Angus Maddison's Mission to Understand the World and Its History through Numbers

By Valli, Vittorio | The European Journal of Comparative Economics, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Angus Maddison's Mission to Understand the World and Its History through Numbers


Valli, Vittorio, The European Journal of Comparative Economics


In his fascinating concise autobiography (2) Angus Maddison defined himself as a "chiffrophile", a person seeking knowledge through the hard facts provided by statistical data. He was perfectly conscious that data are only very rough estimates of reality, but he was sure that they can give a great help to a better understanding of complex economic and historical phenomena. Moreover, he thought that the work on data is a cumulative process, on which you can build, a bridgehead which you yourself and other scholars can constantly expand, refine and consolidate, so that your work would not be vain. It would be the cornerstone on which a solid building gradually takes shape.

However, his works were never "facts without theory". His analyses consisted of a complex and difficult fusion of facts, economic theory and history.

Maddison's objectives were indeed ambitious: to understand the world's trends and destiny through an analysis of long-run changes in main economic data and systems. His research interests were strongly influenced by his university studies in history and economics and by his early readings. Keynes's How to Pay for the War, Colin Clark's Conditions for Economic Progress and Schumpeter's Capitalism. Socialism and Democracy were seminal inputs in his formative years.

The long period, since 1953, spent at OEEC (which later became OECD) helped consolidate his rich economic and statistical background. His first survey on aspects of the world economy was an article published in 1962 in Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Quarterly Review whose title is "Growth and Stagnation in the World Economy: 1870-1960". In the author's own words "the essay was concerned with the transmission of cyclical fluctuations in trade and the impact of trade on growth. It involved the construction of annual estimates of GDP, trade volume and unit values for the main trading countries, revising earlier trade volume estimates by Hilgerdt and by Arthur Lewis". (3)

His first book Economic Growth in the West (1964) contained a detailed quantitative analysis of the patterns of growth of the main Western industrialized economies. It also furnished the basic core of his ever expanding data-set on long-run growth.

The work at OEEC with Milton Gilbert, who had prepared with Kravis the first comprehensive set of national PPP (Purchasing Power Parities) data, making possible a better comparison among countries of levels of growth for the post-war period, (4) had also strongly contributed to improve the quality and coverage of OEEC data. However, it was Maddison's solid background in history and his research interests in long-run analysis which made it possible to build estimates also for the years preceding the Second World War, starting from 1870 or 1820. On that task he was helped and influenced by the seminal and extensive work done by Simon Kuznets on the long-run national accounts of the US and other industrialized countries (5). However "Kuznets' evidence was fairly Euro-centric" and did not provide measures for the performance of the world at large. (6)

Maddison badly desired to have a much wider coverage both over space and time, but he knew that knowledge gathered through books, articles and scanty statistical data is not enough in order to fully understand the difficult and complex working of developing countries and also the diverse growth conditions of countries such as Japan and the Soviet Union.

This was probably the inner motivation of a series of experiences in Japan, USSR and in several developing countries, vividly described in his autobiography. He went to Brazil, Guinea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Ghana, Mexico as an OECD expert or a as a member of a Harvard advisory group. Drawing from these experiences, as well as from the continuous expansion of his data-set and his deepening economic analysis, he published in 1969 a book on Economic Growth in Japan and the USSR and in 1971 another volume on Class structure and economic Growth in India and Pakistan. …

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