This is a compendium volume bringing together two earlier monumental works by Angus Maddison. The first, titled ‘The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective’, was issued in 2001. The second, a companion volume titled ‘The World Economy: Historical Statistics’, was issued in 2003. Both were commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The first academic paper to establish the grand sweep of Maddison’s historical vision appeared in 1962 in a relatively obscure journal, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review. Titled ‘Growth and Fluctuation in the World Economy, 1870-1960’, it carried forward the Kuznetsian search for quantification of the economic progress of human societies. This was followed in quick succession by a series of books focusing on different parts of the world in assorted periods. Among these was a 1971 book on post-Moghul growth in South Asia.
A 1995 volume pulled it all together to provide long series covering the period 1820 to 1992 on the domestic product for 56 countries, which between them accounted for 93 percent of world output and 87 percent of world population. Needless to say, such an exercise had never previously been assayed, let alone achieved. It would not have been possible without the very solid foundations laid by scholars who had painstakingly constructed long series on individual countries or regions. Among them was the definitive work for India over the twentieth century by S. Sivasubramo-nian, who pieced together the domestic product in the territory covered by British India with that for the territories covered by as many as 560 independent princely states, to construct a single coherent yearly series for undivided India.
As a follow-up to the 1995 volume, Maddison was commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to work on a millennial scale, covering the entire world economy over the first two thousand years of the Christian Era. The result was the first of the two works included in the volume under review. The second was issued as a companion to the first, with revisions and updates upto 2001 (the first had stopped at 1998), and sections containing the sources and procedures used. The issue of both together in the volume under review therefore is of inestimable value.
Maddison’s conclusions from his painstaking labours lead him to differ sharply in some cases from what he condemns as ‘stylized fantasies’. One such, which Maddison dismisses as unsupported by hard evidence, was the widespread presumption that the pace of per capita income advance in Europe quickened around 1500, as a result of the discovery of the Americas and of trading routes to Asia. That belief was based quite simply on the presumptive economic impact of the dizzying diversity of crops that came out of the New World (cocoa, maize, potato, tobacco and tomato, to name just a few), which revolutionized agriculture, animal husbandry, diets and the cost of wage goods everywhere, and led to wholly new industries for downstream processing, principally in Europe. Maddison, after examination of the European data series set out in HS1 of the second volume, sees continuation of the same pace of economic advance as that which obtained between 1000 and 1500 AD.
Even without acceleration after 1500, Maddison sees the slow but steady growth in Europe beginning from the eleventh century as having placed per capita income levels in 1800 well above those in Asia, which he judges as having stagnated after 1000 AD. He thus disputes the assessment of the economic historian, Paul Bairoch, that per capita income in Europe in 1800 was at or slightly under par with respect to Asia, and that colonial exploitation alone enabled Europe to surge ahead of Asia after that date. Bairoch’s works in French are not widely available in translation, but his conclusions are frequently cited in the English language debate on what is, without doubt, one of the great unresolved historical issues of our time.
The purpose of the Maddison exercise went quite explicitly beyond quantification alone. He says in his introduction that his purpose is to ‘identify the forces which explain the success of the rich countries; explore the obstacles which hindered advance in regions which lagged behind; scrutinize the interaction between the rich countries and the rest to assess the degree to which their backwardness may have been due to western policy’.
Even pure quantification exercises can tell stories very effectively just by themselves. For example, Sivasubramonian’s work told us that per capita GDP in India in 1947 was only 4 percent higher than it was in 1900. That single finding explains, as nothing else does, the reasons for the burgeoning dissatisfaction with the colonial regime. The problem with the Angus Maddison work however is that he goes beyond the income and population quantification that he himself attempted, to deal with issues such as the slave trade, on the basis of received literature.
Maddison’s objectives would have been better served if he had drawn clear boundaries between his own numbers, based on original or processed sources personally inspected by him, and other sources which are cited without inspection. The single source on slavery that he cites repeatedly is the 1999 book by H. S. Klein, who estimated the profit from the slave trade at 10 percent, about at par with other avenues of investment at the time. Klein’s was a very perfunctory treatment of a profit cycle that changed markedly over time. Initially, slave trade profits were very high because of the principal innovation of the European trade, the export of slaves of both genders. (The Eastern slave trade on the other hand was largely confined to male slaves.) As a result, later profits from the European trade declined sharply, as the first generation procreated subsequent generations of slaves. It was the profit decline in the trade that led to its abolition many decades before the abolition of the institution of slavery itself.
By not demarcating his own numbers, backed by meticulous scholarship, from those that he cites (such as on the slave trade) without inspection, Maddison threatens the authenticity and acceptability of his own contribution. Likewise, the account of the Indian caste system, as part of the section on the socio-economic structure of Moghul India, is naïve and unreferenced, and reads more like a school textbook of the colonial era.
These detract from the enormous scholarship that has gone into construction of time-series on per capita GDP in constant 1990 international Geary-Khamis Dollars, providing a quantified window on world history in the last two thousand years. This is a volume that quite clearly belongs in every reference library.
Indira Rajaraman currently holds the Reserve Bank of India Chair at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Prior to this, she taught Economics for eighteen years at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.