When Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Salvator Mundi sold for a stratospheric sum of $450.3 million in November 2017, the art world collectively gasped in giddy shock. But the sale also exposed an enormous disparity between the kind of person who could afford to spend so much…and almost everybody else. Professor Debraj Ray’s work focuses on disparities—not in the art world, but in the real world. As a development economist, he pursues questions of social inequality, the frictions of difference, and how cultural clashes shape or expose economic forces.
“Imagine there are several potential markers of difference in a culture,” he says. “Race, kinship, geography, religion. Which of these markers become salient in a country in conflict?” This is the question Professor Ray asked himself while working on a project that explores the economic foundations of ethnic violence. In countries characterized by deep inequality, the classes could square off against each other, the haves against the have-nots. In India, however, according to Ray, the halves fight among each other, and the have-nots do the same. “Conflicts are often in terms of like against like in terms of economic status,” Ray says. His 2014 article “Implications of an Economic Theory of Conflict: Hindu-Muslim Violence in India” (Journal of Political Economy) explored the marker of religion to understand both economic gains by two different and opposing cultures within India, and concurrent violence. Usually, when a group gets richer, they experience less inclination to violence. There is a growing unwillingness to risk a good life through aggressive acts. But it is also true that when a group’s incomes increase, an opposing group might want to take their gains.
Interestingly, when Muslims in India as a group experience gains, violence goes up. But are Indian Muslims the victims or the perpetrators of this violence? Ray and his co-author Anirban Mitra prove that when Indian Hindus make gains, violence goes down. Ray and Mitra present this interpretation: that violence in the wake of Muslim Indians’ gains points to Hindus as the perpetrators.
Ray also works on social aspirations: how they are formed and how they relate to decision making in an economic context. His 2017 paper co-authored with Garance Genicot, “Aspirations and Inequality” (Econometrica), observes that social aspiration can serve as an inspiration, but only if the gap between what one has and what one could have appears feasibly bridged. Should disparity grow, and that gap widen, aspiration can sour into resentment. Ray and Genicot focused specifically at the 2014 Indian general elections to illustrate this phenomenon. Although the incumbent party, United Progressive Alliance, had presided over great gains in India, they were routed in the 2014 election by the National Democratic Alliance. Why? Ray and Genicot argue that although India had experienced great gains (GDP per capita grew 7.6% per year during the time the United Progressive Alliance ruled), it had also experienced great disparity. Gains had been felt by few to the frustration of many. Instead of feeling inspired to climb the economic ladder, those people who believed that they had not shared in India’s gains became angry, resulting in the surprising rout of the party that had led India in a prosperous time.
Ray’s interest in how culture can shape decisions is rooted in a pivotal time of his personal and professional life: the moment he chose to become an economist. At sixteen years old, he originally planned to study physics. He was ready to leave his home city, Calcutta, for Chennai, where he had been accepted into the India Institute of Technology. But his girlfriend refused to go with him. Her parents, Ray said, had a profound effect on him. Their home was filled with books and back issues of The New Yorker. “If her mother played classical music you were not allowed even to speak,” he says. Never before had he considered the possibility that cultural works—art, literature, and music—could be used to interpret society and behavior. Ray chose to stay in Calcutta. He began then his study of economics and its interplay with culture, a journey that eventually led to a professorship at NYU, where he teaches both graduates and undergraduates. His greatest pleasure as a teacher, he says, is to see “just how far students can go.”