Skip to main content

Remarks at tribute to Amartya Sen

Economists for Peace and Security Annual Dinner, Boston, Mass.

It is a great pleasure to be here tonight at the annual dinner of Economists for Peace and Security, and to play a part in honoring tonight’s special guest, Amartya Sen.

Economists often find themselves stressing the virtues of markets, highlighting the importance of incentives, emphasizing the importance of property rights – and so economics is too often seen as a heartless as well as a dismal science. This group has done much to keep the moral perspective in economic analysis. I want to thank everyone here for raising the collective consciousness of our profession and for the important perspectives you bring to debates about the changes that are shaping the institutions and ideas of our world.

Let me thank Richard Jolly, Chair of the Host Committee, for putting together this wonderful event and for inviting me to speak. Let me also thank James Galbraith, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Economists for Peace and Security, and all the other Trustees of the organization.

Agreement between Joe Stiglitz and me in recent years has been a rare occurrence – but I think there can be no doubt that we speak with one voice when it comes to our respect and admiration for Amartya – for the life he has led, for the contributions he has made, and for the difference his work will make in so many people’s lives for generations to come.

In his Nobel Lecture, Amartya postulated that if there is a central question that motivates what has been a central focus of his life’s work, social choice theory, it is this: “How can it be possible to arrive at cogent aggregative judgments about the society … given the diversity of preferences, concerns, and predicaments of the different individuals within society?”

Tonight, I want to turn that question around slightly and refocus its attention and ask: How can it be possible to arrive at cogent aggregative judgments about the life and work of Amartya Sen given the incredible diversity of his scholarship and the vast range of fields in which he has made enduring contributions? Amartya is an economist, but he is also a philosopher. He is an intellectual, but he is also a philanthropist who cares deeply about the impact of ideas on the lives of his countrymen and people around the world. So rather than attempting to capture the entire measure of the man, let me briefly focus on just three areas: famines, “missing” women, and poverty.

As so many of us know, Amartya’s 1981 book, Poverty and Famines, turned the conventional wisdom regarding the tragedy of famines on its head by demonstrating that most, if not all, famines resulted not from a lack of food but because the poorest in a society suffered a sudden drop in access to resources. This simple yet fundamental insight has changed the way we respond to famine, and it has enabled us to predict when a famine might be developing.

A decade later, Amartya called our collective attention to another enormously important issue – the 100 million women who are “missing” from the world population that should be alive but simply do not show up in population surveys. Amartya’s work has forced policymakers around the world to confront the difficult societal issues that these findings implicate.

It has been noted by others that this number of “missing” women is greater than the combined death tolls of both World Wars in the 20th century, larger than the number of people that died from all the famines of the 20th century, and represents more than 70 percent of the current female population of the United States. And while some competing explanations for at least part of this number have been advanced, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Amartya’s work has drawn important attention to the discriminatory treatment in nutrition, in health care, and in education suffered by so many young girls.

Finally, Amartya’s contributions in the study of poverty have changed the way we analyze the problems of the poor. He has called attention to the inadequacy of the conventional measures used to quantify poverty and how we think about human development. He has changed the way we approach improving the circumstances of those least able to protect themselves, and has insisted that market reforms are not enough – there must be democracy, a free press, and a genuine opportunity for the poor to participate in the social life of their country.

Amartya is a singular figure in our dismal science – a master of marshalling impressive arrays of evidence to support his pathbreaking ideas, but also a figure whose ideas and scholarship have transcended the bounds of our discipline to directly affect the lives of millions of people throughout every part of the world.

Albert Einstein once said, perhaps indelicately, that, “We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us to count, without which no worthwhile discoveries could have been made.” I would go one step further – Amartya Sen, “immortal” son of India, has taught all of us that it is simply not enough to count – but that we must never forget the value of that which we aggregate. That the enduring values of the human spirit can’t simply be reduced to numbers, but that through the thoughtful application of knowledge and insight the human spirit can indeed be set free.

Amartya, thank you for all you have done, and for all that you will continue to do.