Economists On Screen, Episode 4: Stockholm : The Indicator from Planet Money The miniseries Stockholm tells the story of a group of friends, one of whom is a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize in economics. But there's a problem: he's dead.
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Economists On Screen, Episode 4: Stockholm

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Economists On Screen, Episode 4: Stockholm

Economists On Screen, Episode 4: Stockholm

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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today on the show, part four of our series about economists on screen. A miniseries called "Stockholm" premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival. In its very first scenes, we learn that a famous Israeli economist named Avishai is a frontrunner to win the Nobel Prize in economics in just five days.

But there's one problem. His friends just found Avishai dead at home in his bed in Tel Aviv. But there's a rule that you can't win the Nobel Prize in economics unless you are alive when the award is announced. So his friends, who are all roughly his age in their 60s and 70s, try to prevent other people from learning that he's dead for the five days before the announcement so that he can still win the prize.

After the break, my conversation with Noa Yedlin, the Israeli author of the novel on which the miniseries is based and who also co-wrote the screenplay for the series. She joins us from TLV1 Radio studios in Tel Aviv.

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GARCIA: All right. Noa, what brought you to economics in the first place? Why did you start talking to economists?

NOA YEDLIN: Well, I didn't know that it's going to be economics at the first place. You know, there's many areas in which you can win a Nobel Prize.

GARCIA: Yes.

YEDLIN: I could have chosen literature and made my life a lot easier.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

YEDLIN: But I was looking for a subject which, on one hand, is considered the hardcore of academy, like chemistry and like other subjects. But on the other hand, it's something that has a story in it, that I can tell a story. And economy tells a story. So the story enables me also to have some relation to the story I'm telling as the artist, as the person writing the novel. I had to make it so that the field in which he's specializing, which is a field that I invented, would be something that would relate to the theme of the novel or to the theme of the series.

GARCIA: Yeah, it's very interesting. And the field that you're referring to that you invented is power economics. So why don't you give us your own conception of power economics and what it means to this character?

YEDLIN: This theory tries to predict power changes inside firms and big organizations. And what he claims is that actually the very high end of the pyramid is the one that is always suffering first because the high - very high end of the pyramid will be completely eliminated from the firm, and the people who are the lower class under the CEO or under the next level are safer.

GARCIA: So the idea being that it's very volatile at the top. You're constantly in danger. Whereas, if you're a - sort of a mid-ranking manager, you might have a stable job for quite a while. Although, I should say this contrasts quite starkly with the experiences of another character, Amos, the one who's not dead and trying to help preserve Avishai's body. Amos is a happiness economist. It comes out as the series goes on that he harbors quite a lot of professional jealousy towards Avishai even after Avishai is dead.

YEDLIN: Yeah, so he's very jealous. And it's a jealousy that he harbors for decades now because they both started the same year at the same faculty in the university. And his happiness economy - by the way, his theory...

GARCIA: Just the idea that happiness is correlated with uncertainty.

YEDLIN: Yeah.

GARCIA: So higher rates of uncertainty lead to higher rates of happiness, as it was presented in the series.

YEDLIN: Yeah, that's true. So both theories relate very closely to the characters, to the plot. It was important to me that if I'm working and putting a whole theory in a book, then I thought it - it's crucial that it will have some relationship with the dynamics between the people, between the characters, with the things that go about. And...

GARCIA: Can I ask you a question about the centrality of awards and recognition in the series? Because, obviously, at the very center of the series is this idea of the Nobel Prize and the way it bestows upon somebody that kind of everlasting fame, which of course is of no use to the person who is already (laughter) dead. It is a thing that the friends say they're doing for him. But you get the sense as time goes on and the series goes on that they're doing it for themselves and that maybe they don't even know after a certain amount of time.

YEDLIN: People so often talk of what it's like to be a friend in time of need, you know, in a time of illness, of death, of distress. And they talk about it because it's a very nice thing to talk about. It's very pleasant to speak of how we are good friends. But they rarely speak of what it's like to be a friend at time of success. It's the other end of the rope. You can't say anything but, I'm happy for my successful friend. Anything else is unsayable. It's unthinkable.

And then I started thinking about this and about being a friend in time of success. And I started thinking of what can represent success in the most even, I would say, brutal way. Nobel Prize are kind of the symbols of the Western world. Nobel Prize is like God came down. He said, this person is successful. That's my decision. Bye-bye. I'm going back up. And all this discussion, this philosophical discussion, about what success really is and who decides who's successful and who's not and all this relativism, the Nobel Prize puts an end to this discussion.

And I started thinking, what's happening when the spotlight is so powerful that it necessarily lights the people around you as well? It lights them, and they find themselves in the spotlight. But it's not there for them. And because the Nobel Prize is also something that you usually win at kind of an advanced age and not at - when you're 25, then this necessarily relates also to the biggest questions in life, like what have I achieved? And, OK, I'm 70 now. Have I done what I wanted to do? Do I have time to correct, to change?

All these questions about where am I standing in comparison to other people, these questions that are just normal, it doesn't make you a miserable person. It just makes you a person. And I thought these are such interesting questions.

GARCIA: It seems like it would actually be twice as hard to get over feelings of jealousy like this, especially for a friend, because on the one hand, it is a natural human impulse to feel envy. I think we all experience that at some point. Somebody has figured it out, and we wish we could be them. And that is an uncomfortable feeling on its own. But then you couple that with the guilt over having that feeling because, societally, I think the message is if somebody you care about is doing well, you should be happy for them.

YEDLIN: I can tell you that when I was writing the novel, there were moments of writing that I was a bit afraid. I was thinking, you know, people would read it. And I can call him Amos and Avishai all I want, but my name is on the cover. And I may come out of this as just this horrible, disgusting person. And, you know, people would read it and say, what is she talking about? I have never felt these emotions.

But then I reminded myself of something that I learned during my writing years and which may be the most important thing that I learned, and that is that I'm unfortunately not a unique enough person to be the first ever that has felt anything. If - and I know that if I felt anything ever, then millions of - billions of other people felt the same way. And when they would read it or watch it on screen, they would say, wow, I'm so relieved that I'm not alone with my unelegant (ph) and sometimes a bit petty and disgusting thoughts.

GARCIA: Yeah.

YEDLIN: And I think this is the power of art, that it gives us company to our weaknesses. That's the wonderful thing about art.

GARCIA: Thank you so much for doing this, Noa. This was a blast.

YEDLIN: Thank you so much for having me.

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GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan and edited by Paddy Hirsch. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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