Robert Fogel, Nobel Laureate for Economic History, Dies at 86

Robert Fogel, the University of Chicago economic historian awarded a Nobel Prize for his data-driven reconsiderations of how railways and slavery influenced U.S. economic history, has died. He was 86.

He died yesterday at Manor Care Health Services in Oak Lawn, Illinois, following a brief illness, according to a statement by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, which cited his family.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Fogel and Douglass North of Washington University in St. Louis the 1993 Nobel in economics “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.” Both men were pioneers in applying modern mathematics to the study of history, a field known as cliometrics, after Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology.

As founding director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Population Economics, Fogel oversaw creation of large sets of data on American life that help economists, medical researchers and other experts forecast health-care costs, the size of the labor force and the demands on pension programs.

Fogel first became known for his 1964 book, “Railroads and American Economic Growth,” which challenged the widely held assumption that rail travel had fundamentally reshaped the American economy.

Innovative Research

By studying the U.S. economy of 1890 with the rail transport that existed then, and under a hypothetical scenario without railroads, he found that they “were not absolutely necessary in explaining economic development and that their effect on the growth of GNP was less than 3 percent,” the Nobel organization wrote. “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.”

He made a similar splash in 1974 with “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery,” co-written with Stanley Engerman, a professor of economics at the University of Rochester.

Approaching the subject as economists, without making moral judgments, Fogel and Engerman wrote that Southern slavery was an economically rational and efficient system that, by and large, kept slaves well-fed, taught them to farm and collapsed for political rather than economic reasons.

“Our emphasis was not to deny that slavery was an oppressive system,” Fogel said, “but that it was within the system for the development of black culture.”

‘Social Failings’

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Columbia University economist Peter Passell wrote: “Fogel and Engerman have with one stroke turned around a whole field of interpretation and exposed the frailty of history done without science. They force us to confront contemporary social failings instead of pushing them into the past.”

In a 1989 book, “Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery,” Fogel presented the moral case against slavery that many other critics saw as conspicuously missing from his work of 15 years earlier.

Robert William Fogel was born on July 1, 1926, in New York City, four years after his parents and older brother had left Odessa, Russia, for the U.S. He said his education in New York City public schools imbued in him a love for science, literature and history.

He earned his undergraduate degree in 1948 from Cornell University, his master’s degree from Columbia University in 1960 and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1963.

1940s Pessimism

At Cornell, he switched his focus from science to economics and history, inspired, he said, “by the widespread pessimism about the future of the economy during the second half of the 1940s.”

As Fogel wrote in an autobiography for the Nobel Foundation: “What did we really know about the role of the factory system in economic and institutional change during the 19th century? What was the nature and the magnitude of the contribution of particular new technologies, such as railroads or steel mills, to economic growth?”

The “quantitative evidence” needed to answer such questions, he concluded, required “the most advanced analytical and statistical methods that were then taught in the economics department.”

At Johns Hopkins, he wrote his dissertation under economist Simon Kuznets, who would later win a Nobel Prize for establishing the methods by which the government measures growth in gross national product.

Scouring History

In 1977, Martin Feldstein, then the new president of the National Bureau of Economic Research, appointed Fogel as director of a new program on the development of the American economy. The project identified gaps in available economic information and led to the development of dozens of data sets covering periods as far back as the late 1700s, Fogel wrote.

Fogel held professorships at the University of Rochester and Harvard University. In 1981 he joined the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business as a professor and the director of the Center for Population Economics, an institution created to “focus on the interaction of economic, demographic, and biological processes over life-cycles and generations,” according to Fogel.

The center’s work -- tracing the lives of Union soldiers from the Civil War, for instance -- would prove central to the research that won him the Nobel Prize.

Fogel had two sons, Michael and Steven, with his wife, Enid. She held academic posts including associate dean of students at the University of Chicago’s business school. She died in 2007.

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