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Will people living a half century from now think the 21st century’s been a good one? Economist Brad DeLong explains his optimism:
The reason is simple: the large-scale trends that have fueled global growth since World War II have not stopped. More people are gaining access to new, productivity enhancing technologies, more people are engaging in mutually beneficial trade, and fewer people are being born, thus allaying any continued fears of a so-called population bomb. Moreover, innovation, especially in the global north, has not ceased, even if it has possibly slowed since the 1880s. And while war and terror continue to horrify us, we are not witnessing anything on the scale of the genocides that were a hallmark of the twentieth century.
Fortunately, these major trends are likely to continue, according to data from the Penn World Table research project, the best source for summary information on global economic growth. The PWT data on average real (inflation-adjusted) per capita GDP show that the world in 1980 was 80% better off than it was in 1950, and another 80% better off in 2010 than it was in 1980. In other words, our average material wellbeing is three times what it was in 1950.
Tripling global material wellbeing may sound like a lot, but if anything it’s a low estimate. The way we measure real GDP accounts for all the goods and services being produced, but it doesn’t properly account for value that exists but cannot be measured – such as the immense benefits that accrue to social-media users from services that cost them nothing. …
It may well be true that the engine of innovation itself will run more slowly. But it will still run, and people will still adopt new technologies, and the world economy will still grow. Short of a nightmare scenario like terror-driven nuclear war, you can expect my successors in 2075 to look back and relish that, once again, their world is three times better off than ours is today.
Beyond that, DeLong worries about the impact of climate change. Point taken. Also consider that this brief rejoinder to “the end of growth” type arguments probably assumes only reasonable public policy and no sudden leaps forward (nuclear fusion, artificial superintelligence). The former may be a stretch given recent events.
Still, better-than-expected public policy stretching over the decades might make DeLong’s optimism seem cautious in retrospect.