The Economist: How far have we come?

Economists are notorious pack rats. We save everything. I suppose today’s crop of younger economists retain their information in electronic form or out there in “the cloud,” but my generation clips and photocopies and prints and files. Over the course of 35 years, that adds up to quite a bit of paper.

A few months ago I decided it was time to start cleaning out filing cabinets and emptying shelves. The econ department at the university took boxes of stuff (a new generation of pack rats), but there is still a lot more to sort through. It’s been interesting to look back at what the Colorado economy was like in the “olden days,” as my children used to say.

It’s fun to review other people’s forecasts, although never a good idea to look back at your own. (One is much more accurate in her memory than in reality.) In 1963 the Denver Research Institute did a retrospective of the Colorado economy and a forecast of what the state would look like in 1970. It analyzed 100 years of data, reminding us that between 1870 and 1880 Colorado’s employment soared from 18,000 to more than 100,000.

That was when gold was discovered, and mining employment increased 14-fold in one decade to 35,000. It didn’t reach that level again until 1980 and only remained there for five years. Today mining employment is 23,000 in an employment base of 2.2 million, falling from 34 percent of jobs in 1880 to barely 1 percent today. Even at the height of the energy boom in the 1980s it never reached as high as 4 percent.

Occasionally we economists are asked to do long-term forecasts. When Denver International Airport was in the planning stages, I remember an engineering firm coming to me and asking what the price of concrete would be in 15 years. I just laughed and told them the nice thing about a forecast that far in the future is that no one will remember what you said. But, as I cleaned off shelves, I found a 25-year forecast made in 1965 by the Regional Planning Commission. It predicted Denver would have 2.5 million people by 2000. The actual figure: 2.4 million if Boulder is included. Not bad for a long-term forecast!

On the lighter side, I ran across a 1971 story predicting Denver would be the first major city in the country to solve its traffic problems. By 1974 we’d be riding around town in six-to-10-passenger mass transit vehicles traveling on a noiseless cushion of air. Oh, well, you can’t get them all right.

In a little book of statistics from 1968, I found that the crime rate in Colorado Springs was 2,013 per 100,000 residents, and in Denver it was 3,133. The other five metropolitan areas in Colorado weren’t large enough to be included. In 2008 it was 528 and 567 respectively. Assuming the statistics are comparable, it looks like Colorado is a much safer place to live.

I’ve always loved numbers. Growing up in a small town in southern Arkansas, it was an exciting day when the Statistical Abstract of the United States showed up on the newsstand and my father would bring a copy home. He and I would spend hours pouring over the data, reading aloud interesting facts while my mother and sister rolled their eyes.

I don’t still have those old Statistical Abstracts, but I do have one from 1981. Did you know that the average federal tax rate for those making more than $100,000 in 1979 ranged from 44 percent to 65 percent? Or that daily water usage in Colorado fell from 6,000 gallons per day per capita in 1970 to 4,000 gallons per day in 1975? A quick perusal of the data reveals that only Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming used more.

There is a lot more interesting stuff. If you have a need for old Statistical Abstracts, State and Metro Area Data Books and such, don’t hesitate to ask. Not everything is out there on the Internet..
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