Sen's Sensibility | The Nation


Sen's Sensibility

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Some years ago, I had the good fortune to befriend an extended family who lived in a poor shantytown in the southern reaches of Santiago, Chile. I got to know the Gamboas through their oldest son, Luis, a bricklayer in his 20s who had invited me out to meet them within minutes of our acquaintance. His mother, Señora Hortensia, was the titular head of the family, but its de facto leader was the eldest unmarried daughter, an extraordinary woman in her early 40s named Maria Eugenia, or Maru.

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James North
James North has reported from Africa, Latin America and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City and tweets at...

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Maru worked seventy-two hours a week in a garment factory on the other side of Santiago, sewing sleeves onto blouses. She earned $50 a month. She also brought home extra piecework, and after helping to cook and clean she would sit at her own sewing machine for a couple more hours each evening, talking to the stream of younger siblings, nieces and nephews who lived nearby and stopped by for visits.

Maru had been a full-time seamstress since she was 13 years old. She had been doing well in school, but then Señor Gamboa was injured on his construction job, so she was forced to work. Luis told me that ten years earlier Maru had been saliendo, going out, with a young man. But her long working hours interfered with the relationship. It gave Luis great pain to realize that it had become too late for his sister to start a family of her own.

If you asked Maru Gamboa if she was "happy" she would answer yes. She would look at the growing Gamboa clan, at her younger brothers and sisters, now helping her to support the family, at the little nieces and nephews who adore her, at her thankful mother, and she would feel that she was at the center of a circle of love that many people here in the North, in our world of far-flung and sometimes broken nuclear families, might envy.

How would economic philosophy interpret the life of Maru Gamboa? A conventional "free market" economist (or an editorial writer at the Wall Street Journal) would not be interested in her at all. Such people simply want to know a couple of statistics: per capita income and the rate of economic growth. The US press runs regular stories extolling what it sometimes calls the Chilean economic miracle. These glowing accounts disregard the two ferocious recessions in the first decade or so of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, after the 1973 coup in which he seized power. But the reports also pay little attention to how Chile's economic growth in the nineties has been distributed.

Economists in the utilitarian tradition would listen to Maru Gamboa but mainly do a calculus of her mental satisfaction. They would take notice of her worries about her low pay and the family's chronic debt (the Gamboas still owed on a small shop their father set up after he was disabled and before he died), but they would also note approvingly that she was content, even happy, amid her large family.

By contrast, libertarians would not care about her subjective feelings. They would want to know about the formal political and economic rules that governed Maru's life. They would disapprove of the Pinochet dictatorship, and the more honest among them would recognize that its undemocratic legacy is still a big part of Chilean life today. But they would approve--heartily--of the "free market" conditions they say now prevail in the country.

None of these approaches come close to capturing the complexity of the life of Maria Eugenia Gamboa. Amartya Sen, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics, has spent decades earnestly, vigorously and with increasing success trying to challenge economists and others to come up with better ways to analyze human welfare. Sen's work is indispensable to understanding how to confront the number-one problem in the world today: glaring, and increasing, global inequality. Development as Freedom is Sen's first extended effort to reach a general audience. Its contents were originally lectures and shorter essays, and it is consequently somewhat repetitive and choppy, in places dry and dense. Another problem is that Sen has made so many original contributions, from his theory of why famines happen to his demographic discovery of "missing women" as a sign of gender inequality, that attempting to stuff so many into a single book was probably unwise. But despite the problems, his basic message--informed, insightful, compassionate and optimistic--does shine through, a summary of the work still very much in progress of one of the most important thinkers of our time.

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