Economists go afield to crunch data on social issues

Economists are "imperialists," says Elton Hinshaw. Without any qualms, they invade the turf of other professions, other fields of study and research.

"If there is a problem that is amenable to the tools we have, some economist will jump on it," says the retired secretary-treasurer of the American Economic Association (AEA).

Those tools include statistics, mathematics, "econometric modeling," equations, logic, and detailed analysis.

"Economics is what economists do," said the late Kenneth Boulding, who last taught at the University of Colorado.

But economists don't deal just with economic statistics, finance, monetary and fiscal policy, trade, investment, and other areas that one might associate with the title.

Today they are into everything, applying their tools to sociology, political science, criminology, education, healthcare – even happiness.

And their output is astounding.

The number of American economists may be slipping a little. Membership in the AEA several years ago was about 20,000. It's now close to 19,000. But the volume of their work has only grown, aided by increasingly powerful computers and the Internet.

The AEA's Journal of Economic Literature surveys some 300 economic journals. They range from the heavily mathematical, which appeal primarily to other economists, to the conversational, where a conscious effort has been made to eliminate the math for the benefit of a more general reader.

Many readers view such reports as a much-needed eye on Washington. The government's growing involvement in the 1950s and 1960s in many aspects of society – education, health, poverty reduction, housing, etc. – has prompted many economists to conduct empirical research on the impact and effectiveness of these programs.

"Economists have naturally followed," says Martin Feldstein, chief economist for President Ronald Reagan and now president of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Cambridge, Mass.

Classical economic topics have been plowed by many brilliant economists for decades, and are still being probed today.

But increasingly, young economists explore new areas. They may find it more interesting, and perhaps not so subject to the academic attacks they might get from revisiting the work of respected peers.

That's apparent in the batch of NBER "working papers" this writer gets almost every day. They numbered 634 last year.

For a noneconomist, many are hard to decipher. But they usually have a readable summary. (See www.nber.org.) Here's a sampling of conclusions from papers on topics beyond the usual economic topics:

• Widespread gun ownership has been touted by some groups as a deterrent to residential burglars, who are presumably frightened by the risk of being shot. But residential burglary rates tend to increase with community gun prevalence, according to one paper, which maintains that burglars apparently see the guns themselves as lucrative loot. (Paper 8926.)

• From 1959 to 1974, the fertility of women in Quebec dropped precipitously to well below the "replacement rate" and below that in the rest of Canada. French Canadians became concerned that they would become a fading people.

So the provincial government passed in 1988 a generous "pro-natalist" subsidy of up to $8,000 (Canadian) to families having a child.

It worked. Fertility increased 25 percent for families eligible for the full amount. Despite the success, the government canceled the program in 1997. (Paper 8845.)

• If a mother moves from part-time work (20 hours per week) to full-time work (40 hours), the probability that her child is overweight increases 1 to 2 percentage points, another paper says.

Presumably kids with mothers who work full time eat more calorie-laden food than children of mothers who stay closer to home. This effect is greatest for children of whites and those with more education and high incomes. (Paper 8770.)

• Raise the price of alcohol substantially, and some college students will not drink or will drink less. That's no surprise to economists, who figure that higher prices usually limit the market for products. But it may impress college administrators concerned about student binge drinking with its often sad consequences in deaths, rapes, and other tragedies.

An increase of $1 above the $2.17 average price for a drink, says another paper, is a bit more effective than a ban on alcohol on the campus. (Paper 8702.)

• Completing high school reduces the probability of incarceration by about 0.76 percentage points for whites and 3.4 percentage points for blacks. The biggest impact is on murder, assault, and motor-vehicle theft. (Paper 8605.)

• Zoning and other controls over the use of land play the dominant role in making housing expensive – much more than the cost of construction – in a limited number of areas in the US.

These include California and some eastern cities, Boston and New York among them. (Paper 8835.)

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