Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

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Monday, September 25, 2017


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!


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.  


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


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


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


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.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


When I began blogging eight years ago, I was quite unprepared for the Internet’s insatiable craving for content.  I was accustomed to sitting quietly in my study, unhurried and unharried, writing another book.  Only when a book was completed would I venture into the public square to publish what I had written.  Because I had all but died to the world, no longer attending professional meetings or giving invited talks, I felt no pressure to produce.

In 2009, my pen had been silent for almost two decades, save for a short book about my experiences in UMass’s Afro-American Studies Department, the endless new editions of a textbook written in the ‘70s, and the unpublished first volume of my autobiography.  But with the announcement of The Philosopher’s Stone, I launched into a frenzy of writing on all manner of things, posting my words for all to read virtually as they were written.  Over the next two or three years, I wrote about Marx and I wrote about Freud.  I wrote about Kant, and I wrote about Hume.  I wrote about Kierkegaard, about Mannheim, about Durkheim, about Erich Auerbach, about Emily Dickinson.  I wrote on line an entire book about Rational Choice Theory, Game Theory, and Collective Choice Theory.  I even wrote about myself, completing and posting daily the second and third volumes of my autobiography. 

When I looked up from my keypad, I discovered that I had unwittingly become committed to an endless production of daily short essays, asides, and animadversions at the passing scene.  If I failed to post something for two or three days, I would get worried messages from friends and family:  “Are you all right?”

I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s ironic and mocking remark in the Preface to The Philosophical Fragments, a work to which I return repeatedly:  “It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest that it becomes difficult to judge how far he serves merely himself and how far the public good.”

For most of my life, words have flowed from me almost unbidden.  I leave it to others to judge whether they emanate from a bubbling spring or a suppurating wound.  But lately, the endless horrors of the world threaten to make me run dry.  Oh, I imagine I shall continue to blog.  After all, I seem to have no difficulty finding something to say about the fact that I have nothing to say.  But the joy threatens to leave me.  In my earlier days, it was different.  As Wordsworth said of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven.”

Perhaps I should say something about jigsaw puzzles.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


David Palmeter's comment about disparities in household wealth is exactly correct.  If you wish to see its causes illustrated by a hypothetical example, take a look at pp. 91ff of my 2005 book Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, which is available on Kindle from Amazon.  Needless to say, I am very far from being the first person to point this out.


My remarks today are a corollary to, not an argument for or against, the essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates to which I posted a link.  There has been a vigorous debate about whether the progressive wing of the Democratic Party should focus its attention on what is called identity politics or should advance policies targeting the needs and interests of the working class.  I find this debate unhelpful, and Coates’ essay helped me to become clearer about the reasons.

My theme is a simple one:  The great preponderance of Black and Hispanic Americans are working class.  Their race or ethnicity is not a substitute for their class position.  It does not somehow make their class position politically irrelevant.  There are long standing reasons, reaching back to the period shortly after the Civil War, why here in America white and black workers have so rarely formed a united front against capital, reasons about which I have several times written on this blog.  But the simple objective facts remain.  Let me take a moment to offer a few numbers, by way of setting the stage.  These data come from 2015 and 2016, but very little has changed in the intervening time.

Median household income in the United States is somewhat more than $56,000 a year.  For those who are utterly innumerate, this means that half of all households earn less than $56,000 each year, half earn more.  [Average or mean household income is about $17,000 higher, basically because when Bill Gates walks into a neighborhood bar, the average net worth of people in the bar goes up to several billion each – beware of numbers.]   The median income of White households is almost $63,000.  But that of Hispanic households is about $45,000, and that of Black households is about $37,000.  [That of Asian households is better than $77,000, by the way.]

It doesn’t take much brains to figure out that most Black and Hispanic households are working class.  The median weekly wages or full-time Black and Hispanic workers are $678 and $624 respectively, which means that fully half of all fulltime Black and Hispanic workers are earning roughly fifteen dollars an hour or less, and most of course are earning a good deal less.  A national minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour would dramatically improve the economic fortunes of large portions of the Black and Hispanic population.  The median wages for fulltime White workers are significantly higher -- $862 – which means that the fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage would benefit a much smaller share of the white working class [although perhaps numerically more people.]

My point is that Black workers are workers.  Hispanic workers are workers.  A progressive political program targeting working class voters will necessarily target large segments of the Black and Hispanic communities. 

I have many times observed that educational credentials are, in this country, the royal road to the middle and upper middle class.  It is worth reminding ourselves therefore of the wide racial and ethnic disparity in the proportions of the population holding a four year college degree.  When I was a teenager going off to college, only 5% of American adults 25 years old or older had a four year degree.  So few young people went to college that high schools in New York graduated students twice a year, in January and June.  The G. I. Bill, the explosion of public higher education, and the Cold War [which led the Federal Government to pour money into universities “for the struggle against godless communism”] produced a sharp upsurge in college attendance, so that today, roughly a third of adults 25 and older hold college degrees.  But two-thirds of adult Americans do not have four year degrees, which means that a large majority of Americans have no hope at all of becoming doctors, lawyers, professors, corporate management trainees, college professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers [!] or, for that matter, F. B. I. agents.

These are the figures for all Americans.  As we might expect, the figures vary considerably by race and ethnicity.  Here are the data:  32.5% of all adults have four year degrees.  For Whites, the figure is 36.2%, for Backs 22.5%, for Hispanics 15.5%.  This means that fewer than one in four Black men and women and one in six Hispanic men and women can even aspire to be elementary school teachers or corporate management trainees.  Thus, a political platform calling for free college education will benefit young Black and Hispanic men and women even more than young White men and women.

A political platform targeting the needs of working class men and women, and demanding an end to racial and ethnic impediments to decent work, is a winner.  That is what we on the left should be agitating for.

Friday, September 8, 2017


This essay by Ta-Nihisi Coates, is the best thing I have ever read about American politics.  Reading it is irritating because of the slowness with which it comes up, but be patient, it is well worth the effort.  I tried to say many of these things in my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, but I did not say them as well.

Thursday, September 7, 2017


Several friends and relatives have contacted me, asking whether I am all right, seeing as how I have not blogged for several days.  I am fine.  I have just been so angry and depressed by Trump’s attack on the 800,000 or so young people protected by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrival, or DACA, program that I could not gin up the animal spirits to write something.  That, together with the horrific news about these two hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, has left me hiding out a bit.  But the news has unaccountably taken a turn, and I wish at least to say a few words about the weird events of the past twenty-four hours.

First, however, I must take note of the reports of Hillary Clinton’s attack on Bernie Sanders in her forthcoming book about the election.  Apparently, if the leaked portions are accurate, she claims that Sanders’ criticisms of her during the primary season did “lasting damage” to her and “paved the way” for Trump’s victory.  I understand that one must be forgiving and charitable toward someone who has suffered a great loss, but this is a load of hogwash [what is hogwash anyway?].  It is transparently an effort by the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party to reassert its accommodationist politics and prepare the way, God help us, for a 2020 Clinton run for the nomination.  There is nothing especially surprising about this attack.  Despicable, to be sure, but not surprising.  Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Or so I thought.  But then came Trump’s bizarre, unanticipated, incomprehensible surrender to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi yesterday.  I have no idea at all why this happened, so I shan’t speculate, but I do think, as Willy Loman’s wife says in Death of a Salesman, that attention must be paid.

My American readers will all be aware of what took place [not what transpired – that means literally breathed about, or more colloquially, what came to light.]  But this is all a bit of inside baseball, and my overseas readers may be somewhat mystified, so a brief summary is in order.  The Congress has been unable actually to prepare, debate, and pass a budget for the Federal Government for longer than my younger readers have been alive, so periodically, to keep the government functioning [or pretending to function], they pass what is called a Continuing Resolution, or CR, which for a specified time authorizes the government to keep doing what it has been doing at the same level of expenditures.  The time has arrived for another CR.  Also, since the Federal Government regularly runs a deficit, periodically it approaches the limit placed on the national debt by previous legislation.  So long as the debt falls under that limit, the Treasury is authorized to borrow money by issuing Treasury Bills and other instruments of debt, thus allowing the government to pay its bills.  Once that debt limit is reached, as a consequence of the Congress failing to raise revenues sufficient to cover the expenditures it has already authorized, either the debt limit must be increased by the Congress or the United States government will be forced to stop paying the bills.  In short, the USA will default.  That time has also arrived.

This ought to be a no-brainer, and when the Democrats control Congress, it is.  But there is a sizeable minority of House Republicans who are desperate to cut government spending, and who use the advent of a debt limit increase to threaten to vote against the increase unless they get their way.  This is transparently self-destructive behavior, but they are convinced that they can work their will by threatening to hold their collective breath until they expire, as it were.  Because of this behavior, the leaders of the House Republican caucus are compelled to seek Democratic votes to pass a debt ceiling rise and a CR.  This gives the otherwise powerless Democrats a brief moment of leverage which they could theoretically use to win some sort of legislative concessions from the Republicans, such as, perhaps, a regularization of the DACA program.

Meanwhile, the devastation caused by Harvey [and about to be caused by Irma] creates a politically unstoppable demand for federal relief funding.

The Republicans, understanding all of this, proposed to combine the CR and the debt limit increase with hurricane relief funding in one grand package, to be passed this week.  They proposed an eighteen month CR and debt increase, figuring, quite rationally, that the Democrats would have to agree so as not to be seen as voting against hurricane help.  The 18 month extensions would take them past the midterm elections, leaving them free to work on such tasty items as tax cuts for the rich without there being any time soon when the Democrats would again gain leverage during a debt limit/CR crisis.  The Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, and the House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, publicly proposed a three month CR/Debt increase, obviously designed to give them leverage again, after the hurricane season is over, to get some concessions otherwise impossible to obtain.

O.K.  Got that?

So, yesterday Donald Trump, still nominally President, called all the Congressional leaders to the Oval Office to arrive at some sort of deal.  Schumer and Pelosi offered their three month proposal, which House Speaker Ryan had scornfully rejected in a public appearance before the meeting … and without blinking an eye, Trump agreed to it.  As the Republicans sat there, stunned, blindsided, betrayed, aghast, Trump invited his daughter, Ivanka, into the room, presumably as light entertainment and to signal the end of the “negotiations.”  It is not reported whether she performed a belly dance.

What is going on?  Nobody knows.  It is reported that as the Congressional Republicans left the White House, staffers who were caught as off guard as the Republicans quietly apologized.  Will the agreement stand, or is Trump, as I write, tweeting that he never said it?  Who knows?  Can the Dreamers be saved?  No one knows that either.

Should the Democrats accept a package of concessions in return for a vote to fund the wall?  I shall leave that debate for another day.

Saturday, September 2, 2017


I have talked on the blog in the past about my old friend, Judith Baker, who, after a career in the Boston school system, has devoted many years to promoting literacy among African children.  Some of you may recall my description of her brainchild, the African Storybook Project, for which I was privileged to raise some money through my USSAS network.  I just received this circular e-mail letter from her about her current trip to Southern Africa.  It offers a fascinating insight into the on-the-ground problems she and others face in bringing literacy to African children.

"Hello Family and Friends,

I didn’t have decent enough email in Nigeria to communicate but now I’m in South Africa with a very good connection so I want to write and see how you all are and tell you a bit about my last week.

Travel to Nigeria was very exhausting for me and travel from there to Johannesburg almost as bad. We left the hotel yesterday at 10am and I only got into the B&B here at 6am. Ethiopian Airlines is one of the few that seems to fly to Nigeria these days and it’s certainly not what one calls comfortable, and the food isn’t really edible, so even though I got in at 6, I stayed awake to have breakfast.

But the time in Nigeria was very good. I worked very hard for most of the conference, because even though the host, Reading Assoc of Nigeria, is very capable, conference logistics are sort of a nightmare. People arrive late or not at all, visa problems abound, things begin hours late and the schedule has to be rewritten every half day to accommodate everyone. I think there were over 150 papers scheduled in basically 5 sessions, so I really couldn’t attend many of them because I was too busy assisting. I did manage to get to a few though, and they were quite fascinating. People study all sorts of uniquely African problems in the schools - no books, teacher shortages, no buildings, no electricity, on and on, plus each clan or area has very definite cultural expectations.

Here is one story, shortened, that my friend from the Karamoja area is grappling with: When the British ruled Uganda, in the 1880’s there was an outbreak of cattle disease among a large tribe of herds people so the British decided to vaccinate the cows and wrote down every cow that was vaccinated on paper. However, the cows died anyway. Then in WWI, the British recruited members of this tribe, a very strong and sometimes warlike people, into the army to fight in Europe, and again signed people up on paper using pens. Most of those young men were simply cannon fodder and never returned. So the Karmajong people decided that ink was deadly to them and held a ceremony in which they broke and buried the pens. They vowed never to allow their children to go to school.  Now, the educators are trying to convince them to change their minds, and it has been very difficult to do that.

Another story: Many deep rural cultures have agreed to send their children to school and become educated. But the problem that very often arises is that those children go off to higher education and of course they never return to their home villages. This means that the tribes or clans have been losing their most talented children, the ones who should become the leaders and eventually elders.

So African educators try hard to find better ways to educate without destroying cultures and communities.

Anyway, things are always more complicated than outsiders, even well wishing ones, imagine, and many foreign interventions can be unexpectedly quite negative.

My own experience with the Pan African is that I have made many good friends in many countries by working on this conference. My volunteer job for over 10 years has been to run the google group that sends out announcements. We have almost 1000 people on this list. But when we set it up, it didn’t occur to me that my own name would be what appears on the ‘from’ line - so there are many people who think of me as a friend who haven’t even met me. I did not intend that and I tried to change it so that the conference itself appeared, but I couldn’t figure it out, and now it’s too late.

The conference committee gave me a lovely special thank you for all these years of work, really took time to honor me, and I was very embarrassed but will send a photo - well I guess I’ll have to put photos on FB since I can’t get this to send them by mail.

This week I’m working in Joburg, and Brook arrives Thursday. Next week we go to Zimbabwe to each do our own work, then we’re on to Durban which is too far in the future for me to think about at the moment.

Feel free to share this since I don’t have unlimited bandwidth.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017


I have been inundated with questions about whether I shall do a series of videotaped lectures on Marx this Fall [well, two people asked.]  The short answer is no.  I am thinking of doing a series of six two hour videotaped lectures on Marx on the Columbia campus in the Spring 2018 semester, but that is still up in the air.  Tomorrow I shall make my first trip to Morningside Heights [which is where Columbia is] for some exploratory talks.  We shall see how that all develops.


There is an old story about a dirt poor Jewish peasant – let us call him Moishe – who lives in a tiny one room hovel with his wife, his mother-in-law, his two children, and a dog.  His sole possession is a pig, which roots about in the yard.  Moishe is beside himself at the crowding of his little home, so he goes to seek guidance from the rabbi.  The rabbi listens to Moishe’s tale of woe and then asks. “Moishe, don’t you have a pig?”  “Yes,” says Moishe, “he lives in the yard.”  “Fine,” says the rabbi, “bring the pig into your home.”  “But rabbi,” Moishe begins to protest.  ‘Moishe,” the rabbi says sternly, “bring the pig into your home.”  Moishe goes home, shaking his head, but the rabbi is the wisest person in the village, so he does as the rabbi says.  Well, now things are completely unbearable.  With his wife, his mother-in-law, his two children, and the dog, he could barely turn around in his home, and now the pig is rooting everywhere in the tiny room, getting under foot.  Moishe goes back to the rabbi and says, plaintively, “Rabbi, I did what you said, and now my life is even more miserable, if that could be imagined.  The pig is sleeping in my bed! What should I do?”  The rabbi strokes his beard and replies, “Put the pig in the yard.”  The next Sabbath, after services, Moishe grasps the rabbi’s hand, tears in his eyes, and says, “Rabbi, I cannot thank you enough!   Life is wonderful now that the pig is in the yard.”

For the past three months, I have been dealing with increasing pain in both hands and wrists.  The medical consensus is that I have osteoarthritis, not exactly unknown in someone my age.  I have had a series of tests [next week something called an EMG test, in which they put needles in me and measure electric conduction or some such thing, sort of like acupuncture without the incense].  The problem with my hands is not exactly life-threatening, but it does hurt a good deal, and would have a serious impact on my golf game, if I played golf.  Then, last week, during my morning walk, as I was looking up at a hawk perched on a power stanchion, I tripped and took a really hard fall on the pavement.  My main injury was a blow to the inside of my left knee, which swelled way up.  As the swelling began to go down, a big bruise appeared and it began to hurt really, really badly.  When I got up in the morning, it hurt so much I could hardly walk.  I went to the UNC same day clinic, and a young resident, after looking at it and consulting with his supervisor, gave me the official medical judgment:  I had fallen and bruised the inside of my knee.  In time it would get better.  I was, of course, grateful for this high-powered medical judgment, and went home to take some more Tylenol.  This morning, for the very first time, it seemed that the pain was less severe, and I felt a great sense of relief.  This put me in a much better mood, even though the pains in my hands had not in any way diminished.  And so I thought of the story with which I began this post.

Then it occurred to me:  For at least sixty of my eighty-three years, I have been complaining about everything that I find appalling about the country in which I live:  the brutal treatment of African-Americans, the discrimination against women, the exploitation of workers, the destructive imperial adventures of the government.  Now, in what was supposed to be my golden years, I must deal with a despicable fascistic narcissist in the White House and the daily abominations he visits on the world.  I daydream endlessly about what a relief it would be were to resign, or be impeached, or die.  How nice it would be to see him removed from office, so that we could go back to the way things were before he won the presidency.  What a relief to put that pig back out in the yard.

Monday, August 28, 2017


At the conclusion of a long and very interesting two-part comment Austin Haigler asks:  “does anyone try to think about how best to communicate and engage the people that they least agree with and MORE SO don't even share the same conceptualization of objects and their meanings with? I know we all can have a tendency to write off conservatives, evangelicals, Trump supporters as uncanny, stupid, backwards, immoral, regressive, etc, but being from the southern rural areas I am from, I see and know the good mixed up with all the bad in these peoples' lives and ideologies. There has to be a way to reach them and it be effective in SOME way.”

This question cries out for an answer, and I am going to make an effort to begin thinking one through in this post.  I invite my readers, especially those who do not usually comment, to chime in.  Although Haigler poses the question in a very simple, direct way, we must not make the mistake of imagining that there is a simple answer, a turn of phrase that will do the trick.  Of one thig I am certain:  a jargon-laden response full of “interpellation” and “dialectical” and “ideological” and “(re)volution” is worse than useless.

Let me begin with an observation.  Most people have a pretty good grasp of the world they encounter in their daily lives.  They know how to get to the grocery store, who the good guys and the bad guys are at work, who in the neighborhood is living high on the hog and who is just scraping by.  They are not stupid and they are not ignorant.  They may have quite bizarre beliefs about things they do not see or hear or smell or touch.  They may think that the universe was created by a sentient, caring God.  They may think human beings once walked with dinosaurs.  They may believe they live in a land of the free and home of the brave.  They may even imagine that they are paid a wage equal to the marginal product of their labor, a belief far more fanciful than any of the others I have just mentioned.  But be that as it may, they are nevertheless able to go to the grocery store without getting lost.

If you try to argue with someone who believes that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and spirited into America as a Manchurian Candidate, you will probably have very little success and will certainly find the experience intensely frustrating.  But if you disagree with him or her about how to get to the grocery store – you saying you turn left off Main onto Elm and she saying you turn right off Main onto Broad – the two of you will probably figure out quite quickly a way to settle the dispute, and once settled, my guess is that the loser in that dispute will not persist in maintaining the truth of his or her directions.

Some disputes are disagreements about the way the world is, and some are conflicts between people with opposed interests.  To take an old example that lies at the heart of The Wizard of Oz, if a nineteenth century mid-western farmer and an eastern banker are arguing over the desirability of the Gold Standard, the farmer, who carries a big mortgage on his farm, will argue for going off the Gold Standard, which will increase the rate of inflation and progressively lighten the burden of his monthly payments in real dollars, while the banker will argue for remaining on the Gold Standard, which will keep inflation down and maintain the value, in real dollars, of the mortgage payments he, as the lender, receives.  This is a genuine conflict of interest, not a confusion on someone’s part over the nature of social reality.

What conclusion do I draw from this archaic example?  Well, perhaps it is best to begin a discussion with a Trump supporter by doing two things:  First, find out what she cares about in her immediate daily life, and tell her what you care about in your daily immediate life; Second, ask her whether she believes that Trump will make it easier for her to get what she wants, and if she says yes, find out why she thinks that.  Then tell her what you care about in your immediate life, and explain why you think Trump will make it harder for you to get what you want.

Now, it may well be that at that point, you will both see that what you have is not a disagreement about the way the world is but a conflict of interests.  But it is at least possible that you will be able to show her ways in which Trump is going to make it harder for her to get what she wants.  [I hesitate to suggest that she might be able to show you that Trump is going to make it easier to get what you want.  I mean, let’s be serious.]

This will clearly be the beginning of a very long discussion.  But it is probably going to be more successful than simply pointing out to her that she is a despicable racist fascist.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


One of the incidental benefits of having really smart children is that they are a go-to source of wisdom on many subjects.  There has been a good deal of talk about the possibility that Trump would seek to frustrate the Mueller investigation by pardoning everyone in sight as soon as Mueller got close.  TV commentators oponed that should Trump do this, the recipients of the pardons would then have forfeited their 5th Amendment rights and could be compelled to testify before Congressional committees.  This led me to ask the following question of my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, who is, among other things, one of the leading experts of his generation in the legal field of Civil Procedure:

“Suppose Trump pardons, say, Manafort, for whatever, and Congress compels his testimony, denying him the privilege of taking the 5th because he has been pardoned.  Suppose Manafort refuses to answer and is charged with Contempt of Congress.  Does Trump have the power to pardon him for that as well?”  Back came the following reply:

“Yes, that lies within the powers of the presidency, but with some caveats. First (and stating the obvious) that would presumably put rocket fuel under the calls for impeachment. The Supreme Court has held explicitly that the pardon power extends to criminal contempt proceedings in federal court. The same ruling would apply to contempt of Congress. In that ruling (Ex Parte Grossman, from 1925), the Court also indicated that an abusive use of the pardon power in such cases, if such a thing were to happen, would be remediable through impeachment:

"If it be said that the President by successive pardons of constantly recurring contempts in particular litigation might deprive a court of power to enforce its orders in a recalcitrant neighborhood, it is enough to observe that such a course is so improbable as to furnish but little basis for argument. Exceptional cases like this if to be imagined at all would suggest a resort to impeachment rather than to a narrow and strained construction of the general powers of the President."

It is entirely possible that the unstable madman in the Oval Office has told Manafort that he should stick by him no matter what and he will engage in extravagant uses of the pardon power, but I think it would result in his removal by impeachment very quickly. In addition, the pardon power can only nullify criminal liability. In that same ruling of Ex Parte Grossman, the Court made clear that the pardon power has no impact on civil contempt proceedings. This is a  distinction that is not widely understood. When a person refuses to testify and gets put in jail until he is willing to comply with the court's order (like in the high-profile cases involving reporters), that is a civil contempt proceeding, not criminal contempt, even though jail is involved. I address this issue in my casebook, as it happens. Here is the section where I lay out the basics of the doctrine:

Contempt sanctions can be either "civil" or "criminal" in nature, though this terminology can be somewhat counterintuitive. The distinction between civil and criminal contempt does not arise from the nature of the underlying proceeding — a civil lawsuit can give rise to either civil or criminal contempt. Nor does it depend primarily on the nature of the actions undertaken by the individual who violates the injunction, nor even on the use of imprisonment as a sanction, which courts can employ in a limited fashion in a civil as well as a criminal contempt proceeding. Rather, the distinction between "civil" and "criminal" contempt refers to the goal that the court seeks to accomplish by imposing the sanction.

Civil contempt sanctions are remedial in nature and aim to secure compliance with the court's order. When a court imposes fines in a civil contempt proceeding, it does so in order to compensate the injured party for the harm it has suffered as a result of the violator's actions, which may include attorneys' fees and other costs associated with enforcing the order. Courts may also impose a prospective schedule of fines to secure compliance and deter future violations, providing, for example, that a party will be fined some substantial sum of money for every day that it violates the injunction going forward. Courts can even imprison a party who refuses to abide by a court's order. One controversial example of this form of civil contempt can occur when a reporter refuses to comply with a discovery order or subpoena requiring her to reveal her journalistic sources or otherwise disclose information she has promised to keep confidential. Jail time is a proper part of a civil contempt sanction only when it aims to secure compliance with the court's order. Thus, a reporter who is jailed in a civil contempt proceeding retains the ability to release herself at any time by complying with the order of the court, and her imprisonment cannot last longer than the underlying proceeding in any event, since the remedial purpose of her imprisonment ceases once the order or injunction is no longer active.
Criminal contempt sanctions, in contrast, aim to punish parties for flouting the authority of the court. The basic tools of enforcement available to the court in a criminal contempt proceeding — fine and imprisonment — are the same as they would be in a civil proceeding, but the sanctions that the court imposes in a criminal proceeding are not limited to strictly remedial purposes. Thus, a court can impose a period of incarceration in criminal contempt proceedings that will last well beyond the termination of the underlying action, and the target of the criminal sanction cannot win her release by agreeing to comply with the court's order in the future. Similarly, when a court imposes a fine as a criminal contempt sanction, the defendant pays the fine to the court as punishment for his actions, rather than to his adversary as compensation.
So, even if he is willing to abuse the powers of his office without restraint, there are some limitations on his ability to subvert the rule of law prospectively — providing that Congress is prepared to enforce those limits. And Manafort, who has real lawyers (unlike the grifter), is probably aware of those limitations.

I think you can take that one to the bank.


Having taken note recently on this blog of a thirtieth wedding anniversary and a sixty-ninth first date anniversary, it occurred to me that I ought also to observe another anniversary, this one of my service in the U. S. military.  At this time sixty years ago, I was approaching the end of my eight week stint in Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey.  I have devoted an entire chapter of my Autobiography to the experience, so I shall not re-tell my stories of that six month hiatus in my career.  I am virtually the only philosopher I know of my generation or younger to have served in the military, but many of those half a generation older saw real and very dangerous service during World War II.

I can still recall sitting at a table at an annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, having a cup of coffee and listening wide-eyed to Sylvain Bromberger and Jack Rawls swap war stories.  Sylvain, born in Belgium, actually fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge in the winter of ’44-’45, and Jack served in the South Pacific.  Sylvain and I were graduate students together at Harvard and then colleagues for two years at Chicago.  He taught for many years at MIT, where he is now Professor Emeritus.  When my first wife and I drove to Cambridge from Chicago so that I could do a visiting year at Wellesley, he helped us load the UHaul van.  Sylvain is one of my favorite people in the world, and I was delighted to visit with him briefly during my talk at MIT a year or so ago.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Thirteen months ago, five-time student deferred Donald J. Trump said of John McCain, "I prefer people who don't get captured."  It was a gratuitous, ugly, cheap remark that earned Trump universal condemnation, but of course did not cost him either the nomination or the election.  A few words of background.  John McCain was a young ne'er do well much pampered, the son of a famous admiral when he entered the Navy Air Corps.  He crashed four or five planes before earning his wings, and was then shot down over enemy territory and captured during the Viet Nam War being held a prisoner  for five years.  In the prison camp, he was tortured, as were the other men held there.  When the Viet Namese discovered the identity of McCain's father, they offered to release him as a propaganda move, and McCain refused unless all of the other men were released as well!  You can say anything you wish about the legitimacy of the war, the morality of serving in it, or McCain's long and appalling political career, but that was an act of extraordinary heroism, and he deserves all of the praise he has had from it since.  Has he dined out off it, as we say?  Used it for political advantage?  Of course.  But I don't care.  That was an act of great and totally admirable heroism and self-sacrifice.  So Trump trashed him for it.  And McCain, who was in the midst of a difficult re-election campaign, bided his time. 

Did McCain forget that insult?  Hardly.  Did time heal the wound?  Not a bit.  McCain waited until the moment when Trump's fondest dream depended on McCain's single vote, and then, in the most dramatic fashion possible, he shafted Trump.

Now Trump has pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and the first voice to condemn the pardon is that of  John McCain. 

I will offer a prediction.  Every time McCain finds himself in a position dramatically, publicly shaft to Trump -- which, in light of the balance of votes in the Senate may be rather often -- he will do so.  Trump will fume, rage, storm, tweet, and McCain will just keep shafting him.

Pass the popcorn.


Having managed to complete the NY TIMES crossword puzzle this morning, I idled some time away watching the third lecture on Ideological Critique that I recorded some time ago and put up on YouTube.  In that lecture, as a wrap-up to my exposition of Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, I went through his account of the ideology of time-consciousness, which I think is the most brilliant bit of ideological analysis I have ever read.  Then, in the lecture, I offer my own analysis of the ideology of space-consciousness, a natural extension of Mannheim's theory for a Kant scholar like me.  Needless to say, my bit of analysis cannot hold a candle to Mannheim’s but it isn’t bad, and I watched myself with that innocent narcissistic pleasure that an infant gets from contemplating his own feces.

I had totally forgotten the conclusion of the lecture, however.  Without warning, I cut at the very end of the lecture to a clip of the immortal Pete Seeger singing that old union song, “Which Side Are You On?”  I have to tell you, it brought tears to my eyes.  Those were better days, when I was young, despite the evils of segregation, the oppression of women, and the criminalization of gay Americans.

Friday, August 25, 2017


Today, Susie and I celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary.  In November, I will take note of the anniversary of our first date in 1948, about which I wrote on this blog on August 24, 2015.  On October 6th, I shall fly up to New York to deliver a lecture at Columbia's Heyman Center, my maiden performance as a new member of Columbia's Society of Senior Scholars.  

The date with Susie was an outing to the Thalia Movie House on the Upper West Side, where we saw a revival of the pre-war Marcel Pagnol film, Cesar.  GoogleMaps tells me that the Thalia still exists, now enlarged and rechristened as SymphonySpace.  If there is time, maybe I will walk down to 95th street and take a look at the site of that fateful date sixty-nine years ago. 

Maybe there is something to the theory of Eternal Return.

Thursday, August 24, 2017


With startling speed, public commentary about Trump has moved to open expressions of doubt about his mental stability and the threat that this poses to the safety of the world.  A number of cable news commentators have expressed the hope that the generals with whom Trump has surrounded himself – Kelly, Mattis, McMaster – will dissuade him from launching a nuclear attack on North Korea in a fit of pique.  This speculation was given new currency by the dire warnings of James Clapper, an Army Lieutenant General who is recently retired from a seven year stint as Director of National Intelligence.  I think it is important to understand why this speculation is misguided, and why General Clapper is so worried.  The readers of this blog may all understand these matters, but since this is quite literally the most important subject in the world just now, a little repetition will not hurt.

During the Cold War, American military planners believed the nation to be in perpetual danger of a preemptive nuclear attack by the Soviet Union [whether this was true is irrelevant for what I am saying, as will become clear.]  The received scientific wisdom was that there was no defense against such an attack, once launched.  Hence it was essential to deter the Soviet Union from attacking by so arranging America’s nuclear arsenal that it could respond with absolute certainty and reliability to an attack, regardless of the extent of the damage.  Despite the existence of a fleet of American nuclear submarines perpetually on patrol in the world’s oceans, armed with half-megaton missiles capable of being fired with sufficient accuracy to obliterate a Russian city, there were considerations that seemed to American planners to necessitate circumventing the ordinary military chain of command.

Under normal non-nuclear circumstances, when the order to launch an attack of some sort is given by the President in his or her role as Commander in Chief, the order goes to the Secretary of Defense, who conveys it to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in turn conveys it to the Chief of Staff of the appropriate service [Army, Navy, or Air Force], who sends it down to the commander overseeing the unit tasked with the attack, who then communicates the order to the field commander of the men and women actually selected to carry out the attack.  This is the chain of command, and everything in the military rests on it.

But military planners believed that it might prove impossible to rely on this chain of command in the event of a nuclear attack.  They recognized that if the Russian attack came by way of intercontinental ballistic missiles, there would be at most eight or ten minutes between the time when the missile launches were detected by radar and the time when the missiles struck the United States.  This posed a series of problems:

First, the President might be killed, leaving a constitutional vacuum with no settled way to determine who now had the authority to order a counterattack with such weapons as survived the first strike.  Second, key individuals in the chain of command might be killed, disrupting the orderly transmission of a Presidential order.  Third, communications might be interrupted physically or electronically, making it impossible for a lawful launch order actually to reach the missile silo personnel or the Captain of a nuclear submarine.  Fourth, even if a lawful order did reach the military personnel actually in a position to fire the nuclear weapons, it might be impossible for those men and women to double check the order by communicating back to headquarters before carrying out the order.

For all these reasons [and some others besides,] the deliberate decision was made entirely to circumvent the normal chain of command and place at the hand of the President the ability unilaterally to order a nuclear strike immediately and without the chance for second thoughts or countermanding or even slow walking down the chain.  Hence the oft mentioned “nuclear football” containing the launch codes, carried by a uniformed officer who accompanies the President everywhere.  Hence also the training and clear orders to missile silo personnel or nuclear submarine Captains designed to guarantee that once the launch order is received with the proper codes, it will be immediately carried out.

Now, if General Kelly or General McMaster or General Mattis happens to be in the room when Trump decides to launch a nuclear attack, the general can try to dissuade Trump.  He can even go against a lifetime of training and experience and physically try to wrestle Trump to the ground and stop him from giving the order.  But should Trump be alone when he gets it into his head to start a nuclear war, there is nothing between him and the men and women who will actually launch the attack.

General Clapper knows all of this, of course.  That is why he is worried.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


As I have observed before in this space, the Viet Nam War nearly destroyed the U. S. military, forcing the generals to end the draft and move to an all volunteer army.  With the threat of conscription removed, the general populace ceased to care very much about foreign military entanglements.  The cloying practice grew up of saying “Thank you for your service” to anyone in uniform.  It thus became politically possible to commit American troops abroad in an endless series of “wars,” the term now used for projections of power around the globe.  Neither Obama then nor Trump now was compelled to explain to “our brave men and women in uniform” exactly why they are being sent in harm’s way, inasmuch as they are all volunteers.  The fact that the United States created and armed the Taliban to fight against the Russians is neither here nor there.  That is the way an imperial power is supposed to operate.


Sandwiched in between comments on the eclipse and May-December romances were as number of interesting comments on my socialist musings, to which I should like to respond.  First of all, my apologies to Jerry Brown.   Of course social savings means the allocation of a portion of the annual product to investment.  I was not suggesting that society should build fallout shelters stocked with forty years of groceries.  I am afraid I was just assuming everyone would understand that.  And yes, Howie Berman, there is money, there are art museums [assuming people want them], there will, I should imagine, be small businesses, and perhaps some big ones as well.  Stock markets?  Interesting question.  In a huge, complex economy like that of the United States, there have to be institutional mechanisms for allocating investment capital.  Capital?  Of course.  Without capital, we will all be ranging across the foraging for nuts and berries.

Let me begin by recalling the central point of my essay, “The Future of Socialism.”  [There really is no convenient way to talk about an extremely complex subject without assuming an acquaintance with what one has written previously.  This is not a subject for sound bites.]  I built that essay around Marx’s brilliant insight that new economic formations develop “in the womb of the old.”  I argued that central planning and the substitution of quasi-political decision making for simple response to the workings of the market was happening right now exactly where Marx would have predicted, not in government departments or on collective farms but in the executive offices of great corporations.  This transformation, a necessary precursor to socialism, is, I argued, not a consequence of the brainwashing of corporate executives by their rad-lib Ivy League professors.  It is a transformation demanded by institutional developments within corporations as they internalize decisions that can no longer be made merely by heeding market signals. 

The evolution of capitalism into an economic system suitable for socialism is happening right now.  True socialism cannot be imposed on a capitalist system unprepared for it, any more than mature capitalist production could have been introduced into medieval France by an inspired king.  Whether socialism will replace capitalism is, alas, not inevitable, or even likely, for reasons I outlined in the essay I have several times referenced.  But it is possible.

A second point, derived from my reading of Thomas Piketty’s important book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, about which I wrote and posted a 9,000 word review three years ago.  For reasons that Piketty undertakes to explain, hereditary – or, as he calls it, patrimonial – capitalism has historically been the norm and is reemerging now, after an uncharacteristic retreat in the generation and a half after the two world wars and intervening depression of the twentieth century.  When I ask myself:  What single dramatic step would, more than anything else, move America towards socialism?,  the answer that comes back is:  Impose a 100% inheritance and gift tax on all estates greater than fifty times the median annual income of American households [roughly 2.5 million dollars].  The wealth thus taxed would become the property of the state.  Over not too much time, vast swaths of accumulated capital would be collectively owned and managed.

A response to F. Lengyal’s comment about wage incentives [I apologize for picking and choosing which comments to respond to – there were many worthy of extended replies.]  Let me talk personally about this subject of incentives to work.  [Never mind so-called Game Theory analyses, all of which strike me as simply useless.]  Leaving aside university teaching, which, as Kant says about something else in the Preface to the First Edition of the First Critique, is “rather an amusement than a labour,” I have had a total of four real jobs in my life.  The first, as a sixteen year old high school graduate, was as a waiter in a posh summer camp.  The second, as an eighteen year old after my sophomore year at Harvard, was as a Copy Boy on the old Herald Tribune.  The third, as a nineteen year old college graduate, was as a counselor at a benighted summer camp in Vermont.  And the fourth was my six months in the U. S. Army.  I have never worked in a factory, or in a business office, or in a hospital.  I have never driven a semi, or harvested grapes, or ridden a garbage truck.  So my personal knowledge of the work world is confined to observation.  Here is what I have observed.

Most people work very hard [leaving to one side professors], especially people who earn low wages.  Raising workers’ wages does not lead them to shirk their work, or goof off, or “choose leisure over income.”   For nine years, before moving to a retirement home, my wife and I hired a firm called Molly Maids to clean our apartment every two weeks.  Two women spent the better part of two hours on this job, for which we paid Molly Maids $108.  I asked one of the women how much she made, and she said just under ten dollars an hour.  Since I believe that $15 an hour ought to be the minimum wage, I took to paying each of them ten dollars extra, to bring them up to that minimum.  This was not a tip, it was a wage supplement.  After I started this practice, there was not the slightest change in the character of their work.  If their employer had raised their wages to fifteen dollars an hour, I am absolutely certain they would have done an identical job in every house or apartment they cleaned.  They simply would have made fifty percent more money.

Let me give another counterexample.  Pay in the U. S. military is rigidly determined by rank and years of service in rank [leaving aside housing allowances and some other things of that nature.]  The top pay, for a four-star general with lots of years in grade, is $186,998.40 a year [assuming that I am reading correctly the chart I found on line.]  To reach this rank requires not only a good deal of work but also, almost certainly, service in a war zone, probably a number of war zones, where one can quite easily be blown up or maimed for life.  That is not quite as much as a second year Associate, two years out of law school, makes at Cravath, Swaine, and Moore, a big time law firm.  And yet, the U. S. Army is one of the best run, best managed huge conglomerates in the world.  Lord knows, it is better run that Sears, Roebuck, where my first father-in-law served as Vice President of Public Relations for a while.

The talk about incentives, tricked out with pseudo-math or Game Theory gobbledygook, is a transparent ideological rationalization for keeping the wages of workers low so that profits can swell.  I have a great many uncertainties about socialism, but workers goofing off is not one of them.