Magazine article The Spectator

Health Tourists Are Still Winning

Magazine article The Spectator

Health Tourists Are Still Winning

Article excerpt

The Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen on Brexit, the euro and Donald Trump's America

'Did you really deserve the Nobel prize?' I ask Amartya Sen. 'Why do you think you won?'

When you're sitting opposite the world's most respected living economist, at a time when the dismal science is under intense scrutiny, an opening question should be punchy.

Thankfully, Sen, an 83-year-old Harvard professor, has a sense of humour. 'You can't ask me that,' he says with a grin. 'I have absolutely no idea why I won.'

He then composes himself. 'Like any researcher, I'm happy if my work interests others,' he says carefully. 'But it would be a pretty bad way to conduct one's life, thinking about how to win prizes, rather than being listened to.'

Sen has achieved both. Born in British India in the early 1930s -- in Mankiganj, now part of Bangladesh -- he witnessed famine and religious conflict as a boy, before coming to Cambridge to study economics. Fired by injustice, he has since used the subject to promote practical policies, mainly across the developing world, focused on poverty-alleviation, health, education and the functioning of democratic institutions.

Sen won his 1998 Nobel prize in economics, the judges' committee said, for a body of academic work that 'integrated economics and ethics ... breaking new ground in social choice theory'. Beyond the ivory towers, he has advised countless governments.

Sen thinks his profession is overrated, though. 'We economists are a rather self-confident bunch and that's not entirely warranted,' he says, pointing to the largely unpredicted 2008 financial crisis. Lest he slight colleagues, Sen then qualifies his remark. 'Although economists tend to overestimate what we can offer the world, everyone else tends to underestimate.'

Sen's reputation was built on his 1970 magnum opus Collective Choice and Social Welfare -- a series of economic propositions, with mathematical proofs, designed to demonstrate that collective action can promote human welfare. This challenged then-fashionable 'social choice' arguments -- including Kenneth Arrow's famous 'Impossibility Theorem' -- which asserted that individuals' preferences and values are impossible to aggregate and that government action was therefore ineffective, even harmful.

Sen countered by stating the prerequisites needed -- including education, freely disseminated ideas and universal voting rights -- for collective action to make economic and moral sense. Taking on the free-marketeers, and bringing other social sciences into this work, he became 'the conscience' of economics. 'I've always used political science, philosophy, some sociology -- I'm not ashamed of that,' he says. 'These barriers are rather artificial.'

If the subcontinent of the 1930s and 1940s created Sen, then 1950s Cambridge shaped him. 'Trinity was a wonderful college and, while Cambridge was wet and windy, the atmosphere was so exciting,' he recalls. 'I was a member of the Apostles -- along with, we now know, several Soviet spies -- and the strong discussion culture appealed to me enormously.'

The Cambridge economics faculty he joined was dominated by 'Young Keynesians' -- including several former pupils of the late J.M. Keynes himself. They urged governments to adopt expansionary policies, designed to promote growth and social justice. …

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