Jan Tinbergen

Jan Tinbergen is known as both a builder of models and as an econometrist. For his pioneering work, he was in 1969 awarded the first ‘Nobel Prize’ in Economics by the Swedish Central Bank, together with Ragnar Frisch. Particularly striking in his work is his commitment to tackling the global challenges of his time, such as the economic instability of the thirties, the confrontation between East and West during the Cold War, the decolonization and the issue of economic development. Later on in his career environmental issues raised his interest.

He graduated in 1929 with Paul Ehrenfest, a leading physicist. At that time, he had already decided, in consultation with his supervisor, to opt for the science of economics. At first, his work primarily concentrated on economic statistics at Statistics Netherlands (CBS). But, as the economic crisis got worse, he went to search for ways to use his economic knowledge to combat the depression. In 1935, this took the shape of the Dutch Social-Democratic Party’s Labour Plan, of which he was the intellectual architect. A year later he presented the first macro-econometric model of the Dutch economy at the KVS (Royal Economics Society).

Subsequently, his career soared, and he went on to the League of Nations in Geneva where he expanded his monetary model. After the war, his friend Hein Vos – in his capacity of Minister of Trade and Industry – asked him to become director of the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), and from the mid-fifties onwards he engrossed himself in the development issue. He worked in India and Turkey for many international organizations, but mainly for the United Nations. The ideal of a peaceful world order – as first pursued by the League of Nations and later on by the United Nations – was also Tinbergen’s goal. With a view to this, he was permanently in search of a rapprochement between the underdeveloped South and the rich North, and also between the communist East and the capitalist West. This resulted in, among other things, his convergence theory, which stated that the various economic systems would grow towards one another in terms of structure. That is why, in addition to the ‘Nobel Prize’, the personal visit which Gorbachev paid him after the fall of the Wall was a tremendous highlight in his life.

Also in the Netherlands, Tinbergen was the pioneer of a cosmopolitan view. From the fifties onwards, he was one of the great advocates of development aid. Together with Father Simon Jelsma and the Reverend Johannes Hugenholtz, he founded the Association for International Development Co-operation in the Netherlands. This soon received a great deal of sympathy from the Royal House, and in 1955 Queen Juliana, inspired by Tinbergen, gave a talk on a World Welfare Plan. Tinbergen continued to devote the rest of his life to development aid, and in doing so set the goal that one or even two percent of the GDP of the developed countries should go to developing countries.

Erwin Dekker

Postdoctoral researcher at the Erasmus School of Economics, where he is working on the biography of Jan Tinbergen.