“The Mad Prophet of Connecticut”

Peter Turchin

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Graeme Wood penned a “long read” about cliodynamics, me, and the Age of Discord in which we are currently find ourselves. Graeme is a very intelligent journalist and his explanations of cliodynamics and structural-demographic mechanisms that bring about state breakdown are quite good. The Atlantic went through a thorough fact-checking process (unusual in these times of online media with limited resources to check facts) and I have no argument with the factual foundations of the Graeme’s article.

But Graeme is a journalist and it’s his job to present facts in ways that sell journal copy (or subscription). I am a scientist, and I can’t help but disagree with several angles through which Graeme views what I do; with the “spin” that he gave to the story. Certainly I don’t agree with his portrayal of me as a “prophet” (worse “the mad prophet”). He used this characterization not in the article (thank goodness), but in his Tweet about it.

https://twitter.com/gcaw/status/1326887549730758656

But I am not a prophet, never claimed to be one, and in fact I had specifically written about why I eschew prophecy in this blog post. And I am on record criticizing other “prophets”. As I am a scientist, I use scientific prediction as a tool to test theories, in other words to discover which theories are true and which are not (for an example see here).

Neither am I a writer of “megahistory”. I enjoy books by Jared Diamond and Yuval Harari, because they generate interesting generalizations that can serve as testable hypotheses. But these authors stop at that. Where I take over is translating their verbal ideas into dynamical models, extracting quantitative predictions from them, and then testing them with historical data. Although I have proposed my own “grand theories,” my main job is slaying theories, not multiplying them.

The other big problem with how Graeme portrays me is that I come through as an arrogant jerk. I cringed in a number of places as I read his article. Yes, I propose a fairly ambitious program of testing theories about historical processes by translating them into explicit models and then testing model predictions with large datasets. But no, I don’t think of myself as a Hari Seldon. In fact, the fictional Hari Seldon had no appreciation of nonlinear dynamics and mathematical chaos (because Asimov wrote the stories before the discovery of chaos). And cliodynamics is not psychohistory.

But the worst misconception that readers will get from reading Graeme’s article is about my views of History. “Terms of surrender,” really! This is entirely on Graeme’s conscience. My view of History and historians (and archaeologists, religion scholars) is appreciative and respectful. I have written on many occasions that cliodynamics needs history. Ten years ago, a group of us launched the Seshat project, whose success critically depends on collaboration with expert historians and archaeologists. Read this introduction to Seshat to see what I and my colleagues really think about history.

Historians who read this Atlantic article will be — rightfully — incensed (thanks, Graeme). But I urge them to read more about the Seshat project to find out about our goals and approaches. Far from abolishing History (or forcing it to “surrender”) we want History to flourish. We need academic historians to use their expertise to continue amassing the knowledge about different aspects of past societies. We rely on historians and archaeologists to interpret complex and nuanced historical evidence, before it can be translated into data for analysis. Our knowledge about past societies also has many gaps and a lot of uncertainty — this uncertainty needs to be reflected in data so our analytical results represent not only what we think we know, but also the limits of our knowledge.

History can exist (and has existed) without Cliodynamics, but Cliodynamics cannot exist without History. And my hope is that Cliodynamics will eventually pay its debt to History by showing that studying past societies is not just an academic endeavor — it can help us understand, among other things, our current Age of Discord, how we got into it, and what we can do to navigate the turbulent waters ahead.

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Jacob

I understood the “mad prophet”thing more as not really mad mad but “mad” in a visionary sense . “mad” now visionary later when his methods are accepted by the scientific consensus. I think that was what the author was going for .

Daniel Hodder

It’s really interesting that your ideas are making their way into mainstream media even if it made you cringe a little. What you are proposing almost make sense of this period of social turmoil in which we are slowly sinking. It’s difficult to understand why this is happening. It is a riddle that I have been struggling with for a while and is certainly never discussed by the political commentators locked in the clan war. Your perspective is both refreshing and quite depressing.

Jakob

I don’t think it’s depressing more like when you understand the mechanism you can potentially finally make something different.

History is full of failed states, civil wars , revolutions , decline and fall and often people in those societies talked about their problems like we do now and knew of the major issues but no one was able to fix it because none were able to see all the moving parts moving in different directions at the same time and influencing each other in non obvious ways.

So they went down similar predictable paths over and over again ,but this could change now in our time because of people like Peter Turchin who started to figure out the general principles of societies .

It’s a monumental change

Daniel Hodder

What I find most distressing is not the gathering of clouds announcing a period of unrest but the fact that democracy has a system of governance may be failing and that a system of governance like that of China appears to be thriving.

I am by no means a specialist, but it seems to me that China is perhaps the oldest civilization that is still growing today. It has gone trough many cycles during its long history. The colonial period has certainty left some scars and bitterness but by in large its trajectory was not changed by western influences. It has instead absorbed western innovations remarkably, and this has vastly improved living conditions, its place on world markets and ultimately its place as the upcoming superpower.

As was the case for western civilization, the key to its success appears to be its capacity to foster collaboration. That has again been very well demonstrated by the way it has tackled the pandemic.

My very superficial understanding of China leads me to believe that the overarching value that is promoted in China is harmony and it’s by-product, collaboration. Not equality, not liberty, harmony. Perhaps you are right and it is the fierce competition among the overpopulation of elites in the US that is eroding the democratic institutions at the core. The intense competition leaves no place for collaboration which could very well push us off the cliff and rob us eventually of our civic liberties.

It becomes easier to understand why the Taiwan and Hongkong experiments are viewed with such skepticism and disapproval by the Chinese leadership. China has good reasons to never become a democracy as we have exemplified them.

The challenge to maintaining our civic liberties, is to appease the competition and reintroduce collaboration as a core value in the way that it existed some seventy or eighty years ago. Does anyone know how to do that?

Attacking climate change in a way that promotes new opportunities for the elites while minimizing the number of losers could be your recommendation to Biden, if and when he makes to the Whitehouse. In that sense, I don’t feel you should shy away from the discussion on climate change. Attacking the problem of climate change could become a new “walk on the moon project” that fosters collaboration on a grand scale. Then again, perhaps a lucid understanding of where we stand, is your most important contribution.

Richard

The Communist leadership have an intense self-interest in viewing democracy in HK and Taiwan (which, BTW, has dealt with COVID-19 as or even more effectively than Communist China, so the poor response to COVID isn’t an indictment of “democracy”, though perhaps is an indictment of the West) with “skepticism and disapproval”. China has as many “good reasons” to never become a democracy as the US does to forsake it. It’s not as if inter-elite competition has never surfaced and tore apart authoritarian China (it has) and it seems likely that it will again in the (long) future.

“The challenge to maintaining our civic liberties, is to appease the competition and reintroduce collaboration as a core value in the way that it existed some seventy or eighty years ago. Does anyone know how to do that?”

Sadly, with many/most people being short-sighted, driven by emotions, and lacking in imagination, it seems that a life/society-threatening cataclysmic war does the trick (slow climate change likely would not, though green technologies, fostered by welfare state capitalism, may well slow/defeat it).

FL

China has already experience at least 1 cycle at its current incarnation. You can argue that the Cultural Revolution is an extension and finale of the decade-long struggle between the communists and nationalists. The build-up of Chinese PSI happened long before the 1960s, but because WWII broke out and China was invaded by Imperial Japan, it kind of amplified and prolonged China’s own bust and domestic revolution phase, which happened shortly before it. China was at an informal state of war (i.e. persistently sky-high level of PSI that just won’t go away) despite official establishment of a new country after 1949 until Deng’s opening up at 1976, which brought China’s current Era of Good Feelings and brought us up to the current moment.

Richard

China experienced over a century of super-high PSI (from the Taiping rebellion to the Cultural Revolution).

Rachel

It’s spot on in my book. Glad to see it. I don’t think it’s depressing, though. The state of the world, yes, but not the breakthrough that is understanding the root cause. That’s exciting. It should spark a glimmer of hope. That’s the first step. The second step is harder: collectively acting to diverge from the trend.

A C Harper

It seems to me that almost everybody believes that they live in a period of social turmoil. And sometimes they are right. And sometimes we need a Cliometric Dundee to say “You call that social turmoil… *this* is Social Turmoil.”

My casual rule of thumb is that it takes about three media generations to achieve a balanced view of what happened. The first is ‘reporting’ the news, the second (somewhat later) is a more reasoned assessment of a little known aspect of the news, and the third (later again) is a dispassionate paper putting everything into perspective.

Still if you have lost your job or seen loved ones suffer a long term perspective view is difficult to achieve.

Stephen Greenleaf

Peter,
I’m pleased that your work will receive this well-deserved (even though imperfect) recognition. Of course, I, too, called you a “prophet” in reviewing one of your books and you took the time to disclaim it. So I understand Wood’s impetus and I appreciate your continued disclaimer. I haven’t read the article yet, but when I spoke of you as a prophet I meant not as a religious matter or because of any fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, but as the carrier of an implicit warning, based not on revelation but on scientific research and theory. Your argument is an if-then argument that you back up with data (facts) and analysis. At any rate, that’s how I see your project.

Also, I’ve become a student of the work of philosopher R.G. Collingwood, who’s famous for his conclusion that “all history is the history of thought.” Without going into the details about what is thought and therefore what is or is not history, I don’t think that your project is at all a problem when viewed through the lens of Collingwood. Collingwood was an archeologist and student of Roman history and (as I recall) praised the use of statistical analysis. Collingwood wouldn’t call what you’re doing history (nor would you, I gather) but it’s an excellent adjunct.

I’ll certainly read the article and perhaps comment more. But in the meantime, keep up the good work!

It’s a pity that Wood chose to draw a misleading portrait of your work, but I’m glad you realize that opinionated copy sells, and I hope you realize that exposing it to a wide audience is needed for its warnings to be heeded. And in my exposure to history so far, I believe that many thinkers with important messages are misrepresented in their own ages, and many times thereafter. The opening in your “Ages of Discord” about the actions that led to the US Civil War are a warning for our time.

For my part, I have read much of your work. and attempt to write about its importance to LinkedIn members in response to posts that need commentary. But it’s really hard to get through to members, especially in the area of finance … their outlooks are not scientific, they lack knowledge of history, and they are terribly parochial. So I usually say a few words about cliodynamics (with apologies for references to you as an “analytical historian”) and post an article or two, such as your 2010 prediction in Nature, your retrospective of that article written with Korotayev, or “Return of the Oppressed” in Aeon magazine.

There is one thing I discuss that does not play a prominent part in your work – climate change. I understand why – the historical evidence on its effect is anecdotal (e.g. Ian Morris, Jared Diamond, the collapse of Mayan civilization, Easter Island, and Mesopotamia circa 2100 BCE). But I believe climate change will play a big part in the future, and may even affect cliodynamic patterns by making a recovery from the current crisis that much more difficult.

Anyway, take heart and know that at least one non-historian understands the importance of your work, and tries to inform others thereof.

Best,
Steve Moffitt, Ph.D.

Zvi Leve

Glad that I ‘discovered’ your work via this Atlantic article. Being satisfied with 95% of a journalists interpretation is actually quite impressive. Efforts to apply ‘scientific’ techniques to historical analysis are essentially as old as the techniques themselves, but I am hopeful that ‘systems thinking’ approaches may be able to guide us somewhat as we try to stay afloat in these turbulent times. Looking forward to exploring your work more….

Doug1943

I only recently learned about Peter Turchin’s work, and was amazed that it is not more widely known, especially now, when more and more people are becoming seriously worried about the future prospects of civilization — or at least of that part of civilization which has embraced liberal democracy.

Perhaps part of the problem is this: Professor Turchin’s analysis is exactly the opposite of the sort of thing we hear from “mad prophets”, most of whom don’t know the difference between a mean and a median. Here is a very serious, sober, well-educated man, without any evident prior political bias for which to find confirming evidence … and, he alerts us to the very real possibility of a very turbulent period approaching — something with which Europeans, not to mention the inhabitants of the Third World, are more familiar, but which we have not experienced since 1860.

And for those who follow foreign affairs, there is the ominous turn of parallel developments in the rest of the world, which bear an eery resemblance to the the pre-1914 period in Europe: wonderful breakthroughs in science and technology, broad social and economic progress, accompanied by some irritable jostling among the great powers, and the rise of a new great power which looked like displacing the previously-dominant one …

We have come very far from the optimism of 1989, when it looked like the whole world was on the road to the end of history and we could settle down to building liberal democracy everywhere while the geneticists made progress towards our species achieving individual immortality.

What to do? Besides buying an AR15 and a good ammunition supply? That’s what we need to be talking about.

Rich

Timothy Snyder has very good insight and advice on what to do.

Ultimately I think society has to accept the gravity of the situation before we can put away our biases and tribal fears. We are not there. Over the past 4 years we woke up, but the election shows a large segment have publicly committed to being “counter elites”. As Snyder will say, its the public statement that is usually never retreated from. That 70 million voted, a public statement, for disintegration really drives home the “it’s too late” claim.

The article implies Peter sees common stages during the end period of a collapse. Maybe: capture, political violence then finally a state financial insolvency after which the state has no more resources to care for it’s people and collapse occurs. Although I bet not validated in models, do you have more insight on the “later stages” we could be looking for.

Randi Aamodt

Quote from the interview: ” The notion that democracy finds its strength in its essential goodness and moral improvement over its rival systems is likewise fanciful. Instead, democratic societies flourish because they have a memory of being nearly obliterated by an external enemy. They avoided extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present, Turchin said. “There is a very close correlation between adopting democratic institutions and having to fight a war for survival.”
As a Norwegian, it is fascinating to observe the difference between Norway and Sweden. Sweden has opened its borders to immigrants and have much more serious criminality linked to gangs and clans of immigrant origin than Norway. I have wondered why som many of the elites advocates furter large immigration despite this and despite there is no need for the labour, and despite the huge economic cost. One difference is that Sweden has had peace for 200 years. Sweden is also the remains of a greater empire and not a “pure” national state like Norway. Quote: “Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners.” Maybe the motive behind this support of continued immigration, despite the cost for the native commoners, is to get many new commoners who will be allies, who will be grateful for those of the elites that have let them into the country and in many cases saved their quality of life, if not their life? Native commoners, especially on the countryside, tend to be politically conservative. They may not win the entire country in this way, but they will win the big citites. Cities which will become poorer if they don’t succeed in putting immigrants into productive work. Citites which will, on basis of their political majority in the entire country, demand resurces from the countryside: food, materials, energy. The ditribution of votes in the US election was thought-provocing in this respect. I wonder if a very potent conflict may arise here?

Pieter van Pelt

I think cliodynamics can be compared to meteorology in the sense that it tries to explain historical events in the context of human development as a whole. The weather predictions on a daily basis are short term events while the climate is determined by the long term fluctuations in the weather pattern. However, cliodynamics is a very young science compared to meteorology. Humans have through the ages tried to understand the weather patterns since much of our life depended on it; crops had to be sowed and harvested and some human activities were strongly determined by the current weather. So I think cliodynamics is still in its infancy but I hope it will eventually develop as meteorology developed from casting an experienced eye to the sky and saying “hmm, there are some clouds developing, it may start to rain later on the day” to the present weatherman who can say where, ow much and at what time I can expect a rain shower tomorrow or even a few days from now.

Matthew

The article is pretty well written. That tweet is more so marketing spin.

I think you’re also dealing with the issue that it is hard to explain certain concepts tersely without a lot of prerequisite explanations or knowledge.

The ideas presented in your work involves statistics (weighted probability outcomes and uncertainty), cybernetics, complexity, chaos (in the mathematical sense), and perhaps most importantly, multilevel selection theory and how it relates to cooperation.

I think the general public would benefit the most from the latter, and I think the article could have focused on it more. The non zero sum reality of cooperation is lost on some people.

FL

No Peter, your work is clearly more important than the garden-variety historians’, at least for statesmanship. Nobody lives in the past literally, and we study the past always with an eye for the present and the future. If cliodynamics can show its efficacy at predicting one type of event – namely that of catastrophic failures of societies – to 80% percent accuracy, then it is worth more than all the history told as humanist stories combined.

The real question to be answered is this: will cliodynamics suffer the fate of most stock trading strategies devised by mathematicians moonlighting on Wall Street – fitting the past and near future perfectly, then suddenly stops working one day?

FL

The US has painted itself to a corner. We have popular mobilizations on the far left AND far right, with one of the weakest incoming president of living memory. We are out of time w.r.t. China. We are out of political capital to form even a bare minimum working government. We have a deep economical downturn.

I just don’t see how this all will get resolved without WWIII. Perhaps WWIII is the more preferred outcome.

David Andrews

This may be naive, but how is Cliodynamics related to Generational Dynamics, or are they separate approaches to prediction. GD developed prior to any mathematical innovations in chaos theory, but do they “converge”?

J. Daniel

Perhaps The Atlantic would like to print a response to the article if Peter offered one.
Would the next major step in the development of this field be to start making concrete policy recommendations? Yeah, that would go over real well with the elites…

Richard

“The notion that democracy finds its strength in its essential goodness and moral improvement over its rival systems is likewise fanciful. Instead, democratic societies flourish because they have a memory of being nearly obliterated by an external enemy. They avoided extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present, Turchin said. “There is a very close correlation between adopting democratic institutions and having to fight a war for survival.”

“Perhaps WWIII is the more preferred outcome.”

Well, that’s great.

It seems that after the generations that remember the devastation of a society/world-wrenching war completely die off, people forget the horrors of such a war.

1775-1782
1860-1865
1937/1939/1942-1945

Sadly, it seems that we’re right on track.

Despite how crazy it will get in the US, I don’t think any “revolutionary” or civil violence will get terribly violent because the US is an old country now. Older by far than it was during the periods of intense violence in the past.

Though a total war changes everything.

Still, future world wars will be instigated by the rising great powers of Asia (China, India, and, in a few decades, Indonesia). The US will become like the UK is today.

Ross Hartshorn

So, I was surprised recently when a not-particularly-political friend of mine asked me if she could borrow a book by this Peter Turchin fellow who I kept mentioning. I believe that the current climate has caused many people to notice (finally) that what is going on is not reasonably caused by any single person, or any single party, and therefore they want to know what’s going on. It’s rather like a person who’s just been diagnosed with cancer, suddenly getting an interest in carcinogens.

By the way, you should totally get a brass nameplate that says “Mad Prophet of Connecticut” and put it on the door to your office, wherever that is.

True Wolff

Please, Peter Turchin, contact the incoming Biden administration and offer your services to them.
Please do this for the sake of all of us fellow citizens.
Thank you for your invaluable work.

Jakob

Too late he already works for us 😉

https://www.csh.ac.at/researcher/peter-turchin/

Richard

The Biden administration isn’t omnipotent anyway.

It’s not as if they can keep counterelites from arising.

Nichol Dance

Given that the Biden administration is merely a recapture of a seat of power by the dominant forces in the US, and he’s simply a figurehead, I’d say that this time it might actually be different.

For the first time in a history a low cost universal surveillance state is being put into place. It wasn’t so much the ability to monitor the population, but the ability to parse the data.

After all, we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

Rich

This whole history as interpretation versus mathematical model is such self serving nonsense. Making a mathematical model does not create some kind of new force on history. Whatever it is that propels our lives forward changes not, simply because math predicts it.

I think SDT predicts at a more aggregated level than historians are used to. Decadal scale social and time variations are intentionally averaged in Peter’s model so that larger scale dynamics can be reliably seen. Less variation also means confidence intervals can be made. Great. But right now, we in the US are maybe 2 to 10 years away from “disintegration”. We naturally want insight, and fast.

My guess is that… if the indicators (don’t say “drivers”) in Peter’s model exist then this will not end until those indicators subside. We should not directly force those indicators lower, I’m looking at you “elite overproduction”, but a return to safety and kindness will not happen until they do. The ideal is that we all learn this insight, cool our tempers, institute societal changes and wait. Those of us who have not committed to counter elitism are doing just that.

johne

I didn’t get the “arrogant jerk” vibe. But I can see how a career in academe might hyper-sensitize an arrogant jerk detector.

Nichol Dance

The value of ‘cliodynamics’ is in it’s predictive ability, otherwise it’s just another in a list of fictions that describe ‘history’.

To the extent that this whole topic veers from testable models it becomes uninteresting I think.

Generally, I’d say that it’s best to stick to original sources and the occasional well-done overview but the handwaving built into something like Jared Diamond strikes me as having negative value aside from being interesting in a barroom argument.

Roger Hahn

Maybe a society’s ability to sustain elites is elastic and depends on technology advancements, increased information velocity, and other progress. Therefore, a monotonic upward trend can be overlaid on top of local oscillations in societal stability. For example, A.I., blockchain, and cloud computing have the potential to vastly improve production and thereby support increased consumption, similar to the Internet, steam engine, and printing press. This could support a larger proportion of societal elite and head off disintegration. Is technology is baked into your theory?

Rich

“Sustain” does that mean pacify or distract or something like that? Technology strikes me as a consolidation force for elite positions. Maybe we should look at if the amount of distraction options has increase with technology so the consolidation can be sustained. Until it can’t.

Roger Hahn

I hardly think exponential increases in crop production, life-saving medicines, quantum computing, and wireless communications are mere distractions or attempts to pacify. Technology has a profound ability to sustain and propel society. If a time traveler from the 1700’s were to visit 2020, we must appear as magicians – transporting ourselves across seas and continents in hours, speaking, seeing and hearing others thousands of miles away, heating food in a box using energetic rays, seeing through skin and viscera, defying smallpox and other once incurable diseases. In turn, if one of us were to jump ahead to 2100, that society would appear to us, as gods – near-immortality conferred by nanobots refreshing cellular mechanisms, A.I. factories manufacturing and catering to every whim and physical need, omnipotent awareness and control enabled by superintelligence augmented by sensors and machines. As a technologist, I think the goal is to provide the foundations to enable everyone to become a so-called “elite.”

Richard

Another reason to expand the House (of Representatives).

Districts limited to 50K people, as Madison intended, I say.

DWT

Professor Turchin,
(Highly educated Red-Land Commoner here. Mathematician in prior life)
You may be a great scientist but the questions you/we are tackling are philosophical at their core, not scientific. We are can use statistics to argue for or against a given position, but one can lead himself down a path believing that his philosophical views are “Science” and therefore “Truth”. It has been suggested (Atlantic article) that you are not posing solutions per se but a diagnosis in need of treatment. However, in the article “Turbulent Twenties” you co-authored with Goldstone in NOEMA, it is clear that you have strong opinions about how we go about fixing this mess, and it seems that you feel a very, very large dose of (pure) leftist politics is in order–as opposed to Neo-Liberal or Conservative. One can hardly argue that we have a problem with “elites”—you are not so much opposed to them in general; rather— you want “your” elites to “win”, and the “other” ones to “lose”–my quotations, not yours of course. Lost on me is what you guys really think of Plebeians like me (I can surmise)–our roles seem simply to be manipulated by the Elites. Isn’t that, in and of itself, elitist thinking?. As for more “urbanization and education” being needed (shaking my head), that is one of the problems—too much urbanization leads to more elites who are out of touch with the common man—there’s your death-spiral feedback loop! It is hard to see how people can achieve any sort of happiness when they are jammed up on each other like pancakes. As Thomas Jefferson said, “I view the great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of man; True, they nourish some of the elegant arts; but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere; and less perfection in others, with more health, virtue, and freedom, would be my choice”.
Key to that sentence is “less perfection”, “more freedom”. God bless TJ, and may
God help any poor soul that stands in the way of a Progressive’s quest for Utopia.
That issue, good Professor, is why we are headed for such conflict—as much as anything else you suggest. If it leads to conflict, so be it, won’t be the first time…or last. DT

Richard

And yet, conservative/neo-liberal politics/economics leads to more urbanization, more inequality, and more intra-elite infighting.

So how do you square that circle?

That is, if you hate urbanization, then how can you support conservative/neo-liberal politics?

Barkeep

DWT, Dont apologize for anything. You are correct. Peter’s models predict agrregate behavior exactly because our individual lives are philosophical. It models societal level behavior, not individual level behavior.
Second, the conservative response to all this societal level stress that Peter’s model models is eerily focused on the very drivers of stress that Peter says are most important.
Elite infighting? Elect an outsider to break up the system!
Working class impotance? Shut down immigration!
You are applying the best ideas you can find as are liberals, to fight the same exact enemy. No appoligies man. I aint gonna.
-Barkeep

Richard

That “outsider” is a Wharton grad who got started with his rich daddy’s money. Then bankrupted his companies.

And you speak of “breaking up the system”, but do you have an idea how bad it can get once the system is broken up?

Raymond Reichelt

Professor Turchin
I thoroughly enjoy your insights into human history. Using the mathematical tools of ecological science to the human race makes perfect sense to me (I worked most of my career as an environmental geologist).

Two thoughts/questions:

1. I see human societies as complex, dynamic non-equilibrium systems, have you been able to apply the mathematical insights of Ilya R Prigogine to cliodynamics?

2. Also on the theme of dynamic non-equilibrium systems, in a previous post (Sept. 27) you examined the energy use of civilizations, have you looked into the issue of Surplus Energy Economics, https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/ ?

Ana

Maybe in this dystopian future you predict we should go the way of the Bolsheviks and Maoist and start targeting the elites. After all, it is they who are solely responsible for the decline of the middle class and why we are in the situation we are today.

Richard

“Maybe in this dystopian future you predict we should go the way of the Bolsheviks and Maoist and start targeting the elites.”

Who’s “we”, comrade? Remember that in the Russian as well as French as well as Cultural Revolutions, the denouncers were in turn denounced (who were in turn denounced, etc.) and much blood flowed until the beast was exhausted eating its children.

AJ

If you had an American son who wished to wait out the coming unrest, what county/ries would you recommend him?

Which offer the highest standard of living, have prosperous near-term futures, and will be relatively robust to the internecine dynamics ailing The States?

AJ

Dr. Turchin,

Sorrry. I should say this question is chiefly directed at you.
Thank you.

Richard

Ah, the eternal search for reward without risk.

IMO, opportunity will be in Asia (and then Africa). Safety will be in (parts of) Europe.

Matt

Hey Peter,

It would be interesting if you could address some speculations around what I am sure is on many people’s minds right now…

How does one hypothetically “fix” the structural issues facing a state like the USA?

H. Peter

You cull the elite segment.

Richard

I can not think of any time in history when elites were culled yet commoners did not suffer too.
Little wonder, as most people, including elites, don’t care to be culled, so culling tends to happen during revolutions or civil wars, which don’t tend to be happy times for most. Not that I expect any of you armchair LARPers who, I am certain, have never lived through revolutions or civil wars in your or your family’s lifetimes to understand that.

Anyway, the US has pulled back from high PSI levels in the past without revolution or civil war or culling or much extreme violence (though there was still some bloodshed). And of course, there was that other time when there was a civil war.

Richard

https://mobile.twitter.com/ModeledBehavior/status/1328362761034883073

Ayup. We’ll probably see a lot of that.
There are no bounds to that process in any direction (besides sheer exhaustion).

Stephanie Pino-Heiss

I didn’t catch the “arrogant jerk” or “mad prophet” vibe from the article. My 25 year old was over the moon to see Isaac Asimov discussed. Keep going, Petro, we are watching and reading from 3000 miles away! Congratulations!

Richard

Roger Hahn:
Materially, even the poor in the US (assuming that they are not homeless on the street) live better than kings did in the 18th century.

But prestige/eliteness is all relative, and it turns out that people get all pissy when there is high inequality (easy to find folks much better off/more elite than you to compare to), not enough elite positions for those who want it, and stagnation at the bottom compared to the previous generation.

Jakob

@Peter Turchin

Comment nesting worked just fine on my phone , this is way worse imho

Roger Hahn

@Richard
My disagreement lies in the assumption that elite sustainability is inelastic, not of relativism. That women now make up 60% of the workforce and earn 50% of the advanced degrees makes it hard to believe that elite percent and composition would have remained static since King Henry VIII in Medieval England. It’s been estimated that gender parity in the workplace would add $28 trillion to global output. The notion that an elite equilibrium point is independent of technology, education, and science beggars belief given the profound impact these have on our acceptance of standards and societal norms, much less consumption and production capacity. A cross section of Mesopotamia’s elite materially differs from the elite makeup of the USA in 2020, probably because we have airplanes and computers, while they had good irrigation and a metal plow. We aren’t even touching on the impact race might have on elite composition and percent, but you begin to see my point.

Put in numbers:
In 500BC Egypt -> 0.1% elite and 99.9% non-elite, where 99% of elite are men of the same race
In 2020 USA -> 1% elite and 99% non-elite where 95% of elite are men and 5% are women, of which 97% are of the same race
In 2100 North America -> 5% elite, 95% non-elite where 60% of elite are men and 40% are women, of which 75% are of the same race

This exposes another criticism. How are “elites” or “elite-aspirants” defined in the first place anyway? Are we just looking at Congress, House of Representatives and Fortune 500? Or are we looking at wealth per capita? My intuition is that elite percent and composition is not static and varies as a function of technology, science, institutional integrity, healthcare, and education, with these curves going up and to the right, exponentially.

J. Daniel

@Roger Hahn. Elites are those with social power. The people with outsized influence. So it always has to be a small fraction of the population, by definition.

Richard

@Roger Hahn: It’s not at all clear to me that less technologically advanced societies must have proportionally fewer elites as a percentage. Through history, there are plenty of far less technologically advanced societies where the percentage of elites in society is much higher than in the current US (they’re more egalitarian). Just look at North America.

Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a changing composition of the elites means a higher share of elites as a percentage of the population. As an example, there are now more women in Congress, but the number of Congress people has hardly changed in a century.

If anything, more opportunities for women mean more intra-elite competition (less competition if big chunks of the populace are effectively barred from top office/power/prestige.)

AJ

@RichardHahn

I concur with Richard. Women are going to exacerbate the problems of intraelite competition. Directly, through vying for limited elite roles, and indirectly in the magnified pressure put on men in the marriage market by hypergamous elite women. Intraelite male competition will be more intense, and surplus young male failures more potentially destructive and violent.

The notional addition of 28 trillion on account of an unattainable and undesirable sex parity is completely beside the point.

To wit, I hear the attainment of child adult parity in the workforce will add 100 trillion to the world economy!

G Belanger

Exposure is great; misrepresentation is really shitty.

Ana

@Richard, I was being sarcastic. Placing blame on one group for the problems in a country usually leads to the same result, especially in polarized societies. And no, I am not an elitist.

Ana

@ Oh, but I do think elites are largely responsible for the declining middle class. In particular, the political elites.

FL

@Peter Turchin
It’s been 14 days since the election. If you are to eyeball the PSI in the near run, which of the 3 scenarios (collapse, instability, recover) do you think is most probable? I would take instability.

Roger Hahn

@Rich
How are the numbers of elites and elite-aspirants calculated? I haven’t seen a clear and convincing explanation anywhere. In Chapter 2 of Ages of Discord, Peter talks about power as being the ability to influence the behavior of other people pooled into reservoirs of military, economic, political, and ideological influence. In the US, corporate power is asserted to be the dominant source that is effectuated by lobbying, campaign finance, and political appointments. Yet in attempting to define corporate power, the paper curiously talks about the dynamics of inequality, the numbers of top wealth holders, and finally, a proxy for intra-elite competition. On this last point, the paper goes off on a tangent about demand/supply curves for lawyers. Basically, each section begins with a disclaimer about how difficult it is to quantify elites, and then introduces a proxy of one type or another in an attempt to quantify, the unquantifiable.

To me, the explanations are intellectually unsatisfying because they don’t tell me what an elite looks like, smells like, and how many of them there are. If the great game of power is a zero-sum game, we need to know the numbers. As presented, none is provided, in the absence of which, we could argue the squishy boundaries until the cows come home. Don’t even get me started on Figure 2.1 talking about the “complex web of interactions postulated by the structural-demographic theory.” It’s hard enough to model inflation and interest rates, given today’s puzzling wage and price growth environment. How then, to equate a vague metric such as “conspicuous consumption” to an even more ambiguous, “intra-elite competition.” As another example, why are the 4 power sources so constrained. Should Twitter and Instagram be grouped with ideological power or represent a new source. Both are recent technology and have tremendous power to influence elections, disconnected from traditional military, economic, or political might. How is membership in this putative source defined? Number of followers? Backing from Russian internet troll farms? What about economic might via campaign finance? Biden raised $200 million, via micro-contributions of $100 or less. With who does that economic power rest? Some amalgam of elites that have internet access and know how to enter a credit card number into a webpage?

Coming from an engineering background, I always thought the hand-waving in economics was curious. As now applied to sociology, the assumptions are controversial, to put it mildly. For example, another proof, which I had a hard time swallowing was the Political Stress Index. Why is PSI multiplicatively represented by Mass Mobilization, Elite Mobilization, and Fiscal Stress? Why just those factors, and why multiplicatively? At least the Black-Scholes Merton (BSM) model, which they received a Nobel prize, used real data to model option pricing. The Seshat databank is a step in the right direction, but if simple pricing data is difficult, I pause at the magnitude of digitizing, much less quantifying an abstract such as “conspicuous consumption.” Although I generally agree about scarce resources, hyper-competition, system instability, etc., the numbers and details are where the arguments fall apart. Perhaps that is the issue with applying math to human nature. As a quant, I see the failure of stock algorithms when pitted against basic human greed and fear. Forgive me, if I suspect the same here.

Loren Petrich

Here is another Isaac Asimov analogy: his famous short story “Nightfall”, later expanded into a novel with the help of Robert Silverberg.

Planet Lagash/Kalgash is illuminated on all sides by its six suns, but every 2000 years, five of them are one side and the sixth one is eclipsed by a moon. The eclipse lasts long enough for the entire planet to be exposed to the darkness as it rotates. Very improbable scenario, but it’s interesting to play along with it.

Some astronomers have worked out the motions of their planets’ suns, and they conclude that this effect accounts for destructions of civilizations every 2000 years from people setting their cities on fire. The darkness makes people seek out light, and they get it from setting their cities on fire. The astronomers discover that their planet is due for another big eclipse very soon, and they send some people with supplies out to a cave to make it through. The story ends with the eclipse happening and the astronomers trying to take pictures of the stars.

So what SDT and cliodynamics may make possible is what the astronomers of this planet wanted to do — find out what was happening and figure out how to survive it without torching one’s cities.

Loren Petrich

@RichardHahn @AJ

I think that female hypergamy is driven by who has status and resources. Present-day elite women don’t have that economic and social incentive for marrying upward, so one should look at what they do.

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/look-whos-on-top-of-the-marriage-market/article20698264/ – claims that many elite women don’t make hypergamy a priority and that they and their husbands often get along very well with each other, at least if length of marriage is any guide. That’s a good measure, since such women likely find it relatively easy to get divorced and otherwise reject an unsuitable partner.

Loren Petrich

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclical_theory_(United_States_history) – collects several cyclicities in US history that have been discussed in the professional literature.

The Schlesingers’ liberal-conservative cycle, an alternation between periods of social reform and social stagnation.

Samuel Huntington’s bursts of creedal passion, efforts to bring government in line with the “American creed”: government must be “egalitarian, participatory, open, noncoercive, and responsive to the demands of individuals and groups.” Even though “no government can be all these things and still remain a government.” All of the creedal-passion periods are Schlesinger liberal periods, but the converse has exceptions, like the New Deal era.

Party systems, periods of the parties having a set of characteristic platforms and constituencies.

Stephen Skowronek’s regimes and presidency types. Each regime has a dominant and an opposition party. Each one starts with a “reconstructive” President, and succeeding Presidents in the dominant party are “articulating” ones. Opposition-party Presidents are “preemptive” ones, and a regime ends with one or two “disjunctive” Presidents in the dominant party.

The Klingberg extrovert-introvert foreign-policy cycle. Unlike the others, is out of sync with the Schlesinger cycle. So it must be driven by a different social dynamic.

Loren Petrich

The Schlesinger cycle with other cycles:

Lib CP SD-rise Revolution and Constitution – Con PS1 SK Hamilton Era – Lib SK Jefferson Era – Con Era of Good Feelings – Lib CP PS2 SK SD-fall Jackson Era – Con Slaveowner Dominance – Lib PS3 SK Abolition and Reconstruction – Con Gilded Age – Lib CP PS4 SD-rise Progressive Era – Con Roaring Twenties – Lib PS5 SK New Deal Era – Con Eisenhower Era – Lib CP PS6 SD-fall Sixties Era – Con SK Gilded Age II (we’re still in it)

CP = creedal-passion period, PS = begins with new party system, SK = begins with Skowronek-regime transition, SD = structural-demographic start of rise or fall

Given how the cycles work, we are due for another Schlesinger liberal period, a creedal-passion period that starts a new party system with a reconstructive President, one like Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, and possibly also Teddy Roosevelt.

Trump fits the profile of a disjunctive President, a regime-ending one, rather well, one like JQ Adams, Pierce, Buchanan, Hoover, and Carter. But Trump is exceptional in inspiring a remarkable degree of cultish devotion, even within his party, though I can’t tell whether that is real devotion or fear of Trump’s supporters.

johne

Roger Hahn (Nov. 17th) seems to refer to a common problem, the lack of precision that is inherent in a verbal description of SDT. When does the wastrel son of a millionaire stop becoming part of the nation’s elite? How does a party now dedicated to tax relief of society’s wealthiest, restricting the vote, and, increasingly, racism, come to be identified as counter-elite? When do individual grains of sand become a heap, with a consistent angle of repose, and the heap become a dune, with predictable response to winds, development and movement? When does the turbulence from a butterfly’s wing affect local weather, that weather become meteorology, and meteorology affect the path of a tornado on another continent? There is no way to explain it verbally in detail, it depends on mathematics, unfortunately at a level that today is beyond most of us in the United States. (And perhaps beyond: a French theoretical mathematician told me that he and his colleagues are forced to start from a laypersons’s level when describing their work to one another).

Someone above refers to “your” (Dr.Turchin’s?) preferred elites; I have no idea what “elites” the Doctor might prefer, if the term is used correctly in such a sense, or if such a prescription or preference is even addressed or relevant to SDT. Personally, I will wait for the outcome of the study that Dr. Turchin refers to above (“A History of Possible Futures: Multipath Forecasting of Social Breakdown, Recovery, and Resilience”), in the hope that it may be a step toward improving forecasts — like meteorology, which is always improving, but whose mathematical basis is also beyond me.

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