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Nobel-Winning Economist Probes The Means By Which We Measure


Angus Deaton's research has challenged the way economic well-being is measured and defined. It's had a big impact on policymakers around the world. And today, it also won the 69-year-old Princeton University professor the Nobel Prize for Economics. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Angus Deaton has spent much of his career studying the way economic statistics are compiled and how they're used and misused around the world.


ANGUS DEATON: I feel passionately about measurement - about how difficult it is, about how much theory and conceptualization is involved in measurement and indeed how much politics is involved.

ZARROLI: Deaton says traditional attempts to measure things like poverty have been deeply problematic. It's not just a matter of measuring income levels because living conditions vary so much from country to country and within countries themselves. Christina Paxson is the president of Brown University and a former colleague of Deaton's.

CHRISTINA PAXSON: I think Angus has always been very interested in living standards - what makes people as well-off as they are, and what does well-off even mean? How do we think about that?

ZARROLI: So Deaton has taken a much more nuanced approach to economic statistics, probing deep into the numbers in a way that differs from traditional measurements.

PAXSON: He's somebody who, you know, sort of is fearless about asking questions and pushing data and trying to understand the roots of some very basic questions in economics.

ZARROLI: Deaton does this by looking not at people's income levels, but at what they consume - what they wear, their life expectancy and education levels. His work has illuminated some of the complexities of poverty, and it has been enormously influential among policymakers, NGOs and international institutions such as the World Bank. Abhijit Banerjee is a professor of economics at MIT.

ABHIJIT BANERJEE: There's a kind of a policy world, which is often mechanistic about the interpretation of poverty. And one of the things he has done is challenge that.

ZARROLI: Deaton was born in Scotland and is a dual citizen of the U.S. and the U.K. He writes A Letter From America for the Royal Economic Society newsletter that is wry, learned and very accessible. He once used "Downton Abbey" to make a broader point about Obamacare. In his writings, Deaton has been skeptical about foreign aid and attempts by rich countries to improve the lives of poor ones, and for that he was criticized by Bill Gates. Deaton also expresses great concern about income inequality and the lives of those left behind by globalization. At a press conference at Princeton today, he sounded an alarm about the long-term slowdown in growth in rich countries.


DEATON: That slowing growth poisons everything. It makes politics much harder. It makes people's lives noticeably worse, especially the people on the bottom. And if you put that together with the rising inequality, there's many people in the rich world who are really suffering.

ZARROLI: Deaton says there are still some 700 million poor people in the world. But in his 2013 book "The Great Escape," Deaton also wrote that living standards have risen enormously over the last 250 years. People are living longer and becoming much better educated and healthier. They no longer have to watch one-quarter of their children die. And Deaton says he remains basically optimistic about human progress. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.