By Veeshan Rayamajhee, Assistant Professor
NDSU Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department
Some say his real name is Benjamin Rich, but I have not been able to verify that.
He has written a book under the pen name Arthur Chichester. On the internet, he goes by Bald and Bankrupt.
But his name is not what makes Mr. Bald interesting. He travels around the world recording one-to-one videos documenting his trips. However, hundreds, possibly thousands, of vloggers (people who regularly post short videos to a vlog, a personal website or social media account where people post the videos) are on the internet. So what is so special about Bald and Bankrupt?
Mr. Bald’s vlogs are not “Eat Pray Love” (a biographical romantic drama film) versions of a spiritual quest in the Hindu heartland of Varanasi or the slums of Mumbai, although his catchphrase, “Jai Bhole Ki” (Hindi for praise Lord Shiva), may make some believe so. Nor are they stuffed with political rants about the dysfunctional former Soviet Union governments in Belarus, Moldova, Georgia or Ukraine.
You will not see Mr. Bald in luxurious hotels, malls or fine establishments. Instead, he travels to places that most tourists would describe as mundane. His spontaneity and friendly demeanor draw people toward him.
What also helps is that he is somewhat of a polyglot. He speaks local languages fluently in most places he visits, with a few exceptions of Bolivia and Myanmar. He strikes interesting conversations with the locals and lets them tell their stories. As another Bald and Bankrupt follower describes, Mr. Bald makes an abandoned village seem more interesting than the downtown areas of large metropolitan cities.
Bald and Bankrupt’s YouTube channel is a treasure trove of economics ideas in action. Here are two important lessons for students of economics.
The Coordinating Role of Prices
In his latest vlog from Cuba, Mr. Bald walks you through government-owned shops that sell random things. You could buy Cuban shoes for a dollar or an ashtray for half a dollar, or you can buy knives for an undisclosed (possibly very cheap) price.
But beyond that, the shops don’t have much you can buy. Strangely enough, the shops have more people working in them (often just one or two) than the number of customers in the shops. Mr. Bald speculates why that may be the case.
“[These are] not really the things that people really want or the things that people need, just things that some factory has a surplus of,” he says.
On the other hand, queues have formed outside some other shops because some product that is usually hard to get has suddenly come on the market. He is not talking about some highly anticipated gadget that just got released, but just things such as toilet paper, meat or vegetables.
Now, compare that to the abundance of the Crawford Market in Mumbai: miles and miles of shops that sell chocolates, perfumes, vegetables or a hundred variety of spices, just to name a tiny subset of available things.
This week in my intermediate micro class, I am teaching production theory. One point I highlighted was that a firm will not invest in any additional inputs if that reduces net productivity. To use economics jargon, in the presence of price signals, a profit-maximizing firm in a competitive market setting will not invest in inputs (labor or capital) if that does not increase net productivity.
If price signals were allowed to work, the empty Cuban shops would not invest in additional shelves or expand their inventories or hire workers because none of those investments produce anything of value. Instead, investments would be directed toward the production and provision of goods and services that people are standing in queues to purchase.
Human Ingenuity and Resilience
Another recurring theme in Mr. Bald’s travels is the ubiquity of human ingenuity and resilience in the face of hardship. Consider the Sisyphean fate of Ajaykumar, whom Mr. Bald describes as “the food cart pusher of Ladakh.” Ajaykumar pushes his panipuri cart 10 kilometers uphill (and back) every day in the high-altitude Ladakh territory along the India-Tibet border just so that he can find a market for his product.
Equally awe-inspiring are the formidable Indian truckers who drive in the harshest conditions to keep the wheels of the economy rolling.
Mr. Bald asks about these underappreciated heroes: “Do they lavish the truckers with the praise and offerings that they deserve for keeping the nation’s shops and markets full of fresh supplies?”
Then we have this Cuban man who built this “el loco” car to get around the city. And the vibrancy and entrepreneurial drive in the Dharavi slums of Mumbai forces us to question our priorities.
The ubiquity of immense entrepreneurial potential and resilience that one finds among people Mr. Bald meets in his journeys should make one wonder: What are the institutions that can unleash this underappreciated human ingenuity in these less-developed parts of the world?