How good an economist is Rachel Chu in “Crazy Rich Asians”?

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The release of the new movie Crazy Rich Asians this weekend, featuring an all-Asian cast, is an important milestone for people who care about diversity in pop culture. As a recent Vanity Fair headline declares, it could be a “watershed moment for Asian representation in Hollywood.”

It’s also a noteworthy moment for a much smaller and less important group: economists.

At the center of the movie, adapted from Kevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel, is Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economist who teaches at New York University. Much of the plot is centered on the tension between Rachel—who discovers that her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, is the scion of one of Singapore’s richest families—and the Young family, who fears that she is a gold-digger. Nicholas is quick to dismiss such concerns. “She may be be an economist,” Nicholas declares of Rachel in the book, “but she’s the least materialistic person I know.”

As a near-economist myself—I have a Master’s, while Rachel has a PhD—I found the choice to make Rachel an economist an intriguing and peculiar choice. Economists are rarely represented in books and film. In fact, I can’t readily think of any other examples. That’s why, although Kwan’s thoroughly enjoyable Crazy Rich Asians is fully of juicy subplots, my attention kept wandering back to Rachel’s professional life in New York. I was happy that economists were finally getting their moment in the pop-culture sun. But was Rachel Chu good at her job?

Here’s my analysis, based entirely on evidence from the first book in Kwan’s trilogy. (I haven’t read the other two books or seen the movie—yet.)

Signs that Rachel Chu is, indeed, a good economist

  • Rachel has an exemplary academic background. As an undergraduate, she went to Stanford University, ranked the third-best school by US News and World Report for studying economics and business. (Some people can’t be satisfied: Nicholas’s mom is disappointed Rachel didn’t go to Harvard.) For her PhD, Rachel attended Northwestern University, another top-ranked school for economics.
  • Rachel is a professor at New York University, which also has one of the best economics department in the world. In one of the few mentions of her work in the book, a minor character says she had a discussion with Rachel about the “importance of micro-lending in sub-Saharan Africa.” Another person notes that her specialty is economic development. Perhaps Rachel joined NYU to collaborate with noted micro-lending expert Jonathan Morduch.
  • Throughout the book, other characters refer to Rachel as “smart,” “analytical,” and “accomplished.” All good signs of Rachel’s quality as an academic.
  • Rachel is a woman in a field that’s dominated by men. Less than one-third of economics PhD students are women, and a recent analysis of a prominent economics jobs site laid bare the misogyny faced by women in the field (paywall). Rachel’s ability to succeed despite this toxic environment suggests she has to be very good at her job.

Signs that Rachel Chu may, in fact, not be such a good economist

  • The main reason to suspect that Rachel is not a very good economist is that she never really says anything analytical or intelligent in the book. She spends most of her time in shock about the wealth of her boyfriend’s family, and taking in the splendor of her surroundings. She displays little insight about her experiences, and isn’t particularly witty. I know a number of successful development economists, and they are a thoughtful bunch of people who enjoy discussing their work. Rachel does not remind me of them.
  • Crazy Rich Asians takes place over a summer when Rachel is not teaching. Nicholas suggests that she vacation with him in Asia over the period since she had the time off. Given that Rachel does not yet have tenure, it is shocking that she would take off for an entire summer without spending at least some time on her research. Her choice is not indicative of a very dedicated researcher.

Still, my verdict is that—based on the evidence we have—Rachel is almost certainly a good economist. I doubt she is on her way to a John Bates Clark Medal, but her credentials are far too strong for her not to be at least solid in her field. Sure, her conversations in the book tend to be a bit vapid. But I’ll assume that she has some very smart stuff to say that just didn’t make it into the book.