Remember the optimism with which Americans greeted the new millennium? Everything seemed to be going our way: the U.S. economy was nearly a third of global output, household net worth was rising fast and the federal budget was in surplus. Today, that era of hope seems far away. America’s share of global output has shrunk steadily for ten straight years, job creation has averaged less than 1% annually, and the federal budget deficit has reached $1.5 trillion (over 10% of GDP). The political system seems paralyzed and pessimism is the order of the day.
Fortunately, the current recession seems to be ending. But what if the decline we have seen in recent years is a secular trend rather than a short-term, cyclical phenomenon? What if the erosion continues for another decade, or two? Professor Peter Turchin of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut thinks that is a real possibility. Turchin wrote a letter to the British science journal Nature that was published in the February 4 issue (page 608) arguing America and Europe are in the midst of a predictable, 50-year cycle that will generate political unrest and social decay for many years to come. He says that since the 1970s, the U.S. has seen “stagnating or declining real wages, a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, and exploding public debt.”
Turchin believes these negative indicators are related, and that he has seen similar patterns in other societies. Last year, Princeton University Press published a book by him and co-author Sergey Nefedov titled Secular Cycles, that sought to analyze the causes of long-term “oscillations” in human societies. The book’s goal was to integrate demographic and economic research by people such as David Ricardo with political analyses of elite behavior in order to understand why societies grow or decline over long stretches of time. It is somewhat akin to the “wave” theory of market economics advanced in the 1930s by Russian Nicholai Kondratiev, but much less mechanistic.
Although Turchin’s research is focused mainly on agrarian societies, he thinks it has relevance for present-day America. He believes the U.S. encounters “instability spikes” every 50 years or so — such as the riots and civil unrest in the late 1960s — and that it is due for another such spike in the coming decade. The cause is traceable mainly to demographic and economic trends: “Oversupply of labor leads to depressed wages and chronic unemployment or underemployment for a substantial part of the population. On the other hand, employers, both rural and urban, profit greatly from this economic situation.” Because different social strata experience the decline at different rates, “when commoners are already suffering from economic difficulties, the elites are enjoying a golden age.” Eventually, though, the trends catch up with elites too, leading to widespread frustration and unrest.
I’ve never been a big fan of deterministic theories of human behavior, but Turchin’s approach seems to capture many features of the current social landscape. His ideas also are a useful warning for leaders who wrongly assume that our political system can absorb ever-increasing levels of frustration without eventually failing. It is a hard thing to accept that we all share a common genome with Hitler and Caligula, and harder still to accept that the difference between our genome and that of chimps is only 2%. But the practical lesson of those facts is that no matter how well things seem to be going, the potential for chaos is always present. We need a political system that recognizes the fragility of our social arrangements, and is willing to compromise before tensions grow too great.
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