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June 2018 posts

Denial of Service

By Jonathan B. Wight

Denying Sarah Huckabee Sanders service at a restaurant because of her ideology was abominable.

It was almost as grotesque as denying her service because of her race or religion.  (Denying service for politics or sexual orientation is apparently legal in most places, but not legal for the latter two reasons--thank goodness for some things.)

I admit that serving someone whose politics seems atrocious and seems to reflect a lack of common humanity and contact with reality would make it difficult to put on a smiling face.

But so what? However difficult, it must be done, and done without a gratuitous attack.

I remember the graciousness of Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House from 1977-87, who could fight politics during the day and smile and dine with his opponents at night.

It does not help anyone, least of all the liberal Enlightenment cause, to retreat into the uncouth and rude behavior of DJT.

Boycott that restaurant in Lexington until the owner issues an apology, and a free meal to Sanders and her guests.

“How to Defeat Authoritarianism”

By Jonathan B. Wight

AuthoritarianAlex Cequea produced a lovely short animated video of this name on act.tv.

An authoritarian , we learn, wants power.  He starts by attacking the independent press (which acts as a check on that power). 

Next comes the attack on racial or ethnic minorities as a way to galvanize the base.  This is successful because human psychology is tribal by nature. Great philosophies and religions often try to overcome the natural bias against "others" by proclaiming that we are all one under God.  Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in the Christian tradition.  Or think of the Utilitarian injunction to consider the interests of all, or a similar injunction in Kantian ethics.  Smith's virtue ethics also calls on us developing "superior" prudence to value the other.  Civilization is lifted up when we focus on what unites us, and destroyed when we focus on what divides us. 

Authoritarians then try to weaken the rule of law, through attacks on the judiciary or investigative bodies that uphold the law.

The final piece of the puzzle is to appoint cronies and  hacks to fill top positions in the administration, putting loyalty over competence.  This is what Mao did, leading Deng to be thrown in jail for noting that a cat's color (meaning political ideology) shouldn't matter when it came to catching mice (meaning getting the job done well). 

The author preaches for peaceful resistance against the bullies of the world.  This worked for Gandhi and perhaps MLK (some would disagree).  But how well did this work against Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, or Mao?

Watch here: https://www.facebook.com/actdottv/videos/806423446214890/?t=18

[Thanks to Judith Reynolds Staples for the link.]

Mining and Coercion in Guatemala

By Jonathan B. Wight

In theory, markets work to maximize wealth creation through voluntary exchange. In the pure version espoused by Pareto, trade is always win-win.

A problem develops when there are externalities—as occurs quite frequently and to great expense in the area of mining. Precious metal mining uses vast amounts of water that otherwise might go to local farmers; cyanide is used to leach metal from junk rock. Arsenic is found in the drinking water and downstream. The landscape may be forever ruined for any other purpose, and mining companies (after extracting their profit), may simply decide to go bankrupt rather than fulfill clean-up obligations.

Economic theory rightly includes these negative externalities in ascertaining what is “efficient.” But as a practical matter, dealing with the myriad of problems that arise with mining, public policy is not decided on the basis of Pareto’s win-win. This is because any policy creates some losers, so we are stuck in a win-lose situation.

Instead, economists rely on the Kaldor-Hicks formulation, which is the idea that a policy is efficient as long as the winners win more than the losers lose—even if no compensation is paid.

Yet how is this public policy decided on? Is there a working democracy? Is there a free press? Is there an impartial judiciary to adjudicate property rights? None of these safeguards to human rights work very well in Guatemala.

The result, according to The Guardian, is devastation in many rural communities, with protestors beaten or killed. Multinational mining companies, in a crony capitalist alliance with the government, seem to operate with impunity:

“The case centres on allegations dating back to 2007, when the women say hundreds of police, military and and private security personnel linked to a Canadian mining company descended on the secluded village of Lote Ocho in eastern Guatemala.”

“A few days earlier, security personnel had set dozens of homes ablaze in a bid to force the villagers off their ancestral lands, according to court documents….11 women say they were raped repeatedly by the armed men.”

Will the defenders of market capitalism speak up to protest such outrage? Or, will defenders of market capitalism side with corporate interests and short term profits?

Trump’s Lament

By Jonathan B. Wight

Trump is shown on tv, praising Kim Jon Un: “Hey, he is the head of a country and I mean he is the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different.”

Then comes his lament: “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”  He wants to be fêted with a military parade, perhaps so he could be revered as the supreme leader. 

In a free country, people sit up to attention when a speaker who is respected has something important and interesting to say.  Fortunately, in America we are not threatened with murder or imprisonment for demonstrating lack of respect, as are citizens of Kim's land.

As the old saw goes, respect has to be earned.

Perhaps this is a generational thing, and Trump is indeed of an earlier generation (he is 72 years of age). 

In my first years of teaching, I looked barely older (and sometimes younger) than my undergraduate students.  Back then it was legal for students to drink at 18.  Faculty were encouraged to socialize, so one afternoon I went over to a frat house to have a beer.  In a group of kids, someone turned to me and asked, “So, what are you majoring in?”

I was intent on quickly getting respect in the classroom, and I was probably too harsh, using my authority to force them to respect me or face the consequences. 

Luckily, that period didn’t last long.  When I got more self-confidence I relaxed, and let the natural progression of getting to know people substitute for bravado and threats.

Does the desire for adulation and forced respect suggest anything about ethical maturity?

NGO’s Ethics

By Jonathan B. Wight

Non-profits are good and for-profits are bad, right—by definition?

Not so by a long shot.

Some non-profits are completely self-serving, and despite the furor over the IRS delaying the certification of some 501(c)(4)s because of shady political uses, some questionable NGOs do exist.

The New York Times reports that the Donald J. Trump Foundation is being sued by New York State for misuse of funds.

This wasn’t a one-time event or minor oversight. Trump allegedly used the non-profit’s funds consistently for a variety of non-sanctioned activities, including donations to political campaigns, promoting his own presidential candidacy, paying his legal fees, buying an expensive portrait of himself for one of his golf resorts, and other self-aggrandizing activities.

The Foundation is also a potential conduit for graft by a Ukrainian businessman seeking favors.

According to the article, Mr. Trump and the foundation are accused of “Repeated and willful self-dealing transactions…. that were designed to serve himself rather than the foundation’s intended beneficiaries.”

Trump announced plans after taking office to close the Foundation, but its legal troubles will likely drag on for a while.

How prevalent are self-serving NGO’s like Trump’s? I suspect there are a lot, and a lot more people donate money or in-kinds gifts mainly for their own benefit.

(Tongue-in-cheek) I think a new law should be passed saying that anyone who wants a tax deduction for donating money for the construction of a new hospital, a new school, an endowed professorship, or whatever eleemosynary activity, cannot—by law—name that building or program after themselves, a family member, or a close friend.

(Let me be clear: anyone is free to do this on their own dime, but not get a government subsidy through the tax code for this purpose.)

Hume and Smith

By Jonathan B. Wight

The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton University Press, 2017).  

Dennis C. Rasmussen, Associate Professor of Political Scientist at Tufts University, has written an engaging and informative account of the professional and personal relationship between Smith and Hume. A full review will appear in The American Economist.  Here is a synopsis.

The book explores the overlap of economic and moral theories and personal amities that flowed between two of the Scottish Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, providing a rich intellectual history. An important takeaway is the analysis of Smith’s intellectual debts to Hume for many concepts that later appeared in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.

What makes The Infidel so interesting are Rasmussen’s details of how Smith’s formulations build on and enhance, and in some cases reject, Hume’s approaches. The chapter that discusses Smith’s refinements in Moral Sentiments to Hume’s moral approach is an excellent guide for anyone interested in learning more about Smith’s contributions to ethical theory.

Both men never knew their fathers; both remained single their whole lives; both were Scottish sentimentalists opposed to overly rationalistic accounts of morals or institutions; both opposed the prevailing vested interests of the times.  Hume was gregarious and jolly and wrote easily and voluminously with great wit; Smith was introverted and often depressed; he wrote laboriously and produced only two major books. 

Hume was a risk-taker and Smith much more cautious.  Hume wore his religious skepticism openly; Smith was evasive and sometimes double-talked on this subject.  Yet they were best friends from the late 1740s until Hume’s death in 1776. Smith suffered vicious criticism, afterwards, for his effusive eulogy to Hume.

The book is highly recommended for summer reading!

Constitutional Moment

By John Morton


ConstitutionOur federal government is in chaos.  Although the government has often offered a wildly entertaining ride, now everything is over the top.  The executive branch is investigating the executive branch on Russian influence on the 2016 election.  The congressional branch is also investigating the executive branch and the Clinton campaign.  The executive branch will not produce subpoenaed documents even though both branches are controlled by Republicans. 


Watch any newscast for 10 minutes, and you will conclude that the political debates are controlled by emotions, not values or principles.  President Obama doesn’t get a pass on this.  When Congress wouldn’t pass legislation he wanted, he took his pen and phone and ordered what he wanted.  Furthermore, he killed Americans with drones, targeted conservative groups with the IRS, and probably put a spy into the Trump campaign, supposedly for Trump’s own protection.  In a recent column, Victor Davis Hanson claimed that “Obama defies the Constitution, but sounds presidential; Trump follows it but sounds like a loudmouth from Queens.”


James Madison worried about this type of political behavior.  Here is a passage from Federalist 51:


“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place to oblige it to control itself.”


In this passage, Madison tells us why government must exist and also why government must be constitutionally restrained.  This does not mean that people do not have various levels of ethical behavior; it means relying on morality is not enough.


Fortunately, the United States has a short and clearly written rulebook to guide our decisions.  It is called the Constitution.  The Constitution is intended to guard against overreach.  John Adams said it well:  “But a constitution of government once changed from freedom can never be restored.”  We’d better start paying attention.

The Trump Disaster

By Jonathan B. Wight

Perhaps “disaster” is premature. Perhaps America’s institutions—and the global institutions we helped create after World War II to promote prosperity and peace—are strong enough to withstand the tsunami of Trumpian diplomacy.

But who can be sure?

Everyone remembers the night the lights went out in New York City in 1977. Suddenly civilization turned to mayhem with widespread looting, arson, and vandalism across many neighborhoods. And this was just in one day of darkness.

According to a jaundiced view, civilization is perhaps a thin veneer, held in place by social and moral norms. As long as everyone buys into the necessity of maintaining that veneer, we get along and society advances in fits and starts.

The current administration has no apparent respect for maintaining any tradition, for supporting long term friendly alliances, for strategic goals for trade beyond “I win, you lose.”

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and neither is Josh Marshall of TPM. Yet he observed:

“Over the course of 16+ months, President Trump has acted consistently and with some success to destabilize and break up the western alliance (both its formal manifestation in NATO) but also its less formal dimensions in trade and other partnerships. He has also worked consistently on really every front to advance the interests of Russia…

“If candidate Trump and President Putin had made a corrupt bargain which obligated President Trump to destabilize all U.S. security and trade alliances (especially NATO, which has been Russia’s primary strategic goal for 70 years) and advance the strategic interests of Russia, there’s really nothing more remotely realistic he could have done to accomplish that than what he has in fact done.”


Trump’s Tariffs

By Jonathan B. Wight

Arbitrary, unpredictable, and thoughtless: these are the policy characteristics of the current White House.

The tariffs slapped for “national security” reasons on our major allies today is shocking, a slap across the face of longtime friends and business partners. Is Canada really a security threat?

I spoke yesterday to a high-level executive of a major international company, who shook her head in disgust. She confirmed that there is no way for businesses to plan and to invest in such an unstable business environment.

Why then, is job growth so high?

It’s a paradox, and I don’t have an answer. I am a pointy-headed academic who perhaps fails to understand Trump’s magic voodoo effect on the economy. I’ll be surprised if we are not in a deep recession in a year’s time.