Saturday, May 1, 2010

Angus Maddison

A giant among economists ...

I once saw him give a lecture in a suit and sneakers ...

In other words a man after my own heart

Here's how he begins one of the best studies of the history of the world economy: The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective.
Over the past millennium, world population rose 22–fold. Per capita income increased 13–fold, world GDP nearly 300–fold. This contrasts sharply with the preceding millennium, when world population grew by only a sixth, and there was no advance in per capita income.
From the year 1000 to 1820 the advance in per capita income was a slow crawl — the world average rose about 50 per cent. Most of the growth went to accommodate a fourfold increase in population.
Since 1820, world development has been much more dynamic. Per capita income rose more than eightfold, population more than fivefold.
Per capita income growth is not the only indicator of welfare. Over the long run, there has been a dramatic increase in life expectation. In the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live about 24 years. A third would die in the first year of life, hunger and epidemic disease would ravage the survivors. There was an almost imperceptible rise up to 1820, mainly in Western Europe. Most of the improvement has occurred since then. Now the average infant can expect to survive 66 years.
The growth process was uneven in space as well as time. The rise in life expectation and income has been most rapid in Western Europe, North America, Australasia and Japan. By 1820, this group had forged ahead to an income level twice that in the rest of the world. By 1998, the gap was 7:1. Between the United States (the present world leader) and Africa (the poorest region) the gap is now 20:1. This gap is still widening. Divergence is dominant but not inexorable. In the past half century, resurgent Asian countries have demonstrated that an important degree of catch–up is feasible.

Nevertheless world economic growth has slowed substantially since 1973, and the Asian advance has been offset by stagnation or retrogression elsewhere.
Here's an obituary from the NYT.

Angus Maddison, Economic Historian, Dies at 83

New York Times
April 30, 2010

Some people try to forecast the future. Angus Maddison devoted his life to forecasting the past.

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.

He died on April 24 at a hospital in Paris after a long illness, his daughter, Elizabeth Maddison, said. He lived near Compi├Ęgne, about 50 miles northeast of Paris.

Professor Maddison held various senior posts at what is now the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international research and consulting organization based in Paris. Most recently he was a professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

He also spent much of his career studying economic conditions in the developing world firsthand, living for extended periods in Pakistan, Ghana, Brazil, Mongolia and Guinea, among other nations. As an adviser, he helped emerging market governments determine how to measure their economic progress and improve policies.

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 another influential book, “Chinese Economic Performance in the Long Run,” in 1998, he tracked the history of Chinese growth since 960. The book demonstrated that China’s recent rise was merely a return to economic superpowerdom, as the Middle Kingdom had already dominated the world economy for many centuries.

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.
Social class and inequality figured greatly in his research and personal memoirs, perhaps reflecting his early childhood in economically depressed Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a shipbuilding and mining town in northeastern England, where he was born on Dec. 6, 1926.

His parents both left school at age 12. His father, a railway fitter, and his mother invested in their only child’s intellectual development, taking him to scholarly lectures sponsored by the local cooperative movement. One lecture introduced him to the work of the British economist John Maynard Keynes.

Professor Maddison’s first collegiate pursuit was history, but he was drawn to economics because he realized it was a “useful discipline for solving serious problems,” he wrote in his autobiography.

He enrolled in Cambridge in 1945, on a scholarship supplemented by a part-time job lecturing to German prisoners of war. He later attended graduate school at McGill University in Montreal and the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, then decided to return to Britain.

In subsequent years he lectured at universities, including the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and worked with the what is now the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He retired from the University of Groningen in 1996, but he was still pursuing his research until three weeks before he died, his daughter, Elizabeth, said.

Besides his daughter, Professor Maddison is survived by his wife, Penelope; two sons, George and Charles, who is also an economist; and five grandchildren.

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