(Another) Farewell to Alice Amsden

Based on my prior remembrance of Alice Amsden, an MIT grad student asked me to write something to be read at her departmental memorial service.  Since that took place yesterday, I decided it was safe to post what I wrote here for anyone who might be interested.  Please overlook the self-plagiarism in the last paragraph.

I was recently putting together an article on economic agendas in transitional justice, and came across a line in one of the many manuscripts that Alice churned out faster than publishers could keep up with:

 Peace requires rethinking “policy rights,” or how much freedom countries should enjoy over their policy choices for economic development. The greater their policy rights – outside a shared core of global values – the stronger the developmental state and the greater the chance for peace.[1]

This, essentially, was the crux of my 15,000-word article, which rambled from the French Revolution through the wilds of cooperative game theory.  This was it: distilled, strikingly lacking in any academic references, unapologetically straightforward.  Alice always expressed herself in a manner that was direct, matter-of-fact, sometimes whimsically alliterative, and yet disarmingly brash.  Like all great economists, she had a genius for parsimony, and ruthlessly stripped out unnecessaries to arrive at what she thought mattered.  (She would likely have balked at the four adverbs I just used.)  But more than that, she had amazing courage.  Courage to throw out cherished theories when they didn’t fit facts.  Courage to pull the pants down around the ankles of mainstream Economics; to discredit its claims to sterile, technocratic knowledge and expose it as a fundamentally unjust system of values that real people choose to endorse and that real people die from.  Courage to ask uncomfortable questions of people – students, colleagues, foreign ministers – and not let them off the hook when they started to squirm.

It’s Alice’s courage to call a duck a duck I try to emulate when considering what project to tackle next.  I will sometimes even imagine myself sitting on Alice’s office couch, trying to explain to her why some phenomenon or other is interesting, unexpected, important.  I recreate her dismissive incredulity at ideas that miss the mark, have her ask impatiently: “What does that have to do with jobs?”, “Who cares?”, “How does that affect the capital-labor ratio in any way?”  And I recreate her slyly suggestive “ah-hah…,” accompanied by a an upward-pointing index finger and a raise of the eyebrows, when I feel I’ve struck on something I should follow up.

Her seeming disregard for etiquette ruffled feathers, no doubt.  An ethnic Taiwanese classmate of mine, upon meeting her advisor, Professor Amsden, for the first time, was shocked when she entered the office and was immediately asked not to speak while Alice tried to judge her ethnic origin from her facial physiognomy.  Alice had prickly relations with IDG, and wound up recusing herself from the group altogether.  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.  Whenever I said something she didn’t like, she would get up from the table and pace in long strides around the room while waving her arms as though trying to swat annoying flies buzzing near her ears.  Then she passed me.

I have missed her.

[1] Alice Amsden, A Farewell to Theory: How Developing Countries Learn from Each Other, Cambridge, MA., p. 1.


1 Comment

Filed under Economics/ Economic Development, Personal

One response to “(Another) Farewell to Alice Amsden

  1. Your blog has given me an opportunity to post the whole tribute I wrote immediately I stumbled on Alice’s death on the MIT website before that site compelled me to shorten it to a parsimonious 1000 characters (including spaces!).

    This news is a rude shock to me. Although I never met Alice and I was in touch with her for a short time (all by email), I grew so close to her through email exchanges and her work that I feel I have lost a friend.

    She contacted me in September, 2010 with an inquiry arising from her reading of my work on the Nigerian oil and gas industry (2007). She was writing on “how developing countries learn from other developing countries,” and she sought more details about Nigeria’s experience with learning from the experiences of other developing nations.

    I was utterly flattered that Alice paid attention to my work. I provided her with all the information I had. We then had a great conversation about developing economies that touched upon privatization, foreign investment, corruption and taxation. Her insights and queries forced me to grapple with problems I had never imagined. Our exchanges were thoroughly enriching, even on the one occasion that our views diverged.

    I looked forward to reading Alice’s work on how developing countries learn from one another but didn’t know if she finished it.*

    I had great admiration for her courage, candor and originality because these are qualities I aspire to most in my own scholarship. Alice was so clear-sighted because of a belief in her own observations – completely unencumbered by orthodoxy – and total liberation from the desire for approval.

    Alice was a great resource person, and she could have become a real mentor to me. I was hoping to drawn on her insights in developing some of my ideas in years to come. Sadly, that is no longer possible. Had I not stumbled upon this notice (just moments ago, May 28, 2012), I would have fired off an email to her in the next few weeks to start a conversation about my chapter in Robert Looney’s forthcoming “Handbook on Emerging Economies,” which I plan to start serious work on later this summer. I was sure she would come through for me because she was so generous.

    Alice passed before I could fully express to her how much she meant to me. More than anything else, the world of development policy and scholarship has lost one of its most dynamic voices.

    Thank you, Alice.

    G. Ugo Nwokeji
    Associate Professor of African American Studies
    University of California, Berkeley

    *As the blog owner (sorry, I haven’t seen your name in the blog) cited that paper, I have seen Alice finished it.

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