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An economic take on modern realities

Updated: 2024-05-16 07:15 ( China Daily )
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Xue Zhaofeng, economist and producer of a recent documentary, Economics Unbound, records his experience helping ordinary people decipher economic problems. [Photo provided to China Daily]

As Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith once famously said: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages." That insight still resonates powerfully in today's ever-changing world, according to scholar Xue Zhaofeng.

The economist, who previously worked at Peking University and who has appeared on programs as a guest on talk shows like Qipa Shuo (U Can U Bibi) and the reality show Super Brain, recently produced a documentary titled Economics Unbound.

In it, Xue travels to various cities including Yiwu and Hengdian in Zhejiang province, Beijing, and Dali in Yunnan province, to talk to ordinary people of different ages and from different backgrounds.

He helps them decipher real-life problems from an economic perspective, in the process exposing viewers to rational economic understanding and logical thinking.

"I want to present universal and personally relevant issues through different characters and stories in real-life settings. People usually think economics is about math, accounting or stock trading, but it is actually about choices. Everyone is connected to economics," says Xue.

In the first episode, Xue visits a young couple who originally worked for an internet company but later chose to start a business in Yiwu.

They gave up their high-paying jobs and started selling Chinese New Year paintings and couplets via e-commerce livestreaming in the hopes of succeeding in Yiwu, the world's largest small commodity wholesale market. However, the harsh reality was that they were only making a daily income of 200 yuan ($27.6).

After listening to their story, Xue offered the couple advice from an economic perspective while explaining economic principles such as cost efficiency, entrepreneurial factors, business rules and competitive dilemmas to them and by extension, to the audience.

"The so-called 'window of opportunity' in the market has changed over the years. But what really matters when people are making decisions remains unchanged. Ultimately, economics is the study of human nature. What do you want? How can you get what you want? How can we apply human nature to a changing environment? This is very intriguing. Actually, what I really care about are the things that remain unchanged," explains Xue.

Artificial intelligence has become a window of opportunity for many people today.

In one episode, Xue visits Lin Youjiang, a former freelance painter who felt that AI was depriving him of job opportunities.

In February last year, a client sent Lin AI-generated images for retouching. He was reluctant. On one hand, he did not want to do retouching work because creating and retouching are different. On the other hand, while he could get 8,000 to 10,000 yuan for drawing a picture, he was only offered 2,000 yuan for the retouching.

"The client thought the image had already been generated, so I just needed to do some simple retouching, and they pushed their offer down," Lin explains.

Feeling that the emergence of AI will leave less and less space for artists, for Lin, the future seemed bleak.

After a frank conversation, Xue realized that Lin had not fully understood the future development of AI.

"Once part of his work had been replaced by AI, he did not realize that he needed to work on other parts in order to succeed. When you are faced with new changes, you can embrace and make use of them," says Xue. He took Lin to visit a computer graphic artist, a film and television company that uses AI tools to produce film and television program, and the initiator of a talk show generated by AI, all of whom actively embrace the changes brought about by the technology.

Xue set up an experiment, tasking Lin with drawing a picture on a predetermined theme. At the same time, he described the picture from the perspective of an economist and used AI to generate it. The film director described a picture from the perspective of making films and also used AI to generate it. Finally, the three pictures were compared. Lin's hand-drawing was undoubtedly the most emotionally expressive. The experiment gave Lin fresh confidence for the future.

"Your market value is not a self-perceived value. By discovering the needs of users and providing things others need, your value will increase. This is an eternal truth," says Xue.

He reiterates the applicability of Smith's quote to the present.

"To get what we want, we must anticipate what others want. The most stable job in the world is a job that contributes to others."

Xue believes that in the AI era, a person's ability to learn, communicate, make judgments, be more reliable, seize opportunities, deal with setbacks, and to reflect are particularly important.

The documentary aired on the video-sharing platform Youku.

Han Yun, director of Youku's documentary center, explains why they chose to work with Xue on the documentary.

"We wanted to convey a fresh perspective and viewpoint. The aim of our program was to focus on topics that are of common concern to young people today, to inspire them with insights that could help guide their real-life experience," says Han.

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