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The Mathus to Solow story

Hansen and Prescott (2002) and Parente and Prescott (2005) build models

where an economy is initially dominated by a land-intensive, low-productivity

‘Malthus technology’ with low knowledge input. Eventually, as knowledge

grows, driven by the profit motive, the economy gradually switches to one

that is dominated by a much more productive ‘Solow technology’. An earlier

model of Goodfriend and McDermott (1995) emphasizes the transition from

household to market production driven by the increasing returns to specialization

made possible by a growing population.

The institutions and property rights story

North and Weingast (1989) highlight the positive impact that the establishment

of more secure property rights had on innovation and entrepreneurship

in Britain before the Industrial Revolution. Acemoglu et al. (2002b), building

on this idea, trace the rise of the colonial ‘Atlantic trader’ economies after

1500 and link their subsequent growth success to the influence of the commercial

bourgeoisie who demanded and obtained changes in institutions that

led to greater protection of property rights. This is turn provided a foundation

for the Industrial Revolution to take place in Britain.

The ‘Gifts of Athena’ story

Mokyr (1990, 2002, 2005) surveys the history of technological change and

traces the intellectual roots of the Industrial Revolution to important changes

in the method and culture involved with the creation and dissemination of

new knowledge. ‘The Scientific method that evolved in seventeenth century

Western Europe meant that observation and experience were placed in the

public domain’ (Mokyr, 2005) and scientific knowledge became a public

good. ‘Open science’ and verification, rewarded by fame and recognition,

became part of what Mokyr calls the ‘Industrial Enlightenment’. The notion

that economic progress was possible dominated this new enlightenment. The

wave of ‘macroinventions’ and ‘microinventions’ (the ‘wave of gadgets’) that

characterized the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without

these intellectual roots. As Mokyr notes, ‘knowledge creates opportunities,

but it does not guarantee action’ (2005). Moreover, the ‘emphasis on the

Enlightenment illustrates how economists should think about culture and

cultural beliefs’.

These are just some of the recent stories that attempt to provide a unified

account of the evolution of world income over the very long run. The interested

reader should also consult Jones (1988), Easterlin (1996), Landes (1998),

Lucas (2002), Maddison (2001) and Clark (2003).