Professor Sir Angus Deaton
Professor Sir Angus Deaton, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics, is one of the world's foremost experts on the economics of well-being, health, and poverty. Distinguished for the groundbreaking use of household data analysis to establish links between individual human behaviors and societal outcomes, his work relies on real-world facts to inform big-picture economic thinking. Noted for being accessible as well as optimistic, Deaton has been lauded by the Nobel organization as "immensely important to human welfare." His findings have greatly influenced both practical policymaking and the scientific community, helping not only to analyze but also to improve the world.
Deaton is the author of three critically acclaimed books on health, wealth, and poverty. His latest is Economics in America: An Immigrant Economist Explores the Land of Inequality, a witty and candid critique of his profession that illuminates how the field of economics addresses the most pressing social issues of our time, including poverty, minimum wage, and the healthcare system. The bestselling Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism reveals how capitalism’s flaws are fatal for America’s working class and provides solutions that make capitalism work for everyone. His first book, The Great Escape, makes the case that inequality is deepened when progress in healthcare and standards of living is reserved only for those that can afford it. Addressing what needs to be done to help those left behind, the book broke its publisher's record for foreign rights sales.
To gain insights into the health and well-being of developing nations, Deaton championed the use of household surveys to link consumption of goods and services with outcomes for, and insights into, the whole economy. For example, his studies measuring income against calorie intake in impoverished homes pointed to the value of giving poor countries economic assistance rather than food aid. His work on the distribution of household resources shed light on gender discrimination, as he found that in times of scarcity, families better provide for their boys than for their girls. As a fundamental indicator of the health of an economy, Deaton's use of household data proved more reliable and useful than income or gross domestic product metrics, and helped convert the development economics discipline from a reliance on theory to a grounding in the empirical.
Deaton is a Senior Scholar and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of Economics and International Affairs Emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Economics Department at Princeton University. Prior to joining Princeton faculty, he taught at Cambridge University and the University of Bristol. He is widely published, with papers released by the World Bank, the Brookings Institution, and more. For 25 years, he contributed semi-annual letters on U.S. politics and policy to the Royal Economic Society newsletter.
In addition to his 2015 Nobel Prize for Economics, Deaton is the recipient of numerous awards, including knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to research in economics and international affairs. He received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award and is the former President of the American Economic Association. Deaton is an elected member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences, a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as well as a Fellow of the Econometric Society and the recipient of the Society’s first Frisch Medal.
The political lives of numbers
Numbers — data on GDP, prices, unemployment, population — are usually taken to be good; they are the truth around which policy needs to be shaped and judged. Politics is seen as the enemy of numbers, with politicians always ready to corrupt, suppress, or spin the data. But statistics are creatures of the state, and have politics and political judgments deeply coded into their DNA. Without politics, numbers are orphans, and can lose their relevance, accuracy, and influence. We can see this clearly if we contrast national and global data; the former are salient, contested, and largely accurate while the latter attract little attention and are wildly inaccurate.
Progress and inequality
Progress often brings inequality, and inequality reflects the incentives that bring about progress. Periods of rapid technical progress, with benefits for all, are also periods when the rich have got richer and the poor have been left behind. Innovators who benefit mankind and are to be encouraged and there is nothing wrong with their getting rich in consequence. Yet inequality can also be a threat to public wellbeing, especially when inequality is driven by rent-seeking or undermining democracy. If we are to continue to prosper, we need to find a way of not leaving behind large segments of the population.
Poverty at home and abroad, and what to do about it
All of us know that there is dreadful poverty in Africa and in Asia, and the citizens of Europe and North America give generously to combat it, through their governments, through international NGOs like Oxfam, and through international organizations, like the World Bank. How much do we know about the effectiveness of this aid? Is it better to give money to save lives than to reduce poverty? Is it really true that there is no one in Europe or North America who is as poor as the poor in developing countries? We need to seriously rethink the foundations of poverty aid, how we give it, and to whom.
Happiness, and what it can teach us
There has been great recent progress in measuring happiness and finding out how people think their lives are going. These new measures grasp a broader reality than comes from measuring income alone, and they are challenging GDP as a guide to economic success. Companies are experimenting with them as management tools. But are these numbers really credible? What can they help us know and do that we could not know or do otherwise? What do the data tell us? Does money make us happy? Do children make us happy? Should we refocus away from work and money and towards friends, family and leisure? Should we care about happiness at all?
Food, nutrition, and hunger
Hunger is not the same thing as poverty, and malnutrition is not the same thing as not having enough to eat. Yet most of us, when we think about poverty in Africa and Asia think of hunger, even starvation. This is wrong, but there are many puzzles about what is right. Adult height, which is a measure of nutrition in childhood, is unrelated to national income in childhood, except in rich countries where nearly everyone has enough to eat. In India today, economic growth has come with a decline in calories consumed, even though heights are rising, more for men than for women. Sub-Saharan incomes are lower than Indian incomes, but sub-Saharan Africans are taller than Indians, though they have higher infant and child mortality. The link from income and food to nutritional status is mediated by a range of other important factors, especially the extent of physical labor, sex discrimination, and sanitation.
As of the fall of 2016, the world is a difficult and dangerous place. Economic growth is faltering, and was so even before the great recession. Inequality is rising almost everywhere. Europe was facing intractable economic difficulties, even before BREXIT and the arrival of millions of refugees. Long established political institutions are under threat, and are not to be serving large segments of the population. In the US, there is an unprecedented upsurge of mortality from suicides and drug overdoses, especially among the white working class. Yet the world is still a better place today than at almost any time in history. What caused this long-term progress? Do we think those factors will continue to help us continue to prosper in the future? What is the long-term outlook for the world? Are today’s horrors a blip, or the new normal?
Evidence, and how to use it
Today, there are loud demands for policy to be evidence-based, following the long established movement for evidence based medicine. What could be wrong with finding out what works, and using only proven remedies? No one is against evidence, but there are dangers in the way the program is being carried out and especially in the transplantation of randomized trials to economic and social policy from medicine, where they also work much less well than is usually supposed. Such evidence can be a danger to reasoned debate and democracy.
Better health, worse health
Why do we live so much longer than our ancestors? Why is infant mortality in sub-Saharan Africa lower today than it was in England at the end of World War 1? Was it progress in medical care, medical knowledge or new drugs? Or was health dragged along behind growing wealth? Does wealthier mean healthier? What was the role of people’s behaviors, smoking, drinking, or sanitation? And above all why, after a century of decline, have mortality rates among middle aged American whites been rising for 15 years? Has progress in health, like progress in growth, slowed down or reversed?
Our tenth anniversary celebration [...] came out fantastic. We had a very select audience, over a hundred of senior members of the Administration, from all the political parties, and through humility and closeness of Professor Deaton, apart from his great mind, the conference was a complete success.