In the 1920s, the Russian economist, Nikolai Kondratiev identified a price cycle that is 50 60 years long. He used it to predict the depression of the 1930s. Although he worked on the Soviets' first Five Year Plan, he was imprisoned by them and died in somewhere in Siberia sometime in the 1930s.
Since the 1930s, governments have stimulated their economies through deficit spending. Consequently, the prime indicator for Kondratiev cycles, prices, have only risen. Prices have not fallen anywhere, except in Japan over the past decade.
Previously solid price indices were confused both by the economic stimuli against the Great Depression and the spending on World War II. As a result, people ask whether the last cycle bottomed in the 1930s or 1940s. If the latter, which I favor, then a new period of depression is beginning as I write this in the early 2000s.
A few have argued that the Kondratiev cycle could be ended with good economic management; others suggest that it can only ameliorate the worst effects.
In any event, Michael A. Alexander has provided the most interesting arguments and interpretations that I have seen. In particular, he has proposed a theory explaining pre-industrial Kondratiev cycles in agricultural societies. Moreover (as I may discuss another time), he linked his theory with the kinds of generational changes that William Strauss and Neil Howe describe in their popular psychology book Generations 1. In that book, the authors claimed that American history consists of generational stereotypes that swing among four, rather than two poles.
Alexander's model for pre-industrial Kondratiev cycles is straightforward. The model depends on a recognition that in pre-industrial times with slow technological change, the size of the population controls the health and opportunities of most people. Moreover, since children can labor and provide for parents when they grow old, ordinary families will tend to raise as many children as they can. Infanticide, abortion, and contraception are more likely among the rich, for whom it is more expensive to train or educate children and more difficult to then find suitable `places' for them. Hence, overall populations in agricultural, pre-industrial societies with slow technological change will tend to grow until the size of the population is halted by famine, illness, and war. These are the prime Malthusian controls.
Late marriage is a traditional way to delay the age of first birth. Within a specific technology and general state of being, that age determines the total number of children that a woman will bear.
Alexander then went on to say,
If a full generation a near complete replacement of the previous humans takes 25 30 years, then two generations add to a 50 60 year cycle.
In such a cycle, high prices mark bad times for peasants and for poor people in cities since they cannot afford to purchase extra food. (Incidentally, this consequence of high prices is the opposite in the present. Nowadays, farmers benefit from high prices for their crops. That is because spending on food is a small portion of their total spending. The shift probably took place in the latter half of the 19th century.)
Alexander posted a graph of prices with peaks in 1221, 1274, 1325, 1370, 1418, 1494, 1560, 1602, and 1652. The separation between peaks averages 53 years, the shortest being 42 years and the longest being 76 years. He also listed the number of incidents `popular uprisings, slave revolts, and labor agitation' per 26 year generation. He used these numbers to measure unrest. The peaks for unrest roughly correlate with those for prices.
Clearly, more historians could investigate the question. But given the evidence Alexander that presented, I would judge that the evidence for pre-industrial Kondratiev cycles is `suggestive'.
Moreover, Alexander's reasoning makes sense. Ordinary people lived on the edge of Malthusian catastrophe. Although few died directly from starvation, many were sufficiently weakened by malnutrition that they died of illness. In addition to suffering from weak immune systems, people were stunted. Centuries later, in mid 19th century England, according to a Parliamentary report I read years ago, the teenaged boys of the rich tended to be 6 inches (15 cm) taller than poor boys of the same age. The lords literally looked down on the commons.
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