During the past half-century the greatest changes in the terms of life on this planet have been driven by astonishingly rapid economic growth. For the first time, it has not been limited to one region or a few countries. The rise of wealth in the late 20 th century has been more sustained and more widespread that ever before in history.
It is easy to lose sight of the broad pattern amid the current anxiety over the decline in the former Soviet states and the continuing failure of the richest countries to regain their high growth rates of the 1960s. But the reality is that since the late 1940s life has become much better in most places for most people.
Economic growth is measured in dollars, but it translates into other and much more important things – better health and longer lives. Less harsh physical labor, greater economic security. There are drawbacks, like development’s threats to the environment and the dismaying tendency of governments to spend too much
of their new wealth on weapons. But it is hardly Pollyannaish to say that the balance remains strongly in favor of the essential human values.
Income per person has nearly doubled in the United States in the past generation. It has done more than that in many other countries. The countries that have been left out of this surge fall mainly into two categories: the ones that have been entangled in long wars, and most of those in Africa. And yet even among the Africans there are notable exceptions. Botswana has been growing faster than some of the Asian stars.
But the locus of the most spectacular growth rates in this decade is Asia. Why? Scholars and politicians have devoted immense efforts to trying to understand why some economies grow faster than others and to applying the lessons to the rest. The search for the magic formula is now focused on eight or nine Asian nine examples that are shooting ahead in the great race. Is it because they emphasize exports? Or is it because they distort the market in their favor with government-managed industrial policies?
Experts differ. But whatever else they may be doing, the countries growing most rapidly are almost always those that have put more money and more effort into education than the other countries of their income level. They are the societies that educate not an elite but the general population. It seems to be a general rule in rich and poor countries alike that the process of economic growth begins in the classroom.