Social Science Matters: Robert Pollin

Robert Pollin is a Distinguished Professor of Economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI). He is mainly a macroeconomist, but he is also very interested in issues related to generating employment opportunities, such as, building a green economy and offering decent work conditions. 

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.

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.


Social Science Matters: Lisa Saunders

Lisa Saunders, associate professor of economics, explores topics in labor economics, including political economy of race and gender. She teaches primarily undergraduate courses, including microeconomics, labor economics, political economy of women and political economy of racism.  

My research investigates the severity and sources of labor market failures at a case study level. I also investigate potential solutions for the problems caused by neglect and or policy gone awry.

How does your research impact society?

Economics is often thought to be about how markets function and interact; and about corporate profitability. However, economists study a very broad range of subjects, in much broader context than many imagine. We have come a long way as a discipline toward recognizing the importance of providing for the needs of people and communities in sustainable ways. Since markets often fail, scholars are just beginning to examine how and why groups and communities generate alternative ways to sustain themselves. My research investigates the severity and sources of labor market failures at a case study level. I also investigate potential solutions for the problems caused by neglect and or policy gone awry. I am beginning to appreciate ways community members can and do meet some of their own needs.

Central to my research currently is an examination of employment and earnings in the Detroit Metropolitan Area labor market. The area has always had a complex relationship between job access, earnings inequality and residential segregation. The decline in manufacturing in the city has only added to the complexity of the situation. In the 1990s, I wrote about the effects of transportation time to work and its effects on earnings. Detroit stood out as atypical among the cities I studied for its workers’ heavy reliance on the automobile. It was similar to most other cities with regard to residential segregation and differential access (by race and gender) to good jobs. However, the central city work force suffered more severely shifts in employment out of manufacturing over the last 4 decades. Workers in the central city have not been able to reap the benefits of the so called “bailout” of the auto industry and recent slow recovery of manufacturing in Detroit’s metropolitan area. What I am finding here (as has been found it other studies) is that seemingly neutral policies such as the bailout and even an economic recovery can have outcomes that are not necessarily race neutral. They don’t necessarily help everyone. One of my goals is to discuss modifications in labor and industrial policy that might allow all “Motor City” residents access to improvements in the metropolitan area labor markets.

Numerous examples of state, local and federal programs exist that are successful at helping local labor markets recover; and there a plenty of examples of community and grass roots initiatives that do the same (even in Detroit). In my research, teaching and service, I deeply value problem solving in ways that make transparent the intended and unintended consequences of proposals for the full range of participants.

How did you get started on your career?

I became interested in economics as an undergraduate in a business school. I decided to pursue it as a career while I was a research secretary at the Brookings Institute (my first job after college), where I actually read, understood, and gave considerable thought to the content of books and reports I typed. I began to think, given a proper training, I could do similar analyses. A Brookings visiting scholar and one of the Graduate Fellows found out I was taking a graduate class at Georgetown and encouraged me to pursue graduate study full time. After completing the 1981 American Economics Association Summer Program at Yale, I applied to graduate school, and graduated with a PhD from UC-Berkeley. I began my career at UMass in 1987.

What have been the most rewarding experiences of your career?

My most rewarding experiences have occurred while working with colleagues, at UMass and at other universities and agencies. I greatly enjoy scholarship as a collaborative process – whether I am working with data, examining (or evaluating) the scholarly output of others (including scholars in other disciplines). Collaborative work is not only more thorough, rigorous and productive; it is more fun. It’s also more engaging to collaborate in service to the profession, community, or the University. I have been consistently active in service focused on improving representation of women and other under-represented groups in my discipline and department.

I am in my second term as a member of the Board of the American Economics Association, Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in Economics Professions, and of a mentorship program for under-represented Ph.D. students across the country. I am also a member of the UMass Stem-Initiative Faculty Forum and the Chancellor’s Diversity Advisory Committee. These very productive groups have a high level of commitment to increasing the diversity of the economics discipline and the University.

In what capacity do you work with students?

I have worked with students as an instructor, mentor, dissertation committee member, co-author, and as a supervisor for RAs, TAs, and Graders. I mainly teach undergraduate courses, and I admire many of my students. Over the years I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of serious challenges they have to face. In spite of serious financial, social and emotional challenges, many have demonstrated a great thirst for knowledge and commitment to hard work. I tell my students that learning is an experiential enterprise and encourage them to collaborate with me when they apply course theories and other knowledge to their own experiences. It takes a while (especially in micro), but for many it makes an abstract topic accessible and relevant. It makes teaching more enjoyable for me.

Story by Jamie Robinson; video by Taylor Gilmore '15 (communication/journalism)