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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Legacy of Tony Atkinson
Great Analyst of Inequality

Mattia Baglieri

Tony Atkinson died in Oxford, England where he taught political economy and served as chairman of the International Economic Association. An acclaimed economist, Atkinson had been previously shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in the field of income inequality.

Atkinson, a close friend of other welfare economists such as Amartya Sen and James Meade, was born in Wales in 1944 and graduated from Cambridge University in 1966 with a degree in mathematics. His passion for the study of economic inequality, originally developed in his youth through various volunteering efforts, led to his nomination as “Sir of the British Empire” by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the II as well as membership in the prestigious British Academy. Atkinson placed the topic of inequality at the centre of his work from the 1970’s onwards, decades before the subject became popular in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008.

Nothing could have been more out of place in the 1970’s, when the field of economics was dominated by neoliberal politics and theories espoused by Milton Friedman and George Stigler of the Chicago School. Atkinson produced his most profound and prolific research in the study of income inequalities, well before the new interpretation of the Marxian theory of Capital promoted by Tomas Piketty, who considers Atkinson among his masters.

There are three central aspects of Atkinson’s philosophy: the study of poverty, a critique of free market orthodoxy, and the study of inequality. It is important to note that Atkinson was a member of the Labour party and assigned great importance to practical applications of progressive ideas. He believed in social justice and the ability of public policy to improve the lives of citizens within states. As Atkinson’s friend Amartya Sen stated, the Smithian theorising of laissez-faire economics was unable to effectively ensure this. Only a model of good politics, founded on the basis of the welfare of its citizens, had the ability to do so. Atkinson’s desire for a responsible politics was deeply practical, in a very tangible way in his own life. He used to leave his office at the University of Essex in order to consult immigrant retailers in the city market on tax matters and social security rights. Regarding this, Atkinson published an essay which eventually became a classical text for economists, Poverty in Britain and the Reform of Social Security (Cambridge University Press, 1969). His clarity, utility, and radicalism were exemplified in this book, particularly when he urged an era of active social justice and economic redistribution following the uneven economic development in the post-war world.

The second strand of Atkinson’s legacy, the critique of free market orthodoxy, is far more theoretical, having been developed over the more than 25 years he spent as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Public Economics. In the journal, Atkinson and fellow Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University attacked the cyclical distortions of free market economies. Their book Lectures of Public Economics (Princeton University Press, 1980) was proposed as a re-elaboration of Arthur Pigou’s welfare theory, which stated that public economics should focus not only on the optimal allocation of resources but also – and equal fortitude – on equity.

But above all else, Atkinson will undoubtedly be remembered for his contribution to the historical and empirical analysis of inequalities, as Thomas Piketty himself declared to the Financial Times. In commemorating Atkinson’s memory, Piketty wrote that “in defiance of prevailing trends, [Atkinson] placed the question of inequality at the center of his work while demonstrating that economics is first and foremost a social and moral science.” Atkinson’s research was integral in pushing the British government to face the country’s absurd wealth disparities and level of economic inequality. Atkinson was also very critical of the famous “coefficient of inequality” introduced by Italian statistician Corrado Gini. Atkinson felt the theory was unable to explain the significant dichotomy between members of the top and members of the bottom of the income pyramid. Following this, Atkinson devoted himself to developing the index that now bears his name. Atkinson’s model allowed researchers to differentiate between societies that showed equal levels of inequality but different levels of both real and perceived poverty.

In 2011, Atkinson returned to his studies on inequality with an essay for the Journal of Economic Inequality entitled “On the Lateral Thinking,” written after being invited by fellow economists Ravi Kanbur and Frank Cowell, both professors at Cornell University, to reflect on inequality forty years after his original studies on the topic. In the piece Atkinson proposed at the very least, social security--namely, free medical care and education--as a safeguard against increasing economic inequalities.

Even more recently Atkinson left a prominent memorandum for the work of future economists and social scientists when he signed the edition of World Bank’s Monitoring Global Poverty report released this past September, a work already being recognised as a milestone by major international economic institutions. Atkinson’s research was dedicated to raising awareness of the multifaceted nature of poverty and inequality and demonstrating that economics is not disconnected from social and moral views. Atkinson also recently published a set of ten radical proposals in the British Journal of Sociology (2014) in response to Thomas Piketty’s The Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press 2013). In his article “After Piketty?,” Atkinson criticised the tendency to conceive contemporary and future work exclusively in terms of computing processes in the face of the progressive abandonment of manual labour. Atkinson also suggested an effective progressive tax (a tax rate of 65% for the richest 1% on the total population); and the establishment of a public consultation service for small money savers in order to avoid the occurrence of future sensational banking disasters of which we are all recent witnesses and (often involuntary) debtors.


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