Guest Professor Troesken delivers talk on health and government

By Ruby Dickson

On Tuesday, Mar. 3rd, the Economics department hosted Professor of Economics Werner Troesken of the University of Pittsburgh for a lecture on the public health effects of different systems of government. The colloquium lecture, titled “The Pox of Liberty: How the Constitution left Americans Rich, Free, and Prone to Infection,” drew an audience of Lawrence students, faculty and Appleton community members to the Wriston Auditorium.

Troesken’s lecture focused on how political systems and values can affect public efforts to improve general health and stop diseases. In particular, localized democratic government and the limitation of governmental powers can lead to specific outcomes with regard to public health.

He noted before the lecture that his intention was “to challenge, at least in some ways, the traditional view that economic development and our modern institutions are always, without reservation, beneficial to public health.” Troesken gave examples using the rates of historical smallpox and typhoid fever, showing how the actions of government can significantly change disease rates.

In each case, Troesken discussed how the localized, limited American government outlined by the Constitution can aid public health investments, while simultaneously hindering efforts to mandate specific health procedures such as vaccination. In comparing American cases to those of other developed nations, Troesken showed how the American system of ideology and government has a mixed effect on the health of its citizens.

Associate Professor of Economics David Gerard was the lead organizer of the colloquium, and thanked the A.W. Mellon grants for the opportunity to bring Troesken to campus: “This is the fourth straight year the A.W. Mellon grants have allowed us to bring in a prominent scholar,” he said. Last year, the department hosted Professor Alex Field of the University of Santa Clara, who delivered a lecture on technological development during the Great Depression.

Troesken teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, and has served as a faculty research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Troesken has also worked as a National Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Troesken’s work has also been used in many Lawrence economics courses, particularly his analysis of the evolution of natural gas regulations, which are used in classes about regulatory policy.

This year’s senior experience in Economics focused on Troesken’s most recent book, “Race, Water, and Disease,” which “documents radical improvements in African-American life expectancy in the late 1800s, early 1900s, despite virulent racism in America,” according to Gerard. Troesken’s visit was therefore also an opportunity for these seniors to further interact with this subject matter. Professor Gerard described the colloquium as an opportunity “to engage with the scholar they have been reading for the past eight weeks.”

Organizers noted that the turnout at the event was exactly as they had expected, although Gerard noted that an audience’s size is less important than its engagement: “I prefer an audience that is interested and engaged any time over a large audience sleeping in the aisles.”

Many raised questions after the lecture about the implications of Troesken’s argument. Sophomore Regina Cornish said she “liked the theory and evidence that Federalism doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a good system in place, so in a way federalism can cause disease.” Her only complaint was that the 45-minute lecture was too short to fully explicate Professor Troesken’s points.