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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 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 yesterday 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
I think perhaps the former. I didn't hear all of the exchange with the umpire, but from what I did hear I don't know why he would feel threatened. Thanks for your comment. JW
Toggle Commented Sep 9, 2018 on Serena Williams’s Loss at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The U.S. Open Women’s Tennis final was a brilliant match between two phenomenal players, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. It was marred by ethical issues that left everyone with bad tastes in their mouths. Osaka won, 6-2, 6-4 in an amazing display of poise and brilliance for a first timer to a majors final. The controversy centered on Williams, whose coach admitted he was signaling to her, and she was penalized by the umpire. She was then also penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for slamming and breaking her racket. Williams took umbrage and continued to berate the... Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Kenneth Rogoff wrote a glowing review of Sebastian Edwards’ new book, American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold (2018). This is a bit of American history I didn’t realize: America de facto defaulted on its national debt in 1933, when Roosevelt unilaterally removed the gold clause from U.S. debt obligations, in order to devalue the dollar by 40%. Prior to this, savers could ask for payment of interest in gold rather than dollars. This was a dramatic redistribution of wealth away from bondholders, of which I had not... Continue reading
Posted Sep 7, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” Does this ring true today? It was written nearly 40 years ago. --Isaac Asimov, “A Cult of Ignorance,” Newsweek, January 21, 1980 [Thanks to Ting Chen for the quote.] Continue reading
Posted Aug 4, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight The New York Times has an interesting piece on the Trump Administration’s plan to rollback fuel economy standards. The story examines a key ethical issue: will allowing cars to be heavier (and hence less fuel-efficient) save lives—specifically 12,700 lives over a ten-year period? There are three areas of disagreement: Do more fuel-efficient cars spur people to drive more, and hence be in more accidents? Do more fuel-efficient cars cost more, hence leading people to use older and less safe cars? Are lighter cars inherently more dangerous if other cars also become lighter? The article reaches a... Continue reading
Posted Aug 2, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight John Lanchester has an interesting review in The New Yorker of several economic books (July 23). These are: Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life; Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, Cents and Sensibilities: What Economists Can Learn from the Humanities; and Mihir Desai, The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanitiy in the World of Risk and Return. Hanson and Simler argue that 90% of all human activity can be traced back to signaling in one form or another. Lanchester, a novelist, finds the argument interesting but overstated; the... Continue reading
Posted Jul 31, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Critics sometimes complain that Adam Smith’s economics were not very good. The labor theory of value has certainly not held up well in most circles, and Smith was flummoxed by the diamond-water paradox. But one area where he remains right, apparently, is in his economic history. Kelly and Ó Gráda in “Adam Smith, Watch Prices, and the Industrial Revolution,” (QJE 2016) find that Smith’s rough guess that watch prices fell by 95% over the preceding century was in the ballpark. After adjusting for quality improvements, Smith’s analysis is even closer to the truth. Here’s the abstract:... Continue reading
Posted Jul 26, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight Sorry to Bother You is a sci-fi drama about a young black man who enters the sleazy world of telemarketing because he’s desperate. He starts to excel when he learns to speak like a geeky white guy, and makes lots of money working for a horrible big corporation. His bigger break comes when he starts marketing for the company WorryFree, where humans around the world live and get three square meals but they are basically slaves. They agree to this because they lack the basics of security on the outside. Our hero uncovers a plot to... Continue reading
Posted Jul 19, 2018 at Economics and Ethics
What a wonderful quote! Thanks! --JW
Toggle Commented Jul 19, 2018 on The Decline of Reason at Economics and Ethics
By Jonathan B. Wight I’m getting to this late, but this is really important for ethics and economics. There is a product that is very profitable for private producers, who naturally want to promote it. That product is vitally important for a few people, if used properly. But that product is fundamentally worse than a free alternative for most people, and in some countries is improperly used much of time, causing avoidable deaths. That product is infant formula milk. Nestlé was famous for pitching this product in sub-Saharan Africa as a modern woman’s product. Billboards suggested that if you really... Continue reading
Posted Jul 18, 2018 at Economics and Ethics