Economic Growth

This chapter analyzes economic growth by examining the aggregate production function. Sources of economic growth are identified and growth rates of different countries are compared.

Determinants of Economic Growth

Explaining Recent Disparities in Growth Rates

Toward the end of the 20th century, it appeared that some of the world's more affluent countries were growing robustly while others were growing more slowly or even stagnating. This observation was confirmed in a major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),The material in this section is based on Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, The Sources of Economic Growth in OECD Countries, 2003. whose members are listed in Table 8.1 "Growing Disparities in Rates of Economic Growth". The table shows that for the OECD countries as a whole, economic growth per capita fell from an average of 2.2% per year in the 1980s to an average of 1.9% per year in the 1990s. The higher standard deviation in the latter period confirms an increased disparity of growth rates in the more recent period. Moreover, the data on individual countries show that per capita growth in some countries (specifically, the United States, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, and Spain) picked up, especially in the latter half of the 1990s, while it decelerated in most of the countries of continental Europe and Japan.

Table 8.1 Growing Disparities in Rates of Economic Growth

Trend Growth of GDP per Capita
Country 1980–1990 1990–2000 1996–2000
United States 2.1 2.3 2.8
Japan 3.3 1.4 0.9
Germany 1.9 1.2 1.7
France 1.6 1.5 1.9
Italy 2.3 1.5 1.7
United Kingdom 2.2 2.1 2.3
Canada 1.4 1.7 2.6
Austria 2.1 1.9 2.3
Belgium 2.0 1.9 2.3
Denmark 1.9 1.9 2.3
Finland 2.2 2.1 3.9
Greece 0.5 1.8 2.7
Iceland 1.7 1.5 2.6
Ireland 3.0 6.4 7.9
Luxembourg 4.0 4.5 4.6
Netherlands 1.6 2.4 2.7
Portugal 3.1 2.8 2.7
Spain 2.3 2.7 3.2
Sweden 1.7 1.5 2.6
Switzerland 1.4 0.4 1.1
Turkey 2.1 2.1 1.9
Australia 1.6 2.4 2.8
New Zealand 1.4 1.2 1.8
Mexico 0.0 1.6 2.7
Korea 7.2 5.1 4.2
Hungary -- 2.3 3.5
Poland -- 4.2 4.8
Czech Republic -- 1.7 1.4
OECD24* 2.2 1.9 2.2
Standard Deviation of OECD24 0.74 1.17 1.37
*Excludes Czech Republic, Hungary, Korea, Mexico, Poland, and Slovak Republic

Variation in the growth in real GDP per capita has widened among the world's leading industrialized economies.

The study goes on to try to explain the reasons for the divergent growth trends. The main findings were:

  • In general, countries with accelerating per capita growth rates also experienced significant increases in employment, while those with stagnant or declining employment generally experienced reductions in per capita growth rates.
  • Enhancements in human capital contributed to labor productivity and economic growth, but in slower growing countries such improvements were not enough to offset the impact of reduced or stagnant labor utilization.
  • Information and communication technology has contributed to economic growth both through rapid technological progress within the information and communication technology industry itself as well as, more recently, through the use of information and communication technology equipment in other industries. This has made an important contribution to growth in several of the faster growing countries.
  • Other factors associated with more growth include: investments in physical and human capital, sound macroeconomic policies (especially low inflation), private sector research and development, trade exposure, and better developed financial markets. Results concerning the impact of the size of the government and of public sector research and development on growth were more difficult to interpret.
  • With qualifications, the study found that strict regulation of product markets (for example, regulations that reduce competition) and strict employment protection legislation (for example, laws that make hiring and firing of workers more difficult) had negative effects on growth.
  • All countries show a large number of firms entering and exiting markets. But, a key difference between the United States and Europe is that new firms in the United States start out smaller and less productive than those of Europe but grow faster when they are successful. The report hypothesizes that lower start-up costs and less strict labor market regulations may encourage U.S. entrepreneurs to enter a market and then to expand, if warranted. European entrepreneurs may be less willing to experiment in a market in the first place.
The general concern in the second half of the 1970s and the 1980s was that economic growth was slowing down and that it might not be possible to reverse this pattern. The 1990s and early 2000s, in which growth picked up in some countries but not in others, suggested that the problem was not universal and led to a search for the reasons for the disparities in growth rates that emerged. The OECD study described above gives some possible explanations. The findings of that study practically beg countries to examine closely their economic policies at a variety of levels and to consider changes that may add flexibility to their economies.

To spur this process, in 2005, the OECD started a new annual publication called Going for Growth. The inaugural edition identified five priority structural policy areas specific to each OECD country. The policies were categorized as either improving labor utilization or improving productivity. Suggestions for improved labor utilization ranged from changing tax policies to improving incentives for females to enter, and for older people to remain in, the workforce. Suggestions for improved productivity ranged from education reform to privatization of state-owned industries. As an example, the priorities proposed for the United States in 2005 included (1) limiting increases in labor costs by reforming Medicare to restrain health care costs, (2) encouraging private saving by shifting the burden of taxation toward consumption, (3) improving primary and secondary education, (4) reducing trade-distorting agricultural price supports, and (5) promoting transparency and accountability of corporate governance.

The 2010 edition of Going for GrowthOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Economic Policy Reforms: Going for Growth 2010, available at took stock of the progress made over the five-year period leading up to 2010. While two-thirds of the OECD countries took some legislative action in at least one priority area, the scope and depth of this progress varied immensely across countries.

Figure 8.9 " of " summarizes this progress using two alternative measures. Panel (a) shows a responsiveness rate, which measures significant actions taken, and Panel (b) shows a follow-through rate, which measures whether priorities could be dropped due to reform implementation.

As we can see, the responsiveness and follow-through rates vary widely. Turkey and the Czech Republic stand out as the countries having undertaken substantial reform. The United States stands out as the country having shown neither responsiveness nor follow-through. While the relatively strong performance of the United States at the end of the 20th century, as shown in Table 8.1 "Growing Disparities in Rates of Economic Growth", could indicate relatively less need for growth-enhancing reforms, the comparative lack of progress since 2005 raises doubt concerning the ability to maintain strong economic growth going forward.

Figure 8.9 of Going for Growth Recommendations across Countries since 2005
figure 8.9

Panel (a) measures the 2005 to 2009 rate of responsiveness to the reform priorities given to each country in 2005. Panel (b) shows the reform follow-through rates. Growth-enhancing policy reforms across countries varied widely during this period.

In closing, it is worth reiterating that economic freedom and higher incomes tend to go together. Countries could not have attained high levels of income if they had not maintained the economic freedom that contributed to high incomes in the first place. Thus, it is also likely that rates of economic growth in the future will be related to the amount of economic freedom countries choose. We shall see in later chapters that monetary and fiscal policies that are used to stabilize the economy in the short run can also have an impact on long-run economic growth.