Interview with Angus Deaton on 6 December 2015, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
What’s your story?
Angus Deaton: What’s my story? What brought me to this scientific field? A lot of luck, a lot of accidents. I certainly didn’t start out to study economics. I think, you know, when I was in high school I studied mathematics because it was relatively easy and it gave me a lot of free time to do things I liked to do, which is play rugby, listen to music and play the organ and things like that. But when I got to Cambridge I discovered that mathematics was a little more serious than I wanted it to be so I became an economist, more or less by accident, and I loved it from the beginning. I think I have been curious ever since I was a kid, I just wandered through economics finding things out.
Has luck played a role in your life?
Angus Deaton: I think you say it right, how do I think about luck and why is it so central in the way I think about it? I think it has been central in my life and what happened to me and my family, but it has also played a big part in my work so that I could talk a little bit about both of those. My father grew up in coal-mining village in England and he would have still been there if the luck of the second world war had not drafted him into the army. It’s a funny sort of luck, but it worked out well for him and then he was going to go on a raid, a commando raid in the army in Norway in which everyone was killed and he didn’t go because he had the luck to get tuberculosis. There are two big pieces of luck without which I would not have been born in the first place and I almost think people who are successful tend to understate just how important luck is and what happens to them. I think generally we tend to underestimate how important luck is in our lives, especially those of us who are successful and also in my work I have tended to focus on one of the things that’s a very … I think a lot about inequality for instance. One of the forces that’s very important in generating inequality is just luck. If you and I start out with exactly the same amount of money or talent or education and then we are just bombarded by, you know, you get out of bed on one side in the morning, I get out of the bed on the other side in the morning. After a few years we are very different and that is just the cumulated facts of luck and I think that’s a force in life over time that’s creating a lot of inequality.
Describe your Nobel Prize-awarded work in one minute
Angus Deaton: I have to describe my Nobel Prize-winning work in one minute. Wow, I have been trying to concentrate the time to 30 minutes for my talk on Tuesday, but one minute is much more of a challenge. I think I have spent a lot of my life trying to understand how people behave and why they behave the way they behave. Some of that is the classic problems of economics, which is if market prices change, how do people respond to those market prices and people have been studying that in economics for 200 years at least, maybe 300 years, a long time anyway. I find maybe better ways of doing that, this is a classic subject in economics so people worked on it for a long time, so I am not going to change everything, but maybe I made a little few improvements here and there. I also tried to study. When you look at how people behave you can say something about whether they are becoming better off or worse off, and I am always being concerned with human wellbeing or a human welfare and how that relates to the way that people behave in markets. That’s what I really do and that’s what the prize was about. Less than a minute.
When do you do your best thinking?
Angus Deaton: It’s hard to tell, I do quite a lot of thinking when I am asleep, I think. You wake up in the morning with a solution to something you didn’t know. Or worse, and maybe more frequent, you go to bed thinking of a solution and you wake up in the morning realising it’s not a solution. But I love to go fishing and I have loved to go fishing since I was a kid and you spent time in Scotland, and you know how people like to go fly fishing for trout. Even a poor kid in Scotland can do that, you don’t need a lot of money to do that. I used to go fly fishing for trout and when I was fly fishing for trout I would … It’s a very strange experience because it’s a totally absorbing activity. I would go fly fishing and I would come home in the evening and my mother would ask “How was your lunch?” and I would say “I forgot to eat it” and she said “You have been out there for 12 hours, how could you forget to eat your lunch?” and I said “I was so busy fishing.” But at the same time I was thinking about things and once again it’s sort of like being asleep. I come home from fishing and maybe I would have solved something or I had thought of some new way of doing something or some new way into some problem and I still do that. Anne and I go fishing together a lot and, you know, we think about things.
What does intelligence mean to you?
Angus Deaton: I don’t know, I’m not prepared for that question at all. It’s interesting because when you are a kid you’re always being tested for intelligence or that sort of things, so you think of intelligence as getting the highest score on an IQ test or something. It’s always been the case for me that I have certainly never been the most intelligent kid around. When I was younger I used to be very envious of people who were much quicker than I was. I think as I have gotten older I have understood that intelligence is important, but certainly it may not even be the most important thing. Curiosity is tremendously important. We talk in our profession a lot about what we call bearing down and that means that when you have a problem you don’t run away from it. You just try very hard to find out what that problem is about and get a solution or something like that. Bearing down is I think a very very important part of academic success. Intelligence I think is important, but only one of many things, because we see students all the time who are just smarter than anything you have ever seen. If you teach at a place like Princeton you see undergraduates who would completely break your IQ scale or whatever, and some of them are very successful, but most of them are not. Who knows, you need a lot of other things.
Who was your most inspiring teacher?
Angus Deaton: I never took a course in economics and I never went to classes in economics, but I had people that I tried to imitate. There were people I wanted to be like and people I much much admired and some of those were people I knew, some of those were people whose work I read and I wanted to be able to write things like that. But the one I knew the best that I wanted to be most like and who used to wear bow ties like me and I really imitated all my life is Richard Stone who got the Nobel Prize in 1984. I knew him very well and very early in my career, when I was just a research assistant, he saw something in me that he thought was like him and so he always used to say, “You and I are on the same side of the movement.” I never quite knew what that meant but I loved it. It was just wonderful to be told that. I always wanted to be like him and I have achieved some of those things. He would have been very happy to see me getting this award, after many … 31 years after him.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the world today?
Angus Deaton: Part of the problem there is just picking which of the many things that really threaten us, but one of the things … I wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Great Escape. I am answering this question in a somewhat circuitousway. We all read the newspapers every day and the newspapers are full of terrible things, and the newspapers are full of all these threats. We have the threat from global warming, which has come up in past, we have the threat of the destruction of the eurozone from migration pressures or from financial pressures. There are terrible threats out there that we don’t always appreciated like the threat of antimicrobial resistance for instance, which I think is a very serious threat. The reason I came back to my book is because amidst all those threats we don’t realise in some ways how well we have done and just how much better the world is now than it was 250 years ago, how much better the world is now than it was 50 years ago. I was born in Edinburgh in 1945, the infant mortality rate in 1945 was higher than it is in India today. When my father was born in the Yorkshire coalfields in 1918 the infant mortality rate in England was about as same as it in Sub-Saharan Africa today and we think of Sub-Saharan Africa as being so far behind us in terms of health and wellbeing, but it’s not so long ago since we were there. We have made an enormous amount of progress, so when you think of these threats we should see these threats in context as threats to the progress we have made rather than sort of an existential threats, though some of them, like global warming, could of course be existential threats, but there is an awful lot out there that threatens us.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Angus Deaton: Oh, I don’t know, what advice would I give to my 20-year-old self? I think I would tell him not to worry as much as I did when I was 20 years old, things will come out alright in the end and to do what is fun to do, to follow your curiosity. I was always worried that I didn’t know what I wanted to do and even when I was a little kid when people said “What do you want to do?” and I said “I want to be an engine driver” and after you stopped being an engine driver you never knew where I was going to be after that. I certainly didn’t know I was going to be an economist, but it worked out well in the end and I thought within economics that I was too scattered and worked on too many different things so when this prize was announced it was almost as if the committee had discovered the pattern of my life’s work in a way that I didn’t know it was. I think, tell the 20-year olds to follow what you are good at, to follow your curiosity and let the rest of things look after themselves. You can’t control it, you got to let it come.
What’s the toughest challenges you’ve faced? How did you overcome it?
Angus Deaton: Oh, I don’t know, what’s the toughest challenge I have faced in life? I don’t know, like everybody else there have been personal challenges that have been very hard to overcome. I am not sure that I want to talk about those very publicly, but I think for all of us, everybody, again if I am addressing young people who are thinking about going into scientific careers certainly won’t absolve you of all the bad things that will happen in life and you know we all have a common humanity which means there are bad things and wonderful things which will happen to us too. You just have to trust and live them through.
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