Inequality, Historic Cycles, Greed and Human Stupidity

Since at least Aristotle, historians and more recently sociologists have claimed to see cycles in human affairs. The difficulties are that they have never agreed on what those cycles are and where simple collective amnesia crosses the line into a bona fide historical cycle. The human brain evolved to see patterns, and discerns them even when they aren’t there. Is a significant part of the whole wacko conspiracy theory tendency.

One of the more recent claims to proof of historical cycles comes from Peter Turchin, who writes for Bloomberg and blogs at Social Evolution. Turchin  infers peaks of civil violence at 50-60 year intervals:


Of course, there’s no “peak” in 1820 and the “non-peak” in 1890 is as high as the “peak” in 1970, which demonstrates another one of the problems: the cycles are sometimes in the eyes of the beholder, and not in the data. And one person’s terrorist event is another person’s freedom march. Who know what the methodology was in counting “violent events.”

But from this chart, Turchin infers a coming peak of violence in 2020 or so. You say you want a revolution?

From there, he infers a cultural cycle that drives his cycle of political violence. WC doesn’t want to be unfair here, but he seems to blame the cycle on a surplus of lawyers.


You’ll want to read Turchin’s entire article to understand his case, but in his view we are now somewhere along the  unemployed-lawyers-to-elite-fratricide part of the cycle, with political disorder looming ahead. The glut of wealth – although rich and powerful – created a surplus of lawyers. The most successful of those lawyers and other elites will freeze out the rest, leading to civil disorder.

WC isn’t buying it.

Yes, there is a surplus of lawyers. American law schools provide about two lawyers for every law job opening. But Occupy Wall Street had precious few lawyers, employed or otherwise. The Tea Party seems to have only one lawyer, Joe Miller, who is about as genuine a Teabagger as iron pyrite is genuine gold.

No, if there is a spike in violence in the next decade it will result from economic disparity, not from “elite fratricide.” It will result from the unrelenting greed of the top fraction of a percent, who despite having billions can’t stand the thought of not packing in still more. Greed and stupidity, arrogance and ignorance. It’s always been tough for anyone in the bottom third of this country’s economy to make it into the top third, but the promise was there. The belief in the possibility made it work. When that belief fails, when the American Dream is lost (or exposed as a fairy tale), then there may be violence.

But greed in the richest half a percent, stupidity at all levels and and income inequality don’t make history any more cyclical than random. No matter how many unemployed lawyers there are.