February 2005
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Day February 25, 2005

Book #8: The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100 by Robert William Fogel

Catching up a bit now. Book #8 was a small but terrific book by Robert William Fogel, who documents the truly meteoric rise in human life expectancy from 1700 to the present, and projects these trends through the 21st century. Fogel shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1993 with Douglass North, for renewing research into economic history by introducing quantitative methods and economic theory to explain institutional change.

Escape from Hunger and Premature Death documents the rapidity and extent of the changes that have occurred since the Industrial Revolution in the basic quality of human life (as measured by nutritional adequacy, life expectancy, and morphological statistics). The data do more than simply document this revolutionary change, however. Given that much of the increase in life expectancy in the United States is actually a 20th century phenomenon, which accelerates throughout the century, it’s easy to appreciate why we now face hard choices about how to structure social safety nets. These are choices which previous generations didn’t face in quite the same way, since the full effects of improved nutrition, control over infectious disease, and improved health care (especially in childhood) had not yet made themselves felt.

I also finished Fogel’s book with renewed sense of the true gap between the poorest regions of the world and the industrialized West — the gap between us is increasingly not “quantitative”, in the sense that they simply have “less” of what we have; instead, continued dire poverty in many regions of the world has resulted in a bimodal population, where rich industrialized countries have serious biomedical advantages over poor regions. The increasingly “qualitative” nature of this gap makes it all the more urgent to listen to folks like Amartya Sen and determine how we can steer a “middle path” where economic globalization can help these regions without destroying the economies of the West and triggering serious economic conflicts within the western democracies.