Nobel Prize-winning economist

Born: July 5, 1936.

Died: August 29, 2018.

SIR James Mirrlees, who has died from a brain tumour aged 82, has been described as “one of Scotland’s greatest minds.”

He won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1966 and for many years was an unpaid member of the Scottish government’s council of economic advisers. In that role, his advice was important to the Scottish government in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum.

He believed, as did the then First Minister Alex Salmond, that Scotland should walk away from its proportion of British debt if the UK government refused to share the pound with Scotland in a currency union were Scotland to become independent. His work for the Scottish government was non-partisan: He was a lifelong Labour voter.

When, in 1966, Mr Mirrlees (he was knighted in 1997) got a phone call from a stranger saying he had won the Nobel Prize in Economics, he assumed it was one of his friends faking a Swedish accent to pull a prank. It took him a while to find a number for the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm, called them back and heard that it was true. “I was full of glee,” he recalled.

The Prize was shared with Canadian economist William Vickrey, with whom he had worked on his theories but who died of a heart attack only three days after hearing they’d won the ultimate recognition. .

Much of Mr Mirrlees’s glee came from the fact that he was no normal economist. He had dedicated most of his career to how the science of economics could best be used for the welfare of his fellow human beings. “My subject has always been economics and human welfare,” he said. “It is a delight to have been able to contribute to that field and to have it recognised.”

During his career, he taught at Oxford, Cambridge, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Yale University, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He also had spells teaching in Pakistan and in Swaziland.

The centrepiece of his economic theory was what he called “information asymmetry,” noting that one party in any transaction will always know more than the other – a house seller will know more about the house than the buyer, someone seeking health insurance will know more about his/her health than the insurer. (You might say you’re a non-smoker but smoke like a lum). But how does that affect the house price or insurance premium, and how do those individual house prices or premiums affect the rest of us, i.e. overall house prices or premiums?

Sir James’ theories on taxation are now taught in universities all over the world. He investigated the links between levels of taxation and motivation to work and concluded that British tax rates could reasonably be higher for middle-income earners, with the revenue going to the NHS, education and general welfare.

James Alexander Mirrlees was born in July 1936, in the village of Minnigaff, Kirkcudbrightshire, now part of Dumfries and Galloway,the son of bank manager George Mirrlees and Nan (née Brown). He attended Douglas-Ewart High School in Newton Stewart before studying maths and natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with an MA in 1957. He then went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with a PhD in economics with his thesis Planning for a Dynamic Economy. Fellow students suggested he was a member of the so-called Cambridge Apostles, something of a secret society at Cambridge but, if so, it remains a secret. At Trinity, he also became a “wrangler,” a Cambridge term for the top maths geeks in the class.

In 1968, Mr Mirrlees was appointed as a professorial fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, where he taught economics until 1995 before moving to the University of Cambridge as professor of political economy at Trinity College.

Sir James’s widow Lady Patricia Mirrlees told The National newspaper: “It is hard to put into words the immense sense of loss. Jim was brilliant and yet he was modest and lived simply. He gave generously of his time and knowledge as a teacher and supervisor … His great life is over, but Jim will live on through his work and those he inspired.”

Anton Muscatelli, Principal of the University of Glasgow who served with Sir James on the Council of Economic Advisers in Scotland, said: “I am amazed by just how many leaders in the economics profession in the UK and beyond were supervised by Jim or mentored by him at some stage. It reads like a who’s who of economics.”

Despite his current travails, former First Minister Alex Salmond was one of the first to praise his old friend: “Jim Mirrlees was both a Nobel laureate and a thoroughly nice man. For no fee, this internationally-renowned economist served on the council of economic advisers and made a massive contribution to its work. My thoughts go out to Patricia, who I first met when she was handing out some badly needed sustenance to a group of anti-war protesters outside the House of Commons at the time of the Iraq war – her courage will stand her in good stead at this time.”

Sir James Mirrlees, a fine pianist, died at his home in Cambridge. The Times of London reported that a pianist and viola player performed for him on his deathbed.

He is survived by his wife Patricia (née Wilson), his daughters Catriona and Fiona from his marriage to Gillian, who died in 1993, by his stepson Rory and four grandchildren.