The UVM Economist Behind Bernie’s Job Numbers

By Arno Rosenfeld. Cross-posted from Gund Institute for Environment.
February 6, 2020

Bernie Sanders’ proposed Green New Deal is sparking innovative work by students and professors alike, says UVM’s Jon Erickson, who crunched job numbers for the plan.

When Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign released job numbers for its Green New Deal proposal last fall, projecting it would put 20 million people to work, it raised some eyebrows.

Politico suggested the figures were “outlandish,” while The New York Times cautioned that job growth was “not so simple.”

But University of Vermont professor Jon Erickson, who created the projections, knew the figures were sound: they came directly from economic analyses he’s been doing for decades.

“Any presidential candidate wants to show big job numbers behind their proposals,” said Erickson, a Gund Institute for Environment Fellow from the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “But these are actually modest numbers given the economic transformation needed to confront climate change. As with Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Green New Deal would redefine the economy as we know it.”

Erickson, the Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy, has long informally advised Sanders’ staff on energy and environmental issues, and over the summer he volunteered to conduct the jobs analysis of the Green New Deal proposal. Using a national economic model of relationships between economic sectors, Erickson analyzed the expenditures of the proposed $16.3 trillion investment over a 10-year planning horizon. The plan’s economy-wide multiplier effects – covering everything from renewable energy development and infrastructure repairs to ecological restoration and climate resilience efforts – added up to a lot of jobs.

Economic modeling is tied to Erickson’s broader research on the environmental and social dimensions of economic transitions, including Vermont’s Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which he pioneered with colleague Eric Zencey. As an alternative to GDP, policy makers in Vermont and around the country use GPI to consider the broader costs and benefits of different development paths. 

As the Democratic presidential primary enters its pivotal phase, Erickson says the Green New Deal has sparked an outburst of student ideas and enthusiasm. His undergraduate students have researched and pitched Green Mountain Deal proposals to Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman. Graduate students in the Leadership for the Ecozoic (L4E) and Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) partnerships, international programs he co-leads, are investigating Green New Deal mobilizations in agriculture, energy systems, and more.

“Students already arrive at UVM looking to change the world,” said Erickson, whose E4A and L4E partnerships include over 50 graduate students at UVM, McGill University and York University working on a just transition. “The question is how do we rapidly create a carbon neutral economy with government stimulus and direction, and do it in a way that empowers the most vulnerable communities with justice, jobs, and hope?”

Erickson is also an Emmy award-winning film producer. He directed the 2017 documentary “Waking the Sleeping Giant” on the new progressive movement in the U.S., centered around Sanders’ 2016 run for the Democratic presidential nomination. His previous film, “Bloom,” focused on nutrient pollution and algae blooms in Lake Champlain.

After years of research showing the need for improved climate policies, and a growing chorus of citizens calling for action, Erickson said it increasingly feels as though policymakers are listening.

“For a long time, ecological economics has been calling for an economic transformation that recognizes pollution limits and prioritizes justice,” Erickson said. “The Green New Deal is pushing decades of research on alternative economies into policy conversations beyond the halls of academia.”

Published by Jon Erickson

Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy University of Vermont

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