By George Friedman, February/2020 (256p.)
George Friedman is a Hungarian-born U.S. geopolitical strategist and forecaster. In 1996 he founded the highly-regarded firm Stratfor, which provides strategy and intelligence research to government and private institutions, including investment firms – but he resigned from Stratfor in 2015 and started Geopolitical Futures, a pay-walled subscription service similar to Stratfor. In his latest piece, posted on Geopolitical Futures homepage on October 8, 2020, Friedman writes about his latest book and “the anger that would encompass American life for at least the first part of this decade.” I had followed Friedman’s work at Stratfor and have read a couple of his books over the years, so I knew what to expect. Friedman is a forecaster who has no qualms about making bold, and seemingly outrageous predictions. While I don’t agree with all his calls, his analytical framework is valuable because it focuses on secular trends, such as demographics, culture, and technology, while incorporating the notion of cycles. His 2009 book The Next 100 Years, for instance, provided a brilliant explanation of US political cycles which Friedman leverages, and expands upon, in this latest book. My biggest criticism of The Next 100 Years was that Friedman put too much emphasis on military topics (his expertise), and not enough on social and technology. He fixed this shortcoming in The Storm Before the Calm, which made it a better book in my opinion. Friedman claims to have taken five years to write the book, which was originally scheduled to be released in January 2018, but was delayed six times before being released on February 25, 2020 – just as the COVID-19 crisis was unraveling. Maybe if he had waited another six months, his editors would have removed the following controversial statement: “Diseases that kill quickly are economically sustainable. Keeping people alive who can’t produce is economically debilitating.” It’s interesting that I saw a similar statement in Tamir Ansari’s recent human history book, The Invention of Yesterday, when he was explaining the positive economic impacts of the Black Death in Europe. “The Black Death killed a lot of people but for many of the survivors,” Ansari claims in his 2019 book, “life actually improved.” He observes that “unlike a military invasion, an epidemic doesn’t damage infrastructure: it kills people but leaves roads, buildings, canals, and such intact.”
Anyway, according to Wikipedia, the original working title for the book was The New American Century: Crisis, Endurance, and the Future of the United States, but it subsequently changed to something more eye-catching, if only because it is more bearish.
In the concluding chapter, Friedman explains how he has changed with age. “The elderly have wisdom, a sense of what human life is about,” he claims, “and what things are important and what are not. They don’t always have the latest knowledge or use the latest technology. I used to be fascinated by computing. About a decade ago, I stopped caring. People younger than I am know far more than I do about computing. From my perspective, I have learned that computers are less important than love, that they may even interfere with the ability to love.” Whereas 10 years ago he was writing about space warfare and energy shortages, now Friedman has turned to being a pessimist on technology. In Chapter 10, titled The 2020s Crisis in Technology and Education, Friedman predicts that the microchip has reached maturity and there is no new technology to replace it. “There is nothing new in the maturation of the microchip,” he writes, “including the inability of the culture to imagine maturity and even decline.” He then proceeds to dismiss artificial intelligence, mobile computing, social media, automation, and barely mentions cloud computing, quantum computing, deep learning, and artificial simulation. He also provides scant support for his claim of saturation, except for saying that aggregate productivity growth has slowed. I think he underestimates the importance of software, and how much has changed since he stopped caring about computing. I also found his observations about there being a lack of investment in innovation to be off-base – but still, while older and perhaps grumpier, Friedman is no dummy. I think his observation that cultures are incapable of imagining decline is spot on. It was also a frequent observation in Thamir Ansari’s book. Most great civilizations in decline were unaware of the demise that was obvious to future historians.
While I would not recommend this book for its technology insights, Friedman is as qualified as anyone to opine on the election and Donald Trump’s role in history. He asserts an 80-year institutional cycle is ending with a government that is confused, entangled, and increasingly dysfunctional. There is also a 50-year socio-economic cycle that began with Ronald Reagan, and that Friedman thinks will end in the 2020s, in concert with the end of the 80-year institutional cycle. The last time these two cycles aligned, we got the Great Depression. Friedman frames a polarized US society with the elite (which he calls “technocrats”) in control, and the rest, consisting mostly of industrial workers, as the disadvantaged and declining masses. These frustrated masses support Trump because he speaks their language. Trump blames immigrants, technocrats (experts), and foreigners (i.e. China), which appeals to this disgruntled population. “When Donald Trump emerged as the winner of the American presidency, I was in Australia,”, Friedman writes in Chapter 8, titled Tremors of the Coming Storm. “The announcement came shortly before noon, and I spent the day—and the visit—being asked in various conferences and by perplexed media hosts how Trump could have won and what it would mean. The election was taken as seriously in Brisbane and Sydney as it was in Cincinnati or New York. Already working on this book, I tried to explain that the focus should be not on the man but on his place in the cycle. It did not go over well, because the fascination was with his personality. That remains the case, but I will argue that that is a mistake.”
Friedman stops short of predicting who will win the 2020 election, but he downplays the significance of the outcome and its ability to stop the turn from happening. “But while the ascending class has not yet reached its limit, the descending class is continually bleeding power. That means that the 2020s will be more complex than even the current configuration hints at.” He also dismisses Trump as being ineffective and unlikely to usher necessary change. “He could not convert his opponents,” he observes, “nor could his opponents convert his supporters. Therefore, Trump does not represent the transition to the new era.” According to Friedman, this process will take time, because it must wait for the next generation to mature. “The children of what are called millennials will be the ones who revolt against the previous generations’ rootlessness. They will be the ones who find computers and the Internet old-fashioned and creating powerful family ties modern.”
Throughout the book, Friedman makes a visible effort to not take sides politically – and given his job, he is good at it. “Who will be Democrats and Republicans is unknown and unimportant,” he concludes. “They will be the heirs of the coalition that defeated the technocrats, and have taken several decades to define themselves fully, and assert their claim to power. And as they settle into power, the forerunners of the seventh socioeconomic cycle will emerge.”
So in conclusion, this was an excellent and informative book by a credible and respected geopolitical strategist. One does not have to agree with Friedman to benefit from his insights. Likewise, one does not have to enjoy the topic to agree with its importance. Beyond the geopolitical insights, the book is filled with precious observations, such as “the tribalism of the Internet actually limits the penetration,” that make it more valuable than the predictions alone would suggest. As such, I highly recommend this book.
Part One: The Invention of America
1. The American Regime and a Restless Nation
Let’s consider a phrase in the Declaration of Independence that is so common to the American mind that its incredible idiosyncrasy is ignored. The founders speak of three rights: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The source for this phrase was John Locke, a British philosopher who spoke of “the right to life, liberty, and property.” The founders changed “property” to “the pursuit of happiness.” They deliberately chose this term, which is both difficult to understand and at the core of American culture. Technology and invention are always, in some sense, tied to happiness. The computer, the automobile, the telephone, and so on made working, traveling, and communicating easier. They opened up possibilities that had not been there before. Think of the advances in medicine. Medical breakthroughs don’t eliminate death, but they might keep it at bay for a while, and that makes us happy. So technology and happiness are intimately linked in American life, to the point that technology is at times a substitute for other types of happiness, such as love and the divine. Americans value those things, but they love cutting-edge technology with a different but real passion. Any discussion of the invention of the American government, therefore, must turn to invention in general and from there to happiness. The founders knew that, which is why the Declaration of Independence declared the pursuit of happiness an inherent right. And that creates a puzzle. The pursuit of happiness defines American culture. It is not that there aren’t other paths, such as duty and love and charity. But they all orbit around the central core of pursuing an end, happiness, which is a highly individual concept and can be defined in as many ways as there are people. All are invited to establish their own definition of happiness. If we think of it in this way, the definition of liberty becomes clear. Liberty is the precondition to the pursuit of happiness. Liberty is the freedom to define one’s own happiness. Happiness is the emotional engine powering the United States. It is the only country to make the pursuit of happiness a fundamental right. But with happiness comes disappointment, just as with technology comes obsolescence.
The regime is a machine, a novel tool for getting things done. But as what needs to get done changes, the structure of the regime must change as well. And changing state institutions has traditionally been painful and intimately tied to war.
2. The Land—a Place Called America
Plymouth Colony is better known to Americans, and many believe it was the first English colony. It was the second, after Jamestown, and, if one includes Roanoke, the third. Like Jamestown, Plymouth Colony was funded by a venture capital group, this one called the Merchant Adventurers. Most of the settlers weren’t Pilgrims but adventurers like those who settled Jamestown. The Pilgrims didn’t run the colony. The Merchant Adventurers did. And the colony was divided between the religious and the adventurers, called Strangers. The Mayflower Compact was a tricky piece of work. The majority of men were Strangers. But if one counts women and children who could not vote, the Pilgrims were in the majority and set rules that outvoted the adventurers, causing substantial tensions.
The region was filled with beavers, which the Europeans highly valued for men’s top hats. Trappers captured beavers and traded with the Indians for them, then sold them at a trading post near today’s Albany. The pelts were transported to New Amsterdam, from where they were shipped and sold in Europe. New Amsterdam harbor became the main link between North America and Europe. Then, in 1664, England seized it and renamed it New York.
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence were part of the generation that lived through the Seven Years’ War. Almost all the signers were born between 1720 and 1740, and the United States had changed dramatically during their lives. In 1720, there were about 466,000 Europeans living in the colonies. By 1740, that number had risen to about 900,000, and by 1776 there were about 2.5 million. The colonists’ population was about the same size as that of Portugal, a mature continental power.
Napoleon’s desperate need for cash, and Jefferson’s yearning for Louisiana, gave the United States the key to global power for $15 million, a staggeringly small amount even then. Napoleon was a great soldier. Jefferson understood grand strategy.
Pekka Hämäläinen in his award-winning book The Comanche Empire chronicles the rise, dominion, and fall of an aggressive Indian empire that existed at the same time as the American movement westward.
Comanche braves became incredibly skilled horsemen, more so than the braves from other Indian nations or even the Europeans, who’d had horses for millennia. Horses and historic grievances over their dispossession powered the Comanche’s reemergence.
In the East, well-populated farming communities grew up, and the small towns of American memory were created. In the West, the population had to be more widely spread, so as not to tap the aquifer too intensely in any one area, forcing wells to be drilled deeper and with far more difficulty. The farther west you went, the less likely there was to be farming and the more likely there would be ranching—grazing the grassland. In the West, communities were smaller and more scattered, and the settlers were less reliant on neighbors than on themselves. Two very different ethics emerged. In the East, there were communities. To the west, there was a more solitary life. It created a different political sensibility. In the East, there had to be collaboration. In the West, collaboration brought unnecessary complexity. … But even in less stressful times, like now, the view of Donald Trump is very different in the Northeast and Pacific coast than it is in the South or non-coastal West. And the division was similar in the 1960s. At times of stress and cyclical change, the geography referred to by George Washington reemerges.
3. The American People
The first wave of migrants was Scots-Irish, Scottish Presbyterians who had settled in Ireland. Their hunger was for land and freedom from elites. They were a rowdy bunch, seen by many of those of English heritage as unassimilable. They were not the last to be labeled as such.
The first core culture of the United States was the culture of the first English settler. Initially, this meant English and Protestant. The white Anglo-Saxon Protestant remained the defining center of American culture until after World War II, when the vast numbers of other nationalities and religions were integrated into the military, side by side with the WASPs. With that, the idea that the WASPs were the American culture declined, save for one thing: the English language, which was always at the center of the American experience. One could choose not to learn English but would then be excluded from the economic and social life of America. Because immigrants came here precisely for the social and economic benefits, refusing to learn English was self-defeating.
The men fought the war, but the women won it.
What Edison did was to combine the art of invention with an understanding of business. Edison grasped what others had missed. Technology is intended to create products, and products must be sold. He understood the subtlety of invention, which was not mastering the science nor building the product. The subtlety was in understanding what society needed and what the customer would buy.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Edison
Consider this number. There are approximately twenty-five million men and women either serving in the U.S. armed forces or veterans of them alive at this moment. That is a staggering number, but it does not capture the whole picture. A soldier is not alone in war.
Part Two: American Cycles
4. How America Changes
The title of this book is The Storm Before the Calm. It is in general about the United States, but in particular about the idiosyncratic way the country evolves. The United States periodically reaches a point of crisis in which it appears to be at war with itself, yet after an extended period it reinvents itself, in a form both faithful to its founding and radically different from what it had been.
We tend to evaluate America based on day-to-day news stories and immediate trends and feelings, but the larger wheels of America are driven by two very orderly cycles—the institutional and the socioeconomic. The institutional cycle controls the relationship between the federal government and the rest of American society, and it runs its course roughly every eighty years. The socioeconomic cycle shifts about every fifty years and alters the dynamic of the American economy and society. Each cycle goes through the same process.
Over the course of nearly 250 years, it has changed dramatically, from a third world country clinging to the edge of the Atlantic to the dominant global power. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the United States did not tear itself apart due to the speed and pressures of change. Even the Civil War ultimately set the stage for peaceful and dramatic national development. The basic questions that have to be answered are why the United States evolved as dramatically as it did, why it didn’t tear itself apart, and where it goes from here.
The American cycle matches the American nature. Stemming from the first immigrants’ sense of urgency to earn a living, Americans are impatient by nature, and that impatience leads to action, and that action leads to cycles that are both orderly and, by the measure of history, rapid.
We tend to think of our lives as matters of choice. But that isn’t true. There are exceptions to the rule, and certainly there are outliers, but generally speaking if you were born in Burundi, you will have a different life from someone born in Kansas. Where we are born, who our parents were, and what resources they had, how smart and talented we are, and all the other variables constrain what we can do.
There is obviously a level in which humans make their own choices, but as Adam Smith pointed out, all those individual choices lead to a predictable nation. It is predictability that is behind the orderliness of American cycles.
5. How Geopolitics Frames the 2020s
The United States is learning how to be an empire, creating enormous pressures on the world and on American institutions and the American public. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the clumsy management of the eighteen-year war against the jihadists.
There are empires built out of intention, such as Hitler’s. There are empires that emerge without any intention. Rome didn’t intend to be an empire. The inability of Europe to contain its violent tendencies caused it to lose its own formal empires while leaving a vacuum that the United States and the Soviet Union were drawn into. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there remained regional powers, but no global ones except for the United States.
There are those who want to emulate what they think the founders wished, which was to avoid foreign entanglements. … The debate between morality and national security touches on a second debate, somewhat different from the first. This is the debate between avoiding foreign entanglements and pursuing the national interest through constant involvement in the world. Although this entanglement has never stopped, many today still speak fondly of a time, before they were born, in which the United States looked out for itself. It neither asked for help nor gave it, separated from the world by two massive oceans. In fact, such a time never existed.
From the beginning of its existence, the United States was engaged in diplomacy, power politics, wars, and every foreign entanglement imaginable. That was inevitable. Nations rarely last long if they aren’t aware of foreign threats and opportunities. Nevertheless, in spite of the reality, there is a longing in American culture for a time that never was.
The shock of Pearl Harbor moved the United States from confidence in its power, and the belief in the protection of distance, into a nation on constant alert, searching for the next enemy, and committed to not repeating the mistake of Pearl Harbor.
Out of Pearl Harbor was generated the conspiracy theory that Roosevelt not only knew of the Japanese attack but made certain that no one stopped it so that he could justify entering World War II. The sense of dread and the fear of conspiracies were part of the same shift.
During the Korean War, Harry Truman went to war without any authorization of Congress. The Cuban missile crisis was a purely presidential decision, as was the 1998 intervention in Kosovo. The congressional role in authorizing war was at least diminished and sometimes omitted.
From December 7, 1941, to December 31, 1991, almost fifty years to the day, the United States was in a state of permanent war and near war. Of the fifty years, about fourteen were spent in actual warfare (World War II, Korea, and Vietnam). The other thirty-six years were spent on hair-trigger alert for possible nuclear war with the Soviets. When a human being is constantly in conflict or on alert, the adrenaline alters him. In the case of the United States, in addition to a perpetual anxiety, there was a hunger for secrecy, the creation of massive institutions to manage the vast military and defense industrial apparatus, and the institution of military service as a commonplace event in everyday life. But adrenaline does not only pump you up; it also exhausts you.
Inevitably, the United States affected vast areas of the world and, in so doing, generated both hostility and a desire to align with the United States. But there was no empire of intent, no plan to dominate the world. On the contrary, the overriding impulse was to avoid extensive involvement or, when involved, to focus on spreading American values, rather than establish a system of exploitation.
The United States has little reason to build an empire for economic and trade purposes. It exports only 13 percent of its GDP to the world, compared with Germany, which exports almost 50 percent, or China’s exports in excess of 20 percent of GDP. At the same time, the United States is the largest importer in the world, although its imports are only 15 percent of its GDP. The point here is that foreign trade is useful to the United States, but not so useful as to need to impose an empire to assure it. It does not have to require massive imports, nor is it vulnerable to fluctuations in its exports. Indeed, rather than seeking to lock in trade agreements, the United States tends to want to leave, or renegotiate, those agreements, as we have seen during NAFTA and the China trade negotiations.
The economic motive for empire isn’t there. Nevertheless, without intention, the American economy is so large and so dynamic that it is constantly affecting the rest of the world. A technical evolution in an American consumer product causes producers around the world to retool their factories. A shift in the American diet can have immense and far-reaching consequences. It can cause massive displacement of sugar or corn growers; it can encourage the planting of quinoa.
The tradition of much of the world revolves around religion and family, and the culture of the United States disrupts both. In the Islamic world, but also in many other places, the presence of American culture is perceived as intending to undermine traditions, the family, and thereby the society as a whole.
The United States sees this happening and in some ways applauds it. It sees young people around the world living under tyranny and listening to American rap music on an iPhone, and the United States assumes that what will happen is the substitution of liberal democracy for tyranny. The spread of technology and music subverts culture, and it is assumed that it will bring other American values along with it. This rarely happens, but it does reveal the persistence in the belief that the transformation and the adoption of American values are desirable. It is no surprise the United States is resented. It is also no surprise that in poll after poll, when citizens of foreign countries are asked what country they would rather live in if they left their own, the United States is always the overwhelming choice.
Empires are resented and hated. They are also admired and envied. They define the culture of the world. By this definition, the United States is an empire. English has become the global language of business and government, and it has become an expectation that professionals around the world will speak English. I have been at meetings where the United States was vehemently condemned by foreign experts and politicians speaking English. The British opened the door to the use of English, but the Americans have taken it much further. The fact that American power exists without any formal structure indicates that the United States is more powerful than most empires have been, historically. Its empire is not only global but casual. It has and uses power casually, controlling the world without a clear plan or even a systematic intent.
In Cheyenne Mountain, in Colorado Springs, the 24-7 watch of the skies continues, looking for something, but not at all clear what it is looking for. The United States could have shut down Cheyenne Mountain. It did not. Endless watching for attack has become institutionalized.
Psychologically, September 11 was on the order of Pearl Harbor. It came out of nowhere, organized by a force that most Americans hadn’t heard of before, resurrecting the fears we saw in High Noon. The American response was to send a multidivisional force into Afghanistan, where the attack against the United States had been organized. This was followed by a multidivisional invasion of Iraq and smaller attacks in other countries. In other words, the United States, in spite of the lesson in Vietnam, deployed a conventional force to fight a guerrilla war.
Managing an empire means using minimum force, because a global empire is likely to be constantly at war if its first response is to use its own military. The primary strategy for empires is to use diplomacy or the military of others, rather their own. Arming those forces, and giving them political or economic inducements to fight, at least contains the problem without involving imperial forces. The British controlled India with relatively few British troops, using this technique … Both Rome and Britain survived by using minimal direct force, in favor of other means of managing their empires.
Institutionally, the United States doesn’t know how to decline combat. Military force is too frequently used to solve problems that are beyond the ability of the military to solve. The decision-making structure in Washington is complex, diffuse, and at odds with itself. It has streamlined itself not for routine decisions but primarily for crises. Thus, anything that must be dealt with must be elevated to crisis level or the system freezes. Efficient decision making beneath the crisis level is rare. And for an empire, every challenge cannot mean war, and every sub-crisis issue cannot make efficient decision making impossible.
6. The Institutional Cycles and War
The United States was born in battle. Its institutions were forged in war. Every eighty years or so, the United States shifts the way its political institutions work.
If this pattern continues as it has, the next institutional cycle will begin around 2025. The coming fourth cycle will redefine the relationship of the federal government to itself. So that we can understand what this next cycle will look like, both as it is taking place and as it defines the next eighty years, we need to understand the previous cycles and the manner in which American invention and reinvention work in this framework.
Constitutionally, the primary function of the federal government is to assure national security. The president is also the commander in chief of the armed forces. From the beginning many powers remained with the states. One that was reserved for the federal government was waging foreign wars.
Let’s compare the amount of time the United States spent at war in the last few centuries. In the twentieth century, it was involved in major wars such as World War I and World War II and Vietnam for 17 percent of the time. In the nineteenth century, the percentage was higher. Conventional wars took up about 21 percent of the century, including the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War. However, when we include the war against Indian nations, it comes close to 100 percent of the time. And to this point the United States has been at war for almost 100 percent of the twenty-first century. All wars aren’t equal. The Civil War and World War II placed unique stress on the nation, as has the long war in the Middle East coupled with terrorism and America’s new role in the world.
This changes not only U.S. foreign policy but the institutional structure of the United States. The entire world is a potential antagonist and requires constant management. U.S. institutions and the public perception of what it means to be an American must adjust, which is both a difficult and an extended process. But as we’ve seen with all the cycles, war and the constant pressure of war compel institutional change. What must happen now is an emergence of a mature and restrained pattern of behavior in America’s relation to the rest of the world.
The Depression posed a profound problem. Unless it was managed, it would certainly lead to social unrest or even an uprising. Many were desperate, and desperation can threaten institutions. The only way the federal government could manage this problem was to break out of the existing institutional framework and intervene in the economy. … Given the pressures both on the working class and on the industrial plant, simply allowing nature to take its course was not viable. … The New Deal didn’t end the Depression, but it established the principle that the federal government was in some way responsible for the economy and could legitimately intervene in the economy and society. … What did solve the problem, ended the Depression, and finally broke the institutions of the second cycle was war. The essence of American strategy in World War II was industrial production. Building 300,000 aircraft, 6,000 ships, and almost 200,000 tanks would win the war. … The war also broke down many barriers between public and private life and changed private life as well, with women and African Americans being permitted into roles that had previously been barred to them. The greatest barrier that was broken was the barrier between the federal government and business. Business thrived on federal contracts, but in turn was managed to an extraordinary extent by the federal government.
After World War II, the federal government retreated. Things like rationing were eliminated; the size of the military shrank. And government contracts did not dominate the economy. But the government engagement with private life did not go away, with the military driving much of that engagement at first. … The single most dramatic example of this alliance was the Manhattan Project. Scientists discovered the basic principles of nuclear fission in universities. With the outbreak of the war, they presented the military with the possibility of building an atomic bomb. The military organized the scientists and tied them to business, whose industrial capacity and other expertise would be needed to produce the bomb. The Manhattan Project succeeded, and the standing of scientists was elevated in the minds of citizens, the military, and the federal government. They were the foundation of America’s victory.
In the prior institutional cycle, the practice had been that science and technology were the purviews of universities and corporations. Thomas Edison was the embodiment of the corporate exploitation of science, and as we have seen, he was dramatically successful. He was also a committed pacifist who opposed the use of his work by the military. This practice didn’t work in World War II, because it was too diffuse and unpredictable. In a war, focus and predictability were essential. Therefore, federal departments organized universities and their scientists and corporations and their engineers into a single, federally funded enterprise, and they were not pacifists. … This model is still very much in place. Look at the smartphone. The cell phone was first deployed for the U.S. Army in 1985. The National Reconnaissance Office first designed the camera in the smartphone for use in spy satellites. The GPS function on a cell phone was first devised and implemented by the U.S. Air Force, lithium-ion batteries were developed by the Department of Energy, and the Internet was pioneered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. So what you have in the smartphone is a compendium of military hardware, much of it researched in universities and turned into weapons and products by corporations. Because federal inventions can’t be patented, companies like Apple took the technology and developed the smartphone. Science, industry, and the federal government, particularly the military, combined to drive the American economy. It was in the relationship between the federal government and a redefinition of institutions that we can see the triumph and failure of the system.
There is a vast difference between granting land to settlers and creating a financial system for home ownership, which in turn changed the landscape of America. Veterans returned from World War II as a favored class. Many married and wanted to have their own homes, but they lacked the money for a down payment. The federal government stepped in and guaranteed the loans, and they were made with no money down and at low interest rates. It gave the veterans a just reward and stimulated the economy. It was a conceptually simple program, unprecedented in its intrusion into what had previously been something managed in the private sphere, between lender and borrower. But the program followed the principles of the new cycle and had far-reaching effects in helping to create the postwar middle class. In tracing its course, we can also see how it led to the crisis of 2008. .. In this case, the growth of the suburbs intensified with similar programs that intertwined with other American realities. The VA loan concept was extended to lower-income home buyers who had not been veterans. It was managed by the Federal Housing Administration and allowed the lower-middle class to buy homes. The program was a great success, and it was decided that the banks holding them could sell these guaranteed mortgages to investors, increasing money available for lending. This increase of available money delighted the construction industry, home buyers, and banks. The purpose here is not to track the details of the subprime crisis. It is to make the point that this started as a very reasonable program to help veterans. … In due course, it ended in disaster. As we can now see, these disasters took decades to work themselves through.
The institutional problem was not that the government had grown too large. In fact, relative to population, it has not kept up. The number of government employees has doubled since 1940, but the population has more than doubled, from 139 million to 320 million. Some facts are worth noting. The federal government’s last growth spurt was during the Reagan administration.
When the creditworthiness of an individual or corporation is examined, three things are considered: indebtedness, annual revenue, and total assets. For reasons difficult to understand, when the creditworthiness of a country is evaluated, only one year’s revenue (GDP) is measured against total debt. It is as if the total of an individual’s debt, from home mortgage, car loans, and student debt, were measured against one year’s income. Obviously, that would be irrational. Think about the situation of a billionaire who has $50 million of income one year and has $100 million of debt. If you ignore he is a billionaire, he would be in desperate financial shape. If you add in his assets, he is very comfortable. When you look at the chart, you can see that American assets, very conservatively measured, vastly outstrip debt. The United States is like the billionaire with debt larger than this year’s income but well within his means to handle. Obviously, the same ratio of GDP to debt for different countries will have very different outcomes. Some countries collapse under this level of debt because of limited assets. The problem of the federal government is not its indebtedness or its size. …The problem is rather that the dramatically increasing level of federal involvement in society has outstripped its institutional capabilities. This is the reason that the national debt has not had the consequence that many were predicting since the 1980s. The problem with the federal government is not financial. It is institutional.
The other problem is entanglement, multiple federal agencies engaged in managing parts of the same problem. One form of entanglement is that of the various agencies, which battle each other for funding and turf. The Administrative Conference of the United States lists 115 agencies of the federal government but notes, There is no authoritative list of government agencies….For example, FOIA.gov [maintained by the Department of Justice] lists 78 independent executive agencies and 174 components of the executive departments as units that comply with the Freedom of Information Act requirements imposed on every federal agency. This appears to be on the conservative end of the range of possible agency definitions. The United States Government Manual lists 96 independent executive units and 220 components of the executive departments. An even more inclusive listing comes from USA.gov, which lists 137 independent executive agencies and 268 units in the Cabinet. There are so many entities within entities that it is impossible to count them all. The entanglement of various agencies with each other is compounded by a massive entanglement with society. The barrier having been broken, there are few areas of private life in which the federal government is not in some way involved. Health care, education at all levels, agriculture, transportation, managing international trade, virtually any significant area of private life is somehow bound up with the federal government, either as regulator or as major consumer. And there is hardly any area where only a single agency is involved. The entanglement between agencies becomes the defining characteristic of the federal system.
Another important aspect of the third institutional cycle is that the balance of the three federal powers has changed. Probably the most obvious is that the power of the president has increased dramatically. His formal powers have not increased, but his weight in the overall system has. Partly it was to do with domestic affairs, a result of his ability to interpret the meaning of laws in the course of writing regulations and administering the law. The second and the real impetus to the rest was the shift in his powers in foreign policy. … This was then extended to conventional war. No war since World War II was waged with a declaration of war, and many began without even a congressional resolution. The Korean War had no congressional involvement because President Truman claimed that since the UN Security Council had declared a police action, and the United States was part of the UN, waging war in Korea required no congressional approval. It was the first war of any size without congressional approval. The same was true in Vietnam, where President Lyndon Johnson claimed that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which did not address the question of whether a multiyear, multidivisional war might be waged, was authorization for the war in which fifty thousand Americans died. During the Cuban missile crisis, the question of what ought to be done was decided by the president and his advisers, without formal or even informal congressional approval.
The crisis is this: institutions built on expertise are no longer working. … President Trump came into office promising to “drain the swamp,” a metaphor for attacking technocracy, but he had neither the clarity as to how to proceed nor the political base from which to do it. The country was still divided down the middle, with the technocrats successfully defending their institutions.
7. The Socioeconomic Cycles
American society and the American economy have a rhythm. Every fifty years or so, they go through a painful and wrenching crisis, and in those times it often feels as if the economy were collapsing, and American society with it. Policies that had worked for the previous fifty years stop working, causing significant harm instead.
Political instability will arise a decade or more before the shift, accompanied by growing economic problems and social divisions. When the crisis matures, it concludes with someone who will be regarded as a failed president and with the emergence of a new president who does not create the new cycle but rather permits it to take place. Over the following decade or so, the United States reshapes itself, and the new era emerges.
To date there have been five of these socioeconomic cycles. The first began with George Washington and ended with John Quincy Adams. The second began with Andrew Jackson and ended with Ulysses S. Grant. The third began with Rutherford B. Hayes and ended with Herbert Hoover. The fourth began with Franklin Roosevelt and ended with Jimmy Carter. The fifth began with Ronald Reagan and will end with someone whose name we don’t know yet, but he or she will likely be elected president in 2028. We have to remember that presidents are simply the street signs. The cycle is working itself out in the murky depths.
Alexander Hamilton had created the First Bank of the United States. It was privately owned but designed to manage a stable currency. … Settlers were being crushed by Hamilton’s formerly useful and now-harmful idea of how credit ought to be managed.
The election of 1824 was perhaps the wildest in American history. Jackson felt that Adams had stolen the election, and he could make a case for that. The Electoral College could not manage to muster a majority, divided as it was over several candidates. It wound up in the House of Representatives, the only election ever to go there, and the deal making was prodigious. Adams won, and the Washington era hung on. John Quincy Adams’s presidency was a disaster. Adams’s goal was to preserve the existing financial system. Adams did not understand the new cycle that was beginning. Being the last president of an era means being unable to accommodate the future. The era Adams loved was gone. America had changed since 1776. Part of the change was geopolitical: the land west of the Appalachians had to be settled. Part was ethnic: a new wave of immigrants brought with it a different culture. Part was economic: the approach to the financial policy of the first era could not support new economic realities. The old model was exhausted, and there was no going back. Either a new system would emerge, or the nation would fragment.
Jackson supported the call for a dollar backed by both gold and silver. Gold was stable but limited the money supply. Silver was less rare and therefore built expansion into the currency. By linking the dollar to both metals, Jackson hoped to create sufficient liquidity without causing bubbles. … However, he governed toward the end of the cycle in which Grant was the failed president.
This financial crisis hit shares in railroads, the advanced technology of this era. There had been massive speculation in railroads, and in 1873, as all speculative bubbles do, it burst. The collapse of railroad stocks impacted Europe, which had invested heavily in the United States. Another major victim was the small-town banker, who had spread all over the West in the communities that had sprouted up to support regional farmers.
Ulysses S. Grant was the president who closed out this era. Regarded as ineffective, he had no idea how to deal with the financial crisis that hit toward the beginning of his second term, nor did he have any idea of how to deal with the transition that was coming. His standpoint derived from the Jackson era, which was always focused on land and modestly inflating currency. The problem was that the country consisted no longer of settlers clearing the land but of small towns (and because Grant was from Ohio, he should have understood that) and a surging industrialism that in about a quarter of a century would produce one-half of the world’s manufactured products. There was an economic and social upheaval that could not be solved through the policies of the current cycle. But like all last presidents of a cycle, he had no other point of reference but the past.
By 1900, the United States was producing half the manufactured goods in the world. For most of the third cycle, the United States was rapidly expanding its production and increasing its consumption. It constantly needed more labor, and immigrants swarmed in, enlarging the cities and making them even more exotic. The United States surged by every measure.
Part Three: The Crisis and the Calm
8. First Tremors of the Coming Storm
When Donald Trump emerged as the winner of the American presidency, I was in Australia. The announcement came shortly before noon, and I spent the day—and the visit—being asked in various conferences and by perplexed media hosts how Trump could have won and what it would mean. The election was taken as seriously in Brisbane and Sydney as it was in Cincinnati or New York. Already working on this book, I tried to explain that the focus should be not on the man but on his place in the cycle. It did not go over well, because the fascination was with his personality. That remains the case, but I will argue that that is a mistake.
It is interesting to note that at the time of political instability there is frequently a new communication technology that is blamed for the dissemination of negativity or vitriol. In the 1960s, it was television, rendering the country passive victims of the news media. In the 1920s, it was the movies, peddling a form of collective sentimentality and licentiousness, along with radio introducing the immediacy of news. There is always a new form of media that is blamed, but these media are just ways to explain the unexpected rancor of the time. The Internet allows millions to read, and social media allows people to voice their views in unprecedented ways, but the users of the Internet and social media fall into tribes. They follow others who are peddling ideas they already agree with and intensify existing feelings. The tribalism of the Internet actually limits the penetration, just as FOX is followed by its partisans and MSNBC by its.
We are currently seeing something slightly different. What makes this transition between cycles unique is not the Internet or the tension but, as I have said, the fact that both the socioeconomic cycle and the institutional cycle will reach crisis points at about the same time. There has been one transition that came close (approximately fifteen years apart), which was the social and economic crises that struck in 1929 in the form of the Great Depression and the institutional transition that took place in 1945 at the end of World War II. But cycles always end in failure, and now for the first time both cycles will be failing simultaneously. Either cycle’s failure places stress on the political system. In this case, there will be unprecedented stress, and we are feeling it already—the outer winds of the coming storm.
Public dissatisfaction with the federal government has always been part of American life. An old joke was that the biggest lie was saying, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But the situation has changed significantly in 2019 as opposed to the twentieth century. During World War II, the president, as commander in chief, took control of much of the American economy and society. .. Donald Trump won the election by grasping the alienation of broad sectors of society, not only from the federal government, but also from those who serve in it. There was a collision between the federal technocracy and those who had experienced and distrusted it. And Trump faced a party organized around Hillary Clinton, who was the quintessential advocate of federal power and technocracy. The election determined nothing more than that the crisis of distrust was beginning.
This shows itself most clearly in the way they deal with the declining class, the heavily white, industrial working class. In the thinking of the technocracy, the fundamental cause of oppression is whites who have historically oppressed using race, nationality, and gender. But the technocrats draw a sharp distinction between themselves (predominantly white) who are at least engaged in a struggle to transcend oppression in thought and speech and those whites who continue to practice it. This declining class is plunging economically, but for the technocracy, which embraces a vast range of incomes, that decline is not of the essence. It is their unwillingness to abandon oppression.
Racism has always been part of American history, but the issue now is not so much racism in the mind of the white working class as a matter of selective injustice. They resent that there are special programs for “oppressed minorities” but no one seems to care that white working-class incomes are in decline and birth rates of unwed mothers of this class now approach 50 percent. Drug use has become a vast epidemic. In other words, the condition of the white working class now is not dissimilar to the condition of African Americans in the 1970s.
The leader was less important than the sentiment that had formed. He simply had to recognize it was there and speak to it. None of the other Republicans could do that. They could not reject basic principles such as free trade and respect for immigrants. What the rest of the Republican Party didn’t realize is that what had been a marginal trend in the Republican Party had now become dominant. Failing to understand that, they could not speak to this class. Donald Trump promised to make America great again. This made no sense to the rest of the party or to the technocracy, both of whom believed that America not only had retained its greatness but was enhancing it. For the members of the declining industrial class, America was, in fact, in decline because their own position was becoming increasingly tenuous. Trump insulted, promised, raged; he did everything a good politician would never do. But that was precisely his strong point. He did not speak like a conventional politician. What the rest of the Republican field failed to understand was the degree to which the conventional politician was by this point held in contempt.
Trump was incomprehensible to the technocrats because the white industrial class was incomprehensible to them. … focus was on Trump, his peculiarities, and his outrageous comments. But that was not the issue, any more than Hillary Clinton’s server was the issue. Clinton acted as if her position were already won because Trump was self-evidently unacceptable and because the people who supported him were considered marginal, the “illness” that had to be cured. They were not marginal, nor were they in control. The 2016 election was essentially a tie resulting in a noisy gridlock. Trump was locked in institutionally and locked in by his nongovernmental opposition, particularly the media. He could not convert his opponents, nor could his opponents convert his supporters. Therefore, Trump does not represent the transition to the new era. He is instead the first tremor who appeared decisive to his supporters and frightening to his opponents. Trump is the first indicator of a struggle between two classes. But while the ascending class has not yet reached its limit, the descending class is continually bleeding power. That means that the 2020s will be more complex than even the current configuration hints at.
9. The Crisis of 2020s – a Clashing of Cycles
There is much discussion today, but even as we await the next election, we must realize that we are on the doorstep of the real crisis and not yet in the crisis itself.
The war is the one that began on September 11, 2001. But the critical thing to remember is that since 2001 the United States has been in a constant state of war, even if not on the scale of World War II or the Civil War. But it is a war that has lasted far longer than any other in American history. And in the inability of the government to frame the war in such a way that it might be won, the institutions of the United States revealed their fundamental weaknesses.
The argument can be summed up in Aesop’s fable of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one important thing. In order to know many things, the fox must be able to learn quickly. Without that virtue, he would never be able to know all the things he knows. He can therefore learn what he needs to know well enough to get by. But if the fox has to manage a very complex matter, he will fail. The hedgehog can manage any problem in his area of expertise, but the hedgehog can’t learn quickly. It takes time to master one big thing. … The federal government has become the domain of hedgehogs, urgently needed people but profoundly insufficient. It is wisdom that is lacking, and there is no civil service code for the wise.
Now compare this with the Supreme Court today. None of the judges have ever held political office. None had ever run a business or farm. All attended either Harvard or Yale Law School (one started at Harvard but transferred to Columbia). All are experts in the law, or, more precisely, all are experts in the current technical controversies over law. They are technicians of law educated at schools that are superb at educating technicians. As a result, there is a deep rigidity and predictability in the Court. None has the skill to force a compromise when compromise is needed. Their definition of the law does not entail the kind of common sense the Warren Court exercised in 1954, but is primarily technical. The rigidity of the Supreme Court therefore is that it is a legal and political institution, now run by technicians, utilizing seemingly nonideological methods for ideological ends. This is a problem that permeates the federal government and makes it increasingly unable to govern. Common sense, the ability to see consequences far removed from the technical issues, has been banished. The Supreme Court does not understand that sometimes abandoning the technical in favor of political common sense is its responsibility.
In 2015, a Pew survey showed that only 19 percent of Americans trusted the federal government. It should be noted that these numbers come before Trump’s election. The crisis didn’t start with Trump, but rather resulted in his presidency, and Trump is someone who senses the distrust and thrives on it. The numbers reflected the confrontation between government, media, and universities, on the one hand, and the emerging opposition, on the other.
10. The 2020s Crisis in Technology and Education
Technocracy is a critical concept necessary to understand the last and next socioeconomic crisis. A technocrat is someone who has expertise in a certain area and credentials to certify that he has that expertise. In a way technocracy might simply be considered merit. The technocrat was someone who rose not because of his birth or because of his political acumen. He rose because he had the expertise needed to do his job, whatever that might be, in public or private life. One of the critical aspects of the technocrat is that he had no ideology, or to put it another way, his only ideology was expertise—knowing something well. It was a class that spread to all areas, public or private, and carried with it the principle of efficiency. The technocrats represented a moral principle, however nonideological they wished to appear. That moral principle was the imperative toward efficiency in governance and all other spheres. It was therefore the expertise not of the plumber that was praised but of the manager, the professional, and the intellectual whose expertise was certified by the university. Thus, a class grew out of the relatively limited notion of the technocrat that arose in the Roosevelt era, a class that became powerful in the Reagan era.
Thus, there is a combination of limited money for small businesses and excess money chasing fewer investments as the microchip era matures. Interest rates are now at historic lows. Vast amounts of money were generated at the start of the era, and most of it is in the hands of investment firms and individual investors, defined as people who have more money than they need to live. At the same time, as innovation has slowed, so has business formation. Opportunities to invest without large multiples have decreased, and those who invest in mature companies face the challenge of an increasingly risky environment, as usually exists at the end of an era.
In 2024, a new president will emerge who represents the values of the declining era. The failure of his presidency will bring to power the rising class who will impose a new economic orthodoxy. And finally, in the 2030s (following the storms that began in 2016), a new cycle will emerge. Over the following few years in the 2030s, the political confrontation, social tension, and economic dysfunction will be solved. The cycle will have created a new era, different from the past but built on the same foundation of invention, and it will endure for another half a century.
The microchip was a transformative and core technology. It also reintroduced the tradition of inventors like Edison who combined innovation with business. The big question for the future is, what is the next transformative technology and how do we recognize it in its early form?
It took the microchip from about 1980 to 2020 to achieve maturity, again forty years. This is not to say in any way that the microchip is obsolete. It has transformed our lives, changing how we shop, how we communicate and find information, and even how we think. Since 1980, the microchip has dramatically driven growth in productivity. But now those productivity growth numbers are declining to near zero. … There is nothing new in the maturation of the microchip, including the inability of the culture to imagine maturity and even decline. It is nevertheless painful until a new core technology emerges. And the decade from 2020 to 2030 will already be very painful from the crises caused by the intersection of the two major cycles. Add to it that a core technology is running its course and no new core technology has yet replaced it, and that pain increases.
The ones who will challenge the technocracy in the coming decade will be the children and grandchildren of the industrial class who themselves have had no contact with industrialism beyond family memories, were raised in fairly difficult conditions, and face a grim future without a significant change in their circumstances. The vanguard of this movement will be those born from about 1990 to 2010, who will be between twenty and forty in 2030. In a sense, these will be the millennials who do not live in Manhattan or San Francisco and do not work in marketing or high tech. They are the millennials who don’t fit the clichés of the dominant culture.
The emerging transformations of the 2020s crisis will revolve around the institutions of education. How we educate and whom we educate will be bound up with technology. All the threads of the technocracy lead back to the university, from financial engineers, filmmakers, government officials, judges, to technology marketers. Individuals get three things in the university. The first is a broad array of knowledge that will allow them to enter a field, accumulate more knowledge, and succeed. The second are credentials. In the initial critical phase of a career, the questions asked are, what did you major in and where did you go to college? The answer to what you majored in gives a sense of your focus; the answer to where you went to college generates a perception of your quality of mind. Going to a satellite campus of the state university of a small state generates one kind of perception. Not going to college at all gives no credentials. There are those who succeed in spite of that, but they are few. (Bill Gates’s credentials were not undermined when he dropped out of Harvard because, after all, he had been admitted to Harvard.) The third thing individuals get at university is the opportunity to develop the connections that may support them throughout their lives. The right school and the right friends can sustain a career. The wrong school can strand you or make the battle uphill all the way. The right school will teach you the manners and values that integrate you into the technocracy. The wrong school won’t.
The emergence of two different cultures will intensify in the 2020s. Already visible is the culture of technocracy, in which merit is defined by top universities and expectations on marriage and family will continue to deviate from historical norms in various ways. Above all, the technocrats will insulate themselves from the social and political upheaval by enclosing themselves in a sense of moral excellence complementing their technical excellence. The “outsiders” will live in a sense of desperation and anger and will also experience the shift in marriage and family but as a social crisis.
The rising racial tensions we’ve seen in the past few years are bound to increase during the 2020s–2030s because of the pressures from the crises in the other areas we’ve been examining. Families and individuals facing economic hardships, cultural assaults, and a government and class of leaders that seem indifferent won’t be silent.
Attending Harvard University—including tuition, room, and board—can cost about $70,000 per year, and closer to $80,000 when factoring in textbooks, health coverage, and other essentials. Harvard is a wealthy school and can afford to help poorer students who qualify for financial aid or scholarships. State schools like Ohio State at the Columbus campus for tuition, room, and board costs a state resident about $23,000 a year, and adding in books and healthcare it’s close to $25,000 per year. This is far less than Harvard, but still $100,000 over four years. Law school, medical school, business school, costs even more. It used to be possible to work your way through college. Even at a state school, that would now be extremely difficult. There are, of course, student loans and some grants available, but borrowing to pay for college can leave the student financially crippled for years, making upward mobility an abstraction.
My point is not to trash the university. It is indispensable. It is also unsustainable in its present form. The cost of higher education can no longer be sustained. The problem of cutting costs while increasing capacity and quality is as important a problem as ending the capital shortage under Reagan or unemployment under Roosevelt. Core to alleviating the social and economic problems in the 2030s is utilizing the population and re-creating upward mobility. The university is at the heart of both the problem and the solution. It also becomes the center of a political battle.
The 2024 election will be the critical one because it will elect the last president of the Reagan cycle. As with Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover, the president will face significant economic and social problems, and what he will do is apply the basic principles of the Reagan era: lowering taxes and reducing regulations. This will be the case with either party. But the problem that the Reagan presidency was solving was capital shortage, and lower taxes helped with this. The problem at the end of the Reagan cycle is that capital has successfully expanded, but is no longer able to drive the economy, and has left a large part of society increasingly unequal. The solutions imposed will make matters worse rather than solve the problem.
We have seen the same vitriol emerge in the 2016 election, both from those supporting and from those opposing Trump. Voters in the Midwest who had been historically Democratic shifted in sufficient numbers to tilt the Electoral College and the election. The vitriol on all sides grew to extreme proportions. Trump was the target of the critics and the hero of his supporters.
11. Beyond the Storm
The 2020s will be a period of failures. The 2030s and beyond will be a period of creation.
In the military, there is the principle of commander’s intent. The commander lays down his intention to a certain level and then expects subordinates to apply that with awareness of the reality he is facing. Subordinates are not free to deviate from the intent. Nor are they free to apply the intent mechanically regardless of the reality they encounter. The commander is responsible for making his intent not only clear but understood. He then seeks to reach his intended goal by devolving initiative to his junior officers and NCOs. This is not true of all armies. For example, the Soviet army was a technocratic army. But the U.S. Army was always an army that demanded initiative based on intent. … The idea of a federal government that operates on intent and not on rigidly engineered rules seems counter to all American principles of governance, by not treating everyone and every case the same and by placing power in the hands of junior administrators. An example is that when they landed at Normandy in 1944, American forces encountered hedgerows that trapped them, making it impossible to advance. The intent was to move rapidly into France and surround the Germans. Sergeant Curtis G. Culin, discussing the problem with members of his unit, imagined a solution, which was to put blades on a tank and cut through the hedgerow. Without asking for permission, he modified a tank and discovered it worked. He violated several rules including modifying a very expensive tank without permission. General Omar Bradley saw the innovation, couldn’t imagine reprimanding him, gave him the Legion of Merit, and ordered tanks refitted with Culin’s solution. Bradley’s intent was known to his forces. Culin, understanding the intent, acted on it in an unexpected way that was the key to breaking out of Normandy.
The first battle will be over student loans, which now constitute an amount larger than the subprime pool of 2008. The end or modification of the student loan system will suddenly limit not only how much universities can raise costs but whether they can maintain them. Universities will have to cut extravagant costs. Vast amounts of money can be raised by selling extraordinarily valuable land and moving into simpler quarters. A visit to a European university will reveal Spartan quarters when compared with most American universities.
Diseases that kill quickly are economically sustainable. Keeping people alive who can’t produce is economically debilitating.
The core problem of the next sociopolitical cycle will be demographic. I pointed this out in The Next 100 Years when I wrote that one of the central problems was the decline in birth rates and the extension of life expectancy. In 2018, the birth rate in the United States was the lowest ever. It has declined in all native-born ethnic groups.
Social media embodies this. It is a place of anonymity where you can reinvent yourself many times. It is a place where you can be heard but not known. And this is its mortal problem. In the end, for all of the distance the microchip has made possible, human beings must know whom they are speaking to. This is not a very profound truth, but it is the truth that the believers in social media have missed. But all media have their moment. The third cycle had radio. The fourth had television, and the fifth had the computer. At each step, human attention focused more on the delivery system than on other humans. Today, when you walk into a bar, there are no debates or seductions under way. Men and women sit looking at their phones.
But here there is an oddity. Television absorbed you. The cell phone connects you. Granted it is a strange and unprecedented way, as the rise of texting has superseded the prime purpose of the phone—a conversation hearing another person’s voice. But as distorted as the connection might be, the phone, and its obsessive use, speak to the craving we have for other people. It is a caricature of human relationships, but a hunger for them as well. It doesn’t create the loss of bonds. That was created by a shifting reality. The phone and even the text message are representations of the unwillingness of human beings to be simply alone. Social media is too anonymous to survive as a social foundation in the sixth cycle. But the human connection, frayed and chaotic, is still there.
If birth and death are at the center of the age, and the rituals for both are in tatters, the hunger for companionship is still there and asserting itself constantly. Since the invention of the telegraph, technology has been at the center of our communications. Therefore, the expectation is that the sixth cycle will have a new communication technology at its center. It won’t. It won’t, because communication technology has reached its reductio ad absurdum. It has become so thin in its efficiency that it cannot sustain the emotional needs of a human life. What will actually happen is the transcendence of the microchip culture and an aggressive reassertion of community, not perhaps with the old rituals, but with a culture that has at its center the avoidance of loneliness. The self-imposed loneliness of the microchip cannot sustain itself in human relations. It imposes rituals as all things human do. But they are rituals that may be addictive but can’t be satisfying. In this, there will inevitably be a return to the past. Or more precisely, moving the computer into its limited place re-creates the past.
The hunger for AI represents the end point, because it proposes, at its most extreme, a replacement for human beings. Having the ability to think, it can replace human judgment in driving cars. But the claim is far-fetched. In order to create an artificial analogue of something real—such as intelligence—it is necessary to understand how we think. No one really understands how our minds work. The sterile logic of computers and their programs don’t begin to grasp how we think. Thinking is far from a logical process. When I write, I suddenly discover things via a sense of excitement, and I don’t know where it comes from. An analogue of intelligence is impossible until we come to understand thinking. In the meantime, we can have more powerful programs doing important things, but we will not have emotions, and without emotions there is no intelligence. … But AI takes an important place in all of this. The advocates of AI think that this would be a triumph of humanity. Apart from issues like jobs and computer failures, AI would undercut the necessity of humans for each other. We come together out of economic and other necessity. We remain bonded out of the pleasure in the fact that we are both human. AI, if it worked, would undermine the necessity that brings us together. The accidental insight and encounter are at the heart of human intelligence, and artificial intelligence, if it could be created, would destroy them by its inhuman efficiency.
Technological enthusiasts always extrapolate too far. When airlines began flying 707s, the dream was a rocket that would take us from New York to London in an hour. When electricity became commonplace, it was believed that all human mental function could be explained through electricity. Pictures from the 1930s of what cities would look like saw mile-high towers, highways in the sky, and no hint of a tree. … Some of course may come to be, and many others will press forward. But technology is a poor guide to what comes next. The reaction to technology is frequently not what the technologists want to see.
The children of what are called millennials will be the ones who revolt against the previous generations’ rootlessness. They will be the ones who find computers and the Internet old-fashioned and creating powerful family ties modern.
Who will be Democrats and Republicans is unknown and unimportant. They will be the heirs of the coalition that defeated the technocrats, and have taken several decades to define themselves fully, and assert their claim to power. And as they settle into power, the forerunners of the seventh socioeconomic cycle will emerge.
The foundation of the American empire is not the military nor even the economy. It is rock and roll, T-shirts that say “Santa Barbara,” and New York Yankee baseball caps. It is going to a conference of people from twenty countries, with everyone speaking perfect English because it is the only language they have in common. It is above all the computer and programming languages that exist only in English. It is people resenting and even hating the United States yet hoping their children might attend an American university. The foundation of any empire is not guns, something that Hitler and Stalin never grasped. It is money, and the envy that brings. But more important than money or guns is the technology that represents the future and the culture that speaks of being contemporary. All lasting empires are empires of the mind and soul, empires that cause others to crave to emulate them.
The United States was not founded to be an empire. Yet it is. “Empire” has been a term of approbation since the American Revolution. But there are two kinds of empires. One kind is strictly exploitative such as Hitler’s attempt at creating an empire. The second type of empire benefits from the empire but also creates a system of symbiotic relations that all benefit from. That empire is held together not only by imperial force but by the benefits the colonials obtain. So, the Roman Empire conquered other nations, yet the desire to be part of the Roman system, while not universal, was common. The same can be said for the Persian Empire. The empire moves from being a conqueror to an overseer of economic growth, trade, and peace that would never have existed otherwise. It is also an instrument for cultural transfer and cultural evolution.
This points to the problem of the United States’ immaturity. A mature national strategy minimizes conflict because an empire, with forces present in 150 countries of the world, has an endless possibility for conflict and war is more often initiated by its opponents. This can destroy a nation’s dynamism. At the same time, the access to the world’s resources, markets, and innovations creates a dynamic society. Empire can’t be abandoned, nor can it be simply embraced. It must be managed with maturity. … Maturity is the foundation of empires, and the United States needs to achieve that stability. However, it is not the foundation of American domestic life. The cycles I have discussed are constantly returning to the beginning, and each cycle is a new invention of what America is. After both institutional and socioeconomic cycles mature, the problems swirl into a crisis, and the solution is found in starting over. There is an inherent tension between the necessary prudence of foreign policy and the orderly immaturity of the cycles.
The elderly have wisdom, a sense of what human life is about, and what things are important and what are not. They don’t always have the latest knowledge or use the latest technology. I used to be fascinated by computing. About a decade ago, I stopped caring. People younger than I am know far more than I do about computing. From my perspective, I have learned that computers are less important than love, that they may even interfere with the ability to love. Now, that may be either wisdom or crankiness, but it is not knowledge. As Americans live even longer with some regularity, the country may become wiser but less knowledgeable. And given that knowledge is essential to driving the cycles forward, the crisis of 2080 may well be built around the heavy weight of a large elderly population, in good health and filled with wisdom but unable to move beyond a cycle that’s failing because of their presence and power.
All nations contain some elements of wildness. None have institutionalized the chaos as has the United States. It is this wildness that manifests itself in our cycles, mirroring the lives of individuals. They are born to overthrow reality; they create a new and unprecedented solution, much of it spreading around the world. The cycle drowns in its own successes and weaknesses in the seemingly reckless overthrow of all that was solid and found wanting. It is a country that has introduced revolution within the framework of the founding and institutionalized courage on all levels.
At the heart of this is the culture of technology. It is not unique to America, but it still is quintessentially American. In a book by Arthur Koestler on Stalin’s purges, the protagonist, sitting in his cell, wonders what is happening in the world, having not read a newspaper in months. He wonders if the Americans have invented time travel. This gives you a sense of how the world, even in the 1930s, thought of America. No great art, no deep thought, no brilliant strategy, but a country capable of extraordinary feats of technological brilliance.
America is a country in which the storm is essential to clear the way for the calm. Because Americans, obsessed with the present and future, have difficulty remembering the past, they will all believe that there has never been a time as uncivil and tense as this one. They will wait for the collapse of all things and loathe all those who produced it—which will be those with whom they disagree. It will be a time of self-righteous self-certainty, hatred, sometimes murderous, for those they despise. And then the patterns of history work their way through, using the raw material available. American power in the world will sustain itself, because the power of a country like the United States, a vast economy and military and seductive culture, does not decline because it is hated. All empires are hated and envied. Power is not diminished by either.
The permanent things in America’s founding—our rights and the Constitution—serve to drive both the prudence and the recklessness of the country. And it is the combination of these two things that has allowed the United States to evolve over nearly 250 years of stability and chaos. There is no evidence of it ending. The current storm is nothing more than what is normal for this time in America’s history and our lives.
A book that took five years to write by its nature accumulates many debts.