What It's Like to Win the Nobel Prize

The Benchmark podcast hosts Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics this week.

Angus Deaton, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

When Nobel Prize winners receive the phone call informing them of their award, a typical response is disbelief. Some new laureates wonder whether it's a prank.

When the award committee came calling at 6:10 a.m. on Monday, that wasn't a question Angus Deaton had. At least not until they put his friend and fellow economist Torsten Persson, the panel's secretary, on the line. 

"Torsten Persson said, 'This is not a prank,' and I thought, 'I never thought it was a prank, why is he telling me that? He's messing with my head,'" Deaton said, laughing.  The 69-year-old, who became the newest Nobel laureate for economics, is this week's guest on the Bloomberg Benchmark podcast.

Deaton, a Scottish-born economist who also holds American citizenship, has described measurement as being at the center of what he does. His work has looked at household spending habits to help calculate consumption and poverty, while other research has focused on development in poor countries and the measurement of happiness.

"My work on happiness is the only thing I've ever done where I've heard people in the supermarket talking about it, for instance," he said. "There was an episode of 'Orange Is the New Black' where they talked about it." 

Deaton found that a person's emotional life depends on having the freedom not to worry about money. His humble beginnings add color to his views.

"I grew up pretty poor—not poor compared with people in India or Africa who are really poor, but poor enough so that the worry about money really cast a pall over your life, a lot of the time," he said.

His book "The Great Escape" was published in 2013, and it examined the origins of inequality throughout almost three centuries. It was followed a year later by Thomas Piketty's book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," which turned the subject of inequality into household conversation.

While he's not yet been contacted by any U.S. presidential candidates—"thank goodness for that''—the ubiquity of the topic is "terrific," Deaton said. "I'm very keen that we have this debate about the good parts of inequality and the bad parts of inequality. It's not a one-sided thing."

Deaton said he's heartened by the reduction in global poverty he's witnessed over the past few decades. The World Bank said Oct. 4 that about 9.6 percent of the global population will live on less than $1.90 a day this year, a record low and a remarkable decrease from 37.1 percent in 1990.

"It's the most wonderful thing about the world over the last 30 years," Deaton said. Yet even those improvements still leave about 700 million people living in "something pretty close to total destitution."

"There's a lot to be done," he said. 

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