Saturday, April 18, 1998

Panel addresses economics, human rights, education

Panel addresses economics, human rights, education
The Chicago Maroon
By Pamela Appea

Saturday morning, Gary Becker, Nobel Laureate in Economics and a professor of Economics at the U of C, and Amartya Sen, Lamont University Professor and professor of Philosophy and Economics at Harvard University, debated on the role of the economist and economic scientific theory in modern democracy. Hugo Sonnenschein, president of the University, moderated the event.

Becker addressed crime and education, which he feels are two areas of research which more economists should address in economic science theory.

“In modern economics, [it is believed that] you either contribute to elimination of poverty or continuation of poverty or continuation of poverty. You either contribute to a [prospering] economy or a stagnant economy,” Becker said. “The purpose of the economist is to eradicate poverty.”

Neoclassical economists have often been criticized for not understanding that economic theory may not be applicable in practice, especially for third world countries.

Sen, one such critic, challenged Becker’s belief that neoclassical economic theory does not necessarily work when applied to developing societies. He argued that in a country like India, where the collective family unit is more valuable than the individual, the focus of neoclassical economic theory may not work.

“It is assumed that Becker’s theory works very well in economics,” he said. He concluded that Becker needs to broaden his theory. “The general model is rich, but it could be richer.”

“The debate wasn’t contentious enough. Their views weren’t divergent enough for a real debate,” said David Zanni, a fourth-year student in the College.

A senior at Stanford, Olivia Samad, disagreed. “I wasn’t bothered when there wasn’t a huge debate. How economics is related to modern democracy is an issue that economists don’t talk enough about,” she said. Samad went on to add that Becker and Sen and other economists must challenge themselves to find solutions to gap of economic theory and practice.

The human rights panel featured Abdullai Ahmed An Na’im, professor of Law and fellow of the Law and Religion program at Emory Law School, Peter Edelman, professor of Law at Georgetown Law and Jacqueline Bhabha, director of International Studies, Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Martha Nussbaum served as moderator.

The human rights panelists discussed a range of topics including the human rights of children, low-income individuals , and immigrants in the U.S. Bhabha brought up the issue of illegal alien minors who, in the U.S., are kept in detention centers for months and even years at a time.

According to Bhabha, these individuals are not allowed basic human rights such as a fair trial or adequate medical coverage.

“Xenophobia is [used] to determine policy, at least, to a certain extent,” Bhabha said. She went on to state that “effective mechanisms to give [these] children a voice is not in place.”

All the panelists discussed how the U.S. legal system and government policy must be changed in order to address the needs of all citizens and non-citizens in the United States.

“I was impressed by Peter Edelman and his love for children. We should promote politics that would bring children as true citizens,” said Francis Addo, a junior at the University of Iowa.

The Education panel featured Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of Afro-American studies and Philosophy, Derek Bok, President Emeritus and 300th Anniversary Professor at Harvard University, Hanna Gray, President Emeritus of the University of Chicago and Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service professor, Walter E. Massey, President of Morehouse College and Charles Vest, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“On most college campuses, there isn’t a good consensus on what makes a [good] citizen,” said Bok.

The three-hour panel discussed a variety of topics in academia.

“I’ve had a long history of being an elementary school teacher. I’m surprised that the panel didn’t address primary school education. The idea of maintaining a strong, free public school is an integral part of a democracy and I wished they could have discussed the issue,” said Eileen Ochler, an elder hostel member of Hastings, Michigan.

Originally published April 14, 1998