Is talk cheap in Congress?

"Our answer is yes," claims a team of economists who studied the relationship between campaign contributions and the number of words that lawmakers spoke for or against legislation in the House of Representatives.

Edward Tower of Duke University and Omer Gokcekus of North Carolina Central University assert that it cost the steel industry about $39 per word in campaign contributions to buy favorable mentions on the House floor in support of the 1999 steel import quota bill that the companies backed.

On a per-word basis, attempting to win allies was more expensive for the auto industry, which opposed quotas: Car makers paid about $84 for a discouraging word, Tower and Gokcekus wrote in the lead article in a recent issue of the Journal of Policy Reform.

"That struck us as incredibly cheap!" laughed Tower.

Well, maybe. But even at $39, the price seems a bit steep to your Unconventional Wiz. Not so, Gokcekus said. "When you consider the potential benefits [to the steel and auto industries] . . . it's a bargain."

Of course no one's suggesting that Big Steel plunked down $39 on a representative's desk and ordered up a word from a dictionary of fawning phrases. "Cost," "buy" and "price" are the terms that these economists used to model the complex correlation between campaign contributions and legislative behavior -- a relationship they acknowledge is far too complex to reduce to a simple dollar-for-words calculation. Legislators have all sorts of reasons to support or oppose a bill, and some of the most influential work occurs at the committee level or behind closed doors.

Nor did Tower and Gokcekus attempt to prove any quid pro quo. Nonetheless, their findings are intriguing. Here's what they did: Together with Duke undergraduate Ryan Gibbs, they collected data on campaign contributions by the major steel and auto companies to House members in 1998 and early 1999. The researchers then analyzed what each member said about the 1999 steel import quota bill and how many words the lawmaker used in praising or criticizing the legislation, as recorded in the Congressional Record. They also factored in contributions from the steel and auto workers unions, as well as the proportion of people in each member's state who worked in the steel or auto industries to control for other reasons members might speak for or against the bill, apart from corporate contributions.

The researchers decided that the 1999 bill, which easily passed the House but died in the Senate, was the perfect vehicle for studying the going rate for a favorable or unfavorable word on the House floor because the auto-steel divide made it easier to see where people stood.

The steel industry loved the bill, Gokcekus said, "because if you restrict imported steel, you effectively cut the supply and keep prices and profits going up." The auto industry, however, disliked it "because they are a steel user and rising prices cost them money."

Why was buying a word cheaper for the steel industry than for car makers? "My guess is that the auto companies aren't going to notice a vote in favor of steel input quotas that much because there are so many different materials used to make a car," Tower said. "If a congressman is behaving nicely in other regards, they aren't going to hold it against him," so it takes more cash to sway a favorable view.

Tower has found that the per-word amount is much lower than people imagine. "I ask people all the time, 'How much do you think a word "costs" in the Congressional Record?' When I tell them $39, they're surprised than it is as cheap as that." Gokcekus had a more jaded reaction: "Nothing about lobbying and political contributions surprises me any more."

Duke political scientist Michael Munger recently let the economists in on one of Capitol Hill's worst-kept secrets: Not all of the words that appear in the Congressional Record are actually uttered on the House floor. No problem, Tower said cheerfully. "Maybe the words uttered on the House floor would be a little more expensive" than ones later inserted into the record.

The recent campaign finance reforms also may cause the "price" of talk to shoot up. "They doubled the hard money limits that corporations, individuals and political action committees can give to candidates," Tower said. "This should mean that more hard money will flow to candidates [and] more money flowing per word."

Wedding Bell Taboos

In a world where everyone was equal and race didn't matter in choosing a soul mate, about 85 percent of all black men would by chance alone end up marrying a white woman. But in our color-coded world, only about 5.5 percent of all African American men walk down the aisle with a white woman.

Why is this gap so large? Economist Linda Y. Wong of Binghamton University in New York tries to answer this question in a new paper on the economics of interracial marriage.

Theories abound to explain why so few blacks and whites intermarry. Some researchers say it's racism -- that while de facto segregation is history, the social taboo against interracial marriages, while easing, still remains strong.

Some cite a "benefits gap": On average, black men disproportionately lack the education and income levels to be attractive to white women; if these differences were to vanish, some suggest the intermarriage rate would surge. Still others say both of these factors are important.

Wong, currently a visiting faculty member at the University of Chicago graduate school of business, used the 1990 Census and 30 years' worth of data collected by the University of Michigan from 588 married and single black men to estimate what the intermarriage rate would be if there were no social taboo or benefits gap. (She is completing a similar study of black women.)

She found that about three-quarters of the intermarriage gap is explained by the social taboo, Wong said. The differences in education or income between black men and white men explains less than 1 percent of the gap.

So when may we expect lots of rainbow weddings? Not anytime soon, but maybe someday, Wong said. "I predict the trend will keep rising. [But] much of it has to do with how the mating taboo evolves."