The Moment of Truth — February 6, 1999

Amartya Sen’s Nobel

Hi, I’m mejeffdorchen, and this is the Moment of Truth – the one moment in the broadcast week when the truth escapes being slapped down and squished into goo by the flyswatter of capitalist crony media, escapes, flies free upon the airwaves and comes to buzz melodically in your ear.

Well, it seems that cryptonazi economists from the University of Chicago aren’t the only ones who get Nobel prizes for their work in Economics. On page 19 of the January 1999 issue of Scientific American – which is a fun issue for many reasons – read about Amartya Sen of the University of Cambridge.

Excerpts of his May 1993 Scientific American article “The Economics of Life and Death” are reprinted there.

Sen won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics. The Nobel citation said that Sen “has restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems” – but does not mention that previous Nobel honorees are some of the people most responsible for the present lack of an ethical dimension to economics specifically and global politics in general. Mass murderer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger comes to mind as a particularly gruesome vampire who long ago punctured the global jugular with both unethical fangs and has been sucking ever since.

Anyway, Amartya Sen: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences gave him the Nobel for his work in “welfare economics” – welfare here meaning decent living standards, not demonized “handouts” to mythical welfare queens concocted in the initial stages of Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s – Sen examines relationships between individual rights, majority rule, poverty, and the distribution of resources and opportunities. He is most often sited for his explorations of the causes of famine.

I now quote the from the Nobel web page:

Sen’s best-known work in this area is his book from 1981: Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Here, he challenges the common view that a shortage of food is the most important… explanation for famine. On the basis of a careful study of a number of such catastrophes in India, Bangladesh, and Saharan countries, from the 1940s onwards, he found other explanatory factors. He argues that several observed phenomena cannot in fact be explained by a shortage of food alone, e.g. that famines have occurred even when the supply of food was not significantly lower than during previous years (without famines), or that faminestricken areas have sometimes exported food.

Actually, in the Scientific American article we discover that, during the Bangladeshi famine of 1974, the amount of food available per person “was higher than in any other year between 1971 and 1976.” Sen goes on to describe how the price of food went up too high for Bangladesh’s food-production workers to afford it. “When food prices peaked in October,” he writes, “so also did the death toll.”

Bear in mind, now, that the vast majority of the world’s food passes through the hands of a few transnational corporations, and so their global desires regarding what will happen to food influences what local capitalists in both rich and poor countries decide to do with the food they own.

Will they make it available to those workers who produced it but, thanks to the unseen hand of the free market, can’t afford it? Or will they let those workers starve to death and instead peddle the food to whomever can pay what the market will bear?

In 1974, a year of plentiful food in Bangladesh, the answer was evident in the starvation deaths of thousands of agricultural workers.

So, if you’re wondering what kind of utopia unfettered free-market capitalism has in store for us, wonder no more. Obviously, for the WELFARE of human society, it’s necessary that there be some other forces at work besides the market. Libertarians and other brain-dead dumbasses take note.

You see, folks, here in the States we have a very distorted view of things. In much of the world, the word “socialism” does not and will never have the leprous connotation it has here – and despite the ravages Reaganomics and Thatcherism have wrought upon the west, in England and most of Europe there remains a very different sense of the responsibility of society to every human being than that which pervades the US.

Now, the US has tried to export economic and political disrespect for humanity – one notable success was Chile – but out of reach of our eagle’s talon the story is and will remain very different. It seems that as developing countries develop they are going to demand more principled social institutions than the ones we’ve come to expect.

It’s no accident that Amartya Sen is from India – the world’s largest democracy, home to one third of all the people who live under democratically elected governments. Nor is it coincidence that in 1972 he co-authored the UN’s guidelines for evaluating development projects. Nor is it pure kismet that the IMF and the World Bank don’t rely too heavily on the UN’s Human Development Index when figuring out how to hook poor nations into a cycle of debt and crippling resource depletion.

No, it’s not by chance that India has produced Amartya Sen while the US produced Milton Friedman. Just like it’s not by chance that workers starved in Bangladesh in 1974. Just like it’s not by chance that people go without food and housing and healthcare under today’s extreme capitalism. These phenomena have reasons behind them. And an economics that examines these reasons, examines why people are poor, is the only economics that matters.

Thank you. I’m mejeffdorchen and this has been The Moment of Truth.