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How are we to interpret these successes and failures?
Economists, today, are divided on many aspects of this question, but I think that if we look at the right evidence, organized in the right way, we can get very close to a coherent and reliable view of the changes in the wealth of nations that have occurred in the last two centuries and those that are likely to occur in this one.
Figure 1 shows one way to use the information in the Penn World Table to summarize the distribution of the levels and growth rates of population and per capita incomes in the postwar world.
It contains two bar graphs of per capita incomes, one for 1960 and the other for 1990 (not 2000).
Following these historical reviews, I will outline a theoretical structure roughly consistent with the facts.
If I succeed in doing this well, it may be possible to conclude with some useful generalizations and some assessments of the world’s future economic prospects.
Today, most economies enjoy sustained growth in average real incomes as a matter of course.
Living standards in all economies in the world 300 years ago were more or less equal to one another and more or less constant over time.
Let us review the main features of this picture, beginning with population estimates.
Please understand: I am not quoting figures for the advanced economies or for a handful of economic miracles.
I am not excluding Africa or the communist countries. The entire human race is getting rich, at historically unprecedented rates.
The availability of this marvelous body of data has given the recent revival of mathematical growth theory an explicitly empirical character that is quite different from the more purely theoretical investigations of the 1960s.
It has also stimulated a more universal, ambitious style of theorizing aimed at providing a unified account of the behavior of rich and poor societies alike.