Five of history’s great economic rivalries, in centuries-long charts

The economist Angus Maddison spent his life quantifying the wealth of nations as far back in history as he could reasonably go. This obsession led him to create what is perhaps the most comprehensive historical dataset of per capita GDP available today. He died at the age of 83 in 2010, but others are continuing his work.

For some countries, Maddison’s numbers go back more than 2,000 years—for example, he estimates that Greece’s GDP per person in year 1 AD was about $2,200 in 2017 dollars. His estimates were based on administrative data, surveys, and sometimes even archaeological research.

We dug into the data ourselves to take a long-term view of five economic rivalries. It serves as a reminder of just how much a country’s fortunes can fluctuate over long periods of time.

The first chart shows the ratio of US GDP per capita to UK GDP per capita since 1800. In it, you can see the US’s steady rise to world economic supremacy, with the income of the average American surpassing the average Brit around the turn of the 20th century.

The rivalry between Germany and France, in terms of wealth, is a close one, with a huge dislocation around the time of WWII.

Maddison’s data is a reminder that China’s ascendance is very recent, in historical terms. China only surpassed India in GDP per capita in the late 1970s. Its relative rise since then, though, has been rapid.

Sweden and Norway have had a topsy turvy economic rivalry over the past two centuries. But for the past 30 years, oil-rich Norway, typically the “little brother” of the relationship, has had the upper hand.

And finally, Argentina was wealthier than Chile for most of modern history. But since 1990, economically liberal and financially stable Chile has taken the lead over its neighbor across the Andes.

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