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Economics on the Internet

By Bruce Bartlett

I recently made a life-changing decision that, to those under the age of 30, will probably sound ridiculous. I finally decided that I trust the Internet enough to stop subscribing to a number of publications that are now easily available online.

When you younger folk finish laughing, try to look at it from my point of view. For many years, the only way you could get critical data was to go down to places like the Bureau of Economic Analysis or the Bureau of Labor Statistics and pick it up yourself. If you were a journalist, you might get them to put you on a mailing list, but it might be days or weeks before the press release arrived.

If you wanted to know what the Federal Reserve was doing, you had to trek up to Capitol Hill and try to get a place in the hearing room when the chairman testified. If you were really lucky, there might be a few copies of his statement left when he finished and a congressional staffer might let you have one.

And if you wanted analysis of economic or labor trends, you had to subscribe to obscure publications like the Survey of Current Business or the Monthly Labor Review or the Federal Reserve Bulletin. These were also the only places you could find important statistics. And to put together a time-series, you needed access to past issues, because the compendiums of such data only appeared every few years.

Obviously, this was a pain in the you-know-what. But it did have compensating advantages. The main one was that those of us who could quickly get hold of the government's economic publications and statistical releases had a lot of power simply by virtue of our access to information. When I joined the staff of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, one of the benefits was having all this material at my disposal for the first time.

Now, of course, everyone on earth with a computer and an Internet connection can instantly obtain all this material that was so hard to come by just a few years ago. When the Fed chairman testifies, they can watch it live on the Web, while simultaneously printing out a copy of his statement. And such statements may contain hyperlinks to studies and data releases that would otherwise be unknown to the average person.

This is all to the good. The faster information is made available and absorbed by financial markets, the better it is for everyone. It creates transparency and avoids misunderstandings, and therefore reduces errors.

But old habits die hard, and I have maintained my subscriptions to all the old publications I've trusted for so long and saved all the back issues -- just in case. But 25 years or more of any publication is going to take up a lot of space, and I finally decided I had to let go.

I started checking around to see what my options were and was pleasantly surprised. I discovered that the Department of Commerce posts copies of the Survey of Current Business for free and maintains archives of all issues back to 1994. The Department of Labor posts the Monthly Labor Review and makes all of those issues back to 1981 available for free, as well.

I also discovered that my local public library system in Fairfax County, Va., has databases available for remote access to anyone with a library card, which residents can easily apply for online. One such database is called ProQuest, and it has every issue of the Monthly Labor Review that has ever been published since it started in 1918.

ProQuest also makes available a wide number of economic publications, such as the American Economic Review, Economic Inquiry, Public Choice and many others that I have paid good money to subscribe to for many years. Sometimes, the archives only go back a few years -- but in other cases, they are quite deep. For example, every issue of the Southern Economic Journal since 1933 is online.

There are thousands of publications, many of them quite expensive to subscribe to, available on ProQuest. They cover every field, including law, medicine, accounting, teaching and so on. Perhaps even more amazing is that every issue of The Washington Post and The New York Times is available online since they came into existence in 1877 and 1851, respectively. It allows anyone with an interest in history to see it the way people who lived it saw it.

Space prohibits me from telling all that I have learned about research on the Internet. Suffice it to say that I now have a great deal more space in my house that previously was filled with government publications and academic journals. Now, if I could only figure out what to do with all my books.

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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