Monthly Archives: January 2014

The challenges of updating the contours of the world economy (1AD – today)

The First Update of the Maddison Project: Re-estimating Growth Before 1820

by Jutta Bolt (University of Groningen) and Jan Luiten van Zanden (Utrecht University)

Abstract: The Maddison Project, initiated in March 2010 by a group of close colleagues of Angus Maddison, aims to develop an effective way of cooperation between scholars to continue Maddison’s work on measuring economic performance in the world economy. This paper is a first product of the project. Its goal is to inventory recent research on historical national accounts, to briefly discuss some of the problems related to these historical statistics and to extend and where necessary revise the estimates published by Maddison in his recent overviews (2001; 2003; 2007) (also made available on his website at


Review by Emanuele Felice

Angus Maddison (1926-2010) left an impressive heritage in the form of his GDP estimates. These consider almost all of the world, from Roman times until our days, and are regularly cited by both specialists and non-specialists for long-run comparisons of economic performance. The Maddison project was launched in March 2010 with the aim of expanding and improving Maddison’s work. One of the first products is the paper by Jutta Bolt and Jan Luiten van Zanden, which aims to provide an inventory while also critically review the available research on historical national accounts. It also aims “to extend and where necessary revise” Maddison’s estimates. This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-01-26.

The paper starts by presenting, in a concise but clear way, the reasons that motivated the Maddison’s project and its main goals. It also tells that some issues are left to be the subject of future work, particularly thorny issues left out include the use of 2005 purchasing power parities rather than Maddison’s (1990) ones; and the consistency of benchmarks and time series estimates over countries and ages.

Jutta Bolt

Firstly (and fairly enough, from a ontological perspective) Bolt  and van Zanden deal with the possibility of providing greater transparency in the estimates. Instead of presenting the margins of errors of each estimate (which in turn would be based “on rather subjective estimates of the possible margins of error of the underlying data”), the authors, following an advice by Steve Broadberry, choose to declare explicitly the provenance of the estimates and the ways in which they have been produced. This leads to classifying Maddison’s estimates in four groups: a) official estimates of GDP, released by national statistical offices or by international agencies; b) historical estimates (that is, estimates produced by economic historians) which roughly follow the same method as the official ones and are based on a broad range of data and information; c) historical estimates based on indirect proxies for GDP (such as wages, the share of urban population, etc.); d) “guess estimates”.

Jan Luiten van Zanden

Then the article moves on to review and discuss new estimates: although revisions for the nineteenth and twentieth century (mostly falling under the “b” category) are also incorporated, the most important changes come from the pre-industrial era (“c” kind estimates). For Europe, we now have a considerable amount of new work, for several countries including England, Holland, Italy, Spain and Germany (but not for France). The main result is that, from 1000 to 1800 AD, growth was probably more gradual than what proposed by Maddison; that is, European GDP was significantly higher in the Renaissance (above 1000 PPP 1990 dollars in 1500, against 771 proposed by Maddison); hence, growth was slower in the following three centuries (1500-1800), while faster in the late middle ages (1000-1500). For Asia, the new (and in some cases very detailed) estimates available for some regions of India (Bengal) and China (the Yangzi Delta), for Indonesia and Java, and for Japan, confirm Maddison’s view of the great divergence, against Pomeranz revisionist approach: in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a significant gap between Europe and Asia was already present (for instance GDP per capita in the whole of China was 600 PPP 1990 dollars in 1820, as in Maddison; against 1455 of Western Europe, instead of 1194 proposed by Maddison).

New estimates are also included for some parts of Africa and for the Americas, with marginal changes on the overall picture (for the whole of Latin America, per capita GDP in 1820 is set to 628 PPP 1990 dollars, instead of 691). For Africa, however, there are competing estimates for the years 1870 to 1950, by Leandro Prados de la Escosura (based on the theoretical relationship between income terms of trade per head and GDP per capita) on the one side, and Van Leeuwen, Van Leeuwen-Li and Foldvari (mostly based on real wage data, deflated with indigenous’ crops prices) on the other. The general trends of these differ substantially: the authors admit that they “are still working on ways to integrate this new research into the Maddison framework” and thus at the present no choice is made between the two, although both are included in the data appendix.

New long-run estimates are presented also for the Near East, as well as for the Roman world, in this latter case with some differences (smaller imbalances between Italy and the rest of the empire) as compared to Maddison’s picture. The authors also signal the presence of estimates for ancient Mesopotamia, produced by Foldvari and Van Leeuwen, which set the level of average GDP a bit below that of the Roman empire (600 PPP 1990 dollars per year, versus 700), but they are not included in the dataset.

Per capita GDP in Roman times, according to Maddison (1990 PPP dollars)

Per capita GDP in Roman times, according to Maddison (1990 PPP dollars)

What can we say about this impressive work? First, that it is truly impressive and daring. But then come the problems. Needless to say Maddison’s guessed estimates is one of the main issues or limitations, and this looks kind of downplayed by Bolt and van Zanden. As pointed out by Gregory Clark, in his 2009 Review of Maddison’s famous Contours of the World Economy:

“All the numbers Maddison estimates for the years before 1820 are fictions, as real as the relics peddled around Europe in the Middle Ages (…) Just as in the Middle Ages, there was a ready market for holy relics to lend prestige to the cathedrals and shrines of Europe (…), so among modern economists there is a hunger by the credulous for numbers, any numbers however dubious their provenance, to lend support to the model of the moment. Maddison supplies that market” (Clark 2009, pp. 1156-1157).

The working paper by Bolt and Van Zanden makes significant progress in substituting some fictitious numbers (d), with indirect estimates of GDP (c), but then in discussing the results it leaves unclear which numbers are reliable, which not, thus still leaving some ground for the “market for holy relics”.


This is all the more problematic if we think that nominally all the estimates have been produced at 1990 international dollars. It is true that there is another part of the Maddison project specifically aiming at substituting 1990 purchasing power parities with 2005 ones. But this is not the point. The real point is that even 2005 PPPs would not change the fact that we are comparing economies of distant times under the assumption that differences in the cost of living remained unchanged over centuries, or even over millennia. This problem, not at all a minor neither a new one − e.g. Prados de la Escosura (2000) − is here practically ignored. One indeed may have the feeling that the authors (and Maddison before them) simply don’t care about the parities they use, de facto treating them as if they were at current prices. For example, they discuss the evidence emerging from real wages, saying that they confirm the gaps in per capita GDP: but the gaps in real wages are usually at the current parities of the time, historical parities, while those in GDP are at constant 1990 parities. If we assume, as reasonably should be, that differences in the cost of living changed over the centuries, following the different timing of economic growth, then the evidence from real wages (at current prices) may actually not confirm the GDP figures (at constant 1990 PPPs). Let’s take, for instance, China. It could be argued that differences in the cost of living, as compared to Europe, were before the industrial revolution, say in 1820, lower than in 1990, given that also the differences in per capita GDP were lower in 1820 than in 1990; hence, prices in 1820 China were relatively higher. The same is true for China when compared to Renaissance or Roman Italy (since prices in 1990 China were arguably significantly lower than prices in 1990 Italy, in comparison with the differences in the sixteenth century or in ancient times). This would mean that real GDP at current PPPs would be in 1820 even lower, as compared to Europe; or that 1820 China would have a per capita GDP remarkably lower than that of the Roman empire, maybe even lower than that of ancient Mesopotamia. Is this plausible?


Clark, G. (2009). Review essay: Angus Maddison, Contours of the world economy, 1-2030 AD: essays in macro-economic history. Journal of Economic History 69(4): 1156−1161.

Prados de la Escosura, L. (2000). International comparisons of real product, 1820–1990: an alternative data set. Explorations in Economic History 37(1):1–41.


On the many failures of (southern) Italy to catch up

Regional income inequality in Italy in the long run (1871–2001). Patterns and determinants


Emanuele FELICE ( Departament d’Economia i d’Història Econòmica, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona


The chapter presents up-to-date estimates of Italy’s regional GDP, with the present borders, in ten-year benchmarks from 1871 to 2001, and proposes a new interpretative hypothesis based on long-lasting socio-institutional differences. The inverted U-shape of income inequality is confirmed: rising divergence until the midtwentieth century, then convergence. However, the latter was limited to the centrenorth: Italy was divided into three parts by the time regional inequality peaked, in 1951, and appears to have been split into two halves by 2001. As a consequence of the falling back of the south, from 1871 to 2001 we record s-divergence across Italy’s regions, i.e. an increase in dispersion, and sluggish ß-convergence. Geographical factors and the market size played a minor role: against them are both the evidence that most of the differences in GDP are due to employment rather than to productivity and the observed GDP patterns of many regions. The gradual converging of regional GDPs towards two equilibria instead follows social and institutional differences – in the political and economic institutions and in the levels of human and social capital – which originated in pre-unification states and did not die (but in part even increased) in postunification Italy.


Review by Anna Missiaia

This paper was distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-12-29. The author, Emanuele Felice, engages  with the mother of all research questions in the economic history of post-Unification Italy, which is “why did the south fall behind?”. The large and widening economic gap between the north and south of Italy remains one of the “big topics” in Italian economic history and one upon which consensus is far from being reached. The paper by Felice aims at providing both new quantitative data to assess this gap and a discussion on what caused and, equally important, what did not cause the formation and persistence of the north/south divide. 

Emanuele Felice

Emanuele Felice

Let us start with the quantitative assessment. Felice provides new estimates of regional GDP at present borders. Given the long-run perspective adopted, it is necessary to make sure that we are comparing the same regions through time. This is not straightforward for Italy as it experienced several changes in its borders between 1871 and 2001. Felice collected detailed data from foreign (mostly Austrian) sources on territories that eventually become part of northern Italy. This data enables him to produce regional GDP per capita estimates for 10 year benchmarks from 1871 to 2001.

Felice then measures convergence and divergence across regions. The bottom line is that Italian regions diverged during most of the period under study. This divergence exacerbated the most between World War I (WWI) and the late 1950s. Then during the so called “Economic Miracle” of the 1960s, Italian regions experienced a degree of convergence. This convergence took place during a period of very high economic growth in the north and Felice attributed this convergence to the heavy subsidising of the southern economy. Felice also observes that while the south failed to catch up with the rich north, the northeast and centre succeeded in the task, reaching similar GDP per capita levels to those of the original Industrial Triangle towards the end of the 20th century. 

After the number crunching, Felice moves on to tackle the determinants of the income inequality. Following the path of a debate almost as old as Italy, he focuses on some well known hypothesis. The first one is that the south had a geographical disadvantage either in terms of factor endowment or market access. Felice discards the first hypothesis noting that differences between the north and south were not as marked and that the macro-areas were more different within than between them. Are a result the endowment argument is not a good candidate to explain the north-south divide. On market access, Felice notes that the south had a fairly high access to markets in the period before WWI compared to the north and the situation reversed gradually. Also, after WWI regions with a quite low access to markets (Trentino Alto-Adige and Valle d’Aosta) managed to reach high levels of GDP and regions in the south with a good access to markets performed poorly in GDP growth. 

Trentino Alto-Adig

After excluding geographical factors, Felice discusses the human element to explain divergence. He looks at human capital, social capital and institutions. At the time of unification, the south was lagging behind in both human and social capital (for a more detailed discussion and some numbers see Felice (2012)). Felice’s thesis is that economic development in the south was highly affected by its low human capital until WWII. In spite of the catch up in literacy rates after WWII, measures of social capital show that the south has never reached the level of the north. The persistence of the gap has therefore to be attributed to persistence of low levels of social capital that allowed the consolidation of poor institutional settings as well as the flourishing of organized crime.  

Reading Felice’s paper, one’s impression is that the author managed to convey several years of quantitative research into a nice narrative on how the south fell behind. He uses a mix of hard data and qualitative reasoning to guide the reader through. In particular, he takes timing of turning points (i.e in market access, state intervention or catch up in literacy rates) to explain how different elements could or could not explain the divide. He also uses the case of the northeastern regions to explain how path dependence can be overcome (the northeast had very low levels of human capital at the time of unification but managed to catch up with the rest of the north).  

For the Italian readers, Emanuele Felice, 2014, "Perche' il Sud e' rimasto indietro", Il Mulino, Bologna.

For the Italian readers, Emanuele Felice, 2014, “Perche’ il Sud e’ rimasto indietro”, Il Mulino, Bologna.

To conclude, it is often the case that this narrative argues that the south was not disadvantaged in all the factors and that different periods were driving economic growth in the country. However, it seems like it was advantaged in a given factor of growth only when that factor was not important. For example, it had a good market access before WWII, when human capital was more important; it had cough up in terms of human capital after WWII but at that time social capital started being more important. The picture that emerges from this work is that the south suffered from a mix of poor starting conditions, bad timing and unfortunate development strategies that trapped it into the gap that we still observe today.



Emanuele Felice, 2012. Regional convergence in Italy, 1891–2001: testing human and social capital, Cliometrica, Journal of Historical Economics and Econometric History, Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC), vol. 6(3), pages 267-306, October.