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5 THE PROBLEM OF AUDIENCE IN HISTORICAL ECONOMICS ROBERT FOGEL AS RHETOR Classically and properly, to repeat, rhetoric is critical inquiry, not merely "giving effectiveness to truth but ... creating truth" (Scott 1967, p. 9). The writing of history has a rhetoric (Hexter 1971; White 1973; Novick 1988), no small matter: it limits the historian in what sorts of evidence and what sorts of logical appeals she can make if she wishes to retain an audience. And economic history has a rhetoric, too. The Text Was Important Railroads and American Economic Growth, published in 1964, was a revised version of Robert Fogel's Ph.D. dissertation in economics at Johns Hopkins. It is relevant to the book's rhetoric that Fogel had started the advanced study of economics late, at thirty years of age, after a youth devoted to radical politics. By his own account the events of 1956, a year of rethinking by the left, turned him toward the academic as against the political study of economic-historical problems. The book was his second: he had published his M.A. thesis from Columbia as The Union Pacific Railroad: A Case in Premature Enterprise (1960). He was by 1964 well known among "cliometricians," a then-tiny band of economists such as Brinley Thomas, Alexander Gerschenkron, Anna Schwartz, Walt Rostow, Robert Gallman, Douglass North, William Parker, Lance Davis, and J. R. T. Hughes attempting to reinvent economic history as economics. His 1964 book made him more widely known to historians and economists, although the center of its argument had already stirred specialists in economic history at conferences and had been published by itself two years before (Fogel 1962). What stirred them was its powerfully argumentative form and its startling 74 75 The Problem ofAudience in Historical Economics conclusion: that railroads did not have very much to do with American economic growth. The conclusion was in the air. Albert Fishlow published the next year his own PhD. dissertation, from Harvard, which made a point for the 1850s very similar to the one Fogel made for his year, 1890. The simultaneous discovery came from a simultaneous stimulus, namely, Rostow's claim a few years earlier that railroads had begun America's "take-off into self-sustained growth." Fogel wrote his dissertation under the premier student of national income, Simon Kuznets, and began the study, as can be seen from his preliminary thesis proposal, expecting Rostow's enthusiasm for the railroads to be confirmed. It was not, and Fogel turned to attacking it. To an audience of a certain kind of professional economist the point of Fogel's book comes down to a three-line proof: 1. Railroads are supposed to have been a large factor in American growth. 2. From the railroad, canal, and wagon rates for transportation, however , you can see that railroads were about half as costly as the alternatives and carried half the transport; further, transport is 10 percent of national income. 3. If Adam Smith is in heaven and all is right with the world, then a 50 percent cost saving times a 50 percent of transport times a 10 percent of national income equals 2.5 percent of national income, no large factor. The three-line proof of smallness (known to some economists as Harberger 's Law) was crafted in virtually this form by Peter McClelland (1975) to apply to the economic history of the Navigation Acts, and it has become a cliometric routine. For example, Gary Hawke's replication of Fogel's calculation for England and Wales in 1865 also gives the threeline proof (1970, p. 173). Fishlow's book made effectively the same point, was better written than Fogel's, used techniques of persuasion more familiar to historians, and was reviewed more genially, yet was in the end less influential. Fogel's novelty of argumentative form attracted the attention of the young and the anger of the old. The attention and anger inspired methodological declarations and denunciations, and in 1993 the Nobel Prize. Fogel's book is the archetype of "cliometrics." Through thirty years it has worn well and still inspires imitators and respectful critics. It was more than a methodological advance. The theme that one innovation cannot explain much of economic growth has converted many from romanticism about the Iron Horse or the Big Steel Mill. 76 The Problem ofAudience in Historical Economics Its argument was largely concentrated in a brilliant display in the first fifty pages of the book. The enemy is the "axiom of...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780299158132
Related ISBN
9780299158149
MARC Record
OCLC
608692467
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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