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The whole world is eagerly awaiting historical economic data from Groningen

07 March 2018
Robert Inklaar: ‘It's important to look beyond economic growth figures. We need a broader perspective: for example, who are the winners and losers of automation and globalization?’

Robert Inklaar does not suffer from a lack of attention. The work carried out by this Professor of the Economics of Productivity and Welfare and his colleagues is having a huge global impact. The revised version of the Maddison Project Database, a treasure trove of historical statistics on economic development, led to trending graphs on the sites of the New York Times and Our World in Data. And the Penn World Table, compiled in Groningen by Inklaar et al, with its international comparisons of income and productivity, generates a steady 110,000 page views per year on the UG website.

Text: Riepko Buikema / Communication

Two databases of historical statistics may not sound particularly exciting or sexy, but they are being eagerly awaited in the world of economics, says Inklaar with obvious satisfaction. ‘We’re reaching a wide audience. Our column on Vox.eu about the new Maddison Project Database attracted 6,000 readers within a week. Not everything I write is nearly as popular’, he laughs.

Impact

‘When all is said and done, this is what it’s all about. Making a contribution. Having an impact because fellow-researchers build on your work. You see it in teaching too. Looking at our hits, we can see precisely when a new university semester begins in the USA as students go out in droves to download the data for their assignments.’

Following in the footsteps of Angus Maddison

Global interest in both mountains of statistics is the living proof that the Groningen Growth and Development Centre, founded over 25 years ago by the famous economist Angus Maddison, has evolved into a high-profile research institute. ‘Maddison wanted to understand why some countries are rich while others are poor. He tried to explain this using carefully compiled figures, designed for global use. This led to numerous research projects throughout the world, which have been a source of inspiration for various Groningen professors including Marcel Timmer, Bart Los, Bart van Ark and Herman de Jong.’

Beyond growth?

Last year saw Inklaar join the ranks of the full professors, and on 6 March 2018, he gave his inaugural lecture entitled ‘Beyond growth? Productivity and welfare in the 21st century’. ‘Productivity has grown less in this century than it has for many years. We want to understand why this is and how our prospects are shaping up. In addition, it's important to look beyond these growth figures. Growth in the economy and productivity is all well and good, but it only represents one side of a country’s economic development. We need a broader perspective: for example, who are the winners and losers of automation and globalization? In this way, I'd like to look beyond growth: is there another way to view the effects of growth?’

Angus Maddison
Angus Maddison

Story-telling

Even after he has been ceremoniously installed in his chair, Inklaar’s work will continue to be inspired by three personal mainstays: curiosity, puzzles and story-telling. ‘These are the things that drive me. Explaining the solutions to puzzles is what gets me going. How can I convince my audience that this is a thing of beauty, that it will provide them with new insights? That these are things that we should all consider important? When talking about topics such as that of my inaugural lecture, on growth and productivity in the Netherlands, you notice that this resonates. But in the same way, I would like my more historical research to resonate and connect to issues that are important today.’

Helping less prosperous countries

‘Because what can we actually do with these historical economic patterns? Take the Netherlands 200 years ago. A society where people had a lot less to spend than it does today. If you translate this to the current situation, you could compare the Netherlands of old with the Ivory Coast of today. There are plenty of countries in Africa and Asia where people are less well-off than here. Which factors are important in terms of helping these countries to develop? Which paths can we help less prosperous countries to take to help them on their way, so that everyone conditions improve for people there? The first step is to work out how the Netherlands or Germany got where they are today. You see progress through mechanization, a decreasing importance of agriculture and heightened market focus. Obviously you can’t translate the situations literally, but a long-term perspective can be of great benefit.’

Robots and artificial intelligence

Inklaar gives another example. The nature of our economy seems to be changing rapidly in response to far-reaching mechanization and automation. Are we really on the verge of a major technological revolution, complete with robots and smarter artificial intelligence? ‘There’s less need for manual labour, so certain jobs will inevitably disappear. But this isn’t the first time we’ve been through a change like this. What does it say about where we are today? What will happen if we no longer need to steer our cars or if lorry drivers become superfluous?’

‘Technology creates new opportunities, but what does this imply? Take the prawn-peelers in Zoutkamp, who have designed a peeling machine and brought the production process back to Groningen. It’s brilliant, but it’s taken years of experimenting even for such a relatively simple task. I find things like this fascinating. What does a technology need to make it practical on a wide scale? In an ideal world, can we sketch the road ahead?’

Winners and losers of technological change

‘We hope that we can then say: these are the patterns we recognize, they compare with this or that period, and they give us an idea of the point at which a historical pattern might be broken. This might shed some light on the question of who wins and who loses, how jobs will change and how these developments will affect the growth prospects of a particular country. And this is precisely the information that national and European policy makers are so eagerly awaiting.’

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Last modified:12 March 2020 9.24 p.m.
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