EQ Vol.11: INTERVIEW with Professor David Johnson

Contributing Writer: Tye Rubin | May, 2021

David Johnson is a professor of economics and a senior lecturer at UW-Madison and has built a reputable career in environmental economics and teaching. Professor Johnson has worked extensively with the Conservation Strategy Fund, which is an organization dedicated to using economics to create long-term conservation solutions by lowering the costs of these solutions. Prior to teaching at Wisconsin, Johnson had taught at numerous other prestigious institutions, including Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and Wellesley. Johnson has been recognized for his engaging teaching style and is a sought-after professor to learn from. In this interview, we speak to Professor Johnson regarding his academic career, teaching career, work with the Conservation Strategy Fund, and his thoughts on the economy today.

How did you first become interested in economics, and at what point did you realize you wanted to major in the subject?

I spent my first semester in college as a chemical engineering major…..then, advanced general chemistry and general physics led me in a differ- ent direction! When seeking advice from my RA before my first spring semester, I explained that I loved math but didn’t want to be a math major. She said, “Why don’t you try economics? They use a lot of math there….” I took macro principles the next semester and have never looked back. I was hooked on the ability of economics to use rigorous analysis to solve a real-world problem. I still am. I came to economics from a strong interest in applied mathematics, basically. Although I’ve always loved math, I didn’t see myself as a math major – I preferred math class- es with numbers in them as opposed to those that lived in n-dimensional space, so to speak. To this day, I continue to be fascinated by the promise of economics, and it’s a fascination I seek to share with each student who signs up for one of my courses.

How was your experience working at Harvard, and how does it compare to your experience working at Wisconsin?

Harvard was the fourth stop on my magical mystery college teaching tour (Duke, Stanford, and Wellesley came before), and I would truth- fully say the differences among the students studying in those institutions is smaller than you might think. Indeed, I continue to have opportunities to teach interesting and interested students here in Wisconsin. It’s energizing for me to interact with intelligent young people who have a story to tell and demonstrate a genuine interest in discovering how and why a knowledge of basic economics is necessary for them to become better global citizens. That dynamic is as alive here at Wisconsin as it was (is) at Harvard. OK, my office at Harvard was larger than the one here…..but I’m never in it anyway!

You’re known for your attention-grabbing teaching style. Has your teaching style changed from your time at Wisconsin?

“I’ve never liked the word “lecture.” Parents lecture their children on the perils of drug use or unsafe driving. I prefer to characterize my teaching style as a “lively discussion.” My job is to challenge, motivate, and inspire. No one, my- self included, enjoys being lectured. If I’ve done my job, you’ll leave my courses with more questions than answers – but you’ll know how to find those answers and appreciate why they matter. I teach 25 students the same way I do 300. I only present class material that is important for my students to know….grabbing and keeping their attention is easier that way.”

You’ve done work with the Conservation Strategy Fund; can you describe that work, and are you still involved with the CSF?

“I’ve been working with Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF) since 2003. My job is to teach environmentalists about markets, market failure, and the importance of incorporating environ- mental costs and benefits into economic policy analyses. CSF helps those dedicated to environ- mental issues harness the power of markets in order to design policies that support sustainable environmental resource use.”

What role do you believe economics has in conservation, and currently, what role does conservation have in the economy today?

“Not surprisingly, I think economics plays a critical role in both conservation and climate change. Moral arguments against destroying the planet make for great bumper stickers and coffee mugs, but they are doing precious little to improve environmental outcomes. Pricing carbon will turn even the most amoral individual into an environmentalist by creating profit-making opportunities in alternative energy markets. What’s more, economists are notorious cheapskates. So if you tell us the sun, for example, can provide us free energy (once we make a slight infrastructure investment), we’re all in, and with a slight nudge, the rest of society will be, too.” “Unfortunately, the state of Wisconsin charges us an extra $75 annually to register our Prius in this state; evidently, the authorities think we’re not paying our “fair share” of the gas tax because our car gets 45 miles per gallon! Couple that with the fact that we’re putting solar panels on our house in Madison this month because a part of the federal tax credits for solar energy expires at the end of this year. My home state penalizes me for emitting less carbon, and my federal government is cutting back on my incentives to emit even less. Needless to say, we economists ain’t making our case as forcefully as we need to be, which is why I continue to believe that my work with CSF is so incredibly important.”

Do you have any general thoughts about the economy today, and to what extent is knowledge of microeconomics important for the average person today?

As challenging as this year has been, it’s reminded me of one of my favorite JFK quotes several times. In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognize the opportunity. In the past nine months or so, we’ve come face to face with inadequacies in the healthcare system, in unemployment benefits, in education, in police tactics, in our criminal justice system, and in the public confidence in our electoral system. If we seize each of these opportunities for reform, we have the chance to address inequalities and inequities across races, genders, and cultures. But to have a seat at any of those policy reform tables, we need to understand basic microeconomics and how our market system has limited some while enriching others.

Any advice for undergraduate economics students looking to get into economic research?

If I were an undergraduate economics major now, I’d be asking research questions about how to “Build Back Better” (to borrow a phrase!). The federal stimulus package last March functioned as a Universal Basic Income might. It also extended unemployment benefits to contract workers (Uber drivers and the like). The CDC’s COVID data show that African Americans and Latinos are 2.8x more likely to die from COVID than whites. The pandemic has exposed systemic failures in healthcare, the social safety net, and in our labor markets, all of which should keep those undergraduate economics majors who are interested in research busy for the next decade!

My job is to challenge, motivate, and inspire. No one, myself included, enjoys being lectured. If I’ve done my job, you’ll leave my courses with more questions than answers, but you’ll know how to find those answers and appreciate why they matter.

Thoughts after the interview

After talking to Professor Johnson, it is evidently clear that when armed with economic theory, conservation can become environ- mentally friendly and economically friendly. Through the applied mathematical techniques utilized in economics, the world could transition towards clean energy and, at the same time, increase economic opportunities. The United States could implement the economic theory that supports sustainable technologies by providing a tax credit for using sustainable technologies such as solar and environmentally-friendly vehicles. The United States should create incentives to steer away from negative externalities and not towards them. During the pandemic, many people have suffered economically. According to Professor Johnson, this has shed light upon the inequalities existing in all the facets of our modern-day society. When economic comfort is stripped away, those who are marginalized step into the limelight and make us realize that it is time

for reforms. Economic research into health care, social safety net programs, and labor markets during the pandemic could help the United States improve many of the parameters contributing to various systematic failures. To execute quick and effective reforms to support these changes, we will need people with significant knowledge in microeconomics to create effective policy and reform. Thank you to Professor Johnson for his time and insights!

Read the full article at: https://issuu.com/uwequilibrium.com/docs/equillibriumjournal_ck-2_73_/42