October 2018 newsletter - Tony Atkinson's last works

01 Oct 2018

In our January issue, following Tony Atkinson’s death and prompted by Geoff Harcourt, we speculated
on whether we had seen Tony’s final publication. Little did we guess how wrong that might be as
this article by Andrea Brandolini and John Micklewright1 reveals.

A commentary in the January 2018 (no. 180) issue of this Newsletter reported a suggestion by Geoff Harcourt that the lead article in the October 2017 issue of the EJ 'was probably the last published article by Tony Atkinson, probably the most beloved and admired economist in the world, who died on the 1st of January this year'. (The article is 'Charitable bequests and wealth at death', written with Peter G. Backus and John Micklewright, vol. 127, no. 605, pp. 1-23.) This prompted the editor to launch a search for Tony’s 'genuinely final publication'. 

Several years ago Tony had asked us to help his son Richard carry out the role of being his literary executor, therefore we can help clarify this matter. Indeed, soon after Tony’s death in 2017, we carried out an extensive investigation of his ongoing projects by contacting the many researchers with whom we knew he was, or had been, collaborating. Tony kept working undeterred by his ill-health until the last days. Since the diagnosis of his illness in Summer 2013, he published two major books, Public Economics in an Age of Austerity (Routledge, 2014) and his intellectual testament Inequality: What Can Be Done? (Harvard University Press, 2015), in addition to about a dozen articles and book chapters (https://www.tony-atkinson.com/). He chaired the Commission on Global Poverty set up by the World Bank in 2015 and wrote single-handed the Commission’s report, Monitoring Global Poverty (World Bank, 2017). He collaborated with Joe Hasell, Salvatore Morelli and Max Roser in compiling The Chartbook of Economic Inequality, eventually published by INET in May 2017. In August 2016 he gave an interview about his life and work to Nick Stern, which was later published in the Annual Review of Economics (vol. 9, 2017, pp. 1-20). But this is not all. He was engaged in many other projects that have led, and will lead, to several posthumous publications. (We recognise that our knowledge of these may not be complete.)

The Journal of Economic Inequality is publishing three special issues in honour of Tony, of which the first two contain four articles by him. The first issue (vol. 15, no. 4, 2017) includes 'Reducing poverty and inequality through tax-benefit reform and the minimum wage: the UK as a case-study', written with Chrysa Leventi, Brian Nolan, Holly Sutherland and Iva Tasseva (pp. 303-323). Three articles are in the second special issue (vol. 16, no. 2, 2018): 'Wealth and inheritance in Britain from 1896 to the present' (pp. 137-169), 'Top incomes and the gender divide', written with Alessandra Casarico and Sarah Voitchovsky (pp. 225-256) and 'From classes to copulas: wages, capital, and top incomes', co-authored with Rolf Aaberge and Sebastian Königs (pp. 295-320). Another article, 'Top wealth shares in the UK over more than a century' written by Tony with Facundo Alvaredo and Morelli (pp. 26-47), features in the special issue honouring Tony of the Journal of Public Economics(vol. 162, June 2018), the journal that Tony established in 1972 and edited for 26 years.

Several other articles, some of which available as discussion papers, could possibly be published in the near future. They include 'The median as watershed', written with Aaberge (Statistics Norway DP 749, 2013), 'The ins and outs of top income mobility', with Aaberge and Jørgen Modalsli (Statistics Norway DP 762, 2013), 'On the measurement of long-run income inequality: Empirical evidence from Norway, 1875-2013', with Aaberge and Modalsli (Statistics Norway DP 847, 2016), 'Capital and labor: the factor income composition of top incomes in the United States, 1962–2006', with Cristoph Lakner (World Bank, Policy Research WP 8268, 2017), 'A different perspective on the evolution of UK income inequality', with Stephen P. Jenkins, 'UK household indebtedness over the long-run', with Morelli, and 'Top incomes in the Netherlands', with Wiemer Salverda.

Tony was involved in two further important projects. In his final years, he became very interested in studying top incomes in the former British colonies in Africa. He wrote a number of reports covering over a dozen countries: Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, The Gambia, Uganda, Zambia, Zanzibar and Zimbabwe. All these papers can be downloaded from the electronic library of The World Inequality Database (https://wid.world/). One of these papers, co-authored with Alvaredo, is under revision for a journal: “Top Incomes in South Africa over a century 1903-2013” (an earlier version appeared with the title “Colonial Rule, Apartheid and Natural Resources: Top Incomes in South Africa, 1903-2007” as CEPR DP 8155, 2010). This material constituted the backbone of a book comparing British and French colonial rules in Africa seen from the perspective of income distribution. Tony discussed with both of us the project leading to this book, tentatively titled Top incomes in Africa and the colonial heritage, which he was planning to write with Alvaredo, Denis Cogneau and Thomas Piketty.

Finally, in his last months of life, Tony was working intensely on a major new book, Measuring poverty around the world, a project that had grown out of the report he had prepared for the World Bank. Tony intended to write a book for a broad audience about the nature and extent of poverty across the world. While drawing substantially on the report for the World Bank, he planned to go beyond it in many respects. First, his purpose was to start from first principles by making explicit the ethical judgments that are embedded in poverty measurement – the enduring intuition of his landmark paper on the measurement of inequality in the Journal of Economic Theory in 1970 – before moving to an in-depth discussion of data sources and definitions. Only then he meant to turn to examining what the available data actually reveal – data on both financial poverty measured by low income or expenditure and data on other indicators of deprivation used in multidimensional measures of poverty. Second, he argued for integrating international organisations’ measurement of poverty with national analyses produced within each country. For 60 countries, Tony set out to assemble and document the measurement done at the national level and then to compare it with what was published by international organisations. The novelty of Tony’s approach is not the comparison at the country level per se, but his call for a systematic integration. He saw it as the way not only to provide a cross-check of results but also to strengthen the political legitimacy of both national and international measures, and eventually of the policy decisions that are taken based on them. Third, Tony planned to intertwine the discussion of the evidence for the world’s main regions with an examinations of selected “general issues” about the causes and correlates of poverty, such as the extent of the “trickle down” to the poor from economic growth, the legacy from the colonial period to poverty today in former colonies, the poverty suffered by indigenous peoples, and the persistence of poverty in rich countries. 
Sadly, Tony was unable to finish this book. He left an incomplete draft. In particular, the second half of the book remained largely unfinished, though his broad plans for the use of his 60 national reports to address the general issues are clear. Before his death, Tony asked us to take his manuscript forward to publication. As we were unsure of how he planned to develop his lines of argument in the second half of the draft, we decided to bring the book to a state where it could be published while remaining incomplete. The only partial exception to this decision of not filling the gaps concerns two 'general issues': the relation between growth, inequality and poverty reduction, and the relation between poverty reduction and action on climate change. Tony saw these issues as fundamental in the fight against poverty but he had no time to address them. Thus, we asked François Bourguignon and Nick Stern, long standing co-authors and friends of Tony and leading scholars in these two areas, to deal with these subjects in two extensive Afterwords. The draft left by Tony is incomplete but contains many insights; the unfinished chapters offer a foundation on which other researchers can build and a challenge to them to do so. It is a book worth reading, but readers must be aware that it is an unfinished book. 

This book will be published by Princeton University Press in Spring 2019 and will appear exactly fifty years after Tony’s first, published in 1969, Poverty in Britain and the Reform of Social Security. In the middle, two decades ago, Tony published Poverty in Europe. Over a career spanning half a century, the concern for poverty and inequality has remained central to Tony’s work. Its increasingly international dimension, from national to global, is a revealing sign of Tony’s deep convictions.


1. Banca d’Italia and University College London, respectively.