Peter Turchin is (probably) wrong about crisis, again

A few days ago I wrote about fake experts, who are taken seriously by the media despite having little to no credentials and having generally bad and or unoriginal ideas, but that does not mean actual credentialed experts are also immune from having bad ideas. An example of the latter is Peter Turchin, who despite being the “vice president of the Evolution Institute and professor of biology and anthropology at the University of Connecticut,” his theories are flimsy and easily refuted (at least to me), yet he’s frequently published by mainstream publications such as Bloomberg.

Dr. Turchn has a new article out Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays.

A year back, I refuted an earlier Turchiin article Peter Turchin is wrong about Crisis:

As discussed here, here, and here, the evidence suggests there is less civil unrest now than decades ago. In 1967 alone over 159 cities experienced race riots, compared to the four or so protests that happen every year now. Due to social media and the 24-7 news cycle, unrest is being over-reported, whereas decades ago it was under-reported. Incidents that decades ago would have been ignored/unreported are immediately plastered all over Fox, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to be immortalized digitally. The rise of Malcolm X’s black separatism and Martin Luther King made a ‘race war’ a definite possibility, and the U.S. govt. was making contingency plans for such an outcome. This strife continued on and off probably until the 90′s, when things suddenly died down.

A common theme of Dr. Turchin’s articles is to find one or two historical analogues to today as reason for history to repeat. The only problem is, this does not work. Just because the past and present have many similarities, does to mean the past will repeat, because there are often subtle differences that can result in totally different outcomes (look at all the failed predictions in 2008-2010 of a repeat of the Great Depression, or that the US would have a multi-decade stagnation like Japan), but also because a sample data-set of one or two historical case studies is weak and unconvincing. Imagine running a study on the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer and only having two smokers in the study (n=2), who don’t get cancer, and concluding “no link”.

He writes:

Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.

It’s not that elites cause unrest, but that a growing number of elite are a byproduct of a strong and growing economy and society, so a society at its local maximum will have more elites and than a society at it its nadir, but the elites themselves don’t necessary provoke the decline. A correlation does not imply causality. Same for wealth inequality: rising inequality is an unavoidable byproduct/consequence of a growing economy. Thus, that implies that society will likely peak at the same time inequality peaks, but the inequality does not necessarily cause the peak.

Part of the problem is, wealth for everyone is growing , so even the poorest see increased wealth even though wealth inequality may be widening (this is yet another counterintuitive observation about economics). In fact, only the top .1% have seen their share of the wealth grow:

The other factors: increasing indebtedness of the state and declining living standards may be more applicable to other countries with weaker economies, but it’s harder to make such a case for the US, which has one of the highest per-capita standards of living in the world and among the cheapest borrowing costs on its national debt. In spite of low taxes, entitlement spending keeps rising, such as disability, healthcare, education, and housing. Who is paying for it? Bondholders. Other countries are unable to sell so much debt so cheaply and thus have to resort to austerity, which in southern Europe has occasionally lead to protests and unrest.

It’s worth keeping in mind that people who predict crisis have a terrible track record at it. Consider, only since 2009, all the failed predictions of:

-Trump colluded with Russia to commit election fraud in order to win the 2016 presidential election (Mueller report shows Trump did not collude)

-Trump hurting the economy (the economy and stock market has boomed since Trump took office)

-Brexit hurting the economy (it didn’t)

-Dollar collapse (the US dollar is at multi-year highs)

-Wealth inequality causing political instability and unrest (it hasn’t despite wealth inequality widening to widths never before imagined)

-Increased civil unrest and instability (aside from the occasional campus protest or scuffle that gets more media attention than justified, America has seen very little unrest since Trump’s win)

-Housing market crash (home prices in Bay Area are flat or rising; home prices nationally keep rising or are flat; no crash)

-Hyperinflation (CPI refuses to budge beyond 2.3% despite record deficit spending and record-high debt)

-Bear market (hasn’t happened; at 10 years, the post-2009 bull market is the longest ever and has further to go)

-Recession (hasn’t happened; at 10 years, the post-2009 economic expansion is the longest ever and has further to go )

-Repeat of 2008 banking crisis (hasn’t happened)

-The fed not being able to do anything to control inflation (the fed was able to transition from a zero-interest-rate regime, to now raising rates without any problems)

-China crisis (hasn’t happened even though people keep predicting it)

-The EU breaking up (nope)

-Student loan crisis (student loan debt keeps rising)

One can argue that they only need to be right once, but given that these are the so-called experts and they have all the knowledge and degrees, shouldn’t their forecasts not have so many false positives? If someone predicts crisis for 30 years in a row and is only right on the 31st attempt, is that demonstrative of any actual ability or skill at forecasting? I would say not. Other times, the arguments brought forth for why, when, or how there will be crisis, are weak because of gaping logical or factual holes, or because there is simply not enough data to draw a meaningful conclusion (as stated above) with a sufficiently high degree of certainty. Vox Day has long argued that proximity + diversity = war. However, most revolutions are over economic and class reasons rather than race , and in spite of 200+ years of increasing ethnic and racial diversity in America, there is less unrest than ever before. That’s not to say support such diversity, but to proclaim that it will lead to war is unsupported by reality. Even the Civil War was not a race war, but rather a war fought for economic reasons between white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the North versus white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the South.

Given this, I would take Turtchin’s latest pronouncement with a mound of salt.