Oxford economist Max Roser has been making an exceptional series of data visualizations illustrating long-term human progress in economic growth, public health, violence prevention, and so forth. Of all of them, I think this one, showing real GDP growth from the year 1 to the present, is my favorite:
You can also play around with an interactive version:
Now, this is a chart of real GDP rather than GDP per capita, and a lot of what's going on here is a massive increase in the world's population. But that's not all that's happening. Berkeley economist Brad DeLong has estimated that world GDP per capita was essentially flat until about 1750. Renaissance Italy pulled away a little bit, but it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution that living standards started to improve exponentially.
Of course, those gains were not evenly shared. Another visualization of Roser's shows that while the entire world had a GDP per capita below $1,000 (measured in 1990 international dollars) until the Renaissance, there are a number of countries that continue to fall below that benchmark, including Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Afghanistan. That's a travesty. Growth in sub-Saharan Africa, where most of these countries are concentrated, has picked up recently but progress in poverty reduction there has been much slower than in China and India.
The numbers here are more or less extrapolations, and we shouldn't pretend like we have extremely reliable measurements of economic activity going back to the Roman empire. But the overall story — of little to no economic progress followed by a sudden 200-300 year takeoff — is correct, and striking.
For more good news on human progress (including improvements in sub-Saharan Africa), check out Charles Kenny's interview with Ezra Klein:
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