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Reviews

What We Are Reading: August 2021

“After the quiet 1950s...incidents of political violence again became more frequent and now we may be in the middle of another wave of sociopolitical instability.”

Thus five years ago wrote Peter Turchin, a University of Connecticut professor specializing in “historical social science,” a.k.a. Cliodynamics. After 2020’s violent nationwide political protests and the pandemic’s destruction of civil society, we need only change the words “may be” to “are” in that quote from Turchin’s prescient 2016 Ages of Discord. Turchin bolstered his alarming forecast with a resilient theory tested against centuries of demographic, economic, and cultural data. His book provides the best quantitative evidence I have found to explain America’s ongoing societal collapse.

Turchin’s Structural-Demographic Theory (“SDT”) brims with explanatory power. In sum, population growth in excess of productivity gains causes untold problems, including inflation, falling real wages, social misery, urban discontent, and food riots. Rapid population increases also lead to “elite overproduction,” in which aspirants fight over a limited number of high-paying jobs and seats at top schools. As their frustrations mount, the embittered strivers turn on each other by forming rival patronage networks and rent-seeking factions. Lastly, population growth fosters military expansion and bureaucratic...

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