Day By Day

Monday, February 21, 2005

Sen's Sensibility

Nobel Prizewinning economist Amartya Sen got his comeuppance last week in Hong Kong. Here's the WSJ's account:

In Hong Kong last week it was Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen doing the sounding off, praising the state medical system in China under the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Sen asserted that Maoist China had actually made great strides in medicine, bringing down child mortality rates and prolonging life expectancy. Moving to a privatized system was making the system less fair and efficient, said the Nobel laureate, who's behind many U.N. economic works, such as the much-heralded "Human Development Index."

To back up his remarkable claim, Mr. Sen said that the rate of growth in life expectancy in China was slowing down. Or at least it was doing so compared to India, which is catching up with China in life expectancy. "The gap between India and China has gone from 14 years to seven [since 1979] because of moving from a Canada-like system to a U.S. like system," said Mr. Sen, adding that he thought this change by China was a mistake.

But, alas, there was someone in the audience who actually had lived through the Cultural Revolution in China, and had been one of Mao's "barefoot doctors." He didn't see things quite the same way as Mr. Sen. In fact, he said the comments had quite urprised him.

"I observed with my own eyes the total absence of medicine in some parts of China. The system was totally unsustainable. We used to admire India," said Weijian Shan, now a banker in Hong Kong. Mr. Shan then added an anecdote that tickled the audience, telling how when he first visited Taiwan in the 1980s and saw young medical school graduates serving in the countryside, he thought to himself, "China ought to copy Taiwan."

How embarrassing. It reminded the WSJ of "Annie Hall" but the better comparison is to the lefty professor in "The Barbarian Invasions" who attempts to seduce a stunningly beautiful Chinese woman by telling her how much he admired Mao and the Cultural Revolution, only to find that she and her family had suffered terribly in that upheaval. Needless to say, he struck out.

Actually, Sen has a lot of good things to say. He is one of those intellectual hedgehogs who knows "one big thing." His work with famine convinced him that economic development was "a fundamental human right." On that point he is right. Unfortunately he has never been willing to admit that democracy and free markets are far more likely to promote development than closed socialist economies and transfer the wealth schemes, and that stubbornness has led him on occasion to say some really stupid things.

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