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Robert Fogel is an economist and economic historian who has been a pioneer in the application of quantitative methods and economic theory to the measurement of long-term economic change. His work has stimulated and provoked historians, and he has argued for the value of mathematical and quantitative tools in the study of demographic, political, and social history as well as economic history.
Robert William Fogel was born in New York City on July 1, 1926. His parents were refugees from the Russian Revolution. After attending public school in New York, he began his undergraduate studies at Cornell University in electrical engineering. However, his awareness of the problems of unemployment in capitalist economies led him to switch his major to history with a minor in economics. He graduated in 1948, and in the early 1950s he worked as a Communist Party organizer.
In 1956 Fogel began graduate work in economic history at Columbia University, with a particular interest in the great Marxian questions concerning the nature of longterm economic change. He moved to Johns Hopkins University for doctoral research in order to pursue a quantitative approach to the study of economic growth under the direction of Simon Kuznets. He began his teaching career at Johns Hopkins as an instructor in 1958, before taking an appointment as assistant professor at the University of Rochester in 1960. In 1963 he moved to the University of Chicago, and between 1975 and 1981 he taught in Harvard’s Economics Department. He was instrumental in the late 1970s in establishing the Development of the American Economy (DAE) program associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 1981 he returned to the University of Chicago to become the Walgreen Professor of American Institutions and the director of the Center for Population Economics. Fogel’s radical political activity as a young adult presents a striking contrast with the anti-Communist origins of the Walgreen chair. His occupancy of the chair can be interpreted as reflecting both his own movement toward the political center and the latitude the Walgreen family gave the University when the chair was offered to him. In 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Douglass North) for the development of quantitative and theoretical tools for the study of economic history.
Fogel’s early work focused on the determinants of American economic growth. His doctoral dissertation, and the subsequent book Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (1964), challenged the prevailing view that the railroad had a decisive influence on the growth of the American economy. He calculated how much higher the costs would have been to the U.S. economy in 1890 of providing the same level of transportation services with alternative modes of water and land transportation. Fogel’s counterfactual methodology proposed a hypothetical canal system that would have been built in the absence of railroads. His estimated “social saving” of the railroad was less than 5 percent of 1890 U.S. gross national product. Fogel’s findings spawned numerous challenges by other scholars. Fogel responded by arguing that, for the case of the United States, any plausible allowance for factors raised by critics (such as scale effects and problems of measuring freight rates on rail versus water traffic) would still imply a modest rather than indispensable contribution to economic growth. However, Fogel also acknowledged that for other economies—such as Mexico, with its more limited access to water transport—the impact of the railroad on growth may well have been substantially larger. His counterfactual methodology generated considerable controversy among historians, with some stating that it was fundamentally ahistorical and fictive. Fogel replied that an analytical and causal approach to economic history inevitably requires the posing of counterfactual questions.
Fogel’s next major project was a collaborative effort with Stanley Engerman on the economics of U.S. slavery. In the two-volume Time on the Cross (1974), they came to the surprising conclusion that Southern slave plantations were more efficient than Northern free farms. Critics argued that this finding was due to inadequate allowance for differences in crop mix, land quality, scale, and economic aims. Fogel and Engerman maintained that their result held, even with due allowance for these other factors, and they attributed it to the extra work effort that could be coerced from slave gangs. They also argued that slave owners had incentives to protect the capital investments their slaves represented. They supported this conclusion with evidence that slaves tended to be well fed and housed, that they were in fact only relatively infrequently subjected to abusive physical punishment or the breakup of their families through sale, and that female slaves did not engage in unusually high rates of premarital sexual intercourse. Fogel has continued to defend these specific findings against an extensive body of scholarly criticism. However, he has conceded that an appropriate moral indictment of slavery requires going beyond a narrow quantitative economic framework. His later writings on slavery have used a more traditional narrative approach along with the examination of quantitative evidence. Moreover, Fogel employed a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches to address moral issues in The Fourth Great Reawakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (2000).
Since the mid-1970s, Fogel has undertaken the use of large-scale databases, such as Union Army pension records, to study trends, determinants, and the consequences of improvements in nutrition, health, and mortality and morbidity rates. His work (with collaborators) employing evidence on human heights to measure trends in nutrition spawned the burgeoning field of anthropometrics. He has shown how poor nutrition and health in early childhood can have enduring consequences for health later in life.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize jointly to Fogel and North in 1993, recognizing that both scholars have shown how economic history can provide fundamental insights into processes of economic and institutional change. The academy noted that North’s contributions have been primarily conceptual, while Fogel is an empiricist. North has been circumspect about prospects for human progress after making allowance for the contingencies of political processes and mistakes in human judgement. Fogel, however, is an unabashed optimist about the prospects for human material progress, though he acknowledges the ongoing presence of spiritual and ethical challenges. He has coined the term technophysio evolution to point to the interaction between technological and human physiological advances.
- Fogel, Robert. 1979. Notes on the Social Saving Controversy. Journal of Economic History 39 (1): 1–54.
- Fogel, Robert. 1989. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: Norton.
- Fogel, Robert. 2000. The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Fogel, Robert. 2004. The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100: Europe, America, and the Third World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Eichengreen, Barry. 1994. The Contributions of Robert W. Fogel to Economics and Economic History. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 96 (2): 167–179.
- Goldin, Claudia. 1995. Cliometrics and the Nobel. Journal of Economic Perspectives 9 (2): 191–208.
- Mokyr, Joel. 2005. “Hockey-Stick Economics”: A Review Essay of Robert Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100. Technology and Culture 46 (3): 613–617.
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