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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 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 4 days ago 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 5 days ago 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 6 days ago at Economics and Ethics
[John Morton is author of Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics and many other works. He has a long career teaching economics and training teachers how to teach economics. In the post below, he essentially asks us why we continue to treat athletes as unpaid workers.--JBW] By John Morton The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the biggest amateur sports event of the year. It’s amateur because the teams represent universities although everyone makes money except the players. I confess to being excited about March madness. Nevertheless, I ponder some questions about the event. How did big-time sports become an important... Continue reading
Posted Mar 14, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight After the recent fiasco at Middlebury, many faculty there came together to articulate a set of values for academic discussion in a liberal arts setting. Here’s the list: Genuine higher learning is possible only where free, reasoned, and civil speech and discussion are respected. Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge. The incivility and coarseness that characterize so much of American politics and culture cannot justify a response of incivility and coarseness on the college campus. The impossibility of attaining a perfectly egalitarian sphere of... Continue reading
Posted Mar 14, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The disturbing stories of intolerance that plague our nation and world’s history should not be forgotten when sometimes the tables are turned. Some liberals, once advocating openness, toleration, and respect for all, have been behaving as brownshirts on some campuses. Tom Ciccotta, a libertarian and senior economics major at Bucknell, relates his story of being branded a fascist by an unthinking and reactionary left in “The Isolation of College Libertarians.” Allison Stanger, a Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College, was actually assaulted by a mob on campus when she tried to moderate a... Continue reading
Posted Mar 13, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight “How amiable does he appear to be, whose sympathetic heart seems to reecho all the sentiments of those with whom he converses.” -- Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments What a sublime quote, but it could be misinterpreted. What if a salesman-type takes it up as a way to schmooze and bamboozle? No offense to Dale Carnegie, but How to Win Friends and Influence People could be the blueprint for con artists, and so could Smith’s TMS. When I teach students about Smith, it is essential to convey two other ideas: That the person of... Continue reading
Posted Mar 11, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The carnage to be caused by the Republican health care bill will likely go down as a major American disaster. Even before dis-enrolling tens of millions, life expectancy has been falling in some sectors of the U.S. These statements seem incontrovertible: Prevention is cheaper than cure. Early treatment is cheaper than later treatment. Doctor’s office treatment is much cheaper than emergency room treatment. Contagious diseases cause negative externalities—one potential reason for government involvement. Health care transactions have many of the characteristics that produce other market failures (see Ken Arrow)—another potential reason for government involvement. Conservatives such... Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The illustrious Kenneth Arrow passed last week. I have a few personal thoughts. His famous 1963 paper on health care made a huge impression on me—erudite and full of insights for how the real world works. His cautionary words about trying to use markets when there is widespread asymmetric information seemingly made no impression on the forces of political economy, and health insurance companies and hospitals fell over themselves to be privatized and converted into for-profits. The race for profit did not bring down cost because of misaligned incentives and other problems he identified early on.... Continue reading
Posted Mar 2, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Random thoughts on President Trump’s address to Congress: A. The president said the murder rate in 2015 experienced the largest increase in nearly 50 years. If we are talking percentage increase that may well be so, because murder rates have been so low recently, any increase represents a large percentage increase. But the murder rate, lamentable as it is, is in far better shape than 20 years ago, and much better shape than in our past: B. The President also identified two families of victims of crime. Both the families singled out for recognition were victims... Continue reading
Posted Mar 1, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight I’ve been reading a stunning book about economic development in Central Asia, Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It’s a bit old (2006) but came recommended. It’s the inspiring story of a K2 mountain climber (Mortenson) who is so moved by the poverty and lack of education especially for girls in Northwestern Pakistan, that he set up a foundation to help. Amidst many hardships, including being kidnapped by the Taliban, our hero painstakingly fights against the enemies of ignorance to build more than a hundred schools in remote parts of Pakistan... Continue reading
Posted Feb 27, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Many faculty members and universities around the U.S. are reacting to the threat to academic freedom posed by the arbitrary temporary ban on students and scholars from countries with Muslim majorities. My own University of Richmond, founded by Baptists (it is no longer affiliated), had an enlightened view of religious liberty as a foundation for education, welcoming students of all religious persuasions or none, promising equal justice and equal consideration. That was in 1830. Our president, Ron Crutcher, released this statement a few hours ago: Dear Members of the University Community, I share the concerns expressed... Continue reading
Posted Jan 29, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight U.S. Constitution: Amendment 1 - Freedom of expression and religion Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… Right now, President Trump may be in violation of the U.S. constitution because of his ownership of the Trump Hotel and other properties, which provides him income from foreign sources (Section 9:8). But there is some wiggle room as he steps back from management. But it is clear that Congress banned discrimination in immigration in various acts over the years. The U.S. constitution also bars religious tests for holding office... Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The Trump Administration and Republican members of Congress briefly floated an idea to tax imports by 20%. This is Trump’s way of asserting that Mexico will pay for his border wall. But anyone who has paid a smidgeon of attention in Econ 101 knows that a tax—even when imposed on a business—is usually borne in large part by consumers. The importing business has to raise its price to cover its higher costs, or to some extent, domestic producers who are less efficient will enter and charge a higher price. Either way, U.S. consumers bear it on... Continue reading
Posted Jan 26, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Robert Shiller’s Presidential Address to the AEA (2017) deals with “Narrative Economics,” defined as: “By narrative economics I mean the study of the spread and dynamics of popular narratives, the stories, particularly those of human interest and emotion, and how these change through time, to understand economic fluctuations.” (NB: A good definition of narrative economics would not contain that same word within the definition….) Shiller notes: “The human brain has always been highly tuned towards narratives, whether factual or not, to justify ongoing actions, even such basic actions as spending and investing. Stories motivate and connect... Continue reading
Posted Jan 25, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the sting of imperialism than most Americans, having lived in many countries previously colonized and neocolonized and subject to the whims of imperial might. Ethics in economics covers a wide area, and it certainly should include a study of the use of coercion and violence. The United States, for example, has sent troops into Latin America more than fifty times (that’s 5-0), mostly to protect or advance private corporate interests. These invasions involved government overthrows, assassinations, and other actions meant to prop up friendly elites and keep the money flowing from... Continue reading
Posted Jan 23, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The positive vibe in the massive crowd in Washington D.C. yesterday was electric and moving. By-and-large, with a few exceptions, the message was upbeat and unifying. What's the take-home? To me, it was that we are all deserving of respect and dignity. To the extent that people are disparaged for any number of reasons, our humanity is degraded. The groping of women, the bullying of those with less power or status, the focus on policies that help the few at the cost of many, are all symptoms of leadership lacking in moral imagination and genuine empathy.... Continue reading
Posted Jan 22, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Last week NPR aired Bel Canto – The Opera, based on the 2001 novel by Ann Patchett. Coincidentally, I had picked up the novel at my neighborhood book box (what a great idea!) and had just finished it. This lovely and charming book is set oddly– in a hostage crisis in a mythical country in South America (based on Peru’s Tupac Amaro takeover of the Japanese embassy in 1996-97). In the novel, a world-renown opera singer is among the hostages, and comes to form a deep relationship with a Japanese businessman there, even though they share... Continue reading
Posted Jan 20, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Thanks for that thought. I wonder if it emphasizes my point: a state that dominates religion will kill religion. If you believe, as do I, that religion can (in the right environment of freedom) serve to enrich many aspects of community life, it is a shame to kill it off. -- Best, Jonathan
Toggle Commented Jan 15, 2017 on Plurality in Religion at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight America may be creeping toward a religious state. Think of all the atheist politicians who try to use the lever of faith as a tool for control. Does anyone really think Donald Trump is religiously devout—or even believes in anything greater than himself? (Remember the famous “Two” Corinthians.) Yet this man of no faith has many minions who will pretend he does. Trump will have six clergy members pray at his inauguration. Other presidents have used one or two. The irony of this would be humorous, were it not for the deeper point that Trump will... Continue reading
Posted Jan 15, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Meyrl Streep’s calling out of Donald Trump at the Golden Globes Awards ceremony last night is on the one hand inappropriate: she is an entertainer, and viewers would like to hear about her art, not her politics. Yet the way she did it was classy—explaining the theory of the arts as a vehicle for moral imagination and fellow-feeling: “An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that. Breathtaking, compassionate work.” She... Continue reading
Posted Jan 9, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Two items in the New York Times recently caught my eye. Arthur Brooks, of the American Enterprise Institute, asks us to overcome our cynicism and psychic numbing by focusing on small solutions (“To Make the World Better, Think Small”). When the world at large is going to hell, see if there is one thing you can do: “When it comes to people in need, one million is a statistic, while one is a human story.” He says he gets this insight from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, in the passage about the earthquake in China that... Continue reading
Posted Jan 4, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Karim Sulayman is a gifted tenor who has sung on the major opera houses of the world. He has it made, you would think, and lives at the top of his game. But he is in pain. In the video "I Trust You," Sulayman takes on the oppression of being an Arab in an age in which cultural differences are used to define or judge people’s moralities. “I trust you” is an evocative video—a Prisoner’s dilemma played out in Central Park. Should bystanders trust this blindfolded and bearded Arab stranger? If you are a cynic, you... Continue reading
Posted Jan 2, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Hi Jonas, Yes, particularly labor markets! In standard theory a worker can determine the number of hours worked per week. But jobs come as discrete lumps of labor commitments. Cheers, Jonathan
Toggle Commented Dec 28, 2016 on Lesson in Freedom at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Alexander McCall Smith is the prolific author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and The Sunday Philosophy Club series among other things. My current read is 44 Scotland Street, which was written on a whim as a newspaper serial. The author’s interest in philosophy and ethics appears in various plots and twists. Who owns the property rights to a potentially valuable painting that was mistakenly given away to a charity event and then bought by Ian Rankin? I won’t give away the answer. Meanwhile, “Big Lou,” the proprietress of a local coffee bar in... Continue reading
Posted Dec 28, 2016 at Economics and Ethics