poly: World Economic History

From: Carl Feynman <carlf@alum.mit.edu>
Date: Fri Jul 03 1998 - 09:12:52 PDT

Robin Hanson wrote:

>Carl writes:
>>>> Doubling Time Dominant Period DT factor WP factor
>>>> ------------- ------------------------- --------- ---------
>>>> 500,000 yrs 1M B.C. to ~300K B.C. ? 9
>>>> 140,000 yrs. ~300K B.C. to 5000 B.C. 4 6
>>>> 860 yrs. 5000 B.C. to 1700 155 196
>>>> 58 yrs. 1700 to 1900 15 11
>>>> 15 yrs. 1900 to 2000 4 37
>>1. (<140,000 BC) Evolution toward better tool-using abilities. ...
>>stone tool production showed ... only a very slow improvement with
>>time until about 100,000 years ago. ... language had not been
>>developed ... knowledge that could be learned by imitation ...
>This needs more work to distinguish it from imitation among other
>animals. And the model time is ~300,000 yrs, not 140,000 yrs.

Actually, the crossover time is ill-constrained by the data. The first
exponential curve exists almost entirely to fit the data points at
1,000,000 BC and 300,000 BC. The next data point is at 25,000 BC, by which
time the second exponential has taken over. I haven't actually done a
sensitivity analysis, but given that the first two data points are
incredibly unreliable, let's just say that the crossover is somewhere
between 500,000 and 50,000 BC. The origin of language is somewhere in
there, too. Probably. Maybe. Kinda.

>>2. (<5000 BC) During this period, language permitted the development of
>>more complex technologies and cultural innovations, like spearthrowers,
>>clothing, canoes, and trade.

>>3. (<1700 AD) The development of agriculture made the improvement and

>>diffusion of domesticated plants and animals the main avenue of growth.
>>... 860 years sounds like a reasonable doubling time for yield of crops
>>and animals: ...
>Interesting theory. It is clear that there was little agriculture much
>before 5000 bc ?

At 5000 BC, the "agriculture" term is 42% of GNP. At the previous data
point, in 8000 BC, it is only 6%. This seems reasonable: wheat, peas and
olives were domesticated in the fertile crescent around 8500 BC, and pigs
and rice in China around 7500 BC. By 5000 BC, all the major crops of the
Old World had been domesticated, and agriculture had spread to most of the
temperate Old World. All this from "Guns, Germs and Steel", particularly
the chart on p. 100.

>Could agri-specialists confirm this as a
>reasonable doubling period?

Good idea. Given modern scientific breeding methods, doubling times for
productivity are much smaller, of course. Perhaps another way to check is
to look at how long it took to adapt crops to new climates. It took about
4000 years for wheat to diffuse north from the mediterranean to scandinavia.
>>4. (<1900 AD) The development of long-distance sea travel permits the
>>rapid spread of good ideas around the world, and the development of
>>regional division of labor. This coincides with the conquest of the world
>>by Western Europe. (this one is kind of shaky...)

Duh! Why didn't I think of the printing press? It's widespread literacy
that fed this stage! That would permit the widespread development and
rapid diffusion of innovations.

>If the proverb that an
>>internet year equals seven ordinary years is true, we can say that the new
>>doubling time is two years, and the DT factor is 7. If there are 6,000,000
>>people in the new economy, and 6,000,000,000 in the old one, it will take
>>roughly 20 years for the new economy to become dominant.
>I suspect (but aren't sure) that there have been many examples of things
>doubled faster than the world econony, and they slowed down when they got big
>enough. So just because you see something growing faster than the world
>economy doesn't mean that it will birth a new growth mode.

Sure. The number of supertankers doubled every year from 1971 to 1976 (1
to 66). But by 1980, the number had stabilized at 110. Similarly, mileage
of canals in the US doubled every 10 years from 1790 to 1840. (Both of
these are from the half-great/half-crazy "Predictions" by Theodore Modis.
He fits everything in history to a sigmoid or a sine wave.)

Maybe the size of the 'new economy' will also begin to slow down when it
approaches some natural limit, and its fraction of the world GNP will
stagnate. But will it have grown to a size where it is larger than the
other economies put together? When you consider that Drexlerian nanotech
could bring Internet-like speeds of innovation to the manufacture of
physical objects, one can imagine the new economy growing to dwarf the old

Or not. This whole 'new economy' thing is very speculative.

Received on Fri Jul 3 17:40:38 1998

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