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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 an earlier post, I introduced readers to the work of Richard T. Ely (1854-1943), one of the founders of the American Economic Association and a leader of the progressive movement. Ely also published in 1889, An Introduction to Political Economy (Chautauqua Press: New York). It was refreshing to read such a pluralist text that is analytical and ethically sensitive. Here is Ely, near the start of his principles text, addressing the issue of the “moral limits to markets” (that’s not his term, but it applies): “What is the real origin of the feeling that it... Continue reading
Posted 7 days ago at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight A new book has recently crossed my desk by Eli P. Cox III, Seeking Adam Smith: Finding the Shadow Curriculum of Business (2017). Cox maintains that business schools and economists have willfully misunderstood Smith’s message (a familiar refrain on this blog). Cox is professor emeritus of marketing management at UT-Austin, with an interest in corporate social responsibility and business ethics. Here are some Smith quotes that Cox finds: “In the midst of all the exactions of government, this [nation’s] capital has been silently and gradually accumulated by the private frugality and good conduct of individuals, by... Continue reading
Posted Sep 12, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The New York Times reports on a huge potential ethics violation: Dr. José Baselga, chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, has been publishing a large number of cancer research studies without disclosing that he has received millions of dollars from the drug companies under study. This is bizarre and obscene. As a researcher and the editor of a major journal, Dr. Baselga decides what information the public sees. He made his own decision that his industry contracts were not relevant and later said the omissions were “inadvertent.” Really? He forgot... Continue reading
Posted Sep 9, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
I think perhaps the former. I didn't hear all of the exchange with the umpire, but from what I did hear I don't know why he would feel threatened. Thanks for your comment. JW
Toggle Commented Sep 9, 2018 on Serena Williams’s Loss at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The U.S. Open Women’s Tennis final was a brilliant match between two phenomenal players, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. It was marred by ethical issues that left everyone with bad tastes in their mouths. Osaka won, 6-2, 6-4 in an amazing display of poise and brilliance for a first timer to a majors final. The controversy centered on Williams, whose coach admitted he was signaling to her, and she was penalized by the umpire. She was then also penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for slamming and breaking her racket. Williams took umbrage and continued to berate the... Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Kenneth Rogoff wrote a glowing review of Sebastian Edwards’ new book, American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold (2018). This is a bit of American history I didn’t realize: America de facto defaulted on its national debt in 1933, when Roosevelt unilaterally removed the gold clause from U.S. debt obligations, in order to devalue the dollar by 40%. Prior to this, savers could ask for payment of interest in gold rather than dollars. This was a dramatic redistribution of wealth away from bondholders, of which I had not... Continue reading
Posted Sep 7, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” Does this ring true today? It was written nearly 40 years ago. --Isaac Asimov, “A Cult of Ignorance,” Newsweek, January 21, 1980 [Thanks to Ting Chen for the quote.] Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The New York Times has an interesting piece on the Trump Administration’s plan to rollback fuel economy standards. The story examines a key ethical issue: will allowing cars to be heavier (and hence less fuel-efficient) save lives—specifically 12,700 lives over a ten-year period? There are three areas of disagreement: Do more fuel-efficient cars spur people to drive more, and hence be in more accidents? Do more fuel-efficient cars cost more, hence leading people to use older and less safe cars? Are lighter cars inherently more dangerous if other cars also become lighter? The article reaches a... Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight John Lanchester has an interesting review in The New Yorker of several economic books (July 23). These are: Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life; Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, Cents and Sensibilities: What Economists Can Learn from the Humanities; and Mihir Desai, The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanitiy in the World of Risk and Return. Hanson and Simler argue that 90% of all human activity can be traced back to signaling in one form or another. Lanchester, a novelist, finds the argument interesting but overstated; the... Continue reading
Posted Jul 31, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Critics sometimes complain that Adam Smith’s economics were not very good. The labor theory of value has certainly not held up well in most circles, and Smith was flummoxed by the diamond-water paradox. But one area where he remains right, apparently, is in his economic history. Kelly and Ó Gráda in “Adam Smith, Watch Prices, and the Industrial Revolution,” (QJE 2016) find that Smith’s rough guess that watch prices fell by 95% over the preceding century was in the ballpark. After adjusting for quality improvements, Smith’s analysis is even closer to the truth. Here’s the abstract:... Continue reading
Posted Jul 26, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Sorry to Bother You is a sci-fi drama about a young black man who enters the sleazy world of telemarketing because he’s desperate. He starts to excel when he learns to speak like a geeky white guy, and makes lots of money working for a horrible big corporation. His bigger break comes when he starts marketing for the company WorryFree, where humans around the world live and get three square meals but they are basically slaves. They agree to this because they lack the basics of security on the outside. Our hero uncovers a plot to... Continue reading
Posted Jul 19, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
What a wonderful quote! Thanks! --JW
Toggle Commented Jul 19, 2018 on The Decline of Reason at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight I’m getting to this late, but this is really important for ethics and economics. There is a product that is very profitable for private producers, who naturally want to promote it. That product is vitally important for a few people, if used properly. But that product is fundamentally worse than a free alternative for most people, and in some countries is improperly used much of time, causing avoidable deaths. That product is infant formula milk. Nestlé was famous for pitching this product in sub-Saharan Africa as a modern woman’s product. Billboards suggested that if you really... Continue reading
Posted Jul 18, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
Jonas, I don't know who "you people" are that you are referring to. Where have I or John Morton used "blistering, offensive, and unrelenting vitriol"? Can you find a single quote to back up this assertion? If so, where? When? Or, are you lumping me or John in with some other group? If so, I don't appreciate that conflation. I suppose it is self serving to say that John and I have known each other for more than 20 years, and his principles of honesty and treating others with respect have shined through. Your post is confusing to me for these reasons.
Toggle Commented Jul 18, 2018 on The Decline of Reason at Economics and Ethics
By John Morton The United States has become a nation of screaming toddlers having a collective meltdown. Jonathan has a great post on denying Sara Sanders service at a Virginia restaurant. There are so many examples of boorish behavior. One example is how protestors and politicians love to use the f-word; evidently they think that printing it on a sign makes their point more intellectual. Jonathan’s review of D.C. Rasmussen’s book The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought strongly affected my view on this situation. These friends discussed and argued, agreeing... Continue reading
Posted Jul 17, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The President tweeted: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” This kind of statement, if made by an undergraduate student on a paper, would receive an immediate D (or worse). I would remind the student to avoid using hyperboles, ridiculous exaggerations, especially about things that easily can be shown to be false. I would ask the student: “Do you mean our relationship with Russia today is WORSE than during the Berlin crisis of 1961? “Is it worse than the Cuban... Continue reading
Posted Jul 17, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
As for your comment on Denial of Service, I think progressives make a grave mistake when they go down the negative route that Trump has laid out. Being obnoxious does not help win hearts and minds to the progressive cause.
Toggle Commented Jun 27, 2018 on Denial of Service at Economics and Ethics
?? The only people who have the power to disapprove a comment are myself and Mark White (not John Morton). I did not remove it and I can't imagine Mark did. Do you wish to repost and we can try again? I'm not terribly tech savvy, but hope it can stay up this time! (Note: the only posts I would disapprove would use foul language, attack the writer not the ideas, be completely off topic, etc.)
Toggle Commented Jun 27, 2018 on Denial of Service at Economics and Ethics
"Heavy handed censor"? To my knowledge, no comment has been censored. Am I missing something? JW
Toggle Commented Jun 26, 2018 on Denial of Service at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Denying Sarah Huckabee Sanders service at a restaurant because of her ideology was abominable. It was almost as grotesque as denying her service because of her race or religion. (Denying service for politics or sexual orientation is apparently legal in most places, but not legal for the latter two reasons--thank goodness for some things.) I admit that serving someone whose politics seems atrocious and seems to reflect a lack of common humanity and contact with reality would make it difficult to put on a smiling face. But so what? However difficult, it must be done, and... Continue reading
Posted Jun 26, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight Alex Cequea produced a lovely short animated video of this name on act.tv. An authoritarian , we learn, wants power. He starts by attacking the independent press (which acts as a check on that power). Next comes the attack on racial or ethnic minorities as a way to galvanize the base. This is successful because human psychology is tribal by nature. Great philosophies and religions often try to overcome the natural bias against "others" by proclaiming that we are all one under God. Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in the Christian tradition. Or... Continue reading
Posted Jun 23, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight In theory, markets work to maximize wealth creation through voluntary exchange. In the pure version espoused by Pareto, trade is always win-win. A problem develops when there are externalities—as occurs quite frequently and to great expense in the area of mining. Precious metal mining uses vast amounts of water that otherwise might go to local farmers; cyanide is used to leach metal from junk rock. Arsenic is found in the drinking water and downstream. The landscape may be forever ruined for any other purpose, and mining companies (after extracting their profit), may simply decide to go... Continue reading
Posted Jun 17, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Trump is shown on tv, praising Kim Jon Un: “Hey, he is the head of a country and I mean he is the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different.” Then comes his lament: “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” He wants to be fêted with a military parade, perhaps so he could be revered as the supreme leader. In a free country, people sit up to attention when a speaker who is respected has something important and interesting to say. Fortunately, in America... Continue reading
Posted Jun 16, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Non-profits are good and for-profits are bad, right—by definition? Not so by a long shot. Some non-profits are completely self-serving, and despite the furor over the IRS delaying the certification of some 501(c)(4)s because of shady political uses, some questionable NGOs do exist. The New York Times reports that the Donald J. Trump Foundation is being sued by New York State for misuse of funds. This wasn’t a one-time event or minor oversight. Trump allegedly used the non-profit’s funds consistently for a variety of non-sanctioned activities, including donations to political campaigns, promoting his own presidential candidacy,... Continue reading
Posted Jun 15, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
Hume and Smith By Jonathan B. Wight The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton University Press, 2017). Dennis C. Rasmussen, Associate Professor of Political Scientist at Tufts University, has written an engaging and informative account of the professional and personal relationship between Smith and Hume. A full review will appear in The American Economist. Here is a synopsis. The book explores the overlap of economic and moral theories and personal amities that flowed between two of the Scottish Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, providing a rich intellectual history. An important takeaway is... Continue reading
Posted Jun 13, 2018 at Economics and Ethics