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.

Jump to comments
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.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

When Will Robots Take Over the World?

"In a sense, we're already becoming cyborgs."

Elsewhere on the web

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


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air


The Origins of Bungee Jumping

"We had this old potato sack and I filled it up with rocks and dropped it over the side. It just hit the water, split, dropping all the stones. And that was our test."


Is Trading Stocks for Suckers?

If you think you’re smarter than the stock market, you’re probably either cheating or wrong


I Spent Half My Life Making a Video Game

How a childhood hobby became a labor of love



More in Politics

Just In