We make so many decisions every day. They may seem simple, instinctive or mechanical, but are they? Not just decisions, but even habits like drinking tea or biting your nails take time to become a part of your routine. It doesn’t just happen one fine day. It’s a slow process and it probably takes days or even months before it becomes a habit. But the question is, what really guides these decisions and habits?
Of course, there is a direct stimulus, to which we respond by choosing to act a certain way. But there’s more. Every idea, action and choice is guided by an inherent and underlying thought. It’s possible that a direct correlation does not exist, but somehow, this certain thought is impacting everything you do and you wouldn’t even realise it. This ‘thought’ can emerge as a consequence of something you read, heard or saw. However, I think the strongest impact is of those activities that we undertook as children.
Information we get as children become the foundation for most of our concepts. Through mimicking and observing, children manage to create a huge pool of information. This knowledge is retained for a very long time and in ways that it affects everything we do, directly or indirectly. For example, children with divorced parents have trouble in conduct, psychological adjustment, self-concept, and social relations.1
Additionally, children are usually taught using metaphors, so the shape of the earth is taught by showing a football. This gives children creative freedom to formulate their own opinions. In my view, learning through metaphors is the most brilliant way of learning. By comparing concepts to relatable and real scenarios, the prospects of children grasping high-level concepts are brighter.
When I thought of children, learning and metaphors together, the only person who came to my mind was Roald Dahl. He stands apart from other authors with his childish charm, quirky vocabulary and creative storylines. He literally made-up words for his books, some of which are now even a part of the Oxford Dictionary.
As someone who grew up reading Roald Dahl’s books, I wondered if they had impacted any big decision I had made or become an underlying thought I was unaware of. Dahl is credited to be a great author, comedian, diplomat and even pilot! But never, as an economist. When I re-read his books, I was able to see various economic concepts and ideas popping up. I am an Economics student, so my natural reaction was to think that my love for the subject stemmed from Dahl’s books. So, I dug deeper.
My all-time favourite, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was not just a story about the best chocolate factory and its peculiar owner anymore. I was able to draw out concepts we’ve been studying in textbooks easily. The book revolves around Charlie Bucket, a kind-hearted and poor boy in London. His father, who worked in a toothpaste factory, lost his job because a machine replaced his role in the factory. We have a full chapter dedicated to the impacts of shifting from labour-intensive to capital-intensive means of production in our books, and here, Dahl was able to explain it in just one paragraph. The emphasis laid down on the comfort of Oompa-Loompas (factory workers) shows the importance of preserving employee rights.
If we dig a bit deeper, we can see that this book also explains a lot indirectly. The novel is centred around the visit of five children to a chocolate factory. The respective characteristics of each child are actually symbolic of key concepts. Augustus Gloop, the kid who can eat an unlimited number of chocolates, highlights how consumers desire endless amounts of goods. Veruca Salt, the ‘rich-spoilt brat’ is the perfect symbol of extravagance and luxury. The over-competitive Violet Beauregarde, who wanted to be the best at everything, shows the highly competitive nature of the market. Mike Teavee, the ‘cool’ kid with all the technology and video games, shows the importance of development, innovation and technology in industries today. Lastly, Charlie Bucket, the ‘poor and kind’ boy indicates how the poor suffer at the cost of luxurious and conspicuous consumption.
Similarly, I read the BFG (Big Friendly Giant), only to find that it is, in a way, the story of every economy in the world. If we looked at all giants as firms in an economy, we can correlate the ‘giants who ate children’ to firms that exploit consumers and the ones that don’t to the firms that treat consumers fairly. The book ends with the Queen arresting all the ‘evil giants’. This is the perfect analogy for tools like price ceilings, price floors and taxation, methods used by the government (here, Queen), to protect consumers from unfair business practices.
Fantastic Mr. Fox is originally the story of a clever fox and all his efforts to feed his family. Instead of having an anthropomorphic fox, if we had a person instead, this would become the most relatable tale about survival. One must work hard and earn an income to be able to meet the basic necessities of life.
We always see Matilda to be a book about a girl who reads a lot, but something else stood out this time. Matilda’s father, Harry Wormwood, sells second-hand cars. This is a normal business, however, Mr. Wormwood is no normal businessman. He is a trickster and a fraud. He passes of junk as second-hand cars to his customers. Dahl has written about this in a humorous way but points out that it is wrong and illegal multiple times. Mr. Wormwood’s character is also shown in a negative light. A clear violation of consumer rights and disrespect for business ethics is highlighted in the book. In my view, learning about these things is also equally important. Always painting a rosy picture is not going to help anybody. Through characters and plot points like Mr. Wormwood’s business, Dahl also highlights the darker side of business and economics.
Lastly, Esio Trot, which is an adorable love story, explains the law of diminishing marginal utility perfectly. Mrs. Silver has a pet tortoise that doesn’t grow at all. Mr. Hoppy, her neighbour, keeps replacing the tortoise with a bigger one every day to make her happy. Initially, Mrs. Silver is delighted, but after a point, she doesn’t want her tortoise to grow further. We can say that she had reached her point of satiation. Seeing this, Mr. Hoppy starts replacing it with a smaller one instead, until Mrs. Silver is completely satisfied and reaches her maximum utility.
After re-reading these books, I hypothesize that I started loving Economics when I was just seven years old. Of course, back then, I didn’t know what economics was and his books don’t have definitions and graphs. But he was able to sow a seed in my mind that has grown into a big tree today. At the end of the day, it’s not about learning definitions and laws, but about registering ideas. If Roald Dahl can explain business ethics to a 7-year-old, even if indirectly, then it’s justified to call him an economist. In my view, this incidental learning is better than any lecture because it pushes one to think beyond the set confines of education and learning.
Roald Dahl is effectively my first economics professor and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Who’s yours?
By Vani Agarwal
1st year undergraduate student, Shri Ram College of Commerce