The great economist, who has died aged 72, refused to swallow orthodoxiesby Tom Clark / January 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
These days everyone knows we’ve got an inequality problem. Earnest executives will chat about Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century at Davos, and the IMF will warn us all to mind the gap.
It is difficult, however, to get across to anyone who was not involved in economics before the crisis just how indifferent the discipline had become to the question of “who got what.” “Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics,” wrote the Nobel prize-winner Robert Lucas, “the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution.” As a young researcher starting out my career in the 1990s looking at the great income gap in Britain, I was very much aware that I was operating at the fringes of “economics proper.”
Luckily, all understanding of the subject did not disappear, because there were always one or two economists around who still remembered the last time when the discipline regarded the question of “who got what” as central to its business. Tony Atkinson, who has died aged 72, was foremost amongst them, and such was his rigor and his command of the data that nobody would ever have accused him of being on the fringes. He was exceptionally pleasant too, knitting himself into the heart of the social scientific community as the warden of Nuffield College, Oxford and an active scholar at the London School of Economics. No wonder that the obituaries have been so warm, and tributes from his LSE colleagues even warmer. Although I met and spoke with him several times, most recently when I interviewed his former American collaborator Joseph Stiglitz for Prospect, there is no point in me trying to improve on the eulogies of those who knew him far better.
But in the light of Atkinson’s death, two points strike me as poignant. The first is that, in the end, the truth has power. In frightening times when “truthiness” can seem to trump the actuality in election campaigns, it is inspiring to reflect on just how much it would eventually matter that Atkinson took the time to establish important facts in the way that he did. In the 1980s, he was aware that something profound was happening to the way Britain’s prosperity was being shared around—or rather…