Jun 232012

Comparing historical standards of living for different countries over long periods of time is extremely challenging. This post relies on data from Gapminder which has attempted to do this for all countries in the world since 1800. Their approach relies on quantitative and qualitative data from hundreds of references and a number of carefully documented assumptions. They obtained input from a very wide range of official and unofficial documents and combined these to come up with their best estimates. In some cases they admit that some of their numbers for years before 1950 are essentially well-educated “guesstimates”. [For more details, see “Documentation for GDP per capita by purchasing power parities” (pdf file).]

Though the Gapminder data have some limitations, they are about the best source for comparing standards of living in Mexico since 1800 with a number of other middle income countries. The measure of standard of living used in this post is the Gapminder indicator of Gross Domestic Product per capita (GDPpc) at constant 2005 US dollars based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) which measures total goods and services produced by an economy independent of exchange rates.

The data indicate that Mexico’s GDPpc has grown over eleven-fold since 1800 from over $1,000 to almost $12,000. This increase sounds very impressive but actually represents an average annual increase of under 1.2% per year. The eleven-fold increase demonstrates the power of compounding. The growth has not been constant. During the 19thcentury Mexico’s GDPpc actually decreased slightly up until 1870, but then expanded relatively rapidly under the Porfirio Diaz regime, almost doubling between 1870 and 1900. For the century as a whole it increased an average of about 0.5% per year. The rate of increase more than doubled during the first half of the 20th century to 1.2%. It doubled again to 2.5% during the second half of the 20th century, which included the so-called “Mexican Miracle”, which started in the 1940s. After 2000, as a result of the very severe recession in the USA, Mexico’s growth slowed to 0.6% per year for the period 2000-2011. Growth is expected to increase significantly during the present decade.

Income growth in Mexico since 1800 (Gapminder data) 

(Incomes values are at constant 2005 US dollars based on Purchasing Power Parity)

Country18001900195020002011Growth/yr, 1800-2011
South Korea59667070815,69225,2561.8%
South Africa759na4,7667,3349,2841.2%

The table compares the 1800 to 2011 GDPpc of Mexico with 12 other middle and low income countries. In 1800, Mexico was ahead of all other countries in the table except Cuba. By 1900, Argentina had moved past and its GDPpc was more than double that of Mexico. Argentina’s GDPpc growth rate for the 19thcentury was over three times that of Mexico. Chile also moved ahead of Mexico. On the other hand, Brazil grew very slowly at only about 0.2% per year during the century; it actually declined between 1870 and 2000. By 1900, its GDPpc was about equal to that of India and a third that of Mexico.

In 1800, China’s GDPpc trailed Mexico by only about 6.5%; but declined by about 0.2% per year during the 19thcentury when China’s economy seriously stagnated as a result of opium wars and numerous internal rebellions which took from 20 to 40 million lives. By 1900, China’s GDPpc was less than half that of Mexico. India, South Korea and Indonesia also grew very slowly during the century. Their GDPpcs went from about half that of Mexico to about a third. There was no Asian economic miracle during the 19th century.

By 1950, Mexico trailed Argentina, Chile, Peru, Cuba and South Africa. From 1900 to 1950, the GDPpc of Mexico grew by a respectable 1.2% per year; however Peru and Brazil grew twice as fast. At the other end, the Asian countries did rather poorly. For example, China’s GDPpc declined by an amazing 1.2% per year from 1900 to 1950, when the country suffered from competing warlords, a protracted civil war, and Japanese invasion. By 1950, China’s GDPpc was less than half of what it had been in 1800 and also was behind India and less than a seventh that of Mexico. From 1900 to 1950, India’s GDPpc grew by only 0.01% per year while Indonesia and South Korea did only marginally better. The mid 20thcentury wars were very damaging to the Asian economies.

By 2000, Mexico had almost caught up with Argentina and had surpassed Chile, Peru, Cuba and South Africa. While Mexico’s growth from 1950 to 2000 of about 2.5% per year was very impressive, Brazil grew even faster at 2.9% per year. South Korea’s GDPpc surged ahead by an amazing 6.4% per year during the second half of the 20th century; it increased over twenty-fold from about $700 to over $15,000. China also grew at a very impressive 3.8% per year posting over a six fold increase. These two countries recovered briskly after their numerous wars and kept moving ahead at a rapid clip.

During the years between 2000 and 2011, Mexico had the worst performance of the countries in the table, growing at only 1.6% per year. China grew over eight times faster than Mexico; India and Russia grew almost five times faster. The growth rates of the other Latin American countries in the table – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba and Peru – were over twice that of Mexico. However, the Mexican economy is closely tied to the USA where GDPpc grew less than half as fast as Mexico. As mentioned previously, Mexico is expected to grow briskly during the rest of this decade.

It is interesting to look over the full 211 year period from 1800 to 2011. Interestingly throughout the whole period the GDPpc of Iran slightly trailed that of Mexico. The gap between these two countries closed a bit during the 211 year period. As a result of its rapid surge in recent decades, South Korea grew the fastest at 1.8% per year; it moved from one of the poorest in 1800 to the richest in the table. Other solid growth rates were posted by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Iran and Russia. The slowest growth occurred in India, at only 0.8% per year, followed by Indonesia and China at slightly less than 1.0% per year. However, these Asian countries are now growing considerably faster than the other countries in the table. Looking at income growth over the last two hundred years puts the current situation in perspective. It is interesting to speculate on what the next two hundred years will bring, something we will return to in future posts.

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