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.


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  14. David Airth,

    From you I learned of Robert William Fogel. I knew of Douglass North. But I didn’t know they had shared a Nobel Prize.

    You also mentioned Amartya Sen. These three economist were awarded Nobel Prizes in Economics based on their social approach to economics. The economic establishment was somewhat amazed at this because economic awards generally have been giving in recognition of microeconomics not macroeconomics. Economists like John Galbraith have been lambasted and marginalized for taking a social approach to economics, even to the point of being called a communist. Many economist don’t take the human factor into account or seriously enough. They see it too much as a science that can be imposed.

    Robert L. Heilbroner, an economic historian who died recently, often made an issue of the fact that economics had become too micro and not broad based enough. He too wasn’t looked upon kindly by the economic establishment. I recommend his book “The Worldly Philosophers: The lives, times and ideas of the great economic thinkers”.

    Economics is the toughest discipline and also the first discipline. Lenin called it the “commanding heights”. Economists all over have been perplexed about how to make economics work successfully in places it has never really worked at all. It takes a lot of time and patients, and involves a lot of variables and contingents. There has to be some kind of “magical” platform in place before it take off. I come from a supposedly developed country, Argentina, which took several generations and debacles to get it somewhat right.