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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




Total Pageviews

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A DRAMATIC PERSONAL RESOLUTION, AND IT IS NOT EVEN NEW YEAR'S EVE

For longer than I can recall, I have been in crisis mode, listening to hours of cable news every day, reading endless commentary, writing end-of-civilization posts for this blog, and generally being miserable.  I have not observed that this has made the world a better place, but it has seemed unavoidable.  On Saturday, I will go to Paris for two and a half weeks.  I have decided to go wild and have fun.  Nothing too outré.  I shall shop at the market, cook in my little kitchen, sit in the café, attend early music concerts, perhaps take a bus ride, like that.  Don't condemn me.  I have my limits.

IN CASE YOU HAVE ANY ROMANTICIZED NOTIONS OF HOW MUCH BETTER IT WAS IN THE OLD DAYS

While I was wandering around on the web, I came upon a lengthy story about a woman I had never heard of who died three days ago at the age of 105.  Marian Cannon Schlesinger was, by this account, an interesting and accomplished person.  She was married for thirty years to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., L’il Arthur as he was known around Harvard Square to distinguish him from his famous professor father, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.  Marian Cannon Schlesinger’s sister was married to the great scholar of China John Fairbank.  [This was an era when brilliant Radcliffe students, instead being encouraged to continue their studies, were expected to marry smart Harvard students and keep house for them, but that is for another blog post.]  If you spent eleven years hanging around Harvard Square, as I did, you will be interested in the gossip in the obituary.  You can read the whole thing here.  

One brief quote from Marian Schlesinger really caught my eye, since it confirmed the impression I had formed from afar.  Writing of the Kennedy White House, she said, “I had a curious feeling that great decisions were made in an almost frivolous way, like the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which from my remote perch seemed to have been run by a bunch of hubris-mad teenagers, mostly Yale boys, who dominated the Central Intelligence Agency and who looked upon the Cuban enterprise and the catastrophe rather like a Harvard-Yale game they would win next time.”  This line deserves to go into the histories of that time, if it has not already done so.

Monday, October 16, 2017

HOW IT IS DONE NOWADAYS

Idly surfing the web, I came upon this story in the Washington Post about the discovery of a so-called kilonova, the collision of two neutron stars one hundred thirty million years ago.  There are many exciting details in the story, including the news that the observations confirm a claim made by Albert Einstein a century ago about gravitational waves.  But what really caught my eye was the fact that the scholarly article announcing the discovery listed roughly 3,500 authors!  The work was a world-wide collaboration, involving not only huge multi-million dollar arrays of equipment but enough scientists to staff the STEM departments of a dozen universities.

I thought of my tea with Bertrand Russell sixty-three years ago.  He had been reported as saying that, had he to do it all over again, he would not have chosen philosophy as his field.  I asked him what he would have chosen, and he said unhesitatingly, Physics. 

This is where the forefronts of knowledge are, here and in Molecular Biology.  The era of the research team in a laboratory headed by a senior scientist has given way to an entirely new stage of scientific development, one in which thousands collaborate.


I wish I were young enough to see how this will all play out.

SIC TRANSIT

Richard Wilbur, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and one of the "Amherst Poets," died on Saturday at the age of ninety-six.  On New Year's Eve, 1954, I danced with his wife.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

WHAT'S UP

A week from today, Susie and I go to Paris, returning November 9th.  As usual, I shall continue blogging.  A week from Thursday, we dine with our friends Anne Berry and Philip Minns.  Philip runs this blog on all matters French, and I find it an indispensable aid to understanding life and politics there.  Philip worked for many years as a simultaneous translator, both for governments and for corporations, a calling that leaves me speechless with astonishment. 

I hope and expect that my Columbia talk with go up on YouTube some time before we leave for Paris.  I will be very curious to read your reactions, should you spend some time watching it.  One word of explanation for those of you who have no connection with Columbia.  At the very beginning of my remarks, I tip my hat to Bob Belknap and Carl Hovde, two friends, now both dead, who were, like myself, young members of the faculty half a century ago.  The older people at the talk will know that both became, in their day, much loved Deans of Columbia College.  I did not mention Edward Said, whom I was privileged to know, although not as well as I would have liked.  Those opening remarks were just a little inside baseball to establish my street cred with the locals.


As for the Marx lectures, I still have not found any takers willing to offer me a venue for the talks.  You will recall that I tried standing in front of my bookcases and lecturing to my desk for the Ideological Critique lecture series, but I found that so weird that I decided not to do it again.  I may be forced to return to my desk and bookcases for the Marx lectures if no one at Columbia is interested in sponsoring them.

THIS IS INTERESTING

Leonard Pitts, in this Op Ed, presents himself as a Centrist who has reluctantly concluded that the Democratic Party has to take a hard turn to the left.  When your opponents ask to sign up, it is as good omen.  Take a look.  It is worth reading.

Note, by the way, that the hard left agenda he proposes would have been thought Centrist when I was younger.  That is a good measure of just how bad things really are.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

:-)

Professor Jacob T. Levy, who occupies with distinction the opposite end of the political spectrum from my natural hangout, posts this comment on my hatchet example:  “A fine old Smithian/ market liberal/ libertarian point about the wonders of the division of labor!  ;-)” which emoticon Google tells me means a smirk but which I choose to interpret as an ironic smile.  There is, however, a deeper truth here, one that modern thinkers frequently miss.  Adam Smith was the first great Classical Political Economist.  Karl Marx, in my judgment, was the last and greatest Classical Political Economist.  They shared, with David Ricardo and other luminaries, an interest in class conflict and the conditions of economic growth, two questions that were shoved aside by the marginalist Triple Revolution of Jevons, Menger, and Walras in the 1870s.  As many commentators before me have observed, the political spectrum is shaped like a horseshoe, with the ends closer to one another than either end is to the middle.

Friday, October 13, 2017

BRIEF EXPLICATION

In my Credo, the Lone Rider and the Barn-Raising Community are intended somewhat as what Max Weber calls Ideal Types.  They are meant to capture in simple images two fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.  Obviously, it would take hundreds of pages to spell them out.

Here is an exercise I have sometimes wanted to build a course around.  Take a simple tool -- let us say a hatchet.  Now start tracing back every single thing that some previous persons did in order to make that hatchet possible.  Imagine tracing back the discovery of iron ore, the processes of smelting and forging, the elaborate and ever expanding network of practical and theoretical knowledge presupposed by the production of that hatchet.  Include the language used by the people involved to communicate with one another, to pass on the knowledge.  Think of the tools used to produce the hatchet, and the tools used to produce those tools, and so on and on.  No one ever does anything all by him or herself [never mind the social construction of reality involved in defining the gender roles invoked by the phrase "his or herself."]

YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN

As I think I may have remarked somewhere, the principal problem with the sort of Continuing Care Retirement Community [CCRC] where I now live is that it is full of old people, which reminds me more often than I would like that I am going to die.  The principal benefit is that it is full with old people, many them older than I, some much older than I, thus giving me reason to believe that I will not die just yet. 

Slowly, I have been getting to know the people who live here [here being Carolina Meadows], mostly those in the building in which I live, but bit by bit those in other buildings or in what are called “villas,” small one story free-standing homes with garages and such.  For well-known demographic reasons, more of my fellow residents are old women than are old men, and some of the women are well into their nineties, or even beyond.  Almost all of us have suffered the visible insults of old age, and there are as many walkers in use here as there are bicycles on a college campus.  Some of us are bent almost double with arthritis and other physical problems, others have a marked case of “widow’s hump,” and a fair number of folks exhibit some sort of cognitive loss – forgetfulness, short term memory loss, and so forth.  People here are touchingly understanding of and accommodating of the frailties of others, routinely and without comment.

All of this made me feel, rather defensively, when I first moved in, that I did not belong, that I had no business being here, that although I am a naturally polite person [believe it or not], I really had nothing in common with the other residents.

But little by little, around the jigsaw puzzle table or the dining rooms or in the hallways, I actually began to talk with folks, and I have discovered to my great surprise and considerable pleasure that contrary to appearances and the usual “tells” by which we appraise people, many of my fellow residents are genuinely interesting people.  Most of them have college degrees [remember that only about 5% of people of my generation completed college], many have traveled to places I have never seen, and all have, during their long lives, done genuinely interesting things. [I leave entirely to one side the report that the man who occupied our apartment before we moved in was a Nobel Prize winner.]   

Several months ago, shortly after moving in, I got into a conversation with a tiny woman, bent over double by extreme arthritis, who paused to try to get a piece in the jigsaw puzzle we were then doing.  She is so crippled that she has to turn her head to one side to look up when she talks to someone.  Every instinct in me cried out that this was someone I should help across the street, but not someone I would want to talk with.  But I actually have an acute ear for language, and a turn of phrase she used struck me as lovely and genuinely intelligent.  She turns out to be a fascinating person who is, appearances aside, one of the sprightliest people I have ever met. 


Again and again, I have had experiences like this here, challenging and rebutting my lifelong habit of judging people by their academic stigmata.  It has been an eye-opener living in a CCRC.

THE FACE OF EVIL

I had a lighthearted post planned for today, and I shall get to it presently, but I must at least take notice of the sheer wanton cruelty of Trump's latest acts  -- threatening to cut off aid to Puerto Rico as that island's people face death and disaster, and deliberately attempting to destroy the health insurance markets with not the slightest concern for the millions who will be harmed by his executive order.  He is a monster. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

GENUINELY SCARY

It is manifestly clear, I think, that the House will never impeach Trump and, were they to do so, the Senate as it is now constituted could never find the 67 senators required to remove from office.  The 25th Amendment [of which Trump was apparently unaware] will not be invoked save in extremis.  But the latest reports from the White House [which leaks not like a sieve but like a water main] suggest that Trump is becoming so seriously unstable that he may actually have a certifiable breakdown requiring hospitalization.  The up side of this is that we would be relieved of a man capable of launching nuclear weapons on a whim.  The down side is that this is a man who, on the way to a breakdown, might launch nuclear weapons on a whim.  We are in very, very dangerous territory

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

WHAT'S UP

There is a good deal to say about my trip to Columbia, but since the talk will be posted on YouTube, that can wait.  A great deal more pressing is what is happening right now with the Trump presidency.  Back when it really did not seem to matter, we had a discussion on this blog about whether Trump was such a danger to initiate a nuclear war that this fact took precedence over all the doubts one had about Clinton.  I am very, very sorry to say that those of us who took the pro-Clinton side of that distasteful choice were right.  What is going on now is terrifying.  There are reports that we are in reality a good deal closer to war on the Korean Peninsula than public appearances indicate.  Trump is now openly and universally recognized to be an unstable infantile narcissist who is capable of initiating military action merely because he is infuriated by what he sees on television.  We are reduced to hoping that the generals around him are in the room when he reaches for the “nuclear football” and can wrestle him to the ground in time.  It is a bitter irony that the less success he has in promoting his hideous legislative agenda, the more angry he will become and hence the more dangerous.  There is, it seems to me, no chance whatsoever that Congress will exercise its constitutional powers and the Mueller investigation, I fear, will not produce results that absolutely compel impeachment and removal from office.  And this is not yet ten months!

Our only hope?  That Trump will be distracted by the NFL, about which he seems to care deeply.


One ray, not of hope but rather of pleasure:  The statement by the Secretary of State that Trump is a f#$%ing moron.  The endless repetition of this news snippet is like a cool breeze on a hot summer day.  I freely confess that no matter how often I hear it repeated on television, I get each time a brief frisson of pleasure.  Gather ye rosebuds where ye may, indeed.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

ONE WONDERS

In Defense of Anarchism was translated into Catalan in 2012.  Five years later, Catalonia votes for independence.  A coincidence?  :)

A RESPONSE TO RICHARD

In response to the re-posting of my Credo, Richard asks some questions:

(1) Are all human activities transformative of nature? Is the activity of knowing that, say, there are billions of galaxies transformative of those galaxies?

(2) Are all of any one person's acts of knowing completely dependent, i.e., dependent in all aspects, upon those of others?

(3) Are these things matters of choice? Is the choice of a thesis opposed to the one you have chosen the choice of an error?

By the way, the proof that I am not a robot was truly ridiculous? Is the post one which a sign is posted a sign or not?

Herewith, some quick responses:

1.  Not all human activities are transformative of nature, and of course I did not say that.  But as it happens, the activity Richard cites is indeed part of a human transformation of nature [not of the galaxies, of course.]  It is part of the collective activity we call science.

2.  Of course not, but they are far more dependent on the previous activities of others than one might at first suppose.  At the very least, they are likely to be couched in some natural language, which quite obviously is a collective human product.

3.  I am not sure what “these things” refers to.  In many cases, the answer to the question in the second sentence is, sometimes yes, sometimes no [I think – the question is not very clear.]


Finally, I have not a clue about this robot thing.  I think you have to tell Google [good luck with that!]

Monday, October 9, 2017

CREDO [I BELIEVE]

From time to time, it is appropriate to re-post what I have written before, on the principle, articulated by Kierkegaard in Either/Or, and by Plato before him in The Gorgias,  that the essence of the Ethical is repetition.  Accordingly, I re-post here my Credo, which first appeared here on November 28, 2010, and was re-posted, with elaborations, on February 25, 2014:


We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species.

All of us eat grain we have not grown, fruit we have not planted, meat we have not killed or dressed. We wear clothes made of wool we have not combed and carded, spun or woven. We live in houses we have not built, take medicines we neither discovered nor produced, read books we have not written, sing songs we did not compose. Each of us is completely dependent on the inherited knowledge, skill, labor, and memory of all who have gone before us, and all who share the earth with us now.

We have a choice. We can acknowledge our interdependence, embracing it as the true human condition; or we can deny it, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are related to one another only as parties to a bargain entered into in a marketplace. We can recognize that we need one another, and owe to one another duties of generosity and loyalty. Or we can pretend to need no one save through the intermediation of the cash nexus.

I choose to embrace our interdependence. I choose to acknowledge that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the house in which I live are all collective human products, and that when any one of us has no food or clothing or shelter, I am diminished by that lack.

There are two images alive in America, competing for our allegiance. The first is the image of the lone horseman who rides across an empty plain, pausing only fleetingly when he comes to a settlement, a man apparently having no need of others, self-sufficient [so long as someone makes the shells he needs for his rifle or the cloth he needs for his blanket], refusing to acknowledge that he owes anything at all to the human race of which he is, nonetheless, a part.

The other is the image of the community that comes together for a barn-raising, working as a group on a task that no one man can do by himself, eating a communal meal when the day is done, returning to their homes knowing that the next time one of their number needs help, they will all turn out to provide it.

These images are simple, iconic, even primitive, but the choice they present us with remains today, when no one rides the plains any more, and only the Amish have barn-raisings. Today, as I write, there are tens of millions of Americans who cannot put a decent meal on the table in the evening for their families, scores of millions threatened with the loss of their homes. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands lavishing unneeded wealth on themselves, heedless of the suffering of their fellow Americans, on whose productivity, inventiveness, and labor they depend for the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the homes they live in, and also for the luxuries they clutch to their breasts.

The foundation of my politics is the recognition of our collective interdependence. In the complex world that we have inherited from our forebears, it is often difficult to see just how to translate that fundamental interdependence into laws or public policies, but we must always begin from the acknowledgement that we are a community of men and women who must care for one another, work with one another, and treat the needs of each as the concern of all.


If all of this must be rendered in a single expression, let it be: From each of us according to his or her ability; to each of us according to his or her need.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Back Home

I am back and rested from my trip to Columbia.  The talk was recorded and will be up some time -- I do not know when.  It was nice being back after half a century.  Meanwhile, the world is falling apart, but that is nothing new.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

REWARDS OF THE UNDEAD

Some while back, I confessed my inability to grasp America’s fascination with the undead.  Today, I received a sign.  Forty-eight years ago, desperate for funds to pay for my analysis and my wife’s analysis, I signed a contract with a commercial publisher to crank out a collection of philosophical works, all in the public domain [no permissions costs], to be called Ten Great Works of Philosophy.  The advance was $2000, half on signing and half on submission of the completed manuscript.  I did the job so fast that I submitted the manuscript before they could send me the signing check.  I think it is my most forgettable book.

Time passed, the turbulent Sixties and Seventies gave way to the Reagan Era, then the Bush disaster, then the Clinton triangulation.  Computers got faster and smaller, cellphones sprang up like weeds, social media transformed the world, I aged, moved, changed departments, retired, and still the royalty checks kept coming for Ten Great Works of Philosophy.  The checks were never large, but over the decades, close to one hundred thousand copies of this utterly negligible work were sold.  To whom?  Lord knows.  Bored travelers trapped in airports?  College students in a Philosophy course taught by a professor so clueless as to consider this a suitable text?  People reaching for the Kama Sutra and grabbing my book by mistake in their inflamed state?

Today yet another annual royalty check arrived, this one for $114.55, my take on sales of 640 copies [so it seems I make roughly 17.9 cents a copy].  This check puts me over the $9000 mark, which works out to $190 a year, so sales seem to be holding up.  I shall enter this royalty payment in my Excel spreadsheet with the forty-seven other entries.  I rather suspect this walking dead book will still be around, loitering in train stations and drug stores, long after I am dead.

OFF TO THE BIG APPLE

Tomorrow morning, before the sun is up, I shall set out for New York City to lecture at Columbia.  I have been told that the lecture will be video'd and posted on YouTube, in which case you will be able to see it.  The title, as I have reported, is "What Good is a Liberal Education?  A Radical Replies."  This will be my first gig at Columbia as a member of their Society of Senior Scholars.  What will come of this?   We shall see.  I return home Saturday noon, after which I shall report on how it all  went down.  My lecture will offer a new and unexpected answer to the title question, with roots in the work of Marx, Freud, and Marcuse.  Should be fun.

SOMETIMES TOM FRIEDMAN IS RIGHT

I am not a fan of Thomas Friedman, NY TIMES Op Ed writer, but sometimes he gets it right, and when he does, simple fairness requires that we acknowledge that.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

THIS AND THAT

On this lovely fall day in North Carolina, there is a good deal to engage our attention.  I shall leave it to others with stronger stomachs to comment on the bizarre sight of the President of the United States tossing rolls of kitchen toweling to people struggling to get drinkable water and refrigeration for medications.  Others may have words for that ugliness; I do not.

Consider the Secretary of State, fourth in line to the Presidency after Michael Pence and Paul Ryan [weep for democracy if your eyes are not dry.]  He called the President a “f#$%ing moron” in the hearing of others in government, he contradicted the President openly on matters of global life and death, such as the confrontation with North Korea, he publicly differed with the President on the multi-nation agreement with Iran about its nuclear weapons program.  But what brought him to the brink of resignation last summer was the President’s speech at a Boy Scout convention, because apparently what Rex Tillerson cares about more than North Korea, more than Iran, more than nuclear war itself, is the f&%#ing BOY SCOUTS!

Which brings to mind several stories about my uneventful membership in that colonialist institution.  Yes, I was a Boy Scout.  I earned eleven merit badges, enough to make me a Life Scout [my recollection, which may be faulty, is that it took twenty-five to make Eagle Scout.] 

First story:  during the time that I was a Boy Scout, I was also a violin pupil studying, sort of, with Mrs. Irma Zacharias.  Mrs. Zacharias was a tiny, plump, terrifying woman, originally from New Orleans.  She lived in a big pre-war apartment at 71st Street and Broadway in Manhattan with her spinster daughter, Dorothea, who gave piano lessons and was rumored to have had a fling, as a young woman, with Ira Gershwin, George’s brother.  Mrs. Zacharias’ brother, Admiral Zacharias, commanded the U. S. fleet in the Pacific during WW II, and her son, Gerald, was a Professor of Mathematics at MIT, where he spearheaded the rewriting of the secondary school math curriculum called the New Math.  I was an indifferent pupil at best, and was usually in Mrs. Zacharias’ bad graces, but things came to a head when I showed up for a weekly lesson manifestly unprepared.  When she asked why I had not practiced, I explained I had been busy with Boy Scout activities.  She was speechless with outrage and never forgave me.

Second Story:  From age nine to eleven, I spent each summer at eight week sleep away Camp Taconic in the Berkshires.  The next year, I gave Boy Scout Camp a try for two two-week stints.  It was a disaster.  The low point came after they had taught us the Scout Law, which I remember to this day:  “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”  I refused on principle to say “reverent” and almost got thrown out of the camp.

Signs of aging:  For as long as we have been married, which is coming up to be thirty years, Susie and I have been bird feeders.  In Pelham, we had a large back yard with a stand-alone feeder that drew twenty-seven different species of birds, including such lovely species as Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, Blue Birds, and even a flock of wild turkeys that showed up from time to time and paraded around before moving off into the woods. On two occasions Black Bears appeared, knocked down the bird feeder and stand with one swipe of a paw, and ate the suet.  In Meadowmont, we had a large porch and several hanging feeders that drew mostly Goldfinches, House Finches, and the occasional wandering Cardinal.  Here in Carolina Meadows, where we have no porch at all, we have managed to attach several feeders to windows with suction cups, so that we can feed the Goldfinches and the hummingbirds.  Long experience has taught us that hulled Sunflower hearts are the food of choice for local birds.  In the old days, I would go off to Amherst Farmer Supply, buy a fifty pound bag, heave it onto my shoulder and carry it to the trunk of my car.  After fifteen years or so, when I was in my late sixties, I took to buying twenty-five pound bags.  This morning I went to the Wild Bird Center for some Sunflower hearts and found the 14.5 lb bag rather heavy as I took it to my car.  I suppose in my nineties I shall be reduced to offering them bread crumbs, not too big.

Finally, a word of praise to the mayor of San Juan, who has been abused by our President for failing to praise his inadequate response to the hurricane that may end life in Puerto Rico as she has known it.


As Keith Olberman says at the end of each of his indispensable tri-weekly commentaries, “Resist!  Remove!  Peace.”

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

FACTS

According to this 2016 story in the Washington Post, only one-third to two-fifths of American households include someone who owns a gun, despite the fact that there are more guns than people in this country.  Gun owning households typically own four or five guns, and some own as many as twenty or thirty.  Since 1986, it has been illegal to buy a fully automatic weapon [one that keeps firing as long as you keep pressing the trigger], but it is legal to buy a kit that converts a semi-automatic weapon [one that fires again and again without reloading as you press the trigger again and again] to an automatic weapon, and there are YouTube videos showing you how to make the conversion.

America is not a nation.  It is a dystopian war zone.

Monday, October 2, 2017

GIVE DANA A TREAT

read This.

BREAKING A LANCE FOR PICKINESS

It seems I have now revealed my true nature.  I am that most familiar comic figure, the old fogey, the fussbudget, the picky linguistic purist seeking to sweep back sea changes in the way we talk.  Oh well, I was never a happening guy.  But before I fold my tent and creep back into the brambles of old age, let me take just a moment to explain why I care.  There really is a reason, or perhaps four reasons.

First, about “decimate.”  I don’t really care that this word has now come to be synonymous with “devastate,” which it sounds like.  It is just that the original meaning of the word is interesting, curious, a link to a history now long past, and I hate to see us simply lose that understanding.

Second, there are some words that are really useful – or rather, there are some meanings that are usefully linked to particular words – and I hate to see us lose a grasp of those meanings and the way they are differentiated from other meanings with which they are easily confused.  An example is “disinterested,” which is now routinely used as a synonym for “uninterested.”  “Disinterested” originally meant – and still does mean, as some of us use it – “neutral,” ”objective,” “not moved by personal interest.”  A judge is expected to hand down disinterested decisions, but of course a representative in the American political system is not, because he or she is elected to represent the interests of constituents.

Third, many speakers and writers, in an effort to elevate their language and sound significant, misuse words that do not actually mean what they have in mind but that sound impressive.  A good example, is “transpired,” which is now usually used as a three dollar alternative to the two-bit “happened.”  How important one sounds, asking “what transpired at the meeting?”  Well, “transpired” literally means “breathed about,” so when one asks “what transpired at the meeting?” one is actually asking not what happened at the meeting, but what news or information came out – was breathed about – at the meeting.  The distinction between what happened and what came out or was revealed is a real one, and hence ought to be reflected in our language.

Now, quite obviously, as Noam Chomsky tells us, every natural language at any stage in its evolution has within it the linguistic resources to say anything one may think. Hence linguistic drift never deprives a natural language of the capacity to express anything that could be expressed at an earlier time or in another language.  So, aside from nostalgia for one’s lost youth, why do I care?

Well, here is my fourth reason, and it may be the most important of the lot.  I believe that language gains its power not from linguistic bombast, from the piling of word on word, but from the absolute precision with which it expresses clear, coherent, logical progressions of thought.  Careless choice of one’s words robs one’s speech or writing of that power.  Let me give an analogy which I think is apposite.  When a chorus sings a composition, if the several singers are slightly, ever so slightly, off key or not in synch with one another, the sound waves they generate with their vocal cords overlap and cancel each other out.  Hence, an enormous chorus of mediocre singers, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, instead of producing a large sound, produces instead a muddied and muffled sound that is much less loud than one might expect.  On the other hand, when fifteen or sixteen members of the Tallis Scholars sing, the perfection of their intonation causes the sound waves to reinforce one another so that the sound they produce is overwhelming, quite astonishingly so.

Language is like that, and as a connoisseur of language, I care.



Sunday, October 1, 2017

REALLY PICKY NITPICKING

When a Roman legion had performed really badly, and its commanders wished to punish it, they would line the men up and select every tenth man to be killed.  In short, they would decimate it.  That is what "decimate" means.  It does not mean that a population [or an area] has been wiped out.

Oh well.

WHY I DO WHAT I DO -- A RESPONSE TO COMMENTS ABOUT RAWLS

The comments attendant upon my remarks about Rawls’ work incline me to say something of a systematic nature about how I read a work of philosophy.  The first major works with which I engaged seriously were Hume’s Treatise and Kant’s First Critique, which together were the subject of my doctoral dissertation.  Both works are long, extremely complex, and filled with seemingly endless detail, all of which is, as one might expect, elegantly and intelligently presented.  But despite the fact that I became deeply steeped in both works and knew that detail intimately, when it came time for me to write about them, I ignored the detail, the elaborations and fine work, as it were, and instead approached both works in a quite different fashion.  I saw Hume and Kant, and then by extension other great philosophers as well, as engaged in trying to bring to the surface and articulate deep conceptual insights into complex core arguments.  My job as a commentator, I decided, was to try to dive as deeply as they had, to follow them like Gandalf wrestling with the Borlag in the caves of Moria, and to grasp those central ideas, shaking them loose from the accompanying detailed elaborations as though they were barnacles growing on the hull of a sunken ship.  Very early in my philosophical work, I realized that I experience philosophical arguments as stories, which it is my job to re-tell as simply and clearly as I can.

The greatest philosophers, I found, sometimes could see more deeply into certain ideas than they could say clearly the core of those ideas.  So it was that in my struggle with the Treatise, I concluded that to understand Hume’s most powerful arguments, it was necessary to set aside his claim that every idea is a copy of a preceding impression, and instead bring to the surface the fact that at the critical turning points in his arguments, he appealed not to ideas copied from impressions but to acts of the mind.  Hence my phrase “theory of mental activity” which I used both to describe Hume’s argument and as part of the title of my book on the Critique

Kant posed a problem of the highest order.  On the one hand, Kant presented a theory of almost unmanageable detail and complexity, in which the detailed elaboration was said by him to be central to his argument.  On the other hand, as I plunged deeper and deeper into the central portions of the Critique, it seemed clear to me that one could only articulate Kant’s enormously powerful argument by simply ignoring almost all of that fretwork and taking seriously in my reading of him certain passages that he himself said were unimportant or needed even to be omitted from the Second Edition.

Is this the right way to read a great work of philosophy?  Of course not.  Countless commentators on a great text have grappled successfully and valuably with portions of that text that I have chosen simply to ignore.  Is it a right way to read a great work of philosophy.  I believe that it is, but there is no point in arguing that as a general proposition.  In each individual case, readers must judge for themselves whether my monomaniacally focused reading of the text is valuable to them.  If it is, then in that case I have been successful.


It is in this way that I approached A Theory of Justice.  The fretwork and elaboration interested me not at all, but I saw in the book a central argument worth extracting from the text and engaging with.  Those who do not find this approach illuminating ought simply to move on.  For those whose minds work as mine does, my analysis may be enlightening.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

WHAT CAN I SAY?

The situation in Puerto Rico is appalling and Trump's response is despicable.  All  the things that have been said by progressive commentators are true.  What more is there to say?  It will be a miracle if Puerto Rico recovers sufficiently to sustain a genuine economy and community.  My "vagrant thought" of September 21st may well prove true.  Once again I am reminded how little difference it makes that I [and countless others] express opinions.

As for ex-Secretary Price, what matters is not his luxury trips but his successful efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act.  Across this nation, ugliness and racism and wanton cruelty reign.  Our only hope is to somehow persaude millions of slackards to take the trouble to vote in the next round of elecions, so that we can regain some measure of political power and begin to reverese the damage.

Yesterday, our across the hall neighbor, Addie Posner, had a birthday.  She is a friendly lady with macular degeneration that interferes with her sight.  It seems she has just turned ninety-five!  It gives me hope that I can live long enough to see a somewhat better world before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Friday, September 29, 2017

WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING

In 1990, I founded University Scholarships for South African Students, or USSAS, a one-man effort to raise money for bursaries for poor Black young men and women in South Africa who been admitted to historically Black universities but could not afford to matriculate.  Over the next twenty-five years, during almost forty trips to South Africa, I met a wide assortment of South Africans.  Quite the most unforgettable character was Renfrew Christie, a White English-speaking political scientist with an Oxford degree who spent a number of years in jail for his part in the effort to blow up a nuclear power reactor.  For many years, Renfrew served as the Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of the Western Cape, one of the best historically Black universities in the country.

Since his retirement, Renfrew has been circulating interesting material to a circle of friends, among whom I am privileged to count myself as one.  Yesterday, he sent me a link to a fascinating document, prepared by a firm called CapGemini, which I recommend to you.  It details the growth world-wide in the numbers and affluence of HNWI, which is to say High Net Worth Individuals.  Its concern is not, as you might expect, to highlight the appalling wealth inequality in the world, but rather to warn wealth managers that BigTech, which is to say data driven advice about investing, is cutting into the market share and profits of traditional money mnanagers.

I cannot create a link, but if you Google World Wealth report 2017 and go to Capgemini, you can find it.


Take a look at some of the tables and charts and such.  The amount of money floating around the world looking for a home is staggering.  CapGemini predicts that it will soon reach one hundred trillion dollars.  

ANSWER TO THE POP QUIZ

Kyla Lafleur writes "Oh Bob, your arrogance squeals like nails on a chalkboard between and within the lines of almost everything you write on this blog. But we think you are great anyway.”  This very much reassured me that my readers understand me.

The answer to the Pop Quiz is this:  Each of us has a public face, a front, as we say, which means not only our official persona but the front of our bodies [as opposed to the back or the behind, which is private, covered up, dirty, but secretly enticing and exciting].  We try very hard to communicate the lie that this front is the real person.  But we are always fascinated, when we look at other people, by what lies behind that public face, that front.  Most often, the discovery of what lies behind a person’s front causes us to lower our opinion of the person, to say, disapprovingly or dismissively, “Oh, that front is not what he or she is really like.”  However,  with some people, to whom we accord a special or elevated status, this process of re-assessment is reversed.  When we discover the secret weaknesses or foibles of someone we admire, those imperfections make him or her more human, more accessible, without lowering our opinion at all.

When I speak openly about aspects of my personality or behavior that would ordinarily be kept private so as not to incur disapproval, I am implicitly asserting that I am one of those special people whose private failings amuse us or make the person seem human.  In short, my confession of envy of Rawls’ reputation is an expression of arrogance.


Well, enough about me.  Let’s talk about you.  What do you think of me?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

POP QUIZ

I am curious about my readership.  This business of blogging is very hard for me, because I cannot see you, see how you respond, hear you as you comment.  It is all really odd.

So here is my pop quiz.  In my last post, I confessed that I am envious of Rawls' fame.  Is there  anyone among my readers who understands that this confession [not the envy, the confession of it] is an expression of my arrogance?

I WAS THINKING

I should like to take a few moments to respond to several comments and also to explain my approach to Rawls’ work. I talk a good deal about Rawls’ A Theory of Justice for four reasons:  First, because he is by common agreement the most influential social and political theorist in the Anglo-American philosophical world during the last one hundred years and as a political philosopher, I feel a certain obligation to engage with his theories in whatever way I think is appropriate; Second, because Rawls’ theoretical efforts bear an interesting relationship to Kant’s moral theory, which I have of course been very engaged with for sixty years, and I find it rewarding to think through the structure of his argument in that regard;  Third, because Rawls claims, and really never deep down gives up the claim, that he is proving a theorem in Bargaining Theory, a subject about which I know a good deal, and I enjoyed writing a book showing that the theorem was invalid [this, pace Jerry Fresia’s comment about puzzles];  and Finally because I am secretly envious of Rawls for achieving the reputation that I never did in the field of political philosophy [O.K., so now it is not so secret.]

I am actually not at all taken by Rawls’ interminable, endlessly revised elaborations of the fretwork and detail of his bloated theory.  A Theory of Justice is, as I have several times remarked, a slender monograph in Game Theory wearing the philosophical equivalent of a cinematic fat suit.  Since I am not particularly sympathetic to Rawls’ view of modern society, his opinions about all manner of things do not arouse my interest.  But his original idea, to overcome the standoff between utilitarianism and intuitionism by invoking the social contract tradition modernized by Game Theory, was brilliant, in my judgment, and that is worth discussing.

So, whether Rawls did or did not endorse the Welfare State or Democratic Socialism at some point in his career is of no importance to me.  If I seek inspiration of a socio-political sort, I read Marx rather than Rawls, or even Mannheim and Weber [neither of whom Rawls gives any evidence of having read seriously.]

With regard to my little thought experiment about what U. S. Gross Domestic Income would amount to if divided equally among all 330 million Americans, the point was not to suggest that as a realistic political platform, but to raise doubts about the unquestioned assumption that big league inequality in income is somehow required to get the right people into the right jobs.  My point was that because America is so phenomenally productive [as is every other modern post-industrial national economy], relatively small variations in wage levels could probably do the job rather well.  Certainly nothing remotely resembling the present income pyramid is required

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

WORLD FAMOUS IN POLAND [COURTESY OF MEL BROOKS]

I have just received a request from a professor of philosophy teaching in Qom, Iran, for permission to translate my book on Kant's First Critique into Persian!  He notes that Iran does not recognize copyright laws but feels that it would be "moralic" to ask for my permission.  Needless to say, I agreed.

Monday, September 25, 2017

HELP!!!

I clicked on the wrong thing and deleted a long comment about my last post.  Would the person who posted it please re-post it.  My apologies.  I am such a klutz!

BACK OF THE ENVELOPE CALCULATION

Is the US economy sufficiently productive so that an absolutely equal distribution of Gross National Income to the 330 million Americans would offer each worker enough so that he or she would be willing to do the job for which he or she was best suited, assuming some small adjustments for night work and the like, as suggested in comments?  Well, GNI is currently about 18.75 trillion dollars.  That works out to a bit less than $60,000 per person per year, or $240,000 for a household of four.  I think the answer is Yes.  Oh, I am down with paying LeBron James more, and also Serena Williams and Meryl Streep and Bill Gates and Keith Olberman.  What the hell.  

A RESPONSE TO SOME INTERESTING COMMENTS

My remarks about Rawls sparked a quite interesting flurry of comments.  There is one point I want to make in response.  LFC says, “if in fact there are no inequalities that will work to the advantage of 'the least favored', or no inequalities that are necessary, for example, to induce talented people to take certain jobs, then his principle(s) will yield an equal distribution of income and wealth. “  That is correct, and it explains why some people have chosen to read Rawls as proposing, or at least legitimating, a radically egalitarian alternative to contemporary society.  

It is clear that Rawls does not think no inequalities are required to induce the right people to compete for the jobs for which they are superbly suited, but then, it is often the case that philosophers argue for theses whose implications and applications are other than what they expected.  For me, inasmuch as it is the logic of Rawls’ argument that interests me, the important point is that Rawls’ argument for the Two Principles requires that there be significant inequalities.  I do not want to go too far into the weeds to show that, but those interested can take a look at paragraph 6 of section 26 of A Theory of Justice and try to figure out why what Rawls says there has the consequence I say it does.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

MORNING THOUGHTS

A bit more than two years ago, on July 12, 2015, in a post discussing John Rawls’ well-known theory of justice, I introduced the notion of an inequality surplus, which I suggested lies at the heart of that theory.  On my walk this morning, I was delivering, in my mind, a talk that I called “A  Game-Theoretic Analysis and Critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice,” in which I made much of this notion of an inequality surplus and called it into question.  When I coined this term, my focus was on Rawls, not on the larger question of what a socialist society might look like, but the analysis I offered there is directly relevant to this very important matter, and it occurred to me that I ought perhaps to revisit my remarks and expand upon them.  Let me begin by quoting some of what I wrote two years ago:

“The centerpiece of the theory is the two principles for the general regulation of society that, according to Rawls, would be unanimously chosen by individuals engaged in what Game Theorists call a Bargaining Game.   Here is the passage in which Rawls first introduces those principles:

The conception of justice which I want to develop may be stated in the form of two principles as follows: first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone's advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.

The central idea of these principles is this:  Modern society consists of large-scale bureaucratic organizations -- corporations, universities, hospitals, government offices, armies, and so forth -- in which there are clearly defined roles to which attach specified duties and compensations.  The default baseline situation, we may imagine, is one in which all the roles receive the same compensation -- a situation of absolute equality.  However, if the ablest individuals with the best sets of talents and skills are drawn into certain key positions, the institutions will function much more efficiently -- to be put it as simply as possible, the net output of the institution will be higher.  Now, to ensure that these especially talented or well-prepared individuals end up in those key positions, it is necessary to pay them higher salaries, and this is an element of inequality.  But the gain from their greater efficiency will be such that after they receive their added compensation, there will be something left over that can be given to everyone else [or to the least advantaged representative individual, depending on which version of Rawls' theory we are considering.]

Let us call this something extra the "inequality surplus" [not Rawls' term, by the way.]  Assuming, as Rawls does, that the individuals in the society are "not envious," which is to say assuming that those getting less in the way of compensation than the key individuals do not begrudge them their higher salaries so long as they themselves are getting more than they would without the productive efforts of those key individuals, everyone will endorse this system.  And that, in a nutshell, without all the baroque elaborations, is Rawls' argument.

Since this is rather abstract, let me restate it by way of a hypothetical example.  Consider a manufacturing firm that makes washer-dryers.  The employees, we may suppose for simplicity's sake, are divided into executives who direct the operations of the firm, production line workers who assemble the washer-dryers from components delivered to the factory, and loading dock workers who unload the components when they are delivered by truck to the back door of the factory and load the finished washer-dryers onto trucks waiting to take them to retail outlets.

Clearly, the earnings of the company will be much greater if those with special skills, training, and talent for corporate management are assigned to the executive jobs, and that fact will make it possible to raise everyone's salary.  But there is a problem.  Rawls does not identify this problem, but his theory makes no sense at all unless we assume that the problem exists, so we are justified, I think, in assuming it.

The problem is this:  After the professionally administered aptitude tests are scored, and the individuals with special management talents are identified, they are offered jobs as managers.  But when the selected individuals are invited into the executive suites, they say, "Thanks, but no thanks.  I would rather work on the loading dock." 

"What is this?"  you say incredulously.  "Where on earth does Rawls say that in A Theory of Justice?"  Well, nowhere of course.  But he must be assuming it, even though he doesn't know it, because if those tapped for management actually prefer to be in management [or, technically, are indifferent between executive suite and loading dock, but never mind that], WHY PAY THEM MORE TO TAKE THE JOBS?

"But it is not just to pay them no more than loading dock workers, and Rawls says his theory is a theory of justice!” you protest.  "Ah," I reply, "you have not read Rawls as carefully as you ought.  Rawls does not start with a pre-systematic concept of justice that he assumes without argument.  He starts with a collection of rationally self-interested individuals who, according to him, will out of self-interest choose these two principles, and the fact that they will out of self-interest choose these principles MAKES THEM the principles of justice."

There is no reason for me, a rationally self-interested individual, to approve a system of unequal compensation unless I believe that doing so will draw into key positions individuals whose greater efficiency will end up benefitting ME.   

Does anyone at all really believe that offered a choice between corner offices in the executive suite and nine-to-five jobs on the loading dock, potential executives will opt for the loading dock unless they are paid hefty salaries well above that of their lesser brothers and sisters out back?  Rawls does.  He must.  Otherwise the centerpiece of his theory collapses.”

The central notion is the inequality surplus.  Unequal compensation, Rawls believes, is required to draw into key jobs those with special talents or acquired abilities, whose superior performance increases output more than what is required to compensate them, leaving a surplus that can be distributed to others in a manner that leads everyone to prefer the structure of unequal compensation to the baseline of equal compensation with lower total output and hence universally lower compensation.  In short, Rawls assumes, self-interest will lead everyone to prefer inequality, including those who get the short end of the longer stick.

Rawls’ focus is on the motivation of the losers in this competition.  They too must prefer the outcome in order for his argument to work.  But let us focus instead on the winners, those who secure the better paid positions.  Rawls, following virtually everyone in the field of Sociology of his day, simply assumes that higher pay is required to get the especially talented to take the demanding jobs.  Is this even notionally plausible?

Let us set to one side one irrelevant consideration, namely the cost in time and effort and money required to acquire the productive skills.  Clearly, the self-interested individuals assumed by Rawls’ theory will not spend many years and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on special education or training unless they are in some way compensated for that expenditure.  But in a well-run socialist society such costs will be socialized, as indeed many of them are even in capitalist societies.

In effect, we can imagine talented young men and women being asked the following question:  Would you rather spend four or six or eight years learning to be a manufacturing executive or a doctor or a lawyer or a college professor, during which time your room, board, tuition, and pocket money will be paid by the state, after which you will work until age 65 [or whatever] as a manufacturing executive or doctor or lawyer or college professor, or would you like to start working right now as a garbage collector or office secretary or production line worker or truck driver, working until age 65 [or whatever], earning in either case the same salary with the same benefits? 

In order for Rawls’ argument to make any sense at all [even before we get into the arcana of the Veil of Ignorance and the Strains of Commitment and the rest], he must assume that the specially talented young men and women will in general reply, “Well, if the pay’s the same, I’d just as soon be a truck driver, thank you very much.”  In which case, a bidding war starts, with society raising the pay for doctors and professors and business executives until their indifference between those jobs and truck driving or garbage collection or whatever is overwhelmed by their desire for the higher salary, and they say, reluctantly, “Well, all right, if you put it that way, I will consent to spend my life as a Professor of Philosophy rather than as a departmental secretary in a Philosophy Department.”  I say “reluctantly,” because Rawls’ theory requires that they be paid just enough to get them to consent.  Anything beyond that would, he says, be unjust [which is to say, would not be chosen by the rationally self-interested actors in the Original Position.]

I suggest that put this way, the assumption, one that Rawls shares with the entire world of sociologists and economists, is downright nutty.




Saturday, September 23, 2017

GETTING READY

My preparations are now complete for the talk I shall give at Columbia a week from next Friday.  Here is the poster that has been created for the event.




After reviewing several familiar defenses of liberal education, I shall offer an entirely new and rather unexpected defense, riffing on a passage in Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.  I shall be very interested to see the response.  The talk will be recorded, by the way, and uploaded onto YouTube.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A VAGRANT THOUGHT

If the appalling devastation in Puerto Rico drives large numbers of Puerto Ricans to transfer to the States, as they have a right to do, inasmuch as they are citizens, their decision to move could alter the politics of several states.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID

Donald Trump stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and threatened to kill 25 million North Koreans.  He is a war criminal.  I do not have anything witty or insightful or scholarly to say about him or about the scores of millions of people who elected him.  We must do whatever we can to limit the damage he is able to inflict on this country and on the world.

Obviously no one of us can do much, but we have to do something.  Does anyone think it would be helpful for me to resurrect the Friday Lists?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

SAD NEWS

Nine days ago, I posted a lighthearted account of my engagement with jigsaw puzzles, in the course of which I referred to a resident of our building who, I said, is "the maven of the puzzles."  She is an eighty-five year old woman named Mary Ann Clarkson, a cheerful, heavyset woman devoted to progressive politics and the Rachel Maddow show.  When we moved in, Mary Ann informed me in a conspiratorial voice that there was a "deplorable" in the building [a Trump supporter] and that we did not talk politics when she was around.  Mary Ann has been my favorite among the many new acquaintances I have made since moving to Carolina Meadows.

Mary Ann suffers from congestive heart failure.  I learned this morning that she passed away suddenly yesterday while visiting her daughter.  Somehow, the light seems to have gone out over the puzzle table in the lobby.

Someone reading this blog alerted Mary Ann that I had referred to her in a post, and she was very pleased.  It is a small thing, but I am happy that in this way I was able to let her know a bit of what she had so quickly come to mean to me.

I shall miss Mary Ann Clarkson.

Monday, September 18, 2017

BRIEF RESPONSE

My elegaic remarks about my books elicited a lovely array of responses.  Clearly, as I would have suspected, I am not alone.  When I retired and moved from a house to an apartment, I went through something of the thinning out process that David Auerbach describes.  I was about to get rid of one book until I noticed that it was a presentation copy from the author.  Whoops!  I hung on to it.

Carl, my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, was indeed named for Barrington Moore.  Barry was his godfather, a fact that led to one of my favorite stories about Tobias when he was very little and still Toby.  His mother and I took him and his big brother, Patrick, to see Barry and Betty Moore at their Cambridge home.  When we got there, we discovered that Barry's closest friend, Herbert Marcuse, was staying with them.  Herbert had recently lost his wife and was rather lonely.  Barry had no idea at all what to do with a three year old [he had no children.]  All he could think to do by way of play was to talk German to to little Toby!  But Herbert was in his element.  He sat down on the floor, took a globe off a desk, and spun it around, pointing to one country after another.  Little Toby was enthralled.  When it came time to leave, we took the children out to the big old Chevy wagon parked at the curb.  Barry and Herbert came out to say goodbye.  As he was climbing into the back seat to be put in his car seat, Toby turned, looked up, waved his hand, and said "Bye, Herbie."  Marcuse was charmed.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

OLD FRIENDS

When I went off to Harvard in 1950, my parents and I had an agreement.  They would pay the tuition [$600] and the room and board [roughly the same, depending on which House you ended up in], and I would earn my pocket money by doing odd jobs.  I baby sat [and read Anatole France’s Penguin Island one evening], scrubbed floors, and twice a year inventoried the Robert Hall clothing store [a fabulous job that paid $1.25 an hour.]  I even sold hot dogs one Saturday at a Harvard football game, but since the concession was under the stands, I never actually saw a play.  I wanted to go down to New London to Connecticut College for Women to see Susie as often as I could, so I had precious little to spend on anything else. As a consequence, I never actually bought books in college.  I read them in Lamont Library and took notes.  One of the few books I acquired as an undergraduate was a handsome copy, two volumes in one, of Harry Austryn Wolfson’s magisterial work The Philosophy of Spinoza.  I read it in the library while taking his course my sophomore year, but that year I won the Detur Book Prize for getting good grades and chose Wolfson’s book as my reward.  Years later, I received a fund raising appeal from Harvard to support the Detur Fund, and even though I routinely threw away Harvard's endless appeals, I thought I owed them something and sent along a hundred dollars to the fund.  One result of this undergraduate poverty was that when I started to actually buy books, I grew quite fond of them.

By now, as you will imagine, I have acquired a goodly number of books.  Nothing like so many as some scholars, but enough to fill many running feet of floor to ceiling bookshelves. 



Here is a photo of one stretch of those shelves, to the left and behind my desk in my study.  This morning, I pushed back from my desk and swiveled to look idly at the shelves, and my eye fell on a three volume translation of a minor nineteenth century French novel, Les Mystères de Paris, by Eugene Sue.  This is one of the relatively few books in my collection that I have never actually read.  I bought it because Marx and Engels, in their hilarious juvenile work, The Holy Family, spend a good deal of time tearing it to pieces, and I thought I ought to own it.

Then I began to run my eyes over the shelves to spend some time visiting with old friends.  My favorite book of the entire collection is the stubby fat black-bound edition of Hume’s Treatise with Selby-Bigge’s indispensable and exhaustive notes.  I have a sensuous relationship with books, an antique passion that young people probably cannot comprehend.  The paper of Selby-Bigge’s Treatise is a light cream color with a slightly nubby feel to it.  I am an inveterate marginal commentator of the books I read and the pages of the Treatise absorb just enough of the ink to blur what I write ever so slightly.  My copy has been read and re-read, covered with red and black and blue underlinings and comments, until the binding has fallen off.  My first copy of the Kemp Smith translation of the Critique was a graduation present from my two undergraduate friends and fellow madrigalists, Richard Eder and Michael Jorrin, inscribed “Each even line from Dick, each odd line from Mike.”  When it too fell apart, I had it professionally re-bound, which preserved it but made it hard to open, so I bought a second copy.  When that fell apart, I replaced it with a paperback version, which survives intact.  The original copy is a living record of my struggles with that immortal work.  There are places where I have raised a mystified marginal doubt in one ink, next to which, in different ink, is written “Oh yes, I see now.”  After all these years, I have no idea either what my original puzzlement was or what the later enlightenment consisted in.

And so they march on, shelf after shelf.  Some are presentation copies, such as Barrington Moore’s great work, The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.  Others are beaten up second hand copies that I found in the recesses of bookstores, like my very own copy of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which, according to the flyleaf notation, I bought in January, 1959.  The Index is the Catholic Church’s official list of books the faithful are not to read.  It is a fascinating document, heavily loaded up with obscure works of deviant theology in Italian that the Vatican priests would have known about.  The only English novel I could find listed is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, I assume on the theory that if you list the first one, it follows recursively that all the others are included.  My copy came with a paperclipped page of addenda that did not make the edition.  The first item on that list is “Sartre, Jean Paul, Opera Omnia,” which pretty well takes care of him.


These are my friends, my oldest and best friends.  I do not visit them very often, but they are with me always and I know that should I grow lonely, they await me, quite forgiving of my lack of attention.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

IDLE THOUGHTS

While I try to think of something consequential to say, let me get a few vagrant thoughts off my mind and into cyberspace.

First:  In these terrible times, it is extremely important to take any pleasures life offers where and when they are offered.  Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Attorney-General of the United States, is arguably the most despicable person in America -- not the most evil, not the one first in line for eternal damnation, just the most despicable.  It is now reported that immediately upon the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, Donald Trump exploded and cursed out Sessions, calling him an idiot and suggesting that he resign.  Sessions later said it was the worst public humiliation of his life.  Now that isn't much, I admit, but God, it is something!  We must be thankful for small favors.  As William Kristol said when he first met Sarah Palin, it made a little thrill run up my leg.

Second:  I pose the following question as a general conundrum, suitable for debate on this blog.  Suppose it turns out that the 800,000 Dreamers can be saved from harassment and deportation at the price of an appropriation to build Trump's useless, worthless boondoggle, THE WALL.  Taking into consideration, on one side, the very real value of protecting the dreamers, and on the other side, the very real political danger of giving Trump any victories at all, should the Democrats take the deal?

Third:  Can anyone offer concrete, factual reasons for me to believe that Serena Williams will return from motherhood to play competitive tennis again?

Finally:  Can anyone explain to me the seemingly limitless TV fascination with The Undead?

Friday, September 15, 2017

WEALTH

Having taken my stroll down memory lane, let me now address the substance of the Institute for Policy Studies paper that provoked the memories.  The paper, 30 pages in all, is called THE ROAD TO ZERO WEALTH:  How the Racial Divide is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class.  The paper is a statistical analysis of the extraordinary racial inequality in household wealth, far more extreme than the better known racial inequality in household income, on which I commented several days ago.

The statistics are astounding.  Median household wealth, which is to say the value of possessions minus debt, is measured in two ways:  with or without so-called durable goods such as furniture and cars.  Median household wealth of white households [measured in 2013 dollars] is $134,000 with durable goods, $116,000 without.  Median household wealth for black households is $11,000 with durable goods, just $1,700 without!  Nor is education the great equalizer.  The median white household headed by someone with a high school diploma has $64,200 in wealth.  By contrast, the median black household headed by someone with a college degree has only $37,600 in wealth [$32,600 for an Hispanic family headed by a college graduate.]

The authors show that median household wealth for Black and Hispanic families has been declining for thirty years.  Employing straight line projections [which I consider somewhat questionable], they conclude that a generation in the future, as America becomes a majority non-white country, median household wealth for non-whites will approach zero.

This is what is known, in other contexts, as structural racism.  Charles Murray and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the contrary notwithstanding, the gap between white and non-white wealth is not traceable to personal failings, to cultural inadequacies, to a lack of educational credentials, or to drugs in the hood.

What does explain the astonishing disparities?  The authors of the study say very little about that, a fact that I found disappointing.  However, they do allude to one of the causal factors, namely the disparity in home ownership, and I think we can elaborate on that.

For most American households, home ownership is the principal way of accumulating wealth.  This is a very familiar fact, but it is worth spelling it out a bit.  Typically, a family buys a house by paying a down payment of as much as 20% of the purchase price, but more often 10% or even less, and then slowly buys the house – “pays off the mortgage” – over twenty or thirty years.  Each monthly payment consists of two portions:  the interest owing on the remaining principal, and a payment, very small at first, on the owed principal.  The mortgage is structured so that each monthly payment is the same, but over time, as principal owing is paid off, less and less of the payment goes for interest, more for principal, until, at the end of the term of the mortgage, the household owns the house outright.  A home mortgage is, in effect, a form of forced savings.  Households that rent do not, of course, accumulate any ownership at all.  After thirty years, the home owning family has a very large nest egg.  The renting family has nothing.

The equity in the house, as the paid off portion of the mortgage is called, can be used as collateral for a “homeowner’s loan.”  The household also can refinance the mortgage, in effect taking out its accumulated principal and starting over.  In hard times, should the homeowner lose his or her job [or, more often, their jobs], the equity in the home is a cushion.  Technically, of course, when a homeowner refinances, he or she is going into debt, but the interest rates on mortgage loans are extremely low, whereas the interest charges on credit card or other consumer debt are punitively high.

Starting at the end of World War II, the Federal government adopted a variety of policies designed to encourage home ownership, with great success.  The Federal Housing Authority [FHA] deliberately and openly discriminated against black households, making it very much more difficult for a Black man or woman to get a mortgage loan.  This policy, which continued for more than a generation, had extremely long term differential effects on the ability of white and black households to accumulate wealth.  The impact of this discrimination reached across generations, because white families, by refinancing their mortgages, could free up capital for their children to make the down payments on home purchases whereas black families could not [I work out an elaborate example in my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.]


This is just one of a number of structural disadvantages that help to explain the huge wealth differences between White and non-White households.  Rectifying this multi-generational structural discrimination cannot be accomplished by interracial sensitivity training or Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.  It requires carefully thought out structural changes designed not merely to correct the racially encoded disadvantages going forward but also to carry out redistributions of wealth and income.  It goes without saying that the place to start this redistribution is at the top, not at the bottom.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

DOWN MEMORY LANE

Obsessive readers of this blog will have noted David Palmeter’s comment, four days ago, about disparities between Whites and Blacks in wealth, far greater than the disparities in income, and my approving reply.  The next day, I came across a link to an extremely interesting research paper on that topic published by the Institute for Policy Studies, or IPS.  I shall write something about that paper, at which point I shall provide a link, but first, I want to reminisce for a while about my connections with the two founders of IPS, Marcus Raskin and the late Richard Barnet, both whom were my friends.

I got to know Dick Barnet during the later ‘50s, during my Instructorship at Harvard, through our shared commitment to the cause of nuclear disarmament.  Dick was a fellow at Harvard’s Russian Research Institute [the academic home of Barrington Moore, Jr., with whom I co-taught a Social Studies tutorial seminar during the ’60-’61 academic year.]  Dick published a very useful little book, Who Wants Disarmament? In 1961.  It was through Dick that I was introduced to a fundamental and important truth of the world of public affairs, a truth that can be summarized by Gertrude Stein’s famous observation about Oakland, CA, “there is no there there.”  It happened like this.

In those days, there was an annual meeting called the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, named after the town in Nova Scotia where it was first held in 1957.  In ’60, I think it was, Walt Rostow, later LBJ’s National Security Advisor, returned from a Pugwash Conference and gave several TV interviews on the nuclear disarmament discussions there, which I watched.  Rostow was invited to give a closed door briefing on the proceedings for a select group of distinguished Harvard experts at the Russian Research Institute, and Dick managed to get me in.  I was very excited, believing that at last I would find out how the experts talked about nuclear weapons and Soviet-American relations in private when they were among the cognoscenti.  It was an impressive gathering.  All of Harvard’s big names in Soviet Studies were there, including Alex Inkeles, Adam Ulam, and Zbigniev Bzrezinski.  As I listened to the discussion, I was dismayed to discover that when these big wigs were talking privately to one another, they uttered exactly the same ridiculous ideological hogwash that they put out to the press and public.  There was no esoteric doctrine, no there there.  They really thought that way!  Admittedly, I was young [twenty-six], but it was an eye-opener that I have never forgotten.

The next Spring, after Jack Kennedy’s election, Dick went to the Disarmament Agency in Washington.  In August of ’61, after my Instructorship ended, I made a first visit to D.C., to see Dick and several other people I knew who had left Harvard for the new Administration.  Dick introduced me to Marcus Raskin, a young man my age from Chicago whom McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, had hired as his assistant.  Marc, who was located in the Old Executive Office Building, was supposed to be Bundy’s in-house critic from the left, raising doubts about the policies he was pushing to Kennedy [such as the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.]  Marc’s secretary was a rich, well-connected young woman named Diane DeVegh, rumored to be Kennedy’s mistress, who had been placed there to be nearby should the President have need of her services.  Fourteen months later, I was teaching at the University of Chicago, where, among other things, I offered a course in the Political Science Department on Military Strategy and Foreign Policy.  I was at that point very deep into the whole business of the threat of nuclear war, and I was terrified.  When the crisis hit, I loaded up my VW bug with a Geiger Counter and dried food, and made plane reservations for my wife and myself on flights to Canada and Mexico so that we could make an immediate escape north or south, depending on which way the prevailing winds were blowing.  Marc called me from his office to ask what I was doing to help avert a war.  I told him about my escape plans, and he was sternly disapproving, saying that I had an obligation to do whatever I could to work for peace.  I responded by asking him what he was doing, keeping in mind that he sat at the elbow of the chief national security advisor of the President.  He said in a soft voice, as though he were leaning into the phone and shielding his voice so as not to be overheard, “We are trying to reach the Pope.”  At that point, I got really, really scared.


The next year, Marc and Dick started IPS, and it exists to this day.  

Monday, September 11, 2017

JIGSAW PUZZLES

Back when I was a lad, the notion of a gestalt was hot in moral philosophy.  [I associate the term with Franz Brentano.  Is that right?]  As opposed to the associationism of Hume and his followers, who viewed perceptions as agglomerations of separable atomic individual sensations, gestalt theory taught, roughly, that certain perceptual presentations made seemingly objective demands on us.  For example, it was said, when presented with a line drawing of most of a circle, with a small arc or segment omitted, one experiences a demand that the circle be completed.  This fact showed something or other about the objectivity of moral judgments [I may be misremembering this – it has been sixty years, and I was never much impressed with the argument in the first place.]

Which brings me to jigsaw puzzles.  The Continuing Care Retirement Community where Susie and I now live has six apartment buildings, each with twenty-seven apartments, and in addition several hundred little one-story dwellings rather grandly called “villas” [use and mention, as Quine pounded into our heads.]  We live in Building 5.  On the first floor of building 5 is a lobby, in the lobby is a table, and on the table at any given time is a jigsaw puzzle of between 500 and 1000 pieces.  Residents stop by the table to chat, to gossip, and, if they are so moved, to try to put a piece or two in the puzzle.  I have never done jigsaw puzzles; my tipple, as I have mentioned, is crossword puzzles.  But the damned things exercise a demand on me that would warm a gestalt theorist’s heart.  Susie seems to be similarly afflicted, and we have quickly become known in the building as relentless puzzlers.  It is not uncommon for me to say to Susie, “I am going downstairs to do the puzzle” [we live on the third floor,] and like as not she will join me.  The only other thing in the world that exercises that sort of objective pull on me is an apple pie.  I feel it to be a sin to leave an apple pie only partly eaten.

We are now in the very last throes of a 750 piece puzzle, and there is serious trouble.  We are down to seven remaining pieces, none of which fits comfortably into the remaining spaces.  Clearly, somewhere, there are some wrong pieces, but I have not yet managed to find them.  The maven of the puzzles, a woman a bit older than myself who has lived in our building for eleven years, says one must simply move on, but I return to the table again and again, trying to spot the misplaced pieces that can be swapped out for those remaining.  It just seems wrong to leave the puzzle uncompleted.


Maybe there is something to gestalt theory.