Sen on Poverty – the tolerance of the intolerable

23 Jan

Amartya Sen

 

Amartya Sen was lecturing last night at the LSE on this topic – sold out, as you might expect (2,000 enquiries in the first hour, apparently). But you could also watch a live webcast which worked well – check the LSE video site – http://goo.gl/Kqs6w7 – for the replay

He looked at possible reasons for why we tolerate poverty – ignorance, a belief it is impossible to remove it, and self-centredness (“no obligation”) and found all of them lacking. Of most interest to me were his illustrations from India, and the contrasts between India and China.

I had three key takeaways. First, on ignorance: Sen described how the Indian media ignored extreme poverty because they were “controlled” by the middle classes, in the sense that they pandered to the interests and obsessions of the middle class to ensure their advertising income. Hence little reporting of extreme poverty in India. So my thoughts turned to William Wilberforce, the crusader against the slave trade. I realised, perhaps for the first time, that part of his greatness was to rub the noses of the society of his day into what slavery really meant so that the elite that made the laws could not simply ignore it. I suppose the modern equivalent is “Benefit Street” and forcing politicians to live rough for a bit.

Second, the need for “balanced growth” – not in the sense necessarily of balance between sectors, but in the sense of balance between public and private provision. You need to grow healthcare and education as much as business if your economy is to thrive. A malnourished workforce is not that productive.

Third – think quantitatively about poverty and policy. In the Q&A session, Sen dealt with an argument that “India’s greatest problem was employment subsidies” – and simply showed that this was unlikely given their small cost, and that the much greater cost of utility subsidies to the middle classes were much larger. Avoid dogma and stick to facts and reason was a good message to put across.

 

 

 

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