ANGUS MADDISON, who died on April 24th at the age of 83, described himself as a chiffrephile – a lover of figures. Like many men, he had his first serious crush at the age of 13. He read “How to Pay for the War”, by John Maynard Keynes; it was the annex on national income that most tickled his fancy. For the next 70 years he pursued ever more elusive numbers, estimating GDP for a growing range of countries over a lengthening span of time. In 1995 he published GDP estimates for 56 countries as far back as 1820. In 2001 his romantic adventures culminated in an estimate for world output in the year 1AD: $105.4 billion at 1990 prices.
GDP is a modern term, but the urge to count the nation’s produce and compare countries’ standards of living predates Adam Smith. Maddison saw himself as heir to a tradition that began with William Petty, the pioneer of “political arithmetick”, who in 1665 estimated the income of England and Wales at £40m. That calculation was of pressing concern to Petty, who wanted to show the king how to pay for the war against the Dutch. But why did Maddison care about the GDP of the distant past?
He believed that the “pace and pattern” of economic activity had deep historical roots. Economies, he thought, do not “take off”, as if from nowhere. Even the industrial revolution was too gradual to warrant the term revolution and too broad to be considered merely industrial. Take, for example, the progress of maritime technology. By 1773, John Harrison was claiming a £20,000 prize from the British Parliament for inventing a seaworthy chronometer. Captain James Cook had reached Australia’s east coast, and thanks to sauerkraut and citrus juice, he had lost none of his crew to scurvy.
Even scholars who believed there was a lot of economic progress to measure before the 19th century doubted there was enough data to measure it. Maddison made the most of whatever
was available. He drew on one scholar’s work on probate inventories in 17th and 18th century England, which showed that each generation passed on more property, furniture and houselinen to its descendants than the last. His economic portrait of Mughal India was influenced by a 16th-century survey by Abu Fazl, vizier to Emperor Akbar. His estimates of Japan’s population relied on the annual register of religious affiliation, brought in after the Portuguese were expelled and Christianity outlawed in 1587. One of his students, Bart van Ark, now chief economist of the Conference Board, says Maddison urged him to venture beyond libraries and statistical offices. Even a painting in a museum might provide some clue to a country’s standard of living centuries before.
“There is room for two or three economic theorists in each generation, not more,” wrote Colin Clark, one of Maddison’s heroes. Every other economist, he added, should be content to build knowledge by steadily laying “stone on stone”. Maddison laid the foundations for many big thoughts. Ten days before his death he was cited in a speech by Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, declaring the end of the “third world”. Maddison’s figures show that Asia accounted for more than half of world output for 18 of the last 20 centuries. Its growing clout in the world economy is, therefore, a “restoration” not a revolution.
Even as they foreshadow the rise of Asia, his numbers also help explain the historical rise of Europe.