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Chart of the Week

2,000 Years of Economic History in One Chart

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Over 2,000 Years of Economic History in One Chart

Over 2,000 Years of Economic History in One Chart

All major powers compared by GDP from the year 1 AD

The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.

Long before the invention of modern day maps or gunpowder, the planet’s major powers were already duking it out for economic and geopolitical supremacy.

Today’s chart tells that story in the simplest terms possible. By showing the changing share of the global economy for each country from 1 AD until now, it compares economic productivity over a mind-boggling time period.

Originally published in a research letter by Michael Cembalest of JP Morgan, we’ve updated it based on the most recent data and projections from the IMF. If you like, you can still find the original chart (which goes to 2008) at The Atlantic. It’s also worth noting that the original source for all the data up until 2008 is from the late Angus Maddison, a famous economic historian that published estimates on population, GDP, and other figures going back to Roman times.

A Major Caveat

If you looked at the chart in any depth, you probably noticed a big problem with it. The time periods between data points aren’t equal – in fact, they are not close at all.

The first gap on the x-axis is 1,000 years and the second is 500 years. Then, as we get closer to modernity, the chart uses mostly 10 year intervals. Changing the scale like this is a big data visualization “no no”, as rightly pointed out in a blog post by The Economist.

While we completely agree, we have a made an exception in this case. Why? Because getting good economic data from the early 20th century is already difficult enough – and so trying to find data in regular intervals before then seems like a fool’s errand. Likewise, a stacked bar chart with different years also doesn’t really do this story justice.

We encountered similar historical data issues in our Richest People of Human History graphic, and at the end of the day decided it was primarily for fun. Like today’s chart, it has its share of imperfections – but ultimately, it provides a great amount of context and serves as a conversation starter.

Our Interpretation

Caveats aside, there are many stories that materialize from this simple chart. They include the colossal impact of the Industrial Revolution on the West, as well as the momentum behind the re-emergence of Asia.

But there’s one other story that ties it all together: the exponential rate of human economic growth that occurred over the last century.

World GDP per capita over time

For thousands of years, economic progress was largely linear and linked to population growth. Without machines or technological innovations, one person could only produce so much with their time and resources.

More recently, innovations in technology and energy allowed the “hockey stick” effect to come into play.

It happened in Western Europe and North America first, and now it’s happening in other parts of the world. As this technological playing field evens, economies like China and India – traditionally some of the largest economies throughout history – are now making their big comeback.

Editor’s note: We have adjusted the main graphic as of Sep 10, 2017 to change the description of the chart. It now says “Share of GDP (World Powers)” instead of the previous “Share of world GDP”, which was technically an inaccurate description.

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Chart of the Week

Which Countries Have the Most Wealth Per Capita?

How do the rankings of the world’s most affluent countries change when using different metrics to measure wealth per capita?

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Which Countries Have the Most Wealth Per Capita?

Our animated chart this week uses data from the ninth Credit Suisse Global Wealth report, which ranks countries by average wealth, calculated as gross assets per adult citizen.

While using such a metric certainly gives a quick snapshot of wealth per capita, it doesn’t necessarily show the complete picture.

Some argue, for example, that calculating the mean doesn’t factor in the gap between the richest and poorest in a population—also known as wealth inequality. For this reason, we’ve compared this number to median wealth for each country, providing a separate angle on which countries really have the most wealth per capita.

Mean or Median: Which Makes More Sense?

Below, we’ve visualized a hypothetical example of two groups of people, each earning various sums of money, to show how average (mean) and median calculations make a difference.

Mean vs Median Comparison

What can we observe in both datasets?

  • Total wealth: $2,000
  • Total people: 15 people
  • Average wealth: $2,000 ÷ 15 = $133

However, that’s where the similarities end. In the first group, wealth is distributed more evenly, with the disparity between the lowest-paid and highest-paid being $300. The median wealth for this group reaches $100, which is close to the average value. In the second group, this gap climbs to $495, and the median wealth drops sharply to only $30.

Scaling up this example to the true wealth of nations, we can see how the median wealth provides a more accurate picture of the typical adult, especially in societies that are less equal.

Let’s see how this shakes out when ranking the world’s most affluent countries.

Ranking Top Contenders on Wealth per Capita

When it comes to wealth per capita, it’s clear that Australia and Switzerland lead the pack. In fact, the data shows that both nations top the lists for both mean and median wealth.

However, both nations also have the highest absolute household debt-to-GDP ratios in the world: in 2018, Switzerland’s levels reached nearly 129%, while Australia followed behind at 120%.

Here is a full ranking of the top 20 countries by mean and median wealth:

RankCountryMean wealth per adultCountryMedian wealth per adult
#1🇨🇭 Switzerland$530,244🇦🇺 Australia$191,453
#2🇦🇺 Australia$411,060🇨🇭 Switzerland$183,339
#3🇺🇸 United States$403,974🇧🇪 Belgium$163,429
#4🇧🇪 Belgium$313,045🇳🇱 Netherlands$114,935
#5🇳🇴 Norway$291,103🇫🇷 France$106,827
#6🇳🇿 New Zealand$289,798🇨🇦 Canada$106,342
#7🇨🇦 Canada$288,263🇯🇵 Japan$103,861
#8🇩🇰 Denmark$286,712🇳🇿 New Zealand$98,613
#9🇸🇬 Singapore$283,118🇬🇧 United Kingdom$97,169
#10🇫🇷 France$280,580🇸🇬 Singapore$91,656
#11🇬🇧 United Kingdom$279,048🇪🇸 Spain$87,188
#12🇳🇱 Netherlands$253,205🇳🇴 Norway$80,054
#13🇸🇪 Sweden$249,765🇮🇹 Italy$79,239
#14🇭🇰 Hong Kong$244,672🇹🇼 Taiwan$78,177
#15🇮🇪 Ireland$232,952🇮🇪 Ireland$72,473
#16🇦🇹 Austria$231,368🇦🇹 Austria$70,074
#17🇯🇵 Japan$227,235🇰🇷 South Korea$65,463
#18🇮🇹 Italy$217,727🇺🇸 United States$61,667
#19🇩🇪 Germany$214,893🇩🇰 Denmark$60,999
#20🇹🇼 Taiwan$212,375🇭🇰 Hong Kong$58,905

The United States boasts 41% of the world’s millionaires, but it’s clear that the fruits of labor are enjoyed by only a select group—average wealth ($403,974) is almost seven times higher than median wealth ($61,667). This growing inequality gap knocks the country down to 18th place for median wealth.

The Nordic countries of Norway and Denmark can be found in the top ten for average wealth, but they drop to 12th place ($80,054) and 19th place ($60,999) respectively for median wealth. Despite this difference, these countries also provide a strong safety net—including access to healthcare and education—to more vulnerable citizens.

Finally, wealth in Japan is fairly evenly distributed among its large middle class, which lands it in seventh place on the median wealth list at $103,861. One possible reason is that the pay gap ratio between Japanese CEOs and the average worker is much lower than other developed nations.

With reducing income inequality as a priority for many countries around the world, how might this list change in coming years?

Footnote: All data estimates are using mid-2018 values, and reflected in US$.

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Chart of the Week

Mapped: The World’s Oldest Democracies

This map shows the 25 oldest democracies in the world, based on how long current democratic governments have been in continuous power.

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Mapped: The World’s Oldest Democracies

Which country today is the world’s oldest democracy?

It’s a loaded question ⁠— as you’ll see, there is plenty of nuance involved in the answer.

Depending on how you define things, there are many jurisdictions that can lay claim to this coveted title. Let’s dive into some of these technicalities, and then we can provide context for how we’ve defined democracy in today’s particular chart.

Laying the Claim

If you’re looking for the very first instance of democracy, credit is often attributed to Ancient Athens. It’s there the term originated, based on the Greek words demos (“common people”) and kratos (“strength”). In the 6th century BC, the city-state allowed all landowners to speak at the legislative assembly, blazing a path that would be followed by democracies in the future.

However, Ancient Athens wasn’t really a country in the modern sense. It’s also not around anymore, so that certainly disqualifies the oldest continuous democratic country today.

Iceland and the Isle of Man both have interesting claims to democracy. Each has a parliamentary body that is over 1,000 years old, making them the longest standing democratic institutions in the world. But Iceland only got its independence in 1944 from Denmark — and while it is self-governing, the Isle of Man is not a country.

Of course, when we’re talking about democracy today, we’re really talking about universal suffrage. New Zealand may have the best claim here — by 1893, the self-governing colony allowed all women and ethnicities to vote in elections.

A Common Set of Criteria

While many civilizations, institutions, and societies have a rightful claim to contributing to democracy (including many we did not mention above), measuring the world’s oldest democracies today requires following a common set of criteria.

In today’s chart, we used data from Boix, C., Miller, M., & Rosato, S. (2013, 2018), which looks at the age of democratic regimes for 219 countries since the year 1800. Countries are classified as democracies if they meet the following conditions:

  1. Executive:
    The executive is directly or indirectly elected in popular elections and is responsible either directly to voters or to a legislature.
  2. Legislature:
    The legislature (or the executive if elected directly) is chosen in free and fair elections.
  3. Voting:
    A majority of adult men has the right to vote.
  4. Democracies also have to be continuous in order to count. Although France has important democratic origins, the country is currently on its fifth republic since the French Revolution, thanks to Napoleon, Vichy France, and other instances where things went sideways.

    While the above criteria isn’t perfect, it does create a stable playing field to assess when countries adopted democratic systems in principle. (However, the exclusion of certain populations, notably women and specific ethnicities, in being given the right to vote, or to be elected to legislative assemblies, is another story).

    The Oldest Democracies, by Number of Years

    Using the above criteria, here is a list of the world’s 25 oldest democracies:

    RankCountryAge of Democracy (Years)
    #1🇺🇸 United States219*
    #2🇨🇭 Switzerland171
    #3🇳🇿 New Zealand162
    #4🇨🇦 Canada152
    #5🇬🇧 United Kingdom134
    #6🇱🇺 Luxembourg129
    #7🇧🇪 Belgium125
    #8🇳🇱 Netherlands122
    #9🇳🇴 Norway119
    #10🇦🇺 Australia118
    #11🇩🇰 Denmark118
    #12🇸🇪 Sweden108
    #13🇫🇮 Finland102
    #14🇮🇸 Iceland101
    #15🇮🇪 Ireland97
    #16🇸🇲 San Marino74
    #17🇦🇹 Austria73
    #18🇫🇷 France73
    #19🇮🇹 Italy73
    #20🇮🇱 Israel71
    #21🇨🇷 Costa Rica70
    #22🇮🇳 India69
    #23🇯🇵 Japan67
    #24🇨🇴 Colombia61
    #25🇯🇲 Jamaica57

    * The data goes back to 1800, so U.S. democracy can be considered at least 219 years old.

    Using this specific criteria, there is only one country with continuous democracy for more than 200 years (The United States), and fourteen countries with democracies older than a century.

    As you’ll notice in the data, many countries became democracies after World War II. The Japanese Empire, for example, was occupied by Allied Forces and then dissolved. It then regained sovereignty afterwards, emerging as a newly democratic regime.

    Final notes: The data here goes back to 1800, and we have adjusted it to be current as of 2019. One change we made was to Tunisia, which is listed as the 24th oldest democracy in the data. Based on our due diligence on the subject, we felt it was appropriate to leave it off the list, given that most experts see the country as only achieving the status in 2014 in the post-Arab Spring era.

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