While I am certainly very grateful to the team of authors of Lead pollution recorded in Greenland ice indicates European emissions tracked plagues, wars, and imperial expansion during antiquity, it is curious that the only quantitative part of their study was coming up with the lead pollution curve. All the comparisons between the lead curve and historical events in Rome and elsewhere in the Western Mediterranean were entirely qualitative. Yet the greatest strength of employing quantitative proxies results when we examine different proxies against each other.
In this second installment of the series (first installment here) I will compare the lead curve to a quantitative measure of building activity in Rome. I will focus on religious buildings (pagan temples and Christian churches), because they typically represent a substantial investment of resources and because they can be often accurately dated. I have used this building index in several case studies described in Secular Cycles. For this post, the list of temples was taken from Richardson, L. 1992. A new topographical dictionary of ancient Rome. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore; and churches are from Ward-Perkins, B. 1984. From Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages: Urban public building in northern and central Italy, AD 300-850. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Here I plot these data in two ways:
The tan vertical bars tell us how many temples (or churches) were built in Rome in each decade. The thick brown curve smooths over short-term fluctuations, helping us to visualize longer (secular) dynamics. As we see, the curve generally traces out the four secular cycles in Roman history. One partial exception is the building activity gap in the middle of the first century, which divides the Principate cycle into two phases. One possible explanation of this interruption is that there was a short-lived outbreak of internal violence during the first century (the deposition of Emperor Nero followed by the Year of the Four Emperors).
Now let’s plot the building curve against the lead pollution curve:
What we see is that there is a lot of difference in detail. But there are also shared features. The secular cycles in both curves tend to have peaks and troughs at roughly similar times (except for the “double-headed” Principate cycle in the building data). Additionally, the overall heights of each secular peak are similar in the two curves. The overall correlation coefficient is a respectable 0.62. This is not a bad result, considering that the two curves were derived using completely different methodologies, and that they reflect very different socio-economic processes. On top of that, the first cycle in the pollution curve is not even due to Rome, since the mines during the early period were operated by the Carthaginians.
When I started 20 years ago on the research direction that eventually became Cliodynamics, I thought that getting data to test theories about historical dynamics would be tough. Within a couple of years I realized that actually it’s not true. There is an enormous amount of quantitative data about all kinds of aspects of past societies. It’s true that we often don’t have direct measurements of things we want to know about the past. But if one is willing to keep one’s eyes (and mind) open, one constantly encounters quite good data that can serve as a useful “proxy” for a variable of interest.
This week an interdisciplinary team of climatologists and archaeologists published an article, Lead pollution recorded in Greenland ice indicates European emissions tracked plagues, wars, and imperial expansion during antiquity. The main source of lead particles, deposited on Greenland ice during Antiquity, was a result of smelting silver in Iberian silver mines. The amount of lead deposited in Greenland can be resolved down to the year. As a result, Greenland ice contains an excellent quantitative proxy for the intensity of silver production in Western Mediterranean, which in turn traces economic booms and busts in this part of the world.
I downloaded the raw data, smoothed it using kernel regression with bandwidth = 50 years (if anybody cares for such technical details), and here is the trajectory (concentration of lead in Greenland ice) during the period when Rome was one of, or the dominant power in Western Mediterranean:
What we see here is yet another illustration of one of the most pervasive macrohistorical generalizations: all complex societies go through multi-centennial (“secular”) cycles (see our book Secular Cycles). Ancient Rome went through four such cycles of alternating integrative (“good”) periods (indicated with green-colored labels in the figure) and disintegrative (“bad”) phases (indicated with red-colored labels).
Actually, the first cycle probably has more to do with Carthage, which owned Spanish silver mines at the time. In the last cycle (the Dominate), the center of gravity of the Roman Empire shifted east, and that’s probably why the fourth century’s peak is quite modest.
Note that I did the periodization of Roman history into secular cycles before the Greenland ice data were available. It was based on a series of quantitative proxies that are entirely separate from the lead pollution data (and there are many such proxies — in the next post I’ll look into how they correlate with this one). In other words, these new data provide an independent test of the secular cycles theory.
You can read about these Roman cycles in the already mentioned Secular Cycles, and in my popular book War and Peace and War (in particular, Chapter 6, Born to Be Wolves, on the early history of Rome. For the last cycle (the Dominate) there is an article in Cliodynamics by David Baker.
You can also trace the evolution of the Roman polity from the Roman Kingdom (716–509 BCE) to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (395–476) on the just published beta-version of the Seshat visual data site.
Yesterday the top science journal Nature published a bomb-shell article, but my feeling is that biologists haven’t yet realized the explosive nature of the report. I’ll explain, but first we need to make a lengthy excurse into the history of the group selection idea.
Whether group selection is an important evolutionary force, or not, is a highly controversial question in evolutionary science. A substantial proportion of evolutionary scientists still think that it is not. The stakes are high because I and many other proponents of Cultural Evolution think that group selection (or, as we prefer to call it, multilevel selection—selection acting simultaneously on individuals and groups) provides the key to our understanding of the evolution of human ultrasociality—the capacity of human beings to cohere and cooperate in huge societies (millions and more of people).
Actually, the best theory that enables us to understand ultrasociality is “Cultural Multilevel Selection” (see my book Ultrasociety about how human societies evolved from small bands of hunter-gatherers of 10,000 years ago to the huge megasocieties of today by the process of multilevel selection acting on cultural traits). I tend to agree, to a certain degree, with the critics that genetic group selection is not a commonly encountered evolutionary mechanism in the field, although in the past it was clearly hugely influential. Because how would, otherwise, we get multicellular organisms? And genetic multilevel selection provides the best explanation, in my opinion, of other “major evolutionary transitions”, which include, in addition to multicellular organisms, such epochal events in biological evolution as the rise of the eukaryotic cell and social insect colonies.
The first proponent of genetic group selection was Charles Darwin himself, who wrote about it in his second major book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, which was published 12 years after On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s ideas on group selection remained very influential for about a century. One of his well-known followers, the English biologist V. C. Wynn-Edwards, became an advocate of the idea that individual behaviors can evolve not just because they help individuals, but for the good of the species as a whole. In other words, Wynn-Edwards and other adherents of what later became known as “naïve group selectionism” thought that evolution could operate at the level of really large groups—whole species.
I attach the label “naïve” to these views because arguments of Wynn-Edward and others relied on simply pointing out the importance of a trait at the level of a group (or a species) without considering carefully how such traits affected individuals. Incidentally, this is why I prefer “multilevel”—because our current theories explain much better the evolution of behaviors that have opposite effects at different levels (e.g., favor the group but at the expense of individual fitness). It’s not a trivial question, and it requires non-trivial math to figure out when either the group-level or individual level force dominates.
In any case, by the 1970s the tide turned against group selection. The key thinker in this reversal was George C. Williams, and his ideas were popularized by Richard Dawkins in his wildly popular book The Selfish Gene. When I studied biology in graduate school in the early 1980s, nobody believed in group selection, apart from a few “heretics” like my good colleague and friend David Sloan Wilson.
In the last decade or so the tide started turning back. In particular, the hugely influential social biologist Edward O. Wilson (no relation to David) “flipped” from a critic to an adherent of group selection. But many, if not most, continue to reject it (for example, the geneticist Jerry Coyne or the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker).
Getting back to Darwin, it is not a coincidence that his second major book, in which he wrote about group selection, has the subtitle Selection in Relation to Sex. Here’s a fun example illustrating this connection, which I have recently used in a lecture in my cultural evolution class last week.
Many of my readers know that there was a species of deer in which males grew astoundingly huge antlers—the Irish Elk. It roamed Eurasia from Ireland to China during the Pleistocene, and went extinct around 8,000 years ago. Why did Irish Elk males sport such spectacular antlers?
The reason, as Darwin explained, is the sexual selection. Every fall male deer (including elk and moose) participate in jousts, with winners getting to mate with females. The larger is the weaponry that you bring to the contest, the better are your chances of winning it, which means mating and passing your genes to the next generation. So natural selection favors males with larger antlers (as they say, “size matters”).
Note “larger”, not huge. What’s important is not an absolute size, but a relative advantage. In the land of small-antlered, the medium-antlered elk is king. But then, in a few generations, everybody has medium-sized antlers, and so to get ahead of the crowd you need large ones. And so on. As the arms race continues, eventually only those elk with gigantic racks have any chance of reproducing. Growing huge antlers is energetically expensive, and a huge risk—whether getting tangled in the branches, or not being able to escape predators due to their heavy weight.
If only elk males could get together and agree to put a limit on the size of their antlers… Everybody would be much better off. Instead, each individual strives for advantage, resulting in a collectively suboptimal outcome. One could say that the Irish Elk went extinct as they literally collapsed under the weight of their antlers.
We don’t really know why the Irish Elk went extinct. Perhaps the reason was the run-away competition between males, resulting in unsustainably gigantic antlers. Or there could be another reason. And here’s why the Nature article, to which I referred in the beginning, is so interesting: High male sexual investment as a driver of extinction in fossil ostracods by Maria João Fernandes Martins and co-authors.
Ostracods are small crustaceans, shrimp-like creatures that protect themselves with bivalve carapaces (shells). These shells are well preserved as fossils, and so we know quite a lot about their evolution.
Fernandes Martins and co-authors analyzed the paleontological data on 93 species that lived in the area that is now Mississippi state between 84 and 66 million years ago. They assessed the strength of competition between males by how much males invested in reproduction, which you can tell by the shape of the shell (e.g., how long it is). Basically what they did was similar to estimating the strength of between-male competition in deer by looking at how large their antlers are. Then they did a statistical analysis on how the strength of sexual competition affected the probability of extinction of the species.
They found that the probability of extinction of the species in which males competed most intensely was ten times higher than in the species in which males did not compete very hard. This is a huge difference, and it lends credence to the idea that the Irish Elk went extinct because of intense between-male competition necessitating high investment by males into growing big antlers.
The implications of the study by Fernandes Martins and co-authors, thus, go far beyond an obscure group of shrimp-like organisms. What we have here is a clear example of multi-level selection. The individual level selection forces each male to invest into sexual competition as much as possible. But at the species level, those species in which between-male competition goes too far, has an order of magnitude higher chance of going extinct. As a result, most species find themselves at an intermediate level of male sexual investment.
It’s interesting that the authors of the Nature article do not even mention multi-level selection, nor do they talk about the broad implications of their study, as I have done in this blog. They are either not aware of them, which seems unlikely, or they simply didn’t want to enter the highly contentious debate about group selection. Equally interesting, Nature apparently did not deem this study to be important enough to devote a News-and-Views article to it. But I think that the implications of the study are explosive. If Wynne-Edwards were alive, he would feel vindicated.
Last week Tyler Cowen published an essay in Politico, No, Fascism Can’t Happen Here. He argues:
My argument is pretty simple: American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of. No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.” The net result is they simply can’t control enough of the modern state to steer it in a fascist direction.
I think Tyler is right, but for a wrong reason.
Before I explain, however, I’d like to step away from loaded terms like “fascist”, “Nazi”, etc., which lost most of their meaning and, instead, became an insult to be leveled at your political opponent. Let’s use, instead, the Classical Greek terms for different forms of government, such as those found in Plato or Aristotle. These terms are not perfect, as the meaning of many of them changed across the intervening two millennia, but let’s see how it goes.
Plato thought that there is a regular progression of regimes, starting with the best (Aristocracy) and then passing through increasingly “degenerate” forms of Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny (check out this Wikipedia article for details). Interestingly enough, Plato’s ideal forms map pretty well onto phases of secular cycles that I and others have studied within the framework of structural demographic theory (see Secular Cycles).
A secular cycle starts with an “expansion” phase, during which societies enjoy internal peace and order, population well-being is relatively high, the elites are small in numbers, modest in consumption, and reasonably prosocial in their attitudes. This phase can be compared with Aristocracy (especially in Aristotle’s definition, when the ruling elites govern to increase public good). The next phase (which we called “stagflation”) is when the well-being of the majority of the population collapses, while elite numbers and wealth continue to grow and their prosociality declines. The corresponding regime in the Ancient Greek scheme would be Oligarchy. Next comes the “crisis” phase with its rebellions, revolutions, and civil wars. The Greek equivalent is Democracy (remember that both Plato and Aristotle used this term in a very different way than us today; for them Democracy was not a good thing). The final phase of the secular cycle is “depression.” This is when we see an alternation of roughly generation-long periods of civil war interspersed with generation-long periods of fragile order, often resulting from regimes established by new leaders, whom one could call “tyrants.”
Both the Greek scheme of regime progression and secular cycle phases are, undoubtedly, highly stylized – one even could think of them as “caricatures” (or “models”). There is a lot of variation among different societies and eras. In fact, my next big project will be to collect detailed data on hundreds of societies sliding into structural-demographic crises (and then emerging from them). It will allow us to much better characterize both the general features of such societal dynamics, and variations on general themes. For now, my argument is based on roughly 20 or so cases studies that cliodynamicists studied in detail, and on my general reading of history.
The famous tyrants in history – think Caesar, Napoleon, Mao – all mobilized broad popular support in their struggle against the “oligarchies,” or the established elites representing pre-revolutionary order (the senatorial class, the Ancien Regime nobility, and “bourgeoisie”). These tyrants were supported by new elites, recruited from the masses of elite aspirants whose quest for elite positions had been frustrated by the established elites.
What I see as key in the rise of “tyrants” is that they always come after a prolonged period of social instability and political violence. Their appeal is, first, based on their promise to restore internal order and to end violence. Their suppression of the old and discredited old-order elites is of secondary importance (and may be absent in certain cases, such as in the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany – of course, this case is also different because political turbulence in Weimar Germany was brought about not by a structural-demographic crisis, but by a catastrophic defeat in an external war).
Returning to the question of whether a tyrant can arise in the United States in the near future, my analysis suggests, most emphatically, “no.” A tyrant-wannabe lacks most elements on which to base his or her power. We haven’t experienced a long civil war (at least, not yet), or a catastrophic defeat in an external war. The established elites, while fragmenting, are still very strong. Here I agree with much of what Tyler says in the paragraph I quoted above. An aspiring tyrant has to deal with the deeply entrenched bureaucracy, the powerful judicial system, and the mighty coercive apparatus of the American state (the FBI, the CIA, the military). Also important is that the frustrated elite aspirants are not organized in any coherent social movements. Tyrants never rule alone, they need an organization stuffed by dedicated cadres (a desirable feature of which is the animosity towards the old-order elites).
In my opinion, the greatest danger for us today (and into the 2020s) is not the rise of a Hitler, but rather a Second American Civil War.
On Tuesday I am traveling southwest to visit several universities in Arizona and Southern California. Here’s the schedule of lectures that I will be giving:
Wednesday Feb. 15 at 12:00 noon: Colloquium on Evolution of Social Complexity (Arizona State University)
Tuesday Feb. 27 at 3:00 pm: Marschak Colloquium (UCLA)
Thursday March 1 at 12:30 pm: Sociology Department (UC Riverside)
If you happen to be in the vicinity, I’ll be happy to see you at one of these events!
The lecture I will be giving is brand-new (in fact, I am still finishing the statistical analyses on which it is based). Here’s the title and abstract:
Over the past 10,000 years human societies evolved from “simple”—small egalitarian groups, integrated by face-to-face interactions, —to “complex”—huge anonymous societies of millions, characterized by great differentials in wealth and power, extensive division of labor, elaborate governance structures, and sophisticated information systems. One aspect of this “major evolutionary transition” that continues to excite intense debate is the origins and evolution of the state—a politically centralized territorial polity with internally specialized administrative organization. Different theories proposed by early theorists and contemporary social scientists make different predictions about causal processes driving the rise of state-level social organization. In my talk I will use Seshat: Global History Databank to empirically test predictions of several such theories. I will present results of a dynamical regression analysis that estimates how the evolution of specialized governance structures was affected by such factors as social scale (population, territorial expansion), social stratification, provision of public goods, and information systems.
Last week I wrote about Jack Goldstone’s article, which introduced the most recent issue of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jack’s book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. In today’s post I want to discuss an equally interesting article by Oscar Ortmans and co-authors.
The central question of the Ortmans et al. article is: Is Structural-Demographic Theory (SDT) predictive? In the Introduction they cite from the review of Goldstone’s book by a well-known scholar of revolutions Timur Kuran (Kuran, T. 1992. Contemporary Sociology 21:8-10). According to Kuran, the SDT is merely a tool to “reconcile exceptional cases” and was bound to “fail as a predictive tool.”
Twenty-seven years have passed since the publication of Goldstone’s book—enough time to evaluate its potential as a predictive tool. In the United States, for example, the negative structural-demographic trends began developing in the late 1970s, and by 1991 someone who understood the theory could already see that the country was moving in the wrong direction. The section in Goldstone’s book (remember, published 27 years ago) about the contemporary US (the US of 1991) reads eerily prescient today.
I’ve written elsewhere about my path to the same realization during the early 2000s. By that time, the writing was literally on the wall.
Using Cross-National Time-Series Data, Ortmans and co-authors plot the incidence of anti-government demonstrations in the United States, to which I have added arrows indicating the publication of Goldstone’s book and my Nature piece on the political instability during the decade of 2010–2020:
I think this graph speaks for itself.
But what about other countries? Previously a group of researchers, led by Andrey Korotayev, a cliodynamicist based at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow (Andrey is also one of the “et al.” in the Ortmans article), published a series of analyses of the Arab Spring revolutions. Incidentally, Andrey speaks Arabic fluently and visits Arab countries, like Egypt, regularly. In particular, he was on Tahrir in Cairo during some of the key moments of the Egyptian revolution. But what’s more important is that his group’s research shows that the Arab Spring fits really well into the general framework of the SDT (for example, see this article).
In the latest article, Ortmans et al. apply the SDT to the case of the contemporary United Kingdom. Of course, the US and the UK share the same Anglo-Saxon culture, but it is still remarkable to see the degree of parallelism in the structural-demographic dynamics of these two societies. The personalities are different, but they play very similar—one may even say identical—roles. The administrations of Reagan and Thatcher signaled the dramatic abandonment of the post-war concensus on social cooperation between employers and workers. Blair and Clinton cemented the shift by moving their formerly left-leaning parties to the center-right. Of course, UK doesn’t have a Trump (unless one counts Boris Johnson). On the other hand, the 2016 presidential elections in US and Brexit in UK both were both a surface manifestation of deep structural-demographic trends, which I have documented for US in The Ages of Discord, and Ortmans et al. document for UK in their Cliodynamics article.
In both countries the oversupply of labor developed at about the same time and for similar reasons. In both countries the spread of the Neoliberal ideology and the suppression of labor unions removed restraints on the downward pressure on the wages, which resulted from the unfaborable balance of labor supply in relation to demand. Relative wages (wages in relation to GDP per capita) started declining about the same time.
We now have two case studies of structural-demographic dynamics in economically developed mature democracies. These results show that such societies are not immune to the disruptive social forces that have caused innumemrable revolutions and civil wars in past societies. My guess is that other European democracies, in particular, Germany, are also not immune. However, based on what I read in the newspapers, Germany is about 20 years behind the US (and UK). Other parts of Europe, in particular the Nordics, may have even more time before they are faced with a full-blown structural-demographic crisis. There is time to take steps to avert the worst, but are our political elites capable of learning the lessons of the SDT?
The new issue of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution celebrates the Demographic Structural Theory (DST), one of the great success stories in Cliodynamics. DST was conceived by Jack Goldstone when he was a graduate student at Harvard during the late 1970s. Jack started as a Physics major at Caltech, but then decided to switch to sociology. As he writes in his retrospective that introduces the special issue, “I wanted to see if I could use mathematical models to explain when revolutions would occur.” His approach was that of a natural scientist, and he set out on a comparative study of revolutions that broke out in different parts of the world and at different times. He wanted to understand general principles:
It was obvious that any model that explained revolutions would have to include multiple components at different levels of society, and comprehend state vulnerability, intra-elite conflicts, and popular grievances and mobilization. But what could trigger all of these varied factors to come together at a certain time in a revolutionary conjuncture? If they all moved randomly and independently of one another, then the incidence of revolutions would also be random, arising only when peaks in these varied factors happened to converge in a given country at a given time. Of course, it was possible that revolutions were just random conjunctures of state crisis, elite conflicts, and popular uprisings, perhaps brought on by a particularly foolish ruler, or a particularly costly war, or the rise of an unusually potent heterodoxy or movement.
Revolution of 1848 Source
But his comparative study of revolutions quickly convinced him that this couldn’t be the case—there were just too many common patterns:
So it seemed that some broadly synchronous force was at work. But what hidden force could be strong enough to simultaneously drive state crises, elite divisions, and multiple kinds of popular grievances across many different countries and regions at certain times but not others?
I won’t go into details (you should read Jack’s excellent essay, which is in open access as everything in Cliodynamics), but it turned out that the “decoder ring” was demography. And this insight has withstood the test of time. Our “sample set” of historical societies that went into political crisis and state breakdown has expanded dramatically, and in every case we see the same general principles operating.
Unfortunately, the path to where we are now was not a straight one. In the essay Jack describes the “underwhelming” response both to his Ph.D. thesis on the English Revolution and his 1991 book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (which we celebrate in the special issue). Although he expanded his empirical scope to include not only European Revolutions, but also those elsewhere in the early modern Eurasia (China, Ottoman Empire), historians and social scientists largely ignored it.
When I think about that early indifference and outright rejection of DST, I realize how lucky I was that I embarked on the study of cliodynamics 20 years after Jack (and only after I had a tenured position). The 1980s and 1990s were one of those cyclic downturns during which the social mood swang against general theories. Those two decades saw the decline of cliometrics and “processual” archaeology, the “cultural turn” in history, and the reign of Post-Modernism in many social science departments.
We are still a long way from broad acceptance of DST, both among scholars and (even farther away) policy makers. But the title of this blog post is not an exaggeration. DST is a mature scientific theory because, first, we have greatly refined its mathematical apparatus. In addition to Jack’s Political Stress Indicator approach, which is a quantitative “social pressure gauge,” we have dynamical models of feedback loops that bring about secular cycles of alternating integrative/disintegrative periods, and micro-level models of violence outbreaks. The missing link is the “micro” – “macro” connection (see our article in the issue).
Second, and even more important, we now have an order of magnitude better empirical base for our theories. There are between 20 and 30 well-studied case studies, thanks to the work of Jack himself, Russian scholars like Sergey Nefedov and Andrey Korotayev, myself, and others. Furthermore, we have deepened our empirical understanding of these cases thanks to the recently accumulated historical scholarship. We started applying the theory to contemporary societies, for which data are much more available.
And this leads me to another thought. Jack’s 1991 book was not only ahead of its times, he was remarkably prescient about our own society. As he wrote (now 27 years ago): “It is quite astonishing the degree to which the United States today is, in respect of its elites’ attitudes and state finances, following the path that led early modern states to crisis.”
When 10 years ago I decided to take a look, I was even more appalled, because by that point the writing was literally on the wall. Today (following the 2016 US presidential election and the aftermath) it seems to be dawning on all of us (although most people have no idea about the deep structural drivers of our current age of discord).
I don’t want to quote too much of Jack’s article, because you should read it yourself, but I can’t resist one more quote about a concept that I introduced in Ages of Discord. A relative wage is simply the wage divided by GDP per capita. It tells us about the share of national output that goes to workers. Relative wages reached a peak during the late 1960s, and have been declining ever since. Why is this important?
A high relative wage thus promotes social stability in multiple ways: workers feel they are getting a fair share of economic growth, while growth of inequality due to rising elite incomes is averted. In addition, if elites cannot grow their incomes at the expense of workers, but only by increasing output as a whole, they are motivated to raise and reward worker productivity and invest in public goods that raise overall output.
This is an insight that our governing classes should really take to heart. This week in Davos the global elites were (now traditionally) lamenting the rising inequality, yet the policies they have been implementing in one country after another result in depressing relative wages (see, for example, an unusually harsh post from Branco Milanovic on this). It reminds me of someone, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…
Vigée-Lebrun (1778) Marie Antoinette in Court Dress Source
The level of dysfunction characterizing our political elites has reached a new high yesterday when the Senate failed to agree to a House-passed bill to keep the United States government funded for another month. Although the Republicans have the majority in the Senate, they don’t have 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster by the Democrats. Worse, not even all Republicans support the bill.
Predictably both sides are blaming each other. Donald Trump tweeted:
Democrats are far more concerned with illegal immigrants than they are with our great military or safety at our dangerous southern border. They could have easily made a deal but decided to play shutdown politics instead.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Minority leader in the House, had a different view:
Despite controlling the House, the Senate and the White House the Republicans were so incompetent, so negligent that they couldn’t get it together to keep government open.
And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said
There’s no one more to blame for the position we find ourselves than President Trump. Instead of bringing us all together, he’s pulled us apart.
But as I have argued in Ages of Discord, the problem we are facing is larger than Trump versus Schumer. One of the indices of intraelite fragmentation that I track is political polarization in Congress.
The twentieth century low point was in c.1950, but it was followed by a very gradual increase. The actual breakpoint was 1980, when the index of polarization started growing very rapidly. Other measures of intraelite polarization and conflict show very similar dynamics (Figures 11.4 and 11.5). Especially after 1980, politics at the federal level have become increasingly contentious and uncooperative (page 205 in Ages of Discord).
Here’s the curve of polarization in Congress over the past two centuries:
There is some roughness in the beginning because the numbers of legislators were small, but the curve clearly indicates the two “Eras of Good Feeling” (the 1820s and the 1950s), when polarization was very low and US political elites cooperative; and the two Ages of Discord (1860–1920 and today). In other words, the decline of the elite consensus and cooperation started much earlier than 2016, when Trump was elected.
And here’s another proxy for political dysfunction:
As you can see, after an initial uptick during the 1970s, the threat, or actual occurrence, of filibusters has been trending up. Interestingly, the first government shutdowns also took place during the late 1970s. I am thinking that I should add them as yet another proxy of government dysfunction.
Keep in mind that what is at stake now is only an extension of government spending for another 30 days. So even if the current impasse is overcome, then we will have another one in February, and who knows for how long. Then we get to the next fiscal year, and it’s deja vu all over again. In fact, given the degree of intra-elite conflict we currently have in the US, I wouldn’t be surprised if we are soon in a permanent state of government shutdown.
One of my most popular posts ever was on Cultural Evolution of Pants. The comments on old posts are off, but recently I got a new one through the “contact me” feature of my site. It was from a French reader named David; here’s the English translation:
Hi Peter, I agree with your point of view. Personally I wear regularly my red tartan kilt bought in a thrift shop of Montpelier in 2005. An unknown practice here in the south of France, and it does not please a part of my family — some have the narrow spirit, cloisonné [“divided up”], and can’t break out of the scheme man = pants.
The wearing of the kilt gives me greater confidence than trousers, it is a warrior’s skirt, it is virile just like the sarong of the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.
Moreover, in summer I wear sarongs, nice when it’s hot, and more elegant than shorts, I’m lucky to live 20 km from the Mediterranean Sea. When I go to the beach to bathe, I’m in sarong and polo short sleeve.
In winter I wear my kilt with high leather boots, which I buy in rider stores. I will soon buy a leather kilt, it’s really beautiful. Thank you for your article, it is brilliant. Here in the West male clothing is governed by old codes which it is time to get rid of, we changed the century and millennium in 2000, [we should] change the male clothing, give it more diversity, more originality.
David’s comment reminds me of great discussions I read on several Indian sites, which took up the theme (for example, this one). The commenters fell into two opposing camps on this issue, perhaps reflecting the division between Indian nationalists and westernizers.
For reasons I explain in my original post, sarong is a much healthier type of clothing for men living in hot and humid climates.
A 60 year old Kitavan Chief. I use this photo in my class on Cultural Evolution to illustrate the health benefits of traditional Polynesian diet, but this guy looks really cool (in both senses of the word) in a sarong.
But as the author of the Indian post pointed out, there is one problem: what if you need to ride on a motorbike? “It’s not easy, or especially attractive, unless you loop the back-bottom of the sarong up, making something akin to pants. Or diapers.”
The strongest position on the pants versus sarong issue was taken by one of the readers:
Pants are much better looking on males than the stupid sarong. I hate sarongs. I never wear them. They are a very primitive and gode form of dress. Maybe they are ok to wear @ home but NEVER outside. Also when men wear sarong and women wear the redde/hatte, there is no difference between the men and women. they look the same from waist down, which is pretty bad in my book.
So David could take some comfort that even in India, the birth place of sarong, it is now controversial. So what should we expect of Europe? Even David Beckham couldn’t pull off wearing a sarong. It was voted fourth worst of his 10 top fashion fails. (And he cheated, by wearing a sarong on top of his pants).
Here are the rest of my posts on how horses changed what we wear:
Follow Peter Turchin on an epic journey through time. From stone-age assassins to the orbiting cathedrals of the space age, from bloodthirsty god-kings to India’s first vegetarian emperor, discover the secret history of our species—and the evolutionary logic that governed it all.
200 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the exceptional ability of Americans to cooperate in solving problems that required concerted collective action. This capacity for cooperation apparently lasted into the post-World War II era, but numerous indicators suggest that during the last 3-4 decades it has been unraveling.
Pants are the standard item of clothing for people, especially men belonging to the Western civilization. Why not a kilt, a robe, a tunic, a sarong, or a toga?