Re: [OPE-L] On Sen and more

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Sep 01 2005 - 09:31:44 EDT

> PS Ben Fine has a very interesting piece, relevant to Jerry's post,
> analysing ('appreciating') the work of Sen (Sen was Fine's PhD
> supervisor):
> < >

Hi Andy:

Thanks for the reference.  I want to pick-up on and discuss a few points
made by Ben.

1.  In his defense of Sen, Fine claims he is "unique and irreplaceable."
Fine offers three reasons for why this is the case:

a)  "First, he commands the two disciplines of economics and philosophy
and is, thereby, truly  interdisciplinary."

Comment:  While the focus of marginalism is not now interdisciplinary,  a
"command" of  economics and philosophy by a mainstream economist is
_by no means_ unique.  I'm sure you and others on the list could be able
to think of examples of others within the profession who have a "command"
of philosophy and are interdisciplinary.   It's interesting to note, from
a history of thought perspective, that some of the founders of
marginalism -- such as Menger and Bohm-Bawerk -- could be described as
having a "command" of these "disciplines" and being interdisciplinary.
Although we don't agree with the current perspectives of mainstream
economists, that shouldn't stop us from recognizing that some (a minority)
have a knowledge of the history of thought and an appreciation for
methodology and interdisciplinary approaches.  Sen is not unique in this

b) "Second, he is a scholar ...."
c) ""Third, more than being a scholar, Sen is an intellectual."

Comment:  I'll grant the claim that Sen is a scholar and an intellectual.
This does indeed set Sen apart from _many_, and indeed _most_,  of the
"bog-standard fellow economists."  [Did Fine intend to write
"bog-standard"?   A British expression, perhaps?  Or, did he perhaps
to write "borg-standard"?]   Yet, in appreciating Sen, Fine fails to
recognize that there are other mainstream economists who are indeed
scholars and intellectuals.  Surely, we could all think of some besides
Sen.  Couldn't we?  Being an economist who is a scholar and an
intellectual is surely grounds for appreciation, but again it does not
Sen "unique".

2.  Fine criticizes the "cynicism" of progressive economists in relation
to Sen having been awarded the Nobel Prize.  Yet, he claims that "such
cynicism [re the Nobel Prize] is justified but not in being directed at
Sen."   This, I think, clearly sets Ben's interpretation against that of
Sam Bowles, Richard Edwards, and Frank Roosevelt.  That is, while all of
them appreciate the work of Sen, Fine claims that he is "unique", i.e.
exceptional.  In contrast, the authors of the third edition of
_Understanding Capitalism_ claim that they were inspired by _many_ of the
economists who in recent years received the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Remarkably, they even offer an appreciation for Gary Becker!  Becker,
they write, "expanded the scope of economics to include analysis
of the family, schooling, addiction, and crime" (p. 84).   Thus, Fine
views Sen as "unique" whereas B, E & R view him as part of a _trend_ in
economics -- a trend which they claim now means that there is "no longer
a dominant school" in economics.  All of this suggests that B, E, and R --
unlike BF -- have shifted their perspective ( dare I say -- "to the
Right"?) about economics to a much greater degree.

3.  Whether we are discussing Sen or any other recipient of the Nobel
Prize in Economics we should not forget the _history_ (and herstory) of
that prize or the way in which _politics_ and _ideology_ control the
decision-making process.  This is not a question of "cynicism" -- rather,
it is a question of exposing the process.  I don't have the references at
hand (perhaps Michael P does.  I remember reading about this years ago on
PEN-L) but -- from the very beginning -- decisions about the award have
been controlled by conservative forces and have always been political and
ideological.  Given that history, I think that rather than calling for
the Prize to be awarded to other scholars and intellectuals like Sen, we
should be calling for the _elimination_ of the Prize.   It's interesting
in this connection to recall that economics is the _only_ "social
science" for which a Nobel Prize is awarded.  In that sense, the very fact
that there is a Prize privileges economics over all of the other social
sciences and is thus anti-interdisciplinary, narrow, and elitist.  I
wonder: did Sen give any thought to _refusing_ the Nobel Prize?  Would
that have made more of a splash and lead to more of an opening for
heterodoxy and a critical discussion of mainstream theory than accepting
the Prize?

4.  Bowles,  Edwards and Roosevelt offer quite a different appreciation
for Sen than that advanced by Fine.  For B, E & R, Sen's contribution to
political economy is that he:

    "challenged the idea that people are entirely selfish, stressing the
     importance of ethical values in people's behaviors" (p. 71)

This is a claim that's worth considering.  Putting aside Sen's
contribution for the moment, from a Marxian perspective, what weight
should be given to the role of ethical values in the behavior of classes,
social groups and institutions, and individuals?

Just a couple of brief comments on that topic -- in the hope of
encouraging others to comment.

1.  In _Capital_,  capitalists -- to the extent to which they are
"capital personified" and are assumed to wear character masks -- are
essentially assumed to behave rationally in a manner consistent with the
maximization of self-interest.  Yet, I think that this -- *given the
level(s) of concretion of _Capital_, i.e. of "capital-in-general"*  -- was
appropriate.  If, however, we are focused on a much more concrete,
historically contingent  level where we are considering the behavior of
individual capitalists and firms _then_ we have to allow for some other,
additional motivation besides self-interest in the form of
profit-maximizing effort.  E.g. prestige.

2.  What role do ethical values have in guiding decision-making by the
working-class? Indeed, what are working-class ethical values and how do
they contrast with the ethical values of the capitalist class?   I think
this _is_ a question  for political economy.  Shouldn't we consider the
ethical values of the class outside of the locations where wage-workers
confront capital?  E.g. what are the ethical values in working class
families and households? What is the role of _gender_ in establishing
and reproducing particular ethical values?  Aren't workers motivated by
something more than self-interest?   It would be worthwhile to consider
some feminist perspectives on these topics, I think.  (Note to Bruce:
please tell Susan I just finished reading _Liberating Economics_ and will
post something on OPE-L shortly ... probably in a few days.)

In solidarity, Jerry

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