History is a Roller Coaster

infographGeneral well-being tends to move in the opposite direction from inequality: when inequality grows, well-being declines, and vice versa. In this interesting infographic, Peter Turchin sketches the inverse relationship between well-being and inequality along 200 years of American history.

The red curve shows the peaks and valleys of economic inequality, while the blue curve depicts the ups and downs of popular well-being. The peaks and valleys of inequality represent the ratio of the largest fortunes to the median wealth of households. The blue-shaded curve combines four measures of well-being:

  • The fraction of economic growth that is paid to workers as wages
  • Life expectancy
  • Average height of native-born population
  • Social optimism measured as the average age of first marriage, with early marriages indicating social optimism and delayed marriages indicating social pessimism.

From 1800 to the 1920s, inequality increased more than a hundredfold. Then came the reversal: from the 1920s to 1980, it shrank back to levels not seen since the mid-19th century. Over that time, the top fortunes hardly grew (from one to two billion dollars; a decline in real terms), while the wealth of a typical family increased by a multiple of 40. From 1980 to the present, the wealth gap has been on another steep, if erratic, rise. Commentators have called the period from 1920s to 1970s the ‘great compression’, and the past 30 years are known as the ‘great divergence’. Bring the 19th century into the picture, however, and one sees not isolated movements so much as a rhythm. In other words, when looked at over a long period, the development of wealth inequality in the US appears to be cyclical(1).

Peter thinks that our society, like all previous complex societies, is on a rollercoaster. Impersonal social forces bring us to the top and then comes an… inevitable? plunge. Well, he thinks that if history repeats itself, we can predict what will happen next. The study of cycles in social dynamics and economics is not new. What is new is Turchin’s approach.

Peter Turchin is a Russian-American scientist who made contributions to population ecology and historical dynamics. He is one of the founders of cliodynamics —named after Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history—, an attempt to show that history is not ‘just one damned thing after another’. Cliodynamics is viewed with deep scepticism by most academic historians, but Turchin and his colleagues are systematically collecting historical data that span centuries or even millennia, in an effort to apply scientific methods to history by identifying and modelling the broad social forces that shape all human societies.

Turchin insists that violence is no more inevitable than an outbreak of measles. Just as an epidemic can be averted by an effective vaccine, violence can be prevented if society is prepared to learn from history —if the US government creates more jobs for graduates, say, or acts decisively to reduce inequality. As usually happens, he is not particularly optimistic, but he is convinced that the effort is worth it.

Understanding what causes outbreaks of political violence is a necessary basis for learning how to eventually eliminate them. Throughout this article I have deliberately strived to maintain an objective, dispassionate tone. Yet the events recorded in the database represent an enormous amount of concentrated human misery. Some of the violent incidents in the database were so horrific that it took an effort of will to finish reading their descriptions. We spend an enormous amount of resources, intellectual and material, on learning how to preserve the physical health of individuals. Shouldn’t we invest a similar amount into understanding how to maintain and restore the health of whole societies? (Peter Turchin, “Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010”)

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(1) You can read a thorough discussion of these curves and implications in Peter Turchin’s blog and in his article in Aeon.

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