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Most modern economists, the ones who actually look at the real world, don't gather data anymore. They pluck readily available numbers from big databases and run them through ever-more-powerful computers.
Claudia Goldin, a sort of historical detective, can't get the numbers she needs that way. She has to find them--in 75-year-old state reports locked up in Harvard University's Monroe C. Gutman Library, in handwritten records of a 1915 Iowa census preserved on microfilm by Mormons, in Citicorp's old personnel files.
"It's like the difference between gong into a store and buying things off the rack, and sitting at home and making them," the Harvard economist says.
At Gutman Library, Ms. Goldin thumbs through yellowing reports on early-20th-century public schools and sees hope for today's middle-class children. Peering into the future with a rear-view mirror, she finds evidence that in times of rapid technological change--which helps some workers and hurts many--education can have a powerful ameliorative effect.
"America led the world in high schools," she says. In 1910, only 10% of 18-year-olds in New York had diplomas; a generation later, most did. The "dumbing down" of high schools, transforming them from schools that taught Greek to the college-bound into schools that taught children of the masses how to read blueprints, changed the U.S. economy.
Ms. Goldin, a leading-edge baby boomer who turns 50 this year, is divorced and childless herself. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in New York at age 16, she attended Cornell University, got interested in economics and later became one of only four women in the University of Chicago's high-pressure graduate department. There, she took a course with a noted economic historian, Robert Fogel. "she was very bright, very independent-minded," he recalls. "It was pretty clear she was going to be a pretty substantial economist."
She doesn't recall it that way. "I had a Caesarean birth from graduate school," she says. "After four years, you were pushed out whether you were mature enough or not." Princeton University offered her a job teaching economic history, but she decided she didn't know enough. She spent two years at the University of Wisconsin before moving to Princeton and, later, the University of Pennsylvania.
Today, Ms. Goldin is the only tenured woman in Harvard's economics department. She also oversees work on American economic history at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the prestigious research institute housed over a furniture store near the campus. Her work is widely cited by economists--and by journalists because of her affable nature, choice of subjects, and quotable turns of phrase.
Among the work that has drawn attention within the profession is a paper she did with another economist, Robert Margo, that described the 1940s as a period in which the difference between wages paid to men of different skills and education narrowed unusually sharply. World War II was largely responsible, but the resulting wage structure lasted until 1970. By the mid-1980s, however, wage inequality had returned to 1940s levels, she says.
Ever curious, Ms. Goldin wondered what had happened to wages in earlier periods, and particularly the role played by the spread of high schools. With published national data failing to shed much light, she set out to collect the numbers state by state. She thought the job might take a month. Instead it took a couple of years.
The 1940 U.S. census--the first to inquire about education--was misleading because older respondents didn't understand the questions about schooling. It turned out that many institutions calling themselves "colleges" were really high schools. "And evening high schools"--where many working people studied--"are still the ben of my existence," she says, becasue their enrollments were not tallied with those of other high schools.
"There were tremendous mysteries," Ms. Goldin says. "Just about everything one does in academics, if you have some curiosity, is a real whodunit." Then someone told her the state of Iowa, enormously proud of its educational achievements, had conducted its own census in 1915 and 1925, recording each resident's education and wages.
Intrigued by what happened in Iowa and other wealthy agricultural states of "the education belt," she "raced back" to Gutman Library and started to read the state reports. "I hadn't really looked at them except to fill in a number now and then," she says. Slowly, she began to piece together the significance of "the high school movement" to American workers and the striking differences between, say, New England towns where high schools took root early and New Jersey towns where they didn't.
Recently, she has been trying to figure out which manufacturing industries drew the mots high-school graduates in the decades before World War II. Her preliminary answer: new industries, plus businesses that sold or serviced relatively new products such as autos. "In 1939," she says with the excitement of a baseball fan reciting batting averages, "your average filling-station attendant between 18 and 34 has a high-school degree. Why is that?"
With the answers to such questions not found in books, Ms. Goldin seeks clues wherever she goes. On an airliner a few weeks ago, she was seated next to an International Paper Co. executive. "He wanted to talk to me about the economy," she says. "I wanted to talk to him about machine tools, and what papermaking machinery looked like in 1910."
They talked about machinery.
Raw notes on Claudia Goldin's EHA Presidential Address
Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax