Saturday Links 18-Aug-2018: Turchin’s model for social crisis, feudal California taxes, PGS for disease, Elephant genes

Here’s my weekly list of links and commentary.

1. Peter Turchin’s model says US violence will peak in 2020. This Nature News article from 2012 summarizes Turchin’s work:

To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way. The peak should occur in about 2020, he says, and will probably be at least as high as the one in around 1970. “I hope it won’t be as bad as 1870,” he adds.

That summary also notes Turchin’s approach “is viewed with deep scepticism by most academic historians.” That said, here’s one of Turchin’s charts on cycles of violence. Note the 2020 on the right with a “?”:


I’ve read Turchin’s blog for years, but was on the fence. This week I read his most recent post. He’s becoming more pessimistic:

What I found remarkable as we have lived through the past two years (indeed, the past eight years since I made my prediction of the impending crisis), is how precisely we today are following the trajectory into crisis that my colleagues and I saw in the historical societies we have studied.


We saw all those mechanisms operating in our current crisis. Immiseration of large swaths of the American population was what fueled the successful campaign of a counter-elite presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Intra-elite conflict has reached unprecedented heights (since the First American Civil War), as the established elites are using various means at their disposal to get rid of the counter-elite chief of state. At the same time, a weird coalition of Trump and the established elites (remember, laws must be approved by the Congress) legislates deep cuts into the taxes the elites will pay, bringing the fiscal crisis of the state much sooner. Political violence has also reached new heights, although thankfully mostly demonstrators and counter-demonstrators are beaten up, not killed (a major exception was Charlottesville a year ago).

Until last year I thought that we collectively have a decent chance of avoiding the crisis, but I now have abandoned this hope. A major reason for my pessimism is the resolute refusal by our ruling class (including its both Liberal and Conservative wings) to see the real causes of the crisis. They are internal, not external. As a result, the mid-term elections will be completely free of (largely mythical) Russian influence, but no attempt is made to address the deep structural-demographic causes. All these pressures continue to increase.

Turchin says the underlying causes of violence are: 1) oversupply of labor, and 2) elite overproduction and competition. I remain skeptical of the economics behind oversupply of labor. But now in 2018 am on board with elite overproduction and competition. That’s clearly tearing at the fabric of our society. I’d add that reading Turchin also reminded me of how violent the 1970s really were, which makes me less skeptical on whether violence may return. See his post on Days of Rage. In summary, I’ve moved my judgement of Turchin’s forecasts for violence from properly rated to underrated over the past year. Turchin is not a great prose stylist, but in the end ideas are what matter. So I just bought his two most recent books on kindle. My kindle pile is pretty deep, but once I’m through I’ll post something.

2. Like Feudal lords, California mansion owners pass low property taxes on to their princelings. California allows children to inherit the historic tax rates of their parent’s homes. So for example actors Jeff and Beau Bridges inherited their parent’s mansion in 2009, yet pay the same tax their squire Lloyd Bridges paid in 1975. They pay $48k a year in taxes, but would pay $348k if taxed at market rates. This is all a crazy outgrowth of Proposition 13 tax laws, passed long ago in California. On twitter, one of the reporters for the piece noted that U.S. Supreme Court justices say it’s like “medieval feudalism.” link

3. Genomic Prediction of disease risk using polygenic scores. New paper. Stephen Hsu comments: “It seems to me we are just at the tipping point — soon it will be widely understood that with large enough data sets we can predict complex traits and complex disease risk from genotype, capturing most of the estimated heritable variance. People will forget that many “experts” doubted this was possible — the term missing heritability will gradually disappear. In just a few years genotyping will start to become “standard of care” in many health systems. In 5 years there will be ~100M genotypes in storage (vs ~20M now), a large fraction available for scientific analysis.

4. Genetics of Elephants avoiding cancer. Naively one would think with more cells, elephants should be more cancer prone. But from an evolutionary point of view, we should expect elephants would evolve more protections from cancer in lockstep with their increasing size. Those protections may have a cost, but it’s better than dying of cancer. And that’s just what happened. The details are interesting, in that one of the genes involved lay dormant, but in the elephant lineage got turned back on. So when elephant cells detect genetic damage, they are more aggressive in committing cell suicide. Carl Zimmer has the story. link

5. Pew survey on Education and Religion. This came across my feed this week, even though it’s from 2016. What jumped out was the contrast between religion and educational attainment globally (left chart below), compared to the US (right chart below). link


6. One line updates on interesting stuff. There’s a twitter account called Saved You A Click which takes stories that raise a question in their title, and answers them in the tweet itself so you don’t have to click through. It’s great. In that spirit, here’s stories which have one interesting fact or idea, but may not be worth reading in full. But click through if your heart so desires:

7. Current podcast and book. My favorite podcast this week was this episode of Sinica, an interview with former China diplomat Chas Freeman. Wide ranging and interesting. My favorite book was The Enigma of Reason, which argues reason evolved as an adaptation to socially justify ourselves. Rationalizations all the way down. I’m about halfway through. So far it’s rather convincing.

And that’s it for this week. Thank you for reading all the way to the end!










3 thoughts on “Saturday Links 18-Aug-2018: Turchin’s model for social crisis, feudal California taxes, PGS for disease, Elephant genes

  1. I understand what oversupply of labor means. That was clearly a huge factor in the 1920s and 1970s crises, but like you I am skeptical about whether it is a problem today (in the UK, unemployment is at its lowest since 1975). But what on earth is elite overproduction and competition? Can you render this in concrete terms?

    1. My take on this is too many people want the status of going to Harvard, and the plum media/tech/government jobs that go with it. So the elite college grads battle in group competition for status, rather than governing for the best interests of the nation as a whole.

      I need to read Turchin’s books to see if that is his view. But that is mine. When Trump says he’s an Ivy League Wharton grad, and many Wharton grads hate him mentioning this, you’re seeing elite zero sum competition for status.

      1. Thanks. Harvard’s website shows 39,506 candidates in search of 2,037 places for the latest year of entry. But I imagine that places for Harvard have always been highly sought-after. I find it hard to understand why this is precipitating a crisis.

        Interestingly, 50.9% of admitted students were from an ethnic minority of some kind. My take is that opportunities in media, tech and banking jobs are wider than ever before, and open to a more diverse range of candidates. But I know that there is a popular perception that social mobility is in decline, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. Perhaps it is this perception (or mis-perception) that is the cause of unrest?

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