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.
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.