Obituary: Professor Sir Tony Atkinson

The economist Sir Tony Atkinson died on the 1st January.

I have on my shelves three of Tony’s books which between them represent the significance of his contribution to social policy debate: Poverty in Britain and the Reform of Social Security, 1970; Public Economics in Action: The Basic Income/Flat Tax Proposal, 1995; and Inequality: What can be done? 2015. His books, reports and occasional papers (most of which can be found in the London School of Economics library) have always been packed full of detail, and always with a purpose: to tell anyone willing to listen that poverty and inequality matter, and that changes to tax and benefits systems can reduce them.

Early in his career, Tony recognised the desirability of Basic Income, but worried that it might be publicly and therefore politically unacceptable to give to everyone an income unconditionally: hence his proposal for a Participation Income. When he first made the proposal in 1992 he privately admitted that it might not be possible to administer it: but he never gave up on the idea, and included it in his last book Inequality. (I don’t know whether he noticed that the costings exercise attached to the proposal was in fact for a Basic Income, simply because microsimulation programmes can’t handle the participation conditions attached to a Participation Income.)

As significant as Tony’s vast published output might be, his development of microsimulation tools for evaluating tax and benefits reforms might be his more important legacy. As soon as the most primitive computers were able to handle tax and benefits regulations, he was developing programmes that modelled tax and benefits systems; and it is thanks to Tony and his one-time colleague Holly Sutherland (who now directs the Euromod project) that the UK has been a leader in using microsimulation programmes and large survey databases to evaluate a wide range of individual and household effects of tax and benefits reforms. The Basic Income debate in the UK has been as intelligent as it has been because we can use the tools that Tony was the first to develop.

Tony combined a deep desire to reduce poverty and inequality with a social scientist’s pursuit of evidence as to how that might best be achieved. He will continue to be an inspiration to us.