NBER Reporter: Fall 93
Fogel Wins Nobel Prize
Headed NBER Program on Development of the American Economy
NBER Research Associate Robert W. Fogel and former NBER Board member Douglass C. North will share the 1993 Nobel Prize in economics for their research in economic history. Fogel, a professor at the University of Chicago, has been associated with the Bureau since 1978. He was director of the NBER's Program on the Development of the American Economy (DAE) from 1978 to 1991, and has written a number of Historical Papers for the NBER.
Fogel was awarded the Nobel Prize for his pioneering research in the application of economic models and statistical methods to historical questions. His work has been, and continues to be, distinguished by startlingly new findings that often overturn conventional knowledge. In early work, Fogel explored the role of the railroads in American economic growth. The railroads had
been viewed by many as the magic bullet of economic development, just as infrastructure investments often are viewed today in less developed countries. But rather than being a leading sector that pulled along the rest of the economy, the railroads added a surprisingly small net gain to GNP, Fogel demonstrated.
Fogel is also known for his work on slavery and the economy of the American South. With coauthor Stanley Engerman, Fogel calculated the relative efficiency of large southem slave plantations relative to small southern slave farms and nonslave farms. They found that the large slave plantations were considerably more more efficient than the other farms. This enormous increase in efficiency held the key to understanding slaver y as a labor system. If the larger plantations were more efficient, it was because they worked their labor more intensively. After Emancipation, large slave plantations rapidly disappeared, and southern agricultural production fell substantially. Because slavery was profitable and greatly enhanced efficiency, it was not about to disappear without the Civil War. Time on the Cross and Without Consent or Contract brilliantly established these facts, and poignantly considered the role of the slave family in the southern antebellum economy, as well as the moral and political implications of slavery.
Fogel's current research project is his most ambitious to date, and promises to reveal much about the interrelationships among health, nutrition, and productivity. It involves the collection of data on heights, health, and pensions from militar y records, and their linkage to Census information. One part of the project concerns revisions to the standards of living. By including health measures in standards of living, Fogel demonstrates that per iods of economic growth do not always involve increased standards of living for the bulk of the population. In the nineteenth century, decreases in health and increases in mortality occurred even though real incomes rose. The finding that the American industrial revolution did not result in rising standards of living for a large group in the population is a truly astonishing discovery.
Throughout his career, Fogel has excited and incited his audiences, made them think harder about the past and its relevance to the present, and brought scholarship in economic history to a considerably higher plane. His work is as fresh today as it was when he wrote it,and his most recent project is at the forefront of the social sciences.
Bureau President Martin Feldstein added: "Bob Fogel established the NBER's Program on the Development of the American Economy with the same enthusiasm and insight that he brought to his own research. By organizing it around the same broad subjects as the
rest of the NBER's research agenda, he made the DAE program a vital and integral part of the Bureau."
North, a professor at Washington University, did research at the NBER's New York office in the 1950s. He also served on the NBER's Board of Directors from 1967 to 1986, representing the Economic History Association.