Morehouse College


Two years ago I had the privilege of sharing my ideas about the state of our religious institutions with some of the heads of these institutions, among them the Reverend Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr., Dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Chapel at Morehouse College. Reverend Carter proved to be an invaluable contributor to our discussion. We spoke briefly after my talk.

Last Winter, Reverend Carter sent me a letter asking whether I would be willing to be inducted into the College of Ministers and Laity at the Chapel in a ceremony to be held that Spring. Of course, he sent it to my UC Berkeley address, an address used principally by creditors and solicitors. So I missed the invitation. When I learned of it — too late — I took the (for me) highly unusual step of sending my own letter (not email) apologizing for my delinquency. Not deterred the Reverend Carter sent a second missive this Winter, this time both through the US Post and electronically. I was elated.

Tomorrow I will travel to the haunts of Saint Martin Luther King, Jr. to be honored, along with others, in the Chapel that bears his name. Cynics — among whom I am more than occasionally numbered — will say that this is simply good politics; building relationships, collaborating among institutions. Perhaps there is even some anticipation that I might be a future — I am surely not, nor could be, a present — donor. Who knows what fortunes the future might bring? But I would like to believe that this honor really has to do intimately with brothers who discover in one another’s language and demeanor a spirit that is not their own, not their’s exclusively, a calling and a mission to share that grace we all have received, building that community we all earnestly desire.

Thank you Reverend Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr. And thank you Martin Luther King, Jr.


Where climate denial lives

I am always intrigued by the role — if any — that scholarship plays in how Americans evaluate their world. So when researchers at Yale published the results of their nationwide study of attitudes towards climate change, I was more than curious to read their report. (See the NYT piece.)

At a very high level, the results reflected what we might expect: there is a direct correlation between wealth, education, and trust in climate science. Wealthy coastal regions, east and west, were right up there at the top. The middle of the country, less so. The south even less.

The surprise (at least to me) is that most Americans everywhere — blue, red, purple — in fact, greater than fifty percent even in the deep south “support strict CO2 limits on existing coal-fired power plants.” Nationwide the numbers are even higher: sixty-nine percent. Wow! Even in solidly red voting districts! Go figure.

Does race make a difference? Unfortunately, the researchers did not test this hypothesis. And, yet, if we look, for example, at the Texas southwest border with Mexico, an economically depressed region where Hispanic Americans make up greater than fifty percent of the population, we encounter numbers seen elsewhere in the study only in African American and wealthy European American voting districts. Which could suggest — again — that race matters.

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It is also noteworthy that even in coastal communities that have been buffeted by extreme weather — along the coast between Corpus Christi and Houston — respondents were less inclined than their neighbors along the border to feel that global warming was already or within 10 years will be harming people in the US. Will it eventually harm people in the US? Most Texans say “Yes.” But again, notably, not most Texans who live in or around Dallas-Ft Worth or the wealthier districts just east of Houston.

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So, if greater than fifty percent of voters — everywhere — recognize that CO2 and coal-fired power plants are causing catastrophic climate change, this must mean that the Republicans are in for a rude awakening at the polls after they eliminate President Obama’s restrictions on carbon emissions, right? Well, no. And here’s why; Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, took that tack and he lost:

Bob Inglis . . . warned that committed activists — like the Tea Party — can shape politicians’ approaches to issues like climate change. “Those are the ones who can take you out at the next primary,” he said. He lost his primary in 2010 to Trey Gowdy, a Tea Party candidate who attacked his climate views.

Which is to say, poor (and poorly educated) European American voters join their plutocratic representatives on what they perceive to be economic issues: caps on CO2 are “job killers.” When the Koch brothers and Betsy DeVos carpet bomb poor European American voting districts with adverting dollars associating carbon controls with high un- and underemployment, poor European Americans listen and vote with what remains of their pocketbooks and wallets.

For me, this may be the strongest case anywhere for Democrat-leaning plutocrats to rethink their rhetoric (and, of course, their action) around income inequality and its effects not simply on voting patterns, but on the survival of human beings on planet Earth. Blame them if you like, but people who are underemployed and unable to take full advantage of the American dream are unlikely to hear any other message. Yes, the 45th President packed his administration with plutocrats from top to bottom. Yes, the fortunes of his European American supporters will not improve under his policies. Yet, since he at the very least mirrors (models?) their hatred and anger, they clearly trust him more than they trust well-graduated Ivy-leaguers who counsel calm and understanding from the safety of their Goldman Sachs portfolios. Hate trumps love; not the reverse.

Love would only trump hate under the condition that working families actually felt that it was improving their lot in life in tangible ways, now, not in ten years. What’s at stake? Only the world.

Worth the Gamble

Dateline March 16, 2017: Trump voters punish Trump for policies that harm them. Are you kidding? Really?

Let’s assume for a moment that pain comes with its own diagnosis and treatment. Well, yes, then in that case, Trump voters, punished by the flight of manufacturing abroad, will recognize that the fake President’s policies have left them even worse off than before his election.

Now let us assume that pain does not come with either its own diagnosis or its own treatment. Trump voters really do not know why or how things got so bad. Trump voters really do not know how to fix it. Which means that when their world takes a turn for the worse — when tax subsidies from blue states stop flowing to recipients in red states, when blue states adopt their own versions of Obamacare, leaving red states with Wealthcare (care for the wealthy), and when blue states fully fund education and training for all their citizens, while red states languish under the weight of poorly funded schools and minimum wage jobs — Trump voters are just as likely to believe that it is the Democrats who are still, though out of office at every level of federal government, giving them hardship. The fake President and his Congressional allies have tried to help ease their pain. But NAFTA, and the EU, and United Nations, and blue state Democrats, and Hillary and Barrack and Michelle are out to get them.

So, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to tune in to Fox News tonight. Listen carefully. Not one peep about the harm the fake President’s policies are inflicting on Trump supporters. ‘Nuff said.


The End of History 2.0

One does not have to be a defender of the Russian Revolution to find the silence in Russia at the centenary of its 1917 revolution deeply troubling. History was made four times in the twentieth century: first in 1914, then in 1917, then in 1932, and finally in 1989. In 1914, Europeans went to war and killed one another in large numbers. In 1917 (and, by extension, 1918) Europeans punished themselves and future generations to spite their lack of courage. In 1932 the bill came due and they murdered one another in even larger numbers. Finally, in 1989, the embraced mass amnesia in what Francis Fukuyama has rightly termed the “end of history.”

Of course, by “end of history” Mr Fukuyama meant the end of fundamental contradiction in history, which he traced to the unfulfilled desire for freedom by the oppressed. With the victory of capitalism on the one hand and democracy on the other, this unfulfilled longing was cast into the dustbin of history.

We mean something else. In 1989, human beings forgot what they knew in 1945, which was that the years 1914, 1917, and 1932 made history because human beings had not taken the time to learn history’s lessons. History, it has been said, is a cruel teacher. It does not grade on a curve. No one gets an easy pass. Forgetting history does not make it disappear.

So, what might Russians learn from 1917? Five lessons come to mind:

  1. When oligarchic elites are permitted to govern a political community, they will incur the wrath of those harmed by their open disregard for their welfare;
  2. When those harmed rebel against oligarchic elites, they will not do so in the interests of freedom or justice;
  3. It is likely that those who seize power on the other side of revolutions — 1917 or 1989 — will perpetuate the conditions that led to those revolutions in the first place;
  4. The only antidote to oligarchic rule is to distribute the conditions the make for freedom — health, education, wealth, leisure, and security — as broadly as possible;
  5. Forgetting 1-4 will have catastrophic effects.

Russians are not alone in their collective amnesia. God help us all.

Karl Marx and Labor Economics

At 1 today, in Room 60, Evans Hall, we will continue our special lecture series on Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination: a reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993). In this close reading of Marx’s critical theory, Postone explores Marx’s mature theory against the backdrop of the growing irrelevance of traditional Marxian theory, on the one hand, and the potential of genuine emancipatory formations, on the other. Today’s presentation and lecture look closely at the work of Friedrich Pollock and Max Horkheimer, both of whom were founding members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research. Mr Postone was my dissertation advisor at the University of Chicago.

The special lecture series is nested in a course, Labor Economics (ECON 151), that explores the standard models economists use to gain a better understanding of the contours of labor markets in developed economies, specially in the U.S. For this purpose, we are using Ehrenberg and Smith’s Modern Labor Economics.

Ehrenberg and Smith’s text is very helpful for students who wish to gain a solid grasp of the field. Foot- and endnotes offer students opportunities for further reading. And the text itself is littered with helpful illustrations from history and current literature. And, yet, insofar as they methodologically restrict themselves to social formations mediated by  labor in the abstract, Ehrenberg and Smith do not explore those possibilities immanent in the capitalist social formation that point beyond societies mediated by such labor, by, for example, tradition, climate, religion, etc.

Postone’s text is helpful here because it uses Karl Marx’s critique of labor to show how abstract labor and the value arising out of labor is proving increasingly anachronistic. This, of course, was already the case in the late 1850s and 1860s when Marx developed his mature social theory. It is even more so today. Innovation has generated huge efficiencies, efficiencies that might, under other circumstances, be distributed socially to reclaim pockets of time and interest that, under capitalism, are simply plowed back into the endless, sisyphean production of ever more efficiencies while passing the benefits on to a very limited number of individuals. This is not to say that all do not benefit in one way or another from these efficiencies, but that, on different grounds, critical reflection on these efficiencies and their social distribution may help economists to imagine alternative futures where abstract labor no longer mediates social relations.

As Postone notes, this distinguishes Marx’s mature social theory from traditional Marxism, which, not unlike standard contemporary economic theory, tends to assume that labor is necessarily a central factor in any system of production. For Marx, by contrast, capitalism creates the possibility — but no more than the possibility — for “labor” in the specifically capitalist sense to be aufhebungen, to be superseded by other forms of social mediation. Another dimension that distinguishes Marx’s mature social theory both from traditional Marxism and from standard contemporary economic theory is that whereas these presuppose a comprehensive, integrated social formation where all social action is mediated by abstract labor, Marx invites us to imagine a social formation whose mediations are much more dispersed and partial, not total, not comprehensive, not universal. This supersession of the comprehensive, integrated totality created by capitalism (and by labor under capitalism) also offers us to reflect critically on the variety of mediations — art, religion, family, nature, music — that might mediate social relations in addition to work and necessity.

This perspective could be central to any consideration of labor economics; and yet it is not. Our challenge is to show why reintroducing this perspective into the curriculum may help us to think through in a far more rigorous way many of the most challenging problems presented by labor to economic theory in the twenty-first century.