We won’t see his like again
I firstly met Tony Atkinson as professor of Microeconomics at the LSE in 1984, when he has sharing the teaching of marginal utilities and production functions with Michio Morishima. Being an advanced option, we were a small group of students, and this contributed creating a friendly environment, despite the abstruseness of many topics. He was also teaching us the fundamentals of welfare economics, but he was so respectful of his students to avoid using his textbook on Public Economics, coauthored with Joe Stiglitz as well as any reference to the then known article on inequality measurement appeared in 1970. He was also one of the few professors who was not annoyed by receiving students during his office hours, and rather patient with people like me afflicted by the compensated utility and the like. In those years it was more politically rewarding (at least for me) to speak and write on the functional distribution of income, and Megnhad Desai with his course on Marx, Keynes and Walras was absorbing most of my time in reading.
It was a couple of years later that I started reading Tony’s work, beginning with the volume The economics of inequality. I still remember the back of the envelope examples in the book showing that even saving most of his income, a middle class worker would have never attained a level of wealth experienced by the rich in any country. For the first time I got the image that there was a back side to the models of class struggle that I liked so much. The same experience occurred later on, at the beginning of the 90’s, when I started working on intergenerational mobility. Once more Tony was there, with his article on intergenerational mobility. Two things struck me in that paper: the place of publication (by that time, the Journal of Postkeynesian Economics was attracting most of the debate about alternative measures of liquidity and the like) and the data he was using (coming from a survey taken York in UK). There I discovered that Tony was a militant, in the sense of being able to use any opportunity to progress in his personal project. Any data source of decent quality would have been appropriate to highlight some hidden aspect of inequality generation. I was also admired by his ease and talent in theory building, framing his thoughts in the bare language of math.
I then met Tony’s work several other times in my research life. I was visiting at Wider, the UN center in Helsinky when they were starting collecting data on inequality from secondary sources (the WIID project), and the JEL article of Atkinson and Brandolini came as a cold shower. I remember the discussion about what was perceived as an extremist position, while it was a plea for rigour in order to make the policy prescriptions more credible.
I used the introductory chapter of the Handbook on Income Distribution, edited by him and François Bourguignon, several times when teaching Economics of Inequality, or even Labour economics in different universities. And the message was always there: inequality is different from randomness, we have to understand how it is generated, and what can we do when we think it being excessive. Their insistence on jointly studying functional and personal distributions of incomes was actually asking for reconciling macro and micro approaches in economic theory. Which is still an unattained dream for many economists.
I met again Tony in conferences (most recently at the Festival of Economics, taking place yearly in Trento, northern Italy) and he was always friendly and willing to joke (despite the English sense of humor and the Italian one do not always talk to each other). The acquaintance with Tony was one of the main reasons for my application to the position of Director of the Luxembourg Office of LIS: working together for the research promotion in the field of inequality analysis seemed to me a great opportunity to learn from him, even after 32 years from the LSE time. We had one chance, last July, to discuss strategies of development for LIS over a couple of days, and he was as I had always known him: friendly, open to discussion and never self-promoting. All virtues which are jointly infrequent in the academia, as well as in the political debates. We have to work hard not to disperse his legacy.
Tony had a long and extraordinary career. He is widely referred to as the founder of modern inequality scholarship. His much-celebrated work – theoretical, empirical, methodological, and policy-oriented – inspired generations of scholars, especially in Europe and the US. Tony’s remarkable and unique career has been chronicled in many places, before and since his death. So we will not focus here on his professional biography. We prefer to share some thoughts about his contributions to LIS, in his role as our Board President, a position that he held for five years to the day, from 1 January 2012 until the day of his death.
When Tony agreed to become LIS’ Board President, we were grateful. We knew that we were fortunate to have such an esteemed scholar at the helm. What we did not know (but, in retrospect, should have) was that he would serve as a deeply involved, entirely hands-on, active President – making himself available for counsel on countless decisions, large and small.
Tony chaired our annual Board and Executive Committee meetings, brilliantly keeping discussions flowing and aiding decision-making. Throughout the years, we consulted him about LIS’ overall strategies and priorities, seeking his input about how to best allocate our scarce resources, and whether and when to move into new areas of work. We sought his advice on data issues, on measurement concerns, on our presentation of aggregate statistics, on the challenges of microdata dissemination. We asked for his ideas on fundraising, on budgeting, on personnel decisions, on public events, on European data politics. We invited him to serve on search committees and to join us at public events. We called upon him to help persuade statistical offices to provide datasets for LIS. We requested his views as we balanced the work between our two offices. We invited him to spend a week visiting the US Office of LIS, so that he could meet the team there and help us strategize about our ancillary work on the American side of the Atlantic.
Always, without exception, Tony engaged with us as if he had all the time in the world – which, of course, he did not – and as if no question were too small. His advice meant the world to us. Whatever the issue, he would bring his decades of experience to bear as he raised key questions for discussion. What would lead to the highest quality harmonized data? How could we balance data access with data protection? What would most enhance our users’ capacity to carry out their research? What would make most sense for the LIS staff? What would be most equitable for all involved? Did we have the bandwidth?
When Tony held a strong view, he would convey it directly, providing his reasoning. (And when Tony held a strong view, as his many fans know, he was not readily dislodged from it.) In the end, Tony gave us more time and wisdom than we could have ever hoped for or imagined. And he did it with grace, and elegance, and with his quiet wry wit. He also served as a welcome cheerleader, sending celebratory emails about our achievements. He weighed in when the world beyond our walls bewildered us all; recent political and policy developments in the UK and elsewhere worried him deeply.
In recent years, as Tony’s health faltered, he generously thought about LIS’ future. He spoke with me many times about how we could most effectively strengthen our small organization, and how to best secure our future.
Tony was gratified by his two final accomplishments at LIS.
First, during the latter half of his tenure, we concluded that LIS had grown too large for a single Director and he guided me – all of us – through a reorganization of our leadership. With the agreement of our Board, we decided to search for a new senior scholar and leader, one who would direct the Luxembourg Office of LIS. (I would shift to directing only the US Office). Tony played a central role in designing this new position and in assembling a stellar international search committee. He was extremely pleased and relieved when Professor Daniele Checchi agreed to take on this new role, one that he assumed on 1 September 2016.
Second, in July 2016, Tony told us that the time had come: we had to begin the process of bringing in a new President. Tony hoped that the handover would take place, in Luxembourg, at our 2017 Board meeting. He asked us, with his characteristic modesty, if we wanted his view as to who might be his ideal successor; of course, we did. He had a single scholar in mind, one who has agreed to serve beginning in early 2017. The LIS leadership is completing the requisite legal process now – that is, an election by our full Board – and we expect to announce Tony’s successor in mid-January.
All of the “long-timers” at LIS are grateful for the role that Tony played in securing our two new senior colleagues. This autumn, Tony told me that Daniele’s arrival in 2016, and a new President’s expected arrival in 2017, allowed him to rest easily in regard to LIS’ future.
We extend our sympathies to Tony’s wife Judith Atkinson, to his children – Richard, Charles, and Sarah – and to his eight grandchildren, whom he so openly adored. We also send condolences to Tony’s many friends and colleagues in the global community of inequality scholars. We share our sadness with so many who loved and admired him as much as we did. It is not easy to say goodbye to Tony. We will miss him more than words can convey.
I would like for a moment to try to imitate Tony, in praising him. It is well known that Tony was widely read and would often make illuminating references outside his own field in order to make a good point. My reference is to another great Englishman, who lived about 300 years previously, the architect Sir Christopher Wren. A celebrated scientist, a renowned scholar and a public servant, Wren is best remembered as the creative mind who brought about some of England’s finest and most inspiring buildings. Wren’s final resting place is deep in the foundations of his most celebrated creation, St Paul’s Cathedral in London. In the cathedral there is a Latin inscription, that reads in translation:
Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived… not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.
Like Wren, Tony’s monument is to be seen all around us, in our colleagues, in our data, in our understanding of economics and social science.
In my case Tony’s inspiration came early – a final -year undergraduate course that he gave at Cambridge in the 1970s. It was enough; I was convinced that Public Economics and issues of income distribution were what I wanted to work on too. This effect has continued with cohorts of students: until very recently he taught an LSE Public Economics course. Over recent days it has been touching to see the Facebook exchanges of recent graduates all saying essentially the same thing: how lucky they were to have been taught by him.
For many years Tony Atkinson was the director of STICERD (the Suntory and Toyota International Centres for Economic and Related Disciplines), where I work. Early in his appointment, he acquired a nickname, “The Twins.” It seemed impossible that one person alone could so successfully be doing so many different things at the same time; there had to be two of them. You might imagine that trying to work alongside such a high-level performer could be a trying and tiring experience. But working with Tony, even when he was in go-faster mode, was never a problem. He was always ready to make time for others and to take on more than his fair share of irksome tasks. Tony brought the same qualities to so many other places where he has left a permanent mark.
One of those places is LIS. Others will relate the thoughtful and energetic contributions he has made to the development of this institution. But, as a final thought, I would like to describe a contribution that maybe few others know about. I have heard Tony Atkinson sing. The occasion was a dinner at the first LIS Summer School. During the first dinner, somehow a singing contest spontaneously emerged. We had Finnish drinking songs, a Japanese ballad, American grad students doing numbers from Camelot and so on. Some opted out (they needed to practise first!), but not Tony. We were treated to a solo rendition of Paddy Ryan’s “The Man That Waters the Workers’ Beer”. It wouldn’t have won prizes on a TV talent show, but every time I cite one of ABA’s numerous works, I think I will hear again that voice in my head, “I am the man, the very fat man / That waters the workers’ beer…”
Sir Anthony Atkinson, who was Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Fellow of Nuffield College at Oxford, passed away on New Year’s Day, at the age of 72. Tony was a highly distinguished economist: He was a Fellow of the British Academy and a past president of the Econometric Society, the European Economic Association, the International Economic Association and the Royal Economic Society. He was also an exceedingly decent, kind and generous man.
Although his contributions to economics are wide-ranging, his main field was Public Economics. He was an editor of the Journal of Public Economics for 25 years, and his textbook “Lectures on Public Economics”, co-authored with Joe Stiglitz in 1980, remains a key reference for graduate students to this day. Within the broad field of public economics, Tony published path-breaking work on the measurement, causes and consequences of poverty and inequality – from his early work on Lorenz dominance in 1970, all the way to his more recent joint work with Piketty, Saez and others on the study of top incomes. Over his 50-year academic career, he taught, supervised and examined a large number of PhD students, some of whom came to work at the World Bank at some point in their careers.
Tony was a leading scholar who cared deeply about the practical consequences of his work. His many contributions to the social sciences and to economic policy are currently being remembered in a number of obituaries, and we do not want to repeat them here. We focus instead on Tony’s very recent and direct contribution to the World Bank’s work, which we also believe was one of the last volumes he worked on. This was his chairmanship of the Commission on Global Poverty, convened in 2015 by Kaushik Basu – then World Bank Chief Economist – to advise the Bank on how better to monitor the world’s progress towards ending extreme poverty, and on how to measure global poverty more broadly.
The Commission had 24 members but it was known as the Atkinson Commission, and for very good reason. In addition to providing intellectual leadership and drive throughout the process, Tony, almost single-handedly, wrote the final report which was published last October. Neither his clarity nor his hard work were surprising to those who knew him, but both were nonetheless remarkable as he battled the cancer that ultimately took his life. He took on responsibility for, and the work of, the Commission because he believed it could make a difference in practice. He had always argued that accurate, careful measurement of poverty and inequality was essential to inform the design of policies to fight them, and was passionate about taking that fight to a global scale.
True to form, his final report did not shy away from making a number of transformative – and demanding – recommendations: twenty-one of them, to be precise. We have responded to them in detail elsewhere. Here, we only want to highlight three of Tony’s points that are already changing the way in which we work.
First, the report argues that – despite considerable recent improvements – the data and statistical foundations for measuring poverty in the world as a whole remain fragile. This is not only about missing and non-comparable household surveys. It is also about faulty population data (including from outdated or incomplete censuses); about survey coverage; and about the inconsistency between the concepts of income and consumption captured by surveys and by national accounts statistics. Tony also pushes us to improve our understanding of the multiple sources of non-sampling error that affect our estimates, and to try to quantify and report on this total error in some way.
Second, the Commission Report suggests that we complement our traditional statistics on extreme, absolute income poverty with broader indicators. In our view, two of these are particularly important. Although the report is broadly supportive of the $1.90/day poverty line as an absolute standard for calculating extreme deprivation, it notes that there is an important relative component to poverty. People’s well-being depends not only on the absolute bundle of goods they consume, but also on the social norms of the societies they live in. Poverty – even extreme destitution – does not mean the same thing in Slovenia and Madagascar. Building on his own earlier work with François Bourguignon – and on related work by Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion – Tony proposes that we complement our absolute measure of global poverty (which will continue to be based on the $1.90/day line) with a “weakly-relative” notion of poverty. This would involve a poverty line that includes both an absolute component and one that depends on the (median) income in each country. Adding up these “weakly-relative” poverty counts for all countries yields a different, higher estimate of global poverty. One that does not replace our core absolute estimate, but that adds information and nuance to the picture we have of global deprivation.
The third way in which Tony pushes us to take a broader view is to incorporate a multidimensional poverty measure into our toolkit. He urges us to report both the deprivations along each dimension separately – including nutrition, health, education, etc. – and to aggregate them through a single index. Once again, the idea is not to replace the core absolute income-based poverty measure the Bank has been tracking since 1990, but to add to it.
Joint working groups from the World Bank’s Research and Data Groups and Poverty Global Practice have already been working on these various proposals. Tony’s recommendations are far-reaching, and not all that he suggests can be implemented quickly. But we are certainly making a start, and readers will see a richer set of statistics on world poverty coming from the World Bank in our next Poverty and Shared Prosperity Report. This is only a small part of Tony Atkinson’s huge legacy, but it is one that is particularly close to us at the World Bank, and it is worth remembering it as we mourn the loss of this great man.
In one word, Tony Atkinson was not only a great economist and a great scientist but also a great man. He can be an example for all of us for his pioneering contributions, his broad approach of economics, and his behavior, particularly, his kindness, modesty, and his easy contact.
First, on a more personal touch, I first met Tony when he was one of the members of my committee thesis in Rennes, in Brittany. After the defense, I invited the committee to my flat, but there were 7 and I did not realize that there wouldn’t be enough seats for all of them. I will always remember Tony and François Bourguignon seated directly on the wooden floor drinking a glass of champagne.
On a second occasion, Tony was important to me. I remember that when I presented a seminar in Oxford the preliminary version of introducing luck in inequality of opportunity framework, he told me that in fact in the sixties, economists and sociologists (Jenks for instance) when they looked at explaining the various achievements of people, the most important factor they found was luck. In the eighties or nineties, this luck factor became merit, and luck was completely forgotten at that time. The relative importance of the two is a social construction which matters a lot for the degree of redistribution that a society will finely tolerate.
On a third occasion, he was so kind that he accepted to attend the launching day of AMSE, to be a member of our research council, and to be Doctor Honoris Causa of Aix-Marseille University.
In a more general view, Tony can be praised for at least three things.
Of course, one cannot miss his pioneering contributions to the field of inequality measurement with his path-breaking 1970 paper, the use of the Lorenz curve, the degree of inequality aversion, the two articles on multidimensional inequality with François Bourguignon, his numerous studies of mobility, poverty and wealth distribution, and more recently his key participation to the study of top incomes. One cannot forget either his contributions to optimal taxation: he was the first to study the linear income tax and the Atkinson-Stiglitz theorem is one of the cornerstones of the all optimal taxation literature.
From a broader perspective, his balanced approach to economics appears through all his books from one of the first ones “The economics of Inequality” to the last one “Inequality: What can be done?, mixing economic theory, applied studies based on sound data, economic analyses, practical matters, and policy recommendations. This day, it is hard to convince people in the French media that you can be leftist and still find useful standard neoclassical analyses. Tony provided a vivid example that there was no conflict at all.
Being dedicated all his scientific life to a unique goal, contributing to a better understanding of inequalities, how far he was from the recipe of success of today’s economist, which is to publish in the top five! Ultimately, his scientific work will inspire economists forever.
The 1970 JET paper was my first encounter with Tony. It made an indelible impression, not least due to the paper’s combination of mathematical rigorousness and precise language. The 1970 paper dealt with the conceptual problems involved in the measurement of inequality and offered a convincing justification for constructing measures of inequality on the basis of “expected utility” type of social welfare functions. The 1970 paper also provided new insight on the Gini coefficient by demonstrating that the Gini is particular sensitive to changes that take place in the central part of typical income distributions. This result anticipates Kolm’s (1976) principle of diminishing transfers.
My original distant admiration of the author of the 1970 paper turned later into a broader admiration of Tony when we over some years collaborated on the book chapter on top incomes in Norway. This project turned out to be the start of a long-term collaboration, which gave me the opportunity to become better acquainted with both his professional and human qualities. One of our joint projects proposed by Tony was “Putting people first: Policy and economic welfare “. Putting people first is an appropriate description of Tony’s ethical concern, attitude and behavior, which also finds expression in his final statement of the acknowledgement in Inequality: “Royalties received for this book before 2020 will be donated to the following charities: Oxfam, Tools for Self Reliance, Emmas UK, and the Quaker Housing Trust”.
Tony was exceptional in a number of ways, which makes the loss even heavier. But pleasant memories from the collaboration and many happy social gatherings give some comfort.
January 19, 2017 | Ignore on home