Do you feel like we’re living in the end times?
We do, sometimes. With each hit of unprecedented bad news, the country feels more and more as if it’s careening toward apocalypse. Over the last few years our society witnessed race riots, lockdowns, reckless fiscal and monetary policies, citizens expressing skepticism on election integrity and, to top it off, a return of bloody war in Europe. Underlying all of this is a growing awareness of a dangerous rift opening up between the elites and their non-elite counterparts.
Thus, we were attracted to Peter Turchin’s new book, End Times. Turchin is a scholar whose aspiration is to build a new scientific approach (what he calls “cliodynamics”) to understand the forces that cause the rise and fall of societies. The book is a compelling read, and we like Turchin’s modeling, but we think some of his theories fall short.
The novelty of Turchin’s approach is his application of biological ecology models to help understand history’s cycles of flourishing and disintegration. Ecology uses many such models, such as the predator-prey model (you can try an online simulation here). Imagine an ecosystem consisting of two species, rabbits and wolves. Initially, the rabbits, being rabbits, multiply substantially. As they do, they provide an increasing food source for the wolves, resulting in a parallel increase in the wolf population. As as the increasing wolf community depopulates the rabbit community, however, their food source diminishes, resulting in wolf starvation. As the wolf population decreases, the rabbits are once again able to repopulate, which leads to the cycle’s starting all over again.
In addition to his formal modeling activities, Turchin has spent nearly a decade building the Seshat Global History Databank in an effort to “systematically collect what is currently known about the social and political organization of human societies.” Working with researchers across disciplinary boundaries,Turchin’s team put together data on historical prices, health outcomes, demographics, legal institutions, social structures, and other factors relevant to measuring social dynamics. This is a major achievement in data collection, and provides a great complement (and legitimacy check) to researchers doing mathematical theory-building.
Turchin’s theory identifies four main drivers of social instability: popular immiseration, elite overproduction, bad fiscal policy, and geopolitical pressure. The cycle begins with a well-integrated, materially productive society composed of non-elites and elites. The elites manage the system and, eventually, begin to prey on the non-elites by creating a “money pump” that transfers wealth from non-elites to elites. Like the predator-prey model, this has two effects. The first is that the non-elites become increasingly immiserated. The second is that the population of elites increases. Vanishing resources and a growing elite population leaves an increasing share of the elites with nothing to do. Facing “starvation,” the disenfranchised elites find work by becoming counter-elites; i.e., they opportunistically lead the immiserated non-elites to revolt against the status quo elites.
Turchin uses the antebellum and Civil War periods as a historical example of elite overproduction. As the US industrialized during the early 1800s, the new millionaires started vying for more political power. “Sons of merchant families chose to go into the law profession.” The growing number of lawyers included Abraham Lincoln and his peers, who ran for political office. Unfortunately, there are only so many offices to go around. As aspirants fought harder for positions of power, the country’s divisions became more obvious, and we progressed from compromises over slavery to caning on the Senate floor. The established political parties turned in on themselves, leading to a political collapse that had four major candidates running in the 1860 presidential election. Violence escalated to the bloodiest war in American history.
As much as we like Turchin’s biological ecosystem metaphor and his focus on the grabby elite as the source of the dis-integration of society, his analysis strikes us as incomplete. Although Turchin does not appear to be a fan of Marx, his approach shares the Marxian problem of envisioning the sweep of history in a very mechanistic way. His human agents are materialistic and, like the rabbits and wolves, act in (obviously shortsighted) ways to maximize their take in the great tug-of-war for social resources between the classes. Human agency has little place in his theory. As he says, “The great-man theory is the most ‘anti-cliodynamic’ theory of history I can think of,” (where “the great-man theory” is one that makes the agency of individuals pivotal to the flow of history). As with Marx, Turchin’s “scientific” theory posits mechanistic individual behavior and focuses on groups as the essential unit of analysis.
This approach raises some questions. What exactly do elites do, for example? Are they simply leeches on society, or do they serve some productive function? Presumably, during the integrative phase of society, elites are leaders tasked with organizing its resources toward greater productivity. As the economy expands, what exactly causes the “elite overproduction?” Aren’t more productive resources good? Aren’t entrepreneurs a subset of the elite class? Using Turchin’s musical chairs metaphor, don’t entrepreneurs add more chairs? And isn’t the non-elite class expanding as well, thereby providing more productive resources for the expanding elite to manage toward good ends?
As economists, we think Turchin fails to account for the moderating role of prices. In a market society, a surplus of elites should change the relative wages of elite versus non-elite jobs. Indeed, the federal government’s persistent subsidization of college education has created a surplus of low-skill college graduates and a shortage of technical workers. The typical salary for a grievance studies graduate is a pittance of what an arc welder makes. Not surprisingly, many people are rationally forgoing college and opting, instead, for trade careers.
Finally, as people who have lived through recent history, it strikes us that at some point a pivot occurred at which the elite became contemptuous of their non-elite fellow countrymen. As anyone who has spent time in the modern university will tell you, this contempt was accompanied with a healthy dose of self-entitlement. Thus, today’s elites do indeed appear to be behaving like the predatory wolves in the ecology models upon which Turchin draws. But, what caused the pivot in elite attitudes in the first place?
End Times is a great read, especially for those of us who are interested in the apparent unraveling of society happening right under our noses. Turchin’s model does appear to shed some light on the “elite-vs-deplorable” dynamic playing out in our national drama. We applaud Turchin’s aspiration to bring formal modeling into historical analysis in a serious way coupled with his willingness to confront those models with empirical evidence. Ultimately, the theory strikes us as being too mechanistic, which tends to raise more questions than it answers.