Philip H. Brown Provides a Primer on Econometrics

While most people have at least a basic understanding of economics, fewer are aware of econometrics. In general terms, econometrics combines mathematics, in particular the use of statistics, with economics to analyze real-world and hypothetical situations.

Because of its use of statistical data, econometrics can be a powerful tool to study historic events and predict how various factors will affect future events. For example, using statistical data to measure the ratio of media coverage of past natural disasters to public aid provided may help relief agencies prepare contingency plans for future disasters that may receive more or less media coverage.

However, both the statistical model and the data must be reliable for a study and its resulting predictions to be effective. Additionally, the studies must take into account factors that may not appear on the surface in the raw data, such as cultural or gender differences that may otherwise influence the results.

Philip H. Brown is a development economist who has worked in China, Africa, Central America, and Chile. His research, which makes extensive use of econometrics, has been published in academic journals including Public Budgeting and Finance, the Review of Development Economics, and The Journal of Contemporary China.


The Fight Against Poverty in Chile, By Phillip H. Brown

Although Chile has seen significant reductions in poverty in the past 20 years, the country continues to suffer from high economic inequality. As of 2006, approximately 14 percent of the population in Chile lives in poverty. While this is dramatically lower than the nearly 40 percent of the population that lived in poverty in 1987, it remains a point of concern.

In a recent article I co-authored with Claudio A. Agostini of the Universidad Adolfo Ibañez entitled “Cash Transfers and Poverty Reduction in Chile,” we examined the various anti-poverty programs that have been launched to address the problem. We used data-mapping methodologies to compare the effectiveness of these initiatives at the sub-regional level.

Our research has showed that direct cash transfers have helped to greatly reduce the number of impoverished individuals by between 5 percent and 68 percent. These cash transfers have been particularly effective in rural areas where topography has also been found to have a role in their success. These findings can help guide Chile toward more focused and successful policies to combat poverty.

About Philip H. Brown
Development economist Philip H. Brown studies poverty and solutions to poverty, as well as health, education, the environment, and gender. He also studies the economics of natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Brown holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Philip Brown’s work has been featured in Time magazine, The New York Times, and the book “Superfreakonomics”.

Exploring Media-defined Limits to Altruism by Philip H. Brown

I admire the unconventional and engaging approach to everyday economics undertaken by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their Freakonomics books and long-running associated blog. One of the Freakonomics articles I found most personally engaging was How Pure Is Your Altruism?, which was written in May 2008 following two major natural disasters – a devastating earthquake in China and a large cyclone in Myanmar. The article commented on the uneven distribution of individual American charitable giving following major natural disasters. For example, Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in 1,877deaths, brought in a total of $5.3 billion in individual donations from in the U.S. In contrast, the Asian tsunami of 2004 resulted in an estimated 220,000 deaths and brought in less than $2 billion in donations from Americans. Similarly, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, which resulted in nearly 75,000 deaths, attracted only $150 million in individual U.S. contributions.

Certainly, the fact that Hurricane Katrina was an American disaster, hence closer to home, accounts for much of this difference. However, Levitt and Dubner identify two other factors in explaining low levels of donations, particularly following the Pakistan earthquake: donor fatigue after other high profile natural events and lack of media coverage. In exploring the latter phenomena, the authors excerpted a paragraph from my co-paper “Media Coverage and Charitable Giving After the 2004 Tsunami.” In sum, my paper shows that levels of media coverage following natural disasters have a significant impact on charitable donations made by Americans. Specifically, my co-author and I calculate that each additional minute of nightly television news coverage of a natural disaster results in a 13 percent increase in average donations on that same day. Similarly, each additional 700-word story in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times raises daily average donations by nearly 20 percent.
A sensible question, then, is “what causes certain natural disasters to receive extended coverage, while others are quickly forgotten?” One explanation is that level of media coverage is highly dependent on the occurrence’s distance from major media outlets and resources. Remoteness entails extra expenses in covering the natural disaster. Another significant factor is news cycle timing: both the China and Myanmar disasters occurred at a time when the U.S. Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was heating up, diminishing their media impact.

It seems to me that there are a multitude of opportunities for further research into the links between charitable contributions following natural disasters and the media. For example, given our shift to digital news, and a corresponding diffusion of news sources, it is unclear whether the results of our 2004 study apply to the same degree. I would argue that they do: even on the Internet, most readers never make it past the first page of the online edition of the New York Times, and YouTube video searches often follow reading about a disaster from a primary news source.

About the author: Development economist Philip H. Brown has authored numerous articles on issues such as poverty, vulnerability, natural disasters, and health and environmental economics. The referenced Freakonomics article can be accessed at Phil Brown’s other papers may be accessed at

The Neighbor Effects of Provision of Public Goods Among Chinese Villages by Philip H. Brown

As a development economist, much of my research has focused on better understanding poverty and inequality in countries such as Chile and China. Working on areas such as health, education, environmental protection, and public goods provision, my work aims to identify hurdles in the fight against poverty and to propose implementable public policies. One recent study is entitled “Neighbor Effects in the Provision of Public Goods in a Young Democracy: Evidence from China.” This project seeks to answer whether higher spending on public goods in neighboring areas is associated with higher spending on public goods at home and whether any such effect is related to nascent elections in Chinese villages. This study is unique in that it examines neighbor effects in an emerging democracy. While yardstick competition and fiscal mimicking have long been observed in developed countries with democratic traditions firmly in place, there is scant empirical evidence regarding young and developing democracies.

In undertaking our research, we looked closely at 86 rural Chinese administrative villages that have undergone democratic transitions in the past 20 years. We find that incumbent chairs of village committees (who are elected) are spurred on by public works projects in neighboring villages to initiate their own projects while incumbent secretaries of the local Communist Party branch (who are appointed) are not influenced by spending in neighboring villages, suggesting that democracy underlies neighbor effects. Expansion of local elections to townships and other higher levels of government may thus result in an increase in competition among village officials, leading to greater accountability to constituents. A working version of this paper was published in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s discussion paper series in September, 2010.

About the author: With a PhD in Economics from the University of Michigan, Philip H. Brown makes extensive use of econometrics and empirical methods in his research on poverty and poverty alleviation in the developing world. Phil Brown’s academic papers are accessible at