Economists cover everything from fertility to football in 2007

The National Bureau of Economic Research published more than 700 reports this year. Here are some of the more interesting ones.

By , columnist

All-white church congregations tend to be less generous in supporting social service activities when the share of black residents in their local community grows.

That's an intriguing trend noted in Working Paper 13323 of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cam­bridge, Mass. It's also one of about 700 working papers published by the NBER this year, covering a wide range of topics that interest the nation's 18,000-plus economists – and hopefully Monitor readers.

Free summaries of these papers are available at www.NBER.org. Downloads of the complete papers cost $5.

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These yellow-covered pamphlets clutter my desk throughout the year. No. 13323 caught my eye because of the amount of charity churches provide across the country.

Author Daniel Hungerman of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana notes that the approximately 35,000 congregations in the United States provide social services to more than 70 million Americans annually. Along the way, they spend an estimated $24 billion on philanthropic activities.

Moreover, federal government agencies provided more than $2.1 billion in grants to religious organizations in 2005, partly under a controversial program devised by President George Bush. In 2002, Mr. Bush spoke of faith-based charities working "daily miracles" in their social programs.

Mr. Hungerman's paper explores whether the racial composition of a community affects the charitable activities of its congregations – apparently it does for all-white congregations.

Such working papers are not necessarily peer-reviewed for the accuracy of their analysis and facts.

Further, as most people know, economists differ widely in their opinions and in the conclusions they reach from their research.

Many papers end up in dozens of economic journals that to a degree satisfy the need for many academics "to publish or perish" at their schools.

So in recognition of those yet to perish, here's a year-end sampling of other noteworthy working paper conclusions from 2007:

•Looking at data for 97 countries, four Harvard University economists find in No. 13583 that when women work they have fewer babies, an effect concentrated in the 20 to 39 age bracket.

Lower fertility, the study suggests, can double the level of output per capita. It also may boost the incentive for women to go to school, making it easier for them to save to help their parents in old age as well as themselves in their retirement years.

Having fewer children also should permit more investment in each child's health and education, the economists conclude.

•One fervid goal of tax cutters in Washington is to "starve the beast" – in other words, cut taxes in order to reduce future government spending. In No. 13548, University of California, Berkeley, economists Christina and David Romer find "no support for the hypothesis." In fact, their research indicates, tax cuts "may actually increase spending" and "induce subsequent legislated tax increases."

•Armed conflicts are a leading cause of poverty and death in developing countries. It's estimated, for example, that 3.8 million lives have been lost in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone since 1998. The warfare there is fed to a large extent by an illegal arms trade, circumventing United Nations imposition of arms embargoes and other peacekeeping operations.

The weapons trade is hard to detect. But two economists point out that rising stock prices may give a clue as to who is providing the weapons. Weaponsmakers in countries that do less to block the illegal trade and face less damage to their reputation experience a boost in their stock prices, find Stefano Vigna, also of UC, Berkeley, and Eliana La Ferrara, of Università Bocconi, in Milan, Italy, in Paper No. 13355.

•David Blanchflower, an expert on happiness research at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., finds in No. 13505 that unemployment does more damage to people's sense of well-being than inflation, though both factors lower happiness.

Higher interest rates also depress happiness. Rises in per capita gross domestic product (a nation's output of goods and services) have little impact on the mood of people in rich developed nations, but do boost the sense of well-being in poor countries.

•The decision to smoke depends in some degree on the smoking decisions of one's peers. In No. 13477, David Cutler and Edward Glaeser, both of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., find that individuals with a spouse facing a workplace smoking ban are less likely to smoke themselves. If a person quits smoking, there's a 40 percent likelihood his or her spouse will also quit.

The paper cites other research suggesting that the choice of friends and neighbors may influence individuals in deciding whether to drop out of school, be unemployed, commit crime, get pregnant, or even become fat. One study suggests obesity spreads from person to person in the United States.

•College football is big business, with revenues averaging more than $35 million per school in some conferences. The sport also spurs endless debate about its reliance on polls and computers each year rather than a playoff system to determine a champion.

Economist Trevon Logan, however, shoots down some of the conventional wisdoms of college football fans, their coaches, and pundits regarding the timing of wins and losses.

Mr. Logan, who teaches at Ohio State University in Columbus, finds that (1) it is better for a team to lose later in the season than earlier, (2) Associated Press voters do not pay attention to the strength of a defeated opponent when determining the No. 1 team, and (3) the benefit of winning by a large margin is negligible.

Hey, who says economics can't be fun?

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