Some argue that Sen is the last heir to a distinguished Bengali intellectual tradition that owed as much to poets as it did to scientists, politicians and philosophers. Sen is the true inheritor of Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet and thinker of the early decades of the 20th century. A family friend, he named Sen as a baby; the only photograph in Sen's Cambridge study is that of the striking Tagore with his flowing white beard.
But on one issue Sen admits he now parts company with Tagore, and instead he quotes Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bengal's other great poet who became an iconic figure for the nation of Bangladesh. Tagore was too patient; Nazrul was the rebel urging action. And he repeats a quote he uses in the book: "Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue."Perhaps the truth is that despair is sometimes disguised as patience, but it's understandable that a chapter of his new book (co-written with Jean Drèze) should be called "The Need for Impatience."
Now for some more on economics and charity, politics, etc. I linked earlier to a post at NewAPPS about Peter Buffett on charity. Now he has joined in the discussion over there. It's worth reading, although my side (against Buffett) seems to have more or less lost. The winning side is led by Dan Kervick, who writes:
A system in which liberals tolerate massive inequality, exploitation and structural dysfunction on the one hand, and then lobby rich people to "give back" in various ways - creative and sometimes effecting though those give-backs might be - is an embrace of injustice and the prerogatives of power, not a challenge to it. Charity-state liberalism and the cult of philanthropy are neoliberal capitalism's way of defending itself against structural change while buying indulgences for its sins.This might be true, but can't one support charitable organizations and their work, and encourage the rich to do so too, without tolerating massive inequality, etc.? There is a kind of libertarian or "nice Republican" position that does indeed tolerate massive inequality (and the rest) but regards "giving back" as a moral duty. This is pretty much the thinking of old-fashioned British Tories from the days when the Church of England was called the Conservative Party at prayer. It sometimes seems to show up in the ideas of some people in the Shepherd Poverty Program, with which I'm involved. Noblesse oblige would be one way to put it. But that isn't the view of most liberals. People like Obama are against massive inequality. They only tolerate it in the sense that they fail to eradicate it. But so does everybody else. It seems to me reasonable to do what one can politically to reduce inequality, exploitation, and structural dysfunction, while simultaneously supporting non-political means to make people's lives better. This might in some ways suit neoliberal capitalism, but what's the alternative? The comment about a bunch of white people getting angry about capitalism comes to mind. We can refuse to "embrace injustice" and let things get so bad that the inevitable revolution comes and fixes everything, but I suspect we'll be waiting a long time. And it won't be people like me who suffer most in the meantime. (I doubt I have captured what Buffett and his supporters really have in mind, but I honestly don't know what it is if it isn't this kind of hard-hearted wishful thinking.)
As I write the most recent comment there is from Mike Otsuka. He says:
Suppose that it were impossible to do any good, via charitable donations, beyond of the borders of one's country. It's only possible to assist those in one's own country. In that case, I think people who are outraged by the conditions of the domestic poor would not be so keen to embrace philanthropic giving as a means to address their plight. Rather than encouraging the rich to give a lot to charities that will provide assistance to the homeless, or resources for underfunded schools in poorer neighbourhoods, or better health care for the poor, energies would be directed towards getting the government to address these problems. And I don't think this is because they necessarily think such political action would be more effective than charitable giving. Rather, it's because they regard domestic poverty as a systemic, institutional injustice for which we're collectively responsible and which should be addressed collectively. A focus on philanthropy would be regarded with suspicion as a refuge for those who think of poverty, not in these terms, but rather as something that engages a duty of charity: noblesse oblige, George Herbert Walker Bush's Thousand Points of Light, David Cameron's Big Society.I think he's right that a lot of what bothers people about philanthropy at the global level is what would bother people about a focus on philanthropy domestically in this kind of situation. But isn't the dichotomy here false? Why not embrace philanthropy as a means to address the plight of the poor while also working for a larger-scale political solution? Are you really going to turn away the hungry at the door? And why contrast energies being directed towards getting the government to address problems with encouraging the rich to give a lot to charities? Can't we do both? Is our collective energy that limited? And why switch between talk about "a focus on philanthropy" and just "philanthropy"? It's true that poverty is a systematic institutional injustice for which we're collectively responsible and which should be addressed collectively. But this doesn't mean that we shouldn't help people out in the meantime, and encourage those who benefit from the system to see that they have a duty to help too. It doesn't take long, and its effects are far more certain than those of political agitation. Anyone who refuses to help on the grounds that it will be better in the long run if suffering is allowed to get worse now should be first up against the wall come the revolution. (Well, maybe not. But nothing but swearing comes to mind.) Not that anyone is saying this, but they aren't clearly saying anything else.