Thursday, April 12, 2007

Robert Fogel, nobel activist

This is an excerpt from an interview with 1993 nobel laureate Robert Fogel:

RF: There’s a large gap in your academic CV from 1948, when you finished your undergraduate degree, to the mid-1950s, when you enrolled in graduate school. What were you doing during that period?


Fogel: When I graduated from college, I had two job offers. One was from my father, to join him in the meat-packing business. That would have been quite lucrative. The other was as an activist for a left-wing youth organization. I chose the latter and worked as an activist from 1948 to 1956. At the time I was making that decision, my father told me: “If you really believe in that cause, come work with me. You will make a much higher wage and you could give your extra income to hire several people instead of just yourself.” I thought, well, that makes some sense. But I was convinced that this was a way to get me to change my views or at least lessen my commitment to an ideological cause that I found very important. Yes, the first year, I might give all of my extra money to the movement, but every year I would probably give less, and finally reach the point when I was giving nothing at all. I feared I would be co-opted. I thought this was my father’s way of indoctrinating me.


So I went to work as an activist. At first, I thought what I was doing was important. But over time, I started to become disillusioned. The Marxists had predicted a depression in 1947-1948. That didn’t happen, so they said, it will happen the next year. But it never came. So by the early 1950s, I began seriously reconsidering my position. I had been drawn to Marxism because I thought of it as a science. But it was pretty clear that its “scientific” predictions were wildly off the mark. I was ready to leave the movement, but then McCarthyism started to heat up and that led me to hesitate. I stayed a few more years to fight against McCarthyism. But by 1955 and 1956, the horrors that had occurred under Stalin, which we had all heard about but didn’t really believe, were confirmed by Khrushchev. That was the breaking point in a sense. I began to rethink my views and especially my involvement with Marxism. So I decided that I needed to receive more serious training in economics and the social sciences generally and went to Columbia.


RF: Did the failures of Marxism to accurately analyze the economic situation in the United States influence you to pursue work that was heavily data driven and empirical?


Fogel: There is no doubt about that. As I said, Marxism was sold as a science, but it became clear that it was not. It was more of an ideology than anything else. My early experiences made me very skeptical of ideologues of any persuasion. I’m willing to be surprised, to accept seemingly radical ideas, but there better be data to back up those claims, and Marxism could not provide that type of evidence.

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