Economic history in two (and a bit) charts

My MSc was in economic history. That probably sounds more straightforward than it actually is. Let me explain.

Adam Smith deployed episodes from history to illustrate the laws of economics he claimed to be outlining in The Wealth of Nations. These laws, like those Newton had just laid down for physics when Smith wrote, were held to be good at all times in all places. Just as Newton’s law of gravity dictated that the apple would always fall from the tree wherever it was in the universe, so did Smithian economists believe that the law of demand would hold anywhere at any time.

In the nineteenth century a group of economists in Germany challenged this. To them, economic theory was not something apart from the varied experiences of economic life. Instead, it grew from them. To these economists, it was ludicrous to argue that the lives of African tribesmen were dictated by the same economic laws as those of the industrial proletariat then emerging in European and North American cities. These economists thought, then, that economics should not be the study of a priori theories, but of the particular historical circumstances of economic life which varied from time to time and place to place. They set out to collect data on economic life, earning the nickname the Historicists and pretty much founding the field of economic history.

In recent decades theory has pushed back. The tools of econometrics were applied to historical data to create the field of cliometrics. Econometrics, essentially, is the application of statistical analysis to data to test economic theories. This appealed to economic historians as it gave their discipline the extra veneer of credibility that pages of impenetrable mathematical equations always bestows. But they needed theories to test. Thus were economics and economic history reunited. That is largely where the discipline stands today, at least at the LSE.

That is a brief history of economic history, what of economic history itself? The two big subjects can be laid out in the two and a bit graphs below.

First, the graph below shows GDP per capita from the year 0 to 2000. Two things are striking and worthy of study. First, why is the line so flat for so long? Second, why did the line take off like a rocket around 1800?

Image result for gdp per capita history

This chart doesn’t quite show everything though, so take a look at the ‘and a bit’ chart below.* This zeros in on the inflexion point of the line in the graph above. What we see is that the rocket didn’t take off for everyone around 1900. Some countries, with levels of GDP per capita previously comparable to the fast growers of the nineteenth century like Britain and France, stayed stuck on the launch pad, namely India and China.

This, then, gives rise to some further questions. Why did Britain’s economic growth take off? Why did China’s stagnate? Why did Japan’s catch up, both in the late nineteenth century and again after the Second World War? To carry on from above, the third question is in essence why did that GDP per capita line in the first chart diverge from country to country?

But even for those countries whose GDP per capita line did take off it did not proceed smoothly. At times the line has gone upwards very fast, at other times not so fast, and at still others it has even gone down. This is known, erroneously I think, as the business cycle and is illustrated by the chart below.

We see a steadily rising trend for GDP per capita but we also see fluctuations around that trend. We see, for example, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression which followed them. We see the sharp contractions in the US and UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the prolonged expansions which came afterwards.

If the first set of questions relates to why economies grow – or don’t, as it was for most of human history – the second set relate to why that growth fluctuates. Why do economies sometimes stop growing? What, if anything, can be done to get them growing again? These questions are the stuff of macroeconomics.

But that is another topic, macroeconomics, funnily enough. The rest, in a nutshell, is economic history as it is practiced today.

* These graphs are sometimes merged and that would have helped here. However, I couldn’t find such a graph at present and my graph drawing skills are such that I thought it best not to try.


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