Cliometrics in Historical Perspective: In Remembrance of Robert Fogel and Douglass North

Paper Session

Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017 2:30 PM – 4:30 PM

Hyatt Regency Chicago, Crystal A
Hosted By: American Economic Association
  • Chair: Claudia Goldin, Harvard University and NBER

A Cliometric Counterfactual: What If There Had Been Neither Fogel nor North?

Claude Diebolt
France National Centre for Scientific Research and University of Strasbourg
Michael Haupert
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse


Using the counterfactual model pioneered by Robert Fogel in his famous railroad study, we look at the development of the cliometric movement. In this research the counterfactual is that Nobel laureates Robert Fogel and Douglass North were not contributors to the economics literature. How would cliometrics, which predates the contributions of Fogel and North, have developed without their contributions? The use of the counterfactual in this case provides a unique method of measuring their contributions to the discipline of economic history.

What Fogel and North Got (Spectacularly) Right, and What They Got (Modestly) Wrong

Deirdre McCloskey
University of Illinois-Chicago


Fogel and North, both of them old radicals in the 1950s, received the Nobel Memorial Prize in 1993 for their advocacy---and practice---during the 1960s and 1970s of quantitative methods and especially of basic economic thinking in the study of the economic past. Both were scientific giants, and great teachers and advocates. But even giants make mistakes, and in both cases the mistakes became more evident in the decades after they received the glittering prize. Fogel's late-career studies of health and welfare, though admirably serious examples of applied economics right to the end, were less scientifically pioneering than his work on railways or slavery. North's much more influential advocacy---and very much less his practice---of neo-institutionalism, by contrast, was probably a scientific error. Fogel realized more and more the salience of ethics in the economy, and even taught (philosophically unsophisticated) courses on business ethics. North drifted further and further from the essentially ethical underpinnings of an innovative economy, speaking of "brain science" rather than the mind-scanning equipment of the humanities, and led his many followers in the drift.

Douglass North, Cliometrics, and the New Institutional Economics: Continuity or Divergence?

Lee Alston
Indiana University and NBER


Douglass North spent his career seeking to understand why some countries are rich and some poor. He was one of the founders of Cliometrics, which applies Neo-classical theory to history as a means of hypothesis testing. This entailed first measurement, and then testing. Early in his career North devoted himself and encouraged his students to better measure the performance of the overall economy. The Cliometric agenda was very much inspired by Simon Kuznets. North did not engage in formal testing, but sought to explain patterns in the data. The early North firmly believed that relative prices of labor/capital/land drove productivity and growth. By the late 1960s he found the proximate causes of growth, i.e., technology or capital, to be insufficient in explaining development. Inspired by Coase, he sought the explanation in property rights and institutions as the fundamental cause, initially applying a relative price approach to the determinants of institutions. When this proved insufficient he moved on, seeking answers from the other social sciences, including cognitive science. It was this searching process that led to the foundation of the New Institutional Economics. North never abandoned Neo-classical theory, but continually modified and added to it. The evolution of his approach to economic growth is the story of the new institutional economics; a story that reflects the metamorphosis of North’s thinking, his impact on the discipline, and the changes in direction that he pioneered.

The Integration of Economic History into Economics

Robert Margo
Boston University and NBER


In departments of economics in the United States today the academic field of economic history is far more economics than history, a phenomenon I call the “integration of economic history into economics”. I document this integration in two ways. The first is text processing of digitized files of the Journal of Economic History and the American Economic Review in which I look for usage of econometric language, such as “regression” or “probit”. I show that the frequency of such language became similar between the JEH and the AER by the 1980s. The second way is early publication histories of economic historians who received doctorates in economics, by decade of PhD cohort, where “early” refers to the first decade post-PhD. Relative to PhD cohorts of the 1970s, there are significant shifts, with more recent cohorts much less likely to publish a monograph and much more likely to publish in economics journals, including top-five (e.g. AER). To explain the integration of economic history into economics, I develop a simple “overlapping generations” model of the academic labor market, in which junior scholars respond to disciplinary incentives.
Sumner La Croix
University of Hawaii
Joel Mokyr
Northwestern University
John Wallis
University of Maryland and NBER
Stanley Engerman
University of Rochester and NBER
JEL Classifications
  • B0 - General
  • N0 - General