Humility and Self-Restraint Make a Nobel Winner
I can't think of a more deserving winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for economics than Angus Deaton. Indeed the award, in my view, was seriously overdue. But it's important to understand that Deaton isn't just an outstanding social scientist by the narrow standards of academic excellence. He's an exemplary scholar in other ways too.
The day before the award was announced, in a review of Dani Rodrik's fine new book, "Economics Rules," I complained about the role that economics and economists play in contemporary public-policy debate. The piece didn't name any standard-bearers for what I'd call public-policy economics done right. If it had, the name at the top of my list would have been Angus Deaton.
The trouble with economics is that so many of its leading practitioners have trouble keeping objective science and subjective values separate. Especially in the public sphere, they're apt to mix the two, and the result is a loss of public confidence in the discipline. Economic analysis comes to be seen as just another species of opinion. That's damaging, because economic analysis is far more valuable than that.
Deaton conspicuously resists the temptation to let his values and preferences dictate his scientific findings. For instance, as Bloomberg View's editorial board pointed out, he's written that helping the world's poor is a moral imperative and has often expressed concern at rising global inequality. At the same time, for reasons he explains in "The Great Escape," he doubts that foreign aid in the form it's usually dispensed can work as it's meant to.
In discussing Rodrik's new book, I mentioned the lessons from economics that Thomas Sargent, another Nobel laureate, highlighted in his famous two-minute commencement speech. The first of those lessons was, "Many things that are desirable are not feasible." As obvious as that ought to be, it's sometimes a difficult truth to accept. Deaton never squirms away from it in pursuit of cheap applause.
He doesn't flinch from academic controversy either. For instance, one of the leading fashions in modern development economics is use of randomized control trials (modelled after the way new drugs are tested) as a way to establish what works in development policy. Deaton sees a place for it, but for technical reasons isn't nearly as impressed as its champions. It's characteristic, however, that he's kept the discussion civil. That goes both ways, to be sure: As a true pioneer of empirical development work, he's listened to respectfully. Instead of a sullen failure to communicate, there's a conversation. Sadly, that's not typical of the discipline.
Lastly, Deaton exemplifies another rare combination -- mathematical and statistical sophistication married to clarity and elegance with words. To do economics really well, you need both. As he once explained in an autobiographical essay:
I understood that economics was about three things: theory that specified mechanisms and stories about how the world worked, and how things might be linked together; evidence that could be interpreted in terms of the theory, or that seemed to contradict it, or was just puzzling; and writing (whose importance is much understated in economics) that could explain mechanisms in a way that made them compelling, or that could draw out the lessons that were learned from the combination of theory and evidence.
A favorite recent piece of writing by Deaton is his review of Bill Easterly's "Tyranny of Experts." It's pure Deaton: Courteous, curious, quick to recognize what's valuable and praise it; but also deep, precise, skeptical and demanding.
Easterly says he's ecstatic about Deaton's Nobel. That makes two of us.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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