By Philip Sean Curran
Light rain fell outside the third-floor office where Angus Deaton works in Wallace Hall on the Princeton University campus, an office that has not gotten any bigger or more luxurious since Mr. Deaton won the Nobel Prize for economics in October.
This fact surprised a visiting foreign journalist who had come to interview him in the wake of his sudden celebrity. Seated at his desk behind an Apple computer, he reflected last week on winning the award, his life growing up in Scotland and his plans now that he is set to retire as a Princeton professor in June. He spoke ahead of a scheduled talk Feb.17, starting at 7 p.m., at the Princeton Public Library, to discuss his book, “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality.”
At first glance, Mr. Deaton is not the stereotypical picture of a slight-of-build academic, but rather a large ex-rugby player who enjoys the simple pleasures of fly-fishing. Born in Scotland shortly after the end of World War II, he spent the first part of his life in Edinburgh and saw some of the worst poverty in Europe at the time. In some ways, the experience was formative for a future economist who has studied inequality.
”I do think that growing up in a place where people didn’t have very much money certainly gave me some sort of understanding of what it was like to not have very much money…,” said Mr. Deaton.
He says his family wasn’t poor, but that money was tight.
”Some of it was my father, who was sort of obsessive about it. He grew up, really, in tough times,” Mr. Deaton said.
He was educated at Fettes College and Cambridge, where he received his doctorate in 1974. Since 1983, he has been teaching graduate students at Princeton.
Awarded the Nobel in October, he was recognized for his work in studying consumption habits, poverty and welfare.
His life post-Nobel has been “complete chaos,” in his words. People are willing to pay him large sums of money to speak; he turns down more offers than he accepts. He recently was offered an invitation to attend the Edinburgh Book Festival with a guaranteed audience of 700 people.
”It would be really nice if this thing settled down somewhere, and I knew what the rest of my life was going to be like,” he said.
Yet the work he did with his wife, Anne Case, also a Princeton professor, did showing a rising mortality rate among middle-aged whites in America beginning in 1999 to 2013, attracted even more publicity.
”There was such a huge media storm around that,” he said. “I’ve written papers before that got a lot of public attention, but nothing like this.”
According to their research, they found a rise in deaths for whites “was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.”
The wide press attention into their research comes amid the phenomenon of what some have described as the angry, white working-class voters that have been part of the presidential election.
”These are the people who have not been the winners at globalization,” he said. “These are people who, 30, 40 years ago, could have got a job in a factory, got some on-the-job training (and) made a good life for their families and their kids would have had a good opportunity to rise or fall in both directions.”
But he also points to concerns about addiction problems in the United States and with doctors over-prescribing opioids.
”Ever since Oxycontin was approved in 1997, there’s just been a boom in deaths of overdose from those drugs,” he says. “These drugs are wonderful if you’re dying of cancer and there’s no reason you should die in agony. But if they’re routinely prescribed for chronic pain, a fair number of those people are going to get addicted. And then if you try to take those pills away from them, they’ll switch to heroin, which has gotten super cheap…”
When he and other Nobel laureates from America went to the White House to meet President Barack Obama, Mr. Deaton had not crossed into the Oval Office before the president was interested in talking about the paper.
”He was just terrific about it,” Mr. Deaton said.
Later this year, he will retire from the faculty he has been a part of since 1983. He will continue to have an office but he no longer will be teaching. There are books he still wants to write, and he’s working on a research project.
In reflecting on his time at Princeton, he said, “I’ve seen a lot of terrific graduate students who’ve gone on to become professors. I’ve seen this enormous internationalization of the economics profession.”
He points to how the tenured faculty in the economics department at Princeton come from 30 different countries — bringing with them varied backgrounds.
”So it’s just become a much richer, more interesting place,” he said.
Angus Deaton will discuss his book, “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality,” at the Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon St., Princeton, Feb. 17, 7 p.m. For more information, go to princetonlibrary.org or call 609-924-9529.
By Philip Sean Curran