rows will turn out to be positive for the virus.

 

Is there still a presidential campaign going on? It is rather hard to say. Of one thing I am certain, if I were one of the fatcats invited to the fundraiser where I got up close and personal with Trump after he knew that Hope Hicks had tested positive, I would think twice before I wrote a big check the Republican campaign.

Friday, October 2, 2020

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Like many people my age, I get up several times during the night and last night I learned about Trump's positive test for Covid at about 1:30 AM.  I didn't get much sleep after that and I have spent the entire morning listening to the news and trying to figure out what it means for a campaign that has now only four weeks remaining before election day. Assuming, as I think we must, that the president will recover from the virus without significant short or long-term effects, there are two possibilities: either this diagnosis will make no difference to the outcome of the election or it will hurt Trump. I don't really see how it can possibly hurt Biden. This is the mother of all October surprises, of course, and the principal effect that it will have, I suspect, is on voter turnout which is all important. Should it happen, unlikely as it is, that Trump has a very serious or even fatal case of Covid, then all bets are off.


I have just heard that the Bidens tested negative, thank God.


Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

SERIOUSLY, FOLKS

I have been somewhat puzzled, and a little distressed, by the flood of comments triggered by my response to the debate. In this post I am going to say a series of things that are not very profound and indeed perfectly obvious but which it is important to keep in mind as we go forward.

 

The central problem in making major social change is not to locate the leader with the certifiably pure heart behind whom we can march to a glorious future. Joe Biden is not such a leader. Neither is Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or AOC or Big Bill Hayward or Eugene Debs or Norman Thomas or Ralph Nader or Jill Stein, or Karl Marx for that matter. The central problem is assembling a coalition of millions or even tens of millions of men and women who will do thousands of different things in an effort to make the world somewhat better.

 

Now, I freely confess that at this time and in this place I have no confidence in a program of extralegal violent revolution. I am not ruling it out on principle, but I have noticed that the people to whom I am opposed have many more guns, so violence is probably not a good strategy. Nor is secession, although I admit I am often tempted. Living as I do in North Carolina I think a lot about emigration but at the moment I’m not allowed as an American to get into Paris, France and besides, Paris is currently experiencing an uptick in Covid infections. That leaves organized political action with an aim to electing legislators who will fight in Congress for the sorts of legislation I believe in.

 

The trouble with legislation is that it always involves compromising with people one would rather eviscerate. A key to any serious plan for progressive changes in the United States is assembling a coalition in the Senate willing to vote for progressive legislation and that means making nice to Joe Manchin. It also means giving a big bear hug to Amy Klobuchar and a whole bunch of other centrist Democrats who happen to sit in the Senate (and also, by the way, in the House of Representatives.) Now if that is just too icky for you to contemplate, then the honest thing to do is to admit that you simply are not interested in passing legislation. Then you can settle back on the sidelines and snipe at everybody who does not meet your standard of perfection. I freely admit that that is a tempting and sometimes psychologically rewarding activity, but unfortunately it doesn’t make anybody’s life better.

 

Did anybody who reads this blog ever imagine that Joe Biden would somehow morph into a champion of revolutionary change? So why does it matter whether Biden or Trump is elected? Well, if it is Biden then we can put our shoulders to the wheel and start pushing for real change, which means electing more progressive legislators and making a series of unhappy compromises. If it is Trump, then as I go into the sunset, I will probably find myself sitting in the health center here watching reports of the nomination of Ivanka Trump as our next president after Donald finally decides he has ruled long enough.

 

I would really like that not to be the last thing I see as I shuffle off this mortal coil.