On Monday, 13 October 2014, at 11.45 am, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics will be announced (yes, we know it is officially the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel but that’s not the focus of this post). Some have said that the prize should go to Thomas Piketty, for his best-selling, important and highly influential book Capital in the twenty-first century. I, too, think this is a great book, for a variety of reasons.
But there is another inequality economist who is at least equally, and arguably much more deserving of the Nobel prize, and that is Anthony B. (Tony) Atkinson. For close readers of Piketty’s work, this claim shouldn’t be surprising, since Piketty credits Atkinson with “being a model for me during my graduate school days, [and Atkinson] was the first reader of my historical work on inequality in France and immediately took up the British case as well as a number of other countries” (Capital, vii). In a recent interview with Nick Pearce and Martin O’Neill which was published in Juncture, Thomas Piketty calls Tony Atkinson “the Godfather of historical studies on income and wealth” (p. 8). So my hunch is that Piketty would endorse the claim that if the Nobel Prize were awarded to welfare economics/inequality measurement, that Atkinson should get the Nobel Prize.
Atkinson really is the academic giant on whose shoulders contemporary welfare economists working on inequality and poverty stand. Over the last 45 years, he has made many crucial contributions to welfare economics, in particular to inequality and poverty measurement (there is an inequality index named after him), but also social policy, the economics of the welfare state, and ethics in economics. Whole generations of economists learnt their public economics from the classic textbook Lectures on Public Economics which he co-wrote with Joseph Stiglitz. He also has some work that may have received less attention, but that is equally interesting, such as his analysis of the basic income proposal (which I really liked – a very detailed, careful and well-written analysis). These contributions are widely recognised among welfare economists; see for example the Laudatio by Rick van der Ploeg on the occasion of Atkinson receiving an Honorary degree at the European Institute in Firenze.
In addition to his scholarly contributions, Atkinson has always tried to make his work accessible to a wider audience – to empower people (and policy makers) by making economic research accessible to non-specialists. Many of the books he wrote are accessible to non-economists – and he has published a remarkable large number of books (even more so by the standards of his profession) – no less than 22 monographs (some of which are co-authored) and 17 edited volumes and reports. He also repeatedly argued that economics is a moral science and that it should, once again, understand itself as a moral science; last year I’ve argued here why I couldn’t agree more.
Many citizens (and scholars) who think that we should pay more attention to inequality would be thrilled if Thomas Piketty would get the Prize. But given that Piketty (and all other currently successful welfare economists) stand on the shoulders of Atkinson, it’s clear that Atkinson should get the prize. Yet perhaps there are good reasons to split the Nobel Prize between Atkinson and Piketty? Clearly Piketty has had an enormous impact on political and public debate worldwide, which is rare for an academic economist. But there’s another reason the Nobel Prize Committee could consider to co-award it to Atkinson and Piketty, and that is that Piketty has linked welfare economics with macro-economics, which not many welfare economists do (1) and that opens up a promising avenue of future research. And there may be other reasons why Piketty is deserving as much as Atkinson – if you think there are, you can add them below.
In any case, whether the Nobel Prize committee decides to give the prize to Atkinson or also to Piketty – I hope they don’t disappoint us, by not giving it to welfare economics/inequality analysis.
(1) I am walking on thin ice here, since I may be biased in my observations: when I undertook my graduate studies in welfare economics (around 1995-1999), this seemed to me to be the case, and the work I’ve been reading since in welfare economics was also predominantly micro. But there may be more work out there connecting inequality measurement and macro-economics that I don’t know. This is John’s terrain, really, and I would be more than happy to be corrected if needed. That’s what conversations are for.