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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

IDLE THOUGHTS

No walk this morning – light rain. As I checked in periodically with cable news yesterday to see whether there was any possibility of the $2000 checks being approved by the Senate, it occurred to me to wonder just how great a burden this would place on the federal budget were it to be passed. I asked Google what interest was being paid these days on treasury notes and came up with the following information:  0.38% on the two-year Treasury note. 0.54% on the 10-year note. 0.99% on the 30-year Treasury bond.   Thus if the United States government were to borrow enough money to permit it to distribute $2000 checks to each of the 200 million least well off Americans, thereby assuming an additional debt of $400 billion, and if it were to raise this money by selling $400 billion in 30 year treasury bonds, it would find itself burdened each year with an additional cost of just a tad less than $4 billion. Since it would receive back a good deal more than $4 billion a year in tax revenues from the increase in economic activity stimulated by these payments, the expenditure would clearly pay for itself. It is a mystery to me why this point is not made by the proponents of the payments in response to the hectoring by the deficit hawks who have newly rediscovered their inner stingy.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

RACE

In my endless quest for quarantine diversion, I have started watching a new Netflix series called Bridgerton.  Set in London in the early 19th century, it could be described as vulgar Jane Austen without the irony but with sex. The most striking thing about the production – I have watched the first two episodes now – is that the producers have cast it with a mixture of black and white actors. For example, the Queen is black and so is a Duke who is clearly going to be one of the main characters. But rather than just mixing them up randomly the producers have arranged it so that black adults have black children and white adults have white children.

 

The effect of this is quite striking. At first when I saw young black men and young black women participating in an elegant upper class dance evening or other social event I thought to myself “is this supposed to represent in some way the effect of the British Empire?” But after a bit, I realized that the casting perhaps had not so much ignored race as deliberately mixed the races of the actors hired.

 

I consider myself as liberated or “woke” as the next viewer but I confess that it is an effort for me simply to ignore race when watching the show. The plot has nothing at all to do with race – it is entirely focused on the question of whether young ladies of upper-class families will find appropriate husbands. The central character is a young woman who is just “coming out” in society and is looking for a husband. She is paired, at least in these opening episodes, with the young man who has just inherited a dukedom and who wishes never to be married. The actress who plays her is white and the actor who plays him is black but this seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the storyline and indeed is not noticed by any of the characters. It is a bit like having Kathleen Battle play Mimi in La Bohème. 

NUMBERS

Ernest Gellner was a philosopher turned ethnographer who caused a scandal in English philosophy with his first book, Words and Things, which was a devastating attack on English ordinary language philosophy. I got to know him in the middle 50s when he visited Harvard for a year (he briefly dated my sister Barbara.) 10 years later on my way back from a conference in Italy I stopped in England and spent the night at Gellner’s home south of London. It happened to be election day in England and we sat in his small cottage watching the results being reported on his little black-and-white television set. I was mesmerized by the reports even though I knew absolutely nothing about English philosophy and had not the slightest idea what the results meant. All my life I have been drawn in this way to the detailed reporting of election results. My favorite cable news reporter in the old days was Chuck Todd who was the numbers guy on MSNBC. When Todd was promoted beyond his level of competence the job fell to Steve Kornacki who became my new favorite along with the CNN numbers guy John King. I have no idea why I am so fascinated by detailed election results. Partly, I suppose, it is just because it is numbers but it is also because the numbers represent something that is actually happening, not somebody’s opinion or commentary or interpretation.

 

Yesterday evening I spent a long while watching the C-SPAN report of the House of Representatives vote to increase the support payments to $2000 a person. The rules of the House being what they are, the motion required two thirds to pass. As most of you I am sure know, C-SPAN gives you a picture of the House on which is superimposed the number of Democrats voting yes or no and not yet voted, the same for the Republicans and for Independents and the totals yea and nay. Because of the virus, the House permits members to vote remotely through the intermediation of a member who is on the floor. There is a little ritual statement that the present members must read out for each vote they are reporting of someone not present.

 

As things got going, I noticed that there were roughly twice as many yeas as nays although for a long time not quite twice and I wondered whether the measure would pass. After a while, I saw that although the reported votes were just barely enough to give two thirds to the yeas, there were roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans who had not yet voted and since it took two Democratic votes yea to balance one Republican vote nay I had doubts that the measure would pass. Finally, all the Democrats had voted – only two voting nay – and the count was 275 yea to 136 nay – just a tad over two thirds. But there were 21 Republicans who had not voted. After a while longer the member in the chair banged her gavel and announced that the measure had passed.

 

Neither on C-SPAN nor, so far as I could make out, in any of the cable news commentary was this interesting fact commented on but it seemed obvious to me what had happened. There were a number of Republicans who were opposed to the measure but did not want to be recorded as having voted against Trump, who of course had called for the $2000 payments, so the whole affair behind the scenes was stage-managed to allow the measure to pass, thereby placating Trump, while permitting these 21 not to be forced to vote contrary to their wishes.

 

We await the action of the Senate, which either will or will not take up the measure today. Trump has claimed that McConnell promised him a vote in the Senate and it will be very interesting to see what McConnell does. My fondest hope is that McConnell brings the measure up, Loeffler and Perdue vote no, and despite that fact it passes, so that the Americans desperately in need of help get the increased amount of money and Loeffler and Perdue are forced to defend their attempt to deny the money to Georgians, thereby causing them to lose a week from today.

 

I mean, it is not too much to ask for my birthday, is it?

Monday, December 28, 2020

A PATHETIC PLEA FOR SYMPATHY

As I have observed before on this blog, an odd thing about the teaching career is that although you get older your students remain the same age. There is a consequence of this curious fact that one tends not to notice when one is young but which becomes more important as the years go by, namely that there is always a new audience for one’s shtick. For example, I first taught The Critique of Pure Reason in the spring of 1960 and during that course I laid before my students a revolutionary interpretation of the central passages of that great book, an interpretation I had just come up with months earlier. That was 60 years ago and the students in that course are now in their 80s but as the years went by I taught The Critique 12 or 13 times more and each time, happily for me, the students were young undergraduates or graduate students for whom what I was saying was fresh and new. Over the years, I taught courses on game theory, on political theory, on the thought of Marx, and all manner of other things but each time as I repeated what I had said in earlier iterations of the same course it was to new students for whom it was fresh and novel. I kind of got used to that and liked it. Not only was my textual interpretation new to each group of students, so were my stories which, as I am sure you have figured out, I inordinately enjoy telling.

 

When I started blogging 11 years ago I had a lifetime of theoretical work stored up and, or so it probably seemed to my readers, several lifetimes of stories. But there are limits, after all, to the stories even of an inveterate storyteller and so I have learned to exercise some caution on this blog before telling one of my old favorites. Fortunately, Google has added an app to its blog structure that enables me to search in an instant all my previous posts.

 

Well, as I was taking my morning walk in a relatively balmy 32°, it occurred to me to do my comic turn on degrees of separation, something that has always been a hit when I did it in a class. You know, the bit about how I am connected by three degrees of separation to Jeremy Bentham. Aware that I have become rather forgetful in my old age, I activated the app and discovered to my horror that I had told the story twice before on this blog, the last time only two months ago! So much for that idea.

 

But then I thought, it really is not fair. I mean if someone said “I have two tickets to Itzhak Perlman playing the Beethoven violin Concerto, do you want to come?” I would not say “no thanks, I heard Milstein play it in 1956.” Good Lord, I must have watched Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility five times and I love it every time.

 

So as you prepare for a boisterous evening of online in-home New Year’s Eve celebrating, give a thought to the ancient mariner who stoppeth one of three.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

THANK YOU ALL

For the kind words and birthday wishes. They are greatly appreciated no matter the language in which they are expressed. 


As I was taking my morning walk in the 24° temperature, it occurred to me that this might be a good day to try one more time to explain, without the mathematics, the central thought that I expressed in my 1981 essay on Marx's labor theory of value. It could be a good way to distract me from the terrible condition that this country is now in with a pandemic killing 3000 Americans a day, a president soothing his wounded feelings by causing as much pain as possible, a Republican party finally revealing the true emptiness of its soul and countless Americans, having joined a death cult, refusing to believe in the reality of the virus even as they lie dying in intensive care.


How is that for birthday cheer?

Saturday, December 26, 2020

A PAUSE TO LOOK BACK AND REFLECT

I was born on December 27, 1933. Today is therefore the last day of my 87th year. As I prepare to launch into my 88th year, it occurred to me to look back over the course of my life and remember things I have accomplished of which I am proud, before, in the words of Marc Antony, they are interred with my bones.

 

Far and away the two things of which I am most proud are my really quite minimal role in the creating of my two sons, Patrick Gideon Wolff and Tobias Barrington Wolff, and the somewhat larger role I played in raising them to be the splendid men they now are. I bathed them, I changed their diapers, I gave them their bottles, I took them to doctors and to dentists, I went to their teacher conferences, I taught Patrick to play chess and read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy to Tobias (or Toby, as he was then called.) But mostly I just stood by and marveled to see how they turned out. If I have done nothing else in my life, this alone is enough to justify the space I have taken up on the earth during these 87 years.

 

Leaving aside my writings, which in my mind occupy an entirely separate space, I have enjoyed creating or participating in the creation of academic programs, an activity that I have returned to repeatedly during my half century teaching career. In my third year of regular teaching, I played a minor role in creating and then for a year ran an undergraduate interdisciplinary program at Harvard called Social Studies, whose graduates after 60 years include such varied former students as E. J. Dionne, the current president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Merrick Garland. 13 years later, shortly after arriving at the University of Massachusetts, I created a perpetually underfunded but much more interesting left-wing version of Social Studies called Social Thought and Political Economy, or STPEC as the UMass computer labeled it. STPEC is now approaching its half-century anniversary and with a little luck I hope to be able to attend the festivities. Quite my most consequential creation was a scholarship program designed to help poor black young men and women in South Africa attend historically black universities there. I ran University Scholarships for South African Students pretty much single-handedly for 25 years and managed during that time to help roughly 1600 poor South African students get a chance at a tertiary education.

 

In some ways my quirkiest creative act was prompted more by anger than by ideological commitment. My first wife, on her way to a distinguished career as a literary scholar, suffered a series of insults, slights, and professional setbacks due entirely to her gender, particularly during her early years in the 1960s. Unable to do anything at all to help her because of the stovepiped character of the Academy, I conceived in 1969 the idea of getting the American Philosophical Association to establish a Standing Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. I drafted a letter to the president of the APA, got some well-known philosophers to sign it, and was successful. It is decades since I have had anything to do with the APA but I believe the committee still exists and I hope it has had some effect on improving the conditions of professional life for women in philosophy.

 

Save for the South African scholarship program, which I sustained for a quarter of a century, and always leaving to one side my sons, that is not much to boast about for a man about to become 87. But it is not nothing.

A WORD OF THANKS

The extremely knowledgeable responses to my clueless post about the word “doula” put me in mind of my favorite memory of the Academy. Back in the early 80s when I had moved to the Boston area so that my first wife could take up a professorship at MIT, I attended a simply lovely series of events at Boston University hosted by something called The Colloquium for the History and Philosophy of Science. The Colloquium was run by two members of the philosophy department, Bob Cohen and Marx Wartofsky. Bob and Marx had the broadest conceivable notion of what counted as the history and philosophy of science so the topics of the periodic colloquia were as diverse as could be imagined. If you got to be one of the favored insiders, which I did after a bit, you were invited to a dinner for the evening speaker with maybe 20 or 30 attendees. It was, I thought, far and away the most perfect embodiment of the ideal of the Academy that I had ever encountered.

 

One of the odd and rather magical features of the events was that no matter how arcane the topic, somehow there would show up to the talk someone who was an expert on it and could ask penetrating questions far above the paygrade of the rest of us. The most memorable example of this quirk was an evening devoted to a gruesome lecture on the practices of the ancient Aztecs delivered by a professor from the University of Massachusetts medical school in Worcester. (The Aztecs, according to this chap, had the practice of skinning their victims alive and then wearing the skin as clothing!) We all sat there trying hard not to barf and wondering what on earth anybody could ask to create the simulacrum of a conversation once the talk ended. 


Not to worry! Sure enough, when Bob called for questions a young man rose from the back of the audience and announced that he was in fact a descendent of the Aztecs. He then proceeded to ask a series of hostile questions that amused the rest of us no end while getting us off the hook.

 

Sometimes I think that without actually intending to I have re-created an Internet version of the colloquium that Bob and Marx headed up for so many years.

Friday, December 25, 2020

SPOILER ALERT

Merry Christmas! (That is not the spoiler alert.) If you are a crossword puzzle solver and have not yet done the New York Times puzzle stop reading.  


I learned a new word today while solving the New York Times crossword puzzle. The clue was "labor leader?" By getting a variety of intersecting answers, I came up with the letters "doula" which eventually turned out to be correct, but I had not the foggiest idea what the word was or what it meant. After I had solved the puzzle, I looked it up. A doula is "a woman, typically without formal obstetric training, who is employed to provide guidance and support to a pregnant woman during labor."I do not even have any notion what language this word comes from.  It does not sound Indo-European.


A small Christmas present to my readers.


Addendum: it turns out it is a classical Greek word meaning "female slave."

Thursday, December 24, 2020

IN CASE I HAD ANY DOUBTS ABOUT MY ADDICTION

At 10 AM this morning, just about an hour ago, I lost connection to the Internet. After restarting my computer several times and doing stuff like that in an increasing panic, I went downstairs to the lobby of my building to see whether my iPhone could connect down there and I met several other residents who told me that there was a general outage in the Chapel Hill area and Spectrum was working as hard as they could to restore service. I felt like an addict who had just learned that my supplier was out sick with a cold. How on earth did I survive without it for 65 years?


On the matter of the absurd prices charged for out-of-print books, I do not think booksellers actually expect to get those prices. There must be some other reason why they do that.


Well, I am not in position to hand out any pardons but I will say Merry Christmas to one and all – and I say that as a lifetime nonbeliever.


This has been a perfectly terrible year-long conclusion to an awful four years and I insist on believing that things will get better by next summer. Meanwhile, we have a genuine chance in Georgia. God bless Stacey Abrams!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

FURTHER REPONSE

Regarding David G’s point about the divorce of corporate ownership from management, this is a major consideration which I have discussed, I believe, on a variety of occasions on this blog, referring all the way back to the classic book by Gardner and Means.  There is no question that this divorce of ownership from corporate control has permitted senior management at large corporations essentially to steal a portion of the corporation’s profits and redirected it into their pockets in the form of excessive salary and benefits.  That is an important story but not the one I was concerned with in my post. 


Let us put some numbers to this discussion to make it a little bit more concrete. The median wage for full-time employed American workers is currently in the range of $40,000 a year plus or minus. But there are some millions of workers not in senior management positions making eighty thousand or hundred thousand or hundred twenty thousand a year. If my hypothesis is correct, why do not the senior managers drive those salaries down by tens of thousands of dollars and open the jobs up to workers who do not have college credentials, thus creating the sort of competition for the somewhat but not dramatically better jobs that would make it possible for them to be filled at those reduced salaries?

 

We have become so accustomed to the present state of affairs that we very rarely ask what its origin or rationale is. I am genuinely puzzled by this and I do not have a ready answer to my own questions.

A MEDITATION ON SOME COMMENTS

In responding to some interesting comments to my last post, I should like to take the opportunity to explore once again the subject that has troubled me for a long time and on which I have, I believe, commented a number of times on this blog. At the end of a suggestive comment, David G writes:  “A third change: unlike 70 years ago, college now provides the necessary entry ticket into most good-paying jobs—I guess you could call that an "improvement"? That may be more of an explanation for tuition increases, though I don't think it explains the explosion in college tuition over the past 10–20 years.”

 

As I have several times observed, in 1950 when I first went to college only 5% of adults in America had college degrees, which meant that most of the positions in the economy that now require a college degree were filled by people who did not have one. Today by way of contrast one third of adults 26 years old and older have college degrees. I do not think one can explain the change by some sort of dramatic upgrading of the skills and training required by jobs these days. These days to get into a management training position in a big corporation you need a Bachelor’s degree and possibly also an MBA. Whatever it is you learn on the way to earning those degrees, I seriously doubt that much of it is required to do well as a management trainee.

 

Because of the steeply pyramidal structure of the modern capitalist job world, with good salaries and good fringe benefits available in only a minority of job openings, there is, inevitably, severe competition for those relatively scarce good jobs. The result is credential creep and the privileging of those whose credentials are acquired at a small number of “good” schools. 51 years ago, in my little book The Ideal of the University I proposed random admission to colleges and universities as a way both of eliminating the pressure on elementary and high school students to get into the “good” schools (which is to say schools that provide what David G calls the necessary entry ticket into most good paying jobs) and of eliminating most if not all of the advantage to be gained from securing one’s credential at an elite school. I suspect the value of the credential from the elite school in contemporary society, in combination with the variety of other things commenters mentioned, explains a good deal of the soaring tuition price.

 

But that still leaves open the question why the job world has the steeply pyramidal compensation structure that we see today. And this is a question whose answer has been puzzling me for many years. Indeed, in the essay The Future of Socialism which I wrote and never published some years ago, I observed that Marx’s failure to anticipate this pyramidal structure was one of his three big failures.

 

One obvious answer to the question is, I believe, clearly wrong, namely that the higher pay of the good jobs is required to compensate workers for the cost of acquiring the specialized skills demanded by those jobs. There are two reasons why I think this is wrong. The first is that societies around the world have long since socialized the basic literacy and numeracy skills required for modern jobs through the institution of free elementary and secondary public education and there is no reason at all for not doing the same with regard to any additional skills needed by jobs that now place one in the middle or upper middle-class. The second problem with this explanation is that the lifetime compensation for the good jobs so far exceeds the cost of tertiary education that that cost cannot reasonably explain how much that lifetime compensation exceeds the lifetime compensation of jobs not requiring a tertiary degree.

 

I am not interested in arguing about whether people who bother to get the tertiary degree deserve the higher wages. What puzzles me is that employers who are everywhere and always eager to drive down the wages of their employees should collectively agree to reproduce a pyramidal wage structure that essentially has the effect of transferring a portion of the surplus to the higher paid workers, something that capital in general is not known for.

 

More and more these days capital is driving down labor costs by undermining labor unions, and by substituting contract employees and temporary employees for regular full-time employees. As I think I have observed before in these pages, the modern gig economy, as it has come to be called, is a recent perfection of this repressive tendency.

 

Since employers have no hesitation about driving down the wages of their lower paid employees, what on earth keeps them from driving down the wages of their higher paid employees? I simply do not understand. How might an employer do this? Well, one answer is to lower the wages of the higher paid employees while simultaneously throwing the positions open to jobseekers who do not have tertiary degrees. Since I am absolutely convinced that what college students gain from a college education is, for the most part, not at all required for the successful performance of the jobs they eventually get, the employers would lose nothing in productivity and gain something in a smaller wages bill.

 

But the pyramid of worker compensation seemingly gets steeper, not less steep, as the years go by. I confess that I just do not understand it.

 

Needless to say, my 51-year-old proposal for random admissions to colleges and universities is not about to be adopted but if it were, I am persuaded that the good effects would be enormous. Would employers continue to favor graduates of the Ivy League if they knew that the graduates of those elite institutions were as students no better than the graduates of UMass or Ball State or North Carolina Central University?

 

It is an interesting question.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

BY COMPARISON

 The price of a Ford 4-door sedan has risen about 40% in the past seventy years in 2020 dollars, but of course it now has automatic transmission, power doors, power windows, and all manner of other improvements.

Monday, December 21, 2020

A RESPONSE TO SOME INTERESTING COMMENTS

Let me say some things in response to the very interesting series of comments on my most recent post. First, a word about the cost of books. My comment was rather cavalier and anonymous was right to call me out on it. Books are not part of the cost of tuition as anonymous, I think, recognized. Still and all, think about it for a minute. Suppose that 70 years ago, when I started my undergraduate education, one took 10 courses a year, five each semester. (Harvard required four each semester but since I went through in three years I took five.) In the humanities and social sciences, suppose that five dollars on average could buy you the books for the semester in a course (let me leave to one side expensive and repeatedly updated textbooks – that is a somewhat separate matter.) 10 courses a year, five dollars a course, books cost $50. $50 in 1950 is the equivalent of $520 or so in 2020. The books for 10 courses would cost more than that today but not $4800! So books have risen in real price much much less than tuition.

 

I should not comment on the cost of frequently revised textbooks because I have been the beneficiary of that system over the past half-century. Almost 50 years ago, Prentice-Hall asked me to write an introductory philosophy text, which I agreed to do for an advance large enough to allow my then wife to take a semester off from teaching so that she could complete a book that she was writing. 13 editions later, that book has made me $1 million in 2020 terms and although I think it is a good book, the revisions were dictated by the desire of the publisher to make money (and of course thereby to keep my royalties flowing), not by any desire to “keep up” with the fast-moving field of philosophy. Think badly of me if you will – I will remain silent on the subject.

 

More central to the topic of my post are the comments which emphasized the enormous bloat of the nonacademic components of the modern university. Once again, let me offer a personal anecdote. In the old days at Harvard the University put out a slender paperback book with a Harvard crimson colored cover listing all of the “officers of instruction,” which is to say professors, deans, research associates, and so forth, each with his or her address, telephone number, etc. It was a convenient way to find someone around the University. When I looked at that book 30 or 40 years later I discovered that it had ballooned into a big thick volume even though the number of students at the University had been increased only slightly by the addition of the women who had previously been Radcliffe students. It was a physical manifestation of the bloat that several commentators called attention to.

 

Let me add one more observation to this discussion. When the tuition at Harvard and Columbia was $600 a year, a young undergraduate could hope to get a job paying anywhere from $0.75 to a dollar an hour. At a dollar an hour, the student would have to work for 600 hours to earn his or her tuition. 600 hours is 15 weeks at 40 hours a week, which means that if you really wanted to you could, as the saying then had it, “work your way through college” with a summer job. Today, an industrious student could reasonably hope to get a $10 an hour job which means that he or she would have to work 5400 hours to earn a year’s tuition at Columbia. In short, this poor student would have to work more than 100 hours a week year-round.

 

Now what on earth does the society have to gain from raising the cost of a college education so much that it is impossible to work one’s way through college and come out the other end unburdened by debt? Well, one simple answer is that in such a world, bright conscientious progressive students will be much less tempted, when they leave college, to go out and try to change the world as opposed to conforming to its demands and securing a job that gives them some hope of paying off their student debts.

 

As old-time Marxists would say, it is no accident that the soaring cost of a college education began its precipitous rise during the late 60s and early 70s.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

A BIT OF CLARIFICATION

First of all, I want to apologize. I misrepresented the rise in the cost of a Columbia education. If one leaves aside the cost of room, board, and other fees, the rise in the cost of tuition in 2020 dollars between 1950 and the present day is not, as I stated 1200%. It is only 965%.

 

Why the enormous increase in real cost? It is not because the education is significantly better. I think I can testify to that from personal experience. In 1950 I was a freshman at Harvard and it is reasonable to suppose that the educations provided by Harvard and Columbia were comparable. 10 years later I was teaching at Harvard and I know from personal experience that the education had not significantly improved – not any worse you understand, just not any better. 10 years after that in 1970 I was teaching at Columbia and again I can testify from personal experience that the education we offered the undergraduates was as good as, but no better than, the education I offered to Harvard students in 1960 or the education I received in 1950. 48 years later I returned to teach again at Columbia, and I found that the education was still as good as it had been in 1970.  Indeed, since the centerpiece of the Columbia undergraduate education is a course called Contemporary Civilization, or CC, and since that course has existed since 1919 with changes, to be sure, but not really improvements, students in 2020 receive an education not merely as good as that received by students in 1950 but essentially the same.

 

So the product has not improved. What about the cost of producing it? Well, leaving aside the natural sciences which require somewhat more expensive equipment now than in 1950, or so I imagine, an undergraduate education at Columbia or Harvard required then and requires now two things: books and teachers. The books are not more expensive. What about the teachers? There again I can offer some personal experience by way of evidence.

 

In 1960, as a young instructor at Harvard, I was paid $6500 a year. That is, in today’s dollars, a bit more than $57,000. I do not actually know for a fact but it is my impression that assistant professors at Harvard today (I think they have gotten rid of instructors) in the humanities make roughly twice that – not seven times that or nine times that, just twice that. 10 years later I was a newly promoted full professor at Columbia making $19,000 a year. That is $126,000 in today’s terms and although I am sure full professors make more than that at Columbia today in the humanities, I would be extremely surprised if they made as much is twice that.

 

So why the enormous increase in the cost of tuition? Well, far be it from me to probe the motivations of the Columbia administration but let me add one more bit of data by way of introducing a little light into this murky subject. In 1950, roughly 2200 young men applied to Harvard for admission (it was of course all men in those days). 1650 were admitted and 1250 showed up to form the class of 1954. So if you were trying to get into Harvard in 1950, you had a 75% chance of success and I rather guess that the figures were roughly the same for Columbia.

 

Why do Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and all the other hotshot schools charge so much tuition?

 

Because they can.

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL

Regular readers of this blog know that in the fall of 2018 and again in the fall of 2019 I taught at Columbia University. Todd Gitlin and I co-taught an advanced seminar that I devised called Mystifications of Social Reality. I enjoyed the opportunity enormously. Each Tuesday I would get up early, drive to the airport, take a plane to New York and a bus to Columbia and teach for several hours, then retrace my steps getting home late that night. Needless to say, the arrival of the virus put an end to such things. Columbia has been torn up for the past 10 months and is still unclear how it is going to handle its courses going forward. I read in the student newspaper that the undergraduates have organized a tuition protest, calling for Columbia to reduce its tuition by 10%. Since the tuition now is roughly 1200% larger, in constant dollars, than it was in 1950 when I started my Harvard education, even though the education Columbia is giving its students now is not notably better or indeed notably different from the education it gave to it students 70 years ago, a request for a 10% reduction strikes me as entirely reasonable, but that is neither here nor there.

 

With the arrival of the vaccine, I have started daydreaming about the possibility of once again teaching at Columbia, although at this point I have not the foggiest idea whether that is a realistic hope. Rather than going back to teaching the course I taught earlier, I have been thinking about creating a new seminar that I would teach by myself rather than with Todd. I have given it a deliberately provocative name: Marx, Freud, Marcuse: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. The idea would be to introduce the students to the thought of Marx and Freud in very much the way that I did in my YouTube lectures and then read several books by Herbert Marcuse to study the ways in which the Frankfurt school sought to fuse the insights of Marx and Freud into a unified understanding of the ideological structure of mature capitalism. I think the course would be a hoot if I could find a department willing to host it.

 

We shall see.


Friday, December 18, 2020

A BRIEF RESPONSE TO A MULTI-PART COMMENT

No sooner had I lifted the moratorium then MS posted a three-part comment of considerable length. I really do not want to get into a discussion of whether the comments section of a blog is more like a dinner party or a town square but since the three-part comment was an extended discussion of my little book In Defense of Anarchism I feel called upon to respond.

 

Somewhat more than the first third of the comment is taken up by a series of quotations from the book. Then MS begins with what I must confess I found a rather puzzling paragraph. MS writes “Neither you nor I, nor any other readers of your blog, can know to what extent Trump’s actions are intended, in his mind, to maximize his autonomy, at the same time as conforming to what he regards as his moral imperative. Moreover, none of us can know that of anybody else.” My immediate response is: of course I can know that, either about Trump or about other people. I may in fact not know it because I lack sufficient information in this particular case, although quite frankly I think I have more than enough information about Trump to make a reasoned judgment about the matter. But unless one wants to embrace an extreme position with regard to what used to be called in philosophy “the problem of other minds,” it seems to me obvious that all of us go through life making judgments of this sort all the time about the intentions, beliefs, plans, desires, reasons for action, self justifications, self deceptions, and motivations of other people. Indeed, that is most of what we do in our social life.

 

It is clear that MS agrees with this because he begins own his discussion by saying  “I believe that I, as a sentient being, have an obligation to respect the needs and aspirations of other sentient beings – as long as those needs and aspirations also respect the needs and aspirations of other sentient beings, e.g., do not cause others pain, do not without legitimate justification (i.e., commission of a crime) deprive them of their physical freedom - and that this requires compromise and coordination, which in turn requires acceptance of the authority mutually reached through the exercise of compromise and coordination.” But if you think you have an obligation to respect the needs and aspirations of other sentient beings, then you obviously think you can know what those needs and aspirations are, and if you can know that, then why on earth cannot you also know the extent to which Trump’s actions, or those of anybody else, are intended to do this or that or the other thing. I mean, you cannot have it both ways.

 

MS then drifts off into a discussion that does not really engage at all with my argument regarding autonomy. My question in that extended essay was this: is there ever a de jure legitimate state, in the sense of a state whose commands I have some obligation to obey merely because they have been issued? My answer is quite simply, no. I go to some lengths in my little book to make it clear that this has nothing to do with the question whether in some circumstances – whether in fact in most circumstances – I have an independent moral obligation as an autonomous agent to conform myself to certain of the commands of those who claim legitimate authority because in my judgment my conforming to those commands is, taking everything into account, best. To give a deliberately trivial example, if I am driving on the roads of a country ruled by a group of people who claim – incorrectly on my view – to have legitimate authority, I will in most cases drive on whichever side of the road they command me to drive on because to do otherwise would put myself and other drivers in jeopardy and that, I judge, would be wrong of me.

 

My little book is so short that rather than rehearse its arguments I will simply suggest that anyone interested read it. All of this is so simple and straightforward that it need not be elaborated at great length but let me make one final observation. Perhaps I can tie it to one of my favorite quotations from Shakespeare, a line by Owen Glendower in Henry IV part one. The conspirators are making their plans and Glendower rather grandly says “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” To which one of the characters replies “why so can I, and so can any man/but do they come when you do call them?” Trump or anyone can claim to be acting for the purpose of expanding or solidifying his or her autonomy. That by itself is not much of a response to an accusation of self-interest.

 

One final point. There are rules, which MS knows better than I, regulating what evidence must be placed into the record in a legal proceeding to establish motivation. There are also professional restrictions placed on psychiatrists regarding public speculations concerning the psychological condition of persons who are not their patients and whom indeed they have never met. But at least for 4 or 5 thousand years and probably for much longer, people have been making judgments about the motivations of others. I think it is perfectly sensible for them to do so and that has nothing whatsoever to do with the questions I discussed in my little book.

 

I hope this clears things up a bit but if not, I urge MS to restrain himself from extended  responses on this blog.

 

 

RHE RETURN OF THE USUAL SUSPECTS

The natives are getting restless so I will cancel the timeout and welcome back the usual suspects. Thank you for taking a week off. It gave a number of people a chance to comment who do not usually show up on the blog and I think that was a good thing.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

THINGS YOU LEARN FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES CROSSWORD PUZZLE

Spoiler alert: if you have not yet done the New York Times crossword puzzle do not read this post.


The Thursday puzzle always has a gimmick. Today's puzzle is built around Beethoven's Fifth.  One of the clues reveals that this month is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. Who knew? Somehow it seems like only yesterday. But of course Bach was born 335 years ago! So was Handel, by the way.


How time flies when you are having fun…

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

NOW, NOW, DON'T DESPAIR

Well, as everybody knew he would, Biden is selecting a cabinet of Obama retreads sprinkled with token minorities, while he talks about reaching across the aisle to work productively with his old buddies in the Republican Senate caucus.Nobody should be surprised about this. It is why he was not at the top of our list of preferred candidates during the primaries. It may be that as a consequence of the pandemic and the strength of white privilege anxiety In broad swaths of the electorate, he is the only candidate who could actually have defeated Trump, but we will never know and now he is what we have.


What must we do? The answer is obvious, albeit depressing. First we do whatever we can to help Stacy Abrams in Georgia.Then we throw all of our support behind progressive Democrats in Congress and in state and local government while also supporting progressive nongovernmental organizations with money and with our time and effort if that is possible for us (as it no longer is, alas, for me.)


As I indicated the day before yesterday, the accident of when I was born and grew up gave me an irrational optimism about the possibility for progressive politics in America and since I seem to be a slow learner, it is taken me 40 years to realize the weakness of the foundations of that optimism. But we have no choice. Not for us the poetic exclamation "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven."

DOWN MEMORY LANE

A reader who knows something of my past sent me a link to this story in the New York Times. It concerns an effort to keep alive large numbers of little bugs, useful in scientific research, known colloquially as fruit flies. This story took me back to 1948 when my big sister, Barbara, was a senior at Forest Hills high school in Queens, New York. The chairman of the biology department, Paul Brandwein, had decided to make a run at the newly established national competition for high school science students sponsored by the Westinghouse Corporation. The competition was officially called The Westinghouse Science Talent Search. High school seniors all over America took a written science examination and did science research projects which they wrote up and submitted. 40 girls and boys (we talked that way then) were selected as national winners on the basis of their projects, having already made it to Honorable Mention status by their performance on the examination. They were then brought to Washington DC for a one-week all-expenses-paid trip where they were interviewed by scientists. A top boy and top girl in the competition each received a college scholarship of $2400, which in those days paid for four years of tuition.

 

Barbara was the grand national girl winner her year with a project on phenocopies in Drosophila Melanogaster – fruit flies. Fruit flies are beloved by geneticists because apparently they have enormous chromosomes, making them easy to study under the microscope (this is 72 years ago, remember.) Barbara irradiated fruit flies with ultraviolet light, causing them to produce somatic changes that mimicked genetic changes but were in fact not inheritable. She used a microscope that my father had kept in the basement, a relic of his long years as a high school biology teacher (and a friend of Brandwein.) Barbara did her best to confine her research to the basement but inevitably some of the little critters escaped and every evening as the family sat at dinner a little crowd of fruit flies gathered over the table.

 

As I think I have recounted in my autobiography, I as the little brother actually got in on the act at one point. Barbara was invited to make a presentation of her research at a science fair in Manhattan but the date coincided with her interview at Swarthmore College so I was deputized to take her place.

 

Ever since these events so long ago, fruit flies have had a special place in my heart and I was pleased to read that they are being looked after so well.


The Westinghouse, as we called it colloquially, was taken over by Intel and in 2007, AOC came in second in the microbiology category (by then they no longer had "girl" and "boy" divisions.) This fact inclined me to support her even before I had a clear idea of her politics.:-)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

A LIFE

I was born at the very end of 1933, just too late to be around for FDR’s first victory. If you will give me that one, then I have been alive for a total of 23 presidential elections. They divide naturally into three sequences of nine, six, and eight: FDR, FDR, FDR, FDR, HST, DDE, DDE, JFK, LBJ is the first; RMN, RMN, JEC, RN, RN, GHWC is the second; and WJC, WJC, GWB, GWB, BHO, BHO, DJT, JB is the third. The Democrats won the popular vote in seven of the first nine elections, in one of the next six, and then in seven of the final eight. In all, since 1932, the Democrats have won the popular vote two thirds of the time during my life.

 

Inasmuch as I was 19 years old before I saw a Republican in the White House – and a RINO at that – it is perhaps understandable that I grew up thinking the only serious political question in American presidential politics was what sort of Democrat would be president. During the terrible middle years, from 1968 to 1992, I was primarily devoted first to being the father of two young boys and then to 15 years of immersion in the theories of Karl Marx, and although I was “political” during those years, parenthood and the study of Marx made a deeper impression on me than the larger events going on in the public world.

 

None of this has anything at all to do with what was and is happening politically but it has everything to do with how I have internalized and reacted to the events of the past 87 years. I grew up believing that unions were the wave of the future, not relics of the past. For me, the Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War were experienced as signs of the fundamental health of the American polity and harbingers of better times to come. My rational evaluation of modern American history is quite different from this, but I realize now that my emotional response has been powerfully affected by the accident of what was happening in America when I was growing up for those first 20 years or so.

 

All of this is by way of saying that the Trump presidency and the Republican Party’s response to his loss in this last election has deeply shaken my quite irrational confidence in the basic political health of the American electorate. It is just as well that I have declared a one-week moratorium on comments from the usual group because I really do not need to be told about all the bad things that were done by Roosevelt, by Truman, by Eisenhower, by Kennedy, by Johnson, by Clinton, or by Obama, or about the terrible things that will be done by Biden. I know all that. I am talking about the way in which the accidents of my time of birth have shaped my emotional responses to the world, not about my mature political judgments of that world.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

FYI

Since questions arose, just before I declared a moratorium, concerning the conditions under which a nuclear weapon will explode I thought I would say a few words of explanation. I am no kind of physicist but back in the day when I spent a good deal of my time as part of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament I had to learn some of this stuff up and it sort of stays with you.

 

The crucial point to remember is that the mass of an atom is determined both by the number of protons and neutrons it contains and also by the amount of energy, in the form of mass, required to hold it together. Some atoms either in their standard form or in their isotope form are sufficiently unstable to break down periodically, giving off an amount of energy determined by the famous formula e=mc2. Since the constant c stands for the speed of light which is 300,000 km/s, the energy equivalent of even a very small bit of mass is obviously very large.

 

Very heavy atoms like uranium and plutonium are unstable and break down into their component parts regularly without external prodding. Sometimes when one of those atoms spontaneously breaks down, it gives off an alpha particle that hits another atom of the same material and causes it to break up as well. But since, contrary to intuition, most of supposedly solid matter is actually empty space, the likelihood of this happening is rather small. If you cram enough uranium or plutonium into a small enough space you can raise the likelihood of a series of such break ups, called a chain reaction.

 

All of this was well understood theoretically at the time during the second world war when both the allies and the axis had a go at creating a weapon out of nuclear materials. All the physicists involved knew that the amount of energy that could be released by such a chain reaction was enormous but the engineering problem was how to get the chain reaction to start and carry on for some period of time (a microsecond, actually) before the explosion produced scattered the material and stopped the chain reaction.

 

The amount of energy produced by even a primitive so-called atomic bomb was beyond anything human beings had ever produced. The super big conventional bombs carried by Allied bombers in the air raids over Germany were as large as 1 ton or 2000 pounds of TNT. That is a monster big bomb but the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were rated not in equivalent thousands of pounds of TNT but in equivalent thousands of tons of TNT – hence the invention of the term kiloton.

 

The secret of making the damn thing work turned out to be creating a sheath of conventional explosive around two components of uranium or plutonium, neither one large enough all by itself to produce a chain reaction, and then exploding the sheath inward, or imploding it, so that the two components were jammed together by the explosion and held there just long enough to produce a chain reaction of enormous explosive power.

 

Blowing up a functional atomic bomb by hitting it with a missile would scatter the material harmlessly (setting aside for the moment the effect of the radiation produced by the components). The likelihood that such a missile attack would literally trigger the explosive mechanism and cause the atomic bomb to explode as intended is virtually nil.

 

So what on earth is a hydrogen bomb? Well, it turns out that if you arrange all the elements in order of their atomic weight from the very lightest, which is hydrogen, to the very heaviest which is uranium or plutonium, in each case the heavier atom is a trace heavier than the combined component atoms resulting from a breakup, the additional weight consisting of the mass form of the energy holding the parts of the atom together.

 

Except one case. If you break up one atom of helium, which has an atomic weight of four, which is to say two protons and two neutrons, into two atoms of so-called heavy hydrogen, which is to say an isotope of hydrogen with one proton and one neutron, the two atoms of heavy hydrogen weigh more than the one atom of helium! This means that if you could find a way of combining two atoms of heavy hydrogen into one atom of helium, energy would be released. The amount of energy, it turned out, is enormous even by atom bomb standards. But there is a problem: this process of combining hydrogen atoms into helium – the same process, by the way, that generates the energy of the sun – requires enormous temperatures. But the yield is vast – measured not in thousands of tons of TNT equivalent but in millions of tons. Hence the new term “megaton.”

 

Heavy hydrogen exists in nature in very small quantities in ocean water and if you are willing to take the trouble of processing huge amounts of that ocean water you can extract heavy hydrogen and use it to make an H – bomb, with an A-bomb trigger. During the second world war the scientists gathered at Los Alamos undertook to create a uranium bomb, and they solve the problem of how to trigger it with a covering of conventional explosive (this was of course an international group of scientists and it turns out that the shape of the conventional explosive that is optimally effective is roughly that of a soccer ball!) The Germans made the mistake of trying to create a fusion bomb, not realizing that it would require an atomic bomb trigger. They had a big plant processing ocean water at Peenemünde, which was raided by the allies in an important air raid.

 

Well, that just about exhausts my understanding of these matters but readers of this blog might find this interesting. 

A REQUEST TO THE USUAL SUSPECTS

Google tells me how many times each day my blog is visited, but it does not tell me how many individual people visit. Now, it is obvious that some people check in many times each day and I would imagine that there are regular readers who do not check in every day, so taking all and all I think there must be perhaps several thousand people around the world who could be considered regular readers of this blog.

 

The comments section is dominated by no more than seven or eight people, depending on how you disambiguate the anonymati. It may of course be that the rest of the readers have no interest in commenting but every so often I catch sight of an interesting comment that almost gets lost in the flood of MS multipart comments or S. Wallerstein’s comments or those of LFC.

 

I feel like the teacher in whose classroom two or three of the students dominate the discussion while less forward members of the class sit quietly. I would like to give those other 2000 or so people a chance to speak up if they wish without feeling that they must push their way into the discussion. So I am going to ask that for one week starting today, the small number of regular commentators simply remain silent. I am aware that I can curate the blog and painstakingly delete all of the comments by the usual suspects but I do not want to do that. The comments are not unwarranted or uninteresting or inappropriate, although they do seem to be getting more querulous and petulant, but they simply take up all the available oxygen in the comments space.

 

So I will ask you please if you have been one of the regular commenters simply to withhold your comments for one week. No cute little remarks with a self-deprecating apology for breaking silence or any nonsense like that. Just knock it off for one week and give other people a chance.

 

Now it is entirely possible that when this quiet empty space appears in the comments section, none of those folks who have up till now not commented will seize the opportunity. They may be quite content to read what is on the blog without nodding in. So be it. We shall see for one week whether there are folks out there who have been wanting to speak up but have been put off by the flood of comments from those who appear so often.

 

I shall continue to blog of course. I mean, it is my blog after all so the timeout does not apply to me. I am counting on the rest of you to respect my wishes.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

THINGS DON'T LOOK GOOD

I am growing increasingly apprehensive about the near term political future and tranquility of this country. I am especially concerned about the decision of a large group of Republican attorneys general to join the Texas suit calling for the overthrow of the presidential results in four states that went for Biden. I think it is extremely unlikely that the Supreme Court will even consider the case and if they were actually to rule in favor of the appellants you could write the epitaph of what counts as American democracy. But consider what this suit does. It puts high-ranking officials in 12 states publicly on record as claiming that Biden has not been legitimately elected. Add that to the silence of all but a handful of congressional Republicans and you have a festering disaster. Perhaps 40 or 50 million Americans who already believe the election was “rigged” now have the support of a large number of respected or at least putatively respected state public officials who not merely echo conspiracy theories but have actually put their names to a legal filing with the Supreme Court of the United States.

 

This is not going away. In the middle run it could be the death of the Republican Party as we know it but in the short run it is going to make it almost impossible for Biden to govern. His first task will be to oversee the vaccination of 250 million or more Americans and noncitizen residents. Suppose the rollout of the vaccine begins and Biden gets praise in the media for it, as would be customary with such an effort under any president. Trump will begin by claiming credit, but if he is not given that credit, does anyone think that he would not try to undermine the effort by claiming that the vaccine is illegitimate or dangerous or unnecessary?

 

Blithely optimistic commentators keep saying that after the electoral college meets or after the Congress votes to accept their report Republican legislators will start acknowledging that Biden is the duly elected president. I think that is extremely unlikely, especially in light of such developments as the action of the Republican attorneys general. If the Democrats take the two senatorial seats in Georgia, some of the damage can be avoided or repaired although by no means most of it, but if, as is after all likely, Republicans hold one or two of those seats, the Senate will be controlled by people unwilling to accept the election as legitimate and unprepared even to acknowledge that Biden is president.

 

Never mind that large numbers of the election doubters are armed to the teeth. I think we are in for some very bad times. Interestingly enough and somewhat unexpectedly, the strongest voice I have heard arguing for an implacable war without quarter against the election doubters in the Republican Party as it now stands is former conservative Republican operative and advisor Steve Schmidt. 


If Biden is delusional enough to suppose that after January 20 he can “reach across the aisle” and establish a working relationship with the people who were his colleagues in the Senate in the old days, and if he proves to be incapable of quickly adjusting himself to the reality that this is impossible, then we have a political and also a social disaster on our hands.

 

On the bright side, I managed to finish a rather tricky Thursday New York Times crossword puzzle, although in more time than the Thursday puzzle usually take me. Sufficient unto the day…

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

CLOSE CALL

We are now watching a full-scale fascist coup attempt in slow motion with assorted comic interludes. The attempt will almost certainly fail, thank God, but we are coming a great deal closer than most people, myself included, would have thought possible.

 

In order to seize control of the United States, Trump needs some or all of six elements of the American power structure: the Army, the Republican Party, the corporate elite, the judiciary, the senior administrative hierarchy of the federal government, and at least a good deal of the state and local administrative hierarchy. He has complete control of two of these six – the Republican Party and the senior administrative hierarchy of the federal government. But he has failed to take control of any element of the judiciary, he has little or no support of the state and local administrative hierarchy, the corporate elite has clearly decided to sit this one out, and far and away most important of all he has no control of the Army.

 

Trump is a buffoon and many of his closest aides – most notably Rudy Giuliani – are buffoons as well, but it would be a very bad mistake to suppose that because of his personal inadequacies, which are legion, he is not really a threat. Sophisticated, accomplished, well-educated elites perpetually underestimate fascist wannabes whom they would shrink from inviting to a dinner party.

 

I must say that as a veteran – however long ago my service and however insignificant its nature – I take a certain satisfaction in the fact that the uniformed services have completely resisted Trump’s efforts to use them as instruments of his dictatorial desires. I may not like what the US military has been used for by the presidents of the last 70 years but I have always admired their self-discipline, their efficiency, and their steadfast support of the Constitution (I say that as an unrepentant anarchist, by the way).

 

Would the Democratic Party have so completely subordinated itself to the fascist and authoritarian desires of a president of their party? I honestly do not know, although I suspect you would see more openly courageous resistance than has been manifest in the Republican Party.

 

As I have remarked on this blog before, one of the few benefits of this fascist coup attempt is that it will weaken and perhaps even put to rest the collective American fantasy that the United States is “exceptional,” that it is not subject to the forces of fascism and authoritarianism that have darkened the history of the rest of the world for centuries.

 

As I sit in comfortable isolation and watch this coup attempt unfold, I find myself wondering what the future of American politics will be and most particularly what the future will be for the Republican Party. At the moment, only 10% of those elected on the Republican ticket to the Senate or House of Representatives have publicly acknowledged that Joe Biden won the election. I think it is extremely likely that a sizable proportion of the remaining 90% will never acknowledge that Biden won honestly. Completely lacking anything remotely resembling character and desperate to hold on to their jobs, the men and women of The Grand Old Party will continue, with winks, nods, dog whistles, and bullhorns to tell their voters that Trump wuz robbed. In the short run, this may actually help us in the Georgia runoffs but in the longer run it threatens serious social and political disorder and dysfunction.

 

Now you might imagine that as a professed anarchist I would welcome the evaporation of the belief in the myth of the legitimacy of the state but you would be wrong. Ever since I wrote my little defense of anarchism, I have been quite well aware that it might be necessary to foster rather than to undermine that myth in order to accomplish all the concrete changes that I desire in the society in which I have spent my entire long life. The civil rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, the union movement, the struggle for a livable wage, the campaign for universal healthcare, and, perhaps most important of all, the effort to address climate change – all of these can be accomplished in a modern world only with organized effective political action, and that action can succeed only if those who commit their energies and lives to it are sustained by a belief in the legitimacy of popular democracy.

 

I am desperately grateful that Trump managed to bring out enough Biden voters to defeat himself and perhaps that should be sufficient. But I fear for the future.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE "PARIS"

Susie and I, being forbidden both by the French and by rational self-interest from visiting our apartment in Paris, decided that the next best thing would be to do a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Paris. Since moving to a retirement community, I have become somewhat addicted to jigsaw puzzles and I say, without the slightest modicum of modesty, that I am rather good at it. But this is the hardest one we have ever tackled. Just sorting out the edge pieces and assembling the outline was a very big job. Then Susie put together the Eiffel Tower and I attached it to an edge piece, givinng me for a brief moment the sense that we were making great progress. I then did Notre Dame and that looks great, but then things got really really difficult. Lots of tiny little figures in a variety of settings and a seemingly endless series of Parisian buildings, each with slightly different windows. I am quite confident we will finish it before we get the vaccine, but that means another several months at a minimum.


Oh well, that and the daily New York Times crossword puzzle online will keep me amused until January 5, when we shall see how the Georgia runoff elections come out.


By the way, during the nine months that we have been essentially in quarantine, I have lost about 9 pounds so this is not all bad.


I realize these remarks are not up to the level of the recent flood of comments, which are very very serious, but this is after all a blog, which is to say a web log, so I figure triviality has its place here. I promise to say something more serious about the world in future posts.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

THIS AND THAT

1.  When you take a one hour walk at 7 AM wearing short pants and it is 29°, you get cold.


2.  It appears that Trump may actually succeed in getting the two Democratic senatorial candidates in Georgia elected by persuading his loyal cult followers not to participate in a rigged election. Should this happen, it would be strong evidence that God exists and that she has a wicked sense of humor.


3.  I listened yesterday to the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board offering the opinion that the pandemic will accelerate the movement to online and virtual economic activity and that this will quite disproportionately disadvantage the poor, the nonwhite, and those with fewer educational credentials. The thought was not new to me but I was quite impressed by who was offering it publicly. Later on, when my knees thaw out, I will try to speculate for a bit on the lasting changes that we will be dealing with even after everybody gets vaccinated.


4.  It is not all bad being old. Susie and I should be right in line after those of our generation in nursing facilities. I am beginning to think we might actually be able to go back to Paris next June in time for the annual celebration called Fete de la Musique.  (Forgive the absence of the circumflex – there are limits to this dictating program.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

LAST MINUTE GIG

I spent two hours yesterday afternoon as the guest at a graduate Columbia seminar on anarchism taught by a distinguished member of the Columbia University comparative literature department, Stethis Gourgouris.  15 bright students scattered all across the world, having just read my little book In Defense of Anarachism and my essay On Violence.  It was great fun, although I must confess tiring for an old guy. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.


As Donald Sutherland, in a wonderful turn as Mr. Bennett, says at the end of the recent remake of Pride and Prejudice, I am quite at my leisure, so if anyone across the world is looking for a guest in a university seminar, I am available.


Once again, there is something to be said for zoom.