The Changing Focus of Public Economics Research, 1980-2010

Article excerpt

The NBER's Program on Public Economics (PE) has covered a very wide range of topics since the last program report six years ago. Rather than attempting to summarize the entire corpus of work that has been done by this program in the past few years, this report provides a bird's eye view of some of the major changes in the field from two perspectives. First, we quantify the main trends in public finance research at the NBER over the last thirty years, drawing on statistics from the database of NBER Working Papers. Second, we qualitatively summarize some of the emerging themes of recent research, both in terms of topics and methods.

A Statistical Perspective

The Public Economics Program began as the Business Taxation and Finance Program, which held its first meeting under the direction of David Bradford in December 1977. It was renamed the Taxation Program in 1980, to reflect the broader research interests of its affiliated researchers. To recognize the importance of expenditure as well as tax research, the program was renamed "Public Economics" in 1991, when James Poterba succeeded David Bradford as Program Director.

In the last two decades, the research conducted by the Public Economics Program has changed dramatically in volume, methodology, and topics. To broadly characterize some of the main trends, we downloaded all of the Working Papers in the Taxation Program in 1990 and in the Public Economics Program in 2000 and 2010, and classified them in various ways, which we summarize in Table 1, on page 3.

Table 1-Overview

                1990   2000   2010

Total # of       398    665   1025
NBER Working
Papers

Total # of        55    153    183
Working
Papers in
Public
Economics

Share of       13.8%  23.0%  17.9%
Working
Papers in
Public
Economics

Public
Economics
Working
Papers by
Methodology

                1990   2000   2010

Empirical      29.1%  46.4%  52.5%

Theory         38.2%  37.3%  30.1%

Both           29.1%  11.8%   5.5%

Other (survey   3.6%   4.6%  12.1%
of the
literature,
research
methodology,
etc)

Public
Economics
Working
Papers by
Topic

                1990   2000   2010

Tax            63.6%  28.1%  15.3%

Spending        5.5%  13.7%  20.8%

Tax and         0.0%   7.8%   1.1%
Spending

Other          30.9%  50.3%  62.8%
(Education,
Regulation,
etc) *

Public
Economics
Working
Papers on
Taxation:
Corporate vs.
Individual

                1990   2000   2010

Individual     47.1%  79.2%  88.9%

Corporate      41.2%  13.2%   7.4%

Both           11.8%   7.5%   3.7%

* WPs on education factors and their productivity, such as teachers'
value added and school choice mechanisms, are categorized under
"other" while WPs on the financing of public education are
categorized under "spending".

The number of Public Economics (PE) papers per year has grown over time from 55 in 1990 to 183 in 2010. This appears to primarily reflect the growth in the number of Program members; over the same period, the total number of NBER affiliates has also increased; and the Public Economics share of NBER Working Papers has not shown any pronounced trend. However, the activities of the PE Program have branched out in part to related programs, including Children, the Economics of Education, Aging, Health Economics, and Health Care. The papers in these programs collectively account for over 40 percent of NBER Working Papers in 2010.

The typical methodology used in papers in the PE Program also has changed over time. In 1990, about 30 percent of papers listed in PE were purely empirical; by 2010 that number had grown to about 50 percent. Much of this growth is likely due to the greater availability of micro data that permit rigorous empirical analyses of questions that cannot be answered purely based on theory. We expect this growth to be even more rapid in the coming years, as researchers gain access to large administrative panel databases that permit even finer analysis. …