…Sen deservers to get bashed a bit, because he did, after all, win this year´s Nobel. Even at his best, he can be at his worst. Consider one of the jew areas in which he said something important – his work on the history of famines. On that topic, 1 don´t for a moment question his passion or compassion, especially since he lived through the 1943 Bengal famine at the age of nine. But I do occasionally question his good sense. Sen´s finding was that the starvation associated with these awful events has mainly been due to lack of access to food, rather than lack of its availability; the food, he says, was there all along, except the access was denied. That´s a pretty simple and stark distinction, but amazingly, Sen dresses it up with an absurd formal apparatus.
At the beginning of his 1981 journal article, “Ingredients of Famine Analysis” (one hopes he used that title ironically), we confront a graph with lots of lines and curves on it, In which the horizontal axis is labelled “Food” and the vertical axis “NonFood” and underneath it we read, “With a price ratio p, and a minimum food requirement OA, the starvation set Si is given by the region OAB. If the endowment vector is xi, the person is in a position to avoid starvation….” and on and on in that vein.
All this is in the service of drawing that simple distinction between access and availability before he goes on to the actual evidence.
And even regarding his actual analysis of famines, it´s hard to completely trust his judgment. By solely grinding the socialist axe of access to supply over supply availability, he gives the latter issue a short shrift that is inappropriate.
For instance, he writes sweepingly that the food security of people in the Western capitalist economies “is not the result of any guarantee that the market or profit-maximisation has provided, but rather due to the social security the state has offered.”
Really? Could food security have nothing to do with the enormous gains in productivity that the market has brought to the farm? Even Sen himself writes of “deaths on a very large scale” because of famine conditions in China during 1959-61. The way agriculture was then organised probably had something to do with that awful tragedy, just as Soviet collectivism has a lot do with the dreadful prospect of food insecurity currently faced by the Russian people.
But getting back to how he combines those “tools from economics and philosophy”, in the 1997 expanded edition of his book, On Economic Inequality, Sen writes, “Even for limited application of the merit principle – giving more than the ´norm´ to the specially meritorious but not less than the ´norm´ to the demented it can be argued that the measure of merit is culture-specific.”
He then goes on to dismiss the merit principle thus: “While many of us may be content to live in a society which values the ability to lecture more than it values, say, the ability to make loud, shrill noises by blowing sharply through one´s nose, we might be perfectly able to give long lectures about possible societies in which the latter quality would be the more desired virtue.”
Excerpt from “Is it really reasonable to assume that the newest Nobelist deserved the prize?” by Gene Epstein (Barron´s, 19 October 1998)