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In Memoriam: Sir James Mirrlees (1936-2018)

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It is with great sadness that the Institute for Fiscal Studies notes the death of Sir James Mirrlees (1936-2018). He has been a figure of enormous importance both for the magnitude of his influence on the field of public policy analysis in general and more particularly for his role in the Institute’s recent activities.

His work on the optimum design of tax systems has had incalculable influence on economics.  The challenge of finding a balance between the objective of reducing inequality and the need to maintain work incentives is at the core of analysis of direct taxation.  He found a way of conceptualising the question that not only rendered it tractable for informative analysis in a way that continues to shape serious work in the area but which also yielded understanding that has been effective far beyond the original setting. By framing it as a problem of asymmetric information between governments and taxpayers, his work led, in his own hands and those of others, to development of techniques and principles which are at the core of analysis of incentives and information more broadly.  For this work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996. His work, with Peter Diamond, on indirect taxation is likewise remarkable for the simple yet profound and far reaching insights it provides into how a well-designed tax system should and should not affect consumption and production decisions in the economy covered.

This and all of his work was motivated by a commitment to economic policy design as an instrument to the betterment of society.  While his insights into fundamental theory have been unsurpassed, he has contributed also to practical advice on policy, notably through his role in chairing the Mirrlees Review.  When the Institute decided to undertake the most thorough-going review of the UK tax system in a generation, its work could not fail to be influenced by the principles established in his work.  His agreement to chair the exercise meant his wisdom ran through its recommendations.  He will be deeply missed by all who worked here with him.

Professor Sir Richard Blundell, Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London:

"Jim Mirrlees was a remarkable and hugely influential economist. 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.  Although much of his published work was on the development of fundamental new theory, the implications for economic policy were never far from his mind.  Working with IFS, as Chair of the Mirrlees Review, his insights laid out a coherent plan for comprehensive tax reform.   A wonderfully kind person and a delight to work with, he will be deeply missed by us all”