Economics as if people mattered

If money makes the world go around, then perhaps economists should rule. At least really smart ones, who think deeply about how to end hunger, eradicate war and develop ethical economic models. Amartya Sen is that man. A native of India, Sen was affected by the famine he witnessed early on, leading to an unequaled body of work dedicated to thinking about how to improve people’s lives. He has authored numerous books, received more than 90 honorary degrees and the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics. In 2010, Time magazine listed him as one as “100 most influential persons in the world.” The Harvard University professor will be giving a free lecture at University of California, Santa Barbara, on Monday night, April 25, to discuss Peace, Violence and Development in Modern Society.

Please tell us about the work of the group Economists for Peace and Security.

The group is particularly concerned with identifying ways and means of reducing the threat of wars, terrorism and violence across the world. This task demands that we study the different ways in which violence is promoted by those — inside governments and outside them — who try to advance their divisive agenda through instigating divisiveness and sectarian turmoil. It is also important to develop channels of communication and dialogue between opposing groups, when that is possible. Curbing arms race is very important, too, as is the reduction of nuclear bombs across the world.

Even though the group is a small collection of professional economists — overwhelmingly academic economists — it tries to do what it can by promoting public discussion and undertaking causal research investigating the fostering of violence and analyzing the ways of preventing such violence. We do regularly have meetings — often in company with the annual conference of the American Economic Association.

Hunger is an ever-present reality for over 1 billion people. What steps are needed to overcome this dilemma? Has there been any meaningful change to how this problem is being addressed over the past 25 years?

This is a complex issue, and the answer will vary between different countries and different objective conditions.

However, in terms of general concerns, one necessary step is to make sure that the underprivileged people have employment and income to have the means of buying food. Another is to reduce huge shortfalls of incomes through poverty relief and — when necessary — from subsidized availability of food, to alleviate deprivation and hunger. The production of food is another issue, and that has to be monitored and promoted but it is important to remember that the shortfall of food production is not the only cause — indeed often not the primary cause — of the persistence of hunger and undernourishment. (If people do snot have the means to buy enough food, even when there is plenty of food in the warehouses, they will starve.)

There have certainly been changes in the understanding of the causes of hunger — for example in appreciating that food supply is not the only concern, and that incomes and their distribution are also very important. There are many efforts through different institutions, including national governments and international agencies to reduce hunger in the world. But there is a long way to go to achieve the abolition — or even substantial reduction — of the prevalence of hunger in our miserable world.

In the United States, the disparity between rich and poor continues to grow. What is likely to happen if this trend continues?

Severe inequality is not only bad in itself, it also makes absolute poverty harder to eradicate. The growing disparity is, furthermore, helping to generate a social sense of unfairness and may even help to promote social discontent.

What is your opinion of the social changes that are occurring in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and what can we learn from these events?

I welcome them firmly but cautiously. Things can still go wrong, but a lot of ground has been gained in favour of democratic rule. In fact, I have been arguing for some time now that — contrary to a commonly made assumption — the desire for democracy and for what John Stuart Mill called “government by discussion” is very strong in the Middle East, even though it has often been brutally suppressed by authoritarian rulers. I discussed this issue in my book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (2006) and also — more briefly — in my last book The Idea of Justice (2009). Even though mine was a heterodox view, it is rather vindicated by recent events. Also the spontaneity of the anti-authoritarian movements tends to support my hope that these movements will gain strength over time, rather than disappear like a passing tide.   

Amartya Sen will speak on Peace, Violence and Development in Modern Society on April 25, 8 p.m., at Campbell Hall at UCSB.