Childhood & Early Life
Jan Tinbergen was born on April 12, 1903 in The Hague. His father, Dirk Cornelis Tinbergen, a scholar of Medieval Dutch, taught Dutch language in Gymnasium of The Hague. He successfully transmitted his love for art and language into his children, often taking them out for walks and bike rides.
His mother, Jeannette nee van Eek, was the daughter of a mathematics teacher. Before her marriage, she was primary teacher in Scheveningen, and thereafter started giving private tuitions to earn some extra income. She almost personified order and regularity, running the household efficiently and concurrently pursuing her own interest in mathematics.
Jan was the eldest of his parents’ five children. Next to him was Nikolaas Tinbergen, who in 1973 won the Nobel Prize for Physiology. Youngest was Luuk Tinbergen, who grew up to be a famous ornithologist and ecologist. Between them were a sister called Jacomiena and a brother named Dik.
Apart from his own siblings, Jan also grew up with number of other children, raised by the Tinbergens in the same house. Most of them had their parents living in Dutch East Indies. But during the First World War, they also had some Belgium and Austrian refugees living with them.
Jan Tinbergen was a very good student from the very beginning, earning certificate as the “most excellent pupil” in his primary school. Later he attended Hogere Bugerschool, which was designed especially for middle class children, who aspired to rise above their status. Here his favorite subjects were the sciences and mathematics.
The First World War broke out while he was studying at Hogere Bugerschool. The resulting horror influenced young Jan to a great extent and helped him to form his social and economic views early in his life.
After graduating from his school, Tinbergen had to appear for an additional examination in Latin and Greek, before he could enter the University of Leiden in 1921. Here he started with mathematics and theoretical physics because they were his favorite subjects.
At Leiden, he was especially influenced by Paul Ehrenfest, who would teach through dialogues. Later Tinbergen said in an interview that because of such practices, he was able to take part in discussions with Albert Einstein. Kamerling Onnes, Lorentz and Zeeman were also present there.
By his interaction with refugee children living in their home during the First World War, he was already acquainted with the horrors of the war. Sometime while studying at the University, he started accompanying the postman as he went on his rounds and was appalled by the poverty he saw.
Tinbergen realized that if he wanted to make significant contribution to the society he needed to study economics. He now wanted to quickly finish his course and then switch to economics.
All along, he continued with his social activities, founding a club for social democratic students and a student news paper. In 1923, while still an undergraduate, he officially became a member of the Labor Party and its youth wing.
In 1925, Tinbergen graduated from the University of Leiden. Thereafter, he was required to undertake the military service; but being a conscientious objector, he was allowed to opt out of it. Instead, he was assigned to an administrative position at the State Prison of Rotterdam State.
He was to serve at the Rotterdam State Prison for fifteen months. But after five months, at the intervention of his father, he was transferred to Central Bureau of Statistics in The Hague. Here he served for the remaining ten months.
In 1928, he returned to the University of Leiden for completing his doctoral degree. His dissertation, ‘Minimumproblemen in de natuurkunde en de ekonomie’ (Minimisation problems in Physics and Economics), combined his interest in physics, mathematics and economics. Working under Paul Ehrenfest, he defended his thesis in 1929.
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In 1928, the head of the Central Bureau of Statistics, pleased by his achievements, had offered Tinbergen a permanent job there. Therefore, soon after earning his PhD in Physics in 1929, he began his career as a statistician at CBS, remaining there until 1945.
Initially, he served as the editor of 'De Nederlandsche Conjunctuur', the newly founded official journal of the Bureau. But very soon, as it opened their unit of business cycle research, he was put in its charge.
Here, he took up empirical approach to solve the economic problems caused by the ongoing depression. Access to the vast data held by CBS also helped him to test his theoretical models.
In 1930, he cofounded Econometric Society with other like-minded youth, also starting a journal named 'Econometrica'. It provided the much needed platform for discussing and presenting different economic issues.
In 1931, concurrently with working at CBS, he started teaching at the University of Amsterdam as Professor of Statistics. Later in 1933, he moved to The Netherlands School of Economics in Rotterdam as Associate Professor of Mathematics and Statistics, a position he held until 1973.
In 1936, he was invited by the League of Nations to determine which of the business cycles as proposed by Gottfried Haberler was more practical. He therefore, took two years leave of absence from CBS and joined League of Nations as a consultant, completing his job by 1936.
As a consultant to the League of Nations, he analyzed economic development in the United States in the period between 1919 and 1932. The work served as a foundation for his business cycle theory, helping him to set up guidelines for economic development.
In 1939, his work on the United States was published as ‘Business Cycles in the United States, 1919–1932’ from Geneva. Meanwhile in 1938, he published another ground breaking work, ‘Statistical Testing of Business Cycle’. ‘Econometrics’, published in 1941 was another important work of this period.
In 1945, he left CBS and on 15 September 1945, he founded the Central Planning Bureau of Netherlands (Centraal Planbureau), becoming its founder director. Under his stewardship, it gained legality on 21 April, 1947. It was and still is an independent agency, financed by the Dutch government.
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He remained with the Bureau until 1955. In this post Second World War period, he made immense contribution to the development of the war-torn country, creating econometric models on the basis of which the Dutch Government made its economic planning.
In spite of his busy schedule, he continued to write. Major works published during this period were ‘Business Cycles in the United Kingdom, 1870-1914’ (1951), ‘On the Theory of Economic Policy’ (1952) and ‘Centralization and Decentralization in Economic Policy’ (1954).
From 1955, he started concentrating on education, serving as a visiting professor at Harvard University for one year. In 1956, he returned home to continue teaching at The Netherlands School of Economics.
Although he had earlier taught various subjects, post 1956, he mainly taught ‘Development Programming’, cofounding the Econometric Institute in the same year. Also in 1956, he published ‘Economic Policy: Principles and Design’, another of his important works.
Post 1955, apart from teaching at The Netherlands School of Economics, he served as advisor to United Arab Republic, Turkey, Venezuela, Surinam, Indonesia and Pakistan. Moreover, he was appointed advisor by national and international organization like European Coal and Steel Community, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, United Nations Secretariat.
In 1965, he was appointed Chairman of the United Nations Committee for Development Planning, serving in that capacity till 1972. During this period he helped to establish more than twenty institutions for economics in different countries like Turkey, India and Chile.
In 1973, he retired from The Netherlands School of Economics. Thereafter, he concentrated on writing, publishing 'The Dynamics of Business Cycles: A Study in Economic Fluctuations' (1974), ‘Income Distribution: Analysis and Policies’ (1975), 'Economic policy: Principles and Design' (1978), ‘Warfare and Welfare’ (1987), and ‘World Security and Equity’ (1990).
In 1989, he became one of the founding trustees of ‘Economists Against the Arms Race’ (ECAAR), a New York-based NGO, which has been registered by the United Nations. Today, it has been renamed as Economists for Peace and Security.
Personal Life & Legacy
Little is known about Jan Tinbergen’s personal life except that he was married to Tine Johanna de Wit and possibly had four children. The family lived in a simple house in the middleclass neighborhood of The Haviklaan, The Hague.
An unassuming man, he never drove a car; but chose to take public transport to work even after winning the Nobel Prize. While he focused on the economic development around the world, he was also very fond of drawing, something that he learned as a child from his father.
On June 9, 1994, Jan Tinbergen died from natural causes, at The Hague, at the age of 91.
The Tinbergen Institute, an institute for research and education in economics, econometrics and finance, has been named after him.