Robert Fogel, 86; Wrote on Economics of Slavery

Article excerpt

The professor, who received a Nobel for economics, aroused objections in academic circles through his use of cliometrics, which applies economic theory and statistical methods to the study of history.

Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate economist whose number- crunching empiricism upended established thinking, most provocatively about the economics of slavery, died Tuesday in Oak Lawn, Illinois. He was 86.

His death was announced by the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, where he had been a distinguished professor. He lived in the Hyde Park section of Chicago.

Dr. 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.)

He first came to prominence in 1964, when he contended that railroads had been far less important to the nation's growth than economists had long asserted. An outgrowth of doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, his book "Railroads and American Economic Growth" became an immediate classic.

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 Dr. 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. That tended to limit exploitation, Dr. Fogel and his colleague found, declaring, in fact, that life for slaves in the South was generally better than that of industrial workers in the North.

An intellectual firestorm resulted. Some critics accused Dr. Fogel, who was married to an African-American woman, of being an apologist for slavery, though he and Dr. 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.

"Everything Bob touches is controversial," said Claudia D. Goldin, a former student of Dr. Fogel's and now an economics professor at Harvard University. "It stems from the fact that he thinks outside the box."

Dr. Fogel received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1993, sharing it with a fellow cliometrician, Douglass C. North. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Dr. Fogel for clarifying railroads' role in American economic development and the economic role of slavery.

He spent the latter decades of his career focused on demography and how standards of living, including nutritional resources, affect health and longevity. Through much of history, he found, shorter people and those with low body mass were more prone to illness.

He analyzed Civil War draft and pension records, linking them to mid-19th-century and early 20th-century census records to show how improved health enhances economic productivity.

He estimated that one-third of per capita economic growth in Britain between 1790 and 1980 was due to improved nutrition.

Dr. Fogel's range of inquiry was extraordinarily wide; his monumental study of Britain, for example, involved medicine, physiology, demography and statistics in addition to economics and history. …