Angus Deaton, this year’s winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, is a rarity: a careful social scientist and an honest policy wonk. In recent years, economics has had no better champion.
For many years a professor at Princeton, Deaton played a crucial role in developing methods for correctly measuring poverty and consumption — a more difficult problem than it appears, and fundamental to many branches of the science. Later, he connected these findings to the mysteries of growth and development.
As the academy put it in announcing the prize, this work “helped transform development economics from a theoretical field based on aggregate data to an empirical field based on detailed individual data.”
Yet Deaton has been more than a pioneer of mathematical and statistical sophistication in economic research. He’s set the best possible example of how to apply those skills to policy. His work on development expresses real moral urgency — he sees global inequality as a call to action — yet he is scrupulous in recognizing the limits of what is feasible. A hallmark of the entire Deaton canon: no wishful thinking.
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He is adamant that helping the poor is a moral imperative, for example, yet has voiced skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid. Many individual aid projects are worthwhile, he says, but even the best risk compromising institutions and undermining democracy.
That may seem bleak. But Deaton’s work is no counsel of despair. He recognizes the astonishing progress in human welfare wrought by economic growth, and has offered plenty of advice on how to spread its benefits and help the world’s poor more effectively — not least, by lowering the barriers to trade and migration that needlessly hold them back.
Economics could use a few more Angus Deatons. There’s no better current exponent of economics as though it mattered.