I want to add to the stories about Michael. At the end of Michael’s first year at Chicago, four of his teachers had lunch together at the Quad Club: Al Harberger, Harry Johnson, Zvi Griliches, and I. Each of us said that Michael knew as much as we did in our own field. But no one was prepared to say that we each knew as much as all four people sitting around the table. So there was no doubt that the Chicago faculty knew early on that Michael was an exceptional student, and his subsequent career has lived up to that promise.

Abstract

I want to add to the stories about Michael. At the end of Michael’s first year at Chicago, four of his teachers had lunch together at the Quad Club: Al Harberger, Harry Johnson, Zvi Griliches, and I. Each of us said that Michael knew as much as we did in our own field. But no one was prepared to say that we each knew as much as all four people sitting around the table. So there was no doubt that the Chicago faculty knew early on that Michael was an exceptional student, and his subsequent career has lived up to that promise.

Reconsidering Expectations of Economic Growth After World War II from the Perspective of 2004

I want to add to the stories about Michael. At the end of Michael’s first year at Chicago, four of his teachers had lunch together at the Quad Club: Al Harberger, Harry Johnson, Zvi Griliches, and I. Each of us said that Michael knew as much as we did in our own field. But no one was prepared to say that we each knew as much as all four people sitting around the table. So there was no doubt that the Chicago faculty knew early on that Michael was an exceptional student, and his subsequent career has lived up to that promise.

What I want to talk about are expectations of economic growth right after World War II, viewing them from the standpoint of the present. At the close of World War II, there were wide-ranging debates about the future of economic developments. In this paper, I consider three aspects of these debates: (i) expectations for the American economy; (ii) expectations for the economies of Europe; (iii) expectations for the less developed nations and, within that framework, particular interest in the prospects for India and China.

The debates about stagnation centered on the Keynesian analysis that macroeconomic equilibrium is possible at less than full employment, and, in particular, on the interpretation of that analysis by Alvin Hansen in his 1938 presidential address to the American Economic Association (Hansen, 1939). Hansen argued that secular stagnation was likely because of (i) the end of the frontier, (ii) the end of rapid population increase, and (iii) the end of capital-intensive technological change. The key issue, as the stagnationists defined it, was not whether the growth of the GDP would come to an end, but whether a high level of government spending was necessary to prevent a high level of permanent unemployment, even if GDP did grow.

Table 1 presents the distribution of articles in JSTOR, the electronic archive of scholarly journals dealing with secular stagnation. It shows there was an explosion of articles on the topic from 1941 to 1960, most of which were written after the war or in anticipation of the imminent end of the war. That such a debate would erupt in anticipation of peace is not surprising. The alarm about massive unemployment was widespread in 1943 and 1944; the country was demobilizing more than 11 million soldiers from the armed forces, and there were some 9 million or more workers in defense industries who were simultaneously being let go. So there were about 21 million people thrown on a job market of about 60 million, including the armed forces and the defense establishment (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1955, Table 220). But as it turned out, the recession of 1945 lasted only 8 months and was followed by a robust expansion that lasted 37 months. Moreover, the recession of 1949–1950 lasted 11 months and was followed by another robust expansion that lasted 45 months (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2003, Table 771). The peak came in 1953 after the economy had already absorbed 20 million potentially unemployed workers, and unemployment was below 3 percent by 1953. Total civilian employment was up by 15 percent over the wartime peak (see Bratt, 1953).

Table 1.

Distribution of Articles on “Secular Stagnation” in JSTOR

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Source: JSTOR website: http://www.jstor.org.Note: The first article to use the term, which appeared in 1938, was written by Arthur D. Gayer and was published in the March issue of the American Economic Review; it mentioned “secular stagnation” only in passing. The second article to use the term, Alvin H. Hansen’s presidential address to the American Economic Association, was published in March 1939 and ignited the subsequent debate (Gayer, 1938; and Hansen, 1939).

So, in a sense, what needs to be established is why this debate continued decade after decade. Table 1 shows that secular stagnation was a heated topic throughout 1960 and was still lively in the 1970s and 1980s. Although unemployment remained over 5 percent during some of the years of the long 106-month Kennedy-Johnson expansion, it dropped to 3.5 percent in 1969. So even a quarter of a century after the war there were still economists who believed that the United States could not have an economy with both growth and low unemployment unless there was a very big government sector. By the late 1950s the United States and other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries were well into the post–World War II expansion, now called the Golden Age, with growth rates twice the long-term average of the other world leaders. Measured by per capita income, the long-term average growth rate was about 1.9 percent per annum, and the growth rate during the Golden Age was, for Western Europe, about 3.8 percent (Kuznets, 1971; Maddison, 1995; and Crafts and Toniolo, 1996). Over the period 1950–1999, expansion multiples for GDP averaged about fivefold in Western Europe and the United States (see Table 2). The wide-ranging debates over the causes of the accelerated growth rates of the Golden Age suggested some points of consensus. These included the reduction of barriers to international trade, successful macroeconomic policies, and opportunities for catch-up growth following the end of World War II, especially in France, Germany, and Italy. The destruction of much of the prewar capital stock, the reconstruction aid that rebuilt industry with a more advanced technology, the successes of macroeconomic policy, the elasticity of the labor supply, high levels of education, and the weakness of vested interests have all been advanced as explanatory factors (Denison, 1967; Olson, 1982; Maddison, 1987, 1991, and 1995; Crafts and Toniolo, 1996; Abramovitz, 1990; and Mills and Crafts, 2000).

Table 2.

Expansion Multiples of GDP for 15 Economies, 1950–1999

(Ratio of GDP in 1999 to GDP in 1950, international dollars)

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Sources: Maddison, 2001; World Bank, World Development Indicators Online (http://www.worldbank.org/data/wdi2004/index.htm).

The eventual fading away of the stagnation thesis, of the notion that there was something in the operation of capitalistic economies that made them inherently unstable, brought to the fore several new concerns. These included the growing gap in income between developed and less developed nations, and a new emphasis on cultural and ideological barriers to economic growth in poor countries. In contrast to some of the early theories associated with the Harrod-Domar model, which suggested that poor countries would grow rapidly if there were large injections of capital from rich countries, by the 1960s the theory was that the export of capital would fail to promote growth unless the deep cultural barriers that made these countries unreceptive to the conditions needed for economic growth were somehow overcome. Some commentators, most notably Gunnar Myrdal, in his three-volume work on the Asian economies, said that India would have difficulty sustaining high growth because it promoted asceticism and thus undermined the acquisitive culture that spurred Western Europe (Myrdal, 1968).

There was also a shift from worries about over-saving, which, I must say, never caught on at certain universities. It didn’t catch on at Chicago or at Columbia. Nor did it catch on at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Analysts such as Kuznets, Burns, and others thought that savings were not a threat to economic growth but were a necessary condition for economic growth, because savings were necessary both to build infrastructure in developing countries and to get a thriving public sector growing (Kuznets, 1961; Colm, 1962; and Samuelson, 1992).

There was, about this time, a new emphasis on export-led growth. The practice of poor countries selling their exports to rich countries got a bad name during the interwar period and was widely viewed as exploitation of these countries by imperial powers. The later view, looking at the Canadian and American experiences, was quite the contrary (North, 1966; and Kravis, 1970). Selling raw materials and other labor-intensive products to the rest of the world is a way to get developed countries to provide capital to the less developed countries and foster entrepreneur-ship. Thus, at the outbreak of World War I, foreign capital owned one-third of the bonds of American railroads (Ripley, 1915). One of the great discoveries of economic historians during the 1960s, which was confirmed in the 1980s and 1990s, was that the Hobsen-Hilferding-Lenin thesis that English coupon-clippers got rich from investments in poor countries such as India, and then withdrew large sums of annual earnings, was wrong. After the computer revolution it was possible to put the whole late-nineteenth-century portfolio of British overseas investments into machine-readable form (Simon, 1970; Davis and Huttenback, 1986; and Stone, 1999). It turned out that there was a strong correlation between a country’s per capita income and the share of the British overseas portfolio invested in it. The United States received the largest share, followed by Canada and Argentina (which at the turn of the twentieth century had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world). Of course, that discovery did not stop diehard critics of Western imperialism, who then denounced Britain for failing to have invested in underdeveloped nations.

There was also about this time (the late 1960s and early 1970s) a new concern about rapid population growth smothering the potential for economic growth in the less developed countries. It reached its peak with the 1972 warning of the Club of Rome (“The Limits to Growth”), which envisaged the world population getting so large so quickly that it would soon outrun global capacity. That was not a view shared by demographers, since demographers believed that with a lag of about 20 or so years, the fertility rate would follow the death rate down. The world would reach a low-level rate of population increase at low levels of the death rate and birth rate in the same way that there had been low-level growth at high birth and death rates. An acceleration in the growth of the world’s population was a transitory phenomenon, owing to the lag in the decline of the birth rate behind the death rate. This forecast became known as the “theory of the demographic transition.”

By 1973, it hadn’t happened. If we add to Stan Engerman’s list of bad forecasts, we have to say that demographers run out of patience in about 20 years, if what they theorize would happen doesn’t happen. And there must also be a malevolent deity, because just about the time that leading demographers began saying the theory of the demographic transition was dead, the fertility rate in third world countries, including Islamic countries, began to decline rapidly (see Table 3). Within two decades there were many countries with total fertility rates below 2.1. Of course, Kuznets never worried about population growth; indeed, he argued that a condition for modern economic growth was that the rise in per capita income had to be accompanied by an increase in population. That was one of his central tenets in his 1966 book, Modern Economic Growth, and he repeated it in his 1971 Nobel address (Kuznets, 1966 and 1971).

A related concern with the world population taking off in an unprecedented way (with population doubling in less than half a century) was the belief that the production of food could not keep up with the growth of the population. Ironically, a major recent concern has been the global epidemic of obesity. Incidentally, one of the countries that was supposed to have a starving population was China, which increased its per capita food supply by more than 70 percent in four decades (see Table 4). And for the world as a whole, calories per capita have grown by 24 percent during the same period, despite the doubling of the global population (see Table 4).

As remarkable as what was widely forecast in the post-World War II debates, and I have covered about a quarter-century’s worth, were the things not foreseen in the 1940s, 1950s, or even the early 1960s. One of these was the extraordinary economic growth in Southeast and East Asia, beginning first with Japan, which in four decades went from a poor, defeated country to the second largest economy in the world, increasing per capita income tenfold. This was a feat that took leaders of the Industrial Revolution about 150 years to accomplish (Kuznets, 1971). The economic miracle of the high-performing Asian economies other than Japan was also unforeseen, and that state of mind persisted into the 1970s. It wasn’t that economists didn’t know that per capita income was rising, but there was a widespread opinion that it couldn’t last, that somehow it was a fluke. So we have not only the four Asian dragons, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, going from being very poor countries to being quite rich countries, but also rising incomes in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand (see Table 2).

Table 3.

Changes in Total Fertility Rates in 11 Nations, 1970–2003

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Sources: Keyfitz and Flieger, 1990; Population Reference Bureau Datafinder (www.prb.org).

About four years ago I presented a paper at Peking University in which I forecast that by 2025 China alone would be consuming 45 million cars a year, which was then the world total consumption of cars. It looks as though that forecast is going to be wrong, because it may turn out to be too pessimistic, even though my friends in China thought I was a little overenthusiastic. I obtained the estimate by taking the long-term U.S. income elasticity of the demand for cars between 1910 and 1970 and then multiplying it by an annual growth rate in GDP of about 6 percent. But the Chinese growth rate has averaged more than 6 percent. In 2003, the increase in automobile production was 37 percent, and production shows no sign of an early petering out, evident in the fact that every major car company in the world is investing heavily on the assumption that China and Southeast Asia will be the major expanding markets for several decades (see Table 5).

Table 4.

Secular Trends in Per Capita Daily Consumption of Calories, 1961–2000

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Source: FAOSTAT (http://apps.fao.org/).

Note: indicates 1962.

Another thing that was not foreseen was the extraordinary and sustained growth in agricultural productivity, which led, as I mentioned, to a 24 percent increase in per capita consumption of calories. Despite the threat that fertilizers would become too expensive (because petroleum is used to produce fertilizers), that threat, stimulated by the sharp rise in oil prices during the 1970s, never materialized (see Johnson, 1980).

During the 1960s and 1970s there was a game played that involved guessing how long it would take for the per capita income of the Soviet Union to overtake that of the United States. That game was predicated on the false premise that the Soviet Union was growing at a faster long-term rate than was the United States. Different people had the growth paths intersecting at different dates during the next quarter century. Those forecasts did not pan out. In the 1980s some people started saying that Japan was going to overtake the United States. The new game was to see when growth paths of the United States and Japan would intersect. Despite this poor forecasting record, I’m very bullish on China, and a few years ago I forecast that by 2030 China and Southeast Asia combined would have a total GDP that exceeds that of the United States and the five largest European countries combined. I still think that’s a reasonable forecast, because I do not see the average annual growth rates in GDP per capita for these Western countries as a group exceeding 2 percent per annum, as GDP is currently measured, and I think it’s likely that the growth rates in Southeast Asia will be in the neighborhood of 6 percent, perhaps higher in China. Nevertheless, U.S. per capita income in 2030 will very likely still be several times greater than that of China.

Table 5.

Automobile Production in Southeast and South Asia Compared with Five Western Nations and Japan

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Source: Organisation International des Constructeurs d’Automobiles, survey for 2002–2003 (http://www.oica.net).

I think I’ve largely covered how things looked after World War II, highlighting both what now seems to have been an unjustified pessimism and also the difficulties in forecasting the future. I close with an anecdote from Simon Kuznets. He used to give a one-year course in growth economics, both at Johns Hopkins and Harvard. One of the points he made was that if you wanted to find accurate forecasts of what happened in the past, don’t look at what the economists said. The economists in 1850 wrote that the progress of the last decade had been so great that it could not possibly continue. And economists at the end of the nineteenth century wrote that the progress of the last half century had been so great that it could not possibly continue during the twentieth century. Kuznets said you would come closest to an accurate forecast if you read the writers of science fiction. But even the writers of science fiction were too pessimistic. Jules Verne recognized that we might eventually get to the moon, but he couldn’t conceive of the technology that actually made the journey possible.

I was at a 2003 conference at Rockefeller University that brought together about 30 people from different disciplines (economics, biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as some industrial leaders) who put forward their views of what was likely to happen in the new millennium. And I must say that the noneconomists were far more bullish than most of the economists I know. So I suspect if we have another MussaFest in 2024, we’ll all look back at how pessimistic we were in 2004.

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Robert Fogel is the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of American Institutions and Director of the Center for Population Economics at the Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago, and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. This paper was prepared for presentation at the IMF conference MussaFest, held in honor of Michael Mussa, June 4–5, 2004, in Washington, D.C.