Archive for the 'Wave Guide 9: Global Conflict' Category

Jan 02 2011

Will Obama Attack Iran?

Brookings senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon suggested recently (12/31/10) on Fox News that the “biggest foreign policy decision of Obama’s presidency … (could be) whether or not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

Iran plans some serious, potentially weapon-related uranium enrichment activities at its plant in Natanz.
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The Threat
Reports suggest Iran has its own uranium mines and is within one (U.S. sources) to 3 years (Israeli intelligence) of developing its own nuclear devices. And Iran has apparently obtained (from North Korea) “powerful missiles able to reach European capitals,” (Wall Street Journal, 11/29/10). It’s a situation Obama will have to deal with.

Brookings’ Suzanne Maloney concurs that continued failures — exacerbated by Wikileaks revelations — of international talks with Iran to limit its nuclear development would mean that “military action could be on the table.”

Serious Conflicts Are Expected
Current tensions with Iran, North Korea, and even potentially Venezuela are similar to the dangerous conflicts that have routinely occurred either just prior to, or early in Maslow Windows over the last 200 years. The classic example is 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis that could have triggered a nuclear war but was rapidly brought under control. And in fact, it intensified the U.S.- Soviet race to the Moon.
(See: “Korea, Iran, and the Venezuela Missile Crisis: Self-Organizing Toward a Critical State?”)

Indeed, no Maslow Window of the last 200 years has ever been delayed or diminished in any observable way by an early or pre-Maslow Window military conflict.
(See: “Near-Term Wars Threaten the New Space Age”)

And, although the Iran nuclear situation is potentially very threatening, there is every historical reason to believe that it too will eventually be resolved without a major war.

However, it’s possible in the next year or two that this empirically-based scenario could be wrong. For example, if the U.S. decided to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and the attack failed, it might trigger a larger conflict and be a political catastrophe.

The Political Context
Several commentators have explored the political dimensions of a U.S. attack on Iran. For example, last February Middle East expert Daniel Pipes asserted that the only way for Obama to reverse negative public perceptions of himself is to “give orders for the U.S. military to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapon capacity.” This “dramatic gesture” is militarily doable and has enjoyed strong public support at the ~60% level since 2009.

Pipes has received significant support for his idea, including Elliott Abrams (Council of Foreign Relations) who predicts that Obama will bomb Iranian nukes and reap political benefits (8/17/10).

The Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one.

Likeswise, George Friedman of Stratfor sees potential political benefits for Obama from an Iranian military option (10/26/10),

…given the domestic gridlock that appears to be in the offing, a shift to a foreign policy emphasis makes sense, Obama needs to be seen as an effective commander in chief and Iran is the logical target.

And David Broder (Washington Post) also links military success in Iran with political success for Obama (10/31/10).

The nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world … If he can confront this threat and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.

And Since the Election…
Obviously, the recent historic, wave election has not strengthened Obama politically. For example, the frequently quoted University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato refers to Obama now as “OTB”: One Term Barack (11/11/10).

President Barack Obama is down for the count, will have an early lame duck presidency, and will be out of the White House in two years … If President Obama is smart, he will try to salvage his term in the White House by announcing now that he will not undertake a hopeless campaign for reelection, and instead form a bipartisan national unity government to try to hold the nation together…

Sabato’s article indicates that Obama will not have an easy re-election in 2012. And I suspect that Pipes et al. would see Obama’s political weakness as strengthening their expectations for an attack.

So What Will Obama Do?
There are four basic reasons that I believe Obama will not attack Iran.
1. Military — Any U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities must succeed. A failure might lead to a larger war and would be politically catastrophic for Obama (similar to Jimmy Carter’s Iran hostage crisis). And the military pros (e.g., Adm. Mike Mullen) publicly regard an attack as an unattractive “last option” potentially afflicted with “unintended consequences” — although that could be said of almost any military action.
2. Politics — In a best case scenario, Obama would lose the support of his liberal base and others in the Democratic Party, although he might gain many Independents and some Republicans. It would be viewed by his base as worse than extending the Bush tax cuts. Unlike Pipes et al., I’m not convinced Obama would gain more support than he’d lose.
3. Ideology — Obama campaigned as an anti-war (in Iraq) candidate. His subsequent experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan, his rhetorical attempts to draw closer to the Muslim world, and his general approach to the domestic War on Terror, together argue against his being inclined toward an attack on Iran.
4. History — Over the last 200 years major wars do not occur just before or early in a Maslow Window. (Long-term historical patterns show that a major war is unlikely until the 2020s.) Because even a successful attack by the U.S. on Iranian nuclear facilities could trigger a larger war, it appears to be an unlikely scenario.

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Dec 18 2010

Korea, Iran, and the Venezuela Missile Crisis: Self-Organizing Toward a Critical State?

Bill Richardson describes current tensions on the Korean peninsula as “a tinderbox.” It’s “particularly complex and sensitive,” according to Jiang Yu of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The popular New Mexico governor asserts “There’s enormous potential for miscalculation.”

All this is 57 years — one long economic wave — after the end of the early 1950s Korean War, a proxy war where the Soviet Union and China lined up with the North Korean Communists against the U.S.-led United Nations forces in the South.

Surely the rekindling of Korean tensions one long wave after the original war is a coincidence… Or is it?
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Actually, over the last 2 1/2 years 21stCenturyWaves.com has highlighted a variety of evidence supporting my initial suggestion in 1996 (Cordell, 1996; Also 2006) that long-term trends in the economy (i.e., the long, 56-year business cycle, discovered in 1989) are the fundamental drivers of great human explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark), macro engineering projects (e.g., Panama Canal), and major wars (World War I) that exclusively cluster together every 55-60 years, over at least the last 200+ years.

More recently, two new ideas are explored here: 1) that “Maslow Windows” — the rhythmic, twice-per-century pulses of great explorations, MEPs, and major wars — are actually brief critical states of the international economic/technology system, typically achieved through decades of self organized criticality (SOC) processes, and 2) that serious conflicts or wars are typical features of the years just before a Maslow Window or early in the Window itself.

The classic example of such a pre- or early Maslow Window conflict is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — early in the Apollo Maslow Window (1959-69) — when conflict over Soviet offensive missiles emplaced in Cuba almost led to a major nuclear exchange with the U.S.. Other examples include the Napoleonic Wars (Lewis and Clark Maslow Window), the Mexican war (Dr. Livingstone/Suez Maslow Window), and the Spanish-American War (Peary/Panama Maslow Window).

This model suggests the current Korean tensions — including their potential for nuclear war involving N and S Korea and possibly other nearby states (e.g., Japan) — are a harbinger of the next Maslow Window expected by 2015. Plus the seemingly irrational provocations by North Korea resulting in a “tinderbox”, “complex,” and “sensitive” situation, are actually the types of interactions we’d expect as we approach a critical Maslow state.

While it’s tempting to dismiss this model as just another scary fantasy, please be reminded that medium-size wars have already been identified as SOC phenomena by National Aademy of Sciences member Donald Turcotte and his colleagues as early as 1998.

The results we have shown indicate that world order behaves as a self-organized critical system independent of the efforts made to control and stabilize interactions between people and countries; and wars, like forest fires, are SOC processes.

Plus historian Niall Ferguson suggested recently that WW I was a product of self organized criticality.

But there’s more.

Iran is believed to be developing nuclear weapons and the missiles needed to deliver them to places like Israel and beyond. Some observers have suggested that Israel might preemptively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. And WikiLeak cables indicate that even Saudi Arabia has encouraged the U.S. to attack Iran.

Iran’s growing nuclear capability is interpreted here as a precursor to the strong SOC conditions that will trigger the 2015 Maslow Window. And along with spiking Korean tensions, it underlines the gravity of our current, increasingly fractal, geopolitical situation.

And, or course, there’s even more: the Venezuela Missile Crisis.

The highly-regarded German daily, Die Welt. reported last month (11/25/10) that Iran — who apparently shares missile technology with North Korea — has plans to place medium-range ballistic missiles in Venezuela.

If this story is confirmed, it would constitute a true Cuban Missile Crisis-style threat, that would require a strategic response from the United States.

However, things have changed since the 1960s. Popular Mechanics (December, 2010) recently described a chilling scenario in which China is able to neutralize U.S. aircraft carriers — the basis for U.S. force projection in the Pacific and elsewhere — utilizing a new Chinese antiship ballistic missile. China’s carrier killer could conceivably preclude American naval support of Taiwan, South Korea, and other U.S. allies in the region.

Some have speculated that the recent mystery launch of an unidentified missile (it didn’t appear to be an airplane) off the Southern California coast was intended to demonstrate China’s growing antiship capabilities.

That’s the bad news.

But the good news is that even the Cuban Missile Crisis was rapidly resolved and did not delay — and indeed probably intensified — the 1960s space race to the Moon. The same is true of all other pre- or early Maslow Window conflicts over the last 200+ years.

Growing international interests in lunar development, space commercialization (including space toruism), and even Mars colonization, might stimulate the development of a Grand Alliance for Space. With a little luck, it could reduce the intensity of current conflicts that show evidence of increasing, long wave-related SOC in the world system.

NOTE: Please check out the following Comment for more on why a major war or nuclear conflict is unlikely in the next 10-15 years.

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Aug 14 2010

A New International Space Age by 2015 — Optimism or Realism?

I always enjoy Cumbrian Sky, the astro blog by Stuart Atkinson of the Eddington Astronomical Society in England.

Surprisingly, the financial Panic of 2008 supports our forecast that humanity’s future in space is just around the corner…!
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Recently Stuart hosted the Carnival of Space #165 which included my post: The Way Space Really Works. As usual, I enjoyed his intriguing introduction to my post:

Many people, myself included, fear that we really have stalled in our efforts to get people off Earth and start spreading out across the solar system, and are frustrated that there are no signs of our self-imposed exile on Earth ending. But there are optimists out there, and one of them is Bruce Cordell, who firmly believes that manned space exploration is just half a decade away from receiving a seriously hard kick up the backside. Why? You’ll have to go to his inspiring and thought-provoking 21st Century Waves blog to find out how space “really works”… or will work in 2015…

Thanks for your comments Stuart!

It always pleases me to be considered an optimist, although I’m just tracking macroeconomic and other trends over the last 200 years that make it pretty clear we’re in for excitement around 2015. And many short-term indicators also converge on this result.

For example, check Bill Halal at TechCast.org; their continuous online Delphi polling forecasts a major economic boom in 2015. In this context, it’s reasonable to expect an Apollo-size space program in response to a JFK-size boom — so we do!

But forgive me for not being as optimistic as I’d like to be. Multi-century history indicates that Maslow Windows don’t last very long. For example, Apollo was in serious political trouble by 1966 and wound up having the last 3 Apollo Moon missions canceled. Imagine what might have happened if Vietnam had heated up 2-4 years earlier than it did — we might have lost the whole program.

So this time it’s important that we — Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, Americans or whomever it is –strive for self-sufficiency in space beyond Earth orbit to avoid another “Apollo pause” like we’ve had for the last 40 years…

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Jul 01 2010

Cambridge Professor: “A Great Event” in 2014 … and The Way the Future Really Works

The way the future works has a lot to do with the past — especially the ways that humans, resources (especially geography), and technology have interacted before.

The future’s important because it’s where we’ll spend the rest of our lives. Click .

Here at 21stCenturyWaves.com, the idea has certainly not been to try to understand how everything works.

Instead, we have focused on the following questions: 1) Why do the great human explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark), massive macroengineering projects (e.g., Panama Canal), and the major wars (e.g., World War I), cluster together — over the last 200+ years — exclusively in connection with rhythmic, twice-per-century major economic booms (e.g., the 1960s Apollo “Maslow Window”)? and 2) What does this tell us about the future of technology and space?

Because our approach provides a new framework to illuminate both the past and future — e.g., summarized in my recent look at the next decade — it’s always exciting to compare it to macro-historical thinking by a first-rate historian like Cambridge University Professor Nicholas Boyle.

Boyle’s book, 2014 – How to Survive the Next World Crisis, appeared this week and boldly uses multi-century historical patterns to project trends in the 21st century, including 2014 being a special year (which is no surprise to devotees of the 2015 Maslow Window!).

Multi-Century Patterns in History Provide Powerful Insights

Professor Boyle’s bold use of historical events over the last 500 years as the basis for his 21st century forecasts is impressive. He starts with Martin Luther’s theses of 1517 (triggering the Reformation) and surges all the way to 1914, the start of World War I. 21stCenturyWaves.com’s forecasts spring from macroeconomic data and historical patterns — especially with regard to great explorations, MEPs, and major wars — over the last 200 years.

Considered together these quite-different approaches feature surprising parallels and expanded insights into the past as well as the future.

There will be “a great event” in 2014
Boyle’s major insight is his forecast of a “great event” in 2014; this potential crisis is based on a generational rationale and the psychology of a new century. 2014 is near the projected opening of the 2015 Maslow Window — a 1960s-style golden age of prosperity, explorationm, and technology — based on the last 200+ years. So we like his timescale.

According to Boyle,

2007 started off colossal economic change which has still got a long way to go …

My thesis is that we have got another crisis to come, and you can already see that in the questions being raised over the debts of nations …

We agree because history shows he’s right.

Every Maslow Window of the last 200 years — with the exception of the 1960s Apollo Window — was preceded within a decade by a financial panic (liike that in 2008) and a great recession like the current one. A good analog for now is the Panic of 1893 and the 1890s great recession; it was a “double-dip” recession and lasted 6 years, suggesting our current recession should end by 2014 and could be consistent with Boyle’s expectation.

Interestingly, today CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf independently supported this estimate by stating that it will take another 4 years (not before 2014) for unemployment to decline to “normal levels” of about 5%.

However Boyle’s next “crisis” might be military. Over the last 200+ years, every Maslow Window has been plagued by an early- or pre-Window war or major conflict; the last was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 that almost led to a major nuclear exchange. But the good news is that, so far, the world has managed to avoid major destruction by these early-/pre-Window threats. And in fact, most actually create momentum toward the Maslow Window itself.

In the 21st Century: Peace or war?
According to Boyle, a ‘Doomsday’ moment will take place in 2014 and “will determine whether the 21st century is full of violence and poverty or will be peaceful and prosperous.”

And history shows he’s right again — although both will probably occur.

The way the future really works is illustrated by the last 200 years. Transformative, decade-long Maslow Windows are fundamentally driven by affluence-induced ebullience that’s triggered by rhythmic, twice-per-century unparalleled economic booms.

For example, distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm (b. 1917) describes “The Great Boom” which powered the mid-19th century Dr. Livingstone/Suez/Polk Maslow Window, as

the extraordinary economic transformation and expansion … (with) prolonged prosperity … Never did British exports grow more rapidly than in the euphoric years between 1853 and 1857…

However, the decades between Maslow WIndows feature devastating depressions and military strife as the long business cycle (the “long wave”) descends to a trough and begins its recovery over about 4+ decades. Speaking of the 20th century, Hobsbawn comments that

The decades from the outbreak of the First World War to the aftermath of the Second, was an Age of Catastrophe for this society …even intelligent conservatives would not take bets on its survival … a world economic crisis brought even the strongest capitalist economies to their knees …

In the languge of Self Organized Criticality, the international economic/geopolitical system continuously self-organizes toward a critical state (the “fractal” Maslow Window) where major changes — both good and bad — occur rapidly and often without obvious triggers. Examples include the Apollo Moon program in the 1960s and World War I during the early 20th century Maslow Window.

Between Maslow Windows, the international economic/geopolitical system elements (countries, corporations, individuals) interact weakly and typically require several decades to self-organize back into another critical state. (The next one should begin by 2015.)

The devastating “Aspirin Age” decades between Maslow Windows are not inevitable. When we learn to include the long wave in our strategic thinking and macro-planning, their extreme effects should subside.

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Jun 20 2010

State of the Wave: How President Obama is Creating the New Space Age — An Update

Eighteen months into the Obama administration it’s appropriate to check Obama’s progress on space. I first sketched his status in 9/24/09; See “How President Obama is Creating the New Space Age.”

Does the BP oil spill threaten the new international Space Age as well as the environment?
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(Image: U.S. Coast Guard)

In reality — as the last 200+ years have shown — extraordinary pulses of activity in exploration and engineering are enabled by reliable, long-term business cycles. And all indicators suggest we’re sneaking up on the edge of another Golden Age of Prosperity, Exploration, and Technology(GAPET).

Typically, during the twice-per-century upswings of the long economic wave and within a decade after a major financial panic (such as the Panic of 2008) and its major recession, we emerge into an ebullient, transformative decade known as a Maslow Window. Perhaps the most ebullient one followed the Panic of 1893 and was led by Theodore Roosevelt: the Peary/Panama Maslow Window from 1903 to 1913. But before that the mid-19th century Dr. Livingstone/Suez Maslow Window produced the “technological jewel of the 19th century,” the Suez Canal, and the famous Lewis and Clark Maslow Window opened the Great Northwest to the world in 1805.

Our most recent Maslow Window — the stunning 1960s Apollo Moon decade — was unique in the last 200+ years in that it wasn’t immediately preceded by a financial panic or great recession. But the approaching Maslow Window, expected to open near 2015, resumed the much more “normal” sequence of the last 200+ years when the Panic of 2008 heralded its impending arrival.

But since last September, much has happened in the economy, in Washington, and in the world. And given the high likelihood of our next Maslow Window materializing near 2015, the key question remains: How will Obama create the exceptional prosperity that is the hallmark of such Camelot-like times?

As before, there are basically 2 options:

OPTION I: Obama becomes a 2-term President: He becomes the new John F. Kennedy without the Vietnam-style baggage of LBJ.
Historical/Economic Model: The 1960s Apollo Maslow Window.

Three ways Obama could trigger prosperity are:

a) The recession will end naturally and prosperity will follow.
Post-War recessions have averaged 11.3 months in length (with the longest 16 months) and the current one is 22 months old. Most economists think the economy hit bottom recently and is currently recovering.

UPDATE: Some indicate that recent gains in the stock market and modest economic growth suggest we are on the verge of a robust recovery. However other indicators continue to cast doubts, including U.S. unemployment hovering near 10% and the record $ 13+ T national debt.

Indeed, The Economist for May 29- June 4, 2010, leads with a front cover headline, “Fear Returns. How to Avoid a double-dip recession.” And inside they continue with, “Governments were the solution to the economic crisis. Now they are the problem.” And New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (5/23/10) argues that “There is no margin for error anymore.” He quotes experienced global investor Mohamed El-Erian who warns that, “The world is on a journey to an unstable destination, through unfamiliar territory, on an uneven road and, critically, having already used its spare tire.”

b) Obama will “reset” his presidency resulting in prosperity.
Ted Van Dyk, a long-time Democrat and formerly Vice President Hubert Humphery’s assistant in the LBJ Whitehouse, advises Obama to cut back his proposals and expectations (WSJ, 7/17/09):

“You made promises about jobs that would be ‘created and saved’ by the stimulus package. Those promises have not held up. You continue to engage in hyperbole by claiming that your health-care and energy plans will save tax dollars. Congressional Budget Office analysis indicates otherwise.”

UPDATE: For better or worse, this hasn’t happened. Obama passed his health care bill and recently revived discussion of climate legislation and new multi-B $ bailouts.

c) The Keynesians are right and major government spending and deficits result in prosperity.
For example, according to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the idea of slowing major stimulus spending would be an “error of historical proportions,” (WSJ, 9/22/09; B. Stephens).

UPDATE: The New York Times (5/23/10) reports Europe is “rethinking its safety net,”

Across Western Europe, the “lifestyle superpower,” the assumptions and gains of a lifetime are suddenly in doubt. The deficit crisis that threatens the euro has also undermined the sustainability of the European standard of social welfare, built by left-leaning governments since the end of World War II.

And the U.S. is not far behind. America’s public debt is (V. Kohlmayer, American Thinker, 6/10/2010),

more than 90% of the country’s GDP. Public debts of more than 60% of GDP are considered unhealthy. Public debts above 90% of GDP cause severe disruptions in the country’s financial framework and the economy at large.

According to the Obama administration, America’s public debt will exceed 100 % of GDP in the next fiscal year.

Bottom Line for Option I:
The economic case for Obama eventually becoming the new JFK is weaker than it was last September.

However, if he can overcome current challenges, Obama can still become the new JFK. He would continue the brilliant, transformative lagacy of Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal, that began with Thomas Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark expedition.

OPTION II: Obama becomes a 1-term president: He becomes the new Grover Cleveland (and possibly LBJ), and leads to a pro-prosperity Republican presidency.
Historical/Economic Model: The Peary/Panama Maslow Window (1903-13).

The New York Times (9/6/09; Richard Stevenson) observed that,

Nearly eight months after the inauguration, the economy … has stabilized sufficiently that the nation is no longer gripped by the sense of urgency that allowed Mr. Obama, almost without challenge, to carry out an audacious act of industrial engineering: reshaping the automobile industry from the Oval Office in a matter of weeks … The most relevant political framework instead appears to be a more problematic one inherited from his predecesser: a general loss of faith in government.

On August 21, the Wall Street Journal (8/25/09; William McGurn) reported that,

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said his boss was “quite comforrtable” with the idea that sticking to his agenda may well mean “he only lives in this house” for one term.

Indeed, if unemployment remains high into 2012, reelection will be a challenge for Obama.

Three things that could hinder Obama’s reelection are:

a) The Stimulus has not worked.
The Wall Street Journal (9/17/09; Cogan,Taylor,Wieland) reports that,

The data show government transfers and rebates have not increased consumption at all … and that the resilience of the private sector following the fall 2008 panic — not the fiscal stimulus program — deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the impressive growth improvement from the first to the second quarter.

And as unempoyment heads toward 10%, Obama’s promise that rapid passage of the stimulus package would keep unemployment below 8% has not been realized.

UPDATE: Little has improved here. In late February, Harvard’s Robert Barro (Wall Street Journal, 5/23/10) concluded that “The fiscal stimulus package of 2009 was a mistake.” Based on his long-term empirical model of past U.S. fiscal actions, he estimates a spending multiplier of 0.4 (in the same year) and 0.6 (over 2 years). Increased government spending reduces other portions of GDP like “personal consumer expendature, private domestic investment, and net exports.” According to Barro,

Viewed over five years, the fiscal stimulus package is a way to get an extra $ 600 B of public spending at the cost of $ 900 B in private expenditure. This is a bad deal.

b) Obama’s economic policy may be fundamentally flawed.

Published economic research by the current head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors — Christina Romer — raises doubts about Obama’s policy of major government spending to end the recession. The Wall Street Journal (8/21/09; Alan Reynolds) considers Professor Romer’s 1999 study (J. Econ. Perspect.) and concludes that, based on economic history since 1887, “bigger government appears to produce only bigger and longer recessions.”

If this is true, Obama’s large stimulus/bailout packages and large federal budgets will not stimulate the economy in his first term.

According to William Gale of Brookings,

The budget outlook at every horizon is troubling: the fiscal-year 2009 budget is enormous; the ten-year projection is clearly unsustainable; and the long-term outlook is dire and increasingly urgent.

UPDATE: Little improvement here. According to Robert Reich (WSJ, 4/12/10), President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, “Many outsourced jobs will never return, and median income will likely continue to fall…”

Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan (WSJ, 6/18/10) sees “growing analogies to Greece.”

The current federal debt explosion is being driven by an inability to stem new spending initiatives … We cannot grow out of these fiscal pressures. The modest-sized post-baby-boom labor force … will not be able to consistently increase output per hour by more than 3% annually. The product of a slowly growing labor force and limited productivity growth will not provide the real resources necessary to meet existing commitments … Our policy focus must therefore err significantly on the side of restraint.

Former Reagan advisor Arthur Laffer (WSJ, 6/7/10) sees an “economic collapse” for the U.S. in 2011 unless the Bush taX cuts are extended. “The result will be a crash in tax receipts … If you thought deficits and unemployment have been bad lately, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

c) Afghanistan turns into Vietnam.

The New York Times (8/23/09; Peter Baker) has focused on the dangers a protracted conflict in Afghanistan could have on Obama, “The LBJ model — a president who aspired to reshape America at home while fighting a losing war abroad — is one that haunts Mr. Obama’s White House as it seeks to salvage Afghanistan while enacting an expansive domestic program.”

UPDATE: Afghanistan continues to be a controversial “roller coaster.” Although Obama has tripled the number of U.S. soldiers there, “The conduct of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller coaster experience. There are setbacks as well as areas of progress or successes,” according to Gen. David Petraeus.

Also strategically controversial is Obama’s order to begin reducing American forces by July, 2011. According the the Los Angeles Times, (6/13/10; J. Barnes), “Petraeus did not elaborate on his own reservations and left the hearing moments later after becoming ill. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was worried that the timeline had undercut Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s support for the U.S.-led war effort.”

d) Something New — Widespread questions about Obama’s leadership capability arise.

UPDATE: This has centered on his administration’s slow response to the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill, and goes to the core of his ability to function as a visionary president.

For example, the New York Times (6/13/10) had several complaints.

It certainly should not have taken days for Mr. Obama to get publicly involved in the oil spill … It took too long for Mr. Obama to say that the Coast Guard and not BP was in charge … These are matters of competence and leadership. It;s time for Mr. Obama to decisively show both.

Response from Obama’s supporters to his first Oval Office television address was likewise unfavorable. For example, Chris Matthews (MSNBC) said, “I don’t sense executive command.” Maureen Dowd (NYT) commented that, “instead of the fairy dust of hopefulness there’s the bitter draught of helplessness.” And Time’s Mark Halperin described his own, “fierce, unforeseen disappointment.” With friends like that you can imagine the shots from the Right.

Broadening the critique to all areas of presidential leadership, Dorothy Rabinowitz (WSJ, 6/9/10) crafted the eye-catching headline, “The Alien in the White House;” not referring, of course, to his native-born status, but to “the distance between the president and the people.” And Peggy Noonan (WSJ, 6/19/10) thinks Obama is “snakebit,” in that he’s “starting to look unlucky, like Jimmy Carter.”

As before, an interesting bottomline emerges:

Re: Prospects for the New Space Age Near 2015:
Based on patterns in macroeconomic data and historical trends over the last 200 years, all realistic roads still lead to a 2015 Maslow Window featuring a Golden Age of Prosperity, Exploration, and Technology, although wildcards are possible.

Re: Mr. Obama’s Prospects:
Despite the fact that Mr. Obama is currently setting the stage for a robust, transformative new Space Age within the next 3-5 years, his presidential prospects remain uncertain and have become even more so since last September.

Obama’s long wave timing and election circumstances (i.e., panic/recession) have more parallels with the 1893-1913 Peary/Panama Maslow Window — in which a 1-term Democrat (Grover Cleveland) was replaced by a pro-prosperity Republican — than with the 1949-1969 Apollo Maslow Window of John F. Kennedy. And Obama’s continuing challenges with high unemployment, record deficits, huge budgets, Afghanistan, and now the oil spill, pose real dangers for him.

As the New York Times noted and as evidenced by Obama’s descending poll numbers, many Americans are expressing skepticism about big government and the economy. Obama will have to create prosperity — the cornerstone of the 2015 Maslow Window — and given Obama’s abilities and resources, he’s remains quite capable of doing it.

But he will have to reverse some of the above trends and perceptions.

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May 01 2010

Space: The Fractal Frontier — How Complexity Drives Exploration

Like a breath of fresh air, the science of self organized criticality has illuminated many disciplines, including astrophysics, biology, climate, economics, geopolitics, and others (see Turcotte & Rundle (2002) PNAS, “Self-organized criticality in the physical, biological, and social sciences.”)

What do Apollo and the new international Space Age have in common?
…Self organized criticality?

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The brainchild of Danish physicist Per Bak (1948-2002) — “one of the most original people in science” — SOC is an emergent property of complex systems whereby they organize themselves into a critical state such that rapid changes, including catastrophes, can occur. You can see the famous “Bak sandpile” conceptual model of SOC in Aschwanden (2010) as well as in Bak (1996), How Nature Works.

The captivating assertion of social scientist and SOC enthusiast Gregory Brunk (2002) that,

Virtually all aggregate-level, monumental events are somehow ’caused’ by the process of self-organized criticality,

suggests that SOC may have played a major role in the Apollo program and other major MEPs over the last 200 years. This post is a brief sketch how that might work.

Apollo Was the Most Recent of the Great Explorations
Cordell (1996) described the extraordinary pulses of great human explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark), macro-engineering projects (e.g., Panama Canal), and major wars (e.g., WW I) that cluster together exclusively every 55 to 60 years, over the last 200 years. I speculated that the decade from 2015 to 2025 would have economic, technology, and geopolitical parallels with the spectacular Apollo 1960s, including a JFK/Camelot-style zeitgeist.

Cordell (2006) introduced the concept of a “Maslow Window,” triggered by rhythmic, twice-per-century economic booms. Affluence-induced ebullience propels many to higher states in the Maslow hierarchy, where their momentarily expanded worldviews make great explorations and MEPs seem not only intriguing, but almost irresistible. As ebullience decays — due to widespread perceptions of budget stresses, a war, etc. — the Maslow Window closes.

The Bottomline is: The realization that Apollo is the most recent in a rhythmic, 200-year long string of great human explorations starting with Lewis and Clark, potentially opens the door to Bak-style SOC.

Wars and the Evidence for Complexity
According to Bak, a complex system exhibits SOC only if it has some form of power-law scaling, called “fractal” by Mandelbrot (1963). Based on their size-frequency plots for wars, Roberts and Turcotte (1998) conclude that,

The results we have shown indicate that world order behaves as a self-organized critical system independent of the efforts made to control and stabilize interactions between people and countries; and wars, like forest fires, are SOC processes.

Although Roberts and Turcotte (1998) only had data up to 150,000 deaths per war, the fact that “medium-size” wars are almost pure SOC indicates that the major wars of Maslow Windows are also fractal, as suggested recently for World War I by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson.

Punctuated Equilibria and Exploration
In 1994, the National Academy of Sciences held a major colloquium in Irvine, CA on “Physics: The Opening to Complexity.”

In Bak’s conference paper, he considers SOC in the contexts of geology, biological evolution, and macroeconomics. For example, in economics each system consists of many “agents” that interact together,

such as producers, governments, thieves, and economists. These agents each make decisions optimizing their own idiosyncratic goals. The actions of one agent affect other agents. In biology, individual organisms … (or individual species) interact with one another. The actions of one organism affect the survivability, or fitness, of others. If one species changes by mutation to improve its own fitness, other species in the ecology are also affected.

Bak generalizes Stephen Jay Gould’s biological theory of “punctuated equilibrium” to all complex systems:

The system exhibits punctuated equilibrium behavior, where periods of stasis are interrupted by intermittant bursts of activity … They are intrinsic to the dynamics of biology, history, and economics … Large, catastrophic events occur as a consequence of the same dynamics that produces small, ordinary events … We believe that this punctuated equilibrium behavior, first noted by Gould and Eldredge (1977, 1993), is common to all complex dynamical systems.

The Bottomline is: The Apollo program — seen in the context of 200 years of great explorations — exhibits punctuated equilibrium behavior, an important step toward identifying it and the other MEPs as a SOC process.

Dynamics of SOC — The Gap Equation
Bak’s Gap Equation governs the system’s evolution from weak SOC to the fractal, self organized critical state.

The model is so general that it can also be thought of as a model for macroeconomics. The individual sites represent economic agents, and the random numbers f1 represent their “utility functions.” Agents modify their behavior to increase their wealth. The agents with lowest utility functions disappear and are replaced by others. This, in turn, affects other agents and changes their utility functions.

Bak’s quote above could apply just as well to agents of particular space projects modifying their behavior and vying for funding at NASA (or elsewhere) and/or Macro-Engineering Projects likewise seeking support of all types. Agents and projects with the “lowest utility functions” soon disappear (a Darwinian principle), no matter how big they are – just ask Constellation advocates!

The Bottomline is: This compatibility with Bak’s law indicates that space projects and MEPs are most likely governed by SOC. The Space Project/MEP System is most fractal just before and during a Maslow Window. As in Bak’s computer simulations, transitions into and out of the strong SOC state are abrupt just before (e.g., in 1901; in 1958) or just after the Maslow Windows (e.g., in 1914 and in 1970). While in the critical state, large changes (i.e., great explorations, MEPs, major wars) can occur in response to even a minor stimulus.

Predictability and SOC
The fractal nature of SOC inhibits long-term predictability of specific events during the critical state (i.e., during a Maslow Window). However, the last 200+ years show that, especially during the non-fractal decades between Maslow Windows, the long wave has been a reliable guide to the rhythmic, twice-per-century timing of Maslow Windows from Lewis and Clark through 1960s Apollo to the present. And other intriguing regularities are also observable.

For example, according to former UCLA geophysics professor Didier Sornette — who more recently founded the Financial Crisis Observatory in Zurich — in reference to the U.S. stock market, “It is possible to identify clear signatures of near-critical behavior many years before the crashes and use them to ‘‘predict’’ the date where the system will go critical …”

Bak also hints at predictability (by analogy with his sandpile model, he refers to major changes during the critical SOC state as “avalanches”):

During an avalanche, a great deal of rapid activity occurs in which species come and go at a fast pace. Nature “experiments” until it finds another “stable” ecology with high fitnesses. The Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago can be thought of as the grandmother of all such avalanches.

So what should we expect prior to a Maslow Window? What’s the analog for Nature looking for a more “stable” ecology while “species come and go” in a Darwinian sense? What signal should we see of “near-critical behavior many years before” the critical Maslow Window?

Two potential candidates have been identified that appear regularly over the last 200+ years:
1) Major financial panic/great recession combinations (e.g., Panic of 1893) that usually begin 6-8 years before a Maslow Window (including the Panic of 2008 and current great recession),
and
2) Moderate wars and/or dangerous confrontations (e.g., Cuban Missile Crisis) that are rapidly resolved and occur early in or just before Maslow Windows (including the current Iran crisis).

These precursors are consistent with both long wave patterns and self organized criticality, when our complex international economic system self-organizes into a critical state — characterized by Great Explorations, Macro-Engineering Projects, and major wars — that we call a Maslow Window.

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Apr 15 2010

Parallels Between Presidents Truman and Bush Provide Insights Into the Future

Today Mark McKinnon, a former media advisor to both President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, highlighted a few compelling parallels between the personal characters and presidential challenges of Presidents Harry Truman and Bush (Daily Beast, 4/14/10).

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Why are Truman and Bush so similar? Is it our imagination or something deeper?
ClicK .

McKinnon echoes themes that Contributing Editor Ann Hovey and I independently sketched almost 2 years ago in connection with the fact that the presidencies of Truman and Bush are separated by one long wave (about 56 years); see McCain and the Republican Panic.

Over the last 200 years, long waves in the economy appear to fundamentally trigger spectacular Maslow Windows; i.e., rhythmic, twice-per-century golden ages (e.g., the Camelot-style 1960s) when great explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark), macro-engineering projects (e.g., the Apollo Moon program), and sadly, major wars (e.g., World War I) cluster together exclusively.

So it’s reasonable to expect that a wide variety of political, economic, cultural, and even military trends, events, and personalities might display key parallels from similar times during one long wave to another.

While McKinnon appears to be interested in “Bush’s resurrection,” our focus is on using Truman and Bush as another interesting historical test of this long wave model.

For example, in June, 2008 we wrote:

Truman’s and “Dubya” Bush’s first terms tantalizingly are 56 years apart (1945 and 2001), which suggests the economic, political, and military framework of each administration should have had similarities, although Bush did not have an analog for W.W. II. In fact, each president governed during times of unpopular conflicts – Truman in Korea, and Bush in Iraq. The Truman years saw the birth of the Cold War. Today, Russian President Putin is seen by some as launching the same cold war tensions. After WWII, the Truman era featured a wave of anti-communism and international tensions. Bush’s administration, in response to international terrorist attacks, introduced the Patriot Act. Thus both presidents governed in an environment of controversy where national security and civil liberties seemed to compete.

In terms of their public persona, both Truman and Bush were/are perceived by many as being “rough around the edges,” and as somewhat unenlightened. Their public approval ratings plummeted during their terms of office with record lows (20s – 30s), although both presidents presided over significant economic gowth.

McKinnon sees similar parallels:

They both gave hell and got hell.
As presidents, George W. Bush and Harry S. Truman had a lot in common.
Both were skeptical of elites and the media, driven by their faith, had troubled presidencies, made momentous and difficult decisions, took the nation into war, were unpopular in their time and weren’t concerned about it. They deeply believed if they did the right thing, history would sort things out in the end.

But consider the following observations about Truman from noted historians and how they easily they could be applied to Bush (all citations are from David McCullough’s Truman, except where otherwise noted):
He presented himself as a common-sense country boy…
…reputation of an intellectual lightweight…
Truman was often called a simple man, which he was not.
He made no pretense at being superior in any regard. He did not seem to need the limelight, flattery, or a following …

His whole life Truman had been moved primarily by faith… “I have a deep and abiding faith in the destiny of free men.”
In just three months in office, Harry Truman had been faced with a greater surge of history, with larger, more difficult, more far-reaching decisions than any president before him.
…unparalleled power and responsibility had been thrust upon him at one of history’s greatest turning points…
[On the Korean War] The war Truman had never wanted or expected, but knew to be of utmost importance to the future of the world—the most important decision of his presidency, he believed—had come to overshadow his whole second term.
The decision to go into Korea, he said, was the most important of his time in office… His intent in Korea, he now said, was to prevent World War III …

[Mid-term elections] The opposing party swept the election, carrying both houses of Congress for the first time since before the Depression…
“The shrill pitch of abuse heaped upon the president continues to echo,” wrote Time.

Finally, regarding America’s role in the world, Truman and Bush sound eerily similar.
President Truman in 1948:
“The only expansion we are interested in is the expansion of human freedom and the wider enjoyment of the good things of the earth in all countries… The only prize we covet is the respect and good will of our fellow members of the family of nations.”
President Bush in 2002:
“Our nation’s cause has always been larger than our nation’s defense. We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace—a peace that favors human liberty. We will defend the peace against threats from terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. And we will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent. Building this just peace is America’s opportunity, and America’s duty …

Truman and Bush. The similarities are striking … With his ability to “take it,” his inner iron, his bedrock faith in the democratic process, his trust in the American people, and his belief that history was the final, all-important judge of performance, he was truly exceptional. He never had a doubt about who he was, and that too was part of his strength…

Noted historian Doug Brinkley perhaps best sums up the pair: Both Truman and Bush were avatars of direct action. Neither cared much about public opinion polls or pulse-reading. At their best, they were decisive mavericks. At their worst, too-fast-of-draws.

A coincidence? Within the context of many such parallels over the last 200 years, probably not. The long wave creates a framework that enables certain types of events and personalities to ascend at favored times. However, we should keep in mind that due, for example, to advances in technology and its ripples through the global economy, history appears to be more a spiral than a cycle.

Parallels between Truman, Bush, and their times, provide insights into how it all works. And, in combination with a wealth of macroeconomic evidence and historical trends over the last 200 years, they support our forecast that the next golden age of prosperity, exploration, and technology should arrive by 2015.

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Apr 02 2010

Near-Term Wars Threaten the New Space Age

Recently the Wall Street Journal (3/31/10) expressed concern about the “fading hope” of sanctions on Iran,

We are left with a stark alternative: Either Iran gets a nuclear weapon and we manage the risk, or someone acts to eliminate the threat,

according to Ms. Danielle Pletka, VP for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

And earlier this week Ronan Bergman, senior military and intelligence for an Israeli daily (Yedioth Ahronoth) and author of The Secret War With Iran (2008), pointed out that the three most likely scenarios for starting the next Middle East war “all involve Iran” (WSJ, 3/29/10). Despite the fact that a preemptive airstrike by Israel on Iranian nuclear installations is “somewhat less likely” now, due to Israel’s evolving perception of sanctions on Iran.

These issues need to considered in the context of the current “major flap in U.S.-Israel relations.” According to a recent interview in ForeignAffairs.com with Ehud Yaari, who is Lafer International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Middle East Commentator for Channel 2 news in Israel, and the the co-author (with the late Ze’ev Schiff) of Israel’s Lebanon War and Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising — Israel’s Third Front,, regarding the Israeli prime minister’s recent visit to the U.S.,

The general sense in Israel right now is that the prime minister was sorely humiliated by President Obama. There is quite a degree of amazement the way he was treated. I think it’s fair to say that neither the prime minister nor his defense minister, Ehud Barak, were aware of the kind of reception that they were greeted with at the White House.

Because of its importance to world energy supplies and the global economy, a Middle East war in the next few years would significantly reduce global security, as well as possibily threaten the new international space age expected to begin by 2015.

This is a different military threat than the one I focused on in July, 2008:

In addition to the expansive joy of Great Explorations from Lewis & Clark to Apollo, and stunning Macro-Engineering Projects (MEPs) like the Panama Canal, the last 200 years also teach us one sobering fact: Each Maslow Window is also associated with a tragic, major war (e.g. W. W. I).

And sadly, the 2020s are unlikely to be an exception.

Instead of the major wars (e.g., WW I) that occur near the end (or after) a typical Maslow Window, the near-term conflicts referred to here are a feature of early Maslow Window times or the years just before them; e.g., from 2010 to 2016.

And all Maslow Windows are aflicted by them.

Neither the early/pre-Maslow Window conflicts (that threaten Maslow Windows) nor the late-Window major wars (that terminate Maslow Windows) over the last 200 years, can be scientifically predicted with much reliability. But they are historically associated with long wave trends, including the upswing toward the major economic boom that triggers the widespread affluence-induced ebullience of Maslow Windows, as well as the long wave’s decline after the boom has peaked and an economic downturn is looming.

The early/pre-Maslow Window conflicts and the long economic waves they are associated with over the last 200+ years may be thought of in the context of a complex adaptive system model where self organized criticality produces typical events — e.g., early/pre-Maslow Window conflicts, financial panics, great recessions — just prior to the major economic boom of the Maslow Window itself. Niall Ferguson has described a similar model for the onset of World War I and other major geopolitcal events of the last 200 years.

In any case, the patterns associated with early/pre-Maslow Window years are clear. For example:

The Lewis & Clark/Jefferson Maslow Window:
If Napolean hadn’t been distracted from his interest in a North American empire by the need to fund his European war machine, Jefferson might not have gotten such a good price for the Lousiana Purchase, which led to the opening up of the American Northwest during the first Great Exploration of the last 200 years. (See: 10 Lessons Lewis & Clark Teach Us About the Human Future in Space)

The Dr. Livingstone/Suez/Polk Maslow Window:
One long wave later, the Mexican War played a major role in the early mid-19th century Maslow Window due to the ebullient, expansionist belief by the U.S. population in Manifest Destiny. (See: How the West Was Won — The Expansionist Effects of Ebullience)

The Peary/Panama/Roosevelt Maslow Window:
Just prior to perhaps the most ebullient decade in U.S. history, the Spanish-American War (1898) taught the future president and “Rough Rider” Theodore Roosevelt the potential strategic value of a Panama Canal — the greatest MEP of the last 200 years until Apollo. TR waited in Cuba for a key U.S. battleship from the Pacific which finally arrived, after a long trip around the southern tip of South America, 2 months after the war began. (See: 10 Lessons the Panama Canal Teaches Us About the Human Future in Space)

The 1960s Apollo/JFK Maslow Window:
One long wave later, early in the most recent Maslow Window, Cuba again eerily rose to center stage as the world came very close to World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962); this Crisis intensified the competition and global symbolism of the U.S.-Soviet race to the Moon, eventually won by the U.S. in 1969. (See: The New Cuban Space Center and Vladimir Bonaparte)

That’s the Bad News, and early/pre- Maslow Window international tensions — characteristic, as we’ve seen, of the last 200+ years — appear to be building again now in the Middle East as well as potentially elsewhere. (See, for example, Krepinevich (2009), 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century.)

But the Good News is that — although each early/pre-Maslow Window conflict was a time of war and/or even potentially global doom (i.e., the Cuban Missile Crisis) — over the last 200 years, all have amazingly accelerated the world toward the stunning Great Explorations and Macro-Engineering Projects of each ebullient Maslow Window, and have served as global quantum leaps as they transformed the world.

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Mar 16 2010

Niall Ferguson — On the Edge of Chaos, Immersed in the Long Wave

Dr. Ferguson is a very insightful history professor at Harvard who has previously written about the financial history of the world, and recently in Foreign Affairs (March/April, 2010) used some ideas from complexity theory to explain the downfall of nations. Ferguson’s article points away from grand theories like those of Toynbee or more recently Diamond, who focus on long-term cultural, economic, or ecological forces, in favor of very rapid changes; e.g. “A very small trigger can set off a “phase transition” from a benign equilibrium to a crisis…”; the Butterfly Effect.

I am especially intrigued with Ferguson’s portrayal of self-organized criticality in this context because it fits well into the Maslow Window model — that explains rhythmic, twice-per-century clusters of great human explorations, macro-engineering projects, and major wars over the last 200 years – which is fundamentally driven by a long business cycle known as “the long wave.”

What Caused World War I?

No one expected it, but soon historians had constructed a theory extending back to an unfortunate treaty signed in 1839. Nonsense. According to Ferguson, “the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess … World War I was actually caused by a series of diplomatic miscalculations in the summer of 1914…”

In terms of the long wave, WW I is a classic “peak war”; i.e., one of several major wars that occur near or shortly after the peak in the long wave – a time when a major economic boom has culminated in widespread societal affluence – such as near the end of the Peary/Panama Maslow Window. When asked why nations would fight a major war in the midst of such affluence, the response of some political scientists – apparently seriously – is that’s the only time nations can afford them. However, physicist Theodore Modis (1992) suggested that peaks of the long wave are likely to be times of chaos in an economy or among nations, as opposed to rapid growth periods like Maslow Windows.

Thus the Maslow Window/Long Wave model and Ferguson-style self-organized criticality together provide a plausible explanation for the timing and magnitude of WW I as well as other peak wars over the last 200+ years.

What About the British and Soviet Empires?

Ferguson marvels at the rapidity with which the British Empire and more recently the Soviet Union collapsed. “The United Kingdom’s age of hegemony was effectively over less than a dozen years after its (WW II) victories over Germany and Japan.” And “less than 5 years after Gorbachev took power, the Soviet imperium in central and Eastern Europe had fallen apart, followed by the Soviet Union itself in 1991. If ever an empire fell off a cliff — rather than gently declining it was the one founded by Lenin.”

However, the persistent influence of long wave economic trends apprears to have contributed in both cases. For example, Fareed Zakaria (2008) notes that at its height the British Empire covered “a quarter of the earth’s land surface and included a quarter of its population.” And yet,

Britain’s exalted position was more fragile than it appeared … Britain was a strange superpower … The wonder is not that Britain declined, but that its dominance lasted as long as it did … By World War I, the American economy was twice the size of Britain’s, and together France’s and Russia’s were larger as well … Having spearheaded the first industrial revolution, Britain had been less adept at moving into the second.

Although complexity probably played a role in Britain’s decline in the mid-1950s relative to the U.S., the effect of America’s economic surge toward the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window was also crucial. And if the Butterfly Effect triggered the Soviet Union’s downfall, its centrally planned economy, lack of democratic institutions, and the downward trend in the long wave (toward its trough in 1997), didn’t help either.

Is the U.S. Poised To Go Down?

Because national decline is “precipitous and unexpected” and most involve “fiscal crisis,” Ferguson maintains that “Alarm bells should be ringing very loudly, as the United States contemplates a deficit for 2009 of more than $ 1.4 trillion — about 11.2% of GDP, the biggest deficit in 60 years — and another for 2010 not much smaller.”

It’s not just the numbers that matter, it’s the perception. “In imperial crises, it is not the material underpinnings of power that really matter but expectations of future power.” This is similar to our concept of “ebullience” that powers unparalleled explorations and engineering projects during Maslow Windows, as well as the anti-ebullience experienced during great recessions (like now).

Suddenly one day,

it will not be just a few policy wonks who worry about the sustainability of U.S. fiscal policy but also the public at large, not to mention investors abroad. It is this shift that is crucial: a complex adaptive system is in big trouble when its component parts lose faith in its viability.

We may be reaching that point in the U.S. now. However, unlike the old Soviet Union, America has an informed electorate that can change the country’s direction like it has done recently beginning with President Obama’s election and continuing to the present. Although Ferguson is right that we are running high economic risks today, the U.S. has successfully weathered pre-Maslow Window financial panics and great recessions over the last 200 years that have never failed to give birth to unparalleled, undelayed, truly ebullient Maslow Windows.

And we expect the next one by 2015.

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Jan 03 2010

How the West Was Won — The Expansionist Effects of Ebullience

I had a very Merry Christmas season this year — specifically,  about 500 powerful pages by Robert Merry.   His new book is  A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (2009). 

Many agree it’s enthralling.  The New York Times (Sean Wilentz, 11/22/09) calls it “one of the most astute and informative historical accounts yet written about national politics, and especially Waahington politics, during the decisive 1840s.”  The Wall Street Journal (Aram Bakshian, Jr; 11/6/09) says it’s an “authoritative biography …(that) provides a compelling, perceptive portrait of one of the oddest men (James Polk) ever to occupy the White House…”

Against all odds, this smaller-than-life man achieved the impossible and ebulliently changed the world in only 4 short years; President James K. Polk in 1845. 

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In his unlikely, self-imposed one-term presidency, Polk accomplished the nearly impossible — he “engineered the triumph of Manifest Destiny” (NY Times) — including the annexation of Texas (1845), and the acquisition of the Oregon Territory (1846) and essentially the rest of the U.S. West including California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona — all by 1848.

This is an extraordinary story that occurred in ebullient times that we call a “Maslow Window”  — see  “Buzz Aldrin — A Man For All Maslow Windows!” —  less than half a century after Lewis and Clark  explored the Louisiana Purchase to the Pacific, and still a few decades before the U.S. became the leading economic power on Earth.  Probably for this reason, neither the Great Exploration of this Window — see 10 Lessons Dr. Livingstone (“…I presume?”) Teaches Us About the Human Future in Space —  nor the primary Macro-Engineering Project (MEP)  — the Suez Canal —  were closely related to the U.S.  (although Stanley was dispatched by a New York newspaper to find Livingstone in Africa). 

However, the affluence-induced ebullience  — see The Economics of Ebullience Points to a Sparkling New Global Space Age—  that triggered these epochal events abroad was also strongly present in the U.S. as evidenced in Merry’s book.  Here are a few examples:

1. New Technology Was “Exploding” in America.

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844, “American is the country of the Future.  It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.”  

Merry explains that a key reason the “impulse of exuberant expansionism” continued to surge was because,  “Just as America was encompassing ever greater distances, technology —  steam power and Morse’s telegraph — was obliterating the sluggishness of distance.”

2. The Financial Panic of 1837 and Great Recession Recovered by 1843 to a most “Prosperous State of Affairs.”

The financial Panic of 1837 was a major contraction where 40% of the U.S. banks failed and unemployment was at record highs; the resulting Great Recession lasted 6 years until 1843.  According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman writing in 1960, the Panic of 1837 “is the only depression on record comparable in severity and scope to the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

Merry notes that,

Within nine weeks of Van Buren’s innauguration, economic collapse swept the country. It began when New York banks suspended specie payments, causing widespread alarm and setting in motion a deflationary period as credit dried up … The Panic of 1837 ushered in “a cycle of recession, recovery, and depression” that would dominate American politics for the next seven years … Van Buren lost much of his popularity … Polk remained a stalwart floor leader for Van Buren’s agenda, but the tide had turned against his party.

Polk left the House and won the Tennessee governorship in 1839, but lost it in 1841 and 1843. “At forty-seven, he knew he looked washed up…”  But due to his pro-Texas annexation position which mirrored the expansionist electorate, Polk, against all odds, became the Democratic candidate for president and was elected in 1844.

As Polk assumed the presidency in 1845, the dynamic duo of prosperity and ebullience was everywhere.  According to Merry,

The national economy had been expanding at an average annual rate of 3.9%.  Not even the Panic of 1837, for all its destructive force, could forestall for long this creation of wealth.  And throughout the land could be seen a confidence that fueled national success. “We are now reaching the very height, perhaps, to which we can expect to ascend,” declared the Democratic Wilmington Gazette of Delaware.

Despite the Panic of 1837 and its Great Recession, the mid-19th Century Dr. Livingstone/Suez Maslow Window (roughly 1847 to 1860) opened on time and featured Africa’s most famous explorer (Dr. Livingstone), the “technological jewel” of the 19th Century (the Suez Canal), as well as impressive secondary MEPs (including the Great Eastern ship).   In addition to the stunning culmination of American Manifest Destiny in 1848,  this Maslow Window’s ebullience is also  exemplified by the famous Gold Rush of the American West (1848 – 1855).

Over the last 200 years, financial panics and great recessions have usually preceded Maslow Windows; see “Economic Crisis Supports Maslow Window Forecasts.”  Two 19th Century panics (1837 and 1893) , were both about one decade prior to their Maslow Windows;  none in 1949 (during the post W.W. II boom) one decade before the Apollo Maslow Window;  and one in 2008 (7 years before our expected 2015 Maslow Window). The New York Times (11/30/08) also describes a “deep recession” that appearently occurred somewhat after 1776, about 10+  years before the Lewis & Clark Maslow Window.

In fact, during the last 200+ years, no financial panic/great recession pair has ever delayed or diminished, in any observable way, any Great Explorations or MEPs associated with a Maslow Window. And there’s every reason to expect this 200+ year pattern will continue.

3.  The Controversial Mexican War Played a Major Role in U.S. Expansion.

Wars that occur early in the Maslow Windows of the last 200 years are complex, destructive events  — far beyond the scope of our discussion here — but according to historical accounts, usually play an important role in the ensuing events of the Maslow Windows.  It appears that ebullience — also known as “animal spirits” and “irrational exuberance” in an economic context; see “Are Great Explorations Driven by Keynesian “Animal Spirits” on Steroids?” — played a central role.

A few of the interesting parallels are sketched here:

Despite the (then) unresolved issues of slavery and the legality of the war, the Mexican War was vigorously and successfully executed by Polk with the support of the American people. Their ebullient expansionist belief in Manifest Destiny transformed the world.  According to Merry, the U.S. was “a vibrant, expanding, exuberant experiment in democracy whose burgeoning population thrilled to the notion that it was engaging in something big and historically momentous.”  This is the language of societal ebullience.

One Maslow Window earlier, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe played a major role enabling the Lewis and Clark expedition and in launching U.S. westward expansion.  Napoleon’s need to fund his war machine encouraged the sale of Louisiana to Jefferson;  see “10 Lessons Lewis & Clark Teach Us About the Human Future in Space.”

Likewise, the Spanish-American War of 1898 — as the Great 1890s Recession was ending and as the ebullient Peary/Panama Maslow Window began — played an intriguing role in Maslow Window events.  “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!”, an Alamo-like cry in response to the deaths of 266 US sailors while anchored in Havana Harbor, helped ignite the Spanish-American War.  To replace the Maine, another battleship (USS Oregon) stationed on the Pacific coast rushed 14,700 miles around South America to Cuba — while Teddy Roosevelt, leader of the famous “Rough Riders,” vectored toward Cuban battle himself.  Since the Oregon arrived at Cuba two months after war began, it didn’t require much abstract thinking for TR to recognize the Panama Canal’s potential strategic advantages;   see “10 Lessons the Panama Canal Teaches Us About the Human Future in Space.”

Early in the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window, Cuba again was the focus of an even bigger crisis for America and President John F. Kennedy: the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Because of Soviet emplacement of offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba the world came closer to a major nuclear exchange than ever before or since.  Although this crisis did not ignite the Space Age — the surprise 1957 launch of Sputnik did that — it intensified the Moon race and showed that the global stakes were high; see “The New Cuban Space Center and Vladimir Bonaparte.”

The “early Maslow Window wars” are continuing into the present — Iraq, Afghanistan, the War on Terror — as we recover from our Panic of 2008/Great Recession combination (analogous to the Panic of 1893/Great 1890s Recession and Panic of 1837/Great Recession), and as we ebulliently head toward the much anticipated, spectacular 2015 Maslow Window.  

4. Manifest Destiny Was Fueled by an “Exuberance of Spirit” Across the U.S.

There are many visionary quotes in Merry’s book that clearly indicate the extraordinary level of ebullience permeating mid-1840s America, but one of the most striking is from an obscure Democratic congressman from Ohio (then a western state) named John D. Cummins, who referred to the disputed Oregon Territory as nothing less than,

“the master key of the commerce of the universe.”  Get that territory into U.S. jurisdiction, he argued, and soon it would fill up with “an industrious, thriving, American population” and “flourishing towns and embryo cities” facing west upon the Pacific within four thousand miles of vast Asian markets.  Now contemplate, he added, ribbons of railroad track across America, connecting New York, Boston, and Philadelphia to those burgeoning West Coast cities and ports that would spring up once Oregon was in American hands. 

Cumins continued, think about how the “inevitable external laws of trade” would render American the necessary passageway for “the whole eastern commerce of Europe.” … “The commerce of the world would thus be revolutionized.”

Cummins bold vision was easily dismissed as hopelessly fanciful in a world utterly dominated by Great Britain. And yet it crystallized a fundamental element of the era’s politics — the widely shared conviction that America was a nation of destiny, that one day it would supplant Britain as the world’s dominant power, that Oregon represented merely an interim step toward realization of that vision.

Merry’s bottom line regarding Polk and American ebullience of the 1840s  is simple but powerful:

his legacy comes down to … the map outline of the continental United States, which is very close to what Polk bequeathed to his nation … To look at that map, and to take in the western and southwestern expanse included in it, is to see the magnitude of Polk’s presidential accomplishments … It didn’t come easily or cheaply …It unleashed civic forces that hadn’t been foreseen and couldn’t be controlled … But in the end he succeeded and fulfilled the vision and dream of his constituency.  In a democratic system that is the ultimate measure of political success.

The expansionist effects of ebullience apparently drove not only the Manifest Destiny of 1840s America, but also Jefferson’s seminal Lewis and Clark expedition, and the early 20th century’s international races to the north and south poles as well as the greatest MEP of the last 200 years (until Apollo): the Panama Canal.  In the 1960s the expansionist effects of ebullience finally drove us offworld to the Moon. 

As we approach another ebullient golden age of prosperity, exploration, and technology — the 2015 Maslow Window — it’s very likely the impossible will be accomplished again and the world will be changed.

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