Are these two old men too old? It does seem so.

We do understand perhaps, if not accept, the sharp divisions there are in the world today,  between Shia and Sunni, Hamas and Haredim, Christian and Muslim, believers and unbelievers, to name just a few of the hundreds, if not thousands of today’s opposing tribes or bands (tea-partiers and occupiers of Wall Street also, although not up to the others mentioned).

In particular we understand that in respect to our most closely held beliefs the differences between us may be almost legitimate and that we shouldn’t be surprised by the number of disputes arising from those differences that  often lead to terrorist acts if not to full-scale wars.

faculty_senBhagwati Portrait (Columbia Law School)But that today two old men, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati,  both Indian nationals and both 79 years of age, both Ivy league professors, the one at Harvard the other at Columbia, both economists with world wide reputations, that the two of them should be taking part in a public shouting match over their differing views.  This I find difficult to understand.

(See the article in today’s NYTimes by Gardiner Harris, Rival Economists in Public Battle Over Cure for India’s Poverty, from which I take much of what I have to say here.)

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Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters
(The role of the Indian government in programs like this one, in which a government-run school provides meals to the poor, is one area in which Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati disagree.)

The one, Amartya Sen, in his recent book, An Uncertain Glory, argues that the Indian government has not invested enough in the health and welfare of its own people. Mr. Sen claims that India’s growth depends at least as much on its social infrastructure, on the governmental health, education, and welfare supporting structures and programs, as upon the private sector through its investment in new business  and resulting job growth.

He cites the example of 7 year old Rohini (and he could, of course have given us hundreds of thousands of such examples from the millions of India’s poorest of the poor). 7 year old Rodini spends her days asking for food from pedestrians and drivers in one of New Delhi’s central business districts…. Rodini’s mother, Kamlesh, says they just don’t have the money to send her to school.

According to Mr. Sen India’s inability to pull Kamlesh and hundreds of millions of others out of desperate poverty despite decades of robust economic growth has been one of history’s great governance failures and economic mysteries. Gardiner Harris asks, “does India simply need more time for growth to work its magic, or is there something fundamentally wrong with its formula?”

The other old man, Jagdish Bhagwati, in his book, Why Growth Matters, that he co-authored with Arvind Panagariya, denounces Mr. Sen’s ideas as not only mistaken but dangerous. Mr. Bhagwati’s opinion is that the money spent on government programs is largely wasted. The substance of their dispute is of course not too different from that between the House Republicans and the Senate Democrats. But shouldn’t we expect better from two brilliant Ivy League professors?

Mr. Bhagwati is one of the world’s great trade economists, but as Harris points out, he has lived in the shadow of Mr. Sen’s Nobel for much of his professional life, and that clearly irks him. “If his written criticism of Mr. Sen’s work is shrill, his verbal criticism is downright nasty,” says Harris. Mr. Bhagwati’s impatience with Mr. Sen is that Mr. Sen, is “obfuscating” things constantly.

To Mr. Bhagwati, India’s myriad problems have less to do with poor health and literacy than a poor investment climate. Give people jobs and money and they will invest in their own education and health, he said. Taken from the Republican platform?

Of course both men are right. Both points of view are legitimate, here in the United States as well as in India. The tragedy is that those who ought to know better, especially the wise old men still among us such as Mr. Sen and Mr. Bhagwati, don’t seem to. Just as our elected repreentatives in Washington.

The tragedy is that socialism and capitalism are too often bandied about as if it had to be either the one or the other. And of course it’s both, that is, both are here to stay and both are necessary and legitimate policies for every developed nation. Why is that so hard to understand?

Mr. Sen and Mr. Bhagwati ought to have gone together to the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and together with him, also an economist, looked for ways out of the present situation in India of too much poverty and too little growth.

And to borrow again a passage from Harris’ Times article in which he quotes Ajay Shah, a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in New Delhi, “Both guys are at the extremes of the spectrum. We need to reinvest in some government programs and end others altogether.”

What if our members of Congress, especially the House Republicans, come to the same conclusion, that is, what if for once they were to speak the truth, forget about their Party agenda, begin to think about the country and its real problems, and then address and confront the needs and responsibilities of all the people?

The battle between these two men is the battle going on in much of the world today, and too many of the participants are, as these two men, at one or the other extreme. Why haven’t Mr. Sen and Mr. Bhagwati, clearly intelligent, sensitive, and in so many respects wise men, who most of all should have known better, why haven’t they been helping instead of contributing to the divisions among us? Why haven’t they understood that they are both right, and should most of all be working together?

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