Amartya Sen is an Indian economist from Bengal who has lived abroad most of his life, teaching economics and philosophy in the UK and USA. He is also a recipient of the Bharat Ratna, not to mention a Nobel.
This is his autobiography, or memory. But he makes no mention of the one thing that matters a lot to many people: the Nobel Prize, which he won in 1998.
This omission of the Nobel Prize is the underlying root note of this book: it is very low key and it omits too many. And, he’s also very frugal with opinions about the economy and the people who make it up.
Maybe that’s why he called it memory and not autobiography. The difference is subtle. A memoir is selective and entertaining even if Sen makes no mention, absolutely none, of the most colorful pieces of his life. An autobiography is more complete.
But he tells us about the ordeal he went through when he was only 15 years old. She was diagnosed with oral cancer and had to undergo radiation therapy. The technology was rudimentary in the early 1950s and it suffered greatly. But it worked.
Overall, however, we come out quite dissatisfied. It’s like going to see Tendulkar bat, and he comes out for 60. After all, Sen has led an extraordinarily rich life professionally, and surely, as a man of far superior intelligence, his admirers deserved a more lavish fare. He attracted readers, only to deceive.
Of the 400 pages of text, his academic life occupies only 140 pages. Surely he has more than that to say about his highly influential professional career which spanned almost 70 years, mainly at Harvard and a few years in Cambridge, UK.
Perhaps he was reluctant to appear critical, a mortal sin in the markets where his book will be read the most, in the community of economists. But, as a former student of the Delhi School of Economics, where he taught from 1963 to 1971, I – and I’m sure everyone else he’s taught – would have loved to read his thoughts on post-war economics and economists.
So while the book has 26 chapters, only the last 11 are about working life and what it has offered him – which, however you think of it, was a lot. Sen, in fact, straddled the space between economics and philosophy as many economists did after Adam Smith.
In this case, the most famous economists of the period 1945-1985 make a brief appearance in his memoirs. This is understandable because if he had written about all of them he would have needed at least three volumes.
That said, the book is far from a boring litany of facts and events. Much like his teaching style, Sen’s extremely light touch is apparent throughout the book. If you are an economist or an economics student, the book will keep you fully engaged.
As one would expect from a thinker of his stature, the book is full of occasional ideas, what in law are called obiters. I can’t do better than give a very small sample. For the rest, you will have to read the book.
He says, for example, that he never quite understood what the term “neoclassical” means in the context of economics. After thinking about it for several years, almost two decades, he says in his inimitable style that he thinks it is “a dominant economy, with a group of maximizing agents – capitalists, workers, consumers, etc. – which follow mechanical rules of maximization by assimilating marginal this to marginal that.
Of PT Bauer, a right-wing economist, he says Bauer was among the best development economists “by far” and that “the fact that New Keynesians saw little in his work is not to their credit.”
Cambridge economists in the 1950s were obsessed with what is called the “theory of capital”. It was a totally sterile subject and even though the Cambridge bigwigs were all committed to it – both for and vehemently against – Sen says he “found it hard to believe that the fall of capitalism, if it were to be to occur, would be caused by a sophisticated error in the theory of capital.
Sen says from the start he was interested in finding a way to analyze how companies were doing. This was later called the welfare economy. The question for him is quite simple: do you focus on growth first, then health and education, or should it be the other way around.
He says it must be the other way around because it is precisely when you are poor that you need health and education the most. This is the classic chicken and egg problem because how can the state invest in health and education if it is poor?
Either way, much to her chagrin, the Cambridge bigwigs totally rejected the idea of welfare economics, saying it wasn’t about economics at all.
But he continued to harass them, and they eventually let him teach an eight-lecture capsule course. When the time came for him to leave Cambridge, James Mirrlees offered to teach him. He was told, Sen said, that “this little course was a special concession to Sen; it does not count as a normal part of teaching economics.
Ironically, it was for his work on welfare economics and social choice theory that he received the Nobel Prize.