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Robert Fogel

(1926 - 2013)


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Robert William Fogel was a Jewish American economic historian and winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Fogel (born July 1, 1926; died June 11, 2013) was born in New York City. He attended Cornell and received a B.A. in 1948, obtained his M.A. in 1960 from Columbia, and his Ph.D. from John Hopkins in 1963.

It was at Cornell that Fogel became interested in the correlations between history and economics. He began utilizing quantitative methods to answer questions involving the economic impact of specific historical event current society. At Johns Hopkins, Fogel was guided and supervised on his doctoral dissertation by Simon Kuznets (Nobel Prize recipient 1971). Under the guidance of Kuznets, Fogel attempted to explain the economic impact of the development of railroads in the 19th century on the growth of American markets.

Fogel worked at Rochester University (early 1960s), the University of Chicago (1960s), and Harvard (1970s). In 1981, Fogel returned to the University of Chicago to replace George Stigler as the Charles R. Walgreen Professor of American Institutions.

His most famous and controversial work was Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, a 1974 two-volume quantitative study of American slavery co-written with Stanley Engelman. They argued that slavery had been a valuable industry for the economy and had collapsed because of political, rather than economic reasons. Fogel has also researched the effects of microeconomics on technological revolutions and modifications in the demographics of the national population and the labor force.

Fogel won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1993, along with Douglass Cecil North, “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change." Fogel and North are acknowledged for their use of quantitative methods in analyzing history and life-cycles, and their development of cliometrics- the utilization of statistical data to understand economic history.

The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Fogel’s work:

Robert W. Fogel's scientific breakthrough was his book (1964) on the role of the railways in the American economy. Joseph Schumpeter and Walt W. Rostow had earlier, with general agreement, asserted that modern economic growth was due to certain important discoveries having played a vital role in development. Fogel tested this hypothesis with extraordinary exactitude, and rejected it. The sum of many specific technical changes, rather than a few great innovations, determined the economic development. We find it intuitively plausible that the great transport systems play a decisive role in development. Fogel constructed a hypothetical alternative, a so called counterfactual historiography; that is he compared the actual course of events with the hypothetical to allow a judgement of the importance of the railways. He found that they were not absolutely necessary in explaining economic development and that their effect on the growth of GNP was less than three per cent. Few books on the subject of economic history have made such an impression as Fogel's. His use of counterfactual arguments and cost-benefit analysis made him an innovator of economic historical methodology.

Fogel's painstaking criticism of his sources, and his use of the most varying kinds of historical material, made it difficult for his critics to argue against him on purely empirical grounds. As Fogel has stressed, it is the lack of relevant data rather than the lack of relevant theory that is often the greater problem for research workers. Fogel's use of counterfactual analysis of the course of events and his masterful treatment of quantitative techniques in combination with economic theory, have had a substantial influence on the understanding of economic change.

Fogel's second work of importance (1974), which aroused great attention and bitter controversies, treated slavery as an institution and its role in the economic development of the United States. Fogel showed that the established opinion that slavery was an ineffective, unprofitable and pre-capitalist organisation was incorrect. The institution did not fall to pieces due to its economic weakness but collapsed because of political decisions. He showed that the system, in spite of its inhumanity, had been economically efficient.

His exceedingly careful testing of all possible sources and his pioneering methodological approach have allowed Fogel to both increase our knowledge of an institution's operation and disintegration and to renew our methods of research. Both his book on the railways and that on slavery have forced researchers to reconsider earlier generally accepted results, and few books in economic history have been scrutinised in such detail by critical colleagues.

Fogel's third area of research has been economic demography, and in particular the changing rate of mortality over long periods of time and its relation to changes in the standard of living during recent centuries. This project is less controversial than the other two, and is both interdisciplinary and international, with fellow workers from many countries. His conclusion is that less than half of the decrease in mortality can be explained by better standards of nourishment, before the breakthroughs of modern medicine. This leaves the greater part of the decline unexplained. According to Fogel, a systematic analysis demands an integrated study of mortality rates, morbidity rates, food intake and individual body weights and statures. A combination of biomedical and economic techniques is required to achieve this, something that he has at present set about accomplishing. It is already apparent that his analyses will affect research in economic history at many levels.


Sources: Wikipedia; "Robert William Fogel Autobiography"; Britannica; Nobelprize.org

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