TCS Daily

The Great Escape

By Nick Schulz - December 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Editor's note: Robert Fogel was awarded, along with Douglass North, the Nobel Prize in economics in 1993 for their pioneering work using statistical analysis to study economic history.

Professor Fogel recently published a book based on years of his research: The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death: 1700 to 2100 tells a remarkable story of human, scientific and technological change. He recently sat for an interview with TCS editor Nick Schulz.

Nick Schulz: The title of your book is somewhat dry, but it's about an important development in human history. It's called, The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death: 1700 to 2100, and it tells an extraordinary story.

Can you tell us how you got interested in looking into this subject and what, broadly speaking, you discovered?

Robert Fogel:  Well a group of other people in demography economics and the biomedical sciences and I began collaborating back in the mid-'70's to first measure the decline in mortality in the United States. Prior to that work there was very little that was known about what happened to mortality, before the middle to late 19th century in the U.S. And so we found sources of data that permitted us to recreate time series on that, and we discovered that the pattern of increase in life expectancy was puzzling. And in the effort to explain these puzzles we produced many new lines of research, some of which are summarized in the book, The Escape From Hunger.

Nick Schulz: And what exactly was puzzling about this pattern of increase?

Robert Fogel:  Well, life expectancy appears to have increased pretty steadily from the early 18th century until maybe around 1820. And then it started cycling. We had actual decreases in life expectancy. Before we returned back to a path of increase in life expectancy, beginning in the late 19th century, and from then on it was a pretty steady pattern of increase. In both good times and bad times, we have a substantial increase in life expectancy.

For example, during the Great Depression of the 1930's, which in some ways was not new but in some ways it was surprising, you would think that in such hard times with such a large percentage of the people unemployed, many for a long time, it would've had a negative health effect. But, whatever negative effect there might have been was swamped by more positive factors that led to an increase of more than six years in life expectancy, in a decade.

Nick Schulz: You mentioned that, after years of increase starting in the early 18th century there was a decrease. What prompted the decrease, if anything? Were you able to tease out the answer?

Robert Fogel: It was a combination of things. One was large-scale immigration. Many of the immigrants brought with them diseases. The most spectacular cases were the cholera epidemic of '49, 1849-1852, which became endemic to about 1857.

Two boats from Germany -- one landed in New York and when people got off of that boat, cholera broke out in New York City, and the other went down to New Orleans, and people boarded the riverboats going upstream and every place that the boat docked to leave people off, cholera broke out, all the way up to St. Louis. And then, up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh. So, you had a pretty graphic example about how sick immigrants could introduce serious diseases.

The other, and more quantitatively more important, was the rise of urbanization. If you look in third-world countries today, cities are healthier than the countryside. But, in the 19th century it was the opposite -- there was a mortality gap with the cities having higher morbidity and mortality rates than the countryside down to World War II. It's only in the 1940's and 1950's that the cities become healthier than the countryside, which is still the case.

Nick Schulz: And yet, people still came to cities, despite the fact that living conditions were so bad and that it could be hazardous to your health?

Robert Fogel: Right. Well in the United States, most of the people who came to the big cities were foreign migrants. In Europe, they were the poorest of the countryside being pushed out of the countryside and into the cities. The city of London had a mortality rate that was higher than the fertility rate; and the city population only grew because of net in migration during the 19th century.

Nick Schulz: The first chapter of the book is called, "The Persistence of Misery In Europe and America Before 1900". What was so miserable about life before the 20th century?

Robert Fogel: Well first of all it was short. The life expectancy, if I can go back to 1700, was only about 35 years at birth. In 1900, 200 years later, it had increased by about 12 years -- it was in the neighborhood of 47 in Western European countries. And, today it's 77 or 78, so in a century we added 30 years to life expectancy, maybe a little bit more.

Nick Schulz: That's obviously unprecedented for life expectancy to increase by such a large amount in one century. What were the primary drivers of that?

Robert Fogel: Public health reform, cleaning up of the water supply, cleaning up of the milk supply. But if you said what was the single most important factor, it's technological change.

Let me give you one small example. We complain a lot about air pollution today, but there were 200,000 horses in New York City, at the beginning of the 20th century defecating everywhere. And when you walked around in New York City, you were breathing pulverized horse manure -- a much worse pollutant, than the exhausts of automobiles. Indeed in the United States, the automobile was considered the solution to the horse problem because pulverized horse manure carried a lot of deadly pathogens.

So technological change made it possible to greatly increase the food supply and permit levels of nutrition that were not previously attainable. Secondly, it made it possible to have a safe water supply. We needed a more modern technology to be able to carry away waste water and provide safe water, both through filtering and chlorination. And, still another area was the development of vaccines, which made it possible to inoculate the very young against diseases. And with better nutrition, you greatly increase the physiology of human beings.

Nick Schulz: That leads to my next question, which is what was the significance of malnourishment on work, productivity and economic growth in human history? You found some interesting things when you looked into this question of nutrition and malnourishment.

Robert Fogel: Right, with the kind of agricultural technology that exists in Malthus's era, we could only feed 80 percent of the population with enough energy so that they could work. The level of nutrients available for work was about a third of what it is now, so even people who worked were much less productive.

Nick Schulz: They would literally not have enough calories to work?

Robert Fogel: The poorest 20 percent of the population, was slowly starving to death. They were beggars that littered the streets. They had enough energy for maybe an hour of strolling and then sitting down and begging. But not enough energy to work.

Nick Schulz: And this is in Europe and the United States?

Robert Fogel: Yes, Western Europe down to around the middle of the 19th century. And in the United States, in the bigger cities. The countryside was pretty well-fed from the beginning. But when we began to develop the big cities, we had a problem of urban poverty that was not solved until well into the 20th century.

Nick Schulz: So a lot of these technological factors came together at the same time. Now, I know this is a highly debated question in the academy, but why were the conditions such that these things came together in Europe and the United States when they did, at this time in history?

Robert Fogel: Well it's based on a long history of improving knowledge. Your web page cites Simon Kuznets on this. The accumulation of knowledge is the basis for modern technology. Later on it becomes not just empirical knowledge, but also science which gives us theories about what to do. And these theories become increasingly effective guides to technological advance.

But technological advance is the basis for all economic growth, including the derived growth that I referred to, as you will have technologies that improve productivity in agriculture. It's possible to improve human physiology so there is an interaction, a synergism.

Nick Schulz: Right, and you coin a term in this book called "techno-physio evolution."

Robert Fogel: Right.

Nick Schulz: Explain what that is and explain why it's important.

Robert Fogel: Well, it's the interaction between improvements in technology and improvements in human physiology. The average stature of adult males in Western Europe increased by close to a foot between 1864 and the present.

Nick Schulz: That's an enormous percentage of body height.

Robert Fogel: Yeah, that's a very big increase. The current giants are the Dutch. Dutch males, on average, are over 6 feet. They used to be only about 5 foot 4 in the mid 19th century, so they've come quite a ways.

And with that is an improvement in the strength of electrical signals across membranes -- our lungs are stronger; our hearts are stronger; the central nervous system is more effective. So all these things were permitted by changes technology, which improved nutrition.

Now improved nutrition is not only an improvement in the diet, but the proportion of the diet that's metabolized. If you have a lot of diarrhea, the food won't be metabolized. If a pregnant woman has diarrhea, the fetus will be severely underfed and will probably produce a child that will be not only at high risk to die in infancy, but at high risk to have severe chronic diseases at relatively early ages. So chronic diseases of people who reached age 65 in 1900 came about 10 to 12 years earlier than they do today.

Nick Schulz: The same diseases?

Robert Fogel: Yes, talking about things like arthritis, coronary heart disease, respiratory diseases. Not only do they come 10 to 12 years later, but the proportion that gets them is smaller. So a larger proportion of people live until death, or nearly death, in good health -- whereas, in 1900 about 80 percent of the population of males age 65 and older were severely impaired by chronic diseases.

Nick Schulz: On this nutrition question, today we hear, especially in the developed world of the U.S. and Europe, a lot of concerns about over-nutrition or obesity, but you point out that even in the developed world today, there are still some problems with under-nutrition. Is that right?

Robert Fogel: Right. It's a much more limited problem than in third-world countries. But we still have enough inequality in this country so that there are still malnourished children, undernourished children.

Nick Schulz: On the subject of techno-physio evolution, you say in the book that, "this evolution is likely to accelerate in this century." Why is that?

Robert Fogel: Well, first of all, our technology is accelerating.

Nick Schulz: How do you measure that? How do you know that it's accelerating?

Robert Fogel: Well in the book I give a diagram and show it visually. I have on the Y axis, the size of the population; and on the other axis, time. And I show the curve of population -- from about 1700 on, that curve becomes almost vertical on the scale that's shown in the book. And then along that scale, I put in scientific innovations.

One of the points I make is that it took 4000 years to go from the invention of the plow to figuring out how to hitch a plow up to a horse. And it took 65 years to go from the first flight in a heavier-than-air machine to landing a man on the moon. Not only did that happen in such a short period of time, but over a billion people all over the world watched it happen. So we had communications revolution in a very short period of time. I could work out a precise metric but it wouldn't mean much. It wouldn't give you more information than that diagram does.

Nick Schulz: Sure, or those anecdotes themselves do.

Robert Fogel: Right.

Nick Schulz: In the book you see a growing demand for leisure and retirement, and education and health care. Now, in current debates, especially in Washington, that sounds like more Social Security, more education spending, and more Medicare. Can we avoid heading towards more government involvement of things? How do you see that?

Robert Fogel: Heading towards it. You've got to distinguish between the rhetoric and the facts.

We currently have passed legislation that delays the onset of full Social Security to 68, and there is a good deal of talk that we're going to push it to 70 -- a good deal of talk in Congress. At the same time, people are retiring earlier. The average age of retirement is now around 62, which is pretty high compared to Western Europe. It's 59 in France. So, it's very likely that by the time my son retires, there'll be 10 years of no government support for retirement, which he'll have to finance himself. So, that's more than 50 percent privatizing the retirement system.

We're probably going to shift gradually, despite the opposition to it, to private accounts, which exist in some countries, which require everyone who enters the labor force to put aside 30 percent of their income into a fund to cover retirement, health care, and education. In some countries, they permit you to borrow against that fund to buy houses.

And, it's approaching what American academics have. You cannot teach in American universities without having TIAA-CREF. In American universities, you're required to put aside between 12-and-a-half and 17 percent (it varies from university to university) into this fund so that when you retire you don't end up with a tin cup sitting on the administration building saying, "I was a good teacher once, please help me."

So, that's a forced retirement system. It has the advantage over Social Security that the government can't take it away.

Secondly, 24 hours a day I can call up and find out what am I worth today. It's my money and, I can leave it as a legacy to my children or grandchildren. Not only that, everyone who did as I did, when CREF became available, and took three-quarters in equities and one-quarter in bonds, is a multi-millionaire today.

Nick Schulz: So all of those teachers are multi-millionaires?

Robert Fogel: Well, if they're still alive. Not all of them are still alive. But the rate of return has been over 10 percent per annum, for decades. Figure it out. You're doubling the value every seven years. So it's been a very successful investment.

Nick Schulz: And you see that as a potential model for Social Security or public pension programs?

Robert Fogel: Right. Now, there is an argument which says it's not as secure as the guaranteed government program. Well, ultimately, what the government can pay depends on how the economy performs. If we continue to grow as we have in the neighborhood of 2 percent per annum per capita over the past 50 years, we won't have any difficulty paying for it either, as a governmental program or in private accounts. If the economy goes into long-term stagnation, then the government is not going to be able to sustain it because the tax base for it won't be there. So you need to have a successful and rapidly growing economy in order for standards of living for the elderly to improve.

I think the odds that we will are very high. I think we're already actually underestimating. I mean, when I gave you the figure of 2 percent per annum, that figure does not take into account improvements in the quality of health care or in the quality of education, or in the quality of many manufactured goods. So, if you take these quality improvements into account as I've tried to do roughly in one paper, the real rate of growth is 3.1 percent, not 2 percent.

Nick Schulz: You talk a lot about technology and biotechnology in your book. There's concern about some humans over-enhancing themselves, and we see this in the debates over the steroid controversy in baseball or Leon Kass's worries about medical innovation. Do economists have anything to contribute to these ethical debates?

Robert Fogel: There are a lot of different ethical issues. The debate over whether we should do stem cell research from fetal material is only one of them. It's going to happen, whether we do it or not, it's going to happen. The Chinese are doing it. Other countries are pursuing it so these scientific lines of research are going to take place.

The U.S. has the most heavily endowed scientific research program in the biomedical areas and we are subsidizing the whole world. And we'll continue to do so, for the foreseeable future. I'm not too worried about scientific progress, we're at the leading edge of most frontiers. It would be incredible if we were at the leading edge of every frontier. No country has ever been.

Nick Schulz: As you've looked at some of the history of it, these concerns about technological advance, Have you seen any precedent for it, or are we in terra-incognita here?

Robert Fogel: No, there is always concern over scientific experimentation and adverse, either unethical or undesirable consequences. It's part of the fear of the unknown.

Look, 1000 years ago, nothing happened. Each generation experienced life more or less as the previous ones had, with maybe some random factor thrown in for weather and pestilence. But, it's only in the past 300 years that science has become so powerful that it could influence the course of events. And it has, and I expect it to do it in an accelerating rate. We have a powerful scientific establishment, we're making new discoveries daily, even short of genetic engineering.

By the way, genetic engineering is 100's of years old. It's just that our new techniques speed up the process of mutations. But we've been tinkering with cross breeding plants and animals for a long time. But even if you take the existing best technology, not what's going to come out of what's generally referred to as genetic engineering, but just the diffusion of best practice can produce a rate of growth of 2 or 3 percent in productivity.

China is a good example of what can happen. The Chinese population since 1961 just about doubled and, per capita food consumption of this doubled population is up 80 percent. So China has a much bigger population and a much better standard of food intake and life expectancy. In half a century, it increased from about 45 years to 72. It took the Western world 150 years to make that leap.

Nick Schulz: Let's shift to declining populations. How important is the population decline that is happening in Western Europe?

Robert Fogel: It's terribly important to Western Europe. Italy, I mean, Italy, the home of the Vatican, has a total fertility rate of 1.4. To maintain the population, you have to have a total fertility rate of 2.1, so Italy is facing a rapid decline. The Italian government is doing everything it can to promote higher fertility rate. Otherwise in 100 years, Italy will have a third of its current population -- assuming no migration into or out of the country, just from natural increase.

Among the rich countries, we're the only country that's not shrinking inherently. By the way the age structure enters into it. So even if you have a total fertility rate that says you should shrink, if you have a lot of women in child-bearing years, it won't happen until the age structure changes, which may take a third to a half century.

But Asia is still growing, and Africa, despite its age, is growing very rapidly because of a very high fertility rate. And Africa will be a much more, in terms of the percentage of the world population, it'll be more than double what it is, in half a century whereas Western Europe, if current trends continue, will shrink. And Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia, will increase.

So, not only will per capita income be rising in countries like China and India, but because of the population increase, they'll be the dominant economies of the world.

It's already reflected in the extent of Western capital that's rushing into these countries. General Motors' main expansion plans are in Southeast Asia and Latin America, not in the United States, the same thing as Ford, Volkswagen. All the big auto companies are reading the tea leaves in the same way.

Nick Schulz: Are there broader implications for these population changes for Europe and the U.S.?

Robert Fogel: The U.S. is going to be the technological leader, probably through the end of the 21st century. Maybe China will catch up in some directions and maybe it will cede them in some directions like stem cell research, but, we still have a huge, advantage in terms of investment and in terms of human resources in these areas. The country remains devoted to a policy of heavy investment in science especially in the biomedical sciences and in science in general.

Nick Schulz: So you're still optimistic about the United States with respect to technology and the future?

Robert Fogel: I picked the right century to be born in, and my grandchildren have also picked the right century. It's not only the 20th, but the 21st will be American Centuries in terms of scientific heights that we scale and in terms of the success of our economies.

But watch out for China. China, if its current growth rate continues and if we take Western European and U.S. growth rates and assume they will continue, China will be bigger than the United States and Western Europe put together by about 2030 or 2040. That means the market will be bigger. It doesn't mean per capita income will be higher.

Nick Schulz: When would China achieve parity in per capita income with either the U.S. or Western Europe?

Robert Fogel: You know I haven't calculated that and so I don't have an answer to it. But if you take what I think is the true growth rate of the U.S, not the one that we publish in the National Income and Product Accounts, I don't think it'll happen this century.

Nick Schulz: I have one last question for you. It's kind of an unconventional question, but it's one that I like to ask folks I interview, and you can take a second to answer it Who are your heroes?

Robert Fogel: You know, my reaction is that scientists don't really have heroes because all scientific knowledge is incremental. You're aware of how dependent each individual is on all of the other people.

We tend to heroize the person who gets there first, but usually there are a dozen people who were so close that you can feel their breath on the back of their neck so that if one guy stumbled it wouldn't be that that scientific stream wouldn't materialize. It would be that some other scientific group or individual is the one whose name is attached to it.

So I really think science is a collective enterprise. What you can do depends, not only on what happened before you, but on what everybody else around you is doing. And you're talking to each other, and hoping you'll be a little luckier, or a little cleverer to the extent that we're in competition with each other.

Nick Schulz: Professor Fogel, I really appreciate you taking time. This interview will be of deep interest to a lot of our readers.

Robert Fogel: Thank you so much.


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