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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 The New York Times reports that Adam Smith’s ideas will soon be on the stage: ‘THE LOW ROAD’ at the Public Theater (previews start on Feb. 13; opens on March 7). A freewheeling approach to free market theory, this 50-character picaresque from Bruce Norris (“Clybourne Park”) is set in the late 18th century and inspired by the theories of Adam Smith. Good thing a drama about unrestrained markets and morally dubious economic modes won’t resonate today. Michael Greif directs. Hmmm…. Could be interesting, except this clipping has to throw in the “morally dubious economic modes” snippet.... Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight “I don’t trust mobs of any kind, even when they’re advocating for things I support. People losing their careers based on innuendo or accusation is troubling for me. There is a process for this: a legal system. Convicting someone on an accusation is really dangerous territory to be living in.” --Actor Tim Robbins (here) [Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tim_Robbins_(8235175646).jpg] Continue reading
Posted Feb 3, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight According to a new study in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, incentivizing students and teachers with monetary incentives for learning produced …. (drumroll….) increases in cheating! Not only did students cheat more, they may have learned to cheat as a result of the monetary incentive. In virtue ethics, by contrast, people become motivated to do the right thing for the right reasons. Building a solid and genuine relationship between the teacher and student may be necessary for this approach to work. Continue reading
Posted Feb 2, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
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"In business you ask what price, not what religion. And Protestant trousers keep you just as warm." --Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, Translated by Eric Bentley (NY: Grove Press, [1941] 1955, pp. 52-53). Ostensibly set during the Thirty Years' War between Catholics and Protestants (1618–1648), Mother Courage is the tale of a wandering saleswoman who follows armies across devastated battlefields, supplying soldiers and generals with alcohol and other comforts. War creates the opportunity for profit, and peace the devastation of falling prices. Ironies abound, of course, and the play is a reflection of the devastation of World War... Continue reading
Posted Feb 1, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
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By John Morton Over one million high school students enroll in an economics course each year, usually in their senior year. That’s an impressive number. While these courses vary greatly, three formats dominate. About 150,000 students take Advanced Placement Economics. This program consists of a one-semester microeconomics course and a one-semester macroeconomics course. Because students can earn college credit if they pass a standardized test at a certain level, AP Economics is similar to the college introductory economics course. Most students take a one-semester course, which is a watered-down college introductory course with personal finance added on. The third type... Continue reading
Posted Jan 27, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight “Driving means making a thousand small moral decisions: whether to tailgate to push the slowpoke faster, or to give space; whether to honk only as a warning or constantly as your all-purpose show of contempt for humanity.” “Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are we in a place where there is a system of self-restraint, or are we in a place where it’s dog eat dog?” -- David Brooks To read the whole thing, go here. [Image: Piero Sierra, https://www.flickr.com/photos/piero/103691782] Continue reading
Posted Jan 5, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Economists tend to think that people are rational, and that after voluntarily choosing a goal people are therefore capable of exerting the will-power necessary to achieve that goal. We all know this often isn’t so, and behavioral economics has come up with some useful heuristics to improve outcomes and to improve self-control. But economists still tend to be wedded to the idea of developing self-control using rational arguments and incentives: tell subjects that if they are willing to wait 15 minutes they can get two candies rather than one immediately. In theory, incentives lead people to... Continue reading
Posted Jan 2, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
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By John Morton It’s New Year’s Day 2018, and I bet a lot of people are concerned about the new year and the future beyond 2018. President Trump keeps Tweeting. Nancy Pelosi says this recent tax cut is “a Frankenstein monster” and compared it to “Armageddon.” In the United States, life expectancy has gone down two years in a row because of opioid addiction. I have the worst cold in my rather long life. Is the world going to hell in a hand basket? Cheer up and browse the late Hans Rosling’s gapminder.org website. One of the great unwritten stories... Continue reading
Posted Jan 1, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight In “Misconceptions About Nudges.” Cass Sunstein seeks to redeem nudges from the lambast emanating from Kantians and others. I’ll leave it to Mark White to rebut (if he chooses). Abstract Some people believe that nudges are an insult to human agency; that nudges are based on excessive trust in government; that nudges are covert; that nudges are manipulative; that nudges exploit behavioral biases; that nudges depend on a belief that human beings are irrational; and that nudges work only at the margins and cannot accomplish much. These are misconceptions. Nudges always respect, and often promote, human... Continue reading
Posted Dec 28, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Arthur J. Robson has in interesting review of David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others (Yale 2015) in the latest Journal of Economic Literature. The bottom line is that it is likely that genes and human culture co-evolve. For example, the technology of herding animals may give rise to favoring the survival of those who are lactose tolerant. This has profound implications for society, particularly if some genes can survive that lead humans to sacrifice for the interests of others., according to group selection theory. Darwin certainly thought that in... Continue reading
Posted Dec 9, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The title of this piece is tongue-in-cheek. Mort’s post on “Why I Fear Government” is completely understandable. He’s wise and mature. He’s experienced how the most benevolent plans of government leaders often produce horrible unintended consequences., and many government leaders are not paragons of virtue to start with. Point well made. However; I don’t believe our only choice is between a) laissez faire free market capitalism and b) Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Aren’t there any options in the middle? But as Mort noted, young people, who have their whole lives ahead of them, are increasingly saying... Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By John Morton Several years ago, economists from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University and I conducted a study to see if more knowledge of economics influenced high school students’ views about markets and government. We administered the Test of Economic Literacy accompanied by a survey assessing attitudes on government and market solutions to problems. We found some positive correlations between economic knowledge and pro-market approaches, but the big finding was that the more important an issue was, the more the students wanted to rely on government solutions. We also found that the wealthier a ZIP code, the... Continue reading
Posted Dec 5, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
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Jonathan B. Wight Given last night’s Hail Mary pass of the turkey tax reform that passed the Senate, I would have hoped that at least two Republican senators of conscience would have made a speech along these lines: “There is no immediate economic crisis that forces hasty action in the dead of night. With the economy growing last quarter over 3%, with the Dow up more than 25% this year, with unemployment hovering near full employment, and with corporate profits near record highs, there is no urgency for a major fiscal stimulus that would pump another trillion dollars into the... Continue reading
Posted Dec 2, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
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By James Brusseau The Wealth Inequality Workshop is a half-hour documentary exploring the philosophy and ethics of wealth distribution. The question is: How do we begin thinking about wealth inequality? What values initiate the discussion, and how can they be understood? After reviewing the Rawls/Nozick debate which casts wealth inequality as a tension between equality and freedom, some more speculative and disquieting questions are considered. What is need? Is it possible to feel desire because we have too much instead of too little? While no perfect answers emerge, the documentary does provide a sense of the full range of approaches... Continue reading
Posted Dec 1, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
The left control the media? Hmmm... Let's forget Rupert Murdoch and his control over 21Century Fox, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal? And the conservative Sinclair Group which is the largest control over tv stations in the nation? Ignoring that, can't we argue that consumers (not the corporate owners) dictate whether there is violence on tv or not? Isn't that the way competition is supposed to work? A liberal would, in theory, be willing to allow government restrictions on violence and gratuitous sex on the airwaves--as we used to have in the past. But it is not hypocritical of someone to advocate for such a change but only if everyone has to play by the same rules. :)
Toggle Commented Nov 27, 2017 on Guns at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Leaving the EU is much harder, and more costly, than Brexit proponents allowed. Take, for instance, the issue of Northern Ireland, which trades freely with Ireland. But when the UK leaves the EU, Northern Ireland will be forced to close borders with Ireland. That will be hugely painful politically and economically. See: Will Ireland Sink Brexit? Continue reading
Posted Nov 27, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight David Hume in a letter to Adam Smith, bemoaning political life: “Superstition and Ignorance gain Ground daily.” -- September 1765 Which leads to Hume’s growing apathy: “Why shoud I forgo Idleness and Sauntering and Society; and expose myself again to the Clamours of a stupid, factious Public? I am not yet tir’d of doing nothing; and am become too wise either to mind Censure or Applause.” -- January 1766 This is the danger of our day—that the scandal after scandal, and the crass political maneuverings over taxes, the environment, general governance, and the lack of common... Continue reading
Posted Nov 22, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Nicholas Kristof has an enlightening article in the New York Times, arguing that so-called conservatives in red states actually have more extra-marital sex, teenage pregnancies, divorces, and prostitution than do blue state liberals. Strident calls for religious orthodoxy don’t stop people from being human and corruptible. This includes Bible-thumping elders who pick on teenage girls. Perhaps the lesson is that it is better to plan for that corruptibility through sex education, birth control, women’s reproductive rights, and laws preventing underage marriage, rather than sticking our heads-in-the-sand. Continue reading
Posted Nov 19, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Two articles came out recently that demonstrate the power of using economic logic to cut through the confusion involving wages. First, Alex Tabarrok reports on evidence that attacks the view that raising Uber drivers’ pay will increase Uber drivers’ incomes. Instead, researchers at Uber and NYU show how a nominal increase in wages may lead to more waste of time and fuel and a constant real income. Lovely bit of analysis, although sad for struggling drivers. See: “The Uber Tipping Equilibrium” The second article is in today’s New York Times, explaining why a single national minimum... Continue reading
Posted Nov 18, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Uwe Reinhardt passed away this week. He was a noted ethics and economics kind of economist, not shying from addressing important issues even if they did stray into philosophical debates. He was at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, and wrote extensively about health care. He also was an astute writer on the ethics of economic efficiency. See: “Can Efficiency in Health Care Be Left to the Market?” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 26.5 (2001): pp. 967–992. The New York Times obituary notes that: In 2015, the Republic of China awarded Professor Reinhardt its... Continue reading
Posted Nov 17, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Ricardo Hausmann has a book review entitled “The Moral Identity of Homo Economicus,” that takes a look at Akerloff and Kranston’s Identity Economics and Bowles’ The Moral Economy. These books presage what Hausmann calls a “new revolution” in economics: “The new revolution in economics may find a place for strategies based on affecting ideals and identities, not just taxes and subsidies. In the process, we may understand that we vote because that is what citizens ought to do, and we excel at our jobs because we strive for respect and self-realization, not just a raise.” All... Continue reading
Posted Nov 12, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight A virtue ethicist knows that no one is perfect, and that the vicissitudes of life teach us lessons. She also knows that we have exemplars who guide us along the way. One such exemplar for me was Franklin “Lee” Ennis, who passed away a week ago at age 81. I’ll never forget the moment I met Lee in spring of 1970. I got home from school to see a tall ladder up against the side of our house. A handsome man was at the peak of our eaves painting. “Hey, boy,” he called down. That was... Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight To those who say… “Nothing can be done about guns….” read Nicholas Kristof’s piece “How to Reduce Gun Violence” in yesterday’s NYTimes. Kristof’s analysis is data driven. It is not true, at least on the surface, that more guns make you safer—regardless of the anecdotal evidence from Sunday’s mass shooting in Texas. States with more guns have … more gun violence. Of course, causality is hard to pin down. But the vast majority of gun violence is not a mass shooter situation, it is one-on-one, crimes of passion or the tragedy of suicide. Kristof’s key point... Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The New York Times reports that “Many Academics are Eager to Publish in Worthless Journals.” Given the pressure on teachers everywhere to publish… publish… publish, it is inevitable that the marketplace would respond to that demand. The result are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pseudo-academic outlets for presenting papers and then having them published in official sounding journals. The reputable Journal of Economics and Finance now has its dark shadow, the Journal of Finance and Economics. Sounds good on paper, doesn’t it? For a fee of a few hundred dollars, one can build a nice resume that... Continue reading
Posted Nov 1, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Mort’s guide to the economic way of thinking is very helpful. Thanks! I have one friendly amendment. Item #5 is “Economic thinking is thinking on the margin.” This is often the case, but does not need to be the case. Sometimes thinking at the margin will conflict with ethical norms it item #2. Here are three examples: Suppose my partner is away, and I realize I can steal from him, and that the expected marginal benefit to me exceeds the expected marginal cost to me (based on probability of detection and the penalty for conviction). Should... Continue reading
Posted Oct 29, 2017 at Economics and Ethics