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October 17, 1998


Economics is not a kind of business, it's not the job of economists to eliminate slumps, says Amartya Sen

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''I happen to be concerned primarily with the way the lives of people go,'' says Dr Amartya Sen, this year's Nobel Laureate for economics.

In a television interview, he said money, capital and the operation of the stock market were ''matters of interest to economists as well as the way the lives of people go''.

He happened to be concerned primarily with the latter and ''in particular with the down side of the latter, namely the people who seem to have a worse time than others -- the poor, the unemployed, the hungry, the starving and so on. So, this has been something I've been concerned with for a long time.''

When asked about the reason behind his specific interest in the study of famine, he held out several reasons. ''I happen to observe from inside a major famine of the 20th century -- the Bengal famine, which occurred in India in 1943 -- in fact, the last famine that occurred in India, in which close to three million people died.''

Professor Sen recalled he was a nine-and-a-half-years-old boy at that time. He had very striking and impressionable memories of that period, and ''the people who starved, they came from a particular group -- in this case rural labourers -- but that's a characteristic I later found of many famines.

''Indeed, sometimes food supply may fall, sometimes not. Food supply fell in the Irish famine of the 1840s. It did not fall in the Bengal famine of 1943 and it was at a peak height in the Bangladesh famine of 1974. But a section of the community lose their ability to command food by not having jobs -- not having enough wages and then they cannot buy food and that's what happened -- not a really large proportion usually -- but it can still kill millions of people.''

When asked about reports that he, as a boy, personally fed people who were starving refugees at the time of famine in Bengal, he said: ''I was committed to give anyone who asked for food, a tin, a cigarette tin of rice. But since there were many people asking, I was also told that that's what I could give to anyone. I, obviously, felt very moral in trying to give as much as I could. And it's a very harrowing experience.''

He went on: ''Obviously, this didn't do anything to solve the famine. But it's a question that got even more strongly ingrained in my mind because of the small participation that I happened to do in this context.''

His attention was drawn to the current turmoil in the market and was asked, how much do economists know? How much can they explain what is happening now?

He replied: ''I think economists -- if they analyse these issues -- will have various things to offer. And, indeed, there are a lot of economists who are interested in it. And I would not accept that economists really don't have very much to say on this question.''

Asked whether people had lost faith in economists because of the current world financial crisis, Professor Sen said, ''I think that economics is not a kind of business whereby you could eliminate these problems. The odd thing is that earlier on in late 19th century and early 20th century -- one of the subjects people studied was business cycles. From time to time you have a slump, and at times you have a boom. The job of the economist was meant to be to understand why they are caused, rather than to eliminate them.''

''Now I think it would be nice to eliminate them (business cycles) and, indeed, it is possible certainly to reduce them and eliminate them to a great extent. But the fact that sometimes these things would happen does not indicate that these times are worth nothing,'' Professor Sen added.


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