Farewell to Alice Amsden

It saddens me to report that Alice Amsden – brilliant ‘heterodox’ development economist, Barton L. Weller Professor of Political Economics at MIT, and all-around belligerent battleaxe – has passed away.

Alice studied under Hla Myint and Arthur W. Lewis during her PhD at LSE, and was one of the rare famous, female economists of her day.  She was noted particularly for debunking the neoliberal myth of market-driven industrialization in Asia, building an expansive argument for the important role of robust state interventionism in industrialization across her many seminal books (including Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization (1989), The Market Meets Its Match: Restructuring the Economies of Eastern Europe (1994), The Rise of “The Rest”: Challenges to the West From Late-Industrializing Economies (2001), and Escape from Empire: The Developing World’s Journey through Heaven and Hell (2007)).

Alice was lionized by the political Left, but remained prickly towards it.  She contended that Dependency  and ‘World Systems’ theories could not account for the rapid rise of previously poor countries.  Instead, she argued that the developing world was held in check as much by Western economic dogma as by Western institutions.  Indeed, for Alice, industrialization – and not what she deemed namby-pamby grassroots development, like community-scale literacy, housing or water projects – was the only serious way to make massive inroads into world poverty.  She recently asked me to look over a book in progress, which she had titled From Blood Hounds to Bleeding Hearts: The Power Shift in Developing Countries.  The “blood hounds” are the industrialists who actually create jobs where there are none; the “bleeding hearts” are those feckless development workers who “minister to the poor.”  She was a strident advocate for the developing world in the WTO.  She harbored a deep resentment toward Paul Volcker for failing, as Secretary of the US Treasury, to disclose the impending interest rate hikes of the early 1980s to developing countries struggling under dollar-denominated debt – and she challenged him personally on this score.  Then she partially forgave him when he admitted that Keynes was his all-time favorite economist.

Alice was perhaps the most irascible, least politic person I have ever met.  I recall one PhD admissions committee meeting in which she became fed up with a colleague’s recommendations and demanded, “Haven’t you passed mandatory retirement age, already?”  No one smiled openly, but everyone must have been thinking that she was no Spring chicken, herself.  She was on my Doctoral Committee, and demanded that I bring “ginger cookies, and lots of ‘em” to my oral exam.  I did, and she ate them, but we wound up in a heated argument, anyway.  Then she passed me.

Her intellectual legacy will certainly live on.

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2 Comments

Filed under Economics/ Economic Development, Personal

2 responses to “Farewell to Alice Amsden

  1. Ben Hyman

    This is a great homage to Alice. I especially like the last paragraph, as I had a similar experience in my thesis defense. No matter how many development economics courses I took looking for the marginal impact of some narrow question, Alice was always first to ask, “compared to what?” And the what, of course, was always industrial policy. This is a huge loss to the world of political economy and development economics.

  2. Pingback: (Another) Farewell to Alice Amsden | Resource Curse

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