It’s been a busy term so I’m behind on my reading, but I recently completed a great biography, Jan Tinbergen and the rise of economic expertise by Erwin Dekker. I knew little about Tinbergen, so I had to learn a lot from any biography, and this one is really interesting. It contains some personal details, but it is much more of an intellectual history, placing Tinbergen in its historical context. It wasn’t happy: the Depression and World War II happened in his early adulthood. The intellectual currents were, of course, fascinating. I never realized how deeply Tinbergen had become involved in politics throughout his career. As well as being the founding director of the CPB (which gave me a fine bronze bust of Tinbergen as a lecture thank-you present earlier this year now prominently on my shelves), he had previously worked at the Society Nations, and continued throughout his career to be heavily involved in politics. This followed a youth involved in idealistic progressive political movements.
Insofar as economists now know Tinbergen, one thinks of the econometric models for which his Nobel prize was awarded. The book prompted me to read the prize lecture, which is very interesting: “Models constitute a frame or one skeleton and flesh and blood will have to be added by much common sense and knowledge of details. He went on to suggest using models to compare different social orders – communism and capitalism – on a scientific basis; it seems a vain hope now but obviously not in 1969. And think of the literary illustration of the equivalence of perfect markets and perfect planning in Francis Spufford’s wonderful book lots of red.
Dekker comments that Tinbergen found it irritating that this 1930s work is remembered rather than his later reflection on the institutional framework in which economies operate – the “Ordnung” (the book uses the German word). I found particularly interesting a chapter entitled ‘The Expert in the model, the economist outside the model”, depicting Tinbergen’s effort to reconcile the fact that he had placed policy makers in his model of how the economy works with his simultaneous view that economists could nevertheless analyze from above – “the view of nowhere” – how the system then changes and can be controlled. The chapter uses Lucas’ critique to analyze this in a macro context. This is one of the themes of my Cogs & Monsters.
I also really appreciated the chapter “Measuring the immeasurable: well-being and justice”. Dekker writes: “Tinbergen was mostly silent on philosophical issues. …. One of the very few exceptions are his reflections on “measurement in the humanities”. He viewed measurement as a vehicle for behavior change and further viewed the purpose of economic measurement as a measure of economic well-being. His point of view was not positivist, but rather moral: economic policy had a deep societal objective.
The book is quite long but the 400 pages are zipped. Tinbergen was clearly a fascinating person and deserves to be better appreciated by the English-dominated economics profession. This biography serves him well.