The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, by Angus Deaton

Kitty Stewart finds wisdom in a study of progress and disparity between nations and people

October 31, 2013

Angus Deaton falls into that rare category of microeconomists and econometricians who are able to explain things clearly and elegantly using words as well as symbols. In fact, perhaps what marks him out is not just his ability to do so, but that he sees the point of doing it. Recalling his first encounter with economics, as a disgruntled mathematics student at the University of Cambridge in the early 1960s, he writes: “I understood that economics was about three things: theory that specified mechanisms and stories about how the world worked…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.”

For more than four decades, Deaton has dedicated himself to economics understood in just this way, first in the UK and then at Princeton University, researching and writing on a range of topics from consumer behaviour to poverty and economic development. He has always sought not only to further our understanding about the way the world works, challenging theory with evidence and evidence with theory, but also to tell the story in a way that is compelling and readable.

Inequality within rich countries can be a dangerous thing, and dismissing concerns about it as no more than envy is deeply misguided

The Great Escape is perhaps his most accessible book yet, and also his most magisterial, seeking to tell the enormous story of human progress in both income and health over recent centuries. In a moving and personal preface, Deaton draws on his own family’s experience to illustrate the book’s themes. Born in a coal-mining village in South Yorkshire, his father Leslie put himself through years of night school to qualify as a civil engineer, and then persuaded local schoolteachers to coach the young Angus for a scholarship to public school. Angus and his sister went on to become the first in the family to reach university; today Leslie’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in “a world of wealth and opportunity that would have been a far-fetched fantasy in the Yorkshire coalfield”. Leslie lived into his ninetieth year, and as Deaton points out, his story is one of huge improvements in health as well as financial security: both Leslie’s parents died young from accidents or disease that would be preventable today.

It is also a story of luck: not everyone escaped, and indeed none of Deaton’s cousins made it to university. Leslie’s hard work and determination had a lot to do with it but luck was important too, and Deaton’s aim is to tell the story not just of the escapees but also of those who didn’t make it. It is a book, he says, about “the endless dance between progress and inequality”, about how progress creates inequality, and how inequality can sometimes be helpful for those left behind, in providing incentives to catch up, and sometimes unhelpful, if those who have escaped pull up the ladder behind them.

Now, possibly, this preface builds unreasonable expectations about what is to come, because the people left behind in richer countries don’t really feature quite as much in the rest of the book as one might expect. Mostly this is a book about progress in the richer Western world, and the failure to progress in many other countries. It is also closer to being a collection of essays on the themes of health, wealth and inequality than to the grand theory that the title and preface might suggest, and even then there seems to be an essay missing, with the issue of continuing health inequality within rich countries almost entirely overlooked.

Nevertheless, these are wonderful essays, each combining the essential Deaton ingredients of theoretical insight, careful analysis of evidence and graceful writing. There are thought-provoking chapters on the history of health improvements and what has driven them; on material well-being in the US; and on the damage caused by aid to developing countries. Deaton has dedicated many years to thinking about each of these issues, with a long list of academic papers to show for it. Here, he seems to step back and reflect on what he has learned, offering us a sage’s wisdom.

The Great Escape is also a book rich in the details of measurement: of what we measure and why this matters, and of how we do it and why this matters, too. Never does Deaton simply accept that conventional indicators – life expectancy, gross domestic product, “dollar-a-day” poverty, self-reported happiness – are the right ones for the outcomes and values we want to capture. He interrogates both the choice of indicator and the way the data are gathered. Some parts of this will have broader appeal than others: the constructed defence of economic growth as (on the whole) a very good thing feeds directly into many contemporary debates; the discussion of exactly how purchasing power parities are measured is probably of more specific interest. But for students of applied economics or social policy, the book is jam-packed with valuable nuggets, shedding both light and colour on questions that are usually discussed, if at all, in dry technical terms that don’t always convey what is really at stake. (Just once here the dispassionate academic’s voice seemed to drown out that of the human being, in a detached discussion of whether our use of life expectancy measures places too high a value on the lives of the very young.)

Aside from providing a lesson in how to weigh and present evidence and set it against theory, Deaton has three take-home messages.

First, for many of us on the planet, life is longer, healthier and richer – in all senses of the word – than anything our ancestors could have imagined. Perhaps we lose sight of this sometimes.

Second, this is not universally true, and the main solution Western countries offer to poorer ones – aid – is part of the problem, not the solution. In the powerful chapter on aid, Deaton considers alternative policies that might be more effective, including removing unhelpful trade restrictions, enabling temporary migration and providing incentives for drug companies to invest in cures for illnesses such as malaria.

Finally, inequality within rich countries can be a dangerous thing, and dismissing concerns about it as no more than envy is deeply misguided. Here Deaton harnesses the principle of Pareto optimality – the idea that a change represents an improvement if at least one person is made better off and no one worse off. Intuitively appealing, the Pareto principle has been seen as providing a justification for “trickle-down” policies, but only because economists have applied it narrowly to income rather than to overall well-being. Take overall well-being into account, and some inequality may indeed be justified, but not the levels of inequality in the US today, which Deaton suggests undermine public services and give small interest groups too much lobbying power. The threat is not only to the well-being of the poor, but to democracy and economic growth, and Deaton warns us against taking either for granted: “Powerful and wealthy elites have choked off economic growth before, and they can do so again if they are allowed to undermine the institutions on which broad-based growth depends.” From an economist of Deaton’s pedigree, with his long-standing measured approach to theory and evidence, this is a weighty message.

The author

“I am a passionate fly-fisherman, at which I have been an enthusiastic amateur since I was 9 years old,” says Angus Deaton, Dwight D. Eisenhower professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. “I used to play the piano reasonably well, but not in recent years. I do listen to others playing, and like listen to opera too.”

Deaton lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife, Anne Case, a fellow professor of economics. “No kids, no pets, although our granddaughters Celestine and Lark live only a few miles away, and our grandson Julian an easy flight away,” he says.

“Princeton is lovely,” he says, “and was the cradle of the American Revolution - the medium by which the Scottish Enlightenment, in the person of John Witherspoon, came to America and informed and inspired the founders.”

Of his early intellectual pursuits, Deaton observes: “The life of the mind is familiar to anyone who grows up in Edinburgh, especially in the dark, dirty days. I had scarlet fever when I was about 7, and spent many weeks in bed, with no reading material. I suspect I turned inwards then. My father believed in education, my mother in storytelling, both important effects. I had many inspiring schoolteachers, perhaps especially at Fettes.” Later, he says, his “biggest influence was Richard Stone at Cambridge, who became my friend and mentor, and whom I have been imitating and following ever since”.

Deaton does not recall that he or his fellow Cambridge students thought that great things awaited them all. But, he adds, “I remember David Atherton was a member of my college, and he seemed destined, perhaps because it was so obvious that he was a great musician. The only other person who seemed destined was Jocelyn Bell, who discovered the first pulsar. We all thought that was pretty neat. I knew some affiliated students from Columbia University studying at Cambridge, and they all seemed awesome, although none became world-famous. Perhaps it was just the style that impressed me. One drove a Bentley and would go to Paris for weekends, and come back with prints by Picasso and Léger. Another was a communist factory agitator.”

Although he has lived in the US since 1983, “Edinburgh leaves its traces for sure”. But Deaton’s faint Scottish accent is remarked on only “very occasionally. I think it depends less on the nationality of the listener, than on how good an ‘ear’ they have. Not too long ago, someone told me exactly where in Edinburgh I grew up. Turned out to be a musician.”

As for the personality traits Deaton attributes to his birthplace, “dour scepticism is one, an unwillingness to recognise or admit to happiness is another. Also a strong empirical tradition, a much more positive trait.”

He has for many years written a column entitled Letter from America for the Royal Economic Society’s newsletter. The task of writing essays to explain Britain to his American colleagues would be, he acknowledges, “much harder. I haven’t lived in Britain for 30 years, and there are many things I don’t understand. On a recent trip to the UK, I took a train ride on East Coast to Durham. I would perhaps try to tell them about the beauty and sometimes bleakness of the English countryside, and the magic of places like Durham, but I would have to be a poet, not an economist.”

Click here to listen to our interview with Angus Deaton

Karen Shook

The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality

By Angus Deaton
Princeton University Press, 376pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691153544 and 9781400847969 (e-book)
Published 14 October 2013

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