Tony Atkinson has died

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 3, 2017

2017 started off badly, with the death of Tony Atkinson – the most important economist working on inequality, poverty (in affluent societies), the economics of the welfare state, and ‘optimal taxation’. Academics who have known Atkinson have lost one of the most humane, wise and gentle of their colleagues, who was genuinely caring about other people in his work as well as in his interactions with them.

The world at large has lost a wise welfare economist who was the Godfather of modern inequality analysis and therefore (and for other reasons) should have received the Nobel Prize. Without his work, inequality metrics and knowledge on social security mechanisms wouldn’t be what they are now; he continued working on normative welfare economics throughout the decades in which it wasn’t fashionable at all (I am not sure it is fashionable again, but at least I hope that the recent hugely popular and influential work by Thomas Piketty has improved the status of inequality analysis among economists.)

Atkinson’s work on how to effectively protect the poor and decrease inequalities will be badly needed in the years to come, so luckily he has left us a goldmine of scholarly papers and academic books, including most recently Inequality: What can be done? which doesn’t require an economics degree to be understood.

For Thomas Piketty’s obituary of Atkinson, see here.

Columbia and grad student unionization

by Henry on January 3, 2017

It’s not surprising that businesses are likely to take advantage of the incoming Trump administration’s hostility to unions. It’s infuriating that some academic institutions are looking to do the same. Graduate students in Columbia University just voted to organize, citing frustrations with late pay, poor working conditions and so on. The university administration is looking to challenge the vote before the National Labor Relations Board on transparently specious grounds.

In its objections, Columbia said that during the election, “known union agents” stood within 100 feet of a polling place — an area voters had to pass through in order to vote — and had conversations with eligible voters. Columbia also faulted the regional body of the N.L.R.B., saying a last-minute decision not to require voters to present identification might have allowed ineligible voters to cast ballots. Columbia said a board representative improperly removed an election observer.

Given that there was a 2-1 majority in favor of unionization, this argument is, bluntly, horseshit. There are no plausible grounds for thinking that the vote would have gone differently had there not been “known union agents” (whatever that might mean) within 100 feet of voting, nor that there was voter fraud. This is nothing more and nothing less than Columbia deciding to take advantage of a new presidential administration, and an NLRB where an incoming majority of board members will see their mission as gutting the union movement through whatever means and cases present themselves.

At the moment, there appears to be a Facebook petition but I don’t use Facebook. I hope very much that Columbia faculty members put pressure on the university administration to reverse this shameful decision. If the leaders of the unionization effort want support from non-Columbia faculty members (and non-Columbia people more generally), I hope they get that too (and will try to provide updates should there be further information).