Today’s announcement that Angus Deaton was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was greeted in the usual fashion: plenty of versions of “a brilliant selection” (Tyler Cowen) and a few of the usual criticisms that economics is not really a science (Joris Luyendijk).
What I find interesting is that, like last year, the prize is given to a thoroughly mainstream economist—but Deaton’s work can be read as cutting against the grain of much of what has passed for mainstream economics over the years. Let me give a few examples:
First, Deaton spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how, at the microeconomic level, consumers distribute their spending among different goods. Basically, Deaton was telling his mainstream colleagues, “you just can’t assume demand curves are downward-sloping, for individuals and markets, and that actual consumer behavior is or is not consistent with the postulates of neoclassical utility-maximization, without actually measuring how consumers respond to changes in prices.”
Deaton’s work, at the macroeconomic level, was similar: he cast doubt on the existing mainstream theories concerning the relationship between consumption and income (based on representative-agent models) and suggested, once again, that it’s necessary to study how different consumers—some with falling incomes, others with rising incomes—actually respond to changes in incomes.
Third, Deaton used his work on demand and consumption to challenge facile models based on income per capita and exchange-rate-calculated comparisons of poverty across nations. He pioneered a consumption-based approach, based on cross-sectional surveys to determine actual consumption expenditures and levels of well-being, especially in Third World countries.
There’s no doubt that, in the end, Deaton’s work in challenging many of the existing theoretical and empirical models within mainstream economics—in the areas of microeconomics, macroeconomics, and development economics—were themselves firmly ensconced within and contributed to the further development of mainstream economics.
But the mainstream nature of that work has also permitted him to intervene in other debates, for example, concerning the effectivity of foreign aid (which, he argues, mostly helps keep nonpopular governments in power and does little to actually eliminate poverty), the role of poor health (which, as he sees it, is a result, not a cause, of poverty), and the current fascination with randomized trials (which fail to account for the causes of positive outcomes and, as a result, can’t be generalized to other problems and situations).
And, in the one previous mention of him on this blog, to sound a warning about growing inequality in the United States and other advanced countries:
The distribution of wealth is more unequal than the distribution of income, and very high incomes will eventually pupate into very large fortunes, ultimately leading to a hereditary dystopia of idle rich.