Friday, November 22, 2013

How elite overproduction causes breakdown

There’s a new article on Bloomberg by Peter Turchin, whose blog I mentioned a few days ago. It’s entitled Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays (Naked capitalism suggests ‘highly credentialed' as an alternative for 'overeducated'). Apparently Turchin himself was not happy with the title.

Turchin argues that “elite overproduction” is a fundamental cause behind inequality, polarization and social unraveling. The number of millionaires has increased dramatically since 1970, and these millionaires are very politically active. Yet the amount of senators and representatives has not increased to compensate. Similarly, more  and more lawyers are churned out by the country’s diploma mills with not nearly enough jobs for all of them, leading to a polarization between a small number of “winners” and a large number of “losers.” He includes a chart showing that in the past, most layers were clustered around a median income, whereas today you see a spike in incomes at the high and low ends, with not much in the middle. The same trend can be seen in many professions, for example MBA’s (and I would hazard, architects).

This leads to a breakdown in social cooperation and social trust as elites compete ever more with each other. Turchin concludes, “Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions.” He also points the finger at decreasing living standards for the majority and state indebtedness (although I would argue that’s a symptom not a cause). Turchin looks at various similar periods in history and concludes that things will only get worse. It’s another interesting facet of our slow decline and breakdown as a viable society.

Turchin's blog post on his article, entitled How Elite Overproduction Brings Disorder includes many of his blog posts that provide the background for the article. I suggest reading them in full. Here's a good one: The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America.

I would argue that in America we have two especially unique problems that make this trend worse: 1.) the emergence of an extreme sociopathic elite that gains money and power by playing Americans against one another. You see this with people like the Koch Brothers, whose media funding is designed to appeal to the angry, impoverished American losers in the global economy (as we saw last time, poverty is making them more extreme and amenable to their message). When they shut down the government and block legislation, the plutocrats win, because now there is no protection for the working classes, and they can be exploited at will. And 2.) As Morris Berman has pointed out, America has no other basis besides making a buck and hustling. We have no social identity or social glue apart from getting richer and buying more stuff, and as that no longer becomes possible, we are likely to turn on each other even more than more homogeneous societies, which tend to be more stable. These are sure to make Mr. Turchin's predictions and analysis even more dire. I wonder if we can even remain a viable society for another century.

1 comment:

  1. You state, " I wonder if we can even remain a viable society for another century. "

    Wow. Many people see your blog as pessimistic. I see it as wildly overoptimistic.

    You mention Morris Berman. His 2nd to last book is entitled, Why America Failed. He's write to write the title in the past tense. America is, right, now, not a viable state.

    The question is therefore, "when it will it become obvious to the majority that it is no longer viable."

    I live in an upper-middle class neighborhood. We have a small house compared to the neighbors, so we are placed among people above us in the socioeconomic scale. Break-ins and robberies are becoming more common all around. My child's elementary school classroom is overstuffed with 31 students. My state is considered the "least miserable state" in the union, yet the underclass is growing.

    We've finally made the long-overdue decision to seriously pursue emigration to a society that is more homogenous, or rather, has a culture and a national identity that is based on more than hustling. To survive the USA's fate, you will either need to form a somewhat self-sufficient enclave on a commune or old-fashioned village model, or you will need to emigrate.

    Unless you are in the 1%.

    I'm not even including the possible effects of climate change that is being enhanced by positive feedback loops left out of the mainstream climate models. One bad harvest and the developing world is toast. The USA will simply become an Orwellian nightmare. Oh wait... it already is.

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