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View Diary: Are we on the verge of another 1848 or 1917? (283 comments)

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  •  Funny you should mention 1917 (3+ / 0-)
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    Librarianmom, pat bunny, Subterranean

    I had a theory the 2010s were most similar to the 1910s that I posted a couple of years ago. The conceptual heart of my comment here is in this:

    Quick edit: This kinda went on. Apologies.

    Sometimes, people look to the past for information on what to think of these latter-day fiscal tribulations. A common exhortation, strongly felt by many, is: how about that jobs program? How about packing on not cutting back government employment, given that private-sector corporations openly post “unemployed need not apply” these days? If companies are doing that – and the practice is so pervasive a recruiter is calling me and saying “We only place winners – people who have the proven ability to keep their jobs in this tough environment.”… well that’s just not raising my confidence that the level of public policy technology (read;: that we need to make room for private direct investment and jobs growth) is anything but up to specs.

    Which brings us to the great meta question of the overall public policy debate: WHY NOT a jobs bill? This is past the hyper-partisan obstructionism of our right-wing brethren.  And why are taxcutstaxcutsdidImentiontaxcuts not working? Why is everything we (left and right alike) thought we knew about public policy and economics wrong?


    I think it may have to do with the cyclical pace of innovation – the introduction and testing of new idea, the developing of practical applications and proliferation of their uses in many markets, improvements in production processes and supply inputs, the activity generated by first their replacement of older products and practices and – eventually their own obsolescence and extinction.

    Before I never went further back than the 1900s...and my best data reaches back to the 1840s, so perhaps it's time to peek a bit further back.

    In terms of overall world growth in both GDP and population, all three eras (1840s, 1910s, 2010s) are similar. Gross stats like that are relatively easy to assemble.

    Yet the devil is in the structural details. GINI and other income and wealth disparity indicators can be somewhat thin even for the industrialized countries with good record-keeping for the 19th century (which, I think, was exactly one - Britain - for much of that era).

    One type of statistic that is fairly easy to track for the comparative era is inventions, one, because of the prestige and economic value of them and, two, the high pace over the past several centuries means plenty of data points. We have information we can work with. We know when research and in a broader sense thought around new concepts of how to get things done or to govern society began and how and when it was hashed out and introduced to general consumption....or not.

    More, we can take a simple product life cycle model to map these events in terms of an ongoing process of eureka moments, product rollouts, dissemination of products and services and ideas about freedom(!) and justice and the like through the global milieu. We can even track how some notions never quick got off the ground like, say, pneumatic railroads...though those might come back if Mr. Musk has any say in the matter.

    Why even bother? Because the structure of a society's portfolio of innovation - most basically, whether it even has any - describes that society rather nicely. Marx made a go at it with his attempt to tie ownership of the means of production to political economy - and his comments had such currency that not only adherents but critics have had to keep Marxist thought in mind ever since.

    Yet, Marx didn't have the richness of data we have available, data that can support finer-grained analyzed. We don't have to limit our discussion to one of  'labor versus capital' - that framing is obsolete. It had a good near-two century run and now it's not enough.

    We need to be discussion modes of innovation - and control of those decisions, because it's rare for any one segment of a society to dominate all of them.

    Where does basic research come from? Who wants to shut down public institutions conducting same? What's up with that, if not an attempt at monopolization?

    Who wants to control the airwaves and the bandwidth, because essential to marketing and dissemination of goods and services both economic and political, even the unwanted and unhealthy ones? Another tug of war.

    Who wants to decide what's conserved and replaced in terms of social norms, the environment and on down the list? Again, contention.

    And where does that leave us for comparing 2014 with 1848 and 1917?

    I mentioned before that all three are similar in gross characteristics. I stipulate it's not especially easy to use orthodox wealth concentration indices across this wide a time span. I advocate peering at the breakout of innovation modes, so I should get on with it.

    the 1840s were a period of modest innovation overall compared to the 20th century and (so far) the early 21st Century. It was the tail end of a long period where more new inventions, products, markets and job opportunities were created than destroyed by the same changes.

    Worldwide population growth in the 1840s was actually slowing down off earlier peaks - not sure why the slump but it's there in the records and would not trough for a couple more decades and which point it would pick up again like crazy. The same pattern is in place in the 1910s (see: a couple of world wars, the Spanish Flu). Yet overall, the trend from 1840 to 1960 is one of accelerating population growth - and then growth really taking off as health and wealth indicators in the former European colonies takes off.

    In sharp contrast, the 2010s are an era of dramatically slowing population growth world wide, a trend that has been underway since the 1970s and won't likely stop or at least another century if not more. The average world family have gone from having just over five kids each to just over two kids - and it's everywhere. We're moving toward not an expanding but a SHRINKING world population....though it will take some time before global negative net population growth sets in on the order of 50 to 100 years depending on who you ask. (Me? I think it's coming sooner than later.

    Yet at the moment, this difference between 1848/1917/2014 is one of degree not of kind. Those earlier slumps were blips, scary ones in the World War One instance for sure, but blips nonetheless. The fertility slowdown and the impact in terms of 'graying' of society and back-weighting of social services and political influence cannot be overstated. Before, the blips never dented much the opportunities for young folks to find work or to obtain public services in event they needed them.

    Now those services are being openly disparaged and rolled back, because austerity. And yeah about those jobs...

    The 1840s saw more jobs of some type being created because new modes of activity - new factories, need for persons to transport the goods, build the infrastructure (rail and roads and telegraph lines) to transmit them and news about same and handle the huge amount of paperwork generated to keep track of the business of colonial and corporate empire-building alike meant there was demand for work  - enough that labor and students were in position to make demands. (And get beat up for doing so.)

    Later on we have the 1910s. New modes of activity are popping up about the same pace as old ones are being replaced.  It's like the 1840s, only a tighter squeeze but opportunities are there - but the core industrializing societies of the era have the upper hand, even more than before. The radical revolutions take place this time out on the newly industrializing periphery, that is eastern Europe and Asia, most prominently in Russia. In nations like the United States there is labor unrest and yet there are also diligent campaigns to suppress 'Reds' that would continue well into the 20th Century and seek to conflate activism with Communism henceforth.

    And the 2010s are like neither era. We are coming off a local peak in innovation of basic ideas at the same time we're hitting a trough in exploiting on on-the-shelp opportunities AND the highest peak in destruction of older industries and economic sectors. Prior 'downsizing' peaks of this nature that coincided with market saturation events were the 1970s and the 1930s (and the 1900s the decade before World War II and the October Revolution).

    Yet never has the gap been so glaring, nor coincided with very long term slowdown trends in population growth, GWP growth, basic research and development of ideas.

    For terms of the 1848 versus 1917 comparison, we are closer to the latter.... but only in that the 1917 situation wasn't nearly as extreme or as hapless in terms of turnaround.

    For in the 1910s, the developed world had reached the limits of empire to sustain its competing-yet-colluding paradigms.

    In the 2010s we've reached the limits of the planet to sustain them.

    If there is silver lining to this story, it is that the world will adjust to a slower-growth paradigm. There will be jobs growth but it will be spaced out over decades not years. The economic cycles of peaks and troughs are flattening and drawing out.  Good times will be meh and last longer. The bad times will be meh, not so such, and last longer. But it will suck to be young in the proposed age of austerity and those who like that paradigm are ready to crush revolution in ways the elites of the 1910s couldn't possibly imagine or hope to have.

    For the same reason, what radical upheaval takes place will not take place in the developed downsizing core. It will be discussed and blogged here, and those discussions will be VERY closely followed here, but I wouldn't bet on such upheaval putting a dent in the bipartisan consortium we call a two-party system for another two or three decades.

    By that time, everyone who is upset about how things are now will be old, too.

    The real question is how kids who are learning to ride bikes, right now, will choose to handle things...because after a while, things are likely to tighten up yet again, same as how the 1920s and 30s followed the 1910s.

    And that's the sort of unsettling prospect that should get everyone's attention.

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