“This is my favourite Tinbergen possession”, explained Erwin Dekker, while leafing through his photo album. Dekker is working on a biography about the economist and has received a book from the family with photos of his various visits to India. “Look, there’s even a photo in which he’s planting a tree”, the biographer smiled.

I asked Dekker, Cora Boele (who manages a sizeable Tinbergen collection for Stichting Universitair Historisch Kabinet) and Pieter van Leeuwen (responsible for digitising his gigantic work archive) to select objects as a starting point for an interview about Jan Tinbergen. It has been fifty years since Rotterdam’s most famous economist received the very first Nobel Economics Prize. We’ve written about him previously; about his significance for Econometrics. About lecturers inspired by Tinbergen. How the Dies and this year’s Nobel Prize were all about his ideas. That a new piece of music has been named after him. We even discovered that he is indirectly responsible for those confusing building names on campus. But what tangible memories can still actually be found some half a century later?

Erwin Dekker – Jan Tinbergen – Levien Willemse
Image credit: Levien Willemse

The photo album that lies between us in the Bayle Building meeting room was a gift from the Indian Statistical Institute, an ‘international hub where development expertise converges’. Jan Tinbergen travelled across the world after the Second World War as a kind of advisor. “He didn’t actually do that much in India”, explained Dekker. “But it was an important place for him, as statistics were already well-organised there.” In the Netherlands he is mainly known for his role as founder of the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB). What is less well-known is that, internationally, he also made all kinds of macro-economic models.

Idealistic project

He established an equivalent to the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) in Turkey. “Tinbergen was sent there in 1959. At that time there was a huge modernisation movement, in the spirit of Atatürk, and there was a strong push to link the country with the West.” Following a military coup, his Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis was written into the Turkish constitution, despite domestic opposition.

“In hindsight, his international activities appear slightly neo-colonial and sometimes even communist. For instance, he made five-year plans.” The Turkish project was not necessarily a success, explained Dekker. “Not all economies can be planned, such as those of rural areas or the informal economy. It is almost impossible to cover these using models. Support for Tinbergen’s project waned due to political unrest, after which he decided to leave.”

“Tinbergen was an anti-colonialist, but he did sometimes get things wrong”, stated Dekker regarding Tinbergen’s international activities. “For instance, he was a good friend of politicians who were responsible for police actions. Years later, in an interview, he admitted that he was ashamed that he had never opposed this.”

Dekker thinks you can actually consider his entire life to be an idealistic project. “Of course, he came from The Hague, and the development of his native city into the city of international peace is a fantastic metaphor for his life. These developments ran almost in parallel with the life and work of Jan Tinbergen.”

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Tinbergen’s Angels

“It’s actually a pity that we only have his work archive at EUR. It would have been interesting for me to have something personal. I’m not an economist, so I find it difficult to understand a large proportion of the archive”, explained library employee Pieter van Leeuwen while we stood together looking at an archive box. Together with his colleagues Reinier Tuinzaad and Jan Slijkoort (‘Tinbergen’s Angels’, as Van Leeuwen calls them), he is responsible for digitising Jan Tinbergen’s work archive. The family already loaned this to Erasmus University in 1994. “It’s a fantastic archive, but also extremely vulnerable. For instance, you can’t just lend out individual letters.”

Eight years ago, Tinbergen followers within the university, under the supervision of Albert Jolink (who was Head of Department at University College and Professor of the History of Economic Thinking), took the initiative to disseminate Tinbergen’s ideas more. “Unfortunately, at that time we didn’t manage to make his archive accessible – but a few years later following various grants, we were able to get started.” The first section, Jan Tinbergen’s correspondence up to 1956, is now available online. Almost ten thousand letters to and from Erasmus University’s most well-known economist are stored on tinbergenletters.eur.nl.

Pieter van Leeuwen en Reinier Tuinzaad – Jan Tinbergen – Levien Willemse
Pieter van Leeuwen and Reinier Tuinzaad with the Tinbergen archive in the University Library. Image credit: Levien Willemse

“The rest were all in separate piles in our repository”, explained Van Leeuwen. “That was mainly organized thematically and included everything: letters, all kinds of notes, plans for scientific and newspaper articles, written radio talks.” The entire archive is intended to be accessible in the spring.

These separate piles have now all been organised into acid free blue folders and archive boxes, and each piece has been given a code. This involves reams of individual sheets of paper from which letters and manuscripts were selected, categorised and scanned one by one last year. We leafed through part of the archive together.

Used envelopes

Hand-written first drafts of scientific articles. Letters with comments in the margins such as ‘I’m not against this, but on the other hand, I don’t expect much from it’ or ‘No time for this in March, maybe ask the ambassador’. A request to the Minister of Education to offer a grant to a student from a developing country to attend the International Institute of Social Studies, which in the end was honoured. A short, friendly letter to Ragnar Frisch, with whom Tinbergen won the Nobel Prize. A letter from protege Jan Pronk – ‘who is still living, so don’t quote from this’. And countless messages to and from politicians, educational institutions and development organisations.

Van Leeuwen is impressed by the sizeable archive. “Tinbergen continued to write even after he retired. And the frugality stands out when you view the entire archive”, he explained. “There was, of course, a shortage of paper just after the war, so he used thin paper and filled every page with writing. Used envelopes were also reused: he cut them open so that they could be used as a sleeve folder for papers that he wanted to keep.”

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Frugal trade union member

Cora Boele from Stichting Universitair Historisch Kabinet (SUHK) also talked about the economist’s frugality. “Of course, he experienced the 1930s, the Second World War and the reconstruction. After that he spent a lot of time in what we then called the third world. Tinbergen had seen a lot of misery. I think that’s why he didn’t want any finery.”

Although the correspondence and the work archive ended up in the University Library, the SUKH has more physical memorabilia on loan. Boele showed a small golden pin with a hardly visible diamond and the FNV trade union logo. “As a true socialist, Tinbergen was of course a lifelong trade union member.” He was member of the Nederlands Verbond van Vakverenigingen, which later became the FNV following a merger with the Katholiek Vakverbond. He received the pin following fifty years of membership. “He would probably have liked that.”

Cora Boele – Jan Tinbergen – Levien Willemse
Cora Boele of the Stichting Universitair Historisch Kabinet shows some of the adornments Jan Tinbergen wore for the ceremonies of honorary doctorates. Image credit: Levien Willemse

It is somewhat ironic that Tinbergen did not like finery, but at the same time probably was Erasmus University’s most celebrated professor. He received 22 honorary doctorates and dozens of other distinctions. Ceremony after ceremony, reception after reception. Boele: “He must have found that awful.” And, of course, all these honourable ceremonies also required ceremonial dress. Various memorabilia can be found in a cupboard in the depot in the Theil Building cellar: a Spanish gown with orange sleeves trimmed with lace, a gigantic token of honour associated with a distinction from the Belgian royal house and brightly coloured epaulettes with fur tassels.

Ticket

Boele picked up a small diary. ‘Prijsuitreiking’ (Award ceremony) is written as the entry for 10 December 1969 in tiny untidy handwriting. “I find that really remarkable. I think it’s a good example of the kind of modest man Tinbergen was. And look, this is the Nobel Prize Ceremony conference folder.” She showed a discoloured folder on which Jan Tinbergen’s name was printed. He travelled across Stockholm by public transport, as is apparent from the ticket that has been in the folder for some fifty years. Another similar ticket fell out of the folder. “This will probably have been Mrs Tinbergen’s ticket.”

While we viewed all the certificates of honorary doctorates and other distinctions in the photo archive (an amusing detail is that his name is consistently spelled incorrectly as ‘Johannes’ or, in French, ‘Jean’ – Boele smiled: “He was just called Jan, very modest!”) colleague Herman Gerritsen, the custodian of the EUR medal collection, conjured up a pouch. The pouch contained a medal: the original Nobel Prize medal from the Sveriges Riksbank in 1969.

Apparently, the Nobel Prize on show in the Centennial Room next to the Erasmus Building entrance is a replica. Gerritsen showed the edges of the original engraved with the words ‘Jan Tinbergen 1969’. “Don’t write in your piece where the real Nobel Prize medal is. One was once sold for a huge amount of money”, he said, while I hold the medal and attempt to guess its weight.

‘By sharing we profit’

As well as the replica of the Nobel Prize medal, Jan Tinbergen’s most famous quotation can also be found on campus. On a wall opposite the Spar you can see: “Van de verdeling komt de winst.” (By sharing we profit.) But what does that actually mean? Dekker had to smile when I asked. Because what Tinbergen meant with this is not entirely clear and is possibly a considerable misinterpretation of his work.

In 1930 the Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest, Tinbergen’s tutor when he studied Physics in Leiden, wrote an assignment for an essay competition. Dekker: “He formulated the assignment so that actually only Jan Tinbergen could win.” And that also happened with his essay ‘By sharing we profit1. But Dekker discovered that that essay no longer exists. In the Legatum Stolpianum archives, this award still exists by the way, a number of winning essays from the 1930s are missing, including that of the later Nobel Prize winner. The only thing that remains is a press release from the then Leidsch Dagblad. “So technically, we don’t know what he meant.”

Summarising it very briefly, Dekker stated that the essay was about marginal value. In this he probably argued something like: “If you distribute resources more fairly, and in doing so assume that people have comparable needs, this results in more value in general. If someone already has a lot and they receive just a very small amount extra, then the additional value is not that high. But if someone doesn’t have very much and you give a little bit more, then that person receives a huge amount of additional value from this.”

“I don’t think Tinbergen believed in this throughout the rest of his life. In 1953 he already considered that the welfare state was more or less complete. From that point onwards he no longer saw the value of redistribution. Actually, that quotation puts him in the wrong corner.” You could argue, added Dekker, that Tinbergen was a huge advocate for the distribution of skills. “He said: only by educating people and redistributing via education, the offer side of the economy, can you ensure that people are better paid.”

Would you like to view Tinbergen’s legacy? Almost ten thousand letters to and from Jan Tinbergen are available on tinbergenletters.eur.nl. An exhibition of his medals can be seen in the Gallery in Erasmus Building, and in the permanent exhibition next to the entrance, you can find the Nobel Prize certificate and medal, although these are replicas. An exhibition about Tinbergen’s life and work is available in the E-building, the temporary accommodation for the economy faculty. A bronze bust will be unveiled there on 17 December by Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb. Erwin Dekker’s biography is due to appear after the summer.

  1. This quotation is not only on a campus wall. He also used it as a motto for the Ex Libris stamp in his books ↩︎