The main idea of this book is that America regularly going through two parallel, but mainly independent cycles: institutional and socioeconomic. At the end of each cycle it goes through severe crisis after which it comes out with renewed institutions and updated economic system. 2020s represent a unique occurrence when both cycles enter crisis stage simultaneously, making crisis more complex and difficult than usually. However, upon completion of the crisis the renewed, more productive and more powerful America will continue to move to higher levels of prosperity, as it had always done before.
Here author presents his doctrine of two parallel cycles of American History: “institutional cycle” approximately 80 years starting with Revolutionary war and “socioeconomic cycle” approximately 50 years. Then he notes that 2020s will be a very difficult time for America because both cycles include period of crisis, which happens simultaneously during this period. Then author defines American exceptionalism in such way: “The most important fact to bear in mind is that the United States was an invented nation; it didn’t evolve naturally from a finite group of people over thousands of years in one indigenous region, as did, for example, China or Russia. More than that, the United States was an intentionally and rapidly invented nation. The American regime was first conceived in the Declaration of Independence and institutionalized in the Constitution. The American people were constructed from many countries and many languages, with varied reasons for coming to America—most freely, and some by force. The people of the United States invented themselves from a blank slate. And in important ways the American land invented itself. It provided Americans with possibilities that were unimaginable to most and could be used in ways no one anticipated.”
The author presents plan of the book: “Part 1 seeks to explain the American character, American values, and the history that led to the formation of the “American people.” It also shows why the United States is so resilient and why it can survive extreme periods. Part 2 describes the two major cycles in detail and the realities that govern American history, especially what has led to the crisis the United States is currently experiencing. Part 3 is a forecast for the future, describing the crisis that will happen when the massive forces of these two cycles converge in the decade 2020 to 2030—something that has not happened before—and then looks at what will follow and the future of America when the storm has passed.”
PART ONE: THE INVENTION OF AMERICA
1. The American Regime and a Restless Nation
Here author further defines specificity of American culture, which based on both: distrust of government and distrust of people. It resulted in creation of complex dynamically changing system based on balance of power and intentionally complicated rules where everybody has some areas of protected freedom and some area where restrictions apply. The main difference from others and common core is that each American ought to be free to succeed or fail in the pursuit of happiness. Then author discusses history of how it all came to be this way.
2. The Land—a Place Called America
Here author discusses geography and climate of America, original settlers – American Indians, and reasons for British being successful in settlement of this land and suppression of both Indian resistance and French competition. Here are a few pictures supporting author’s points:
3. The American People
In this chapter author discusses people that populated America: first British settlers, who then brought in African Slaves. The second wave, well before revolution, were Scotch-Irish and Scottish Presbyterians from Ireland. Author notes that they were considered unassimilable, the first in many waves to come, but does not discuss them and just moves to culture. He discusses the dominance of Anglo-Saxon culture that lasted all the way until the end of WWII and then looks at stereotypes of Americans: The Cowboy, The Inventor, and The Warrior. In the final part of chapter author fulfils compulsory requirement to lament crimes of America against black Slaves and Indians, albeit within reasonable framing: Slavery was normal elsewhere in the world, Indians were successfully killing, fighting , raiding, and conquering each other forever, and their destruction was not caused by genocide of settlers, but rather by diseases that settlers brought in.
PART TWO: AMERICAN CYCLES
4. How America Changes
Here author starts with the statement that America changed a lot during 250 years and it came in somewhat predictable cycles despite of chaos of everyday lives, politics, and economics. The change was not only in America internally, but also in its global position in the world, going from peripheral small country to the globally dominant power.
5. How Geopolitics Frames the 2020s
Here author discusses his expectation of big crises of 2020s resulting with coincidental completion of two major cycles one of which is institutional cycle typically driven by a war. Author then discusses this starting from the beginning of America with special details related to America’s global empire created after WWII and currently mainly outdated after the end of Cold war, even if its institutions are still keep going. Author makes the point that it leads to coming crises.
6. The Institutional Cycles and War
In this chapter author reviewing history of such institutional cycles: The first starting with Revolutionary war, the second – Civil War, and currently the third one starting with WWII and closing to its completion now. Here is how author defines crisis at the end of such cycle:” The institutional crisis is rooted in two things. First, the governing class, and the technocrats, accumulate power and wealth, and they begin to shape the institutions to protect their interests. The second problem is that the expertise that won World War II and built the postwar world is now encountering its own problem of inefficiency—diffusion.”
7. The Socioeconomic Cycles
In this chapter author discusses the second type of cycles: socioeconomic cycle. He reviews history of 5 such cycles:
The First Socioeconomic Cycle: The Washington Cycle, 1783–1828
The Second Socioeconomic Cycle: The Jackson Cycle, 1828–1876
The Third Socioeconomic Cycle: The Hayes Cycle, 1876–1929
The Fourth Socioeconomic Cycle: The Roosevelt Cycle, 1932–1980
The Fifth Socioeconomic Cycle: The Reagan Cycle, 1980–2030
At the final analysis he links it to income distribution problem when wealth is concentrated at the top, while middle stagnates. Here is graphic he provides to support this idea:
PART THREE: THE CRISIS AND THE CALM
8. First Tremors of the Coming Storm
The storm for author is coming with Trump and in this chapter, author elaborates why it is so. The reason is practically that old cycle ran out of steam and Trump is the last hurray of descending blue color class, which is expected to lose whatever is left of its power in 2020s.
9. The Crisis of the 2020s—a Clashing of Cycles
Here author discusses coming crisis as form of class straggle when ideology of effective government and rule of technocracy would clash with traditional ideology of democratic government by elected officials. Author looks at the history of democracy and its corrupt party bosses, who nevertheless where mainly local and close enough to regular people to help with their problems. Their substitution with technocratic bureaucrats made rulers much more distant, but also less effective, often working against interests of people they are supposed to serve, as it was the case with outsourcing and globalization. The end result is massive loss of legitimacy by nearly all institutions, save military.
10. The 2020s Crisis in Technology and Education
Here author discusses another side of crisis, which he characterizes as diminishing productivity growth resulting from failure of educational system to meet requirements of technology. The result is another division of population into hostile classes: educated and prosperous and poorly educated and miserable. Author expect that for the next 8 years quality of live would be declining due to crisis of final years of Reagan era that will end in 2028 with election of the president and team that will produce new innovative and currently unknown ideas that will define the next cycle.
11. Beyond the Storm
This chapter is somewhat optimistic when author tries to look beyond current problem to the new raise of America. He believes that it would be based on the new understanding of governance when government will become more strategic by defining main direction and allowing local much smaller bureaucracies to make tactical decisions and actually implement them much more effectively and efficiently than super big and complex federal bureaucracy. Author discusses in some detail how it would be happening in areas he is familiar with such as education. He is quite optimistic about future and states that America always came out of crises stronger than before and he believes that it will happen again this time. He also provides graph of America’s GDP growth per person and states that he does not expect it to be any worse in the future:
Conclusion: The American Age
In conclusion author discuss America as unwilling empire, which is slowly moving to maturity that would take another century to achieve. He completes this analysis on very nice note:” 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.”
MY TAKE ON IT:
It seems to be a popular idea to find cycles in American development and there are quite a few authors doing just that. I find it somewhat interesting, entertaining, but hardly relevant for understanding the current situation or future development. I agree that America and even the world is falling periodically into crises that it then overcomes. However, I think that each crisis is unique and should be explained not by cyclicity, but rather by development of technology, modes of its use, and ideas of how multitude of individuals had to interact with each other. The crisis occurs when levels of technology, modes of its use, and modes of human interaction get out of synch, cause some kind of calamity, and force change. Example could be WWI when technology of high frequency precise shooting and heavy weight projectiles led to the crises of traditional mode of technology use for killing people and taking their staff, because cost became by far higher than benefits. It took a while to switch to other modes of human interaction that substituted war by international trade and division of labor, but killing technology is still standing by just in case. The current crisis comes from technology that first made long distance goods transfer cheap and information transfer practically free, creating opportunity to substitute expensive labor with cheap. Now in addition to this new challenge arrived in form of AI that could substitute humans in practically all productive activities. Unlike author I do not think that it is specifically American crisis, it is just America always arrives first into the future. However, like the author I think that this crisis will be overcome and the next wonderful stage of human development will arrive relatively soon.