The history of growth should be all about recessions

The history of growth should be all about recessions

Faster growth is not due to bigger booms, but to less shrinking

“THROUGHOUT history, poverty is the normal condition of man,” wrote Robert Heinlein, a science-fiction writer. Until the 18th century, global GDP per person was stuck between $725 and $1,100, around the same income level as the World Bank’s current poverty line of $1.90 a day. But global income levels per person have since accelerated, from around $1,100 in 1800 to $3,600 in 1950, and over $10,000 today.

Economists have long tried to explain this sudden surge in output. Most theories have focused on the factors driving long-term economic growth such as the quantity and productivity of labour and capital. But a new paper* takes a different tack: faster growth is not due to bigger booms, but to less shrinking in recessions. Stephen Broadberry of Oxford University and John Wallis of the University of Maryland have taken data for 18 countries in Europe and the New World, some from as far back as the 13th century. To their surprise, they found that growth during years of economic expansion has fallen in the recent era—from 3.88% between 1820 and 1870 to 3.06% since 1950—even though average growth across all years in those two periods increased from 1.4% to 2.55%.

Instead, shorter and shallower slumps led to rising long-term growth. Output fell in a third of years between 1820 and 1870 but in only 12% of those since 1950. The rate of decline per recession year has fallen too, from 3% to 1.2%.

So why have these “growth reversals” decreased in length and depth? In another paper** Messrs Broadberry and Wallis find that conventional explanations—such as demographic change or a sectoral shift from volatile agriculture to the more stable services sector—do not fully explain the shift.

More important is the rise of the rule of law, enabling disputes to be settled by impartial courts. Before the modern era, elites would fight between themselves for the spoils of growth and send the economy back to square one through wars, corruption and the like. Respect for courts to resolve disputes prevents this from happening. With populist politicians challenging the authority of judges once again across the world, that is food for thought.

* “Growing, Shrinking and Long Run Economic Performance: Historical Perspectives on Economic Development” by S. Broadberry and J. Wallis

** “Shrink Theory: The Nature of Long Run and Short Run Economic Performance”