To many of us, the US government shutdown is inexplicable: a crazy situation, brought about a minority faction over a bill that's already been passed into law. But for maths professor Peter Turchin, it was entirely predicable.
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...
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.
This process also creates new avenues — such as increased access to higher education — that allow a few workers to join the elite, swelling their ranks. Eventually this results in what Turchin calls "elite overproduction" — there being more people in the elite than there are top jobs.
The result? The rich get richer, in a positive feedback loop, but then factions within that elite start to fight — ideological differences and an unwillingness to compromise mean that competition becomes bitter. And, right now, the outcome is the shutdown.
In fact, Turchin has developed a formula based on this theory which rolls together economic output per person, balance of labour demand and supply and changes in attitudes towards redistributing wealth. The equation plots out a curve which, amazingly, matches the change in real wages in the US since 1930 — no means feat given the volatility since the 80s.
In turn, those plots meant that he was able to predict something bad was just round the corner. Too bad word didn't reach the US Congress. [New Scientist]