Interview with Abhijit Banerjee on 6 December 2019 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
Can you tell us about your childhood?
Abhijit Banerjee: I grew up in a middle-class family in the city of Kolkata. I, just by accident more or less, happened to live right next door to one of the biggest slums in Kolkata, so I had a slightly resentful childhood in the sense that I was surrounded by kids who didn’t go to school, who was playing all day, whereas I had to go to this extremely boring school every day. My parents had different expectations and so I would see the people who I would play marbles with, playing while I go to school, and playing when I came back from school. The exposure, I think, early exposure to the fact that people, poor people – my parents sort of explained to me that this was poor people, that they have very different lives – was, I think, in some ways it kept with me in the sense that I would say that I think I became more of an economist in trying to understand how I can connect the economic theory that I knew which really said nothing about why the poor would be different in any way. To the ideas that, you know, all the exposure, to the kinds of facts of the world that I came with. These two languages were not particularly commensurate and so it took me a little while to understand that, how to translate one into the other.
How did you end up in economics?
Abhijit Banerjee: I ended up in economics by accident. I wanted to study mathematics and I went to study mathematics, there is a special dedicated, very well-known institute in Kolkata called Indian Statistical Institute where they give you an undergraduate degree in mathematics and I went there and I realized that I wasn’t cut out for it. It was not because I was not good at maths, because I was actually pretty good at maths, but because I didn’t like the social life of that place, it was too serious, too kind of ‘heavy’. And so I decided I need to study something else, and in India, if you don’t kind of plan your strategy, the only way you can change fields is by you losing a year, and I didn’t want to do that, so I decided to find out study something else. What can I get into at this late date? And the answer was economics, so I went into economics.
What’s your relationship with India today?
Abhijit Banerjee: I think I my mind I have always been an Indian, I mean, it doesn’t matter where I live or what affiliation or citizenship. It is really much more about what’s the social milieu that directly inspires you, what the social milieu you react to. Who are the people who you think of when you do anything good or bad, you think of certain people and those people for me are, I mean lots of them are in India and there’s somehow that India matters to me in a sense in which I think no other country matters to me.
How can we better understand poverty?
Abhijit Banerjee: To be honest I think the sense from our research has been that actually someway the same insights goes for poor people in many places. Maybe not in Sweden where maybe it’s just very different to be poor because of the social welfare networks are much better, but I have worked in Indonesia, in Ghana, in Kenya, in India, which are very different places. I would say, the similarities are more striking than the differences. I think people are both creative and often, sort of … I think the idea that the poor are sort of fixed machines which have no choice, is all wrong. People are both, I mean, poor people have enjoyed their lives, they look for opportunities, they try things, they are also scared by them, they make mistakes, all of the things that we do, they do. So, in that sense I don’t think that one needs a different sense of psychology to study the poor.
The poor, I think, in fact I would say, what we often miss with the poor is precisely the opposite which is that they have the same psychology as us. We often underestimate how important that is which is that we think the poor, they are starving so they must only want to eat nutritious food. But in fact, they don’t, because they also want to have fun, so they might sacrifice some nutritious food to eat something that’s tasty. And I think that’s the psychology that we have as well, we would not going to just stay on a diet eating, whatever, quinoa every day, we are going to have something delicious sometimes. I think in that sense, I don’t think the psychology is deeply different. And I don’t think it is deeply different across the world either.
How is your work connected to climate change?
Abhijit Banerjee: I think the question of climate changes is central to the challenges that the poor will face in the next fifty years. Being from Kolkata, I always think of what’s going to happen in the southern Bengal delta which stretches across India and Bangladesh. I’m guessing 150 to 200 million people live there, all of that would be under water, unless we do something drastic. Where will these people go? There’s 200 million people, that’s many times the population of Sweden, where will these people go? It’s really no one has an answer, nobody really thought about it, suddenly it’s not easy to think of them as emigrating somewhere else, that many people, so what’s going to happen to those people? It’s one of these completely frightening questions. They are mostly poor people living on small amounts of land which is all going to disappear. What’s going to happen to them, what’s going to happen to their living? I don’t think that it’s a more pressing question from the lives of the poor than finding a life to deal with climate change.
On the other side, I would say that our learning from the work with the poor and in general from experimental work, is that it is not that costly to make the adjustment to a different lifestyle. I think people once they see that other people are doing it they often just do it and if they do it then it sort of sticks. It’s not that hard to get people to change their mind, if you just send people a notice which says: “You are among the top ten percent of energy users among your neighbourhood”, that reduces energy consumption. It’s a letter they read, it is okay, fine, we can switch of the light or whatever. I don’t see any reasons why in America you have to have 75 degrees inside in the winter and 65 in the summer. That seems backwards somehow. There is just so many things that seems gratuitous in the way we consume energy that it seems to me that it is also a matter of political will and of finding creative solutions that people don’t think of as onerous. I think if you put all this together I would say that on one side I feel that this is absolutely critical moment to act, the other side, I really don’t believe it so hard to do so.
How important is it to have fun in your life and work?
Abhijit Banerjee: Enormously important, I must say that I get bored with everything I do unless I have some relief. I try to arrange my day so that it is at least one or two hours when I am doing something that I’m genuinely enjoying, usually more than one or two hours. Three or four hours when I actually enjoy whatever I am doing. I love cooking so I cook almost every day for an hour and a half or so. I like playing racket sports so I usually arrange my day to either play tennis or ping pong or badminton or something like that. And I like being with my kids, so I try to arrange my days so there is enough relief, otherwise I get bored out of my mind very quickly.
Do you like teaching? Was there a teacher that inspired you?
Abhijit Banerjee: I really love teaching and one of the things in which I have invested a lot of my life is in kind of changing the way our field of development economics has had a start. I think one of the things that I would say I take some credit for is in the way, in many places now the courses start this, I see my students have gone and they teach the same kinds of things. I do think that teaching is extraordinary important and, in my life, I think, you know, both my parents are economists and they taught me an enormous amount among others. There were other teachers that were inspiring too, but my parents in very different ways. My mother is a kind of a passionate activist and my father is a very cool collected, very careful debater, where both have been, both very salient influences in my life.
Can you tell us about your work in films?
Abhijit Banerjee: I got into filmmaking out of a sudden frustration with my ability to capture in my research the things that I was hearing. There were so many wonderful stories that people tell. If you interview people the things that’s striking is that of course, you ask them: “How many times did you go to the health care centre in the last six months?” and they don’t just say: “Four”, they say: “Oh yeah, I went three times, but those are the other times when I went and the door was closed, does that count?” or “I went three times and there was the other time when the doctor shooed me away, so does that count?”. You hear that piece, and you say: “Where do I record that?” and I think the sense of that we have a whole narrative around each data point, and those narratives are interesting by themselves, and there’s a way, there’s a need to capture them. That was what inspired and an attempt to make documentaries.
What’s your hope for the future?
Abhijit Banerjee: My hope for the next 15 years is very much that I continue to do what I am doing. I enjoy very much what I am doing, I think that this might open some more doors, give us a chance to do some more useful interventions or study some more useful interventions, make the case that these things actually matter. Maybe people will listen to us a little bit more as a result of the prize. I’m not envisioning a chance in my lifestyle.
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Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.