Angus Deaton receives Nobel Prize in economics

Oct. 12, 2015 6:30 p.m.
Angus Deaton index3

Photos by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications

Princeton University professor Angus Deaton has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to understanding consumption at the individual level and in aggregate.

Deaton, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs and a professor of economics and international affairs in Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has been a faculty member at Princeton since 1983. A news conference and receptions were held today on the Princeton campus.

Deaton was honored with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in "consumption, poverty and welfare," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted in announcing the award today.

"The consumption of goods and services is a fundamental part of people's welfare. The Laureate, Angus Deaton, has deepened our understanding of different aspects of consumption," the Nobel committee said. "His research concerns issues of immense importance for human welfare, not least in poor countries. Deaton's research has greatly influenced both practical policymaking and the scientific community. By emphasizing the links between individual consumption decisions and outcomes for the whole economy, his work has helped transform modern microeconomics, macroeconomics and development economics." 

Deaton said he received word of the award in a 6:10 a.m. phone call from the Nobel committee.

"If you're my age and you've been working for a long time you know this is a possibility," Deaton said. "But you also know there are a huge number of people out there who deserve this. That lightning would strike me seemed like a very small probability event. It was sort of like, 'Oh my goodness, it's really happening.'"

"Angus Deaton is a brilliant economist whose pioneering research attacks big questions with rigor, imagination and daring," said Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber. "He has deepened our understanding of poverty, inequality and human well-being in ways that will inform both academic and policy debates for decades to come. Angus has been a leader not only in his field but on this campus, where he has taught for more than 30 years. We are fortunate to have him at Princeton, and we are thrilled that he has won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences."

"I am so thrilled for Angus Deaton," said Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "This prize represents a lifetime of important contributions to the understanding of consumption, poverty and inequality. His work is sophisticated and careful, but also passionate. Beyond that, Angus is a tremendous teacher, mentor and colleague. Congratulations." 

Angus Deaton press

Deaton speaks to a large crowd of media, students, faculty and staff at a news conference in Richardson Auditorium on Monday afternoon. Among the questions: What will Deaton do next? "I would like to get back to work," he said. Deaton was joined on stage by (from right): Christopher L. Eisgruber, Princeton president; Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and chair of the Department of Economics; and Daniel Day, assistant vice president for communications.

Deaton joins several other Princeton faculty members who have received a Nobel Prize in economics in the last two decades, including Christopher Sims in 2011, Paul Krugman in 2008, and Daniel Kahneman in 2002. 

In his office on campus the morning of the announcement, Deaton read through congratulatory emails as his office phone and cellphone rang constantly. Joined by his wife, Anne Case, the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, he answered questions about an honor that was still sinking in.

"I still feel a little bit like we might pinch ourselves and wake up and I'll be back in bed and it will be an ordinary day," Deaton said.

Deaton, a native of the United Kingdom, earned his bachelor's degree and Ph.D. from Cambridge University. He taught at Cambridge and the University of Bristol before joining the faculty at Princeton.

He is a corresponding fellow of the British Academy and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a fellow of the Econometric Society and, in 1978, was the first recipient of the society's Frisch Medal. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences.

Deaton's current research focuses on the determinants of health in rich and poor countries, as well as on the measurement of poverty in India and around the world. He also maintains a longstanding interest in the analysis of household surveys.

Deaton's latest book, "The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality" (Princeton University Press), explores the story of how, beginning 250 years ago, some parts of the world sustained progress, opening up gaps and setting the state for today's unequal world. He's also widely known for publications on the relationship between income and happiness, with Kahneman. In announcing Deaton's prize, the Nobel committee also specifically noted Deaton's 1980 paper, with John Muellbauer, "An Almost Ideal Demand System," which details a way to provide a reliable picture of demand patterns in society.

Deaton noted that his focus on individuals and their decisions is important both from an academic and ethical standpoint.

"In the end, it's individual peoples' well-being that counts," he said. "When you're counting the poverty rate in India or the mortality rate in the United States, all of those things you're looking at are aggregates. But it's one death at a time. It's one person at a time who's in poverty. It's their lives that are being led. In the end, I don't think you're ever going to want to get away from the individual."

Play Video: Angus Deaton receives Nobel Prize in economics; Video embed #1

After being notified of his Nobel Prize in economics, Princeton professor Angus Deaton spent the day celebrating with the Princeton community and answering media queries from around the world. (Video by Danielle Alio, Office of Communications)

A campus celebration

At a news conference Monday afternoon, the audience of media, faculty, students, administrators and staff reached into the balcony of Richardson Auditorium. Deaton was greeted with a standing ovation as he took the stage.

Eisgruber introduced Deaton as "a great economist and a great Princetonian," while Rouse read an email from a one of Deaton's former students, who said he "always stood out as the best professor I had. He challenged and pushed me to achieve the impossible." Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and chair of the Department of Economics, described him as "enormously funny, well-read, witty, frighteningly erudite and very good company."

Angus Deaton with Christopher Sims and Eric Wieschaus

Deaton visits with two other Nobel winners from Princeton, Christopher Sims (left) and Eric Wieschaus, during a reception in his honor at Rockefeller College. Deaton received congratulations in person and by phone and email from around the world.

Deaton took the lectern joking that he might ask Sims, his colleague, friend and fellow Nobel laureate, to join him on stage to help him through the news conference.

He expressed his gratitude for the opportunities provided by the University and the Woodrow Wilson School.

"I really want to thank Princeton for what it's done for me and for the place it's provided me to work," Deaton said. "Wonderful students, wonderful graduate students, wonderful colleagues."

He noted the influence of his mentor Richard Stone, who received the economics prize in 1984, whose interest in economic measurement he shares. Deaton also emphasized the breadth of his own work and his lifelong interest in connecting disciplines, now reflected in changes in academia.

"One of my great joys and it's so well represented at Princeton is the breadth with which the social sciences have come together in recent years," he said. "Now economics is much closer to sociology, much closer to politics, much closer to demography, much closer to philosophy than it's been for a really, really long time."

In response to a question, Deaton noted the tremendous progress that has been made in conditions around the world.

"I've spent a lot of time arguing the world is getting to be a much better place," Deaton said. "Over the past 200 years, the world has been transformed from something close to destitution to where many, many of us have much richer lives in which our talents and capabilities can be more fully expressed. I do tend to emphasize there's more to be done."

Other questions focused on the importance of government funding for social sciences, progress against poverty in Latin America and the danger of inequality around the world.

At one of two receptions honoring Deaton following the news conference, Provost David S. Lee said as a Princeton graduate student he had taken a course with Deaton and consulted with him about his dissertation, which focused on inequality. "He has always been a very generous and accessible professor with a lot of really interesting ideas," Lee said. "He is very influential in the world of economics, of course, but also here at Princeton."

Currie said Deaton has had an enormous influence on doctoral students at Princeton who have gone on to become part of the academy. "He taught my first-year graduate course in econometrics. He was a very effective teacher. Of that class, I think we had a much higher than average number of people who went on to become academics, and a lot of them were doing work that was applied in some way, using data in the way that he taught us."

Students cheering

Colleagues and students applaud Deaton at a reception in the George Schultz Dining Room at the Woodrow Wilson School. "This is like a Nobel Prize for the Wilson School, and that's a truly wonderful thing," Deaton said.

Congratulations flooded in about the news of the prize from Deaton's former students and colleagues. Duncan Thomas, who was a graduate student under Deaton and is now the Norb F. Schaefer Professor of International Studies and professor of economics at Duke University, noted Deaton's impact.

"He has an exceptional ability to help students make the most of themselves and help them develop into the most productive scientists they can possibly be — both by encouraging them to see the critical importance of asking questions that matter and then working hard to answer those questions to the best of their ability," wrote Thomas, who earned his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1986. "He is also a gifted expositor and amazing teacher who time and time again explains the essential core of very complex ideas with tremendous clarity."

Additional reporting by Emily Aronson and Jamie Saxon

Angus Deaton reception2

Deaton chats at the Woodrow Wilson School reception with (from left) Currie, Rouse and Orley Ashenfelter, the Joseph Douglas Green 1895 Professor of Economics.