Social Responsibility Shapes Economist’s Approach
The Political Economy Research Institute, part of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst, is always engaged in pushing out analytic and policy boundaries in real-world economics to promote social justice and equality. These days, Robert Pollin (economics), founding co-director of PERI, has been receiving a lot of national media attention for his unique work in classifying green jobs, fundamental to formulating job creation estimates that are necessary to support the economic stimulus and provide needed relief to the American people. In fact, on request of the U.S. Department of Energy, Pollin has made modeling the green recovery program for the Obama administration a key priority.
“In the midst of this devastating economic crisis,” says Pollin, “it has become clear that economic policies are not just boring things for policy wonks to worry about. They mean a lot to our security and well-being. I try to grapple with things that people care about—like making decent jobs abundantly available, operating a stable and egalitarian financial system, fighting poverty, and fighting global warming. Showing how the ‘green New Deal’ can be made into an effective engine of job creation and thus a force to end the recession is interesting and exciting. To work on such questions—and actually get paid to do it—is an enormous privilege.”
Work is indeed the operative word in Pollin’s life. Just in this past year, he coauthored “Job Opportunities for the Green Economy” (June) and “Green Recovery” (September), exploring the broader economic benefits from large-scale investments to build a clean-energy economy in the United States. In addition, he coauthored two books, A Measure of Fairness: The Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States and An Employment-Targeted Economic Program for Kenya. For more on Pollin’s publications and interests, click here.
Despite a full travel schedule, mainly to Washington, and a heavy load of deadlines, Pollin says his days are filled with research, reading and writing. “A good part of each day in Amherst involves meeting with my co-researchers at PERI, but I need serious quiet time to do my own thinking and playing with numbers before the writing starts.” On leave this year, Pollin has a hiatus from the classroom, but he continues to get together often with a large number of PhD students. “Our discussions can be pretty intense. We fight like mad to pin down a really big idea into a still interesting but manageable research project.”
Coming up with suitable answers is, in fact, Pollin’s mantra. “From my first day of graduate school until today, I have remained excited about posing economic questions that seem to matter for people’s lives. Economics, for me, has offered ways to link the academic world with the fight for social justice in the real world. But over time, I’ve also come to realize that much work done by economists is irrelevant, trivial, boring, or retrograde. If it were otherwise, the profession would never have let the economy get into such a severe crisis, as we face today.”
Social responsibility has deep roots for Pollin who graduated as a history major from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1972. “It was an enormously exciting time to be in college,” he reminisces, “and Wisconsin then was a hotbed of progressive politics and ideas, mostly in opposition to the Vietnam War and in support of civil rights, but also challenging all aspects of our social order—why there was so much poverty amid plenty; why corporations had so much power over people’s lives as well as over mainstream politics, within both the Democratic and Republican parties. ”
At Wisconsin Pollin became very excited about the idea that intellectual work could actually make a contribution to building a more just social order. Yet, he left college thinking that graduate school would be too far removed from the day-to-day reality of people’s lives. He worked as a roofer and traveled around Latin America before getting a job with a mainstream Washington, D.C., newspaper.
“While working the graveyard shift one night,” Pollin recalls, “a friend pointed out a fact that was so obvious I hadn’t seen it: that one could be a politically engaged intellectual in a university if you wanted to be. ‘Look at Noam Chomsky,’ she said. That was 35 years ago. Chomsky now is probably the best-known academic/intellectual figure in the world, but in the 1970s he was just emerging into that role. I greatly admired his writings, and so my friend’s urging to look at his example somehow propelled me into realizing that I might be able to do something useful in academia.”
At the New School, three of Pollin’s professors emerged as major influences on the type of economist he was to become. “In different ways Paul Sweezy, David Gordon and Robert Heilbroner were all enormously creative scholars, highly skilled economists, and passionate in their political commitments. And when I taught at UC Riverside, Keith Griffin, who was focused on developing countries and became one of the most effective policy-oriented economists in the world fighting to reduce third-world poverty, set an example for how to tie serious economic research with solving real-world problems.”
Pollin came to UMass Amherst in 1998, after 16 years at UC Riverside. “I’ve worked with two wonderful deans since then, Glen Gordon and Janet Rifkin. Their brains, imagination and good sense make them the polar opposites of most university administrators. With their support, PERI and the Economics Department have built on longstanding achievements to create perhaps the most outstanding progressive economics program in the country, if not the world. People here are engaged in front-line work that really matters for people’s lives. And the ethos is that teaching and collaboration really are as important as individual research.”
February 19, 2009