Gloria Gonzalez-Rivera is professor of economics at the University of California, Riverside, and served as chair of its economics department from 2003-2008. She is the current president of the board of directors of the International Institute of Forecasters. Before taking part in a UCLA Anderson/Zócalo Public Square panel titled “Is America Ready for the Next Recession?,” she sat down in the green room to discuss what she misses about Madrid, what people don’t understand about economists, and how much she is willing to pay for a good cup of coffee.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Formula, which is a book by Albert-László Barabási, who is a professor of network science, and he’s an expert in networks. The idea of the book is how do we measure success and how do we measure performance. How one is up to us—performance—and success is up to the rest of the people. So, it’s extremely interesting. It has a lot of advice for everybody, in particular for people in academics.
I have another recommendation. I finished recently Bad Blood, about the Theranos biotech company that happened to be a complete fraud. I highly recommend it.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?
Bad Blood really impacted me. Bad Blood probably is top.
What was it like being a student of Nobel laureate Robert F. Engle?
It was fun, because I was a student prior to him getting the Nobel Prize. He can be intimidating because he is extremely sharp and extremely smart. What I learned from him is that if you want to have a career in academics, the most important thing is to think a little bit out of the box, innovate.
Just to give you an example, we had weekly meetings, for about 30-40 minutes a week. And the very first question when I entered the meeting was: What’s new? This question is just very intimidating.
How much is too much to pay for a good cup of coffee?
Well it depends on your taste. I mean, if you are very discriminating about coffee, then probably you are willing to pay substantially more than a person for whom coffee is not as important. So, I don’t think I can attach a value. All of us know that when we like something, we are willing to pay extravagantly.
How much are you willing to pay?
My best coffee was in Italy, many years back, in the airport. I think it was in Rome. I think I paid about 10 euros for a coffee, but I went to one of these specialty shops, and this was a long time ago. So I think I’m willing to pay too much.
What keeps you up at night?
Well, nothing related to my profession. What keeps me up at night is personal stuff, basically. Decision making when you have a to deal with family or with sickness. These are difficult decisions. They don’t go away when you are asleep.
You lived, studied, and worked in Madrid. What do you miss about it?
Oh, my walks. Madrid is a city that is very friendly, and I’m very fortunate to have to have a little pied-à-terre. It’s very much in the center of the city. And just the pleasure of getting out and walking, and being surrounded by so much beauty and so much history. This is what I miss so, so much. On the other hand, I live here now, within nature, so it’s also nice.
When did you learn to speak Greek?
Well, I want to be a little bit humble, here. As a foreigner I know what it means to be proficient in a foreign language. So, I am not proficient in Greek. My Greek is very functional, and I learned a little bit of Greek from my husband, who is Greek. He was my teacher. One of our amusements when we were younger and students, was to reserve one hour at night just to go through some Greek books. So that’s my knowledge. It’s not by any means a proficient level of Greek.
If you didn’t live in the U.S., what country would you want to live in?
Well, because I’ve been here now for so many years, I miss Spain. That’s what I would say. But I think I could live in any of the Mediterranean countries. But to live, live day-to-day, I think eventually Madrid is waiting for me, or I am waiting for Madrid.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I have something in mind, but I’m not brave enough to do it. This is something I have been saying so many times to my husband. And it’s that I would like to go blonde, but I don’t have the courage to do it.
What’s the worst city you’ve ever lived in?
I haven’t spent a long time in all of the cities that I have visited. Normally I travel because of conferences and invitations, so the most time I stay is 7-10 days. Probably I’ve been fortunate—wherever I go, I really enjoy. But I go as a visitor, as a tourist. It’s not the same as being a local. In Europe—certainly none [are the worst]. In the United States all cities I’ve visited, and I’ve been to pretty much every big city, always had something to offer. I’m less familiar with Asian cities, and I haven’t visited any country in Africa.
So what I’d say, is that there is no bad to place to live. There is only a bad attitude when you travel, and you find that it doesn’t satisfy your requirements. If you don’t have this attitude, every city has something to offer.
What question do your students ask you most often?
Well, I teach very technical subjects because my specialty is statistics and economics. But once we get out of the classroom environment, and students come to my office hours—I teach mainly juniors and seniors—these people are already very focused on what they want to do next. They want to know “How did you end up here?,” “So, what was your trajectory?,” “What can I learn from your times when you were a student up to now when you are a professor?,” or “Is there anything there we should be aware of early in our careers?” They like the storylines. I’ve never thought about my own narrative, but just because I’ve been saying so much about my story, I think there is a narrative there that I tell the students.
What’s the most difficult challenge of economic forecasting?
Well, to admit that uncertainty is always present. I think we are now better at what we do than what forecasters used to do many years back, because at least we realize that whenever we produce a forecast, we have to be humble enough to say how much uncertainly there is around this forecast. What I tell my students when I teach the forecasting class is that we don’t have a magic wand to know what the future is going to tell us, but from the present perspective you can assess risk. And when you assess risk then you have a sense of how uncertain these forecasts are. And if you are honest in this profession, you have to mention not only what is your forecast, but how sure you are of this. How wrong can we go? And if we go wrong, how much do we have to pay for being wrong?
What’s one thing people don’t understand about economists?
That we don’t have final answers. If you work in a lab and you’re measuring certain properties of a cell, your subject is very constrained, so then you can speak of your subject with much more certainty than economists can speak about our subject. People need to understand that economists may have many different opinions because each one of us probably has come from a different academic tradition. They don’t understand why economists are so diverse, or heterogenous, or why we don’t get together and say, “OK, this is the solution to this problem!”
They look at us and say, “Are you scientists? And, I say, “Yes we are.” But then our answers probably don’t correspond to the scientist image.
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
To be honest, when I was a kid, I didn’t have a strong preference. I think this was a plus, because if you don’t have any strong preference, and you have curiosity, then you can explore what fits with you. In my family people talked about finance all the time, “The money is here, the money is there.” “There are investments here, and investments there.” I thought maybe I could follow the family tradition, but fortunately for me my parents didn’t impose any career path. I ended up being a professor after a trial-and-error path. I think I’m lucky that I found a profession that fits with my way of looking at life, my way of understanding the people around me, and my way of relating to the world.