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As Long as We Remember...

May 12, 2010

Angus Maddison Predictor of The Past

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Angus Maddison, an eminent scholar in the study of economic history, who once researched, calculated and explained the gross domestic product of various nation-states and regions of the world all the way back to 1 AD, passed away in Paris at the age of 83 years old on April 24.


He was a peripatetic fountain of an intellectual approach to the study of economics in an era that has all-too-often been awkwardly molded, bastardized, and politicized simply to artificially promote a political ideology.


Professor Maddison published 20 books and 130 articles, plus another 19 volumes that he edited – or co-authored – in a lifetime love affair with figures and numbers, the more complex the better.


In 1995, Professor Maddison “published GDP estimates for 56 countries as far back as 1820. In 2001 his romantic adventures culminated in an estimate for world output in the year 1AD: $105.4 billion at 1990 prices,” observed The Economist on April 30.


The English-born professor emeritus at the Faculty of Economics, University of Groningen, was co-founder of the Groningen Growth and Development Centre, in The Netherlands. “He retired from the University of Groningen in 1996, but he was still pursuing his research until three weeks before he died,” according to his daughter,” in an article in The New York Times.


Although not a household name, that is, unless you are a student of economic history, or the study of economic quantification, Professor Maddison was best described in The New York Times tribute by Catherine Rampell, who succinctly noted: “Some people try to forecast the future.  Angus Maddison devoted his life to forecasting the past.”


His work first came across my radar screen in the early 1970s when I was exploring a theory that all history and the basis of all warfare is best understood in the context of economics.


He also championed and documented that economics is not linear, but rather an organic matrix of influencing factors which involve a calculus of sociological factors, among many.


He was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, December 6, 1926. According to The New York Times article, “His parents both left school at age 12. His father, a railway fitter, and his mother invested in their only child’s intellectual development, taking him to scholarly lectures sponsored by the local cooperative movement. One lecture introduced him to the work of the British economist John Maynard Keynes.”


It was then, according to an article in The Economist, “Like many men, he had his first serious crush at the age of 13. He read ‘How to Pay for the War,’ by Mr. Keynes; it was the annex on national income that most tickled his fancy…”


He attended the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate and later went to McGill University and Johns Hopkins University for his graduate work. He never pursued getting his doctorate in economics.


From 1969 to 1971, Professor Maddison was associated with the Centre for International Affairs at Harvard University before moving on to be the economic policy advisor for various governments including Ghana, Guinea, Pakistan, Brazil, Mongolia, the USSR and Japan.


The Economist notes, “GDP is a modern term, but the urge to count the nation’s produce and compare countries’ standards of living predates Adam Smith.


“Maddison saw himself as heir to a tradition that began with William Petty, the pioneer of ‘political arithmetick,’ who in 1665 estimated the income of England and Wales at £40m. That calculation was of pressing concern to Petty, who wanted to show the king how to pay for the war against the Dutch. But why did Maddison care about the GDP of the distant past?


“He believed that the ‘pace and pattern’ of economic activity had deep historical roots. Economies, he thought, do not ‘take off,’ as if from nowhere. Even the industrial revolution was too gradual to warrant the term revolution and too broad to be considered merely industrial.”


Furthermore, as The Economist points out, “Maddison laid the foundations for many big thoughts… Maddison’s figures show that Asia accounted for more than half of world output for 18 of the last 20 centuries. Its growing clout in the world economy is, therefore, a ‘restoration’ not a revolution.”


At a time like this in American history it would be wonderful if the current administration could better acquaint itself with an intellectual study of global economics and the work of Professor Maddison to better understand where the U.S. currently stands in history.


Increasingly the concept of “American Exceptualism” is being pummeled with skepticism in the wake of the direction of the current Congress and president.


One cannot count on the continued success of our nation under the current assault of everything that made us successful in the past.


The current boorish and arrogant attempts to burden our nation’s economy with feel-good reactionary over-regulation in order to achieve populist goals will ultimate backfire and pound us back into the Stone Age.


You cannot regulate economics any more than one may legislate gravity. Of course, it is appropriate for nation states to referee financial markets and the economy.


Put another way, it is best to train a wild horse, not break its spirit by shackling it to the point where it loses its will to live.


At this point we appear to be headed the way of Greece in which entitlement programs and the national debt threaten our future, our national security, and our very existence.


Right now, from the perspective of history, the U.S. is merely an anomaly, a blip in the big picture. If Congress and the current administration stay the present course, without a greater understanding of global economics and economic history, the U.S. economy, our quality of life, and our successes will be a footnote in the history books.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at


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