Francesco Trebbi is a political economist working here at the Vancouver School of Economics. Originally from Italy, after receiving his Laurea in political economy from Bocconi University in Milan, he went on to complete his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University. He then worked four years at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His research focuses primarily on examining the effects of lobbying, electoral systems, financial regulations and other policies on governments and economies around the world. He is currently a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, as well as being a co-editor of the Journal of Public Economics. He might also be the best person on VSE faculty to talk to if you’d like to get in touch with Kobe Bryant.
My field is political economy, which looks at how governments and markets and organizations interact in the economy and how these interactions really shape the economy. Some people prefer to specialize, to focus on the problems and incentives of well-functioning democracies or on the problems and incentives of less well-functioning economies. I prefer not to specialize this way, I think both situations are interesting to examine. Currently I am working on research projects that examine recent financial regulations in the USA, such as the Dodd-Frank Act, and their impacts. On the other hand, I also have been a part of various projects looking at the effects of dictatorships and conflict in African countries on welfare in those countries.
I have always been interested in understanding large-scale issues – what I see to be some of the biggest failures in society. I look for these welfare-destroying events, like wars, dictatorships, regulatory failures, financial collapses, and I work to understand them. It’s not really a traditional field and has only recently been established, but fortunately I have been able to meet and work with some really inspiring political economists that have helped to guide me and guide my interests.
I think you pursue this career because you like to think, really think about social issues. And from this comes your sense of responsibility, because your government and other institutions are entrusting this responsibility to you, they are investing in your performance. Being paid to think certainly is a freeing position, but you have to be careful to exercise self-restraint because the absolute freedom can get away from you. You need to focus on empirically relevant phenomena. That being said, because this job grants you freedom, it is a position where those who are really motivated come forward to answer their questions and guide thinking in the field. It’s very meritocratic in that way. I would like to count myself among these people who are always striving for the answers, who believe in what they are doing and the benefits of their work.
I think when you decide to pursue something you always have to be questioning yourself – “am I good at this?” “is this what I am passionate about?” University is a place where you learn what you’re interested in and where your abilities are – the intersection of these two sets is where you want to be. When I was going to university in Milan I was unsure what I was going to choose (I was in a program that could have led me to either business or economics), but in the end I chose economics for its powerful set of tools for describing social phenomena. When it came time to do my honours thesis, my advisor, Guido Tabellini, a celebrated political economist, gave me a problem and told me to study and solve it. It’s like when someone gives you a broken puzzle and tells you to solve it – you sit there for a moment asking yourself “can I do it, how am I going to solve this, how can I fix this?” For my thesis I was looking at the problem of how certain electoral rules, for example proportional representation, might have certain consequences in terms of the amount of political corruption that they entail. When I was working on this question I realized, “yeah, I can do this.” For some reason problems like these just click better in my brain than others. Of course, there are also problems that I am really not good at solving as well, so I leave those to other people. Ultimately, it was this experience that led me to know I wanted to be an economics researcher.
Besides the research, the students, for sure. When you have a good one it’s amazing, really amazing! When they get a good job or finish an important project it’s a great feeling. I’m always really proud of my students.
This job certainly isn’t without it’s challenges. While we are hired to be researchers and teachers, sometimes it feels like 90% of our time is spent doing the mechanical work and the routine work that at times feels overbearing, constricting. Then that other 10% of the time is spent doing the research and makes it all worthwhile. Don’t trust anyone who tells you that 90% of the job doesn’t exist though.
I definitely respect and owe a lot to my undergraduate and graduate school advisors, Guido Tabellini, Alberto Alesina, Philippe Aghion. They were amazing inspiration and taught me really important things like how to generate ideas, how to think creatively, how to come up with the brilliant weird stuff (I think this last point is really the way to go about this job – it’s good to be outside of the box). My absolute favourite economist is Gary Becker. His contributions combining various fields of social sciences really helped to open up entire fields and got people looking at old problems in new ways. I worked with him when I was at the University of Chicago. Maybe worked with isn’t the best term though, when you have such admiration and deference to someone it’s hard to work with them on a peer to peer basis. He was an amazing, prolific academic though, it’s too bad he passed, recently. He was active until the very end.
Economics really is 99% of my life: my wife is an economist at UBC as well. My kids seem ok with that, though maybe a little disinterested, they’re little. I wouldn’t say I always think like a stereotypical economist – I’m not uber-rational, in fact I’m really behavioural and inconsistent, I like to procrastinate – but I approach problems like an economist, whether it’s at work or at home. But I think the discipline helps to take away all the clutter from a situation and focus on the important incentives. It certainly helps you to be a good decision-maker when you can think like this.
I think VSE is special, we are well on our way to building a political economy powerhouse, we have huge support and talent in this field. People here are doing things against the grain, something that I think is really important when you’re dealing with a field where traditional solutions haven’t worked. There are lots of things about the field that need to be reimagined. As well, if you want to study the world of economics from an empirical perspective then the VSE is the right place. This is why I would encourage students to apply.
Basically, economics makes you question deeply the ways you think about problems. You start to think about things from a different perspective, you start to understand trade-offs more in-depth and accurately. Because of this, you have to approach the subject with an open mind. Don’t come to study economics with firmly entrenched preconception of the field. I think the stereotypical way of thinking of economics as the study of uber-rationality is no longer pertinent to the field, it is no longer a useful lens.
Oh yes, I think this is crazy: I was on the same basketball team as Kobe Bryant when I was a kid growing up in Italy. It was the end of the eighties. His father finished his career in Italy and so Kobe was living there. He was two years younger than me, in my cousin’s class at school. Thinking back, we were so bad that we still lost, even with Kobe Bryant on our team. We lost contact from each other after that and next thing I know I’m seeing him in Adidas commercials in his rookie year in the NBA!