Ireland's economic boom of the 1990s, for example, really was remarkable. Here is Ireland's real GDP per capita (in billions of 2005 US dollars) pitted against UK, Denmark, Sweden, USA, France and Germany:
Ireland's rise is followed by far the steepest fall during the economic crisis but by 2010 it was still well ahead of the rest, bar Denmark. It will be interesting to see how significant Germany's recent boom will be over the next few years.
This is another interesting one, comparative economic growth in Latin America.
The two big trends here are the explosive rise of Chile and the decline of Venezuela. Chile's economy has grown almost threefold: 193%. Venezuela's wealth per capita shrank by nearly 7%.
The story of South America seems to be one of divergence, with countries like Chile and Uruguay soaring ahead of Bolivia and Guyana. These latter two started at the same point as Paraguay, which rushed ahead in the late 1970s and retains a mild lead.
Other countries showing improvements are Colombia (131%), Argentina (38%), Peru (50%) and Brazil (141%).
So what caused Venezuela's unique decline? The rot kicked in around 1976-77, the same year Venezuela's government nationalised its oil industry. Venezuela is one of the world's great oil exporters - by 2009 oil made up around 80% of Venezuela's export revenue - and when oil prices crashed in the 1980s they took Venezuela with them. Soaring oil prices before this provoked massive government expenditure:
The government spent more money (in absolute terms) from 1974 to 1979 than in its entire independent history dating back to 1830. Increased public outlays manifested themselves most prominently in the expansion of the bureaucracy. During the 1970s, the government established hundreds of new state-owned enterprises and decentralized agencies as the public sector assumed the role of primary engine of economic growth.... In 1975 the government nationalized the steel industry; nationalization of the oil industry followed in 1976.
A very human series of errors: euphoric growth prompting a mad spending spree that ended up with massive public debt. Hugo Chavez came into power in 1999 and GDP per capita continued falling rapidly until 2004, since when it has rebounded considerably. Chavez's rule has been controversial but the major declines happened before he came to power.
Chile is interesting too, coming from the opposite direction. Dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled until 1990, guiding the country to long, sustained growth. Today Chile has the 11th highest economic freedom in the world, according to the Heritage Foundation, by far the highest economic freedom of Latin America. (Venezuela comes fifth lowest.) It's tempting to interpret this as evidence that Chile's economic liberty outperformed Venezuela's socialism - though this may be too simplistic.
Another graph from Latin America now, this one pitting Dominican Republic against Haiti. The two nations share the island of Hispaniola, and they begin with relatively similar levels of wealth:
As a result, Haiti had a population seven times higher than its neighbor during colonial times — and it still has a somewhat larger population today, about ten million versus 8.8 million.
But Haiti’s area is only slightly more than half of that of the Dominican Republic. As a result, Haiti, with a larger population and smaller area, has double the Republic’s population density.
The combination of that higher population density and lower rainfall was the main factor behind the more rapid deforestation and loss of soil fertility on the Haitian side.
In addition, all of those French ships that brought slaves to Haiti returned to Europe with cargos of Haitian timber, so that Haiti’s lowlands and mid- mountain slopes had been largely stripped of timber by the mid-19th century.
Later economic and environmental policy differences between the dictators of either nation exacerbated these differences. Dominican Republic remains poor, but it is rising. Haiti is in real trouble.
Finally let's look at China's rise in the Far East. Below I compare China with Indonesia and Philippines. From a position of abject poverty in the 1960s, China bounds past its neighbours in the late 1990s. Indonesia, in turn, overtakes Philippines, slowing only briefly during the economic crash of the late 1990s. Here China's growth seems worthy of the praise and attention it has received.
The old Asian economic heavyweights remain far out of reach. China may have the second biggest economy in the world but this is shared across a gargantuan population. The average Chinese individual is still far poorer than individuals in their smaller neighbours.