An ember catches fire: Expanding scope and resources for economics at Brown

With gifts from Orlando Bravo ’92 and James and Cathleen Stone P’17, Brown’s economics department is examining wealth, poverty, and inequality from multiple perspectives.

It goes against much of what we've been led to believe.

The United States, according to labor and health economist Anna Aizer, is not a land of opportunity for many. In fact, it is easier to move up the economic ladder in most countries in Western Europe than it is here.

Aizer, professor of economics and public policy and chair of the Department of Economics, ought to know. She's been studying these mechanisms for years.

"Income predictors in American adulthood are pretty much set by the time a child reaches eight," she says. "The child's hometown, access to high-quality healthcare, educational opportunities—even interactions with the juvenile justice system—all determine where that child will land in the future."

What is it about growing up in a poor household that makes it so difficult for a child to escape poverty? That's what she's trying to figure out. Already, though, there is cause for optimism: Lead—which affects cognitive development—has been reduced in the environment. "Investing early in low-income children can produce large returns," affirms Aizer.

Turns out that investing in adults pays off, too. In a new co-authored working paper for the World Bank, David Weil, James and Merryl Tisch Professor of Economics, examined what happens to income and poverty levels when attention is given to human capital—education, better healthcare, and job training—of new workers.

The outcome? Poverty drops. In the context of the model, they conclude, investing in people is more cost effective than investing in physical capital—like equipment, vehicles, or buildings—in achieving specific income or poverty goals. "Education is an investment that pays off in terms of higher productivity," says Weil.

"Imagine what we'll accomplish together."

Thanks to two gifts—a recent one from the Bravo Family Foundation and an earlier one from James M. and Cathleen D. Stone P’17—scholars in Brown's Department of Economics are engaging in research ranging from pure theory to applied subjects in order to study wealth, poverty, inequality, and other critical issues from multiple perspectives.

The earlier gift created The James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Wealth and Income Inequality Project, which examines wealth and income inequality with particular emphasis on the accumulation of wealth by the top one percent of individuals. The gift supports visiting professors, multiple graduate student research projects, and new undergraduate courses.

I’d like to see wealth and income inequality become an interdisciplinary subject because the sociology and the political science are just as important as the economics. But you have to start somewhere with an ember and hope it catches fire.

James Stone P’17

James and Cathleen Stone P'17Doctoral student Julia Tanndal, for example, tested the effect of tax rate changes on tax evasion through offshore accounts. "Launching my own research has been scary and exciting at the same time. But highlighting the efficiency of tax policy as an alternative to regulation will mean something for the world."

And an undergraduate offering—"Inequality of Income, Wealth, and Health in the United States"—team taught by President Christina Paxson and Weil (who is also the Stone Project's director), aligns well with James Stone's thinking. "I'd like to see wealth and income inequality become an interdisciplinary subject because the sociology and the political science are just as important as the economics," says Stone. "But you have to start somewhere with an ember and hope it catches fire."

The Stone Wealth and Income Inequality Project also co-sponsored a public lecture by Professor Robert Frank, the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and professor of economics at Cornell University; and a later forum moderated by President Paxson.

I am proud to support economics research that draws attention to inequality and promotes policies that enhance social mobility. Brown was the place that opened up incredible opportunities for me.

Orlando Bravo ’92

Orlando Bravo '92The more recent gift, in turn, will launch the Orlando Bravo Center for Economic Research and fund the recruitment and retention of stellar economics faculty. It was due, in part, to Bravo's appreciation of the role that undergraduate and graduate students play in economic scholarship at Brown. "I am passionate about giving young adults opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have," says the 1992 graduate and Puerto Rican native. "I am proud to support economics research that draws attention to inequality and promotes policies that enhance social mobility. Brown was the place that opened up incredible opportunities for me."

Bravo's gift will strengthen what is already a nationally ranked department—enabling it to expand the scope of its high-impact, data-driven research, focus on critical issues and policy conversations, and train the next generation of economics researchers.

"Important research takes resources to develop," says Aizer. "Whether it's mining or collecting data at home or abroad, hiring research assistants, adding to our curriculum, or retaining or bringing in the best talent possible, resources are needed. These gifts give us those. Imagine what we'll accomplish together."

(June 2019)

In addition to his bachelor's degree from Brown, Orlando Bravo earned a J.D. from Stanford Law School and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He co-founded Thoma Bravo, a private equity firm focused on software and technology businesses. Bravo and the Bravo Family Foundation have consistently supported the University's strategic priorities. Previously, the foundation made a $1 million gift to the Faculty Development Fund, which supports research and travel for faculty at Brown, and created a scholarship fund to support Latinx students. He also serves on the President's Leadership Council.

James Stone, Ph.D. P’17 is an economist and the founder and CEO of the Plymouth Rock Group of insurance companies. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; as a member of the Board of Directors of ProPublica; as Chairman of the EdVestors School on the Move Prize Panel; and is a Fellow and member of the Finance Committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also Chairman Emeritus of Management Sciences for Health, worldwide public health non-profit. He is also the author of the bestselling book, Five Easy Theses: Commonsense Solutions to America's Greatest Economic Challenges.

Cathleen Stone P’17 is past partner of the Boston law firm Foley, Hoag & Eliot and president of the James M. Stone and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Boston Harbor Now, the Wilderness Society, WBUR Boston, the Supreme Court Historical Society, and as a Commissioner for the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. In 1994, former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino appointed her as the City's first Chief of Environmental Services. She has received the Eleanor Roosevelt Following In her Footsteps Award and the Norman B. Leventhal Excellence in City Building Award.