July 1: Robert Fogel and the Economics of Slavery
Robert Fogel, a former communist organizer who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in economics, was born in Brooklyn on this date in 1926. Fogel spent most of his academic career at the University of Chicago, the University of Rochester, and Harvard, and made his reputation studying railroads and slavery in relation to the American economy, with a strong emphasis on quantitative statistics “made possible,” as he said in his Nobel address, “by rapid advances in computer hardware and software . . .” Fogel’s best-known work, the two-volume Time on the Cross (1974, written with Stanley Engerman), showed that the plantation slave system was more profitable than northern farming, and that free labor probably would not have supplanted slavery naturally over the course of time without the Civil War. While Fogel’s argument helped overthrow the dominant perspective of Southern historians, it also was taken by some as an apologia for Southern slaveholders, who sought to maintain their business enterprise, Fogel said, by limiting the oppression they inflicted on their slaves. His more recent work focuses on how rapid technological change has produced improvements in health, body size, and human mortality over the past two centuries. Fogel was married to an African-American woman, Enid, for decades before her death in 2007.
“I had worked out a two-pronged research strategy that I thought could keep me going for a decade or more. The first was to measure the impact of key scientific and technological innovations, key governmental policies, and key environmental and institutional changes on the course of economic growth. The second was to promote the wider use of the mathematical models and statistical methods of economics in studying the complex, long-term processes that were the focus of economic historians.” —Robert Fogel