Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Now I discover that our new Democratic senator is OPPOSED to the public option in the proposed bill, which is as much as to say that she is opposed to serious reform. This is not what we worked so hard for here in North Carolina. There is nothing for it but to get out the phone lists, crank up the machine, and start putting pressure on her to reverse course.
I called her Senate office, of course, and made my views known, but all I got from the young man who answered the phone was doubletalk.
Sigh. Nobody said it was going to be easy.
Senator Hagen's Senate Office Phone Number: 202-224-6342
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Thursday, June 25, 2009
With this post, I begin a series of posts that will explore the relationship between the philosophical and political doctrine of anarchism and the dramatic transformations in modern political activity wrought by the internet and electronic communication. I invite comments and responses. The locus classicus for these arguments is of course my little book, In Defense of Anarchism, published thirty-nine years ago and available now in a paperback reissue by the Univetrsity of California Press.
I. What is Anarchism?
Anarchism, put simply, is the thesis that there never has been, never will be, and never could be a morally legitimate state. The state is a group of people who claim the right to issue commands and the right to have them obeyed by the people over whom they assert their authority. Sometimes the state is one person [L’etat, c’est moi, as Louis XIV of
The defenders of the democratic state argue that when the people, through their chosen representatives, make the laws to which they are to submit, then they are truly free, for in obeying the laws, they are obeying only themselves, and hence retain their autonomy. This, in a sentence, is the argument of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s great treatise, Of The Social Contract. But despite his philosophically brilliant tergiversations, Rousseau is wrong, for when I submit to the will of a majority whose laws I judge to be ill-considered and immoral, I am forfeiting my autonomy as surely as if I were the loyal subject of a despot.
next post: The Problem of Social Coordination
One day, the great Polish emigre scholar, Isaac Deutscher, came to Harvard to give a talk. Deutscher had been a member of the Polish communist underground until being expelled. He fled to London, where he lived the rest of his life, writing, among other things, magnificent biographies of Stalin and Trotsky. I had lunch with Deutscher, Brzezinski, and several other people in the Adams House dining room during Deutscher's visit. It was obvious from the first moment they met that there was a deep antagonism between the two Polish emigres. Brzezinski's family had been a part of the lesser Polish nobility, which may account for the palpable ill feeling. They sparred on this subject and that, until suddenly, Deutscher turned to Berzezinski and spat something at him in Polish. Whatever it was [and none of us at the table spoke a word of Polish], it must have been a mortal insult, because Brzezinski turned white as a sheet and did not say another word.
I have always wondered what Deutscher said. Mika, are you out there? Want to ask your dad?
When I was in high school, in the late 40's [yes, Virginia, the 1940's, just after WW II, or, as Archie Bunker would say, The Big One], I was a rabid science fiction fan. I loved all the big authors -- A. E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard. Their stories appeared in a number of pocket pulpy magazines, roughly the size of the Reader's Digest, the two most popular of which were Galaxy and Astounding Science Fiction. I subscribed to Astounding Scdience Fiction, which was actually the venue of my very first publication -- a letter written as a sixteen year old Harvard Freshman scoffing at the notion of "non-Aristotelian logic," or Non-A, which was then very popular among science fiction afficionados. [I was also a member of The Baker Street Irregulars, a fan club of Sherlock Holmes devotees, also with its own magazine, but that is another story.]
One month, my copy of Astounding arrived, with a big non-fiction article by L. Ron Hubbard called "Dianetics." I started to read it, and immediately decided that it was a brilliant send-up of Freudian psychoanalysis and the theories of artificial intelligence then gaining currency as a consequence of the work of Alan Turing, Norbert Weiner, and others. [Since I spent two and a half years in analysis as a teenager and had hopes of becoming a mathematician, I had a certain investment in both schools of thought.]
Hubbard's article set forth a theory that struck me as sheer inspired nonsense. Here it is in a nutshell: The mind is a computer with an enormous untapped capacity for logical deduction and mathematical ca;culation. Almost all of this capacity is blocked by scars or traumas from early life, to which Hubbard gave the wonderfully scientific name "engrams." By working one's way backward through one's mental history, one could locate each of these engrams and bring them to consciousness, thus Clearing them from the mind and releasing the blocked potential. With the help of someone who would sit and listen to one's backward tracings -- an Auditor -- one could eventually become a Clear, at which point one would have seemingly superhuman powers of ratiocination. One would then be fully rational and thus happy.
Hubbard called this pastiche of pseudoscience Dianetics, a name that brilliantly captured both the hypermodern panache of the new field of artificial intelligence and the then very great medical authority of psychoanalysis.
I laughed my way through the article, and turned to the serious business of reading that month's fiction.
Little did I know! The next month, my copy of Astounding arrived, with the second half of Hubbard's screed, and I realized with a sinking sensation that he was serious.
In the next few years, Dianetics caught on like crazy, with California naturally as its most fertile territory. Dianetic Auditors hung out their shingles and started to collect big bucks for what they promised would be a shorter and far better path to happiness than ordinary psychoanalysis. Stories surfaced of patients who had managed to bring to consciousness, and thus to Clear, traumas from the second year of life, the first year of life, even the birth process itself. Not to be outdone, other Dianetics patients claimed to remember life in the womb. One even claimed to recall the mad swim upstream of schools of sperm on their way to the egg. Hubbard was getting very rich.
Then disaster struck. The Feds got wind of what was going on, and started charging Dianetic Auditors with practicing medicine without a license. Hubbard's elaborate scam seemed threatened with an early death.
It was at this point that Hubbard showed himself to be an authentic genius and a true American original. Having retreated to a ship more than twelve miles off the California coast [and hence beyond the reach of the authorities], he now announced that Dianetics had morphed into The Church of Scientology. As a religion, it was protected by the First Amendement, and its teachings, which were, after all, no crazier than those of Catholicism, Judaism, Protestantism, or The Church of Latter Day Saints, could legally be preached and promulgated by anyone presenting himself or herself as an initiate of the faith.
Now, as an atheist, I am in principle an equal opportunity unbeliever when it comes to religions, but I must confess that in the matter of faith, I actually think that though all faiths are equal, some, like the pigs in Animal Farm, are more equal than others. Scientology is about as patently crackpot as any cure for baldness or penile insufficiency to be found in the back pages of scrimy magazines.
But don't let Tom Cruise know that I said so.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Let me be honest. My heart, like his, has sunk as I have watched the Obama administration embrace preventive detention, file a brief in support of the hideous Defense of Marriage Act, and in many other ways continue the policies of the Bush presidency [though we must always remember that it was Bill Clinton who signed DOMA into law.]
But I am seventy-five. I have spent most of my long life deploring, protesting against, detesting the actions of the American government, starting half a century ago with the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion. I do not have that many years left, and I need desperately to believe that some good things are still possible.
There have been many promising actions in the first five months of the Obama presidency, some of which at least have been matters of substance, not merely of style or tone. Not enough, to be sure, but many nevertheless. I am keenly aware of the constraints against which Obama must struggle because of the constellation of forces in the Congress, over which he has very little control. Nevertheless, he has at least as much power for good as Bush had for evil, and at least thus far, he has failed to use it as he might have.
What can I do? I have asked this question many times during my life, and the answer is always the same. Whispering in the ear of the king is never the solution. Rather, we must change the shape of the forces to which Obama and the rest of the government respond. In short, in the words of the old union activists, Organize, Organize, Organize.
I do honestly believe that Obama is prepared to respond to progressive pressures, if they are strong enough to allow him to assemble the coalitions he needs in Congress. I invite my readers, if there are any, to write in with concrete suggestions of actions we can take to build support for the policies we believe in and hoped an Obama administration would advance. None of us can make much difference alone, but enough of us can truly transform this country. In the immortal words of a young king, who happily still had many years before him, One more into the breech, dear friends...
Here is the fourth chapter of my memoir, together with links to the first three chapters.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Friday, June 19, 2009
The past weeks have been difficult for those of us on the left who pledged our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to the Obama campaign. The series of deeply troubling decisions about trials for the Guantanamo detainees, the brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act, the failure to act on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, all have left us with a sickening feeling that what we worked so hard for is slipping away.
This morning, I dropped my wife off at Old Navy for a little shopping, and then waited for her in a nearby Barnes and Noble. After a cinnamon scone and a small coffee [absurdly called a grande by the Starbucks outlet in the bookstore], I decided to buy Richard Wolffe’s new book, Renegade, his account of the Obama campaign. As I read the first chapter, which focuses on election day itself, I found myself quite unexpectedly tearing up.
I think it is useful to take a deep breath and remember what a life-saving moment that day was for so many of us. By that November day, we had been wandering in the wilderness for four decades, starting with the devastating ’68 election of Nixon and relieved only by the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter, a profoundly decent man, and the ambiguous interregnum of Bill Clinton, a deeply flawed man. For those of my generation, who were born during the first Roosevelt term, it seemed that mortality would catch up with us before we could again feel anything resembling pride in the America that has been our earthly portion.
Despite his centrist instincts, and the objective constellation of political forces with which, as president, he must contend, Obama remains an inspiring and progressive figure, with whom, and through whom, we can pursue the goals that beckon to us and the ideals that inspire us. The more vigorously we organize in pursuit of those goals, the more clearly and insistently we articulate those ideals, the more positively he and his administration will respond.
We were not wrong to give so completely of ourselves to the cause of his campaign, and we need, all of us, from time to time, to allow those tears to flow yet again.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Like countless other left-wing news junkies, I spend endless hours surfing the web, checking in with The Huffington Post, TalkingPointsMemo, the Daily Kos, FiveThirty-Eight.com, and – for a bearable taste of the other wing -- Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish. By dint of this obsessive activity, I congratulate myself on being an active participant in the public discourse and a totally clued up public intellectual.
Every so often, Susie and I go on a vacation that disconnects me for days on end from the blogosphere. A case in point is a spectacular
A case in point is the recent election in
But the simple truth is that I do not have a clue about anything that happens in
What is more, nothing I do or say or think can have the slightest measurable effect on what happens in
So, let us go on surfing and obsessing, and even blogging, but let us not imagine that what we do or say makes any sort of difference at all!
Friday, June 12, 2009
This chapter takes me through my undergraduate years, and the graduate year during which I earned a Master's Degree.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Monday, June 8, 2009
What might they have had to eat? A look at la carte suggests perhaps les escargots and a terrine de gibier maison et chutney de figues, as entrees, followed by magret de canard and a boudin basque de Christian Parra aux pommes fruits. Washed down with a 2005 pinot noir, to which one might add a bottle of eau gazeuze -- San Pelligrino, perhaps -- and two cafes, and the bill, service compris, would come to 110 Euros. A tad over $150, all in. This is roughly what Susie and I spend for a dinner in Paris, and certainly no more than a comfortably fixed upper middle class couple would spend in New York, Washington, or Chicago. With grandma watching the kids, a quite reasonable tab.
Now, I confess to being partial to the Obamas. I am, after all, writing this post while wearing an Obama T-shirt. But all of this seems to me at one and the same time a more sophisticated and a simpler night out than would have been managed by any other First Couple in the last hundred years, with the possible exception of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter.
Little things like this mean something to me, even though I have no illusions that there is any significance for affairs of state.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
One of my favorite cinematic moments is the scene in The Sting in which Redford locates Newman, holed up in a whore house, to get advice about how to play the Big Con against Robert Shaw, who has had Redford’s partner, Luther, killed. After sobering up, Newman gives
Now that Barack and Michelle’s excellent European adventure is over [complete with an intimate dinner at La Fontaine de Mars, a modest bistro in the 7th featuring Southwest French food], Obama has returned to launch an all-court press for meaningful health care reform. I predict that he will be successful, and that when it is all done and signed, it won’t be enough, but it will be all we are going to get, and we will just have to walk away.
First, a few simple and well-known truths.
2. The French spend roughly half that, per capita, on health care, with statistically superior results [the French, on average, are healthier and live longer].
3. Insurance schemes depend for their viability on spreading the insured risks across a large population of at-risk individuals. The better able the insurer is to exclude from the insured population especially vulnerable individuals, the more profitable the scheme. [If I could persuade people in
4. In part as a consequence of decisions taken just after the end of World War II, employed Americans have by and large for the past two-thirds of a century received health insurance as a fringe benefit of their employment, a fact that leaves them especially vulnerable should they change jobs or lose their jobs.
5. Finally, and most important of all, regardless of the wisdom or unwisdom, efficiency or inefficiency, of a set of social arrangements, once those arrangements are put into place, their replication lays down objective physical and organizational structures to which everyone adapts, making any sort of change, even one that is manifestly an improvement, especially difficult to carry out.
Since this last point is the most important of the five, a bit of illustration and discussion may be in order. Three generations ago, the
Our health care system is an enormous structure that funnels into the pockets of millions of health care providers and associated persons roughly a trillion dollars a year more than the objective health needs of the population require. Because of the employment-linked system for providing health care, insurers have been able to exclude many of the most at-risk individuals in the society, thereby making the provision of health insurance vastly more profitable. As many as three-quarters of all Americans profess themselves satisfied with their health insurance and health care.
The entrenched resistance to health care reform, from consumers as well as from providers, has for a long time been so great that it has made serious reform impossible. This, rather than the mismanagement by Hillary Clinton eighteen years ago, is what doomed the last serious effort.
So, what is different now? Two things:
1. The cost of providing some form of health insurance to employees is now making corporations uncompetitive in the world market. The collapse of the
2. The deep recession that we are now in, with real unemployment plus underemployment running at close to 20%, threatens the entrenched interests of that segment of the working population that has, until now, been satisfied with its insurance and care. Too many people now face the prospect of a loss of health insurance, and even bankruptcy.
In this environment, Obama’s extraordinary political skills will, I am convinced, suffice to achieve some major reform of the health care system. Once that reform has been locked into place – according to the most recent political reports, by October 1 of this year -- the chances for further improvement will be nil for at least a generation. Many of us on the left, and indeed many others as well, will be disappointed with the outcome. The new system will not be a single-payer system, it will not achieve the savings demonstrated by the European models, and although it will improve the health of Americans, it will not pull us even with nations like
But it will be all that we can g
Saturday, June 6, 2009
In October, 2003, I returned from one of my periodic trips to South Africa to face the fact that in two months, I would turn seventy. This realization triggered in me a frenzied effort to put on paper some of the memories of my early life. In a month, I had written a book length memoir of my first twenty-seven years. I called it A Harvard Education: A Memoir of the Fifties. Starting today, I shall post the chapters of the memoir seriatum.
Friday, June 5, 2009
After struggling with this problem for a while [which is to day, overnight], I have decided to follow my original instincts. Accordingly, as the days go by, I plan to post all manner of essays, chapters of unpublished books, and other materials, in the hope that someone out there will read them and find them interesting or useful.
As a downpayment on that promissory note, here is a link to a paper I wrote some time ago. http://people.umass.edu/rwolff/Pimple.pdf The story of the essay is this: Many years ago, long before I had any expectation of moving to Chapel Hill, NC, I was invited to give the keynote address at the annual Colloquium hosted by the Philosophy Department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As I had been away from formal philosophy for a time, I chose to make a quite unusual presentation, one that so outraged one member of the audience that after listening to me he jumped up and strode out of the hall.
This paper eventually saw the light of day as the interior portion of an article co-authored by myself and my son, Tobias. That essay can be found in The Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 56, p.379, 2005.
Thursday, June 4, 2009
An informal survey of the readers of this blog reveals that two-thirds of them enjoy my occasional postings about
Susie graciously permits me to do the cooking while we are there, and this time, I ventured out into culinary regions I had not before explored. I cooked rabbit, I cooked quail I cooked coquilles St. Jacques, which I bought in the shell, complete with that orange thing that attaches to the white meat. I cooked Dorade Royale, a lovely fish, and pork cutlets and paupiettes provencale, and a fish neither Susie nor I could identify. I did a Jacques Pepin endives recipe, carmelized some courgettes [zucchini], and of course opened a great many bottles of wine. All of the food was purchased at the open air market half a block from our home, which sets up on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in the Place Maubert.
For those of you who like rabbit, here is the recipe, as best I remember it. This is for two people. Adjust accordingly for more. Start with half a rabbit, cut up into manageable pieces [I always ask the man at the game booth to remove the head – I get a little queasy when Thumper turns his big blue eyes on me]. Salt and pepper the pieces. Now take some hazelnuts – maybe a bit less than 4 ounces – and chop them finely in one of those gadgets that you pound on, with blades that chop anything up into very little pieces. Mix into the chopped nuts about three or four tablespoons of Five Spices [get this at an oriental food store] and a tablespoon of curry powder. Add some salt and pepper. Beat one egg, and dip the rabbit pieces in the egg before coating them with the hazelnut and spices mixture. Then pan fry at high heat with plenty of butter. That is all there is to it. The rabbit should be really browned on the outside, but not overdone inside. I always drink red wine, but a full bodied white will do nicely with rabbit. Some carmelized leeks or courgettes, and maybe some little potatoes boiled, make for a very simple but lovely meal.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
When I enrolled as a Freshman at Harvard, in September of 1950, the tuition was $400. Not $400 for a credit, or for a course, or for a semester, but $400 for the entire year. When I graduated in 1953, the tuition just had been raised to $600. Although a good job, taking inventory a Robert Hall clothing store, paid only $1.25 an hour, while babysitting paid seventy-five cents, a student could still think of working his or her way through college. If you were politically connected, you could even get a job in the Summer on a road gang building the Mass Turnpike, and that paid real money – six or seven dollars an hour. The Harvard class of 2013, which will enroll this coming September, is looking at annual tuition of $33,696. Unless you win American Idol, working your way through Harvard is no longer an option. What on earth is going on?
Well, first of all, the dollar isn’t worth what it was in 1950. Using the calculator function on the home page of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we find that my $400 tuition is the equivalent of a tuition of $3539.25 today. But that still means that Harvard tuition, after adjusting for inflation, has risen 952%!
Why does it cost Harvard almost ten times as much now as it did in 1950 to educate an undergraduate? To be sure, there are some fields, such as evolutionary biology, in which much more is known now than was known then, and we might imagine that it costs more to pass that improved knowledge on to the next generation, but there are other fields, such as Sociology and Economics, in which the quantum of knowledge has markedly decreased. In my own field of Philosophy, noticeable changes in what is known usually occur only every half millennium or so. We need a better explanation.
We might imagine that the faculty was badly underpaid in 1950, and has simply managed in the interim to rectify a gross injustice, but that doesn’t seem to be true either. When I started my teaching career in 1958 as an Instructor in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard, after earning my doctorate and spending six months on active duty at
Still, 952% is quite a jump in the cost adjusted price of tuition. How do we explain it?
` Several years ago, when the high cost of elite education was once again the subject of some hand wringing in journals of opinion, I came across a Harvard administrator’s justification for the increase that enthralled me. He pointed out that the share of household income required to pay for a Harvard education had not risen, and he seemed to think that constituted some sort of justification for the soaring tuition costs. What an extraordinary argument. In effect, he was saying that Harvard had a right to a certain share of a household’s income, so that any gains in real wealth that families might have experienced, as a consequence of sending more members of the household into the labor market, or as a result of increased worker productivity, should rightfully be taken away by Harvard.
Here is another possible explanation – Harvard will deny it, of course, if they deigned to notice my humble blog, but it is at least worth considering. The year I applied to Harvard, 2597 other young men applied [Radcliffe was then a separate entity]. Sixteen hundred fifty-one, or roughly 64%, were admitted, and 1173 actually showed up in September. [I looked this up once when writing an article on “College as Rat Race” for Dissent magazine.] Twenty-nine thousand young men and women applied for admission to the class of 2013. Seven percent, or twenty-one hundred, were admitted, to form what will be a class of sixteen hundred fifty-eight.
Elementary neo-classical economics, of the sort routinely taught at Harvard and elsewhere, predicts that a dramatic rise in demand for a product whose supply is held constant by a monopoly will result in a sharp rise in price. In short, Harvard charges that sort of tuition for its degree because it can.
Is a Harvard education worth $135,000 [assuming, against all the evidence, that Harvard does not raise tuition for the class of 2013 along the way]? That depends, of course, on how one evaluates an education. As an intellectual experience, the answer is of course no. But as an economic investment? Almost certainly yes. The real purpose of higher education in
This is one of the reasons I walked away from a professorship at Columbia thirty-eight years ago and spent the remainder of my career at a big, sloppy second tier public university with – as it turned out – the country’s best Marxist Economics department and the best Afro-American Studies department as well. It was the best professional decision I ever made.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Schadenfreude meets Schande
Regular visitors to the Left Blogosphere will have noticed that lately two topics have dominated the conversation there. The first topic is the mesmerizing self-destruction on which the Republican Party appears to have embarked. This we may term the schadenfreude topic, adopting that wonderfully expressive German term that translates variously as “shameful joy” or “guilty pleasure.” The second topic is the failure of Barack Obama to strike a radically progressive stance in his many actions since being inaugurated as President, a failure that has produced progressively greater dismay among progressives, and has led them to cry “Shame!” This we may call the schande topic.
Progressives [among whose number I occupy a position on the extreme left wing] see these two topics as unrelated to one another. The first is a source of pleasure, the second of pain. The general view on the left, it is fair to say, is that in a better world, we could enjoy the delights of the first and be spared the disappointments of the second. The Republicans, having simply come unglued, will continue to entertain us with their flamboyant death throes for many election cycles to come. Meanwhile, were Obama only the man we hoped but secretly doubted he would be, we could have show trials for Bush, Cheney, Yoo, and Bybee, full-scale single-payer medicine, immediate repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and the infamous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and a glorious revival of the dormant Progressive spirit in
I yield to no radical in my lust for revenge, but what remains of my rational faculties after thirty years of Republican disasters tells me that there is a more intimate relationship between schadenfreude and schande than is commonly supposed. To put the point as simply as I can, the bizarre self-immolation of the Republicans is directly related to, and in no small part a consequence of, the style and substance of Obama’s young administration.
When I was a youth, I listened faithfully to a daily fifteen minute radio program called “The Shadow.” The central character, Lamont Cranston, had studied in The East, where he had learned techniques of mind control that enabled him to seem invisible to his enemies. Of him it was said that he had “the power to cloud men’s minds.” [Rather like Obi Wan Kenobe in the original Star Wars movie, when he and the young Luke Skywalker ride into town to hire Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.”]
Obama’s eerie self-possession, laid-back cool, and steadfast refusal – perhaps sheer inability – to engage in the partisan street brawling with which we have all become so familiar drive the Republicans wild. The more fantastical their attacks, the cooler he becomes. He stands there, quietly articulating rational policies and seeking consensus, even when it is denied him, and they froth at the mouth, embracing their inner Limbaugh and rejecting as rank apostasy all calls from their few remaining rational fellow Republicans for more constructive and inclusive policies.
Were Obama to do as we all so fervently wish that he would, and engage with them in a street brawl, he would thereby alter the entire framework of debate, and – oddly enough – make it easier for them to adopt an apparently rational and self-controlled stance.
As I watch Obama’s performance, mesmerized by a political skill the likes of which we have not seen in this country in three quarters of a century, I become convinced that we cannot have the schadenfreude without the schande. We must continue to press for the progressive policies so dear to our hearts – that goes without saying. But we must also recognize that even though we may win this battle and that, we will never persuade Obama to become the flaming radical we wish he were, and we ought to be glad that we cannot!
Monday, June 1, 2009
I would be very interested in comments and reactions.