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Saturday, March 20, 2021


Since my relatively brief post about the term “problems” triggered responses that were both extremely animated and I think revelatory of a misunderstanding of what I was trying to say, let me have another go at it in hopes of introducing some clarity into the disagreement.


A good deal of ordinary politics concerns the resolution of conflicting interests. Farmers have interests that differ with those of manufacturing workers. Small business owners have interests different from those of office workers. Parents of small children have interests different from those of senior citizens. Lenders, whose loans are paid back in nominal dollars, not in inflation adjusted dollars, have an interest in keeping the rate of inflation low. Borrowers, who pay their loans back in nominal dollars also, have an interest in a higher rate of inflation because it reduces the real cost of their debt. My favorite example of this last conflict is the late 19th century dispute between Eastern banks and Midwestern farmers over the gold standard, which found expression in that great old book The Wizard of Oz.


Ordinary conflicts of interest get dealt with politically through negotiations between elected representatives representing those with the conflicting interests, and a good deal of the legislative process, whether at the state or the national level, concerns the relative political strength of the competing legislators, with all the complexity that makes politics interesting, frustrating, and contentious.


Some political conflicts concern matters that one or both of the parties to the conflict believe to be essential, not merely ancillary, to their existence. The struggle over slavery was of such a sort. So were the religious wars in Europe in the early modern era. Ordinary politics is most often ineffective in arriving at a compromise of such conflicts.


The decision to send human beings to the moon was the outcome of a political conflict over the best use of scarce national resources, but once the decision had been made, those tasked with creating a successful moon landing faced a wide variety of what are properly described as problems. The same was true about the decision to design a successful nuclear weapon. The principal problem faced by the Manhattan Project was whether to try for a fission bomb or a fusion bomb. There was considerable disagreement about this and the German scientists working to create a nuclear weapon opted for the fusion bomb, fortunately for the Allies (because, whereas a fission bomb could be successfully designed using available resources, the fusion bomb actually requires a fission trigger.)


In America today, wealthy well-educated urban elites of the sort who characteristically are called upon to discuss political questions on television have an unacknowledged interest in treating political conflicts as problems. In so far as the political conflicts can be misconstrued as problems susceptible of technical solutions, it will seem natural to turn the resolution of those conflicts over to individuals who can be counted on not to challenge the core interests of the wealthy urban well-educated elites who dominate the public life of the nation.


It was this fact that I was trying to call attention to, apparently unsuccessfully, in my post.


s. wallerstein said...

If the unequal distribution of wealth between workers and capitalists isn't a problem, what is it? A contradiction?

How would you explain or describe it?

Howie said...

I think C Wright Mills first did theoretical work on this distinction

Michael said...

Wiktionary gives five definitions of the word "problem" (the fifth of which is omitted here as it's an irrelevant rock-climbing term):

1. A difficulty that has to be resolved or dealt with.
She's leaving because she faced numerous problems to do with racism.
2. A question to be answered, schoolwork exercise.
Study hard, but don't overdo it. The problems in the exam won't be difficult to solve.
3. A puzzling circumstance.
4. Objection.
You got a problem with that?

I took Prof. Wolff's earlier post to be saying (in other words) that the various so-called "problems" in a society organized like ours, are problems at most in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th of the above senses. But (the post continues) the use of the word "problems" here has this objectionable feature, that it tends to create the impression that the 2nd sense is being employed, when it actually isn't (or shouldn't be): hence the misconception that (e.g.) the racism and inequality with which we live, admit of solutions in something like the ways that our need for a COVID vaccine or our desire to travel to the Moon admit of solutions.

I think the idea is that capitalism is defined by these features - exploitation, inequality, etc. - which (being defining features) are inherent and unavoidable as long as capitalism exists. If this weren't the case, then the features would be accidental and contingent (I think those are the right words), and with sufficient technical ingenuity or negotiation or funding (etc.) could be eliminated while the basic elements of the capitalist system remained intact. (I can't think of a single word or concise expression for inherent, non-eliminable features which, being what they essentially are, do not admit of "solution" in this way.)

Also, I'm a little uneasy with the word "contradiction"...maybe something like "instability" would be preferable? After all, it seems possible to maintain that capitalism has an inherently self-destructive or self-undermining tendency, without describing this tendency in self-contradictory terms.

L.F. Cooper said...

To call something "a problem" is not necessarily to suggest or imply that it is susceptible to a technical and/or a definitive solution.

In the rhetoric of a center-left Democrat like Obama (or Biden), the U.S. as a society is, or at least should be, striving to come closer to its constitutional and other ideals. But there is no particular implication that those ideals will ever be fully realized or that there is a set of purely technical switches that can be thrown that will fix everything; after all, the Preamble to the Constitution speaks of forming a "more perfect union," not a "perfect union."

Those further to the left on the political spectrum might think that economic inequality is, as Prof Wolff wrote, a feature (rather than a bug) of capitalism, but it can still be reduced within a capitalist framework. In that sense labeling it a "problem" is not wholly misleading, though it may not be the best word.

Prof Wolff's division of matters into (1) conflicts of interest that have to be resolved through struggle (either peaceful or violent) and (2) technical problems, leaves some things lying outside the two categories.

For instance, violence against Asian-Americans, spurred partly by Trump's rhetoric about Covid, is neither a technical problem (like figuring out how to get to the Moon) nor is it a conflict of interest (like the conflict between borrowers and lenders over inflation and the gold standard). Rather, it is a social problem, which likely does have a solution or partial solution, albeit not a "technical" one.

So the typology of conflict-of-interest on one hand, technical problem on the other, is deficient.

LFC said...

S. Chase
It's nice that we can agree on something at least once in a while.
L.F. Cooper

Michael said...

Apologies, on two counts:

1. Re-reading it now, I find that the first half of my earlier comment was badly thought out (though I still think it makes some sense, if interpreted pretty generously). I don't know what possessed me to use Wiktionary rather than a more authoritative source; the definitions seemed "close enough," I guess. And I may seem to have attributed to Prof. Wolff something he perhaps doesn't believe at all (or at any rate didn't explicitly state), namely that in this conversation, "problem" is an appropriate word in certain senses of the word "problem" - as opposed to its being an altogether inappropriate word.

What I should've made clearer was that I was attempting to paraphrase Prof. Wolff's position - and doing so on the assumption (innocently, I thought) that he'd be fine with saying that our societal organization has "problems" in the sense that it has intrinsic, structural features which afflict people with objectionable difficulties (notice Wiktionary defs. 1 & 4) and are puzzling (def. 3) to interpreters, even though these features are not "problems" in the sense of admitting of conventionally prescribed solution (~def. 2).

2. I noticed that there's another occasional commenter here who goes simply by "Michael" (not to mention, Prof. Wolff requested not too long ago that commenters fully identify themselves). I omit my last name simply because I prefer to keep it private (not that my story is especially interesting or anything), but if you would prefer, Prof. Wolff, I'll send you a quick e-mail to let you know who I am.

s. wallerstein said...

Your daughter is a contrarian like her father.

No, they are never looking for creative insights or intellectual independence, never.

I made the mistake of getting into a long heated argument with the interviewer from Harvard about Jewish identity and was rejected, although I was accepted at Chicago probably because I didn't get into an argument with the interviewer. My SAT scores were like your daughters, but not perfect and I had no extracurricular activities besides the debating club.

My best to your contrarian daughter.

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

It was the following that stuck out for me in Dr. Wolff’s first post on this topic: “To describe the struggles as “problems” suggests falsely that what is needed is a research grant or government program to “solve” them. This, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s lovely phrase, afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable.”

The extremes of the distribution of wealth in a capitalist society is what happens when capitalism is left to its own devices. One can call the maldistribution of wealth a problem in the political sphere and we will all understand the meaning. It is dealt with every year in the federal budget, specifically in the tax code. The balance of political power will determine if relative minor adjustments to the redistribution of wealth will be made, or if wealth will be allowed to become more highly concentrated. It is the problem of determining whether Musk and Bezos will have wealth equaling that of the 120 million, or 115 million of the poorest Americans. In this context, we can be sure that Bezos and Musk will not be too discomfited by the political elite’s decision to redistribute.

When we look at the issue in the above context we overlook the questions of how this accumulation takes place and how it distorts our social structure in grotesque ways when the possibilities of a just, equitable distribution are inherent in the society we inhabit. If this is the problem it’s a completely different discussion. Seeing maldistribution of wealth as a political problem diverts attention from the other understanding; that it is inherent in our economic system. The first usage lead us to a real, but limited understanding of the issue, the later goes to the reality of the problem.

L.F. Cooper notes that many of us further to the left than Obama “might” think that inequality is inherent in capitalism. Is there another viable interpretation of this phenomena? Our political system has only nibbled around the edges of the maldistribution of wealth. Making sure of this is the job of the Republican Party, joined more often than not by Democratic Party centrists. In the area of health and human services, government allows for nothing more than the amelioration of the worst impacts of the maldistribution of wealth.

In Vermont (where I worked on these kinds of issues) in the mid 1990’s 95% of all children had health insurance, and we were always ranked among the top 5 states with the best outcomes for children. That didn’t eliminate poverty, malnutrition, joblessness, etc. And while we took pride in doing as well as we did, we had no illusions: national health insurance was needed to eliminate health disparities, supply enough physicians and other health professionals to meet the need, or that a livable wage and changes in tax policy were necessary to eliminate poverty for all people, not just families with children, not just the “deserving poor”.

L.F. Cooper said...

@ Christopher Mulvaney

I should probably have deleted the word "might" there.

I wrote some further remarks but have decided not to post them b.c I think they will not much advance the discussion. Like everyone else (for certain values of "everyone"), I have views on capitalism, inequality, globalization, etc., but I can't claim that my views are supported by any deep familiarity w/ the relevant current economic or pol sci literature (regardless of what part of the political spectrum such writings reflect; i.e., I don't follow closely the left-wing or right-wing analyses of these issues).

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