University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Economics

Faculty Research

This page is just a sampling of research that is going on in the Department of Economics. Details of each faculty member's research can be viewed on their websites.

"Just ahead of the Joneses" may be the new catchphrase for capturing how Americans want to compare economically with their neighbors, according to Sara Solnick, associate professor of economics. Looking at the social and behavioral factors that influence economics is an interesting marriage between her undergraduate work in psychology at Harvard and her current role as an economist.

Solnick's work remains so provocative that a paper she published in 1998 was cited ten years later in both The New York Times and Slate. That 1998 paper was based on a survey using a "two-world scenario," one in which you have more than everybody and another in which you and everyone else has more but you have relatively less than others. Responses varied depending on the item in question and its visibility to others.

"We found that it varied for the things that we asked about. For some things, people really cared about being ahead, like attractiveness. For other things, people were extremely non-positional - particularly for the 'bads,' like being yelled at by your supervisor," says Solnick.

A recent second survey by Solnick and her colleagues looked at two visible goods and offered people the chance to choose and change where they wanted to be in the spectrum.

"For all the goods, the spending worked the way we expected - when people were told that other people were spending half, they decreased their spending. And when people were told other people spent twice as much, they raised spending," says Solnick. "For satisfaction, after people were told that their spending was either way ahead or way behind, everybody's satisfaction went down. People don't like to be out of step, even if they're spending more."

Does Solnick think there is a plausible way to change behavior? "No... But I think people would be happier if they could let go of some of those behaviors. When people found out they were either way ahead or behind, their satisfaction went down," she says. "They were okay with what they were doing until we told them they were off. So I think it is better to just tend your own garden. But it's hard to do."

Base on interview with Lee Ann Cox in UVM Today.

Environmental Economics--Donna Ramirez-Harrington's papers analyze the effectiveness of environmental policy instruments in improving environmental performance of firms, with emphasis on the more contemporary types of instruments which rely on environmental management systems (EMS), voluntary technology adoption, and information disclosure mechanisms. While environmental regulations have traditionally relied on prescriptive top-down approaches, her research work focuses on bottom-up decentralized approaches that rely on pressures from consumers, investors and the general public, which allow firms to behave strategically in various markets to convey signals of environmental responsibility. This area of research is very active and dynamic as contemporary approaches are increasingly being adopted for public policy. Her work is among the first to explore the effectiveness of specific instruments on different measures of environmental performance using econometrics and facility specific data.

One area of her research explores the link between EMS adoption, particularly Total Quality Environmental Management (TQEM), and adoption of pollution prevention technologies, and the consequent impact on toxic emissions. She explores the motivations for TQEM adoption, its impact on pollution prevention, the effectiveness of different state level policy instruments in promoting pollution prevention, and the effectiveness of pollution prevention technologies in reducing toxic emissions. Her results show that TQEM is effective but its impact is limited to specific types of pollution prevention practices, suggesting that other policy tools are necessary. She also finds that the adoption of pollution prevention activities is more common in states with information disclosures systems and EMS programs and that the effect of pollution prevention on emissions is rather weak, short-term and much stronger for onsite releases compared to offsite releases, and is limited to very specific types of pollution prevention practices. These findings bring to question the current emphasis of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on pollution prevention as the preferred method of pollution reduction, as stipulated under the National Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, and suggest that other technologies need to be promoted or mandated to achieve more significant reductions in toxic emissions. Her future plans include: an assessment of the efficacy of state level programs on different measures of environmental performance in the U.S.

Another area of her research focuses on information disclosure mechanisms for climate change. Due to an absence of a formal regulatory framework for climate change mitigation, many countries, including Canada, are instituting greenhouse gas registries to encourage firms to report their emissions and mitigation activities. However, the efficacy of such approaches is yet to be investigated. She explores the specific motivations for voluntarily participating in such registries and whether participants do indeed have lower greenhouse gas emissions than non-participants. She finds that pressure from investors and environmental regulators, but not consumers, drive firms to participate in such registries and that experience with other voluntary programs are the strongest determinants of involvement. However, greenhouse gas emissions do not appear to be different between participants and on-participants.

Last modified April 07 2016 03:19 PM