The renting out of parts of that building is apparently their main source of income these days (landlords!), as the New York Post noted a couple years ago. The article mentioned one CPUSA official named Libero Della Piana, a Brown alum from my time who once played a game of Monopoly with an ex-girlfriend of mine, a prophetic ritual in retrospect.
Somewhat closer to me on the political spectrum, my self-described socialist friend Richard Ryan e-mailed a link to this New Republic rave for economist Amartya Sen’s new book, which ostensibly contains profound insights about why fundamental elements of economics ought to be questioned, such as the assumption that we should gauge the goodness of consequences by whether individuals’ preferences are being fulfilled. Weirdly, though, Sen does think that we should gauge people’s wellbeing by their capacity to enhance others’ preferences. Why the hypothetical second group of people’s preferences matter so much if the preferences of the first don’t is unclear — at least in the review, and I fear it wouldn’t be much better in the (much longer) book.
Sen is apparently building on Rawls’ intuition — hardly novel at this point and hardly something that takes hundreds of pages to explain — that helping the worst-off is the morally crucial thing, and should be seen as such even by developmental economists, requiring us to take the worst-off (even in distant places) into our democratic deliberations about how the rules of the world ought to be structured without clinging fast in advance to any particular set of intuited rules (such as purely libertarian or purely egalitarian ones). Sam Goldman responded to Richard Ryan by noting that several thinkers just at Harvard alone had already expanded on Rawls’ ideas in this way, such as Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, and Judith Shklar.
(Sam, who jokes that he is the token atheist blogger at First Things, is the young scholar who, when I first encountered him a decade ago, was a straightedge punk, so he may well crop up in the chapter-length “Conservatism for Punks” essay I’m writing over the two-week vacation I’m starting today, assuming the Communists don’t alter my whole philosophy tonight.)
I find myself a lot less interested as I age in whether yet another philosopher or economist has intuited that we ought to do something about the desperately poor — we know, we know! — and more interested in what specific policies would work to get the job done (and of course, I’m guessing: markets, though one word may not quite do the topic Justice) and, perhaps more intriguingly, which specific policies do the most unwitting damage (foreign aid? licensure? protectionism?).
Here’s a practical consequence, if Sen wants to be a consequentialist: India, long suffering under de facto democratic socialism, partially deregulates…and poverty rates there decrease more rapidly than ever before in history (while philosophers come up with ever more rationalizations for why fully free markets aren’t the source of good outcomes).
I’ll grant Sen this, though: his ex-girlfriend (my former Brown prof Martha Nussbaum) is still kind of hot, though equally wrong about some things, despite the influence of her reportedly libertarian daughter.
Speaking of academics and communists, by the way, I was seated behind members of NYU’s Young Communist League in the studio audience of Stossel last week, and it was another reminder that I don’t think the liberal/academic mainstream can be trusted to ward off socialism (much as some market fans might wish there were a viable, more respectable alternative to pushing libertarianism). The YCL kids were the only ones in the audience shouting out comments about Kenneth Arrow and other esteemed liberal-mainstream thinkers as support for their pro-Obamacare position (and the Communist party invitation also noted the passage of Obamacare as reason to celebrate, by the way). By academic standards, they might have been A+ polisci students for all I know — and the very last people in the audience by whom I’d want to be governed.
I didn’t ask if they’d be at the party tonight, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people who are smart but wrong, and the “wrong” is the important part, from a consequentialist perspective. Those near-starving millions matter more than a handful of academics, no matter how impressive their credentials.