A memoir which leaves a lot unsaid

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on August 22, 2021

Title: Home in the World: A MemoirAuthor: Amartya SenPublisher: Penguin Random HousePages: 464Price: ₹900

Amartya Sen’s book does not focus enough on his towering academic and professional life

Amartya Sen is an Indian economist from Bengal who has lived abroad most of his life, teaching economics and philosophy in the UK and the US. He is also the recipient of the Bharat Ratna, not to mention a Nobel.

This is his autobiography, or memoir. But it makes no mention of the one thing that means a lot to many people: the Nobel prize, which he won in 1998.

That omission of the Nobel prize is the underlying base note of this book: it is very understated and he leaves out far too much. And, he also is very economical with opinions about economics and the people that comprise it.

Maybe that’s why he has called it a memoir and not an autobiography. The difference is subtle. A memoir is selective and entertaining even though Sen makes no mention, absolutely none, of the more colourful bits of his life. An autobiography is more comprehensive.

But he does tell us of the ordeal he went through when he was just 15. He was diagnosed with mouth cancer and had to undergo radiation. The technology was rudimentary in the early 1950s and he suffered hugely. But it worked.

Overall, however, one comes away quite dissatisfied. It’s like going to see Tendulkar bat, and he gets out for 60. After all, Sen has led an extraordinarily rich life professionally, and surely, as a man of very superior intellect, his admirers deserved a more sumptuous fare. He has enticed readers, only to deceive.

Of the 400 pages text, his academic life takes up just 140 pages. Surely he has more than that to say about his highly influential professional career which has spanned nearly 70 years, mostly at Harvard and some years at Cambridge, UK.

Perhaps he was shy of sounding judgemental, a mortal sin in the markets where his book will be read most, in the economists’ community. But, as a former student of the Delhi School of Economics, where he taught from 1963 to 1971, I — and I am sure all the others who he has taught — would have dearly liked to read what he thinks of post-war economics and economists.

Thus while the book has 26 chapters, only the last 11 are devoted to professional life and what it offered him — which, whichever way one looks at it, was a lot. Sen, in fact, straddled the space between economics and philosophy as no few economists after Adam Smith have done.

In the event, the most famous economists of the period from 1945 to 1985 make cameo appearances in his memoir. This is understandable because had he written about all of them, he would have needed at least three volumes.

Light touch

That said the book is far from being a dull litany of facts and events. Just as his teaching style was, Sen’s supremely light touch is apparent throughout the book. If you are an economist, or a student of economics, the book will keep you thoroughly engaged.

As might be expected from a thinker of his stature, the book is full of casual insights, what in law are called obiters. I can do no better than to give a very small sampling of them. For the rest you will have to read the book.

He says, for example, that he has never quite understood what the term ‘neoclassical’ means in the context of economics. Having pondered over it for several years, nearly two decades, he says in his inimitable style that he thinks it is “mainstream economics, with a cluster of maximising agents — capitalists, labourers, consumers and so on — who follow mechanical rules of maximisation by equating marginal this with marginal that.”

About PT Bauer, a right wing economist, he says Bauer was amongst the best development economists “by a wide margin” and that “the fact that the neo-Keynesians saw little in his work is not to their credit.”

Cambridge economists in the 1950s were obsessed with something called ‘capital theory’. It was a thoroughly sterile subject and even though the big shots in Cambridge were all engaged with it — both vehemently for and vehemently against — Sen says he “found it difficult to believe that the downfall of capitalism, if that were to occur, would be caused by some sophisticated mistake in capital theory.”

Welfare economics

Sen says that from the very start he was interested in finding a way of analysing how societies were doing. This is what later came to be known as welfare economics. The issue to him is quite straightforward: do you focus on growth first and then on health and education or should it be the other way round.

He says it has to be the other way round because it is precisely when you are poor that you need health and education the most. It’s the classic chicken and egg problem because how can the state invest in health and education if it is poor?

Anyway much to his chagrin, the bigwigs at Cambridge were totally dismissive of the idea of welfare economics, saying it wasn’t any kind of economics at all.

But he kept pestering them and eventually they let him teach a small capsule course of eight lectures. When the time came for him to leave Cambridge, James Mirrlees offered to teach it. He was told, says Sen, that “that little course was a special concession to Sen; it doesn’t count as a normal part of economics teaching.”

Ironically, it was for his work in welfare economics and social choice theory that he was awarded the Nobel.

Published on August 22, 2021

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