High levels of political violence and low levels of institutional support suggest we are in the midst of an age of discord. What can we learn from the cycles of history about political disintegration and recovery? Peter Turchin predicted the tumult. He points to our large class of aspiring elites competing for power without advancing the living standards of most Americans. The past suggests that our choices are either a mostly unchallenged elite who moderate how much of the economic pie they capture or a prolonged conflict over power among overproduced elites.

Guest: Peter Turchin, University of Connecticut

Study: End Times


Matt Grossmann: Is the elite overproduction the source of our political instability? This week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. High levels of political violence and low levels of institutional support suggest we are in the midst of an age of discord. Although rich democracies may seem stable, over the long run political regimes rise and fall. Are we seeing signs of political disintegration? What can we learn from history about how societies overcome these periods when they do? This week, I talked to Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut about his new book, End Times.

He predicted the tumult of late and says we won’t escape without puncturing concentrated wealth. He points to our large class of aspiring elites competing for power, lawyers and millionaires not doing anything to advance the living standards of most Americans. The past suggests that our choices are mostly an unchallenged elite who moderate how much of the pie they capture or prolong conflict over power among overproduced elites. This special edition is more speculative and wide-ranging than normal, but I think you’ll enjoy our conversation. So, you’ve just published a new book, End Time, so tell us about its major findings and implications.

Peter Turchin: Well, the book is about complex human societies, organized states, which have been around for 5,000 years, and these societies, they can show longish periods of internal peace and stability, maybe a century or so, but in the past, inevitably they would end up in some kind of end times, periods of social dysfunction, what is called disintegration and things like that. So, you think about famous revolutions like the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, or civil wars like the American Civil War. Why? A common theme that arises from the analysis of 200 at this point of past societies sliding into a crisis and emerging from it shows that the common theme is elite over production.

This is what happens when you have too many elite wannabes or the technical term is elite aspirants vying for a fixed number of power positions. In the book, I use a metaphor of playing a game of musical chairs, but instead of removing chairs one at a time, you keep adding more and more players. And so as they’re twice as many, three times as many players as there are chairs, you can imagine how much of chaos would ensue. So, this is a good metaphor for our societies because elite aspirants typically are energetic, ambitious, well-educated, good at organizing, and therefore when they’re frustrated in getting the positions that they expect, many of them turn to trying to infect, overthrow the unjust social order as they perceive it.

Matt Grossmann: So, it sounds like we sort of have our choice of either a very stable but unrepresentative and unchallenged elite or we have this broader competition which leads to polarization and downfall. We are now in an extended period of having mass higher education and civil rights, at least to the point that people have access to those mass higher education institutions. So, is this kind of our permanent state now or do you expect elite overproduction era to end at some point?

Peter Turchin: Not at all because if you think about it, if all societies, as I said, go through this integrative versus disintegrative phases, and the United States went through its integrative phase from the New Deal until late 1970s. So, this was a good democratic country, but the supply of elites was not greatly overwhelming the supply of power positions. It’s really over in the balance. Some competition is good, but excessive competition is bad because excessive competition tends to destroy cooperation essentially.

Given that at some point this problem will have to be solved one way or another, unfortunately, our historical data analysis shows that in the majority of cases, past societies had pretty violent end times, as I said, revolutions, civil wars. It’s only in a smallish percentage, maybe 10, 15% of cases where we see positive outcomes, such as in fact what happened during the progressive era and the New Deal period in the United States, which in fact in enabled broad-based prosperity. The 30 years after World War II are often called the glorious 30 years because the society was in social balance, the fruits of economic growth were divided fairly between the economic elites and workers, and in principle, maintaining such an equilibrium is possible to do.

Matt Grossmann: So, you list this as one of the drivers of instability, but you also point to the necessity of some degree of deprivation, some kind of fiscal health problems and legitimacy problems with the state, and then kind of a catchall of geopolitical factors. So, how do these all fit in? Is elite overproduction the primary driver, or how do these others fit in?

Peter Turchin: I think it’s a good time to talk about the wealth pump, so the perverse wealth pump that transfers riches from the workers to the economic elites, it was not operating until late 1970s in the United States specifically, and that’s what we see across the societies that we have studied. So as a result, but then it was turned on in the 1970s, and we can talk about why in a minute, but essentially that is the root cause. First of all, I’m sure that you and your listeners are familiar with that graph that shows how the productivity of American workers has been increasing, and for a while until 1970s, the wages were increasing completely in parallel, and then something, boom, happened in the late 1970s. The productivity continued to increase, but the wages stopped growing and even declined. So, all that extra results from the economic growth, they had to go elsewhere.

And where did they go? They went to increase the number of wealthy and their wealth, so leader of production in the United States and in most democratic countries has two aspects because typically the ruling classes are ruling classes are a coalition of economic elite owners and managers of large corporations and credentialed elites, people who get educational credentials and then enter the political process. So in the United States, we have overproduction on both ends, and in fact, the overproduction of wealthy people in many ways is more serious. So, what happened was that between 1980 and 2010s, the numbers of decamillionaires, people who owned a wealth of 10 million or more in real terms, adjusted for inflation, it exploded. It increased tenfold.

So, what happened that suddenly we had many more wealthy people and some of those wanted to translate their wealth into political office. Donald Trump, of course, is the most example that comes first, but Michael Bloomberg is another billionaire. The less successful people like Steve Forbes also ran for presidency, so what happens is that we have 10 times as many such wealthy people, and that translates into roughly speaking, 10 times as many more wealthy candidates. You can see them actually in the election process. And as they competed, the number of elite aspirants increased. So, we have this musical chairs problem. In 2016, there were 17 major Republican candidates in the primaries for the US presidency.

And as in the game of musical chairs, if you have too many people vying for a few chairs, then there is a possibility of rule-breaking starts to happen. People might start scuffing and maybe even fist fights and things like that, and that’s essentially what we are seeing happening in the United States. So, now as the different factions are fighting it out in the law courts, I think it’s going to be a fairly unprecedented situation if the legal proceedings against President Joe Biden go forth, which they are likely to do with impeachment movement, and we of course have Donald Trump under several indictments. So, we’ll have both major candidates in fact being attacked on legal grounds.

Matt Grossmann: So of course, income inequality is greater in the United States and rising faster, but we do have a rise in rich people across many rich democracies. We also have a rise in higher education across lots of rich democracies, and we have seen increases in democratic backsliding across rich democracies, but we also have some, for us, longstanding patterns. They’re not the 500-year longstanding patterns that you follow, but that show that large and rich longstanding democracies don’t break down entirely. Instead, you kind of just see these reduction in the quality of democracy and more muddling through. So, is that a possibility that you see given kind of the current global dynamics?

Peter Turchin: Well, let me address this question at several levels. First of all, the wealthy established democracies have not been around that long. These integrative periods of internal peace and order, they typically last about a century or so. And in the United States, we are actually in fact due for the next period because if you think about the period of instability in the United States included the American Civil War and also the 1920s when America was in a revolutionary situation. So also if you think about it, in the 1850s, United States was a decent democracy. Yes, there was slavery, yes, the suffrage was not only limited to white males, but it was a vibrant democracy in many ways. Also, think about UK, it’s probably the longest standing modern democracy, not talking about Athenians, but in the 1970s they had a complete breakdown in Ireland, a bloody civil war, and if you think about, Irish are not particularly violent.

In fact, during the 20th century, the murder rate in the Republic of Ireland has declined to the point where it’s several times lower than here in the United States. Nevertheless, there was a spiral of revenge and counter revenge leading to essentially the time of troubles that was very difficult to resolve. So, it would be comforting to think that our democratic institutions and productive economies will take care of these problems automatically, but I would not count on it because studying the pre-crisis periods in French Revolution, Russian Revolution, and even Antebellum America, they could not imagine the amount of bloodshed that would occur, but just because they couldn’t imagine… It’s difficult for me to imagine something like a French Revolution in the United States, but just because we cannot imagine it, it doesn’t mean that it is not going to happen.

Matt Grossmann: So, you gained a lot of attention from your last book, which I also read, Ages of Discord, especially around the rise of Donald Trump and the political violence surrounding that, but what do you make of the most recent trends? We obviously elected Joe Biden, who is a potentially more calming influence. People are paying less attention to politics, TV news ratings are down, political protest is down, crime is down, and we had a fairly normal midterm election in terms of participation and direction. So, is there a case that we’ve sort of topped out and are on the way down?

Peter Turchin: Well, in 2010, I actually published the prediction based on the models, and nobody took it seriously that by 2020 there would be a major outbreak of political violence in the United States, and as I was giving talks to academic audiences from that point, I would say that the structural trends, immiseration and elite over production just continued to develop. The wealth pump was working very well, and the structural trends continued to increase. So now we are here, everybody agrees that by 2020 or January 6th, 2021, we were clearly in crisis. Now, is it over? Some people think that this somewhat calming of the situation is a sign that we are over the worst, and I hope they are right. However, there are some objective reasons to think why we need to be more worried. First of all, the structural trends have not been inversed. There was a little uptick of median wages for the majority population during the pandemic as a result of state action.

But all of that has been completely reversed by strong inflation we had since then. So, we are back to where the wages for the unskilled workers now are worse in real terms than they were in the 1970s. So, that in immiseration continues to be here, and the same thing in terms of elite over production, we still have been producing too many lawyers. Lawyers is especially dangerous class. If you think about it, Lenin was a lawyer, Mao, Castro, Abraham Lincoln, who led the second revolution in United States was also a lawyer. We are over overproducing lawyers by a factor of three to one, but also what’s happening now as a result of the advent of AI, ChatGPT-4 already at this level of technology can take over 45% of what lawyers do. So, what we are doing is once this happens, we would be overproducing lawyers by a factor of six to one.

So, a huge swath of that population would be frustrated, and remember, many of them take huge debt on them, so crushed by debt, working for salaries that cannot let them even stay above water. As I said, these are very ambitious people, smart, well-connected, good organizers. So this is what we see typically in previous revolutions, is that these counter elites, those elites that they organize the popular discontent and anger to drive against their ruling class, so those structural conditions have not changed. And the final point is that these type of periods of turbulence that typically are not over in one year or two, we can do statistics and sometimes they are very prolonged. Well, if we end up in fragmentation and collapse, like what happened to the Roman Empire, for example, then this could last for centuries, but typically these periods of political violence, they’re between 10 and 20 years.

So, we have not yet run the course, that’s the third consideration. And finally, essentially, because their potential outcome could be so dire, it’s maybe second American Civil War is not hugely likely, but its probability is not zero. The outcome would be completely disastrous. So, as I say it’s 20% probability. Would you really like to play Russian roulette of this kind? No, we need to do something, and on the Democratic president has not done many of the obvious things that need to be done to shut down the wealth pump, such as increasing the minimum wage. It’s still there at $7.25 cents, and of course, losing in real purchasing power.

Matt Grossmann: Thomas Piketty has a model of elite competition that is in some ways consistent with your model, but talks more specifically about competition between two elites, a merchant or rich people right, and a Brahman or educated people left that he says has increasingly consolidated across rich democracies. So, I want you to compare your formulation to his, but also to me that raised the possibility that we have sort of a new kind of polarized stability. In other words, there’s not a single ruling class, there’s a competition between two ruling classes based on education and income across the rich world. What do you think?

Peter Turchin: In fact, I cite their work, but I think it is a mistake to think about the credentialed elites and the economic elites as monolithic. That’s not true at all. The credentialed elites, there are huge ideological battles right now within the credentialed elites. And in fact, we see both right wing and left wing radicalized people. It’s interesting enough that probably the institution that produces the most elite aspirants is Yale Law School. Well, Yale Law School produces both left… Like Chesa Boudin, for example, and also I blank out the name of who organized the Oath Keepers. He was also a graduate of Yale Law School, and then a number of right wing members of Congress are products of Yale Law School. So the formulation is fine, but you cannot assume that there is just two forces. No, and in fact, this is a typical situation, this fragmentation of both ideological and political field.

This is very typical during these crisis periods. So think for example, 1850s, the two party system collapsed and there were two dozens of parties vying for… And one of them was Republican Party, in fact. So what we see now, we see Republican Party is definitely fragmenting between traditional Republicans and the right wing populists led by Donald Trump. There is also very serious fault lines within the Democratic Party between Bernie Sanders types and establishment Democrats. Establishment Democrats and establishment Republicans, their disagreements are completely minor when you look at it, especially outside of the United States. They’re all for things that benefit the current ruling class, low taxes and keeping the wages of workers down and things like that.

Matt Grossmann: So, some of your evidence from the US or the evidence that you start with is about self-financed candidates, and you mentioned a couple of them in the opening, but the broader evidence shows that self-financed candidates win at lower rates than other kinds of candidates, and they don’t dominate in either party. And when they win, they don’t tend to vote very differently in Congress compared to other people. That doesn’t mean that Congress is not elites, but it’s sort of consistent with Piketty’s evidence. Republicans in Congress, the number one occupation is business people, but Democratic Congress people, the number one occupation is lawyers. So, there is a potential kind of competition among types of elites, but at least in my mind, it’s not that dependent on these self-financed candidates converting wealth and into politics, it’s the fact that we have these two big sides, which are both very well-financed in politics. So what is the role of these self-financed candidates? Is that just a set of examples?

Peter Turchin: It’s not huge, in fact, because in my book, which where of course I have much more space to develop these ideas, I make the point that many of the wealthy wealth holders don’t necessarily run themselves, but they run candidates. They support candidates such as, you can think of Peter Thiel. He doesn’t run himself, but he supported J.D. Vance, for example, which is a pretty radical type. He is definitely not a traditional Republican, not the establishment Republican. And what’s important is not who is winning, what’s important is who is losing, and that is from where we see the counter elites rising. So right now, most of the counter elites actually call them dissident elites because they’re not revolutionaries, they’re working using the legal structures, even though they may bend them a little bit here and there, break the rules of the game, but Donald Trump is not a Vladimir Lenin.

Certainly, Lenin was much better at organizing a revolutionary movement than Donald Trump. So, that is a very important problem, and then remember that I have the whole chapter about revolutionary troops. It’s the mid-level of their potential radical organizations, that middle level is peopled by credentialed holders, not only legal, not only law degrees, but lots of people who had English degrees and things like that. If you look at some of those BLM riots during 2020, most of the radical people there were actually white, both men and women, young, who had a college degree or in the process of getting college degree. So, they create a huge mass of disaffected people. At the top of the wealth distribution, we have a wealthy counter elites, then you have mass of mid rank and low rank counter elites with credentials, and then we have the population, 60% of the American population are working class people without college degree. They’ve been immiserated and they are very easily mobilized as we saw in 2016 by political entrepreneurs who use them to propel themselves into power.

Matt Grossmann: So, you also rely on Martin Gilens’ evidence about the influence of income on the influence in the policymaking process, but most others have found that differences in opinion across income groups are rather small for most, especially redistributive policies, and some of the differences are due to sort of attentiveness and do people have an opinion or express a non opinion on those issues? And they’re nothing, even Gilens acknowledges that they’re nothing compared to the differences on partisanship and ideology. So, that there are big differences in public opinion, but most of them don’t have that much to do with the income distribution. That doesn’t mean that rich people don’t have more influence in politics. I think people would acknowledge that, but I wonder if we’re overstating the role of the income distribution here relative to the fact that we have two major sides in American politics and both have both popular and elite support.

Peter Turchin: Well, if you think about it, first of all, Martin Gilens did remarkable and his colleagues did a remarkable job. They collected a big database, they analyzed it using the best analytical techniques, and so I have not seen their findings to be overturned on methodological grounds, but also they make sense. This country has changed very dramatically from the New Deal to the Great Society period and then from the late-’70s and especially Reagan Revolution to now. Before 1980, United States was essentially a Nordic type social democracy, and we saw that during that period, as I mentioned earlier, the wages grew completely in parallel with productivity, and then they broke and separated, so something has happened. So, now the way that society in political economy in United States has been reconfigured during the 1970s, so that now it works for the benefit of the economic elites.

So, that to me is additional and maybe even more damning evidence that Gilens and his colleagues are correct. Also, earlier you mentioned that in other countries we see increase in inequality, but if you compare United States to other OECD countries, we are an outlier. We are huge outlier in many more ways than just inequality, in terms of the health outcomes, how much we spend on health and how much we get out of it. So the next one is UK, and then we get to much lower, France, Germany, and other, and then finally get to social democratic countries, Nordic countries like Denmark for example. I argue in my book that United States is a plutocracy, it’s not a democracy anymore, and I think that evidence both if you believe your eyes, and I have arrived… I’m obviously an immigrant, I grew up in the Soviet Union, I left Soviet Union in 1976. I arrived here just at the end of those glorious 30 years, and I know from experience that today this country is a very different country from what it was when I arrived.

Matt Grossmann: So, you mostly say that in order to quell this disruptive period, there’s going to have to be some redistribution or generally kind of liberal set or left set of policies, but there does seem to be some success by the right in reinventing itself in an unequal age. They have done okay, despite the policies that don’t quell these rebellions. Nathan Kelly has done some work in the United States showing that actually Republicans have done better as inequality has risen and where inequality has risen. So, it seems like there’s a potential future in which inequality is actually a stimulant of success by the right and kind of the opposite policies than you’re proposing to counteract this. What do you think of that possible future?

Peter Turchin: Well, I make it very clear in my book that I adopt a completely nonpartisan stance. I criticize both Democrats and Republicans equally, and in fact, it’s not correct to say that I argue for redistribution. What I’m arguing is we need to shut down the wealth pump. So, is increasing minimum wage a redistribution? Is making CEOs pay their workers more? That’s not a redistribution, that’s simply… And many people argue that’s social economic justice. As the productivity of workers rises, their wages should also rise in parallel with that.

Matt Grossmann: I didn’t mean to misstate, but those are both policies obviously preferred by the left over the right, so there’s still things that’d be more likely to be implemented.

Peter Turchin: Politicians like J.D. Vance and communicators like Tucker Carlson have been saying this thing. In fact, sometimes Vance and Sanders say things that are very similar. So, we see the same thing in France, the communist [inaudible 00:33:45], and the right-winger, Marie Le Pen, they talk about workers and their status in similar terms, even though they completely would never cooperate, obviously politically. So, what I’m saying is that there are…. Let’s just again step back, we know how these periods are resolved. They’re resolved by shutting down the wealth pump. In most cases, this happens as a result of social revolution. For example, in Russia, nobility was destroyed as a class or in American Civil War, the ruling class, the southern plantation slave owners, the slave workers so to speak, it was destroyed partly physically.

Half of them got killed on the battlefields and the rest of them were demoted from the elites because they lost their property. So, there is a violent route to this or there are some examples such as the New Deal or the Chartres period in mid-19th century England, British Empire was the only large European state that escaped revolutions of 1848. So, sometimes the elites do it by reforms from above rather than by revolution from below. I would personally prefer reforms from above. Elites are not bad people or not necessarily bad people. We need elites. Without elites, complex societies cannot function.

It’s just we have to constrain the elites to act in the public good rather than for their own selfish needs. That’s by the way, how typically wealth pumps get turned on. A country can go for an integrative phase. Things are nice and peachy, and the elites are attempted to start reconfiguring the economy in such a way that it would benefit them. This is known in sociology as the iron law of oligarchy, just because they can. All right, so what we need to do is we need to remove this possibility in order to keep the social system in balance, essentially. It’s not redistribution, it’s rebalancing.

Matt Grossmann: Presumably changes in the population dynamic could matter as there are fewer kids, changes in immigration levels that you’ve mentioned also could matter. I’m just looking at the worldwide pattern and saying if we’re trying to… I understand what would need to happen to change or reduce the wealth pump, but it seems like the right has been successful in our arguing that there are other ways to quell the descent basically and still gain mass support. You don’t see that as a possible future?

Peter Turchin: But the problem with the current right, is that they are mobilizing popular support, but it doesn’t mean that they’re going to do things. Again, I am criticizing equally both sides of the aisle, so to speak. In fact, Donald Trump’s administration was not successful in shutting down the wealth pump. In fact, they increased the taxes, and that’s not a good thing because these low taxes, we have more and more of those, the overproduction of wealth holders is only hastened by low taxes on top incomes. Anyway, so I want to say is that I don’t want to come out and say that Republicans in fact know what they’re doing. Maybe some of them do, but most of the rhetoric that we hear is pretty much standard ruling class rhetoric. Also, you mentioned that we had a fairly uneventful elections of 2022. What worries me is the elections of 2024.

All right, now with lawfare practiced by everybody on everybody else with incendiary statements, mobilizing popular anger, we have half of the population of American population is armed to the teeth. We have more guns than people, and looking at previous routes into civil war, civil war doesn’t happen overnight because it takes a spiral to get anger up to the point where people start killing people. And in fact, it takes months or even years for that to happen. So, we are on that track right now, and even though that the miracle that you have fewer riots, let’s say this year compared to 2020, violent riots, but the underlying pressures continue to grow.

Matt Grossmann: So, you encounter someone in your book who argues that, well, everything’s getting better worldwide. Why is this occurring now? And you counter both that within societies we are seeing these rises in inequality even if the global poor are in decline, and then you talk about the rise of deaths of despair in the US in kind of the broader pattern, but I didn’t quite get where you fell on the spectrum of there really is deprivation here versus this is about relative standing, and people are going to… Even if their circumstances are not actually all that negative, if there’s a big rise in wealth at the top, it’s going to seem that way. So, which side I guess do you fall at?

Peter Turchin: It’s relative, but relative is to the experience of different people. I subscribe here to the theories of certain economists who think that people’s expectations are set as they grow up in the households of their parents. And so, they expect to have life at least as good. And in fact, for three generations after New Deal, the average generation was doing better than their parents, but now the pattern is that this generation is doing worse than their parents. One student in Athens during an anti-government demonstration yelled, “It’s not right that children should live worse than their parents.” So obviously millennials, their life is better than some peasants in 13th century France or something like that, but that’s not what they compare themselves to. They compare themselves to their parent’s generation. I actually do quite a dissection of this question.

My argument is first all you have to look within the country because each country is different. China, for example, where the global poverty rate was reduced primarily because of China, but China emerged from its previous age of discord quite much more recently. They’ve got a few decades to run before they will get into their own end times, unless they do something to prevent that. So, you have to look separately at each country. Within the United States, that immiseration is definitely happening. Life expectancy of Americans this year is we lost more than 20 years of progress in life expectancy and life expectancy started to decline before COVID epidemic. And for the working class, for people without college education, life expectancy, especially males, started to decline even before that. So, this is absolute immiseration. When life expectancy declines, that’s absolute immiseration.

Matt Grossmann:So, you talk about your approach of long-term quantitative dynamics across lots of different societies, especially in comparison to traditional history, but I wondered if you could compare it to quantitative social science where most of our listeners have heard the most about. There are obviously large fields that study social and economic political dynamics across countries. To my mind at least, there’s increasing attention to long-term dynamics as we get more long-term data. So, I guess how does your project and those of the folks that you work with compare to those broader trends within [inaudible 00:43:51]-

Peter Turchin: Completely synergistic, and in my book I cite quantitative political scientists, quantitative ecologists, sociologists, and so on and so forth. So, the only thing that cliodynamics adds is that when you study societies, both historical and present, you cannot just separate economics out or political elections out. Those are all intertwined. So, societies are dynamical systems in which different parts affect each other, they’re non-linear feedback loops, and therefore we need all those scientists, plus climatologists especially, for past populations which are more vulnerable. So, essentially the question is take from all the social sciences and other sciences what you need to understand why societies change in a particular way. It doesn’t mean that everything is necessary. It is in fact part of the scientific process to find out what are the important drivers and what drivers you can neglect, but certainly the social drivers such as upward social mobility and downward social mobility, those turn out to be key parts of understanding why societies get into end times essentially.

Matt Grossmann: And what, in your view, is the relationship between these kind of grand scale theories over long time periods and across many countries compared to the specialized knowledge that people have of particular cases and time periods?

Peter Turchin: We need both, and in fact, each state, each country is different in important ways. For example, for the elite over production, it matters what are the basis of social power that are emphasized by elites, whether it’s militocracy like Egypt for example, or plutocracy like United States, so those details are very important, and the same thing is that there is also… To understand how societies develop, you cannot only use the structural drivers because clearly in individual action, call them triggers. So, the triggers can come from a variety of sources.

They are unpredictable. That’s why I say that we cannot predict the future in any great detail. So, the specialist knowledge is key because for example, how do we test these theories that people have proposed, not only the theory that I’ve been explaining, but alternative theories? Well, with large amounts of data. Where does the data come from? From professional historians, archeologists, religion scholars, and people like that. So we love historians, and in fact, traditional history has happily existed and can continue to happily exist without cliodynamics, but cliodynamics cannot exist without traditional history. So, their relationship is mutually… Certainly, it’s very important for us to have those specialized knowledge.

Matt Grossmann: But there does seem to be, I don’t know if there’s a backlash, but maybe there’s just a cycle within the social sciences or at least in some fields like international relations and economics, there sort of was a period of more grand theorizing that has kind of given way to more specialized models and more country and time period specific findings. Is that a mistake? Should we go back to trying to make as many broad claims as we can, or should we learn something from the period of exposing these kinds of theories to the details that sometimes we find the details mattered a lot in all these specific cases?

Peter Turchin: Well, as I say, again, we need both. We need both grand theories and specialized studies, and it is a generational process because we were talking about cliometrics. It had its own heyday then it was in the 1990s there was a cultural turn, which is very easy to understand. The new generation scholars come and they want to make a name for themselves. So, what did they do? They dump on their predecessors. And then of course, one generation later, another generation comes and now suddenly quantitative methods are back in vogue and they’re being used, but that type of seesawing effect is not necessarily bad because science thrives on diversity of ideas. We need the different types of theories, explanatory theories, we need different types of ways to get data, and we need different types of methodologies and approaches. They, in the end, work synergistically together.

Matt Grossmann: So one question I think I mentioned, but I don’t think I got the full answer, was just about demographic decline, so that there’s aging across lots of these societies. People are having fewer children. That would seem to have pretty big implications for rising of counter elites, and certainly there are people talking about gerontocracy as an outcome in major countries. So, how does that fit into your model? What will happen if we just have fewer young people?

Peter Turchin: Well, in fact, many of the previous periods of instability were brought to an end by population decline because what happens is that when population declines, you reduce the supply of new workers, and that tends to increase the price of labor, so the wages, and that turns down the wealth pump. So, everybody’s talking about how terrible it is that populations are declining, but first of all, what does it mean aging? We live longer, but we also have longer healthy lines. For example, I’m 66, I don’t intend to stop working until they carry me out feet first because I enjoy what I’m doing, and many people are that way. Many people don’t want to retire because work gives us… Many people get meaning of life from work, and so as long as people are healthy and their brains work, they can continue being productive, and that’s not a problem.

So in fact, this is one of the counterintuitive things. This is why the mathematical study of societies is important, is because you think, “Oh my God, population is declining. Who’s going to feed the old and so on and take care of them, and so on and so forth?” But once you put that into the model, you will see that actually it will result in good outcomes eventually. Also, by the way, if we have fewer… It is true that the young cohorts is declining in the United States, that means actually that the probability of widespread political violence is less because it’s young males especially who are the driver in driving violence. So, there is silver lining to all those, the first blush negative trends, but when you start incorporating them into [inaudible 00:52:45] model, you find out that they’re not so bad after all.

Matt Grossmann: So, anything that’s next for you that you want to plug or anything we didn’t get to that you want to include?

Peter Turchin: Well, just to plug a little bit that we need, again, just return to… We need the science of history because in order to get out of the current predicament, we cannot simply copy what successful societies did, even United States 100 years ago, because our society is very different from the New Deal. So, how do we do that? You can do it by the seat of our pants, but then it is likely that we’ll end up with a bunch of negative, unexpected consequences. So, we need social engineering really. So our science, I think it’s very useful in using quite a lot of insights, but it’s not yet ready to be used as engineering to build bridges, for example, or something like that. We need to get the science of human societies to the point where it is useful in telling us what are the better and what are the worst approaches.

Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, all linked on our website, Racial Protest: Violence and Backlash, Why Lawyers Rule American Politics, Right Wing Extremism and the Capitol Insurrection, How Presidential Appointments Reveal Policy Goals and Elite Interests, and When Partisans Endorse Violence. Thanks to Peter Turchin for joining me. Please check out End Times and then listen in next time.