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Jonathan B. Wight
Richmond, Virginia
Professor of Economics, University of Richmond
Interests: adam smith, moral foundations of markets, teaching ethics in economics
Recent Activity
By Jonathan B. Wight In the age of individualism, is there nothing we owe to the state? Is every communal obligation a kind of theft? We are all familiar with the outrages of communist societies in which the state, far from withering away, grows into a cancer that destroys everything. There are certainly good sci-fi novels depicting libertarian and anarchic nirvanas. But here and now, do we need the state? If the answer is yes—say for national security reasons—then what are our obligations as citizens to ensure its survival? I am not a political philosopher so my answers are naïve.... Continue reading
Posted May 12, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Underlying and enforcing the concept of “rule of law” is a virtue ethic that leads people to do the right things for the right reasons. It is not enough to know what is ethical (as in utilitarian or Kantian ethics), it also takes courage and self-control to do it. In ethics and economics the personal characters of the actors are important, especially for those like James Comey who enforce the laws. Let’s acknowledge that Comey deserves credit for a public service that until recently was seemingly exemplary (professional and non-partisan). A person of his talents could... Continue reading
Posted May 10, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Hi John, You are correct on two counts: first, when I revisited that page the graph with both imports and exports on the same chart appeared at the top. Not sure why I missed that the first time I visited that page. Second, you are correct that one should always use these pages wisely! Many thanks. Jonathan
Toggle Commented May 7, 2017 on How to Lie with Charts at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight This interesting post about the international trade in used cars has a startling graphic: Startling because when I looked at it I thought, “We’re suddenly getting swamped by a flood of Mexican-made used cars! OMG, Donald Trump is right.” Then I looked closer and … yup. The axes are in different scales! While Mexican imports are rising, the U.S. still has a large trade surplus on used vehicles, about $360 m. This is a good example to use in class of how visual displays can mislead. In this case I suspect either that: a) the chart... Continue reading
Posted May 6, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight When should major public policy initiatives be carried out without any reference to costs compared to benefits? I would say—rarely. I can think of times, such as in declaring war after a surprise attack, when the immediacy of action is dire and the fortunes of war too obscure, to make a cost-benefit analysis meaningful. Even then, it is an ethical stretch to operate simply from raw emotion and not some cold logic. There are also Kantian moments when basic respect for an individual requires taking some action, regardless of the utilitarian considerations. By contrast, the Republican... Continue reading
Posted May 5, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight “Whenever you are in doubt [about public policy]… apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.” “My... Continue reading
Posted May 4, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Two items of interest: One complaint about fuel economy standards is that it forced automakers to build lighter cars. And lighter cars (all other things the same) are relatively less safe—or so we thought. Hence, anyone peddling a cleaner environment with CAFE standards was, in essence, killing people. But maybe that isn’t so! Maybe what also matters is the dispersion of auto weights (the share of lumbering SUVs versus tiny two seaters). Having a smaller dispersion of weights makes the roads safer. Antonio Bento, Kenneth Gillingham, and Kevin Roth in The Effect of Fuel Economy Standards... Continue reading
Posted Apr 30, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight My parents both worked for the federal government (State) over three decades, and both exemplified the duty and virtue ethics approach to safe-guarding peoples’ interests from the politicians. They were supremely patriotic and sacrificed a lot personally to advance U.S. interests. This includes using their own funds to host public events overseas when the official budgets had run out, it includes working virtually every weekend and many nights without additional pay, it includes all the upheavals required to raise four kids while moving countries every 3-5 years. This has affected my views of economics—for one, rejecting... Continue reading
Posted Apr 28, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The last post talked about toxic masculinity on Wall Street. Qasim Rashid raises the issue of toxic masculinity more broadly, with another insightful article in the WaPo. In it, he argues that in America we confound religious violence with straight old domestic male violence. He notes: “The desire to blame religion detracts from the true root cause of these repeated acts of violence: toxic masculinity. “Since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting…there have been about 1,100 mass shootings in the country; virtually every one committed by men. Of those, including the one Muhammad is accused... Continue reading
Posted Apr 27, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The now famous statue of the “Fearless Girl” confronting the Charging Bull on Wall Street is a wonderful juxtaposition of images. But what does it mean? The David vs. Goliath metaphor immediately comes to mind. The young girl shows spunk and courage against the testosterone of powerful male traders – symbolizing the huge risks and huge collapses that occurred by male dominated financial firms leading up to 2008. And there is the further implication that if more women had been on Wall Street, the bubble either would not have happened or would have been more muted.... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By John Morton The appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education has intensified passions on both sides of the school-choice debate. Lost in the politics of this debate is the idea that school reform ultimately depends on improving instruction. I have taught for 50 years. Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I think I’m teaching. My experience tells me that academic and social advancement comes down to a teacher and a student in a classroom. So what makes a great teacher? Twenty years ago, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future emphasized that... Continue reading
Posted Apr 20, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Cindy Edson, and her husband Mike, have spend 20+ years as volunteers in service in Uzbekistan. They’ve fought a hard battle to gain acceptance from the government and society for young people with disabilities. During these decades they came to learn more about themselves than anything else. One insight is that our own misconceptions about other people—particularly those with disabilities—cripples our ability to help them. This TED talk is a fascinating account of their adventures. Continue reading
Posted Apr 18, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight [Update: United Airlines has apparently agreed with the conclusion below, and has changed its policies so that once a passenger has taken their seat, they cannot be replaced by a United crew member needing a seat. That still leaves lots of wiggle room. United also says they will not use police unless a passenger is disruptive. All this to the good.] David Dao, the doctor dragged from a United Airlines flight this week suffered a concussion, a broken nose, two broken front teeth, and certainly a trauma that is worthy of PTSD. So, let’s play a... Continue reading
Posted Apr 16, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Robert Rubin was never my favorite Wall Street-White House insider, since he and others like him tore apart the financial regulations that eventually contributed to the severity of the 2008 crash. So, yes, I blame him for using his position as Treasury Secretary to push through excessive deregulation, damn the risks. But Rubin does make a good point in the Times yesterday about Fed independence, “Don’t Politicize the Fed.” A quick reminder—in recent decades Presidents treated the Fed with respect: President Reagan reappointed Volcker, first appointed by Democratic President Carter; President Clinton reappointed Greenspan, first appointed... Continue reading
Posted Apr 13, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) was a Javanese writer and activist, who grew up when his land was colonized as the Dutch East Indies. Pramoedya ended up in Dutch prison during the revolutionary years (1947-49) and later in Suharto dictatorship prison from 1965-79, and later still under house arrest until 1992. While imprisoned at the Buru Island penal colony, Pramoedya wrote the first book of what became a quartet, This Earth of Mankind. Actually, it wasn’t “written” because it was illegal for prisoners to have any reading or writing materials. The story was told orally, and only... Continue reading
Posted Apr 10, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Krugman today seems to capture a part of what is happening in the American zeitgeist: “Mr. Trump isn’t an honest man or a stand-up guy, but he is, arguably, less hypocritical about the darker motives underlying his worldview than conventional politicians are. “Hence the affinity for Mr. O’Reilly [revealed in additional sexual harassment lawsuits]…. “One way to think about Fox News in general, and Mr. O’Reilly in particular, is that they provide a safe space for people who want an affirmation that their uglier impulses are, in fact, justified and perfectly O.K. And one way to... Continue reading
Posted Apr 7, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The Huffington Post has a moving and important story on what it means to be gay. The legal ratification of gay marriage creates a new golden age for homosexual unions—or does it? The issue of gay mental health is complex. As the article points out, the drivers of depression and suicide can have deep roots in learned behaviors and sometimes in stressor hormones. My reaction to the story is of course shock at the bleak portrait painted about the life of unmarried gay men in their 30’s and 40’s; at the same time, something seems to... Continue reading
Posted Apr 6, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Do you remember the Fed’s Quantitative Easing purchases after the 2008 crisis? Turns out there was a leak about this that caused an uproar. Some insiders learned of the QE3 plans and were able to trade on that information ahead of the market. Now, they’ve found the leaker, it and it was none other than Jeff Lacker, the Richmond Fed president. Yikes!!! Dr. Lacker has often appeared on campus and is a friend to my university. His misdeed was implicitly verifying information that a reporter had obtained elsewhere, and then not reporting this slip immediately. This... Continue reading
Posted Apr 5, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Arnold has launched a crusade against gerrymandering. Watch and weep. [Thanks to Judith Staples for the link!] Continue reading
Posted Apr 1, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The raging bull in a china shop (sorry for the cheap pun) doesn’t stop to take account of the random destruction. But those of us who profess economics can and should reflect on the unintended consequences of our actions. Larry Summers did this recently in analyzing Trump’s desire to weaken Mexico’s link to the U.S. market by renegotiating NAFTA. Summers raises an important political point—the potential rise of a left-wing government in Mexico: “As illustrated by the more than $60 billion China has poured into Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, China would regard opportunities to ally with a... Continue reading
Posted Mar 26, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Anything that helps us laugh through what will be four long years is helpful. Thanks, Mort! I take (slight) issue with the comment on ideologues who kill innocents on bridges. Yes, that is appalling. At the same time, from thousands of feet in the air, our non-totalitarian government drops bombs that kill many times more innocents (perhaps hundreds times more). We can justify it by the end goal, by saying our society is better, more just, and so on, and we can justify it by saying we have a democracy and we care about human rights and we always apologize for such mistakes and try to set things right through compensation. But those claims and justifications seem to be getting much weaker recently and especially so when the current administration praises imperialism as a goal and torture as a method. Thanks again for your post! -- Jonathan
By John Morton It’s difficult to blog about the revolting international and national news these days. It’s easy to conclude that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. History may never repeat itself, but in the political world, politicians rarely change. I decided that what is most needed in any blog these days is a dash of whimsy. What follows is an analysis of current issues by mostly historic people. On the failure of Republicans to agree on how to repeal and replace Obamacare: “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” Otto von Bismarck... Continue reading
Posted Mar 24, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Trees are one of humanity’s saviors—producing oxygen, shade, habitat, raw materials, and beauty for the soul. They are great living things, and should enjoy basic protection from random violence. (Yes, that does mean limiting human property rights, in some cases.) Spring is nosing its way out of the warm winter. Let’s celebrate and cherish trees. [Photos: Sanibel, Florida; Potomac River, Widewater, Virginia.--JBW] Continue reading
Posted Mar 19, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight One fashion item that has caught my eye recently is the ripped knee jean. This has been around for some time, but it seems particularly overt these days. No self-respecting student can be without a pair. But why the ripped knees? This seems like a new twist on the old practice of buying pre-faded and pre-distressed clothing. In the olden days, poor people saved to buy up nice, clean, and pressed clothes that could be worn in public. Worn or ripped clothing would be a huge embarrassment. Jeans were reserved for heavy manual labor, and they... Continue reading
Posted Mar 18, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The latest Journal of Economic Perspectives (Winter 2017) has an important paper by Jonathan B. Berk, Campbell R. Harvey, and David Hirshleifer, “How to Write an Effective Referee Report and Improve the Scientific Review Process.” The authors explore some of the many failings in the review process, including ethical lapses. These fall into two categories: a) blatent conflicts of interest (like holding up the review of a competing paper while you rush your own paper into the pipeline!); and b) subtle and sometimes unconscious personal biases and failings. One such latter lapse is the introduction of... Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2017 at Economics and Ethics