3 - 9 June 1999
Issue No. 432
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A victory for the real issuesBy Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil *
At last, Amartya Sen, the prominent Indian economist, has received the Nobel Prize in economics, virtually monopolised by Anglo-Saxon economists for the past 30 years. An economist from the Third World has finally been recognised for his work on poverty, hunger and development -- in other words, the everyday problems of his part of the world.
Amartya Sen should have received the prize long ago. The Swedish committee that examines candidates every year has been accused of ideological discrimination. By withholding recognition of Third World economists for so many years, it has caused research in certain important areas, such as the economics of development, welfare, poverty and famine, to be neglected. Only one economist has won the prize for his work on the developing economies in the past 30 years. William Arthur Lewis, of Princeton University, one of the founders of the discipline, shared the prize with another American economist in 1979.
As of 1990, a shift occurred in the focus of economists nominated for the prize. The majority of candidates were economists who had adopted a highly technical approach to their field, focusing on mathematical models which deal with economic issues as though they were mental or logical exercises rather than issues to be dealt with in a social and political context. The new trend, which has prevailed in the US for the past 20 years, is little more than a contribution to modern mathematics. It has no semblance to the contributions of the first generation of economists who introduced quantification methods into economic analysis and thus ushered in an important breakthrough in the study of economics.
The issue for this first generation was different, and their endeavours were geared to establishing quantification tools required to develop economics as a science capable of producing useful inputs for economic planners and policy-makers in general. In other words, the first-generation economists devoted their work to the formulation of new and reliable quantification tools which would be useful to humans, rather than to establishing methods for "mental exercises" which deal with absolute values vastly removed from the world of economic reality.
Amartya Sen's scientific career is long and rich. He studied economics at the prestigious Presidency school in Calcutta, then went to Britain where he graduated in economics from Trinity College, Cambridge with honours. Cambridge was at the time the hub of radicalism and of new methods of economic analysis. Left-wing economists, post-Keynesians, old and new Marxists, and neo-radicals interacted then. Sen, too, was exposed to the "critical and creative Cambridge spirit". He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the theories and methods of choice of techniques in developing countries under the guidance of the eminent British economist Maurice Dobb, and obtained his doctorate in 1959.
His dissertation was a significant contribution to the field, and came to be regarded as a milestone in economic development thinking. It was published in the early '60s, a 100-page model of conciseness. Each sentence of the carefully drafted text is pregnant with innovative ideas; no effort was wasted on reproducing old ideas, as is common in any academic work. Chapter after chapter, the dissertation reveals serious thought and an original perspective.
Sen's contribution during his 40-year career has been to give much, in many fields. When he received the Nobel Prize, he had written 12 books and about 200 articles. He was also chairman of the Econometric Society and the International Economic Association. The illustrious American economist Robert Solo (winner of the Nobel Prize in 1987) referred to him as the "conscience of the science of economics".
His brilliant scientific contribution may be divided into four areas of research, each of which marks a stage in the development of his scientific method and doctrine: 1) Economies and issues of economic development, particularly, the "determinants of the optimum rate of savings" and "the optimum art of production" in developing countries, which he studied in the late '50s and early '60s; 2) the economies of welfare and theories of social choice, the issues which dominated his thinking during the '60s (specifically, the rules governing social choices, the shift from the sphere of individual to social preferences, and the thorny issues related to the integration of individual preferences through democratic or paternalistic means). His intense research efforts in this field were crowned by his important work, Theories of Social Choices and Public Welfare (1970), which blends economics with philosophy and logic; 3) problems of poverty and economic justice: these issues were Sen's main concern during the '70s, and are a natural extension of his previous research. Sen endeavoured here to develop accurate ways of assessing economic justice in developing countries. He also developed indices for measuring poverty and public welfare. The measures developed were based on sound theoretical and logical hypotheses. In 1977, Sen published an important critical article entitled "The Rational Fools", which shook the very foundations of well-established economic analyses based on "rationalist hypotheses". 4) Issues related to standards of living have been the pivotal issues of his research programme since the '80s. Sen focused on the poorest communities in the world, vulnerable to famine, need, and increasing social marginalisation. He could not explain how so many people could be dying of hunger in the presence of such abundance.
Sen's approach to the areas of his study has been consistent throughout. He carried out his research with courage and efficiency, focusing public interest on neglected areas of knowledge. The issues that won him the Nobel Prize, interestingly, have very little to do with the evaluation of speculation risks in financial assets and their derivatives, for which last year's economist was recognised. There is a wide disparity between "the economies of financial speculation" of the previous laureate, and Sen's "economies of poverty, hunger and deprivation".
Poverty and hunger, on one hand, financial speculation, on the other: these are actually two side of the same coin, our "contemporary economic reality" and all the sharp contradictions which riddle it.
Jean Robinson, my professor at Cambridge and an icon of left-wing Keynesian economics, once said that the Nobel Prize in economics is the only one, among all those offered by the committee, which may by awarded to two economists who distinguish themselves for equally valid analyses leading to opposite results. This may be explained by the fact that, by its very nature, economics is a "social science". Economic analyses therefore draw on science, ideology, and the interests of the stronger. But history is the ultimate arbiter in such matters. Time alone has the final word on truth and falsehood; its judgement is not affected by the brilliance of arguments.
*The writer is professor of economics at Cairo University.