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CfB Bureau

When Bill Gates wrote on his blog, gatesnotes.com: "If you want to learn about why human welfare overall has gone up so much over time, you should read The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality”, it was a tribute to Princeton economist Angus Deaton’s singular devotion to facts and close measurement.

Deaton, winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2015, is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of Economics and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Economics Department at Princeton University.

The Great Escape, his 2013 book, tells the remarkable story of how, over the past 250 years, a significant proportion of the world’s people managed their “great escape” from humanity’s natural state of abject disease-ridden poverty and ignorance. “Life is better now than at almost any time in history,” he writes. “More people are richer and fewer people live in dire poverty. Lives are longer and parents no longer routinely watch a quarter of their children die.” Yet the escapes from destitution by so many has left gaping inequalities between people and nations, he says.

Deaton takes an in-depth look at the historical and ongoing patterns behind the health and wealth of nations, and addresses what needs to be done to help those left behind.He examines the United States, a nation that has prospered but is today experiencing slower growth and increasing inequality. He also considers how economic growth in India and China has improved the lives of more than a billion people. Deaton argues that international aid has been ineffective and even harmful. He suggests alternative efforts--including reforming incentives to drug companies and lifting trade restrictions--that will allow the developing world to bring about its own Great Escape.

Demonstrating how changes in health and living standards have transformed our lives, The Great Escape is a powerful guide to addressing the well-being of all nations. For concerned Indians his work continues to be of great interest as Deaton has recently been trying to figure out why the number of calories being consumed by people in India has apparently been declining over the past 25 years while their incomes have been increasing.

Deaton suggests that Indians are engaged in less strenuous physical labor and may be eating less because they are healthier (thus needing fewer calories to offset disease), causing the undernutrition figures for the subcontinent to remain among the highest in the world—i.e., 50 percent of children are underweight for their ages and 50 percent of women have a low body mass index.

So, if you ever wonder if India, or the world, is becoming a fairer as well as a richer place? Then, it would help to remember that few economists are better equipped to answer this question than Angus Deaton.

The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality | Angus Deaton | Princeton University Press | 360 pp | Paperback | £14.95