James Tobin

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James Tobin in 1962

James Tobin (March 5, 1918 – March 11, 2002) was an American economist who served on the Council of Economic Advisers and consulted with the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and taught at Harvard and Yale Universities. He developed the ideas of Keynesian economics, and advocated government intervention to stabilize output and avoid recessions. His academic work included pioneering contributions to the study of investment, monetary and fiscal policy and financial markets. He also proposed an econometric model for censored dependent variables, the well-known Tobit model.




  • A forthcoming book by Harry Markowitz, Techniques of Portfolio Selection, will treat the general problem of finding dominant sets and computing the corresponding opportunity locus, for sets of securities all of which involve risk. Markowitz's main interest is prescription of rules of rational behaviour for investors; the main concern of this paper is the implications for economic theory, mainly comparative statics, that can be derived from assuming that investors do in fact follow such rules.
  • In economic surveys of households, many variables have the following characteristics: The variable has a lower, or upper, limit and takes on the limiting value for a substantial number of respondents. For the remaining respondents, the variable takes on a For the remaining respondents, the variable takes on a wide range of values above, or below, the limit.



"A general equilibrium approach to monetary theory" (1969)


Tobin, James. "A general equilibrium approach to monetary theory." Journal of money, credit and banking 1.1 (1969): 15-29.

  • The rate of investment – the speed at which investors wish to increase the capital stock – should be related, if to anything, to q, the value of capital relative to its replacement cost.
    • p. 21 as cited in: Sılvio Rendon, "Non-Tobin’s q in Tests for Financial Constraints," 2009
  • According to [the general equilibrium approach to monetary theory], the principal way in which financial policies and events affect aggregate demand is by changing the valuations of physical assets relative to their replacement costs.
    • p. 29 As cited in: William Pool. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2, (1976), p. 292
  • There is no reason to think that the impact [of monetary policy] will be captured in any single [variable]... , whether it is a monetary stock or a market interest rate.


  • A long decade ago economic growth was the reigning fashion of political economy. It was simultaneously the hottest subject of economic theory and research, a slogan eagerly claimed by politicians of all stripes, and a serious objective of the policies of governments. The climate of opinion has changed dramatically. Disillusioned critics indict both economic science and economic policy for blind obeisance to aggregate material "progress," and for neglect of its costly side effects. Growth, it is charged, distorts national priorities, worsens the distribution of income, and irreparably damages the environment. Paul Erlich speaks for a multitude when he says, "We must acquire a life style which has as its goal maximum freedom and happiness for the individual, not a maximum Gross National Product."
    • Nordhaus, William D., and James Tobin. "Is growth obsolete?." Economic Research: Retrospect and Prospect Vol 5: Economic Growth. Nber, 1972. 1-80.


  • Economics has always flourished and acquired energy from controversies generated by practical policy questions of the day. That was true in the times of Smith, and Ricardo, and Keynes, and it is true today. These periods of division and revolution and counterrevolution are generally followed by periods of synthesis and consolidation from which the science emerges stronger. i am optimistic that this will happen again, and that the best of the insights of the new clasicals will be absorbed in a mainstream, in which the essential insights of Keynesian economists also survive.
  • Monetarism—both of the older Friedman version stressing adherence to money stock targets and of the newer rational expectations variety—has been badly discredited. The stage has been set for recovery in the popularity of Keynesian diagnoses and remedies. I do not mean to imply, of course, that there is some Keynesian truth, vintage 1936 or 1961, to which economists and policymakers will or should now return, ignoring the lessons of economic events and of developments in economics itself over these last turbulent fifteen years. I do mean that in the new intellectual synthesis which I hope and expect will emerge to replace the divisive controversies and chaotic debates on macroeconomic policies, Keynesian ideas will have a prominent place.
    • James Tobin, "Keynes' Policies in Theory and Practice", Challenge (1983).
  • Keynesian economics at a minimum provides a license for welfare state measures and other government efforts towards redistribution of wealth. The license is the faith that macroeconomic stabilization and prosperity are compatible with a wide range of social policies, that modern capitalism and democracy are robust enough to prosper and progress while being humane and equitable. That faith conflicts with the visions of extreme Right and Left, which agree that extremes of wealth and poverty, of security and insecurity, are indispensable to the functioning of capitalism. Keynesian policies helped to confound those dismal prophecies in the past; I think they will do so again.
    • James Tobin, "Keynes' Policies in Theory and Practice", Challenge (1983).
  • Keynesian economics was, in the context of those times, essentially conservative. The message was that capitalism was not doomed; its major failing, chronic large-scale unemployment, could be remedied fairly easily, by intelligent use of the fiscal and monetary instruments governments already had at their disposal. This message was not welcome news to Marxists committed to the view that the system was no longer structurally capable of prosperity and progress.
    • James Tobin, "A Revolution Remembered", Challenge (1988).

"James Tobin - Biographical" (1981)


"James Tobin - Biographical", published in Nobel Lectures. Economics 1981–1990, Editor Karl-Göran Mäler, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992

  • I studied economics and made it my career for two reasons. The subject was and is intellectually fascinating and challenging, particularly to someone with taste and talent for theoretical reasoning and quantitative analysis. At the same time it offered the hope, as it still does, that improved understanding could better the lot of mankind.
  • For me, growing up in the 1930s, the two motivations powerfully reinforced each other. The miserable failures of capitalist economies in the Great Depression were root causes of worldwide social and political disasters. The crisis triggered a fertile period of scientific ferment and revolution in economic theory.

"Money and Finance in the Macro-Economic Process" (1982)


"Money and Finance in the Macro-Economic Process" in: Nobel Lectures, Economics 1981-1990, Editor Karl-Göran Mäler, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992

  • The historic terrain of macro-economic theory is the explanation of the levels and fluctuations of overall economic activity. Macro-economists have been especially interested in the effects of alternative fiscal, financial, and monetary policies.
    • p. 12
  • With the publication of J. M. Keynes’s General Theory in 1936 and the mathematical formalizations of his theory by J. R. Hicks (1937) and others, the language of macro-economic theory became systems of simultaneous equations. These are general equilibrium systems of interdependence in the sense that the relationships describe an entire national economy, not just a particular industry or sector. The systems are usually not completely closed; they depend on exogenous parameters including instruments controlled by policy-makers. Seeking definite relationships of economic outcomes to policies and other exogenous variables, qualitative and quantitative, these models sacrifice detail and generality, limiting the number of variables and equations by aggregations over agents, commodities, assets, and time.
    • p. 12



"Price Flexibility and Output Stability: An Old Keynesian View" (1993)


James Tobin, "Price Flexibility and Output Stability: An Old Keynesian View", Journal of Economic Perspectives (1993)

  • I had, to be sure, been drawn into economics when the General Theory was an exciting revelation for students hungry for explanation and remedy of the Great Depression. At the same time, I was uncomfortable with several aspects of Keynes’ theory, and I sought to improve what would now be called the microfoundations of his macroeconomic relations.
  • I shall argue that Keynesian macroeconomics neither asserts nor requires nominal wage and/or price rigidity. It does assert and require that markets not be instantaneously and continuously cleared by prices.
  • Ball, Mankiw, Romer and others style themselves as New Keynesians. Their program is to develop improved microeconomic foundations for imperfectly flexible prices. In the process, they hope to illuminate the paradox that individually rational or near-rational behavior can result in significant collective market failures. These are certainly laudable objectives. In the end, I suspect, the program will not change the essential substance of Keynesian macroeconomics. But it will make Keynes more palatable to theorists.
  • Keynes did not challenge the efficacy of price adjustment mechanisms in clearing particular markets in the Marshallian partial equilibrium theory on which he had been reared. He did challenge the mindless application of those mechanisms to economy-wide markets. Founding what came to be known as macroeconomics, he was modeling a whole economy as a closed system. He knew he could not use the Marshallian assumption that the clearing of one market could be safely described on the assumption that the rest of the economy was unaffected.

"Reflections on Japanese Political Economy" (1999)


James Tobin, "Reflections on Japanese Political Economy" (1999)

  • I probably always say the same things; I hope people don't remember. One of the same things I say is that Japanese macroeconomic policy is perversely and inexcusably incompetent, and I surely would say that again. It's true-as Paul Krugman, a fellow participant in this program, has been saying and as I have said here in previous years-that Japan has reinvented the Keynesian liquidity trap. It can now reappear in classrooms where it had been long ignored or at best barely mentioned as a curiosum of the Great Depression.
  • The central message is still that, as Keynes argued, fiscal policy is the answer to liquidity traps, financial or political. The arguments against fiscal policy in Japan, so far as I understand them are intellectually fallacious; they would receive failing grades in an undergraduate macro exam.
  • The important Keynesian insight is that a high propensity to save will not generate high national saving unless it goes into investment, into accumulation of real capital. The "paradox of thrift" makes this point in an extreme way. In certain circumstances, when there is no demand for investment around, the economy can be no better off, or even worse off, if a thrifty public cuts consumption.
  • I suspect that many of the world's financial lords are somewhat embarrassed to tell Japan repeatedly at G-7 meetings and elsewhere to adopt a Keynesian solution. Within Europe, central banks and governments think Keynesian theories and policies are absolutely wrong. Despite the remarkable success of pragmatic policies in the United States, true believers in the Invisible Hand reject Keynesian diagnoses and prescriptions. Many observers of Japan have found it intellectually comforting to blame the slump on the plight of the banks, flooded with bad loans dated from the land and equity bubbles and their collapse. They hope that a governmentmanaged and -subsidized rectification of bank balance sheets will trigger overall economic recovery. I think this is a false hope. The bank problem is only a small part of the macroeconomic disaster. It has to be resolved, of course, but resolution that is no substitute for the needed fiscal and monetary stimuli.

Quotes about James Tobin

  • Back in 1982, a brief but brusque exchange … took place between James Tobin … and Robert Nozick … Tobin exclaimed at Nozick: ‘There is nothing more dangerous than a philosopher who’s learned a little bit of economics.’ To which Nozick immediately responded: ‘Unless it’s an economist who hasn’t learned any philosophy.’
    • Terence Hutchison, "On the Relations Between Philosophy and Economics" (1996)
  • The other economic camp made for quite a different story. James Tobin (an east-coast Ivy League policy advisor) had already won the Nobel Prize when I spoke with him. A true gentleman, he spoke softly about his life and his Keynesian approach to economics. With due respect, I worried after a time that the interview sounded so automatic, so “done” before, that it would add little to the book. Then I brought up Lucas’s criticism. Tobin began to speak much louder and faster (on transcribing the tape I actually had to adjust the volume). He remained reasonable and gentlemanly but his voice betrayed his indignation toward Lucas and his camp, about how they were misleading sensible Keynesian economic thought.
    • Arjo Klamer, Speaking of economics: how to get in the conversation (2007), Ch. 1 : The strangeness of the discipline
  • When I tried to sort out the pernicious disagreements between new classical and new Keynesian economists, I conducted a series of conversations with the protagonists (Klamer 1983). The personal differences were revealing. The viva cious Robert Solow (with a taste for the quick quip), the serious Robert Lucas (never less than self-composed), the chatty Franco Modigliani (not shy of self promotion), and the unassuming James Tobin (wanting an interview at least as long as Lucas’s) quickly taught me how trenchant the rhetorical differences were.
    • Arjo Klamer, Speaking of economics: how to get in the conversation (2007), Ch. 7 : Why disagreements among economists persist, why economists need to brace themselves for differences within their simultaneous conversations and their conversations over time, and why they may benefit from knowing about classicism, modernism, and postmodernism
  • Tobin asked me to come and talk at Yale in 1977, and I was there for a couple of days. He was really nice in a personal way. He made it clear that he respected my work as a professional, so I didn't feel my professional standing was at risk. When I got there he gave me a nice introduction. It wasn't a question of whether I was a competent economist or not; there was nothing personal involved. These guys, however, had lots of disagreements and criticisms. I'd been thinking along these lines for many years, so I thought I did a pretty good job of taking care of the questions, but I don't know how it looked from the other side. It left me with a feeling of being way ahead of the game. It was an exciting feeling.
  • I want to tell you a story about Tobin. There was a conference at the Minnesota Fed in honor of Walter Heller, and all the old people, the heroes of my youth in economics, were there. It was a really nice occasion. Gardner Ackley was giving a talk; it was very negative about the direction of modern macro. saying that there was too much mathematics and that too many assumptions were unrealistic. He also was very critical of rational expectations and of all sorts of modern theorizing. It occurred after two days of really negative things being said about rational expectations. Nobody on our side said anything, in deference to Heller, I suppose. Then Tobin stood up and said that listening to Ackley's talk reminded him of going to the AEA meetings, after the war in 1946, at which the most-prominent old members of the profession were criticizing the young Keynesians for being unrealistic and too mathematical. Tobin said "We've had our chance, we haven't solved all the problems. There are a lot of problems left, there are unsatisfactory things about our models, and it's time to give these guys a chance." It was very gracious.
  • Tobin was a person who really impressed me, because he had a passion for social justice and for public policy (...) for Tobin it was always something that was about making the lives of people better.
  • When James Tobin, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, was on the US Council of Economic Advisors some years ago, I asked him if he used complicated macroeconometric models in his work for the Council. He responded that he didn’t because he and others could not understand the workings and output of such models and thus did not have much confidence in them. When I asked what he actually did use to analyse problems, he remarked that he used a simple multiplier–accelerator model on the back of an envelope and even though he didn’t have too much confidence in it, he said at least he understood what he was doing.
    • Arnold Zellner, "Keep it sophisticatedly simple", in Simplicity, Inference and Modelling: Keeping it Sophisticatedly Simple edited by Arnold Zellner, Hugo A. Keuzenkamp and Michael McAleer
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