Peace, and Disaster, In Our Time

Neville Chamberlain was only half correct – and he was not really looking at the big picture. And to be honest, he never actually said, “peace in our time” anyway.

I want to connect two items of interest that do not, as they stand, seem related and push them together in support of a third, longer term view. The result is an idea that might not sit well with us.

The first item concerns a book review for The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality, in this weekend’s US print edition of the Wall Street Journal. The book, written by Walter Schiedel, sounds like just the book I would read. However the book review seems to summarize the idea of the book too well and in so doing, suggested that the book was not worth the effort to read.  

Conceptually the idea as that for hundreds of years, even thousands, mankind has gone through periods of increasing inequality punctured and repaired by war, famine, or other cataclysmic events. As these events unfold, large swathes of the population are displaced, or removed (as it were) from the story, and so everyone pulls together and for a time, inequality slows or even reverses. But, as stability (or what resembles stability versus war, famine and cataclysm) returns, so the march to ever increasing inequality resumes.

It is a logical and reasonably sounding idea that resonates with ones’ one perception of history and wealth. However, the reviewer highlights multiple gaps with the analysis, such as the impact and role of the inexorable lowering of interest rates through history on how wealth is spread, or changes. The reviewer concludes that the book is descriptive of what one can see, not an explanation for why inequality changes as it does. So armed I won’t by buying the book but I do recognize the historical context.

The second item emerges from an article in last week’s The Economist. The article was called – Going to Bits: Europeans are splitting their votes among even more parties. The article highlights how as time passes, political factions are fragmenting into ever smaller segments. The analysis gives example after example across Europe and the implication, so the article says, is that democracy is ever harder to process since the factions start to balance each other out. Each new splinter is a little different to the last; interests intersect in a complex overlapping web.  

Some examples need to be extended to political systems. Italy’s political system has favored a more balanced, even gridlocked parliamentary system. This explains to a great degree that countries inability to effect change and avoid economic stagnation that comes about as a result from such a system. It is more stable with fewer bouts of extreme or excessive policy. If you will, the boom-bust cycles are replaced with more steady state performance. But, as other authors have attested, this leads to pent-up pressure that always emerges with a worse “bust”. This in fact explains our most recent steady state global economy that blew up with the financial crisis.

But this idea that a steady dose of peace and stability will lead eventually to fragmentation of political groups, populations and even nations, is all around us. The fractious US election is the most recent example. There are just so many fractional groups that apparently were looked at as “blocs” such as black, white, white middle class, Latino, women, women without colleague degrees, gay, gay middle class and the list is endless. Brexit is a good example before this. The UK’s flirting with the separation of Scotland is a perfect example again. Spain is flirting with the same dialog; Canada does from time to time. An for giggles, Texas even talks of this as a possibility.

The point is this: with stability, peace and wealth, a section of our population end up with more time to sit on their behinds and come up with ideas to extend their advantages; or some others that do not have that luxury of too much time end up triggering conflict. As a result we all end up looking at the ties that bind and undoing and redoing new one’s, often at the behest of individuals that see an opportunity for change. There has to be a catalyst, once we have the environment. Thus economic stability and peace is the environment and political leaders are the catalyst.

So now I try to put the two ideas together and I think they fit quite nicely. Peace and stability help ferment the opportunity for the political, disjointed or advantaged classes to change the rules to maximize their position or to reclaim what is lost.   This is part of the backdrop that is the environment in the second idea. Thus the very things that drive stability and peace seem to automatically sow the seeds of the next disasterous cycle. It just takes a long time to see it happen – and we don’t really even see “it” happen. We just see its consequences.

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