The Slowness of Convergence
Although economic convergence between the high-income countries and the rest of the world seems possible and even likely, it will proceed slowly. Consider, for example, a country that starts off with a GDP per capita of $40,000, which would roughly represent a typical high-income country today, and another country that starts out at $4,000, which is roughly the level in low-income but not impoverished countries like Indonesia, Guatemala, or Egypt. Say that the rich country chugs along at a 2% annual growth rate of GDP per capita, while the poorer country grows at the aggressive rate of 7% per year. After 30 years, GDP per capita in the rich country will be $72,450 (that is, $40,000 (1 + 0.02)30) while in the poor country it will be $30,450 (that is, $4,000 (1 + 0.07)30). Convergence has occurred; the rich country used to be 10 times as wealthy as the poor one, and now it is only about 2.4 times as wealthy. Even after 30 consecutive years of very rapid growth, however, people in the low-income country are still likely to feel quite poor compared to people in the rich country. Moreover, as the poor country catches up, its opportunities for catch-up growth are reduced, and its growth rate may slow down somewhat.
The slowness of convergence illustrates again that small differences in annual rates of economic growth become huge differences over time. The high-income countries have been building up their advantage in standard of living over decades—more than a century in some cases. Even in an optimistic scenario, it will take decades for the low-income countries of the world to catch up significantly.
The story of modern economic growth can be told by looking at calorie consumption over time. The dramatic rise in incomes allowed the average person to eat better and consume more calories. How did these incomes increase? The neoclassical growth consensus uses the aggregate production function to suggest that the period of modern economic growth came about because of increases in inputs such as technology and physical and human capital. Also important was the way in which technological progress combined with physical and human capital deepening to create growth and convergence. The issue of distribution of income notwithstanding, it is clear that the average worker can afford more calories in 2014 than in 1875.
Aside from increases in income, there is another reason why the average person can afford more food. Modern agriculture has allowed many countries to produce more food than they need. Despite having more than enough food, however, many governments and multilateral agencies have not solved the food distribution problem. In fact, food shortages, famine, or general food insecurity are caused more often by the failure of government macroeconomic policy, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. Sen has conducted extensive research into issues of inequality, poverty, and the role of government in improving standards of living. Macroeconomic policies that strive toward stable inflation, full employment, education of women, and preservation of property rights are more likely to eliminate starvation and provide for a more even distribution of food.
Because we have more food per capita, global food prices have decreased since 1875. The prices of some foods, however, have decreased more than the prices of others. For example, researchers from the University of Washington have shown that in the United States, calories from zucchini and lettuce are 100 times more expensive than calories from oil, butter, and sugar. Research from countries like India, China, and the United States suggests that as incomes rise, individuals want more calories from fats and protein and fewer from carbohydrates. This has very interesting implications for global food production, obesity, and environmental consequences. Affluent urban India has an obesity problem much like many parts of the United States. The forces of convergence are at work.