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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 A friend recently inquired about Adam Smith’s view on externalities. A much longer post is needed to break apart several important ideas. First, one would need to disentangle the invisible hand concept from market “efficiency.” (See J. Wight, The Treatment of Smith’s Invisible Hand, The Journal of Economic Education 38(3)(2007): 341-358.) Second, while Smith does not discuss (to my awareness) externalities arising from environmental pollution, he did write that private market transactions could pollute or corrupt one’s mind. Here are two examples, one negative and one positive. Negative externalities: When market forces lead to an extreme... Continue reading
Posted Jan 7, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Rob Garnett (at TCU) is presenting a paper on Adam Smith at the ASSA meetings in Atlanta this Friday. He sent an advance copy of it, of which I will share just a snippet: “[There are] four underappreciated features of Smith’s moral philosophy: (1) self-love as socially entangled self-approval; (2) exchange as socially entangled bargaining and learning; (3) assistance and harm as normal byproducts of duty, sympathy, and beneficence; and (4) commercial society as a hybrid web of cooperation (a social division of labor and responsibility, pecuniary and non-pecuniary) in which self-love both enables and undermines... Continue reading
Posted Jan 2, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight Speaking of ethics and art, dear readers, have you seen the Netflix comedy, The Good Place? A selfish young woman dies and goes to the afterlife. There she has to learn how to fit in, and especially she must learn how to become a more ethical person. The show is hysterical, made funnier by William Jackson Harper (photo), who brilliantly plays a … drumroll… professor of moral philosophy--a Kantian as it turns out. Here is a brief and incomplete list of topics that are cleverly woven into the plot: Socrates Plato Aristotle Kant (yes, lots of... Continue reading
Posted Dec 28, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight Amazon Prime, in collaboration with the BBC, released a new rendition of King Lear (set in the present time), starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It is highly recommended if you don’t mind the dark story line. The king is aging (and going insane) and plans to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. The key plot line unfolds when the King asks each daughter in turn, “Who loves me the most?” The first two daughters say all the right flattering things. The youngest and his favorite, Cordelia, refuses to play this game of trying to... Continue reading
Posted Dec 28, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Do markets have the incentive and the capability to achieve a “just” wage? This seems problematical over the past half century, given that labor productivity has far outpaced wage growth. Why aren’t workers enjoying the fair fruits of their greater outputs? The theory of income distribution according to marginal productivity of labor is a can of worms, full of contradictions as noted by many critics over the ages. The rise of Trump may to some degree be tied to concerns over this, exemplified (wrongly, I think) by the attack on global markets. Peter Boettke, Rosolino Candela,... Continue reading
Posted Dec 24, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
Hi Jonas, I got myself confused and have updated the post. Thanks!
By Jonathan B. Wight I understand the idea of doing a fast—going without any solid food calories for a day or two as a part of a colonic cleansing. It’s probably good for most people to give their liver and kidney and digestive systems a rest. Moreover, it shrinks one’s stomach and perhaps develops self-control to resist unnecessary calories later on. So, there is something to be said for periodic withdrawals from the caloric cycle. Can the same logic be used periodically to shut down government? Wouldn’t that be cleansing and useful for budget management? No. A thousand times no.... Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The Wall Street Journal reports on the clean-up costs of the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange, these many decades later. It’s not a pretty story. The factory that produced the poison was in New Jersey, and apparently, a lot of the leaked chemicals were washed down the drain and into the Passaic River, where they sank to the bottom as toxic sludge. The original company and its factory were bought and eventually owned by an Argentine company that sold off the assets (presumably distributing gains to the shareholders) and then … declared bankruptcy. Who is left to... Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Who would move to a place beset by wildfires, earthquakes, horrible traffic, and high taxes? I’m speaking of California, and particularly Los Angeles and San Francisco. The answer is: lots of people need to be here because of their work. Our friends in Hollywood need to be there to meet face to face with producers, writers, and others. Our friends in Silicon Valley need to be near others who work on the latest software projects. Many others find jobs in agriculture in the Valley, although mechanization may eventually reduce that need. Perhaps because of all the... Continue reading
Posted Dec 5, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Economists are conditioned to understand the notion that there is "no free lunch." What if there is a broader concept of this relating to our minds and our thoughts? “All thinking obviously is conditioned; there is no such thing as free thinking. Thinking can never be free, it is the outcome of our conditioning, of our background, of our culture, of our climate, of our social, economic, political background. The very books that you read and the very practices that you do are all established in the background, and any thinking must be the result of... Continue reading
Posted Dec 1, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Don Giovanni, or The Rake Punished, is Mozart’s beloved Italian opera, premiered in 1787 in Prague. Watching the show is like watching a train wreck unfold. Giovanni, a nobleman, is an unrepentant murderer, rapist, a lothario who uses charm and wit—and where necessary force—to get his way with women. His conquests number over one thousand, recorded dutifully in his servant’s little black book. The anguished story of Donna Anna, who is nearly raped in the opening scene (off stage), sounds a lot like the testimony we heard recently in Senate hearings. She has a hard time... Continue reading
Posted Nov 19, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight “Looking at life from a different perspective makes you realize that it’s not the deer that is crossing the road, rather it’s the road that is crossing the forest.” --Muhammed Ali (link ) [Thanks to Ben Blevins for the link.] Continue reading
Posted Nov 10, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight No one ever confused President Trump with being a free market advocate. He’s about deals, not principles. Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin, is likewise a politician. And politicians are about making deals that provide short term gains, regardless of the long term consequences for constituents. The New Yorker has a depressing exposé about how Walker and Trump basically gave away the store in their desire to attract FoxConn to Wisconsin to build a factory. The state giveaway amounts to $4.5 billion, or between $220,000 to $1 million per job created, depending on the number of jobs... Continue reading
Posted Nov 6, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight I haven’t finished it, but am enjoying Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper 2015). One idea that caught my eye is the notion that what distinguishes the Homo sapiens version of the human animal from other versions like Homo neanderthalis and Homo erectus is that we developed the ability to tell stories. The author uses the word fiction, but not pejoratively. The fiction (and lies) he refers to are the stories and myths that human cultures create to bond people and make them willing to unite for common purposes. These are... Continue reading
Posted Oct 21, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Sabbaticals are wondrous times for rejuvenation. And what better to rekindle one’s mind and heart than to read great literature? I’ve read a variety of things this semester, including Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov, Cervantes’, Don Quixote de la Mancha, and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Each of these offers wonderful insights into life and ethics. I hope to blog on each of these if time permits. My most recent foray was to read Voltaire’s Zadig, The Book of Fate (1747). I came to know of this novella because... Continue reading
Posted Oct 12, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight As another hurricane beats down the East Coast, Nickolas Kristof in today’s New York Times urges common sense in policymaking. What a refreshing idea in economics and ethics! While climate change is not certain, at what point do we say the risk of climate change is high enough that action is required? One major political party is still in total denial, and has a good reason for this, given the squads of money thrown at candidates who deny, deny, deny. They have no reason to say that the emperor has no clothes. Where are the heroes... Continue reading
Posted Oct 11, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight If you believe in evolution, it makes sense that humans would acquire and feel a deep symbiosis with nature. After all, our ancestors somewhat similar to us have roamed for perhaps 2.5 million years. For 99.9999% of that time there was little light except what came from the sun. Our senses were honed to mesh with nature, and to pick up disruptions to it and changes in it. In short, we became one with the natural environment. Today we are separated from nature by machines that extend our eyes and hands with power. We are disconnected... Continue reading
Posted Oct 10, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The Nobel Committee selected two Americans this year for the economics prize, William Nordhaus (environment) and Paul Romer (growth theory). The Committee report notes that “Romer’s and Nordhaus’s findings regarding the possibilities for, and restrictions on, future long-run welfare each put the spotlight on a specific market failure. “Both laureates thus point to fundamental externalities that – absent well-designed government intervention – will lead to sub-optimal outcomes. “In Romer’s work these externalities are predominately positive through knowledge spillovers. New ideas can be used by others to produce new goods and other ideas. "In Nordhaus’s work they... Continue reading
Posted Oct 9, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written a provocative book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018). Lukianoff is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which fights against schools limiting speech on campus. Haidt is a professor of social psychology at NYU’s Stern School of Business, and famous for his other books on the moral psychology of tribes. The authors make an interesting psychological claim: Just as our physical bodies as children need to be exposed to viruses and... Continue reading
Posted Oct 8, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Two items about race were on my radar last week. First, in the latest American Economic Review comes an article about “Why Did the Democrats Lose the South? Bringing New Data to an Old Debate.” In the 1940s whites in the South identified with the Democratic Party about 80% of the time. By 2010, that share was just above 20%. From a graph, one sees a long-term trend decline with dramatic steep losses in the 1960s and mild stabilization and improvement in the 1970s before further losses through 2010. Using new data sources, the authors tease... Continue reading
Posted Oct 2, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight This last Thursday the nation was fixated on the gripping testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I must have fallen asleep, because here’s what I heard Judge Brett Kavanaugh say in response to her testimony: “Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: “I have just watched Dr. Ford’s testimony before this committee. She is not at all what I expected. She was not partisan, rude, or seeking glamor and fame. She was serious, forthright, and clear in her answers, especially indicating what she remembered and what she did not. “Her demeanor... Continue reading
Posted Oct 1, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight There are well-meaning people who have supported Trump while holding their noses. Their rationalizations are many, but include those who justify it on the basis of the corporate and personal income tax cuts, and the drop in environmental and other regulations. Their claim is that what is good for corporate America and the rich is good for America more broadly. The old quote, “What’s good for GM is good for America,” is a misquote of Charles Wilson, but you get the idea. On one level, the claim is true. A vibrant economy provides jobs, pensions, and... Continue reading
Posted Sep 23, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
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 Sep 13, 2018 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