Thanks (Michael) for asking me to answer this (very smart) question.
—”Is there something akin to a Law of Progress for systems of people or even the individual? Closer to linear or exponential, incremental or rapid?”—
I assume we mean economic growth rather than progress. Or at least, that we should separate growth from progress so that we understand their causes, and then can reflect on those causes.
In the professional vernacular (economics, and political economy) growth refers to productivity, and progress refers to upward economic class rotation.
Productivity refers to an increase in the amount of goods and services produced per hour worked, (per head of the population) over a period of time – and therefore increases in consumption over time. But it does not differentiate between ‘good productivity’ (innovation and market expansion), fake productivity (results of immigration), fraudulent productivity (rents on transport) and ‘bad productivity’ (spending down assets).
Progress provides discounts on consumption that we interpret as increase in income. In other words, when we are more productive we make better use of our time, in producing goods, services, (and now information), that people want.
Money or money substitutes, (or any trade or barter good) represent (really) a store of time saved. That is why it has value – why any good has value. So money is in fact an exceptional measure of productivity.
Progress is (often) the result of increases in productivity. Most increase in productivity occurs from discovery of means of harnessing energy. (fire, kiln, crucible, coal, steam, fluid hydrocarbons, electricity, gears, relays, transistors, software), and discounts on energy expenditure (pack animals, riding horses, Everything else that occurs in every era
And uncomfortably, the best productivity return – and the one we never think of – is genetic (eugenic reproduction, or upward redistribution of reproduction). Progress is offset by underclass reproduction (malthusian limits), underclass immigration, or upper class under-reproduction. This is because every person at the bottom is six times as costly as each person at the top is over-productive.
In fact, the unstated but obvious failure to increase american incomes after the mid 1960s is due to inflation and immigration. For most of european modernity we have been liberating dead capital (The Church) and distributing it to under utilized capital (european middle classes). But since 1965, we have been using debt to redistribute debt to underclass immigration. And as far as I know this is the entire reason for our condition. Inflation and Immigration creating a false economy.
For all of human history, most people lived on what we call about a dollar a day today. Trade in the first enlightenment prior to the bronze age collapse (prior to 1177bc), and trade during the ancient enlightenment, prior to the Abrahamic and Plague collapse (300–700 ad), then trade after the enlightenment, and prior to the late 20th century (which appears to be either an inflection point or collapse), appears to have produced a great leap in each era which defeated for a time, the fertility of Malthusian underclasses.
So, yes, is there a law of productivity. Sort of. As a rule of thumb, a person can produce about twenty percent more than he can consume, if he works at it. During periods under which we have captured a new form of energy, or a new discount on energy consumption, we can increase this. Otherwise the only means of increasing productivity is to increase the quality of the population (as did europe and china/korea/japan) because by doing so, a people decrease frictions on cooperation, and frictions on cooperation can easily fall into (almost universal) equilibrium with productivity – which is the condition of nearly all of human history.
So, armed with that understanding, China is going through what europe did, and what all post enlightenment peoples did, in the modern(steel), ancient(iron), and early bronze ages – and from what I understand, the late paleo (copper) age expansions.
Why is china different from brazil? Homogeneity of genetics and culture, A highly nationalist military, and a vast store of underutilized human capital. None of which brazil has to work with.
All but very short term opportunities, all of human economic activity is just another extension of the laws of the physical universe. Energy and Time vs Entropy. Or stated more simply; all evolutionary systems grow continuously or they die. And if they grow, they will grow by punctuated equilibriums. (which Michael mentions as ‘graduated then suddenly’.
At present we are having a bit of a debate as to whether we have captured all the low hanging fruit of the capture of hydrocarbon, steam, and electrical energy. And given declining rates of innovation, it appears so. (Information technology eradicates frictions like nothing before it, but does not produce new energy). We are closing in on if not having past, our ability to harness enough energy to advance physics. We have ‘finished’ chemistry. We have just begun biochemistry. And we are scratching the surface of sentience (which is the same problem of three different scales.)
As far as I know the debates over keynesian economics vs the business cycle, and the fallacy of infinite growth (‘technology is our savior’), and the fallacy of are over. As far as I know we are beyond the unmanaged carrying capacity of the planet (which I think is something on the order of 1B people, if not 500M). So given malthusian underclass rates of reproduction, and given the near exhaustion of the political and economic change of the enlightenment and industrial revolution, and given the peak in everything we can see, it certainly appears that productivity will decline everywhere to or under the rate of inflation. Because there is no more underutilized human capital.
If you understand this, then all economic, social, and political behavior today, and in all of history is quite simple.
The Propertarian Institute