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Nov 06

Religion, Science, and Global Civilization #4: Two Economists’ Vision of the Future

“The task of humanity…is to create a global civilization which embodies both the spiritual and material dimensions of existence.”

The Universal House of Justice

Nov 6, 2011. When prominent economists think about what needs to be done for the future, what do they see? What is their vision? Do they assign a role to religion and spirituality? Or are those simply something in the background?

Below, I highlight the views of Jeffrey Sachs and Amartya Sen, two of the world’s leading development economists, both deservedly highly respected.

An Economist’s VISION of the Future

Jeffrey Sachs is one of the world’s most prominent economists. Famous for advising the Bolivian, Polish, and the Russian government to carry out economic “shock therapy” in the 1980′ and 1990′s, he has become one of world’s leading experts on economic development, poverty alleviation, health aid policy, and sustainable development.  He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a professor at Columbia University.

His most recent book – The Price of Civilization – argues that America “has squandered its civic virtue” and that “without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery.”

Here is how he describes what we should do for the future (for details, see here). Noting that the seven billionth person on the planet was just born and that the eight billionth is expected to arrive in 2024, he asks about the world that the new youngster will be entering:

On the positive side, our seven-billionth arrival, even if he or she is born in a remote village, will be very much part of today’s globally connected society. The information and communications revolution has ended isolation. No places are cut off from the rest of humanity. … Lower costs of transport, computing, communication, diagnostics, logistics, mapping, solar power and a host of other technologies make possible the spread of development at a pace unmatched in history.

However, we are busy “destabilising the climate system, depleting fossil water and fossil energy reserves, and destroying the habitats for millions of species” and are in denial about it. And because global leadership is passing from the north Atlantic nation-states to a multipolar diversity of regional powers, we are in a transition era “fraught with dangers.” That includes a virulent form of financial instability by which “global finance has escaped the regulation of national governments, putting all regions at risk of financial destabilisation.

Noting that the leaders of the most powerful economies in the world – the G20 – is meeting in Cannes, France, he advises the following:

If the leaders are serious, they will agree to the following. First, that only global co-operation can address the burgeoning challenges of finance, environment and population growth. Without a global framework for the world economy …we will improvise our way to disaster.

Second, they should take note of the burgeoning population and agree to do something about it. Most important of all, they should agree to help girls around the world, especially in the poorest countries, to stay in school and to complete at least a secondary education. There is no measure of greater significance than universal secondary education (for boys and girls), to empower young women, boost economic development and lower fertility rates.

Third, to be practical, the G20 leaders will find new ways to finance “global public goods” such as universal secondary education and the fight against climate change. At least two new methods of financing should be agreed. The first is a financial-transactions tax, a tiny levy on each international financial transaction. The goal is to slow the global casino of international finance while raising funds for poverty alleviation. The second is a levy on carbon-dioxide emissions from burning oil, gas and coal.

Even though none of this will be easy, even small changes could be very important:

Even a small charge would put the world in the direction of long-term climate repair. The world as a whole would finally begin the process of shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, while raising tens of billions of dollars every year to help the poorest countries to create a modern and sustainable energy system.

Nobody can believe that managing a human family of seven billion will be easy. On the other hand, there is no more uplifting and exciting opportunity than to fashion a world that can be hospitable and decent for all.

Note, this is not a complete plan – Sachs’ ideas are much more completely laid out in The End of Poverty – but the thrust is clear – the problems are global and the solutions are global – and they start with global leaders taking the responsibility to address our problems.

Another Economist’s VISION of the Future

The Nobel Prize winning Amartya Sen (his autobiography is here) is among the handful of economist who are better known than Jeffrey Sachs. Born in India, a professor at Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge, he received a Nobel Prize for his work on welfare economics, social choice theory, and his focus on understanding, measuring, and promoting human development for the poor.

One of his most significant contributions is the concept of “capability” that he first developed in a Stanford lecture entitled “Equality of What.” Arguing against standard economic notions that poverty is defined by lack of material things, he insisted that lack of freedom and basic skills are its defining aspects:

It is arguable that what is missing in all this framework [i.e, standard economic and philosophical theory] is some notion of “basic capabilities”: a person being able to do certain basic things. The ability to move about is the relevant one here, but one can consider others, e.g., the ability to meet one’s nutritional requirements, the wherewithal to be clothed and sheltered, the power to participate in the social life of the community.

Basic human needs and rights, therefore, include much more than simple economic necessities.  They include the freedom to be educated, freedom from hunger, free access to opportunity, and the freedom to make decisions for oneself. Sen’s vision for the future is a social development process that will supply those freedoms. Samuel Freeman, in his review of Sen’s 2010 “A New Theory of Justice” summarizes:

One of Sen’s most significant contributions to welfare economics and philosophical ethics is his account of human well-being with respect to “capabilities for functioning.” Utilitarians and economists traditionally have measured well-being by people’s “utility” or “welfare,” the satisfaction of desires or preferences. Our lives go well when we get what we want and/or have pleasurable experiences.

Sen rejects this account. People’s preferences, he writes, often result from mistaken beliefs or are adaptations to miserable or coercive circumstances (e.g., people may be satisfied being subservient if they have no alternatives). Measuring well-being by resources, such as income and wealth, fares no better, Sen says, for people have different “conversion rates” for resources. For example, providing equal resources to disabled persons and those who are not disabled does not result in their having the same well-being, since the disabled require more to perform the same activities.

Suppose that I’m a citizen of a democracy and have the right to vote. That right means nothing if I don’t have any transportation to the polling place, or if the political system is corrupt and dominated by special interest groups, or if “crony capitalism” reigns. My right to vote is only meaningful if (a) I have the capability of exercising it in a meaningful way, and (b) I have the understanding and the information to make an informed choice. Only then do I have the “capabilities for functioning” with respect to voting.

Freeman continues his description of Sen’s vision:

… our well-being should be assessed according to the “capabilities for functioning” that enable people to exercise “effective freedoms” to choose and do what they value or have reason to value. Important capabilities include having adequate nutrition; health and longevity; personal safety and freedom from fear; physical mobility, literacy, and numeracy; and being able to appear in public without shame. Poverty, illness, disability, and subjection of women, among other restrictions, undermine capabilities and deprive people of their effective freedoms to engage in worthwhile activities.

This is the basis for Amartya Sen’s vision for the advancement of mankind:

Sen’s capabilities approach has had enormous influence—his “Development as Freedom” is a leading work in development economics. He argues that expansion of capabilities and other freedoms should provide the main means and ends of economic development. [This] capabilities approach is currently being developed as one of the major approaches for addressing issues of social, political, and global justice and human rights.

Praise and a Critique of the Economists

It is hard to find major faults with either professor Sachs’ or professor Sen’s visions. Clearly, they describe goals and ways to get to those goals that are simultaneously hard-headed  – they are both descendants of Adam Smith’s practical economics – and visionary. I have little doubt that their views represent important pieces of the puzzle that is our future.

But will those pieces work without buttressing? The practical question is what will it take to make their vision implementable so as to achieve the effect they wish to see happen? And there are increasingly ominous signs that technological progress and the progressive, modern, mindset of most of our preeminent thinkers is leading to the increasing reign of the rich – the 1%.

Specifically, we need to ask where are the moral and ethical underpinnings that any implementation of their vision will require? Is it to be found only in international aid and development NGO organizations and their money? Or in political parties in nation-states?  Or in the people to be helped? For these players, as we know only far too well, progress happens only when there is peace and prosperity, when money is freely available, and often not even then.

And why is there no mention of religion – the foremost organizer of community action – as part of the picture? As powerful and noble as their visions are, what we see as actors in their vision is not communities but the autonomous, secularized, individual actors of northern European commercial economic development theory and modern nationalism.

So, important and as praiseworthy as these visions are – and they certainly are that – there is still too much in them that is 19th century and blind to anything other than autonomous, profit-motivated, self-activated striving.

Science and Religion

Here are some thought from the Baha’i Faith to augment our economist’s visions. I draw from the Prosperity of Humankind, a statement of the Bahá’í International Community’s Office of Public Information, released in January 1995 in preparation for the United Nations World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen.

Throughout recorded history, human consciousness has depended upon two basic knowledge systems through which its potentialities have progressively been expressed: science and religion. Through these two agencies, the race’s experience has been organized, its environment interpreted, its latent powers explored, and its moral and intellectual life disciplined. They have acted as the real progenitors of civilization. With the benefit of hindsight, it is evident, moreover, that the effectiveness of this dual structure has been greatest during those periods when, each in its own sphere, religion and science were able to work in concert.

Given the almost universal respect in which science is currently held, its credentials need no elaboration. In the context of a strategy of social and economic development, the issue rather is how scientific and technological activity is to be organized. If the work involved is viewed chiefly as the preserve of established elites living in a small number of nations, it is obvious that the enormous gap which such an arrangement has already created between the world’s rich and poor will only continue to widen, with the disastrous consequences for the world’s economy already noted. Indeed, if most of humankind continue to be regarded mainly as users of products of science and technology created elsewhere, then programs ostensibly designed to serve their needs cannot properly be termed “development”.

A central challenge, therefore – and an enormous one – is the expansion of scientific and technological activity. Instruments of social and economic change so powerful must cease to be the patrimony of advantaged segments of society, and must be so organized as to permit people everywhere to participate in such activity on the basis of capacity.

Next Week

Next week, we continue our examination of visions of leading thinkers of what needs to be offered to humanity.

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This is the 4th in a series of blogs on religion and science working together to create a global civilization. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. He did extensive research in quantum optics in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.


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About the author

Stephen Friberg

Stephen Friberg is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he authored Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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