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February 2015 posts

Freedom of Conscience

By Jonathan B. Wight

This Ted talk by Qasim Rashid provides Qasim rashida sterling defense of freedom of conscience and separation of church and state from a Muslim perspective.

 It’s a sobering message—that most of the world’s people live under regimes of religious persecution. Here are some excerpts:

 “What we are seeing on a worldwide scale especially in last 5-6 years is that the countries that have become hostile to religious minorities have increased, and now represent nearly 75% of the world’s population.

"And now for the scary part: those countries where it is getting worst are countries where if they collapse, have the real possibility of creating worldwide conflict. Four of these nine countries are nuclear-armed countries: Pakistan, India, Russia, and Israel.  And all 4 of these countries are in the top 9 of the most religiously-oppressive in the world. Three of them don’t have functioning governments: Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan.

 “…. The common reality of all these countries is an oppression of conscience.  And if you are wondering why China isn’t on this list, China is not only #2 on government restrictions index, only behind North Korea,… but remember, the current Chinese regime exists on the blood of 50-60 million Chinese citizens…so it was by no means a peaceful creation. This is not a religious issue.  China’s violence and persecution comes from anti-religion, from an arguably atheistic concept.”

 Rashid ends with a new narrative for separation of church and state. 

The FCC and Net Neutrality

By Jonathan B. Wight

The latest FCC ruling has me brooding. Net neutrality“Net neutrality” sounds like a good thing, right?  Why shouldn’t everyone be treated to an equal playing field?

If the Internet is like a utility, and utility firms are regulated to keep monopoly forces at bay, what is so wrong with the latest FCC ruling that prevents Internet providers from playing favorites?

We have a Post Office, for example, that historically played an important role in democracy by distributing newspapers, correspondence, and packages to far flung outposts of civilization. It was part of our public policy to insist that every sender of a first class letter be treated the same and pay the same price—regardless of whether the Valentine letter is going to Chicago or to a small fishing village 100 miles from Nome, Alaska. 

The cost to send the letter to Alaska is far higher than to send it to Chicago, and hence there is a huge subsidy from those who mail to big cities (where there are economies of scale) to those who mail to small rural outposts.  But we put up with this because we thought we should give the small guys a break in rural areas.

But this analogy starts to break down when we consider how the Post Office has evolved over the last few decades.  Today you can send a letter faster than someone else’s letter if you are willing to pay more for Priority Mail!  Isn’t that exactly what Internet service providers are asking to be able to do—charge differential rates and allow some data packages to get there sooner than others?

The key issue is whether you think the Internet is highly competitive, or whether you believe monopoly forces will create barriers to competitors by buying up faster speeds, making it very hard for smaller firms to get a foothold.  The FCC’s net neutrality rule in this sense is supporting an “infant industry” trade argument.

We have some evidence on this from other areas.  In consumer products, huge conglomerates like Proctor and Gamble keep out smaller competitors by buying up shelf space in supermarkets and inundating shoppers with massive advertising budgets. P&G spent nearly $10 billion last year on pushing its brands, and it has huge economies of scale that allow it to do this. Upstarts may have a better toothpaste, but have little chance to get it before customers (although generic brands have been on the rise).

The bottom line is: I’m conflicted about this ruling. On one level is doesn’t make sense.  Companies should be allowed to pay more to get their product more quickly to consumers.  But this only holds if there is sufficient competition and not much monopoly power. That is the key question. 

A Professor's Life

By Jonathan B. Wight

Someone once asked if a professor’s life was easy.  The conventional view is that academics are slackers, living off of tenure. Stereotypes have a basis in truth, so one shouldn’t dismiss that criticism out of hand. It was surely true in Adam Smith’s time at Oxford, when he thought his professors were lazy, ignorant, and closed-minded.

I am sure there is a part of academia that fits that mold today, as well. But my experience, influenced by being in a business school for 33 years, suggests a far different view.

First, getting to be a professor is a grueling path. Four years of hard undergraduate work is needed to distinguish oneself from the masses and get stellar letters of recommendation to grad school. Even after getting into graduate school the odds are low you will succeed.  Professor.robe

In my graduate program the attrition rate was high.  Out of every 10 people starting, one would drop out within the first few months because of personal problems or realizing that grad school is not their cup of tea.  Two more would not return after the first year’s prelim exams.  Another two would fail the second year’s prelims.  Out of the 5 that passed all their exams and continued on to put forward a dissertation proposal, another 2 take jobs out of town and never finish: they are permanent ABD’s—All But Dissertation limbo.  That leaves 3 out of 10 that actually finished the program within about five or six years with a Ph.D.

Then there is the difficult and highly competitive search for a job.  You are working very hard on finishing a dissertation and at the same time need to fill out 30-50 job applications.  When do you sleep?

Luck upon luck, you land a job that’s a good fit for your interests!  Now begins the six-year slog to show what an outstanding teacher and scholar you are!  In some schools the competition to get tenure is fierce, with hair-splitting arguments about the quality of publishing in this journal versus that journal.

If all goes well you will get tenure, 16 years after you left high school.  It was a long road with high risks and no guarantee of success. While tenure may provide a brief respite, you will soon

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Are Early Risers More Moral?

By Jonathan B. Wight

Okay, on one level we can say, “Sure!”  The early bird gets Alarm the worm and deserves it, too.  The early riser showed self-control and left the party early the previous night and didn’t stagger into bed after midnight.  The early riser gets in two extra hours of productive work before the late risers straggle in at 9 or 10 am. 

People who rise early show self-control and that prudence perhaps makes them more moral in terms of honesty or other virtuous traits, as well.

But, before we take this too far, we should dive into Maria Konnikova’s New Yorker article, “No, Mornings Don’t Make You Moral.”

Turns out that if you have a circadian bio-rhythm that makes you a “morning person” you are indeed more likely to behave more honestly in the morning. But if you are an “evening person” who only starts to wake up when the sun goes down, the reverse is true.

Circumstances matter.

[Photo: http://blog.doctoroz.com/dr-oz-blog/oz-style-my-morning-routine]

Quote for the Day

By Jonathan B. Wight

“Educating the mind without educating Aristotlethe heart is no education at all.”


This quote was used today on a public radio station (WVTF) in a story about the global financial crisis of 2008.  It quoted a graduate business school professor from Columbia who admitted sheepishly that, yes, faculty had been giving students courses on business ethics for decades, covering utilitarian and rights-based views.  It didn't make much difference on Wall Street.

But what they apparently hadn't been covering was virtue-based ethics.  This moral framework starts with the intentions and motives of the economic actor.

Adam Smith never thought you could convince someone of something in ethics by giving them intellectual arguments.  Instead, you had to change their moral imaginations, and engage their feelings or sentiments.

To Smith, “Superior prudence…is the best head joined to the best heart.”

It is hopeless to think that you can convince someone of their duty to behave honestly or with integrity by spouting Kantian rules at them, invoking Bentham's greatest good, or even appealing to economic efficiency.  Those are all very fine ideas, once someone has the heart to want to act with appropriate regard for others.

The Corruption of Education

By guest blogger, Rev. Benjamin P. Campbell

            There is another dimension. Ben campbell

            It is not the third dimension.  It is not the fourth, or the fifth dimension.  It does violence to this dimension, in a sense, to give it a number.  This is the dimension where number is nonexistent.

             In the first two or three dimensions, number is required and defining.  Length, width, depth, or height -- these are measurements, and the first dimensions are measureable.  We should know.  The society is obsessed with measurement.  In fact – and even 30 years ago one might have considered this absurdly impossible – a significant portion of the society considers immeasurable things insignificant.

            The great enforcer of measurability is the computer.  But money also helps.

            Trillions of dollars (literally) are currently being invested to force the nation’s public school system into a computer-based model, in which a few large software and hardware companies require use of their products and control what short answers children are taught – and in which all teaching and learning is reduced to things that can be answered on a computer-based test.

            The power of the economic profitability of this is enormous.  Major foundations are pushing it, and hedge funds exploiting it.  It has taken over the current U.S. Department of Education and the public schools of several states.  Its profiteers are contributing mightily in elections.

            In the doublespeak which has been perfected by a market-driven, concentrated-power society, the centrally controlled computer-based Common Core curriculum is said to introduce “critical thinking” into education where it was missing before.  It does exactly the opposite.  Test-writers write trick           [click below to keep reading]

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Religion, Opiate of the Masses

By Jonathan B. Wight

While we’re on the subject of religion, and its misinterpretation, there appears to be a lot of folderol coming out of Harvard from Clay Christensen, the disruptive innovator guy.

In this video, Christensen relays a story about a graduate student economist from China who spends a year visiting American on a Fulbright. 

Christensen then elevates this mysterious, unnamed source into a guru to be fervently followed, as if his views are somehow miraculous because they come from a Marxist. 

This young man notices that in America, people tend to obey the laws, and he intuits that we follow the laws because we are highly religious.  Upon this he decides that religion is the foundation of democracy.  According to him:

Americans are “not just accountable to society, but to God” and “if religion loses its influence over the lives of Americans, what will happen to our democracy?”

The reason why democracy works, is because most people most of the time “voluntarily choose to obey the laws.  If you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”

Okay, I’m willing to say that there is a foundation of truth here.  But I wish Christensen had quoted the actual source for this, Alexis de Tocqueville’s insights on religion and democracy from the 19th century, rather than an unnamed graduate student. DeTocqueville2

Many people do fear the afterlife, and that is a powerful force for developing self-control. Adam Smith certainly thought so.

But using this logic, if religion is the source of democracy, why is there so little democracy in the Middle East, a region with lots of religious fervor?  And most of Christendom lacked democracies for most of its history going back 2,000 years.  So this theory clearly relies on the existence of something else—perhaps a lot else—to create the context for democracy.

Adam Smith provides a whole book on the psychology of self-restraint, based on fellow-feeling and the moral norms that arise from them. Properly socialized individuals in America do not run amuck stealing every chance they get. And it has nothing to do with religion, except insofar as religious practices are an adjunct to community socialization mechanisms that internalize feelings about right and wrong. 

Most Western Europeans are atheist these days, but that doesn't mean there is a lack of ethics.  The murder rates and crime rates are generally much lower in Europe than in the U.S.  These societies also have thriving democracies without the reliance on religion.

Readers of this blog know that I am an Episcopalian and love religion in my life.  But it is bad logic to argue that religion is the only thing keeping anarchy at bay.

In China, for example, they may have little religion but a long history of Confucianism that helps people to develop self control.

So sorry…  I'm not buying it that atheists or non-religious people are necessarily evil and amoral.  

[Thanks to Bill Beville for the link.]

What ISIS Really Wants

By Jonathan B. Wight

UPDATE:  Mark White provides another good link on this story ("Is ISIS Authentically Islamic?") and Qasim Rashid does a better job critiquing The Atlantic story than I ("ISIS Really Wants Power--Not Islam").

In a previous post I argued that the ISIS supporters were terrorists, and could not claim the mantle of religious apostles. Caliph

 In a recent Atlantic Monthly article (“What ISIS Really Wants”) Graeme Wood argues that views like mine are both wrong and dangerous.  I will quote him at length:

“Without acknowledgment of these factors [e.g., imperialism, etc.], no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.”

“Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. ‘What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,’ Haykel (a scholar) said. ‘There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.’”

“It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State ‘a problem with Islam.’ The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.”

Wood also quotes George Orwell, who wrote insightfully: “Hitler has said to [the people of Germany], ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.”

I accept much of what Wood writes.  It is a “must-read” article for anyone who wants to understand ISIS. 

Still, by the end of the article I’m not sure that my original point is invalid. Most Muslims around the world denounce ISIS and its methods. I certainly am not in a position to adjudicate semantic points of religious doctrine. And frankly, going down that route is not terribly productive, at least to my way of thinking.

[Photo: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the declared caliphate of the Islamic State.]

Recombination and the Virtue of Heterodoxy

By Jonathan B. Wight

There is an interesting interview with Peter Swann in the latest World Economics Association newsletter.

Swann is interested in innovation and the role of specialization.  As Adam Smith noted, over-specialization is dangerous for one’s mental health, and by extension, to the broader society.  A person who is over-specialized “generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.… His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues” (WN 506).

Can we say the same thing about economists?  Do economists know their own little specialties but generally lack understanding of how all the pieces fit together? The American Economics Association thought so, noting that our economics graduate schools were turning out “idiot savants, skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.” (William J. Barber, “Reconfigurations in American Academic Economics: A General Practitioner’s Perspective.” Daedelus, Winter 1997: p. 98.) 

Swann picks up on this theme:

“If we are to reap the benefits of the division of labour, somebody – at least – must recombine the fruits of each labourer’s work. In a manufacturing process, that recombination is ensured by the assembly of a physical product for sale. But in the research world, there is no assurance that the recombination will take place. Indeed, I can only think of a few scholars who indulge in this recombination activity. Career advancement primarily depends on excellence within your narrow discipline, and there is very little incentive to work at recombination.”

“Without that recombination, economists work in ‘splendid’ isolation. Not everyone thinks that is a good idea. Hayek, for example, believed that, ‘the economist who is only an economist is likely to become a nuisance if not a positive danger.’” (Hayek, 1967)

The role of heterodox economics is central to the interdisciplinary approach needed for analyzing innovation:

“The second way in which a cross-disciplinary approach can improve understanding is really an extrapolation of what we learned above about the gains from encouraging a heterodox research approach. As I said before, the heterodox community has a less restrictive framework in which to think about the economics of innovation and can therefore ask a broader range of research questions. A truly cross-disciplinary approach can take this process even further still.”

In particular, we could think about the psychology of creativity. Standard economics suggests that if you want to get more creativity, you reward it (say, with more money).  Turns out, that greatly misunderstands the behavioral psychology.  Reading more Adam Smith might correct some of this problem.  

New book series: On Ethics and Economics (Rowman and Littlefield International)

Mark D. White

I'm pleased to announce a new book series I'm editing, On Ethics and Economics, with the good people at Rowman & Littlefield International:

On Ethics and Economics will explore the ethical aspects of topics traditionally studied through economics. Starting from the position that no economic issue should be examined in an ethical vacuum, books in the series will feature philosophers, economists and other scholars exploring ethics behind issues normally treated as primarily economic in nature. Titles will explore the implicit ethical assumptions made when discussing issues and propose alternative ethical foundations for them, as well as investigating ethical aspects of issues that are often neglected.

With Jonathan Wight on the advisory editorial board, it can't fail.

I also have a blog post at RLI, "Can Economics Operate in an Ethical Vacuum? Of Course Not,"explaining the motivation and focus of the series, along with some topics we hope to address in the near future. 

If you have any ideas for the series, please let me know at [email protected].