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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 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 2 days ago 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 5 days ago 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 6 days ago 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 7 days ago 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
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
By John Morton While most college introductory economics courses focus on preparing students for higher-level courses, many, but not enough, high school courses stress economic thinking, a way of thinking that lies outside the students’ personal experiences. This opens for them a whole new lens to observe the world. This situation is ironic because Adam Smith, the father of economics, used the economic reasoning approach in The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. After all, Smith discussed “man’s propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” instead of the endless academic studies on trivial problems we see today. Unfortunately,... Continue reading
Posted Oct 27, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Here’s a thought about breaking Spain apart by Joscha Fischer in Project Syndicate: “Were Catalonia [in yellow] actually to achieve independence, it would have to find a way forward without Spain or the EU. “Spain, with the support of many other member states that worry about their own secessionist movements, would block any Catalan bid for EU or eurozone membership. “And without membership in the European single market, Catalonia would face the grim prospect of rapid transformation from an economic powerhouse into an isolated and poor country.” It is possible for a small country to be... Continue reading
Posted Oct 23, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The American Economic Association is setting up a committee to consider a Code of Professional Conduct for economists. This represents a total about-face for the AEA, which previously insisted that there was no need for ethics training or support for its members. The reason for the change was the public reaction or revelation about an economic jobs bulletin board that was “toxic” for women. Here’s a link to a fairly shocking NYT article: Not sure where this will end up, but there might be a vote as early as January in the AEA’s executive meeting.... Continue reading
Posted Oct 22, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Don’t we wish to read more stories like this! A protester at the Gainesville, Florida white supremacist talk on Thursday decided on a different tactic. Instead of berating his rival, he asked if he could hug him, and got that permission. This was the exchange as reported in the Huffington Post between Aaron Courtney, an African American high school football coach, and Randy Furniss, a Nazi sympathizer (who had earlier been punched in the face by a different protester): “I had the opportunity to talk to someone who hates my guts and I wanted to know... Continue reading
Posted Oct 22, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Geoff Schneider has an interesting paper in current issue of The American Review of Political Economy. It is an introduction to papers presented last winter at ICAPE, the International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics. Schneider argues that mainstream economics has paid lip service to pluralism, but remains mired in conventionality. He unveils his ten “Principles of Pluralist, Heterodox Economics” that are worthy of discussion [my comments in brackets]: Social provisioning is a crucial aspect of an economic system, and provisioning depends on more than GDP growth and market activities. [This wording sounds a lot... Continue reading
Posted Oct 18, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Kevin Hassett, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and potential Federal Reserve Chair nominee, clearly has a vested interest in looking good to his boss, President Trump, in order to get the big personal promotion to the Board of Governors. Trump wants you on his team, and one way to cement your relationship is to make ridiculous claims in service of the President. This is presumably what led former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to insist that inauguration crowds were the largest ever, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Now Hassett makes the claim,... Continue reading
Posted Oct 17, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Those who love the marriage of big business and big government, which includes dictators and mercantilists, must be overjoyed to hear that President Trump supports allowing businesses to bribe government officials overseas. Perhaps this was Trump’s modus operandi in his own career in New Jersey and elsewhere, or perhaps he thinks such bribes are the natural perks of a public office. He may have heard that from Spiro Agnew. Luckily, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who has been described by a Republican senator as one of the few people keeping this administration from total chaos) disagreed... Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Krugman hits on a topic that has bothered me for the past eight months or so: what will happen to monetary policy when Trump gets a chance to intervene? A huge gap opens up when Stanley Fischer resigns as vice-chair in a few weeks (apparently for health reasons). Three other Board seats are also vacant. And Janet Yellen’s four-year term as chairwoman expires February 3, 2018. In short, the Fed is operating way understaffed and teetering on the edge of paralysis. As with other unfilled positions in government, the Trump administration either doesn’t know or care... Continue reading
Posted Oct 6, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight When HHS Secretary Tom Price went on a binge of private aircraft flights, costing taxpayers $400,000, there was universal outrage. Everyone should show more sensitivity to government spending! Tax cuts are a form of government spending. At least, a tax cut represents a likely increase in the government debt of a nearly equivalent amount. Those who claim that tax cuts will produce miraculous growth that lowers deficits have to explain the debacle in Kansas. Also inconvenient to supply siders is the surge in the deficit under Reagan’s tax cuts, and the collapse of deficits under Clinton’s... Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Steve Payson, executive director of AIRLEAP, has written what he believes is a blistering exposé about modern economic practitioners. The claim is that most of economics (at the highest levels) is driven by desire for fame and glory, and not so much for the search for truth or advancement of real knowledge. The book is How Economics Professors Can Stop Failing Us: The Discipline at a Crossroads (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). This complaint has some merit, as most of us would acknowledge. The argument is not new, however, and in fact, may be a bit outdated.... Continue reading
Posted Oct 2, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Readers of this blog have heard a lot about oxytocin, and its potential role in building ethical relationships and leading moral transformation. Along with its other fine attributes, such as being released during orgasm or hugging or other desirable social contact, it appears that oxytocin is also released during moments of stress. This surprising finding, if correct, helps explain why stress may not be the killer that people think it is. According to this Ted Talk by psychologist Kelly McGonigal, how one thinks about stress determines whether stress is harmful. We sometimes hear about “good” stress... Continue reading
Posted Oct 1, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Michael Berry, Emeritus Professor at the RMIT University in Melbourne, has written an interesting critique of neoclassical economics, in particular as it relates to ethical concepts and public policies. I haven’t read the whole book yet, but here is the abstract: Morality and Power: On Ethics, Economics and Public Policy (Elgar 2017). Offering a compelling critique of orthodox economic analysis in the public realm, Mike Berry exposes the lack of development in economic thinking in public policy since the economic crisis of 2008. Focusing on both the ethically unacceptable outcomes of recent public policy and the... Continue reading
Posted Oct 1, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
Thanks, Mort, and I agree! But with global warming, Canada will in a few decades be breezy and warm, so better go now. More seriously, the notion that freedom largely revolves around the ability to make choice in free markets, and hence socialist-leaning countries don't have it, needs some unpacking. Amartya Sen's book, Development as Freedom, notes how the lack of capabilities also limits our freedoms. Because socialist-leaning countries often have excellent records in terms of education, this expands freedoms (I'm not talking about communist societies that have little freedom of press or media). You also noted differences in incarceration rates, which to me is a signal of how well young people are socialized to get along in the community, which is itself a form of capability. Some of this can be helped by government. Quick example: under British socialized medicine my wife was allowed to stay in the hospital several days after childbirth; state-paid nurses helped teach her how to breastfeed and other tips (her own mother was thousands of miles away). Nurses later visited her in the home to offer more advice as the baby grew and its needs changed. This is expensive preventive medicine, but it is cheaper than the side effects of a serious health complication. Being healthy is a capability and a form of freedom. :) --JBW
Toggle Commented Sep 27, 2017 on O Canada at Economics and Ethics
By John Morton I just returned from the Canadian Rockies, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I was equally impressed with the friendly, helpful, and reserved people. The highways and bridges were in better shape than those in the United States even though Canada has a population of 36 million and the second largest land area in the world. Canadians tend to live within 100 miles of the United States. I was surprised at how few luxury cars I saw. However, anecdotal observations can be misleading so I spent some time researching life in Canada vs. the United... Continue reading
Posted Sep 27, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Whenever my dog does something he knows is wrong, he hides his head under a pillow. He just doesn’t want to see what’s coming, and he thinks hiding his face will solve his immediate problem. This is the attitude of the Virginia state legislature toward global warming, according to Stephen Nash, who has been waging a David-vs.-Goliath struggle to inform the Virginia public (see Virginia’s leaders have a serious case of the slows on climate change). Nash is the author of Virginia Climate Fever and other books that use science to help answer questions about the... Continue reading
Posted Sep 22, 2017 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Most people would agree that the federal budget is bloated and expenses can be cut. One of the supposed champions of this idea is Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services. Except it turns out Price has been jetting around the Northeast on private chartered jets at government expense. A recent trip to Philadelphia that should have cost under $150 roundtrip in gas and tolls, or an equivalent amount if by train, may have actually cost up to $25,000 for a private jet. Price isn’t the only cabinet secretary to be afflicted by the disease... Continue reading
Posted Sep 21, 2017 at Economics and Ethics