Robert W. Fogel
Robert Fogel was corecipient (with Douglass C. North) of the 1993 Nobel Prize in economics “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.”
Fogel earned his master’s degree in economics at Columbia University in 1960, learning economics from george stigler and economic history from Carter Goodrich. He earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in 1963, where he worked under simon kuznets. His interest, early on, was in understanding the factors that contribute to economic growth. Because of his training from Stigler and Kuznets, he was empirically inclined. His first major book, based on his Ph.D. dissertation, was Railroads and American Economic Growth. Fogel’s work on railroads is a first-rate, extremely detailed application of one of the most important principles of economics: that there is a substitute for virtually everything. So rather than just accepting the idea that railroads were so important in economic growth because of their ubiquity, Fogel carefully considered where the extension of canals might have replaced railroads had the railroads never been built. He took account also of the cost of these hypothetical canals, along with the cost savings from not building railroads. Fogel concluded that almost all the agricultural land that became economically valuable because of railroads also would have been valuable had there been only an extended series of canals. The net contribution of railroads to gross national product (GNP) due to reducing shipping costs of agricultural products, concluded Fogel, amounted to only about 2 percent of GNP. Of course, Fogel recognized that his methods did not take account of the reduced cost of shipping nonagricultural goods by railroad.
Fogel, along with his University of Rochester colleague Stanley Engerman, generated much controversy in the early 1970s with their work on the economics of slavery. Fogel and Engerman claimed, in their fact-filled book, Time on the Cross, that slavery was economically viable before the Civil War and that economic factors would not have brought it down; an ethical commitment to ending slavery was required for that to happen. Fogel and Engerman also claimed that slavery was efficient, although other economic historians (including Gavin Wright, Peter Temin, Paul David, Richard Sutch, Roger Ransom, and, most recently, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel) have contested this claim.
From 1960 to 1964, Fogel was on the faculty of the University of Rochester. He left in 1964 for the University of Chicago, where he was on the faculty until 1975, spending fall semesters at the University of Rochester from 1968 to 1975. In 1975, he left for Harvard University and in 1981 returned to the University of Chicago. In the early 1980s, he began to study a burning question in economic demography: What accounts for the dramatic increase in life expectancy over the last two centuries? Between 1850 and 1950, for example, U.S. life expectancy at birth increased from about forty to sixty-eight years. Fogel found that less than half of the decrease in mortality could be explained by better standards of nourishment.
About the Author
David R. Henderson is the editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is also an emeritus professor of economics with the Naval Postgraduate School and a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He earned his Ph.D. in economics at UCLA.
Michael Munger on Cultural Norms, an EconTalk podcast, August 31, 2009.