Wednesday, June 18, 2008

William Fogel and The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700 - 2100

In the past day I have come across, in three separate instances, a previously unknown (to me) book, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700 - 2100 by William Fogel. It sounds like an excellent read and I am going to track down a copy.

Over at the blog 2Blowhards, there is an interesting posting as well as good commentary following, based on the content of Fogel's book.

The key point that they make in their post about the American Revolution is:

I dimly remembered most of this stuff. The revolutionaries still come off looking a bit like wild men who went to war over a far lower level of governmental interference in their affairs than contemporary Americans experience daily.

However, I read a very interesting book recently that puts the American grievances into a rather more understandable context. The book is Robert William Fogel's The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. (You can buy it here.) Fogel is a Nobel prize-winning economist and socio-economic historian whose work incorporates biometric data (like people's heights, weights, lifespans, etc.) to supplement the more narrow financial metrics of traditional economics. This too-slim book covers a number of fascinating topics including contemporary health care and welfare-state finance, but the part I want to highlight here is material from the first chapter.

According to Fogel's table 1.1., Life Expectancy At Birth in Seven Nations, 1725-2100, Americans had an interpolated life expectancy in 1775 of 53.5 years. Citizens of England or UK had an interpolated life expectancy in 1775 of 36.5 years. That's a seventeen year advantage for the American colonists. According to the same table, by the way, the English didn't reach the life expectancy of the American colonists of 1775 until sometime in the first half of the 20th century (like maybe the 1920s).

Fogel also provides a discussion of how well people ate in various countries. He begins by discussing both calories and the amount of protein available in diets, chiefly to highlight how poor (by modern standards) were the diets of even the 'advanced' nations of Europe in the 18th century:

the energy value of the typical diet in France at the start of the eighteenth century was as low as that of Rwanda in 1965, the most malnourished nation for that year in the tables of the World Bank. England's supply of food per capita exceeded that of France by several hundred calories but was still exceedingly low by current standards. Indeed, as late as 1850, the English availability of calories hardly matched the current Indian level. The supply of food available to ordinary French and English families between 1700 and 1850 was not only meager in amount but also relatively poor in quality.

He continues by looking at the amount of calories available for work:

One implication of these low-level diets needs to be stressed: Even prime-age [British] males had only a meager amount of energy available for work. Dietary energy available for work is a residual. It is the amount of energy metabolized (chemically transformed for use by the body) during a day, less baseline maintenance. Table 1.3 shows that in rich countries today, around 1,800 to 2,600 calories of energy are available for work to an adult male aged 20-39. During the eighteenth century, France produced less than one-fifth of the current U.S. amount of energy available for work. Once again, eighteenth-century England was more prolific, providing more than a quarter of current levels. Only the United States provided energy for work equal to or greater than current levels during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
I should stress that by 'energy for work' Fogel means energy for any purpose beyond simply staying alive and digesting food. In short, he might well have termed this 'energy for life.'

Finally, Fogel treats another biometric variable: height. His data suggest that men maturing in the third quarter of the 18th century in Great Britain had an average height of 165.9 cm. During this period the average American adult male height increased from 172 to 173.5 centimeters. The difference, 6.75 cm. or 2.66 inches would have been clearly visible to contemporaries.

Given that most Americans of the Revolutionary War period were of British extraction and could hardly have been ignorant of conditions there, it must have been as plain as the nose on their faces that people lived far longer, ate far better and grew up more sturdily in the Colonies than in the Mother Country. So when the British government started tightening the screws on the colonies in the wake of the French and Indian wars, the mental calculation of the colonists must have been pretty simple: Let me get this straight: you British aristocrats, in your infinite wisdom, want to make us Americans more like the average British working man? In short, you want us to live as poorly as you do? I think not, if I have anything to say about it. Martha, what did you do with my rifle?

In short, it appears that rather than being the work of ultra-touchy libertarians, the American Revolution was one of the most substantively motivated conflicts in history. The colonists had a good thing going, and didn't intend to give it up lightly. Who wouldn't go to war, even today, if the disputed prize was a 17-year difference in life expectancy?

I am always fascinated by how it is often the day-to-day, concrete things of life, (and those that are most often overlooked), that drive so much of history.

Another example of this is a simple demographic fact. One of the best predictors of civil unrest is the percentage of the population (particularly male population) that is under age eighteen. The higher this is, the more probable it is that there will be civil unrest. Given that Americans had much greater access to calories, one of the consequences was much large families and infant survival. This in turn meant that at the time of the Revolution, significantly more than 50% of the population was less than 18 years of age (compared to 25-30% in recent decades).

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