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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
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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
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