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.
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.
The most controversial part of Fogel’s work was that on American slavery.
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.”
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.
The New York Times writes,
Professor Fogel, a rumpled former New Yorker by turns amiable and combative, was widely known for work that aroused objections if not open hostility in academic circles, chiefly through his pioneering use of cliometrics, which applies economic theory and statistical methods to the study of history. (Clio was history’s muse in Greek mythology.)
But it was the publication 10 years later of “Time on the Cross,” a two-volume study of slavery, written with Stanley L. Engerman, that propelled Professor Fogel into the critical spotlight and instant celebrity.
They contended that slavery had not been, as widely portrayed, an inefficient system destined for collapse, with slaves living in virtual concentration camps and worked to death.
Rather, after studying medical records, cotton yields and other data, the authors argued that slavery had been highly efficient in utilizing economies of scale and that plantation owners had regarded workers as economic assets whom they were inclined to treat at least as well as livestock. This tended to limit exploitation, Professor Fogel and his colleague found, declaring, in fact, that slave life in the South was generally better than that of industrial workers in the North.
An intellectual firestorm resulted. Some critics accused Professor Fogel, who was married to an African-American woman, of being an apologist for slavery, though he and Professor Engerman had been explicit in acknowledging that slaves had been exploited in ways not captured by statistical data.
Despite the attacks, the authors did not budge from their findings and their main point — that slavery would not have ended without the Civil War.