The Spanish tabloids have already exposed Professor Xavier Sala-i-Martin’s glamorous lifestyle, featuring photographs of him dining with the likes of Angelina Jolie and Gwyenth Paltrow. Now, the Bank of Spain has joined the craze by awarding Sala-I-Martin the Premio Juan Carlos I de Economía for his work.
But on campus, Xavier—“pronounced Shah-bee-ay: The King of Iran, the second letter of the alphabet, then the first letter of the alphabet,” as he explains at the beginning of each semester—is better known for his entertaining lectures and flashy wardrobe than for his work at the top of the discipline.
In addition to being honored as the preeminent economist of Spain and Latin America, the Columbia professor received $95,000 from the King and Queen of Spain. His students said that Sala-i-Martin was flattered by the praise of his work, especially since it came from the temporary occupiers of his home country, Catalonia. According to his Web site, the monetary award went to UMBELE, a charitable foundation dedicated to encouraging education and development in Africa. Sala-i-Martin founded the foundation early last year.
Sala-i-Martin’s assessment that global poverty and inequality has fallen substantially since the 1980’s disagrees with the more pessimistic figures of economists at the World Bank. Professor Sala-i-Martin’s model was calculated largely from national accounts, and while the World Bank drew most of its numbers from household surveys, Sala-i-Martin also factored in national populations in order to measure how many people, rather than how much nations, are impoverished.
According to Donald Davis, chair of the economics department, Xavier’s approach has fueled a trend from telling the stories of countries to telling the stories of individuals. “Once [Xavier] said it, it seems obvious ... and now people are definitely paying attention” said Davis.
Studying macroeconomics with Professor Sala-i-Martin has been a memorable experience for many of his students.
“His class was a lot different than any class I’ve taken at Columbia” said Helam Gebremariam, CC ’07. His non-text based approach—it made economic sense not to require a book—to teaching economics pulls through, she said.
“Xavier makes his case, he makes it clear and no one disagrees with him in class because he’s an intelligent man and I respect him for that” said Gebremariam.
Sala-i-Martin is famous for his broad and bright spectrum of blazers in class and ties featuring everything from a yellow smiley face to the seven dwarves. Prospective economics major John Frager, CC ’07, remembered a class in which Professor Sala-I-Martin lectured between a giant set of parenthesis he had drawn on the chalkboard while discussing relevant microeconomic matters in order to emphasize that the information was non-compulsory to his macroeconomics class.
“My favorite thing about Xavier is that while being funny, he presents the material well,” Frager said. “By integrating the information with humor he is very effective in helping you remember the joke, and the material.”
Sala-i-Martin’s efforts with UMBELE mimic his accomplishments as a researcher and a teacher in being untraditional and innovative. The organization attempts to alleviate poverty in Africa through both long and short-term hope for struggling Africans. One initiative pays students for attending school, exemplifying the foundation’s goal to help Africans help themselves.
Presently, Sala-i-Martin is somewhere between Tanzania, where he worked with missions and schools that UMBELE is considering funding, and Switzerland, where he will attend the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos as the senior economic advisor.