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January 2016 posts

Mindfulness Training and Kids

By Jonathan B. Wight

It is pretty well recognized that kids who exhibit self-control as youngsters have a much higher chance of success in school and work.

But is self control something that can be taught?  Adam Smith thought yes, provided the child is taught to empathize. Failure to follow-through leads to a break in emotional sentiments that causes the child to learn self control.

Now a study in Developmental Psychology has brought out these points, “Promoting Prosocial Behavior and Self-Regulatory Skills in Preschool Children Through a Mindfulness-Based Kindness Curriculum.”

The twist is that the researchers in this paper inculcate greater experiences of empathy with mindfulness training. I’m a big fan of mindfulness, and have been tentatively bringing it into my college classrooms.

The authors find that a 12-week mindfulness training given to pre-school children improved learning, social-emotional development, social competence, health, and even end-of-year grades in the treatment group compared to a control group.

Duh!  Quieting the mind through mindfulness, and filling the mind with positive thoughts, are both activities that would likely lead to positive changes in behavior. Just try it for yourself.

I am somewhat skeptical of the results, however, because of test design: it is likely that students selected for treatment classrooms where the mindfulness and kindness training were given would quickly determine they were “special” compared to the control group, who did other kinds of activities. They would “perform” for teachers and fulfill the expectations.  Likewise, teachers who are teaching the treatment group may be attuned to looking out for examples of empathy and kindness, compared to teachers in the control classrooms.

Still, this is an interesting beginning to what in 20 years will be standard practice (I hope) in elementary schools.

[Photo: http://meditatetoday.org/2013/04/what-are-the-lasting-effects-meditation-can-have-on-children/]

Tom Brady – Out but Innocent

By Jonathan B. Wight

Tom Brady is out of the playoffs after being shut-down today by Denver’s defense.  More important than a win today is his win in the Deflategate drama.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times reports yesterday about Brady’s vindication from an MIT professor, John Leonard, who demonstrates that low air pressure in the AFC Championship [corrected, not Super Bowl] balls can be fully explained by the laws of science, rather than by the shenanigans of two New England Patriot staffers.

The simplest explanation is the likeliest: the balls were inflated correctly indoors but the cold air on the playing field deflated them.

Duh.  That is the first thing I thought of when the issue came up. Brady’s strange behavior of throwing away his cell phone, and the Patriot staffers’ strange behavior of taking the balls into the bathroom, then cast a suspicious light on things.

A short video explains the science.

The apparent ethical vindication of Brady comes at a good time for sports, after the summer (and ongoing) crisis in soccer’s FIFA, the coming environmental and economic fiasco of Rio’s Summer Olympics, and the recent revelation that some tennis stars had been throwing matches for Vegas.

Linguistic Ethics

By Jonathan B. Wight

Language serves lots of different functions in society. Sometimes it helps to explain things; other times it helps to make them incomprehensible.

Among the latter functions, language, through its obscurity, helps to distinguish insiders from outsiders. Knowing the “proper” pronunciation for something, regardless of how it’s spelled, is the mark of an insider.

Anyone who has struggled to correctly pronounce Greenwich, CT [Gren-itch], Edinburgh, Scotland [Eh-din-bro], and other twisters knows what I mean.

In a famous Vermont campaign, a rich outsider thought he would enter and buy up the votes of the local hicks. He wasn’t counting on the crusty incumbent who in a debate asked his opponent to pronounce the names of local counties: the result, you would guess was a disaster for the interloper.

Now here comes Donald Trump, an interloper to right-wing Republican politics. The former Democrat, who supported universal health care and has the family values of Silvio Berlusconi, was trying to convince Liberty University students that he was a genuine supporter of Christian fundamentalism. Really?

So Trump quotes The Bible at 2 Corinthians…. but pronounces it “Two Corinthinans”. Students snickered. The correct way to say this, among insiders, is “Second Corinthians,” as anyone would know who actually… attended church. Busted!

New book: Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White (eds), Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation

Mark D. White

E&V coverOur readers may be interested to know about a new book coming out soon from Oxford University Press that I co-edited with Jennifer A. Baker entitled Economics and the Virtues: Building a New Moral Foundation. From the blurb:

While ethics has been an integral part of economics since the days of Adam Smith (if not Aristotle), many modern economists dismiss ethical concerns in favor of increasing formal mathematical and computational methods. But recent financial crises in the real world have reignited discussions of the importance of ethics to economics, including growing calls for a new approach to incorporating moral philosophy in economic theory, practice, and policy. Ironically, it is the ethics of virtue advocated by Aristotle and Adam Smith that may lead to the most promising way to developing an economics that emphasizes the virtues, character, and judgment of the agents it models.

In Economics and the Virtues, editors Jennifer A. Baker and Mark D. White have brought together fifteen leading scholars in economics and philosophy to offer fresh perspectives on integrating virtue into economics. The first section covers five major thinkers and schools in the virtue tradition, tracing historical connections and suggesting new areas of cooperation. The second section applies the ethics of virtue to modern economic theory, delving into its current practices and methodology to suggest areas for integration with moral philosophy. Finally, the third section addresses specific topics such as markets, profits, and justice in the context of virtue and vice, offering valuable applications of virtue to economics.

With insights that are novel as well as rooted in time-tested ethical thought, Economics and the Virtues will be of interest to economists, philosophers, and other scholars in the social sciences and humanities, as well as professionals and policymakers in the fields of economics and finance, and makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing discussion over the role of ethics in economics.

Many if not all of the contributors will be familiar names: besides me and Jennifer, they include Christian U. Becker, Tim O'Keefe, James Otteson, Michael Baurmann and Geoffrey Brennan, Eric Schliesser, Andrew Yuengert, Christine Swanton, David C. Rose, Seung (Ginny) Choi and Virgil Storr, and Jason Brennan. (You can see the complete table of contents at Amazon, OUP, or my personal blog.)

Personally, this book has been a dream of mine for a number of years, and working with Jennifer, Adam Swallow and (the late) Terry Vaughn at OUP, and all the contributors, made that dream a reality in every possible way.

Economics and the Virtues has already been reviewed by Adam Gurri at Sweet Talk, where he calls it "a valuable source of insight, especially for economists used to operating within only one framework." Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and The Economist calls it "a fascinating volume" and "an indispensable collection for anyone interested in moral psychology, economic theory, or the morality of markets," and pre-eminent philosopher and Kant scholar Onora O'Neill calls it "a rich and rewarding collection" that "explores classical accounts of the virtues, and argues that they remain essential not only to character but to culture, including the culture of markets."

(You can also see Jennifer's and my post at OUPblog discussing "The Big Short" in relation to the theme of the book.)

Corruption in China

By Jonathan B. Wight

There’s plenty of corruption around the world, including in the U.S. At least in the U.S., we hold to the ideal that corruption is bad. Gradually around the world, even in Africa, this ideal is starting to take hold.

China embarked a few years ago on an anti-corruption campaign. This is a good thing for China’s future. Unfortunately, the lack of due process and the heavy hand of the state could make things worse.

The Economist reported a few months ago that to weed out corruption, China’s government began to ban those places where—to use the phrase of Adam Smith—people meet for “merriment and diversion … [to conspire] against the public.”

Hence, the government banned … golf!
The Economist reports that: “Golf and graft have gone together in modern China like tartan trousers and dull anecdotes.”

But as The Economist notes, the real place where corruption and conniving is likely to occur is in the elite club known as the Communist Party, where “cadres, not caddies” divide up the spoils of a rigged economic system.

“Banning the symptoms of graft is no substitute for addressing its root causes, any more than an anti-slice driver can fix your faulty golf swing.”

"Morality and Ethics" surveyed in Current Opinion in Psychology

Mark D. White

Thanks to Cass Sunstein for spotlighting this on Twitter: the December 2015 issue of Current Opinion in Psychology has a number of short survey articles on the state of moral psychology and behavioral ethics, and seems for the time being to be free to read. The table of contents is here, and the following is from the editors' introduction:



By Jonathan B. Wight

Amid all that has been written about inequality over the past two years, Robert Kuttner provides a summary and an attempt at consensus building in “The New Inequality Debate.”

There are a multitude of reasons given for rising inequality since the 1970s, including a skills gap, technology evolution, trade liberalization, declining unionization, winner-take-all markets, and so on.

Kuttner says a “revisionist” view has taken hold that blames rising inequality simply on power in the marketplace, which also translates into power in the political sphere for writing the institutional rules. Kuttner writes:

“This revisionism has huge implications for economic theory, for possible remedies, and for politics. If greater inequality does not reflect market efficiencies, then market distributions of income are not efficient. And policies that produce greater equality will, at worst, do no damage to economic growth—and quite possibly will improve it.”

This idea isn’t actually new—see Douglass North’s Nobel address and other studies that relate to it.

This is also an idea I grew up with in the 1960s in Brazil, where “Dependency” theorists claimed that elites collude to rig markets. That claim makes partial sense in some commodity sectors, but also can be easily refuted in others.

Economists can and should investigate the claim that market and political power have been growing, and that the result is not greater efficiency, but greater inequality. That is certainly the case in many developing countries, and if true there, why could it not also be true—to some extent—here?  

Adam Smith certainly thought power was and would be a perennial problem in economic life.

Call for papers: 3rd International Conference Economic Philosophy (Aix-en-Provence, June 2016)

Mark D. White

Here's a upcoming conference that may be of interest (apologies for the wonky formatting) -- many more details here.


The 3rd International Conference Economic Philosophy will be held in Aix-en-Provence on June 15-16, 2016.

It is organized by GREQAMin collaboration with the Philosophy-Economics Network, theInternational Network for Economic Method (INEM) and the Charles Gide Association for study of Economic Thought.

The focus of this international conference is “The economic agent and its representation(s). We support all contributors working on this topic to submit papers relevant to the theme. Other contributions from economic philosophy are welcome.

The program will consist of both contributed papers and keynote lectures given by:

-         Daniel Hausman, University of Wisconsin-Madison

-         Cristina Bicchieri, University of Pennsylvania

-         John B. Davis, Marquette University and Amsterdam University

The full call for papers is available here.


Important dates

February 28: Deadline for submissions (thematic sessions only)
March 15: Deadline for submissions (regular sessions)
April 15: Notification to authors

Until May 2: Registration

May 15Full paper submission deadline
June 15-16: Conference

 For more details, submission and registration, please visit the conference website http://ecophilo.greqam.fr


We look forward to meeting you in Aix,
The Conference organizing and scientific committees

(Apologies for cross-posting)


Improving Professional Ethics

By Jonathan B. Wight

The ASSA annual meeting just took place in San Francisco, and when I have time I’ll blog about that. Meanwhile, a little delayed, here is a video of a key AIRLEAP* session from last year:

“Improving Professional Ethics in Economics in the Aftermath of the Last Crisis”

Presenters: Susan Offutt, David Colander, Martha Starr, and William Black

Discussants: Deirdre McCloskey, Edward Leamer, Brooks Robinson

*Association for Integrity and Responsible Leadership in Economics and Associated Professions