“TIME is of the essence,” wrote Sir Anthony Atkinson, a British economist, in a report on measuring global poverty, published in July 2016. His sense of urgency may have been influenced by another constraint. In 2014 Sir Anthony had been diagnosed with incurable cancer. Some might have paused; he sped up. He chaired the World Bank commission that produced the poverty report, and wrote a book, “Inequality: What Can Be Done?”, in just three months. On January 1st, his time ran out.
In his lifetime, he was tipped for a Nobel prize. On his death, fellow economists rushed to describe him as “one of the all-time greats” and emphasised his extraordinary “decency, humanity and integrity”. The two were linked. For him, economics was about improving people’s lives.
A six-month stint volunteering as a nurse in a hospital in deprived inner-city Hamburg was an early influence. He saw poverty, and went on to spend his life combating it. He fought his battles gently—shying away from the adversarial style he experienced as a student at Cambridge—but with rigorous precision and an unfailing sense of social justice.
As economists fell in love with markets in the 1980s and 1990s, he wrote the best textbook on their failures, with Joseph Stiglitz, another economist. (Mr Stiglitz’s scrawl was some comfort to Sir Anthony, as evidence of handwriting even worse than his own.) Faced with an imperfect world, he showed how to achieve a second-best compromise.
The theoretical pontificating of 18th- and 19th-century political economists on welfare and inequality had rather fallen out of fashion. Sir Anthony quickly identified a big obstacle to getting the message across: a lack of good data. He pored through historical sources to unearth past trends in income inequality. He created data sets on the highest incomes, findings from which would support the slogans on protesters’ placards. Sir Anthony was a mentor and collaborator of Thomas Piketty, famous for his book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. Mr Piketty says that all work on trends in income and wealth inequality stems from Sir Anthony’s.
In the course of his career, Sir Anthony contributed to an average of nearly a book a year and sat on numerous government commissions. The legacy of his most cited paper, published in 1970, is an inequality index that bears his name. Existing measures, he showed, might seem like neutral indicators of the spread of incomes in a country. In fact they contained implicit value judgments. Some were more sensitive to sagging incomes for the poorest; others would respond more to soaring incomes at the top. Always constructive, he then created a new class of inequality measures, making explicit what had been implicit. Today they are used by the US Census Bureau.
He went beyond analysing the world to trying to fix it—in ways that many rejected. His faith in the power of government to right the world’s ills led to radical proposals. His final book on inequality argued for a participation income (a payment for all who contribute to society) and a tax on wealth to finance an inheritance for everyone on reaching the age of 18. He pushed back against pressure to cut taxes and prioritise containing inflation over reducing unemployment. To the end, he was battling lifelong challenges: inadequate data; how to harness government for good; and closed minds.