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Growth and Development

Since the mid-1980s many eminent economists have turned their attention to

the issue of economic growth. Are we any closer to explaining why there has

been a lack of convergence between rich and poor countries?

The new growth and development literature, which was touched off by Paul

Romer [1986] and Bob Lucas [1988], is very exciting. We now know that

standards of living were more or less constant from the beginning of civilization

until the industrial revolution; then something changed. When I compare

countries in the East (China, India, Japan and so on) with those in the West

they were about the same in 1800 in terms of per capita GDP – by 1950 the

West was almost ten times richer, now it is only about four times richer. So I

do see signs of convergence. Divergence occurred when modern economic

growth started. In China, for example, the peasants were equally well off in

AD 2 as they were in 1950 – today they are a lot better off. The process of

modern economic growth started earlier in Japan – even so, they didn’t do all

that well until the post-war period. Japan’s relative position to England or the

USA in 1870 was about the same as it was in 1937. Even per capita income

growth in Africa is now taking place at the same rate as in the rich countries –

they should be growing much faster and I expect that they soon will start to

catch up. Furthermore, when you look at countries like India, Pakistan,

Indonesia and the Philippines, they are now growing faster than the rich

industrial countries. So I believe that there will be a lot of convergence over

the next 50 years, in the same way that there has been a lot of convergence

over the last 50 years – it all depends upon how you look at the data.

The endogenous growth literature has led to a reopening of the debate relating

to the role of government in promoting economic growth. What role do

you see for the government?

Edward C. Prescott 355

My interest is in the problem of the poor countries, like India. In those

countries it is important to let things happen and not protect the status quo.

For example, there are some bizarre licensing practices in India. Once things

start happening, they can happen pretty fast and there can be rapid development.

How do you account for the revival of interest in development economics?

People pushed the paradigm as far as the old tools would allow it to go. Now

a new generation has come along and has sought to advance it a little bit

further. Exciting theoretical developments as well new data sets are key to the

revival of interest. People like Kravis, and more recently Summers and Heston

[1991], have done a major service to the profession by providing new data.

General

If you were asked to teach macroeconomics to intermediate undergraduates,

how would you go about the task?

Basically I concentrate on the Solow growth model, with factors paid their

marginal product and consider the two key decisions: consumption–saving

and labour–leisure. In discussing monetary issues I follow some basic simple

intertemporal model with people holding assets – Neil Wallace and his students

have developed some pretty good material that can be used. The hard

thing about teaching macro to undergraduates is that the textbooks are not

that good – there is a need for a Paul Samuelson. Samuelson is an artist; he

brought undergraduates pretty well up to the level of the state of knowledge

in the profession. Now there is a big gap.

Most of your work has involved research which has pushed back the frontiers

of knowledge in economics. Have you ever thought about writing a basic

principles of economics textbook or an intermediate macro textbook?

Writing this type of book requires a special talent – if I had this talent I would

give it some serious thought. I don’t [laughter].

Have you ever been asked to be an economic adviser in Washington?

No [laughter]. I get too excited – you have to be calm and have the right

style. You also have to be a good actor as well as being a good economist. So

again I’ve never been tempted – maybe if I had the ability I might have been

asked.

Are you optimistic about the future of macroeconomics?

Yes – I think a lot of progress has been made and will continue to be made.

What issues or areas are you currently working on?

I always work on a variety of issues in the hope that one will break [laughter].

I’ve recently completed a couple of papers [Parente and Prescott, 1997;

Prescott, 1998]. One paper is on economic development for a monograph on

barriers to riches – I use game theory to construct an explicit model economy

where a particular set of monopoly rights can give rise to large differences in

total factor productivity. The other paper is on financial economics, considering

why there occurs such a big jump in the value of firms associated with

mergers. I also want to look more fully at the issue of the relationship and

interaction between monetary and fiscal policy I hinted at earlier.