Sunday, November 20, 2005

AAEA president Per Pinstrup-Andersen shouts for justice from a high podium

In his presidential address at the annual meeting of the American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA) in Providence last July, Cornell professor Per Pinstrup-Andersen began with almost half an hour of scholarly discourse on the role of ethics in economic analysis. Bentham. Aristotle. The first law of welfare economics. Stigler. Comparing utility across people. And so on.

He never increased the cadence or raised the volume of his gently accented European voice.

I laugh to imagine a poor audience member, whose mind wandered in this early discussion, returning to focus on his quiet voice some time later, realizing with a shock that the words themselves were by this time shouting and yelling.

The point of the early discussion was to shake a large ballroom full of economists out of their complacency about the moral inadequacy of their usual discourse. Slowly and methodically, Pinstrup-Andersen knocked one leg after another out from under the table holding the usual banquet of apologies and excuses for government inaction against the world's greatest injustices.

By the time his words started pushing a little harder, Pinstrup-Andersen, who for many years led the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, was quoting statistics about child hunger around the world:
6 million of the 10 million child deaths could be avoided by known interventions in each of 42 countries at a recurrent annual cost of ... $1.23 per person in these countries. Could the richest 10% of the populations of these countries afford to pay $12.30 annually without sacrificing anything of comparable moral or material significance? Of course. Do they? No.
By the time his words really got shouting, Pinstrup-Andersen was asking whether there is any moral difference between killing 6 million children and standing by idly while 6 million children die.
Is it genocide when millions of children die because of neglect by the state? Is failure by governments to take action as promised on various occasions, a crime against humanity? Not according to the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The terms "genocide" and "crime against humanity" apply only when certain acts are committed. Failure to act to save lives is not covered, even when states have the means to act (United Nations 1948, and International Criminal Court).
A reasonable person may doubt that we are all quite so directly culpable for children's deaths around the world as Pinstrup-Andersen implies. For we Americans in particular, there are wise reasons, including the preservation of peace, to better remember that not every injustice around the world is our problem to solve. But this post is not a critical review. This post is all praise. I can't recall a previous occasion in which the speaker from the plenary session podium at the AAEA annual meetings quoted Nelson Mandela.
Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.
The presidential address was published this month in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

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