Passing of Anthony B. Atkinson

Thomas Piketty 07 January 2017

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Anthony B. Atkinson passed away on the morning of 1 January 2017, at the age of 72, after a long illness. This leaves us with an invaluable loss.

Anthony “Tony” Atkinson occupies a unique place among economists. During the past half-century, in defiance of prevailing trends, he placed the question of inequality at the centre of his work while demonstrating that economics is first and foremost a social and moral science.

Tony was born in 1944 and published his first book in 1969. Between 1969 and 2016, he wrote over 40 books and more than 350 scholarly articles. They have brought about a profound transformation in the broader field of international studies of inequality, poverty and the distribution of income and wealth. Since the 1970s, he also wrote major theoretical papers, devoted in particular to the theory of optimal taxation. Atkinson was always interested in practical issues of public policy and social justice, and understood that marrying theoretical analysis with a careful look at the actual data was the most powerful way to make progress.

Atkinson’s most important and profound work has to do with the historical and empirical analysis of inequality, carried out within a theoretical frame that he deploys with impeccable mastery and utilises with caution and moderation. With his distinctive approach – at once historical, empirical, and theoretical – his extreme rigor and unquestioned probity, and his ethical reconciliation of his roles as researcher in the social sciences and citizen of, respectively, the UK, Europe, and the world, Atkinson was himself for decades a model for generations of students and young researchers.

Together with Simon Kuznets, Atkinson single-handedly originated a new discipline within the social sciences and political economy: the study of historical trends in the distribution of income and wealth. Of course, the question of distribution and long-term trends already lay at the heart of 19th-century political economy, particularly in the work of Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx. But these writers could draw only upon limited data, and were frequently obliged to limit themselves to purely theoretical speculation.

It was not until the second half of the 20th century and the research of Kuznets and Atkinson that analyses of distribution of income and wealth could actually be based on historical sources. In his 1953 masterwork, Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings, Kuznets combined the first systematic records of American national income and property (records that he himself had helped to create) and the data produced by the federal income tax (established in 1913, in the aftermath of a prolonged political battle) to establish the very first historical account of year-by-year income distribution.

In 1978, in The Distribution of Personal Wealth in Britain, a fundamental book (co-written with Allan Harrison), Atkinson outstripped and overtook Kuznets. He made systematic use of British probate records from the 1910s to the 1970s to analyse in magisterial fashion the extent to which different economic, social, and political forces can help us understand the developments observed in the distribution of wealth, a distribution that was particularly under scrutiny during this period of exceptional turbulence. As compared to Kuznets’ book, which was mostly concerned with the construction of the statistical database, Atkinson’s book goes a step further, in the sense that it better articulates the data collection with the historical and theoretical analysis.

All subsequent work on historic trends in income and wealth inequality to a certain extent follow in the wake of Kuznets’s and Atkinson’s ground-breaking studies. In particular, the World Wealth and Income Database (WID.world) can be viewed as a mere continuation of the Atkinson-Kuznets agenda.

At a more personal level, I was very fortunate to meet Tony when I was a young student at the London School of Economics in the autumn of 1991. His many pieces of advice, always delivered with infinite care and kindness, had a decisive impact on my trajectory. Soon after, when I published Les hauts revenus en France au 20e siècle in 2001, I had the chance to benefit from his enthusiastic support. Tony was the first reader of my historical work on inequality in France and immediately took up the British case (where historical income data had not been exploited yet) as well as a number of other countries. Together, we edited two thick volumes that came out in 2007 and 2010, covering 20 countries in all. These works are at the origin of the database WID.world, and also of my 2014 book Capital in the 21st century, which could not have existed without the support of Tony.

Leaving aside his historic and pioneering writings, Atkinson was for decades one of the leading international specialists in comparative investigations on the measurement of inequality and poverty in contemporary society. He was also the tireless architect of projects for international cooperation on these subjects.

In his most recent book published in 2015, Inequality: What Can Be Done?, wholly focused on a plan of action, he provided us with the broad outlines of a new radical reformism based on his many decades of research analysing inequality and public policy. Witty, elegant, profound, this book brings us the finest blend of what political economy and British progressivism have to offer.

Atkinson was a generous and rigorous scholar, a unique source of inspiration for all of us. He was also the kindest of mentors. Although he had been fighting a long illness in the last years of his life, he remained extremely active until the very end, continuing work on several big projects, and exchanging with his colleagues and friends even in recent weeks. Atkinson leaves us as inequality has become probably the most pressing issue our societies are facing. His life was about creating the tools to measure, understand and tackle inequality. His work will live on as we continue confronting the problem of inequality. We will miss him deeply.

References

Atkinson, A (2015), Inequality: What Can Be Done?, Harvard University Press.

Atkinson, A and J Harrison (1978), The Distribution of Personal Wealth in Britain, Cambridge University Press.

Kuznets, S (1953), Shares of upper income groups in income and savings, NBER.

Piketty, T (2001), Les Hauts Revenus en France au XXe siècle, Grasset.

Piketty, T (2014), Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press.

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Topics:  Economic history Poverty and income inequality

Tags:  Inequality, income, wealth

Professor, Paris School of Economics; and CEPR

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