Making Sense of Sen
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  • By Homo Rationalis

Critically writing on Amartya Sen is a difficult task. Apart from being a Nobel Laureate and Bharat Ratna awardee, he has variously been called Mother Teresa and the “conscience of the economic profession” (by Robert Solow, no less). His ability to navigate controversies, even in the politically charged atmosphere of Cambridge university – where he completed his PhD under the formidable Joan Robinson – is legendary.

Kaushik Basu, the current chief economist of the World Bank and a former protege of Sen, once recalled Sen’s advice to him on how to interact with the media: “Don’t utter a sentence that can be misconstrued or any subset thereof that can be misinterpreted”. Basu could not follow this advice himself: his utterances on legalizing petty corruption cases created a storm in a teacup; yet Sen has followed this advice all his life and sugar-coated almost everything he has to say.

So how does one review or understand a scholar whose substantive interventions often advocate policies that make little sense when seen in a holistic manner, nonetheless are packaged in ostensibly sensible words?

We believe that for understanding a smart person like Sen, we need to parse his silence. He has a long and distinguished career as an economist and what he does not say is perhaps as important and meaningful as the things he says. It is only by juxtaposing his own career with the trajectory of evolution of the Indian economy that we shall be able to reach some important conclusions regarding Sen the public intellectual. With this insight, let us review the career of Amartya Sen and his public interventions in so far as they relate to Indian public policy.

Sen was undoubtedly a brilliant student of Presidency College, and his calibre can be gauged from the fact that he was appointed full professor and founder-head of the Department of Economics at Jadavpur University at the young age of 23, even before he completed his PhD (Choice of Techniques, under Joan Robinson and A.K. Dasgupta). Nonetheless his first major policy intervention took place in 1962, when he pointed out that there existed an inverse relationship between farm size and farm productivity in almost every agricultural zone in India. The policy implications of this finding were blindingly obvious: land ceilings and redistribution of agricultural land will not only lead to more egalitarian rural structure, but will also raise food production and help tide over the building food crisis. As commentators noted years later:

“The relationship between farm size and productivity has been intensely debated in India. A large number of studies during the 1960s and 1970s provided convincing evidence that crop productivity per unit of land declined with an increase in farm size (Sen 1962, 1964; Mazumdar 1965; Khusro 1968; Hanumantha Rao 1966; Saini 1971; Bardhan 1973; Berry1972) which provided strong support for land reforms, land ceiling and various other policies to support smallholders on ground of efficiency and growth.”

This was, of course, one example of what might be called voodoo economics. In reality, the production of foodgrain plummeted from 71 million tons in 1961 to 65 million tons in 1967 and a major food crisis erupted that could only be averted with the help of imports, and later, the Green Revolution (Little and Joshi, 1994). It is important to remember that with policies implied in Sen’s work, India would have faced a major famine and humanitarian crisis in 1970s. This was the first, yet unfortunately not the last, of the policy misadventures that Sen either explicitly advocated or implicitly condoned.

After Jadhavpur University, Prof. Sen joined the Delhi School of Economics, an institution that, together with Indian Statistical Institute (Kolkata) and Presidency College, provided the intellectual kernel for  the planning regime. There, Sen established himself as one of the holy trinity of the Indian left-liberal establishment (A.K.Sen, K.N. Raj, and Sukhmoy Chakravarty). His foray into growth modelling – together with K. N. Raj – is widely believed to be broadly supportive of the then existing planning paradigm.

This is bewildering because the mid-sixties and seventies were the period when the ills of Indian planning were becoming apparent, even obvious. Per capita income growth had plummeted to near zero. Inflation was in double digits. Even those high figures were underestimations. Goods were simply not available in markets; shortages, rationing, and long queues for purchasing even essential commodities were the norm. Massive corruption and black marketing emerged. A waiting period of six months or more was not uncommon for something as simple as procuring an HMT wristwatch; unemployment was soaring. The public sector was accumulating losses, and the prospect of an external crisis never ebbed.

What is more, these economic problems were spilling into social disturbances. Youth all over the India were angry, a phenomenon immortalized by Amitabh Bacchan’s films, in which he gave voice to the anguish of the ‘angry young man’ and whipped up rhetoric against the ‘system’. Their anger was being reflected in public agitations and political and militant actions all over India. In Bihar, anti-corruption agitation was in full swing, and in Gujrat Navnirman agitation was in the offing. From Punjab to the north-east, trouble was brewing in every part of India. Economic mismanagement came very close to unravelling the whole fabric of the Indian republic: the country was widely seen as the land of a “million mutinies”, an economic basketcase that was headed towards chaos, anarchy, and eventual disintegration.

Among the more cosmopolitan intellectual elites, India’s predicament was being unfavourably contrasted with the experience of East Asia, that was then making economic progress in every field. Jagdish Bhagwati wrote his ‘India: Planning for Industrialization’ with Padma Desai, which became the seminal intellectual attack on the state-led, insular and dirigiste development strategy. Sen, however, chose to remain silent and, and just as India was lurching from one crisis to another, turned his attention to an esoteric field within mathematical economics known as “Social Choice”. He wrote his magnum opus “Collective Choice and Social Welfare” in 1970 and went on to teach at Harvard with Kenneth Arrow and John Rawls.

It is pertinent to note that after the farm size and productivity debate, Sen increasingly turned away from positive to normative economics. His papers began to more and more investigate “shoulds” rather than “is”. His scholarly laurels rest, therefore, not on his understanding of economic processes, but making tools for economic measurement and development of alternative conceptions of well-being that are novel yet have to stand the test of time.

Within economics, financial economists are often accused of being mathematical wizards whose work has little connection with the real world. Ironically, this charge should apply even more in the case of Sen. The mathematical theorems he helped prove are not concerned with even hypothetical economies; rather they investigate the logical conundrums that emerge when more than one individual try to reach collective decisions by way of voting protocols that obey certain technical restrictions.

It is important to understand that social choice does not offer any expertise in public policy whatsoever. An economy is a complex system, much like an ecosystem. Any economist who tries to enter policy debates should master the various interdependencies and feedback loops that invariably emerge in a complex system. Public policy is and should be guided by positivistic considerations through and through. John von Neumann’s motto “Stable processes we shall predict; unstable processes we shall control.” is the main mantra of practical economists also; measurement issues are important but not central. To give an analogy, Wilhelm Rontgen who invented the X-ray did not claim to have become a physician on that count; the inventor of the cardiogram should never perform surgery on a heart patient. Similarly, if you devise a Human Development Index, it gives you no expertise to claim how it can be improved. But Sen has never honoured this distinction and has often (ab)used his Nobel prize in normative economics for promoting his pet social policies.

Of late, he has turned into an intellectual bully. Armed with the Nobel prize, he tries to browbeat opponents into submission even as his arguments lack methodological rigour . A recent example of this tendency might be found in the Food Security Bill (FSB) debate, where he pulled out of thin air a figure of 100 deaths per week, due to non-passage of the FSB. It should be remembered that there is no rationale or justification for this figure whatsoever. In fact, Sen himself confessed, “to capture people’s attention, you have to have a number.”

The question is whether an economist, no matter how accomplished and decorated, and whatever be the moral urgency of the cause he is espousing, is entitled to manufacturing his evidence. How will a court deal with a lawyer who is known to be manufacturing evidence? How will an experimental scientist be treated if it turns out that she cooks up her own data to suit her pet fancies? Yet when Amartya Sen goofs up, he gets an easy pass. If only Left academics received as much scrutiny as the normal academics do, India will perhaps be in a much better shape.

Indeed, for a man known to have an opinion on everything under the sun, from Binayak Sen to Section 377 of the Indian penal code, from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to Akbar the Great, Sen’s writings on the faultlines of Indian policy are remarkably sketchy, sparse and evasive except when he is sniping at the reform process from the sidelines and excoriating the Right’s “ridiculous fascination with growth”. Unill 1998, his standard quip was, “I try not to write on international trade and often succeed.” (India’s Economic Reforms and Development: Essays for Manmohan Singh, OUP 1998).

In the same essay, written in honour of the “reformer” Manmohan Singh, Sen had to make the following remarks: “Manmohan’s track in challenging the inescapability of stagnant export earning was a lot wiser than mine.” Additionally. “the art of shooting oneself in the foot, as practised in the export-import policies of the Government of India, was laid bare by Manmohan’s empirical studies.” Just as his position on agricultural productivity and export-pessimism had become empirically indefensible by 1998, Sen had no option but to eat crow.

Again, in recent interviews, he has been slightly more forthright: “I think the biggest symbol of corruption culture was the License Raj, which empowered officers. The License Raj was an absolute hotbed of corrupt activity. Among its contributions, the creation of a governmental culture which is not constructive but destructive, and obstructionist, is one. The extension of corruption was another terrible thing. License Raj was one of the absurdly bad systems that India had to live through.” At this rate, Sen might even accept in 2050 that his ideas have been utterly ruinous for the Indian economy and Bhagwati was far “wiser” than him. Full stop, responsibility over.

In short, Sen has belatedly accepted that economic reforms were long overdue. The question that then emerges is the following: “Did this realization finally dawn upon you in 2000? Where were you when Jagdish Bhagwati made most of the arguments in Sixties, or when a vigorous debate on Indian reforms was raging in the Nineties? Your studied silence on issues of enormous importance, particularly when you find time to comment on subjects as diverse as Geeta, ludo and almanacs, was deafening. It suggests only two explanations: either as an economist, you are far less sophisticated and prescient than some of your peers and fellow-economists, or you are an intellectual coward and a selfish careerist who cannot even stand for what you consider yourself to be right. You weigh personal costs and benefits even as grave issues of public importance are involved.”

I leave it to his legions of admirers to decide which option they consider more likely. Either way, he suffers from serious credibility issues, his 28-page academic CV notwithstanding. Sen’s gratuitous, unsolicited, and increasingly unprofessional statements on topics ranging from the FSB to Narendra Modi deserve as much seriousness and respect as accorded to the maverick genius of our time: Noam Chomsky.