Sen’s Development as Freedom

by Chris Bertram on December 12, 2003

I’ve been reading Amartya Sen’s magnificent Development as Freedom this week. A more bloggable books would be hard to find: startling facts and insights jostle one another on every page. Even when you already know something, Sen is pretty good at reminding, underlining and making you think further about it. So this, for example on the life prospects of African Americans:

Even though the per capita income of African Americans in the United States is considerably lower than that of the white population, African Americans are very much richer in income terms than the people of China or Kerala (even after correcting for cost-of-living differences). In this context, the comparison of survival prospects of African Americans vis-a-vis those of the very much poorer Chinese or Indians in Kerala, is of particular interest. African Americans tend to do better in terms of survival at low age groups (especially in terms of infant mortality), but the picture changes over the years.
In fact, it turns out that men in China and in Kerala decisively outlive African American men in terms of surviving to older age groups. Even African American women end up having a survival pattern for the higher ages similar to that of the much poorer Chinese, and decidedly lower survival rates than then even poorer Indians in Kerala. So it is not only the case that American blacks suffer from relative deprivation in terms of income per head vis-a-vis American whites, they are also absolutely more deprived than low-income Indians in Kerala (for both women and men), and the Chinese (in the case of men), in terms of living to ripe old ages.

Shocking, for the strongest economy on earth to create these outcomes (which, as Sen reminds us, are even worse for the black male populations of particular US cities).

UPDATE: Thanks to Noumenon for a link to this item . I closed the comments thread because I didn’t want to spend my weekend fighting trolls. But email suggests that there are some people who have worthwhile things to say so I’m opening it again (though I won’t be participating myself).

{ 76 comments }

1

Matthew 12.12.03 at 11:35 am

Very interesting. I wonder how much it applies to black Britons? I know the difference in life expectancy between the best and worst by local auhority is 8 years (79 to 71) but I don’t think we keep life expectacny figures by racial grouping.

2

Andrew Duffin 12.12.03 at 12:46 pm

I thought the point of comparing these people with other MUCH POORER people in other countries was to show that it wasn’t economic factors that were causing the differences.

So why mention “the worlds strongest economy”?

Is it just because everything has to be America’s fault? Or did I miss something?

3

jdsm 12.12.03 at 1:54 pm

Andrew,

I thought the point was that there’s more to poverty than an absolute level of income. The example shows that great disparities of wealth within a society lead to real world problems (such as low life expectancy) even if the absolute level of poverty is higher than in many other countries.

It’s a welcome analysis although the findings still require explanation. Why would being relatively poor lead to lower life expectancy? Answers on a postcard.

4

jdsm 12.12.03 at 1:56 pm

That reads wrong. I meant to say that great disparities of wealth lead to real world problems in spite of a higher absolute level of wealth.

5

Chris Bertram 12.12.03 at 1:57 pm

_Is it just because everything has to be America’s fault?_

Is an ad hominem jibe of no relevance or merit.

_So why mention “the worlds strongest economy”?_

Because a system that cannot translate such massive productive power into reasonable and just human outcomes for so many of its citizens is manifestly defective.

6

Nicholas Weininger 12.12.03 at 2:30 pm

How much of this disparity is due to deaths from homicide? How much is due to differences in lifestyle choices– diet, exercise, etc?

There are plenty of reasons why these outcomes might exist that are not necessarily determined by income inequality. Indeed, the causation may go the other way: cultural/behavioral factors that shorten life expectancies may also cause income disparities.

Maybe Sen addresses these points elsewhere in his book; but to blame an entire economy for the situation without even making note of them is simplistic.

(All this is laying aside the quite different debate over whether there even *is* such a thing as a just or unjust outcome, as opposed to a just or unjust process, and whether it is the responsibility of a “system” to provide a particular sort of outcome to anybody).

7

Matthew 12.12.03 at 2:48 pm

Also Nicholas you forget to add that black people in the US have a longer life expectancy than black people in …er…Liberia, hence proving they’re better off in the US.

8

John Isbell 12.12.03 at 3:36 pm

“Maybe Sen addresses these points elsewhere in his book; but to blame an entire economy for the situation without even making note of them is simplistic.”
Sounds like a good time to check the book. His Nobel Prize, and the fact that this is a blog-length extract, leads me to incline toward your Option A over your Option B.
An awful situation. As I recall, among American ethnic groups, American Indians have the lowest life expectancy, and the highest suicide rate, infant mortality rate, alcoholism rate, and suicide rate. You don’t hear it mentioned much.

9

Vinteuil 12.12.03 at 3:41 pm

All irony aside, I wonder why Sen uses certain groups of Chinese and Indians to draw his comparison. Similar data for Sub-Saharan Africa might be at least equally interesting and relevant–and not just for obvious horrorshows like Liberia and the Congo, but also for relative success stories like Botswana. Maybe Sen goes into this elsewhere.

10

BigMacAttack 12.12.03 at 4:00 pm

This sums it up –

‘I meant to say that great disparities of wealth lead to real world problems in spite of a higher absolute level of wealth.’

and

‘It’s a welcome analysis although the findings still require explanation. Why would being relatively poor lead to lower life expectancy?’

In otherwords I have no idea no why or how ‘great disparities of wealth lead to real world problems in spite of a higher absolute level of wealth.’ I just know that they do.

Liberalism has become conservative. A series of unquestionable cultural affections. Of course it lacks the weight of a real culture.

11

Katherine 12.12.03 at 4:23 pm

ok, here’s my guess as to why: because the presence of a lot of rich people drives up the cost of certain essential or highly desirable things at a much higher rate than inflation. Look at the cost of housing in NYC. Or the difficulty for a college student to find a paid summer job in a lot of fields, because there are plenty of smart rich kids to do the unpaid internship. Or the cost of college itself. Or our whole health care system, which is the best in the world if you’ve got money but very far from it if you don’t.

I mean, it’s not the only explanation, and this is partly anecdotal. But I think there’s something real.

12

Ophelia Benson 12.12.03 at 4:30 pm

Ah, a bit of serendipity, or something. I got that very book out to add to the ‘read now’ pile, just a few days ago. Chris, I hope you’ll post again, to keep the discussion going. (That’s one drawback to blogs: the way discussions only last a day or two.)

I’m reading Martha Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice, in which of course she draws heavily on Sen’s work, as well as that of other economists and other kinds of research. What Chris says about Sen –

“A more bloggable books would be hard to find: startling facts and insights jostle one another on every page. Even when you already know something, Sen is pretty good at reminding, underlining and making you think further about it.”

applies to S&SJ too. In fact I’m now reading one particularly dense essay for the second time, because those facts and insights just take a lot of digesting. For me at least.

13

Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 4:41 pm

Amartya Sen wrote:

In fact, it turns out that men in China and in Kerala decisively outlive African American men in terms of surviving to older age groups. Even African American women end up having a survival pattern for the higher ages similar to that of the much poorer Chinese, and decidedly lower survival rates than then even poorer Indians in Kerala. So it is not only the case that American blacks suffer from relative deprivation in terms of income per head vis-a-vis American whites, they are also absolutely more deprived than low-income Indians in Kerala (for both women and men), and the Chinese (in the case of men), in terms of living to ripe old ages.

Or it could just be that because Americans in general (and black Americans in particular) choose different diets than people in China or India which lead to things like obesity and heart disease it reduces life expectancy. How did Amartya Sen account for these and other factors when he did his comparison of apples to oranges?

14

Katherine 12.12.03 at 4:46 pm

Add “healthy food, especially fruits and vegetables” to my list.

15

Mark 12.12.03 at 4:52 pm

I remember that they did something relevant to this on amptoons, some while ago, and the implication was fairly obvious. Poor Americans only have access to the same level of healthcare as some of the poorer countries of the world. For women, this was especially noticeable in post-natal deaths.

16

Andrew Boucher 12.12.03 at 4:54 pm

“I meant to say that great disparities of wealth lead to real world problems in spite of a higher absolute level of wealth.”

In no way do we know, form what is posted, that it is the disparity in wealth which leads to the real-world problem. First correlation is not causation. It might not be a case of disparity of wealth, for instance, but the lack of adequate health care, which are logically different issues. And secondly, there’s nothing in what has been written even that indicates correlation. What about the life expectancies of other poorer groups of Americans? (I would, however, admit I would expect correlation.)

17

Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 5:04 pm

Nicholas Weineger wrote:

How much of this disparity is due to deaths from homicide? How much is due to differences in lifestyle choices— diet, exercise, etc?

I am sure that since Chris Bertram read the book and began this thread, he will be more than happy to explain how Amartya Sen accounted for these differences. If he does not or is unable to adequately explain how these differences were accounted for in Sen’s book, then the study is flawed and its conclusions questionable to put it mildly.

There are plenty of reasons why these outcomes might exist that are not necessarily determined by income inequality. Indeed, the causation may go the other way: cultural/behavioral factors that shorten life expectancies may also cause income disparities.

I agree, that seems more logical. If one wishes to tie poverty to life expectancy it is usually based on the theory that if a person has below X number of resources then they are unable to adequately meet their needs for food, shelter, health care, etc. Whether another person has more resources and is able to therefore meet these needs with less difficulty is irrelevant.

That Amartya Sen (according to the excerpt printed by Chris Bertram) accounted for the differences in cost of living between his three very different sample groups seems to indicate then that Black American males would then be just as able if not more so to have the resources necessary to take care of their needs than their Indian and Chinese counter-parts. The fact that their White counterparts might be even more able to do so is irrelevant.

18

Ophelia Benson 12.12.03 at 5:06 pm

Hm. Lack of adequate health care may be a logically different issue from disparities in wealth, but it’s surely not empirically so. Rich people have adequate health care because they can pay for it, poor people don’t. Logically that could be otherwise, but as a matter of real world fact, it ain’t.

19

Vinteuil 12.12.03 at 5:11 pm

For whatever it’s worth, according to this 1995 study from the University of Michigan, about 27% of the difference in life expectancy between American whites and blacks is due to homicide; another 14% is due to HIV/AIDS. Higher rates of death from common diseases of old age like heart disease, cancer, stroke, etc. account for about another 40% of the difference.

It would be interesting to see figures corrected for income, to see if that is the crucial variable.

20

Ophelia Benson 12.12.03 at 5:14 pm

“If one wishes to tie poverty to life expectancy it is usually based on the theory that if a person has below X number of resources then they are unable to adequately meet their needs for food, shelter, health care, etc. Whether another person has more resources and is able to therefore meet these needs with less difficulty is irrelevant.”

Not necessarily, for the kind of reason Katherine talked about, for one. Rich people can drive prices up. We talked about this (or I did, or I tried to) recently in that long discussion about parents and non-parents, where the fact that property values go up in neighborhoods that have good schools kept being presented as an unmixed blessing, and I kept pointing out that property values going up is *not* an unmixed blessing for everyone, in fact it’s a curse for renters, who are often poor people (or to put it another way, for poor people because they are usually renters). Positional goods do make a difference. Adam Swift talks about this in relation to education – he tried to talk about it on that Moral Maze, but kept being interrupted with demands for explanation just as he was explaining.

21

Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 5:16 pm

Vinteuil,

Thank you for finding and posting that link.

Chris Bertram,

How does Amartya Sen account for differences in life expectancy between Black American males and those in China and Kerala which are the result of diet, exercise, sexual practices, and homicide?

22

Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 5:24 pm

Ophelia Benson,

I think you may have missed a crucial part of the excerpt Chris Bertram posted from the book:

Even though the per capita income of African Americans in the United States is considerably lower than that of the white population, African Americans are very much richer in income terms than the people of China or Kerala (even after correcting for cost-of-living differences). (emphasis added)

Because Amartya Sen corrected for the cost-of-living differences (and assuming he did it correctly, if not then we should be skeptical of the rest of his book), then the concern you cited over rising prices would not really be applicable in this situation. Since the differences in cost of living have already been accounted for by Amartya Sen, then we are comparing three groups based on their ability to meet their needs after having already adjusted for the fact that prices are undoubtly much higher in America.

23

Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 5:32 pm

I just realized something that was not provided to us but needs to be considered. The except from the book mentions a disparity between the income of American whites and blacks but I am curious about two things.

First, is this a comparison of households or individuals? As many people are aware, as a result of personal choices there are a huge number of single parent households amongst black families (about 70%) while most white households tend to have two parents and a potential for two earners. In which case if you compare households based on racial lines (rather than individuals) you get a far greater disparity largely because you are comparing a disproportionate number of two income families to one income families.

The second thing is that black Americans disproportionately live in Southern States which have a lower cost of live and wage-scale then their northern counterparts. Which makes it important to account for geographical differences (e.g. comparing Southern blacks to Southern whites rather than Southern blacks to Northern whites) to make an adequate comparison. How did the author account for this difference or didn’t he?

24

Vinteuil 12.12.03 at 5:33 pm

thorley winston–you’re most welcome. I take it that the HIV/AIDS gap is partly a matter of “sexual practices,” as you put it, but also partly a matter of income disparity. Blacks are much more likely to contract HIV, but also much more likely to die of it if they do contract it–and presumably the latter has a lot to do with the cost of AIDS drugs. Poor, uninsured, HIV-positive blacks are in world of trouble.

25

Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 5:34 pm

Strike the first question, I reread the excerpt and caught “per capita income” which I had missed before. My bad although it would be nice (perhaps it was footnoted) to know what the source was for this claim to make sure it really was per capita.

26

Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 5:42 pm

Vinteuil.

Your point about poor people with AIDS having a more difficult time getting the funds to pay for treatment is a good one. My comment about “sexual practices” though was made because whenever I hear talk about risk groups for contracting the HIV virus (something which in the United States is almost always because of sexual intercourse or IV drug use), black Americans are often mentioned as an “at risk” group. I took this to mean that they contract it more often than white Americans (which would be as a result of behavior) but I could be wrong.

27

Vinteuil 12.12.03 at 6:07 pm

tw: American blacks do indeed contract HIV/AIDS at much higher rates than whites. It’s interesting, though, that intravenous drug use, which accounts for about 40% of black infections, is an even bigger factor here then sexual transmission, which accounts for about 30% of cases.

Sorry all–I don’t want to drag this too far off on a tangent. But HIV/AIDS *is* a significant factor in dragging down African-American life expectancies.

28

Katherine 12.12.03 at 6:08 pm

you do realize that the homicide rate being responsible does not prove that income has nothing to do with it, right?

29

infamouse 12.12.03 at 6:13 pm

There was an article in the NYTimes describing how many black men will often have unprotected sex with other men and not tell their wives. Their wives don’t find out until they discover they and their children are now HIV positive. It’s a real health problem in the community. I have a couple friends who are gay and black who will tell you that the black American community is more hostile to homosexuality than white Americans are.

30

infamouse 12.12.03 at 6:17 pm

“you do realize that the homicide rate being responsible does not prove that income has nothing to do with it, right?”

And what’s a big cause of poverty in the black community? Children born out of wedlock. If they were born into a two income family, then most of those children wouldn’t be in poverty. Sometimes people make stupid choices that put them in poverty.

31

dave heasman 12.12.03 at 6:27 pm

Prison knocks the life out of people too. Lots more African-Americans go to prison, often for offences for which whites don’t.

32

Doug 12.12.03 at 6:35 pm

Info on Britain would be very interesting, as would data on low-status or poorly integrated groups in otherwise wealthy societies. Examples may include second- and third-generation Turks in Germany, Arabic immigrants and their descendants in France, ethnic Koreans in Japan, Roma in Italy or Spain. Is there an extra cost in life-span for being on the margins of a society? (Noted with caution, too; when black Americans hold the highest cabinet post, sit in the President’s closes councils and serve on the Supreme Court, it’s difficult to claim that all blacks are marginalized.) Does this extra penalty for marginalization vary between countries, and is it correlated with things like absolute income, national or regional income inequality, or degree of marginalization?

As usual, Chris’ blanket condemnation of America is irritating, but there are interesting questions here.

33

Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 6:35 pm

Katherine wrote:

you do realize that the homicide rate being responsible does not prove that income has nothing to do with it, right?

Does that mean then that we should expect a higher rate of homicide amongst the Chinese and Indian populations in this study since they have a lower per-capita income then American blacks?

;)

Seriously, though, does anyone else get the suspicion that Sen’s book may not be a credible work but rather that he might have cherry-picked results that fit his theory without doing something as basic as comparing apples to apples?

I could be mistaken and I will confess that I am not intimately familiar with his work. However, when we received the Nobel Prize in 1998 and I read about him and his work, it struck me that he was praised more for having the “correct” opinions on income inequality than for anything else. Perhaps his receiving the award may have been just a teensy bit political.

Or it could be that he is one of those rare human beings who is totally objective and intellectually honest. We’ll have to wait for Chris Bertram or whomever else has read the book to let us know how exactly Sen accounted for these other differences to make sure that he was making a valid comparison between Black Americans and the Indians and Chinese.

34

Chris Bertram 12.12.03 at 6:41 pm

Yes, the diffence in life expectancy remains even comparing black and white with similar income levels.

No, Sen does not attribute the difference to one single factor though he does talk about how relative deprivation in income space can lead to absolute difference in capability space and about the poor access to health care enjoyed by the poorest in the US.

I’d say I’m shocked by the comments from the rightists here – but that would be untrue since I’ve become used to them. What Sen is pointing to is, first and foremost, a shocking set of facts. Those facts ought to remain shocking whatever you think the best explanation for them is. That the explanation that commends itself most readily to some rightist commenters is “bad choices by stupid people” is itself dreadful.

Here we have a group, the descendants of slaves, whose culture and family structure was shattered by the experience of enslavement and by a subsequent legacy of oppression and systematic discrimination, whose members until recent living memory were subject to systematic violence and terroristic murder, and when someone points to the much lower life expectancy enjoyed by members of this group compared to their compatriots your off-the-shelf conjectured explanation is “bad choices by stupid people”???!!

35

Chris Bertram 12.12.03 at 6:44 pm

As usual, Chris’ blanket condemnation of America is irritating….

Chris has never and would never make a blanket condemnation of America. That’s simply a gratuitous slur, Doug.

36

Ken 12.12.03 at 6:45 pm

Clearly we need to address the issue of richer people outbidding poorer people for restricted-supply goods such as housing and medical care.

The obvious solution is to remove the restrictions on supply, so that “bidding” leads to greater supply rather than higher prices.

Drop the War on Drugs so that the homicide rate will significantly drop as it did in 1933. Properly police cheap neighborhoods so that you don’t get shot for living in a cheap house.

People will still drop dead sooner than they should if they continue to eat crap, but there’s not much we should do about that.

37

Ophelia Benson 12.12.03 at 6:48 pm

Well, try reading him, Thorley.

And there have been a great many Nobel prizes in economics given to people who don’t have opinions similar to Sen’s, to put it mildly.

Thanks for correction on cost of living though, you’re right. I was answering comments rather than the quotation itself – should have stipulated that.

I think (based on reading the Preface) Sen’s point is that measurement of GNP and GDP and per capita income can be highly misleading, because it says nothing about, for instance, economies in which some people get very rich indeed and others stay very poor indeed, whereas others that have lower overall figures also may have better figures for people on the bottom. Just as a statistical or empirical fact, quite separate from how one gets such situations or what one thinks of them. To put it another way, comparing national per capita income statistics really doesn’t tell us as much as we tend to think it does – it can hide a lot.

38

Gareth 12.12.03 at 7:01 pm

Infamouse, on behalf of the Social Darwinists on this thread, says: “If they were born into a two income family, then most of those children wouldn’t be in poverty. Sometimes people make stupid choices that put them in poverty.” Infamouse fails to recognize the irony. People do not choose to be born into two-income or one- income families.

Neither are the implications of being born into single parent families completely independent of social policy. It is a lot less disastrous to be born into a single parent family in Sweden than in Brooklyn.

Sen chose Kerala because it has a remarkably developed welfare state for a part of India that is poor even by Indian standards. The point is that, at a given level of aggregate wealth, health outcomes (and other outcomes) are better in countries with good social programs.

39

BigMacAttack 12.12.03 at 7:09 pm

‘Clearly we need to address the issue of richer people outbidding poorer people for restricted-supply goods such as housing and medical care.’

No that it isn’t clear at all. Nobody in this thread in any way shape or form has made an even mildly persausive argument that we need to address that issue.

Nobody in way shape or form has presented a convincing case detailing the consequences of ‘the issue of richer people outbidding poorer people for restricted-supply goods such as housing and medical care.’. No one has weighed the positive consequences of such an action against the negative consequences of such an action.

It’s nice that you believe that to be true. Just like it is nice that some people believe in god. But don’t expect anyone who doesn’t share your faith to be convinced by a few anecdotes and a re-statement of your faith in your faith.

40

WTB 12.12.03 at 7:17 pm

“Because a system that cannot translate such massive productive power into reasonable and just human outcomes for so many of its citizens is manifestly defective.”

Why is it the responsibility of the “system” to guarantee “reasonable and just human outcomes”? Perhaps the US doesn’t view it as encumbent upon the “system” to ensure, willynilly, that everyone lives as long as possible. In that respect, it can’t be called defective — unless you mean it’s morally defective. But it’s not clear that’s what you meant to say. I take it you mean that it’s defective as an economy, which is far from obvious.

41

Ophelia Benson 12.12.03 at 7:29 pm

“Why is it the responsibility of the “system” to guarantee “reasonable and just human outcomes”?”

Well that’s the subject of the whole book. That’s the point of reading it – to understand Sen’s argument.

42

Karl Marx 12.12.03 at 7:38 pm

In Chris’s post above he seems to have given the impression that it is somehow legitimate to ask of human institutions such as markets, systems of healthcare, property law, political consitutions etc etc whether they promote or impede human flourishing, whether some groups appear to suffer long term comparative or absolute disadvantage under them, and so on.

Surely he must now realise — in the light of the perceptive comments above — that even to pose such questions is evidence of totalitarian sympathies and springs from a blind and irrational hatred of America, the free market, liberty and apple pie?

43

BigMacAttack 12.12.03 at 7:39 pm

‘Sen chose Kerala because it has a remarkably developed welfare state for a part of India that is poor even by Indian standards. The point is that, at a given level of aggregate wealth, health outcomes (and other outcomes) are better in countries with good social programs.’

An equally likely explanation might be that he choose China and India because the Chinese and Indians are both genetically and culturally pre-disposed to live longer lives.

If memeory serves me correctly Japan does not have a Nationalized Health Care system and yet the Japanese live as long as Europeans.

As another poster has repeatedly pointed out you compare likes to likes.

British blacks would be much closer both culturally and genetically to US blacks. And yet Britian has Nationalized Health Care and the US doesn’t. This would be a much better comparision.

And yet the another comparision was choosen. Mighty odd. Actualy it isn’t odd.

The choice was made becasue it is very shocking to say black Americans are worse off than 3rd world citizens.

It is rather less shocking to say poor black Americans live 1.5 years less than poor British blacks.(I don’t know the real numbers appearently no such numbers exist for British blacks)

44

Ophelia Benson 12.12.03 at 7:48 pm

All this bile and venom from people who haven’t read the damn book yet! Why don’t you turkeys put a sock in it until you’ve at least taken a look at Sen’s arguments? Go watch O’Reilly or something.

45

infamouse 12.12.03 at 8:20 pm

“Infamouse fails to recognize the irony. People do not choose to be born into two-income or one- income families.”

I’m not saying that the children choose the circumstances they were born into, but the parents do choose the circumstances their children will be born into. If you are a single woman who has a child and does not have much money, then you are damning your kids, especially the boys.

Chris, the only person on this thread who said “bad choices by stupid people” was you.

46

WTB 12.12.03 at 8:33 pm

I apologize for any confusion; my earlier post was a question to Chris, not Sen. I assumed the quotation I included was Chris’s. I wanted to determine if Chris was making a moral criticism such as “the US economic system is evil” or a structural criticism along the lines of “such a state of affairs is economically unsustainable.”

I ask “Why is it the responsibility of the “system” to guarantee “reasonable and just human outcomes?” because I’ve noticed that some, usually left wing, critics of capitalist economies often assume a contradictory moral position with respect to the distribution of wealth in said economies.

Very simply put, I find that such critics often assume a moral position that is at odds with other beliefs the same critics espouse. (I’m not accusing Chris or Sen of this at all. I’m just making a general point.) For example, you find a critic who argues that capitalism/globalization, you name it, is immoral because it leads to impoverishment for some sectors of society. On the other hand, the same critic denies the existence of the very universal moral categories that he needs to support his argument that capitalism is immoral.

To clear up this contradiction, you’ve got to be clear if you’re making a moral or a economic, structural criticism. For the record, I believe unequal distribution of wealth is often manifestly the result of immoral practices. I just think one ought to be clear and consistent about the moral basis of economic criticism because, in the end, it’s the only sound basis for preferring one system over another. Consequently, structural and moral criticisms are related, but aren’t identical. It’s an important distinction. An economic system can be structurally sound, but morally unsound.

47

Jason McCullough 12.12.03 at 8:34 pm

“All irony aside, I wonder why Sen uses certain groups of Chinese and Indians to draw his comparison.”

“Am I implying Sen lies? Why, yes!”

I’ve got to wonder why all the posters are assuming diet, sex, and homicide rates are orthogonal to income.

48

Chris Bertram 12.12.03 at 8:38 pm

Yes, infamouse, you wrote:

_And what’s a big cause of poverty in the black community? Children born out of wedlock. If they were born into a two income family, then most of those children wouldn’t be in poverty. Sometimes people make stupid choices that put them in poverty._

and my gloss on that was “bad choices by stupid people”. I’m perfectly happy for people to judge for themselves whether that was a fair construal of what I see as a highly offensive comment.

49

infamouse 12.12.03 at 8:50 pm

You may see it as an offensive comment, but it is not meant as such. People are often at the mercy of things they cannot control, but just as often they can control certain things. There are certain behaviors that lead to certain outcomes. Birth out of wedlock often leads to increased poverty (2 incomes would preclude this), drug use, incarceration, etc. It is not offensive to take note that people often make choices that are harmful to themselves as well as their children. It is not offensive to take note that black America is not just a passive victim and as a group, they exhibit certain behaviors (birth out of wedlock) that make their economic situations demonstrably worse.

You clearly believe that “stupid” people make “bad” choices. You don’t have to be “stupid” to make a “bad” choice.

50

Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 9:20 pm

Infamouse is quite correct. This is about personal responsibility not about people at the mercy of a “system” or “income inequality.”

We have more freedom to make more decisions in the United States then in most places in the world and many people have opted to make poor decisions.

No one is forced to have sexual intercourse (barring rape or incest) with someone outside the bounds of matrimony, which is the leading cause of out-of-wedlock birth which is one of the primary causes of poverty in our county.

No one is forced to spend their money on junk food or fast food but people do it anyways and we have a lot of obese people in America (which lowers the life expectancy) as a result.

These are personal choices and some people have decided to make poor ones. It is their responsibility and not the fault of a “defective system.”

I’ll wait until my copy of Sen’s book comes in later this month before deciding whether the sort of sloppy analysis (which would never be tolerated from an undergraduate at my school by any of the profs I’ve had) as evidenced in the except Chris Bertram is typical of Sen.

51

WTB 12.12.03 at 9:31 pm

I’ll venture into the Infamouse/Bertram fray to scold you both — please stick to the issue at hand.

The issue, as I see it, boils down to whether or not you agree with Chris’s statement: “Shocking, for the strongest economy on earth to create these outcomes”

I don’t agree because I don’t think the economy can be held totally responsible for such outcomes. Do you agree or disagree?

I also tried to raise the issue — perhaps too oblique to pursue on this thread and/or important only to me — that much moral shock and outrage in left wing economic thought seems to be based on confused premises. If you’re shocked by unequal distribution of wealth, then let’s be clear about the source your moral outrage. Why and when is unequal distribution of resources wrong?

I hope I haven’t offended anyone.

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Katherine 12.12.03 at 9:41 pm

“Why and when is unequal distribution of resources wrong?”

Some possible answers:
1. To the extent that it is based not on merit, but on lack of equal opportunity (socioeconomic, racial, or what have you.)
2. To the extent that it is leading to premature death, hunger, dire poverty, homelessness, imprisonment of people partly because they never got proper mental health treatment, and various other things that we could afford to prevent if we wanted to. (and don’t tell me “if you won’t work you don’t deserve to eat.” I think in the vast majority of cases people have a job, are looking for one unsuccessfully, or are unable to work because of physical or mental conditions.)

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Ken 12.12.03 at 9:51 pm

“No that it isn’t clear at all. Nobody in this thread in any way shape or form has made an even mildly persausive argument that we need to address that issue.”

I saw several posts in this thread suggesting that one reason for disappointing life expectancy is because the population at issue has trouble obtaining medical care, housing, and police protection. I think that’s a strong possibility, and I mentioned policy changes that would ameliorate such problems.

“Nobody in way shape or form has presented a convincing case detailing the consequences of ‘the issue of richer people outbidding poorer people for restricted-supply goods such as housing and medical care.’. No one has weighed the positive consequences of such an action against the negative consequences of such an action.”

So what are the negative consequences of allowing the supply of medical care, housing, and police protection to meet demand without interference? Are we supposed to take seriously the notion that human-built structures are ugly and unused green spaces are beautiful, for instance?

“It’s nice that you believe that to be true. Just like it is nice that some people believe in god. But don’t expect anyone who doesn’t share your faith to be convinced by a few anecdotes and a re-statement of your faith in your faith.”

It’s hardly faith to note that allowing the supply of something to meet demand will allow more people to avail themselves of it than will restricting the supply so that it cannot meet the demand. It may be “faith” to believe that more available housing and medical care is preferable to less available housing and medical care, but I’ll bet it’s a faith that’s rather strongly held by people who are looking for housing and medical care and finding it difficult to obtain.

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Dan Simon 12.12.03 at 10:01 pm

There’s supposedly a study of longevity in the British civil service that concluded that long lifespan is positively correlated with civil service rank–even after factoring out essentially every other conceivable influence (wealth, income, genetic makeup, family status, lifestyle choices, etc.).

If correct, this finding would suggest that the life expectancy differences between rich and poor are not necessarily a product of economic inequality, but rather of social inequality (which of course correlates with economic inequality).

Of course, reducing social inequality is an even more difficult problem than reducing economic equality, because social status is conferred by informal (often completely unconsciously generated) group consensus, not by the (re)distribution of financial instruments. Moreover, the implications for individual freedom of attempting to impose greater social equality on a society by fiat are much more disturbing than the implications of measures (such as redistributive taxation) that (may) decrease economic inequality.

Still, as a social equality enthusiast (a “Kausian”?), I’d be interested in discussions of practical approaches to reducing social inequality. Any suggestions?

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infamouse 12.12.03 at 10:16 pm

This article from the NYTimes Magazine on the higher number of health problems in America’s ghettos is incredibly good for a more close up look at these issues. I think the best thing that could be done would be to improve the areas by containing crime, vandalism, litter, development. Stop letting these areas turn into wastelands. A lot of it seems psychological and stress-related.

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infamouse 12.12.03 at 10:17 pm

That should be increasing development, not containing it.

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Shai 12.12.03 at 10:19 pm

Was just browsing through the thread. No specific points yet until I get a chance to browse through Sen’s book again, other than that I find it amusing that Mr. Thorley Winston is accusing a past presidient of the econometric society of making basic mistakes, that even an undergraduate student shouldn’t make.

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Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 10:37 pm

Shai wrote:

Was just browsing through the thread. No specific points yet until I get a chance to browse through Sen’s book again, other than that I find it amusing that Mr. Thorley Winston is accusing a past presidient of the econometric society of making basic mistakes, that even an undergraduate student shouldn’t make.

So what was his excuse for making them then?

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david 12.12.03 at 10:40 pm

Reading this thread is like watching a train wreck. I can’t look away, but it’s awful. So complacent — “Sen got the Nobel Prize cause he’s a liberal!” No I’m not surprised either, but fuck me backwards.

Thorley Winston wins the complacency award here with (“which would never be tolerated from an undergraduate at my school by any of the profs I’ve had) as evidenced in the except Chris Bertram is typical of Sen.” Yeah, I’ll bet you’ve been cranking out Microeconomics papers 10 times better than that crap Sen puts out.

BTW, keep posting on the book. It’s great and maybe a real discussion could form.

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WTB 12.12.03 at 10:53 pm

“There’s supposedly a study of longevity in the British civil service that concluded that long lifespan is positively correlated with civil service rank—even after factoring out essentially every other conceivable influence (wealth, income, genetic makeup, family status, lifestyle choices, etc.).”

This reminds that I read somewhere that in the South slaves and, after Emancipation, Free Blacks had better diets and health than the comparitively more privileged poor whites. Ironically, the Blacks’ better diet owed to habits acquired under slavery when slave owners required or encouraged slaves to base their diet on cheaper foodstuffs such as vegetables and grains, rather than meat. The poor whites, in contrast, who might be expected to have more choice, ate a more limited and unhealthier meat based diet.

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Thorley Winston 12.12.03 at 11:06 pm

David wrote:

Thorley Winston wins the complacency award here with (“which would never be tolerated from an undergraduate at my school by any of the profs I’ve had) as evidenced in the except Chris Bertram is typical of Sen.” Yeah, I’ll bet you’ve been cranking out Microeconomics papers 10 times better than that crap Sen puts out.

So I take it then that your professors would have been okay with comparing two very dissimilar groups (rather than two more similar groups such as blacks from the UK and US) without holding the other variables constant?

Mine would not have been okay with this and as I said before, I am going to wait until I have had a chance to read the book before trying to decide if this sort of sloppy “analysis” is typical of his work or if this is an aberration.

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sorry 12.12.03 at 11:46 pm

Many years ago I wondered if there was an active conspiracy in this area to depress the development of Blacks, and to kill them off early. This speculation came from visiting a few grocery stores in black neighborhoods.

Prepared foods. Boxed stuff with sodium and fat. Sad produce. Lots of sausages and low end cuts of meat.

It was disgraceful.

Try looking for yourself.

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infamouse 12.13.03 at 12:20 am

sorry, that sounds like the Atkins diet. I know what you mean though. There’s a very popular local grocery store chain in my area that has a special separate branch for the innercity area. The whiter branch is sparkling with lots of service and pretty produce, the blacker branch is hella cheap and hella awful. It’s depressing. Unfortunately, a friend who works for this company told me that when they tried to improve one of the innercity branches, the people stopped coming and it went out of business. It’s cheaper to buy a .99 carton of Ring Dings than it is to purchase a bag of apples. Essentially, the people in the area got priced out of the store. That’s why the produce in that store you saw looks like crap. They can sell it for cheaper. A junkfood tax coupled with ridding ourselves of agriculture subsidies would make healthy food more affordable for the poor, who are more susceptible to obesity, no matter their skin color.

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Chris Bertram 12.13.03 at 12:24 am

The funny thing is, that I was undecided whether to blog first about this passage or another one that the righties would have loved about the importance of the freedom to truck and barter. Had I only chosen differently I’m sure Thorley and Infamouse would have been hailing Sen as a genius …

I’ll probably use that passage in a couple of days, meanwhile, a friendly hint guys: the phrase “out of wedlock” is something of a giveaway. If you want to sneak up on us pinko liberals and catch us out from time to time, you’d be wise to be a bit less, er, conspicuous.

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infamouse 12.13.03 at 1:21 am

I must say I’m even more confused this time. Chris Bertram, to whom are you referring? If I used the term “out of wedlock”, it is because the term “illegitimate” is cruel. No child is “illegitimate”.

Signed,
A slightly conservative (“Don’t have kids out of wedlock!”,) slightly liberal(“Gay marriage? Go for it!”) chica who is slightly confused.

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Vinteuil 12.13.03 at 1:32 am

Way back when, before people started spitting venom, Chris Bertram stated that “the difference in life expectancy remains even comparing black and white with similar income levels.” This leaves me puzzled. Doesn’t it suggest that the operative factor here is not economic inequality, but rather some subset of the many *other* factors that set black and white Americans apart from one another (whatever those factors may be, and whomsoever’s “fault” they may be)?

Perhaps I just missed the boat here. I thought the whole issue was supposed to be the relationship between economic inequality and health outcomes.

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anderson 12.13.03 at 2:10 am

vinteuil, blacks even have lower test scores and grades than whites of similar income levels, even in the same schools and classrooms. It’s very perplexing. There’s a test score hierarchy: Asians, then whites, then hispanics, then blacks. There are some very controversial books on teh matter.

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John Isbell 12.13.03 at 2:49 am

I recalled near the beginning of this long thread that American Indians are across the board the most disadvantaged ethnic group in America, and no-one gives a damn. The various ethnic groups mentioned here since then have not included the American Indians. Let them rot.
Sen is Master of my old college, Trinity College Cambridge, which is not especially PC, frankly. The Queen chooses the Master. He is far more popular than either Hodgkin or Huxley were, two ineffectual but nice people, though the Fields Medal winner who directly preceded him, Atiyah, was very popular. I’d think one reason he chose India is because of his body of work on India. Scholars do that.

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Conrad Barwa 12.13.03 at 5:02 am

Okay first off this is a complicated issue; and Sen’s work can be questioned on a number of grounds, unfortunately none of the ones put forward here really number amongst them. The technical aspects of links between nutrition and poverty from this angle are covered in SR Osmani’s “Nutrition and Poverty” and the excellent collection of essays edited by KR Krishnaswamy “Poverty and Income Distribution” which explore these topics at some length. The whole issue about consumption baskets is a valid one but as far as possible differences can be adjusted for and by large have been, any discrepancies that remain are statistically small ones; so I doubt whether Sen’s comparison will suddenly become flawed because African Americans are all eating fried chicken while Malayalees have fantastically healthy diets or sthg. It should also be remembered that such large variations in life expectancy can’t be put down to dietary patterns alone; as much of the rest of India has similar intakes to Keralites, but only a few other states do as well – one needs to ask that if the Indian diet was so much healthier than African Americans why morbidity rates are so much higher in other Indian states like Madhya Pradesh or Orissa. Obviously diet is not the most important factor at work here. Also the implicit reason is that for some reason Indian and Malayalee food is much healthier than what African Americans eat – why this should be so is not explained it is simply asserted. The WFP had a conference earlier this year that has had fairly large-sampled surveys on family nutrition and infant eating patterns across various states; these reveal some disturbing trends such as the high level of anaemia and vitamin deficiency amongst those under 5 and pregnant women and also the relatively high morbidity rates. Even states praised for their HDI performance like Kerala and Tamil Nadu do badly while some northern ones do better; no clear patter emerges as to what can explain these difference as it depends on a number of complex factors most of them to do with local state policy, agrarian structure, wage and income distributions and ecological conditions. Diet again was not found to be a significant factor.

It should be kept in mind that Sen is just extending the work he did a decade ago with Jean Dreze on comparing more progressive states like Kerala with more backward BIMARU ones in northern India; while he chooses to place a heavy stress on state developmental policy; he has ignored other important factors like the different nature of caste politics, a more matriarchal pattern of family structures and rather different historical integration into the regional agricultural economy which are also important explanatory variables. As for the reason why he uses Kerala as an example; it should be quite obvious: apart from the fact that he is an Indian and heavily influenced by developments in this country; the so-called ‘Kerala miracle’ has attracted the attention of numerous social scientists for its ability to combine poor economic growth with high levels of social development; explaining this paradox has become a sort of cottage industry amongst South Asianists and everybody refers to it in the sphere of poverty/development economics in Asia. Being one of the pioneers in the field and who has done the most work on this, it would be surprising if Sen left out copious references to Kerala in any of his major works on the issue.

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Curtis Crawford 12.13.03 at 5:25 am

Two different issues have been confused in this thread: (1) why black American men live shorter lives than Chinese and Kerala men who are poorer, and (2) whether inequality of wealth and income in the US is excessive.

On (2) I believe it is, and that Americans would be better off in many ways, from the distribution of health to the distribution of power, if the inequality were less. I mention that without trying to prove it here.

On (1) I would like to see an attempt to evaluate factors that might contribute to the result. The possibility has been mentioned that “stupid people make bad choices.” On average, do black American men have lower IQs that Chines and Kerala men? Other things equal, does a lower IQ correlate with shorter lifespans? Did Sen investigate that possibility?

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Zizka 12.13.03 at 5:48 am

This thread can serve as a sort of metaphor of the contemporary American political process. (Yes, I know that this is a Brit site).

Can a bunch of nice academic liberals compete with a bunch of shit-flinging iron-butt trolls? Is it possible to have intelligent discussions about a book with stubborn, ignorant people who haven’t read the book? I’ll leave the answer to the reader.

I came here with two things in mind.

First: “I really want to read this book. What do the CT people have to say about it? Almost every one of them knows more than I do about economics.”

Second: “I wonder if Sen has acquired a lynch mob yet?”

The second question has been answered. In my opinion, CT should ban the moronic brownshirt fucks.

But of course, that would be Stalinist. And certainly we can’t be Stalinists; the message of Orwell is that nice people should be passive all the time. So y’all just oughta let the MBF’s ruin every thread you ever put up.

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JP 12.13.03 at 6:35 am

I find it amusing that Mr. Thorley Winston is accusing a past presidient of the econometric society of making basic mistakes

Yes indeed. Oh, I don’t know, could it be that TW’s evaluation of Sen’s econometrics may have been just a “teensy bit political”?

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infamouse 12.13.03 at 7:02 am

“I recalled near the beginning of this long thread that American Indians are across the board the most disadvantaged ethnic group in America, and no-one gives a damn.”
Or it could be that not many people (myself included) really know much about the situation regarding Native Americans, but it clearly makes you feel morally superior to other people to think that.

“The possibility has been mentioned that “stupid people make bad choices.” “
You’ll have to talk to Chris Bertram about that one.

“And certainly we can’t be Stalinists; the message of Orwell is that nice people should be passive all the time.”
This is an Orwell I have never encountered. He/she must be different from George Orwell.

“So y’all just oughta let the MBF’s ruin every thread you ever put up.”
Yes, because dissent and an actual attempt at debate just ruins everything.

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Chris Bertram 12.13.03 at 9:22 am

Thanks Zizka – quite close to my own sentiments on this. Though we aren’t a Brit site you know, but one whose members come from the US, the UK, Ireland, Hungary and Australia and live in the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and France. (“Aha!” say the trolls, “France! We knew they must be in there somewhere!”

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James 12.13.03 at 10:58 am

Chris, if I can pull you away from shrieking about ‘righties’ (and you moan about ad hominem comments!)for a moment, I’ve a comment and a question.
The comment is, I find your ‘stupid people making bad choices’ infinitely more offensive than the original ‘people making stupid choices.’ I can identify myself among the people who make stupid choices that lower their income, health, both at the time of decision later on, but not among your (quite frankly offensive and dehumanising) ‘stupid people’.
My question is, does Sen comment on the direction in which the life expectancy of the groups he talks about is going? I have a professional interest in the answer, as I am involved in the Surestart programme in London, which among other things is trying to increase the use of breastfeeding and thus raise the nutritional bar for very young children. (It was at a ‘shocking’, seeing as you like the word so much, level to begin with. We’ve doubled it in our area in the last 18 months.)So – how are blacks doing in the US compared with say, thirty years ago? Where are the numbers going? Up? Down?

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Chris Bertram 12.13.03 at 11:39 am

James,

(1) “Bad choices by stupid people” was a fair and reasonable gloss on borderline racist comments by dumb right-wingers. They conveyed the sentiment, I didn’t.

(2) Read the book for yourself – I’m not your research assistant.

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