Economics professor James Tobin, a Nobel laureate and an adviser to President John F. Kennedy, died from a stroke Mar. 11 in New Haven. He was 84.
Called “the leading macroeconomist of our generation” by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Paul Samuelson in the New York Times, Tobin gained national recognition for his theories on government intervention and for his ability to find real world applications for economic theory.
“He was extremely knowledgeable about public policy and he brought economic theory to bear on it,” economics professor Robert Shiller said. “Tobin was the rare person who brought policy and theory together.”
As a result of his groundbreaking work on portfolio choice theories and asset pricing, Tobin won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1981.
His research received international recognition, but Tobin also made important contributions to the University during his 50 years at Yale.
A mere five years after arriving at Yale, Tobin in 1955 brought the Cowles Foundation, an economic research center, to Yale from the University of Chicago. Alfred Cowles ’13, the center’s founder, decided to move the institution to Yale after Tobin rejected an offer from Chicago to head the center there.
Since then, the Cowles Foundation has attracted and produced numerous Nobel laureates and has been the defining characteristic of Yale economics, said economics professor John Geanakoplos, who is currently the center’s director.
“He was the leader,” Geanakoplos said. “He gave the Yale Economics Department an identity. Because of him, Yale stood for a belief in free markets, but tempered by fine tuning from the government.”
Tobin also played influential roles in changing the University’s tenure policies and devising an endowment spending rule that dictates that the University only spend a fixed percentage of the endowment every year.
That rule continues to govern Yale’s spending policies today. Shiller, who called Tobin and the late Yale professor Irving Fisher two of the world’s greatest economists, said Tobin’s most distinguishing characteristics included his generosity and humility.
“He was exceptionally well-connected to solving human problems,” Shiller said. “He was very involved in what was right. People were suffering and he wanted to rectify that.”
Tobin formally retired from Yale in 1988, but continued his teaching and research activities well into the mid-1990s as a professor emeritus.
Geanakoplos, who played chess with Tobin during his high school years, said the department will sorely miss Tobin’s presence but added that he hopes Tobin’s legacy will continue to influence Yale economics.
“His spirit of generosity, passion for truth and intellectual rigor hopefully will live on,” Geanakoplos said. “Tobin had an unparalleled genius at analysis and rigorizing thought about practical issues and it’s hard to see how any of us might be able to maintain that
Although Tobin had become a less frequent participant in the Economics Department’s activities during the last five years because of heart and hip problems, Geanakoplos said, but he was nevertheless surprised about Tobin’s death.
“He was a very robust, athletic person all his life,” Geanakoplos said.
Tobin is survived by his wife of 55 years, the former Elizabeth Fay Ringo; four children, Margaret, Michael, Hugh and Roger; and three grandchildren.