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Heidi Garrett-Peltier on the Galbraith Prize and 'green' economics

December 2008

PERI Research Assistant Heidi Garrett-Peltier is close to completing her Ph.D., but has found time to become a prominent researcher in the field of green economic investments. In her work with Professor Robert Pollin, Garrrett-Peltier has contributed significantly to the development of PERI's input-output model for assessing the employment impact of various public investment strategies. She has also written, administered, and is in the process of analyzing the data from PERI's survey of 'green' businesses. She has been recognized for this work with the honor of the department's Galbraith Prize.

Garrett-Peltier is co-author of some of PERI's work in this field, including:
> Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy
> "The Employment Effects of Downsizing the U.S. Military"
> "The U.S. Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities"

Below, Heidi answers some questions about her work from PERI's Communications Director, Debbie Zeidenberg.

The Galbraith Award recognizes “outstanding dissertation research dedicated to the use of economic reasoning and facts to enlighten the public discussion of economic issues in the interest of human betterment in the spirit of John Kenneth Galbraith." How do you think your research on green economic investments would have been received by the late Professor Galbraith?

John K. Galbraith was an economist who challenged the conventional economic wisdom. Until recently, the conventional wisdom has been that there is a trade-off between environmental and economic goals, and that we must therefore choose between them in designing policy or making personal choices. The research I’m conducting for my dissertation challenges the conventional wisdom by analyzing the positive synergies between economic and environmental goals and showing that we can move to a clean energy economy that is good for workers and the population in general. I think that this research is in the spirit of J.K. Galbraith.

Before coming to the University of Massachusetts, you served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. How did this experience affect the direction of your research interests?

My Peace Corps experience gave me the opportunity to witness the extreme poverty in which many people in this world live. I had planned to pursue a graduate education in economics after returning from Cameroon, but the first-hand experience of living with people in extreme poverty accentuated my focus on anti-poverty research and ultimately led me to toward researching employment and macro-economic issues in general.

PERI's input-output model, which you helped develop, provides a reasonably accurate estimate of the employment impact of public investment in a range of strategies. Is this all we need to know to make informed decisions about public investments? What additional research is missing from the full picture?

Certainly this research is not all that is needed to make an informed decision on all public investments. We need other types of public investments as well – water and transportation infrastructure, for example – as well as public investments in education and scientific research. In order to make informed decisions on public clean energy investments we also need the environmental research, for example the research that goes into making siting decisions for wind turbines and other renewable energy investments.

You've begun to analyze the data from a survey of 'green' businesses around the country. How did you select your sample; i.e., how did you define 'green'? And what are you beginning to find?

The firms that we surveyed were from a variety of clean energy sectors. We included energy efficiency companies such as energy auditors and retrofitting companies (such as HVAC and insulation); we also included renewable energy companies such as solar and wind energy designers, producers and installers. We tried to include a broad range of ‘green’ businesses, but of course this term could encompass other firms and organizations that weren’t in our sample, such as parks and water resource management groups. While I’m still analyzing the data we collected, I am starting to find that most clean energy firms have higher employment/output ratios than traditional energy firms, which is one of the reasons we would see employment gains in transitioning to clean energy.

As recently as April 2007,
The New York Times published a survey stating that fifty-two percent of Americans said that generally speaking they would support protecting the environment over stimulating the economy. Thirty-six percent chose the economy. Have you found this economy / environment dichotomy still entrenched, or have you seen substantial shifts? From where do you think these stem?

I do feel like we’re starting to see a shift away from this dichotomy and towards a realization that a pro-environment stance can indeed be good for the economy. Certainly in the recent presidential campaigns we saw increasing attention toward both of these issues, and the Obama transition team is making ‘green jobs’ a priority. This, among other things, has helped speed the shift in public perceptions.

You're a graduate student and a research assistant. You spend your days on the computer, on the phone, and in meetings or seminars. Is yours a 'green job'?

Yes. And no. Which is why ‘green job’ might not be such a useful term. With regard to my own research and our research at PERI more generally, we think about job creation resulting from green investments. Whether or not the jobs themselves are called ‘green’, they result from – and contribute to – the greening of our economy.