The Storm Before the Calm
By George Friedman
Penguin Random House, New York, 2020
I can’t decide whether George Friedman is a genius or a crackpot.
Friedman has made a career of geopolitical forecasting. He’s founded a couple of consulting companies that specialize in the field. He’s the author of several bestselling books including the The Next Decade and The Next 100 Years.
In his latest book, The Storm Before the Calm: American Discord, The Coming Crisis of the 2020s, And the Triumph Beyond, Friedman presents a model of American history and then uses his model to make some very specific predictions about the next decade and beyond. If you agree with the model, then his predictions will seem like a natural progression. If you’re like me and you don’t buy the model … well you still might find his predictions hard to dismiss.
Okay, let’s start with the model. Friedman’s model of American history consists of two overlapping cycles; an eighty-year institutional cycle and a fifty-year socioeconomic cycle. The reason the 2020’s will be so tumultuous, Friedman says, is because both cycles are ending within the same decade.
The Institutional Cycle is about major changes in the structure of America’s political institutions. Friedman argues that this cycle is primarily driven by war. The US was founded in war and has been fighting in wars great and small for most of its existence. He says America’s wars in the Middle East are what ends our current cycle.
There have been three of these institutional cycles so far:
- 1787 – 1865: From the drafting of the US Constitution in 1787 to the end of the Civil War and the constitutional amendments of 1885, the first institutional cycle was about establishing America’s national political institutions.
- 1865 – 1945: The second institutional cycle, culminating at the end of World War II, established the indivisibility of the union and the authority of the federal government over the states. But the federal government did not play a significant role in the economic and social life of the country during this time. In fact, the prevailing laissez faire ideology meant that national institutions were not equipped to meet the challenge of the Great Depression.
- 1945 – 2025: The third cycle started at the end of WWII and will end in about five years, or so Friedman tells us. This cycle has been about the relationship of the federal government and the American people. During this time, we’ve seen massive growth in the involvement of the federal government in the economy and society. This started with the industrial and military mobilization needed to end the Great Depression and win WWII. It continued with social programs, mortgage loan programs, student loan programs and the like. It will end due to pressures brought about by the eighteen-year long war against the Jihadists.
Friedman predicts that the fourth institutional cycle, starting in 2025, will be about the relationship of the federal government to itself. He argues that the federal government no longer functions well, it has become too entangled with itself, too diffuse and too distant from the needs of the people.
The Socioeconomic Cycles run at a slightly faster clip; every 50 years. I won’t go through them in detail, but here they are:
- 1873 – 1828 (George Washington to John Quincy Adams).
- 1828 – 1876 (Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant)
- 1876 – 1929 (Rutherford B. Hayes to Herbert Hoover)
- 1932 – 1980 (Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter)
- 1980 – 2028 (Ronald Reagan to whomever is elected President in 2028)
At the end of each cycle, policies that have worked for the last 50 years stop being effective and even cause harm.
“When the crisis matures, it concludes with someone who will be regarded as a failed president and with the emergence of a new president who does not create the new cycle but rather permits it to take place. Over the following decade or so, the United States reshapes itself, and the new era emerges.” [p. 116]
Severe social and economic crises are the driving factors of each cycle, even though they are named for the presidents who bracket them. These crises create political turmoil and force change on the political system, but,
“The cycle is working itself out in the murky depths.” [p. 117]
Let’s take a look at the murky depths of our current cycle, the Reagan cycle, which Friedman says is nearing its end. This cycle began by implementing tax cuts and encouraging investment in order to reignite the US economy following the oil price shocks and high inflation of the 1970’s. Those policies, combined with incredible technological advances, especially in computers and software, have led to significant GDP growth over the last 50 years. However, the distribution of wealth has shifted dramatically toward people whom Friedman calls “technocrats” – university educated professionals with highly specialized expertise and a pragmatic focus on efficiency. Left behind are the industrial workers who prospered during the post-war growth years. Real income for middle and lower-middle class families has been stagnant since the mid-1970’s.
Rising animosity and contempt between these two groups fuels the political tensions tearing at the country today, culminating in the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Friedman says the current crisis has not fully matured and that it will be up to the winner of the 2028 presidential election to usher in the beginning of a new cycle. He’s very specific about this.
Friedman finishes the book by confidently predicting some of the essential characteristics and challenges that will emerge in the 2030’s and beyond as new institutional and socioeconomic cycles get underway.
Large parts of this book seem no better than astrology to me. I’m not disputing that the US has gone through difficult times, through crisis and war, nor that it has changed its institutional and socioeconomic structures along the way. But the idea of American history running like clockwork on predetermined cycles is absurd.
Friedman gives no explanation for why these cycles should last 80 years or 50 years. In fact, he says,
“The roughly eighty-year periods between the American Revolution and the Civil War, and between the Civil War and World War II, are possibly accidental. Still, that number is real and I think too odd to be a coincidence.” [p. 96]
“Too odd to be a coincidence” is a flimsy foundation for such a grand theory of history.
Some of the events that define these cycles seem problematic too. World War II and the Gulf War did not originate in America. If Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, or terrorists not struck on 9/11 would the institutional cycles still have ended when they did?
It seems just as likely to me that Friedman has fallen victim to the Narrative Fallacy. Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes this common error in The Black Swan (review). Humans like stories. We like them so much that we often impose a story line on random events in order to make sense of them. “Bad news comes in threes,” is great example. We hear two items of bad news, so we start looking around for a third event to complete the pattern. Hmm, let’s see … we’ve had two periods of American history lasting about eighty years, both culminating in a war. Is there a war that happened about eighty years after the last cycle ended? Why yes, there’s the war against the Jihadists in the Middle East. Well, it’s several wars actually. And none of them were as intense or as destructive as the Civil War or World War II. Still, it’s the only war that fits the eighty-year pattern, so it’ll have to do.
I think there are some other problems with the book too. Friedman largely ignores the demographic shifts that are rapidly changing the racial makeup of American society, especially the growing Hispanic and Asian communities. He essentially pleads ignorance on the problem of climate change. He does highlight the importance of computer technology in the current socioeconomic cycle, but it doesn’t seem to occur to him that technological change might also impact the very nature of these cycles. Maybe they’re getting faster.
Another gripe: the book (at least the Kindle edition that I read) has no bibliography, no footnotes or endnotes, and no index. I admit this is a pet peeve of mine, but books like this don’t just spring full-grown from the author’s brain.
And yet …
Friedman’s diagnosis of the disfunction of the US government is indisputable. It has become too cumbersome and too unresponsive to the needs of the people. The post-war systems built by technocrats, founded on globalization and technology, have failed to benefit large segments of the US population. And the cartel of elite universities that educate and certify new generations of technocrats has become an insanely expensive barrier to class mobility. Even though I would call myself a technocrat, it’s clear our ecomony is out of balance. So I’m intrigued by his prediction that the descendants of today’s white working class families could form an unlikely political alliance with African Americans who have been even more poorly served.
His discussion of the impact of declining birth rates and longer life expectancy on our values around gender, marriage, family and community are also insightful. I was especially struck by the passages dealing with loneliness and our need for authentic connection.
“Loneliness is one of the most powerful forces in the world. People get sick, and I know who will take care of me if I do … Living a long life without anyone needing you, no one really caring if you live or die, is liberation, but the terrible implications of liberation emerge with time.” [p. 219]
And that leads me to one final observation: The Storm Before the Calm was published just before the Coronavirus pandemic struck the world. I think the pandemic illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of this book. The pathetic failure of the US government to deal with the pandemic in an organized and united fashion tragically confirms Friedman’s diagnosis of institutional disfunction. Yet the occurrence of a pandemic also illustrates the futility and the hubris of making highly specific predictions about the future.
But who knows? Maybe Friedman will have the last laugh. He says that wars punctuate many of our cycles because they leave existing societies in ruins and make room for new ones to emerge. Perhaps COVID-19 is the real “war” that brings the present cycle to an end.
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