CSU’s Department of Economics is enjoying an upward trajectory, and that rise is reflected in its new chair, who you could say has had a pretty good run in recent years.
Elissa Braunstein became department head in July 2018, about a year after returning from Geneva, Switzerland, where she had worked for the United Nations since March 2015. She was serving the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, which was established in 1964 to help developing countries integrate into the world economy equitably. Braunstein helped advise officials from developing countries who were participating in the international debate on globalization and its consequences.
“It was interesting to watch, politically, how different countries interacted,” she says.
One of the highlights of her time with the U.N. was working on UNCTAD’s annual flagship publication the “Trade and Development Report,” which historically hadn’t incorporated gender issues sufficiently, Braunstein says. So she wrote a whole chapter on the subject.
A real-world example of a gender and globalization issue, she explains, is the low wages paid to many women who work in export-oriented factories in developing countries.
“Most of the workers in export-oriented factories in developing countries are women, producing things like clothes, toys, and electronics,” Braunstein says. “When they don’t get paid well, it may be good for competitiveness or short-term profits, but it also affects things like spending on children or public spending on health and education. So in the long term, keeping women’s wages low is not sustainable. Globalization, and the economic growth that may come from it, only contributes to development when it benefits everyone.”
A related area of Braunstein’s expertise is the economics around the caregiving that women provide in the home and community. For instance, if a health insurance company saves costs by only covering one week of what’s historically been a two-week recovery period in the hospital, the patient still has to recover that second week — at home.
“That may look good on the company’s books, but it’s just a shift of work from the market to the non-market sector, and it still has important economic impacts, like constraining women from participating in paid work,” Braunstein explains.
She spoke about that topic more broadly when she gave the 18th annual Boyer Lecture on campus Nov. 1. Her talk, hosted by the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, was titled, “Feminism, Production, and Reproduction – Getting Economists to Think About Care as Work.”
“We tend to discount — or not count enough — the work that women do in the home, and how that affects economic outcomes like growth,” Braunstein says.
By the same token, she explains, we undervalue the time parents invest in children. Well-cared-for children grow up to be better employees, community members, and taxpayers. The wider society benefits from strong investments in children, who can be thought of partly as “public goods.” So it makes economic sense to ensure that families have the resources they need to care for children.
“This is the economic argument for programs like ensuring universal access to pre-K, or for pregnant and nursing women to get sufficient nutrition, as well as for publicly funded education in general,” Braunstein says. “We as a community share the benefits – and costs – of these private decisions.”
In addition to her time at the U.N. and the Boyer lecture, a third recent feather in Braunstein’s cap came when she was named editor of the journal Feminist Economics in 2017, succeeding founder Diana Strassmann, who had been the only editor in the high-impact journal’s 25-year history.
“It was quite an honor,” says Braunstein, who got her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has been at CSU since 2005.
She’s excited about the direction the economics department is headed.
“Our reputation has grown immensely over the past decade,” Braunstein says. “The work that our people are doing is amazing. We have a dynamic department, and it’s an exciting time.”