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Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Even though I know it irritates the left flank of my readership, I continue to be fascinated by Paul Krugman.   His blog entry today, one of many he has written about those he calls "austerians" [a play on the "Austrian School" of economic theory], captures perfectly what it is about him that interests me.  This is going to take a little while, and even though it is the day after Labor Day, when, at least in the old days, school started, perhaps you will follow along with me.

Briefly, some background.  For years now, both in the United States and even more ferociously in Europe, the conventional wisdom among Those In the Know has been that the world's capitalist economy, reeling from the crash of 2008-9, needs austerity, in the form of budget cuts and reductions in social welfare spending to ward off the terrors of runaway inflation, and tax cuts for the wealthy to inspire them with the confidence that will encourage them to get off their piles of cash and start investing in growth-producing capital expenditures.  Krugman has for some years been one of the leading voices decrying this conventional wisdom, insisting that we need deficit spending and economic stimulus to correct a dramatic shortfall in demand [in short, old-fashioned Keynesianism.]  Again and again, Krugman has pointed out that inflation has remained stubbornly low, and that it is a deflationary spiral à la japonaise that is our real threat. 

Today, he came back once again to the question that has bugged him for years:  Why do apparently successful and highly motivated money managers and investors, who keep track more closely than anyone else of exactly what they are gaining and losing day by day, keep endorsing economic theories and policy proposals that are directly contrary to their economic interest?  As he likes to say, and said again today, "if you acted on what they were saying on CNBC or the WSJ editorial page, you would have lost a lot of money."

He tries out a range of possible explanations [this blog post, he tells us, is in a manner of speaking notes to himself.]  One possibility is that all of these wise men were traumatized by the high inflation of the seventies and have never gotten over it, but Krugman finds that implausible.  A second is that the 0.01% among the Austerians are essentially rentiers who prefer super-low inflation, as all creditors do.  [If that is not immediately obvious to you, the point is that if you are a debtor and owe money, on a mortgage say, inflation reduces the real value of the dollars you are required to pay back to your lender.  If you are a lender, au contraire, you want the dollars you receive from your debtors to be worth as much as possible.  This is the underlying theme of The Wizard of Oz, of course.]  But Krugman finds this explanation also implausible.  As he says in his blog post today, "One thought I’ve had and written about is that the one percent (or actually the 0.01 percent) like hard money because they’re rentiers. But you can argue that this is foolish — that they have much more to gain from asset appreciation than they have to lose from the small chance of runaway inflation."

Then he turns to a deeper and more serious explanation.  Perhaps what the Austerians really want is the destruction of social welfare programs  -- the gutting of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the reduction or termination of unemployment insurance, the guaranteed minimum wage, and disability insurance.  They view economic crises as useful excuses for advancing this anti-Working Class [or as we have learned to say these days, anti-Middle Class] agenda.  Rather long-sightedly, they are willing to take a little less profit in the short run in exchange for permanently destroying the Welfare State.  This is an idea Krugman and others have considered on occasion, and his discussion makes it clear that he takes it seriously.

At least in this blog post, Krugman does not ask why the "Austerians" should be so eager to destroy the welfare structure that, arguably, has benefited them over the decades by maintaining enough consumer demand to permit them to continue to make large profits.  But in fact this is a question that received a very interesting treatment, many years ago, by a left-wing economist named James O'Connor.  In The Fiscal Crisis of the State [1973], O'Connor argued that what we conventionally refer to as social welfare expenditures actually consist of two quite different components.  One part of those expenditures -- for example support for public education -- is a socialization of expenditures required to create and sustain the labor force.  If modern industrial jobs require literacy skills and a certain level of technical knowledge, then either the employers are going to have to pay to prepare their workforce to engage in profitable labor or else they can foist this expense on the state, which pays the bill with taxes on the workers as well as on the employers.  The net effect of this is to transfer some of the costs of labor away from the capitalists, and thus has the effect of increasing their profit rate.

But a significant portion of social welfare expenditures, O'Connor suggests, really has a quire different function.  It is a sort of modern Bread and Circuses to buy the Working Class off so that it will not rise up in revolution.  And this, O'Connor argues, poses a problem, because the price of keeping the peace is growing too rapidly and cutting too deeply into profits.  This, he says, is the fiscal crisis of the state.

Looking back on that argument forty years later, we can see that Capital has in fact been quite successful in beating down the demands of Labor and weakening Labor's ability to secure even the share of the social product to which it had become accustomed.  Labor Unions have been gutted, real wages have been stagnant for decades, and Capital has even been willing to take lower profits on occasion to make sure that Labor is held down.  Krugman does not mention this argument, of course, and he may be quite unaware of it, although I would not bet on that.  He is a smart cookie.

At the end of his blog post, after canvassing various explanations for the fact that the Austerians cling to their claims despite all the contrary evidence, Krugman concludes, " The thing is, it sure looks like a form of false consciousness on the part of elite. But I’m still trying to figure it out."

I gasped when I read that.  How much closer can Krugman come to Marx's position without so much as considering the possibility that there is something structurally wrong with Capitalism itself?  The reason why he interests me so much is precisely because he is smart, well-read, curious, knowledgeable, and has his heart [if not his head] more or less in the right place.  And yet, if I or someone else were actually to confront him and ask, "Why don't you at least consider the possibility that Karl Marx might have something useful to say to you?" he would laugh and dismiss the idea out of hand.

It is really interesting.  This is like Obamacare.  When Americans are asked how they feel about Obamacare, they say they hate it.  When they are asked how they feel about the Affordable Care Act, they say they love it.  Maybe we just need another name for "Karl Marx" -- an alias.    

Any suggestions?

Monday, September 1, 2014


Naive as I am about all things technological, I was oblivious of the ubiquity of this phenomenon of audio and video recorded lecturing, so the rash of interesting comments triggered by the idea of my recording my Marx lectures caught me by surprise.  I think I had encountered the acronym MOOC, but had certainly not remembered it.

Chris, I accept happily Noam's revision of the old Quaker injunction to "speak truth to power."  [I refer to him thus because I actually knew Chomsky back in the day and counted him a friend.  Indeed, as the saying goes, I knew him before he was Noam Chomsky.]   I have been trying to speak truth about power most of my life.  Indeed, what else is In Defense of Anarchism?   But it is also a useful exercise to speak truth to power, even if you think that power already knows that truth.  The seductiveness of wealth and entrenched power, especially when it masks its real nature and goes unchallenged, should never be underestimated.

Let me illustrate with one little personal story from my early days.  During the time that I was a student at Harvard and then an Instructor, McGeorge Bundy was Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which was then [and perhaps is still] the most powerful academic administrative position at Harvard.  Bundy's later performance as National Security Advisor demonstrates, if indeed demonstration is needed, that he had an extremely refined and well-tuned sense of raw power.  As I have several times related, I replaced for a year my Philosophy Department mentor, Morton White, on a committee planning a new undergraduate interdisciplinary major to be called Social Studies.  During that year, Bundy pushed approval of the new major through the Harvard faculty.  Like all majors at Harvard, Social Studies would need a Head Tutor, which meant some junior flunky to do the administrative scut work that senior members of the faculty shun.  Instead of calling me into his office and asking me whether I might want the position [which I certainly did], Bundy showed up at the Winthrop House Senior Common Room one day for lunch, and when I walked in late from a class, he looked up and said, "Ah, here is the new Head Tutor of Social Studies,"  the very first I had heard of it. This was, on his part, a typical display of power, albeit about something very trivial.  The idea was at one and the same time to fluster me with my pleasure at the announcement, to present himself as a casual and genial man, and to show by this act that he and he alone controlled the plum, which he could bestow on anyone he chose.  I regret to say that I did not have the self-awareness, at twenty-six, to understand what was happening, nor the moxie to give him the finger, verbally.  [I did several years later, but that is another story.]

Tony, your cautionary remarks about sounds one might not want the microphone to pick up is giving me pause.  Perhaps I should get hold of a device like the one you are talking about and try it out before I commit myself to what may turn out to be a never-ending embarrassment. 


My big sister, Barbara, whom I have many times mentioned on this blog, was not only an extraordinarily smart little girl, she was also crafty [as is my granddaughter, Athena.]  Like all children, Barbara loved cake, and she devised a rather clever strategem to get more than the piece allotted to her at the dinner table.  She pretended to be obsessed with the necessity of making her cake and her milk come out even -- eating the last bite and drinking the last sip together.  But despite her best efforts, one often ran out before the other, so she would have to get some more milk with which to finish the cake or more cake with which to finish the milk.  Several iterations later, she would triumphantly finish both together and announce herself satisfied.  As her little brother, I could only watch in admiration and envy.  It never occurred to me to lay claim to the same obsession.  I had plenty of my own, of course, though none that produced extra pieces of cake.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Let me try once more to make myself clear.  I think Michael Sandel is a bright, lively, interesting person and, I suspect, a terrific lecturer.  In the context of the Harvard community, he is one of the good guys.  What I was trying to explain, with my references to McLuhan and [facetiously] to Woody Allen, is that even someone like that can be defeated by the form of his presentation, so that what would in another setting be effective teaching becomes a form of performance, of entertainment, and hence undercuts whatever he is trying to accomplish as a teacher.  I did not think I needed to spell that out so flat-footedly.  I thought I could communicate it wittily, by indirection.  But it would appear that I was wrong.

It would not surprise me to learn that Jonathan Swift had a similar problem.  [Sigh.  There I go again.]


I have now received, read, and uploaded to Part Two of William Polk's important historical essay on Israel and the Palestinians.  I urge all of you most strongly to take the time to read it.  I myself had not realized until now how central a role Bill himself played in the unfolding of those events.

The essay can be found under the title "Polk Part Two."


Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my practice of taking a daily early morning walk, during which, in the pre-dawn quiet, I meditate on this and that, often writing a blog post in my head before later transcribing it here.  This morning, I found myself reflecting on my exchange with Professor Tony Couture on the possibility of podcasting my Marx lectures next semester.  Tony [if I may be so informal] included a link to an on-line course on Justice taught at Harvard by the well-known political philosopher Michael Sandel.  The course is astonishingly successful, enrolling more than one thousand students each time it is taught.  Sandel, who is a Professor in Harvard's Government Department, first came to prominence with a book criticizing the methodologically individualist presuppositions of Rawls' A Theory of Justice.  In his comment, Tony noted the rather lavish production values of the video of the Sandel lectures.  I decided to take a look, and picked the lecture on Kant's ethical theory, for which the students are apparently asked to read the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  I made it through two and a half minutes of the lecture, which, by the way, was held in Sanders Theater, and then clicked off, deeply offended.

On my walk, I began to think about what had bothered me so much.  Lord knows, it wasn't the subject matter.  Getting a thousand Harvard undergraduates to read the Groundwork has got to be a good thing, right?  Sandel's opening remarks were a little inaccurate, but not more than what one would expect at that level.  [The First Critique was not the first thing Kant published, but only Kant scholars like me would quibble.]  Was I merely envious of this good-looking man in the really good-looking suit who was so obviously adored by more than a thousand good-looking, bright, and probably rich young men and women? 

I found myself thinking of Marshal McLuhan's old mantra that the medium is the message.  McLuhan's claim, which echoes Aristotle's insistence on the primacy of form over matter, is that the form in which ideas are presented inevitably and unavoidably shapes the content of those ideas, regardless of the intentions of their author.  I recalled the two and a half minutes I had watched of the video.  When Sandel made a humorous remark about the years Kant spent as an unsalaried privatdozent, paid according to the numbers of students he enrolled, the camera cut to the audience and focused on an attractive young woman who laughed and began to applaud. 

And then it hit me.  Sandel was doing stand-up.  His subject might be justice.  The topic of the day might be Immanuel Kant.  But he was doing a stand-up comedy routine that he might as easily offer in a Cambridge coffee house.  The form of his presentation had taken control of the content.  The medium is the message.  And the message is:  This is fun, this is entertainment, albeit the sort of refined entertainment that one has every right to expect at a classy and expensive place like Harvard.

And then, my mind being what it is, I recalled the Whore of Mensa.  There may be some of you, especially among my younger readers, who are unfamiliar with the Whore of Mensa.  Even though I am fond of quoting the King James version of the Bible, this is not, as you might imagine, an invocation of Revelations.  The Whore of Mensa is a short story by Woody Allen, published just forty  years ago in The New Yorker.  It tells the sad tale of a man, hiding behind the pseudonym "Flossie," who has started a Call Girl service.  He hires young women from elite women's colleges who, for a fee, will meet you in a motel and talk to you for an hour about Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kant.

It would be cruel, I think, to describe Michael Sandel as a Whore of Mensa, but if the bustier fits.


Everyone around the world, quite rightly, has commented on the demented insanity of taking a nine year old girl out to a shooting range for a little fun time with an Uzi.  I should simply like to add a thought that has not, to my knowledge, yet received much attention.  That poor child will have to live for the rest of her life with the knowledge that she killed someone, regardless of how often she is told, correctly, that it is not her fault. 

I will confess, somewhat ashamedly, that I am not able to feel truly sorry for the shooting instructor whose recklessness cost him his own life.   I know nothing at all about him, save that he put a loaded submachine gun in fully automatic mode in the hands of a child.  It is no good blaming capitalism, or whatever.  There is not another "advanced" industrial nation in the world that would allow such a thing.  There is something uniquely sick about America, among all the other imperial capitalist states.  It is entirely of a piece with the fact that we incarcerate a vastly larger proportion of our population -- of course disproportionally of color -- than any other capitalist country.  And it cannot possibly be irrelevant that a higher proportion of Americans attend religious services regularly.