A tribute to great economists: The Tribune India
The year 2017 has already seen the passage of two extraordinary figures in the world of economics. Sir Anthony Barnes Atkinson (1944-2017) died on New Years Day at the relatively early age of 72 after a battle with cancer; and Kenneth Joseph Arrow (1921-2017) died on February 21, at the age of 95. This article is a brief commemoration of these two remarkable contributors to the field of economic ideas. Arrow’s work in economics is so important and extensive that he must be considered one of the first among his peers in the list of those who shaped the discipline. His research (in a cramped, space-saving catalog) covers the areas of welfare economics, social choice theory, general equilibrium analysis, economics of risk and uncertainty. and the asymmetric information economy, not to mention the work of econometric theory. It is impossible to avoid clashing with Arrow, regardless of the economic field considered.
This is how we have (in another deliberately thin list) the arrow impossibility theorem; Arrow’s extended sympathy; the Arrow-Debreu general equilibrium model; Arrow-Pratt measures of risk aversion; the Arrow model of health insurance and market failure; and the Arrow-Chenery-Minhas-Solow production function. In 1972, Arrow received the Nobel Prize in Economics – he was the youngest, at the age of 51, to receive this honor. For most of his academic career, Arrow was associated with Stanford University and three of its departments – those of economics, operations research, and philosophy. For a mathematical economist known to have imported formidable standards of formal rigor and technical finesse in economics, Arrow adopted a broad and humane view of the subject, which found ample space for both philosophy and poetry in his Evaluation. Thus, in his 1971 book on General Competitive Analysis, written with another mathematical economist, Frank Hahn of Cambridge, we find an ironic reference to the Standard Model of Rational Economic Man in the form of a fragment of a poem by WB Yeats’:
A leveling, resentful, rational
kind of spirit
Who has never looked out of the eyes of a saint
Or out of the eyes of a drunkard.
Another example of Arrow’s voluminous catholicity is to be found in the inspiration of his rigorously coherent view of “extended sympathy” as a form of ordinal interpersonal comparison of utilities: he discovered this inspiration, during a visit to Canada. England, in a 17th century gravestone bearing this inscription:
Here is Martin Engelbrodde,
Have mercy on my soul, Lord God,
As I would if I were Lord God,
And you were Martin Engelbrodde.
It is typical of Arrow that he translates this feeling into the formulation (x, i) P * (y, j). Atkinson, like Arrow, was a rigorous economic theorist, who began to study mathematics before moving on to economics, and was greatly influenced by the earlier mentioned economist Sir Frank Hahn, in Cambridge, where Atkinson obtained his undergraduate degree. He is one of the few very great contemporary academics never to have obtained a doctorate; he is also one of the greatest modern economists – with, I would say, Piero Sraffa, Joan Robinson and Serge-Christophe Kolm – who did not ‘has never been awarded. the Nobel Prize (a discredit to the Nobel Committee which is only aggravated by some of the totally outrageous names that have been on the list of Nobel Prize winners). Atkinson’s name will be inextricably linked to the topics of inequality and poverty. He has written at least two groundbreaking journal articles: one (published in The Journal of Economic Theory in 1970) was titled “On the Measurement of Inequality”; and the other (published in Econometrica in 1987) was titled “On the Measurement of Poverty”. If he had written nothing else, these two essays between them would have served to account for a lifetime’s work. Atkinson, at the end of his career, was a centenary professor at the London School of Economics and a senior researcher at Nuffield College, Oxford.
Details of Arrow and Atkinson’s scientific contributions can be found at Wikipedia, among other sources. Here I would like to share some personal reminiscences that reflect both the extraordinary and human-sized characteristics of their character. (If there is any suspicion that I am about to commit to a bit of denomination, then the suspicion is well founded: I am not too proud to say that I feel deeply privileged to have had the opportunity, during my lifetime, to be associated with these gentlemen, even briefly and tangentially.) I have only met Arrow once. It was in the mid-1980s, when Arrow was a guest at the Delhi School of Economics, and I was visiting that institution at the time. Economist PR Brahmananda, who claimed to have astrological skills, was present on occasion, and he insisted on reading Arrow’s palm in which he said he had detected “two stars”, one of which had already been performed. Arrow chuckled and said the first star had to be the Nobel, and he hoped the second star didn’t mean another Nobel was on the way – one was more than enough. For a quiet moment that evening, I asked Arrow if the suggestion that he had cracked Arrow’s theorem in just three weeks, while still a PhD student, was a true story or an apocryphal. Arrow leaned forward with a smile and said in a confidential whisper, “Apocrypha, actually. In fact, it only took me two days. On the first day, I proved that the result stood for triples. After a disturbed night’s sleep, the next morning, I generalized the result.
Atkinson, like Arrow, was a straightforward, straightforward person whose humility was manifested through his gentle conversation. I once shared a long walk with him on the evening of a conference held in the city of Viterbo, not far from Rome. Either way, the conversation turned to the famous Cambridge Don Frank Hahn (mentioned earlier) who had a tremendous influence on Atkinson during the latter’s student days.
Atkinson ironically recalled that on the occasion of his first meeting with Hahn, the latter opened the door for him and confided to him that he had been told to wait for Atkinson who, Hahn added that he had been informed, was not not quite the fool he looked … I was very fortunate to work with Atkinson as a member of the advisory board of the Commission on Global Poverty appointed by the World Bank. Atkinson was chairman of the commission, and the report he wrote, as chairman, was the last major work he did, towards the end of 2016. It is a heroic record of work, carried out against the odds. impossible of his illness, and forcing him to balance the views of 23 other specialists on the advisory board, while finding room in the report for his own beliefs and predilections. Like the man, the report was firm, frank, principled, and polite: critical of the World Bank, but not critical. In the generally gloomy intellectual and moral environment that professional thinkers often find themselves in these days, it’s nice to be able to say, from people like Kenneth Arrow and Tony Atkinson, that they were not only great men, but also very good men. .
The writer is an economist