“Yes, that’s exactly how I always refer to myself: as a descendant of Tinbergen,” says economist Bas Jacobs. “I wouldn’t dare to claim the same academic stature as Tinbergen, but I also want to do academically solid, socially engaged and policy-relevant research. I feel a strong connection in that respect. And I also hope to teach my students the importance of these three points.”

Fellow economist Peter van Bergeijk, who works for the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), says that Tinbergen continues to inspire people working in the field. Thanks, among other things, to the method he developed for measuring economic phenomena: econometrics. “Until then, future economic developments were predicted on the basis of common sense and ideological principles. Tinbergen changed all that.”


Uwe Thümmel was recently awarded a PhD under Jacobs’ supervision for his research into the redistribution of income. “Tinbergen was a pioneer in this area,” says Thümmel. As a student, he became inspired by the Nobel laureate’s work. “His ideas still play an important role in EUR’s economic curricula. For example, the degree programmes pay extensive attention to the interaction of economics and policy, as described by Tinbergen – in the Policy Economics master programme, for example. And since Tinbergen is the founding father of econometrics, this remains one of the best places to study this subject.”

Still, Tinbergen isn’t for beginners according to Jacobs, who set up the Policy Economics master programme. The Nobel laureate’s work doesn’t feature too often in ESE bachelor programmes. “Tinbergen’s research is often more advanced than the basic knowledge taught to students in their first year of study. But in my lectures, there’s a good chance his ideas about, for example, the ‘talent tax’ or the race between education and technology will be discussed.”

The ISS and Tinbergen

Van Bergeijk, on the other hand, is less convinced that discussions in Rotterdam are still imbued with Tinbergen’s ‘true body of thought’. “I couldn’t imagine running into Tinbergen at Woudestein campus. I do get that feeling at the ISS, however. As a community, we have a strong focus on development and give a lot of thought to concrete and pervasive issues of poverty.”

And according to Van Bergeijk, this is exactly what Tinbergen’s work is all about. However, over the years the focus has shifted to its more technical aspects – econometrics, for example. “In many cases, there’s not that much interest in his standards – in what he found important. A more just distribution of income, for example; or the environment; the arms race. These subjects played an important part in his theory, and he actually used his technical tools in support of a moral argument.”

Tinbergen held a chair in Development Planning. After his departure, the focus shifted away from development economics, says Van Bergeijk, who teaches Earth Economics at the ISS. “Then in 2009, a miracle happened. The ISS was looking for a university to associate with – preferably an institution with little overlap in terms of programmes. That’s how the ISS became a part of Erasmus University. Tinbergen’s spirit returned to this university.” Van Bergeijk is referring to collaboration with developing countries and people across the planet to promote global equality. “Indeed, I believe Tinbergen would have been pleased with the ISS, since in his view, you shouldn’t simply see development aid from a Western perspective, but include input from all over the world. Our students and staff members come from every corner of the planet – apart from Antarctica, that is.”

‘Economics is actually extremely boring’

Of the three economists we speak with, the only one who has actually met Tinbergen is Van Bergeijk – albeit ‘very briefly’. However, as students, each of them became inspired by his work. “I started studying in 1991. Tinbergen passed away in 1993,” says Jacobs. “In the first few years of my studies, I wasn’t, how should I put it, the most dedicated student and far less inspired than today. But my thesis dealt with education and redistribution, and it is not possible to ignore Tinbergen in that field.”

Van Bergeijk’s career also took a major turn thanks to Tinbergen. As a student at EUR in the 1980s, he had great difficulty choosing a thesis subject. “Because Economics is actually extremely boring. Then I read something that Tinbergen had just written, in which he reproached economists for not paying due attention to the arms race. I thought: that’s my subject! And it’s as topical as ever.”

Occasionally dated, but still relevant

Van Bergeijk travelled a great deal in connection with his research, and learned a lot about Tinbergen’s personality in the process. “Wherever I ended up, people asked me to give him their regards. For example, my research took me to the UN’s bureau of statistics. When I told them I was from Erasmus University, they asked me to pass on their best wishes to Tinbergen. It says a lot about the man. He inspired people with his drive to make the world a better place. And he needed his calculations in this context. People liked working for him. I believe he was quite strict, but he worked hard, and this in turn motivated those around him.”

Jacobs concludes: “Tinbergen is still very relevant; his work remains important. On the other hand, decades have passed since he did his research. Some of the issues he wrote about have been surpassed by new research. But in no way does this disqualify his phenomenal intellectual contributions to the development of economics.”