The Future of Economic Growth

CAMBRIDGE – Perhaps for the first time in modern history, the future of the global economy lies in the hands of poor countries. The United States and Europe struggle on as wounded giants, casualties of their financial excesses and political paralysis. They seem condemned by their heavy debt burdens to years of stagnation or slow growth, widening inequality, and possible social strife.

Much of the rest of the world, meanwhile, is brimming with energy and hope. Policymakers in China, Brazil, India, and Turkey worry about too much growth, rather than too little. By some measures, China is already the world’s largest economy, and emerging-market and developing countries account for more than half of the world’s output. The consulting firm McKinsey has christened Africa, long synonymous with economic failure, the land of “lions on the move.”

As is often the case, fiction best reflects the changing mood. The émigré Russian novelist Gary Shteyngart’s comic novel Super Sad True Love Story is as good a guide as any to what might lie ahead. Set in the near future, the story unfolds against the background of a US that has slid into financial ruin and single-party dictatorship, and that finds itself embroiled in yet another pointless foreign military adventure – this time in Venezuela. All the real work in corporations is done by skilled immigrants; Ivy League colleges have adopted the names of their Asian counterparts in order to survive; the economy is beholden to China’s central bank; and “yuan-pegged US dollars” have replaced regular currency as the safe asset of choice.

But can developing countries really carry the world economy? Much of the optimism about their economic prospects is the result of extrapolation. The decade preceding the global financial crisis was in many ways the best ever for the developing world. Growth spread far beyond a few Asian countries, and, for the first time since the 1950’s, the vast majority of poor countries experienced what economists call convergence – a narrowing of the income gap with rich countries.