The Nobel Prize

Robert W. Fogel (b. 1926)

Robert Fogel was born in New York City, USA, in 1926. His parents and elder brother had arrived in America four years earlier from Odessa, on the Black Sea coast of Russia. Fogel remembers that his mother and father had a ‘reverence for learning [that] encouraged both my brother and me toward academic pursuits’ (Nobel Foundation, 2004). Although the Great Depression made times generally hard during his childhood, Fogel suggests that one of its effects was to ‘attract a remarkably talented and dedicated collection of teachers’ into the New York public school system. This stimulating environment prompted him to aspire initially to a career in science.

Fogel attended Cornell University where he was awarded a BA in 1948. Although he began studying physics and chemistry at Cornell, he later switched to economics and history. The change was prompted by the spectre of a return to depression after the end of the Second World War. Fogel wanted to ‘find solutions to the current problems of instability and equity’ (Nobel Foundation, 2004). He later enrolled at Columbia University, where he was taught microeconomics by George Stigler (see entry in this volume) and American economic history by Carter Goodrich. Goodrich was undertaking research into government support for the development of transport and on his advice Fogel wrote his master’s thesis on the Union Pacific Railroad. This work was published in 1960 as Fogel’s first book and he obtained his MA from Columbia in 1960. Fogel completed his training at Johns Hopkins University with the award of a PhD in 1963. At Johns Hopkins his teachers included Abba Lerner, Fritz Machlup and Evsey Domar. Fogel’s dissertation, from which he derived one of his most important books – Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (1964) – was supervised by Simon Kuznets (Goldin, 1995, and see entry in this volume). This book was included in Fogel’s Nobel citation.

Fogel’s academic career began in 1958 when he obtained an instructor post at Johns Hopkins. In 1960 he became an assistant professor at the University of Rochester, with promotion to associate professor in 1964. In 1965, Fogel was appointed professor at the University of Chicago, a post he held until 1975; although between 1968 and 1975 he was also visiting professor at Rochester. In 1975 he moved to Harvard University as professor until 1981, although he spent 1975–76 as Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University. In 1981 he returned to Chicago as George Stigler’s successor as the Charles R. Walgreen Professor of American Institutions and director of the Walgreen Foundation and the Center for Population Economics.

Turning to his offices and honours, Fogel has been an associate of the Columbia University Seminar in Economic History since 1969. He has also been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Economic History Association since 1972 and he served as its president in 1977–78. Since 1978 he has been research associate and programme director at the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 1980–81, Fogel was president of the Social Science History Association and in 1998 president of the American Economic Association. In 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics jointly with Douglass North ‘for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change’ (Nobel Foundation, 2004).


Fogel and his fellow Laureate, Douglass North, are generally acknowledged as the founders and major protagonists in the field of cliometrics. This involves the application to economic history of
‘economic theory, quantification and formal hypothesis tests’ (Eichengreen, 1994, p. 167). Cliometrics is credited with adding a degree of robustness to what had previously been a narrative emphasis on events in economic history; it has also engendered a new understanding of the importance of history to economic analysis (Eichengreen, 1994; McCloskey, 1994; Goldin, 1995; Nobel Foundation, 2004). Fogel’s tentative thinking in this area began when he was a graduate student at Columbia. He supposed that a blend of history and economics could uncover the grand forces behind technological and institutional change and yield answers to contemporary social and economic problems. Na├»ve? Fogel now thinks so but he had started down what might be best termed a promising funnel of exploration. Realising that there was a general ignorance about the ‘large processes’ of social innovation and change, Fogel ‘began to focus on more discrete issues’, for example: ‘What was the nature and the magnitude of the contribution of particular new technologies, such as railroads or steel mills to economic growth?’ (Nobel Foundation, 2004). It was possible to be more certain about these narrower concerns because they lent themselves to more precise theorisation and quantification: in other words, they could be directly approached using what would become known as cliometrics.


McCloskey (1994, p. 164) describes Fogel’s work as exercises in comparative statics – ‘snapshots of the rationale for institutions at a single time’. Goldin (1995, p. 195) labels him ‘the premier empiricist, who establishes a fact and then establishes it over and over again until he is confident he can persuade the most determined sceptic’. Fogel’s Nobel citation concurs: ‘Fogel’s painstaking criticism of his sources, along with applications of innumerable and highly varied economic data, make it difficult for his critics to argue against him on purely empirical grounds’ (Nobel Foundation, 2004). Herein lies Fogel’s distinct and highly influential methodology: his concern is to produce analyses of institutions in economic history that employ precise forms of theoretisation and which are open to empirical validation or refutation.


This is not, however, Fogel’s only methodological breakthrough. His 1964 book on the role of railroads in the development of the American economy employed ‘counterfactual historiography’ to empirically test the validity of the widely held contention that rail had been integral to American growth. This position had been advanced, for example, by Rostow (1960), who argued that the ‘take-off’ of an economy into a stage of steady growth was predicated on the development of certain key sectors. Fogel’s approach was to compare the actual growth of the American economy in 1890 with the hypothesised alternative of development in the absence of a rail network.Measuring the difference would provide an estimate of the ‘social savings’ derived from railroads, together with the reciprocal cost in growth lost from the reliance on inferior modes of transport. Fogel found that the reduction in GDP growth was unexpectedly small:
railroads could hardly be considered an indispensable element in American economic history. The book stimulated a substantial literature, indeed ‘few books in economic history have made such an impression as Fogel’s’ (Nobel Foundation, 2004).

One exception may well be Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, a book Fogel wrote with Stanley Engerman. When this book was published in 1974 there was still a presumption that slavery was an inefficient and unprofitable form of activity and that the Southern states where it had been practised did not gain economically from it (Eichengreen, 1994). Using a considerable volume of evidence to show that bigger plantations that used slaves
in large numbers were able to reap economies of scale, Fogel (and Engerman) demonstrated that the institution of slavery gave the South ‘a strong comparative advantage in the production of cotton’ and, instead of leaving it ‘backward’, this alternative ‘specialism’ simply militated against Southern industrialisation (Goldin, 1995, p. 200). One implication is that the ending of slavery in the United States arose from political rather than economic imperatives: it did not wither, it was crushed (Nobel Foundation, 2004). Time on the Cross was a highly controversial work. Blaug (1998, p. 66) calls it ‘perhaps the most controversial book that has ever been published in American history, on a subject known for its controversies’. Fogel’s more recent work on slavery, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (1989), is based on more qualitative evidence and is supplemented by three additional technical volumes: (Fogel et al., 1992a; 1992b; 1992c).

Fogel’s present project is an enormous multi-disciplinary study of the links between long-term improvements in human health and economic growth. The work also considers the implications of patterns in health and economic performance for such issues as the demand for leisure, pensions and health care. A summary can be found in Fogel (1994). This research involves ‘scholars from economics, history, medicine, physiology, demography, and statistics, and a data collection that is the largest ever in the field of economic history and one of the largest that has been privately amassed in economics’ (Goldin, 1995, p. 203). Fogel’s Nobel citation highlights
findings on nineteenth-century mortality from this wide-ranging and continuing project: Fogel (1992d) is the relevant reference.

Main Published Works
(1960), The Union Pacific Railroad: A Case in Premature Enterprise, Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press.



(1964), Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.



(1974), Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (with S.L. Engerman), vols 1 and 2, New York: Little, Brown & Co.



(1989), Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, New York: W.W.
Norton.



(1992a), Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery: Evidence and
Methods (with others), New York: W.W. Norton.



(1992b), Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery: Markets and
Production: Technical Papers, Volume I (with S.L. Engerman and others), New York: W.W.
Norton.



(1992c), Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery: Conditions of Slave Life and the Transition to Freedom: Technical Papers, Volume II (with S.L. Engerman and others), New York: W.W. Norton.



(1992d), ‘Second Thoughts on the European Escape from Hunger: Famines, Chronic alnutrition
and Mortality’, in S.R. Osmani (ed.), Nutrition and Poverty, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 243–86.



(1994), ‘Economic Growth, Population Theory, and Physiology: The Bearing of Long-Term
Processes on the Making of Economic Policy’, American Economic Review, 84, June, pp. 369–
95.



Secondary Literature
Eichengreen, B. (1994), ‘The Contributions of Robert W. Fogel to Economics and Economic
History’, Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 96 (2), pp. 167–79.



Goldin, C. (1995), ‘Cliometrics and the Nobel’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 9, Spring,
pp. 191–208.



McCloskey, D.N. (1994), ‘Fogel and North: Statics and Dynamics in Historical Economics’, Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 96 (2), pp. 161–6.



Rostow, W.W. (1960), The Stages of Economic Growth, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.
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