Economists On Screen, Episode 1: Crazy Rich Asians : The Indicator from Planet Money Explaining the game theory in the plot of the movie Crazy Rich Asians.
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Economists On Screen, Episode 1: Crazy Rich Asians

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Economists On Screen, Episode 1: Crazy Rich Asians

Economists On Screen, Episode 1: Crazy Rich Asians

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Hey, everyone. Today we are starting a series that we are calling Economists on Screen. You might be thinking - very short series. But in fact, you'd be wrong because all this week, we are looking at the ways in which economists are portrayed in television series and in the movies. And we promise you, they are there.


And on today's episode, we are looking at "Crazy Rich Asians," the big hit movie released earlier this year. And spoiler alert - we are going to reveal some major plot details in this episode. You've been warned. Go away now if you don't want to hear them.

VANEK SMITH: So "Crazy Rich Asians" is a movie about a Chinese-American economist from New York named Rachel Chu. And she visits Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young. And in Singapore, Rachel meets Nick's crazy rich Singaporean family.

GARCIA: Including Eleanor, Nick's mother, who does not approve of Rachel because Eleanor wants her son Nick to move back home to Singapore, take over the family business and marry a wife from another rich Asian family who will prioritize raising a family, not focus on her own career the way Rachel does.

VANEK SMITH: Michelle Yeoh - whole movie worth seeing just for her.

GARCIA: So good.

VANEK SMITH: In the movie, Rachel went to graduate school at Northwestern, teaches game theory at New York University. And her boyfriend Nick, who eventually becomes her fiance - we alerted about the spoiler - is a history professor. Well, guess what. We found an economist who went to graduate school at Northwestern, taught game theory at NYU and married a history professor. This mystical man is named Michael Chwe. He now teaches at UCLA.

GARCIA: Yeah, he was very chill about this. I was freaked out, though.

VANEK SMITH: I'm freaked out.

GARCIA: I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today on the show, we talk to Michael about the portrayal of Rachel as a game theory economist and about the intriguing game theory that is woven into the plot itself of "Crazy Rich Asians."


CHERYL K: (Singing in Chinese).

VANEK SMITH: At the very beginning of "Crazy Rich Asians," there is this scene in which economist Rachel Chu is teaching game theory to her class at NYU. In the front of the classroom, she is playing a game of poker with her teaching assistant, this guy named Curtis. And she bets all of her chips on one hand. And Curtis is afraid to do the same, so he folds and Rachel wins the hand. And then she reveals that she won by bluffing. She didn't have very good cards. She had bad cards. Here is what happened next.


CONSTANCE WU: (As Rachel Chu) Well, I know for a fact that Curtis is cheap. So he's not playing using logic or math but using his psychology. Our brains so hate the idea of losing something that's valuable to us that we abandon all rational thought and make some really poor decisions. So Curtis wasn't playing to win. He was playing not to lose. Here. Put it towards a haircut.

GARCIA: We asked Michael Chwe, the game theory professor at UCLA, what he thought about that scene. He says that demonstration from Rachel was not something he personally would do. Like, for one thing, he would not humiliate the poor teaching assistant like that. But the more Michael thought about it, the more he saw that, yeah, there were game theory lessons in that scene.

MICHAEL CHWE: By raising - by going all in - she puts all her chips in - she's basically making Curtis choose between a big win or a big loss. Right? So like, if Curtis accepts, you know, and also goes all in, then Curtis will either win big or lose a lot. Right? So instead, Curtis doesn't think that way. Curtis refuses that kind of extreme high or extreme low and decides to just go - you know, stick with what he has and fold.

VANEK SMITH: Game theory is the study of how one person's choice affects the series of choices that another person has. So in this case, Rachel's choice to bet all of her chips affected Curtis' series of choices about how to respond. But the really interesting thing about this scene is how it foreshadowed the game theory in the main plot of the movie.

GARCIA: And that main plot was the showdown between Rachel and Nick's mother, Eleanor. So in Singapore, there's this amazingly intense scene in which Eleanor's telling Rachel about her own past struggle to marry into the Young family. And then Eleanor drops an emotional Megatron bomb on Rachel.


MICHELLE YEOH: (As Eleanor Young) I had no idea the work and the sacrifice it would take. There were many days when I wondered if I would ever measure up. But having been through it all, I know this much. You will never be enough.


GARCIA: Oof - God.

VANEK SMITH: It was crushing.

GARCIA: Yeah, I don't know how I would have responded myself. This is the equivalent of Eleanor betting everything, going all in and saying to Rachel - you are not good enough for my son. You care too much about your career and not enough about family, and I'm going to win this showdown. You're going to lose everything, so you should just fold. But Eleanor miscalculated. And in fact, Michael was not impressed at all by this. He says Eleanor is kind of a bad game theorist because she does not try to get inside of Rachel's head. She doesn't realize how her own choice will affect Rachel's series of choices.

CHWE: If you're Eleanor and you go after in such an aggressive way toward Rachel, then you should think about the blowback. But she doesn't think about that, right? She doesn't think about what Rachel will do in response.

VANEK SMITH: Because Rachel is tough, she does not fold. And Rachel's initial response is that she should bet everything, too - go all in herself, not back down and try to get Nick for herself.


WU: (As Rachel Chu) Yeah. She's, like, trying to play a game of chicken with me where she's, like, coming at me and, like, thinking I'm going to swerve like a chicken.

AWKWAFINA: (As Peik Lin Goh) But you can't swerve.

WU: (As Rachel Chu) I'm not going to swerve, not for her.

VANEK SMITH: But then, after a couple of dramatic turns in the plot, Rachel realizes something - something that Eleanor has not realized.

GARCIA: And to understand what that is, we need to listen to a final clip near the end of the movie. And in this scene, Rachel has just told Eleanor that Nick had proposed to marry her. Eleanor is stunned. And then Rachel says that she turned him down. Eleanor is again stunned.


YEOH: (As Eleanor Young) Only a fool folds a winning hand.

WU: (As Rachel Chu) There's no winning. You made sure of that. Because if Nick chose me, he would lose his family. And if he chose his family, he might spend the rest of his life resenting you.

GARCIA: What Rachel has realized is that her standoff with Eleanor is different from the card game. See, in the card game, if both players bet all they have, one player will win everything, and one player will lose everything. But that's not the case here. If both Eleanor and Rachel stay entrenched in their full antagonism towards each other - fighting to keep Nick for themselves - then neither of them is going to win everything. Either Rachel marries an unhappy Nick who lost his family, or Eleanor gets an unhappy Nick who lost the love of his life.

VANEK SMITH: The only way both for Rachel to stay with Nick and for Eleanor to have a son who doesn't resent her is if Eleanor gives her blessing for them to be together. Rachel sees this clearly, but Rachel also needs Eleanor to see it. And the only way that could happen was if Rachel turned down Nick's proposal and then made it clear that she had turned him down because she cares so much about him that she doesn't want him to lose his family, therefore proving to Eleanor that she does care about family after all. So in this case, folding was the winning strategy.

GARCIA: All that said, like, there was something a little annoying about the ending. And it's like, what about Rachel's career?

VANEK SMITH: That's true.

GARCIA: Like, I get she's marrying a happy Nick. But she was also signaling to Eleanor that she'd be prioritizing Nick's family. And I'm just curious to know what that means for, like, Rachel's career as a game theorist. Like, did that ending mean that eventually they were, in fact, going to move to Singapore so that Nick can run the family business? And also, by the way, like, why didn't Nick prepare Rachel for the game theoretical buzz saw that was, like, waiting for her in Singapore?

VANEK SMITH: Wait. That was unbelievable.

GARCIA: Not cool, bro.

VANEK SMITH: Like, how did he let her walk into this, like, piranha pit without saying anything?

GARCIA: Exactly.

VANEK SMITH: Just like, oh yeah, my family, you know - I mean, I guess - listen. They're, like, kajillionaires (ph). So maybe they'll just buy a university, and Rachel can teach in it.

GARCIA: Still, it was kind of annoying. So like, I ran...

VANEK SMITH: Hundred percent.

GARCIA: Yeah. I ran that...


GARCIA: I ran that theory by Michael Chwe. And actually, he said he thinks Rachel's going to be just fine - and not just because she's marrying into a family of billionaires or whatever.

VANEK SMITH: Kajillionaires.

CHWE: I'm not as worried about Rachel, maybe, as you are because...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

CHWE: ...I feel like she's shown - you know, part of that scene is to show Eleanor, you know, I'm good at this, you know? And so I think she totally has the resources, the wherewithal and cleverness and strategic thinking to be able to negotiate well in the future, too.

VANEK SMITH: That's right. Game theorists can win. That's what they do.

GARCIA: We'll see in the sequel.

VANEK SMITH: Our winning producer is Darius Rafieyan. Our winning editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is produced by NPR.

GARCIA: A big shout-out to Peter Lorentzen at the University of San Francisco economics department for putting together a list of economists onscreen that inspired this very series. In an earlier version of this episode, we thanked the wrong university. We regret the mistake. It is the University of San Francisco.

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