Robert William Fogel Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Economic History: Conversation with Robert William Fogel, 1993 Nobel Laureate in Economics; 11/16/04 by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Professor Fogel, welcome to Berkeley.

Wonderful to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in the Bronx -- New York City, for Californians who may not have heard of the Bronx.

That's right, although there are many émigrés here, so some of us have heard. In looking back, how to do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My parents were very loving, very optimistic people, and they gave me an optimistic outlook on life. My father arrived at Ellis Island penniless in 1922, and by 1929 he had saved enough money to open his first business. By 1939, even though the Depression [had begun], he owned a business that employed over a hundred people.

I'll tell you something that reflected the improvement in the status of the Fogel family. My brother, who is six years older than me, and nine years ahead of me in school, was a freshman at City College in New York when I was only ten years old. And I remember he and bunch of friends having a conversation one night when I was supposed to be asleep, and the topic was what do you if you want a date on a weekend if you only have 10 cents? The answer was: find a girl who is babysitting: a nickel will get you there and a nickel will bring you back. But by the time I went to school, I was going to Cornell, a private school, and on an allowance that would have staggered my brother in 1936.

And you were going to Cornell in what year?

1944.

Did your father want his sons to go into business?

Oh, he was very eager. One of the big disappointments in his life was that neither my brother nor I wanted to take over the business, and he eventually sold the business when he retired. So he was quite disappointed.

Is there a common element in what drew you and your brother to university life?

I was heavily influenced by my brother. He was my hero, and I wanted to emulate him when I was growing up. So I don't know; he was an extremely successful student. He was at the top of his high school class. He did very well in academic life, first in high school and then in college, and inspired me by his achievements.

How do you think the times affected you? You were probably too young to appreciate the Depression, but that's an era in which there's a lot of turbulence. Did that seep into your conscience? Not necessarily why you chose the Academy, but the issues you would look at?

When I lived through the Depression, I thought it was a golden age, because my family life was so secure. I had wonderful teachers -- teachers who despite the Depression had optimistic outlooks. I remember in third or fourth grade, a teacher saying in the United States anyone could be President. So I grew up with the belief that I could be President, too. So I had the notion that there was a lot of opportunity, both from my parents and from my teachers.

Before you went to college or in the beginning of college, you thought about being a scientist, right?

Yes. I went to Stuyvesant High School, which was one of three science high schools in New York City, and my first passion was physical chemistry. I wanted to go to Cal Tech and study with a man who had won the Nobel Prize for physical chemistry some years earlier. But my mother wouldn't hear of my going 3,000 miles away from home. She wanted me to go to Columbia. My brother, whom I've described in print as "the great compromiser," proposed Cornell. I'd be away from home, but still within a day's train ride of the city.

So physical chemistry's loss was economics' gain. What drew you to economics?

What drew me to economics was the great concern in Congress and in the media and among my teachers that the great unemployment of the Depression would return, and possible ways, mainly through Keynesian solutions, that the government might be able to intervene and prevent it. So it sounded challenging, and I wanted to know more about these economics problems and what you could do about them.

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