How long have we been talking about “economic development”? And what about concepts like “economic growth,” “poverty” and “inequality”? How old are they in the literature, and how has the frequency of their use changed over time?
We can now answer such questions thanks to a new software tool, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, introduced in a research paper by Jean-Baptiste Michel and others (13 authors are listed, plus the Google Books Team); the paper has just been published in the journal Science, and was picked up in the New York Times. The authors have formed a corpus of over 500 billion words (360 billion in English) from over 5 million books spanning 1800-2000.
So how do various economic terms fare in usage?
Figure 1 gives time profiles for selected issues related to development. We see that “economic development” emerged as an idea around 1900. It gained usage slowly until 1950, at which time there was a sharp increase in pace; indeed, its share of all words increased by a factor of five in the 20 years after 1950, though falling back somewhat after 1970. The term “Third World” appeared around 1960, ballooned in the next 20 years, but faded rapidly in the 1990s. “Foreign aid” was used back into the early 19th century, though not often; the term also picked up after 1950, though fading from use after 1965. (The terms “development aid” and “development assistance” compensated for some of this decline in the 1980s and ‘90s, though their frequencies were still small, and I did not include them in the graph.)
References to “famine” were common in the early 19th century but declined over time, while “migration” and “inequality” rose in prominence. “Climate change” emerged in the 1990s (“global warming” followed a similar profile, though I did not include it to reduce the clutter) as did “globalization,” which shows a very rapid rise from the late 1980s, which has no doubt continued.
“Poverty” is a more common and (clearly) much older concept. The word was becoming steadily less frequent (relative to the volume of all words) through the 18th and 19th centuries and into the 20th century up to the mid-1950s. Then the trend reversed, and markedly so in the 1960s. This peaked in the 1970s, with a decline thereafter, followed by a marked resurgence of interest starting in the mid-1980s
Figure 2 drills down further to track various economic concepts. “Economics” appeared as a term in the late 19th century (though “political economy” was used similarly prior to that). “Taxation” was the most frequently mentioned topic amongst those selected in all years up to 1970, when macroeconomic issues (“fiscal”, “monetary” and later “deficit”) started to get more attention. (It may be that taxation started to become an accepted fact of life after the Second World War.)
Prior to the Great Depression, the word “fiscal” was more common than “monetary.” The latter word had an upsurge in the wake of the Depression, and again in the 1980s and ‘90s. Mentions of “deficit” rose over time, peaking in 1990. Mentions of the “exchange rate” ballooned in the 1970s and ‘80s, but subsided from the mid 1990s. The word “macroeconomic” followed a similar course. “International trade” has had a more steady following, with interest peaking in the 1990s; the previous high point was at the end of the Second World War.
The phrase “economic growth” appeared on the scene around 1950. It is notable how much interest in inequality has kept up with interest in economic growth. There is no sign here that concern about inequality has abated with the rising prominence of economic growth as a topic in the literature.
The 20th century saw a huge expansion in mentions of education and schooling in the literature (Figure 3). The frequency of mentions of “health” stayed fairly steady until about 1970, but has risen sharply since then, doubling in 30 years. In the late 19th century, “disease” was used more frequently than “health” or “education.”
Finally, let’s looks at references to specific countries. Figure 5 plots my selections. What is most striking here is the convergence. England and France (which started well ahead of the rest) are referred to less often over time. “America” saw generally higher frequencies over time. (The two World Wars stand out, with references to “America” peaking after those to “Germany.”) India and China have become steadily more prominent.
It is a super fun tool. I checked Keynes vs Friedman. Keynes rose around 1930s and was stagnant till 1980s and then again rises to have declined a little in 2000 (may be when extended to 2010 we see a surge again). Friedman surges from 1960 onwards and surpasses Keynes in 1980s and remains higher till 2000. Could decline when extended to 2010.
IMF and World Bank show World Bank has always been higher than IMF perhaps because of a much bigger mandate.
Crisis also surges from 1960 onwards.
Surprisingly, Neoclassical usage drops from 1990 onwards, whereas Free Markets rises around 1960, falls in 1980 (may be because of many crisis) and then rises post 1990s (Great Moderation phase). We see an opposite trend for Government with a decline in 1990s.
Economic Policy also rises from 1960 onwards
Hence, usage of words in books is somewhat in line with broad economic theory as well.