Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Nick Stern

Tony Atkinson was an extraordinarily distinguished academic whose works changed our understanding of poverty, inequality, mobility, public policy and economic growth. His very first book, Poverty in Britain and the Reform of Social Security (Cambridge University Press, 1969) and his last, Inequality: What Can Be Done? (Harvard University Press, 2015) showed how he approached his work throughout his career. Define the issues, examine the facts, analyse what forces shaped the outcomes, ask what we can or should do in the way of policy.

For Tony, the definitions and the data were to be treated with great care. And analysis had to be rigorous. For Tony, like Frank Hahn, his teacher at Cambridge and a former professor at the School, economics was a deeply serious subject and arguments had to be right. But the analysis of issues also had to take careful account of the institutional circumstances in which they were set. Thus, for example, he studied very closely how social security systems actually worked before making policy assessments or recommendations. And when he was a professor at Essex in the early 1970s he worked on a stall in Colchester where he lived, helping people understand their rights to benefits and how to claim.

His distinction was recognised around the world: President of the Econometric Society, of the Royal Economic Society, of the European Economic Association and of the International Economic Association together with 21 honorary doctorates. Last year he was awarded the prestigious Dan David Prize for his work on poverty and inequality (shared with Francois Bourguignon and James Heckman).

He was amazingly prolific averaging close to a book a year and around 7 published articles a year across half a century of professional life. He faced his cancer by just carrying on, with seminal publications over the last few years, including the 2015 inequality book and his major report in the summer of 2016 for the World Bank, Monitoring Global Poverty.

What is, perhaps, less recognised about Tony was his ability to lead institutions. He was a creator and a builder, from his invigoration of the Essex economics department where he arrived as a professor aged 27 in 1971, to his years as a much loved Warden of Nuffield College, 1994-2005. Of special interest to us at LSE was his dozen years with us, 1980-92, as Tooke Professor and then as Centennial Professor from 2010.

With its founding director, Professor Michio Morishima, Tony built STICERD, where he was Chair from 1981-1988. Indeed, STICERD was critical to the “package” that brought Tony to the LSE. Michio, who secured the generous donations from Suntory and Toyota to launch STICERD in 1978, planned from the beginning that he would hand over the Chair to Tony as soon as he arrived at the School. It was, in large measure, Tony who shaped STICERD into what it is today, a jewel in the LSE’s crown and one of the world’s outstanding research centres.
It was Tony too who conceived the ESRC programme on “Taxation, Incentives and the Distribution of Income” whose 12 year period coincided almost exactly with Tony’s time at the LSE. When at UCL he shared his initial thoughts with Mervyn King (then professor at Birmingham) and myself (then professor at Warwick) and we directed it as a trio. Before long we were all at LSE as professors working together on that programme. They were special years. It was one of the very first examples of ESRC embracing the programme approach to funding, as opposed to project-by-project. He founded the Journal of Public Economics in 1971 and was editor for nearly two decades.

It was not just as an academic and leader of academic institutions that we remember Tony. He was the finest of human beings. His decency, humanity and integrity were profound and extraordinary. He was quiet and understated but deep and strong. He was charming and he could be very funny, including irony of the highest class. He was a very special friend, always ready with his support, wisdom and gentleness.

His human strengths were rooted in and nurtured by his wonderful family. He met his wife Judith (neƩ Mandeville) at Cambridge as undergraduates when they were 19. They were married for more than 50 years. They shared and reinforced their commitment to making the world a better place and tackling injustice. They took great pride in and strength from their three children Richard, Sarah and Charles, their spouses and their eight grandchildren. For all its difficulties, the world is much a better place because of his life. His values and ideas live on.

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