Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Great Escape

There's a facinating interview at Tech Central Station (thanks to Instapundit for finding the link) with Mr. Robert Fogel, who recently published The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death 1700-2100.

Basically, it's a study of economics and life and how they have changed, especially as affected by techonology and invention. I'm looking for the book, dry title notwithstanding. But the interview contained some real interesting exchanges.

For example, Nick Schultz, the interviewer, asked Fogel how he started researching in this field:

Robert Fogel: Well a group of other people in demography economics and the biomedical sciences and I began collaborating back in the mid-'70's to first measure the decline in mortality in the United States. Prior to that work there was very little that was known about what happened to mortality, before the middle to late 19th century in the U.S. And so we found sources of data that permitted us to recreate time series on that, and we discovered that the pattern of increase in life expectancy was puzzling. And in the effort to explain these puzzles we produced many new lines of research, some of which are summarized in the book, The Escape From Hunger.

Nick Schulz: And what exactly was puzzling about this pattern of increase?

Robert Fogel: Well, life expectancy appears to have increased pretty steadily from the early 18th century until maybe around 1820. And then it started cycling. We had actual decreases in life expectancy. Before we returned back to a path of increase in life expectancy, beginning in the late 19th century, and from then on it was a pretty steady pattern of increase. In both good times and bad times, we have a substantial increase in life expectancy.

For example, during the Great Depression of the 1930's, which in some ways was not new but in some ways it was surprising, you would think that in such hard times with such a large percentage of the people unemployed, many for a long time, it would've had a negative health effect. But, whatever negative effect there might have been was swamped by more positive factors that led to an increase of more than six years in life expectancy, in a decade.
That's really interesting. My guess is the advances in pharmaceuticals had a bunch to do with the 1930s improvement (antibiotics were first synthetically produced in the 1930s).

Then there was this exchange on pollution that I found facinating:

Nick Schulz: That's obviously unprecedented for life expectancy to increase by such a large amount in one century. What were the primary drivers of that?

Robert Fogel: Public health reform, cleaning up of the water supply, cleaning up of the milk supply. But if you said what was the single most important factor, it's technological change.

Let me give you one small example. We complain a lot about air pollution today, but there were 200,000 horses in New York City, at the beginning of the 20th century defecating everywhere. And when you walked around in New York City, you were breathing pulverized horse manure -- a much worse pollutant, than the exhausts of automobiles. Indeed in the United States, the automobile was considered the solution to the horse problem because pulverized horse manure carried a lot of deadly pathogens.

So technological change made it possible to greatly increase the food supply and permit levels of nutrition that were not previously attainable. Secondly, it made it possible to have a safe water supply. We needed a more modern technology to be able to carry away waste water and provide safe water, both through filtering and chlorination. And, still another area was the development of vaccines, which made it possible to inoculate the very young against diseases. And with better nutrition, you greatly increase the physiology of human beings.
Pick your poison: car exhaust or aerosolized horse poop? And keep in mind - the horses don't have any built-in pollution control devices.

On malnutrition:

Nick Schulz: That leads to my next question, which is what was the significance of malnourishment on work, productivity and economic growth in human history? You found some interesting things when you looked into this question of nutrition and malnourishment.

Robert Fogel: Right, with the kind of agricultural technology that exists in Malthus's era, we could only feed 80 percent of the population with enough energy so that they could work. The level of nutrients available for work was about a third of what it is now, so even people who worked were much less productive.

Nick Schulz: They would literally not have enough calories to work?

Robert Fogel: The poorest 20 percent of the population, was slowly starving to death. They were beggars that littered the streets. They had enough energy for maybe an hour of strolling and then sitting down and begging. But not enough energy to work.
In our day and age, in America at least, the problem is too many calories.

Anyway, check out the interview.

Such is the march of progress. Today is better than yesterday. Today may still have problems, but at least they're new problems.


Post a Comment

<< Home