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July 2016 posts

Reinventing Happiness

By Jonathan B. Wight

In the modern economic view, happiness arises from the attainment of outcomes that satisfy one’s preferences. This best applies, I think, at the Maslow’s hierarchy stage when we are simply trying to acquire basic needs for food, shelter, and safety. 

Once basic needs are satisfied, the economic view runs into numerous difficulties. First, preferences are not fixed, they evolve.  Obtaining one thing leads to an evolution of preferences. One can never feel satisfied with such a moving target. Second, preferences are socially formed and socially evolve. It is impossible to talk about happiness except in relation to the social milieu.  In this context, what one attains is always relative to others and one’s expectations. Third, behavioral issues arise of people’s preferences for bad things (addictions), and so on. 

Talking intelligently about happiness might require that economists become more pluralist, and try to understand non-outcome based ethical systems such as duty and virtue ethics.

*          *          *

Deepak Chopra and Sonja Lyubomirsky have an online course outlining a totally different approach to happiness.

Here is an excerpt:

“In the Vedic and Buddhist traditions of ancient India, there are five causes linked to suffering and unhappiness:

  1. Not knowing your true identity.
  2. Clinging to the idea of permanence in a world that is inherently impermanent.
  3. Fear of change.
  4. Identifying with the socially induced hallucination called the ego.
  5. Fear of death.

You only need to focus on the first tenet of unhappiness, which is not knowing your true identity. Once you know your true identity, all of your suffering will cease. Enlightenment is knowing who you truly are.”

Following this are Action Steps for practicing this alternative approach.  In the virtue ethics tradition, practice is required for developing good habits of thinking and acting. One’s happiness requires hard work to achieve to change oneself—and that work is internal.  By contrast, the economic approach also requires hard work to make money to buy things in the market—work that is external and requires no personal change.

*          *          *

What if our students were taught the Chopra approach to happiness in Econ 101? Would this be more or less helpful as a preparation for life?  Which approach do you think leads to better mental health and ultimately happiness? 

Rainn Wilson on Life’s Big Questions

By Jonathan B. Wight

Rainn Wilson, The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy (2015)

What does a nerdy, goofy actor from the sit-com The Office have to tell us about ethics?  The main point of the book has to do with developing an authentic relationship with oneself—that is, learning how to live in one’s own skin.

Rainn wilsonIt wasn’t easy for Rainn Wilson, whose parents divorced early and he wound up in a variety of difficult situations, such as getting the s*** kicked out of him while living in the slums of New York. The comedic actor also played straight roles, such as Hamlet, but admits he was never very good at it. He kept trying too hard to be what he thought others wanted him to be.

That is the essence of the ethical issue: if you are a transactionalist, as most neoclassical economists think people are, one “acts” in a way that is designed to produce the highest desired outcome. But “acting” in that way can be profoundly phony, and will ultimately be unsuccessful.

Only when one lets go of thinking—and concentrates on being—can one succeed in the world of acting—and other facets of life. But to “be” means to be true to one’s real inner being, because only then can it be an effortless flow.

Wilson’s story of how he became a TV and film star after numerous false starts and missteps is interesting as a case study in virtue ethics. More than that, it offers glimpses into the kinds of questions everyone should ask to live a life fully. One exercise he describes is having people write down the 5 things that they “know for sure—really for sure.”  It’s a revelation, and my own list starts with “I am alive” followed by “I will die.”

Wilson was raised in the Baha'i Faith, which believes that all great religions are one. He left as a Bohemian rebel and became an atheist, then an agnostic, before returning to the faith as an adult.

Wilson went on to help create SoulPancake, a whimsical website and media production company interested in pursuing uplifting spiritual, psychological, and philosophical interests.  It is a for-profit company promoting the virtues of resilience and courage, exemplified by the wildly popular short Youtube video, "Kid President".

Below are the break are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

Continue reading "Rainn Wilson on Life’s Big Questions" »

Tim Kaine and Social Economics

By Jonathan B. Wight

KaineHillary Clinton has selected Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia as her running mate.

Kaine has held lots of jobs around here—mayor, law professor and leadership professor at my university, and now senator. Kaine is immensely popular for his devotion to integrity and transparency in the public process. He is also a really nice guy.

Kaine’s relevance to this blog is that he grew up absorbing Catholic social thought teachings.  These teachings were likely instrumental in the formation of the Association for Social Economics, which was created in 1941 by Jesuits Thomas Divine and Bernard William Dempsey (originally called the Catholic Economic Association).

I first encountered Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s radical Catholic teachings from the 1930s when I spent a year after college doing “social justice” work with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC).  I lived in a commune of recent college graduates who worked in inner city schools, ran a bank for hobos, and did legal work for indigents.

Kaine, who like me has his undergraduate degree in economics, spent nine months in Honduras as a volunteer with the JVC helping in a Jesuit missionary school. 

My own time as a JVC volunteer was immensely important to my future graduate work in economics. That experience put me in touch with poor people, but much more than that, with a perspective of openness to the non-homo-economicus way of thinking. That is, there is a way to live that allows one to relate to others outside the purely transactional economic way of thinking. These ideas were handholds to sanity as my fellow graduate students and I struggled with the narrow perspective of neoclassical economics in the mid-1970s. 

Kaine embodies many positive qualities, including his empathy and his level-headedness, which is aided by his religious devotion and prayer.  In terms of policy making he is in favor of markets and trade with some regulations; he personally opposes abortion but considers it a private matter of conscience. He has fought in Congress to limit the power of presidents to wage war without authority.

What I like most about Kaine is that he is pretty much an average guy, who through hard work, diligence, and focus has risen above the pack. If incremental improvements with stability are the hallmarks of your developmental philosophy, then Kaine is your candidate. If, on the other hand, you believe that a revolution is needed, you had better pick Trump.

Seeing the ravages of caudillo (big man) authoritarian politics in many Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern countries, it is refreshing to have the option of voting for someone who is competent, humble, honest, and dedicated to the democratic process.

PDQ Bach

By Jonathan B. Wight

If the bedlam in Cleveland or Philadelphia starts to get you down, the chaos of the orchestra here will liven you back up.

Listen to the wonderful color commentary that accompanies Beethoven’s 5th, performed by an unnamed (and ashamed) group of musicians. 

And when that’s done, remember to re-read the Economic Expert’s report, “How to Be Efficient with Fewer Violins.” 

Then smile, turn off your computer and tv, and take that good book off the shelf.

Trump by Another Name

By Jonathan B. Wight

With apologies to Leo Tolstoy, who wrote the following about an autocratic-leaning narcissist who can’t tell the difference between lies and truth—a.k.a. the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.   Adapted for modern ears:

A man without convictions, customs, traditions … emerges by the very strangest of chances it seems, from among all the turbulent parties of [America] and, without [initially] attaching himself to any of them, is borne forward to a prominent position. The ignorance of his colleagues, the weakness and insignificance of his opponents, the frankness of his falsehoods, and the dazzling, self-confident narrowness of this man raise him to the head of the [party].

His opponents’ reluctance to fight, and his own childish audacity and conceit win him … fame. Innumerable so-called chances attend him everywhere. The disfavor into which he falls with the rulers of [his own party] turns to his advantage…. He is several times on the brink of disaster and each time is saved in some unexpected way…. He finds the government in [Washington] in a process of dissolution in which all those who are in it are inevitably wiped out and destroyed….

As a newcomer [initially] free from party entanglements, can only serve to exalt him. He has no plan of any sort…. He alone, with the ideal of glory and grandeur he had developed, with his insane self-deification, with his audacity in crime and his outright lies— he alone can justify what has to be done.

But the once proud and shrewd rulers of [the Republican Party], feeling that their part has been played, are even more befuddled than he, and fail to say what they ought to have said to retain their power and crush him. The discredited [former] rulers … have no terms and no rational ideals with which to oppose the meaningless ... ideal of glory and grandeur.

It is not so much [he] who prepares himself for the performance of his role as those around him who equip him to accept the whole responsibility for what is happening and has to happen. There is no act, no crime, no petty subterfuge he might commit that is not instantly hailed as a great deed.

Not only is he great, but so are his ancestors, his [wives, his sons, his daughters, and his sons-in-law].

Adapted from Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (Signet Classics) (p. 1323). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

*          *          *          *

From Tolstoy’s view, great political upheavals, and the so-called leaders like Napoleon who front them, have to run their course before their folly can be revealed. A tide must rush in before it can rush out. The ethical lesson I’ve learned from reading Tolstoy’s magnificent War and Peace is that humility and gratefulness are the great underrated virtues in political life—or life in general.

Onward to Cleveland! 

[Image: http://thecuriositeur.com/current/2016/4/20/cewgk2nf64buulef5amz7xfpnlz9wp]

The Turkey Coup Attempt

By Jonathan B. Wight

Turkey’s tilt towards an authoritarianism Islamic state law is deeply troubling. But this tilt has, presumably, the backing of the majority of voters, even if not the young, the well-educated, and the well-off.

What is more important—democratic freedom or religious freedom?

We face a similar choice in the U.S.: Trump once proposed a religious test for entry into the U.S.—Muslims need not apply.  If Trump were elected into office and his plan supported by Congress, would such a law constitute a Christianized version of the Islamic state?

Brave individuals confronting a tank in last night’s attempted coup calls to mind the protestor in Tiananmen Square.

What is interesting is the self-restraint of the tank commander, who could easily have killed these protestors.  Firing on one’s own people would be like having sex with one’s sister—repulsive, if one has an active moral imagination and moral sentiments engaged.

Yet Milgram’s electric shock experiments have showed that people are willing to repress their moral sentiments when someone in “authority” orders them to. Glad at least that despite the several hundred killed last night, the numbers were not in the thousands, or tens of thousands.

War and Peace

By Jonathan B. Wight

AMAZON BLURB: Set in the years leading up to and culminating in Napoleon's disastrous Russian invasion, this classic novel focuses upon an entire society torn by conflict and change. Here is humanity in all its innocence and corruption, wisdom and folly, painful defeats and enduring triumphs. Here is the seemingly effortless artistry of a master. Here, finally, is a view of history and personal destiny that is perpetually modern.


I’ve been reading War and Peace, sort of a virtue-ethics rite of passage.  There is so much intrigue and despicable behavior that one can’t help but learn something from it.  At least that was Adam Smith’s theory as to why we should read great literature—they provide us with lots of bad exemplars!

The book castigates armies and its generals everywhere, but particularly during the Napoleonic wars.  There are ridiculous bureaucratic structures and the egoistic over-confidence of grand planners, who don’t seem to understand that real development happens from the bottom-up not the top down.  Anticipating Hayek, there is never enough good information to make reliable forecasts of how our actions will play out in real life. At minimum, one should be humble and flexible.

There are some horrific descriptions of the tragedies of war, as well as brutally funny military escapades, leading me to think that Joseph Heller must have read this before penning Catch-22.  The real war heroes are criticized and forgotten, and the cowards and crooks get promoted.

To understand why Napoleon went on to attack Russia in 1812, I had to relearn a bit about the “Continental System.”  The English had earlier mounted a blockade of France, so France retaliated by making it illegal for any European country under its alliance to trade with England.  The result was the greater impoverishment of many European citizens who did not have access to cheap British goods, but those in import-competing businesses made out well. 

The British suffered little since they pushed their exports onto other colonies and markets.  The Spanish, Portuguese and Russians had profitable smuggling operations sneaking in British goods, which contributed to the disastrous French invasions of these regions.

Because of the British blockade, the British were in need of seamen, and impressed as many as 10,000 American merchant seamen into the British Navy.  There were other reasons leading up to the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the U.S.

America leaders became alarmed by our lack of military preparedness, and shortly after 1807 passed a tariff on gunpowder that gave the DuPont company of Delaware a lovely start.  Is this the birth of the military-industrial complex in America? 

More on the book later….

Seminar on Ethics and Economics

By Jonathan B. Wight

Last February I attending an outstanding seminar in Washington DC on ethics and economics, hosted by AIRLEAP (the nonprofit Association for Integrity and Responsible Leadership in Economics and Associated Professions). 

Upcoming next January is another seminar in conjunction with the ASSA meetings in Chicago.  Below are the details.


A special seminar will be held in Chicago on January 8, 2017:

“Principles of Ethics, Scientific Integrity, and Responsible Leadership:

A One-Day Training Seminar for Economists.”

When the same seminar was held this past February in Washington D.C. it was endorsed by the Eastern Economic Association and by the National Economists Club, and it received highly favorable reviews. Several organizations sent their employees to the seminar to meet their employee’s annual training requirements in leadership and ethics, and seminar attendees receive a certificate of expertise. Many graduate students attended as well, and the seminar includes a specific presentation offering advice to students on the job market. The seminar provides a wide range of insightful presentations by world-renowned experts, and will engage the audience in provocative and interactive discussions about some of the most challenging issues in economics today.

The seminar this coming January is being held at the magnificent Chicago Cultural Center. Some of the distinguished speakers include:

  • D. McCloskey, & G. DeMartino, Oxford Handbook of Professional Economic Ethics;
  • Agency Leaders: Erica Groshen (BLS), Keith Hall (CBO), and Brian Moyer (BEA);
  • D. Colander, author of The Making of an Economist, and many other economics books;
  • S. Ziliak, The Cult of Statistical Significance (with D. McCloskey);
  • R,G. Anderson, former Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The fee for the full-day seminar is set at a minimum to cover costs: $95, or $50 for students.

To learn more about the seminar and to register for it people should go to http://tinyurl.com/AIRLEAP2017.\


Thank you for your consideration, and thank you in advance for distributing this announcement.

With best wishes,

Board of Directors of the Association for Integrity and Responsible Leadership in Economics: Deirdre McCloskey (Chair), Richard G. Anderson, Amelie Constant, Mark Costa, George DeMartino, Seth Giertz, Areerat Kichkha, Steven Payson, W. Charles Sawyer, and Stephen Ziliak

Where is the Good Samaritan?

The Rev. B. P. Campbell

[In this sermon Ben explores the dark side of individualism, isolation, and fragmentation—the unnecessary consequences of economic growth—in the aftermath of the tragedies in Dallas, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and other cities last week.  --JW]

Reference: The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)


"Now in the 21st century, as the mobility and disloyalty of money take over, we are slipping into greater fragmentation.  Too many ditches.  Too many robbers.  Too little community.  Too much despair."


            Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

            Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

            Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

            This week, maybe this year, we’ve all been living on the Jericho Road.

            We’ve built a nation of Jericho Roads.

            Where is the Good Samaritan?

            It’s as if we were living right in the middle of the story which Jesus told the lawyer.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “What have you been taught?”  Jesus asks.  The man gives the right answer – Love God and your neighbor.  But then he asks another question.  It is on this question, and Jesus’ answer to it, that God’s Holy Spirit builds the kingdom of God.

            “Who is my neighbor,” the man asks.

            Jesus’ answer is a story – a story that breaks the rules of religion and sets men and women free – a story whose basic commandment is to Live, to Live imaginatively, to tackle the issues that present themselves today without prescription or instruction – only the instruction to love our neighbor as ourselves.

            This week, maybe this year, we’ve all been living on the Jericho Road.

            We’ve built a nation of Jericho Roads.

            Where is the Good Samaritan?

Continue reading "Where is the Good Samaritan?" »


By Jonathan B. Wight

In today’s New York Times David Brooks tackles the pervasive but wrong-headed ideology of Hobbes, Mandeville, and Ayn Rand that posits that rational self-interest is the source of all that is good in the economy and society. 

It isn’t that self-interest is bad, but self-interest functions alongside other motives that at time are stronger.  Brooks notes:

“Classical economics adopts a model that says people are primarily driven by material self-interest. Political science assumes that people are driven to maximize their power.

“But this worldview is clearly wrong. In real life, the push of selfishness is matched by the pull of empathy and altruism. This is not Hallmark card sentimentalism but scientific fact: As babies our neural connections are built by love and care. We have evolved to be really good at cooperation and empathy. We are strongly motivated to teach and help others.”

He goes on to cite some of the famous experiments that demonstrate “motivational crowding out”—that is, when civic-minded norms become corrupted by selfish individualism. When a day care center imposes a monetary fee on late parents, tardiness rises.  When the Boston police department changes unlimited sick days to a limited number per year, sick outages increase. Standard economics cannot explain such counter-intuitive results using rational expectations alone.

Brooks notes:

“To simplify, there are two lenses people can use to see any situation: the economic lens or the moral lens. When you introduce a financial incentive you prompt people to see their situation through an economic lens. Instead of following their natural bias toward reciprocity, service and cooperation, you encourage people to do a selfish cost-benefit calculation. They begin to ask, ‘What’s in this for me?’”

All that is good, but Brooks is not quite as helpful as he could be.  First, he cites Adam Smith for allegedly promoting the self-individual view.  He should know better.  Second, he ascribes all of this prosocial behavior to altruism.  In Smith’s view of things, however, a strong justification for such prosocial actions arise from feelings about justice and injustice.