Friday, April 14, 2017

Data as History: Charting the Last 2000 Years of Human Progress

by Marian Tupy


April 11, 2017

Angus Maddison, the late professor of economics at the University of Groningen, never won a Nobel Prize for economics, but he did leave behind an enduring legacy in the form of his income estimates going back to the time of Christ (or, for the secularly-inclined, Caesar Augustus). On a previous occasion, I discussed the graph below, which shows the painfully slow (almost non-existent) growth in average per capita incomes prior to the Industrial Revolution and the extraordinary growth that humanity has experienced over the last two-and-half centuries. Adjusted for inflation, an average inhabitant of the planet is today roughly ten times as rich as she or he was just two centuries ago.

Considering that Homo sapiens only emerged as a unique species of hominids some 200,000 years ago, our experience with prosperity is incredibly short, amounting to no more than 0.1 percent of our time on Earth. The remarkable novelty of our present abundance may, perhaps, explain our unease with it ("all good things must come to an end") and our eschatological obsessions ranging from overpopulation to out-of-control global warming.

Continued human progress does, of course, depend on maintaining policies, institutions and ideas (intellectual enlightenment, classical liberalism and free exchange) that made it possible in the first place.