Tony Atkinson died January 1, 2017. He was my PhD supervisor when I was at LSE in the 1980s, and we kept in touch occasionally afterwards. What follows are some personal reflections on his life and his work. In his youth, Tony hitchhiked around Europe. In his later years, he would give lifts to Oxford students thumbing their way into town - and delight in the surprise of those who discovered they were being chauffeured by no less a personage than Sir Anthony Barnes Atkinson, warden of Nuffield College. Hitchhiking is a fitting metaphor for Tony's attitude to life. It captures his commitment to the practical achievement of a just society. Some people have no access to transport. Others have unused room in their vehicles. Behind the elegant formality of his work on taxation and
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Tony Atkinson died January 1, 2017. He was my PhD supervisor when I was at LSE in the 1980s, and we kept in touch occasionally afterwards. What follows are some personal reflections on his life and his work.
In his youth, Tony hitchhiked around Europe. In his later years, he would give lifts to Oxford students thumbing their way into town - and delight in the surprise of those who discovered they were being chauffeured by no less a personage than Sir Anthony Barnes Atkinson, warden of Nuffield College.
Hitchhiking is a fitting metaphor for Tony's attitude to life. It captures his commitment to the practical achievement of a just society. Some people have no access to transport. Others have unused room in their vehicles. Behind the elegant formality of his work on taxation and inequality is a simple idea: if those who have plenty share with those who have less, everyone can get where they want to go.
Tony's readiness to share a car with strangers also reflects his openness; his willingness to engage with others. In keeping with that spirit of engagement, Tony's work created the foundations for an informed, open, and honest debate about inequality and poverty. Anyone who wishes to use the inequality index that bears his name must specify an inequality aversion parameter, ε. Setting ε=0 is equivalent to saying inequality does not matter, and the aim of policy should be to maximize average incomes. Higher values of ε place more weight on reducing poverty and less on raising per capita income. Tony did not try to impose his views on other people. Instead, he found a way to encourage people to be explicit and honest about their values, and start a conversation.
The tributes to Tony have mentioned his extraordinary decency, wonderful gentlemanliness, humility and generosity, grace, elegance, and quiet wry wit. But his was a simple magic. If something needed doing, he did it, be it measuring incomes, founding an academic journal, running an Oxford college, advising cabinet ministers, or picking up chairs after a departmental seminar. He followed up on his commitments, setting aside time for each task, sometimes months in advance, in his diary. (The time set aside for reading drafts of my doctoral thesis was the Essex-to-London train ride - rendering his infamous handwriting even less legible than usual). He looked for the best in people, and found it. If a paper contained even a germ of a good idea, he could pick it out, and inspire you to develop it.
Yet Tony's gentle smile could not entirely belie his inner steel. He could be tough, and brave, and was willing to fight when fighting was needed. That edge was briefly in evidence the last time I saw him, just after the Brexit vote. He saw clearly what Brexit might mean for British universities, and his remarks about David Cameron's brinkmanship were sharp, and to the point. He had little patience for sloppy economic thinking, especially from political leaders, or for undergraduate programs that tolerated it.
He did not mince words when it came to fighting poverty, either. His last book, Inequality: What can be done? contained 15 proposals to reduce inequality. These were radical in the original meaning of that word: they aimed to get at the fundamental root causes of inequality. Tony's starting point was "the pragmatic concern that current levels of inequality are too high and that this outcome in part reflects the fact that the balance of power is weighted against consumers and workers." Hence he sought a "proper balance of power among stakeholders", with workers, social groups, and NGOs having a greater voice in policy making and, especially, in the adoption and development of new technology. He was brave - courageous even - in that he was willing to admit "redistribution has to be financed". He went on the record as advocating a broader income tax base, and - to ensure some kind of equality of opportunity - taxes on both inheritance and inter vivos gifts. He was not naive nor blind to the possible efficiency costs of higher taxes - rather, he argued persuasively against using ECON 1000-level understandings of efficiency/equity trade-offs as a guide to policy.
When I read Inequality I find myself wondering - how could he do it? How could he seem so positive and optimistic when he must have known that much of what he said, no matter how logically argued or empirically grounded, would fall upon deaf ears? How could he keep on fighting for truth in a post-truth world?
My guess is that part of his secret was his ability to find joy in other people. Social inclusion was, for him, both a instinctive reaction, and a genuine pleasure - the last time I saw him, we took some photos, and he insisted that everybody be in the picture. He could delight in other people's successes - like those of Jean-Yves Duclos, his former student, now Canada's Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. Jean-Yves had been consulting Tony, and the very real possibility that the Trudeau government might implement some serious anti-poverty policies appeared to be a source of deep satisfaction to him.
I wanted to work with Tony because of one sentence in Lectures on Public Economics: "This view of the family as a concerted unit is however open to question, and we need to consider the possibility of conflicting interests and possibly independent behaviour of family members." Those words opened up, for me, the possibility of an economics where families were taken seriously. And I wasn't disappointed.
Family mattered to Tony. His wife, Judith, was his partner in life. She edited Tony's first and last - and, in his view, his two best-written - books. Lectures on Public Economics is dedicated to Stiglitz and Atkinson's children - Siobhan and Michael; Richard, Sarah, Charles, and Edward. Tony openly adored his eight grandchildren. It's a sympathy card cliche to offer them condolences on the loss of someone who made this world a brighter and better place. But right now the words fit.