Tributes paid to Sir James Mirrlees

Tributes have been paid to Sir James Mirrlees (1936-2018), a Fellow of Trinity College, and Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge, who also taught at Oxford and in America, and played an important role at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In 1996 Sir James won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences with Professor William Vickrey, of Columbia University, for their research on the economic theory of incentives when information is incomplete or asymmetric. Sir James was knighted in 1997.

The Nobel Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen, who is Thomas W Lamont University Professor at Harvard, and a Fellow of Trinity College, paid tribute to his colleague and friend.

Jim Mirrlees was an outstanding economist, a fantastic teacher, a great human being, and – more personally – a wonderful friend. I will miss him as long as I live.

Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics at Cambridge, a Fellow of St John’s and an Honorary Fellow of Trinity, said:

James Mirrlees’ moral seriousness, allied to dazzling mathematical skills and an unerring eye for building minimalist economic models were reflected in some half-dozen articles that together constructed the theoretical foundations of public economics.

To those of us who were privileged to observe his academic life at close quarters, it was also a source of amazement that he found it entirely right and proper to spend more time on his many students than on his own writings. He was unquestionably one of the most influential economists of the final quarter of the last century.

Professor Hamish Low, a Fellow of Trinity, paid tribute to his colleague – ‘a striking role model for how academics can make a real difference.’

Jim’s influence over economists from across the discipline is unparalleled. This influence stems from a huge commitment to listening and discussing research with students, junior researchers and colleagues, a willingness to share ideas and a generosity with his time that has benefited all of us. This was alongside his own truly path-breaking research that changed the way we think about incentives and inequality. He is a striking role model for how academics can make a real difference.

Professor Sir Richard Blundell, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Ricardo Professor of Political Economy at UCL, said:

He revolutionised the way we think about incentives and inequality in policy design. Most notably in the area of tax design but with far reaching implications across many areas of economics. Understanding incentives and behaviour under asymmetric information remains at the heart of modern economics and is as live an issue now as it was when Mirrlees was awarded the Nobel Prize more than 20 years ago.

A wonderfully kind person and a delight to work with, he will be deeply missed by us all.

Born in Scotland and educated at the University of Edinburgh and then Trinity College, Sir James came to economics by way of mathematics, and an interest in philosophy. He was a Wrangler during his mathematics’ degree at Trinity before pursuing a PhD in economics.

Writing about his life for the Nobel Foundation, he said: ‘…it was indeed economics I wanted to do, because I kept discussing it with economist friends, and they didn’t make sense to me; and because poverty in what were then called the underdeveloped countries, seemed to me what really mattered in the world, and that meant economics.’

This interest in real economic issues and the implications of economic research for economic policy remained throughout his research career. His key contributions, which led to the Nobel Prize, were in using mathematical models to capture the essence of real economic problems.

© Faculty of Economics, Cambridge University

Working with the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Sir James chaired the Mirrlees Review, which brought together a group of international experts to identify the characteristics of a good tax system for developed countries, to assess to what extent the UK tax system met those characteristics, and to recommend reforms to that end. The Mirrlees Review, published in 2011, remains an internationally influential plan for comprehensive tax reform.

Sir James served as President of the Econometric Society and the Royal Economic Society, and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

He was Visiting Professor at MIT, the University of California, Berkeley, and at Yale. Between 1968 and 1995 he was Edgeworth Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Nuffield College. He returned to Cambridge as Professor of Political Economy, a position he held until retirement in 2003.

His interest in Chinese economic development led to his appointment as Distinguished Professor-at-Large at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he was also Master of Morningside College from 2009.

Sir James is survived by his widow, Patricia, and his two daughters, Catriona and Fiona.

There will be a funeral on Friday 14 September. A date for a Memorial Service in Trinity College Chapel will be announced in due course.


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