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GDP increase, 1990-1998 and 1990-2006, in major countries.
World map showing GDP real growth rates for 2009.

Economic growth is a term used to indicate the increase of per capita gross domestic product (GDP) or other measure of aggregate income. It is often measured as the rate of change in GDP. Economic growth refers only to the quantity of goods and services produced.

Economic growth can be either positive or negative. Negative growth can be referred to by saying that the economy is shrinking. Negative growth is associated with economic recession and economic depression.

In order to compare per capita income across multiple countries, the statistics may be quoted in a single currency, based on either prevailing exchange rates or purchasing power parity. To compensate for changes in the value of money (inflation or deflation) the GDP or GNP is usually given in "real" or inflation adjusted, terms rather than the actual money figure compiled in a given year, which is called the nominal or current figure.


Short-term stabilization and long-term growth

Economists draw a distinction between short-term economic stabilization and long-term economic growth. The topic of economic growth is primarily concerned with the long run. The short-run variation of economic growth is termed the business cycle.

The long-run path of economic growth is one of the central questions of economics; despite some problems of measurement, an increase in GDP of a country is generally taken as an increase in the standard of living of its inhabitants. Over long periods of time, even small rates of annual growth can have large effects through compounding (see exponential growth). A growth rate of 2.5% per annum will lead to a doubling of GDP within 28 years (but unreal fifty billionfold within 1000 years and unphysical googol multiple within 10,000 years of civilization for the same long-term growth rate), whilst a growth rate of 8% per annum (experienced by some Four Asian Tigers) will lead to a doubling of GDP within 9 years. This exponential characteristic can exacerbate differences across nations.

Various theories on Economic Growth


Origins of the concept

In 1377, the Arabian economic thinker Ibn Khaldun provided one of the earliest descriptions of economic growth in his famous Muqaddimah (known as Prolegomena in the Western world):

"When civilization [population] increases, the available labor again increases. In turn, luxury again increases in correspondence with the increasing profit, and the customs and needs of luxury increase. Crafts are created to obtain luxury products. The value realized from them increases, and, as a result, profits are again multiplied in the town. Production there is thriving even more than before. And so it goes with the second and third increase. All the additional labor serves luxury and wealth, in contrast to the original labor that served the necessity of life."[1]

In the early modern period, some people in Western European nations developed the idea that economies could "grow", that is, produce a greater economic surplus which could be expended on something other than mere subsistence. This surplus could then be used for consumption, warfare, or civic and religious projects. The previous view was that only increasing either population or tax rates could generate more surplus money for the Crown or country.

Now it is generally recognized that economic growth also corresponds to a process of continual rapid replacement and reorganization of human activities facilitated by investment motivated to maximize returns. This exponential evolution of our self-organized life-support and cultural systems is remarkably creative and flexible, but highly unpredictable in many ways. As there are difficulties in modelling complex self-organizing systems, various efforts to model the long term evolution of economies have produced mixed results.

During much of the "Mercantilist" period, growth was seen as involving an increase in the total amount of specie, that is circulating medium such as silver and gold, under the control of the state. This "Bullionist" theory led to policies to force trade through a particular state, the acquisition of colonies to supply cheaper raw materials which could then be manufactured and sold.

Later, such trade policies were justified instead simply in terms of promoting domestic trade and industry. The post-Bullionist insight that it was the increasing capability of manufacturing which led to policies in the 1700s to encourage manufacturing in itself, and the formula of importing raw materials and exporting finished goods. Under this system high tariffs were erected to allow manufacturers to establish "factories". Local markets would then pay the fixed costs of capital growth, and then allow them to export abroad, undercutting the prices of manufactured goods elsewhere. Once competition from abroad was removed, prices could then be increased to recoup the costs of establishing the business.

Under this theory of growth, one policy attempted to foster growth was to grant monopolies, which would give an incentive for an individual to exploit a market or resource, confident that he would make all of the profits when all other extra-national competitors were driven out of business. The "Dutch East India company" and the "British East India company" were examples of such state-granted trade monopolies.

In this period the view was that growth was gained through "advantageous" trade in which specie would flow in to the country, but to trade with other nations on equal terms was disadvantageous. It should be stressed that Mercantilism was not simply a matter of restricting trade. Within a country, it often meant breaking down trade barriers, building new roads, and abolishing local toll booths, all of which expanded markets. This corresponded to the centralization of power in the hands of the Crown (or "Absolutism"). This process helped produce the modern nation-state in Western Europe.

Internationally, Mercantilism led to a contradiction: growth was gained through trade, but to trade with other nations on equal terms was disadvantageous.

Classical growth theory

The modern conception of economic growth began with the critique of Mercantilism, especially by the physiocrats and with the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith, and the foundation of the discipline of modern political economy. The theory of the physiocrats was that productive capacity, itself, allowed for growth, and the improving and increasing capital to allow that capacity was "the wealth of nations". Whereas they stressed the importance of agriculture and saw urban industry as "sterile", Smith extended the notion that manufacturing was central to the entire economy.

David Ricardo argued that trade was a benefit to a country, because if one could buy a good more cheaply from abroad, it meant that there was more profitable work to be done here. This theory of "comparative advantage" would be the central basis for arguments in favor of free trade as an essential component of growth.

Creative destruction and economic growth

Many economists view entrepreneurship as having a major influence on a society's rate of technological progress and thus economic growth.[2] Joseph Schumpeter was a key figure in understanding the influence of entrepreneurs on technological progress.[2] In Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, published in 1942, an entrepreneur is a person who is willing and able to convert a new idea or invention into a successful innovation. Entrepreneurship forces "creative destruction" across markets and industries, simultaneously creating new products and business models. In this way, creative destruction is largely responsible for the dynamism of industries and long-run economic growth. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has described the influence of creative destruction on economic growth as follows: "Capitalism expands wealth primarily through creative destruction—the process by which the cash flow from obsolescent, low-return capital is invested in high-return, cutting-edge technologies."[3]

The neo-classical growth model

The notion of growth as increased stocks of capital goods (means of production) was codified as the Solow-Swan Growth Model, which involved a series of equations which showed the relationship between labor-time, capital goods, output, and investment. According to this view, the role of technological change became crucial, even more important than the accumulation of capital. This model, developed by Robert Solow[4] and Trevor Swan[5] in the 1950s, was the first attempt to model long-run growth analytically. This model assumes that countries use their resources efficiently and that there are diminishing returns to capital and labor increases. From these two premises, the neoclassical model makes three important predictions. First, increasing capital relative to labor creates economic growth, since people can be more productive given more capital. Second, poor countries with less capital per person will grow faster because each investment in capital will produce a higher return than rich countries with ample capital. Third, because of diminishing returns to capital, economies will eventually reach a point at which no new increase in capital will create economic growth. This point is called a "steady state".

The model also notes that countries can overcome this steady state and continue growing by inventing new technology. In the long run, output per capita depends on the rate of saving, but the rate of output growth should be equal for any saving rate. In this model, the process by which countries continue growing despite the diminishing returns is "exogenous" and represents the creation of new technology that allows production with fewer resources. Technology improves, the steady state level of capital increases, and the country invests and grows. The data does not support some of this model's predictions, in particular, that all countries grow at the same rate in the long run, or that poorer countries should grow faster until they reach their steady state. Also, the data suggests the world has slowly increased its rate of growth.[6]

However modern economic research shows that this model of economic growth is not supported by the evidence. Calculations made by Solow claimed that the majority of economic growth was due to technological progress rather than inputs of capital and labour. Recent economic research has, however, found the calculations made to support this claim to be invalid as they do not take into account changes in both investment and labour inputs.

Dale Jorgenson, of Harvard University, President of the American Economic Association in 2000, concludes that: ‘Griliches and I showed that changes in the quality of capital and labor inputs and the quality of investment goods explained most of the Solow residual. We estimated that capital and labor inputs accounted for 85 percent of growth during the period 1945–1965, while only 15 percent could be attributed to productivity growth… This has precipitated the sudden obsolescence of earlier productivity research employing the conventions of Kuznets and Solow.’[7]

John Ross has analysed the long term correlation between the level of investment in the economy, rising from 5-7% of GDP at the time of the Industrial Revolution in England, to 25% of GDP in the post-war German ‘economic miracle’, to over 35% of GDP in the world’s most rapidly growing contemporary economies of India and China.[citation needed]

Taking the G7 economies and the largest non-G7 economies Jorgenson and Vu conclude in considering: ‘the growth of world output between input growth and productivity… input growth greatly predominated… Productivity growth accounted for only one-fifth of the total during 1989-1995, while input growth accounted for almost four-fifths. Similarly, input growth accounted for more than 70 percent of growth after 1995, while productivity accounted for less than 30 percent.’

Regarding differences in output per capita Jorgenson and Vu conclude: ‘differences in per capita output levels are primarily explained by differences in per capital input, rather than variations in productivity.’[8]

Development economics

The latter half of the 20th century, with its global economy of a few very wealthy nations and many very poor nations, led to the study of how the transition from subsistence and resource-based economies to production and consumption based-economies occurred. This led to the field of development economics, including the work of Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz. However this model of economic development does not meet the demands of subaltern populations and has been severely criticized by later theorists. [explain]

New growth theory

Growth theory advanced again with the theories of economist Paul Romer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Other important new growth theorists include Robert E. Lucas and Robert J. Barro.

Unsatisfied with Solow's explanation, economists worked to "endogenize" technology in the 1980s. They developed the endogenous growth theory that includes a mathematical explanation of technological advancement.[9][10] This model also incorporated a new concept of human capital, the skills and knowledge that make workers productive. Unlike physical capital, human capital has increasing rates of return. Therefore, overall there are constant returns to capital, and economies never reach a steady state. Growth does not slow as capital accumulates, but the rate of growth depends on the types of capital a country invests in. Research done in this area has focused on what increases human capital (e.g. education) or technological change (e.g. innovation).[6] Recent empirical analyses suggest that differences in cognitive abilities, related to schooling and other factors, can largely explain variations in growth rates across countries. Cognitive abilities comprise intelligence and knowledge and are more important than education itself.[11] Cognitive abilities are more relevant than the classical growth factor "economic freedom". In comparison of low, mean and high ability groups within societies the competence level of the high ability group is the most important, stimulating through research and innovation economic growth and other favorable aspects of countries like democracy.[12]

Other theories

Theories of economic growth, the mechanisms that let it take place and its main determinants abound. One popular theory in the 1970s for example was that of the "Big Push" which suggested that countries needed to jump from one stage of development to another through a virtuous cycle in which large investments in infrastructure and education coupled to private investment would move the economy to a more productive stage, breaking free from economic paradigms appropriate to a lower productivity stage.[13]

Analysis of recent economies' success shows a close correlation between growth and climate. It is possible that there is absolutely no actual mechanism between the two, and the relation may be spurious. In early human history, economic as well as cultural development was concentrated in warmer parts of the world, like Egypt.

According to Acemoğlu, Johnson and Robinson, the positive correlation between high income and cold climate is a by-product of history. Europeans adopted very different colonization policies in different colonies, with different associated institutions. In places where these colonizers faced high mortality rates (e.g., due to the presence of tropical diseases), they could not settle permanently, and they were thus more likely to establish extractive institutions, which persisted after independence; in places where they could settle permanently (e.g., those with temperate climates), they established institutions with this objective in mind and modeled them after those in their European homelands. In these 'neo-Europes' better institutions in turn produced better development outcomes. Thus, although others economists focus on the identity or type of legal system of the colonizers to explain institutions, these authors look at the environmental conditions in the colonies to explain institutions. For instance, former colonies have inherited corrupt governments and geo-political boundaries (set by the colonizers) that are not properly placed regarding the geographical locations of different ethnic groups; this creates internal disputes and conflicts, which in turn hinders development. In another example, societies that emerged in colonies without solid native populations, established better property rights and incentives for long-term investment than those where native populations were large.[14]

Positive effects of economic growth

Income distribution

Economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin argues that global income inequality is diminishing,[15] and the World Bank argues that the rapid reduction in global poverty is in large part due to economic growth.[16] The decline in poverty has been the slowest where growth performance has been the worst (ie. in Africa).[17]

Quality of life

Happiness has been shown to increase with a higher GDP per capita, at least up to a level of $15,000 per person.[18]

Resource depletion

Many earlier predictions of resource depletion, such as Thomas Malthus' 1798 predictions about approaching famines in Europe,[19] The Population Bomb (1968),[20][21][22] Limits to Growth (1972),[20][21][22] and the Simon-Ehrlich wager (1980) [23] have proven false, one reason being that advancements in technology and science have continually allowed previously unavailable resources to be utilized more economically.[23] The book The Improving State of the World argues that the state of humanity is rapidly improving.

Economists theorize that economies are driven by new technology and ongoing improvements in efficiency — for instance, we have faster computers today than a year ago, but not necessarily computers requiring more natural resources to build.[citation needed] Also, physical limits may be very large if considering all the minerals in the planet Earth or all possible resources from space colonization, such as solar power satellites, asteroid mining, or a Dyson sphere. The book Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets is one example of such arguments. However, depletion and declining production from old resources can sometimes occur before new resources are ready to replace them. This is, in part, the logical basis of the Peak Oil theory. Although individual oil wells and mines for other nonrenewable resources are often depleted, the availability of these resources has generally risen and their prices have dropped over the long-run.[citation needed]

Environmental Impact

Those more optimistic about the environmental impacts of growth believe that, although localized environmental effects may occur, large scale ecological effects are minor. The argument as stated by economists such as Julian Lincoln Simon states that if these global-scale ecological effects exist, human ingenuity will find ways of adapting to them.[24]

Negative effects of economic growth

A number of critical arguments have been raised against economic growth.[25]

Quality of life

Economic growth may reflect or create a decline in the quality of life, such as crime, prisons, or pollution, in what is known as uneconomic growth. Other aspects of economic growth that affect quality of life, such as its effects on the environment, are externalized, and not traded or accounted for in the market.

Growth 'to a point' See also: Steady state economy

The two theories can be reconciled if it is recognised that growth improves the quality of life to a point, after which it doesn't improve the quality of life, but rather obstructs sustainable living.[26] Historically, sustained growth has reached its limits (and turned to catastrophic decline) when perturbations to the environmental system last long enough to destabilise the bases of a culture.[26]


Growth leads to consumerism by encouraging the creation of artificial needs: Industries cause consumers to develop new taste, and preferences for growth to occur. Consequently, "wants are created, and consumers have become the servants, instead of the masters, of the economy."[25]

Environmental Impact

The ecological footprint of economic growth has been shown to create an unsustainable drain on the earth's resources. The 2007 United Nations GEO-4 report warns that we are living far beyond our means. The human population is now larger and that the amount of resources it consumes takes up a lot of those resources available. Humanity’s environmental demand is purported to be 21.9 hectares per person while the Earth’s biological capacity is purported to be 15.7 ha/person.[27] This report supports the basic arguments and observations made by Thomas Malthus in the early 1800s, that is, economic growth depletes non-renewable resources rapidly.[28] Economic inequality has increased; the gap between the poorest and richest countries in the world has been growing.[29]. Although mean and median wealth has increased globally, it adds to the inequality of wealth.

Some critics argue that a narrow view of economic growth, combined with globalization, is creating a scenario where we could see a systemic collapse of our planet's natural resources.[30] Other critics draw on archaeology to cite examples of cultures they claim have disappeared because they grew beyond the ability of their ecosystems to support them.[31] Concerns about possible negative effects of growth on the environment and society led some to advocate lower levels of growth, from which comes the ideas of uneconomic growth and de-growth, and Green parties which argue that economies are part of a global society and a global ecology and cannot outstrip their natural growth without damaging them.

Canadian scientist, David Suzuki stated in the 1990s that ecologies can only sustain typically about 1.5-3% new growth per year, and thus any requirement for greater returns from agriculture or forestry will necessarily cannibalize the natural capital of soil or forest.[citation needed] Some think this argument can be applied even to more developed economies.[citation needed]

Centralised management

The Austrian School promotes free-market growth but also argues that it may imply a need for a "central planner" within an economy. To Austrian economists, such an ideal is antithetical to the concept of a free market economy, which best satisfies the wants of consumers. As such, Austrian economists believe that the individual should determine how much "growth" s/he desires.[32]

Social Justice

As economies grow, the pressure for social justice declines - standards of living can be improved without redistribution.[33]

Implications of Global Warming

see Economics of global warming

Up to the present there are close correlations of economic growth with carbon dioxide emissions across nations, although considerable divergence in carbon intensity (carbon emissions per GDP).[34] The Stern Review notes that the prediction that "under business as usual, global emissions will be sufficient to propel greenhouse-gas concentrations to over 550ppm CO2e by 2050 and over 650-700ppm by the end of this century is robust to a wide range of changes in model assumptions". The scientific consensus is that planetary ecosystem functioning without incurring dangerous risks requires stabilization at 450-550ppm.[35]

As a consequence, growth oriented environmental economists propose massive government intervention into switching sources of energy production, favouring wind, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear. This would largely confine use of fossil fuels to either domestic cooking needs (such as for kerosene burners) or where carbon capture and storage technology can be cost-effective and reliable.[36] The Stern Review, published by the United Kingdom Government in 2006, concluded that an investment of 1% of GDP per annum would be sufficient to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and that failure to do so could risk global GDP being 20% lower than it otherwise might be. Because carbon capture and storage is as yet widely unproven, and its long term effectiveness (such as in containing carbon dioxide 'leaks') unknown, and because of current costs of alternative fuels these policy responses largely rest on faith on technological change.

On the other hand, Nigel Lawson claimed that people in a hundred years' time would be "seven times as well off as we are today", therefore it is not reasonable to impose sacrifices on the "much poorer present generation".[37]

Prominent growth economists

See also


  1. ^ Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, 2:272-73, quoted in Dieter Weiss (1995), "Ibn Khaldun on Economic Transformation", International Journal of Middle East Studies 27 (1), p. 29-37 [30].
  2. ^ a b "Economic growth." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. 14 June 2008.
  3. ^ Greenspan, Alan (May 3, 2002). "Stock Options and Related Matters". The Federal Reserve Board. Retrieved June 23, 2009. 
  4. ^ Robert M. Solow (1956), "A Contribution to the Theory of Economic Growth," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 70(1), pp. 65-94.
  5. ^ Trevor W. Swan (1956). "Economic Growth and Capital Accumulation', Economic Record, 32, pp. 334–61.
  6. ^ a b Elhanah Helpman, The Mystery of Economic Growth, Harvard University Press, 2004.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Dale W. Jorgenson and Khuong Vu, 'Information Technology and the World Economy', Scandinavian Journal of Economics 2005.
  9. ^ Romer, 1986
  10. ^ Lucas, 1988
  11. ^ Heiner Rindermann, "Relevance of education and intelligence at the national level for the economic welfare of people", Intelligence, 36(2), March 2008: pp. 127-142; Hanushek, Eric and Ludger Woessmann, "The Role of Cognitive Skills in Economic Development", Journal of Economic Literature, 46(3), September 2008: pp. 607-668
  12. ^ Heiner Rindermann, Michael Sailer and James Thompson, "The impact of smart fractions, cognitive ability of politicians and average competence of peoples on social development", Talent Development and Excellence, 1(1), July 2009: pp. 3-25;
  13. ^ Paul Rosenstein-Rodan
  14. ^ Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson. 2001. The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation. American Economic Review 91(5): 1369-401
  15. ^ Global Inequality Fades as the Global Economy Grows Xavier Sala-i-Martin. 2007 Index of Economic Freedom.
  16. ^ Poverty, Growth, and Inequality World Bank
  17. ^ Fischer, Stanley. "Globalization and Its Challenges." American Economic Review May 2003, p.13.
  18. ^ In Pursuit of Happiness Research. Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy? The Cato institute. April 11, 2007
  19. ^;jsessionid=54A677A0A96BB1BB1CAF9EB2002F311C
  20. ^ a b
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^ The Ultimate Resource, Julian Simon
  25. ^ a b Case, K.E., and Fair, R.C. 2006. Principles of Macroeconomics. Prentice Hall. ISBN 0132226456, ISBN 978-0132226455.
  26. ^ a b Beddoe, R.; Costanza, R.; Farley, J.; Garza, E.; Kent, J.; Kubiszewski, I.; Martinez, L.; Mccowen, T. et al. (Feb 2009). "Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability: the evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions, and technologies" (Free full text). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106 (8): 2483–2489. doi:10.1073/pnas.0812570106. ISSN 0027-8424. PMID 19240221. PMC 2650289.  edit
  27. ^ UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook: environment for development (GEO-4 2007) report. [1]
  28. ^ Meadows, D.L., Meadows, D.L., and Randers, J. (1973) The Limits to Growth Washington, DC: Potomac Associates.
  29. ^ Pritchett, Lant. "Divergence, Big Time." Journal of Economic Perspectives Summer 1997 [2]
  30. ^ Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis L. Meadows. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, Vermont : Chelsea Green, 2004. See also Allan Schnaiberg. The Environment: From Surpus to Scarcity. New York: Oxford University Press.
  31. ^ Jared Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin, 2006.
  32. ^ Man, Economy and State [3], Austrian economist Murray Rothbard
  33. ^
  34. ^ Stern Review, Part III Stabilization. Table 7.1 p. 168
  35. ^ Stern Review Economics of Climate Change. Part III Stabilization p.183
  36. ^ Jaccard, M. 2005 Sustainable Fossil Fuels. Cambridge University Press.
  37. ^ "Examination of Witnesses (Questions 32-39)". 16 May 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-29. 

Further reading

  • Barro, Robert J. 1997. Determinants of Economic Growth: A Cross-Country Empirical Study. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
  • Erber, Georg, and Harald Hagemann, Growth, Structural Change, and Employment, in: Frontiers of Economics, Ed. Klaus F. Zimmermann, Springer-Verlag, Berlin – Heidelberg – New York, 2002, 269-310.
  • Foley, Duncan K. 1999. Growth and Distribution. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
  • Garrison, Roger. 1998 Time and Money
  • Hamilton, Clive 2002. Growth Fetish.
  • Jones, Charles I. 2002. Introduction to Economic Growth. 2nd ed. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, N.Y.
  • Kirzner, Israel. 1973. Competition and Entrepreneurship
  • Lucas, Robert E., Jr., "The Industrial Revolution: Past and Future," Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Annual Report (2003) online edition
  • Mises, Ludwig E. 1949 Human Action 1998 reprint by the Mises Institute
  • Schumpeter, Jospeph A. 1912. The Theory of Economic Development 1982 reprint, Transaction Publishers
  • Schumpeter, Jospeph A. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy Harper Perennial
  • Weil, David N. 2008. Economic Growth. 2nd ed. Addison Wesley.

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