Though I maintain a library of university economic-impact studies, I’m on the record as being quite skeptical of them, especially those that are purely quantitative. I was unsurprised when The New York Times noted the obvious weaknesses in the economic-impact study recently commissioned by Apple, which tried to counter the reality that nearly all Apple’s manufacturing takes place overseas with soothing statistics on jobs “supported” in app development, retail, and even shipping. The Times quotes MIT economist David Autor as saying:
“[the] entire business of claiming ‘direct and indirect’ job creation is disreputable” because most of the workers Apple is taking credit for would have been employed elsewhere in the company’s absence
Indeed. Pretty much the same weakness infects the “counterfactual” assumptions built into most university studies, according a nice economics working paper linked in my earlier blog post on the latter topic. In the end, although impact studies seem to satisfy some institutional need for quantification, they are rarely persuasive either to the general public or politicians, who value the economic contribution of any enterprise based its observable efforts to make a difference.