I came across this book, as I mentioned, by regularly reading Brad DeLong’s blog (which is very rewarding in and of itself). He has mentioned this book frequently and always admiringly on his blog, and with good reason. It is one of the very best introductory books you could ever hope to read.
But, and this is an important but, it is not the most accessible book you will read about economics. Even after multiple readings, I find the going slow, and not just because of the technical concepts in the book but because of how much thought and (if you’ll forgive a particularly poor way to phrase this) thought-provoking thought is packed into only one hundred and fifty odd pages.
In fact, in the post in which I alluded to this book for the first time, I mentioned that the entire book should not be read at one seating, or at one go. Brad DeLong, based on his blogs, would probably criticize me for saying so, but I stand by that recommendation. The prologue is magnificent reading, and the rest of the book even more so – but the prologue is a nice meandering walk up a gentle hill. The rest of the book is a trek in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. To be clear, that is a good thing! You should trek up the upper reaches of the Himalayas, but a little training might be in order first.
The rest of this post is in praise of the prologue, which, as I have mentioned is worth many times the price of admission. Partha Dasgupta talks about Becky and Desta, two little girls who are of the same age (more or less) but are separated by a) geography and b) economic circumstances.
The author describes the lives of the two little girls and how very different they are: what they do during a day, what their parents’ lives are like, where they live, how they are being educated, and ultimately, what kind of lives they are likely to lead in the future. And then, Partha Dasgupta asks two very simple, but urgent questions.
Why? Why are their lives so different? Is it because of the geography they find themselves in? Is it because of historical factors? Might past and present governments have a role to play in how different their lives are? Might the choices made by their parents be a factor?All of these at the same time, perhaps? Who can say?
Second: given that their circumstances are different, can we do anything to make sure that Desta gets a leg up in life? How can her circumstances be made better, while leaving Becky’s either the same or better (but certainly not worse)? In other words, what needs to change in terms of markets, policies, institutions and indeed beliefs, for meaningful, long-lasting and sustainable change to visit Desta’s life?
I shall be deliberately provocative: if pondering these questions does not excite you about learning more about economics, then nothing ever will. Strong words, but I stand by them.
Read the whole book (eventually), but read the prologue right now.