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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A COMMENT ON A COMMENT ON A COMMENT


In response to my apologetic response to JD's thoughtful reaction to my snark at Ross Douthat [so much for provenance, as they say in the art world], JD himself and Bill Glenn, Jr. posted thoughtful and rather moving comments about what we might call true, as opposed to faux, conservatism.  Together, these comments raise very important issues about which I have tried on occasion to write on this blog, though not, I think, with great success.  Rather than react to the latest Supreme Court decision or to a Ukrainian situation that I genuinely do not understand, I thought I would try today to expand on what JD and Bill Glenn, Jr. said.  My deeper purpose is to address once again what most concerns me, namely how, if at all, we can mobilize an effort to derail the disaster of American capitalism.

Both JD and Bill Glenn, Jr. give expression to a powerful sense of loss.  JD puts it this way:  "personally I feel doomed to wander a world cut off from my ancestors, which is thereby in a certain way stale, lacking dimension, left to feasting in a crowd where the only song we all know by heart is likely to be "The Bohemian Rhapsody." " Bill Glenn, Jr. adds:  "The completely amoral capitalism that reemerged under Reagan drove out the last vestiges of the post-war capitalism that was at least partially constrained by moral and social norms and did contain some of the communal values JD recognizes we now lack."

I think both of them are right.  Let me begin my meditation on their voiced discontent by referring to a movie I saw maybe ten years ago.  It is called Seabiscuit, a rather saccharine account of the Depression-era successes of an unlikely race horse by that name, whose come-from-behind victories on the race track captured the imagination of a nation struggling with poverty and historic levels of unemployment.  I could as easily pin my thoughts to the much, much finer movie, The Grapes of Wrath, the Henry Fonda vehicle made from John Steinbeck's great novel.  But in Seabiscuit, the director Gary Ross made the inspired decision to intercut the conventional Technicolor sequences with grainy black-and-white stills from the Depression itself  of striking workers, bread lines, soup kitchens, and street scenes of ordinary working men and women.  I am not much for racing, whether it is horses or cars, and I would rather watch the weather channel than a NASCAR event, but I wept openly at those pictures of the Depression.  I wept not because of the poverty and misery they showed, but for the lost fellowship, the comradeship, the community of those whose response to hard times was to band together and form labor unions, who saw poverty not as a shameful condition to be hidden from view, but as an evil inflicted on good men and women by the toffs wearing the fancy clothes and driving the fancy cars.

America during the Depression and World War II, and into the early years of the Post-War era, was a society in which the objectively real class divisions found immediate surface expression in such things as the clothes people wore.  Go back and watch some of the films -- the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classics, the endless comedies of life among the rich, the Edward Arnold vehicles in which that wonderful old actor strutted his villainous best.   The rich wear evening clothes to dinner or a nightclub, they drive cars that look different from the cars driven by ordinary people.  Their voices are different, they look different, and you know with a visceral certainty that if smellovision had ever caught on, they would have smelled different.

Remember, that was a time when almost no one went to college, when most jobs were blue collar, not white collar, when working men wore caps, men in the lower middle class wore fedoras, and the rich wore top hats.  You could place a man or a woman economically and socially at fifty paces.   This was the heyday of the American labor movement.  A few statistics tell the story.  In 1954, union membership peaked at 35% of the labor force.  By 1983, three years into the Reagan disaster, this had declined to 20.1%.  Today the figure stands at 11.3%, with more than a third of public employees in unions and only 6.7% of workers in the private sector in labor unions. 

The very term "working class" has disappeared from public discourse.   Politicians on the left as well as the right cannot stop talking about "Middle Class America," even though, by any rational definition of Sociological or Economic categories, most Americans are Working Class, not Middle Class.  Why this terminological obfuscation?  The short answer is race.  "Middle Class" in today's political discourse carries the unspoken but inescapable meaning "not Black or Hispanic."  White people earning the minimum wage and qualifying for food stamps refuse to self-identity as Working Class, let alone Poor, for fear they will be mistaken for light-skinned colored folks.

What happened?   Why did two-thirds of unionized workers leave the only collective organizations committed to fighting for their interests?  And how did it come about that clear class lines, visible to the naked eye, dissolved, so that the rich could pass as jes' folks, despite their trust funds and gated communities and private clubs?

The answer is complicated, and only a suitably nuanced answer can begin to capture the historical and social reality.   The first factor was the transformation of the American economy into a post-industrial economy with an ever-expanding Service sector, a shrinking industrial sector, and a vanishing agricultural sector.  This transformation was accelerated by the outsourcing of production jobs as corporate managers went in search of ever cheaper labor unfettered by health and safety regulations.  A second factor was the dramatic expansion of post-secondary education, raising the proportion of the adult population holding a Bachelor's Degree from 5% shortly after World War Two to 35% or so today.  These two changes sundered the intergenerational solidarity between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.  The old dream was for the father to arrange for his son to apprentice in a craft job and gain membership in the father's labor union.  The new dream was for the father to underwrite his son's college education, thereby gaining for him an escape from hard manual labor, however well-paid and protected by union contracts.

At a critical moment in this transformation, Republicans launched an assault on the labor unions themselves, symbolized by Reagan's successful effort to break the Air Traffic Controller's union.  A raft of "Right to Work" laws undermined the ability of labor unions to organize, and the comfortable, established, well-paid condition of the union leadership drained the movement of its revolutionary and liberatory potential.

All of this went hand in hand with a quite striking cultural transformation.  It started [if I may be shamelessly superficial] with Jack Kennedy's decision not to wear a hat on his inaugural walk from the Capitol to the White House.  That sartorial quirk, a showman's demonstration of his youthful vigor, overnight killed the haberdashery industry.  Men stopped wearing hats!  In 1958, in an unsuccessful effort to look older than I was when going to teach a class, I affected a fedora.  By 1960, when my hat was stolen from the University Luncheonette on Mass Ave while I was having coffee, it seemed pointless to replace it and thereafter I went bareheaded.  At first, in the sixties, the rebellious young started wearing their hair grow long and substituting jeans for dress slacks or dirndl skirts.  You could still tell someone's politics, if not his or her social class, at fifty paces.  Ten years later, everyone was wearing jeans, and facial hair had made a comeback not seen since Edwardian days.  Endlessly inventive, albeit lacking any really distinctive politics, the young started piercing various body parts and getting tats, until they too became upscale fashion accessories.

Music too underwent a de-politicization.  In the old days, Black people had jazz, white people had syrupy ballads, and radicals had folk songs.  Grown-ups and the young listened to entirely different music.  Then the Beatles came to town, and it all changed.  I was, as you might imagine, considerably behind the times, for all that I had seen Hard Day's Night in Trafalgar Square in 1964.  Even in the 80's, when my older son was a teen-ager, I did not know whether Hall and Oates was a breakfast cereal or a singing group.

Where have all the flowers gone? as Pete Seeger asked in 1955.  JD and Bill Glenn Jr. really are right.  Things have changed, for all that new clothes and songs have come along to replace the old. 

Well, now I have managed to make myself sound like a cranky old geezer, so I shall pause and leave it to younger and livelier souls to comment.

 

 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A CHASTENED RESPONSE TO JD


On Sunday last, I posted some sarcastic remarks about the NY TIMES Op Ed column by Ross Douthat.  Rather than respond in kind, JD penned a thoughtful defense of Douthat that rather put my cheap shots to shame.  I think JD deserves a serious response.  Let me begin by reprinting JD's comment, which, in my opinion, makes a better case for Douthat than Douthat made for himself.  Herewith JD:


"It seems like a rather coherent column to me; a form is readily discernible. I'm not equipped to comment on the issue he takes with Piketty's economic analysis– his criticism is brief, and it's likely you could answer it much better than I can say whether it is true or false.

However, his point is clear. In fact, his point is only a suggestion (a suggestion, however, that he clearly takes to be the case): a neglected victim of capitalism's destruction has been the cultural and spiritual resources which past generations have relied on and which are counted as some of the dearest fruits of civilized societies. He is suggesting that these goods are more imminently threatened than even economic equality and that the left, due to a neglect of questions of spiritual care and the importance of shared culture, has failed to see this and so even presently fails to have a clear view of the crisis of our times. He is suggesting not just a crisis of means but a crisis of values, ethos and community sustaining mythos. He is chalking up some of the right's recent successes to its ability (if only in rhetoric) to tap into these insecurities and fears that we are losing, or have mostly lost, the spiritual and cultural goods which give money and means more than their base, sub-human value."
 

This is an eloquent statement of an old, familiar, and honorable tradition in political theory, a tradition that has a right to claim for itself the adjective "conservative."  The Myth of the Golden Past is, of course, as old as Western Civilization, but the particular form of it that JD invokes was born in the late eighteenth century as a reaction to the rise of what eventually became known as capitalism.  Marx correctly observed that capitalism is the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the world.  In eighteenth and nineteenth century England, and a bit later on the Continent, it undermined the authority and the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, transformed London and the other great cities of England, ate away at and finally destroyed the age-old division between city and countryside, and threw up a class of New Men who, in a single generation, without family  connections or landed estates, became unimaginably wealthy.

Speaking broadly, there were three thoughtful responses to this phenomenon.  The first was the response of those who were called Liberals, writers who celebrated the changes and wrote confidently that the manifest evils of the young capitalism -- urban slums, brutal factory work, an economic cycle of booms and busts -- were merely the growing pains of a brave new world,  soon to be replaced by a stable order of endless growth.  The second response was that of the Socialists, who welcomed the destruction of the old order but insisted that the chaos of capitalism must be replaced by rational management for the common good.  Marx was not the first to voice this vision.  He was simply the most brilliant and the most penetrating in his anatomization of the inner exploitative structure of capitalism.

The third response, which appeared in England and France as early as the end of the eighteenth century, was that of Conservatives.  There were many observers of the passing scene who looked with horror on the destruction wrought by capitalism, seeing it not as a force for growth and liberation but rather as the enemy of all they held dear.  I do not think I will elicit much protest from my brethren on the right if I say that greatest among these voices was that of Edmund Burke.  In 1797, Burke wrote an impassioned response to the events in France under the title Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Let  me quote at length the most famous passage from that seminal work, for it says eloquently what Douthat was reaching for and what JD very nicely summarized.  Here is Burke, answering the claims of the social contract theorists of his day.  I have highlighted the portion of the passage that is most often quoted:

"Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primæval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those, who by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only, a necessity that is not chosen, but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion, and demands no evidence, which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule; because this necessity itself is a part too of that moral and physical disposition of things, to which man must be obedient by consent or force; but if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow."

The England whose loss Burke was lamenting was in fact a land of servitude and grinding poverty for the many and inherited wealth, leisure, elegance, and culture for the few.  But that was not an image worthy of Burke's eloquent invocation.  It was at roughly at this time that there was born the fantasy of Merrie Old England, a time of maypole dances and madrigals, of soft summers and manageable winters, of simple pleasures blessed by a benevolent Church.  [Not by Burke, by the way!]

This is the sensibility to which Douthat is appealing, and in his column, it is thoroughly disingenuous and dishonest.  First of all, Douthat is not harking back to medieval England, or even Colonial America.  His Golden Age transparently is the Fifties, a world in which the  Roman Catholic Mass was still celebrated in Latin and Rosie the Riveter had turned her tools over to returning servicemen and had gone back to the kitchen, a world in which June and Ward Cleaver slept in separate beds and had sex only the requisite two times to produce Wally and The Beaver.  It happens also to be a time, as Piketty shows us, in which wealth was, temporarily, less unequally distributed than it had been earlier and would be later, a time of rapid economic growth to replace what had been lost in the depression and war years.

But of course Douthat's American version of Merrie Old England was also a time of quasi-slavery for African-Americans, of back street abortions and stifled ambitions for the female half of the population, a time of the closet for gay and lesbian men and women.  Douthat neither cares about nor bothers to recall these unpleasant facts, and I rather imagine does not even consider  them truly unpleasant.

When all is said and done, what is Douthat's column really about?  Quite simply, he is worried that Piketty might encourage people to take away some of the great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few and spread it around to those whose labor actually created it.  And along the way, they might once again take notice of the role played by the Church in blessing and sanctifying the exploitation of working men and women.

That, or something like it, is what was in my mind when I penned my cheap shots at Douthat.  I apologize to JD for not taking the time to spell it all out, and I thank him or her for recalling me to my better self.

Monday, April 21, 2014

YET MORE ABOUT PIKETTY


The Piketty phenomenon continues.  I re-read my almost 9000 word review of his book, and I confess that I am pleased with it.  I think I managed to communicate a good deal of what is in the book in such a way as to encourage all of you to read it for yourselves.   My review has triggered an unusually large number of intelligent and interesting comments, some of which I shall try to respond to in this post.  In addition, I shall say something about the larger significance of the striking reaction to the book across a broad spectrum of public discourse.

Bjorn quotes a bit from my reply to Seth:  "Shall we raise wages now and produce in the future at the same level we are producing now, or shall we hold wages steady and expand production by investing the social surplus in new plants, roads, high speed trains, and electronic innovations?"   He says "I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this question."

This is a complex issue, to be decided, as Piketty repeatedly says, by processes of democratic deliberation.  Let me offer a few observations.  First, I think it is highly desirable to choose a rate of economic growth at least equal to the rate of population growth.  Otherwise we are condemning our descendants to a lower general standard of living than we enjoy.  Second, it is clearly possible to improve the well-being of the poorest members of society simply by diminishing the luxuries of the richest.  That does not involve "eating our seed corn," which is to say diverting investment capital to consumption.  It simply requires altering the mix of goods and services we purchase with our national income.  I do not know how much could be accomplished by such a re-direction of consumption [that is an important factual question worth investigating], but it is clearly the place to start. 

The morally and theoretically more difficult question is what rate of economic growth we should trade off against present consumption.  Capitalism decides that question for us in an inhumane, unjust, and socially destructive way.  "Accumulate!  Accumulate!  That is Moses and the prophets to the capitalist," as Marx rather colorfully puts it.  No doubt wonders can be accomplished by restricting the present generation's consumption and pouring what is saved into investment.  After all, a 10% growth rate doubles the size of the economy every seven years or a bit more.  Even a 5% annual growth rate doubles the economy every fifteen years.  In one and a half generations of self-sacrifice, a nation can leave to its descendants an economy that has expanded fourfold.  Our grandchildren will honor us for the sacrifice, but we shall be dead and unable to bask in their praise.  In our present political circumstances, when this question is even raised, it is answered by the rich deciding what degree of immiseration to inflict on the poor.  I would much prefer that the question be answered by the poor.  Needless to say, the structural arrangements needed to make such a decision and implement it do not even really exist in our society at the present time.

National cultures differ.  My uninformed guess is that if one offered a choice between more leisure at the current standard of living or a higher standard of living and the same or even more time devoted to work, many people in America would opt for the higher standard of living, and many people in France would opt for more leisure.

Seth notes that the Swiss seem to be prepared to address this question directly, and that they have the political mechanisms to make a decision and implement it.  We are so far from anything remotely like that state of affairs here in America that I do not even know how to think about the question concretely.  I notice that our leading champion of liberty, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, yesterday unburdened himself of the opinion that young people ought to be ready to revolt if taxes get too high.  There are clearly at least four votes on the High Court, and probably five, ready to place their aging bodies in the way should the electorate get it into its head to carry out serious redistribution.

Speaking more generally, I welcome the fuss being made about Thomas Piketty and his big book.  Ideas make some difference in the world, albeit less difference than we philosophers would prefer.  It does not trouble me that Piketty finds it necessary to diss Marx every chance he gets.  If he succeeds in getting economists and others to face the fact of the concentration of capital and the return of the dominance of inherited wealth, more power to him.  After the revolution [as we used to say when I was young], we can quietly unpack our copies of Capital and sing songs to the memory of old Karl.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I THINK WE MAY BE WINNING

On Easter Sunday, it is only fitting that the reliably despicable Ross Douthat should once again rise from the dead with an incoherently dreadful column on Piketty.  I will not try to summarize it.  As Aristotle observed [I think], shit has no form, and hence cannot easily be apprehended by reason.  You may read it for yourself.  I take Douthat's column as a good sign, a harbinger of Spring.   When the rats on the sinking ship of capitalism pause in their scramble down the hawsers to acknowledge the reemergence of Marx from the dustbin of history [how's that for a mixed metaphor?], there is hope on this annual celebration of resurrection.

I cede pride of place to no man or woman in my capacity for optimism!

[I spell-checked this with WORD before posting, and was offered the option of adding "Douthat" to its memory, but declined, not wanting to taint the list with his presence.]

Saturday, April 19, 2014

THERE HAS TO BE A BETTER WAY

Following the advice of those wiser than I, I undertook to upload a video to YouTube.  It seems I already have an account on YouTube.  Who knew?  I chose an eight minute video, taken with my IPhone, of a big male lion eating a male Kudu.  It took well over two hours to upload!!!  For those of a carnivorous turn of mind, you can watch it here.

Now, I mean, two hours and more?  Suppose I had wanted to post a Haydn quartet!  It would have taken two days.  Surely there has to be a better way.  I tried converting the file to a zip file, but YouTube does not accept that format.  [This file is a .mov file.]  Does anyone have any suggestions?  I've got a lot of videos, but at my age, it might take most of the rest of my life to post them.

THE DISCUSSION SPARKED BY PIKETTY CONTINUES


As I had hoped, my lengthy review of Piketty has sparked a vigorous and interesting series of comments on this blog.  I am going to spend a good deal of today expanding on my discussion and responding to some of the comments [since it is pouring here, so no early morning walk today.]  Let me start with Chris's reaction to my plaintive comment about one of Piketty's footnotes.  Here, in part, is what Chris said:

 

"In regards to:   "Page 600 -- note 33 Why is Piketty always so careful to speak disparagingly of Marx?"
What is your assessment of this claim in regards to ALL economists and (many) philosophers? Nearly ALL economists go out of their way to refute Marx and yet it's always clear that those same thinkers simply haven't bothered to read him at even a cursory level. For instance, the NYTimes had an op-ed series a few weeks back on Marx, and it was crystal clear all but one author had [not?] actually read Marx. Along with Kenneth Rogoff's recent article in Project Syndicate. I mean these are people with degrees from Ivy League schools, so it's not as if Marx is beyond their reading comprehension, but for some reason people in general feel totally comfortable with speaking about something they haven't done the slightest investigation into. Yet you'd never see an op-ed piece on: "was Einstein right to worry about quantum mechanics", covered by people who had no knowledge of the subject...."

 

This is a large and [at least to me] very interesting question.  The cheap and easy response is that all these folks are bought and paid for flacks for capitalism and feel no need to take seriously anyone who calls that commitment into question.  And of course, cheap and easy responses are very often right [as are superficial conspiracy theories -- bad people really do get together in back rooms and plot bad things.]  So let us agree that some of the professional economists who dismiss Marx without ever having studied what he had to say are really just mouthpieces for capitalism.  But I honestly do not think that is true in any simple way of a great many quite intellectually brilliant economists, a number of whom have rather progressive politics.  So what more is going on?

Let us start where it all began, in the decade after Das Kapital was published.  The 1870's saw a transformation in mainstream economic theory, led by the work, more or less simultaneously, of Carl Menger in Austria [born in Germany], Léon Walras in France, and William Stanley Jevons in England.  Their so-called Triple Revolution quickly replaced the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo [and Karl Marx] with the marginalist analysis that dominates academic economics to the present day.  There are two important things to understand about this Triple Revolution:  First, it was mathematically much more sophisticated than anything that had been done before in the field, and its sheer intellectual beauty and fecundity [spinning off new research questions and possibilities for further sophistication] was mesmerizing to professional economists.  Second, it completely changed the questions that economists asked.  The old Political Economy had been concerned first and foremost with growth and distribution -- what were the factors that promoted or stymied economic growth? and How did the annual social product get divided among the three great classes of society -- entrepreneurs, workers, and landowners?  The new economic theories gave beautiful, elegant answers to an entirely different set of questions:  How are prices determined in a free market?  How does the market guide the allocation of scarce resources with alternative uses?  The questions of the old Political Economy were dangerous questions, because even if one had never heard of the obscure German Karl Marx, it was clear that the well-known and widely read David Ricardo was teaching that the interests of the entrepreneurial class are strictly opposed to the interests of the working class.  Even without any real mathematics at all, Ricardo's conceptual framework made this opposition transparently obvious.  Marx [in my view -- one must always add that caveat when writing about Marx] brought the classical school to completion and transcended it by asking a new set of questions built on his answers to the old ones.  But Marx's questions were, if anything, even more dangerous than Ricardo's.

Marx was not ignored.  Quite to the contrary.  His works were studied and commented on extensively, and of course several world-historical political revolutions were carried out in his name [if not in accord with his teachings.]  But Marx's writings were mathematically unsophisticated [at least superficially -- I will get to that in a moment] -- which made it easy for mainstream academic Professors of Economics to ignore them.  Mind you, they pretty much ignored Smith and Ricardo as well, save in low status optional "History of Economic Thought" courses.  The academic rewards and status more and more went to mathematically sophisticated economists who developed ever more elegant and arcane elaborations of the ideas introduced by Menger, Walras, and Jevons.

A word about the mathematical sophistication of economists.  Modern society suffers from what C. P. Snow, in a famous lecture, called The Two Cultures.  Even most superbly educated people these days are dead ignorant of anything remotely mathematical, and many of the most  raffiné intellectuals are utterly unashamed of their Stone Age grasp of anything formal.  The remainder of the glitterati have, in the immortal words of W. S. Gilbert, "learned up the germs of the transcendental terms" and can actually read a mathematical equation without heart palpitations.  Now, Economics, as an academic discipline, resides in the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, cheek by jowl with the Humanities and far from the Natural Sciences.  Even though the mathematics used by economists is for the most part undergraduate math [calculus, linear algebra, statistics], in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and so economists get to lord it over literary critics and historians and even philosophers.

These days, scientists are clearly the academic upper classes.  They do arcane things, use lots of math, get big grants, teach fewer courses, reside in more modern buildings, and have hordes of grant funded grad students to do their bidding [and much of their work.]   The rest of the campus longs to introduce the same sort of mathematical rigor into their disciplines, hoping thereby to pull in grants, cut their teaching loads, and gain some measure of the high status accorded to the natural scientists.  Indeed, if I were given to phrase mongering [which of course I am not], I might suggest that the non-sciences suffer from an advanced case of rigor mortification.

So it is that philosophers splash backwards E's throughout their manuscripts and get a cheap thrill from writing "for all x," while sociologists have stopped reading Weber and Mannheim and Durkheim [all three of them conservatives, by the way], and hand out endless questionnaires to study the contours of surface appearance instead of probing the structures of underlying social reality.

In the period after World War II, three things happened more or less at the same time.  First, in the United States [but not in France, if Piketty is to be believed], academic economists moved into positions of great influence and important as government advisers [the Council of Economic Advisers was established in the U.S. 1946].  Their increased prominence brought with it [in my opinion] enormous pressure to support the dominant interests of capital, which had long exercised powerful influence in the halls of government.  Second, a global struggle developed between the two most powerful empires to emerge from the war, the Soviet Union and the United States.  One of those empires was nominally committed in a quasi-religious way to the memory, if not the teachings, of Karl Marx, with the result that taking Marx seriously in America was tantamount to treason.  The third development, quite surprisingly, is that a number of mathematically sophisticated economic theorists took another look at the classical tradition of Political Economy, including Karl Marx, and very quickly demonstrated that it was capable of being represented by mathematical models as sophisticated, as elegant, and as elaborate as those spawned by the Triple Revolution.   Starting with the publication in 1960 of Piero Sraffa's exquisite little monograph, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, a flood of books appeared by mathematical economists around the world -- Michio Morishima in Japan, Andras Brody in Hungary, Luigi Pasinetti in Italy, Abraham-Frois and Berrebi in France.

I began to study Marx seriously in the 1970's, just as this global rediscovery of Marx was taking place.  I swatted up linear algebra, brushed up my calculus, and began plowing through every one of these new interpretations of the classical tradition as they appeared, starting with Sraffa.  In my naiveté, I honestly thought I was getting in on the ground floor of an intellectual revolution that would bring Marx back into the mainstream.  It seemed obvious to me that what was needed was an Introductory Economics textbook that would translate this intellectual ferment into a teachable series of diagrams and models in just the way that Paul Samuelson's magisterial text had done for the neo-classical synthesis.  I knew I did not have what it would take to produce such a work, but I thought my colleagues at UMass, Sam Bowls and Herb Gintis, would do it.  Then, I thought [I really was a child], the panjandrums of academic Economics would have to sit up and take notice, and Marx would enter the curriculum where it mattered, at the Freshman level.

Well, it did not work out that way.  But who knows, Chris?  Maybe CAPITAL in the Twenty -First Century is the Trojan Horse that will be dragged into the walled city and issue from its belly in the stealth of night warriors who will slay the defenders.  I am too old to play Odysseus in this fable, but perhaps there are younger and abler men and women who will carry out the destruction of the walled city of capitalism.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A NOTE ABOUT NOTES


Jason Palma made the following comment on my post-safari musings about Piketty:  "Another thought - I have to wonder if Professor Piketty - like Jean-Jacques Rousseau did in his Discourse On Inequality - buried any explosive suggestions in his footnotes......."  I was forced to confess that I had not in fact read the footnotes.  Well, now I have -- seventy-six pages of small print!  I would not go so far as to say there is anything explosive in the notes, but there are some tasty bits.  Herewith a list of notes I found worth mentioning, for those actually reading Piketty.


Page 600 -- note 33   Why is Piketty always so careful to speak disparagingly of Marx?

page 601 -- note 11

Page 601 -- note 20 

Page 606 -- note 30  for one of Piketty's many delicious digs at the American economic profession

Page 608 -- note 3   A technical dig at Gary Becker, whom Piketty admirably does not like.

Page 614 -- note 29 Another of P's delightful allusions to popular culture.  

Page 616 -- note 7   Contra Becker yet again.  Boy, P really does not think much of him.

Page 619 -- note 36  Nice merging of statistical data and literary allusions

Page 620 -- note 46  Very interesting historical contrast between 19th century France and America

Page 621 -- note 52  Good grief.  P even watches Desperate Housewives.  Where does he find the time?

Page 621 -- note 57 and the text  Good example of Piketty's sardonic style.  Quite lovely.

Page 627 -- note 46  One of many passages that could have been written by Marx.  Why does P work so hard to distance himself from someone with whom he has such obvious filiations?

Page 630 -- note 17 A quietly devastating footnote about America's incarceration of Black men.

Page 636 -- note 20  Another pointed dig at the ideological rationalizations of ostensibly objective journals.  P is really a pleasure to read.

Page 640 -- note 49  "Contrary to an idea that is often taught but rarely verified .."  P really does a number on the [American] economics profession.  They are going to find it hard to swallow this book or ignore it.

Page 640 -- note 55  This is a note to the following passage on page 514 of the text:  "The experience of France in the Belle Ḗpoque proves, if proof were needed, that no hypocrisy is too great when economic and financial elites are obliged to defend their interests -- and that includes economists, who currently occupy an enviable position in the US income hierarchy.  Some economists have an unfortunate tendency to defend their private interest while implausibly claiming to champion the general interest."

Page 650 -- note 33  So much for Google!

Page 653 -- note 49  P is no kinder to his own countrymen.

Page 655 -- note 2 [The last note of the book]  The note reads:  "When one reads philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and Alain Badiou on their Marxist and/or communist commitments, one sometimes has the impression that questions of capital and class inequality are of only moderate interest to them and serve mainly as a pretext for jousts of a different nature entirely."  I do think that  we must excuse Piketty for his negative feelings about Mar x, considering the collection of supposed Marxists among whom he grew up.