My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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

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Friday, January 28, 2022


Bekisizwe "Stanley" Ndimande was born in a township in the northern Transvaal in South Africa.   He survived the brutal segregated South African education system and did well enough on his school leaving exams or "matrics" to qualify for admission to an historically black university.  But of course he did not have the money to pay the tuition fees that would gain him admission and access to the country's loan system.  My scholarship organization, University Scholarships for South African Students, provided him with that money and he enrolled at the University of Durban Westville.  He did well, supported each year by one of my grants. After graduation he came on a US government grant to the University of Massachusetts School of Education.  From there he went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to do a doctorate in education.  Yesterday, I received an email from him, telling me that he has just been promoted with a large salary increase to the rank of full professor at the University of Texas San Antonio.

Some of you may be familiar with The Brothers Karamazov.  If so, you will no doubt remember the fable that Grushenka tells Alyosha about the old lady and the onion.  I often think that Bekisizwe is my onion. When I die and go to hell, I hope I will be able to restrain myself from kicking as I am pulled out of hell by the angel holding the onion.

Thursday, January 27, 2022


So now the fascists have turned their attention to the books in school libraries.  They want to ban the books they do not like, thinking in that way to keep them from impressionable children. Lordy, they are so clueless. Do they really think schoolchildren go to the library when they want to read a book? I would love to know how many times in the past 12 months those dangerous books have been checked out of a school library. Then I would like to put a message about the books up on TikTok or WhatsApp or Facebook or any of the other social media platforms that I have never even heard of and see how many times the message is read or forwarded or liked or commented on in the first 24 hours.


I am as horrified as anyone by book burning but I am afraid that ship has sailed.


The term “intervention” has come to be used to describe a collective act of familial tough love. A member of the family is behaving in a self-destructive manner, and the sons and daughters, or fathers and mothers, or aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents get together to sit down with the loved one and talk a little tough common sense to him or her.  Interventions are painful and do not always work, but they are usually well-meaning expressions of genuine concern for a troubled family member. When I was a boy, my father became an alcoholic. He was a quiet drunk and simply became sleepy rather than rambunctious when he had had too much to drink. The subject of his drinking was never mentioned because in a Jewish family heavy drinking was a schande, a shame, something not to be spoken of. I do not know whether he would have benefited from an intervention, but none was ever organized.


Two days ago I was the object of an intervention. I had asked my niece to arrange a zoom call with my big sister who is 91 years old and lives in a Southern California retirement community. I have not actually seen Barbara in person in several years and I miss her. At 2 PM my time (11 AM on the West Coast) we had a little get together via zoom. In addition to myself and Barbara there were Linnea, who arranged the zoom call, and her brother Josh who was, I think, somewhere in upstate New York.


I had sent a circular email around to the family members telling them of my bad fall and assuring them that both my right hand and my side were now feeling much better, although my cell phone was not and would have to be replaced. When the call started, Barbara and Linnea started urging me to use a cane or walker in order to avoid another fall – falls at my age are a principal source of life-changing injury and are best avoided if at all possible. I replied casually that I had tried walking sticks and a cane when taking my morning walks and had found that they did not really help me at all, so I had stopped using them.


I was just chatting, making customary family talk, but Barbara and Linnea kept at it about the walker and all of a sudden it dawned on me what was happening. I asked, only half in jest, “Is this an intervention?” They allowed as how it was. (Josh commented that he was not in on it.) The tone was a light and casual, but it was clear that my sister and my niece meant it and had spoken to each other about it before initiating the call.


It was hard for me to hear, and I know exactly why. As I have grown older, it has become a point of pride for me to continue to be active and effective, to be my wife’s principal caregiver, to be the one who can always handle what is coming up, who can protect my wife (who is, after all, a year older than I am, as she has been since I met her 74 years ago.) I am aware, however embarrassing it may be, that I take great pride in having become known around Carolina Meadows as someone who takes a long walk every morning, winter or summer, getting to know the early morning walkers and dog owners whom I see and say hello to on my way. All around me are men and women using canes, using walkers, or in wheelchairs and I try with a certain quiet desperation to hold off the time when I will be reduced to that condition.


Well, I am a great believer in pride, in keeping up a good face, but a serious fall causing broken bones would really be a disaster in my life. Let us face it, I was lucky to suffer no more than a fractured cell phone as a consequence of this last incident. Susie has several walkers in our apartment and so, with considerable reluctance, I appropriated one. It is a four wheel roller and in the last day and a half, I have been using it around the apartment. Later this morning, when it warms up a bit, I will go for a walk using the roller. I cringe at what people will think when they see me go by. “Isn't that Bob? He must have declined a good deal to have to use a roller. Oh well, it comes to all of us.”


I continue to ride my exercycle five mornings a week, increasing by 30 seconds each week the portion of that spent at a higher level of difficulty. I am now up to 7 ½ minutes at the higher level and I will continue as long as I can increasing the difficulty. I do this not because I enjoy it, God knows, but because I have been told that aerobic exercise 150 minutes a week has proven to be successful in delaying the progress of Parkinson’s disease.


Since Barbara reads my blog each day, she will know that her intervention was successful. I have been trying all my life to live up to my sister’s brilliant successes and her approval, which I hope I shall have earned, will go some way to easing the pain of the intervention.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022


Guy Mizrahi asks, “Prof. Wolff, what were some of the other changes you observed in the elite American education system during your time within it? Whether that be changes to the attitudes of students, to the education offered, or to the general body politic of the institutions themselves?”


An interesting question, about which I could go on for quite some time. Some things have changed little or not at all, of course. Plato is still Plato, Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, calculus is still calculus (although these days more students learn it in high school then when I was young.) But the changes have been dramatic. Indeed, I have often observed that the half-century of my teaching career pretty much coincided with what future generations will look back on as the Golden Age of the Academy. When I was a young professor at Columbia, graduate students were being offered tenure-track jobs before they were ABD; editors at commercial publishing houses contacted us unbidden to ask whether we had any ideas for books that they might publish; tenure was secure; there were few adjunct professors; and at the good institutions the teaching load was a light two courses a semester. We all thought it was because we were so bright, not realizing that we were benefiting from a relatively brief moment during which there was a seller’s academic labor market.


In two very important ways the life of undergraduates at the elite institutions was markedly different. First of all, when I started as an undergraduate at Harvard, tuition was so low (in constant dollars roughly 1/10 of what it is now) that no one graduated with student loans to pay off and it was literally possible, if you did not waste the summer months, to work your way through college. I have long believed, without any hard evidence, that the soaring cost of higher education, which began during the Vietnam War, served the latent function of dissuading students from pursuing socially and politically progressive but un-remunerative careers after graduation.


Secondly, because it was not difficult to secure admission to the “good” schools, students were under much less pressure to get in, and hence under much less pressure to conceal their sense of their own inadequacies in the presence of what everybody assumed was a collection of elite fellow students. Consequently, the whole business of getting a college education was not so surrounded with doubts and anxieties. In 2018 and 2019 when I was flying up from Chapel Hill once a week to teach at Columbia, somebody on the Morningside Heights campus remarked in passing that half the students at Columbia were getting some sort of psychotherapy!


At the administrative level there has been a major change in the sorts of people recruited as university presidents, chancellors, or senior administrators. Sixty years ago the men (and in the rarest cases women) offered University presidencies were genuine academics, some of whom had actually achieved significant distinction in their fields of specialization. It was only later that corporate types started taking over universities and trying to run them as they would their corporations – with pretty much the disastrous consequences one would imagine.


One of the changes in higher education of which I became aware only after I transferred to an Afro-American Studies Department was in a way an unhappy consequence of a virtuous change in the white institutions. For many years there had been splendid historically black universities and colleges whose faculties were staffed by first-rate academics who had no chance of securing jobs at elite white institutions because they were Black.  After the 1960s when northern universities started recruiting some of the best Black scholars there was a brain drain that weakened the historically black institutions. 


I liked Harvard when I was there as an undergraduate (even though, to be sure, I wrote a letter to the Harvard Crimson calling on the president to resign). I do not think I would like it very much now.


Terrible things keep on happening in a world on which I can have no noticeable impact.  I sit here worrying about my car windshield (which should be replaced today or tomorrow!) Meanwhile more than 2000 people a day in the United States die from the virus – a 9/11 every day – war is on the edge of breaking out in Eastern Europe and democracy dies a thousand deaths here at home. Now I read that the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to affirmative action admissions programs at Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill.  The thought occurs to me that although I can have no effect on the outcome this is actually a subject about which I have been thinking and writing for virtually my entire life, so today I will make a few remarks about it.


Let me begin with a few historical facts. Before World War II, colleges and universities did not have admissions policies or admissions programs. They had admissions requirements. If you met the requirements you were pretty much guaranteed admission. Things began to change after the war, even though only 5% of the adult population earned college degrees. I have several times observed here that when I applied to Harvard in 1949 for admission the next fall, only about 2200 young men applied and three quarters of them were admitted although I think the class eventually was a bit smaller than 1200 in all.  Ten years later, in 1960, things had begun to change. I heard the Dean of the Harvard faculty, McGeorge Bundy, observe that there were 5000 applicants, of whom, as he said, “a thousand are clear admits, a thousand are clear rejects, and all our effort goes in deciding to which of the other 3000 to offer admission.”


In those days half or more of the entering class were preppies and it went without saying that if your father had gone to Harvard a place would be found for you. Furthermore, even the elite schools were regional rather than national, let alone international.


Very quickly pressures for admission increased steeply as parents sought to get their sons and daughters into elite schools, graduation from which virtually assured them choice positions in the upper-middle-class. In addition to the traditional legacy admittants and the sons and daughters of rich potential donors and of course athletes in the premier college sports, admissions committees started worrying about finding a good oboe player for the orchestra or achieving geographical balance and even, out of an excess of social concern, admitting a number of people who had colored skins and odd names (although, like as not, these new sorts of folks did not come from working-class homes – I mean, there is a limit!)


As the proportion of college graduates in the population increased and the already steep pyramid of jobs and wages grew even steeper, parents seeking to launch their children into the upper middle classes became more and more anxious about getting their sons and daughters into the “right” schools. At first the parental concern was simply that their children have access to “college preparatory courses” which frequently carried grades that were higher than the traditional 4.0, resulting in applicants with GPAs above 4. A glut of such overachievers led admissions committees to look for evidence of “extracurricular activities” to which parents responded by pushing their anxious children into internships, musical activities, and officially “good” works designed to help the “poor,” with the result that admissions committees became even more selective as they sifted through stacks of applications from students every one of whom could have made perfectly good use of the education that the college was offering.


I wrote about this for the first time 60 years ago in an article for Dissent magazine, another version of which appeared the next year in the Atlantic. The essay was called “College As Rat Race” which pretty well captures my view of the goings-on in the elite corner of the higher educational world.


My proposal for how to end this nonsense was heartfelt, sincere, and so off the charts bananas that no one ever picked up on it or echoed it, even on the left of the political spectrum where I lived. I suggested that colleges should establish some reasonable minimum standard calculated to identify students who could benefit educationally from what they were offering, and then simply make a random selection from among the large pile of applications that remained from the sifting and offer admission to whomever made this cut.


I had all sorts of good arguments as to why this would be a rational way of handling tertiary education. It was, after all, the way elementary and secondary education was for the most part handled in America. But there was of course a killer objection, namely, Why on earth would parents pay the enormous tuitions being charged by the elite schools if admission to the school was not prima facie evidence of suitably elite ability?  The whole point of going to Harvard – or Princeton or Yale or Cornell or Swarthmore or Reed or Amherst – being to get launched into the scarce elite high-paying jobs with good fringe benefits and no threat of sweat, random admissions would defeat what Robert Merton would have called the latent function of higher education.


The reactionary supermajority on the Supreme Court will, I predict, for all the wrong reasons strike down the use of race as a consideration in the admissions policies of American universities and colleges. But say what you will about Harvard, it has some brainy people there (not all of whom, like Senators Cruz and Hawley, have gone over to the dark side), so it will be interesting to see how they manage to get around the Supreme Court ruling.

Sunday, January 23, 2022


One of the little noticed drawbacks of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition is that it did away with those lesser gods who look after such matters as crops and tides. I have been feeling the loss of these lesser gods lately because of a series of problems I have been having which in a better time would have fallen under the eye of the god of glass. First, when I took the bad fall about which I have written, my IPhone 5S suffered a cracked glass screen. The phone still works – these are remarkable objects, after all – but tiny pieces of glass are falling off and since it is now very old I have decided to upgrade to a new phone. Ordinarily, this would be no problem but I am so leery of entering any commercial establishment because of the virus that I am unwilling to go to the local Verizon store. Apparently I can buy a new phone, have it shipped to me, and then sign in on it and get all my old data which is (who knew?) stored in the cloud.  This would be as nothing if I were 60 years younger, but alas I am not.


Meanwhile, the slight ding in the windshield of my ancient car has now mushroomed into a crack so large that I dare not drive the car. Naturally, this happened on the weekend (I will get to the question of weekend gods later) so until tomorrow I cannot even find out whether the local Toyota dealership can replace the windshield and will do so.


Now in the good old days before the Old Testament, I would simply have offered up a newly slaughtered pig or some such to the god of glass who would, I assume, have answered my prayers. But nowadays either I must go it alone or I must direct my plea to the Infinite Immortal Eternal Lord of the Universe, and it just does not seem right to bother Him (or Her or It) with so trivial a matter. Oh, the Catholic Church has Saints for this and Saints for that, but Saints are just ordinary people who got lucky and bypassed purgatory. They are not really Gods and what I need right now is a god of glass.


Ah, give me that real old time religion!

Friday, January 21, 2022


I am sitting at my desk in my office and to my right, on the floor, is our little cat Chloe. She is curled up asleep as is the way with cats and her chin is on a copy of the Communist Manifesto.  And they say cats can't read!

Wednesday, January 19, 2022


Prof. Pigden writes “I would be interested in Professor Wolff’s views on this. I think some of the work that I did before I was 35 is some of the best that I've ever done or am ever likely to do. How does he feel about his early productions?”  Well, I have never passed up an opportunity to talk about myself so I will be happy to oblige.


Probably the most important piece of philosophy I have ever written was my first book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, which I completed when I was 27 and which finally appeared when I was 29. The most influential thing I have ever published was written when I was 31 and published when I was 35.  But my favorite among all my books is Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, published when I was 54.


My writing changed significantly as I grew older. Irony and humor entered it in ways that had not been present in my earlier writing. I allowed portions of myself to enter the writing in ways that expressed a more complex view of the human world.


I suppose everyone who publishes a great deal has the same experience I have had, namely that some of myfavorite pieces of writing have, in David Hume’s great phrase, fallen stillborn from the presses. Moneybags sold almost no copies at all and I cannot believe that many people have ever read it, whereas In Defense of Anarchism continues to be read and translated around the world. It defends a very simple proposition, namely that there has never been and could not be a de jure legitimate state. I am as confident now as I was when I wrote it that the argument is absolutely correct but I confess I have very little interest in revisiting it or expanding it or defending it.


In many ways, the most daring and original thing I have ever published was a journal article entitled “A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value.” However, I made the mistake of publishing an article containing wall-to-wall mathematics in a political philosophy journal so almost nobody read it who could appreciate it or understand it. (However, one person perfectly suited both to understand it and to criticize it did read it, namely the brilliant mathematical Marxist John Roemer. It was he who called my attention, alas, to the fact that an important theorem I had proved had been proved two years earlier by a Spanish economist – rats!)


Well, according to Marc Antony, the evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. Since I have never been able to bring myself to believe in an afterlife (or, for that matter, pace Plato, in a forelife), I think I must content myself with the thought that I have had a pretty good run.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022


Esther Terry, the wonderful woman who chaired the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts for many years and recruited me in 1992 to join the department – God bless her – grew up poor in a small town in North Carolina on the Virginia border, and though she eventually earned a bachelor’s degree at Bennett College, a Master's degree at UNC Chapel Hill, and a doctorate in English at UMass, she retained the colorful language of her youth. When I ran into a problem and things did not go as I wanted them to she would say to me, “Bob, you have to learn to make chicken salad from chicken shit.”


Well, socially, politically, medically, globally, it has pretty much been all chicken shit for a while now, so in this post I am going to try to create a little chicken salad out of it. What follows is not a prediction.   As Yogi Berra famously said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”  What follows is my effort to find some ray of light, some reason to hope, in regard to the forthcoming midterm elections. No need to tell me that I am being foolish. God knows, I am all too aware of that.


Let me begin with an observation. I consume cable news obsessively – I watch MSNBC and CNN for hours each day. I have been quite struck by the slow but steady and irreversible tendency of the hosts and their guests to treat what is happening as a genuine existential threat to American democracy itself. It has really taken less than a year for the common wisdom, the consensus gentium, to come to an agreement that what we are witnessing now is one of the two major political parties being transformed from a conservative party into an autocratic cult that seeks nothing less than the end of democratic elections in the United States. Little by little, the qualifications and hesitations have dropped away and the statements of prominent Republicans are now routinely described as lies. Now I am well aware that only a small fraction of the American electorate watches these cable news channels, but the change is striking nonetheless. “Both sidesism,” the curse of the mainstream media, has all but disappeared.


Let us agree that voting rights action at the federal level is dead for the time being. We can also agree that the usual suspects in the Republican Party – Collins, Romney, etc. – will stand by and do nothing while the party seeks to kill democracy.


However (here comes the chicken salad) there is reason for hope. Turnout in midterm elections is always very low. In 2018, the turnout soared more than 10 percentage points above its usual level and got all the way to 50%, which means that even then half of the eligible voters did not bother to vote. In short, the outcome in midterm elections is determined, more than anything else, by turnout.


This spring, probably in June, the Supreme Court will hand down its decision in the Mississippi abortion case and the probability is very high that by a vote of 5 to 4 or 6 to 3 the court will strike down Roe V Wade. At that point, in a large number of red states, antiabortion laws already on the books will go into effect immediately. There is, I believe, good reason to hope that in the four or five months between that disastrous decision and the election, two things will happen. First, there will be an outpouring of rage and anxiety from women across the country, including in those red states. If we are lucky, this will produce a surge in Democratic votes. The second thing that may happen is that the evangelicals, who for 50 years have been voting Republican in the hope of seeing abortion outlawed, will embrace the decision and in significant numbers not bother to go out and vote, their dream having been realized.


There it is. A nice big platter of chicken salad made entirely out of chicken shit.


Dig in.

Monday, January 17, 2022


I have long been fascinated by the contrast between authors who published their most famous works early in their lives and those who published them late.  It does not seem that there should be a difference in how we evaluate a writer’s work or influence, but it does make a difference, it seems. When I was in graduate school we had a little joke or game that we played which consisted in filling in the blanks in the following statement: “I am now younger than ____ when he or she wrote _____.”  Berkeley and Hume were downers. Berkeley was only 25 when he published The Principles of Human Knowledge and Hume, Lord love us, was a mere 28 when he published volumes One and Two of A Treatise of Human Nature, arguably the greatest piece of philosophy ever written in the English language. On the other hand, we were great fans of Locke and Kant who had the decency to wait until they were in their 50s before publishing their immortal works.


One sees the same contrast in the writings of American novelists. JD Salinger was a young man when he published Catcher in the Rye and although he published several books after that, he spent the second half of his life in isolation publishing nothing at all. Ralph Ellison became immortal when, at the age of 40, he published Invisible Man but he then published virtually nothing else until his death 41 years later.  Mark Twain, by contrast, kept at it through thick and thin throughout his life.


If I may descend from the sublime to the ridiculous, my best-known work was written when I was 31 and published five years later. I wrote or edited something like 15 books in the seven years I taught at Columbia, more than 50 years ago, but my last published work (leaving aside the seemingly endless editions of my textbook About Philosophy) appeared 17 years ago.


So I sit here at my desk, looking out at the snow and ice that fell yesterday on most of North Carolina, feeling that I have somehow let down the team.

Saturday, January 15, 2022


Buried in the recent blizzard of comments was an interesting question five days ago posed by Giovanni Tamburino about Kant’s philosophy. I am afraid I have been distracted lately, among other things by a bad fall I took on a cement pavement outside my building, but it is now a quiet Saturday (18 hours before we are due to be hit by an ice storm!) so this seems like the right time to respond. Here is what Mr. Tamburino asked:


“In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant on page 76 Kant presents (us) an argument which is used against idealism, the argument is this: ''Changes are Real.'' To which Kant responds

''Now, changes are only possible in time, and therefore time must be something real...Time, no doubt, is something real, that is, it is the real form of our internal intuition...But if I could intuit myself or be intuited by another being, without this condition of sensibility, then those very determinations which we now represent to ourselves as changes, would present us to a knowledge in which the representation of time, and consequently of change, would not appear... Time is nothing but the form of our internal intuition. If we take away from it the special condition of our sensibility, the conception of time also vanishes, and it inheres not in the objects themselves but solely in the subject which intuits them.''

I apologize for skipping some sections, but I do not understand whether Kant is denying the existence of Time per se or denying that the conception of motion exists without sensibility?

Also, Kant mentions as you had at the end of your 4th Lecture on the Critique of Pure Reason the comparison of a rainbow and the raindrops therein. Kant explains the rainbow as being empirically real and the phenomena which cause it as perceptible due to our ''manifold of perceptions'. I understand this but I am a wee bit confused with the terminology. Kant refers the rainbow as transcendentally real but not absolutely real, correct?

And what does Kant mean by absolute and empirical reality in this sense? Is transcendental reality the same as absolute reality?”


The passage from which Mr. Tamburino quotes is to be found at the beginning of a subsection of a portion of the Transcendental Aesthetic devoted to the discussion of time, specifically the section entitled “elucidation.If”  (A36 = B33 ff.)  There are several complicated issues interwoven in his question and I cannot here sort them all out but a few remarks may be helpful.


First of all, a terminological clarification that is absolutely necessary if one is to make any sense of what Kant is saying. Kant has two very similar terms with quite different meanings and unfortunately he is utterly careless in his use of them. The terms are “transcendent” and “transcendental.” By “transcendent” Kant means “going beyond the limits of experience.” It is to be contrasted with “immanent,” which is to say lying within the limits of experience. By “transcendental” Kant means roughly what today philosophers would call “epistemological,” which is to say “having to do with the conditions, nature, and limits of knowledge.” It could I supposed be contrasted with “metaphysical.”


It is Kant’s view that space and time are forms of the mind’s sensibility, which means that they are not characteristics of things as they are in themselves but only of things as they appear to us through the affection of our sensibility. Thus, space and time are not transcendently real, they are transcendently ideal. The statement that space and time are not transcendently real is a transcendental statement, that is to say it is an epistemological statement, a statement about the nature, conditions, and limits of human knowledge.


But space and time are not nothing! They really are the forms of the world as we experience it and hence, as it is very important Kant to establish, they are the forms of the physical knowledge that Newton and others have provided us about the world as we experience it.


All of this was new when Kant said it and it was easy enough for readers to confuse what he was saying with something quite different, namely skeptical doubts about the claims of physical science.


Science draws a distinction between things which are empirically real and those which are empirically ideal. For example, because of the refractive indices of water and air, a straight stick inserted at an angle into a pond appears to bend at the point where it meets the water. This appearance is an empirical illusion, as are mirages in the desert caused by the effect of heat waves on light.  Kant is an empirical realist – he thinks the distinctions made by scientists or by ordinary folks within experience between illusions and reality are well grounded and correct. What he seeks to deny is the metaphysician’s claim that space and time are characteristics of things as they exist in themselves, not merely as they are experienced by us.


I hope that helps.



Friday, January 14, 2022


My academic career spanned 58 years from the time I first entered college as a freshman in 1950 to the time when I finally retired from the Academy in 2008. I spent the first 21 of those years in the wealthy, selective, exclusive private sector of the enormous American academic establishment: 11 years as undergraduate, graduate student, and instructor at Harvard, three years as assistant professor at the University of Chicago, and seven years as Associate Professor then as full professor at Columbia University.  Although I was not uncritical of those distinguished institutions – I called publicly for the resignation of the president of Harvard in 1951, for the resignation of the president of the University of Chicago in 1962, and for the resignation of the president of Columbia in 1968 – I accepted for the most part the general view in society that these academic associations and accomplishments were something of which I deserved to be proud.


Even though I left Columbia in 1971 and turned my back on the Ivies, I freely confess that I took considerable solace from the knowledge that I had achieved tenure in the Ivy League at the age of 30. Regardless of what I went on to do, I thought to myself, no one can ever take that away from me.


It was therefore with some dismay that I learned years ago that the execrable Ted Cruz had had a brilliant Ivy League career, first as an undergraduate at Princeton, then as a Harvard Law School student who went on to achieve the highest recognition that any American law school student can win, clerking not merely for an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court but for the Chief Justice himself, William Rehnquist, Jr.


My dismay deepened when I learned that Sen. Josh Hawley, he of the fist bump, had an equally distinguished academic career, going on from Yale Law School to clerk for Rehnquist’s successor, Chief Justice John Roberts.


Even so, I thought to myself, two bad apples do not destroy a harvest. But I admit that my faith in the Ivy League was genuinely shaken by the discovery that Ron DeSantis, the thoroughly reprehensible governor of Florida, is a graduate of Harvard Law School.  


And now, yesterday, comes the news that drives a stake through the heart of my lifelong sentimental attachment to the Ivy League. Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, has been charged with the very serious crime of sedition by the Justice Department in its ongoing investigation of the January 6 coup attempt. The news reports focused understandably on the information contained in the indictment of the role that this fascist organization played in the events of January 6. But deep in the story, many paragraphs down, I noticed a passing reference to the fact that Rhodes is a graduate of Yale Law School.


The time has come for me to stop puffing myself up a bit with the recollection of my Ivy League triumphs.


However, I can still note with pride that I earned enough merit badges as a Boy Scout to achieve the rank of Life Scout.  Indeed. I can still name the 16 principal points of the compass in less than 10 seconds, if anyone is interested.



Wednesday, January 12, 2022


I want to spend a little time explaining why I seem to kid around a lot, because I have a feeling it is not clear to a number of my readers, who are accustomed to serious subjects being talked about in high toned and serious ways. Let me begin by quoting a paragraph from that 2014 series of posts on the Prisoner’s Dilemma.


“That payoff matrix contains the totality of the information relevant to a game theoretic analysis.  Nothing else.  But what about those jail terms?  Those are part of the outcome matrix, not the payoff matrix.  The payoff matrix gives the utility of each outcome to each player, and with an ordinal ranking, the only utility information we have is that a player ranks one of the outcomes first, second, third, or fourth [or is indifferent between two or more of them, of course, but let us try to keep this simple.]  But ten years versus going scot free, and all that?  That is just part of the little story that is told to perk up the spirits of readers who are made nervous by mathematics.  We all know that when you are introducing kindergarteners to geometry, it may help to color the triangles red and blue and put little happy faces on the circles and turn the squares into SpongeBob SquarePants.  But eventually, the kids must learn that none of that has anything to do with the proofs of the theorems.  The Pythagorean Theorem is just as valid for white triangles as for red ones.”


This paragraph is actually a deadly serious and vicious attack on a number of high-profile, distinguished, accomplished, well known commentators on nuclear deterrence theory and international affairs and other subjects of equal importance. In this paragraph I am mocking them, making fun of them, trying as hard as I can to ridicule them, suggesting by my facetious remarks about SpongeBob SquarePants that these important people, who start wars and risk nuclear encounters and do other terrible things while justifying what they are doing by appeal to high toned quasi mathematical theories, are actually silly children who have no idea what they are talking about.


I did exactly the same thing in my famous review of Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind, by writing the review absolutely with a straight face as though Bloom himself was the fictional creation of Saul Bellow, who had supplied a preface to Bloom’s book.


In order for this sort of deadly satire to work, it must be grounded on a serious critique of the work of the individual being satirized. It is only because I can in fact provide such a critique derived from a real grasp of the mathematics of Game Theory that the satire of those folks babbling on about the Prisoner’s Dilemma has any chance of succeeding. I cannot emphasize this point enough.  It accomplishes nothing to attack people whose views you do not like by trying to ridicule them unless the ridicule is grounded in and can be defended by a serious straight up critique of what they are saying.


To compare Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger to children who find it easier to learn the elements of geometry when happy faces are painted on the circles is, in my judgment, a deeper and more wounding critique than taking them seriously as nuclear deterrence and foreign policy experts and arguing against them as one would at a university debate. Ridicule does not always work, of course. But it has its moments.  My greatest triumph came when I learned that people had started calling the University of Chicago, after my review appeared, to ask whether Allan Bloom really existed.  After all, the most devastating thing you can say about someone whose views you disagree with is that he or she does not exist.


So pause for a moment and think twice the next time you see me making a joke.


Some old TV comedian, I cannot now recall who it was, had a little riff about an organization of comedians which had, for convenience, created a numbered list of all the possible bad jokes they could tell. When members of the group got together for a drink, to save time instead of telling each other jokes they were just mention the number in the list, and everybody would burst out laughing.

That is pretty much the way I feel in writing this blog sometimes.  Even though I range over a pretty wide assortment of topics in my work, there is only so much one person can say, after all, and so, 16 years into blogging, I repeat myself.  Since that seems to rub some people the wrong way, it occurred to me that rather than go to the trouble of writing once again the sequence of ideas that I have sorted out in my mind, I might simply cite the date on which I last said what is now in my mind and leave it to everybody reading this blog to look it up

So, by way of expanding on what I had to say about the Prisoner's Dilemma, February 5, 2014.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022


One of the anonymati offers the following comment on my post yesterday:


“As a longtime reader, I have read your account of the zero-sum game at least twice before. Which leaves me curious: I can imagine it being therapeutic to draft an argument or express an idea from scratch, but what sort of a balm is it to cut-and-paste something you wrote long ago into your blog? Repetition is a hallmark of this blog, you've been candid about that, but I am genuinely unclear how this can be therapeutic.”


I sense a gentle rebuke lurking just below the surface of this apparently innocent question, but I shall attempt to answer the question nonetheless. First of all, just to be clear, there was no cutting and pasting involved. I wrote the blog post from scratch – or rather, I dictated it into my headphones. As it happens, this time around I connected the subject up with the history of utilitarianism and responses to it, something I believe I have not done before, but that is really neither here nor there.


Let me begin by noting that the entire post, including the title, was a joke. Not a knee slapper, not a one-liner, not a gag, but a complex ironic jest with layers of meaning.  I realize that is not the usual way in which people write for blogs, but the blog is, after all, called The Philosopher’s Stone.


As Kierkegaard observes in Either/Or, the essence of the aesthetic is novelty while the essence of the ethical is repetition. I will also remind you (yet again, to be sure) of Socrates’ beautiful reply to Callicles’ complaint in the Gorgias that Socrates says the same things over and over again. Since you describe yourself as a long-time reader, I shall assume that you recall the passage to which I refer.


So let me now respond directly to your question. How can it be therapeutic to explain again something I have explained before, even if I do so without, as you rather dismissively describe it, cutting and pasting? The answer, quite simply, is that to me powerful ideas are beautiful. It soothes my soul to hear a Beethoven quartet yet again (and even, back in the day, to play it yet again, albeit imperfectly.) It gives me strength in my dotage to read once more Dylan Thomas’s beautiful villanelle.  I spend an unexpectedly large amount of time in a normal day revisiting in my mind complex arguments the formulation and clarification of which caused me great effort at some time in my life.  Perhaps mistakenly – I do not really know – I imagine that there are some people out there on whom the precise, clear exposition of those arguments will have a similar effect.


Not exactly comfort food or a nice nap snuggled under a blanket, but as the old saying has it, different strokes for different folks.

Monday, January 10, 2022


Well, it is back to lockdown here at Carolina Meadows. The dining halls are closed, in person events are canceled, strict mask regulations have been reimposed, and my golden years are turning out to be fool’s gold.  Susie and I have not been to a movie theater in two years, we have stopped going out to dinner at local restaurants, I have started again doing a little cooking just to vary our evening meals a bit, and I am struggling with the imperfect curbside pickup arrangements of our local supermarket. What to do? Five mornings a week I spend half an hour peddling on my exercycle in an effort to hold off the advance of my Parkinson’s. I am approaching 4000 straight wins in FreeCell (hat tip to David Palmeter) and there are only so many jigsaw puzzles I can tackle. So, faute de mieux, I have decided to spend a little time on my blog addressing my own personal bugabears:  the seemingly universal misunderstanding of the phrases “zero-sum game” and “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”  I shall leave to another post the confusion surrounding the so-called “free rider problem”


Why on earth am I doing this? The answer is simple. I am desperately trying to avoid going crazy. Some people fend off incipient madness by binge eating. Some drink. Some take pills. Still others have soothing rituals that they perform before meals or on going to bed. I find it reassuring to tell myself old familiar stories about ideas. So here goes. You can, if you wish, view what follows as a particularly public form of psychotherapy.


Let me begin with the term “zero-sum game,” which was introduced into our discourse by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in their classic work The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.  A rather lengthy back story is required in order to explain the total significance of the now familiar expression. In 1789 Jeremy Bentham officially published An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (it had actually been printed some years earlier), in which he introduced the theory of utilitarianism. So much time has passed since then and utilitarianism has become so familiar a part of our philosophical, moral, and political discussions that it is difficult to recall just how revolutionary Bentham’s book was. The problem was simple. Bentham said that the goal of the state should be to pursue the greatest happiness for the greatest number, adding that each person in the calculation should count for one. This was in its original form totally unacceptable for the simple reason that there were vastly more peasants and workers then there were gentlemen and gentle ladies. Oh, you could try to adjust things a bit by observing that the upper classes had much more refined sensibilities and therefore suffered more pain from even the slightest deprivation than the lower classes suffered as a consequence of their miserable existence. But there were so bloody many peasants and so few gentlemen and gentle ladies that no matter how you did the calculation, it turned out that Bentham’s theory implied making some major changes in society, changes that would benefit the lower classes at the expense of the upper classes.


John Stuart Mill had a go at correcting things by distinguishing qualities or classes of pleasures. Socrates dissatisfied is more valuable than a pig satisfied, he famously observed.  But even so, there were so many of them, those pigs, those unwashed masses, those peasants and laborers.


Eventually, philosophers, in service to the economists, found a manageable solution: the problem of other minds. They decided that it was impossible for one person directly to compare his or her pain or pleasure with that of any other person.  Hence it was impossible to add the pleasures and pains of different people in order to form a judgment about the relative desirability of competing social policies. To indulge for a moment in the jargon that became popular among those who talk about this sort of problem, the most you could say was that each person has a utility function that is invariant under affine transformations.  This meant that neither the zero point nor the size of each unit of pleasure or pain was invariant. To calculate a conversion formula that would permit us to add one person’s pleasures and pains to that of another person would require two points of interpersonal comparison and since these did not exist, nothing at all could be concluded about how one person’s pleasures and pains compared with that of another.  

You could of course always make judgments about the relative desirability of two policies when everybody agreed which one was to be preferred (or, to be more precise, if everyone preferred the first to the second or was indifferent between them and at least one person strictly preferred the first to the second, then you could conclude that the first was socially to be preferred to the second.) This permitted a partial ordering of available alternatives, labeled “Pareto preferred” in honor of Vilfredo Pareto, who thought the idea up.


And so what is usually referred to these days as Welfare Economics, even though the one thing that it is incapable of actually talking about is human welfare, came into existence, flourished, and even won for its ablest practitioners a number of Nobel prizes.


Okay, back to zero-sum games. Von Neumann began his work by considering the simplest possible games – two-person games in which the preferences of the two participants for the possible outcomes of the game exhibit a very precise mathematical characteristic. The first person’s preferences for the various possible outcomes are the exact, precise opposite of the second person’s preferences. Indeed not only is it the case that the first person playing the game prefers or is indifferent to one possible outcome of the game over a second possible outcome if and only if the second person prefers or is indifferent to the second possible outcome over the first.  It must also be the case that the first person prefers or is indifferent to one probability combination of the possible outcomes over a second probability combination of the possible outcomes if and only if the second person prefers or is indifferent to the second probability combination over the first. Persons exhibiting this rather unusual preference structure are said to have strictly opposed preferences.


Since each person’s preferences are assumed to be invariant under affine transformations, one could without loss of information convert each person’s preferences to a scale running from 0 to 1 and since the two persons are assumed to have strictly opposed preferences, it follows that the possibility rated zero by the first player would be rated 1 by the second.  It was then possible for Von Neumann to prove fairly easily (I am skipping over a lot of mathematics here) that the sum of the utility index assigned by player one to any outcome or probability combination of outcomes added to the quite independent utility index assigned by player two to that outcome or probability combination of outcomes must always be equal to one. And since the players’ utility indices are invariant under affine transformations, one could revise one player’s index to run from -1 to 0.  The result would be then that the sum of the two utility indices assigned by the players to an outcome or probability combination of outcomes would always add up to zero.


And that, and only that, is what is meant by the phrase zero-sum game!


Certain thing should be obvious right off the bat. First of all, the concept of a zero-sum game is only defined for two-person games. It has simply no meaning for games with more than two players. Second, there is no special thing called a positive sum game or a negative sum game.  There are only constant-sum games and games for which the concept of a sum is undefined. Third, the condition of strictly opposed preference orders is extremely restrictive. For example, the game that consists of a negotiation between a buyer and seller for a piece of property is almost certainly not a constant sum game because presumably, although the buyer’s interests are opposed to the seller’s interests, both would prefer coming to an agreement rather than having the negotiation breakdown, in which case their preferences are not strictly opposed.


So why do von Neumann and Morgenstern devote so much attention to zero-sum games? The answer is that for that special and rather simple case, von Neumann can prove an elegant and very powerful theorem, namely that every two-person zero-sum game has a unique solution. (The proof is really classy but there are limits to what I can do on a blog.)


I think it is fair to say that almost nobody who uses the phrase “zero-sum game” has the foggiest idea of any of this.


There, I feel better.


Tomorrow, Prisoner’s Dilemma.




Saturday, January 8, 2022


Three hours ago, Michael said something about me in the comments section on this blog that touched me very deeply. In a way, it is the loveliest thing anybody has ever said about me and I would like to thank him and – this is, after all, my way – tell once again a story about something that happened to me 35 years ago. Here is what Michael said:


“Before I go far off-topic (like others, I have a questionable habit of treating this blog like an all-purpose conversation forum), I should thank Prof. Wolff for what he does. As Charles and Jerry Fresia said in response to the previous entry, Prof. Wolff's honesty and authenticity are refreshing. I'll add that I often get a good feeling watching his YouTube videos in particular; the feeling is that the intellectual and academic showboating that seem typical of philosophical discussion have completely receded from view, and have given way to something more pure, pleasant, intriguing, and even childlike (in the best possible way) - I can't quite pin it down, but it reminds me of the "wonder" of the Ancient Greeks, or, less pretentiously, of very young children learning to explore their minds (or some more grown-up friends enjoying a psychoactive trip of some sort). It's a good thing - one of the best things - and it makes me want to try to share it in some way. Thanks, Prof. Wolff.”


In 1986, as my first marriage was ending, I spent time seeing a therapist once a week. It was, God knows, hardly the first time I had seen a therapist! I started when I was 14, struggling with obsessive fears of death, and what with a full-scale Freudian analysis during my seven Columbia years and one thing and another I had spent by that time 15 years in one sort of therapy or another.


Now, It may seem odd, but in all that time I had never cried on the analytic couch or in the analytic chair. Tears had never welled up in my eyes as I went on about my troubles, although I am in other contexts, as Jude Law says in that lovely movie The Holiday, something of a weeper. I mean, I tear up at the end of movies and even when I am telling someone else about them. But not once had I wept for a therapist.


One day, I somehow got off the topic of my troubles and started talking about my work. I explained to my therapist that all my life I had sought to engage with complex and deep ideas, to tell the story of them in my head until they were so clear to me that I could show them to my readers or my students and allow them to see how lovely and powerful and simple they were.


As I said this, unexpectedly and quite unbidden, tears came to my eyes and I began to choke up. 


Thank you, Michael.

Friday, January 7, 2022


I am content to allow my little book to live or die on its own. It was published 52 years ago and for better or worse is now pretty much out of my hands. But before I move on, I would like to say one thing about the relevance of so apparently abstract and theoretical a work to the actual lived experiences of people in America at the time when it was published.


Let me remind everyone that back then there was a military draft run by the Selective Service System. By the late 1960s, the United States was deep into the Vietnam War and young men were being drafted to serve there and, like as not, to die there. Hundreds of thousands were drafted and served, many more avoided the draft by getting student deferments, some, like our former president, got phony medical excuses, and a certain number of honorable young men risked going to jail by standing up and refusing to serve on the grounds that they believed the war to be unjust. Their conscientious stand was rejected by many distinguished public figures who argued that because the United States was a democracy whose laws express the will of the people, these young men were morally obligated to serve even in a war to which they were on principle opposed.  It was said that their obligation derived from the fact that the laws commanding them to serve were in effect the expression of their own wills, manifested through the actions of their elected representatives.


In 1970, The Bar Association of the City of New York held a celebration to commemorate its Centennial. As part of the celebration they arranged a debate about the question whether young men have a moral obligation to serve in a war to which they are on principle opposed. There was no question that they had a legal obligation; the question was whether the obligation was morally binding as well. Defending the affirmative was Eugene V. Rostow, an extremely distinguished lawyer who had for a time been the Dean of Yale Law School (Rostow, brother of Walt Rostow, was actually named Eugene Victor Debs Rostow - his parents were old Jewish socialists from New York - but this must have made him uncomfortable because he never used the “Debs.”)   Rostow took the straight old social contract line and argued that the law commanding these young men to serve was, indirectly, the expression of their own wills and therefore was morally binding on them.


Defending the negative was a young philosopher from Columbia University, newly promoted to the rank of full professor, who would later that year publish a little book with the provocative title In Defense of Anarchism.


With America’s wars now being fought by an all-volunteer professional army, the question being debated that day may seem “academic,” but it was not then

Thursday, January 6, 2022


An interesting line of comments has cropped up on this blog in the last 24 hours and I thought I would try to respond. The discussion was kicked off by Eric who wrote, in part, “Professor, I came away from reading In Defense of Anarchism rather disappointed. Not being an anarchist myself but open to hearing new ideas, I had gone into it expecting a description of what a thriving society organized under an anarchist ethos might look like, and a plan, or series of suggestions, of how we might transform our current state into such a society. Instead, as I think you acknowledge in one of the prefaces, you ended up writing a negative defense of anarchism, essentially just an attack on hierarchical forms of government and on the assumption that representative democracy is inherently the best and most practical form of government.”


Let me begin by apologizing. Eric had every right to suppose that a book with a title like that would contain some sort of description of what an anarchist society would look like and there is not so much as a suggestion of a hint of that in the book, so perhaps I should begin by repeating the story I have told before about how the book came into existence and how it got that title.


It all began in the fall of 1963 with an argument with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Harvard faculty club about nuclear disarmament.  I had been deeply involved in the campaign for nuclear disarmament for several years at that point and had been shouting at the top of my voice about the dangers of nuclear weapons, getting nowhere needless to say. I think I must have snapped during my argument with Brzezinski because I came up for air running as fast as I could up Massachusetts Avenue toward Harvard Square having a full-blown anxiety attack. When I got back to my apartment and had calmed down with the aid of a Valium tablet, I realize I could not go on this way. The fruitless attempt to alert everybody to the dangers of nuclear weapons was getting to me. So I did what any self-respecting philosopher would do – I retreated to the level of theory. 

At some point in that time I wrote an essay titled, as I recall, “The Problem of Democracy,” which I delivered various places including Columbia.  The next fall I started my professorship at Columbia and at the same time went into a full scale Freudian psychoanalysis. Needless to say, I was doing everything I possibly could to make money to pay for the analysis. One of my new colleagues, a young associate professor named Arthur Danto, had contracted with Harper & Row publishers to edit a big volume to be called The Harper Guide to Philosophy, one of a number of Harper guides that would be beautifully bound in leather and sold to be displayed on the shelves of Middle America. The guide was supposed to have 10 lengthy essays, each one on a different subdiscipline of philosophy. Arthur had rounded up really a distinguished crew of people to write the essays but Isaiah Berlin had turned him down for the one on political philosophy so when I showed up in Morningside Heights he asked me whether I would write it. My reply was simple: “How much is the advance?” Arthur said it was $500 which would pay for more than a month of analysis at 1964 rates so I said yes. The essay, which was due at the end of the following summer, was supposed to be a survey of the forefronts of the field but I had not the slightest clue about the forefronts of political philosophy or any of its other fronts so when I sat down to write the essay the next summer I decided simply to write my own political philosophy. I figured nobody would read the book – the editor, Fred Wieck, had told me that Harper & Row was “aiming at the book buying rather than at the book reading public.” So I banged out an 80 page essay and turned it in, thereby avoiding having to cough up the $500, which would have been impossible for me to manage.


Alas, the series of Harper Guides never came out and Arthur’s collection languished. As the years passed, Wieck handed it off to Al Prettyman who in turn passed it on to a young man named Hugh Van Dusen who headed up a new division of Harper called Harper Torchbooks.  By 1970 I had gotten tired of referring to the essay as “forthcoming” so I called Hugh and asked them whether it would be all right if I used the material in it in a standalone essay of my own. He was rather embarrassed and said of course I could. Then I had an idea. “What about bringing it out as an independent little book?" I asked. Hugh loved the idea and with some excitement said “Great! I can bring out a series of 10 little books. But Political Philosophy is not a very catchy title. Can you suggest something better?”


I had an idea. When I was a boy growing up in a little row house in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, New York I would rummage about in the unfinished attic to see what was there. One of the things I found was a complete set of the works of Mark Twain which my parents had bought many years earlier. Among the volumes, which I read with the greatest of pleasure, was a volume called Literary Essays. In with such famous essays as “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Errors” was an essay Twain had written about the first wife of the famous English poet Shelley. Shelley’s second wife was of course Mary Wollstonecraft, remembered forever as the creator of Frankenstein, but his first wife was a young woman with whom he had a child and whom he then cast off unceremoniously. Shelley, his companion Byron, and the other young poets had nothing but scorn for Harriet, which infuriated Twain so he wrote an essay taking her side in the marriage which he called “In Defense of Harriet Shelley.”


When Hugh Van Dusen asked me for a better title for my essay on political philosophy, I thought of Twain and said “How about In Defense of Anarchism?”  “I love it!” Hugh responded, and six months later the little book appeared. When I wrote it in 1965 it probably would have made little or no stir at all but by 1970 America was being torn apart by opposition to the Vietnam War and the book took off like a rocket. In the intervening half-century and more it has sold 200,000 copies in English and has been translated into a dozen languages. If I am remembered for anything after I die it will be for that little book but it was never intended as a discussion of how one might organize a contemporary society without a state and it is not therefore strictly speaking a defense of anarchism.  Rather, it is a philosophical argument that there is not and could not be a de jure a legitimate state.


So Eric is quite right to be disappointed. I am afraid the title is a good example of what is called in the world of commerce “bait and switch.”


All of which is a good story but leaves unanswered his question, How would an anarchist society be organized?  Well, sometimes the truth is really quite simple, and the truthful answer to this question is “I have not a clue.” I am absolutely certain that the argument I gave in that little book is correct and that there is not and could not be a de jure legitimate state. But unlike people like David Graeber, I have given very little thought to the matter of what an anarchist society might look like. After writing several other books, I turned my attention full time to the thought of Karl Marx and devoted the next 20 years of my life to struggling with and clarifying his analysis of capitalism and the exploitation that is at its root. I have never been a member of an anarchist collective, I am not particularly drawn to the idea of growing my own vegetables or resoling my own shoes, and happily yield the stage to those who have thought about such things.


One thing I am reasonably confident of, however. In the world in which we now live, the success or failure of small-scale communitarian living accommodations or productive activities will tell us nothing at all about possible alternatives to capitalism as it now dominates the world.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022


Well, that was only partially successful. Most of the comments argued with, rather than accepted, the hypothetical.   So let me move on to something else that has struck me in the past several days.


Apparently, judging from the text messages and other documents that have been released thus far, with the sole exception of Trump himself, all of the conspirators seeking to subvert the outcome of the 2020 election were dismayed by the violent invasion of the Capitol. As someone – I think it was Don Junior – said in a message to Mark Meadows, the violence was undermining everything they had planned. They quite correctly judged that the out of control mob was interfering with, rather than advancing, their carefully thought through plans.  Only Trump himself, who is a corrupt, vicious, and not terribly competent or disciplined plotter, was so delighted by the televised images of violence that he completely lost track of the plan, if indeed he ever fully grasped it.


Perhaps it is because of my age and my awareness that I will not live to see how things turn out in 20 years, but I am beginning to think that if we can somehow get past the 2024 election successfully, the balance of power in the country will tilt in our direction. As I have said in this space before, I pin my hopes (or my dreams or my fantasies – take your pick) on the reversal of Roe V Wade by the Supreme Court this June and a consequent flood of anti-Republican votes from women in red states and districts.


My guess is that the soon to be launched public hearings by the January 6 Committee will be dramatic, devastating, astonishing but in the end will have little effect on the midterm elections. Nevertheless, I shall watch every minute of it, having nothing better to do in my locked down condition. After all, if the quartet is going to continue playing on the deck of the Titanic, I hope at least it plays a lovely Beethoven quartet.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022


I am afraid that after two years the pandemic is really getting to me. I continue to spend time elaborating arguments in my head about subjects that interest me but I have lost the belief that putting them on paper (so to speak) and posting them or publishing them makes any difference in these difficult times. So let me instead pose a question for discussion that has been nagging at me lately.


I am going to begin with what I believe is called in law schools a hypothetical. That is to say, for the purposes of discussion I am going to assume certain facts, whether they are really facts or not, so that I can raise moral or political questions about a situation that is exemplified by these facts. Do me the favor of not disagreeing with the facts that I posit. Consider them, as I say, a hypothetical.


Suppose these three conditions hold (this is my hypothetical):


First, there is a very serious threat that in the next two or four years Republicans will succeed in literally stealing an election and then imposing an authoritarian regime with Trump at its head;


Second, if Trump is indicted tried, and convicted of a crime, such as conspiring to interrupt the lawful processes of the federal government, or some such thing, that conviction will dramatically reduce the threat of a stolen election and an authoritarian regime;


And Third, a fair, objective, and exhaustive examination of the available facts makes it unlikely but not impossible that such a conviction could be secured.


Assuming hypothetically that these three factual suppositions are true, and that Merrick Garland knows them to be true, should he nevertheless undertake to secure an indictment, trial, and conviction of Trump?


My view is that he should. In short, it is my judgment that he should violate his oath of office and use the power (not the authority, but the power) of his office to undermine Trump and to counteract the threat that he poses. Rather than explain my reasons for this view right now, I will simply ask the question and see how the discussion develops.

Monday, January 3, 2022


When we moved into Carolina Meadows four years ago the IT specialist was a man named Phil Binkley. I very quickly learned that Phil did not have a clue when it came to IT and had apparently gotten the job because of his seniority in some totally non-tech related area. His assistant, who clearly should have gotten the job, was a bright, cheerful, enormously competent young man named Art Diorio. Eventually, Phil blotted his copybook in some manner or other and was let go and Art got the job he wanted and deserved.


Shortly before Christmas my ancient printer gave out and I bought another one, an HP 9015e.  When it came, I took it out of its box, plugged it in, managed to figure out how to install the ink cartridges, and tried to print some random page just to test things. Blotto!  I fussed and fumed and fidgeted and came to the conclusion that there was some small failure of communication between my computer and this brand-new wireless printer but I was completely unable to figure out how to make the little problem go away.  Once the dead air time of Christmas and New Year’s was over I called Hewlett-Packard’s support line and tried to find out how I could solve the problem. Good luck to that!


At some point during that dead time, I had left a message on Art Diorio’s phone and while I was fussing with Hewlett-Packard uselessly Art called.  He said he was driving by and would stop in and about two minutes later he did. He said hello, played for moment with our new cat, and in just about 45 seconds solved the problem and got my printer up and working.


It all made me think of those Native American rain dances in which, if you do every step exactly correctly it rains but if you make one small mistake it does not rain and you cannot figure out what you did wrong. That more generally is my experience with technology these days.


Now, it is getting chilly and I think I will start a fire. Where did I leave my two pieces of flint…

Sunday, January 2, 2022


Here are some interesting facts that I dug up while idly googling this and that. The three biggest employers in the United States are Walmart, with 1.5 million employees, Amazon, with 950,000 employees, and the US military, with 1.4 million men and women in uniform. The president of Walmart is paid $22.5 million. The highest-paid executive at Amazon earns $56 million (not Jeff Bezos, by the way).  The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff earns $186,998.40. I think the military can claim to be at least as well-run as Walmart and Amazon and neither of those companies poses an especially great risk of being shot in the course of performing one’s corporate duties.