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The Professor Is In: Todd Yarbrough

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Clinical Assistant Professor of Economics Todd Yarbrough talks to Opportunitas about the complex relationship between fiscal policy and natural disasters in this month’s The Professor Is In.

Todd Yarbrough, PhD, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Economics at the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences. Having just finished up his first year as a Setter, Yarbrough took the time to sit down with Opportunitas and discuss everything from his current research initiatives, what he finds particularly unique about Pace students, and ruminates over what would be a truly memorable dinner party. 

You’re a Clinical Assistant Professor of Economics. Is there a specific area in the field that you find yourself gravitating toward?
Most of my research is in two main strings. I do state and local fiscal policy research—I look at state budgeting decisions, from how states set their taxes to how states decide to spend their money, and I also look at that from a local level. The other aspect of my research is environmental policy. I try to intertwine those two strings as much as possible—ultimately, so much policy is decided upon within budgets. At times we separate qualitative policy toward say, the environment, without realizing all these things from a mechanical perspective comes from budget setting. 

Is there anything you’re working on right now that you’re particularly excited about?
I just started working on a paper—we’re looking at the fiscal impact of natural disasters on the state level. We’re looking at what happens to a state’s budget right after a natural disaster and the ways states cope with the fiscal impact of natural disasters—from property damage, to crop damage, to housing assistance, to food assistance. And then looking at how climate change—potential impact of increasing the cost of natural disasters—and what that’s going look like in the future. We look at past natural disasters and how states dealt with those, and then we sort of look forward—and if natural disasters become more expensive in the future, we can have an idea as to how states can likely grapple with those costs in the future. 

Do you anticipate the costs of natural disasters rising? If so, why?
Looking from 1970 up to the present, if you look at the cost of natural disasters over that time period, they’re increasing. They’re increasing both due to the severity of natural disasters, which seem to be getting more expensive. They are also increasing due to the number of natural disasters, which seem to be increasing as well. 

As an economist, I attempt to remain agnostic to a judgment as to why that’s occurred. There’s nothing economically speaking that would mean natural disasters would get more expensive over time. In fact, in my research, we try to treat natural disasters as random events, otherwise we imply bias in our economic modeling. But, if you look at the science—and in our research we cite not just economic, but climate science research—there’s a pretty clear consensus that the earth is getting warmer, and that a warmer planet will mean more costly disasters. There seems to be causation between a planet getting hotter and the amount of storms and natural disasters that occur on it. 

As economists, we’re left with saying “well, if there’s this correlation between a warming planet and natural disasters, and that’s positive, then this means that states will be experiencing the cost of natural disasters in an increasing fashion.”

What is your favorite thing about working at Pace?
The thing at Pace that has been most impressive to me has been the students. I’ve always loved my students at my previous institutions, but there does seem to be something uniquely ambitious about Pace students. I think a lot of it is the atmosphere created by the professors and the administration. 

I’ve seen more Pace students with actual plans than I’ve typically seen with other college students. There’s this industriousness to Pace students that, for me as a young professor, makes me work harder. Not just in my instruction, but to do more impactful research. I want students who are ambitious to come to class and say “Hey, this professor is out there doing work, I want to learn from this person!” 

Pace really pushes you to be a stellar professor and researcher, and that’s very exciting. 

You're hosting a dinner party and can invite any four people, living or dead, to attend. Who would you ask? 
John Stuart Mill, James Baldwin, Jimi Hendrix, and Alfred Marshall—a godfather of modern economic principles. It would be an interesting collection of people to talk to.