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August 2017 posts

The Better Side of America

By John Morton

This week we learned that America isn’t about tearing down statues, Russians interfering in U.S. elections, thugs from the left and right pounding each other, or who should use which bathroom. 

HoustonThis week we’ve seen Americans of every racial, ethnic, and religious group working together to save lives in Houston.  They do not identify each other by group.  This is what America should be about and is about.

Adam Smith discussed the altruistic nature of people in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

We have seen and continue to see heroic behavior in Houston and up the Gulf coast.  I hope that in the future we don’t need a tragedy of this scope to bring the country together.

Broadcaster Quits over Ethics Concern

By Jonathan B. Wight

Ed Cunningham, who played pro-football for five years and did TV game coverage for 20 years afterwards, has walked away from the camera.

He initially gave as a reason the standard response of wanting to spend more time with his family.  But he felt bad about that incomplete answer, and has now come clean.

A stronger answer is that he can’t stand to be a person who profits from a sport that is taking excessive risks with players’ lives.  The key problem are injuries to the head, which lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. 

Cunningham isn’t the only one to say adios to the violence: recently a coach has quit and a pro player has quit.  But these are exceptions.

There is an “industrial complex of college football,” and broadcasters are complicit with coaches, sports promoters, and advertisers, Cunningham says, in pretending that things are okay when really there is a crisis. 

       *    *    *

Everyone should have the freedom to choose their own career, so why doesn’t Cunningham respect the choices made by football players themselves, who choose their profession and continue to play knowing the risks? 

His answer is highly personal—he’s been close to several players who have committed suicide suffering with CTE.  Perhaps they knew the risks as abstract concepts, but that’s a whole lot different once it happens to you.

Is there behavioral irrationality at work—and hence a need for paternalism?  Cunningham makes the case for simple rules:

  • No hitting before high school
  • Each player limited to only a certain number of plays per game
  • Tougher penalties against players who use their helmets as a weapon when hitting
  • Changing the composition of helmets to make them less dangerous

These are modest changes that likely don’t do enough to make the game much safer. Nothing is perfectly safe, so designing something to be risk free is both fruitless and undesirable. 

My own preference is to withdraw the huge public subsidies to pro-football.  These include the public-built sports stadiums, and the huge expenses of college athletics, that pretend to be giving youngsters an education when really it is unpaid sweatshop labor.  Make colleges divest their major money athletic programs from their academic programs.  Enforce greater accountability and transparency about the true cost to society of major league college athletics.  

None of this will necessarily solve the problem Cunningham worries about, and some of these changes might make it worse.  

Reflections on Charlottesville

By John Morton

Because the violence in Charlottesville has been covered by the news media and on social media so much more than other issues, I have been reluctant to comment.  However, the issue has iron legs, and the rhetoric keeps getting more irrational.  The violence in C-ville divides the nation and is shaping political debate in dangerous ways.  In the hope of turning down the rhetoric, I offer a few observations.

  1. The incident was precipitated by the decision of city council to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from a city park. Tearing down statues is a dangerous idea.  Statues spark historical curiosity.  Knowledge of a nation’s history is important to a nation’s culture.  Also, individuals should be judged in the context of their time.  Nathan_Bedford_Forrest_StatueThere are exceptions; I wouldn’t mind tearing down a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest [right] or Ernesto “Che” Guevara.  But where does the statue removal stop?  Nancy Pelosi now wants to remove the ten Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol.  Clearly, this isn’t an ethical decision for her; after all, she’s been in Congress for 30 years, some of them as Speaker of the House.  This is grandstanding, pure and simple.
  1. The white nationalists are the scum of the earth, but they have the right to express their opinions no matter how odious they are.
  1. The right to speak does not extend to violence, and there was violence on both sides. When people show up with masks, homemade flame throwers, and helmets, you know it’s not going to end well.  Antifa, which had participated in violent protests previously, claims to be against discrimination and authoritarianism.  Who gave them the authority to censor speech, reject the First Amendment, and punch people?
  1. Where were the police? According to reports, there were about 100-200 white nationalists.  Why didn’t the police separate them from Antifa?  Instead, they retreated, while the head of the state police observed the situation from the sixth floor of a nearby building.  Was it in someone’s self-interest to create a riot?
  1. President Trump’s response to the situation was embarrassing. A President should bring people together, not tear them apart.  Trump has no ability to calm people, choose the right words, or make moral distinctions.  His bombastic style works well on the campaign trail but hurts him in calming and uniting the nation.
  1. We must move on. America needs more unity.  We need creative ideas to increase economic growth, reduce unemployment, and protect our people.  We need to discuss controversial issues without being obnoxious.  Nothing is gained by destroying the political process.

[Photo: Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general, former slave trader, accused of war crimes, and early supporter of KKK. -- JW]

(Recent) Books

By Jonathan B. Wight

Two books occupied me this weekend. Neither is brand new, but both relevant to ethics and economics.

  1. E. O. Wilson, the dean of ant biology, wrote The Social Conquest of Earth in 2012. In it, he continues to argue for a more complex understanding of human evolution, one that was envisioned by Darwin.

The more complex argument says that human evolution occurs in two ways: first, through individual selection as you and I compete with others to leave the most surviving offspring. This is the standard view of Richard Dawkins and others, who argue that any appearance of altruism or sacrifice for others can be explained entirely by kin selection (since our nearest relatives pass along our genes).  Economists have generally adopted this view that all appearances of altruism can be explained within a selfish utility function.

Wilson argues, however, that there is a second way that evolution occurs, in which groups of humans compete against other groups.  Those groups that are successful have a greater chance to leave behind their genes.  What makes groups cooperate better is social cohesion, including genuine empathy, altruistic behaviors or sacrifices for the group. 

According to this view, individual selection and group selection are contradictory forces that work simultaneously in human societies. Hence, greed and altruism can both exist in pure forms. Individuals have an incentive to cheat and game the system, but people are also driven by instincts to share emotions and to reach emotional equilibrium with those in one’s group. Social forces lead to internal self-control and sometimes altruism—such as by punishing transgressors in the Ultimatum Game. 

To me, this is more appealing view of the world.  I say this not as a scientist, but simply as someone who has lived on the planet for six decades. It is difficult for me to accept that the sacrifice of my parents and other heroes is simply and only disguised selfishness.

  1. J. D. Vance published the Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis last year, and it became an instant hit as Donald Trump marched into the White House, presumably on the coattails of the demographic group Vance writes about.

Someone outside the in-group of Kentuckians, West Virginians, and other Appalachians would be ill-advised to call anyone a hillbilly. Vance uses the term with pride, but it is mixed pride.

The memoir tells a sad tale (with a happy ending) of Vance’s disjointed youth as a member of an extended family of uneducated, willful, hard charging people who for generations seem to carry along the cultural gene for broken relationships. Vance’s mom had multiple houses, apartments, husbands, boyfriends, and lovers, took to drinking and finally heroin. Vance was eventually raised by his grandmother, a gun-toting, cussing, good woman who was the love of his life.

Family disharmony and perpetual disruption of schedules and the stress this caused, led Vance to nearly fail in school. Vance credits luck for getting out of this swamp. A few good people saw his potential and encouraged him and made great sacrifices for him (see Wilson above!).  He eventually went into the Marines, graduated from Ohio State, and graduated from Yale Law School.

The bottom line for Vance is that economic development in Appalachia is held back by social forces so strong they act as quicksand.  Kids don’t do well in school not because districts are underfunded, but because parents don’t create the home environment necessary for success in school or life.  Despite proclaiming antipathy to government welfare, a huge proportion of people are on the dole.  Failed marriages, drug problems, and an inability to face up to one’s own responsibilities, make many younger workers unreliable and unproductive on the job. These problems cannot be fixed by government.

These are the vast swatches of the population in the Rust Belt and elsewhere who feel they have been left behind.  They are ready for a political savior like Trump, despite the obvious paradox that government cannot fix their broken family relationships, and Trump’s promoted policies on health care would have caused great hardship. 


By Jonathan B. Wight

As Charlottesville imploded yesterday, thousands of people of all races gathered 70 miles away to celebrate ideas that unite us—the sounds of blues, jazz, and everything in-between at the Richmond Jazz Festival.  The races of humanity mingled, laughed, shared food and fans, danced, and enjoyed each other’s company.


Like the white supremacists who came from all over the country to C-ville, people came from New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere to hear music in the bucolic Maymont park, a tranquil setting where people sweltered not from the rhetoric and pepper spray but from the sun peeking out from rain clouds.

Like the March on Washington last January, the Jazz Festival exuded an aura of love and acceptance—you would have felt it, too.  Such moments, when they happen, must release oxytocin, the bonding hormone, that makes everyone in your sight a family member, one of the tribe, regardless of exterior manifestations of race, gender, or nationality.

In C-ville, as opposing groups verbally and physically clashed, no doubt oxytocin was repressed in favor of testosterone, which leads people to do crazy, rage-full things like drive your car through the crowd, causing death and injury.

The horror of C-ville is that it didn’t have to happen.  What if the white supremacists marched—and nobody came, their exploits ignored by television and other media?  That would have been a fitting end to their misguided quest for attention.

Jim Bacon, of Bacon’s Rebellion, notes that you can oppose affirmative action while denouncing the tactics and ends of the white supremacist movement:

“Hey, white nationalists, go away. We don’t want you. Nobody wants you. I, too, am a white person, and I, too, am appalled by the identity politics of the Left. But the answer is not to match La Raza and Black Lives Matter with an identity politics of right-wing whiteness. You and your torch-light marches only fuel the Left’s narrative that America is an irredeemably racist nation.

"The opposite of left-wing tribalism isn’t right-wing tribalism, it’s individualism. If you want to stand up to Leftist identity politics, work to build a society that provides equal treatment under the law to all and empowers Americans to rely upon their own initiative, not the government, to better their condition."

The photo above shows Lonnie Rashid Lynn, a.k.a. “Common,” performing with the Richmond Symphony last night.  Who could have believed it—a hip hop rapper coming together to make music with a classical orchestra?  But it’s true.  Common improvised, bringing in new lyrics about the C-ville event, stopped for a moment of prayer, and shouted out the desire for inclusiveness—we’re all in this together.

People can unite to resolve their differences, learn new things, and make new institutions for progress.

But how to create the frame of mind in which this is possible?  One approach is to practice releasing oxytocin, through meditation and other activities that enable us to forgive others from the heart.  (And to forego listening to hate radio that fuels the toxic release of testosterone.) It’s not rocket science. It does take patience and persistence.  And I'm sure a change of heart is just the beginning, requiring much more of all of us, to make a nation of egalitarian opportunity.  


By Jonathan B. Wight

Humans communicate lots of ways. Some ways are less designed to convey information, and more like to convey and to evoke raw emotions. 

Okay signI learned this as a kid growing up in Brazil, where the “Okay” sign is a dirty insult. (Think of where females have a lower orifice of interest to males and you’ll get the idea of what it means—“screw you”.)

This weekend the Atlee Virginia Girl’s Junior League Softball team was disqualified from the World Series game in Kirkland, Washington, because six teammates had posed for a photo extending their middle fingers to Kirkland’s team, in response to the Kirkland’s team stealing signals in the previous game.

The photo was posted on Snapchat, and quickly removed when the Atlee coach found out about it. The coach made the team apologize in person.  Nevertheless, league officials booted the Atlee team for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

That response seems overblown. Elimination from a World Series tournament for a moment of indiscretion—especially when the other team had started it by illegal conduct—is disproportionate punishment.  On the other hand, two wrongs don’t make a right.

In another gesture controversy, two Chinese tourists probably thought it would be funny to give the Heil Hitler salute standing in front of the German Parliament. Instead of laughs, they wound up in jail for using the symbol of an illegal organization. 

Yikes!  Freedom of speech isn’t so free when a gesture of parody provokes such over-response. In America, we have growing problems with those who wish to display the Confederate flag, also a symbol of an illegal organization. Thankfully—and as much as I wish the flag to remain in museums—it is still legal to wave this symbol of disloyalty to the United States of America.

(Incidentally, my great grandfather served in Jeb Stuart’s cavalry and his portrait hangs over my fireplace. I celebrate his courage and loyalty, but cringe at the wrongheadedness of defending the cause of slavery. Waving the Confederate flag today is a gesture that opens wounds and divides the nation. As for those who think the Civil War was all about states’ rights—sorry, that pig won’t fly.)

[Image: https://pixabay.com/en/okay-ok-hands-interpreter-fingers-293951/]

Health Care -- Moving Forward

By Jonathan B. Wight

We’ve dodged the bullet on destroying the ACA, and Krugman asks “What’s next?”

His answer is to learn from the experience of other high income countries, notably the Netherlands, which has a system similar to ACA. 

Fixing the current system is preferable to trying to get the best system:

“I have nothing against single-payer; it’s what I’d support if we were starting fresh. But we aren’t: Getting there from here would be very hard, and might not accomplish much more than a more modest, incremental approach. Even idealists need to set priorities, and Medicare-for-all shouldn’t be at the top of the list.”

This sounds right, and sounds a lot like Adam Smith’s injunction that we can only try to get the best system that people can currently support.  Smith was a pragmatist and a realist, despite his lofty pronouncements at times. 

In making policy, two ideas seem key:  (1) path dependency means that you generally cannot start from scratch; you’ve taken one path and you have to go from where that path has left you.  Robert Frost reminds us that you can never start anew down a different path. 

(2) Incremental reform can make things better, even when the best alternative exists elsehwere.  But as Voltaire supposedly said, “Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”

Sister Rosetta Thorpe

By Jonathan B. Wight

Some areas of my ignorance are immense and come around to blindside me. One such event occurred this weekend when I stumbled across a video of Sister Rosetta Thorpe, singing “Didn’t It Rain,” at a concert in England in 1964.

Sister rosetta tharpeOh my gosh!  What a soul-bender! This woman can sing! This woman can rip the guitar! This woman has a charismatic presence that can be described as magno-electric!  Where has she been my whole life?

It turns out that others have had similar epiphanies.  Jerry Lee Lewis said:

“Say man, there’s a woman who can sing some rock and roll.” I mean, she’s singing religious music, but she is singing rock and roll. She’s ... shakin’ man ... She jumps it. She’s hitting that guitar, playing that guitar, and she is singing. I said, “Whoooo. Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

A later biographer wrote:

“I never imagined that a woman from the church could be ripping it up on a Gibson like that….I wondered why I hadn’t heard of her.”

Sister Rosetta Thorpe (1915-1973) was born in Arkansas but her mother moved her to Chicago when she was a young girl, and the two toured as performers at evangelical churches across the South. Later they moved to New York and then Philadelphia, touring widely in Europe. Her 1938 record “Rock Me” and other works were avidly loved by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others.

I can easily see why: Thorpe rocks, bringing verve and joyful audacity to her guitar picking, and her voice is confident, strong, and true. You feel better having listened to her uplifting voice and being in the presence of her personna. 

Although her styles could be labeled gospel and blues, she is clearly a forerunner and inspirer for rock and roll.  Sad to say, she is not listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  That’s a huge omission!

Women—and people of color—may not get the credit they deserve for starting the music revolution that led to Elvis, the Beatles, and other white guy bands. 

Perhaps—with the publication of Gayle F. Wald’s biography, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (2005) and the BBC documentary, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll in 2011her time will come.

Before signing off, listen to this wonderful rendition of “Down by the Riverside” and the rollicking “Ninety Nine and a Half Won’t Do” sung by Tharpe and her mother.

[Update:  NPR has a story this morning about the movie "Rumble" that will open in a few weeks, about the role Native Americans played in the rock movement.]

By Georgianne Ginder

[Georgianne Ginder’s work explores the intersection of health care and ethics. She is the Wellness Counselor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Arts in Health Care and a proponent of LifeSMILE medicine!  In this poem she grapples with the effects of unethical conduct on health.  Printed with permission. – JBW]

 Whistleblowers, Speaker-Uppers, Way Showers

Honesty Goers,

Dignity Growers

 To keep that job he 'lived ' a lie

To excel and get ahead

And when the tension grew too tough

He popped some pills instead

Instead of facing what was wrong

Since incongruency won't and can't belong...


...The body-soul sings its wake-up song...


He covered up the growing dread 

As many tend to do

Blocking what he knew was truth

Yet the lie kept coursing through...

And when he sensed he'd had enough,

Could not ignore the stress and pain

His body-mind spoke up one day

To warn and offer gain-


Live your truth; forgo the game

Holistic health must be our aim...


We often tend to live a lie

Since the culture demands so much

And when we live in danger zones

We grow more out of touch

LIVE A TRUTH and live to grow

Respect what we have come to know:

Live a truth


The spirit-soul exists (awaits) to show.


Living a Life versus Living a Lie

No matter how 'short' or just how 'long'

Disharmony renders one less strong

July 17, 2017

Justice for Baby Charlie Gard

By John Morton

Heart-care-1040227_1280Charlie Gard died on July 28, 2017, from a rare genetic disease.  His parents had raised enough money to get a second opinion on whether he could be saved by undergoing experimental treatment in the United States.  When the hospital and courts said no way, like many others I was shocked by the decision.  How could a hospital and judge overrule the opinion of loving parents?  The parents appealed, but finally too much time had elapsed, and the American specialist said Charlie could not be saved.  The parents then announced they were dropping their appeal.  This case scares the hell out of me.

A deeper--and less emotional--analysis, however, reveals thorny ethical questions.  From my libertarian perspective, I view most rights as negative.  Negative freedom protects people against violence from others against their person, property, and acts, such as speech and religious practices that do not harm others.  I’m skeptical when the government limits these rights because throughout history governments have been the main violators of negative freedom.

Positive freedom is a different story.  It is the ability to achieve a full life such as pursuing a career and obtaining adequate food, housing, education, and health care.  There are more problems with positive freedom than with negative freedom.  If the state helps people, say, provides free education, then it must tax others to get the funds.  This limits negative freedom.  All too frequently, the promise of positive freedom leads to authoritarianism with the suspension of all rights.

In Charlie Gard’s case, his parents raised the money for a second opinion and his treatment.  Nevertheless, medical resources used for Charlie could not be used for other children (opportunity cost and positive freedom).

In conclusion, I come down on the side of Charlie’s parents.  They loved their son more than any hospital bureaucrat or judge could.  The state cannot suffer, mourn, or pray.  Getting treatment for Charlie would hardly bring down the British health care system.