Apr 21 2009

Why Wasn't There a Great Depression and a World War Between 1985 and 2001?

Thanks to “GK” from Mountain View, California for some intriguing questions that I want to feature here, because they are important to an understanding of Maslow Windows, long waves, and the long-term prospects for space colonization.

1. Why does each energy peak have to have a major war?

This is a question that initially puzzled me in the mid-1990s when I first saw major hot wars (e.g., W. W. I) line up with each peak in the 56 year energy cycle, over the last 200 years. It’s an empirical fact that they do, however it adds credibility to forecasting if the circumstances make sense.

Because the peaks are the culmination of large economic booms that surge during the Maslow Windows, it’s a time of unprecedented, almost utopian affluence, and they seem an odd time for big wars. A popular opinion among political scientists is that this is the only time nations can “afford” a war; other times they just don’t have the financial means or the will.

The way it works is that the major economic boom that triggers a Maslow Window creates widespread affluence-induced ebullience in society. This ebullience is a powerful form of Keynesian “animal Spirits” and Greenspan’s “irrational exhuberance.” For many people, ebullience catapults them to elevated levels in Maslow’s Heirarchy where they are momentarily fascinated by large technology projects and/or great explorations. However, other people — who are also experiencing exceptional ebullience — do not ascend Maslow’s heirarchy. And they have the financial means and ebullient energy to make trouble by engaging in large wars.

2. What major war started in 1969? The Cold war was already underway, and most of the casualties in VietNam had already happened.

The Cold War was a time from about 1947 to 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. This time of international tensions was punctuated by a number of “hot” international wars and “almost” wars, including the Korean War (1950-53), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) which almost started W. W. III, the Vietnam War (1965-73), and the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979). The Cold War began to draw to a close with President Reagan’s “Tear down that (Berlin) wall” speech in 1987 followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

U.S. involvement in Vietnam began during Eisenhower’s administration; by 1960 there were several hundred military advisors helping the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Because of his concern about Communist expansion in the region, by 1963 President John F. Kennedy increased U.S. military personnel in Vietnam to 16,000. However, U.S. involvement experienced a quantum leap in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson sent 22,000 troops there. And by 1968, U.S. troops in Vietnam numbered 525,000.

Largely due to the unpopularity of the war, President Johnson did not seek a second term and Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968. In 1973 — the year after he opened China to the West — Nixon withdrew U.S. troops from Vietnam. Vietnamese deaths are estimated in the millions and U.S. deaths were 58,000.

One result of the severe human and financial costs of the Vietnam War for the U.S. was the cancellation of the last 3 Apollo missions to the Moon (18, 19, 20), for which Saturn V launch vehicles had already been built. Even during the recent Iraq War, which came to a positive conclusion, the wounds of Vietnam — 3 decades later — still lingered; e.g., Is Iraq Another Vietnam? (Brigham, 2006).

It’s important to keep in mind that the long wave is not always exactly 56 years; it typically varies between 55 and 60. So expecting major wars to occur exactly at the peak in 1969 is unrealistic, although major wars over the last 200 years are quite close. Please see Joshua Goldstein and others for an in-depth discussion of the relation of long waves and wars.

Speaking of the Cold War, one possibility is that a 2nd Cold War will increase global tensions and contribute to a new international Race for Space near 2013 (Sputnik year plus 56). The recent Russian invasion of Georgia and a generally resurgent Russia are seen by many as evidence for a possible 2nd Cold War.

In fact, the most important Wild Card of the 2015 Maslow Window is the date of the major war expected in the 2020s. If it comes in the late 2020s, human civilization may expand to the Moon and possibly even Mars. If it starts closer to 2020 — in addition to the tragic loss of life and property — human expansion into the cosmos may be postponed until near 2071, when the late 21st Century Maslow Window is expected to open.

3. Also, the Great Depression and WW2 appeared to be in the middle of the cycle, not at the ends. If the GD + WW2 period was 1929-45, 56 years after that comes to 1985 – 2001, which was actually a boom.

You’ve brought up an interesting case study. Actually, in 1987 — 58 years after the Crash of 1929 and 18 years after the last energy peak in 1969 — was the greatest stock market crash (Black Monday) since 1929.

In a previous post I mentioned that the amazing lack of a recession or depression after 1987 is attributed to financial reforms implemented during the Great Depression. This also explains the initiation of the long boom in the late 1990s, although there was a significant recession in 2001.

W.W. II is the only example of a major “trough war” in the last 200 years, and is commonly attributed to tensions and unfinished business from W.W. I; see, for example, Friedman (2009). Because W.W. II was an anomaly, there was no reason — based on the last 200 years — to expect a major war between 1997 and 2001.

Almost right on schedule, this long boom — described by Fortune in July, 2007 as the “greatest economic boom ever” — was interrupted by the Panic of 2008, about 7 years before the anticipated opening of the 2015 Maslow Window. Such financial panic/recessions appear to be a common feature of the decades just prior to each Maslow Window (except for the Apollo Maslow Window).

4. Is it possible that the 56-year window is lengthening, because life expectancies are rising? In the past, the 56-year window was due to very few people living long enough to remember the prior crisis 56 years ago. Today, that cycle may be longer.

This is also a fun question although it assumes a cause for the 56 year long wave that is not verified. I assume a Schumpeterian trigger (“creative destruction”) related to bunching of basic innovations that launch technological revolutions that trigger new economic booms every 55 to 60 years. However, there’s little doubt that poor human memories of the preceeding Maslow Window is a contributor to the relative lack of public understanding of the long wave phenomenon.

In the past, some readers of my articles and this website have suggested that the long wave is getting shorter because of the commercially, technologically, and socially accelerating effects of the internet, mass media, and global transportation. For example, imagine Thomas Jefferson’s ability to communicate with Europe versus ours now.

However, GK is apparently suggesting that the previous Maslow Window must remain just outside most human memories, because otherwise we’d strive to avoid its negative aspects (e.g., post-Window economic collapse and major wars); an optimistic assumption!

Data for the United States shows an increase in human longevity of about 3 months per year since 1900; a total of about 30 years change over the 20th century. Although we can’t rule it out, there is little empirical evidence for a significant change in the long wave during that time, or indeed over the last 200 years. This does not support GK’s model.

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