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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 Does the West face an existential threat? That is the conclusion of one columnist, who wrote recently: “The news media in the West pose a far greater danger to Western civilization than Russia does,” and that “The real threat to Western civilization is Western civilization ceasing to believe in itself” (emphasis added). There is no question that loss of confidence in key institutions is a detriment to the survival of a culture or peoples. And the constant harping on our deficiencies as a Western society is one thing that could undermine that confidence, particularly in young... Continue reading
Posted 3 days ago at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight I’ve been incommunicado for several weeks while traveling in Asia (some blogs may eventually appear on what I learned). Meanwhile, I saw an interesting graphic on determining one’s political compass. These surveys and tests are probably meaningless, but for fun I took it (link here). In the interest of transparency to any readers of this blog, here it is: No surprises—I’m generally pretty confused! What is a left-leaning libertarian? To me I think it means I’m a pluralist. I’m not satisfied with simplistic answers, but rather always try to overcomplicate things. That’s both a negative and... Continue reading
Posted Jul 14, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Thanks, Mort, for a provocative post, even though i'm a bit worried that Coca-Cola will be on your case! Like Jonas, I am unwilling to say that capitalism gets the credit for all the good things that have happened in last two centuries. For one thing, when you break out individual country data, the connection between development indicators and GDP per cap is often non existent, for the simple reason that literacy and public health programs may be funded not out of profits. Good governance is critical, and bad government a hindrance. Quality varies so greatly across countries and time. The beautiful thing about capitalism is the market enforced accountability in the right circumstances! We should celebrate that! At the same time capitalism is not accountable when the prices are incorrect, as is the case with the environmental damage. No amount of misinterpreting Coase will fix that problem.... I like the approach that capitalism offers us the best shot at freedom to live creative lives of meaning, along with a healthy safety net that we all contribute to. More later....
Toggle Commented Jun 27, 2017 on Enjoy Capitalism at Economics and Ethics
By John Morton As I write this, I’m wearing a t-shirt, a gift from my daughter. It says “Enjoy Capitalism” written in the style of the cursive Coco-Cola logo. Every day I enjoy what’s left of an economic system that is responsible for improving billions of lives around the world. As Milton Friedman put it: “There is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of ordinary people that can hold a candle in the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.” Yet young people are not feeling the joy. Their contempt for capitalism is... Continue reading
Posted Jun 26, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight I remember studying the history of how we got into World War I. It was a disaster nobody wanted, and yet, step by step, we marched over that precipice. Where were the grown-ups? We are facing a similar crisis today. Leadership in the world’s dominant country is absent due to incompetence and inexperience. Many executive leadership positions are still sitting empty because names have not been submitted for confirmation; quality candidates are also withdrawing from consideration. Who wants to be part of this administration’s dysfunction? There is also the huge energy- and attention-drain in Congress and... Continue reading
Posted Jun 14, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Jonas raises some excellent points. Asking the market to solve problems won't work if the prices and incentives aren't right. And they won't be right in health care when there are huge problems of asymmetric information and negative and positive externalities. Yes, Obamacare has problems, but many of these arise from trying to ignore the potential market failures outlined above. There were riots in Paris in the 19th century when the government insisted that every house must buy into the sewer system (forcing them to pay for something they didn't want--most people wanted to simply throw their feces into the street as before). Requiring homeowners to connect to the sewer is somewhat akin to forcing citizens to buy into health insurance, for all the negative and positive externalities reasons! It's the 21st century and a universal basic health system is the way to go. (E.g., Trump recently praised Australia for its health results.) This is not to say that a private system could not exist alongside. Let those who want drink champagne; clean water is good enough for me. --JW
By John Morton In his post of May 30, Jonathan makes a good case that Hayek believed the state should provide a minimum level of assistance to individuals who cannot guard themselves. He clearly says in The Road to Serfdom, “There can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody.” (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, p. 133) Hayek also says his opposition to planning should not be confused with “a dogmatic laissez faire attitude.” (p. 41) However, it’s a big jump to think Hayek would... Continue reading
Posted Jun 12, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Please do! --JW
Hi Jonas, is your comment directed at me or at Alan Dershowitz? Your point is well taken; Harvard is not the universe. --JW (P.S. -- Feel free to write up longer pieces that I will post if you want. :))
By Jonathan B. Wight The Boston Globe reports that “Harvard revokes admission to at least 10 students for offensive Facebook posts.” Yikes!! First of all, don’t students have some expectation of first amendment rights? I don’t know what they posted (other than that it was reported to be offensive blather). What do we expect from teenagers? Aren’t we all supposed to do stupid, experimental things to stretch our wings? If that did not involve making some mistakes, it means we’re not really stretching very far. Second, the university claims the right to expel a student for pretty much any behavior... Continue reading
Posted Jun 6, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Thanks for the head's up. I was not aware of this, but you're right: the intention may be to strike fear into those who remain. -- JW
Toggle Commented Jun 6, 2017 on The Brain Drain at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Several months ago I predicted that self-respecting civil servants would be reluctant to stay working for an administration that shows so little regard for ethics, which includes the process by which public policies are enacted. The New York Times reports that key career diplomats in the State Department are starting to jump ship. The ranking American official in Beijing, David Rank, announced yesterday he was resigning in protest against the decision to pull out of the Paris accords. “’[Rank] was a complete pro, extremely well-regarded,’ said Daniel F. Feldman, a former special representative for Afghanistan and... Continue reading
Posted Jun 6, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Bart Hinkle is one of the smartest, principled, libertarian editorial writers today. His opinion pieces demonstrate reason and moderation, with a hefty concern for procedural justice and economic ethics. They are also often very funny, and draw on classical thinkers. In today’s opinion, the RTD editorial writers hit the right balance, I think, with regard to the Paris climate change accords. The key point is that the global political/economic sphere has lots of moving pieces, and they are all interconnected. You cannot treat each treaty in isolation, but rather must focus on the big picture. You... Continue reading
Posted Jun 2, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight All my students are overbooked, stressed out, and unable to relax in the flow of life. Many of their faculty members feel the same way! Despite mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, yoga, and other non-medical techniques, life can weigh us down. To some extent, neoclassical economic theory isn't helpful. When we focus on "maximizing" as the desired mode of operating, it sets us up for constant evaluation and stressful revisiting of our choices. Herbert Simon's "satisfycing" behavior seems like a much better mental attitude to adopt--that is, stop calculating and striving when you've reached a minimum threshold... Continue reading
Posted Jun 2, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Pithy quotes are a delight to the mind and the ear. Of course, they can be taken out of context, which has happened so much to Adam Smith and others. Nevertheless, here is a gem to get the mind and heart going: "It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” -- Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) Is America a profoundly sick society? On various dimensions, the answer is certainly yes. Three data points say a lot: incarceration rates, suicide rates, and early death rates (whether from murder or drug overdoses). All three... Continue reading
Posted Jun 2, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
As the Senate considers removing health coverage for 23 million Americans in the name of greater freedom, it is well to recall what Hayek wrote in a much-poorer England during war times: “It will be well to contrast at the outset the two kinds of security: the limited one, which can be achieved for all, and which is therefore no privilege but a legitimate object of desire; and the absolute security which in a free society cannot be achieved for all and which ought not to be given as a privilege-except in a few special instances such as that of... Continue reading
Posted May 30, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
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