Paul Krugman is the New Thomas Malthus


Paul Krugman says he's been getting hatemail calling him the new Thomas Malthus. (Which actually strikes me as pretty thoughtful, high-minded hatemail.) Paul responds by pointing out that Thomas Malthus was actually right for just about all of human history, and reprints a graph from Brad DeLong to prove it.

I have slightly different graph on this point, drawn from Gregory Clark's fantastic A Farewell To Alms. (IMHO the book really is worth a read.) The graph is, quite simply, the economic history of the entire world:

great divergence graph.png

For pretty much all of human history, population growth constrained growth in real standards of living. (That's the "Malthusian Trap" above: as standards of living improved, population increased, which put a strain on resources and drove down standards of living, which in turn drove down population growth, rinse & repeat.) The industrial revolution broke this trap, although it's worth pointing out the fairly obvious fact that this is not true for the entire world -- which is why the graph is labeled the "Great Divergence" and not the "Unmitigated Triumph."

An interesting question about the history of economics is whether (and why) we should continue to assume the kind of rapid growth that has characterized western economies since 1800. It hasn't been around forever.

Presented by

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Politics

Just In