Obituary: Professor Arthur Brown ; Applied Economist Who Used His Slide-Rule to Devastating Effect

By Bowers, John | The Independent (London, England), March 6, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Professor Arthur Brown ; Applied Economist Who Used His Slide-Rule to Devastating Effect


Bowers, John, The Independent (London, England)


ARTHUR BROWN was an applied economist. He understood this to mean not, as today, the testing and estimation of economic models using sophisticated econometric techniques, but rather the application of economics as a tool to assist in the design and appraisal of policy. The policy did not need to be, and frequently wasn't, economic policy in the limited sense of the design of taxes and other instruments to achieve economic objectives.

Following his time at Oxford in the 1930s - where he held an All Souls Fellowship throughout the Second World War and its aftermath - he worked in the Government from 1940 to 1947; in the Foreign Research and Press Service, then in the Foreign Office Research Department and finally (1945- 47) in the Economic Section of the Offices of the Cabinet. Much of his work concerned the economics of war and defence: exploring the economic consequences of armament and, for Germany after the war, re-armament, and assessing the economic strengths and weaknesses of the belligerents.

The range of this work is revealed by some 56 notes and brief articles, most signed simply AJB, published mainly in the Bulletin of International News. Some titles give the flavour: "Economic Factors Connected to the Fall of France"; "World Sources of Petroleum"; "Finance and Man Power in the War'; "Japan's Strengths and Weaknesses"; "The Prospects of International Migration"; "Coal and Cotton".

The elements of applied economics, as he practised it, were the judicious choice of the right form of economic analysis, its development to fit the problem, and the processing of available statistical sources to give a feel for what was important and an idea of relevant magnitudes.

At meetings, having explained the economic theory, Brown would produce a small slide-rule that he carried in his top pocket and carry out rapid calculations to give some quantitative basis for argument. In his hands this simple tool kit could be devastatingly effective. In the 1960s as a young economist I watched him calculate the regional multiplier, the short-hand device for calculating the impact on regional income of government expenditure in a region. On the back of a (largish) brown envelope he derived the formula, then, using his famous slide-rule and a copy of the National Income "Blue Book", he estimated its value. A second envelope was used to derive a more sophisticated version with feedbacks.

His multipliers came into standard use for assessing regional policy and remained so for well over a decade. They are even used occasionally by local government today. A subsequent six-month computer-based study served only to confirm that the Brown multipliers were correct to the second decimal place. The original had taken Brown about an hour. In similar vein, but using a few more statistical sources, he compiled the first set of regional income accounts. Their general outline was not significantly modified by detailed subsequent work.

These applied skills inevitably made Brown a popular economist with successive governments, and his public service was extensive. He was involved in the decolonisation of British Africa as a member of government advisory committees.

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