As the economist Anthony Atkinson observes at the beginning of his new book, inequality is now at the “forefront of political debate.” But, he insisted when I met him in London a couple of weeks ago, “this isn’t a recent problem—it’s a change that has taken place over a generation in [the UK], and in the US, too.” Nor is this a new preoccupation for Atkinson. He has been thinking about the economics of inequality since he graduated as an economist in 1966.
What’s distinctive about this book, “Inequality,” is captured by the question posed in its subtitle: “What can be done?” As well as diagnosing the problem of economic inequality (especially inequality of income)—showing why it matters in advanced societies (“It does matter that some people can buy tickets for space travel when others are queuing for food banks”) and how it has changed over time—Atkinson presents a series of concrete policy proposals for doing something about it. He has, he says, written this book in a “spirit of optimism.” There is, in his view, nothing inevitable about the levels of inequality seen today in countries like Britain—on the contrary. “The world faces great problems,” Atkinson writes, “but collectively we are not helpless in the face of forces outside our control.”
Twenty-odd years ago, Atkinson delivered an address to the Royal Economic Society entitled “Bringing Income Distribution in from the Cold.” In it, he noted the way that, for much of the 20th century, distributional questions had been largely ignored by the economics profession. Why, I asked Atkinson, does he think that happened?