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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 I’ve been enjoying John Steinbeck’s account of his journey in the early 1940s to the waters of Baja, Mexico, where he was helping a biologist friend gather samples of the diverse ocean life. The reissued book is The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941). There is lots of philosophy as well as some science. Steinbeck reveals a wonderful distinction between U.S.-style corruption and Mexican-style corruption. He prefers the Mexican style: “We have thought of this in regard to the bribes one sometimes given to Mexican officials. This is universally condemned by Americans, and yet it... Continue reading
Posted Aug 6, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight One of the misfortunes of the Trump administration is the hollowing out of competent non-partisan public service professionals in government agencies. This includes economists: Who would want to work in an administration with such obvious disdain for facts and truth? In monetary policy, Trump has proposed or floated names of candidates that are highly questionable in their financial market experience or who have demonstrated incompetence in prediction or analysis. His latest nominee for the Fed Board is Judy Shelton, who in the 2016 election berated the Fed for keeping interest rates too low. Now she is... Continue reading
Posted Jul 12, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Is truth recognizable by its beauty, as Richard Feynman and others have thought? Massimo Pigliucci explores this idea in a recent edition of Aeon. He argues: “ The problem is that it’s difficult to defend the notion that the truth is recognisable by its beauty and simplicity, and it’s an idea that has contributed to getting fundamental physics into its current mess…. the history of physics (alas, seldom studied by physicists) clearly shows that many simple theories have had to be abandoned in favour of more complex and ‘ugly’ ones.” The same might be said of... Continue reading
Posted Jul 1, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
Jonas, I liked your comment that "we sometimes have to settle for the saviors we've got..." I think that is generally true, not just true in this case. Yes, we can always hope for better, and in the process let's not let the best be the enemy of the good.... Cheers, JW
Toggle Commented Jun 23, 2019 on Political Alliances at Economics and Ethics
THIS IS FROM JONAS FEIT: Since Typepad confounds me once again, I’ll comment in this manner. I’m historically a big fan of Appiah’s reasoning generally, but here he seems to tread too closely to a general case of the ‘white savior’ concept. I think that what people find so odious about Biden’s comment is that his ability to brush off the underlying philosophies of Eastland, Talmadge, and their like is a function of his whiteness. (And I’m generally a Biden fan, mind you.) I’m also a (big) fan of Lyndon Johnson, especially for what he did for black and brown people, but he’s not my model of a savior. While we sometimes have to settle for the saviors we’ve got, it’s always worth considering if we could do better, and that seems to me to be at the root of the criticism of Biden. Feel free to include this as a comment in your post if you can navigate Typepad better than I can.
Toggle Commented Jun 23, 2019 on Political Alliances at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight Former Vice-President Joe Biden recently recounted how he had worked with segregationists to achieve results during his time in the Senate. What followed was a howl of protests from Democratic Party Presidential contenders and others. The rant seems to be that one should never consort with the enemy, and admitting to such is tantamount to treason. I buy into this argument at a raw emotional level: there are some people whose values I loathe so much I could not imagine not quaking with rage if I were forced to sit next to them at a dinner... Continue reading
Posted Jun 23, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The New York Times reports on states that are cracking down on the claims of people who say they need emotional support animals. Emotional support animals do appear to work to alleviate many patients’ symptoms of stress, at much lower cost than drugs or other interventions. Allowing support dogs in otherwise depressing nursing homes seems like a wonderful way to enhance care. I used to be able to take my dog to my local coffee shop and bring her inside while I read a book and sipped. In many places around the world, dogs are allowed... Continue reading
Posted Jun 20, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight Mark Mazower presents a fascinating look at the area today known as the Balkan Peninsula, in The Balkans: From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2001). The “Balkan” name for the region in Southeast Europe, he argues, is a misnomer for several reasons: geographers would not say the area is a true peninsula, and the Balkan Mountains appear mainly in Bulgaria, not the entire region. The book is an essential read for understanding the historic conflicts in the region over the millennia. One particularly interesting section reports on the economics... Continue reading
Posted Jun 19, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The latest AER has William Nordhaus’ Nobel Prize address from last fall, “Climate Change: The Ultimate Challenge for Economics.” Proponents of markets point out their power to solve problems, but negative externalities are a huge elephant mucking about in the house of economics. There are lots of ethical approaches, including non-consequentialist ones, that address negative externalities. Duty and virtue ethics are strong voices for self-control, moderation, and justice with regard to carbon emissions that may cause harm to others and the planet. The normative approach in economics, using the concept of efficiency, is clearly violated when... Continue reading
Posted May 31, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight Everyone knows about China’s famous bridge building campaign, resulting is some of the world’s most amazing architectural feats. These are exploits of pride, as well as engines of development, and in some cases, sources of political power and control. But who has heard of Sicily’s new infrastructure? Sicily, going back to the Greeks, has traditionally emphasized its ports. Inland travel has often been slow and difficult, making economic development—and commercial, political, and social integration—more difficult. No surprise that the people from Palermo don’t see eye to eye with the people from Catania, and so on. There... Continue reading
Posted May 11, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight Legend has it that Saint Lucia (283-304 AD) of Siracusa (Syracuse, Sicily) was born into a wealthy family, and vowed to save her virginity for God. However, after her father died, her mother betrothed her to the son of a pagan family. Lucia opposed the marriage, and after the mother’s miraculous healing from a bleeding disorder, the mother agreed to Lucia’s plan to give away her dowry to the poor. The angered suitor reported her to Roman authorities, who arrested her for being a Christian revolutionary. Lucia, barely 20 years old, resisted being thrown into a... Continue reading
Posted May 6, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Here are some interesting ethics and economics stories: The Myth of Testosterone: Should a woman athlete’s normal production of testosterone be held against her? Should she be forced to take unneeded (and potentially damaging) drugs in order to compete with other women with lower levels of testosterone? The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Olympic champion runner Caster Semenya cannot compete because her natural level of testosterone is too high. This is crazy. Athletes are special for a host of reasons. Singling out Semenya’s natural baseline level of testosterone as a bar to competition is... Continue reading
Posted May 5, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight Thank goodness, Herman Cain and Stephen Moore have withdrawn their names from consideration for appointment to the Federal Reserve Board. Neither appears to know a lick about monetary policy. Honest and smart people can learn fast, but neither of these two appears to be interested in learning anything that would go against pre-conceived beliefs. In Moore’s case, he does not appear to have beliefs, and flip-flops his views wildly depending on who sits in the White House. Moore wanted to raise interest rates in 2009 when unemployment was 10 percent, and wants to lower them now... Continue reading
Posted May 4, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight While tourism and mining are both on the rise in Portugal—boosting the economy—there is still a sense of malaise as the country continues to lose population. Every building at street level is tagged with graffiti, and owners seemed disinclined to do much about it. If they did paint over, how long would it take before a repeat offense? Despite this, one thing that strikes any visitor immediately is how safe Portugal feels. We have been renting an apartment in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Lisbon (Alfama), historically an Arab or Moorish sector, but today filled... Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight Over its recorded history, the area today called Portugal was “invaded” by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Visigoths, and others. The city of Lisbon traces back 3,200 years of this history, and earlier. Vestiges and scars of the battles and resettlements are everywhere. Portugal became a premier world power and seafaring technological leader during the 15th and 16th centuries. It acquired enormous colonies, most notably in Brazil, Angola, and Mozambique. To take advantage of the wealth in sugar and other commodities, Portugal participated in the barbarous slave trade. Because of Portugal’s longstanding trade with England (defying... Continue reading
Posted Apr 13, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
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By Jonathan B. Wight The blog has been quiet for a while as I’ve sopped up “green wine” with codfish in Lisbon and other haunts. The joy of sabbatical is getting outside one’s comfort zone. Indeed, the main defense of international trade and travel, as noted by John Stuart Mill, is that it enlivens and widens our view of fellow men and women. In Coimbra, yesterday, one of the oldest university towns in Europe, our apartment overlooked some of the riotous student fraternities. Black-caped students swirled about, joyous about something. The prestigious University of Coimbra was founded in 1290 and... Continue reading
Posted Apr 13, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Richard Vedder, emeritus professor of economics at Ohio State, is writing a book on declining productivity in American universities. A précis was printed in the Wall Street Journal as “College Wouldn’t Cost So Much If Students and Faculty Worked Harder.” It’s hard to argue with the main points, namely that, compared to 50 years ago: Students study fewer hours; Students get higher grades after learning less; Faculty teach fewer hours; Faculty publish more papers that are read by fewer people; Administrators have come to outnumber teaching faculty. This is truly a mess. The ethics of it... Continue reading
Posted Apr 12, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
Thanks, Jonas! That's a plausible scenario. If that's the case, the error should have been caught when I tried to enter the data that fell outside the acceptable range of values--not five screens later when the process was allegedly near completion. :( A good company or organization (in my opinion) would have a translator rewrite all error messages into something helpful to the customer, even if it admits failure, like "Oops. Not sure why this didn't work. Please contact ..."
Toggle Commented Mar 19, 2019 on Helpful Writing at Economics and Ethics
Julian Baggini has a good tribute to David Hume that appeared in Aeon. This was an interesting and provocative quote: "The best human beings have not been driven by ideology, moral philosophy, and certainly not logic. They have always been people who have put the response to human need above creed or doctrine. Indeed, the worst crimes have been committed by people convinced of a justifying moral principle." Perhaps. But there are plenty of other heinous crimes committed for no moral principle at all. Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Computer programmers have a daunting task. One is to figure out what to say when things go wrong. Yesterday I was interacting on-line with a vital government agency that has been severely underfunded (in my opinion) by the current administration. That probably had nothing to do with what I’m reporting below, but perhaps it does. After a half hour of dutifully filling in forms, with multiple steps and screens along the way, the program informed me that I was almost done! Just one more screen to finish! I clicked on “Finish” … and the dreaded Error... Continue reading
Posted Mar 16, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight I’ve been thoroughly enjoying John Steinbeck’s account of his journey in the early 1940s to the waters of Baja, Mexico, where he was helping a biologist friend gather samples of the diverse ocean life. The book is The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1941). There is lots of philosophy here as well as some science, and lots of funny stories told with dry humor. Steinbeck reveals a wonderful distinction between U.S.-style corruption and Mexican-style corruption. Mexico has a cash bribe system and the U.S. a credit bribe system. Steinbeck (tongue-in-cheek) prefers the Mexican cash system... Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight A friend reports an experience with a pre-K class in an inner city school. The teacher asked kids to use crayons to draw their own faces. Out of twelve kids, not one appeared interested in finding a brown crayon that came close to the shade of his or her own skin color. When given a choice, many kids wanted to draw themselves as purple or blue! Reality to them at this age is more complex than we acknowledge. Continue reading
Posted Feb 5, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight What is the role of fantasy in ethical affairs? Fantasy is defined as “the faculty or activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable.” As a youth, I spent quite a few years in Brazil. One of the biggest traditions there is carnaval, the riotous days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Everyone dresses in outrageous costume and mask: the poor dress up as rich people and the rich dress as poor; men dress as curvaceous women. The movie Black Orpheus (1959) is worth watching to capture some of the madness of that time... Continue reading
Posted Feb 4, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight It is a no-brainer that business people don’t really like competitive market capitalism, despite all their exhortations about the value of markets. Just read any of The Wealth of Nations to find Adam Smith with the same view. Business people much prefer rigged markets, as long as they are on the inside. So it is no surprise that new research finds that converting health care insurance from non-profit to for-profit leads to a rise in premiums (not the fall that would be anticipated because of greater market efficiencies). Leemore Dafney reports on this in “Does It... Continue reading
Posted Feb 2, 2019 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Thank goodness it’s over, at least for three weeks. We should never have had it. Asking workers to work for “free” is a form of slavery. You can counter by saying federal workers should know the deal by now, and have willingly signed on knowing the risks of a shutdown. You can counter by saying federal workers will eventually be paid; a shutdown cannot last forever. But many federal workers may not have a large cash cushion, and will have to take out loans or carry higher credit card debt. Those fees and penalties for late... Continue reading
Posted Jan 26, 2019 at Economics and Ethics