Jan Tinbergen


Born: 12 April 1903 in The Hague, The Netherlands
Died: 9 June 1994 in The Hague, The Netherlands

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Jan Tinbergen's father, Dirk Cornelis Tinbergen (1874-1951), was a schoolmaster teaching Dutch language in the Gymnasium of The Hague but was also a scholar of Medieval Dutch. Dirk Tinbergen married Jeannette van Eek (1877-1960), who was a primary school teacher before the marriage, in Scheveningen in 1902. Jeannette's father, Nikolaas van Eek, was a mathematics teacher. After her marriage, Jeanette did some private tutoring to earn some extra money for the family. Jan, the subject of this biography, was the eldest of his parents' five children, four boys and one girl. One of his younger brothers, Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988), became a famous physiologist and won the Nobel Prize for physiology in 1973. His youngest brother, Luuk Tinbergen (1916-1955), became a famous ornithologist. Jan's other two siblings were Jacomiena (born 1905) and Dik (born 1909). However, there were more than these five children in the Tinbergen home since they also looked after children of parents who spent long periods in the Dutch East Indies, and during World War I, they housed some Belgium and Austrian refugees. Dirk Tinbergen's [17]:-

... love for languages and arts was transmitted onto his children; his occasional outdoor drawing lessons and the walks and bike rides with his children during the summer holidays contributed to the pleasant and intellectual atmosphere which characterized the education. The mother, Jeanette van Eek, personified the order and regularity of the family in terms of both her modest way of conducting the Tinbergen household and her mathematical interest.

Jan attended primary school gaining a certificate stating he was "a most excellent pupil". Then he attended the Hogere Bugerschool in The Hague where his favourite subjects were the sciences and mathematics. This was a special type of school which was designed for children of middle class parents who were aspiring to better their status. These schools allowed entry to the university system after passing additional examinations in Latin and Greek and this Tinbergen did. While at this school Tinbergen's social and political views were formed, partly as a result of the horrors of World War I, which he saw through the eyes of refugees, and partly through his friendship with Tine Johanna de Wit (1902-1991) who later became his wife. He entered the University of Leiden in 1921. In [30] he explained his choice of topics at university:-

I wanted to finish quickly and then to switch to economics. Now you can ask why I chose physics at all, but it was clearly my real interest. I liked physics and mathematics very much and I also felt that that was the thing I was perhaps strongest at, but at the same time I had already come to the conviction that I could probably be more useful to society by being an economist. I think most of the bigger political discussions were economic rather than physical, and so I hoped to get sufficient capability to handle things with mathematics and perhaps take physics as an example of a more developed science than economics.

He studied mathematics and theoretical physics at the University of Leiden and was most influenced there by Paul Ehrenfest. Writing in the newspaper NRC-Handelsblad in 1987 he said of his teachers at Leiden [29]:-

To Ehrenfest I owe a great deal. I studied physics at a time when a number of fascinating persons were there together. Ehrenfest would not instruct as such, as he preferred dialogue. Thanks to him I could participate in discussions with Albert Einstein. Also Kamerling Onnes, Lorentz and Zeeman were present. Being a student in the hands of such teachers, you are very fortunate indeed.

However, Tinbergen also had political interests associated with his left wing views. At university he founded a club for social democratic students and also founded a student newspaper. In fact some of Tinbergen's first publications were articles he wrote for the socialist newspaper Het Volk in which he examined the effects of the economic depression of 1920-22 on unemployment and how the lives of the poor had been affected. While an undergraduate, he became a member of the Labour Party [24]:-

In 1923 I had become a member of the Labour Party and its youth organization; I had come into contact with the poor part of Leiden, not usually known so well by students. In retrospect I wonder whether I would have been clever enough to contribute to modern physics; anyway, my interest went to helping to change society.

After completing his undergraduate degree at Leiden, Tinbergen continued to study at Leiden for his doctorate under Ehrenfest's supervision. However, he had to undertake military service but his political views meant that he was unwilling to do this. He was fortunate in that, only a few years earlier in 1923, legislation had been passed in the Netherlands allowing conscientious objectors to avoid military service. The legislation required that a conscientious objector do government service instead. Tinbergen was assigned to an administrative position at Rotterdam State prison where he was to serve for fifteen months. His father, however, tried to get a better and more satisfying position for his son and, due to his intervention, it was agreed that Tinbergen could transfer to the Dutch government's Central Bureau of Statistics in The Hague. He had already served five of his fifteen months so had only to serve at the Central Bureau of Statistics for another ten months. When he completed these ten months, in 1928, the head of the Bureau persuaded him to take a permanent position there. He agreed, subject to being allowed a break in which to complete work on his doctoral thesis.

Tinbergen submitted his thesis Minimumproblemen in de natuurkunde en de ekonomie (Minimum problems in Physics and in Economics) in 1929. It combined mathematics, physics and economics. In the introduction Tinbergen thanks Ehrenfest for pointing out to him a topic which could allow him to combine mathematical theories with his political interests. The main part of the thesis is mathematical, studying minimisation problems. Then he gives two appendices, one describing applications of the mathematics to physics, the second appendix giving applications to economics. The importance of this work of Tinbergen was that it was one of the first examples of a new idea in mathematics, namely mathematical modelling. Of course mathematical physics had been studied throughout the history of mathematics but Tinbergen's work saw a new path for the applications of mathematics, where the applications could be to a wide variety of areas.

From 1929 to 1945 he worked as a statistician with the Bureau of Statistics but he also taught in the first few years of the 1930s at the University of Amsterdam. In the Bureau of Statistics, he explained [30]:-

I was responsible for the periodical 'De Nederlandsche Conjunctuur'. It started in 1929, but the War made an end to it. My official responsibility as editor left me quite some freedom. The man supervising my work was in charge of building up something like the London and Cambridge Economic Service, concerned with the cyclical prospects of the Dutch economy.

His influence on the Central Bureau of Statistics is described in [17]:-

Life at the Central Bureau of Statistics at The Hague during the thirties was anything but dull. The problems of unemployment caused by the Great Depression had enforced the call for statistics for policy purposes. Although the Central Bureau of Statistics had been working on business cycle statistics for some time, it was only given its major impulse with the institution of a unit of business cycle research. Tinbergen, who had only just finished his dissertation and entered the staff of statisticians, was given charge of this new unit. Clearly influenced by the German business cycle research institutes in Berlin and Frankfurt, Tinbergen gradually tried to develop an empirical approach to dynamic problems in economics. At the same time he surrounded himself with young engineers, mathematicians and physicists, such as Johannes Bernardus Dirk Derksen, Pieter De Wolff and A Bijl. Together they formed the so called "Q.C." or "Quantitatieven Club", an informal group of young men both socially concerned as well as quantitatively or mathematically oriented. Together with others, such as Tjalling Koopmans, they engaged in small discussion groups evaluating the poverty of contemporary economics and the need for a more rigorous approach.

In 1930 he was one of the founders of the Econometric Society [33]:-

'Econometrica', the journal of the new society, provided a much needed forum for the presentation and discussion of the results of the young science. Here and in the frequent meetings of the Econometric Society, ... Tinbergen made a strong impact both by [his] own contributions and by [his] inspiring personal influence on new cadres of econometricians.

His work on economics in his doctorate had been entirely theoretical, but now he had access to large amounts of data on which to test and develop theories.

From 1933 to 1973 he was professor of economics at The Netherlands School of Economics, Rotterdam. He was appointed to the board of the scientific bureaux of the Dutch Labour Party and he co-authored the Labour Plan in 1935. This plan was based on Tinbergen's mathematically based principles of economics. Gerard Alberts writes in [8]:-

The assumption that these principles of economic rationality might really be made to work was substantiated by Tinbergen one year afterwards in an academic debate on the possibilities of active economic policy. In his contribution to the debate Tinbergen projected a 'quantitative stylising of the Dutch economy' to isolate the important factors and their effects by means of a set of definitions and equations. This "model" of the Dutch economy, as he called it (written with quotation marks at first), would allow one to throw some data into the "mathematical machinery" which would then predict the results.

In the late 1930s Tinbergen worked as a scientific advisor for the League of Nations. They had invited him to investigate statistically which of the business cycles that had been proposed by Gottfried Haberler in his book Prosperity and Depression (1937) did best in practice. This book by Haberler had been written at the request of the League of Nations. Tinbergen was given two years leave of absence from the Central Bureau of Statistics in which to undertake this work. Another book that inspired him was John Maynard Keynes' General Theory (1936). Lawrence Klein writes [18]:-

In private conversations, Tinbergen told me how much he admired the work of Keynes in his 'General Theory' 1936 and that he was so inspired by it that he was trying to provide some empirical substance and use estimated models to implement appropriate policies. It is a pity that Tinbergen's work received such shabby critical treatment by Keynes (in 1939), but being the kind person that he was, he expressed no ill will towards Keynes.

Tinbergen's reply to Keynes was in his paper On a Method of Statistical Research. A Reply (1940), see Kurt Dopfer's paper [13] for details of this controversy.

In 1945, he was appointed as director of the Dutch Central Planning Bureau. Tinbergen later developed other econometric models, in particular he constructed an econometric model of the USA. In 1969 he jointly won the first Nobel Prize for Economics for this first ever macroeconomic model. Perhaps we should quote Tinberg's own words relating to models [28]:-

In an attempt to evaluate what model building has contributed to the theory and practice of economic science I feel that at least we can say that models have had a 'didactic' value. Often in our text books we bring simplified, not to say over-simplified, pictures of reality which nonetheless contribute to making understood some essential features of that reality. ... What I called "didactic value" also stands for 'communication' value. The ability of a planning expert to communicate with politicians and with citizens constitutes an important element in any type of democratic or semi-democratic planning and such communication can be enhanced by relatively simple models. In order not to misrepresent reality, however, there will be a need for a succession of models, as used in planning in 'stages' or, as we now say, multi-level planning. I do think, however, that the utility of models goes beyond their didactic value. They are a real and essential element in the preparation of well-coordinated policies. But they cannot do this job all by themselves. Models constitute a 'framework' or a 'skeleton' and the flesh and blood will have to be added by a lot of common sense and knowledge of details.

His major publications include Grondproblemen der Theoretische Statistiek (1936), Statistical Testing of Business Cycles (1939), Econometrics (1941), On the Theory of Economic Policy (1952), Economic Policy: Principles and Design (1956) and Income Distribution: Analysis and Policies (1975). Of the 1956 work, Charles Lindblom writes [20]:-

[It] is simultaneously a study of some mathematical problems met in constructing models for policy analysis; a demonstration of the application of mathematical models and other systematic, but non-mathematical, methods to a variety of illustrative policy problems; and an exposition of what the policy-making process is and ought to be. On the first, it is excellent; on the second, helpful but puzzling; on the third, I suggest, mistaken.

Gerard Alberts emphasises Tinbergen's impact not only on economics but also on mathematics in [8]:-

Tinbergen, who enjoyed success in both politics and science early in his career, exploited an almost natural opportunity to integrate the two. His career was based on a choice rather than a dilemma, and his work exerted a major impact on both economics and on mathematics. As econometrics grew, it helped to promote a new paradigm for making mathematics useful, mathematical modeling.

His contributions to economics are summed up by Bent Hansen [14]:-

... on no less than six occasions has he brought economics a large step forward. Thus, (i) he was a pioneer in modern economic dynamics; (ii) he helped to establish econometrics; (iii) he is the founder of empirical macroeconomics; (iv) he contributed decisively to create the modern techniques of economic forecasting and prediction; (v) he is the founder of the modern theory of economic policy; (vi) he has contributed significantly to modern development planning in backward countries.

Let us quote Tinbergen himself regarding his personal "value system" [24]:-

I am inclined to indicate sympathy for the underdog or the suffering as one and tolerance as another of the basic elements of my ethical belief. Although a member of a church that strongly emphasized tolerance, I am not sure whether I am religious; but I am sure I am a product of Christianity, interpreted in my own way. My democratic socialist political choice, my European federalist ideal, and my Third World priorities all have that source of inspiration. Looked at from the negative side some of the big evils in this world seem to me to be nationalism and war.

As to hobbies, Tinbergen writes that his main one [24]:-

... is my interest in languages: this I share with my wife and inherited from my parents. Intellectually the comparative part of linguistics is the most interesting part: to compare the diverging meanings the same word has in English and French, or in German or Dutch, for instance "grand"; to compare Italian and Spanish, or Swedish and Danish. ... Anti-hobbies? Yes, I don't like any form of sport and I dislike cars. I have to admit that sometimes I am grateful for a lift: not a consistent attitude!

We end by quoting from Willy Sellekaerts [23]:-

In a neat, simple house, virtually indistinguishable from others on his block in the middle class neighbourhood of The Haviklaan, The Hague, lives one of the world's most distinguished economists, a co-winner of the first Nobel Prize in Economics in 1969, and a man who is known for his gentleness, his modesty, and his selfless dedication to the cause of human welfare. That man is Jan Tinbergen. ... Jan Tinbergen is an unassuming man, who does not trumpet his achievements to the world. He almost never criticizes colleagues. He could earn substantial personal income with his talents, but instead he has chosen to devote himself to the service of others. He does not drive a car, but takes a bus or tram to work. He has been known to thank his undergraduate students for selecting his courses. He has studied many languages, mainly in order to communicate better with those he has worked with in many parts of the world. ... He is fond of drawing. He believes in human dignity. And he lives by that belief.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (36 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Honours awarded to Jan Tinbergen
(Click below for those honoured in this way)
Nobel Prize1969

Other Web sites
  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. Nobel prizes site (A CV of Tinbergen and his Nobel prize presentation speech)
  3. Mathematical Genealogy Project


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