UCLA Anderson School International Economist Sebastian Edwards

I Fought a Fire at a Chinese Restaurant in Santiago

Photo by Aaron Salcido.

Sebastian Edwards is an international economist at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. He previously served as the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean. He is a frequent commentator on CNN and author of the new book, American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court and the Battle over Gold. Before taking part in a Zócalo/UCLA Anderson event titled “Could the United States Ever Go Bankrupt?” held at the RedZone at Gensler, in downtown Los Angeles, he chatted in the green room about his fascination with FDR, attending the 1962 World Cup in his native Chile, and what he and Mick Jagger have in common.

Q:
What’s the weirdest job you ever had?

A:
I don’t know if it’s weird, but I was a firefighter in South America. I’m from Santiago, Chile. Chile is the only country in the world where there are no professional firefighters. Every single fire fighter is a volunteer, and it’s part of the social capital; fire stations are like social clubs and they are organized in different ways. It was unpaid. I did that from 1973 to 1977. I had been pushed by my family to join. I was a student activist, from the left.

Q:
What was the most dangerous fire you ever fought?

A:
This was during the [Pinochet] dictatorship, so there was an [evening] curfew. And I lived at the station. So we would go out at night, and it was very eerie, a city of 5 million people, totally abandoned [during curfew hours]. We’d be on the truck, and all there was in the city, starting at, say, 11 at night, there would be no one in the streets except for some military patrols. So there was a very famous Chinese restaurant in the old part of Santiago, where we fought an electrical fire from, I would say, around 10 at night to 7 in the morning, and it was very scary, very dangerous, and it was very rapidly consumed. Our main concern was that it would expand to the adjacent buildings, in this old sort of semi-colonial area where the buildings were wall-to-wall; they were all attached to each other.

Q:
What are you reading for pleasure?

A:
I’m reading the latest book by Antony Beevor [Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges, 1944]. It’s about Operation Market Garden in World War II, the effort to go into Germany through the Netherlands, as opposed to going through France, which was a big failure. I wrote a novel and I did a lot of research in order to put this into my novel.

Q:
If you could time-travel, where would you go?

A:
Right now I’m still very interested in the first Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. I did a book, American Default, about 1933. I think it was, at least for peace time, the most fascinating year in U.S. history. The first year of the New Deal was very exciting, and economists were rethinking everything. And [John Maynard] Keynes was alive, and one of the greatest U.S. economists, Irving Fisher, from Yale. FDR’s Hundred Days was very exciting. So I would go there and sort of be a fly on the wall.

Q:
We’re in the middle of another World Cup. Do you remember the 1962 World Cup in Chile?

A:
I went to every game [in Santiago]. I was eight years old, and in Christmas of ’61 instead of getting a bike or a train set I got a thin envelope from my mother. My parents had separated about a year earlier. And I opened it up, and it was a set of tickets for every game in ’62.

Q:
So you went to the final?

A:
I went to the final [between Czechoslovakia and Brazil]. But I didn’t get to see Pelé play, because he had been injured in an earlier game. I’m the eldest child, and my parents got separated at a time when it was very unusual; divorce was illegal. So my mother was 27, and she was very scared that I would grow up as a “girlyboy.” And so she encouraged and tried to get me to do “boys’ things.” My dad never took me to see a game, because he was an intellectual. So I went with my mother. And we didn’t have enough money, so we didn’t have very good seats—behind one of the goals—which is great when your team is scoring on that goal, but it’s not great [when the teams switch halves of the field]. I saw [Brazilian right winger and forward] Garrincha and [midfielder] Didi, and [goalkeeper] Gilmar, and the kid who replaced Pelé, called Amarildo. I wrote two novels, both in Spanish, and one of them takes place during one day of the 1962 World Cup. It’s called A Perfect Day, and it takes place the day when Chile beat the Soviets, which allowed Chile to move on to the semi-final round.

Q:
Where did you learn to swim?

A:
I’ve never really liked swimming because of how cold the water was in Chile. I only took swimming seriously about a year ago. So after I ruined my knees and my back, and couldn’t run anymore, and then I fell twice from my bike, I said now I’m going to learn to swim. I swim now at UCLA, and I travel a lot for work and I try to swim everywhere I go. I was just in Sri Lanka and I swam a lot, in pools. I don’t do open ocean.

Q:
Who’s your favorite Rolling Stone?

A:
Mick Jagger. He went to the London School of Economics for about a year! I also like a lot Brian Jones. He died early on; he drowned.

Q:
What did you like about him?

A:
He was very quiet and had perfect blond hair, which looked fantastic for us kids when we were growing up in the late ’60s and our parents didn’t allow us to have long hair. But of course after I read Keith Richards’ autobiography, you cannot not like him.