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Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism
Societies aren't just engines of prosperity.
This critique rejects Homo economicus as the organising heuristic of human affairs. Human beings, it says, need more than material things to prosper. Calculating power is only a small part of what makes us who we are. Moral and spiritual relationships are first-order concerns. Material fixes such as a universal basic income will make no difference to societies in which the basic relationships are felt to be unjust.
Then there is the material critique of capitalism. The economists who lead discussions of inequality now are its leading exponents. Homo economicus is the right starting point for social thought. We are poor calculators and single-minded, failing to see our advantage in the rational distribution of prosperity across societies. Hence inequality, the wages of ungoverned growth. But we are calculators all the same, and what we need above all is material plenty, thus the focus on the redress of material inequality. From good material outcomes, the rest follows.
The first kind of argument for capitalism's reform seems recessive now. The material critique predominates. Ideas emerge in numbers and figures. Talk of non-material values in political economy is muted. The Christians and Marxists who once made the moral critique of capitalism their own are marginal. Utilitarianism grows ubiquitous and compulsory.
But then there is Amartya Sen.
Every major work on material inequality in the 21st century owes a debt to Sen. But his own writings treat material inequality as though the moral frameworks and social relationships that mediate economic exchanges matter. Famine is the nadir of material deprivation. But it seldom occurs – Sen argues – for lack of food. To understand why a people goes hungry, look not for catastrophic crop failure; look rather for malfunctions of the moral economy that moderates competing demands upon a scarce commodity. Material inequality of the most egregious kind is the problem here. But piecemeal modifications to the machinery of production and distribution will not solve it. The relationships between different members of the economy must be put right. Only then will there be enough to go around.
In Sen's work, the two critiques of capitalism cooperate. We move from moral concerns to material outcomes and back again with no sense of a threshold separating the two. Sen disentangles moral and material issues without favouring one or the other, keeping both in focus. The separation between the two critiques of capitalism is real, but transcending the divide is possible, and not only at some esoteric remove. Sen's is a singular mind, but his work has a widespread following, not least in provinces of modern life where the predominance of utilitarian thinking is most pronounced. In economics curricula and in the schools of public policy, in internationalist secretariats and in humanitarian NGOs, there too Sen has created a niche for thinking that crosses boundaries otherwise rigidly observed.
This was no feat of lonely genius or freakish charisma. It was an effort of ordinary human innovation, putting old ideas together in new combinations to tackle emerging problems. Formal training in economics, mathematics and moral philosophy supplied the tools Sen has used to construct his critical system. But the influence of Rabindranath Tagore sensitised Sen to the subtle interrelation between our moral lives and our material needs. And a profound historical sensibility has enabled him to see the sharp separation of the two domains as transient.
Tagore's school at Santiniketan in West Bengal was Sen's birthplace. Tagore's pedagogy emphasised articulate relations between a person's material and spiritual existences. Both were essential – biological necessity, self-creating freedom – but modern societies tended to confuse the proper relation between them. In Santiniketan, pupils played at unstructured exploration of the natural world between brief forays into the arts, learning to understand their sensory and spiritual selves as at once distinct and unified.
Sen left Santiniketan in the late 1940s as a young adult to study economics in Calcutta and Cambridge. The major contemporary controversy in economics was the theory of welfare, and debate was affected by Cold War contention between market- and state-based models of economic order. Sen's sympathies were social democratic but anti-authoritarian. Welfare economists of the 1930s and 1940s sought to split the difference, insisting that states could legitimate programmes of redistribution by appeal to rigid utilitarian principles: a pound in a poor man's pocket adds more to overall utility than the same pound in the rich man's pile. Here was the material critique of capitalism in its infancy, and here is Sen's response: maximising utility is not everyone's abiding concern – saying so and then making policy accordingly is a form of tyranny – and in any case using government to move money around in pursuit of some notional optimum is a flawed means to that end.
Economic rationality harbours a hidden politics whose implementation damaged the moral economies that groups of people built up to govern their own lives, frustrating the achievement of its stated aims. In commercial societies, individuals pursue economic ends within agreed social and moral frameworks. The social and moral frameworks are neither superfluous nor inhibiting. They are the coefficients of durable growth.
Moral economies are not neutral, given, unvarying or universal. They are contested and evolving. Each person is more than a cold calculator of rational utility. Societies aren't just engines of prosperity. The challenge is to make non-economic norms affecting market conduct legible, to bring the moral economies amid which market economies and administrative states function into focus. Thinking that bifurcates moral on the one hand and material on the other is inhibiting. But such thinking is not natural and inevitable, it is mutable and contingent – learned and apt to be unlearned.
Sen was not alone in seeing this. The American economist Kenneth Arrow was his most important interlocutor, connecting Sen in turn with the tradition of moral critique associated with R H Tawney and Karl Polanyi. Each was determined to re-integrate economics into frameworks of moral relationship and social choice. But Sen saw more clearly than any of them how this could be achieved. He realised that at earlier moments in modern political economy this separation of our moral lives from our material concerns had been inconceivable. Utilitarianism had blown in like a weather front around 1800, trailing extremes of moral fervour and calculating zeal in its wake. Sen sensed this climate of opinion changing, and set about cultivating ameliorative ideas and approaches eradicated by its onset once again.
There have been two critiques of capitalism, but there should be only one. Amartya Sen is the new century's first great critic of capitalism because he has made that clear.
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
A recent study tested how well the fungi species Cladosporium sphaerospermum blocked cosmic radiation aboard the International Space Station.
- Radiation is one of the biggest threats to astronauts' safety during long-term missions.
- C. sphaerospermum is known to thrive in high-radiation environments through a process called radiosynthesis.
- The results of the study suggest that a thin layer of the fungus could serve as an effective shield against cosmic radiation for astronauts.
Shunk et al.<p>Additionally, the fungus is self-replicating, meaning astronauts would potentially be able to "grow" new radiation shielding on deep-space missions, instead of having to rely on a costly and complicated interplanetary supply chain.</p><p>Still, the researchers weren't sure whether <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would survive on the space station. Nils J.H. Averesch, a co-author of the <a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.16.205534v1.full.pdf" target="_blank">study published on the preprint server bioRxiv</a>, told <a href="https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/fungus-that-eats-radiation-could-be-cosmic-ray-shield" target="_blank">SYFY WIRE</a>:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While on Earth, most sources of radiation are gamma- and/or X-rays; radiation in space and on Mars (also known as GCR or galactic cosmic radiation) is of a completely different kind and involves highly energetic particles, mostly protons. This radiation is even more destructive than X- and gamma-rays, so not even survival of the fungus on the ISS was a given."</p>
International Space Station
NASA<p>To be sure, the researchers said more research is needed, and that <em>C. sphaerospermum</em> would likely be used in combination with other radiation-shielding technology aboard spacecraft. But the findings highlight how relatively simple biotechnologies may offer outsized benefits on upcoming space missions.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Often nature has already developed blindly obvious yet surprisingly effective solutions to engineering and design problems faced as humankind evolves – C. sphaerospermum and melanin could thus prove to be invaluable in providing adequate protection of explorers on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond," the researchers wrote.</p>
Shannon Lee shares lessons from her father in her new book, "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- Bruce Lee would have turned 80 years old on November 27, 2020. The legendary actor and martial artist's daughter, Shannon Lee, shares some of his wisdom and his philosophy on self help in a new book titled "Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee."
- In this video, Shannon shares a story of the fight that led to her father beginning a deeper philosophical journey, and how that informed his unique expression of martial arts called Jeet Kune Do.
- One lesson passed down from Bruce Lee was his use and placement of physical symbols as a way to help "cement for yourself this new way of being, or this new lesson you've learned." By working on ourselves (with the right tools), we can develop the skills necessary to rise and conquer new challenges.
How to deal with "epistemic exhaustion."