Economist Seeks Elimination of Inequality and Poverty
Among new faculty this year in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences is Assistant Professor Mwangi wa Gĩthĩnji (economics). A Kenyan with an interest in development and the environment, he got the title of his first book from a speech given by countryman J. M. Kariuki., shortly before his assassination. This freedom fighter turned parliamentarian warned that his country was headed in the direction of having “Ten Millionaires and Ten Million Beggars.”
According to Mwangi, Kenya went this route and now suffers from some of the worst inequality on the globe. In his book (Ashgate, 2000), he wrote, "Among African countries for which data are available, Botswana shows the highest degree of inequality. The value of the ratio of the income of the richest quintile to that of the poorest is 23.6. Our estimate of this ratio for Kenya is 50.85, more than twice as large as Botswana’s.” He notes that more recent work, such as the 2005 report “Pulling Apart,” published by SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) with collaboration from the Kenyan government, now makes the same point: Kenya is one of the top ten most unequal countries in the world and among the top five most unequal in Africa.
Mwangi’s several projects include one in Kenya, looking at ways in which the benefits of economic growth can be distributed more equitably by making sure growth is accompanied by job creation. With his partner Renae Brodie (who teaches biology at Mount Holyoke College), he is also launching work in Jamaica, studying interactions between humans and land crabs in the resort area of Negril. The issue is that while crustaceans spend much of their lives out of the water, they must return to the ocean to spawn. They also play an important role as food for other ocean species. Recent changes in the local economy there have resulted both in reduced habitat and access to the sea. Renae and Mwangi want to find ways to improve the livelihoods of Negril residents, but not at the expense of the land crab. Mwangi will examine how the class interests of the stakeholders (such as farmers, hotel owners, and people who fish) play into how this part of the wildlife is managed.
When asked why he, a self-described Marxist, believes in a failed ideology, Mwangiji elaborates, “There is a difference between the analysis by Marx and the different practices of communism/socialism that have been tried. I am not a Marxist in the sense of seeing those existing models as the solutions (there are plenty of people—including colleagues here at UMass Amherst—who have written extensively on how these models did not follow Marxist reasoning but tended to be shaped by the desire of the new ruling classes to maintain power), but rather in following Marx’s model of analysis that emphasizes the examination of class differences, its relationship to the appropriation of surplus value and the relation between these factors and politics.”
Mwangi, who earned his PhD and MA from the University of California Riverside and came to UMass Amherst via Gettysburg College, notes that the kind of analysis he does challenges the orthodoxy of neoclassical economists who dominate the discipline, adding that mainstream economics doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the problems facing most of the people in the world. As a member of the editorial board of Rethinking Marxism, he sees that as one of his roles.
Of his arrival in Amherst, Mwangi says, “The five college area is a wonderful place for any academic, plus being part of the leading heterodox economics department among research universities is great. So far Renae and I love the Pioneer Valley, its progressive politics, the attempts at creating sustainable community agriculture and the concerns for the environment. I have found at UMass Amherst extremely insightful, helpful and congenial colleagues (faculty and staff), and my students seem to be more engaged with the real world than those I have taught elsewhere—and just as smart.”
Expanded from an article by Eric Goldscheider
October 19, 2006