Saturday, May 14, 2005

Amartya Sen

Amartya K Sen is a Nobel Memorial prize winning economist on the economics faculty @Harvard. He was educated in India and Cambridge and went on to become the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge later in his career (1998-2004). He has spent all of his life in academia teaching economics to students in India, England and the US. Professor Sen is considered, if not a pioneer, a strong force why 'welfare economics' has a special place among today's policy makers and people in the intellectual spectrum. He always worked to break the barrier between mathematized 'high theory' and 'real world' economics, and hence rightly acknowledged as the 'conscience-keeper' amongst economists.

Although he has published a vast amount of literature (some available here), below are some of his key contributions..

'Collective Choice and Social Welfare', 1970 - This book explores the study of collective choice not just within the realms of economics but with material from philosophy of ethics, theory of justice, political science, theory of state and theory of decision procedure. Although I couldn't find many reviews or critique of this book, there was a general acceptance of this work as a classic and a helpful tool to teach social choice theory.

'Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation', 1981 - This is one of Sen's best known works and develops on the social choice theory - a study of how individual preferences are aggregated to form a collective choice - developed by Kenneth Arrow, another Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics in 1972. Here is a review of the book by Arrow himself. From my simple understanding, Sen says that poverty or famine is not always associated with lack of food, but more so by the inequalities that exist in the dynamics of distribution. One of the key contributions that came out of this work is the entitlement approach', defined by Sen as 'the set of alternative commodity bundles that a person can command in a society using the totality of rights and oppurtunities that he or she faces'. 'Sen's Entitlement Approach: Critiques and Counter-Critiques' by Stephen Devereux is a balanced report on this approach, expressing the opinions of other economists along with his own. An interesting viewpoint from a non-economist on the same approach written by Nadine Gordinner, Nobel Prize winner in Literature in 1991, can be found here.
In the early 90s and after, Sen was instrumental in the formulation of the Human Development Report (published under the United Nations Development Program) and contributed extensively to the same.

'On Economic Inequality',1973 + 'Economic Inequality Reexamined', 1997 (with James Foster) - The basic issue that Sen tries explain is his first work and the expansion work later is that equality for one person may be inequality for another and hence, any claim to equality should consider the diversity of human beings and their characteristics.

'Development as Freedom', 1999 - Simply described in one review as a book that tries to explain development not by GDP but in terms of the real freedoms that people enjoy (Reminds me reading a TIME article that the King of Bhutan was more concerned with Gross National Happiness than with GDP!!). This book is considered an authentic account of an economist who is not part of the New Right that has dominated the study of economics for more than 20 years now. The essence of the book is the 'Capability Approach' - a broader definition of development that encompasses real freedom for people and their well-being - and the defintion of freedom as "the expansion of the 'capabilities' of people to lead the kind of lives they value - and have reason to value". In fact this theory and his earlier contributions to welfare economics raised flags amongst the intellectual spectrum (mostly American economists). In 'Collective Capabilites, Culture and Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom' by Peter Evans @Berkeley, the author sees 'hysteria' in people like Pollack(WSJ, 1998) due to Sen's very addressal of the 'muddlehead views of the established leftists' with precise 'clarity and logical elegance of his exposition'. The author also points out that Sen's 'capability approach' provides an invaluable foundation for those interested in pursuing development as freedom, and hence need to be built on (and not just admired). A review by Firoze Monji @Oxford briefly how Sen articulates his argument over conventional economics.

'Common Cultures', 2003 - An excellent one-on-one interview with Sen regarding clash of values between United States and Europe.

Some of his other work are in the areas of economic measurement, behavioral economics, economic methodology, socio-economic development among others.


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