In Box

Epiphanies: Amartya Sen

The Nobel Prize-winning economist reflects on misguided policies, social disasters -- and whether he had it too easy.

My family was from Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh, but I studied mostly in Santiniketan, in a school in India. My earliest memories, between the ages of 3 and 6, are all of Mandalay in Burma, where my father was a visiting professor in the 1930s. I felt much at home in all these places, and the idea that you can be at home only in one place has never taken root in my mind.

That people could die as a result of stupidity or worse in public policy is quite important in my understanding about the world. The Bengal famine of 1943, which I witnessed as a child of 9, was largely the result of stupid public policy, in a year of relatively good food supply.

[I also remember] the riots that occurred in the 1940s, which were not connected with the famine, but resulted from political cultivation of divisive identities. Suddenly, people who had seen themselves as just Indians, or just Bengalis, or just human beings, redefined themselves as sharply separated Hindus and Muslims. The wave of violence passed soon enough, but left a lot of dead bodies behind.

Functioning democratic societies do not tend to have famines. With free elections and multiple parties and a free press, it is very easy to bring a government down by criticizing it for not preventing a famine. Countries with recent cases of famine -- North Korea, Sudan, Somalia -- do not have functioning democracies.

Undernourishment is different. You can use democracy to fight it, but it requires a lot more imagination. For famine, all you have to do is print on the newspaper front page a picture of an emaciated mother with a skin-and-bones child on her lap, and you've made an editorial [against bad policies]. You need to work harder for an editorial about undernourishment, [which] is not very clearly visible, not killing people immediately.

I wish I could claim some heroism in persevering with my work against adversity, but I fear I cannot, since I have got nothing but encouragement from others -- my teachers, my family, my friends, my colleagues, and most importantly my students. There isn't a story of courage there.

Amartya Sen teaches economics and philosophy at Harvard University. He received the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998.

In Box

The List: Faulty Towers

With financing slowing to a trickle, the world's most hyped architectural projects remain castles in the sky.

Rossiya Tower Moscow, Russia

Ambition: Russian oil and real estate magnate Shalva Chigirinsky and British architect Norman Foster shared a dream of erecting the tallest building in Europe. Intended as the centerpiece of a new business district, the planned 2,008-foot Rossiya Tower would have had 118 floors, featuring luxury apartments, office space, and a five-star hotel.

Reality check: The credit crunch hit Chigirinsky's portfolio hard, and the project lost most of its financing. The completion date has been pushed back four years to 2016.

Bottom line: Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is especially keen to see the project move forward; he has been urging Chigirinsky to sell his stake to a rival developer. It remains to be seen whether municipal aspirations will trump the personal pride of one of Russia’s most successful capitalists.

Nakheel Tower Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Ambition: Dubai's vaunted state-run developer Nakheel -- famous for creating the emirate's palm-shaped islands -- announced plans three years ago to build a 3,280-foot skyscraper, the highest in the world. The tower, already under construction, was designed as the centerpiece of a massive $38 billion, 5,800-square-mile waterfront development project.

Reality check: Cranes stopped moving in January. With Dubai's economy in free-fall, Nakheel announced that construction would be suspended for a year as the company adjusts its financing to "better reflect the current market trends."

Bottom line: The developers' halted efforts will exist in the shadow, literally, of rival developer Emaar Properties' nearly completed Burj Dubai tower, currently the world's tallest building.

The New World Trade Center New York City, United States

Ambition: After years of political bickering following the September 11, 2001, attacks, New York finally agreed on an ambitious plan for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center. The final blueprint includes the 1,400-foot, Daniel Libeskind-designed Freedom Tower, as well as smaller skyscrapers conceived by star architects Norman Foster and Richard Rogers.

Reality check: The slumping New York real estate market has forced developer Larry Silverstein to delay construction on most of the towers indefinitely.

Bottom line: Instead of the Foster and Rogers towers, Silverstein now plans to erect two small buildings for retail space that could one day be converted to "pedestals" for the towers whenever the market recovers.