R.I.P. Angus Maddison


Angus Maddison -- world statistician

The remarkable economic historian Angus Maddison died a couple of weeks ago. As a historian Maddison fully realized that abject poverty was the natural state of humanity throughout most of history. In his effort to figure out how some places managed to escape humanity's natural estate, Maddison compiled fascinating sets of statistics as a way to compare the economic life circumstances of humans over time. Below is a table derived from Maddison's effort, using international Geary-Khamis dollars, to measure the per capita GDP of Northwestern Europe and the United States from the year 1 CE to 2008 CE.

Year   West Europe   U.S.
1   $599   $400
1000   $425   $400
1500   $775   $400
1600   $906   $400
1700   $1,028   $476
1820   $1,234   $1,275
1850   $1,652   $1,806
1870   $2,080   $2,455
1900   $3,067   $4,091
1930   $4,297   $6,213
1950   $4,569   $9,561
1960   $5,005   $11,328
1970   $10,925   $15,030
1980   $14,001   $18,577
1990   $16,797   $23,201
2000   $20,235   $28,467
2008   $22,246   $31,178

As The New York Times noted:

Professor Maddison, a British-born economic historian with a compulsion for quantification, spent many of his 83 years calculating the size of economies over the last three millenniums. In one study he estimated the size of the world economy in A.D. 1 as about one five-hundredth of what it was in 2008. …

In his research, he tried to reconstruct thousands of years' worth of economic data, most notably in his 2007 book "Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 A.D.." He argued that per capita income around the globe had remained largely stagnant from about 1000 to 1820, after which the world became exponentially richer and life expectancies surged. …

In his archaeological excavation of the economies of other eras, he was "trying to explain why some countries achieved faster growth or higher income levels than others," he wrote in an autobiographical essay, "Confessions of a Chiffrephile" published in 1994. He wanted to know what some countries did right and what others did wrong, and to figure out how growth influenced culture, and was influenced by it.

Professor Maddison often referred to himself as a "chiffrephile," or lover of numbers, a term he invented to characterize economists and economic historians like himself who were prone to quantifying the world.

While macroeconomic research in the last few decades was dominated by elegant mathematical models and technical wizardry, his focus on meat-and-potatoes data and cross-country historical comparisons has come back into vogue in recent years, especially in the wake of the financial crisis.

I hope Hit & Run commenters will do themselves a favor and go explore some of the data available at Maddison's website here.

NEXT: Reason.tv: 3 Reasons YouTube Shouldn't Censor Downfall Parodies

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Oh wow, that dude will indeed be missed. RIP bro.


  2. too much aggregation / ignores human action, and motivation.

  3. Yonemoto: Actually, he is measuring the results of human action, including the institutional changes (free markets, the rule of law, democracy, and a free press) that enable humanity to escape from its natural state of abject poverty. Really, do click over his website.

    1. If I’m not mistaken, yonemoto is quoting form the Hayek/Keynes rap.

      1. You are not mistaken.

  4. he is measuring the results of human action, including the institutional changes (free markets, the rule of law, democracy, and a free press)

    Let’s not forget WWII, which was great for America and pretty awful for Europe. Those figures from 1930-1950 are very telling.

    1. “It’s a fuckin’ Catch-22 man.” I said. “You can’t identify an antenna before a transmission, but once you are exposed to a transmission, you might be under its influence.” I paused, my mind forming a disturbing thought. “Perhaps I’m an antenna myself now? I may have only killed Tyler because his code told me to. They wouldn’t need him anymore once I got the transmission. Shit, how can I tell?”

      1. Confrontation at Pangar Nine

        I am impressed that you have the stones to actually read that stuff. But I should never be surprised, I suppose, at your twisted, malevolent combination of sadism and masochism.

        1. I just skip to a random paragraph and copy it. I try not to actually read any of it, for the good of what remains of my soul.

          1. I’m glad you guys are fans of my fiction. I had almost forgotten that was still online.

    2. Speak for yourself!

    3. Yes, let’s not forget that massive government leads to war. good point for once, Dan T.

  5. I don’t need to see the numbers. It is intuitive that the stronger the property rights the stronger the incentive to produce things.

  6. His paper on the Soviet economy is interesting. The numbers are dense but a telling pull stat is that in 1987 the USSR was using 500 people to produce the same agricultural output of 1 American farmer.

  7. in 1987 the USSR was using 500 people to produce the same agricultural output of 1 American farmer.

    And the only reason it wasn’t 50000 people all using their hands was because tractor-makers needed work, too.

    1. In Soviet Russia, land farms you!

  8. The United States from year 1 to 1700? Huh?

    1. CK: The land area that eventually became the U.S. After all, the U.K., Germany, Austria, the Netherlands didn’t exist as countries either at 1 CE.

  9. I also enjoyed scanning the article “Casual Influences on Growth Performance”. Any article which includes the line

    Early pessimists like Malthus and Ricardo were wrong about the role of scarce natural resources as a retardant of growth.

    is fine by me.

    1. Later pessimists like Ehrlich still get published.

      1. Not because they are factual, but because they reinforce a certain worldview. No matter how many times they are proven wrong, people still believe them.

        1. And strangely, those who don’t agree are ‘ignoring scientific fact’.

  10. At the end of WW2, Haiti was just another poor Latin American country. Yes, they were the poorest (except for the DR) of the ones he breaks out separately in his spreadsheet, but the difference was negligible. Well, maybe not negligible, but if they had kept the same percentages different, they would be in much better shape today.

    When Haiti peaked in 1980, They were half the PPP of the next poorest latin american countries. Its been all downhill since, with the exception of Nicaragua (40%), they have a PPP 25% of the other poor latin countries, and the comparison to ones like Costa Rica is a joke.

    The DR has gone from slightly poorer to almost 7 times as rich. The advantages of Spain over France?

    1. Probably the advantage of not killing everybody who knew how to do anything other than work as a slave (literally) for others. Revolution with a minimum of revenge produces better outcomes.

  11. Is there a definition of “Western Europe” offered somewhere?

    Intuitively, I think that inclusion/exclusion of some of the countries on the med would dramatically affect the European numbers, up and down depending on the period. Germany, or more properly, the area of land that would become Germany pre-WWII, also presents a problem because much of that land area that was pre-WWI Germany would not be considered “western Europe” post-WWII.

    It would be more interesting to see a graph of the growth line comparing US to France or UK. The borders of these countries were a bit more stable than others. The UK would take a big hit after WWII with the loss of colonies, but I can tell you from personal experience the change in the standard of living in the UK, more specifically Scotland, between 1976 and 1992 was dramatic. Margret Thatcher took the UK kicking and screaming into the 1960s.

    1. According to the spreadsheet, “Total 12 Western Europe” is:
      Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom.

      Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain are listed separately. Grouped together are “14 small western countries”.

      All of these combine to form “Total 30 Western Europe”.

      1. Not a chart and you have to format it yourself.

        1820 1900 1947 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2008
        France: 1135 2876 4138 7398 11410 14766 17647 20422 22223
        UK: 1706 4492 6604 8645 10767 12931 16430 20353 23742
        USA: 1257 4091 8886 11328 15030 18577 23201 28467 31178

        1. Not a graph, I mean.

          1. Thanks

            I quickly messed around with the figures in the .xls sheet.

            In any chart that I plotted and then ran a liner regression on the data, the US’s growth trend line always was steeper than any other of the western European countries. I tried 1870 to present, 1939 to present, 1870 to present excluding 1939 to 1946, 1870 to present 1939-1946 & 1914-1918, and 1950 to present. All of the growth curves showed the US with a steeper slope.

          2. Well, you were right the first time, too – it’s not a chart, either.

            1. True, I guess its a table.

  12. In 1000, Iran and Iraq were the richest places in the world, at least of those listed. Italy was richer in 1, but they had fallen off for some reason. 🙂

    By 1500, most of Europe was slightly ahead. Iran peaked in 1976, they were richer than Eastern Europe and most of Asia at the time. I wonder what happened about then? Iraq peaked in 1979, slightly richer than Iran was in ’76. Hmmm…Hussein became president in 1979 and the war with Iran started in 1980. By the time it ended in 1988, both were below 1/2 of their peak. Since then Iraq completely bottomed out to almost Haiti levels, while Iran has been growing, actually surpassing the 1976 peak in 2007 again. So, I guess, technically, 2008 (last year in chart) is their peak.

  13. “CE” stands for “Christian Era”, right? 😉

    1. “Common Era”, i.e., the one we’re in now.

      1. You missed the wink. 1 Common Era is coincidentally coincident with 1 Anno Domini, “Year of our Lord”. Mav was expressing his amusement with a dating system that is in all ways identical to the Gregorian calendar with the exception of a mention of deity in the terminology. I share that amusement.

  14. Okay, fixing Haiti. If you could get Haiti to have 5% annual growth for a long, long time (which is unprecedented) here is how long it takes them to catch up to other countries current PPP level:

    Nicaragua 19 years!!!
    Costa Rica 51 years
    New Zealand 68 years
    United States 80 years

    About the time they get to CR level, the power of compounding really takes off.

    At a more reasonable 3% long term growth, its 64, 84, 112 and 130 years.

    Fast growth is possible starting from nothing, its getting it started that is hard.

    1. Only unprecedented for a developed country. For poorer countries, it has certainly happened, specifically in Asia. However, I don’t think that Haiti has the investment in human capital to make that possible right now.

      1. 80 years!

        Yes, 5% is doable for a decade or so, but not for an entire century, Im pretty sure.

        1. Actually, you were right, Japan has averaged 4.6% since 1945 (they were about twice Haitis current level after being destroyed)

          1. Also check out Taiwan, I think you will find a similar story. Though I know it is a special case, I have seen this thrown out there:

            In 1962, Taiwan had a per capita gross national product (GNP) of $170, placing the island’s economy squarely between Zaire and Congo. By 2008 Taiwan’s per capita GNP, adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP), had soared to $33,000 (2008 est.) contributing to a Human Development Index equivalent to that of other developed countries.

            1. He has Taiwan at $453 in 1945, $1459 in 1962, and $20926 in 2008

              1. about 6.2% since 1945 and 5.9% since 1962.

                1. Both Japan and Taiwan had much bigger economies leading up to the War that were destroyed.

                  But Haiti was similarly bigger in 1980. More of a 30 year decline than a war destruction though, probably harder to turn around.

                2. Yeah, I think the numbers I quoted are probably official government numbers, which would be skewed.

                  I think these two examples, Japan and Taiwan, do show that it is possible to have rapid economic growth over an extended period of time. The important question is not whether it is possible, but what conditions are necessary?

  15. Thanks for the site Ron, this stuff is absolutely fascinating.

    “He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.”

  16. I would be interested to learn how he acquired (or arrived at) data for countries outside the Roman Empire between 1 and 500 CE. Not the best record-keeping in Sweden (as in, none) amongst lots of places way back when.

    I always thought a better measure of economic output (both GDP and per-cap) would be to quantify the energy generation and/or consumption of the societies in question. Trying to measure it through adjustments to buying power of the vintage money I don’t think works; money is purely psychological…loving lumps of metal or the King’s toilet wipes is delusional at some level either way.

    Energy is real though, and free of human perceptions affecting its value. And it measures the activity of people and their machines…which ultimately is what makes economies go.

    More watts = more wealth, that’s a fact.

    1. RE: pre-1500, from one of the links on his website:

      There is no space here to analyse the measurement problems for this period, but they are discussed at some length in Appendix B of Maddison (2001), and in chapter HS 8 of Maddison (2003)

      1. It is nice to see how diligent they are in trying to ascertain what is going on for pre-literate societies.

        But it reminds me of the assumptions upon assumptions for these same populations the global warmers plug into their models for respective carbon footprint values, and hence suffers the same specific problem: Too much guesswork is involved to have confidence in the hard metrics they espouse.

        Not that they’re necessarily wrong, but by their own admission (which is where they depart from the warmers) there’s a lot of slop in there.

  17. Okay, from reading stuff on his website, the $400 for pre-1500s America is a “stylized” number to represent slightly above sustenance level. Also used for aboriginal Australia and New Zealand and etc.

    2008 # for Zaire is $249.


Please to post comments

Comments are closed.