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BPR Interviews: Roberto Serrano

Professor Roberto Serrano is currently a Harrison S. Kravis University Professor of Economics at Brown University. He has made contributions to several areas, including implementation theory and mechanism design, bargaining theory, the economics of risk, uncertainty and information, and the theory of general economic equilibrium. Serrano is the author of two widely circulated textbooks, including the one that Brown economics concentrators use for Microeconomics, and he is loved by many of students for his enthusiasm, clarity, and humor in class.

What was your educational experience like as an adolescent, college student, and graduate school student?

I don’t really have anything interesting to report about my adolescence because I was sighted. I lost my sight at the age of 17, basically when I was transitioning into college in my hometown at the Complutense University of Madrid. I had to learn Braille to adapt to the situation. In the mornings, I would go to classes, and then in the afternoon, I would transcribe and organize my notes which were really very hard to decipher because I wasn’t really seeing what I was writing.

My father retired early from his job for different reasons, but one of them was to spend time helping me every day. Every afternoon, he would sit down with me and try to decipher my notes, and then I would transcribe them into Braille. But, things became harder and harder on him because I began taking higher-level math courses. I would take notes on these weird formulas and he wouldn’t understand anything he was reading. And yet he still helped fantastically — so much so that, in my last year as a student there, one of the professors asked me, “so how do you do this?” And I explained what was going on with my father and the professors said, “Wow, this university should issue two degrees, one for you and one for your father. Just to be fair.”

It was really nice and touching that a few years later, actually, the university gave him an honorary diploma. He kept the plaque in his nursing home until the day he died which was last year. He was very proud of that plaque and the work that he put into it. Now, I have it. And, I’m obviously very proud to keep that plaque.

When I moved to the U.S. for graduate school, I obviously didn’t come with my father or my friends. I came here by myself. So, I started to tape the lectures with a tape recorder. I would listen to the tape in my dorm or in my apartment, and, again, write them in Braille. For the rest, I received support from friends and classmates. For example, at Harvard, the support that I was getting from the university was not really great, so my classmates in my first-year class organized teams of volunteers to tape papers for me. And, of course, I thanked them in my PhD dissertation for being so incredibly generous with their time in order to support my academic needs.

How is that you are able to do math without writing out equations or observing what you have written?

One of my math professors in school told me “You get the right answers probably because you don’t rely on pictures.” And I responded, “That’s right. I try to just understand the concept and the definition more abstractly.” Sometimes I wonder whether we should tell students not to use their eyes because they’re going to be better off. But, obviously, having your sight is a very important thing. You just want to keep in mind that, sometimes, it may fool you. It may mislead you to overly rely on your visual intuitions. Also, I always had a good sense of abstract and mathematical reasoning.

Was it more difficult to understand concepts and proofs when you first lost your sight?

If you want to understand something really well, some hard work is required. A superficial study of something typically is not going to take you very far because you’re going to forget after a week. That’s why I tell students: “Don’t study for my exam the day before because, first of all, that’s probably not going to help you much in the exam. But, more importantly, I care that you learn properly.” Learning is hard. And, just like every other student, I had a harder time with certain concepts and had to work harder on them but, that’s when you get to learn.

When you teach, do you memorize everything on the slide for the day? How do you do that? What about extensive tables and diagrams?

I’ve always had a very good memory. Right before class, I take a look at the notes that I’m supposed to teach so that I can teach from recollection. If needed, I add comments with respect to what appears on the slides. The key is that you understand and present the point of a table.  You don’t have to memorize all the numbers in the table.

You are famous for sharing funny stories and jokes among students. Is there a funny story that you would be willing to share with us that students have enjoyed in the past?

Sometimes, something funny may happen in the middle of the lecture. And then I try to make fun of that. During one lecture, I remember there was some issue with a T.A. going too fast with showing slides. So, we had to go back, back and forth, back and forth. And at some point, I wasn’t sure exactly where we were going.

I stopped the class for a moment and said, oh, this reminds me of this story of a person in a car. Some other guy walks by and the guy in the car says, “Hey, could you please help me for a minute?” “Yeah, sure.” “Look, could you tell me if my turn indicator works?” “Sure. Sure.” So, the guy gets in the back of the car and says, “Now it does. Now it doesn’t. Now it does. Now it doesn’t.”

You make students email you about how the class content applies in their lives? Why do you do that?

Because I like to get feedback from students. I think it’s important for communication in the class to go in both directions, not only from the professor to the students but also from students to the professor. Of course, I get the standard course evaluations at the end of the course. And those are very useful in improving my teaching. But, beyond that, I think it’s important for students to reflect on how what they learn in the course may actually help them in their lives. I value this simple but personal input that can be anything. For example, one student told me that the class was very useful for helping their dad on a project. Some other student wrote about applying economic theory concepts to resolving conflicts with roommates. It makes the whole teaching experience more personal, and I do care for my students. Ideally, I would like to spend more time with each student. But, of course, when you have many students, that’s just not feasible. But given that’s not feasible, at least this is a way to let them know that your life experience matters to me.  Essentially, I do this hoping to encourage my students to think that they’re not taking classes just because they need to graduate.

You research and teach economic theory. What is economic theory? How does it have connections to the world and society? 

Economics is about trying to understand how people, consumers, firms and governments make different decisions for their everyday lives. When these decisions are made, we want to understand their implications, and, in particular, how they relate to the well-being of society. So, for example, there are some very important results in economic theory — what we call the fundamental theorems of welfare economics — which relate how competitive markets interact with the property of efficiency.

Efficiency has to do with society producing a pie that is as big as possible. But then, of course, another important question is how you’re going to distribute that among different people in society. And, that gets you into all kinds of evaluations of policy. Should we have tax cuts or should we instead worry about improving the healthcare market? These things have answers. What I always find interesting is that being a mathematically minded person, you can formalize these concepts very rigorously, very carefully, using nice mathematical models. Theorems are not just irrelevant abstractions. These models and theorems convey insight on concepts of efficiency, concepts of fairness, better distribution of wealth, inequality, et cetera, et cetera.

Some people say that economists do not properly understand how society works but obsess over prices and market mechanisms. What would you say to that?

Economists are sometimes criticized because we tend to have a view of the world that perhaps is more critical. There are other disciplines that accuse Economics of being the dismal science, the science that emphasizes the dark and gloomy side of things. But, I think that’s an exaggeration. I don’t think we economists are always going to be these pessimists. We may remind you of the dark side of things, but at the same time, I think it’s important to remind people that if you want to make good decisions at the public level, you need to pay attention to constraints. You cannot ignore the constraints. Sometimes, bad politicians and certain populist politicians promise things that just cannot be done and that are not feasible. And, the role of a good economist is to say, “Look, you may promise that, but it’s just not feasible. So, forget about it. I mean, it doesn’t matter how many times you bang your head against the wall. Sorry to be a pain, but my role is to remind you of that.”

Recently, I wrote and gave a lecture about the problems associated with the digital revolution. It’s called the Digital revolution: Lights and Shadows. So, you see from this discussion, I especially emphasize the shadows. I want to remind people that, look, many of the things we do, thanks to this digital revolution are amazing things and we are able to do many more things and do them better, but, at the same time, we have to be careful because many of the innovations associated with the digital revolution are creating serious problems. For example, some people may start to think that they don’t need to think anymore. The machine can do everything for them. And that’s terrible, right? I mean, if we are called the rational specie, that means that we are supposed to use our brains and to figure out solutions. This is another example where I thought very clearly that my role was to remind the public of these dangers and pitfalls of the digital revolution.