Why Tony Atkinson should get the Nobel Prize in Economics (but perhaps not alone)

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 26, 2014

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.



afinetheorem 09.26.14 at 10:10 pm

Atkinson is definitely a major figure, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he won with Deaton, although they are still (very very) outside choices. Citation counts are obviously only a very loose way of counting, but Atkinson works in an area that tends to be pretty heavily cited, and yet he has only 8 articles with 500+ and 1 with 1500+ (he also has a few books at this level, but cites to books, especially textbooks, are difficult to compare within economics for a variety of reasons; Rogers “Diffusion of Innovations” has more than 4x more cites than anything ever written by Samuelson or Arrow, for instance).

I would bet there are good graduate programs where no class, field or otherwise, has anything by Atkinson on any syllabus; this doesn’t totally disqualify you, as Williamson and Ostrom showed, but Atkinson is an even more obscure figure among Nobel contenders than either of them. If you think of Atkinson as an economic historian, Mokyr seems a more obvious choice.

Paul Milgrom, another potential contender who works in theory, an area that tends to be less cited than applied work, has 11 with 1500+ and 27 with 500+, and it is impossible to get a PhD today without seeing a number of his papers. There are a number of others who haven’t won, with similar records: Romer, Tirole, Barro, Holmstrom, etc.

As for Piketty, he has zero chance. The econ prize is historically quite different from the others, in that it is given for lifetime work rather than a sole breakthrough. Roth and Krugman were thought to be a bit too early by many people, and they were about 60 years old (Roth perhaps moved up the queue due to the advanced age of his cowinner Shapley). Piketty is 43. Way way way too young.


Rakesh 09.27.14 at 1:04 am

Economists whose work has had significant impact outside economics
Robert C. Allen, economic historian
Janos Kornai, critic of socialist systems/critic of neo-classical economics
Kaushik Basu
Bowles and Gintis, cooperative behavior
Daron Acemoglu


adam.smith 09.27.14 at 1:41 am

Piketty is too young for the Nobel given the way they’ve awarded it in the past. He’s 43. Arrow, the youngest person to win the award so far, was 51 when he got it. I like Piketty’s work as much as the next guy, but the way the Nobel committee has understood its mission is to award legacies, not contemporary debates. If they do want to give an “inequality” Nobel, Atkinson would be an obvious choice. Piketty can still get “his” award in 20-30 year, perhaps together with Saez, when (as I think is likely) their work has a lasting impact.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.27.14 at 5:17 am

afinetheorem: “I would bet there are good graduate programs where no class, field or otherwise, has anything by Atkinson on any syllabus;” – yes, quite likely – but that’s related to the point that Atkinson has been making for years, namely that welfare economics is marginalized within economics, and that this is bad – a point I agree with (and anyone who sees economics as ‘political economy’ or as ‘a science which is political and moral’ (as Piketty does) must pay due attention to welfare economics).

So giving the prize to Atkinson may be seen not just as support for inequality research (for which Piketty’s book has created a momentum), but also as support for welfare economics.


Rakesh 09.27.14 at 5:33 am

Why not include Branko Milanovic if we are giving Nobels for inequality research? It would be a dream discussion to hear Piketty or Saez and Milanovic, no?


gianni 09.27.14 at 7:46 pm

I agree with the OP. Atkinson would be a fine choice.


Tabasco 09.28.14 at 5:01 am

Nobody gets the economics Nobel for writing a book. With another 20 years of publication in major journals Piketty might have a shot.

Atkinson, on the other hand, is the leading player in a field that has become hot for political reasons,* with a 45 year major journal publication record behind him. That is more than sufficient reason to win.

*’Think of all those Chicago economists who won in the early to mid 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union gave an immense boost to the intellectual respectability of free market economics.


Peter T 09.28.14 at 5:33 am

I have started on a book of Atkinson’s, prompted by the references here (thanks). I can see two reasons why he might not get a Nobel:

– common sense is not obscured or denied by high theoretical musings plucked from thin air; and

– he says some nice things about the Soviet experiment.


John Quiggin 09.28.14 at 7:59 am

Atkinson would be a great choice. The Nobel committee maintain the fiction that the prize is given for individual discoveries, but no one believes it. Even if that were true, they aren’t going to give it for r>g, interesting though it is.


In the sky 09.28.14 at 6:41 pm

*’Think of all those Chicago economists who won in the early to mid 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union gave an immense boost to the intellectual respectability of free market economics.

Coase got it for discovering the importance of transaction costs; Becker got it for introducing economics to non market behavior; Fogel got it for bringing history to the fore; and Lucas got it for linking mean-zero mathematical expectations to humans’ expectations.

Who exactly do you think got it because the fall of the USSR gave “respectability” to “free market economics”?


Tabasco 09.29.14 at 1:55 am

ITS, do you really think all those Chicago School Nobels had nothing to do with the intellectual climate at the time? It’s not that Coase and others were unworthy, but there are always more worthy contenders than there are prizes, and there needs to be some mechanism for deciding who wins. The collapse of Eastern European communism was seen at the time as a vindication of the view that economic planning was a failure, indeed a road to serfdom, and by implication a vindication of the view most associated with Chicago that free markets are the road to prosperity.

If Atkinson wins this year it will be both because of his scientific contribution and the zeitgeist.


In the sky 09.29.14 at 1:09 pm

ITS, do you really think all those Chicago School Nobels had nothing to do with the intellectual climate at the time?

When it comes to Coase and Fogel, nah. I don’t associate them much with The Chicago School, as opposed to the University of Chicago.

When you look at Becker and Lucas, one can certainly notice Chicago School attributes. I’d dispute that either are free-marketeers economists in the weird, ideological tradition, but I accept they are “Chicago” in tone if not content. However, they both deserved the Nobel. Both giants in their fields, who made huge contributions that plotted the course for micro (Becker) and macro (Lucas) for decades. It was a matter of when, not if.

If your comment relates to the when rather than the if, then we’re not so far apart :)


Tabasco 09.30.14 at 3:55 am

It was a matter of when, but I disagree about them not being ideological, especially Becker. The idea that all human existence can be written as a rational actor maximising utility problem is plenty ideological.

As someone on the boards wrote when Becker died, when it comes to what is generally and pejoratively known as “neo-liberalism”, Becker was the guy.


floopmeister 10.01.14 at 3:24 am

As someone on the boards wrote when Becker died, when it comes to what is generally and pejoratively known as “neo-liberalism”, Becker was the guy.

He was the archetypal ‘Hammer wielder’ – every problem or issue he saw looked like a Nail.

How can that not be ideological – given that ‘ideology’ can be defined as a set of conscious and/or unconscious ideas which constitute one’s goals, expectations, and actions?


Rob 10.01.14 at 3:59 pm

By the way, I’d love to see you crooked-timberians on this review of Piketty:



Rob 10.01.14 at 4:00 pm

Sorry, I meant to write “see your views on”

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