« December 2016 | Main | February 2017 »

January 2017 posts

A Baptist Response to Religious Attack -- 1830

By Jonathan B. Wight

Many faculty members and universities around the U.S. are reacting to the threat to academic freedom posed by the arbitrary temporary ban on students and scholars from countries with Muslim majorities.

My own University of Richmond, founded by Baptists (it is no longer affiliated), had an enlightened view of religious liberty as a foundation for education, welcoming students of all religious persuasions or none, promising equal justice and equal consideration.  That was in 1830.

Our president, Ron Crutcher, released this statement a few hours ago:

Dear Members of the University Community, Ur flag

I share the concerns expressed by many members of our Richmond community about the executive order issued by President Trump on Friday that targets refugees and immigrants from seven countries in Africa and the Middle East. Such exclusion based on national origin or religious beliefs is contrary to American ideals and threatens the mission of higher education.  

We at Richmond are proudly part of a global community that invites ideas and people from all corners of the world. Each year, one in ten students at the University is an international student, and our educational model ensures that the majority of students spend at least one semester studying outside the United States, engaging with the complexities of global citizenship and bringing fresh perspectives back to our campus and classrooms when they return. The work of our staff and faculty crosses national boundaries, and their partners in scholarly and creative endeavors live and work around the world. We are nourished and inspired by the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives brought together in our intellectual community.

While the legal and political situation is unfolding, we are committed to supporting affected members of our community and collaborating with other academic organizations to ensure that universities in the United States are able to sustain their vital role in linking the people and ideas of the world. Our University General Counsel, Shannon Sinclair, is following the situation closely and working with other members of the senior leadership team to ensure that members of our community have the best available information about the effects of this order on their lives and scholarship during this time of uncertainty. We have long had in place a process for supporting students who cannot go home due to political or other reasons, and that process will expand as needed in response to this changing landscape. We welcome any questions you may have about specific challenges that this new environment poses to your ability to travel, work, or study. A list of contacts is provided at the bottom of this message.

Just a few miles from our campus, an historic marker and museum celebrate the role that Virginians played in establishing the principles of religious liberty so central to American values. On our own campus, Virginia Baptists founded a University fully aware that their own religious tradition had been seen in previous generations as a dangerous force. Thus, the University’s first president declared that “pupils of every creed and of no creed” would be welcomed into our community and “treated with equal justice and consideration.” Each generation at Richmond has worked to fulfill more completely the promise of those words. Today that spirit of welcome is evident at the University and in our statement of shared values. Our educational mission depends upon the free exchange of ideas and a shared commitment to welcoming those who seek to live and learn within our communities. I look forward to working with all of you to realize and defend these central tenets of our work.


Ronald A. Crutcher


Political protesting should generally be a private affair, done on one’s own time and dime.  Students should not be expected to listen to a professor’s pet peeves and rants about economic or political policies—even when they appear highly unethical.  Debates about such topics should be driven by student research and discussion of both sides.

That said, sometimes the very nature of the institution itself is at risk, and that does require a formal response of faculty and administration.  This may be such a time.

Religious Test

By Jonathan B. Wight

U.S. Constitution: Amendment 1 - Freedom of expression and religion

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Statue-of-liberty-828665_960_720Right now, President Trump may be in violation of the U.S. constitution because of his ownership of the Trump Hotel and other properties, which provides him income from foreign sources (Section 9:8).  But there is some wiggle room as he steps back from management.

But it is clear that Congress banned discrimination in immigration in various acts over the years.

The U.S. constitution also bars religious tests for holding office and for citizenship. 

Trump’s discriminatory action yesterday to bar Muslims from various countries, and to expedite Christian immigrants, is likely both illegal and wrong. 

It is likely illegal according to previous acts of Congress.

It is wrong because it weakens America’s greatest strength, our core values, and loses us millions of friends around the world. Talk about giving ISIS a propaganda victory!  

It is notable that Trump did not bar Muslims from Saudi Arabia, which is surprising given the citizenship of many of the 9/11 plotters.  

History will look back at this action with horror, for the chaotic way it was implemented and the long-lasting negative effects for the U.S.

(NB: Immigrants to the U.S. -- including refugees -- are heavily vetted already.  Let us be sure to continue to check all immigrants and visa entry folks for terrorism connections. But aren’t we more likely to face attacks from home-grown terrorists, many of whom claim to be Christians, wielding legally-obtained guns?)

Taxing Imports

By Jonathan B. Wight

The Trump Administration and Republican members of Congress briefly floated an idea to tax imports by 20%.

This is Trump’s way of asserting that Mexico will pay for his border wall.

But anyone who has paid a smidgeon of attention in Econ 101 knows that a tax—even when imposed on a business—is usually borne in large part by consumers.  The importing business has to raise its price to cover its higher costs, or to some extent, domestic producers who are less efficient will enter and charge a higher price.  Either way, U.S. consumers bear it on the chin. 

But let’s soldier on and tell the commander in chief what he wants to hear—Mexico will be paying for that wall (wink, wink)!  Since facts are irrelevant, this will fit in appropriately with other administration reports to the American people. 

Mexico’s President, Enrique Peña Nieto, (rightly) canceled his planned visit. Trump’s comments and plans regarding Mexico have been needlessly antagonistic to a good neighbor and excellent trade partner.

In doing the ethical analysis of NAFTA, there is always a problem of deciding whose interests should count.  In a Utilitarian calculus, is it only U.S. costs and benefits that should matter to our decision?  Or, should a good ethicist see things from Peter Singer’s wider Utilitarian lens—that of a world citizen? 

In this case, it doesn’t matter.  Whether from a purely U.S. perspective or a wider global perspective, U.S. openness and engagement with Mexico yields way more benefits than costs, at least from my perspective.

Narratives in Economics

By Jonathan B. Wight

Robert Shiller’s Presidential Address to the AEA (2017) deals with “Narrative Economics,” defined as:

“By narrative economics I mean the study of the spread and dynamics of popular narratives, the stories, particularly those of human interest and emotion, and how these change through time, to understand economic fluctuations.” 

(NB: A good definition of narrative economics would not contain that same word within the definition….)

Shiller notes:

“The human brain has always been highly tuned towards narratives, whether factual or not, to justify ongoing actions, even such basic actions as spending and investing. Stories motivate and connect activities to deeply felt values and needs. Narratives “go viral” and spread far, even worldwide, with economic impact.”

Shiller’s contribution is to analyze this issue quantitatively.  I haven’t read the whole thing, but I do note that he cites Adam Smith only once and not for reason of narrative per se. 

Smith spent much time explaining how literature and the arts are important narrative vehicles, the main ways in which we learn about ethics.  For more, see: “Adam Smith’s Ethics and the ‘Noble’ Arts, Review of Social Economy, Vol. 64(2)(2006): 155-180. 

The humanities create narratives about economic experiences (both true and false) and it is exciting that someone of Shiller’s stature is exploring them.  But note that he is dealing with narratives at arm’s length—only as objects of study.  A companion story would be to discern which of these narratives most deeply engages us and best captures something that is true, or close to the truth, than others.

Imperialism Redux

By Jonathan B. Wight

Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the sting of imperialism than most Americans, having lived in many countries previously colonized and neocolonized and subject to the whims of imperial might. 

Ethics in economics covers a wide area, and it certainly should include a study of the use of coercion and violence. The United States, for example, has sent troops into Latin America more than fifty times (that’s 5-0), mostly to protect or advance private corporate interests.  These invasions involved government overthrows, assassinations, and other actions meant to prop up friendly elites and keep the money flowing from commodity exports of bananas, coffee, oil, copper, and so on.

Lenin.trumpLenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) advances the notion that economic imperialism is “the fundamental economic question,” that “unless this is studied, it will be impossible to understand and appraise modern war and modern politics” (emphasis added).

Imperialism is the use of force or coercion to achieve commercial gains.  Lenin was right for his time, which coincides with the height of British imperial rule.  In the early 20th century, about one-fourth of the world’s population and one-fourth of its land mass were under British control.

Most of this imperialist might was dissipated by the end of World War II, with stragglers in Portugal clinging to Angola and Mozambique and not letting go until there was a brutal revolutionary war.

By the end of the 1970s, most of the world was free of imperialism, with some rear guard actions being the exceptions during the Cold War. So, when I taught about international trade, I could say with a straight face, trade today is largely about voluntary transactions and the rule of law. And the terms of trade are determined largely by competitive markets (admitting that sometimes the global price can be rigged, as in the case of OPEC or ADM/lysine).

On his first day in office, Donald Trump gave a rousing defense of Lenin. He stated: “The old expression, to the victor belong the spoils…. We should’ve kept the oil [in Iraq]. But, okay, maybe we’ll have another chance.”

This is similar to the glaring claim by former Vice-President Dick Cheney that the main reason we went to war in Iraq was for the oil (forget all that democracy gibberish).

Appointing the head of Exxon-Mobil as secretary of state is another brilliant stroke to advance American corporate interests in a new era of imperialism. The handwriting is on the wall!

Trump’s claim that it is legitimate and desirable to use military forces to seize commodities in other countries, aligns him with Putin and other dictators. It undermines sixty years or more of excruciating hard diplomatic work (of which both my parents took part) to convince the world that the U.S. could be trusted because we upheld property rights, due process, and human rights.

While everyone has pointed out Trump’s affinity for Putin, let’s not forget his love relationship with Lenin’s revealing work. 

March on Washington

By Jonathan B. Wight

The positive vibe in the massive crowd in Washington D.C. yesterday was electric and moving.  By-and-large, with a few exceptions, the message was upbeat and unifying. 


What's the take-home?  To me, it was that we are all deserving of respect and dignity. To the extent that people are disparaged for any number of reasons, our humanity is degraded.

The groping of women, the bullying of those with less power or status, the focus on policies that help the few at the cost of many, are all symptoms of leadership lacking in moral imagination and genuine empathy.

P1140694The good news is that there was a huge turnout, estimated at more than a half-million, far more than came for Trump’s inauguration, according to independent and non-political estimates.  And, of course, there were sister marches all over the U.S. and the world.

At one point the great throng surged and crushed me, my arms pinned, hips and chest and back mashed on all sides.  Throughout, people were as polite as could be imagined.

The bad news is that marching and talking is relatively cheap and easy, compared to the hard job of building coalitions to promote better public policies.

I mentioned that with few exceptions it was positive and upbeat.  One negative incident I observed was the mild harassment of an anti-abortion activist, whose poster read “Abortion kills a person.” His sign was partly blocked by other marchers (see photo to right).  Abortion

Several speakers yesterday emphasized that Trump supporters are not the enemy. If we are to move forward, and heal our national rifts, both sides need to listen and respond with respect. 

Supporting a woman’s right to control her body, and to decide in privacy whether to bear a child, does not diminish the claim that a fetus will grow into a person, or a harder claim that a fetus has a soul.  Each side worries that giving an inch will lead to disaster. But what if we acknowledge that two apparently contradictory positions can both be real and relevant, once we accept the reality of ethical pluralism?

It doesn’t solve the problem of public policies, but it does potentially create a less toxic political atmosphere.  

This was not a day to forget.  For some up-front photos, click here:  https://goo.gl/photos/D7Tz9T9FqZXZTTf77

Bel Canto

By Jonathan B. Wight

Bel cantoLast week NPR aired Bel Canto – The Opera, based on the 2001 novel by Ann Patchett. 

Coincidentally, I had picked up the novel at my neighborhood book box (what a great idea!) and had just finished it.

This lovely and charming book is set oddly– in a hostage crisis in a mythical country in South America (based on Peru’s Tupac Amaro takeover of the Japanese embassy in 1996-97). 

In the novel, a world-renown opera singer is among the hostages, and comes to form a deep relationship with a Japanese businessman there, even though they share no common language other than classic opera. Each experiences a life-changing transformation during the time of captivity.

A middle-aged translator, also Japanese, comes to teach a young indigenous terrorist girl how to read, and speak Spanish, the language of Incan conquest.

As day leads on to week and then to months of captivity, the prisoners and their guards begin to relax and take on routines, including much music playing and singing.  The arts are the vehicle here for revelation, for forgiveness, for solace, and even for romance.

The ethics can be summarized: when you reach out to try to understand others, you will be surprised to discover more similarities than differences, even considering race, gender, language, and other cultural barriers. We are all one, held back by our fears.

It’s a sublime novel.  A movie is in the works, but as always, read the book first.

[Photo: Todd Rosenberg]

Plurality in Religion

By Jonathan B. Wight

America may be creeping toward a religious state.  Think of all the atheist politicians who try to use the lever of faith as a tool for control.

Does anyone really think Donald Trump is religiously devout—or even believes in anything greater than himself?  (Remember the famous “Two” Corinthians.) Yet this man of no faith has many minions who will pretend he does.

Trump will have six clergy members pray at his inauguration.  Other presidents have used one or two. The irony of this would be humorous, were it not for the deeper point that Trump will use religion to divide, not to unite—just has he has done at every other step on this journey.

Of the six clergy, five are Christian and one is Jewish.

If we let him, Trump will use fear to rouse the rabble, attacking Muslims and anyone who looks or acts differently

  • “That man over there! The one with the beard and the turban on his head! Get him! Oh, he’s Sikh?  That’s not a tribe of Islam?  They’re pacifist?  I don’t care, he shouldn’t be allowed to look like that or pray that way – this is America!”  (Hate crimes against Sikhs have been up since 9/11.)
  • Woman whispers to stewardess on plane: “That man next to me is plotting something: I saw him writing in Arabic.” (True story: turns out it was an economist jotting algebraic formulas -- and yes, algebra comes from the Middle East.)

To anyone of faith who thinks they have the “right” answer, given only to their own tradition and withheld from billions of others: Take a deep breath; recognize the inherent limitations of any one person’s understanding; recognize the huge dangers that arise from monopolies (which is why both Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson supported an open market for religion, and not state-sanctioning of such); and lastly, try to open your heart.

From Richard Rohr comes these words of pluralism and hope:

  • There is a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world of things.
  • There is in the human soul a natural capacity, similarity, and longing for this Divine Reality.
  • The final goal of all existence is union with Divine Reality.

For an evolutionary theory to explain this, see Teilhard de Chardin’s, The Phenomenon of Man.

Job announcement: UNC Chapel Hill open faculty position in PPE (associate or full)

Mark D. White

On behalf of Geoff Sayre-McCord, UNC Chapel Hill is currently searching for an associate or full professor in work  in its PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) program:

The Department of Philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is seeking to appoint a tenured Associate or Professor to begin July 1, 2017 (although start date is negotiable). This person would be a core faculty member in our thriving Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program, and would be expected to contribute substantially to that program. AOS: Moral and Political Philosophy, with research and teaching interests that include the intersection of philosophy, politics, and economics. Essential to the position is working knowledge of political economy (including public choice economics) and game theory. Interdisciplinary collaborations required. An extraordinary research track record is a necessary condition for consideration, as is evidence of excellence in teaching. Salary commensurate with qualifications; usual research, teaching, advising and service expectations.

The full job listing is here; application deadline is February 8, 2017, and the committee will start reviewing dossiers on January 21, 2017.

When Should an Entertainer Speak Out?

Meyrl Streep’s calling out of Donald Trump at the Golden Globes Awards ceremony last night is on the one hand inappropriate: she is an entertainer, and viewers would like to hear about her art, not her politics. 

Yet the way she did it was classy—explaining the theory of the arts as a vehicle for moral imagination and fellow-feeling:

“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that. Breathtaking, compassionate work.”

She goes on, not mentioning Trump by name, to call out Trump as an actor with power who uses his power not to enlarge moral imagination, but to shrink it—to pick on the weak and vulnerable as easy targets, the way a bully would:

“But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.”

And further:

“It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”

Meryl Streep’s speech was couched in her understanding of her craft, and relevant to the award she was receiving. 

So, my take is nuanced.  As a general rule, entertainers and performers should consider the venue and when it is appropriate to express their first amendment rights.  Generally, this would not be “on the job” but rather on the entertainer’s own time and dime. 

When Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the national anthem, we can sympathize with his reasons for wanting to complain, but not with the time and place.  The quarterback is paid to entertain by throwing a football, and the owners of the San Francisco Forty-Niners can dictate what he does on the field.   His protest was not particularly relevant to pro-football.  He can, if he chooses, resign his position if he is forced to do something on the field against his will.  (By contrast, think of Muhammed Ali going to jail to protest the Vietnam war.)

The Hamilton play protest in November was defensible on the grounds put forth here because the producer and director who hire the actors were in support.