Years before the explosion of big data and analytics, Finis Welch, PhD’66, displayed an uncanny ability to extract truth from complex data sets. In an academic career spanning four decades and six universitites, he applied his patient and rigorous approach to produce significant insights on a number of important social and business issues, including education production, the structure of wages, wage differentials between races, agricultural economics and much more.
In the process, he influenced a generation of scholars, students, and business associates about the power and perils of regression models and other statistical tools. On November 15, 2013, a community of these scholars gathered to celebrate his 75th birthday with a research conference focused on empirical labor economics. The conference hosted by Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics was also supported by the George J. Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the Andrew & Betsy Rosenfield Program in Economics, Public Policy, and Law.
One speaker, Derek Neal, said Welch was part of a Chicago economics tradition that relies on using large data sets covering large populations to address big questions. “It’s important to really understand how these data sets were collected, the information in them and how they speak to canonical economic models, how the models need to change, and how we need to think about policy," Neal noted. Early in his career Neal watched Welch, his coauthor Jim Smith, and others like Nobel laureates Robert Fogel and James Heckman work with such data souces and concluded, “I want to be part of that enterprise. This paper (presented at the conference) is very much part of that tradition.”
In the same vein, researchers relied on “Finis-like” data analysis in papers that explored these questions:
- Why have black men—particularly those with several years of work experience—suffered significant losses in relative wages during the Great Recession?
- To what degree does the prevalence of sexism drive variation in both labor market outcomes (wages and employment) and non-market outcomes (age of marriage and fertility) for white women across different regions of the United States? Read more.
- What is the relationship between health policy and labor supply, and what can Tennessee’s failed initiative to expand the public health insurance tell us about current health care policy?
- How do employers establish timely and accurate estimates of initial worker productivity, and does their learning vary based on worker education level?
- How did the housing boom shift labor markets and impact college enrollments?
- Do long waits for a decision after applying for disability affect subsequent employment rates and wages?
The conference included an entertaining and heartfelt tribute by Robert Topel to his former professor. Topel and conference co-organizer Kevin Murphy then presented Welch with a sculpture depicting a champion horse he trained for calf-roping competitions.