Economic growth is about more than becoming richer

As a society moves from poverty to affluence, more or less everything changes. Just look at fast growing cities in the developing world.

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Luohan Si Arhat temple, Chongqing, China

When we discuss rapid economic growth in the developing world, the focus tends to be on China. Which is not unreasonable: its growth has been the fastest and because of its size the most consequential for the rest of the world. But it is happening in plenty of other countries too.

And when it does it changes everything. It’s not simply that people get richer. Economic growth relies on and itself triggers a massive series of social changes: families get smaller, people start living a substantial part of their life in retirement and governments get more democratic. However, none of these changes is as visible as urbanisation.

As an illustration of this, let me point you in the direction of this video from Radio Free Asia:

I was interested in it mainly because I’d been living in Hanoi for most of the past year. According to the video a quarter of a million people move from rural areas to the Vietnamese capital and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) each year.

When I first moved to Hanoi I felt that doing so must not have been unlike moving to Manchester during the industrial revolution. Now I think that’s wrong. Economic development in places like Vietnam is happening far faster than it did in Europe and North America. Even when the UK’s GDP per capita growth was at its fastest it still took decades to double. Vietnam recently doubled its in seven years. And of course this is visible in Vietnamese and Chinese cities. They are startlingly new. You may have a historic core – though that’s not a given – but around it will be suburbs where a twenty year old building looks venerable. And new suburbs continue to grow all the time. Part of this is the result of old buildings being pulled down but mostly it is simply down to the fact that housing a vastly larger number of people requires a vast amount of new construction. The result of this is that the impact of economic growth goes far beyond how much money they have, it can literally transform the physical environment in which they live.

More subtly it influences the tenor of a society. I remember one of my colleagues in Vietnam observing that even if people were in absolute terms much less well off than the ones we knew back home there was something invigorating about their confidence that tomorrow would be better than today. This tallies with an argument made by Benjamin Friedman in his book the Moral Consequences of Economic GrowthHe believes that if people feel their own living standards are rising they are likely to be resentful of others and won’t see the future as threatening. That’s likely to make them more open-minded and open to positive social change. Even if it’s not then living in a state of optimism is simply a lot more pleasant than the alternative. And you may get a new city into the bargain too.


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