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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
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 6 days ago 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
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