We are very sad to announce the passing on January 1st 2017 of Anthony B. Atkinson, co-founder and co-director of WID.world.
Anthony B. Atkinson, Tony, Sir Tony occupies a unique place among economists. During the past half-century, in defiance of prevailing trends, he placed the question of inequality at the center 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 forty 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. He has also written 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.
With his distinctive approach, extreme rigor, and unquestioned probity; with his ethical reconciliation of his roles as researcher in the social sciences and citizen of the United Kingdom, Europe, and the world, Atkinson has himself for decades been a model for generations of students and young researchers.
Together with Simon Kuznets, Atkinson almost single-handedly originated a new discipline within the social sciences and political economy: the study of the historical trends in the distribution of income and wealth.
Of course, the question of distribution already lay at the heart of nineteenth-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 twentieth century that the research of Kuznets and Atkinson on the 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 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 analyze 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. In this respect, Tony’s work has taught us how a meticulous and sober treatment of data should be used to lead to sharp conclusions and innovative policy action.
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 groundbreaking studies. In particular, the entire WID.world project can be viewed as a mere continuation of the Atkinson-Kuznets agenda.
On top of his pioneering writings, Atkinson has also been the tireless architect of projects for international cooperation on the measurement of inequality and poverty in contemporary society.
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 analyzing inequality and public policy. Moreover he carefully pointed out how history can be a revealing guide in the implementation of seemingly radical policies. Witty, elegant, profound, this book brings us the finest blend of what political economy and progressivism have to offer.
Tony was a rigorous scholar, the kindest of mentors, and a unique source of inspiration for all of us. He was also a generous, humble, and utmost decent person. Although he had been fighting a long illness in the last years, he remained extremely active until the very end, continuing work on several key projects (including the Report of the Commission on Global Poverty, and a new study on the distribution of wealth in the UK), and exchanging with us even in recent weeks.
Tony Atkinson dies as inequality has become perhaps the most pressing issue of our societies. His life has been about creating the tools to measure, understand and tackle it. His work will live as we continue confronting the problem of social injustice. We will miss him deeply.
Facundo Alvaredo, Lucas Chancel, Salvatore Morelli, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucman