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.



Ted Lemon 01.03.17 at 9:44 pm

Perhaps you meant the obituary by Thomas Piketty? I had a bad moment when I read that. Sigh.


rea 01.03.17 at 9:59 pm

“For the obituary of Thomas Piketty”

He’s still alive, I think. You mean Anthony Atkinson, don’t you?


Ingrid Robeyns 01.03.17 at 10:23 pm

thanks for spotting the mistake – it should be corrected now!


Tabasco 01.03.17 at 11:08 pm

Yes he should have won the Nobel and others less deserving won it the past 5-10 years when he could have won it. But that’s the way it goes. It’s a nice obit by Piketty. I liked how he called Atkinson, “a citizen of, respectively, the United Kingdom, Europe, and the world”, which is a direct shot as the Euro nationalists and their enablers.

A slightly odd note was Piketty’s use of the euphemism, “a long illness”, which many obit writers use when they mean cancer, but can’t bring themselves to write the c-word. It’s odd coming from Piketty who normally doesn’t mince his words.


Tom 01.04.17 at 12:39 am

Am I reading too much into the fact that the Financial Times published an obituary before the Guardian did (‘has yet done’ at the time of my comment)?


derrida derider 01.04.17 at 2:14 am

A sad loss of someone who, as Piketty notes, centred his work around the insight that economics was before all else a branch of applied moral philosophy. And at a personal level the epitome of an old fashioned scholar and a gentleman.


John Quiggin 01.04.17 at 8:47 am

A sad loss. Atkinson was both a distinguished economic theorist on the measurement of inequality (among other things) and a major contributor to the design of public policy to promote equality. He’s a model for the profession, but sadly it’s a model with few followers.


JoB 01.04.17 at 9:55 am

“who (..) centred his work around the insight that economics was before all else a branch of applied moral philosophy.”

I admit I did not know about Atkinson but I tip my hat to that (and somewhat deplore the fact that we have come to a point where we need to call the obvious an insight).

@Tabasco: euphemism might not be a virtue when dealing with facts, but it certainly can be a virtue when dealing with people – these are times where this virtue of mincing words is sometimes refreshing amidst the abundance of tactless swearing


Maria 01.04.17 at 2:28 pm

And we have lost John Berger, as well. Parfit, Atkinson and Berger; all lived fully and generously, so there’s no sense of wrongness in losing them now. But it feels a bit sad and exposed to be heading into 2017 without them, all the same.


harry b 01.04.17 at 4:30 pm

Right: Atkinson, Berger and Parfit, all within the first 3 days.


Tabasco 01.04.17 at 11:07 pm

Berger was 90. Atkinson and Parfit were early 70s and could have had another 10-15 professionally productive years.


Ingrid Robeyns 01.07.17 at 5:48 pm

Ravi Kanbur has also written an In Memoriam, in his capacity as the current President of the Human Development and Capability Association:


engels 01.08.17 at 1:38 am

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