Word comes that Bob Fogel, an absolute giant in economic history and a Nobel Prize winner, passed away today. I first encountered Fogel in a class a decade or so ago taught by Robert Margo, another legendary scholar of the economics of American history.
Fogel’s most famous contribution is summarized in the foreword to the very readable Without Consent or Contract. “Although the slave system was horribly retrogressive in its social, political, and ideological aspects, it was quite advanced by the standards of the time in its technology and economic organization. The paradox is only apparent…because the paradox rests on the widely held assumption that technological efficiency is inherently good. It is this beguiling assumption that is false and, when applied to slavery, insidious.”
Roughly, it was political change alone, not economic change, which could have led to the end of slavery in America. The plantation system was, in fact, a fairly efficient system in the economic sense, and was not in danger of petering out on its own accord. Evidence on this point was laid out in technical detail in Fogel and Engerman’s “Time on the Cross”. In that text, evidence from an enormous number of sources is brought to bear on the value of a slave over time; McCloskey has called Fogel “a carpenter of history…measure, measure again, measure again.” The idea that the economic effects of history can be (and are) wildly different from the moral or political effects remains misunderstood; Melissa Dell’s wonderful paper on the Peruvian mita is a great example of a terrible social policy which nonetheless had positive long-run economic effects. As historians disdain “Whig history”, the idea that things improve as time marches on, economists ought disdain “Whig economics”, the idea that growth-inducing policies are somehow linked to moral ones.
There is much beyond the slavery research, of course. In one of the most famous papers in economic history, Fogel studied the contribution of the railroad to American economic growth (Google has this at only 86 citations; how is such a low number possible?). He notes that, as economists, we should care about the marginal benefit, not the absolute benefit, of the railroad. In the absence of rail, steamboats and canals were still possible (and would likely have been built in the midwest). He famously claims that the US would have reached its income in January 1890 by the end of March 1890 had there been no rail at all, a statement very much contrary to traditional historical thinking.
Fogel’s later life was largely devoted to his project on the importance of improved nutrition and its interaction with economic growth, particularly since the 1700s. If you’ve not seen these statistics, it is amazing just how short and skinny the average human was before the modern era. There has been an enormous debate over the relative role of nutrition, vis-a-vis technologies, knowledge like germ theory, or embodied or diffused knowledge, in the increased stature of man: Angus Deaton summarizes the literature nicely. In particular, my read is that the thesis whereby better nutrition causes a great rise in human incomes is on fairly shaky ground, though the debate is by no means settled.
Amazon has Without Consent or Contract for sale for under 15 bucks, well worth it. Some quick notes: Fogel was by no means a lone voice in cliometrics; for example, Conrad and Meyer in a 1958 JPE make very much the same point as Fogel concerning the economic success of slavery, using tools from capital theory in the argument. Concerning the railroad, modern work suggests Fogel may have understated its importance. Donaldson and Hornbeck, two of the best young economic historians in the world, use some developments in modern trade theory to argue that increased market access due to rail, measured as market access is capitalized into farmland, was far more important to GDP growth than Fogel suggested.