Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mathematical Ecology

One of the few people who have applied the mathematics of complex systems to political instability, Peter Turchin, may have predicted our current predicament.  If we don't change our ways, things are going to get much worse before they get better.
Turchin has found what he believes to be historical cycles, two to three centuries long, of political instability and breakdown affecting states and empires from Rome to Russia. In a book he is finishing, he argues that similar cycles are evident in US history, and that they are playing out to this day. He admits that his theory, built on a model that combines social and economic data, must be tested against real events – but unlike most historical theories, it can be. Meanwhile, he says, it "predicts the long-term conditions that led to this shutdown".
Workers or employees make up the bulk of any society, with a minority of employers constituting the top few per cent of earners. By mathematically modelling historical data, Turchin finds that as population grows, workers start to outnumber available jobs, driving down wages. The wealthy elite then end up with an even greater share of the economic pie, and inequality soars. This is borne out in the US, for example, where average wages have stagnated since the 1970s although gross domestic product has steadily climbed.
In Turchin's theory, such political acrimony is paralleled by rising discontent among workers left with less and less, and increasing state bankruptcy as spending by the elite who control the government coffers spirals. Ultimately, the situation gets so bad that order cannot be maintained and the state collapses. A new cycle begins.
Hari Seldon is among us and Isaac Asimov laughs from his grave.

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