You want to enjoy economics and learn crispy lessons about everyday challenges, and how to deal with them? Then try this new book by GLO Fellow Sudipta Sarangi:
By “using a range of everyday objects and common experiences like bringing about lasting societal change through Facebook to historically momentous episodes like the shutting down of telegram services in India offers crisp, easy-to-understand lessons in economics. The book studies the development of familiar cultural practices from India and around the world and links the regular to the esoteric and explains everything from Game Theory to the Cobra Effect without depending on graphs or equations-a modern-day miracle! Through disarmingly simple prose, the book demystifies economic theories, offers delightful insights, and provides nuance without jargon.”
Some core messages of the interview below:
- The ultimate goal of any theorist is to explain phenomena around us.
- Economic theory is all around us, and simple everyday actions can be explained using the lens of economics.
- Takeaways of the book are: incentives matter, heterogeneity matters, complementarities matter, information matters, cognitive costs matter, and strategic behavior matters.
- Even grandmas in India are obsessed with cricket!
- The anecdotes used are true and about actual people and their lives.
- Being closeted at home due to the pandemic has created curiosities that may not have happened otherwise.
GLO Fellow Sudipta Sarangi is a Professor and Department Head at Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University). He has received the 2020 Kuznets Prize of the Journal of Population Economics.
GLO: Neither formulas nor figures: What drives a theorist to be so ‘practical’?
Sudipta Sarangi: This is an astute observation. While it is true that theorists are often considered to inhabit the realms of the esoteric, the ultimate goal of any theorist is to explain phenomena around us. For example, my very first paper was motivated by a real-life observation: Why does the late fee exceed the rental price (or opportunity cost) of an object? That combined with my love for teaching is what resulted in this plain-English book!
GLO: What is the core message you want to convey with your book?
Sudipta Sarangi: Sometimes when I talk about the book, I liken it to Rene Magritte’s painting: The Son of Man. Everything we see around us hides things, and we human being always want to see what is hidden by what we see. I feel that economic theory is all around us, and simple everyday actions can be explained using the lens of economics. So, as in Magritte’s painting, I want to draw attention to the apple covering the face and show people what lies behind the apple – get a closer look at those eyes peeping at us. I believe that this will not only create a curiosity about economics but also provide people better insights about their own behavior and those of the others.
GLO: What are the major insights the various sections of your book provide?
Sudipta Sarangi: Honestly speaking, I did not want to list insights in the book because I felt it would be too pedantic. I just wanted people to enjoy reading a book about economics. However, my wife and a philosopher friend insisted that I needed a set of takeaways. Now these are forces to reckon with! So, I finally gave in and suggested six takeaways: incentives matter, heterogeneity matters, complementarities matter, information matters, cognitive costs matter, and strategic behavior matters. Of course, you will have to read the book to find out how specifically they matter and what might be the caveats.
GLO: Your book can be placed in the Freakonomics tradition with an Indian touch: What makes it attractive for a typical European or American reader?
Sudipta Sarangi: Another insightful question! It is true that in some ways I wanted a book that an Indian reader would enjoy, and there are possibly a couple of chapters that will strongly appeal mostly to Indian readers – like the one on cricket for instance. Even grandmas in India are obsessed with cricket! I think the appeal is universal because the book tries to explain everyday phenomena. For instance – why does no one take that last slice of pizza at the office party? Why do we always offer the first piece of cake to the guests when evolution suggests that you just take it yourself? There is a story of shoe thieves operating in Sweden and Denmark stealing left and right shoes separately in the two different countries. This is used to drive home the importance of complementarities and explore Michael Kremer’s O-Ring theory.
GLO: What economists find insightful or funny is often not shared by non-economists. How do you break this resistance?
Sudipta Sarangi: This is so true – I chuckled to myself as I read this question. I think the most important element is the fact that many of the anecdotes are true and about actual people and their lives. So, the humor is not made up by me. Of course, it takes more than the crowd sourced stories and pop culture references – lots of rewriting, my wonderful editors and the many people from whom I have learnt to write and learnt about economics. The spectrum ranges from my first-grade teacher Mrs. Meera Pradhan to my PhD supervisors Hans Haller and Rob Gilles.
GLO: Is your success with the book related to a weakening of populism caused by the pandemic which demonstrates the importance of science?
Sudipta Sarangi: That is something I would like to believe – although I cannot say that I have a lot of hard evidence in its favor. I feel that being closeted at home due to the pandemic has created curiosities that may not have happened otherwise. I have also observed during several virtual book talks that young people looking for new things to explore are drawn to the book because of its intuitive explanation of economic models. They like the Indian examples, but also enjoy the anecdotes from other parts of the world. That gives me hope for science and the future.
Thank you, Professor Zimmermann, for the insightful questions and this virtual interview. I thoroughly enjoyed answering them. To end with a small quote from the book:
This is a book about the economics of these small things. Over the course of the book, I will delve into the economic concepts behind the events mentioned here and other such phenomena drawn from everyday life. The book invites you to explore these different economic ideas and concepts—and to have fun while doing it. And for those interested in exploring these topics further, there is a detailed reading list at the end.
With Sudipta Sarangi spoke Klaus F. Zimmermann, GLO President.