Didn’t Dr Obama (the new American President’s late father) once publish an article in Harvard’s Quarterly Journal of Economics? (Or did he?)

As an impecunious undergraduate working and paying my way through the London School of Economics in 1973-1976, I spent many long hours poring over academic journals in economics at what used to be the old British Library of Political and Economic Sciences.   If memory serves me rightly, I did come across at that time a new article published by a Barack Obama in, I think, Harvard’s Quarterly Journal of Economics, which used to be quite an eminent journal at the time.  (All academic economics journals  have since  that era tended to suffer from  dullness, corruption and unreadability of varying degrees, especially after the end of the Cold War.)

The Obama article may have been co-authored with one or more others but I feel quite sure I recall it because of the pleasure I received from the  novelty of the African name in a (stuffy) American journal.    Dr Obama’s affiliation may have been given as the University of Hawaii — where, ironically enough, I was to have much experience later, as has been told elsewhere here.

During President Obama’s electoral campaign, I had given this information to an American journalist with a request to follow it up as I am unable to do so myself, not having access to stacks of the QJE.

It would be interesting if my memory has served me rightly here after some 34-35 years, and a Barack Obama article was found in the QJE of the early 1970s.  A lot of negative things have been said about President Obama’s late father (amounting almost to defamation) and any good  he may have  accomplished may have become interred with his bones.  Of course if I am right, the new President would owe me one as he probably has not known of the existence of the article himself.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Postscript:  It is possible the QJE article by Dr Obama, if it exists, was dated in the mid or late 1960s; if I came across it around 1974 as I think I did, it would still have been considered “new”.   So any intrepid young person who follows up on this by looking through a stack of QJE’s on my behalf may kindly include the mid or late 1960s.  Of course Dr Obama went from Manoa to Harvard so the likelihood that he published his economics research in the latter’s house journal is also high.

Advertisements

An Open Letter to Professor Amartya Sen about Singur etc

A letter to Prof. Sen

First published in The Statesman 31 July 2007, Editorial Page Special Article

Professor Amartya Sen, Harvard University

Dear Professor Sen,

Everyone will be delighted that someone of your worldwide stature has joined the debate on Singur and Nandigram; The Telegraph deserves congratulations for having made it possible on July 23.

I was sorry to find though that you may have missed the wood for the trees and also some of the trees themselves. Perhaps you have relied on Government statements for the facts. But the Government party in West Bengal represents official Indian communism and has been in power for 30 years at a stretch. It may be unwise to take at face-value what they say about their own deeds on this very grave issue! Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there are many candid communists who privately recognise this dismal truth about themselves. To say this is not to be praising those whom you call the “Opposition” ~ after all, Bengal’s politics has seen emasculation of the Congress as an opposition because the Congress and communists are allies in Delhi. It is the Government party that must reform itself from within sua sponte for the good of everyone in the State.

The comparisons and mentions of history you have made seem to me surprising. Bengal’s economy now or in the past has little or nothing similar to the economy of Northern England or the whole of England or Britain itself, and certainly Indian agriculture has little to do with agriculture in the new lands of Australia or North America. British economic history was marked by rapid technological innovations in manufacturing and rapid development of social and political institutions in context of being a major naval, maritime and mercantile power for centuries. Britain’s geography and history hardly ever permitted it to be an agricultural country of any importance whereas Bengal, to the contrary, has been among the most agriculturally fertile and hence densely populated regions of the world for millennia.

Om Prakash’s brilliant pioneering book The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal 1630-1720 (Princeton 1985) records all this clearly. He reports the French traveller François Bernier saying in the 1660s “Bengal abounds with every necessary of life”, and a century before him the Italian traveller Verthema saying Bengal “abounds more in grain, flesh of every kind, in great quantity of sugar, also of ginger, and of great abundance of cotton, than any country in the world”. Om Prakash says “The premier industry in the region was the textile industry comprising manufacture from cotton, silk and mixed yarns”. Bengal’s major exports were foodstuffs, textiles, raw silk, opium, sugar and saltpetre; imports notably included metals (as Montesquieu had said would always be the case).

Bengal did, as you say, have industries at the time the Europeans came but you have failed to mention these were mostly “agro-based” and, if anything, a clear indicator of our agricultural fecundity and comparative advantage. If “deindustrialization” occurred in 19th Century India, that had nothing to do with the “deindustrialization” in West Bengal from the 1960s onwards due to the influence of official communism.

You remind us Fa Hiaen left from Tamralipta which is modern day Tamluk, though he went not to China but to Ceylon. You suggest that because he did so Tamluk effectively “was greater Calcutta”. I cannot see how this can be said of the 5th Century AD when no notion of Calcutta existed. Besides, modern Tamluk at 22º18’N, 87º56’E is more than 50 miles inland from the ancient port due to land-making that has occurred at the mouth of the Hooghly. I am afraid the relevance of the mention of Fa Hiaen to today’s Singur and Nandigram has thus escaped me.

You say “In countries like Australia, the US or Canada where agriculture has prospered, only a very tiny population is involved in agriculture. Most people move out to industry. Industry has to be convenient, has to be absorbing”. Last January, a national daily published a similar view: “For India to become a developed country, the area under agriculture has to shrink, urban and industrial land development has to take place, and about 100 million workers have to move out from agriculture into industry and services. This is the only way forward for bringing prosperity to the rural population”.

Rice is indeed grown in Arkansas or Texas as it is in Bengal but there is a world of difference between the technological and geographical situation here and that in the vast, sparsely populated New World areas with mechanized farming! Like shoe-making or a hundred other crafts, agriculture can be capital-intensive or labour-intensive ~ ours is relatively labour-intensive, theirs is relatively capital-intensive. Our economy is relatively labour-abundant and capital-scarce; their economies are relatively labour-scarce and capital-abundant (and also land-abundant). Indeed, if anything, the apt comparison is with China, and you doubtless know of the horror stories and civil war conditions erupting across China in recent years as the Communist Party and their businessman friends forcibly take over the land of peasants and agricultural workers, e.g. in Dongzhou.

All plans of long-distance social engineering to “move out” 40 per cent of India’s population (at 4 persons per “worker”) from the rural hinterlands must also face FA Hayek’s fundamental question in The Road to Serfdom: “Who plans whom, who directs whom, who assigns to other people their station in life, and who is to have his due allotted by others?”

Your late Harvard colleague, Robert Nozick, opened his brilliant 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia saying: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”. You have rightly deplored the violence seen at Singur and Nandigram. But you will agree it is a gross error to equate violence perpetrated by the Government which is supposed to be protecting all people regardless of political affiliation, and the self-defence of poor unorganised peasants seeking to protect their meagre lands and livelihoods from state-sponsored pogroms. Kitchen utensils, pitchforks or rural implements and flintlock guns can hardly match the organised firepower controlled by a modern Government.

Fortunately, India is not China and the press, media and civil institutions are not totally in the hands of the ruling party alone. In China, no amount of hue and cry among the peasants could save them from the power of organised big business and the Communist Party. In India, a handful of brave women have managed to single-handedly organise mass movements of protest which the press and media have then broadcast that has shocked the whole nation to its senses.

You rightly say the land pricing process has been faulty. Irrelevant historical prices have been averaged when the sum of discounted expected future values in an inflationary economy should have been used. Matters are even worse. “The fear of famine can itself cause famine. The people of Bengal are afraid of a famine. It was repeatedly charged that the famine (of 1943) was man-made.” That is what T. W. Schultz said in 1946 in the India Famine Emergency Committee led by Pearl Buck, concerned that the 1943 Bengal famine should not be repeated following dislocations after World War II. Of course since that time our agriculture has undergone a Green Revolution, at least in wheat if not in rice, and a White Revolution in milk and many other agricultural products. But catastrophic collapses in agricultural incentives may still occur as functioning farmland comes to be taken by government and industry from India’s peasantry using force, fraud or even means nominally sanctioned by law. If new famines come to be provoked because farmers’ incentives collapse, let future historians know where responsibility lay.

West Bengal’s real economic problems have to do with its dismal macroeconomic and fiscal position which is what Government economists should be addressing candidly. As for land, the Government’s first task remains improving grossly inadequate systems of land-description and definition, as well as the implementation and recording of property rights.

With my most respectful personal regards, I remain

Yours ever

 

Suby

A Philosophical Conversation between Prof. Sen & Dr Roy

A Philosophical Conversation between Professor Sen & Dr Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman, “8th Day”, May 14 2006

 

 

ROY: …The philosophers Renford Bambrough and John Wisdom would have been with you at Cambridge….

SEN: Wisdom I knew better; he was at my College; but you know my philosophy was not an important thing at the time. Among the philosophers there, it was C. D. Broad with whom I chatted more. But Wisdom I knew, and he mainly tried to encourage me to ride horses with him, which I didn’t.

ROY: You went to Cambridge in …

SEN: I went to Cambridge in 1953.

ROY: So Wittgenstein had just died…

SEN: Wittgenstein had died.

ROY: Only just in 1952 (sic).

SEN: But I knew a lot about the conversations between Wittgenstein and Sraffa because Sraffa was alive; I did a paper on that by the way.

ROY: Well that’s what I was going to ask, there is no trace of your work on Wittgenstein and the Wittgensteinians.

SEN: I don’t know why. My paper was published in the Journal of Economic Literature a couple of years ago. Now mind you it’s not a conclusion, just an interpretation, what was the role of Gramsci in the works of Sraffa and Wittgenstein, what is it that Sraffa actually did in intermediating between them.

ROY: In your book Identity and Violence, I was curious to find you call yourself a “dabbler” in Philosophy yet at the same time you are an eminent Professor of Philosophy at Harvard for decades. The question that arose was, were you being modest, and if so, truly or falsely?

SEN (laughs): I think if you make a statement which you suspect might have been made out of modesty and then I said it was because of modesty I think I would have eliminated the motivation for the statement as you identify it. I am not going to answer the question as to what I think.

ROY: But surely you are not a “dabbler” in Philosophy?

SEN: I am interested in Philosophy is what I meant, and whether I am a dabbler or whether I’ve succeeded in making some contribution is for others to judge. But not for me to judge.

ROY: Okay.

SEN: As for me, the right description is that I am a dabbler in Philosophy. But then that diagnostic is… mine, and I won’t go to war with others if someone disputes that. But it’s not for me to dispute it.

ROY: Would you, for example in reference to our discussion about Wittgenstein, say that you have contributed to Philosophy in and of itself regardless of Economics?

SEN: Most of my work on Philosophy has got nothing to do with Economics. It is primarily on Ethics, to some extent on Epistemology. And these are not “economic” subjects. I have never written on the “Philosophy of Economics” at all.

ROY: How about Ontology? I mean the question “What there is” would be…..

SEN: I am less concerned with Ontology or with Metaphysics than some people are. I respect the subject but I have not been involved.

ROY: You have not been involved?

SEN: Well, I have read a lot but I haven’t worked on it. I have worked on Ethics and Political Philosophy and I have worked on Epistemology and I have worked a little bit on Mathematical Logic. Those are the three main areas in which I have worked.

ROY: Why I say that is because, if the three main philosophical questions are summarised as “What is there?” (or “Who am I?”), “What is true?”, “What should I do?”, then the question “Who am I?” is very much a part of your concern with identity and a universal question generally, while “Is this true?” is relevant to Epistemology and “What should I do?” is obviously Ethics. Morton White summarised philosophy in those three questions. It seems to me you have in this book had to look at…

SEN: At all three of them.

ROY: Well, some Ontology at least.

SEN: But you know I agree with your diagnostic that the second question “What I regard myself to be, is that true?”, is a question of Epistemology, because that’s the context in which “Is it true?” comes in. The second is primarily an epistemological question. The third is, as you said, primarily an ethical question, though I do believe that the dichotomy between Epistemology and Ethics is hard to make. On that subject I would agree with Hilary Putnam’s last book, namely when he speaks of “the collapse of the fact-value dichotomy” which is sometimes misunderstood and described as the collapse of the fact-value distinction, which is not what Hilary Putnam is denying, he’s arguing that the dichotomy is very hard to sustain, because the linkages are so strong, that pursuit of one is always taking you into the other. But the first question you are taking to be an ontological question, “Who am I?”, and at one level you can treat it as that, but there is a less profound aspect of “Who am I?”, namely what would be the right way of describing me, to myself and to others, and that has a deep relationship with the second question. If the separation or dichotomy between the second and third raises some philosophical questions of significance, the dichotomy between the first and second would too. So “Who am I?” can be interpreted at a profound ontological level but it could also be interpreted at a level which is primarily fairly straightforward Epistemology. And it is at that level that I am taking that question to be. Namely: Am I a member of many different groups? Do I see myself as members of many different groups? If I do not see myself as members of many different groups, am I making a mistake in not seeing that I belong to many different groups? Is it the case that implicitly I often pursue things which are dependant on my seeing myself as being members of other groups than those which I explicitly acknowledge? These are the central issues of the “Who am I?” question in this book.

ROY: Well you haven’t used the word “identity” here but when you speak in your book of people having a choice of different identities, you are plainly not referring to multiple identities in the sense of the psychologist; are you not merely saying that everyone has different aspects or dimensions to his or her life, and is required to play different roles at different times in different contexts? Or is there something beyond that statement in your notion of “choice of identities”?

SEN: What I mean by “multiple identities” is, at one level, the most trivial, common but, at another level, most profoundly important recognition that we belong to many different groups: I’m an Indian citizen, I’m a British or American resident, I’m a Bengali, the poetry I like is Bengali poetry, I’m a man, I’m an economist, I belong to all these groups. Nothing complicated about that, and the multiple identity issues of the psychologist that you’re referring to indicate a certain level of complexity of humanity, and sometimes even of pathology perhaps, but that’s not what I am concerned with here, it’s just a common fact that there are many different groups to which any person belongs. And it’s on that extraordinarily simple fact that I am trying to construct a fairly strong, fairly extensive set of reasonings, because that forces us to see the importance of our own choice, our own decisions in deciding on how should I see myself, how would it be correct to see myself given the problems I am facing today, and given the priorities that I will have to examine.

ROY: But if we don’t use the word “groups” just for a minute, then we are not too far wrong to just say that everyone has different aspects or dimensions to their lives, so one dimension could be nationality, one dimension sexuality, one dimension one’s intellectual upbringing, then any person, any character in a novel would have different dimensions….

SEN: The difficulty with that, Subroto, is that in the same aspect we may have more than one…

ROY: Dimension?

SEN: Well dimension tries to capture in a Cartesian space a rather more complex reality, and you know I don’t think this is a metric space we are looking at, so dimensionality is not a natural thought in this context. One thing I am very worried about is when something which is very simple appears to people as being either profoundly right or profoundly mistaken. I’ll try to claim that it is right and it is not very profound but that it is not very profound does not mean people don’t miss it and end up making mistakes. In terms of the aspects of my life which concern my enjoying poetry, there may be many different groups to which I belong, one of them is that I can appreciate Bengali poetry in a way that I will not be able to appreciate poetry in some language which I speak only very little, like Italian poetry for example. But on the other hand, in addition to that, in the same aspect of my appreciating poetry, there may be the fact that I am not as steeped into historical romance which also figures in poetry or patriotic poetry and these are all again classifications which puts me in some group, in the company of some and not in the company of others, and therefore an aspect does not quite capture with the precision the group classification that I was referring to does capture.

ROY: Well, groups we can quarrel about perhaps because groups may not be well- defined…

SEN: Don’t go away Subroto but that does not make any difference, because many groups are not well-defined but they are still extremely important…

ROY: Of course there are overlapping groups…

SEN: Not only overlapping, but you know that is a different subject on the role of ambiguity, that is a very central issue in Epistemology, and the fact of the matter is that there are many things for which there are ambiguities about border which are nevertheless extremely important as part of our identity. Where India begins and China ends or where China begins and India ends may not be clear, but the distinction between being an Indian and being Chinese is very important, so I think that this border dispute gets much greater attention in the social sciences than it actually deserves.

ROY: Well, one of the most profoundly difficult and yet universally common dilemmas in the modern world has to do with women having to choose between identities outside and inside the home. Does your theory of identity apply to that problem, and if so, how?

SEN: I think the choice is never between identities, the choice is the importance that you attach to different identities all of which may be real. The fact of the matter is that a woman may be a member of a family, a woman is also a member of a gender, namely being a woman, a woman may also have commitment to her profession, may have commitment to a politics…

ROY: Does your theory help her in any way, specifically?

SEN: The theory is not a do-it-yourself method of constructing an identity. It is an attempt to clarify what are the questions that anyone who is thinking about identity has to sort out. It is the identification of questions with which the book is concerned, and as such, insofar as the woman is concerned… indeed the language that you use Subroto, that what you have to choose between identities, I would then say that what I am trying to argue is that’s not the right issue, because all these would remain identities of mine but the relative importance that I attach to the different identities is the subject in which I have to make a choice, and that’s the role of the theory…

ROY: They are all different aspects of the same woman.

SEN: Yes indeed. If not explicitly then implicitly, but that is part of the recognition that we need, it is not a question that by giving importance to one of those compared with the others you’re denying the other identities. To say that something is more important than another in the present context is not a denial that the other is also an identity. So I think the issue of relative importance has to be distinguished from the existence or non-existence of these different identities.

ROY: Well, you’ve wished to say much about Muslims in this book….

SEN: That’s not entirely right. I would say that I do say something about the Muslims in this book….

ROY: … yet one gets the impression that you have not read The Quran. Is that an accurate impression?

SEN: No, it’s not.

ROY: You have read The Quran?

SEN: Yes.

ROY: In English, presumably?

SEN: In Bengali to be exact. Not in Arabic, you probably have read it in Arabic.

ROY (laughs): No, just in English. Is it possible to understand a Muslim’s beliefs until and unless one sees the world from his/her perspective? I had to read The Quran to see if I could understand — attempt to understand — the point of view of Muslims. Does one need to read The Quran in order to see their perspective?

SEN: Well it depends on how much expertise you want to acquire. That is, if you have to understand what the Quranic beliefs are, to which Muslims as a group – believing Muslims, who identify themselves as believing and practising Muslims – as opposed to Muslims by ancestry and therefore Muslims in a denominational sense, yes indeed, if you want to pursue what practising and believing Muslims practise and believe then you would have to read The Quran. But a lot of people would identify themselves as Muslim who do not follow these practises or for that matter beliefs, but who would still identify themselves as Muslims because in the sense of a community they belong to that. I mean even Mohammad Ali Jinnah did not follow many of the standard Muslim practises, that did not make him a non-Muslim because a “Muslim” can be defined in more than one way. One is to define somebody who is a believing and practising Muslim, the other is somebody who sees himself as a Muslim and belongs to that community, and in the context of the world in which he lives that identity has some importance which it clearly had in the case of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

ROY: Well, Muslims like Jews and Christians believe the Universe had a deliberate Creation; Hindus and Buddhists may not quite agree with that. Muslims will further believe that the Creator spoke once and only once definitively through one man, namely Muhammad in the 7th Century in Arabia. Would you not agree that no person can deny that and still be a Muslim?

SEN: I think you’re getting it wrong Subroto. It said Muhammad was the last prophet, it does not deny that there existed earlier prophets. Therefore it’s not the case as you said that God spoke alone and uniquely and only once.

ROY: Definitively?

SEN: No, no, Muslims believe that it was definitely spoken at each stage — as a follow up, like Christians misunderstood what message the prophet called Jesus was carrying and they deified Jesus, there was a need for turning a page, that’s the understanding; it’s not the case that’s what Muslims believe, that is not the Quranic view at all, that God spoke only once to Muhammad, that’s not the Quranic belief

ROY: True, true enough..

SEN: But you said that Subroto!

ROY: What I meant was “definitively”, the word “definitively” meaning that…
SEN: Definitively they would say that at each stage there was a memory, and the memory and the understanding got corrupted over time and that’s why they were also so wild about idolatry for example

ROY: Well the Ahmadiyas, for example, are considered non-believers by many Muslims because they claim that there …

SEN: That also brings out the point I was making, that Ahmadiyas see themselves as Muslim….

ROY: Indeed.

SEN: …and in terms of one of the definitions of Muslim that I am giving you, namely as a person who sees himself as a Muslim, or herself as a Muslim, and regards that identity to be important is a Muslim according to that definition; another one would apply a test which is what many of the more strict Sunnis and Shias do, namely, that whether they accept Muhammad as the last prophet, and insofar as Ahmadiyas don’t accept that, then they would say then you are not Muslim…

ROY: Well they do actually…

SEN: Well they do, but in terms…I think what I am telling you is that in terms of the Shia-Sunni orthodox critique they say that in effect they don’t accept that, that is the charge against them, but those who believe that would say that on that ground Ahmadiyas are not Muslim. So I think there is a distinction in the different ways that Muslims can be characterised….