Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.
NEW: A Collection of Pebbles from The Philosopher's Stone
Volume I: 2009 Now Available at box.net
Volume II: 2010 Now Available at box.net
Volume III: 2011 Now available at box.net
Volume IV: 2012 Now available at box.net

Total Pageviews

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

COMMENT ON A RAFT OF COMMENTS

My post, "Was Marx Right?" in response to a question by Chris has triggered a tsunami of comments, in the form of an extended many-sided discussion among four or five readers.  I am delighted to have been the occasion for this series of exchanges, all of which I found interesting.  I am not going to enter the exchange because I had my say about these matters in an extended colloquy with Professors Kliman and Freeman some while ago.  But I would like to repeat one thing that I said at that time. 

The debate in which Professors Kliman, Freeman and others have been engaged for some while with other interested economists seems to have been engendered, at least in part, by the claim advanced by a number of early critics that Marx's account in Capital is inconsistent.  [I have it in my mind that Bohm-Bawerk advanced this criticism, but that may be all wrong.]  As I explained to Professors Kliman and Freeman, I do not think Marx was guilty of inconsistency.  My critique of his Labor Theory of Value, set out in two books and several journal articles, is quite different from that.  What is more, I consider Marx's fundamental claim to be correct, namely that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.  So when it comes to the debate that has occupied some of the readers of this blog in the past several days, I do not [as I gather used to be said by good ole boys] have a dog in that hunt.

One hundred thirty-one years after his death, Marx still seems to have the ability to get people riled up, which I take to be a good sign.

WORLD FAMOUS IN POLAND


In 1983, the incomparable Mel Brooks re-made the old Jack Benny 1942 film, To Be Or Not To Be, about a small Jewish theater troupe trying to get out of Poland when the Nazis invade.  At one point, Brooks, who plays a really rather bad actor, puffs himself up and says, "I am world famous in Poland."  Although I saw the movie thirty years ago, that line has stayed with me as the perfect expression of self-aggrandizement -- the cri de coeur of a slightly oversized frog in a very tiny pond.

Two days ago, I received an e-mail from an editor at the Journal of Philosophy, which, as some of you may know, is housed in the same building as the Columbia University Philosophy Department and is treated by the faculty, somewhat unjustly, as a house organ.  Someone in Poland asked for and received permission from JPhil to translate my old essay, "On Violence," which appeared in the journal in 1969.  The editor wanted to know where she should send my share of the permission fee.  I suggested she give it to a needy Columbia Philosophy student, if she could find one.

Then yesterday I received an e-mail from Eren Kýrmýzýaltýn [does anyone know enough Turkish to tell me whether this is a man or a woman?] requesting permission to translate into Turkish and publish the little book Barrington Moore, Herbert Marcuse and I wrote forty-nine years ago, A Critique of Pure Tolerance.  It seems that since I am the only surviving co-author, rights have reverted to me.  Naturally I said yes, on condition that they send me two copies of the book when it appears.

So, it is now established.  I am world famous in Poland.  And also in Turkey.  What is more, inasmuch as In Defense of Anarchism was recently translated into Croatian, Korean, and Malaysian, I am world-famous there as well.  However, if Google is to be trusted [as I am sure it is], I am virtually unknown in the one country where a little visibility might be an advantage to me, namely France.

There is a lesson in all this, one that I first learned in 1961.  That was the final year of my Instructorship in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard, and I very badly wanted to be kept on as an Assistant Professor [a misguided desire, and one I was later very happy not to have had fulfilled.]  McGeorge Bundy, the Harvard Dean of the Arts and Sciences Faculty, had made me Head Tutor of the new undergraduate program in Social Studies and wanted me to continue in that position, so he offered the Philosophy Department a half-Assistant Professorship for me if they would come up with the other half for my duties in the Department.  I had just finished a complete draft of my first book, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, and not understanding a thing about the internal politics of the Department, though that if they were to take a look at what I had written, my chances might improve.  While all of this was up in the air, I ran into Rogers Albritton, who was then an Assistant Professor.  I explained the situation to Rogers and asked him whether he thought the senior members of the Department would like to look at my manuscript.  Rogers, who was a very serious and thoughtful person, not given to precipitous replies, turned that over in his mind for a few moments and then said, "No."

I went on to the University of Chicago, and the rest is [my] history, although of very little interest to the rest of the world.  I published my manuscript with Harvard University Press, and I think I am correct in saying that not a single one of my former teachers and then colleagues so much as glanced at it.  But there were a few people out and around in the world whom I did not know personally but who did take an interest in what I had written.

Which taught me an invaluable lesson:  In life, it is best to go where they want you, even if the thought of going there has never crossed your mind, rather than to try repeatedly and unsuccessfully to go where you initially wanted to go but where they show no interest in having you.

 

So, world-famous in Poland and Turkey it is.  Does anyone know whether there are direct flights to Warsaw?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN


This afternoon, Susie and I spent some time, with the aid of Google Maps, looking at street views of the houses we grew up in in Queens, New York, back in the '40s.  I managed to call up a perfect picture of 138-37 76th Avenue, in Kew Gardens Hills, the tiny row house I moved into with my family in 1940 and lived in until I went off to Harvard in 1950.  That brick house was a three bedroom one and a half bath home [the third bedroom, mine, was rather smaller than a walk-in closet] that cost my parents, new, $5999, including extra for a fireplace.  Everything looks the same except for the tiny tree on the postage stamp front lawn, which has now grown to tower over the house and obscure the view from the street.  The convenient on-line CPI calculator tells me that in 2014 dollars, that $6000 price for the house would be about $102,000.

Curious what property was selling for in that neighborhood, I did a bit of Googling, and came up with a larger house [four bedrooms, two baths, brick attached] on the other side of Main Street.  I imagine it might have gone for $12,000 back in the day, or maybe $250,000 today.  The current price tag on the house, which actually looks rather run-down, is $888,000!

My parents were able to afford our house on two salaries -- my father's as a high school teacher and my mother's as a secretary.  There is no way that such a couple today could afford to live in that neighborhood.

By the way, tuition at Harvard my first year, 1950-51, was $400.  No CPI calculator in the world that can convert that into today's Harvard tuition.  Thomas Piketty remarks in passing, presumably on the basis of accurate data, that the average annual income of today's Harvard student is $400,000.

I do not think I recognize today's world as the world I grew up in.

SOMETIMES THERE IS A SOLUTION

Like many other people in America, I have been watching the events in Ferguson, MO with horror and with anger.  In this situation the televised images convey the essential truth:  Ferguson is suffering a military occupation by an enemy power armed and outfitted by the United States government and proceeding, as such occupations so often do, under the color of law.  I do not think I need to describe what has been happening or add my anger to that being expressed by the people of Ferguson.  But I do wish to make one small point.

This is one of those rare cases of injustice and oppression where an effective response is available.  To put it as simply as I can, the Black majority in Ferguson can vote the White mayor and city council out of office at the next election, and put in their place a city government that will send the military equipment back to the Feds and institute a just, fair, lawful, responsive city government, including the police department.

I may have missed it, but I have not yet heard any loud, insistent calls for political action by the people of Ferguson.  To be sure, if such action begins, the city government will, I am sure, do everything it can to suppress the vote, but I rather suspect in this case the people of Ferguson could count on state and federal authorities to back them in their effort to proceed lawfully and politically.

The racial composition of the Ferguson city government is explained by reference to the tendency of Black residents not to vote, as though that were some sort of genetic or environmental condition about which nothing could be done.  But that is nonsense.  If all the people who are protesting committed themselves to removing the city government, I think their chances of success would be very great indeed.  Then, perhaps, they might secure indictments against the policeman who shot Michael Brown six times in the head and upper body while he was walking down the middle of the street, and perhaps indictments as well against the policeman's superiors, who are responsible for the conduct of officers under their command.

Monday, August 18, 2014

WAS MARX RIGHT?

Last Saturday, Chris asked what my thoughts are on Marx's law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and he then provided this link to a short article by Michael Roberts.  The next day, Dr. Andrew Blais echoed Chris's interest.  Herewith a response.

Chris and Andrew are really asking two questions, though they may not realize it.  I have an answer to the first one [which, I suspect, Chris will not like.]  About the second question, to which the linked article is relevant, I have no opinion at all, nor do I have the technical skills to form one.  If I may use contemporary terms of art from the field of Economics to express myself concisely, the first question belongs to Microeconomics and the second question belongs to Macroeconomics.

The classical political economists, of whom Marx was the last and the greatest, engaged in microeconomic reasoning.  They made certain assumptions about the goals, knowledge, and rationality of agents in a legally free market capitalist economy and then sought to deduce a variety of conclusions about how such an economy would function.  They all agreed that in such an economy, over time, competition and a series of rationally self-interested choices by producers and consumers would establish a consistent system of relative prices and a single economy-wide rate of return on invested capital, or profit rate.

What happens when a more profitable capital-intensive technique is introduced into one line of production by an innovative capitalist? First of all, his [let us suppose] profits rise, a fact noticed by his competitors. Since he can produce more cheaply, he can afford to undersell those competitors and still reap a super-profit. In response, the competitors over time shift to the new capital-intensive technique pioneered by the adventuresome innovator, and profits rise generally in this sector, relative to other sectors. Over more time, capitalists in other sectors switch their investments into the more profitable sector, resulting in increased output in the more profitable sector and a decline in output in the less profitable sectors.  The mismatch of supply and demand has the effect of adjusting prices, and hence profits, upward or downward until once again an economy-wide rate of profit emerges.

I keep writing "over time," by the way, because there is a certain amount of friction or stickiness in any economy, as a result of investments in fixed capital, and so forth.  All of the classical political economists understood that.

Well, what happens to the rate of profit.  Does it settle at a higher or lower level after the shift to a more capital-intensive technique?

Marx believed himself to have demonstrated that profit is the money form of the surplus labor extracted from the workers by the capitalists in the sphere of production.  From this conclusion, and other considerations, he deduced the further conclusion that as capitalists substitute more capital-intensive for more labor-intensive techniques of production as a way of securing, at least momentarily, an increased profit, the long-run and unintended effect of this series of choices of technique will be a tendency for the economy-wide rate of profit to fall.

Marx was in fact wrong in thinking he had demonstrated that profit is the money-form of surplus labor [as I demonstrated in my book, Understanding Marx and my article "A Critique and Reconstruction of Marx's Labor Theory of Value"].  What is more, his microeconomic claims concerning the tendency of the rate of profit to fall are false, as was demonstrated by a Japanese economist, Okishio, in [I believe] 1961, and independently by my old colleague at UMass, Samuel Bowles, roughly twenty years later.  The truth is that after things settle down, the introduction of the more capital-intensive technique will result in a rise in the global rate of profit

So the answer to the microeconomic version of Chris's question is, Marx was wrong.

But after a while, post-classical [or neo-classical, if you wish] economists started asking a series of quite different questions about the movement of certain aggregate economic quantities and the statistical laws, such as they may be, expressing the movement of those quantities --  aggregate capital, aggregate profits, gross domestic product, and all the other wonderments of modern economics.  They made no effort to deduce these magnitudes or their movements from assumptions about the knowledge conditions and rationality of individual agents.  Instead, they constructed formal models of the economy with dummy variables representing various aggregate quantities.  They then collected vast amounts of data which they organized in time series, and made projections on the basis of those time series of future probable trends.

The second question asked by Chris and echoed by Andrew is this:  From a macroeconomic perspective, on the basis if available data, is the global rate of profit falling?  Michael Roberts, in his very interesting short piece, reports calculations he has made that show the global rate of profit falling, then reversing and peaking, and then falling again.  Roberts quotes work by others, based on somewhat different methods of aggregation, showing a relatively steady decline in the global rate of profit extending over a century.

Let me repeat:  I have absolutely no competence to judge the soundness of Roberts' assertions, so I propose to accept them on face value.  At least until someone steps forward to disagree who does have some technical competence in these matters, let us agree that the global rate of profit is falling, and has been doing so for a good long time.

I hope it is obvious to everyone that this fact, which we are stipulating, constitutes no sort of confirmation at all of Marx's argument.  If that is not obvious, I suppose I shall have to write another post explaining why, but surely it is manifest.  To put the matter simply in terms of really old fashioned logic, the truth of the conclusion of a syllogism does not in any way demonstrate the truth of the premises.  Indeed, even the truth of the premises and of the conclusion does not demonstrate the validity of the syllogism.  [All Republicans are scoundrels.  Some red wines are overpriced.  Therefore all giraffes are tall.]

Sunday, August 17, 2014

LONG COMMENTARY


The great medievalist scholar Harry Austryn Wolfson, with whom I had the privilege of studying in the Spring of 1952 and again in the Spring of 1953, explained to us one day that in medieval manuscripts there were three sorts of commentary -- short, medium, and long.  The short commentary was no more than a footnote or gloss on a word or passage.  The medium commentary might fill a column alongside the text.  The long commentary would fill both columns and the top and bottom of the page, so that one would have to hunt to find the original text being commented on.  Today, I shall offer a very long commentary on a very little piece of text.  In fact. this entire post will be a commentary on one word.

The word in question is contained in an interview that Hillary Clinton recently gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.  That interview garnered a good deal of attention because in it Clinton clearly criticized Obama's management of America's Syrian policy from a right-wing hawkish perspective, thereupon generating a considerable blather among the chattering classes.  But I shall leave that subject to them.  My eye was caught by a single word.  Here is the relevant segment of the interview.  I wonder whether you will be able to guess which word brought me up short.

"JG: You go out of your way in Hard Choices to praise Robert Ford, who recently quit as U.S. ambassador to Syria, as an excellent diplomat. Ford quit in protest and has recently written strongly about what he sees as the inadequacies of Obama administration policy. Do you agree with Ford that we are at fault for not doing enough to build up a credible Syrian opposition when we could have?

HRC: I’m the one who convinced the administration to send an ambassador to Syria. You know, this is why I called the chapter on Syria “A Wicked Problem.” I can’t sit here today and say that if we had done what I recommended, and what Robert Ford recommended, that we’d be in a demonstrably different place.

JG: That’s the president’s argument, that we wouldn’t be in a different place.

HRC: Well, I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition, which would prove to be very difficult, because there was this constant struggle between what was largely an exile group outside of Syria trying to claim to be the political opposition, and the people on the ground, primarily those doing the fighting and dying, who rejected that, and we were never able to bridge that, despite a lot of efforts that Robert and others made."

The word that brought me up short is the sixteenth in the second Clinton quote:  "carefully."  If we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army etc etc.  This one word encapsulates everything that is wrong with the approach to foreign policy that has dominated the American government's foreign policy decisions, under Republican and Democratic Presidents alike, for several generations, and arguably has shaped the foreign policy decisions of the European Powers as well for the past century.

What are we to make of Clinton's statement?  We might construe her simply as saying that if we had carelessly vetted, trained, and equipped those folks, things would have gone badly, and I am sure that seems a quite reasonable observation.  After all, when lives and money are at stake, it is probably better to act carefully than carelessly.  But Clinton, by using the word "carefully," is implying a great deal more.

First of all, she is trying to demonstrate that she is a very serious person, someone who can be relied upon to act carefully.  But there is much more implied by the use of the word.  To say that we should act carefully expresses the idea that in Syria we were presented with a problem to which we sought a solution, a problem that, because it was complicated and fraught with great perils, required us to be very careful to find and then carry out the correct solution.

Everything that is wrong with the foreign policy of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and -- should she be elected -- Hillary Clinton is encapsulated in the unexamined supposition that in our foreign affairs we face problems that have solutions which, if we are just sufficiently careful, we can find and then implement.

Now, there have in fact been a number of situations in which America has faced a problem, the solution of which it has found and implemented.  The decision by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to commission the making of the first atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project posed just such a problem, the solution to which was devised over several years by some of the world's greatest physicists and engineers.  It was basically an engineering problem of enormous complexity and difficulty, requiring no new fundamental scientific discoveries but the solution of a great many subtle and tricky problems of applied science.  Exactly the same is true of John  F. Kennedy's decision to commission the creation of a rocket capable of landing men on the moon and bringing them back to earth.  This really was rocket science, as the saying goes, and it was carried out brilliantly by the NASA physicists and engineers, and by the men recruited to serve as astronauts.

The fundamental error, the besetting sin, of our entire foreign policy establishment is the tendency to view the management of America's relations with the rest of the world as a series of problems whose solutions can be found if we just proceed knowledgeably, intelligently, and carefully.

The wisest words I know on this subject were written by Michael Oakeshott, the brilliant, eccentric British conservative philosopher.  I know it puzzles and irks some of you when I refer kindly to Oakeshott, since politically speaking, he is not what some German Jews would refer to as unsere Leute, but I recognize brilliance when I see it, wherever on the political spectrum it lurks.  Had I the power to command you in the way that a Professor commands his students, I would require you all to read two selections by Oakeshott from his book Rationalism in Politics:  The title essay and an even more important, but rather less hilariously funny piece, "Rational Conduct."  But, alas, those who live by the tweet must die by the tweet, so I can only copy out laboriously two brief series of selections from these seminal essays and hope that the most serious among you will seek out Oakeshott's book.      

Here first a taste of Oakeshott's penetrating characterization of  "the Rationalist." 

"[T]he mind of the Rationalist ... impresses us as, at best, a finely-tempered neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind.  Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. ... With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. ... The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems. ... in this activity the character which the Rationalist  claims for himself is the character of the engineer, whose mind (it is supposed) is controlled throughout by  the appropriate technique and whose first step is to dismiss from his attention everything not directly related to his specific intentions. ... Thus, political life is resolved into a succession of crises, each to be surmounted by the application of 'reason.' "

And now, for a little light relief, a passage from "Rational Conduct" in which Oakeshott turns his attention to the rigors of designing clothing.

"[T]he expression 'rational dress' was applied, in particular times, to an extraordinary garment affected by girls on bicycles, and to be observed in the illustrations of Punch of the period.  Bloomers were asserted to be the 'rational dress' for girl cyclists. ... The 'rationality' sought by these Victorian designers was ... an eternal and universal quality;  something rescued from the world of mere opinion and set in a world of certainty.  They might make mistakes; and if they were not mistakes of mechanics or anatomy (which would be unlikely), they would be the mistakes of a mind not firmly enough insulated from preconception, a mind not yet free.  Indeed, they did make a mistake; impeded by prejudice, their minds paused at bloomers instead of running on to 'shorts' -- clearly so much more complete a solution to their problem."

And so on.  There is simply more worth quoting than even my clumsy fingers can manage.

The comic and yet deeply tragic apotheosis of this deeply confused form of rationality is nation building, the bizarre fantasy that America can step into a millennia-old religious, economic, social, political and historical maelstrom and by an act of will, intelligence, and expertise carefully impose its conception of order -- the notion that a committee of foreign policy "experts" who cannot even speak, read, or write the languages of the people in the region are well-suited to decide to how deploy America's enormous military and economic power for ends they have defined with barely the slightest idea of their significance for the people whose lives they are overturning.

All of this, I am afraid, flashed through my mind when I read Hillary Clinton's use of the word "carefully" in the interview with Jeffery Goldberg.

I will be honest.  There was a time when I thought Barack Obama knew some of what I have just written.  Perhaps he did.  Perhaps he still does.  But that knowledge does not manifest itself in the decisions he makes about foreign policy. 

Who knows?  Perhaps no one occupying that constitutional office could act on such knowledge.  He would not be impeached or assassinated.  It would be worse.  He simply would not be understood.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A MORNING ILL-SPENT


O.K.  I have plowed through the book on secular stagnation, and I have some snarky things to say.  I trust no one will make the mistake of supposing that this is the place to get an unbiased mainstream account of this collection of essays.  For that, I refer you to Krugman's blog.

First things first -- the title and subject of the book.  The term secular stagnation ["secular" of course meaning long-term, as opposed to cyclical -- not laïc as opposed to clerical!] was popularized by Alvin Hanson.  Here is Wikipedia's summary of his assertion:  "In the late 1930s, Hansen argued that "secular stagnation" had set in, so the American economy would never grow rapidly again because all the growth ingredients had played out, including technological innovation and population growth. The only solution, he argued, was constant, large-scale deficit spending by the federal government....  However, the sustained economic growth beginning in 1940 undercut Hansen's predictions and his stagnation model was forgotten." 

Well, the boom years are over, and a number of economists are worried that the world's developed economies have entered into a period of long-term slow growth and underutilization of labor and capital that cannot adequately be addressed by the sorts of monetary adjustments they had come to rely upon.  The thirteen essays in the e-book range over the entire world, with several devoted to the experiences of the European Economic Union and one focused on Japan's long-term stagnant economy.

Needless to say, I am not going to try to summarize what I just speed-read.  However, there are two observations I want to make about the mind set and unexamined presuppositions of the essays, because I think they apply more broadly to contemporary academic economists.  Before I do that, let me quote two passages from the book that struck me particularly.  The first is unspeakable [one thinks of Oscar Wilde's famous description of fox-hunting as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible"], and I confess it does not surprise me that it can be found in an essay written by a Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser.  Needless to say, he earned his doctorate at Chicago:

"[I]t is surely necessary to rethink the structure of the US’s social safety net and to ensure that it does less to discourage work. David Autor and Mark Duggan (2010) have made an interesting proposal suggesting that disabled people be allowed to work. The idea of combining social welfare programmes to eliminate overlapping anti-work incentives also seems sensible.

The Earned Income Tax Credit represents a reasonably successful intervention aimed at making work pay. More can be done in this area. Instead of raising the minimum wage, which risks deterring future job openings, the wage can be boosted by a federal subsidy. Social security taxes can be eliminated for workers at the low end of the earnings distribution. Structural reforms are surely necessary to ensure that the US makes work more attractive for the jobless."
 

Has he ever thought to ask whether getting rid of his tenure and that of other secure professors would get rid of the stickiness in the academic job market and encourage more out-of-work scholars to accept work at wages even lower than what they are now forced to accept?  Somehow, I doubt it.

The second passage is from an interesting essay by Richard Koo.  I quote it because I rather like the way his mind works.:

"The point is that it is almost impossible to maintain fiscal stimulus in a democracy during peacetime. It is difficult in a democracy because such policies cannot be implemented and maintained during peacetime unless millions of people are persuaded of the need for fiscal stimulus. In contrast, in an autocratic state, only one person – the dictator – needs to be persuaded in order to both administer and maintain fiscal stimulus.

Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt were both elected in 1933 when Germany and the US were in severe balance sheet recessions. The German unemployment rate reached 28% that year and US rate was not far behind at 25%. Although both started with fiscal stimulus, Roosevelt, worried about the criticisms from deficit hawks, reversed course in 1937, resulting in a serious double-dip recession and the unemployment rate increasing to nearly 20% again. Hitler, on the other hand, stayed the course and by 1938, German unemployment had fallen to 2%. [N]othing is worse than a dictator with a wrong agenda having the right economic policy, especially when the democracies around him are held hostage to the orthodoxy and remain unable to adopt correct policies."


Now to my two observations.  The first requires that I remind you of the famous Allegory of the Cave in Plato's Republic.  Socrates imagines people chained to the floor of a cave that is lit only by a fire behind a parapet in front of one wall.  People hidden behind the parapet walk back and forth between the fire and the wall holding various objects in their hands.  The fire throws grotesque shadows of the objects high on the face of the wall, which the chained observers, having no other experience, take to be reality.  One man struggles free of his chains and painfully makes his way through the tunnel that leads out of the cave.  There he finds himself in bright sunlight, and as his eyes adjust to the light, he sees for the first time the real things -- trees, tables and chairs, animals, flowers -- whose shadowy images he has been watching with his fellows in the cave.  When he re-enters the cave to tell his comrades what he has discovered, he is momentarily blinded by the change in light and stumbles, causing them to laugh at him as he desperately tries to tell them of the reality awaiting them in the open air.

That is Plato's metaphor for the relation between the Realm of Ideas and the sphere of appearances, but I have always thought of it as a perfect description of modern Macroeconomics.  All these really smart, hard-working, serious scholars are chained to the cave of capitalism, which they quite confidently believe is the only world there is.  They stare at their statistical time series, trying to outdo one another in guessing which images will flicker on the wall next.  Many are given life-time jobs at great universities for their efforts.  A few are so good at predicting the flow of images that they win Nobel Prizes for their efforts.  But when Karl Marx liberates himself from his chains, ventures into the sun, and comes back to tell them what he has seen, they laugh at his stumbles and missteps and dismiss him as an "autodidact."

My second observation is more in the nature of a book report.  In the entire 163 pages of the thirteen essays I read this morning by some of the world's most accomplished economists, there was not a single sentence -- not a single word -- to suggest that the root of secular stagnation is the capitalist organization of the economy.  Nor did any of these scholars even consider, in passing, the possibility that there might be some other non-capitalist way of organizing the deployment of the world's capital resources and labor talents so as to create equitably distributed, sustained economic growth.  Leave aside Edward Glaeser, who is belongs to the Greg Mankiw school of economic thought.  Paul Krugman is a liberal sort of guy, and even Lawrence Summers, execrable human being though he is, must be considered to the left of center of the existing American political spectrum. 

My God, my socialist grandfather, who never finished elementary school, knew more about the way the world works than these panjandrums!