The Exceptional Amartya Sen

Asif Dowla, professor of economics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, points out an error on page four of Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, where it is asserted that the American Economic Association has never been headed by anyone who was not an American citizen, “the three who were born in Canada included.” Talk about spurious precision!

Amartya Sen, citizen of India, Nobel laureate, Lamont University Professor at Harvard, was the AEA’s president in 1994. Why was Sen the first (and so far only) non-US citizen to be elected? At the the annual dinner of Economists for Peace and Security last January,  Harvard University president Lawrence Summers described him this way:

“Amartya is a singular figure in our dismal science – a master of marshalling impressive arrays of evidence to support his pathbreaking ideas, but also a figure whose ideas and scholarship have transcended the bounds of our discipline to directly affect the lives of millions of people throughout every part of the world. Albert Einstein once said, perhaps indelicately, that, ‘We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us to count, without which no worthwhile discoveries could have been made.’ I would go one step further – Amartya Sen, ‘immortal’ son of India, has taught all of us that it is simply not enough to count – but that we must never forget the value of that which we aggregate. That the enduring values of the human spirit can’t simply be reduced to numbers, but that through the thoughtful application of knowledge and insight the human spirit can indeed be set free.”

Summers’ graceful summary of the impact of Sen’s research can be found here.  And, just in case, a list of past presidents of the AEA is here.

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