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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Economist John Brown's research ranges from the global to the local, and incorporates a historical perspective that helps provide insight into contemporary issues.

Meet the researchers: Crossing borders—the advantage of trade

Professor John Brown's research

How did you become interested in the study of economics?

My initial interest came out of my involvement in political activity when I was younger. I started out as a McGovernite in 1972, supporting his presidential bid and anti-war campaign against Republican candidate Richard Nixon. I became interested in issues of public policy and political power, and took up the study of economics as an undergraduate. After college, I worked in the Wisconsin state legislature for two years as an assistant to a state senator who had a Ph.D. in economics from University of California at Berkeley. This was during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, and he was interested in using basic economic thinking to deal with problems of energy consumption and transportation. I wrote memos on such things as mass transit subsidies and getting people to pay for parking. I developed a better sense of the applicability of the economic ideas I learned as an undergraduate to a wide range of policy questions.

Then I decided to go back to graduate school in economics. I actually started out as a radical political economist, but when I started studying economic history, I came to understand that the radical political economists had a poor grasp of economic history. They were most concerned with fitting developments in the past into a preconceived framework, rather than investigating what actually happened. I turned to traditional economics because it offered more promise as a way to understand historical and contemporary questions.

What are your main areas of research right now?

My areas of research form a kind of tripod. On my own and with economist and former Clark professor Daniel Bernhofen, I'm looking at issues of international competition and trade in historical contexts, especially in Germany and Japan in the 19th century.

You mentioned earlier that you integrate the trade situation in 19th century Japan into one of your introductory courses, Economics in the World Economy. Yes. In this course I link basic ideas of economics with global economic issues. A key feature is helping students understand that both within and between countries exchange-that is, trade—is a fundamental building block of any successful economy. I use a number of classroom experiments that allow students to discover the reasons for why markets-and exchange-are such powerful institutions for offering gains to both buyers and sellers.

For example, in one classroom experiment, I ask students to read in advance a description of Japan in the 19th century and the kind of gains it experienced moving from autarky to a free trade economy. Japan was then what we call a lesser-developed economy. The experiment explores the ideas of comparative advantage by assigning students randomly to play a role as a resident of a (very) rich or poor country. The residents of each country have a fixed amount of time to work with, and they are told how much time they need to produce two possible products. As did the Japanese silk producers or the British cloth producers, they decide how much they want to produce once trading opportunities become available. The experiment works out quite well. It helps students understand why countries benefit from trading with each other, even if they have vastly different resources and income levels, and why there will be mutual gains even under those circumstances. It also prompts stimulating discussions about many commonly-held notions about trade and trade policy.

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You mentioned two other areas of research.

I'm also interested in the relationship between economics and the historical demography of urban areas. I'm involved in a large project with a colleague in which we're examining fertility rates in urban Germany in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time period, there was a dramatic decline in the number of births per family and we're trying to determine what might have accounted for the rapid onset of what we now see as a characteristically "modern" pattern of low fertility among married couples in the industrialized world.

Since the early 1990s we've been working with a data set for Munich, Germany that is, I think, unique for a large urban area over a long period of time. It stems from the German practice, beginning after the Napoleonic Wars, of requiring that all people living in the city register with police. These records for Munich had actually survived one revolution and two world wars.

We're looking at information from the mid-1820s to about 1910 for about 5,000 couples—90 years of demographic history on individual families. The records include information about where in the city they lived, the taxes they paid, birth and death dates, and when they moved into and out of the city. There must have been an army of people working in the city registration office!

We've been transcribing this information into a form that can be used for analysis. I am fluent in German, but the old handwriting is very difficult to read, and you have to understand how the records are organized. We collaborated with an archivist in Munich. Our project funding is from the National Institute for Child Health and Development, and by the terms of that grant we will place our data set in a publicly accessible form once we have completed our analysis. It's a labor of love—you're really doing detective work.

My third area of research involves collaboration with my Clark colleague Jacqueline Geoghegan. We're trying to understand the relationship between the Clark University Park Partnership (UPP) and changes in Main South—the neighborhood of which Clark is a part. What effect has the UPP had on, for example, the stability of the neighborhood, neighborhood development, and the kind of people who want to live in the neighborhood?

The primary source of information we'll be using is property sales data, beginning well before the UPP was actually initiated and then continuing on through the present. From that sales data we can also get a good sense of property turn over, and other dimensions of how the local housing market has been operating. That gives you a lot of information about how people view the neighborhood in terms of safety, quality and the opportunities that Clark is offering. We have grant support for this project from the Lincoln Land Institute, so we'll be able to provide some funding to undergraduates who are interested in helping with the research.

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Can you talk more about the opportunities for getting involved in research that are available to undergrads in economics?

We require all undergraduates to take the statistics course so they learn how to work with data and to use Microsoft Excel. Students who take econometrics —the advanced statistics course—learn how to use the statistics program that we economists use. Having more advanced training allows them to participate in research projects at a more demanding level. In both courses, students carry out individual research projects that emphasize the basics of research, including formulating hypotheses and testing them with the appropriate data.

Every year the department employs a part-time undergraduate assistant funded with work-study money. That individual has done a range of research related tasks, from inputting data into the computer to examining data sources and converting that information into a form usable by a researcher. And every year we have six or seven students completing honors theses.

So students get involved in research through a course?

Yes. In my urban economics course, for example, I offer students the option of doing a more original research project based on primary sources rather than paper that centers on secondary source discussions of issues. I've had some students do historical research on the Worcester economy because there's a lot of detailed information on Worcester from manufacturing censuses conducted in the mid to late nineteenth century. Students have actually used some of that primary source material to apply some important themes that they've learned about in class. We try to build upon the work of earlier generations to develop data sets that can be used by subsequent groups of students.

Worcester provides an excellent laboratory for the study of economics.

Yes. In my economic history and urban economics courses, I often take students on a walk around the neighborhood and talk about influences on neighborhood growth and decline. That experience gives them a better understanding of economic processes. It's nice the way Clark has developed that initiative and interest in looking out into the community instead of looking in. That's an important and a valuable decision that was made.

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