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11.4 Back to the Long Run

Following the stimulating and important contributions of Abramovitz (1986),

Baumol (1986), P. Romer (1986) and Lucas (1988), the study of long-run

economic growth once again became a very active research area. Increasingly,

many economists accept that macroeconomic analysis and policies

resting solely on the short view will be, to quote Viner, ‘a structure built on

shifting sands’ (Baumol, 1986). This reorientation of research emphasis is

regarded as long overdue by many economists. Although the revival of research

into the elusive ingredients of growth began in the mid-1980s it was

not until the 1990s that the literature really exploded. Two important surveys

of macroeconomics bear witness to this fact. Mankiw’s (1990) survey of

macroeconomics makes no mention of economic growth whatsoever, while

Fischer’s (1988) survey devotes a mere four sentences to the ‘Theory of

Growth’ and only refers to Paul Romer’s 1986 paper in passing. However, by

1989 Robert Barro and Paul Romer were launching a major joint research

project on economic growth through Harvard University and the National

Bureau of Economic Research and, reflecting this development, in 1996 the

first issue of the Journal of Economic Growth was published. After 1990 a

constant flow of new books and journal survey articles also began to appear,

indicating the much higher profile and new urgency given by economists to

research on economic growth (see, for example, Grossman and Helpman,

1991; Fagerberg, 1994; P. Romer, 1994a; Mankiw, 1995; Crafts and Toniolo,

1996; Aghion and Howitt, 1998; Gylfason, 1999; Temple, 1999; Solow, 2000,

2001; Easterly, 2001a; Easterly and Levine, 2001; Jones, 2001a; Lucas, 2002;

Barro and Sala-i-Martin, 2003; Rodrik, 2003; Aghion and Durlauf, 2005; see

also Snowdon and Vane, 1997a; Snowdon, 2003a).

Given the significant adverse impact that poor growth performance has on

economic welfare and the resultant importance attached to growth by economists,

it is perhaps surprising that during the twentieth century the research

effort in this field has been cyclical. Concern about the sustainability of

economic growth was a major concern of the classical economists, with the

pessimism of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo contrasting with the optimism

of Adam Smith (Rostow, 1990). However, during the period 1870–1929

economists’ research was heavily influenced by the ‘marginalist revolution’

and was therefore predominantly micro oriented, being directed towards

issues relating to the efficient allocation of given resources. For a quarter of a

century after 1929–33, issues relating to the Great Depression and Keynes’s

response to that event dominated discussion as the new science of macroeconomics

evolved. In the period 1939–56 growth theory was dominated by the

neo-Keynesian contributions of Roy Harrod (1939, 1948) and Evsey Domar

(1946, 1947, 1948), and in the period 1956–70 by the seminal contributions

of Nobel Memorial Laureate Robert Solow (1956, 1957), who, along with

Trevor Swan (1956), pioneered work on the neoclassical growth model.

However, as Domar commented in 1957, ‘in economic theory growth has

occupied an odd place: always seen around but seldom invited in. It has either

been taken for granted or treated as an afterthought’.

It is certainly the case that research on the theoretical front in this field

ran into diminishing returns and ‘effectively died’ in the 1970–85 period.

This was due mainly to its perceived lack of empirical relevance, the diversion

of economists’ research interests towards business cycle analysis in the

wake of the aggregate instability experienced throughout the world in the

1970s, and the impact of the rational expectations ‘revolution’ within

academia (see Chapter 5, and Barro and Sala-i-Martin, 2003). In a survey

of the contents of three leading economics journals Laband and Wells

(1998) found that

during the first half of the twentieth century, there was increasing scholarly output

of papers written about economic growth and development. This scholarly interest/

production peaked in the 1950s and then declined markedly throughout the

1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. This trend reversed itself abruptly during the first half of

the 1990s, with a surge in production of articles on economic growth.

How far this burgeoning literature has significantly progressed economists’

knowledge of the causes of growth remains to be seen (see Nelson, 1997;

Abramovitz, 1999; Kenny and Williams, 2001).

During the last 50 years there has been a shift of theoretical focus as neo-

Keynesian growth models were replaced by neoclassical models as the

dominant framework for analysis. Neoclassical theories have in turn been

challenged by endogenous growth theory since the mid-1980s (Snowdon and

Vane, 1997a; Solow, 2001). But what explains the high-profile resurgence of

interest in growth analysis during the last couple of decades? We identify this

resurgence of interest since the mid-1980s to have been stimulated by the

following 12 factors, of which the first three played a crucial role:

1. New theoretical insights inspired by the research of Paul Romer (1986,

1987b, 1989, 1990, 1994a) and Robert Lucas (1988, 1990b, 1993,

2002); new theoretical tools have been of paramount importance.

2. The availability of a rich array of new data for a large number of

countries (for example Summers and Heston, 1991; Maddison, 2001).

Economists now have data for most countries which extend back to

1960. Recent empirical research has also focused on patterns of crosscountry

growth (Durlauf and Quah, 1999).

3. A growing realization that a large number of developing countries,

particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, were not ‘catching up’ and converging

with the levels of income per capita of the rich OECD economies

(Abramovitz, 1986, Baumol, 1986, P. Romer, 1986, 1989; Lucas, 1988).

4. The sudden and unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union and other

‘Eastern Bloc’ economies at the end of the 1980s focused attention on

the relationship between social, political and economic structures and

an economy’s capacity to sustain economic growth (Fukuyama, 1992;

Snowdon, 2003b).

5. Increasing concern during the 1980s that the economic position of the

USA relative to other major OECD economies, especially Japan and

Germany, was being eroded (Thurow, 1992).

6. Concern relating to the causes of the productivity growth slowdown,

beginning in the late 1960s/early 1970s, but not clearly recognized until

the early 1980s (Fischer et al., 1988; Baumol et al., 1989). Writing in

1988, Fischer described this event as ‘the most significant macroeconomic

development of the last two decades’. More recently, in the late

1990s interest in the USA has focused on a productivity acceleration

associated with the emergence of an information-technology-driven ‘new

economy’ (see Gordon, 2000b; Jorgenson, 2001; Jorgenson and Stiroh,


7. Increasing awareness of problems relating to the measurement of economic

growth and that the true rate of progress is likely to be

‘substantially underestimated’ using conventional estimation techniques

(Fogel, 1999; Nordhaus, 2001). The findings of the Boskin Commission

suggest that US GDP growth has been underestimated by about 0.9 per

cent per annum in the period 1970–96 (Boskin, 1996). In addition, the

rise of information technology and with it the ‘knowledge’ (or ‘weightless’)

economy, and a potential reversion to non-market production

further increased the need to refine national income accounting techniques

(Stafford, 1999).

8. Increasing recognition of the spectacular growth performance displayed

by the ‘East Asian Tiger’ economies as well as the ‘growth disasters’

and disappointments experienced in many developing economies, espe588

cially in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Southern Asia (World

Bank, 1993; Bhagwati, 1993; Bloom and Sachs, 1998; A. Taylor, 1998;

Collier and Gunning, 1999a, 1999b).

9. The increasing influence, during the 1980s, of the real business cycle

approach to the study of economic fluctuations where the Solow neoclassical

growth model is used as the benchmark for studying both

fluctuations and growth (Kydland and Prescott, 1982). Real business

cycle theorists argue that the growth process has a large random element

and it is this that causes the ‘short-run’ fluctuations of output.

Aggregate instability is simply the ‘manifestation of the process of

stochastic growth’ (Ryan and Mullineux, 1997). Whereas mainstream

macroeconomists treat business cycles and economic growth as largely

independent phenomena, real business cycle theorists view aggregate

fluctuations as the economy’s optimal response to supply-side (productivity)

shocks (see Chapter 6).

10. A much-neglected factor in explaining the growth of interest in a particular

branch of an academic discipline is the influence exerted by

‘internal scientific characteristics’. Because the incentive structure in

academia is related closely to publications, particularly in the USA, a

new idea or research programme which is ‘article-laden’, with a rich

vein of topics to mine, is highly contagious. An article-laden new theory

supported by new data sets, which challenges the existing orthodoxy,

will always prove to be a powerful force within academia (Snowdon

and Vane, 1996).

11. During the last decade there has been an increasing number of papers

devoted to what we would label the ‘new political macroeconomics of

growth’. In addition to the work of Mancur Olson (1993, 2000), the

innovative contributions of Daron Acemoglu and his co-authors have

been particularly important in reawakening interest in the ‘political

barriers’ to growth (see Acemoglu and Robinson, 2000a, 2000b, 2000c,

2001, 2003; Snowdon, 2004c).

12. For some economists, such as Robert Lucas (1987, 2003) and Edward

Prescott (1996), the renewed interest in growth stems from their belief

that business cycle fluctuations ‘are not costly to society’ and that it is

more important for economists to worry about ‘increasing the rate of

increase in economy-wide productivity and not smoothing business

fluctuations’ (Prescott, 1996). Indeed, attempts to stabilize the economy

in the short term could adversely affect long-term growth prospects

(Cooley and Ohanian, 1997; Blackburn, 1999).