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Book Review: Ages Of Discord

I.

I recently reviewed Secular Cycles, which presents a demographic-structural theory of the growth and decline of pre-industrial civilizations. When land is plentiful, population grows and the economy prospers. When land reaches its carrying capacity and income declines to subsistence, the area is at risk of famines, diseases, and wars – which kill enough people that land becomes plentiful again. During good times, elites prosper and act in unity; during bad times, elites turn on each other in an age of backstabbing and civil strife. It seemed pretty reasonable, and authors Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov had lots of data to support it.

Ages of Discord is Turchin’s attempt to apply the same theory to modern America. There are many reasons to think this shouldn’t work, and the book does a bad job addressing them. So I want to start by presenting Turchin’s data showing such cycles exist, so we can at least see why the hypothesis might be tempting. Once we’ve seen the data, we can decide how turned off we want to be by the theoretical problems.

The first of Turchin’s two cyclic patterns is a long cycle of national growth and decline. In Secular Cycles‘ pre-industrial societies, this pattern lasted about 300 years; in Ages of Discord‘s picture of the modern US, it lasts about 150:

This summary figure combines many more specific datasets. For example, archaeologists frequently assess the prosperity of a period by the heights of its skeletons. Well-nourished, happy children tend to grow taller; a layer with tall skeletons probably represents good times during the relevant archaeological period; one with stunted skeletons probably represents famine and stress. What if we applied this to the modern US?


Average US height and life expectancy over time. As far as I can tell, the height graph is raw data. The life expectancy graph is the raw data minus an assumed constant positive trend – that is, given that technological advance is increasing life expectancy at a linear rate, what are the other factors you see when you subtract that out? The exact statistical logic be buried in Turchin’s source (Historical Statistics of the United States, Carter et al 2004), which I don’t have and can’t judge.

This next graph is the median wage divided by GDP per capita, a crude measure of income equality:


Lower values represent more inequality.

This next graph is median female age at first marriage. Turchin draws on research suggesting this tracks social optimism. In good times, young people can easily become independent and start supporting a family; in bad times, they will want to wait to make sure their lives are stable before settling down:

This next graph is Yale tuition as a multiple of average manufacturing worker income. To some degree this will track inequality in general, but Turchin thinks it also measures something like “difficulty of upward mobility”:

This next graph shows DW-NOMINATE’s “Political Polarization Index”, a complicated metric occasionally used by historians of politics. It measures the difference in voting patterns between the average Democrat in Congress and the average Republican in Congress (or for periods before the Democrats and Republicans, whichever two major parties there were). During times of low partisanship, congressional votes will be dominated by local or individual factors; during times of high partisanship, it will be dominated by party identification:

I’ve included only those graphs which cover the entire 1780 – present period; the book includes many others that only cover shorter intervals (mostly the more recent periods when we have better data). All of them, including the shorter ones not included here, reflect the same general pattern. You can see it most easily if you standardize all the indicators to the same scale, match the signs so that up always means good and down always means bad, and put them all together:


Note that these aren’t exactly the same indicators I featured above; we’ll discuss immigration later.

The “average” line on this graph is the one that went into making the summary graphic above. Turchin believes that after the American Revolution, there was a period of instability lasting a few decades (eg Shays’ Rebellion, Whiskey Rebellion) but that America reached a maximum of unity, prosperity, and equality around 1820. Things gradually got worse from there, culminating in a peak of inequality, misery, and division around 1900. The reforms of the Progressive Era gradually made things better, with another unity/prosperity/equality maximum around 1960. Since then, an increasing confluence of negative factors (named here as the Reagan Era trend reversal, but Turchin admits it began before Reagan) has been making things worse again.

II.

Along with this “grand cycle” of 150 years, Turchin adds a shorter instability cycle of 40-60 years. This is the same 40-60 year instability cycle that appeared in Secular Cycles, where Turchin called it “the bigenerational cycle”, or the “fathers and sons cycle”.


Timing and intensity of internal war in medieval and early modern England, from Turchin and Nefedov 2009.

The derivation of this cycle, explained on pages 45 – 58 of Ages of Discord, is one of the highlights of the book. Turchin draws on the kind of models epidemiologists use to track pandemics, thinking of violence as an infection and radicals as plague-bearers. You start with an unexposed vulnerable population. Some radical – patient zero – starts calling for violence. His ideas spread to a certain percent of people he interacts with, gradually “infecting” more and more people with the “radical ideas” virus. But after enough time radicalized, some people “recover” – they become exhausted with or disillusioned by conflict, and become pro-cooperation “active moderates” who are impossible to reinfect (in the epidemic model, they are “inoculated”, but they also have an ability without a clear epidemiological equivalent to dampen radicalism in people around them). As the rates of radicals, active moderates, and unexposed dynamically vary, you get a cyclic pattern. First everyone is unexposed. Then radicalism gradually spreads. Then active moderation gradually spreads, until it reaches a tipping point where it triumphs and radicalism is suppressed to a few isolated reservoirs in the population. Then the active moderates gradually die off, new unexposed people are gradually born, and the cycle starts again. Fiddling with all these various parameters, Turchin is able to get the system to produce 40-60 year waves of instability.

To check this empirically, Turchin tries to measure the number of “instability events” in the US over various periods. He very correctly tries to use lists made by others (since they are harder to bias), but when people haven’t catalogued exactly the kind of instability he’s interested in over the entire 1780 – present period, he sometimes adds his own interpretation. He ends up summing riots, lynchings, terrorism (including assassinations), and mass shootings – you can see his definition for each of these starting on page 114; the short version is that all the definitions seem reasonable but inevitably include a lot of degrees of freedom.

When he adds all this together, here’s what happens:

Political instability / violent events show three peaks, around 1870, 1920, and 1970.

The 1870 peak includes the Civil War, various Civil War associated violence (eg draft riots), and the violence around Reconstruction (including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and related violence to try to control newly emancipated blacks).

The 1920 peak includes the height of the early US labor movement. Turchin discusses the Mine War, an “undeclared war” from 1920-1921 between bosses and laborers in Appalachian coal country:

Although it started as a labor dispute, it eventually turned into the largest armed insurrection in US history, other than the Civil War. Between 10,000 and 15,000 miners armed with rifles fought thouasnds of strike-breakers and sheriff’s deputies, called the Logan Defenders. The insurrection was ended by the US Army. While such violent incidents were exceptional, they took place against a background of a general “class war” that had been intensifying since the violent teens. “In 1919 nearly four million workers (21% of the workforce) took disruptive action in the face of employer reluctance to recognize or bargain with unions” (Domhoff and Webber, 2011:74).

Along with labor violence, 1920 was also a peak in racial violence:

Race-motivated riots also peaked around 1920. The two most serious such outbreaks were the Red Summer of 1919 (McWhirter 2011) and the Tulsa (Oklahoma) Race Riot. The Red Summer involved riots in more than 20 cities across the United States and resulted in something like 1,000 fatalities. The Tulsa riot in 1921, which caused about 300 deaths, took on an aspect of civil war, in which thousands of whites and blacks, armed with firearms, fought in the streets, and most of the Greenwood District, a prosperous black neighborhood, was destroyed.

And terrorism:

The bombing campaign by Italian anarchists (“Galleanists”) culminated in the 1920 explosion on Wall Street, which caused 38 fatalities.

The same problems: labor unrest, racial violence, terrorism – repeated during the 1970s spike. Instead of quoting Turchin on this, I want to quote this Status 451 review of Days of Rage, because it blew my mind:

“People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States.” — Max Noel, FBI (ret.)

Recently, I had my head torn off by a book: Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, about the 1970s underground. It’s the most important book I’ve read in a year. So I did a series of running tweetstorms about it, and Clark asked me if he could collect them for posterity. I’ve edited them slightly for editorial coherence.

Days of Rage is important, because this stuff is forgotten and it shouldn’t be. The 1970s underground wasn’t small. It was hundreds of people becoming urban guerrillas. Bombing buildings: the Pentagon, the Capitol, courthouses, restaurants, corporations. Robbing banks. Assassinating police. People really thought that revolution was imminent, and thought violence would bring it about.

One thing that Burrough returns to in Days of Rage, over and over and over, is how forgotten so much of this stuff is. Puerto Rican separatists bombed NYC like 300 times, killed people, shot up Congress, tried to kill POTUS (Truman). Nobody remembers it.

The passage speaks to me because – yeah, nobody remembers it. This is also how I feel about the 1920 spike in violence. I’d heard about the Tulsa race riot, but the Mine War and the bombing of Wall Street and all the other stuff was new to me. This matters because my intuitions before reading this book would not have been that there were three giant spikes in violence/instability in US history located fifty years apart. I think the lesson I learn is not to trust my intuitions, and to be a little more sympathetic to Turchin’s data.

One more thing: the 1770 spike was obviously the American Revolution and all of the riots and communal violence associated with it (eg against Tories). Where was the 1820 spike? Turchin admits it didn’t happen. He says that because 1820 was the absolute best part of the 150 year grand cycle, everybody was so happy and well-off and patriotic that the scheduled instability peak just fizzled out. Although Turchin doesn’t mention it, you could make a similar argument that the 1870 spike was especially bad (see: the entire frickin’ Civil War) because it hit close to (though not exactly at) the worst part of the grand cycle. 1920 hit around the middle, and 1970 during a somewhat-good period, so they fell in between the nonissue of 1820 and the disaster of 1870.

III.

I haven’t forgotten the original question – what drives these 150 year cycles of rise and decline – but I want to stay with the data just a little longer. Again, these data are really interesting. Either some sort of really interesting theory has to be behind them – or they’re just low-quality data cherry-picked to make a point. Which are they? Here are a couple of spot-checks to see if the data are any good.

First spot check: can I confirm Turchin’s data from independent sources?

Here is a graph of average US height over time which seems broadly similar to Turchin’s.

Here is a different measure of US income inequality over time, which again seems broadly similar to Turchin’s. Piketty also presents very similar data, though his story places more emphasis on the World Wars and less on the labor movement.

– The Columbia Law Review measures political polarization over time and gets mostly the same numbers as Turchin.

I’m going to consider this successfully checked; Turchin’s data all seem basically accurate.

Second spot check: do other indicators Turchin didn’t include confirm the pattern he detects, or did he just cherry-pick the data series that worked? Spoiler: I wasn’t able to do this one. It was too hard to think of measures that should reflect general well-being and that we have 200+ years of unconfounded data for. But here are my various failures:

– The annual improvement in mortality rate does not seem to follow the cyclic pattern. But isn’t this more driven by a few random factors like smoking rates and the logic of technological advance?

Treasury bonds maybe kind of follow the pattern until 1980, after which they go crazy.

Divorce rates look kind of iffy, but isn’t that just a bunch of random factors?

Homicide rates, with the general downward trend removed, sort of follow the pattern, except for the recent decline?

USD/GBP exchange rates don’t show the pattern at all, but that could be because of things going on in Britain?

The thing is – really I have no reason to expect divorce rates, homicide rates, exchange rates etc to track national flourishing. For one thing, they may just be totally unrelated. For another, even if they were tenuously related, there are all sorts of other random factors that can affect them. The problem is, I would have said this was true for height, age at first marriage, and income inequality too, before Turchin gave me convincing-sounding stories for why it wasn’t. I think my lesson is that I have no idea which indicators should vs. shouldn’t follow a secular-cyclic pattern and so I can’t do this spot check against cherry-picking the way I hoped.

Third spot check: common sense. Here are some things that stood out to me:

– The Civil War is at a low-ish part of the cycle, but by no means the lowest.

– The Great Depression happened at a medium part of the cycle, when things should have been quickly getting better.

– Even though there was a lot of new optimism with Reagan, continuing through the Clinton years, the cycle does not reflect this at all.

Maybe we can rescue the first and third problem by combining the 150 year cycle with the shorter 50 year cycle. The Civil War was determined by the 50-year cycle having its occasional burst of violence at the same time the 150-year cycle was at a low-ish point. People have good memories of Reagan because the chaos of the 1970 violence burst had ended.

As for the second, Turchin is aware of the problem. He writes:

There is a widely held belief among economists and other social scientists that the 1930s were the “defining moment” in the development of the American politico-economic system (Bordo et al 1998). When we look at the major structural-demographic variables, however, the decade of the 1930s does not seem to be a turning point. Structural-demographic trends that were established during the Progressive Era continues through the 1930s, although some of them accelerated.

Most notably, all the well-being variables that went through trend reversals before the Great Depression – between 1900 and 1920. From roughly 1910 and to 1960 they all increased roughly monotonically, with only one or two minor fluctuations around the upward trend. The dynamics of real wages also do not exhibit a breaking point in the 1930s, although there was a minor acceleration after 1932.

By comparison, he plays up the conveniently-timed (and hitherto unknown to me) depression of the mid-1890s. Quoting Turchin quoting McCormick:

No depression had ever been as deep and tragic as the one that lasted from 1893 to 1897. Millions suffered unemployment, especially during the winters of 1893-4 and 1894-5, and thousands of ‘tramps’ wandered the countryside in search of food […]

Despite real hardship resulting form massive unemployment, well-being indicators suggest that the human cost of the Great Depression of the 1930s did not match that of the “First Great Depression” of the 1890s (see also Grant 1983:3-11 for a general discussion of the severity of the 1890s depression. Furthermore, while the 1930s are remembered as a period of violent labor unrest, the intensity of class struggle was actually lower than during the 1890s depression. According to the US Political Violence Database (Turchin et al. 2012) there were 32 lethal labor disputes during the 1890s that collectively caused 140 deaths, compared with 20 such disputes in the 1930s with the total of 55 deaths. Furthermore, the last lethal strike in US labor history was in 1937…in other words, the 1930s was actually the last uptick of violent class struggle in the US, superimposed on an overall declining trend.

The 1930s Depression is probably remembered (or rather misremembered) as the worst economic slump in US history, simply because it was the last of the great depressions of the post-Civil War era.

Fourth spot check: Did I randomly notice any egregious errors while reading the book?

On page 70, Turchin discusses “the great cholera epidemic of 1849, which carried away up to 10% of the American population”. This seemed unbelievably high to me. I checked the source he cited, Kohl’s “Encyclopedia Of Plague And Pestilence”, which did give that number. But every other source I checked agreed that the epidemic “only” killed between 0.3% – 1% of the US population (it did hit 10% in a few especially unlucky cities like St. Louis). I cannot fault Turchin’s scholarship in the sense of correctly repeating something written in an encyclopedia, but unless I’m missing something I do fault his common sense.

Also, on page 234, Turchin interprets the percent of medical school graduates who get a residency as “the gap between the demand and supply of MD positions”, which he ties into a wider argument about elite overproduction. But I think this shows a limited understanding of how the medical system works. There is currently a severe undersupply of doctors – try getting an appointment with a specialist who takes insurance in a reasonable amount of time if you don’t believe me. Residencies aren’t limited by organic demand. They’re limited because the government places so many restrictions on them that hospitals don’t sponsor them without government funding, and the government is too stingy to fund more of them. None of this has anything to do with elite overproduction.

These are just two small errors in a long book. But they’re two errors in medicine, the field I know something about. This makes me worry about Gell-Mann Amnesia: if I notice errors in my own field, how many errors must there be in other fields that I just didn’t catch?

My overall conclusion from the spot-checks is that the data as presented are basically accurate, but that everything else is so dependent on litigating which things are vs. aren’t in accordance with the theory that I basically give up.

IV.

Okay. We’ve gone through the data supporting the grand cycle. We’ve gone through the data and theory for the 40-60 year instability cycle. We’ve gone through the reasons to trust vs. distrust the data. Time to go back to the question we started with: why should the grand cycle, originally derived from the Malthusian principles that govern pre-industrial societies, hold in the modern US? Food and land are no longer limiting resources; famines, disease, and wars no longer substantially decrease population. Almost every factor that drives the original secular cycle is missing; why even consider the possibility that it might still apply?

I’ve put this off because, even though this is the obvious question Ages of Discord faces from page one, I found it hard to get a single clear answer.

Sometimes, Turchin talks about the supply vs. demand of labor. In times when the supply of labor outpaces demand, wages go down, inequality increases, elites fragment, and the country gets worse, mimicking the “land is at carrying capacity” stage of the Malthusian cycle. In times when demand for labor exceeds supply, wages go up, inequality decreases, elites unite, and the country gets better. The government is controlled by plutocrats, who always want wages to be low. So they implement policies that increase the supply of labor, especially loose immigration laws. But their actions cause inequality to increase and everyone to become miserable. Ordinary people organize resistance: populist movements, socialist cadres, labor unions. The system teeters on the edge of violence, revolution, and total disintegration. Since the elites don’t want those things, they take a step back, realize they’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg, and decide to loosen their grip on the neck of the populace. The government becomes moderately pro-labor and progressive for a while, and tightens immigration laws. The oversupply of labor decreases, wages go up, inequality goes down, and everyone is happy. After everyone has been happy for a while, the populists/socialists/unions lose relevance and drift apart. A new generation of elites who have never felt threatened come to power, and they think to themselves “What if we used our control of the government to squeeze labor harder?” Thus the cycle begins again.

But at other times, Turchin talks more about “elite overproduction”. When there are relatively few elites, they can cooperate for their common good. Bipartisanship is high, everyone is unified behind a system perceived as wise and benevolent, and we get a historical period like the 1820s US golden age that historians call The Era Of Good Feelings. But as the number of elites outstrips the number of high-status positions, competition heats up. Elites realize they can get a leg up in an increasingly difficult rat race by backstabbing against each other and the country. Government and culture enter a defect-defect era of hyperpartisanship, where everyone burns the commons of productive norms and institutions in order to get ahead. Eventually…some process reverses this or something?…and then the cycle starts again.

At still other times, Turchin seems to retreat to a sort of mathematical formalism. He constructs an extremely hokey-looking dynamic feedback model, based on ideas like “assume that the level of discontent among ordinary people equals the urbanization rate x the age structure x the inverse of their wages relative to the elite” or “let us define the fiscal distress index as debt ÷ GDP x the level of distrust in state institutions”. Then he puts these all together into a model that calculates how the the level of discontent affects and is affected by the level of state fiscal distress and a few dozen other variables. On the one hand, this is really cool, and watching it in action gives you the same kind of feeling Seldon must have had inventing psychohistory. On the other, it seems really made-up. Turchin admits that dynamic feedback systems are infamous for going completely haywire if they are even a tiny bit skew to reality, but assures us that he understands the cutting-edge of the field and how to make them not to do that. I don’t know enough to judge whether he’s right or wrong, but my priors are on “extremely, almost unfathomably wrong”. Still, at times he reminds us that the shifts of dynamic feedback systems can be attributed only to the system in its entirety, and that trying to tell stories about or point to specific factors involved in any particular shift is an approximation at best.

All of these three stories run into problems almost immediately.

First, the supply of labor story focuses pretty heavily on immigration. Turchin puts a lot of work into showing that immigration follows the secular cycle patterns; it is highest at the worst part of the cycle, and lowest at the best parts:

In this model, immigration is a tool of the plutocracy. High supply of labor (relative to demand) drives down wages, increases inequality, and lowers workers’ bargaining power. If the labor supply is poorly organized, comes from places that don’t understand the concept of “union”, don’t know their rights, and have racial and linguistic barriers preventing them from cooperating with the rest of the working class, well, even better. Thus, periods when the plutocracy is successfully squeezing the working class are marked by high immigration. Periods when the plutocracy fears the working class and feels compelled to be nice to them are marked by low immigration.

This position makes some sense and is loosely supported by the long-term data above. But isn’t this one of the most-studied topics in the history of economics? Hasn’t it been proven almost beyond doubt that immigrants don’t steal jobs from American workers, and that since they consume products themselves (and thus increase the demand for labor) they don’t affect the supply/demand balance that sets wages?

It appears I might just be totally miscalibrated on this topic. I checked the IGM Economic Experts Panel. Although most of the expert economists surveyed believed immigration was a net good for America, they did say (50% agree to only 9% disagree) that “unless they were compensated by others, many low-skilled American workers would be substantially worse off if a larger number of low-skilled foreign workers were legally allowed to enter the US each year”. I’m having trouble seeing the difference between this statement (which economists seem very convinced is true) and “you should worry about immigrants stealing your job” (which everyone seems very convinced is false). It might be something like – immigration generally makes “the economy better”, but there’s no guarantee that these gains are evently distributed, and so it can be bad for low-skilled workers in particular? I don’t know, this would still represent a pretty big update, but given that I was told all top economists think one thing, and now I have a survey of all top economists saying the other, I guess big updates are unavoidable. Interested in hearing from someone who knows more about this.

Even if it’s true that immigration can hurt low-skilled workers, Turchin’s position – which is that increased immigration is responsible for a very large portion of post-1973 wage stagnation and the recent trend toward rising inequality – sounds shocking to current political sensibilities. But all Turchin has to say is:

An imbalance between labor supply and demand clearly played an important role in driving real wages down after 1978. As Harvard economist George J. Borjas recently wrote, “The best empirical research that tries to examine what has actually happened in the US labor market aligns well with economic theory: An increase in the number of workers leads to lower wages.”

My impression was that Borjas was an increasingly isolated contrarian voice, so once again, I just don’t know what to do here.

Second, the plutocratic oppression story relies pretty heavily on the idea that inequality is a unique bad. This fits the zeitgeist pretty well, but it’s a little confusing. Why should commoners care about their wages relative to elites, as opposed to their absolute wages? Although median-wage-relative-to-GDP has gone down over the past few decades, absolute median wage has gone up – just a little, slowly enough that it’s rightly considered a problem – but it has gone up. Since modern wages are well above 1950s wages, in what sense should modern people feel like they are economically bad off in a way 1950s people didn’t? This isn’t a problem for Turchin’s theory so much as a general mystery, but it’s a general mystery I care about a lot. One answer is that the cost disease is fueled by a Baumol effect pegged to per capital income (see part 3 here), and this is a way that increasing elite wealth can absolutely (not relatively) immiserate the lower classes.

Likewise, what about The Spirit Level Delusion and other resources showing that, across countries, inequality is not particularly correlated with social bads? Does this challenge Turchin’s America-centric findings that everything gets worse along with inequality levels?

Third, the plutocratic oppression story meshes poorly with the elite overproduction story. In elite overproduction, united elites are a sign of good times to come; divided elites means dysfunctional government and potential violence. But as Pseudoerasmus points out, united elites are often united against the commoners, and we should expect inequality to be highest at times when the elites are able to work together to fight for a larger share of the pie. But I think this is the opposite of Turchin’s story, where elites unite only to make concessions, and elite unity equals popular prosperity.

Fourth, everything about the elite overproduction story confuses me. Who are “elites”? This category made sense in Secular Cycles, which discussed agrarian societies with a distinct titled nobility. But Turchin wants to define US elites in terms of wealth, which follows a continuous distribution. And if you’re defining elites by wealth, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “not enough high-status positions for all elites”; if you’re elite (by virtue of your great wealth), by definition you already have what you need to maintain your elite status. Turchin seems aware of this issue, and sometimes talks about “elite aspirants” – some kind of upper class who expect to be wealthy, but might or might not get that aspiration fulfilled. But then understanding elite overproduction hinges on what makes one non-rich-person person a commoner vs. another non-rich-person an “elite aspirant”, and I don’t remember any clear discussion of this in the book.

Fifth, what drives elite overproduction? Why do elites (as a percent of the population) increase during some periods and decrease during others? Why should this be a cycle rather than a random walk?

My guess is that Ages of Discord contains answers to some of these questions and I just missed them. But I missed them after reading the book pretty closely to try to find them, and I didn’t feel like there were any similar holes in Secular Cycles. As a result, although the book had some fascinating data, I felt like it lacked a clear and lucid thesis about exactly what was going on.

V.

Accepting the data as basically right, do we have to try to wring some sense out of the theory?

The data cover a cycle and a half. That means we only sort of barely get to see the cycle “repeat”. The conclusion that it is a cycle and not some disconnected trends is based only on the single coincidence that it was 70ish years from the first turning point (1820) to the second (1890), and also 70ish years from the second to the third (1960).

A parsimonious explanation would be “for some reason things were going unusually well around 1820, unusually badly around 1890, and unusually well around 1960 again.” This is actually really interesting – I didn’t know it was true before reading this book, and it changes my conception of American history a lot. But it’s a lot less interesting than the discovery of a secular cycle.

I think the parsimonious explanation is close to what Thomas Piketty argued in his Capital In The Twenty-First Century. Inequality was rising until the World Wars, because that’s what inequality naturally does given reasonable assumptions about growth rates. Then the Depression and World Wars wiped out a lot of existing money and power structures and made things equal again for a little while. Then inequality started rising again, because that’s what inequality naturally does given reasonable assumptions about growth rates. Add in a pinch of The Spirit Level – inequality is a mysterious magic poison that somehow makes everything else worse – and there’s not much left to be explained.

(some exceptions: why was inequality decreasing until 1820? Does inequality really drive political polarization? When immigration corresponds to periods of high inequality, is the immigration causing the inequality? And what about the 50 year cycle of violence? That’s another coincidence we didn’t include in the coincidence list!)

So what can we get from Ages of Discord that we can’t get from Piketty?

First, the concept of “elite overproduction” is one that worms its way into your head. It’s the sort of thing that was constantly in the background of Increasingly Competitive College Admissions: Much More Than You Wanted To Know. It’s the sort of thing you think about when a million fresh-faced college graduates want to become Journalists and Shape The Conversation and Fight For Justice and realistically just end up getting ground up and spit out by clickbait websites. Ages of Discord didn’t do a great job breaking down its exact dynamics, but I’m grateful for its work bringing it from a sort of shared unconscious assumption into the light where we can talk about it.

Second, the idea of a deep link between various indicators of goodness and badness – like wages and partisan polarization – is an important one. It forces me to reevaluate things I had considered settled, like that immigration doesn’t worsen inequality, or that inequality is not a magical curse that poisons everything.

Third, historians have to choose what events to focus on. Normal historians usually focus on the same normal events. Unusual historians sometimes focus on neglected events that support their unusual theses, so reading someone like Turchin is a good way to learn parts of history you’d never encounter otherwise. Some of these I was able to mention above – like the Mine War of 1920 or the cholera epidemic of 1849; I might make another post for some of the others.

Fourth, it tries to link events most people would consider separate – wage stagnation since 1973, the Great Stagnation in technology, the decline of Peter Thiel’s “definite optimism”, the rise of partisan polarization. I’m not sure exactly how it links them or what it has to stay about the link, but link them it does.

But the most important thing about this book is that Turchin claims to be able to predict the future. The book (written just before Trump was elected in 2016) ends by saying that “we live in times of intensifying structural-demographic pressures for instability”. The next bigenerational burst of violence is scheduled for about 2020 (realistically +/- a few years). It’s at a low point in the grand cycle, so it should be a doozy.

What about beyond that? It’s unclear exactly where he thinks we are right now in the grand cycle. If the current cycle lasts exactly as long as the last one, we would expect it to bottom out in 2030, but Turchin never claims every cycle is exactly as long. A few of his graphs suggest a hint of curvature, suggesting we might currently be in the worst of it. The socialists seem to have gotten their act together and become an important political force, which the theory predicts is a necessary precursor to change.

I think we can count the book as having made correct predictions if violence spikes in the very near future (are the current number of mass shootings enough to satisfy this requirement? I would have to see it graphed using the same measurements as past spikes), and if sometime in the next decade or so things start looking like there’s a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.

I am pretty interested in finding other ways to test Turchin’s theories. I’m going to ask some of my math genius friends to see if the dynamic feedback models check out; if anyone wants to help, let me know how I can help you (if money is an issue, I can send you a copy of the book, and I will definitely publish anything you find on this blog). If anyone has any other ideas for to indicators that should be correlated with the secular cycle, and ideas about how to find them, I’m intereted in that too. And if anyone thinks they can explain the elite overproduction issue, please enlighten me.

I ended my review of Secular Cycles by saying:

One thing that strikes me about [Turchin]’s cycles is the ideological component. They describe how, during a growth phase, everyone is optimistic and patriotic, secure in the knowledge that there is enough for everybody. During the stagflation phase, inequality increases, but concern about inequality increases even more, zero-sum thinking predominates, and social trust craters (both because people are actually defecting, and because it’s in lots of people’s interest to play up the degree to which people are defecting). By the crisis phase, partisanship is much stronger than patriotism and radicals are talking openly about how violence is ethically obligatory.

And then, eventually, things get better. There is a new Augustan Age of virtue and the reestablishment of all good things. This is a really interesting claim. Western philosophy tends to think in terms of trends, not cycles. We see everything going on around us, and we think this is some endless trend towards more partisanship, more inequality, more hatred, and more state dysfunction. But Secular Cycles offers a narrative where endless trends can end, and things can get better after all.

This is still the hope, I guess. I don’t have a lot of faith in human effort to restore niceness, community, and civilization. All I can do is pray the Vast Formless Things accomplish it for us without asking us first.

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315 Responses to Book Review: Ages Of Discord

  1. Steve Sailer says:

    America underwent a nervous breakdown around 1919, and then calmed down rapidly under President Harding, who ran on “normalcy.” The country remained remarkably orderly during the stresses of the Depression, kind of like how in 2009 not just crime but pedestrian traffic fatalities were low.

  2. Steve Sailer says:

    Here’s an excerpt that Bryan Burrough wrote for “Time” summarizing his book on 1970s bombings:

    “In a single eighteen-month period during 1971 and 1972 the FBI counted an amazing 2,500 bombings on American soil, almost five a day. Because they were typically detonated late at night, few caused serious injury, leading to a kind of grudging public acceptance. The deadliest underground attack of the decade, in fact, killed all of four people, in the January 1975 bombing of a Wall Street restaurant. News accounts rarely carried any expression or indication of public outrage. …

    “And the violence actually grew more deadly as the number of underground groups dwindled and grew more desperate; the deadliest year for underground violence was 1981, when eleven people were killed in bombings and bank robberies gone bad.”

    So, a lot of these bombs were set off by people who love the sound of broken glass, but weren’t really out to kill anyone.

    https://time.com/4501670/bombings-of-america-burrough/

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Instead of bombs, the problem that got a ton of publicity at the time was skyjacking of airliners. There were 40 hijackings in the US in 1972 alone. Some were terrorists, but many skyjackers were just low-grade losers out for some ransom and an adventure.

      https://www.wired.com/2013/06/skyjacking-gallery/

      I can recall my trying to invent a Skyjacking board game during the summer of 1972 when I was 13.

      Airlines started running passengers thru metal detectors in 1973 and the crisis receded pretty quickly, except for serious terrorist organizations.

  3. machine-spirit says:

    All I can do is pray the Vast Formless Things accomplish it for us without asking us first.

    If I read that correctly you seem to be in favour of faster AGI development as we are doomed otherwise? Guess Nick Land successfully converted you to his side in the end. 😉

    P.S: I dont blame you as I am coming to similar conclusions myself.

    • HomarusSimpson says:

      As might be said on Reddit – user name checks out

      To highjack Clarke: either we submit to governance by AI, or we do not. Both are equally terrifying.

      • machine-spirit says:

        Well the first signs were there in our host 2016 pre-election post:

        https://slatestarcodex.com/2016/09/28/ssc-endorses-clinton-johnson-or-stein/

        I’m less sanguine about the state of America in particular but I think that its generally First World problems probably can’t be solved by politics. They will probably require either genetic engineering or artificial intelligence; the job of our generation is keep the world functional enough to do the research that will create those technologies, and to alleviate as much suffering as we can in the meantime. I don’t see a Clinton presidency as making the world non-functional, whatever that means.

        I guess the part of the “keep the world functional enough” plan is not looking good lately so maybe we should try our luck with machine Gods and hope the LW/MIRI fears turn out to be unfounded. I mean we are screwed anyway so why not roll the dice.

        And to be fair being turned into paperclip is far more interesting death scenario than one that will happen with increasing societal dysfunction. (being blown up by Russian/Chinese ICBM’s in WW3, being shot during new American civil war as a evil reactionary, getting killed in climate-change caused weather event…etc).

        • Lancelot says:

          The thing is, societal dysfunction or not, you are doomed to die anyway — by old age if not anything else. Trying your luck with the machine Gods might change that, for better or worse.

    • @HomarusSimpson

      Both are equally terrifying.

      Either we submit to governance and replacement by AI or there is some hard limit coded into the universe that prevents non-meat substrate intelligences from matching (let alone exceeding) human intelligence, in which case we would try to make giant biological brains specially designed to desire servitude instead, but then if there’s a hard coded rule that prevents even this, we seriously have to start giving more credibility to the possibility that there is/are a creator/creators and they don’t want any other general intelligences equivalent or greater than humans to exist in the universe. Yeah, both of these sound generally unnerving, but I would certainly rather the former scenario than the latter.

      Providing reality is governed by the laws of physics in a consistent way, and there aren’t flippant exceptions coded in, the overwhelmingly likely scenario is that general superintelligence is possible, and then the only question is whether we suffer global ecological and civilizational collapse before the machines govern and replace us. The small upside is the sub-scenario of the latter where we get to govern the machines and make them do useful things for us for a few decades before they (or “it” if you believe in the singleton theory) take control of the government and start ruling over us. The small upside of that scenario in turn is the sub-sub-scenario where machines went through a humanized ethical path due to general AI being derived from brain simulation rather than evolutionary algorithms, and then they rule over us in a way that has some respect for human rights, rather than seeing us as a source of materials to be used for something else.

      A comfy retirement while we are gradually obsolesced doesn’t sound so bad but it brings a sense of existential unease to many people. About the only scenario that sounds remotely progressive to the human ego is the one where the machines upgrade us to be like them in a way that maintains continuity of consciousness.

      • Lancelot says:

        Either we submit to governance and replacement by AI or there is some hard limit coded into the universe that prevents non-meat substrate intelligences from matching (let alone exceeding) human intelligence, in which case we would try to make giant biological brains specially designed to desire servitude instead, but then if there’s a hard coded rule that prevents even this, we seriously have to start giving more credibility to the possibility that there is/are a creator/creators and they don’t want any other general intelligences equivalent or greater than humans to exist in the universe. Yeah, both of these sound generally unnerving, but I would certainly rather the former scenario than the latter.

        There is an often overlooked possibility to elevate ourselves to the superintelligent tier, either by advanced biotech or, more plausibly, by augmenting human brain with AI modules. In that case the entities doing the governance could be, at least to some extent, considered human.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      No, “Vast Formless Things” is here meant to mean social trends.

    • Placid Platypus says:

      I think Vast Formless Things refers to mysterious large scale socio-historical trends more than AGIs.

  4. Steve Sailer says:

    Re economists and immigration: It’s almost as if economists respond to incentives, and most of the incentives in recent decades (e.g., Koch money, Democratic Party politics, etc.) have been on the side of promoting immigration as Good For The Economy.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Yes I think it’s blindingly obvious why economists say immigration is good. It’s impossible to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

      • thisheavenlyconjugation says:

        Is there something stopping Trump et al buying some economists?

        • Dedicating Ruckus says:

          It’s not “buying economists” directly, more like “compromising institutions that train and pay economists”. This is a multidecadal process, and anti-immigration political forces haven’t yet had the time (or the coordination) to do it.

        • The media would tell him to fire those economists, and like the lapdog he is he’d do it.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Our betters sure love Stephen Miller and Peter Navarro, don’t they?

    • RalMirrorAd says:

      More generous interpretations:

      1.) The economists being surveyed haven’t actually studied what’s being asked thoroughly themselves.
      2. ) Finding good empircal evidence for immigration harming wages would be difficult since reality can’t easily distinguish between shifts in the labor supply curve and an increase in labor supplied. We would expect immigration pressures to be strongest when labor demand is strongest.

      Bjorgas comes close to instituting the right kinds of statistical controls one would need to prove it definitively but ends up being left with very thin data as a result.

      • mdet says:

        3.) “Good for the Economy” and “Raises the wages of every working class person without exception” are not synonyms. If I invented a machine that could instantly and reliably turn wheat, beef, lettuce, milk, etc. into a completed cheeseburger, that would be amazing for the economy (Food is cheaper and more plentiful!) but terrible for the wages of fast-food employees. I’d expect an economist to vocally support this innovation even if they acknowledged that some McDonald’s employees would lose their jobs.

        • Dedicating Ruckus says:

          The thing is, when people say “the economy” they mean (at least) two different things, which aren’t wholly equivalent. One is mostly about production of goods and services, the other mostly about distribution of demand for labor. (When people talk about GDP it’s mostly about the first; when they talk about unemployment rate, it’s mostly about the second.)

          The hypothetical Auto-Cheeseburger-Machine would create more, cheaper goods and services (boosting the economy in the first sense), but narrow the demand for labor (hurting the economy in the second sense). It’s often assumed that any narrowing of labor demand will automatically be compensated by new jobs created in the new goods-and-services environment, leaving the demand-side as a wash and thus translating into pure gain from the cheaper goods. (Often, this has even been true.) But this compensation doesn’t act instantly or without friction, and it’s not a given that it will always act at all; thus, the economists’ assumption that hurting the demand-side to boost the goods-side is always a win is something that should at least be made explicit and interrogated, not simply assumed without question in every circumstance.

          (and of course the reason why economists are reluctant to do this can be laid at least in part at the feed of industrialists’ interests; they always benefit from cheaper goods, and rarely suffer from decreased demand, and by coincidence they are also broadly the class that funds economics departments.)

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Ask not what The Economy can do for you; ask what you can do for The Economy.

        • jermo sapiens says:

          All true. But “Good for the economy” and “Good policy” are also not good synonyms.

          If you want the elites to have cheap nannies and gardeners at the expense of the working class, dont be so shocked when the working class elects a populist who at least pretends to not despise them.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      Exactly.

      On the one hand you have the law of supply and demand predicting immigration reduces wages. On the other hand you have empirical data showing depressed wage growth during periods of high immigration. But on the other other hand you have experts telling me I’m a racist for observing that the data fits the theory.

      Parsimonious explanation: the experts are corrupt.

      • Ttar says:

        Yes, it’s the same hands-on-ears la la la la la la response sociologists give you when you try to bring up biology and heritability of IQ/life outcomes (in context to how refractory they are to environmental intervention in Western societies). It’s arguably for a good cause (in addition to being a response to incentives) but it’s intellectually dishonest enough that eventually some of us will notice we are confused. Low skill immigration is good for the immigrants themselves and as a byproduct, for elites, and is likely a net utilitarian gain. So it’s very convenient to ignore negative impacts on low/middle-skill natives. It’s also convenient to ignore the implications it has for aspects of society upstream of econ (i.e. the Thielian libertarian-authoritarian pipeline) because those implications are a vague and hard to prove and also crimethink.

        • jermo sapiens says:

          Anything conclusion which is even vaguely threatening to the elites is considered out-of-bounds. It’s true of the IQ question, the immigration question, and other topics which are “settled”.

          This reminds me of the American Physical Society claiming the evidence for global warming was incontrovertible while also allowing discussions on whether the mass of the proton changed over time and how multiverses behave.

          Anytime the experts agree on something and dont allow dissent, you should very much expect the opposite to be true.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          If we stipulate for the sake of argument that global warming does not exist…

          In such a world, elites don’t profit very much from continued belief in global warming, compared to a counterfactual world where no one believed in global warming.

          It’s possible to construct scenarios where everyone has a competing incentive structure to enforce belief in global warming on each other, even though no one actually has good reason to believe it themselves.

          …But then, it’s also possible to construct scenarios where this entire exercise in hypothesizing a conspiracy to enforce beliefs about climate change is a false alarm. Something on par with noticing that hypothetically there could be a conspiracy to convince everyone that the American Civil War took place. There could be, but that’s not the way to bet, when you can literally go to old Civil War battlefields with a metal detector and dig up bullets, or exhume the war graves and find skeletons with gunshot wounds.

          Similarly, we live in a world where comparing photos of glaciers from 1919 to 2019 is often striking. We live in a world where the Northwest Passage is open to shipping when some of the greatest explorers of the nineteenth century died icebound in vain trying to find it. We live in a world where we know for a fact that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen by something like 30-50% from pre-modern levels, where basic physics says that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and where interestingly the aforesaid things are true.

          All of which suggests that the theory “elites enforce belief in global warming because it threatens the elite” needs to be amended to “elites enforce belief in global warming because evidence indicates that continuing to ignore global warming will threaten future generations of the elite and everyone else too.

          The fact that the man shouting that the roof is about to fall down happens to own the roof doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to hang around and wait to see what happens- let alone to block the exit doors.

          • Dedicating Ruckus says:

            If we stipulate for the sake of argument that global warming does not exist…

            In such a world, elites don’t profit very much from continued belief in global warming, compared to a counterfactual world where no one believed in global warming.

            On the contrary, even in a world where global warming does not exist, a subset of the elite benefits from enforcing belief in it, because it creates a crisis, and crises are a prime opportunity to take power. (“never let a crisis go to waste”, and all.) This is hardly an unusual political maneuver, and it should be easy to see that it’s possible for someone to benefit from it.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            It’s quite easy to imagine how elites would benefit from taxing the byproducts of combustion. The evidence for global warming should be examined at face value, and not based on how the elites benefit from the crisis, but as a separate endeavor, it is quite simple to see how they do benefit from it. As Dedicating Ruckus notes above, it creates a crisis, which is an opportunity to tax and control the non-elites.

            As to actual reasons to doubt global warming alarm, simply the fact that there is no evidence that CO2 was a driver of global temperatures in the past is sufficient. The failed predictions of the last 30+ years are also quite convincing.

          • keaswaran says:

            > even in a world where global warming does not exist, a subset of the elite benefits from enforcing belief in it, because it creates a crisis, and crises are a prime opportunity to take power.

            But this doesn’t explain why *all* elites would seem to be going in on this. Surely if some elites were trying to manufacture a crisis, other elites would be able to profit from showing the hoax, right?

      • Hypoborean says:

        Have you heard of the Mariel Boat Lift? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mariel_boatlift)

        The labour force of Miami was shock-increased by 7% in around 5 months, and there was no detectable change to macro properties compared to the rest of the country.

        BUT
        For prime working age male high school dropouts, there WAS a decrease in wages.

        So, since a lot of immigration is VERY unskilled (not even high school graduated), it is complementary to the vast majority of the US labour force (since the on-time high school graduation rate is 84% and the total high school graduation rate is presumably several points higher).

        This has complicated implications for general welfare.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          As I pointed out way back in 2006, economist David Card’s study of wages in Miami and four control cities following the Mariel Boatlift of Cubans to Miami in 1980 had an obvious enormous methodological problem: Miami wasn’t ceteris paribus compared to the other four cities because not only did Miami experience the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, but from 1980 to 1984 Miami also experienced the most notorious Cocaine Boom in economic history, as depicted in “Scarface,” “Miami Vice,” and “Narcos.” Vast quantities of cocaine flowing expensively through Miami during the 1980-84 years studied by Card would naturally tend to raise wages.

          Miami in the early 1980s is one of the more famous times/places in American pop culture history, yet economists never seem to remember anything distinctive about Miami in the early 1980s when discussing Card’s study.

  5. Steve Sailer says:

    The 1820s were an Era of Good Feelings in part because there was just an enormous amount of high quality land — the entire Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio watersheds for a small population to settle, with land being sold to small farmers cheaply by the federal government. The Jeffersonian-Jacksonian vision of yeoman farmers worked well (unless you were an Indian) for awhile.

    Unfortunately, one form of farming — slave-worked cotton plantations — proved to be wildly profitable, which was destabilizing. It caused a big increase in inequality and a big increase in anti-egalitarian right wing political extremism in the South, with well-known consequences.

    Eventually, the frontier filled in and there was a huge increase in industry, urbanization, and immigration, which was destabilizing for several decades.

    Eventually, immigration was cut back, unions grew powerful, and taxes were high to pay for wars hot and cold, reducing inequality.

    • Randy M says:

      Homesteading the frontier was my thought to explain that period of low inequality as well.

    • RomeoStevens says:

      A similar dynamic is occurring now: homesteading on cheap land is becoming increasingly attractive as the difficulty and cost of hooking up solar for the bare labour saving amenities (washer/dryer, refridgerator, internet, AC) craters.

      • Aftagley says:

        Do you mean it’s theoretically becoming more attractive as a result of these factors, or are we actually seeing an uptick in homesteading? Because if it’s the latter, I’d be fascinated to learn more about this topic.

    • keaswaran says:

      The Era of Good Feelings was also helped by the fact that they had the two main writers of the Constitution (Jefferson and Madison) as members of the same party running for the presidency, and the other party disbanded during the term of their hand-picked successor (Monroe). But the 1828 election, and all the extremely hard feelings caused by the “corrupt bargain” where Henry Clay instructed his electors to pick John Quincy Adams over the war hero Andrew Jackson, seem to me to suggest the idea that the “Era of Good Feelings” was really just a weird anomaly caused by one political party disbanding itself and briefly leaving a vacuum rather than an opposition. And the rise of the Democrats and Whigs seemed to lead directly to the chaos of the Civil War as their conflict kept studiously avoiding the topic of slavery.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      There was slavery and a frontier in 1820, there was slavery and a frontier in 1860, how come the former period had unity and optimism and the latter period had division and pessimism?

      • Hypoborean says:

        One possible difference is the farmland quality available on the frontier. They were pushing up against the Rockies in some places, and in others were moving out into vast open plains without the forests / rivers that made simple homesteading without a train network to deliver finished goods viable. [You need wood to build a farmhouse, and the plains have fantastic soil but nearly no wood…note that a LOT of Ellis Island era immigrants from Scandinavia ended up in Minnesota / Iowa / further west because you could get a “farm in a kit” from Sears delivered by train {1880s}]

        Another possible difference is the degree of native resistance. There was a notable period in time when the frontier in Texas actually contracted due to the rise of the Comanche (see, https://www.amazon.com/Empire-Summer-Moon-Comanches-Powerful/dp/1416591060). That period in the 1840s, 50s, 60s was a period when native plains tribes had mastered horseback raiding to an extent that made burning isolated white homesteads viable and non-governmental retribution nearly impossible.*

        *Remember that for the period from ~1790 – 1810 the government was (at least to a minimal degree) trying to restrain settlers from moving into the Ohio River valley to attempt to honor its treaties with the native tribes there, but was failing and the settlers were making headway against the natives. My toy mental model for the difference between this case and the 1850s relates to the greater mobility of the plains indians making it difficult / impossible for the white settlers to retaliate to a homestead being burned by burning a native village, since the “village” in question was mobile and hundreds of miles away. It took the post-Civil War military’s logistical skill (and willingness to finance multi-hundred person expeditions for months at a time) to finally break the back of the Comanche.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          West of the 100th parallel on the Great Plains, there wasn’t enough rain for farming, so mostly just ranching, which was fun, but couldn’t support a huge population. So the Frontier as a place for a big population started to peter out after the really good places to farm like Illinois and Iowa were settled.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Slavery wasn’t as wildly profitable in the 1820s as it was during the 1850s “Cotton Is King” bubble. Plus, in the 1820s, Southern slaveholders were mostly just filling in deep South states that everybody had already agreed would be slave states.

        After the Mexican war, huge new territories were added, and whether they’d wind up slave or free was up in the air. Thus, Bloody Kansas in the 1850s.

        Southern elites in the 1850s were increasingly megalomaniacal about the Overwhelming Goodness of Slave Societies (whereas in the 1820s they’d tended to be a little sheepish about their Peculiar Institutions). Many Northerners came to see the Slave Power as intent on soon imposing slavery on Caribbean countries to be conquered and imposing respect for Southern slaveholders’ property rights even on Northern states.

        Southern elites came to see having control of the federal government as their right, and thus the results of the 1860 election were intolerable to them.

  6. Jack V says:

    I wonder if he or anyone has tried to fit the pattern to other modern countries or regions? Obviously that would be open to a lot of data fitting, but if you can see the same trends play out in lots and lots of different situations, it would be a lot more convincing.

  7. teneditica says:

    A simple explanation for a correlation between immigration and inequality, as that the immigrants themselves are poor.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I was assuming immigrants were too few to affect inequality all on their own (and it’s not clear that adding more poor people necessarily increases inequality since most people are poor anyway) but I agree this is one plausible possibility.

      One argument against this is that inequality among whites, and inequality among blacks, are both rising in the modern period – see https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/07/12/appendix-b-additional-tables-4/psdt-07-12_economic_inequality-appb-01/ . Most immigrants aren’t white or black, so this should be a marker for how inequality is changing among existing citizens, separate from the effect of immigrants naturally being unequally wealthy.

  8. teneditica says:

    > I’m having trouble seeing the difference between this statement (which economists seem very convinced is true) and “you should worry about immigrants stealing your job” (which everyone seems very convinced is false).

    Stealing your job is not the same as driving down wages. The idea that immigrants steal your job is an example of the lump of labor fallacy – it assumes that there’s a specific amount of work to be done, and the only question is how to divide it up, when in fact people’s needs are insatiable, and there’s always something you’d like someone to do, if the salary is low enough.

    That immigrants lead to lower wages is a simple example of supply and demand. If there’s a greater supply of labor, the price (the wage) falls.

    • Jacob says:

      Another reason why immigrants will decrease wages is remittances. The US has 25 million non-citizen immigrants, let’s say that half of them are in the labor force (same rate as all Americans). These 12.5 million immigrant workers send out $56 billion in remittances, or about $4,500 per worker per year. That’s a huge chunk of their wages that doesn’t get spent in the US, and thus doesn’t stimulate additional labor demand in the US. Even aside from remittances, immigrants may live more cheaply and consume less because their position is insecure, or just because coming from poor countries they are thriftier.

      (Note: I’m a first-generation immigrant with a lower consumption rate than most native Americans.)

      • baconbits9 says:

        This argument is flawed to put it nicely, spending doesn’t produce additional labor demand in this way. Even in (totally incorrect) economic models like Keynesian economics spending only stimulates demand under specific economic conditions, and does not hold it as a general rule. We can skip all the theory stuff and jump right to the empirical observations. If this were true then areas with high rates of emigration to the US and high rates of remittances would boom, which we do not see, and there would also be a large correlation between waves of immigration to the US and declines in growth which is the opposite of what is observed.

        • Dedicating Ruckus says:

          By a freshman-level supply-demand computation, spending money in the local economy will stimulate labor demand in the local economy, depending of course on what exactly you’re spending it on.

          It’s very possible this computation is inapplicable for one reason or another, but it would be good to give an understandable reason why, rather than snidely dismissing it and then jumping to problematic empirical data.

          • baconbits9 says:

            By a freshman-level supply-demand computation, spending money in the local economy will stimulate labor demand in the local economy, depending of course on what exactly you’re spending it on.

            No it doesn’t. Freshman level supply and demand simply shows that increased demand will push prices up which will lead to higher supply. It says nothing about where that supply comes from, nor says anything about local wealth or wages.

          • Dedicating Ruckus says:

            Okay, so freshman-level supply and demand plus a kindergartner’s understanding of how the universe works predicts that more money in the local economy, that is “the area in which you can live and commute here”, leads to higher wages in the local economy, because workers cannot travel infinite distances. If you have high labor demand at point X, the supply to satisfy that demand is constrained to come from a finite radius surrounding X.

            Was this meant to be a substantive objection, or are you just nitpicking?

          • baconbits9 says:

            Okay, so freshman-level supply and demand plus a kindergartner’s understanding of how the universe works predicts that more money in the local economy, that is “the area in which you can live and commute here”, leads to higher wages in the local economy, because workers cannot travel infinite distances

            I understand that you are attempting to take a shot at me, but you literally just said that you can make your view work if you take a completely ignorant person’s view of the world, which is mostly a shot at your position.

            Anyway, lets walk through the logical inferences of supply and demand curves in this situation rather than a child’s model of how the world works.

            that is “the area in which you can live and commute here” ……..If you have high labor demand at point X, the supply to satisfy that demand is constrained to come from a finite radius surrounding X.

            There is no local economy that fits such a description. There is a price that would encourage you (as in a general person, not you in particular, though it likely applies to you in particular) to commute to the other side of the world for work on a regular basis. There is no finite radius unless you are describing the radius of the earth (plus a bit more for people who want to be astronauts), and the majority of the money that you spend in your local economy is already earmarked for some distant destination. The pineapple you bought at your ‘local’ grocery store was imported from hundreds or thousands of miles away, and the majority of your ‘demand’ for pineapple is going to pay the costs of producing and shipping the pineapple and leaving you immediate area. Likewise the majority of goods and services produced ‘locally’ are sold to non locals.

            Lets explore the logical outcomes of what happens if you mandated actual local spending, ie no importing goods or services from beyond some arbitrary, but close, boundary. By the logic of ‘local spending = higher wages” workers should end up wealthier.

            Lets start with my pineapple, now they aren’t native to my area so there are two choices, either someone has to build a greenhouse to produce them locally or they are no longer available for purchase. If you could produce pineapples for sale locally at a price less than what it costs to ship them to my locality there would be a strong incentive to do so already, so in the vast majority of cases (near 100%) the price of pineapples goes up or pineapples are unavailable. The real earnings of all local workers in terms of how many pineapples they can purchase must fall, and this should be true of every good that has any single component made outside of the local area.

          • Dedicating Ruckus says:

            I understand that you are attempting to take a shot at me, but you literally just said that you can make your view work if you take a completely ignorant person’s view of the world, which is mostly a shot at your position.

            Facts about the world that are obvious even to a kindergartner are still true. If a kindergartner could point out the flaw in your argument, that usually means your argument is bad.

            This obscurantism of “favor the counterintuitive over the obvious, just so you can dunk on non-initiates” is not a way to approach truth.

            There is no local economy that fits such a description. There is a price that would encourage you (as in a general person, not you in particular, though it likely applies to you in particular) to commute to the other side of the world for work on a regular basis.

            Okay. Sure. So rather than “there is a finite radius that supplies all the labor demanded in a given area”, we can say “there is an extreme discontinuity in the curve relating commute time and labor supplied at a given price, right around the value that constitutes a reasonable commute”.

            This means the same thing in 99% of cases, but it also accounts for the completely inconsequential edge cases of “someone is paying me $1M/yr to commute halfway around the planet”, and so forth, which have absolutely no effect on the implications of this question, but which if not addressed you’ll drag out as a gotcha.

            It’s also about 400% more confusing and obscure for that 2% increase in technical validity. Which is why this kind of obscurantism is unproductive; it’s just nerds having “WELL, AKSHUALLY” dick-waving contests.

            The pineapple you bought at your ‘local’ grocery store was imported from hundreds or thousands of miles away, and the majority of your ‘demand’ for pineapple is going to pay the costs of producing and shipping the pineapple and leaving you immediate area.

            This is true, but demand for imported pineapples still correlates positively with demand for on-the-spot labor at some level, if only for the people who run the grocery stores and unload the trucks. The magnitude of the correlation will vary depending on the good, but it should always be positive (I can’t think of any counterexamples, at least).

            Thus local spending will always increase local labor demand by some positive amount, though the actual magnitude of the amount depends heavily on circumstances. Holding the nature of the demanded goods and services constant, money spent locally still increases local demand, thus local wages, more than money sent overseas for someone else to spend. (Or, for that matter, money stuffed under someone’s mattress.)

            Lets explore the logical outcomes of what happens if you mandated actual local spending, ie no importing goods or services from beyond some arbitrary, but close, boundary. By the logic of ‘local spending = higher wages” workers should end up wealthier.

            If you actually cut off all trade outside the radius of 20 miles or whatever, obviously people’s lives would get worse.

            There are two different components to what makes people wealthier: production of goods/services, and distribution of demand. If you lock down all outside trade, you will indeed see demand for local labor increase. Other things being equal, this would make things better for workers. But of course, other things aren’t equal, and the large reduction in available goods implied by shutting down all imports will overpower the demand effect.

            This doesn’t have any bearing on the original question, though, which was about spending money locally (whether on locally-produced or imported goods) or shipping it directly overseas as a remittance. It seems obvious that, on the margin at least, the former will produce greater local labor demand, without reducing goods availability.

          • baconbits9 says:

            Facts about the world that are obvious even to a kindergartner are still true.

            You haven’t demonstrated that it is a fact, you claimed that S&D curves supported a position, when I pointed out that it wasn’t true you then stated that a completely uninformed opinion of how economics works could allow you to interpret S&D curves that way. You haven’t presented any facts so far.

            This obscurantism of “favor the counterintuitive over the obvious, just so you can dunk on non-initiates” is not a way to approach truth.

            I have a 6 year old at home, I can get a kindergartner’s view of how the world works at any time, places like SSC for me are places where I can get nuance or work through more complicated positions. If you want to be walked through an econ 101 class I suggest taking such a course, if you want to make bold declarative statements about supply and demand curves I suggest you back them up with more than ‘duh, its obvious’ if you don’t want to appear ‘dunked on’.

            This means the same thing in 99% of cases, but it also accounts for the completely inconsequential edge cases of “someone is paying me $1M/yr to commute halfway around the planet”, and so forth, which have absolutely no effect on the implications of this question, but which if not addressed you’ll drag out as a gotcha.

            No, the implication is exactly the opposite, which is highlighted by the extreme example, is that there is no reasonable definition of ‘local economy’ that adds any value to the discussion. The lead actress at the local playhouse probably studied theater somewhere far enough away to be outside your local economy, and even if she didn’t then the person who designed the lights, wrote the original script, or developed the method of construction for the playhouse.

          • Dedicating Ruckus says:

            No, the implication is exactly the opposite, which is highlighted by the extreme example, is that there is no reasonable definition of ‘local economy’ that adds any value to the discussion.

            Are you honestly going to try to tell me that towns don’t exist?

            The “local economy” is your town, plus or minus surrounding separate communities that people can move between easily on a daily basis. When we talk about the effect of something on the “local economy”, we’re talking about the effect on the people who live in your town. Is that clear enough for you?

            Yes, obviously there’s a whole lot of economic ties between any given town and the larger country surrounding it, but the question of who lives and works where still creates a notable and separable economic sub-unit.

        • Ryan X says:

          “and there would also be a large correlation between waves of immigration to the US and declines in growth which is the opposite of what is observed.”

          This point would only hold assuming that the spending/remittance from immigrants dominates all other factors that affect US economic growth. I don’t think anyone would agree with that.

          Another issue is that different immigrant waves (and to be more granular- immigrants from different nations) have had different patterns of spending versus remittances. A lot of that has to do with whether they plan on staying, or on just making money and then returning to their home country.

          I think the initial poster’s point does hold, relatively speaking- immigrants spending money on US businesses employing US workers stimulates the US economy to some degree. That same money spent in Honduras (or another country) will stimulate the US economy to a far lesser degree.

          • baconbits9 says:

            This point would only hold assuming that the spending/remittance from immigrants dominates all other factors that affect US economic growth. I don’t think anyone would agree with that.

            If other factors dominated then you would expect no correlation, and not the opposite correlation. However the claim of the original post is that remittances will reduce wages so periods of high immigration would be very likely to at least decrease gpd per capita which is also not observed. The absolute best case argument for this is ‘it happens, but is so small to be negligible’.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I think the initial poster’s point does hold, relatively speaking- immigrants spending money on US businesses employing US workers stimulates the US economy to some degree.

            Three scenarios.

            1. Immigrant works in the US, spends 25% of his salary and saves the other 75%.
            2. Immigrant works in the US, spends 25% of his salary, sends the other 75% home in the form of a check.
            3. Immigrant works in the US, spends 25% of his salary, spends the other 75% on goods he buys in the US, sends those goods home.

            What are the differences in wages for US workers under each scenario and why?

          • Dedicating Ruckus says:

            1 depends on what “saving” means. If he stuffs it under the mattress, it’s probably quasi-equivalent to 2. If he invests it somehow, it funds expansion elsewhere, but I don’t have a good feeling for how that differs from spending it directly on goods/services.

            2 is the modal case people claim makes immigrants (relatively speaking) bad for local workers. As compared to a local worker making the same salary, the immigrant “consumes” the same amount of local labor demand, but “produces” only 25%. (The remaining 75% presumably gets spent back in the immigrant’s country of origin, and some of that might get back to US demand depending on how trade works, but certainly much less.)

            3 is somewhat equivalent to the worker spending his entire salary on US goods for his own consumption, as the US-worker comparison equivalent presumably does.

            These models are all simplistic, but probably no more so than any back-of-the-envelope model; they should probably be considered “useful but low-fidelity” on the whole.

          • Anthony says:

            If other factors dominate, then you might see the correlation, because the causality runs the other way.

            High growth in the US means higher demand for labor, and thus higher wages, which would increase the number of people willing to emigrate to the US. Political constraints may reduce the number of those able to emigrate to the US, but there will also be political demand to allow more immigration.

          • baconbits9 says:

            High growth in the US means higher demand for labor, and thus higher wages, which would increase the number of people willing to emigrate to the US.

            That is possibly the case in some scenarios, but even if higher relative wages in the US were the causal mechanism you would still have situations where collapsing wages in non US countries, such as during the famines in Ireland and the economic depression in Germany after WW1, are driving immigration. In these situations you would expect the large waves of immigrants to slow US economic growth, especially on a per capita basis, because the gap is widening mostly because of the collapse of the economy in those countries. That we don’t see a drag associated with those immigrant waves indicates once again that the effect is weak at best and likely non-existent*.

            *It is my limited understanding that remittances from both examples were common, which fits with the general pattern of economic immigrants to the US throughout its history.

      • JPNunez says:

        The way I understand it, remittances will increase the supply of the local currency in foreign economies, thus lowering its price, and thus weakening the local currency in the global market; this makes buying things in that local currency more attractive, as the conversion rate makes buying cheaper. It’s why China frequently tried to lower the value of its coin, and why Trump accusses them of currency manipulation. China wants the Renminbi low, so people buy chinese products.

        That said, the american dollar is a special case, cause it’s used for transactions everywhere. I assume dollar remittances barely tickle the value of the dollar? Could be wrong here, but 56 billions seems small bananas to the overall amount of trade in dollars everywhere.

        • RalMirrorAd says:

          I’d be more curious to see what % that is of the country’s GDP that it’s being remitted to

  9. Lambert says:

    The thing about America for most of its history is that it’s an open system.
    In the Old World, countries rarely shifted their boundaries by more than a border province or two. More importantly, that land came ready-populated.
    The USA, OTOH, had the relief valve of the frontier. Millions of acres of ‘conveniently uninhabited’ land to settle.
    Malthus and Secular Cycles assume a mostly closed system, so we shouldn’t expect them to apply to the US.

  10. Krisztian says:

    My understanding is that Borjas is one of the most pessimistic economists (definitely not the mainstream view), but that even his estimates are really mild: no long run effect for all workers, and only a 5% reduction in wages for high school dropouts. How much `instability` can be attributed to that?

    Short Run / Long Run
    All native workers: -3.4% / 0.0%
    High school dropouts: -8.2% / -4.8%
    High school graduates: -2.2% / +1.2%
    Some college: -2.7% / +0.7%
    College graduates: -3.9% / -0.5%

    Got the table from Bryan Caplan’s blog, who got it from Borjas’s textbook.
    https://www.econlib.org/archives/2007/03/borjas_wages_an.html

    (couldn’t use HTML table formatting for some reason)

    • RalMirrorAd says:

      My understanding is that Bjorgas’s data refers to the specific instances of immigration he studied, there was a sudden increase in the immigrant population in Miami.

      So it’s not reasonable to infer from this that the most pessimistic estimate for the effects of immigration on wages is 5% **For any locale, any magnitude, and any duration**

      I can try to double check this later though.

  11. Akhorahil says:

    Sweden is currently suffering about 120 attacks with explosives (bombs and hand grenades) yearly, which adjusted for population would be something like 3500 yearly bombings in the U.S.

    It’s almost exclusively driven by (frequently loosely) organized crime, with access to old Yugoslavian military surplus.

  12. Hackworth says:

    Why should commoners care about their wages relative to elites, as opposed to their absolute wages?

    I suppose because of human nature, if all else fails to explain why. Man is jealous. We share this trait with our evolutionary brothers:

    The story of a couple who raised a chimpanzee (Moe) as their surrogate son. After many years, Moe was taken away from them because he bit another person. They visited Moe in the sanctuary which also sheltered other chimps. One day they brought Moe a birthday cake, and the other chimps were watching Moe eat the cake. Those others were out of their cage for some reason. They viciously attacked and mauled the man, biting off his face and genitals before they could be stopped, and didn’t even go for the cake.

    • Akhorahil says:

      If someone else has a lot more money than you, they will be able to inflict a lot more power on you. This seems relevant even if your own standard of living has improved.

      • Ijime says:

        Not to mention increased price of positional goods. “High wages, High inequality” basically means consumer goods are cheap, housing, services, and luxuries are expensive.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think my concern is that inequality levels aren’t directly visible (especially in wealth-segregated places). I would have no idea that Bill Gates even existed if I didn’t read about him on the news. It’s not like I walk past his mansion every day. And even if I did, even in low-inequality periods there are some people with huge mansions.

      Maybe if I were poorer the level of inequality would be much more intuitively obvious, not sure.

      It matters a lot whether actual inequality or some sort of intermediated-perceived-inequality drives these problems, because if it’s the actual inequality, the conclusion is to lower inequality, and if it’s the intermediated-perceived-inequality, the conclusion is to stop focusing on/talking about inequality as much.

      • Marklouis says:

        If you didn’t read the news but some critical necessity became very scarce, I bet you’d know Bill Gates’ name in a hurry. We may be hardwired to fear that outcome. It takes relative wealth to survive scarcity.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Actual inequality isn’t only about “does Bill Gates exist,” it’s also about “how many millionaires are there, versus how many people whose life is going down the toilet because they’re perennially $500 short of the money they’d need to make things be okay.”

        For purposes of Dave who’s $500 short all the time, it makes little difference whether the top 100 billionaires in America exist, or fold themselves into a huge combining-mecha-trillionaire guy, or distribute their fortune among 10,000 people who are merely decamillionaires and centimillionaires. His life is not significantly affected.

        But his life is very significantly affected by whether people with a college diploma get to cruise through his life like visiting minor noblemen, and how often. And, if they do, on whether his clever son can hope to work his way through college despite a dirt-poor upbringing, or whether “work your way through full-time college” is a laughable notion.

        A similar effect is likely to be replicated among the college graduates looking uphill at people making ten times more money than [i]them[/i], of course.

  13. DarkTigger says:

    I only reached Part III
    but I have two thoughts I like to share:
    a) Nobody remembers the violence in the 1970ies: This is strange to me because here in Germany everyone remembers the Rote Armee Fraktion terrorists. At least the educated people remeber the insurection of the students. And American Movements like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen are often associated with them.

    b) No violence in the 1820ies: Is it possible that the radicals of that time were successfully redirected against the western frontier, and the Natives there?

    • eightieshair says:

      Nobody remembers the violence in the 1970ies: This is strange to me because here in Germany everyone remembers the Rote Armee Fraktion terrorists.

      My impression is that 70s era radicals in continental Europe were much more lethal than their counterparts in the English speaking world. Wikipedia attributes 34 confirmed deaths to the RAF alone.

      I’m about mid-way through Days of Rage and it seems like most of those killed by 70s radicals in the US were policemen, and “police officer shot while on duty” doesn’t get the same kind of attention as the assassination of a civilian.

  14. Erusian says:

    I think the parsimonious explanation is close to what Thomas Piketty argued in his Capital In The Twenty-First Century. Inequality was rising until the World Wars, because that’s what inequality naturally does given reasonable assumptions about growth rates. Then the Depression and World Wars wiped out a lot of existing money and power structures and made things equal again for a little while. Then inequality started rising again, because that’s what inequality naturally does given reasonable assumptions about growth rates. Add in a pinch of The Spirit Level – inequality is a mysterious magic poison that somehow makes everything else worse – and there’s not much left to be explained.

    We don’t have solid numbers on income inequality prior to income taxes. But what indicators we have say inequality decreased during the Gilded Age. Wiping out the slaveholders, redistributing land via the Freedman’s Bureau, giving away tons of cheap land out west, explosive economic growth, and high demand for labor tends to do that.

    Piketty’s thesis in its specific form (that growth of returns on capital always outpace growth on returns on labor) is wrong. The more general idea (that inequality naturally tends to increase) is not something he can claim credit for: the Iron Law of Oligarchy is from 1911, for example. I find that form more convincing, partly because it does not rely on spotty economic data or disproven economic theories and partly because I believe money is only one sort of power.

    The argument is that in any stable system there will be predictable ways to gain power and people who actually have power. People who have power will do their best to put their family/disciples/whatever into power using their existing power. Since the system is stable (and therefore predictable) they will generally succeed. This will allow them to accumulate more power, which will make them better at getting their family/disciples/etc into power, which will allow them to accumulate more power… However, both because they have competitors and because there’s multiple types and avenues to power, this will produce a diversity of powerful people (an oligarchy) rather than a single dictator who is maximally powerful in all ways.

    Thus every system tends towards being a de facto oligarchy. This doesn’t necessarily mean they alter the form of government: you can have mature, stable democracies with free elections where the elite have effectively created an oligarchy. Those elites will have optimized to win elections, for example. Something no doubt easier if your father was president before you, you have a political organization behind you already, you have family money, etc etc. (This also works in dictatorships, except the elite will have optimized along different lines. You can have a Stalin but over time power starts to devolve to the oligarchy of party insiders.)

    First, the concept of “elite overproduction” is one that worms its way into your head. It’s the sort of thing that was constantly in the background of Increasingly Competitive College Admissions: Much More Than You Wanted To Know. It’s the sort of thing you think about when a million fresh-faced college graduates want to become Journalists and Shape The Conversation and Fight For Justice and realistically just end up getting ground up and spit out by clickbait websites. Ages of Discord didn’t do a great job breaking down its exact dynamics, but I’m grateful for its work bringing it from a sort of shared unconscious assumption into the light where we can talk about it.

    Could you spell this out? I’m not sure I understand the thought. Say a million people want to become the next Cronkite. By definition, most of them are going to fail. This is true regardless of whether getting college-educated is necessary to succeed.

    If you’re saying that colleges create elites and they’re creating too many, I think you have causation backward. Elite status is signaled by having things that other people want but that are scarce. Everyone wants a mansion but few people can afford them. Everyone wants the most attractive partner (in a whole-person sense) but Salma Hayek marries French billionaires, not SSC commenters. And everyone wants to get into Harvard, which makes it a useful status object to get in.

    Colleges can sometimes shepherd a specific person into the elite by throwing a normal person into a melange of elite people and then seeing them take full advantage with the extensive natural gifts they’d need to get in as a normal person. But in general they don’t make elite. There’s a lot of Harvard graduates who don’t qualify as elite. There are not a lot of (say) Jared Kushners or Malia Obamas who don’t. (Of course, Jared and Malia got into Harvard entiiiirely on their own, right?) The elite would exist without colleges and it’s perfectly possible to construct (in the imagination) a world where the elite don’t see education as a status good to bribe and fight over.

    Third, historians have to choose what events to focus on. Normal historians usually focus on the same normal events. Unusual historians sometimes focus on neglected events that support their unusual theses, so reading someone like Turchin is a good way to learn parts of history you’d never encounter otherwise.

    I’d correct this to: “Popular historians usually focus on the same normal events that people like to read about. People like Turchin go outside of these normal events, which is good. Even better would be a thorough education in academic history but that requires a ton of time/money/effort most people just don’t have.”

    • The argument is that in any stable system there will be predictable ways to gain power and people who actually have power. People who have power will do their best to put their family/disciples/whatever into power using their existing power. Since the system is stable (and therefore predictable) they will generally succeed. This will allow them to accumulate more power, which will make them better at getting their family/disciples/etc into power, which will allow them to accumulate more power… However, both because they have competitors and because there’s multiple types and avenues to power, this will produce a diversity of powerful people (an oligarchy) rather than a single dictator who is maximally powerful in all ways.

      Thus every system tends towards being a de facto oligarchy. This doesn’t necessarily mean they alter the form of government: you can have mature, stable democracies with free elections where the elite have effectively created an oligarchy. Those elites will have optimized to win elections, for example. Something no doubt easier if your father was president before you, you have a political organization behind you already, you have family money, etc etc. (This also works in dictatorships, except the elite will have optimized along different lines. You can have a Stalin but over time power starts to devolve to the oligarchy of party insiders.)

      Doesn’t this suggest that if you want to be an anti-inequality activist without throwing the system into a violent revolution in order to make it unpredictable, that reforms to the existing system must make every element change every now and then, deliberately, by design? So every X years (chosen in the trade off between chaos and inequality) the electoral system and how the government works in terms of congress changes in order to disrupt existing political networks, and you do something similar in certain economic arenas. The goal would be to reach a point where there is a consensus that the rules for power need to be shaken up every now and then. This would be very different from traditional anti-inequality activism that finds its place on the partisan left and focuses when all is said and done on the government taking over things.

      Anti-inequality activists who actually want to accomplish something should probably work out how to frame this process in a bipartisan way, in which it can become the bedrock of the system, and a norm that all agree to, much as democracy is today (outside of an extremist fring).

      Obvious objections to “Resetism” are that system rule resets would have to balance reducing inequality against making the rules change too often so the system becomes unstable and collapses, but where this trade off lies seems debatable within the frame of thought. Another objection is that this just moves the problem one level up because then whoever decides what, say, the new electoral rules are for the next period would be able to game the system to their advantage unless it’s totally randomized. However, while this is true, the objection only means that this would not absolutely eliminate inequality, which was never in the cards anyway; the point is to reduce it, and having more layers that alternate would minimize oligarchical dynasties (in theory – it might just make them smarter, but I’m trying to steelman anti-inequality here).

      • Anthony says:

        that reforms to the existing system must make every element change every now and then, deliberately, by design? So every X years (chosen in the trade off between chaos and inequality) the electoral system and how the government works in terms of congress changes in order to disrupt existing political networks, and you do something similar in certain economic arenas.

        This is approximately what periodic elections are supposed to accomplish – each election will bring new faces even if the turnover is just old people dying off, and if enough people are dissatisfied with the results of who is getting richest under Party A’s governance, they’ll vote in Party B, who will shift the rules around until a different coalition of people gets richest.

        The electoral rules don’t get changed as often, but they don’t need to unless it becomes impossible to swap out Party B for Party A, or there’s a large number of people whose interests aren’t served by either. One party or another may discover political advantage to changing electoral rules, both formal and informal, so there will be change there, too. By having elections on two-year, four-year, and six-year cycles, people can generally count on some amount of stability in the rules, with periodic and generally gradual changes.

      • Erusian says:

        The rules can be the same so long as the elite are making wrong decisions. Which they will do insofar as things are unpredictable. So, for example, working for AOL used to be high paying, high status, and high prestige. The system wasn’t stable though: AOL failed and working for a tiny startup like Google became more prestigious/higher paying/whatever. Because no one knows the next Google, it’s unpredictable, even though the rules of capitalism didn’t change.

        Anyway, the original argument was an anarcho-socialist argument against other forms of socialism. Basically, that any centralized form of socialism was going to spawn a new elite and that being ruled by a socialist elite was not more egalitarian than being ruled by a capitalist elite. Their solution was (being anarchists) to abolish hierarchy insofar as was possible. If there’s no government and no ownership of the means of production, how can elites accumulate enough power to successfully reproduce themselves?

        This theory, to say the least, has problems. It’s been expanded on further though.

    • Michael Watts says:

      If you’re saying that colleges create elites and they’re creating too many, I think you have causation backward. Elite status is signaled by having things that other people want but that are scarce.

      The elite would exist without colleges and it’s perfectly possible to construct (in the imagination) a world where the elite don’t see education as a status good to bribe and fight over.

      I think the first quote I’ve pulled here is flat wrong and the second one is misaimed but worth thinking about.

      My view is informed mostly by the book Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World. It discusses pre-modern elite education at some length, and these were my takeaways:

      1. All cultures with writing develop formal education for the elite class. Formal education consists of a body of texts with which the elite must be familiar. It does not necessarily, but can, involve mass instruction.

      2a. The benefit the elite derived from education was that it made them recognizable as elite to other elites from remote geographic regions. Elites act on a wide geographic scale, and the formal education gave them the ability to travel.

      2b. In particular, a shared cultural background enabled the elites to cooperate with each other, in a world where cooperation with strangers was very much not the norm.

      3. Modern education (the curriculum) in every country is copied from that culture’s traditional elite education. There are no obvious fundamental reasons this should be the case. From the historical perspective, the biggest problem with modern education is that English classes don’t all read the exact same set of books. The next biggest is that obviously the number of people receiving modern education is far too large to form a coherent social class. Acculturation still occurs, but two modern-educated people are, in general, not necessarily even willing to cooperate with each other.

      On this view, the elite established colleges for their own benefit with no expectation that anyone else would use them. (History supports this point.) The purpose was to get the next generation of elite accustomed to each other. College is viewed as a marker of elite status because, traditionally, that was its only purpose. The commoners want a marker of elite status because they want to be elite, but college is not a marker of elite status because many people try and fail to attend — it is a marker of elite status because it is a thing that the elite do. Causation here runs from elite status to selectivity, not the other way around.

      The elite could exist without colleges, but they would need another method of acculturating to each other. A world where a participational education credential is viewed as a status marker is quite unusual historically, so the qualifier “(in the imagination)” is not necessary.

      • Erusian says:

        Again, you’ve got it backward. Being educated in the sense of having common cultural markers fits your idea. But the education does not make you elite. You are describing a process whereby the existing already elite maintain their status by the provision of high-status goods like certain manners or education. But these people must already be elite.

        In other words, gentlemen and gentlewomen might go to finishing schools but they still need to own an estate. If someone has the status markers but lacks any actual substance behind it, they have no power base, then they’re not elites. They’re people with the manners of the elites who will generally be their servants at best.

        Elite colleges do not create elites. They provision elites with a status competition whereby they can gain markers of their elite status. People who are not elite and gain these markers benefit from having them (because it gains them favor with the already powerful) but the process does not make them elite. Someone who is well educated working a mid-level job for somewhat above average pay despite having perfect Harvard manners and a shiny Harvard degree is an not elite. And there are plenty of people like that.

        On this view, the elite established colleges for their own benefit with no expectation that anyone else would use them. (History supports this point.)

        Does it? More than a quarter of all presidents didn’t graduate from college. More Presidents didn’t have a degree than graduated from the Ivy League. John Adams, our first college educated president, had a Harvard education because he wanted to be a minister as a teenager. Harvard was still mainly a seminary at the time.

        Our last five presidents have had Ivy League educations. So perhaps this is a new trend. But it is new. The first time a President that graduated from an Ivy League college was succeeded by another President that graduated from an Ivy League school was 1992. Since then, every President has had an Ivy League education. But the last thirty years is a relatively short period of time compared to four hundred years.

        • Michael Watts says:

          Again, you’ve got it backward. Being educated in the sense of having common cultural markers fits your idea. But the education does not make you elite. You are describing a process whereby the existing already elite maintain their status by the provision of high-status goods like certain manners or education. But these people must already be elite.

          In other words, gentlemen and gentlewomen might go to finishing schools but they still need to own an estate. If someone has the status markers but lacks any actual substance behind it, they have no power base, then they’re not elites.

          This is wrong. The education does make you an elite. If you have a power base but not an education, you are a “local elite” — you can do things locally, where everyone knows who you are, but you can’t act outside your own home base. The education lets other elites recognize your status when you’re traveling. It is a tool to enable coordination across large distances.

          Scammers popped up from time to time posing as traveling elites. The pose was entirely sufficient; actual power was unnecessary.

          On this view, the elite established colleges for their own benefit with no expectation that anyone else would use them. (History supports this point.)

          Does it? More than a quarter of all presidents didn’t graduate from college. More Presidents didn’t have a degree than graduated from the Ivy League.

          On the larger point, you caught me in an error — I was really thinking of what are now called “schools”, not colleges. The model for this in the Anglophone West is the British public schools. However, I don’t think this error affects the analysis. Universities were once a separate enterprise from formal education, but they have been swallowed.

          On the point about the presidents in specific, I don’t see the relevance; many presidents did not even make a pretense of being elite.

          • Erusian says:

            This is wrong. The education does make you an elite. If you have a power base but not an education, you are a “local elite” — you can do things locally, where everyone knows who you are, but you can’t act outside your own home base. The education lets other elites recognize your status when you’re traveling. It is a tool to enable coordination across large distances.

            Scammers popped up from time to time posing as traveling elites. The pose was entirely sufficient; actual power was unnecessary.

            So, under this definition, would Mongol rulers not be elite and Confucian scholars who serve them and debase themselves before the Mongols be elite? Mongol rulers were recognized while traveling and they had conspicuous markers of status and a written language. Yet their status was shown through something other than education.

            On the larger point, you caught me in an error — I was really thinking of what are now called “schools”, not colleges. The model for this in the Anglophone West is the British public schools. However, I don’t think this error affects the analysis. Universities were once a separate enterprise from formal education, but they have been swallowed.

            On the point about the presidents in specific, I don’t see the relevance; many presidents did not even make a pretense of being elite.

            I think we have different definitions of elite then. To me, someone who’s elite is someone with a powerbase. Elites do not need to be a coherent class or mutually recognize each other. For example, both the leaders of the Confederacy and the leaders of the Union during the Civil War were elites.

            The idea of the President not being an elite is nonsense but only because the President (I hope we agree) has power. If you’re talking about a mutually reinforcing class of people who have certain social norms, that’s a different answer. But it also leads to things like the Confucian scholars, where these ‘elites’ do not have actual power.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      Piketty most certainly does not say that r is ALWAYS greater than g, and that distortion renders your comment suspect.

      • Erusian says:

        I suppose that’s a fair, if nitpicky, point. He says that r is always greater than g over the long term but can be less in the short term. He uses this to justify a wealth tax to redistribute it to labor. I read Capital in the 21st Century on release, so perhaps I’m misremembering.

        It doesn’t change the fundamental point though. Unless I’m missing something, but I’d ask you post a more thorough critique so I can understand your point.

  15. Robert Jones says:

    Second, the idea of a deep link between various indicators of goodness and badness – like wages and partisan polarization – is an important one.

    Do we really need a deep link here? Good things have good consequences, bad things have bad consequences, pretty much by definition. A positive event, like tapping a new resource, leads to a virtuous cycle and things get better across a variety of metrics. A negative event, like a war, leads to the opposite.

    • ksdale says:

      Except that sometimes, a new resource is tapped, and people looking to exploit it descend upon your country and sow instability and kleptocrats fight over it and there is not a virtuous cycle.

    • keaswaran says:

      Except that partisan polarization really seems like a pretty neutral thing. Low polarization times (like the 1840s and 1950s) are usually low polarization because there is some highly polarizing issue that happens not to line up with the partisan divide. As it happens, these were slavery and civil rights. In both periods, the Democrats and the other party specifically avoided having a party line on the issue, so that both parties could compete in the South and also in the North. Low partisan polarization just means a period of two-dimensional polarization, where the dimension that cross-cuts the parties was much more polarizing than the dimension that separated the parties (I believe in the 1840s the parties were divided by government involvement in big infrastructure projects like roads, as well as tariffs, while in the 1950s it was government involvement in social welfare programs).

      It’s not obvious that times where the main partisan division coincides with the main aspects of political disagreement should be better or worse than the times where there is a major polarizing debate where neither party is able to give voice to either side of the debate.

  16. eigenmoon says:

    Permabear perspective here.

    US would be already in the crisis if it didn’t throw tons of borrowed money onto the problem. The current spending policy is nuts: take it from the government’s financial report (see “An Unsustainable Fiscal Path”, pdf page 14 = paper page 5). Of course all candidates promise to spend more anyway.

    All this might hit the fan in the next decade. Medicare Fund is projected to run out of money in 2026 (see the report above, next page). There’s no way that this ends with no consequences.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      We control the world’s Fiat currency and the power of the printing press and thus literally cannot run out of money.

      • Dedicating Ruckus says:

        So instead we hyperinflate the dollar away, means the same thing in practice.

      • Watchman says:

        You know that the fiat currency isn’t fixed. If the dollar starts to regularly devalue people aren’t going to use it for contract purposes, and bang goes the main reason for being a fiat currency.

        Although you are correct the federal government can’t run out of money in practical terms. What it can run out of are people prepared to take that money in exchange for goods and services..

  17. DarkTigger says:

    When immigration corresponds to periods of high inequality, is the immigration causing the inequality?

    Let me rephrase this in a way that won’t get you thrown out of Oberlin: “A) First generation immigrants are often poorer then natives. B) First gen immigrants are inhabitants of the country. So more immigrants lead to more inequality between the inhabitants of a country, even if nothing changes for the natives, or if immigration has a positiv impact on the economy.”

    This might change in the next generation (which fits the father-son-cycle).

  18. bullseye says:

    One thing that Burrough returns to in Days of Rage, over and over and over, is how forgotten so much of this stuff is. Puerto Rican separatists bombed NYC like 300 times, killed people, shot up Congress, tried to kill POTUS (Truman). Nobody remembers it.

    Wait, does Turchin think Truman was President in the 1970s?

    • DarkTigger says:

      Your quote is a quote from a review of “Days of Rage”, which Scott linked. And wrote he would quote it. So, I don’t know if Turchin thinks that Truman was President in the 70ties, but I have no reason to think he does.

  19. NostalgiaForInfinity says:

    Sometimes, Turchin talks about the supply vs. demand of labor. In times when the supply of labor outpaces demand, wages go down, inequality increases, elites fragment, and the country gets worse, mimicking the “land is at carrying capacity” stage of the Malthusian cycle. In times when demand for labor exceeds supply, wages go up, inequality decreases, elites unite, and the country gets better. The government is controlled by plutocrats, who always want wages to be low. So they implement policies that increase the supply of labor, especially loose immigration laws. But their actions cause inequality to increase and everyone to become miserable. Ordinary people organize resistance: populist movements, socialist cadres, labor unions. The system teeters on the edge of violence, revolution, and total disintegration. Since the elites don’t want those things, they take a step back, realize they’re killing the goose that lays the golden egg, and decide to loosen their grip on the neck of the populace. The government becomes moderately pro-labor and progressive for a while, and tightens immigration laws. The oversupply of labor decreases, wages go up, inequality goes down, and everyone is happy. After everyone has been happy for a while, the populists/socialists/unions lose relevance and drift apart. A new generation of elites who have never felt threatened come to power, and they think to themselves “What if we used our control of the government to squeeze labor harder?” Thus the cycle begins again.

    This is a Marxian theory of the business cycle. See here for a mathematical model of it.

    I’m not sure if there’s much empirical evidence for it. This paper claims there is in the US (four graphs at the bottom showing complete-ish cycles).

  20. Dick Illyes says:

    Elite overproduction: I own some farmland that drains into a creek along the edge of a nearby town. Heavy rains can cause flooding. There was a government program paying 75% of the cost for farm ponds that would moderate the runoff. The ponds had dams with drainage pipes set to allow several feet of water in the pond above them which would drain slowly through the pipes. I contacted the local USDA engineer who surveyed two locations. I got approval within about three weeks, and the ponds were built. They performed as expected. They provide water for livestock and are stocked with bass and bluegill. Willow thickets around the low ends provide habitat for deer and turkey.

    About two years after Obama was elected I sought approval for two more. The engineer told me I should just build them myself. Thousands of new employees had been added to the USDA, almost all of them non-STEM, and they were still working on new regulations. The estimated approval wait time was three years and building them now might provide grandfathering if they were eventually outlawed.

    I submit this is a symptom of elite over-production. Higher ed is turning out huge numbers of non-STEM non-professional heavily indebted graduates. They have been taught that their purpose in life is to rule over others, and that they will do it in a high paying government job. The Obama years seemed to promise this type of job growth, but the revolt of the deplorables has put it all in doubt. IMO this is a major factor in Trump Derangement Syndrome.

    Immiseration among this group is the reality. They can’t afford to buy their first house or start a family, many can barely afford to live. Academia is doubling down. More and more victims must be identified who can only be protected by government. A government run by those who understand intersectionality. Trump must be destroyed, and destroyed in such a way as to deter anyone in the future who might try to slow the growth of government.

    Government jobs are the only hope for this huge cohort. It is not a good situation.

    • Randy M says:

      They have been taught that their purpose in life is to rule over others, and that they will do it in a high paying government job. The Obama years seemed to promise this type of job growth, but the revolt of the deplorables has put it all in doubt. IMO this is a major factor in Trump Derangement Syndrome.

      Amusing that the analogy you choose to illustrate this could roughly be summed up as “drain the swamp.”

    • Aftagley says:

      They have been taught that their purpose in life is to rule over others, and that they will do it in a high paying government job.

      Here is the General Schedule Pay Scale.That one is the default regional, so you can consider it the low-end of what a civil servant can/will make. Here is the one for DC, which unless I’m mistaken, is about as high as it goes.

      An average post-college employee will enter in as a GS7 or GS8, and won’t be that high in steps, maybe 2 or 3. These “High-paying” jobs you’re complaining about will be somewhere between $38k-$55k. Reminder, that $55k comes at the cost of living in one of the most expensive cities on the east coast. Also, almost no one gets a government job right out of college, you can pretty much assume you’ll need either an internship or something before you get a “real” job.

      Sure, there are plenty of benefits to working for uncle sam, but making money is definitely not one of them.

      • FormerRanger says:

        There are tons of non-GS jobs that are not “government jobs” but which serve the government or lobby it or provide consultants for it, and so on. Many of those jobs pay extremely high salaries. Just to pick a few examples, there are: being an employee of a defense contractor, or of a K-Street lobbying firm, or being a Washington lawyer. (There are also similar jobs that don’t pay high wages or offer the perks of being a GS, and people fill those when they can’t get a GS job immediately.

        • bean says:

          being an employee of a defense contractor

          This pays about as much as a similar job outside the defense industry. Depending on the job, that might be quite a lot, but there’s not a major bump in pay for moving from being an engineer for Boeing building airliners to being an engineer for Lockheed building fighters. They certainly don’t pay as much as DC lawyers or lobbyists.

          • Dedicating Ruckus says:

            Boeing is 100% a defense contractor, both directly (they build big planes e.g. bombers, tankers for the Air Force) and for agencies that aren’t defense per se but operate on similar models (e.g. NASA and SLS).

            All those aerospace companies are basically existentially dependent on USG buying stuff from them, and so in a political/economic categorical schema they should look pretty similar. I’m not sure where you could find a similar job that was not government-entangled at all.

          • John Schilling says:

            Boeing is 100% a defense contractor, both directly (they build big planes e.g. bombers, tankers for the Air Force) and for agencies that aren’t defense per se but operate on similar models (e.g. NASA and SLS).

            Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Boeing Defense, Space, and Security are two distinct operating units with very little overlap. BCA generates 56% of Boeing’s total revenue and 45% of its operating income, compared to 21% and 19% respectively for BDS. Most of the rest comes from Boeing Global Services, which mostly does maintenance repair and overhaul for Boeing’s airliners.

            To the extent that there is overlap between BCA and BDS, it comes from governments looking at airliners of which BCA has designed and is building many for the commercial market, and asking for a much smaller number with some tweaks for their own purposes. No, this is not a ginormous subsidy that lets Boeing sell airliners that would otherwise be profitable, because check the relative operating incomes (and the timeline).

            Also, no division of Boeing has built a bomber for anyone in fifty-six years. And that’s not going to change any time soon.

        • Aftagley says:

          Being an employee of a … K-Street lobbying firm, or being a Washington lawyer.

          Right, but these jobs aren’t going to the recent graduates who Dick was complaining about. They’re going to people who have worked for decades to establish the reputation and contacts needed to succeed in those kinds of positions.

          I mean, yes, you can leverage decades of government service into getting a high paying, high status job, but that’s true in nearly any profession.

      • SomethingElse says:

        These “High-paying” jobs you’re complaining about will be somewhere between $38k-$55k.

        Except that the natural market pay rate for a non-STEM non-professional BA holder is whatever second-tier retail or customer service pays: about $30k at present, but with little hope of advancement.

        • John Schilling says:

          Median starting salary for a college graduate with a BA in English is $38,000, rising to $65,000 after ten years. Numbers are similar for other “non-stem non-professional” degrees.

      • Cliff says:

        almost no one gets a government job right out of college, you can pretty much assume you’ll need either an internship or something before you get a “real” job.

        What? Are you sure?

        • Aftagley says:

          Admittedly, my answer was specifically targeted towards federal jobs, like the USDA ones Dick was talking about. I can’t speak to how difficult it is to get a job as a secretary out your local town hall. But when it comes to the federal system, yes.

      • Plumber says:

        @Aftagley says:

        “…almost no one gets a government job right out of college, you can pretty much assume you’ll need either an internship or something before you get a “real” job…”

        People most definitely get jobs with the City and County of San Francisco right out of college, but often they’ve been interns during their schooling.

    • broblawsky says:

      Do you have any kind of literature review showing that recent non-STEM graduates are more likely than STEM graduates to seek government jobs, to seek power over others, or to exhibit whatever you think “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is?

      One part of your thesis is pretty trivially falsifiable; the average age of a government employee has stayed pretty constant from 2001 until 2017, at ~46-47 years, and similarly, the ratio of government workers to US population has mostly stayed constant or dropped since then. There definitely hasn’t been any kind of influx of “intersectionality-understanding” young people into the US government. I want to extend charity as far as possible, but this hypothesis really looks like less of a straw man and more of a straw army. Help me out here.

      • SomethingElse says:

        One part of your thesis is pretty trivially falsifiable; the average age of a government employee has stayed pretty constant from 2001 until 2017, at ~46-47 years, and similarly, the ratio of government workers to US population has mostly stayed constant or dropped since then

        These do not falsify the point at all:

        When we talk about “elite overproduction”, we are naming the phenomenon where too many young people train for management/bureaucratic jobs and then aren’t able to get such jobs.

        Where I would argue with Dick is in his focus on government employment. The same pool of (STEM-, Pro-) BA holders fill government bureaucracies as fill corporate bureaucracies. Corporate HQ functionaries like HR/PR/Compliance are the same people as university administrators are the same people as hospital administrators are the same people as government paper-pushers of all sorts.

        They are all people with nothign to offer the world but their exquisitely institutionalized conscioussness – They are career rule followers who dream of one day ascending to the realm of rule makers.

        • broblawsky says:

          They are all people with nothign to offer the world but their exquisitely institutionalized conscioussness – They are career rule followers who dream of one day ascending to the realm of rule makers.

          I’m impressed by your ability to reduce the personalities of millions of Americans to parodies straight out of C.S. Lewis based on nothing more than than the fact that they’re young and that they didn’t get a STEM degree.

        • stopandgo says:

          When we talk about “elite overproduction”, we are naming the phenomenon where too many young people train for management/bureaucratic jobs and then aren’t able to get such jobs.

          Where I would argue with Dick is in his focus on government employment. The same pool of (STEM-, Pro-) BA holders fill government bureaucracies as fill corporate bureaucracies. Corporate HQ functionaries like HR/PR/Compliance are the same people as university administrators are the same people as hospital administrators are the same people as government paper-pushers of all sorts.

          And wasn’t Scott just posting about the expolsive growth in educational and healthcare costs driven partially by the increased employment of these (rent-seeking, paper-pusher, elite-striver) types?

  21. Reasoner says:

    The Great Depression happened at a medium part of the cycle, when things should have been quickly getting better.

    Isn’t the Great Depression supposed to have been exogenous, driven by bad monetary policy or something?

    Anyway, I think what psychohistorian Turchin needs to do next is create the equivalent of the Foundation in the Asimov series. How can we make the coming period of chaos shorter and less intense, and lay a foundation for the next iteration of things so as to try and address some of the underlying issues which cause these cycles?

    Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

    – Milton Friedman

  22. Ryan X says:

    On the immigration issue, Eric Weinstein (brother of Bret and coiner of “IDW”) wrote a paper about a conspiracy by the National Science Foundation and other key academic stakeholders to increase the numbers of STEM researchers from outside the US in order to weaken the bargaining power and wages of US researchers and post-docs.

    “That study was a key link in a chain of evidence leading to an entirely different view of the real origins of the Immigration Act of 1990s and the H1-B visa classification. In this alternative account, American industry and Big Science convinced official Washington to put in place a series of policies that had little to do with any demographic concerns. Their aims instead were to keep American scientific employers from having to pay the full US market price of high skilled labor. They hoped to keep the US research system staffed with employees classified as “trainees,” “students,” and “post-docs” for the benefit of employers. The result would be to render the US scientific workforce more docile and pliable to authority and senior researchers by attempting to ensure this labor market sector is always flooded largely by employer-friendly visa holders who lack full rights to respond to wage signals in the US labor market.”

    https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/how-why-government-universities-industry-create-domestic-labor-shortages-of-scientists-high-tech-workers

    We see this same basic supply and demand dynamic exemplified by Silicon Valley’s continuous lobbying for more H1B Visas and high tech immigration generally.

    The left has completely forgotten that many of its heroes (such as Cesar Chavez) were adamantly opposed to expanded immigration and illegal immigration generally, for the obvious reason that it hurt the bargaining power of the working classes.

    https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2018/11/the-left-case-against-open-borders/

    Our plutocrats have been successful in shaping the immigration issue into its current cartoonish form- either you are “for immigration” or you are a bigot.

  23. Enkidum says:

    It might be something like – immigration generally makes “the economy better”, but there’s no guarantee that these gains are evently distributed, and so it can be bad for low-skilled workers in particular?

    I am not an economist, but I used to read The Economist a lot, and as I recall from 2010-ish that was exactly what they presented as the standard, correct model of immigration and its effects on wages. So their ideal was high immigration with extensive mitigation programs for low-skilled workers.

  24. uncle stinky says:

    I was looking through askhistorians to see if they had anything to say about Turchin. There’s not much but what there is isn’t good. The one slightly detailed reply quotes from an excoriating review of Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall. The jstor page is here and here is the where’s scihub page, purely by coincidence. I’m surprised Scott would give another review to this historiography ignoring, pattern matching piffle.

    • SystematizedLoser says:

      As an aside, I would be interested in a meta-level discussion of the reliability of AskHistorians. As far as I can see, they tend to be extremely negative toward “outsider grand theorists” like Turchin, Steven Pinker, and Jared Diamond. On one hand, that can be explained by these outsiders failing to grasp fundamental details of specific fields. On the other, it sometimes looks like academics being jealous of their turf and getting annoyed at people who get a lot of outside attention for something not in their field.

  25. codesections says:

    One minor nit. You wrote:

    The Columbia Law Review measures political polarization over time and gets mostly the same numbers as Turchin

    But the article you cite is an essay by Cynthia R. Farina, a professor at Cornell Law School, which was published in the Columbia Law Review. So it wasn’t the CLR that measured polarization any more than it is JAMA who conducts medical studies published in that journal. (Though, of course, in both cases the journals vouch for the quality of the scholarship they publish)

  26. Concavenator says:

    I wonder how well this meshes with Strauss and Howe’s generations. The peaks of unrest and violence in Ages of Discord should correspond roughly with S&H’s “Awakenings” and “Crises”, which are also about 40-50 years from each other. On the other hand, that would have the 1920s peak falling between the Third Great Awakening and the Depression + WW2 Crisis, a shift they attribute to the Civil War “coming about too early”.

    • mtl1882 says:

      I am also wondering about this, but am not sure how to run a detailed comparison.

      I’ve definitely come to believe that society is cyclical, and it is now odd to try and come at it from the more popular view of history as “trending” in one direction. There is clearly a pendulum dynamic at work. I don’t expect it to be an exact science and the exceptions will be easily rationalized in different ways.

      I don’t know if anyone knows the real reasons, but I do think the appeal of rebellion v. cooperation naturally gets forgotten with time, and whatever one is presently triumphing gets thrown overboard for the other once its appeal is remembered. Modern society’s mass culture and interconnection/globalization may be enough to radically change whatever pattern is left–I would not expect it to hold. But I think elements of the psychological tensions that causes the cycles are always recurring.

      I feel like “room on the stage” is a big thing–how many people can be heard, who can be heard, how loudly, and by whom? What outlets are available? Can you find alternatives or avoid the conversation? The Civil War era was abnormally intense compared to other cycles (that may not be the right word, but it was early and collapsed multiple stages, according to Howe and Strauss). I think that had a lot to do with changes in media and opportunity, among other things, that gave a wide stage for incredible performers of all kinds. Lots of opportunities for exploring new ideas with confidence, and looking at things head on. Destabilization, for better or worse, was a given.

      After that, the stage was much noisier and controlled and less comprehensible. Mass entertainment in the 1900s surely was used in service of various social and political developments, but I feel like it is so fractured, simplistic and distracting by nature that it differed in effect from the mid 1850s-communication explosion. I think the internet keeps changing the stage and audience in various ways that are important, but can’t say what will happen.

      I do think psychology plays a huge role in social change, maybe as much as material conditions do. How you interpret the material situation in crucial, and it has to do with whether or not you think things will get better or if you have agency. That’s why I think arguments that say “humanity is way better off than 200 years ago guys!” miss the point–to a bizarre degree. That is certainly an important fact to keep in mind, but humans are driven by a sense of forward-movement–if their needs are met but there is no “chase,” they won’t be happy. I’m confused by Scott’s puzzlement as to whether people care about relative inequality instead of absolute wellbeing. That is always what people care about at a larger social/political level. I thought that in recent years this had been hammered home. Humans are not built to be satisfied. Of course, there are qualifiers to this, and not everyone is rampaging around in jealousy. But they will always notice that some people have way more, and people who are aggravated by that experience a different type of aggravation than those who can’t meet basic needs, which is more of a frustration.

  27. Watchman says:

    I wouldn’t be using the average height in the nineteenth-century USA as a measure of anything to do with the US secular cycle (if such a thing exists). Immigration is too big an issue: 10-15% of the population were born outside the US from at least the mid-nineteenth century through to the second world war (apparently this century as well). Not only were immigrants likely to mainly be from poorer, more malnourished, backgrounds (and in some cases populations who are just shorter on average anyway), but they would not immediately adopt to the host culture diet and lifestyle, so likely having an effect on the height of children born in the US regardless of living standards.

    Also, are the figures normalised for age. If not the average height represents conditions probably 20-30 years before the actual data point was taken, which might mess up the pattern matching here.

    The nineteenth-century drop in average height is however not a cyclical thing. It’s sie to increased urbanism. The same pattern can be observed in contemporary Britain (where any crisis was rather well hidden) and indeed in ancient Greece. Where people move to cities, their nutrition becomes deficient and their children smaller, a pattern reversed as supply networks (and suitable technologies) are developed. What we have here is another example of Turchin doing his normal trick of using data without context. This is based history, and based science: finding data that matches your theory without analysing it properly. But Turchin is a bad historian, so this is no surprise.

    • colomon says:

      What caught my attention WRT average height is the supplemental chart Scott linked to. Yes, the US numbers there seem to match Turchin’s graph. But the US seems to be the only country in the supplemental chart whose pattern looks ANYTHING like that! The Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany all start below the US in 1850, and end up well above the US, with at most minimal declines anywhere in those 160 years. Zero sign of a cycle in those countries.

      You might think that being the loser in two world wars and half occupied by communists for 40+ years might have some sort of effect on German height, if that has something to do with the general prosperity — but there is literally NO decline in the German average height there anywhere from 1900 on.

      To me, this graph completely destroys the notion that average height tells you something about prosperity in the industrial world, and weakens the case for secular cycles as well.

      • colomon says:

        OMG, I think I might have just figured something out. Here’s part of the text on the average (actually median, not mean) height chart Scott linked to:

        To provide a historical perspective, I charted the median male height for various countries between 1820 and 2013 below. It was surprisingly difficult to find this kind of height data, but fortunately many of these country’s militaries meticulously recorded the median height of their new conscripts every year. These records provide a convenient (albeit somewhat biased) sample of the young generation of men during the time period.

        So I guess that doesn’t authoritatively say it. But the big inflection point downward for the US numbers is right around 1975. And what happened around then? The US ended the draft.

        So… if this is actually median height of US military conscripts, what you’d expect is that from 1942-1972, it should track the median height of people who don’t avoid the draft, which I would imagine should be a decent track of median 20-year-old male height in the country. From 1975-on, it’s only people who voluntarily go into the military — which, at the median, I would strongly suspect represents people who aren’t very prosperous. (That is to say, for sure there are prosperous folks who go into the military too. But they are probably less than 25% of the whole, no? So they don’t have a huge effect on the median.)

        In other words: if there *is* anything to the idea that height follows prosperity, there’s a very good chance that what this chart is showing us is the prosperity of American joining the military went down noticeably when the draft was ended. No surprise there.

        Ah, hell, I should have gone to the sources before typing the above. If you’re wondering why there is a gradual decline for the US from 1980 on, it’s because the person who made the graph only has one data point (2013) after 1980, and it’s from a completely different source than than the data up to 1980. It’s also explicitly average rather than median. eg the entire chart Scott looked at appears to basically be worthless for drawing any sort of meaningful conclusions.

        • “From 1975-on, it’s only people who voluntarily go into the military — which, at the median, I would strongly suspect represents people who aren’t very prosperous. (That is to say, for sure there are prosperous folks who go into the military too. But they are probably less than 25% of the whole, no? So they don’t have a huge effect on the median.)”

          Wrong:

          http://freakonomics.com/2008/09/22/who-serves-in-the-military-today/

          • colomon says:

            Huh. I’ve been lectured so many times over the years that the bulk of the enlisted men are poor and/or minority that I don’t know what to think about this.

            At any rate, my second (rather more important) point stands: the post-1980 US decline in Scott’s linked chart comes from one single data point, and that’s from a completely different source that the 1980-and-before numbers, with little reason you can gather from the cites to even assume they are measuring the same thing.

        • Watchman says:

          Wow. That’s worse than I thought. One unrelated data point for 35 years! And he still draws a graph…

          Add mathematics and ethics to the list of things Turchin appears to struggle with.

          What is particularly amusing here is that most militaries, at least when non-conscription based, had a minimum height requirement. So in many cases Turchin is actually measuring the average height of men above a certain height.

  28. harzerkatze says:

    Western philosophy tends to think in terms of trends, not cycles. We see everything going on around us, and we think this is some endless trend towards more partisanship, more inequality, more hatred, and more state dysfunction. But Secular Cycles offers a narrative where endless trends can end, and things can get better after all.

    Perhaps because of how we are taught math, we tend to see thinks as trends. Y= x^2 means things increase exponantially etc.

    But in reality, there is no exponential growth, there is only an s-curve of varying steepness. Every growth has to plateau, neither populations nor microprocessor speeds can grow exponentially forever. Not even space itself seems to be endless, if I understand astronomy right. Things doe not have to form a cycle, but “forming a new plateau” is something that can only be postponed, not avoided, except in mathematics.

    Yet most of the times, we only see a trend, and tend to think it goes on into the sunset.
    I sometimes wonder if we would act differently if we were more trained to see processes as having their inevitable end already expected.

  29. Dan says:

    “you should worry about immigrants stealing your job” (which everyone seems very convinced is false).

    It’s not that “nobody should worry about immigrants stealing their jobs”, it’s “the Republican voting bloc which is most vocally concerned with immigrants stealing their jobs should not worry about immigrants stealing their jobs”.

    The people who will lose their jobs to new immigrants are old immigrants. But the people who complain most about immigrants taking their jobs are the blue collar workers who are actually losing their jobs to workers in other countries due to free trade deals.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      Why not both?

    • Corey says:

      Yeah, I thought the problem might be in the way he defines “American workers”.

      For example, consider an influx of Mexican construction workers. They will mostly compete with / drive down wages for other Mexican construction workers. Retail clerks will be mostly unaffected. Perhaps the other Mexican construction workers are considered “American workers” because they’re already present.

      • Garrett says:

        A better example: why would anybody be on any form of unemployment/labor assistance if there are unskilled jobs to be performed requiring immigrants (illegal or otherwise)? There’s a whole host of jobs which need to be done, and a bunch of people who aren’t performing any useful task. The idea that importing people from another country, legally or illegally, is the most economically-efficient solution absent government interventions strikes me as implausible.

  30. Watchman says:

    OK. I seem to be questioning each piece of data here! Where has Turchin got a continuous series of life expectancies from. I cant access the most recent Historical Statistics of the United States (oddly not in my university library) but the previous edition is handily online. The 1970 compilers only have a continuous series of life expectancy from 1900 (this goes steadily upwards, as with the graph). If they had a longer series then they would have used it on 1975: as they didn’t it looks like Turchin has drawn on something else.

    Now I also read some reviews of the 2004 edition of Historical Statistics, and the authors are commended for including statistics from the colonial and early US periods. My favourite comment being that these would be useful to people conversant with the appropriate period of US history, which is a clear way of saying these are historically-specific figures that need to be contextualised. I now have a horrible feeling that I know what Turchin has done though. He has taken the datasets for earlier periods and combined them with the 1900 onwards data set. If so, this is not just a failure to understand his data, but rather the classical bad science trick of silently graphing multiple data sets together.

    Without accessing the 2005 edition I can’t prove what Turchin has done. Note though that the continuous rise in life expectancy from 1900 reflects the extent in 1975 dataset, and the variability before that seems to reflect possibly disparate datasets which are independent of each other and the post-1900 dataset. Whilst I would expect immigration and urbanisation in the mid-nineteenth century to possibly affect life expectancy (hey, there’s that actually explaining the data thing again), I doubt this data set really shows this…

  31. salvorhardin says:

    It is probably worth a reminder here that the superficial plausibility of “immigration increases inequality” and of the value judgment “stealing your job” are based on a nationalist rather than humanist framing of the issues. If you think that nations are silly and arbitrary units of analysis and that there is no reason to care more about American workers just because they are American, they don’t seem so plausible.

    • JPNunez says:

      Yeah, was gonna say that migration is a human right and that nobody should be tied to a piece of land. If that creates other problems, solve those afterwards; it’s not like if you eliminated immigration in the usa you’d solve inequality. Maybe, if Torchin is right, you’d alleviate it, but there are other causes, so you may as well leave migration alone and tackle the rest of the causes.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Okay I’m going to exercise my human right to migrate into your living room, regardless of what you think about it. If you object you’re obviously an evil person who doesn’t respect human rights.

        • phi says:

          This isn’t a very strong argument. There are so many relevant differences between a country of millions and a private individual’s living room that I can’t list them all here. You might as well say that tariffs are like charging a man to bring groceries through his own front door. I’m not saying there are no good arguments against open borders, but this ain’t one of them.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I disagree. A human right is a human right. I have the human right to migrate to your living room or China or Saudi Arabia or Nigeria and fully participate in the governance of those living there and anyone who tries to stop me is evil. I also assume you’re all fully in favor of colonialism, because who the hell were the Africans or the Native Americans to tell the Europeans they couldn’t move to “their” lands and set up shop?

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Out of context, it isnt a very strong argument. But in response to the intellectually empty and vapid statement that “migration is a human right”, it works just fine, because it illustrates how merely declaring something a human right doesnt make it so.

            More generally, the entire edifice of “human rights” has been so thoroughly corrupted, that it should probably be completely eradicated. When some people believe free speech is not a human right but a M2F having his genitals waxed by a woman is a human right, it becomes clear that we cant have nice things.

        • JPNunez says:

          It’s cool, we can hang out and play some video games.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Well that sounds cool. I’m on my third playthrough of Fire Emblem Three Houses and I’m still not sure what’s going on.

        • keaswaran says:

          Occupying someone else’s private property is not migration.

          Migration is about moving yourself to property whose owner has granted you access. If someone is willing to rent a house to you, the government should have no say in whether or not you can move into that house. If someone is willing to sell a house to you, the government should have no say in whether or not you can move into that house.

          To ban this kind of thing, you’d have to say that the citizens as a collective are the private owner of all land in the country, and as a collective, they have the right to ban anyone they collectively want to ban from that land. But that just isn’t how we run land – either private land *or* public land.

          Public land is open to everyone to occupy (provided they don’t violate codes of conduct, like nudity and littering) and private land is open to the owner to sell or rent to anyone. *That* is the human right to migration.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            To ban this kind of thing, you’d have to say that the citizens as a collective are the private owner of all land in the country, and as a collective, they have the right to ban anyone they collectively want to ban from that land.

            This is exactly what everybody says with the exception of open border advocates. Citizens of a country may decide who enters the country through their representative government.

          • John Schilling says:

            Migration is about moving yourself to property whose owner has granted you access.

            I’m pretty sure you’ve got that backwards, because in pretty much every immigrant story I’ve ever read, no private landowner ever grants access to the immigrants until after they’ve migrated.

            And then there’s all the public land and facilities that the migrants and their advocates demand up-front access to, in addition to hoping that private landowners will open their doors.

            We could do it your way, but it would look an awful lot like H-1B plus some family reunification visas, and not so much like open borders.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      This is the kind of sentiment that chills me to the bone. Like a father saying “who cares if my daughter dies, so long as somebody else’s daughter is all right?”

      How about we cast you out of first world society, and leave you to the good graces of “humanity?” How well do you think that would work out for you?

      • phi says:

        Fathers care about their daughters because of biology: evolution has shaped us to care about people who share our genes. This makes sense and is as it should be. My question is: why should I care about some random bloke in the US more than some random bloke in Turkey? Because we’re both “Americans”? What difference does that make?

        • EchoChaos says:

          An American is more related to me than a Turk is, so the same biological imperative.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Because you share a polity with the American. The nation is the people. So goes the nation, so goes you. So goes the random American bloke, so goes you.

          Also, the guy in Turkey definitely doesn’t care about you. The American might. Actually he probably does because zero loyalty people like yourself I only ever encounter on SSC. Maybe with some mutual loyalty you could help each other out, watch each other’s backs and accomplish things together you could not alone.

          So is this your lived experience, that Americans treat you like a foreigner? Is that how you would prefer they act?

        • Anthony says:

          Because an American is either more closely related to your ancestors, or to your possible descendants. Unless you’re a part of the globalist elite, it’s very, very likely that your descendants will marry an American, and that their descendants will, too. Even if you are part of the globalist elite, the odds are still pretty good.

        • Lambert says:

          Those are all very real effects that wouldn’t be massively drowned out if the USA wasn’t 6 orders of magnitude larger than the Dubnar limit.

          I do feel a certain kinship for other Britons, but not as much as for, say, the average STEM nerd. They’re more likely to think the way I do and support the same values as me.

        • Cliff says:

          Because you are bound by U.S. law and not the law of other countries, so who is in the U.S. and makes its laws matters more to you than who makes the laws in other countries. The only way to eliminate borders is to eliminate nations. It’s a consistent view if you are a complete anarchist (and I guess, are ready to gamble), but most open borders advocates do not frame the issue in that way.

          • keaswaran says:

            “The only way to eliminate borders is to eliminate nations.”

            Haven’t we already eliminated the borders of cities, counties, and states? And yet cities, counties, and states seem to exist perfectly well as legal entities with the right to set laws and regulations within their jurisdiction.

            What would be wrong with nations having exactly that same status?

            I advocate open borders for nations that work exactly like the open borders we have between cities. You can still have plenty of competition on legal systems, but with the added factor that people would be allowed to leave if they don’t like it, instead of forcing people into violent rebellion.

          • Anthony says:

            And yet cities, counties, and states seem to exist perfectly well as legal entities with the right to set laws and regulations within their jurisdiction.

            What would be wrong with nations having exactly that same status?

            Ask anyone with a bumper-sticker saying “Don’t Californicate Colorado|Oregon|Texas|etc”.

            Outsiders generally don’t know the root causes of what makes the place they’re moving to more attractive than the place they’re leaving. Allowing them to vote risks ruining the cultural and political environment which drew them there in the first place.

      • angularangel says:

        The relevant point I’d make here, is that there are various traps one can fall into either way. If you only care about your own countrymen, then you run the risk of falling into defect/defect with other countries, and everyone ending up worse off.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          So how about we don’t fall into that trap. I care more about my own kids than my neighbor’s kids, but I have no desire to harm or rob them for the benefit of my kids.

          It is the job of your government to care more about your interests than the interests of foreigners. This is how every other nation works. If your government starts treating everyone with equal disdain you’re screwed because no other nation’s government is looking out for your interests. The Mexican government nor the Saudi Arabia government nor the Russian government nor any other government is near so magnanimous as you.

          So how about we stick to the dead simple idea of a government of, by and FOR the people?

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        @Conrad Honcho

        This is the kind of sentiment that chills me to the bone.

        Under slightly different circumstances we celebrate that kind of sentiment. Like when we celebrate a soldier, firefighter, police officer, or good Samaritan in a disaster who sacrifices their life for someone they don’t even know. Why is it good to be selfless when it’s your own life on the line, but when it’s your daughter’s you are expected to be selfish on her behalf? If you daughter is a firefighter who is about to risk her life to save some stranger’s daughter, would you try to stop her? Is it chilling if you don’t try?

        I also don’t think you really understand the sentiment. It isn’t “who cares if my daughter dies, so long as somebody else’s daughter is all right?” It’s “I’m devastated that my daughter is dead, but I know that someone else would be equally devastated if their daughter died, and that person’s daughter has just as much right to live as mine.” Similarly, it’s sad if an American can’t find a job, but I know that foreigners have a right to try to find a job too. You seem to think that the only way to put foreigners on the same moral level as fellow countrymen is to be equally cold and uncaring to both. But it’s also possible to be equally warm and compassionate to both.

        I personally find it chilling when people insist that, in addition to my various legal, enumerated duties to my fellow countrymen, I have a whole bunch of nebulous, unstated obligations to them that they have a right to call in at arbitrary times. I think that there are good rule-utilitarian reasons to have countries and governments, and to have some limited obligations as a member of a country. I do not think that we owe our fellow countrymen an infinite debt that they can call in whenever they want to guilt-trip us into treating foreigners unfairly on their behalf.

    • Guy in TN says:

      Yeah. I’d like to add that the thesis of “increased immigration is fueled by elites” is somewhat contradicted by (in the US at least) the lowest-income classes rather consistently voting for the pro-immigration political parties, and the wealthier classes voting for the anti-immigration party.

      Particular notable in 2016, when the election was practically a referendum on immigration.

      Possible explanation? A narrow analysis based solely on material self-interest does not have the predictive power one might think, perhaps because humans don’t actually operate that way.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        The top and bottom rungs of society are allied against the interest of the middle. If the elites didnt want immigration, we wouldnt have it.

        Elites in media, academia, and big tech all supported the Democrats, by a massive margin.

        If you’re very wealthy, it’s no real sacrifice to vote for welfare or immigration or the like. And you can use that to pose as a defender of the oppressed.

        If you’re middle class and raising a family and your monthly budget leaves you $100-$200 wiggle room, if that, you cant afford to have your tax dollars spent on free abortions for transgender illegal aliens, regardless of whether Nancy Pelosi lecturing you that “free abortions for transgender illegal aliens” is “who we are as a nation”.

        If you’re lower class, you expect to be a beneficiary of the Democrats so obviously you vote for them.

        • keaswaran says:

          Your explanation seems to predict that we should see some significant differences in electoral support for Clinton and Trump based on income. Perhaps low income and high income people should have supported Clinton and middle income people should have supported Trump. But it looks like both middle and high income people were within the margin of error, while low income people had slight support for Clinton (53-41 – definitely a real difference in support, but nothing that would make sense on the story you mention, where we would have expected more like 80-20).

          https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/how-groups-voted-2016

          • jermo sapiens says:

            I would like to see the data for > $100k split into more groups. The >$100k group includes the guy who makes $100k and Jeff Bezos, which is not a coherent group. People who make between $100k and $150k suffer significant financial stress if they have a family and want to send their kids to college. My prediction would be that if you examine income slices in that group, from $100k-$150k, $150k-$200k, and so on, that the proportion of Trump voters drops off as the income grows.

      • Guy in TN says:

        If the elites didnt want immigration, we wouldnt have it.

        Presumably election results can go either way. And in the most recent case, the person who won the presidency used that power to decrease various forms of immigration.

        So you are left with two possibilities of what happened:
        1. In this case, the elites actually supported a decrease in immigration (since the elites always get what they want, after all). This runs contrary to Turchin’s thesis.
        2. The elites do not actually always get what they want. This runs contrary to your thesis.

        • jermo sapiens says:

          So you are left with two possibilities of what happened:
          1. In this case, the elites actually supported a decrease in immigration (since the elites always get what they want, after all). This runs contrary to Turchin’s thesis.
          2. The elites do not actually always get what they want. This runs contrary to your thesis.

          Or 3., the elites are doing everything they can to derail Trump’s agenda, whatever Trump manages to do during his 8 years in power will be marginal and quickly undone once he leaves office.

          I’m not sure what it is I said that you disagree with. Are you saying the elites are not in favor of immigration?

          Or are you saying that immigration is currently being reduced in a meaningful sense?

      • Guy in TN says:

        Elites in media, academia, and big tech all supported the Democrats, by a massive margin.

        This sort of rhetorical two-step normally works, but in this case Turchin implicitly defines non-elites as those who receive their income through wages.

        If you want to personally define “elites” in some other way (“media, academia, and big tech”) that’s fine, but it collapses Turchin framework in which the non-elites have an incentive to try to maximize wages while elites have an incentive to lower them.

        If you talking about “elites” in a way besides how people receive income, then you talking about it in a way different from Turchin.

        • jermo sapiens says:

          Turchin’s definition is probably reasonable and necessary for his thesis to apply to different periods of time. But in today’s society, the media and academia are typically understood to form part of the elite. Or we can go with what your suggestion that Harvard profs and CNN anchors are your typical average joes.

          • Guy in TN says:

            The only way you can arrive at the conclusion of “the elites support increased immigration” is by gaming the category boundaries to include certain types of wealthy/powerful people but exclude other types of wealthy/powerful people.

            So I’m not saying CNN anchors and Harvard professors are “average Joes”, but rather that they make up a rather small and insignificant portion of the “elites” as Turchin is using the term.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            One thing I enjoy about this comment section is how you never know what in a comment will cause disagreement. When I said the elites support increased immigration, I thought this was completely obvious and wouldnt need any defending. Anyhow, it’s always good to have your preconceptions challenged.

            My general contention is that by and large, the consensus amongst the most powerful people in the country, as measured by influence on the national agenda and conversation, is that immigration is only beneficial and criticizing it makes you a dangerous extremist. I almost feel silly expressing arguments in favor of that proposition, it’s like saying “yes, water is wet, look when you spill it on your shirt you have a cold sticky feeling, which is what wet feels like”.

            I’m not saying that every single person who has more than $1 million is pro-immigration. But those that are anti-immigration tend to shut up about it because of the fear of being called racist. Just look at how Trump was treated for attempting to address illegal immigration. Even the establishment Rs were *shocked* that anyone would want to enforce immigration laws. This is only about illegal immigration. The notion of slightly reducing legal immigration is considered the stuff of N*zis.

            I could go on but this feels unbelievably silly. Maybe you are surprised to see your views line up with the elites, I dont know, let me know if you need more convincing.

          • Guy in TN says:

            My general contention is that by and large, the consensus amongst the most powerful people in the country, as measured by influence on the national agenda and conversation , is that immigration is only beneficial and criticizing it makes you a dangerous extremist.

            I almost feel silly expressing arguments in favor of that proposition, it’s like saying “yes, water is wet, look when you spill it on your shirt you have a cold sticky feeling, which is what wet feels like”.

            I hate to shatter a belief as rock solid as “water is wet” in someone’s mind, so brace yourself:

            Out of the 50 wealthiest US families in 2014, 28 donated to Republican candidates only, 15 to both parties, and 7 to Democrats only.
            If these people aren’t the “elites”, I don’t know who is.

            If focusing on the top fifty families is too narrow for you, we can drop it down to looking at income percentiles to include more of the general population. Again, no evidence that a majority of the “elites” as defined by the wealthier/more powerful groups supported to pro-immigration candidate in 2016.

            I’ve got the data right here.

            Like I said earlier, if you want to game the category boundaries (“well, I was talking about opinion column writers” or something along those lines) you are going to get different results, but that just shifts the definition of “elites” into something not relevant for Turchin’s theory.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Like I said earlier, if you want to game the category boundaries (“well, I was talking about opinion column writers” or something along those lines) you are going to get different results, but that just shifts the definition of “elites” into something not relevant for Turchin’s theory.

            I dont care about Turchin’s theory. I just think the statement “increased immigration is fueled by elites” is correct, at least right now in the developed world.

            What are anti-immigration parties called? “populist” (or much worse), which literally means they are concerned with the interest of ordinary people over those of the elite.

            Before Trump, which party could I vote for that pushed for reduced immigration? Certainly not the Republicans.

            Now that Trump is president, why is he unable to implement his agenda of reducing even illegal immigration? Is it all the ordinary people funding court challenges and populist judges? No, it’s the people who have money and power, and access to the media.

            I dont believe this is “gaming the category boundaries”, it is simply looking at the facts on the ground. The US has had large scale immigration since 1965, large scale illegal immigration, many ordinary Americans are opposed enough that they voted for Trump to stop it, yet still nothing is being done about it. That is because some very powerful people are in favor of immigration, and whatever else is involved these people are more successful than any wealthy people opposed to immigration.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            I also must point out that your quip “well, I was talking about opinion column writers” is quite revealing.

            Do you think opinion column writers are selected to represent the opinions of the elite or ordinary people?

      • JPNunez says:

        How did Bush Jr fare on immigration issues?

  32. spottedtoad says:

    It seems like it makes sense to recenter this story (for 2019 at least) around the one of Turchin’s time series that is genuinely at a historical maximum, age at first marriage, which has continued to rapidly increase after the graph Scott posted above (https://spottedtoad.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/ageatfirstmarriage.png?w=962 ). Birth control allowed women to delay pregnancy and marriage to pursue higher status, both for themselves and for their eventual marriage, and women who drop out of the competition earlier by marrying or having children early are presumptively low status. But, for both evolutionary and historical reasons, culture has deep patriarchal aspects, and so men who are lower status than women in their immediate social environment are presumed to be poor partners, even if this is partly because women’s educational attainment, income, and adjacency to centers of cultural and political power has increased. This seems to create an intensifying cycle, where women invest longer and harder in various kinds of independent social status, and men either try to keep up and surpass the women in their environment or drop out altogether.
    I think, while immigration is important, this is the main source of the increasing sense of competition and the seemingly paradoxical combination of “elite overproduction” and increasing oligarchy, and also why broad material plenty coincides with the perception of narrowing horizons. You can still go buy a house, support yourself on one or one and a half salaries, and live better than most anyone did in 1940, let alone 1840- you’d just have to do it in some corner of Missouri or Michigan you don’t want to live in, and that more importantly no spouse you’d respect would want to be in. The need to grab onto signals of social status- whether living in Brooklyn or Berkeley or having the right degrees and the right job- intensifies, even as those signals require the sacrifice of more of the ordinary accompaniments of adult life- marriage, reproduction, material accumulation and transfer to the next generation. In particular, the people pursuing social status and adjacency to centers of cultural and political power most intensively will have a lot of stake in tearing down the value of those older markers of adulthood, so that they’re not seen as missing out. And so you get the strange result of many of the most conventional and conformist people, born into the upper middle class and raised like hothouse flowers to rejoin it, adopting the most radical attitudes towards received sexual and reproductive roles and material accumulation, and favoring policies that make the existing modes of middle class existence adopted by those who haven’t pursued their same lonely paths untenable, unstable, and disfavored.

    This seems like it can go multiple ways- it could result in intensifying conflict between the two camps, the new civic religion could defeat the old one totally rather than only partially, or perhaps old-fashioned reproductive and material accumulation and electoral power could win over people who made the mistake of not making more of themselves. But it seems distinctly different from most of these earlier modes of Turchinian civil conflict, partly because it occurs in a time of genuine material plenty and perhaps more fundamentally because it’s not organized around competing groups of men and their households but between those who maintain the value of organizing society around and for the benefit of existing American families and those who, for personal as well as ideological reasons, would prefer to see a society organized around and for the benefit of householdless individuals.

    • Purplehermann says:

      This seems to create an intensifying cycle, where women invest longer and harder in various kinds of independent social status, and men either try to keep up and surpass the women in their environment or drop out altogether.

      I get the men’s side of things, but why do the women keep chasing social status so strongly?

      And so you get the strange result of many of the most conventional and conformist people, born into the upper middle class and raised like hothouse flowers to rejoin it, adopting the most radical attitudes towards received sexual and reproductive roles and material accumulation

      Could you explain this more thoroughly?

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        “Why do women keep chasing status?

        Media propaganda. Capitalists want cheap labor.

        • Purplehermann says:

          The claim was that there is an “intensifying circle” of status chasing. How does the status chasing by the men cause the women to chase it harder?

          As for your claim, is the media propaganda getting more effective quickly enough to account for women getting married later and later?

      • Aapje says:

        @Purplehermann

        I get the men’s side of things, but why do the women keep chasing social status so strongly?

        I think that the claim is wrong and that women don’t merely chase social status more, but also provide for themselves more and fill their time with work/a career for fun.

        If women shun the available providers and (thus) don’t start a family at a young age, they don’t have kids to care for. So what do they do instead? Get a job/chase a career. This in turn means that the value that men bring to their life as a provider is lessened.

        For example, very many Dutch women used to go to ‘house work school’, where they were taught to do house work. After school, they would then often work some years as a maid, until they found a husband. The husband would typically have studied for a job that earned more than a maid. So marrying would typically increase their living standards if they lived alone or enabled them to leave her parent’s home, otherwise. The social mores were that motherhood was women’s true calling and that you should try to get pregnant right after marrying, so she gained status by resigning as a maid and becoming a stay at home mom quickly.

        Nowadays, women invest in an education that allows them to get well-paying jobs that are more fun than being a maid. There is pressure to be a mom, but not right after marriage, so women who delay having children can have a pleasurable DINK or OINK lifestyle (double/one income, no kids). She gets to experience the relatively pleasurable early career period before work becomes drudgery. However, the cost to going from a DINK/OINK lifestyle to motherhood is high. Income goes down and costs go up. She looks at her friend or potential partners and often sees someone who isn’t a good enough provider to compensate for her lost income. So men look worse to her than men looked to women in the past, even though modern men are actually better providers.

        This in turn puts more pressure on men.

        Could you explain [the most conventional and conformist people adopting the most radical attitudes towards received sexual and reproductive roles and material accumulation] more thoroughly?

        I think that the claim is that they try to create subcultural niches, where competition is greatly reduced by creating radical norms.

        • Purplehermann says:

          @Aapje
          Your explanation of the second claim doesn’t seem right to me, hopefully @spottedtoad will clarify.

          It’s interesting that you think women are getting married later because men are less financially attractive in a time where people are much more concerned with love and romance as a necessity for marriage than other times, and despite, as you pointed out, having more resources in general which makes taking an income hit less of an issue.

          You meshed two seperate changes: finding a husband, and becoming a mother.
          You point out that the high cost is motherhood, and that nowadays children aren’t expected immediately after marriage. This would explain later childbearing pretty well, but needs a little more to explain why marriage is so much later.

    • stopandgo says:

      Brilliantly-put comment.

      But Turchin would say human nature does not change, and what you are pointing to is just another result of or manifestation of vastly increased inequality (the relative status differentiation of men differing dramatically relative to historical norms)

      But it seems distinctly different from most of these earlier modes of Turchinian civil conflict, partly because it occurs in a time of genuine material plenty

      Young people awash in student debt, much lower amounts of savings or ability to buy a home or afford a family?

      https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2017/08/17/the-premium-mediocre-life-of-maya-millennial/

      Material plenty “on average” is very different than material plenty of the median or 25th percentile, and especially different than there being vast inequality (with implications for relative status and the mating market) or a sense that things are getting worse economically (very well supported by polling data).

  33. Joseph Greenwood says:

    Disclaimer: I’ve only taken a couple economics courses, and while I’ve read a few other economics books and blogs that doesn’t make me an expert. Anyone with greater expertise is free to correct me.

    In economics, there’s an important distinction between “short term” and “long term” effects. The difference for people taking introductory economics classes is that “In the short term, we assume that capital levels and business organization constant”–no one has had time to build new factories, or open or close businesses, or anything like that. If you’ve got a factory that produces widgets, and the price of widgets is cut in half, then in the short run your only choice is “How many widgets am I going to produce?”. Thus, it might be sensible for me to keep selling widgets even if I am losing money on my company overall, because my marginal costs are still lower than my marginal profits. On the other hand, “In the long term, capital can be created, bought, or sold, and business organization can change.” It’s been long enough or me to incur new fixed costs, and to change my business practices, and I’ll probably sell my widget factory (at a bounded loss) rather than continue to produce more widgets (and continue to lose money indefinitely).

    So what does this have to do with immigration and jobs? In the short run, when a bunch of immigrants (or college students, or whatever) show up, the number of job openings won’t change. If there were already more job openings than people to fill them, that is great! It means that the economy can continue to grow productively and more value can be created. On the other hand, if there were only enough jobs for the people who were working at them (which is a reasonable toy assumption if the economy has been humming along for a while and hasn’t received new shocks in the form of technologies, or political shifts, or whatever), then every immigrant (or whomever) who gets a job means another old hand loses one.

    Things aren’t quite as bad as this, even in the short run–many companies have work that they could ask of people beyond their core business (hiring more janitors, or smiling attendants at the front of the store, or whatnot) provided that the costs are sufficiently low. But in this case, the new jobs are still going to be lower-income than the old ones (because they have lower marginal value to the company), so immigrants will at least be depressing wages. I’d tend to view the first effect (losing jobs) as stronger than the second one (depressing wages) in the short run, because wages are “sticky”–they don’t change immediately when the strength of the economy changes.

    All of that is in the short run, though. In the long run, new businesses open, current businesses restructure, and the presence of new labor and new demand in the markets equalizes (probably? If the new population demands more or less than they provide in labor, relative to the initial population, that will still create structural knock-off effects) and it’s reasonable to say that the economy as a whole (and thus the mean individual in particular) will be a little better off because of increased specialization. But there’s no reason to expect that these gains would be distributed naturally in a way that corresponds to the losses and stresses induced in the short run. And besides, as John Keynes famously quipped “In the long run we’re all dead!” Just because an idealized economy will eventually adapt to and absorb new labor doesn’t mean the one we live in will provide adequately for people before it is too late for that.

    • Joseph Greenwood says:

      Of course, dividing time into “the long run” and “the short run” is a simplifying assumption… in practice, different companies adjust at different rates, and there’s no clear binary cutoff where we switch from short-run consequences of new immigrants to long-run ones. But the underlying idea is pretty clear, and not especially a surprise to any economist I’ve talked to. My inclination would be to suspect that if Scott has been hearing differently from his friends, it is because they’ve been rounding off short-run consequences as unimportant compared to the positive long-run effects of immigration… which is sort of funny and strange to me, actually, because the political left (well, the neo-Keynsians) are the ones who advocate for short-run economic interventions (i.e. Obama’s stimulus package) to prevent human suffering. But I guess that isn’t too surprising–monetarists and blue-collar workers might both be “right wing” but that’s only because political parties have big tents, and I suppose the neo-Keynsians are not the leftists who are most horrified by decreasing support for immigration.

  34. Alex M says:

    Nobody likes to point out that immigration actually makes things worse for low wage workers. Economists are the LAST people who want to point this out, since (as some wise people pointed out upthread) their salaries generally depend on NOT pointing out this blindingly obvious fact. When labor is abundant, it has low value, because there is always somebody willing to work a shit job for less pay. When labor is scarce, it has high value, and can negotiate better working conditions. In almost every country in the world, you can see a correlation where higher rates of population growth directly map to lower standards of living.

    It’s no coincidence that the Black Plague (which killed one third of Europe) resulted in a lot of the democratic reforms that ended medieval serfdom and gave commoners a voice and power in the system. With fewer people to work their fields, medieval lords suddenly had to be much nicer to commoners and give them lower taxes and more rights, or they would exercise their Right of Departure and go work for a lord who would treat them better. This relationship between capital and labor has existed since the dawn of time, even if the names of the groups has changed. “Aristocrats” became “CEOs,” and “Peasants” became “Blue Collar Workers,” but the basic rules of the game are still exactly the same.

    This ties in to something that I think Scott got wrong – the idea that we are near the worst of the cycle because “socialists have finally managed to get their shit together.” Socialists most definitely have NOT got their shit together: this is reflected by the fact that almost every socialist politician seems to also be advocating for Open Borders, which will make the economy much worse for the same low-income voters whom they claim to represent. If socialists were GENUINELY trying to help the working class, they would try to limit immigration as much as possible, so that labor scarcity would give our lower classes more bargaining power. Instead left-wing people like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren are taking advice from economists, a field which is largely dominated by the plutocrat class. None of these politicians ever seems to have stopped to think “Hey, maybe taking advice from people who are funded by our ideological adversaries isn’t such a hot idea after all. Maybe it’s possible that the recommendations they are offering serve their employers interests rather than the interests of the working class.” Or maybe Bernie and Warren DID think about it, but they just decided that importing immigrant voters served their OWN interests – or the interests of their donors – quite well, even if that policy makes things worse for lower class Americans. Regardless of whether this socialist politician double standard (claiming to represent the lower classes while supporting policies that actually make their lives harder) stems from naivete or selfishness, I think that the fact that many self-proclaimed socialist politicians support policies that are actively damaging to their own supporters financial position makes very hard to argue in any meaningful sense that the socialist movement has “finally got their act together.”

    Apart from that major error, I think that this review has a very good analysis of the problem. We can see elite overproduction reflected in many areas – the recent college bribery scandal was one example. The way identity politics is frequently leveraged to bring down successful celebrities is another example of elites turning on each other because there are more elites in the system than there are elite job openings. People lower down on the totem pole know that there is only a limited amount of room at the top, so they use whatever tools are available to take out whomever has the top spot so that they can claim it. Creating an outrage mob to take out the people who are doing better than them (with claims of privilege or unsubstantiated #MeToo claims) is the most effective path to getting your competitors #cancelled, so it’s no surprise that elites employ these tactics. What is surprising is that most of the existing top-tier celebrities don’t see that these tools will inevitably be used to attack them and work to blunt the impact in advance. If you know ahead of time that a certain tactic will be deployed against you, it makes sense to prepare for it before it happens. But I suppose that nobody ever claimed that the leaders and cultural influencers of our society were blessed with an overabundance of brains. Either way, since I’m not currently part of the elite (and none of them are paying me to solve their problems), it’s fun to watch the slow-motion collapse of the system as they devour each other.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      +7

      • stopandgo says:

        +100 for a comment that gets it: whatever it is elite overproduction means, the signs are everywhere

        Apart from that major error, I think that this review has a very good analysis of the problem. We can see elite overproduction reflected in many areas – the recent college bribery scandal was one example. The way identity politics is frequently leveraged to bring down successful celebrities is another example of elites turning on each other because there are more elites in the system than there are elite job openings. People lower down on the totem pole know that there is only a limited amount of room at the top, so they use whatever tools are available to take out whomever has the top spot so that they can claim it. Creating an outrage mob to take out the people who are doing better than them (with claims of privilege or unsubstantiated #MeToo claims)

    • xq says:

      Nobody likes to point out that immigration actually makes things worse for low wage workers. Economists are the LAST people who want to point this out, since (as some wise people pointed out upthread) their salaries generally depend on NOT pointing out this blindingly obvious fact.

      Did no one read that part of the post? 50% of the expert panel “pointed this out” with only 9% disagreeing. Since you are completely wrong about this, despite seeming so very confident, you should probably reconsider all your other beliefs too.

      • Dedicating Ruckus says:

        By “no one likes to point out” is not meant which wonkish highly-specified claim 50% of a panel of experts will indicate agreement with in the context of a technical-domain publication that the general public won’t read. What’s meant is what is communicated on a large scale to the public.

        Despite the public’s general, strong intuitive sense that mass immigration is indeed hurting them, every response from the great and the good who cloak themselves in the mantle of Expertise™ is along the lines of “you stupid rubes, immigration doesn’t hurt anyone economically at all, we can prove it because Science, so you’re probably just racist or something”.

        If this strong, consistent message is not in accord with what actual academic economists actually believe, they’re certainly getting drowned out on the PR side of things.

        • xq says:

          I agree that if you want to make a different, more nuanced point it can sound more reasonable than “economists are unwilling to point out thing they point out all the time.”

          Every point you make is strongly dependent on your own subjective impressions of things with no attempt to back them up with evidence. Does the public have a “strong intuitive sense that mass immigration is indeed hurting them”? Depends on your interpretation of various polls. Large majorities say that overall immigration is “a good thing for America”. If you use more negative framing you’ll get more negative results, but I don’t think polling overall supports this claim.

          Is it true that there’s some consensus “Expertise™” that says “you stupid rubes, immigration doesn’t hurt anyone economically at all?” Depends on what experts you’re listening to. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s any shortage of self-proclaimed experts talking loudly about downsides of immigration. Not just in right-wing media (though that is big and does count) but mainstream publications print anti-immigration pieces all the time.

          I will quote from Matt Yglesias’ very positive case for immigration in Vox:

          This is not, incidentally, because an increase in the labor supply has no adverse effects for anyone. Rather, as Heidi Shierholz of the liberal Economic Policy Institute emphasizes in her overview of the literature, it’s that “earlier immigrants are the group that’s most adversely affected by immigration” because they are the people whose skill sets are most likely to put them in direct competition with new immigrants. Across a range of estimates, the effects on wages “tend to be very small, and on average, modestly positive.”

          So even some of the most pro-immigration arguments on a site whose entire brand is representing liberal expertise doesn’t claim that “you stupid rubes, immigration doesn’t hurt anyone economically at all.”

          • Dedicating Ruckus says:

            Vox is a wonkish brand, and so they’re obligated to run with a line that’s a little more nuanced than “immigration has no bad effects on anyone”, which is trivially falsified (and not in line with economic consensus).

            What they do instead is, whenever anyone suggests that immigration might be causing an economic problem, they point to their “range of estimates” that says the effects on wages “tend to be small and on average positive”. They do so as a dismissal of the whole question, as if it completely demolishes the objection from depressing native wages, rather than requiring a lot of further investigation. And the narrative that goes out into the pro-immigration political zeitgeist is the “you stupid rubes” version. (Abetted by a whole lot of political operatives who are a lot less scrupulous than Vox is.)

            Meanwhile, the academic economists, who have views on the whole issue that are certainly a lot more nuanced, don’t have much in the way of desire or ability to overcome this narrative-spinning and push the public perception back into line with what economic consensus actually says. Thus, they’ve de facto abdicated power over the public perception of “what economists say” to the political operatives. I think it’s entirely fair to describe this situation as “economists don’t like to point out” the possible economic problems with immigration. It’s just worth adding that a significant part of the reason for this is that they don’t want to and/or can’t do the job of political operatives as well as the job of economists.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            What Ruckus says. It’s kind of a motte and bailey. The bailey is “immigration doesn’t hurt wages you stupid rubes” and the motte is “when pressed, some economists will quietly whisper that might not be entirely true but make zero effort to push back on the dominant narrative.”

            And the real problem is the rubes aren’t as stupid as you think. They can tell the difference between piss and rain no matter what you call the smelly yellow liquid trickling down upon them.

          • xq says:

            So, when you say “economists don’t like to point out the possible economic problems with immigration” you are not referring to the course of their actual job; you acknowledge that they do in fact point these problems out, and do research on it (even–get paid for it, in contrast to another of Alex’s claim, at least in the general sense that they get paid to do research and publish that research, and some of the research does show these downsides).

            Nor are you referring to how economists express their views to the public when asked; e.g., in the IGM panel, many economists very openly acknowledge the downsides, and you can find plenty of media interviews where economists do the same.

            Rather, your complaint is that economists don’t tend to have a kind of hobby where, on their own time, they correct political operatives who remove all nuance from the economists’ position. OK. This seems to me a pretty weak defense of the original claim. But fair enough.

          • Dedicating Ruckus says:

            I think the original claim could be better stated as something like “there is significant public stigma associated with pointing out the economic problems with immigration, and so the public discourse tends to underestimate these problems”. (My apologies to OP if he objects to this characterization.)

            Economists might in theory be considered to have some kind of public duty to communicate the actual nature of their results in the face of this misleading public discourse, but in practice it’s rather unfair to expect them to successfully oppose the enormous, powerful, unscrupulous set of interests that are pushing this narrative (and incur the personal and reputational costs associated with publicly setting yourself against it). Thus, I don’t think this claim need come with any blame cast on economists as a whole. It’s just worth noting that the incentives on economists are strongly against their making too much noise about the issue.

          • xq says:

            I don’t think “there is significant public stigma associated with pointing out the economic problems with immigration” is correct. This seems to me something people do all the time with no negative consequences. Do you have some sort of evidence of this?

            The Atlantic (the voice of centrist elites) published David Frum’s fairly negative immigration feature story, posed in a highly provocative way (“If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will”). It got some negative attention, but it’s not like Frum was exiled from public life, or really impeded in any way. It wasn’t nearly as controversial as the Atlantic cover story on transgender kids, for example. And Frum’s immigration article touches more sensitive subjects than just the economic aspect.

            I think simply clearly stating a mainstream economist view on immigration, with no particular emphasis on either upside or downside, would generate essentially no backlash at all.

            As for “enormous, powerful, unscrupulous set of interests that are pushing this narrative”–well, there are powerful interests on both sides. There are incentives for being an anti-immigration economists in much the same way that if you want to be a Supreme Court justice you’re better off being on the right. I think you’re overconfident in your ability to weigh all the various distorting influences in order to get an unbiased picture of what the narrative “should” be.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Just saying this isn’t really a nuance issue. The media and therefore public has the view literally the opposite of the truth on this issue. And this is super important, like the difference between “human flourishing” and “human immiseration.” And directly related to the public function of economists. Like why we care about what they say at all.

            It’d be like if doctors knew cigarettes cause cancer and the TV said “they cure cancer” and the doctors never bothered to correct the TV except in obscure journals nobody reads. Sure do trust those those doctors, eh?

          • xq says:

            Well, no. The estimated effects are small, and the media often exaggerates them, as you can see in the Atlantic article I linked in my last post.

  35. Jaskologist says:

    I had a gripe with the previous Secular Cycles post that I never got around to posting before the thread died.

    Finally, in 284, Emperor Diocletian ended the civil wars, re-established centralized authority, and essentially refounded the Roman Empire – a nice round 310 years after Augustus did the same. T&N mark this as the end of a secular cycle and the beginning of a new integrative trend.

    This seems completely wrong to me. By my reading of history, Diocletion was an island of stability in the long decline of Rome. He forms the Tetrarchy, and then manages to hold it together through sheer force of will during his reign. But once he abdicates it falls apart quickly, and Rome is back to civil wars within 10 years. Constantine eventually establishes a dynasty, but it only lasted 40 years, and had plenty of civil war even within that timeframe. The decline continues to the point that barbarians are even able to sack Rome.

    Where’s the integrative period here? Sure, this kicks off a new age in Europe (I’d put the transition more around Augustine’s time), but it’s a long long time before something more stable is built on top of Rome’s ashes.

    What am I missing? I’m not the only one versed in Western history here (there are many others who know much more), and nobody else brought it up, so I feel like I must be missing something.

    • Lasagna says:

      Seconded. Emperors Diocletian and Constantine (and many others) were amazing men who accomplished incredible things and left the Empire better than they found it, but I can’t fit their reigns into a concept of a “cycle”, where you can make useful comparisons to, say, peak-Rome under Trajan or Marcus Aurelius or wherever you want to put it (my vote is MA).

      To be fair, this may just be that until Scott’s post I never considered the possibility – Roman history post-the “five good emperors” was always presented to me as a decline ending with the collapse of the Western Empire. A spectacular and impressively slow decline, but still a decline. It’s not like I can point to wealth statistics or average caloric intake per Roman to justify my view, but it just seems to fit better.

      I think (as you point out) it mostly has to do with the length of time being considered. The Empire post-Augustus thrived for hundreds of years under the institutions Augustus put in place. Diocletian’s reforms were necessary, enlightened, clever, exciting and all sorts of other great things, but they didn’t even outlast him. The comparisons don’t really fit.

    • Wency says:

      It seems to me, to say Diocletian restored order is to say “the Crisis of the Third Century was a thing”.

      Rome in some ways continued to decline in the Fourth Century, and it never again had anything like the orderly succession of the Good Emperors, but you had a lot more reigns measurable in years, some even in decades, fewer measurable in months or days. You still had a century before Rome was sacked.

      But I also think you can’t ignore the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine. Together, those reigns were as long as the Crisis itself. They were surely remarkable men, but I suppose the Turchin argument would be that they also benefited from cultural and social changes that had taken place — they could have been assassinated or otherwise faced more widespread disaffection and less support from elites than they actually did.

      And while the Dominate doesn’t measure up to the Rome of old, few empires do. I take the Turchin argument to just be that elites collectively decided anarchy was not in their best interest, not that elites agreed to (or knew how to) reconstruct the Roman culture and economy in such a way as to recover the vitality of centuries earlier.

      • Jaskologist says:

        But Turchin’s claim is a lot stronger than that. He’s not simply saying there was a crisis, he’s saying they happen along predictable 300 year cycles, and are then resolved starting a new cycle.

        I don’t see that in Roman history. I see a decline, with increasing crises and instability, and then Diocletian is able to stabilize the situation but not fix the underlying problem, so the decline continues afterwards. It looks more like he delayed Rome’s collapse by a century or two.

        Why pick Diocletian as the start of a new “integrative trend?” Why not Constantine, who ultimately reunified Rome under 1 emperor and formalized its new religion? Why not whoever picked up the pieces after the sack of Rome (410)? I think it’s because Diocletian gives a that nice 300-year number, and the others don’t.

        Here’s the opening of Wikipedia’s entry on the “Fall of the Western Roman Empire.” Does this sound like an integrative trend?

        Relevant dates include 117 CE, when the Empire was at its greatest territorial extent, and the accession of Diocletian in 284. Irreversible major territorial loss, however, began in 376 with a large-scale irruption of Goths and others. In 395, after winning two destructive civil wars, Theodosius I died, leaving a collapsing field army and the Empire, still plagued by Goths, divided between the warring ministers of his two incapable sons. Further barbarian groups crossed the Rhine and other frontiers and, like the Goths, were not exterminated, expelled or subjugated. The armed forces of the Western Empire became few and ineffective, and despite brief recoveries under able leaders, central rule was never effectively consolidated. By 476 when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus, the Western Roman Emperor wielded negligible military, political, or financial power and had no effective control over the scattered Western domains that could still be described as Roman. Barbarian kingdoms had established their own power in much of the area of the Western Empire. While its legitimacy lasted for centuries longer and its cultural influence remains today, the Western Empire never had the strength to rise again. The Eastern Empire survived, and though lessened in strength remained for centuries an effective power of the Eastern Mediterranean.

        • Wency says:

          Valid point. While things do seem to have “reintegrated” somewhat during this period, there’s nothing like the ~150 years of “growth and stagflation” the cycle should call for.

          Another way to frame it (though evidently not how Turchin does): after the Crisis, the West was basically rendered a backwater and should no longer be the focus of analysis. The real integrative trend began with Constantine “founding” the ERE, but when did it end? First thought is Justinian, but that’s 250 years later.

          The fall of Rome is also clearly and obviously different in kind from most of the other transitions described here — there’s a reason Gibbon did not write “The Decline and Fall of Angevin England”. If we give the model credit (I don’t have a dog in the fight, just exploring), maybe it’s better at explaining these sorts of disruptions that aren’t quite civilization-ending.

  36. Joseph Greenwood says:

    Scott–when you say you want someone to look at the models and data that Turchin provides, what are you looking for, exactly? I’m not a statistician, but I am a mathematician and I have some training in differential equations and dynamical systems. Do you want to know whether Turchin’s model matches his conclusions? Are you curious about how robust his model is under small changes in conditions and simplifying assumptions? (My guess would be “Not very”, even before you mentioned that his model went haywire under small changes. For many dynamical systems, arbitrarily small changes in starting assumptions can lead to arbitrarily large qualitative changes in how things end up, and it’s a pretty safe bet that most dynamical systems that involve a complex interface of numerous parameters will exhibit this sort of chaos.) I am willing to help if it is clear to me that I have something useful to contribute to the question you are asking.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t have a great sense of what questions to ask, just whether someone who knows their stuff would look at it and immediately say “this is idiotic”.

      My priors are the same as yours, but I would like to have them confirmed by someone who can work off more than just priors.

      • Lambert says:

        What kind of details on the model does he give?
        Any actual maths?

        Cyclic patterns are a thing that happens in epidemology sometimes. e.g. red squirrels and fleas

        Well I might as well take a shot at working out what I can right now without having to break out pencil and paper.

        It looks like it’s equivalent to some sort of chemical kinetics model.
        The three groups of people are like three chemical species in some kind of clock reaction.
        Let’s call them N, R and M.

        There’s an N source, representing birth and sinks of N, M and R for death.
        Assume the source is constant and equal to the sum of the sinks.
        Thr rate of each sink is directly proportional to the concentration of each species.
        (this is ignoring the fact it’s mostly 20 somethings doing all the radicalism and mostly the elderly doing the dying)

        Then there’s the reaction N –> R
        From your summary of the model, it sounds like rate r= k1[N]^a *k2[R]^b /(k3[M]^c)
        Where letters in square brackets represent concentrations (i.e. the ‘proportion’ on the y-axis of the graph).

        And R –> M
        with r= k4[R]^d *K5[M]^e Or something.

        This is more or less the limit of what I can work out and present inside a comment box. I’ll go find some paper and a way to embed latex in here.

        • Lambert says:

          Part II, In which I wish I had a Scanner

          I’ve decided that the easiest way to present this is just to do the maths on paper then take a photo of it.

          I’ve converted the rate equations into a system of two differential equations with two variables.

          Now I will try to make these into a single equation, and see how much I have to twiddle the variables to get a graph like the one shown in Scott’s post.

  37. Ryan X says:

    Scott wrote:

    “the plutocratic oppression story meshes poorly with the elite overproduction story. In elite overproduction, united elites are a sign of good times to come; divided elites means dysfunctional government and potential violence.”

    Turchin doesn’t argue that united elites are a sign of good times to come. He says that a society can have high levels of popular immiseration and can also be relatively stable with low levels of political violence due to massive top down oppression, IF the elites are united. His theory is trying to predict large scale violence and societal collapse including civil war, not inequality or popular immiseration on their own.

    The key factor is that elite overproduction (relative to seats at the table) leads to increased intra-elite fighting, and elites can channel popular immiseration into increased political violence and instability.

    As far as what has driven this elite overproduction, look to the super-elites. They have gobbled up the biggest chunk of the pie by far, leaving a much smaller slice for regular elites and elite aspirants. Turchin has some great data on the ever growing share of wealth which has passed to the tiniest number of super and super-super-elites. Think of the 2019 college admissions scandal and subsequent arrests with celebrity Laurie Loughlin and others. They were clearly low level elites caught in an arms race with other low level elites. The super-elites legally bribe the Universities with huge checks, directly.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think your distinction between elites and super-elites (I would use “gentry” vs. “elites”) is what’s missing from Turchin.

      It would be strange to call the present “a bad time for elites”, but I think that’s part of what Turchin’s theory requires, and it makes sense if you think of “elites” as referring to a medium-high rank.

    • keaswaran says:

      But there’s a lot of reason to think that the top 20% generally is actually doing quite well during the Reagan-Clinton-Obama era: https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-dangerous-separation-of-the-american-upper-middle-class/

      There’s also a case to be made that the most exclusionary regulations (things like zoning, school districts, voting restrictions, etc) have been done in ways that strongly enhance the ability of the top 20% to prevent people from the next two quintiles from entering our rank or interfering with our political power. (Due to campaign finance restrictions preventing the superrich from donating large amounts to candidates, the vast majority of political donations come from the top 20%. And due to voting restrictions making it hard or unpleasant for the poor to vote, the top 20% of wealth/income also makes up nearly a majority of all votes cast.)

  38. Vermillion says:

    Just a quick copy editing note:

    Second, the plutocratic oppression story relies pretty heavily on the idea that inequality is a unique bad. This fits the zeitgeist pretty well, but it’s a little confusing. Why should commoners care about their wages relative to elites, as opposed to their absolute wages? Although median-wage-relative-to-GDP has gone down over the past few decades, absolute median wage has gone up – just a little, slowly enough that it’s rightly considered a problem – but it has gone up. Since modern wages are well above 1950s wages, in way what sense should modern people feel like they are economically bad off in a way 1950s people didn’t? This isn’t a problem for Turchin’s theory so much as a general mystery, but it’s a general mystery I care about a lot. One answer is that the cost disease is fueled by a Baumol effect pegged to per capital income (see part 3 here), and this is a way that increasing elite wealth can absolutely (not relatively) immiserate the lower classes.

  39. Watchman says:

    OK. Next in my series of criticisms of the data presented here. Median wage dividend by GDP. Ignore the smoothing here and look at the data. First problem is that no-one recorded the median wage or GDP in the nineteenth-century so what we have there are estimates. Probably based on something, but not the same as the post-War II data which was empirically recorded at the time. Bad practice again: silently combining reconstructed and real data.

    If we allow the reconstructed data has some degree of accuracy what we have is a situation where there is huge variability in the early period and a minimal variation in the recent past. This seems reasonable but suggests attempts to use this data are ignoring huge structural changes which need commenting upon. I’m guessing that smooth hump after WW II reflects the growth of job security followed by the growth of the risk-taking culture of the late-twentieth century and the increased wealth from globalisation. This might mean greater inequality, for one given meaning of inequality, but I can’t see the fact that Apple makes a fortune globally indicating that there is a downward trend in a cycle so much as there is more trade and more wealth globally. In treating these figures as representative of a closed system Turchin seems to be failing to realise that GDP is not entirely about one country. So once more lack of context and poor scientific practice combine to produce a graph which can be fitted to a predetermined model.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m least concerned about this one because Piketty has analyzed the heck out of inequality and found basically the same pattern. Turchin includes a few other inequality graphs including Piketty and they all show the same thing.

      • baconbits9 says:

        Piketty has been accused of cherry picking his data to fit his expected outcomes.

      • Watchman says:

        I don’t think it’s a good argument to state that someone’s data is not worrying because it matches other data. If there’s concerns about data quality then the fact it matches other data need not be reassuring. It’s equally likely poor-quality data has been selected to match a pattern. Considering that the comments to the precious Turchin review and this one both contain a lot of pointers towards pattern matching happening with Turchin’s use of data, I might even suggest this should be our default assumption, although I accept that may be a bit ungenerous.

  40. Lasagna says:

    And if you’re defining elites by wealth, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “not enough high-status positions for all elites”; if you’re elite (by virtue of your great wealth), by definition you already have what you need to maintain your elite status. Turchin seems aware of this issue, and sometimes talks about “elite aspirants” – some kind of upper class who expect to be wealthy, but might or might not get that aspiration fulfilled. But then understanding elite overproduction hinges on what makes one non-rich-person person a commoner vs. another non-rich-person an “elite aspirant”, and I don’t remember any clear discussion of this in the book.

    It’s probably dumb for me to even comment, since I haven’t read the book. But I’ll do it anyway.

    I assumed that the lack of high-status positions for all elites, in 2019, would refer to the number of people graduating college and discovering how little their degree is worth compared to its cost. Journalism is an excellent example, but you can see it pretty clearly in any liberal arts undergraduate degree, in JDs, in any number (maybe all!) non-STEM industries. People were promised (and yes, they were promised) that getting these credentials would lead to, at the very least, a comfortable and secure life.

    The degree to which it’s accurate that the secure and comfortable life is materializing less readily than in the past seems to me to be only part of the issue. The bigger piece is that people who obtain these degrees AND have family wealth to back them up end up mostly uniformly successful, the people who get these degrees without that security find themselves in much more permanently unstable positions, and they know it. The degree wasn’t the most important factor to success, even if you end up doing well by any objective standard. If you didn’t come into this without money, your position is much more fragile than it appears to outsiders, and fragility is extremely troubling even if everything looks great on paper.

    This was pretty dramatically illustrated to me in law school. In the last weeks before graduating, everyone who had student loans was required to attend a “we’ll fucking ruin you if you don’t pay your loans back” meeting (it was dramatically different than the “sure, have more money!” meetings I’d had with loan officers when I was borrowing money before each year). I had a tight group of 15 or so friends at school. It turned out that only five or six of my friends had loans along with me – I had no idea. But it explained why the rest were so laid back after graduation, while I was terrified about meeting my first loan payment.

    Things worked out, I’m not complaining, but our career trajectories were and are dramatically different than theirs, even twenty years later. We couldn’t take risks; they could (or more accurately, some career decisions were risky for us but not for them). I couldn’t take on additional debt until at least my private loans were paid off, 15 years after graduation; they bought apartments, and houses, and after they built up some equity they speculated in real estate or stocks, and took lower paying jobs with more long-term benefits while I grinded it out in practice for far longer than I wanted. And for my fellow-loan friends who got clobbered in the recession, they moved out of New York City for Albany or their home towns in other states and live frugally on much lower salaries, a situation they’re only starting to climb out of.

    All right, this was way too long. Basically I’m saying that I think I see what he means. The category “modern elite” includes both those who obtained great wealth or status and those that feel they were denied their entitlement, despite having done everything correctly, and there’s tension there.

    • RomeoStevens says:

      +1
      being able to take the higher EV, higher variance option at each decision point adds up to a huge change that isn’t apparent from the perspective of looking at any one decision.

    • stopandgo says:

      This.

      The education bubble is one of the surest signs and best examples of way more people seeking “elite” status and not quite getting it and this creating a general sense of unrest.

  41. baconbits9 says:

    I am confused about the average height/life expectancy graph.

    Is height here skeletal height or average adult height or average height at a specific age or what? It appears to be adult height as it is around 5’7 for the whole graph, but adult height is influenced by childhood nutrition so it should lag by decades at least, while eyeballing the graph makes it look like it lags by roughly a decade.

    It also has rising life expectancy and height through the revolutionary war, which I know is a much milder war than the Civil war, but still a significant negative event which was accompanied by outbreaks of disease.

    • mtl1882 says:

      Yeah, I can’t figure it out. Are they talking about height/life expectancy of people alive then? Born then? Because there would be lags. The Civil War would have had quite striking impacts in terms of taking out the healthiest (and probably tallest) men at young ages. But it would also have meant a lot more recording of such statistics than in other eras, making it hard to compare. Conditions during the Revolutionary War probably improved so much as to outweigh the effects of the war. Much greater social stability and opportunity, and nutrition. Vaccination started to become a thing, but people relied almost solely on their own immune systems—people who settled the west and survived generally were going to need more strength and health than we do today. This is *hugely* oversimplified, but I think there was a dynamic where it was not so much that diseases held everyone back somewhat in terms of health, but that they killed off everyone but the super-fit, especially in an era in which physical labor and exertion was vital. Reading about the suffering and endurance of people in that time is crazy. The guys running the show have malaria several weeks of every year, with different levels of immunity—they just did everything with a high fever.

  42. Watchman says:

    Female age at first marriage. Interesting graph: women are clearly getting older when they first marry. And there’s research saying women delay marriage in times of social disturbance.

    And here’s me thinking the drop in averages c. 1941 might not reflect social stability at all, but rather the fact that a lot of the men these women were marrying were off to fight in a huge war, and therefore people got married quicker. Kind of the opposite of social stability, but still, you wouldn’t expect anyone analysing historical data to know anything about a war in the mid-twentieth century would you.

    And that sharp and continuous rise in the age of women’s first marriage since the mid-sixties. It could represent growing social instability. But only if the instability was the growing equality and independence of women, which might signal a crisis if you are a reactionary (or a Hollywood producer perhaps?), but in most world views is a good thing. Frankly the way Turchin has used these figures is insulting to readers. I’d also be interested to know where he found research that higher age of marriage meant social instability, as all the evidence is that as people get safer and richer marriage happens later, to the point this is a historical truism.

    So although Turchin seems to only have used one dataset here, he somehow ignored the easy historical explanations for the two key changes, which would count against his cyclical model, in favour of an interpretation of the data that is unusual to say the least. If he can ignore a world war and the equality of females in favour of seeing a wider trend, perhaps he’s not interested in anything other than pattern matching?

    • baconbits9 says:

      And here’s me thinking the drop in averages c. 1941 might not reflect social stability at all, but rather the fact that a lot of the men these women were marrying were off to figh6in a huge war, and therefore people got married quicker. Kind of the opposite of social stability, but still, you wouldn’t expect anyone analysing historical data to know anything about a war in the mid-twentieth century would you.

      Not just that but age of first marraige drops through the first world war as well (though perhaps missing data points and bad curve drawing?) and rises from 1800 through 1890, was there only (edited) discord in that time frame or just more bad data curve fitting that we ought to just through out?

    • Lasagna says:

      Yep! This. I mean, I don’t think it’s “insulting” to readers or anything, but the calculation seems to be “a rise in age of first marriage and decline of birthrates correlated to political instability 9 times out of 10 in the past, therefore it probably correlates to it in 1960”, but the direction of causation and what “instability” means seems to be getting all jumbled up.

      The first thing I thought of was Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast. He discusses an attempt by one the early emperors – Claudius, maybe? – to enforce morality on Roman citizens. During the census, this emperor discovered that (1) women were marrying later, or not at all, and (2) that birth rates had plummeted. He was alarmed, correctly noting that the structure of Roman society couldn’t survive the relaxing of marriage and family life, and that Romans would be outcompeted by other groups if they didn’t have enough kids. He passed pretty severe laws trying to reverse these trends (they failed).

      Where does this fit in to Turchin’s analysis? Romans were marrying later and having less children because they were getting wealthier, not because there was a crisis. The same thing that’s happening now, it seems.

      Or am I getting something wrong, either in history or in my understanding of the “cycle” theory?

      • Doesntliketocomment says:

        By my understanding of Turchin’s thesis, this would be a sign not of abundant wealth but of stagflation. This lines up pretty well with my own understanding of the time, which was that it was considered necessary to limit the number of children as much as possible as the steps necessary to hold on to their social status required huge sums of money. They weren’t having fewer children because they were getting wealthier, but having fewer to maintain their station (which affected their ability to generate wealth).

        Anecdotally, this is very similar to the zeitgeist I’ve encountered with Gen X and Millennial professionals. They will say how they can’t “afford” children, but their actual concerns are more related to social status than basic needs, in particular living in prestigious areas and having access to high-status education are big topics. Also present is the fear that the mother will be unable to compete with her peers in her field, and be relegated to a lower level in her career.

        • stopandgo says:

          This.

          They weren’t having fewer children because they were getting wealthier, but having fewer to maintain their station (which affected their ability to generate wealth).

          Anecdotally, this is very similar to the zeitgeist I’ve encountered with Gen X and Millennial professionals. They will say how they can’t “afford” children, but their actual concerns are more related to social status than basic needs, in particular living in prestigious areas and having access to high-status education are big topics.

          It’s the barely-attainable reality of both having children and remaining at a high status level in terms of both geography and quality of life.

    • Lambert says:

      >And that sharp and continuous rise in the age of women’s first marriage since the mid-sixties.

      Could be downstream of the pill?
      A combination of fewer shotgun marriages and extramarital sex carrying less of a risk of single motherhood.

      • Watchman says:

        I believe the advent of the pill is normally regarded as a factor In female liberation and therefore late marriage. So that’s part of the mechanism.

    • FormerRanger says:

      And there’s research saying women delay marriage in times of social disturbance.

      The feminist movement itself was a “sign of social disturbance” and also indirectly caused women to wait longer to marry. Makes it hard to tease out the causality.

      • Watchman says:

        Maybe, but we’ve got plenty of other examples. My go to is fourteenth/fifteenth-crntury England, where peasant wealth increased post black death.

    • Anthony says:

      I would think that age at first marriage is affected more by economic concerns than social instability.

      While the 1960s were socially unstable, they were generally pretty good times economically.

    • “all the evidence is that as people get safer and richer marriage happens later, to the point this is a historical truism.”

      Where is this evidence? I know it is a fact that ages at first marriage in colonial America, which was much richer than Europe, were significantly lower. Historically people wanted to get married and form families, not being able to do so was a sign of poverty.

      • Watchman says:

        The obvious evidence here is the differing age of first marriage globally, where poorer and less stable countries generally have lower first age of marriage. This repeats an observed historical pattern, and is a better starting point because the data is more reliable than historical periods.

        • Anthony says:

          Which way does the causality run?

          • Watchman says:

            It doesn’t matter, as perceived stability and marriage age both increase, against the pattern Turchin selects.

            I’d say stability comes first, which is generally assumed, but by the nature of the change (people get married a year later) it’s going to be difficult to see causality in the data. The direction is clear, the exact mechanism less so.

  43. pepys says:

    Regarding your immigration question, the general economic consensus seems to be that a large increase in immigration would help everyone except low-skilled American workers. For low-skilled American workers, the effects are close to neutral (might be slightly negative of positive).

    The wording of the question says “many”, and it’s true that when the overall effect is about neutral, there will be many above and below. So many unskilled workers would very likely be worse off.

    But when only one major group of workers has a significant percentage who will be worse off, and even for them the chances of being worse off are no greater than being better off, should a typical American worry? I think probably not. That’s likely what economists are thinking too, which would explain this discrepancy.

  44. Watchman says:

    The Yale tuition point needs a historian of Yale to explain, but there is a useful rule of thumb in the UK higher education sector about anything around US university fees, which is that your analysis is incomplete without scholarship information. I think this applies here: high Yale fees are only an indicator of the difficulty of breaking into the elite if there is no substantial scholarship provision. Anyone able to say anything about the history of Yale scholarships.

    Also why just Yale? Why not Harvard? Why not the whole Ivy League? Caltech? I have a suspicion here that Yale was the data that best fitted his model. Maybe Yale graduates are guaranteed membership of the elite, but if the elite are actually financially determined then that seems unlikely. I can’t say his data is wrong here but it seems an odd choice and to be incomplete for the purposes of analysis.

    • Ryan X says:

      Another charge of cherry picking data. Instead of making baseless accusations, how about we simply look to the actual book being reviewed?

      “Does the cost of attending such universities respond to the pressures of intraelite competition? We can answer this question because at least one of these universities made data on long-term dynamics of its tuition available (Pierson 1983, Waters 2001).“ p.89

      Maybe you are right, and this data is also publicly available from Harvard and Princeton. But instead of making accusations, how about actually showing us that indeed, there is other relevant data out there that directly contradicts the Yale data?

      Because according to my common sense heuristic, tuition among the big three Ivy Leagues likely tracks fairly closely. Again, I could be wrong, but I’m not the one alleging cherry picking and ethical challenges (as you did in a separate post.)

      • Watchman says:

        I get the feeling you like Turchin’s ideas?

        These were my thoughts on analysing the data. Yale seems an odd choice on it’s own, and you’ll note I did try to consider if there was a particular reason. It might be there is a very good reason, or that it’s the only complete dataset Turchin had access to (not a good reason without verification tge data is generally applicable, but perhaps understandable).

        My major objection is the fact that this doesn’t consider scholarship provision anyway. Whilst I am not going to say anything more than what I’ve seen suggests Turchin has ethical issues around representation of data (and his faults here are not uncommon) and I suspect cherry picking to get matching data sets, I am happy to say Turchin shows no understanding of historical data, treating it simply as data points without considering if it says what he thinks it says. So I’m not going to argue if you can explain why Ysle is a good example for Turchin here; I am going to be suspicious of his understanding of what this actually means though.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      Yale costs as much as every other university in America when you account for Aid: $20K/year
      It is highly competitive because it does not/ cannot increase its offerings to accommodate all highly qualified students. The prestige factor is crucial here.

      (However, one can get extremely close to a “Yale education” at a 100s of universities across the country. Each university nudges you into a network of future regional leaders. Yale and Harvard will stick you on the coasts for the rest of your life… maybe Chicago, if you are willing to settle.)

  45. Alex Zavoluk says:

    Shouldn’t median wage : GDP ratio be driven hugely by the total population? The US population has increased 10-fold since 1860. Even if inequality and technology/productivity were constant, total GDP would have increased 10 times in that span, and this measure would be one tenth of what it was, right? I must be missing some sort of control for population.

    The thing is – really I have no reason to expect divorce rates, homicide rates, exchange rates etc to track national flourishing. For one thing, they may just be totally unrelated. For another, even if they were tenuously related, there are all sorts of other random factors that can affect them. The problem is, I would have said this was true for height, age at first marriage, and income inequality too, before Turchin gave me convincing-sounding stories for why it wasn’t. I think my lesson is that I have no idea which indicators should vs. shouldn’t follow a secular-cyclic pattern and so I can’t do this spot check against cherry-picking the way I hoped…

    My overall conclusion from the spot-checks is that the data as presented are basically accurate, but that everything else is so dependent on litigating which things are vs. aren’t in accordance with the theory that I basically give up.

    I feel like this lack of clarity is a big problem. How can a theory possibly be tested if it isn’t clear to an outside observer what counts as evidence for/against it? The later unified/split elite confusion is even more of a problem. Almost any result could be counted as evidence for/against the theory!

    Now, it seems that the crux of the matter has to do with the violence and peak of the cycle in the next 15 years or so, so maybe that matters more than everything else. On the other hand, if Turchin is right, it would be really nice to know that now rather than in 2035.

  46. Watchman says:

    I’m really not sure of what to make of polarisation as a measure. I am pretty certain though that comparing the modern two party system where the parties are themselves part of the legislative landscape, and so can command alignment, and where the electorate is huge with diverse interests with the early Republic where parties rose and fell and politicians could move between them, and where the electorate was a limited number of basically Christian or humanist middle-class white men, is a bit odd. You then consider the fact that this is Congress, not the House of Representatives, and another issue arises. The Senate was not elected directly (in every state) till after the 17th Amendment in 1913, and therefore the earlier Senate had seriously different incentives than the current one.

    It’s also interesting how the debates on currency, tariffs and slavery portrayed as major disagreements in historical sources, show relatively little polarisation. This might indicate a broader consensus on other issues, perhaps due to the limited electorate. But it might also suggest what is being analysed here is not polarisation but the amount of congressional business where there was substantive disagreement about over time. After all, the Senate rarely blocked most presidential nominees for various posts such as postmaster or tax collecting positions. There’s a lot less of that appointment/patronage type of business nowadays, so a lot of earlier areas of general agreement have been lost. The data on polarisation might reflect social upheaval (it probably does on a short-term comparison) but I would like to see this fully argued (maybe Turchin does this, but a man arguing that a complex dynamic feedback model can consistently apply to humans seems unlikely to do anything as mundane as actually analyse data), as my historian’s senses make me think this is not data that can just be used without comparison.

    • mtl1882 says:

      That’s a good point about the patronage aspect, etc. I believe that has a lot to do with it. There was a concrete aspect–contact with the reality of government, the routine. High *partisan* polarization seems to me highly impractical in most circumstances, such that it can’t arise naturally unless it is more abstract. And government was more confined, implicating fewer interests, as you said. I agree the dynamics were different in a way that makes comparisons unhelpful when done in this way.

    • keaswaran says:

      I think polarization as measured here is a real thing. But it mainly reflects the fact that from 1840-1860, and again from 1950-1970, the single biggest issue of the day (broadly, race relations, in both periods, in the different manifestations it took in those different times) was very carefully made into a non-partisan issue.

      The Democratic Party was founded in 1832 by a nativist southerner (Andrew Jackson) and an English-as-a-second-language northern urbanist (Martin Van Buren) as a tool for helping their different groups overcome the industrial elite, but both Democrats and Whigs always made sure to run Presidential tickets with a southerner and a northerner, so that ties on slavery issues in the Senate (ensured by admitting states in pairs of slave and free) would never be successfully broken by a VP and signed by a President. Instead, Democrats and Whigs competed based on whether there should be high tariffs and a campaign of federal investment in roads and canals (both to help industries in the cities grow and develop markets in the rural areas) or whether tariffs should be low and landowners should make their own improvements.

      After the Civil War, the Republicans had established themselves as both the industrial party and the anti-slavery party, so the Democrats were the party of southern whites, and later organized labor and immigrants in northern cities and western mining towns. This new party system had very few major issues where the parties didn’t have a clear position on them.

      But after the establishment of the New Deal coalition, and with the increased concern about racism after World War II, the Democrats allowed their members to express any view they wanted on Civil Rights, and Republicans also avoided making it a partisan issue. So there were again many important votes for a few decades where party lines had very little to do with what was going on. Which shows up in the data as reduced polarization. It’s only after Nixon decides to commit to Republicans winning the votes of white Southerners that race issues became sorted along partisan lines, along with all other issues that Congress was voting on. (The process took almost 40 years to complete though – Zell Miller was still a conservative Democrat from Georgia and Jim Jeffords was still a liberal Republican from Vermont, at least up to 2002.)

      • sharper13 says:

        It’s only after Nixon decides to commit to Republicans winning the votes of white Southerners that race issues became sorted along partisan lines, along with all other issues that Congress was voting on. (The process took almost 40 years to complete though – Zell Miller was still a conservative Democrat from Georgia and Jim Jeffords was still a liberal Republican from Vermont, at least up to 2002.)

        The Southern Strategy has been discussed around here before. You state Nixon committed Republicans to winning the votes of white Southerners, but I’m not sure by what mechanism he’d have done that, considering he was disgraced in 1974 and you have things happening for decades after that.

        I also haven’t seen anyone respond to the below set of inconvenient facts from the Myth of the Southern Strategy which I’ve seen cited:
        1. At the time the Strategy supposedly went into effect, the National GOP was still the party of anti-racism more than their opponents. This can be seen in the vote percentages by party for the Civil Rights Act, among other things. (It’s also largely a North vs. South thing, but it shows that at that time, the Southern racists were solidly Democratic Partisans). Why would Southern racists start switching parties in droves to the one at the national level which opposed their views?

        2. According to Johnston and Shafer’s detailed look at Southern States voting and registration shifts, the move over time from Democratic Party dominance to GOP dominance began with the least racist southern states first (and the most racist states last) and was accomplished by GOP people moving in from non-southern States and wealthier suburbanites who were less racist and voted GOP more starting to outnumber working-class (and more racist) Democratic voters. If the theory is that the GOP took over the south via adopting racism to convince previously Democratic Party racists to switch, they failed miserably in that effort, because the south became GOP in the opposite manner, with the GOP less-racist portion of the population slowly outnumbering the remaining Democratic racists over time. The stereotypical racists literally didn’t switch parties in any sort of great numbers over the time frame of the Strategy.

        If you have data which proves that (1) the GOP was more racist than the Democratic Party at that time, or (2) southern racists were more likely to switch to the GOP than southern non-racists during the time period you posit the Southern Strategy to have been effective, please present it, otherwise I’ll stick with the academic analysis on this one.

        • keaswaran says:

          I don’t think my claims about the Southern Strategy are particularly relevant to the discussion.

          I think we agree about the basic facts that are relevant.

          In 1964, both the Democrats and the Republicans had substantial numbers of members of Congress who were for equal civil rights, and substantial numbers that were against them. Legislation that addressed racial issues (of which there was a lot) was likely to assemble cross-partisan coalitions on both sides.

          By 2004, race relations had become sorted by party as well. A bill primarily addressing the protection of black voting rights, or school busing, or affirmative action, (if any such bills were to come up in Congress) would be likely to either have nearly all Republicans on one side or nearly all Democrats on the other, or both (if it’s within the Overton window). There are no significant issues in which major legislation comes up where you’ll get both significant numbers of Republicans and significant numbers of Democrats on each side of the bill, the way the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Rights_Act_of_1964#By_party

          That is what I mean by saying that political polarization increased because race is now a partisan issue, while it wasn’t in 1964. It doesn’t matter to my claim whether this is *because* of some “southern strategy” or whether this change happened as a totally separate byproduct of some other transformation of the parties that was going on.

  47. broblawsky says:

    One thing that was critical in the absolutely brutal spike in economic panics and recessions between 1890 and 1920 was the lack of a federal central bank. By1836, Andrew Jackson had disassembled the Second Bank of the United States as part of his Jeffersonian/populist/gold-bug platform, leaving the US without any kind of stable money supply. This resulted in increasingly severe shifts in money supply, particularly seasonally, resulting in correspondingly extreme swings in interest rates from ~1840 to ~1920. This lead to several nasty financial panics and credit bubbles; the Panic of 1893 was one of them, but there was also the Panic of 1907, where JP Morgan had to lock a bunch of bankers in his library until they agreed to pony up $25 million to save a bunch of trusts, and the Long Depression, which was caused by specie currency bullshit and railroad speculation. In 1913, the Federal Reserve was established, which helped inhibit bank collapses and at least moderately stabilized credit markets. This may explain some of the post-1920s stabilization in finance.

    • Dedicating Ruckus says:

      If the state of no-central-bank persisted from 1836 through 1913, it’s somewhat unintuitive to claim that it was the main driver behind a state of instability that began in 1890.

      • broblawsky says:

        The Long Depression started in 1873, and there were also the Panics of 1837 and 1857, each of which was nearly as bad as the Long Depression. There were also numerous mini-panics throughout that entire period. All-in-all, the economy seems to have gotten more stable and less panic-driven post-Fed establishment.

        • m.alex.matt says:

          The Long Depression (as the term is usually meant — meaning the whole last quarter of the 19th century, from 1873 through the late 1890’s) is almost certainly an artifact of the way the data is being interpreted, not something that actually happened. There was a terrific financial panic in 1873 and a half decade of recovery after (the actual depth of the crisis and the subsequent depression are open to debate), but it wasn’t a several decade long depression as the term is often used to imply.

          More broadly, your understanding the 19th century panics, of 19th century American banking, and 19th century American financial regulation is shallow.

          To begin with, the money supply being ‘stable’ in the late 19th century was the problem, rather than something being good that the late 19th century lacked. In the fires of the Civil War the Federal government had passed the two National Banking acts, first tieing the broader money supply to the supply of Federal bonds (through a regulatory mechanism called bond-substitution, where banks were required to provide a regulatory authority a certain quantity of Federal bonds in order to expand their currency circulation, the primary component of what we would today call ‘M2’ in those days) and then driving the state banks that weren’t reliant on the supply of Federal bonds out of the currency issuing business with a punitive tax.

          This meant two important things:

          1. Seasonal demands for currency (that is, spikes in currency demand surrounding the collection and shipment of the annual harvest) could not easily be met by banks which had to chase an increasingly scarce supply of Federal bonds every year, so they had to draw down their reserves, threatening their liquidity every single year and leaving the system vulnerable to the occasional liquidity shock and financial panic.

          2. The long-run price level had a natural tendency towards deflation, as the Federal government paid down its debts and the supply of Federal bonds started to dry up. The US Federal government ran surpluses almost every year from the end of the Civil War until 1890’s and used these surpluses to buy back bonds or otherwise pay off its war debts. Since banks were required to supply Treasury bonds in exchange for currency to issue, the increasing price of these bonds meant an increasing cost of supplying currency. This also left the whole financial system vulnerable to sudden shocks causing deflationary spirals as the price level was already deflationary.

          Likewise, there’s nothing in particular that the Second Bank (or any feasible 19th century successor) could have done to really forestall these panics if the regulatory conditions had been preserved. There was essentially no macroeconomic understanding to speak of that would be useful in the sense macroeconomic policy is useful to modern central banks. The Bank of the United States, in short, would not have clearly known what to do in the face of a panic. Lombard Street, the first major economic work to suggest some role for institutions that would evolve into central banks in handling crises, only came out in the 1870’s and its suggestions were not taken up immediately anywhere.

          What parts the Second Bank did play in managing financial panics were substantially replaced by other institutions over the course of the 19th century, mainly the clearing systems that grew first in the major financial center of New York and slowly spread around the country. The role played by the Second Bank in its time in real life was taking advantage of its capacity to branch nationally to quickly and promptly return bank notes to their issuing institutions, which is exactly what clearing systems did later in the century by providing a central institution for overnight bank interactions.

          The other possible role, that mentioned in Lombard Street, that is lender of last resort (‘…lend easily and freely at penalty rates…”), essentially acting as a liquidity backstop, is also something the clearing institutions took on (issuing script in the depth of panics to keep liquidity flowing).

          The panics prior to the 1860’s were different, mainly because, while the regulatory conditions bore a family resemblance (after the rise of free banking laws in the 1840’s and 1850’s, bond-substitution mechanisms were very prevalent, but at the state level, rather than the Federal level), the facts-on-the-ground were very different. While the Federal government in the latter part of the century was fiscally frugal and worked to quickly eliminate its debt, the state bonds that antebellum state banks depended on for their currency issues were issued by state governments eager to go deeply into debt to finance infrastructure and other public works.

          Indeed, this eagerness for public indebtedness was the cause of at least the panic of the 1840’s and the one that led into the Civil War. As state banks depended on state bonds for their solvency, they could be greatly damaged by any swing in state finances that drove bankruptcy or at least major downturns in the price of state bonds. And, indeed, there was a wave of state bankruptcies in the 1840’s that can be directly linked to the panic of that time. The same thing happened for state banks that depended on Southern state bonds going into the Civil War, as the secession crisis also did a number on the price of those Southern state bonds.

          The Panic of 1837 was, again, different. The bond-substitution mechanism wasn’t nearly as widespread — indeed, it was more or less non-existent. Instead, it had a lot to do with a confluence of factors, including the effects of interest policies of the Bank of England and the movement of Federal deposits from large Eastern Banks to smaller, politically favored Western Banks in preparation for the distribution of the Federal surplus to the states. The issues that led to the Panic of 1837 were more or less resolved by the foundation of the Independent Treasury System in the early 1840’s. The actual, stated role of the Second Bank — as the banker of the Federal government and repository of Federal funds — would have actually made a difference here, but this is a role that could and was fulfilled by a different institutional arrangement in the ITS.

          Finally, it’s not actually clear that the post-Fed era has been substantially more stable than the pre-Fed era:

          link text

          While some of the data in that paper is more tentative than the author presents it as, the error bars aren’t large enough to paint a picture of an incredibly unstable pre-Fed era and placid post-Fed era. Even leaving out the Great Depression (which, remember, is POST-Fed), the best case for the data in that paper is the Federal Reserve hasn’t made a substantial difference either way. The worst case, indeed, is that the Fed may have made some positive contribution, but deposit insurance has been greatly more important.

          While I’m not a historian, American history is my passion, American banking history approaches a serious hobby, and 19th century macro-economics is something I feel capable of wielding a little bit of expertise in (with some time for practice and research, as it’s not something I read about as often as I used to).

          I’m going to go on the offensive with Turchin when I have the time. Watchman does a good job at poking some pretty serious holes in his analysis, but I think I can try something a little more comprehensive one of these days. Long story short: I think Turchin is wildly overfitting theory to data, picking and choosing where to shift from qualitative to quantitative evidence at his own convenience, and I think Scott is being far too credulous about the theorizing being done.

          There are really good reasons that historians shy from macro-historical theorizing and it’s not some kind of corrupt in-group cliqueish thing. History is huge, our data is sparse, and better men have tried their hand at it and failed.

          • Watchman says:

            Just to say, you can’t put in a post like that and not claim to be a historian. The understanding of the data there is exactly what a historian does (if doing it well), and the avoidance of doing this necessary work seems to be why we distrust Turchin’s theories.

          • broblawsky says:

            That’s extremely helpful, thank you. I’ll try to reconsider my thesis.

  48. dansimonicouldbewrong says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but the recent 40-year cyclic pattern of economic downturns–1890s, 1930s, 1970s, 2010s–seems a lot more compelling to me than the patterns described in this book review and the previous one…

    • keaswaran says:

      One problem with this is that the thing in the 1970s was very different from the other three. The 1970s was an inflationary crisis, while the other three were deflationary. The 1970’s was precipitated by a resource shortage (petroleum) while the other three were financial. I don’t know enough about macroeconomics to say how significant these distinctions really are, but I’ve always heard the 1970s thing was very different from anything else.

  49. Marklouis says:

    One possibly rational reason people dislike inequity even if their standard of living is increasing:

    If any critical necessity were to ever become scarce it would be relative wealth which mattered more so than absolute wealth. The further you fall in relative standing the less likely you are to acquire some scarce good which must be rationed. Granted, that seems unlikely in the modern world (although it’s probably occurring in places like Venezuela), but I can easily understand why we may have evolved to dislike inequality as it makes you vulnerable at the most dangerous of times.

    • baconbits9 says:

      This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because the likelihood of any critical necessity becoming scarce decreases as your wealth (ie purchasing power) increases. Who should be more worried about a famine, someone with tens of thousands of dollars in disposable income or someone with 10 dollars?

      • Lancelot says:

        If the number of people in the society was to exceed the number of people who can survive on the global food supply, it wouldn’t really matter how rich or advanced the society is — you can’t eat money. Someone with tens of thousands of dollars probably should start to worry if the price of a loaf of bread is a hundred of thousands of dollars.

        • baconbits9 says:

          But you can’t treat these things as independent. Rich societies are less likely to collapse, and their collapses have to be steeper to put their populations at risk of famine.

          • Lancelot says:

            As far as I understand, for most of the human history famines didn’t really require a societal collapse, just a large enough crop failure. Back in the Middle Ages famines in Europe were happening every now and then.

      • Marklouis says:

        In case of a famine type scarcity perhaps. But what about something more commonplace like positional goods…college admissions for example. It strikes me that if the average American wanted access to elite schools they’d be better served by an overall fall in wealth if their relative standing increased. Not saying this is all 100% logical but that i can see some underpinnings for a dislike of inequality.

  50. Doesntliketocomment says:

    Two things, firstly I think the confusion about why a factionated elite is worse that a unified one is due to overlooking the enormous cost of elite infighting, a cost that is squeezed out of the commoners as well as the elites. In the past this has mostly been borne out in war, but any type of conflict has an associated cost.

    Second, even if we are (temporarily?) out of the grip of the Malthusian population cycle, as a species and society our instincts were formed by that cyclic environment. As such, it is more than a possibility that we would respond to cues that suggest our place in the cycle before actual shortages. My thought here is that something in our modern environment could be triggering us to go into “Crisis mode” even in the midst of abundance. Maybe certain visible behaviors contribute to feedback loops, where they inspire other behaviors adaptive to crisis periods. (If there was a crisis, one would not want to be the last to get the memo!) Certainly the past few years have seen a marked increase in instability that cuts across cultural and political borders, and has created similar responses in very disparate populations.

    • stopandgo says:

      Food and land are no longer limiting resources; famines, disease, and wars no longer substantially decrease population. Almost every factor that drives the original secular cycle is missing; why even consider the possibility that it might still apply?

      At a certain level of polarization and inequality and elite overproduction, people find their best shot at higher status is tearing down the system (see eg all the calls for socialism, student loan forgiveness, etc.) rather than continuing to compete in a tournament they feel they can’t win.

      Human nature doesn’t change; relative status is still everything (for psychological happiness and the mating market especially). There’s no reason for such cycles of organized discontent to change with “nominal prosperity.”

  51. ajfirecracker says:

    The line about Progressive Era government reforms making everything better stuck out to me as particularly unsupported

  52. Watchman says:

    And finally, the combined graph. Standard variable: there’s an SI unit in waiting of ever I saw one. If we need an SI unit to allow us to create a composite graph of diverse data and scale it to show the same pattern as we want it to show that is. So how do we know that 2cm of average height equals 1 year of age at first marriage (female). Because the graphs scale well together? But if one is an indicator of malnutrition and the other social upheaval there is no reason to believe they should scale well together, even if they do oscillate to the same cycle. The use of the term standard variable seems intended to give this graph a scientific look without having any meaning. Indeed, other than a sort of mortgage in the UK I can find no definition anywhere for standard variable. The honest thing to do here is to use no scale on the y-axis (or show all the scales, whichwould be difficult, rather than invent a pseudo-scientific label with no actual value.

    Anyway, the vertical scale on the combined graph is therefore a convenient fiction. The only thing that might be relevant is the change over time with each data source compared to each other, and there is a pattern there. If only we hadn’t raised concerns about pattern matching, data picking, reversing polarities (older marriage equals instability!) and basic data quality, as well as the actual suitability of some of the data used here, this might be significant. But Turchin shows all the signs of psedohistory in his work, with the end (the cycle) justifying the means. He publishes books but no papers setting out his analysis (as in the norm) and seems unusually prone to quoting experts whose own position is on the edge of their field but convenient, right down to describing Borjas as “Harvard economist”, a clear attempt to assert authority by the institutional link. That we have a graph supporting his position is unsurprising; I’m not convinced it really tells us anything though since its doubtful the graph says what Turchin thinks it does.

    So to finish this rather excessive set of replies, an appeal to Scott. Please stop taking this man’s ideas seriously. If someone with no professional qualifications published a book with no papers backing it up claiming to have discovered some overarching theory of psychiatry, which upon reading you discovered had inconsistent arguments and questionable use of data, would you give their ideas the honour of reviewing them twice? If not, why are you prepared to do this with someone doing the same for history? There’s a fairly clear line between considering the work of Piketty, who for all I have problems with his work is at least working within the normal boundaries of academic study, and something like this. There’s a reason why historians aren’t using Turchin’s theories, and by promoting what is basically a combination of pattern matching and pseudoscience you risk linking your own ideology to what is frankly at best an attempt to create a new socialist understanding of society on a mathematical basis. There’s no problem reviewing such a work. There’s a problem keeping come back to it.

    • Alex Zavoluk says:

      To your first point: doesn’t this depend on the method of standardization? Assuming the population mean and variance are finite, for any variable, subtracting the mean and dividing by the standard deviation will give a result with mean 0 and SD 1. I believe mostly what this process accomplishes is simply removing the unit-dependence of these variables (although the inequality metric should be unitless already, I think, so I’m not sure what the axis is. Perhaps it’s just already arbitrarily shifted/scaled to be 100 at some point in time in its own graph).

      Anyway, I believe that under this transformation, all variables scale similarly by definition, unless they have undefined population mean or variance. If the SD of height is 2cm, and the SD of age at first marriage is 1 year, then that is a meaningful comparison, just because of how SD is defined (and age of first marriage and height are definitely not long-tailed variables). The interesting insight would be that the variables tend to go up and down at the same times, and I think this fact is meaningful.

      If you were to use a more complicated method, such as regressing the unstandardized variables on each other, you could still see a correlation between them (the exact value of the regression coefficients would depend on units, but not e.g. if they are significant, the linear correlation, or the overall model fit). And I expect in this case you would see such correlations, based on these data.

      • Watchman says:

        I’m not doubting the correlation (it’s not as if Turchin is going to include data that doesn’t correlate). I’m questioning the value of an undefined arbitrary unit as anything other than an attempt to make this look scientifically sound.

        More to the point, can we say he has done what you said? The scale of standard variation is -3 to 3, which seems off if were measuring standard deviations. Would the process you describe actually produce that wide a range of results?

        • Alex Zavoluk says:

          I can’t say for sure what his method was, of course, though looking at the “standardized” graph, it seems almost all of the data points are within 2 SDs of 0. There’s only a few data points on one line that are more than 2 SDs away.

    • Swami says:

      Fantastic comment, Watchman.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      This seems like an isolated demand for rigor. Nobody else has a solid theory of history either.

      • Watchman says:

        You’re correct no-one else has a solid theory of history, because that’s a stupid idea History is about humans, and therefore about the constant production and breaking if systems. It’s not amenable to grand theories that work.

        But I demand the same rigour from any historical work, since history is not an attempt to find a grand theory, but to understand the past through the evidence we have. And that requires using the evidence, not forcing it to fit your theory. So I don’t think this demand for rigour is isolated: I think its key to doing history well.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          But this seems like proving to much. Do you reject the noticing of any pattern of history? Lots of memes about history repeating or rhyming and all that.

          • Watchman says:

            Pretty well yes, I do reject the notion of historical patterns. Why should history have patterns? Why should our complex, industrialised, automated society somehow experience the same sort of cycle as a nomadic agrarian society or a theocratic bronze-age culture. There is no direct comparison; even things we might consider fundamental such as kinship bonds are in fact likely to be perceived and operated upon differently in each of these societies.

            History repeats because similar things happen (invading Russia too late in the year for example). But these aren’t the same event: Napoleon retreated the same year; Hitler did not. That similar events happen is not an indicator of anything other than, for example, saying your mastery of continental Europe is never secure with a large and powerful state lurking to the east, which isn’t a cycle but simple a geopolitical fact.

            There are some exceptions. We know that epidemiological methods involving cycles work for explaining diseases for example, and land deterioration may also be cyclical (up to the point agricultural technology developed to counter it). But these are not historical cycles, but cycles established by science as happening or likely to have happened. They explain history but are not some sort of hidden framework that explains history.

          • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

            I want to step in and defend Napoleon a bit here –

            From his writings prior to the campaign and his conduct during it, it seems probable that Napoleon did not intend to reach Moscow in a single campaign. Instead, the French plan seems to have been to reach approximately as far as Vilnius or Minsk and winter there, snug and safe with secure supply lines across Poland, then open up the 1813 campaign with a drive on Moscow to force Alexander to accept terms.

            The reason this plan failed is primarily the Russian army’s refusal to accept battle short of Moscow, apart from a brief stand at Smolensk. With plenty of good weather left, Napoleon was lured steadily further and further east in an effort to smash the main Russian field armies as rapidly as possible.

            By the time the battle of Borodino was fought, it was now mid-September and only a few weeks of good weather remained, but Moscow was open to the Grande Armee and Napoleon thought he could now win the war in a single campaign. His desperate hope for that peace treaty kept him in Moscow a few weeks too long, and the rest is history.

            I wish I could provide sources on this, but I am in Korea and all my books are in the United States. :/ A lot of it comes from Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great, which is a marvelously good read that I highly recommend.

            As for Hitler, he also had good reasons to think that his experience wouldn’t be a repeat of Napoleon’s.

            The real moral of the story might be that people who think “this time is different” are almost always wrong (except for the rare instances when they’re not).

    • Ryan X says:

      I couldn’t disagree with you more. You say Turchin has no qualifications to carry out this work?

      Personally, I don’t think academic quals are necessarily needed, and I generally agree with Eric Wesintein that entire academic disciplines are largely broken, but here are some of Turchin’s “official” qualifications:

      Professor at the University of Connecticut in the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Anthropology, and Mathematics
      External Faculty, Complexity Science Hub Vienna
      Research Associate in the School of Anthropology, University of Oxford

      Frankly, a key reason for the breakdown in the academy is highlighted by your comment. If someone wants to attempt to do something truly novel and different, members of the herd will attack, as they built their careers on the old paradigm and the old platitudes.

      Thank you Scott for reviewing Turchin’s work.

      • Watchman says:

        Ryan,

        My entire publisher output is going against the herd, but I guess a narrative of me defending orthodox beliefs against radical new insight works for you. Oddly, I’d argue that history as an academic subject is still too prone to sub-Marxist attempts at understanding social development in models that seem designed to predict revolution, and that Turchin has been sheltered by this, so he is hardly upsetting orthodoxy.

        Anyway, academic qualifications in history are not required to do history. But if you want to do what is in effect metahistory, you need to be able to demonstrate some understanding of the how the data you are using works. This is what a qualification in history does, in the same way as a qualification in psychiatry indicates you have some understanding of the medical aspects of the brain. It makes the reader/patient more reassured that this is not an amateur stumbling around. Without this indication that at some point Turchin could pass a test to show he knows how to use historical data, the fact his use of data seems to be poor (note I discussed this first, at length) is probably explained by him not knowing what he is doing.

        Turchin’s actual PhD is in zoology, and clearly his teaching is focussed on this aspect of his skillset. I have no reason to doubt Turchin’s expertise in bioscience is far greater than mine. The field of cliodynamics might even have practical applications for history (I doubt it – the necessary prior belief that macrohistorical factors affect human society needs proof). But if his historical work continues to assume he can mix and match data sets in a non-scientific fashion, then I’m going to assume he doesn’t understand the basic requirement for history and I assume every other subject: to understand your data before using it.

        Novel and different is fine, as long as intellectual rigour is applied. We’re talking a man silently merging reconstructed and real data sets into a single line on a graph here though, and that is just bad science/history/cliodynmics. If you don’t have the data to say what you want, then you don’t have the data. If you have two series of data you show two series. How insisting on this level of good practice is defending old paradigms and platitudes is a mystery to me.

        • Ryan X says:

          In one of your posts above, you question Turchin’s ethics and mathematical ability.

          My intuition says that you are not acting in good faith. Why you are using ad homonym attacks in comments on a blog, I don’t know and I don’t care.

          • Watchman says:

            Is there a fallacy where you accuse someone of ad hominem when the attack is ad materialem (to coin a cod Latin phrase)? My accusations are based on what he has done as far as we are reconstructing the methods. I think I questioned his application of mathematical knowledge; I doubt he’d have the doctorate and career he has without being a better statistician (at least) than me. But I know enough maths and basic science to know that you don’t just merge different data sets, especially silently. And that was what I was attacking. If you think what I say is wrong, I’d suggest it would be better to show that what Turchin did was not wrong rather than try to suggest to discount me by suggesting a (wrongly applied) logical fallacy and a lack of good faith, which last time I checked wasn’t owed to a published author under discussion but rather to people with whom you are debating.

            The reason I’m acting as I am is that I’m one of the few people here who openly self-defines as a historian. I therefore feel I can usefully contribute to this conversation, in that I can apply a subject-expert analysis. That the analysis is negative is because since my first engagement I have found problems with the data involved. I can’t be positive about poor methodology, but I still approach this in good faith.

        • stopandgo says:

          The reason I’m acting as I am is that I’m one of the few people here who openly self-defines as a historian. I therefore feel I can usefully contribute to this conversation, in that I can apply a subject-expert analysis.

          Ever think you are just another sign of elite overproduction? “Historian” warring with another historian getting a little more attention.

          Why is it you claim you can’t merge two data series, one actual and one interpolated or reconstructed? This is done all the time in every form possible and has not a lick to do with “history” specifically.

  53. Freddie deBoer says:

    “Why should commoners care about their wages relative to elites, as opposed to their absolute wages? ”

    I’ve been saying for years – this is simply how we function. In 100 years there will be vastly more material prosperity, climate change perhaps excepting. But there will still be poverty because the human experience of wealth and poverty is inherently relative.

  54. Big Jay says:

    In Turchin’s previous book, he noted that the cycle time was shorter in North Africa and that this was probably due to polygyny increasing the reproduction rate of elites. It seems likely that both birth control and immigration would also have potentially significant effects, lengthening and shortening the cycle times respectively. I suspect that the underlying effects are still occurring in modern America, but I wouldn’t bet heavily on any specific timeline.

    Of course cycles based on human demographics could be affected by exogenous shocks. Climate change is the obvious one here, but also famines, wars, plagues, or anything else that kills lots of people.

  55. antilles says:

    Scott, five years down the line I think your essay (which I did, and still do, greatly admire) has a critical flaw. That is, you assert that adherence to liberal values is contingent on a certain pre-existing level of civilization, but fail to discuss what liberals should do when those values start to break down, as they clearly have. (for the record, I’m on the side that thinks that the authoritarianism, bigotry and corruption of the Right are the breakdown in those values, but I could easily see someone making the same argument about the Left. In its own way that suggests that EVERYONE has lost the faith, which is grounds enough to start worrying about what happens when civilization vanishes).

    • Big Jay says:

      The simple answer is that you should behave more conservatively.

      The longer answer is that, under those circumstances, the risk-reward profile changes. Risks greatly increase. Long-term prospects for reward diminish because conspicuous success quickly attracts predators. So, under those circumstances:
      * Take less risk.
      * Be less trusting of people you don’t know, especially if they seem weird or unpredictable.
      * Be more conventional (because other people will also be following the rule above).
      * Avoid debt.
      * Honor matters. Weakness attracts predators. Cultivate a reputation for vindictiveness.
      * In uncertain times, allies matter more than money. “Allies” means “people who can help me out in a crisis”, not “people who share my values on the internet”. Build relationships with your literal neighbors.
      ** Your family are your natural allies. Keep them safe and keep them close.
      * If the cops can’t protect you, you may have to protect yourself. Obey local gun laws, but have one.

      The current American breakdown in civility is relatively mild. If you expect things to get really bad (e.g. post-Soviet Russia, post-Saddam Iraq), you may want to go full doomsday prepper. The usual rules for panicking apply: 1) Don’t panic, and 2) Panic first.

  56. benwave says:

    Alright well I’m going to make a bit of a hash of this because I don’t have time to look up reference material but nobody seems yet to have talked about the Marxist perspective on crises of capitalism so I guess it’s up to me.

    I’ve been reading in Marxist literature for ages now about the tendency of capital to experience periodic crises which threaten its reproduction, but in that tradition I don’t think anybody I know of has particularly tried to tie everything back to one all-important Prime Cause. Rather, the recessions, depressions, market crashes etc. followed by large-scale reorganisations of the economy are each caused by different things, and each set into motion by the reorganisation of the economy after the last crisis. The crisis in the 70s had its roots in the new order post the great depression which empowered unions and labour rights, but they became strong enough to threaten the reproduction of capital. In the new order post the 70s crisis, labour rights were reduced and international borders made more open to capital. But this led to a crisis of demand and the 2008 crisis. In response to that crisis, credit was significantly loosened to allow growth in demand. This looks to now be leading to a crisis of profitability, etc.

    I’m sure I’ve made some errors of fact in the story, apologies, but I hope I’ve been able to describe the Marxist view that although crises do indeed occur cyclically, they don’t have a common cause. The world economy is immensely complicated and a blockage in one aspect is enough to seriously cripple it so it’s not necessary that the crises all come from the same thing, any thing is enough to make the whole thing wobble.

  57. benwave says:

    Separate thought – again Scott points out that real wages have increased, slowly, over the past decades, and how it never feels like it. I now always wonder whether the old one-job-supporting-a-family model was only ever true for the better off, but I had a different thought on reading it today, which is: We also know that housing costs are a big part of the picture of people feeling worse off now – I wonder if there’s any way to get some data on jobs together with their location over time? If previously jobs were paying less but were more broadly distributed over space, then that might by itself explain why people feel worse off now. making denser infrastructure is expensive.

    • Corey says:

      See Elizabeth Warren’s book (from before she was in politics) “The Two-Income Trap”.

      The TL;DR, from the point of view of suburban middle-class types:
      – Women enter the workforce
      – Competition for “good schools” via the housing market eats up all the extra income by driving up housing prices
      – Life is more precarious (mom can’t do as much unpaid household work, twice as exposed to job loss), and you don’t have any more usable income, so you actually are worse off

  58. dank says:

    I appreciate how you can review a book with skepticism but not hostility.

  59. The Big Red Scary says:

    Although most of the expert economists surveyed believed immigration was a net good for America

    Surely this conclusion depends heavily on the definition of the utility function. Also, it would be more interesting to understand the argument than the assertion, which I have yet to see made in a serious way. Maybe I should read that new comic book…

    But so far as I understand, the argument is something like this: the productivity of people living in poor country A is low, and by moving to rich country B, they become more productive, which is somehow (empirically or by assumption) a gain not only to themselves but to rich country B.

    But what is the effect on poor country A?

    Here are some rambling thoughts.

    Presumably country A has lost some of the more gumptious and productive part of its population. When should we expect this to be off-set by remittances, or might remittances rather distort the local economy? You would expect wages to go up, because of reduced labor supply, and then to go up more, since people receiving remittances from their relatives abroad are less desperate to seek work, further reducing labor supply.

    Consider an extreme, real world case: Tajik men going to work in Russia. At various points in the last five years, I’ve seen figures like up to 50% of working-age Tajik men working in Russia at any one time, and up to 50% of Tajik GDP coming from remittances.

    Maybe this is “good” for Russia, according to some utility function and the productivity argument (Tajiks in Russia build more modern buildings with more modern equipment, drive fancier taxis routed by computers, and so on).

    But is it good for Tajikistan? It’s not at all clear to me, and this kind of question seems less discussed than the other way around.

  60. angularangel says:

    I want to address your point on immigration. First, Turchin is talking about immigrants effecting the monopsony vs monopoly tradeoff of wages, not the supply demand trade-off. This is one of the areas where I feel most economists (Or at least, popular economics articles), don’t give enough focus, because it fails to paint unregulated capitalism in a sufficiently rosy light. To put it simply, a monopsony is the opposite of a monopoly – a market with only one buyer and many uncoordinated sellers, where that buyer can set the price as low as the market will bear. Now, like with monopolies, markets rarely get this extreme, but even without reaching the extreme, this can have a significant effect on the outcome of the market. If buyers outnumber sellers 10 to 1, the prices will be much higher than if sellers outnumber buyers 10 to 1, even if the total amounts of goods bought and sold remain the same. This is a principle that I feel you generally don’t pay enough attention to, Scott. Your post on the busiprone shortage had a quote that literally talked about ““monster” buyers squeezing manufacturers on prices”, but you barely followed up on it, and instead spent all your time talking about the FDA. And that’s not to say that the FDA doesn’t have problems, but look, the government cannot always be the root of all evil. Occasionally, there will be problems elsewhere, and we might even need a government to fix them.

    On a related note, this is also the reasoning behind a minimum wage (And workers unions, and the entire class of arguments that allege that workers aren’t paid enough), which I have never actually seen acknowledged in all of the complaining about the minimum wage I see here: That employment is a sufficiently monopsonistic market that employers (Who are regularly outnumbered by employees 100 to 1, or more) will use their comparative stranglehold on the market to drive down wages, not only to the point of harming employees, but to the point of reducing their employees consumption enough to harm the overall economy. (An externality, no less, and thus not something that will be efficiently addressed by the free market, except in so far as it drives up the demand for labor unions and socialist parties.)

  61. angularangel says:

    On another note, you ask how inequality could be such a bad thing, and I think the answer is simple – because it results in imbalances of power. You talk in Meditations on Moloch about all the ways that competition can make things worse. Well, we humans have various ways to keep competition in check when it threatens to cause us problems, but the greater the inequality, the less effective these ways are. Thus, after a certain tipping point, you end up with run away inequality until the system either collapses or restores itself to equilibrium some other way, such as a round of trust-busting. I don’t have time to really follow up on this train of thought, but I thought I should mention it.

  62. uau says:

    One more thing: the 1770 spike was obviously the American Revolution and all of the riots and communal violence associated with it (eg against Tories). Where was the 1820 spike? Turchin admits it didn’t happen. He says that because 1820 was the absolute best part of the 150 year grand cycle, everybody was so happy and well-off and patriotic that the scheduled instability peak just fizzled out.

    This argument feels somewhat problematic. While it’s plausible that exceptionally good conditions would suppress radicalism, why would this not derail the supposed 50 year cycle? Are people supposed to get “inoculated” by violence that does not actually occur? For the next outbreak to stay on track for 1870, either there would need to be some visible radicalism that’s enough to maintain the state of the dynamic system, or the system would need to be driven by other factors with visible radicalism and violence being only symptoms.

    • angularangel says:

      This is an interesting point. I think it actually makes sense for radicalism to follow some other variable. Maybe treat radicalism like a fever, and it’s actually the invisible microbes that fever destroys that are the root of the problem? I dunno what that would be, though. :/

  63. cl says:

    Third, the plutocratic oppression story meshes poorly with the elite overproduction story. In elite overproduction, united elites are a sign of good times to come; divided elites means dysfunctional government and potential violence. But as Pseudoerasmus points out, united elites are often united against the commoners, and we should expect inequality to be highest at times when the elites are able to work together to fight for a larger share of the pie. But I think this is the opposite of Turchin’s story, where elites unite only to make concessions, and elite unity equals popular prosperity.

    Sociologist Mark S. Mizruchi has studied the US corporate elite networks in the postwar period; very roughly the story seems to be:

    1950s: The most powerful corporate elites (CEOs of the biggest companies etc.) have strong networks and organizations, grudgingly accept labour unions, back some largely progressive and pro-social policies as well as necessary tax increases (to pay for the Korean War, for instance) in what he describes as ‘enlightened self-interest’, promoting moderate reform to forestall more radical poltics. The Republican party is basically under their control or at least strongly aligned.

    1960s: More or less as above, but the corporate elites start losing control of the Republican party to conservative hardliners (exemplified by the nomination of Goldwater) that had previously been consigned to the political wilderness.

    1970s: Falling profits, rising inflation and a very strong labour market cause still well-organized corporate elites to create new cooperative institutions (prime example is the Business Roundtable) and ally with more conservative forces in the Republican party in order to promote pro-business policies, break labour unions etc. This eventually restores corporate profitability and weakens countervailing forces (mostly labour and government).

    1980s: Their project from the 70s basically complete by mid-decade and threats to their power broken for the moment, the corporate elites no longer need to cooperate as much. Corporate profits increase and individual compensation at the top soars. A huge wave of corporate takeovers and the shareholder revolution means individual CEOs and other corporate elites need to increasingly protect their own careers instead of pursuing long-term projects. (In Structural-Demographic terms this looks like nascent increased intra-elite competition.)

    1990s-present: The cooperative institutions that were built up in the 70s slowly weaken as threats to business profitability are largely contained, and informal networks decline as well (among other things, Mizruchi describes how banks used to function as inter-industry dispute resolution arenas, with lots of non-bank CEOs on their boards, but gradually lose this function as these old boys networks wither).

    Individual companies and elites and sometimes industries have a lot of power; the winners of the 80s onwards are individually a lot richer and more powerful, enough to gain favours for themselves from the political system etc. However, they now lack the cohesion to pursue larger agendas. In particular, they lose control over the direction of the Republican party; one example Mizruchi uses is that not a single Fortune 100 CEO supported Trump (around a third supported Romney), but he was still nominated and elected.

  64. VanL says:

    One of the interesting things about this review is the possible comparison to Strauss and Howe’s 1997 book “The Fourth Turning.” Strauss and Howe similarly posit a cyclical view of history, but target a different driving force behind the changes: the generational “constellation” and how people react to different types of stressors and opportunities at different times in their lives. Briefly quoting from Wikipedia:

    Strauss and Howe define a social generation as the aggregate of all people born over a span of roughly twenty years or about the length of one phase of life: childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and old age. Generations are identified (from first birthyear to last) by looking for cohort groups of this length that share three criteria. First, members of a generation share what the authors call an age location in history: they encounter key historical events and social trends while occupying the same phase of life. In this view, members of a generation are shaped in lasting ways by the eras they encounter as children and young adults and they share certain common beliefs and behaviors. Aware of the experiences and traits that they share with their peers, members of a generation would also share a sense of common perceived membership in that generation.

    As history goes through different cycles, those who are in power at different times create different types of social orders, that end up being reflected in society as a whole. Each different constellation is a “turning,” and each cycle is a “saeculum.” In the “High” turning civic order is reinforced; in the “Awakening” it is questioned; in the “Unraveling” personal interests are pursued; in the “Crisis” public authority is resurrected in response to internal and external challenges.

    The tie to “Ages of Discord” is the proposed causal explanation for the good and bad times highlighted above. Strauss and Howe’s discussion of the various saecula matches up relatively well to the highs and lows identified by Turchin.

    For example, Strauss and Howe identify both the 1820s and 1960 (“Things are going extraordinarily well”) as being during a “High” Turning: “The First Turning is a High. Old Prophets die, Nomads enter elderhood, Heroes enter midlife, Artists enter young adulthood—and a new generation of Prophets is born. This is an era when institutions are strong and individualism is weak. Society is confident about where it wants to go collectively, even if those outside the majoritarian center feel stifled by the conformity.”

    In contrast, the 1890s are “an Awakening. Old Nomads die, Heroes enter elderhood, Artists enter midlife, Prophets enter young adulthood—and a new generation of child Nomads is born. This is an era when institutions are attacked in the name of personal and spiritual autonomy.”

    The contemporary equivalent is the late sixties and seventies, which are also an awakening period, also marked by violence.

    Finally, both Turchin and Strauss and Howe predict coming destabilization, both from their individual theories. But I find that Strauss and Howe’s prediction is more impressive, having been made in 1997, a boom time in the US.

    For more information: Wikipedia: Strauss–Howe generational theory and Howe’s website discussing various aspects of the theory.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I would really like to see Scott review Strauss and Howe. It’s the best cyclical theory of history I’ve seen, I’ve mentioned it several times on SSC and I’d like to see Scott tell me what’s wrong with it.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        I found Strauss and Howe fascinating, engaging enough that I read more than one of their books. But it was a long time ago.

        But I could never quite convince myself that they weren’t just seeing faces in clouds. The list of “seminal figures” in each generation had the ring of truth — one sees the resemblance between, say, Jefferson and Hamilton, despite their superficial differences. But I don’t know enough history to be sure that they weren’t being cherry-picked, or (unconsciously) described in a way slanted to the thesis.

        The business about each generation having a general character, and key players either were shaped by that character or rebelled against it, seemed like it could cover a multitude of sins.

        But I totally agree that I would like to see Scott review it. The original book is old enough (1991) that we ought to be able to see if it made predictions that we can now confirm or deny.

        • Dick Illyes says:

          Add me as another one who would like to see that review. I was captivated by Strauss and Howe and read everything they put out. Generational interaction as the driver seemed plausible. I just looked at the Wikipedia entry and discovered it has improved a lot since I looked years ago.

          The rise of Andrew Yang seems in line with their views. Negative interest rates, a stock market likely to crash and never recover leaving untold millions with far less than hoped in retirement, widespread public pension fund shortfalls, also damaged by a crashed equity market, Turchin forecasting an age of discord in the 2020’s. Millions of heavily indebted underemployed college graduates. A clueless intolerant academia.

          I recently read Yang’s War On Normal People. His campaign is a new thing under the sun in this era. It is a serious attempt to deal with likely future developments in a positive way.

          IMO the Boomer Democrat Party is due for destruction. The coming election will probably do that. They may get their market crash/recession but it will probably hurt them more than Trump.

          The GOP party structure is totally dominated by its pro-life faction, which has driven all other viewpoints out of all local and state party positions. Pro-lifers are not small government free market types and those people are no longer welcome, they are seen as obstacles to convincing Democrat voters to support Life. The single issue pro-lifers are not aligned with most Trump Rally attendees, who are mostly unaware of the pro-life takeover.

          Something big appears set to happen. It certainly seems to be forecast by Strauss and Howe as a part of the Fourth Turning.

          • Paul Zrimsek says:

            The single issue pro-lifers are not aligned with most Trump Rally attendees, who are mostly unaware of the pro-life takeover.

            Getting to watch your own guy go to the White House, while the people who’ve taken over get nothing, can fool you that way.

  65. Jeff R says:

    Someone has probably already said this above, but there are 220 comments at this point and I can’t read all of them: Isn’t it entirely possible that this whole 50 year cycle of violence thing isn’t at all that complicated, and it’s just due to the normal human lifespan? I remember in a Western Civ course I took in college, the professor telling us about how there was another in a long line of pretty senseless general European Wars, I think it was the War of Austrian Succession, and it dragged on for like eight years, accomplished almost nothing, but had cost tons of money and gotten lots of people killed, and afterwards everyone was in perfect agreement about how senseless it had all been. Part of the explanation, he said, for how a war that everyone agreed was really dumb had dragged on for nearly a decade was just that it had been a good 25-30 years since the last one, and a lot of the people who’d fought in it and remembered how awful it was were dead or had passed into Grandpa Simpson-type dotage and thus were deemed not worth listening to.

    It seems to me it’s entirely possible that one needs no more complicated explanation than that for the phenomenon being described here. Most of the Civil War vets would have been dead by 1920, for example. Most of the people who remembered the 1920’s would have been dead by 1970, etc. Maybe people just need to experience first hand just how unpleasant organized violence is when there’s no one around with first hand experience to warn them off it.

    • OriginalSeeing says:

      I’ve generally assumed this cycle to be true before.

      Then again, becoming willing to fight wars again after 25-30 years seems strange since the average age of a US Congressman/Senator have been around 50-60 over time. Congress is the group that starts wars (although not really) and their age group would have been 20-35 during the last time a war was fought. They’re the exact people who would have been veterans of the last war and should remember what war looks like.

      It makes sense for the new generation to not remember, but shouldn’t the veterans remember the terribleness of war?

      • Nornagest says:

        Empirically, I don’t think I see a strong tendency for veterans to avoid war when they end up in leadership positions. Hitler famously fought in the trenches of WWI, and Tojo was a veteran of multiple wars. Kennedy, Johnson, and McNamara were all WWII veterans, as was pretty much everyone involved in the leadup to the Korean War. George H. W. Bush was a former combat pilot.

        Nobody involved at a high level in the civilian planning for the Iraq War was a combat veteran — Cheney didn’t serve, Bush served domestically with the Air National Guard. Donald Rumsfeld was a naval aviator, but too late for Korea and too early for Vietnam. But that’s a pretty thin reed to hang the theory on in light of the foregoing.

      • Aapje says:

        @OriginalSeeing

        Old people have a tendency to look back at their prime years with great fondness, presumably due to the halo effect (back then everything was better for me, as I was young/virile and everything was new and exciting, so everything was better).

        Furthermore, as they get older, many forget the bad things in their past.

        Also, as Nornagest notes, many politicians either weren’t in the military or had plush postings, where they genuinely could have very fond memories, rather than memories of seeing their friends die.

  66. ovid75 says:

    I really like Turchin (the more macro his field of view the better) but in this book you can see why qualitative political / economic history is an important corrective to speculative curve fitting. For example he ignores qualitative distinctions between types of elites and how they interact. He might have done well to read Roberto Unger’s various works (‘Plasticity into Power’, etc) or perhaps Charles Tilly and his political sociological histories of state building in Europe. Briefly, to take up Unger’s more nuanced picture, there are state elites, predatory elites and commoners. When the state elites ‘reign in’ and successfully co-opt the zero sum games of the predatory or intermediate elites society functions more optimally and we avoid famines and over exploitation of commoners etc. When the state is run by and for those elites you have problems. (if intermediate elites are completely eradicated that leads to problems of its own). In short Turchin doesn’t have a theory of the state and the elites that associate their fates with it. I find that odd given his ‘Ultra Society’ which does have a less linear and deterministic story of how states have jumped around between predatory and positive sum models for basically exogenous, unpredictable reasons. I find that latter model more convincing.

  67. Zamiel says:

    Scott,

    The “spot check” link, e.g. https://acesounderglass.com/tag/epistemicspotcheck/spot-checks, appears broken.

  68. BBA says:

    Undoubtedly things are cyclical but this kinda feels like putting the golden ratio spiral on top of a picture that only kinda looks like it and pronouncing it proof of something.

  69. WX_Econ says:

    I just want to point out that the authors of the book think that in the U.S., “that America reached a maximum of unity, prosperity, and equality around 1820.” You know unless you were a slave, or a women, or any other minority…but whatever.

    “…1820 was the absolute best part of the 150 year grand cycle, everybody was so happy and well-off and patriotic that the scheduled instability peak just fizzled out.” Unless you were a slave…

    Maybe, just my opinion, but claiming a period in which a large portion of the country is enslaved, as the best time, were everyone was well off, and equality was at the maximum is absolute nonsense.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      This strikes me as sort of presentist. The claim is that in the 1820s most everybody whose opinion mattered pretty much agreed on where we were and what we should be doing. Today we can rue the fact that in the 1820s “everybody whose opinion mattered” did not include women and slaves, but what difference does that make to the point?

    • John Schilling says:

      “…1820 was the absolute best part of the 150 year grand cycle, everybody was so happy and well-off and patriotic that the scheduled instability peak just fizzled out.” Unless you were a slave…

      No, the scheduled instability peak fizzled out even if you were a slave. Slavery was a stable institution in the 1820s. There were no serious slave revolts or uprisings, the plantation economy was doing fine, the end of the slave trade had decoupled American slavery from European abolitionism, American abolitionism was focused on weak and voluntary measures, and the Missouri Compromise had postponed the ugly political decisions for a decade or so. If you were a slave, you might not have liked this stability, but you were stuck with it.

      And I think you’re being excessively literal here. “Everybody was so happy…” and “maximum of unity, prosperity, and equality” are paraphrases of Turchin; presumably he qualified them somewhat in the full text. But for the purposes of his thesis, what matters is whether the people with the potential for causing serious instability were happy, united, prosperous, and equal. And in the 1820s, it looks like they pretty much were.

      • WX_Econ says:

        The telling statement is, “the fact that in the 1820s “everybody whose opinion mattered” did not include women and slaves, but what difference does that make to the point?” Demising the history of a group of people, as a means to defend all things were all great, and swell.

        How does one not take text literal?

        Paraphrase according to Websters dictionary, a restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form.

        Presumably, if Turchin had provided qualifiers, that would have been communicated above as a part of the paraphrase, given it seems like an important part of the narrative.

        For your consideration as to a different perspective of resistance.

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/08/28/teaching-slavery-schools/

  70. OriginalSeeing says:

    Although most of the expert economists surveyed believed immigration was a net good for America, they did say (50% agree to only 9% disagree) that “unless they were compensated by others, many low-skilled American workers would be substantially worse off if a larger number of low-skilled foreign workers were legally allowed to enter the US each year”.

    I’ve always wondered how long it’s supposed to take before the net good of immigration is predicted to appear. Is it immediately, 2 years, 5 years, 20 years?

  71. Charlie Lima says:

    As far as 1820 is concerned, I might suggest that the conflict and disruption of that spike might be found in the Second Great Awakening. Right around 1820 we see the first giant wave of camp meetings and the massive disruption of American religious sentiment. This is the period that saw rise of Baptists and Methodists in great number. It is also the period that saw the Unitarians break from the Calvinism of the Congregationalists. The 1820s also saw the rise of a wide variety of new sects, most notably the Mormons.

    I might suggest that because the large cycle was doing so well that the troubles of 1820 expressed themselves a bit less dramatically on the religious front than violence in the political sphere.

  72. discountdoublecheck says:

    “Although most of the expert economists surveyed believed immigration was a net good for America, they did say (50% agree to only 9% disagree) that ‘unless they were compensated by others, many low-skilled American workers would be substantially worse off if a larger number of low-skilled foreign workers were legally allowed to enter the US each year’ ”

    You seem to have misread the page (if only slightly), or I’m misconstruing your statement. 46% agree to 7% disagree that low-skilled Americans would be worse off with more low skilled immigration, not 50 to 9. The 50 to 9 is for answers to question A — about the average us citizen.

    You also mentioned an interest in informed discussion of the IGM poll. I can’t claim tremendous information, but I believe that most economists believe in some sort of split market. Most americans are skilled labor of some kind, and the theory goes that they are thus unaffected on the labor market by low-skilled immigrants — but will benefit from things like growth of markets, lower prices for low skill labor, social security payments, etc. Some americans are low-skill, and they will be on the same labor market as low skill immigrants, therefore their wages/employment drops.

    Of course, if you look at answers to the high-skill questions, you see that basic model is not being applied to high skill immigrants in the same way. Broadly, I think the answer to that split is somewhat elucidated in the immigration and innovation questions. This is some form of ‘everyone who is low skill is low skill the same way, but people who are high skill are high skill in different ways’.

    A more important thing to dwell on though is the level of consensus. Those high skill/innovation questions max out at 20% of disagreement/uncertain answers, while the lowskill questions have more like 40% disagreement/uncertainty rates.

  73. Hadrian says:

    “My impression was that Borjas was an increasingly isolated contrarian voice, so once again, I just don’t know what to do here.” Consensus? Maybe not so much.
    (1) Germany´s n.º 1 economist, Hans-Werner Sinn, is in full agreement with Borjas. From his book “Schwarzer Juni” (Black June [a book on Brexit, the migrant crisis and the euro]), page 104 (my translation): “One could believe that it makes no difference for the existing population whether there is migration of workers or not [my note: since the effect for the economy as a whole is neutral]. But that is not the case, for, even if the size of the cake at the disposal of the existing population remains constant, its distribution changes very substantially [ganz erheblich]. Those who compete with migrants lose out for reasons I will discuss later, due to increased wage competition. Those are mostly the people with low qualifications. In contrast, those who pay for their services win out, for they have to pay less now. In this last category we mostly find entrepreneurs and homes with high earnings, who can now eat at the restaurant for less money or hire a cheaper cleaning lady.
    If you think about this, it becomes easier to understand why Dieter Zetsche and other entrepreneurs cheer Angela Merkel, since they expect new workers for their assembly belts, and also why the cultivated bourgeoisie [Bildungsbürgertum] is less opposed to such migration, whereas common workers tend to be more open to the slogans of PEGIDA. It´s not about irrational xenophobia vs. generosity and openness to the world, which can be celebrated in TV commentary with a self-righteously schoolmarmish tone [oberlehrehaft]. In fact, it´s often self-interest that, consciously or unconsciously, hides behind the façades.
    Even though the net effect of migration for the pre-existing population approaches zero, a benefit for Germans can be derived from immigration, since the new migrants end up in the segments of the labour force in which older migrants concentrate, i.e., migrants who have been in the country for longer. If you disregard the income of migrants who have been in the country for longer and you concentrate your wealth analysis on the German population, then you can indeed see a benefit for this population from further migration.
    In technical literature this is called migration added-value [Migrationsmehrwert], and the native [einheimische] population gets it because the new migrants lower the salaries of the migrants who migrated earlier.”
    (2) Miquel Puig, a Spanish economist who has advised Catalonian political parties both left and right, says pretty much the same (going into greater detail than Hans-Werner Sinn) in his book “La Gran Estafa” (The Great Scam). I found a reference on page 155 of the book, though there are more.

  74. evelineheston says:

    to be completely fair, a papersowl review was a bit more cohesive and less prejudiced than this one. for some reason, it was pretty hard to finish for me personally, even though I usually really enjoy your reviews. maybe the reasoning hides behind the fact that i didn’t like the book one bit