What are you currently working on and how does this work relate to society at large?
My most active research area right now is on how to build a green economy, both in the U.S. and globally. The aim of the project is to show how we can control climate change through large-scale investments in energy efficiency and clean renewable energy; and to do so while also generating millions of good jobs, both in the U.S. and globally.
With co-authors at PERI and the D.C. think tank Center for American Progress, I just published a 400-page study called "Green Growth," which develops in detail a realistic program for reducing CO2 emissions in the U.S. within 20 years, and generating a net expansion of 2.7 million jobs in the process. The key to the program is for both private businesses and the public sector to invest about $200 billion per year—which is a huge number but still only about 1.2 percent of current U.S. GDP—to expand energy production from clean renewable energy and, equally, raise energy efficiency dramatically in the U.S. The U.S. economy will also need to contract its consumption of fossil fuels—oil, coal, and natural gas—by about 40 percent within the next 20 years.
My PERI co-workers and I are also now completing a global version of the same project, called "Global Green Growth. This work is co-sponsored by the United Nations and a South Korean organization, the Global Green Growth Institute. This research also comes up with some very surprising conclusions. For example, we show that, realistically, South Korea could become totally CO2 emissions free within 20 years if they invested about 1.5 percent of GDP per year in clean renewable energy and energy efficiency. They would not have to sacrifice jobs or economic growth to reach what would be an historic accomplishment.
The point of all this research is to show that solving climate change is within reach. But it will entail a major commitment to advance effective policies and to overcome the natural opposition from fossil fuel companies, who will obviously need to lose a large share of their business over the next 20 years.
How did you get to where you are in your career?
I got into my field after studying history as my undergraduate major, then working for three years, first as a roofer, then in journalism. I was trying to think how to do something with my work life that would be really interesting and challenging, and that might also end up doing some good in the world. Economics seemed like a field that could provide me with those opportunities. At first, economics was extremely challenging, since it is simply a demanding subject. But the truth is, I fell in love with the work, the ideas, and the challenges. I have never regretted my vocational decision once.
Why did you come to UMass Amherst, and what do you like about working in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences?
I came to UMass because of the opportunity to start PERI, and to build on the tradition of UMass Economics as being the best progressive economics department in the country, if not the world. That is way more than enough of an incentive to come to UMass. I work on my research with Ph.D. students all the time. These are outstanding young researchers and budding teachers.
I was able to come here mid-career, after having spent 16 years at University of California-Riverside. Riverside was great. But coming to UMass and starting PERI have been amazing privileges. A tremendous amount of exciting things are going on here. As for me and UMass, I am here for the long haul.
To what do you attribute your success?
To the extent that I could say I am a “success,” I would attribute that to, again, first my being totally fascinated by my subject and by my ability to see that what I am doing may indeed have some positive effect out in the world. On top of that, yes, there is lots of work that just must be done. As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” There is just no avoiding that perspiration part. I hope that my work in all of my areas of interest might be valuable in some ways—that includes my teaching as well as my research. In addition, I have benefitted greatly from many wonderful teachers, co-workers and students.
Can you dispel any myths about economics?
The myth is that economics must be boring and all about just mathematical formulas and statistics. There is math, there are statistics, for sure, but underlying all that is the aim to really make the world a better place—to fight poverty, to create an abundance of good job opportunities, to promote equality, to avoid the kinds of disastrous financial collapses such as we experience in 2007-09, and to protect our global ecology.
What do you do for fun?
I do lots of things for fun. But the most fun for me now is when my wife and I are hanging out with our 5-year old granddaughter—doing anything that she wants to do.
Story and video by Taylor Gilmore '15.