I WAS BORN in Washington, D.C. in 1953, the youngest of four children. Soon after, my parents moved to South Africa (Cape Town and Pretoria), where my dad was a diplomat in the State Department. After three years we moved next door to Mozambique for two more years. Following a three-year stint in the U.S., we returned to Africa, this time to Libya. This was the dangerous year of 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Libya was a critical country in the Cold War because it had the largest U.S. Air Force base (it's no wonder Gadhafi hates the U.S.). At one point I remember my dad coming home ashen-faced: he thought war with the Soviet Union was inevitable. Luckily for all of us, cool heads prevailed.
WE RETURNED to the States after a year, and soon thereafter set sail for a new continent. We arrived in Brazil in August 1964 just after a military coup. Not a great time to arrive! Brazil, however, is a magical place, with warm and outgoing people and a fantastically rich culture. Amidst all the beauty was also great poverty, a poverty which became more and more evident as the country industrialized rapidly. The conflict between rich and poor seemed inevitable....
GUERRILLA WARS in Latin America soon heated up, taking even some American lives. Day after day I would circle our block noting the license plates of cars parked with one or two people in them. They were usually stolen, and our house was under surveillance. In 1968 armed troops protected our house for several months after the U.S. Ambassador was kidnapped and maimed.
DESPITE IT ALL, Brazil was an exciting place to grow up. And it created in me an avid interest in economics and the process of economic development, which is why I am here today. I went on to college at Duke, majoring in Economics and Public Policy Studies. After a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I went to graduate school at Vanderbilt, earning a Ph.D. in Economics (with a minor in Latin American Studies). My doctoral dissertation on ethanol as an alternative agricultural industry took me back to Brazil during 1980-81. I worked with the government-run National Sugar and Alcohol Research Center in Piracicaba, Sao Paulo. That year allowed me to visit almost every state in Brazil, from the mouth of the Amazon River to the colder south where many Germans now live.
IN 1982, with Ph.D. in hand, I arrived at the University of Richmond. Since that time the university (and its students) have created a wonderful learning environment. My research has been eclectic (that's a polite way of saying spread in too many areas...) In addition to early articles on energy, I co-authored (with John Fiedler) a book in 1989 on the economics of mental health care, and the implications for mental health insurance. I have also written articles on health economics in developing countries. My research since the mid-1990s has taken a different turn (see below).
THE UNIVERSITY has been generous with travel opportunities. During a sabbatical in 1990-91 I traveled around the world on Semester-at-Sea, a floating university. That was transformative, because I had not yet been to India or China, two main destinations. I have also visited many other countries in various stages of economic development, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, Yemen, Jordan, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Dom. Rep., etc. What links these areas together, of course, is that they all are struggling with problems of economic and social development. An essay I wrote a few years ago ("Public Policy, Human Instinct, and Economic Growth") captures my philosophy about development, which is pluralist, pragmatic, and eclectic-.
MY RESEARCH took a major turn in 1995 when I discovered Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) while perusing in Borders Books. I got so excited I helped create a working group of faculty from around campus to read the text. That led me to take a sabbatical to write a book on Adam Smith, making sense of his story of wealth creation in light of his moral theory. That sabbatical was spent in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley a few blocks from where Hulett and Packard set up their famous garage on Addison Avenue. (One happy outcome of that year was I met my future wife, Jean!) I also visited Adam Smith sites in Scotland and England.
The book on Smith grew into an economic novel that brings Smith back to life in the present to wax eloquently (using his own words), Saving Adam Smith: A Tale of Wealth, Virtue, and Transformation (Prentice-Hall, 2002). Can we create wealth and be a virtuous person? Do moral sentiments change the way we do business? Adam Smith had important answers for these... but his answers will surprise you!
FOLLOWING THIS, I collaborated with Mort Morton on a John Templeton Funded project to help economics teachers understand the important function of ethics in economic life and bring this alive in the classroom using 10 lessons: Jonathan B. Wight and John S. Morton, Teaching the Ethical Foundations of Economics (New York: The National Council on Economic Education, 2007).
SINCE THEN, my research has broadened to look at how Smith's moral theory fits within a larger picture of moral theories, that would include Kantian duty ethics, Bentham's utilitarian ethics, and economists' own efficiency welfare theory. What came out of this investigation is a book that uses a pluralist set of lenses to understand the world of economics and business: Ethics in Economics: An Introduction to Moral Frameworks (Stanford University Press, 2015).
It has been gratifying to see the work on Smith's moral theory and ethics figure now prominently into the work of many Nobel laureates, particularly Vernon Smith, Elinor Ostrom, and Amartya Sen. The neuroeconomic work of Paul Zak also supports Smith's moral theory. The bottom line is that the market system relies on ethics to reduce transaction costs. Attempts to eliminate ethics from the market, or to endorse "greed is good", backfire (as shown in Vernon Smith's experiments).
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