Seven hundred and fifty columns and counting | opinion

This summer marks my 750th weekly column. That translates into about 500,000 words or 10 average size novels. I thank those of you who diligently read this column, as do the editors of the 25 or so outlets that publish my work each week.

The columns began in the summer of 2007 when I arrived in Muncie to direct Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research. The chance to write this column came with the job, and I am grateful for that opportunity. I’m especially grateful for the advice and guidance from so many local newspaper folks, particularly at Muncie’s StarPress. I’m not a journalist, but have come to respect local correspondents and grieve for the deep losses the industry has faced over the past 15 years.

I view this column as a rare privilege to share economic research and public policy ideas with a wider audience. I think many Americans value a thoughtful, plain-spoken effort to outline economic issues that affect our lives. That is a modest departure from my real job as an academic economist.

Almost everything I’ve written about in these columns is directly drawn from my own technical research. When I write about someone else’s work, or something unrelated to my own work, I usually make that very clear. The reasons for sticking to my own work are twofold. First, my day job is too demanding to permit much unrelated reading. Thus, almost everything I read is connected to the research I am doing. Second, I don’t think anyone cares about my opinions. If what I write is interesting, it is because it reflects the technical research I and my colleagues are performing.

Looking back on the topics I most frequently cover, it is clear that labor market issues, of jobs, unemployment and wages is the largest share of my work. These topics are interesting because they are mostly the result of market outcomes that affect nearly all of us. These are relatively easy issues to write about because there is an enormous amount of data released each month on employment and wages.

The second most frequently covered topic are public budgets, taxes, economic development activities and government efficiency. These affect all of us in many ways we might not understand. Differences in public service quality accounts for about one-third the difference in home values ​​between locations. Public services are important determinants of your child’s success after school, and the effectiveness of public safety affects economic growth in your community.

Too much of the discussion about tax and spending focuses on the wrong issues, such as how to cut tax rates or pay public employees better. The critical question is really about how we might improve quality to the levels we need, while keeping costs low. After all, businesses and families don’t shop on quality or price alone at the grocery, car lot or their next home or office. I’d like to think I’ve made this point with sufficient clarity to change the statehouse debate, but somehow I doubt that.

The third largest target of my columns has been education, broadly defined. Mostly this writing has been about how educational attainment effects our state and local economies. Very little has been about issues directly related to the inner workings of universities or public schools. Those things aren’t very interesting.

The importance of education should be obvious. The prominence of human capital in explaining differences in prosperity has grown substantially over the past half century. Today, differences in the share of adults with a college degree explains three quarters of the variation in prosperity between counties, and nearly all the economic growth. As I’ve written in numerous columns, the only jobs available for people who’ve not been to college are a share of those vacated by retirees. That is perhaps good for the individual worker, but it won’t grow in the economy.

What I write about has changed as well. In 2007, and in the first half of 2008, Indiana was in the midst of enormous policy changes in taxation, and how the state funded education. I wrote several columns, and a great deal of technical research on these subjects. Of course, the Great Recession pushed every economist to think about the influence a deep downturn would have on jobs and wages.

As the economy grew less volatile, I was able to write about some of the return to normalcy. I wrote about seasonal effects on household and business consumption, the effects of gambling, immigration, right to work, labor unions and immigration.

The 2015 political debates reflected heavily on international trade and automation. Here my research and columns tried to explain the relative influence of the two, without much success. There are still too many folks who think factory job losses were dominated by international trade. It has always been automation, not China, but we still got a counterproductive trade war with China, and fewer factory jobs.

The COVID pandemic gave the world economy the largest jolt since the Great Depression, so a substantial share of my writing focused on the pandemic and its ongoing effects. Much of this reflected research conducted by my colleagues and I at Ball State. Much of what I write about today was caused by the pandemic and our response to it.

Columns like mine are designed to help people think about issues they might otherwise not read about. My hope is that better knowledge helps voters and policymakers take interest that leads to change. I can’t credit my column with changing anyone’s mind, or altering any policy. But I have an inexhaustible supply of ink. That lets me keep writing about problems until they are taken seriously. That at least provides the illusion that what I write has some influence.

I was drawn to this job in 2007 because Indiana was such a fertile place for policy innovation. The Daniels administration was urgently addressing major problems with smart and inventive policies. Much of my early writing chronicles and evaluated those policies. My technical research, and thus my columns, were largely supportive of the efforts.

My more recent columns, and a substantial share of my research, has focused on how those polices failed to deliver on many of their main goals. As the state and nation emerge from the pandemic hangover, and face new challenges of inflation, possible recession, and a myriad of policy challenges I will keep writing. I’ve got at least another 250 columns inside my head, just waiting to be released onto this page. So, I hope to exercise the privilege of writing this column for a few more years.

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