The Very Short Introductions series of Oxford University Press provides succinct introductions to more subjects than a person can reasonably hope to know. Parath Dasgupta offers a brief, pointed look at Economics in this 2007 volume in the series. Dasgupta is the Frank Ramsey Professor of Economics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge. Dasgupta was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his work in economics and has written many important books and studies.
"A little learning is a dangerous thing"; and a "very short introduction" does not have to be easy. Dasgupta's book is not written "for dummies" and it does not present its subject in the manner of an introductory textbook. Instead, Dasgupta offers the lay reader an example of how economists define problems and issues and try to solve them. In other words, the book offers the reader an example of how to "think like an economist". This gives the book a dense character. Dasgupta develops his own way of approaching and his position of questions of economics, neither of which might be fully shared by all members of his profession.
At the outset, Dasgupta makes two broad worth noting. First, he ties in economics with politics and, especially with ethics. Unlike some scientists who might try to minimize ethical, philosophical questions, Dasgupta is quite clear that ethical commitments are a driving force behind economics and politics. The second point involves Dasgupta's approach to economic questions. He rejects a historical, "narrative" approach because of the difficulty of supporting one proposed "narrative" over another. Dasgupta's approach is heavily analytical and quantitative, relying on mathematical modeling, statistics, and game theory. He tries to identify and weigh the factors involved in economic growth.
The material is daunting, but Dasgupta presents it well, if briefly. He enlivens his account by telling a story. Dasgupta introduces the reader to two fictitious girls, , Becky, 10, who lives with her parents in the American Midwest and Desta, 10, who lives with her family in a village in tropical southwest Ethiopia. Becky's father is a successful attorney in a law firm while Desta's father is a subsistence farmer on a small plot. The family is heavily involved in the farming. Becky's family is prosperous, and she has dreams of excelling in school and becoming a doctor. Desta lives at subsistence level. She knows she will marry at a young age at the behest of her parents and be expected to continue in essentially the same harsh life in which she was raised.
Dasgupta tries to show why the circumstances in which Becky and Desta find themselves differ so markedly. He writes: "Economics in great measure tries to uncover the processes that influence how people's lives come to be what they are. The discipline also tries to identify ways to influence these processes so as to improve the prospects of those who are hugely constrained in what they can be and do. The former activity involves finding explanations, while the latter tries to identify policy prescriptions. Economists also make forecasts of what the conditions of economic life are going to be; but if the predictions are to be taken seriously, they have to be built on an understanding of the processes that shape people's lives; which is why the attempt to explain takes precedence over forecasting."
Dasgupta examines the economic factors that shape Becky's and Desta's lives in a series of chapters that include local, national, and international considerations. He begins with the concept of "trust" in economic activities between people which he develops using game theory modeling. In subsequent chapters, he considers communities, markets and households, trying to develop and explain factors common to both the United States and the Ethiopian village. He presents an important chapter on science and technology and on the institutional structures which allow their development. The book becomes broader in scope and probably more controversial in the latter chapters as Dasgupta describes hidden environmental costs, human capital, and natural resources such as air, water, and the ocean fishery in ways that the author claims are not usually followed by other economists. He discusses inequities in the distribution of wealth between the two countries he considers in addition to growing disparities between rich and poor in the United States and other developed nations. He also tries to tie economics in to politics and to the structure of government, based on the virtues of democracy and majority rule.
The book shows an economist thinking and practicing his discipline in a way a lay reader can, with effort, understand rather than offering an overview. The book helped me understand how an economist works. Dasgupta helped me see different ways of thinking about important matters, which is a worthwhile accomplishment and the goal of a "very short introduction".