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Visualizing Economic Growth in Dictatorships

Center for Data Innovation: “The Economist has created a visualization illustrating irregularities in dictatorships’ reported economic growth. The visualization groups countries by the level of freedom in their political system, with free countries appearing as yellow circles, partly free countries appearing as pink circles, and not free countries appearing as red circles. It then uses satellite data to estimate countries’ real gross domestic products (GDPs), and contrasts these figures against countries’ reported GDPs from 2002 to 2021. According to the visualization, the less free a country is, the more likely it is to report a false GDP.”

The Economist: “In a peer-reviewed article that will be published this month, Luis Martinez, an economist, investigated dictators’ GDP-growth figures. To do so, he first obtained data on the brightness of countries’ lights at night, as measured by satellites, a well-known proxy for GDP. He combined it with data from Freedom House, a think-tank, on countries’ political systems. Assuming that the most democratic countries reported growth figures accurately, he then used the satellite data to estimate if other countries under- or over-stated theirs. The data showed that dictators’ reported GDP tended to grow much faster than satellite images of their countries would suggest. This could not be explained by their economies being based on different industries from other countries, or that people there had lower average incomes. Curious patterns in the data suggest manipulation as the cause. Mr Martinez found that the mismatch between satellite and GDP data did not appear in dictatorships until they were too rich to receive some types of aid: only showing up when governments would not forfeit money. The irregularities were most prevalent in the parts of GDP figures that are easiest to manipulate such as investment and government spending, and was bigger when these countries’ growth was low compared with others’. And as countries moved towards or away from dictatorship, their numbers grew more or less suspicious…” Chart sources: “How much should we trust the dictator’s GDP growth estimates?”, by L.R. Martinez, 2022; Freedom House; World Bank

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