Was sufficiently unimpressed with that Atlantic graphic that I decided to make my own version with some of the same data.
I realize that this is far from perfect; comparing states across many centuries and many different political systems is incredibly difficult, and concepts of what constitutes economic production are also a little tricky, especially for cultures for whom relatively few records have been preserved. However, this is a really cool data set, and it’s worth seeing how the scale of economic production in different parts of the world has changed over time.
Note that here the scale is logarithmic; an upward growth of 5% is the same everywhere. This might be a little tricky to read, but it’s totally necessary to see the huge scope of economic growth over time. Some impressive attributes:
- For most of the last couple millennia, China and India have been the biggest richest civilizations in the world. The past couple centuries (and the next half-century or so) are basically an aberration from the standard state of things. It’s really difficult to show the scope of China’s growth in recent decades on a graph like this one, because there’s really no precedent for so much sustained economic growth.
- The UK had a big head-start on industrialization relative to France, Russia, or Japan (which all industrialized basically in lockstep). So it started out poor, and then rapidly caught up (and ended up with the hugest colonial empire). Turkey hugely lagged on industrialization.
- The impact of colonial depredation on North America was incredibly harsh. Total economic output from what’s now the United States actually declined drastically when European settlers arrived, due to a combination of disease, warfare, and deliberate disruption of longstanding food production and distribution networks. Within the first two hundred years of European contact, total economic output had fallen to levels five hundred years below the level at the time of European contact. That’s an absolutely horrible and unprecedented scale of devastation.
Data sets like this are relatively new and still very much under construction, but to me having hard empirical results like this are the best way to come up with good theories of how economies grow and interact and develop over time. I realize my graphic here isn’t exactly beautiful, but it doesn’t do quite the drastic disservice to the numbers that the Atlantic graphic did.