Institute Report March 2014 - page 17

MARCH 2014, Page 17
VMI Institute Report
can think, period, the better they’re going to do at that.”
He noted that opportunities such as this are scarce during the
academic year, and, for many cadets, are scarce even in the summer since
military commitments or internships may prevent them from engaging
in long-term projects that require summer research.
Beyond the weekly meeting, cadets are formulating research proposals
based on their reading and discussion. Since all are 1st Class cadets,
this could be a starting point for post-graduate work. “When you have to
write up a prospectus, it forces you to individualize what you’re thinking
about and form a question,” said Allen.
In a recent group meeting, Cadet Zachary Wilkinson recapped
Kahneman’s description of how the brain handles different tasks; System
1, said Wilkinson, is the gut reaction, and System 2, a problem-solving
approach. Allen followed up by remarking that this work has been
influential in behavioral economics. “If you can understand how people
behave, then you can understand…ways to improve all sorts of things.”
Another topic the book deals with is the “priming effect,” in which
responses to a stimulus are affected by previous exposure to other
stimuli. “How people think, how they behave, is a natural bridge between
the psychology of the mind and economic structures,” Allen said.
The group discussed evidence of the effect in the Rat Line. The cadets
theorized that when they called an upperclass cadet “sir” as rats because
it was required, they actually felt more respect for that cadet than they
otherwise would. “The language of respect that you use here makes
you more likely to act respectful,” Allen concluded.
As the cadets recognize and appreciate the brain’s systems for solving
problems – especially the trade-offs between what Kahneman calls System
1 and System 2 – they will have a better comprehension of how economic
systems function. Also, because individuals make countless decisions
subconsciously or unconsciously depending on how information is
presented, our students will be better equipped to understand behavior
and improve the design of current and future institutions. Discussion of
Kahneman’s book should inspire these cadets to think in new directions
as they craft their own research proposals.
Continued from page 12
Reading Group
Cadets Hear Panel on the Ethics of Free Markets
With his Koch Grant, Col. Atin
Basu organized a panel to speak to
cadets in his Political Economy of
Conflict and Applied Game Theory
classes the evening of Feb. 6.
“I would like them to understand
that beyond the science, free
markets raise moral questions
and indeed represent a moral
viewpoint,” Basu explained.
Addressing the moral viewpoint
from three different perspectives
were panelists Dr. Duncan Richter,
professor of philosophy at VMI and
expert on the philosophy of ethics;
Dr. Michael Anderson, head of the
Department of Economics at Washington and Lee University and member
of the Association of Christian Economists; and Dr. Jonathan Wight,
University of Richmond economics and international studies professor
and authority on Adam Smith. A question and answer session followed
the presentation.
“I really enjoyed it; the speakers were responsive to all questions
and brought unique perspectives,” observed Cadet Robert Davison ’15.
He appreciated the opportunities the panel provided outside of class,
in particular the chance to hear a Christian perspective on economics
from Anderson.
During his time, Anderson explained his use of a Christian framework
to discuss the ethics of free markets. “Scriptures show God to be loving,
just, and merciful, … [an assumption that is] key to the Christian
economic perspective,” he said. He observed that wealth is a means
toward human flourishing, not an end in itself: “When countries embrace
open markets, the poor find opportunity.”
Richter posed ethical questions related to free markets. “The real issue
is whether efficiency of free markets is a good thing – is it good that people
get what they want at prices they are willing to pay? That might sound
ridiculous, but people don’t always
want good things,” he surmised.
For example, Richter questioned
whether a market in which nuclear
weapons could be freely bought
and sold would be ethical. Given
this scenario, he proposed that
there should be restrictions in
the marketplace, because to
have complete freedom would
ultimately lead to tyranny.
“Freedom is a great thing – my
interest is in how we can have as
much of it as possible,” Richter
At the outset of his talk, Wight
asked pressing questions on a topic engrained in cadet life – honesty.
Pointing to the recent test cheating scandals in the Air Force and Navy,
he asked cadets why they should be honest – is it because there is a rule
or because they are honest people?
“You may start out because it’s a rule and if you don’t obey the rule
you’ll get in trouble, but at some point if you obey the rule long enough
you are going to internalize the rule,” Wight said. “Cheating is wrong – it’s
not that you’re going to get caught, it’s that cheating is intrinsically bad.”
Wight tied this example to the theme of trust. “Without trust it’s very
expensive to do business,” Wight explained. He stressed that trust is driving
the market, and is the reason the United States is a rich country today.
Basu noted that the themes of the professors’ talks fit well with topics
covered in his classes, in particular the role of free markets in balancing
positive and negative rights, and in increasing efficiency – and therefore
sustainability – when resources are limited.
While cadets learn about free markets in their classes, it is enriching
for them to hear more about the ethics behind them, said ECBU
department head Col. Robert Moreschi after the talk. “Without the
funding of the Koch Grant,” he added, “this would not have happened.”
Dr. Michael Anderson addresses cadets during the Feb. 6 panel.
VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.
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