Archive for June, 2008

Energy Cost Accounting in Economic History

I’m cleaning my desk and found a printout of Robert William Fogel’s Nobel Prize Lecture in Economics from 1993 titled “Economic Growth, Population Theory, and Physiology: The Bearing of Long-Term Processes on the Making of Economic Policy,” in which he considers how “thermodynamic and physiological aspects of economic growth are defined and their impact on growth rates is assessed.” He wants economic policy makers to learn from economic historians about the effects of advances in medicine etc. (“the synergism between technological and physiological improvements”) on mortality rates (thus overturning the Malthusian theory of population) and so be able to account for future demands on pension policies and health care, for example.

In the process of making his argument, he looks at the work of agricultural historians who consider average daily caloric consumption rates of European farmers in the 18th century in a way that made me think of my concept of energonomics (i.e. the management of energy), or the economics of energy flow. He notes the implication of their findings: “mature adults of the late eighteenth century must have been very small by current standards. Today the typical American male in his early thirties is about 69.7 inches tall and weighs 172 lbs. Such a male requires daily about 1,794 kcal required for basal metabolism (the energy required to keep the body functioning while at rest) and a total of 2,279 kcal for baseline maintenance (the 1,794 kal required for basal metabolism plus 485 kcal for digestion of food and vital hygiene). If either the British or the French had been that large during the eighteenth century, virtually all of the energy produced by their food supplies would have been required for maintenance and hardly any would have been available to sustain work. To have the energy necessary to produce the national products of these two countries c.1700, the typical adult male must have been quite short and very light” (76).

This also reminds me of articles published in the last few years about the “height gap” between Europeans (the Dutch in particular) and Americans–how they are growing taller, implying that the socialized health care they receive implies a higher overall standard of living, as indicated by caloric intake reflected in their greater average heights.

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26 June 2008 at 11:31 am 1 comment


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