Cancelled conference papers: Trust and Growth Patterns

The conference season this spring is among the many activities killed by the corona panic. A large number of scientific conferences have had to be cancelled because people aren’t allowed to travel anymore. Those cancellations have the unfortunate effect that many research efforts have come to a screeching halt, and many of us now have leftover papers and presentations. We’ll either never get any feedback on those papers or we’ll have to postpone them to potential events in the autumn. We’re also going to lack the inspiration that we usually get from watching colleagues presenting their new papers and interacting with them in person at conferences. It makes one wonder if it is possible to avoid a research recession similar to the coming economic recession.

However, the problems need not keep one from presenting research in one or the other form even though it cannot occur in the usual way. Perhaps one can even make a tiny difference on this blog? We’re therefore making an attempt with a short ‘cancellation series’ about new research. We’ll begin with the paper ”Social Trust and Patterns of Growth”, which I was supposed to present at the annual meetings of the European Public Choice Society; interested readers can find the full paper here.

The background of the paper is a literature that has emerged since the mid-1990s. After Steve Knack and Phil Keefer’s seminal paper from 1997, which kickstarted a literature that I surveyed a couple of years ago in an Oxford Handbook, a growing number of studies document that social trust – the degree of trust people typically have in fellow citizens they don’t know – is an important determinant of long-run economic growth. Yet, which element or elements of growth are affected by trust remains an open question.

I therefore ask in ”Social Trust and Patterns of Growth” just how trust affects long-run growth. I start with Solow and Swan’s basic observation that economic growth derives from two separate types of sources: factor accumulation and factor productivity. Growth caused by accumulation implies that people work longer hours, that more people work, that they have more physical capital – machinery, buildings etc. – to work with, and that they have more human capital (i.e. they are better educated). Growth caused by productivity improvements and innovation implies that the economy creates more value with the use of fewer resources. The theoretical problem is that all of those elements could in principle be affected by social trust. Several papers by, e.g., Paul Zak and Steve Knack and Jacob Dearmon and Robin Grier find that trust is associated with more investments in physical as well as human capital, Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc and Andrei Shleifer emphasize that higher levels of trust are associated with easier regulation – and if that also implies that labour markets are less regulated, it will increase employment – while Semih Akçomak and Hanna Müller-Zick as well as my own work with Pierre-Guillaume Méon suggest that trust affects innovative activity and productivity development. The literature therefore makes it very difficult to claim anything about which channel is more affected by trust.

The empirical clue of the paper is that available data in the Penn World Tables actually allow one to perform what is known as a Solow decomposition of long-run growth in 64 countries. That implies that we know approximately how much each component – employment, human capital, investments and productivity – affect growth, and we can estimate the degree to which each component is affected by social trust. In other words, it is possible for a sample of 64 countries not only to asses how much trust affects the growth rate, but also how it affects the pattern of growth. I do so in non-overlapping five-year periods back to 1977.

The results of doing so are surprisingly clear: A trust difference of one standard deviation – approximately the difference between France and Germany (or, interestingly, between the Italian regions of Sicily and Veneto= – yields approximately a 20 percent faster growth rate of productivity, which implies a 10 percent faster growth rate in real GDP per capita. Conversely, it turns out that other growth elements – those associated with factor accumulation – are not robustly affected by social trust.

The answer to the basic question of the paper, which I cannot present and my colleagues cannot see under normal circumstances these days, is that high-trust countries typically exhibit growth patterns in which long-run growth is driven by productivity improvements. It also implies that high-trust societies will typically be ahead of the rest of the world in terms of productivity – although low-trust countries will still copy their advances at some point in time – and permanently be better at using the resources they have at their disposal.

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