Economist Lint Barrage was once skeptical of economics. As a University of Chicago undergraduate interested in the environment, she didn’t like what she heard at first.
“After some initial anger and resistance at some of the things they teach you in econ — like we should put a dollar value on life and it’s efficient to have some pollution — I was very frustrated,” she said. “But then I came to appreciate what economics has to offer as a way of looking at these problems. I fell in love with the discipline and embraced its way of thinking about the world.”
Ultimately Barrage double-majored in environmental studies and economics. She chose to study economics in graduate school at Yale, but she retained her inspiration.
“I’m interested in the holistic economic ramifications of environmental policies,” she said. “That includes both the macroeconomic impacts of the benefits of the policy and the costs.”
As assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at Brown, Barrage will conduct data-driven analyses of how economic and environmental policy affect each other. She embraces the complexity, employing many methods to illuminate crucial debates facing the country.
At Yale, the bulk of her award-winning 2013 dissertation examined the impact that taxing carbon emissions could have on federal finances.
“On the one hand, carbon taxes or an emissions trading scheme where permits were auctioned off, could raise government revenues,” she said. “On the other hand, if you have a carbon tax, that can increase the cost of energy and reduce employment and investment. You then lower the revenues from income taxes and capital investment taxes. So how do you design a carbon tax to take these things into account? How do you look at the costs and benefits of policy options, also taking into account the macroeconomic benefits of climate protection investments?”
Those benefits are large. Agriculture depends heavily on maintaining conducive, predictable weather. In a warmer climate, workers may get sick more often. Then there’s the disruption of storms, floods, and droughts. Barrage concluded that given the value of a stable climate as a capital good, Americans are probably underinvesting in its protection. A carbon tax would create the incentive to make such an investment, outweighing the costs to produce a net economic gain.
Coming to Brown offers Barrage not only a tenure-track appointment in economics, but also a fellowship at the Institute at Brown for the Environment in Society. This dual affiliation gives Barrage access to a wide variety of potential collaborators, ranging from fellow economists and environmental scientists to sociologists, epidemiologists, and geologists, too.
“I can easily describe this job as my dream job, being at IBES and the economics department,” she said. “I could not imagine a place and job I would rather be in. Everything is here.”
One of the projects she is bringing from from the University of Maryland, where became an assistant professor in 2013, is a model of the economic impacts of hurricanes amid climate change. Because her work depends on understanding the climatology and meteorology involved, she’s collaborating with an economist specializing in tropical cyclone integrated assessment modeling at the University of Arizona. Ultimately, they want to be able to answer questions like this one, pertinent from New Orleans to New York: “For every $1 million spent on reducing carbon emissions, how many dollars of hurricane protection would we receive?”
Here in the Ocean State, which invested in the Fox Point hurricane barrier in 1966, Barrage hopes to become involved in the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab, where researchers will design evidence-based policies. Justine Hastings, associate professor of economics and international and public affairs, who leads the effort, was one of Barrage’s research mentors at Yale.
“Rhode Island has been so active in a lot of environmental policy areas,” Barrage said. “We can derive really interesting insights from having a lot of data.”
Barrage said she is also looking forward to teaching, using a Socratic style to get students talking, even debating.
“It’s good to get students passionate and involved in the classroom, and a little bit of rage is a good thing if it is channeled productively,” she said.
They may indeed find economics to be as useful as she has.