July 1, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Robert Fogel was born on July 1, 1926 in New York City to immigrant parents from the Ukrainian city of Odessa. He passed away on June 11, 2013. Over the course of a long and distinguished career at the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester, and Harvard University, he changed how people think about the past and especially how people study the past. 

In 1993, he shared the Nobel Prize with Douglass C. North for their work on applying economic theory and statistical methods to historical questions. The early years of what came to be known as the Cliometric Revolution–named for Clio, the muse of history–were heady times during which Fogel, North, and so many others reoriented our understanding of the past and showed that a lot of things we thought we knew just weren’t so. Railroads were not indispensable for economic growth (Fogel). Falling piracy and better economic organization, not technological change, increased productivity in ocean shipping in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries (North). Slavery was profitable (Alfred Conrad and John R. Meyer). Slavery was economically viable (Yasukichi Yasuba). Victorian Britain did not “fail” (Deirdre McCloskey). And so on.

Fogel started out with an interest in physics and chemistry before switching to economics and history at Cornell University, where he graduated in 1948. In 1960, he would earn an MA under the direction of Carter Goodrich, who directed him to Simon Kuznets (Nobel 1971) at Johns Hopkins University for doctoral study. He earned his doctorate from Johns Hopkins in 1963. Fogel mentions the influence of George Stigler’s price theory courses; this is especially interesting given that Fogel would succeed Stigler as the Walgreen Professor of American Institutions at the University of Chicago. Fogel, in turn, would be succeeded by 2017 Nobel laureate Richard Thaler.

Fogel was a very hard worker who was always looking to learn something new. He made a series of groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of American economic history. His first in this series came in his 1964 book Railroads and American Economic Growth, which was based on his dissertation at Johns Hopkins. Everyone knew–and when he started the project, Fogel knew too–that railroads were indispensable to American economic growth. Americans industrialized as they rode the iron horse from coast to coast.

Except that this isn’t what happened at all. Railroads had what many observers believe to be a very large effect on 1890’s Gross National Product–a few percentage points–but “a few percentage points” is not the same thing as “essential” or “indispensable” or even “crucial.” The railroads changed the pattern of economic activity and helped explain why Chicago rather than Saint Louis became the Midwest’s most important commercial hub, but this is a reorganization of economic activity, not a net increase. Americans would have slightly lower incomes had they not had railroads and had to rely on canals for shipping, but they still would have industrialized.

This did a few things. First, Fogel showed that any individual sector’s contribution to economic growth is bound to be small, which contradicts the version of industrial history a lot of people probably learned in high school (“One day, James Watt invented a steam engine. The next morning, it was the Industrial Revolution”). Second, he dealt a mortal blow to the idea that a Big Push in a strategic industry would lead to industrialization in poor countries. As Dora Costa, Claudia Goldin, and Robert A. Margo explain in their obituary for Fogel that appeared on EH.Net:

“The idea of jump-starting economic growth was a popular notion in the 1950s and big infrastructure projects were a potential lever for developing nations. As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, Fogel had actively debated the work of Walt Rostow with his classmate Stan Engerman. According to Rostow an economy could ‘take-off’ because of a single innovation and, moreover, America did take-off in the 1840s through the railroad’s many backward linkages. On the contrary, demonstrated Fogel, there was no take-off and backward linkages were neither extensive nor critical to growth in other sectors.”

They conclude with a sentence that every economic policy maker should probably say five times right after waking up and five times right before going to sleep: “The railroads were not a magic bullet for economic growth because there are no magic bullets.”

It’s a claim that speaks to Fogel’s next major contribution as well as the burgeoning “New History of Capitalism” literature claiming that slavery got the Western world out of the “Malthusian Trap” and explains modern prosperity. He teamed up with the economic historian Stanley Engerman of the University of Rochester–his former officemate as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins–to explore the economics of slavery in the United States. Building on findings about the profitability and viability of slavery by Alfred Conrad, John Meyer, and Yasukichi Yasuba and working with a large team of research assistants, they gathered copious amounts of primary data that was summarized in Fogel and Engerman’s controversial 1974 book Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery and a companion Evidence and Methods volume.

It was, quite possibly, the most controversial piece of scholarship economic historians ever produced. Fogel and Engerman worked to separate the technical, economic analysis of slavery from its unambiguous immorality, but some observers still saw them as apologists (perhaps inadvertent apologists, but still apologists) for a great and sustained series of moral crimes. Fogel would continue this line of work through the publication of his 1989 book Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery and a series of associated technical supplement volumes. The Fogel-Engerman thesis that there were efficiency advantages from “gang system” slavery has been supplanted by the findings of Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode that innovation in cotton varieties rather than innovations in exploitation explains rising cotton productivity in the antebellum era, but Time on the Cross remains a landmark contribution to economic history.

Fogel was also a pioneer in anthropometric economic history, which spawned a body of research that caused him to revise some of his conclusions about the treatment of pregnant women between Time on the Cross and Without Consent or Contract: the reality of being a pregnant slave woman was considerably darker than Time on the Cross had suggested. In another of his multiyear projects involving a phalanx of research assistants, he collected a sample of Union veterans and matched them to census records in a way that made it possible to analyze the care and feeding of average people in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His research on health and well-being culminated in his 2004 book The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100 and his 2011 book The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700 (coauthored with Sok Chul Hong, Bernard Harris, and Roderick Floud). In 2000, he worked to explain changing patterns of American religious behavior with The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism.

Fogel’s intellectual legacy lives on in the work of his students like Dora Costa, Claudia Goldin, Robert A. Margo, and Richard Steckel and in generations of students who have been raised on the evidence, methods, and overall intellectual approach exemplified in work by Robert Fogel. His students report that Fogel had a “dictum:” “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth spending ten years of your life doing it right.” Fogel was a master at finding the right questions, finding the right methods and data to answer them, and–importantly–putting in the work to ensure that in the long run, we get things right.

References and Further Reading

Engerman, Stanley. 2003. Fogel, Robert, in Joel Mokyr, ed. Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History vol. 2, pp. 335-336. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fogel, Robert William. 2003. The Slavery Debates: A Retrospective, 1952-1990. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Robert W. Fogel. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

Robert W. Fogel’s Nobel Prize Autobiography

EH.Net obituary for Robert W. Fogel

University of Chicago obituary for Robert Fogel

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

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