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Thursday, April 24, 2014


Mike G. sent me the link to a YouTube video of the CUNY affair I blogged about.  Many thanks.

Here it is.


I just watched the video, online, of an event at the City University of New York at which Piketty spoke and then Stiglitz, Krugman, and several others commented.  I thought Krugman was the most coherent of the commentators, by the way.  As I watched, something struck me that I wanted to say a few words about.  [I managed to lose the URL.  Can anyone supply it in a comment?]

To put it as simply as I can, nobody was angry.  I mean, Piketty's data are simply appalling.  I observed at length on this obscure blog [as Bjorn calls it] that according to Piketty the bottom half of the population of all modern capitalist societies has no net wealth at all, and the concentration of increasingly inherited wealth at the very, very top is appalling and grows steadily worse.  Yet not a single voice at this session was raised in anger.  Indeed, not a single voice was raised in anything.  All was witty, amused, relaxed, casual.  The speakers were comfortable in their skins and were talking to an audience of people equally comfortable.  Everything in the format and atmospherics of the event communicated quite clearly that anger would be considered very much out of place.

That is just awful!  I have every reason to believe that Stiglitz and Krugman have their hearts in the right place when it comes to evaluations of the desirability of this sort of inequality, but both of these gentlemen, accomplished as they are, seem to have lost the capacity for simple outrage.

This is one of the things I don't like about what the academic world has become.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


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


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


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


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


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.