Book Notes: The Great Wave by David Hackett Fischer

Recently we’ve made heavy use of interlibrary loan at our little local library. Partly because it’s easy—our pastor’s wife is in charge of it, and she’ll even drop the books off to us at church or when she is passing by. And partly because there are a lot of books that we’d like to take a look at once; sometimes we’re trying to decide whether to buy a copy, and sometimes we know we won’t want to own one. Example: Hungry Planet, the book of gorgeous pictures showing how families around the world eat. It was great fun to look at and very thought-provoking, but not a book we’d be likely to revisit often.

I requested a copy of David Hackett Fischer’s The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History through interlibrary loan because I didn’t expect it to be that interesting, but I still wanted to learn something about how prices have varied over the last millennium. It turned out to be much better than I expected. I’m still not sure I want to own a copy, but it’s tempting.

One thing I like about the book is that although it is very fat (550 pages), the body of the text runs only half that, about 250 pages, and some of that is occupied by charts and graphs. The rest is taken up by fifty pages of appendices looking at specific topics in more detail, fifty pages of notes, and 150 pages (!) of annotated bibliography covering primary and secondary sources. Almost like a DVD with lots and lots of extras. Fischer’s point is a straightforward one, and he manages to demonstrate how it holds true over the course of 800 years of history while still keeping things readable. I found myself skimming the text quickly, making mental note of the more intriguing facts he used to make his case, knowing it would be easy to come back and read more closely about a particular stretch of time if I wanted to.

Fischer’s point is roughly this: prices in history seem to follow a pattern in which a long stretch of stability (which he calls an equilibrium) is followed by a long stretch of instability (which he calls a revolution). During the revolution real wages drop, i.e. the gap between wages and prices increases, until the disparity can no longer be endured and some crisis restores equilibrium. He does not call this alternation a cycle, because there are too many differences between the successive stages to call it a strict pattern; rather he calls them “waves,” and invokes Mark Twain’s observation that although history does not repeat itself, it does rhyme.

Decent price and wage data begin in the 1100s, and here is how Fischer maps out the waves (each bullet gets a chapter):

First Wave

  • The medieval price revolution, 1180-1350
  • The crisis of the fourteenth century, 1300-1400
  • The equilibrium of the Renaissance, 1400-1470

Second Wave

  • The price revolution of the sixteenth century, 1470-1590
  • The crisis of the seventeenth century, 1590-1660
  • The equilibrium of the Enlightenment, 1660-1730

Third Wave

  • The price revolution of the eighteenth century, 1730-1789
  • The revolutionary crisis, 1789-1820
  • The equilibrium of the Victorian era, 1820-1896

Fourth Wave

  • The price revolution of the twentieth century, 1896-
  • Our troubled times

Even in this breakdown of events there are interesting things to consider, e.g. that each equilibrium was considered a golden era. In fact, one of Fischer’s claims is that during an equilibrium people get fat, happy, and optimistic enough about the future to begin increasing the sizes of their families, leading to demand which begins to outstrip supply, leading to a growing disparity between wages and prices, leading to a crisis. (Fischer also claims that the data do not support the monetarist claim that expansion of the money supply is the primary cause of rising prices, but instead that it is a response to rising prices.)

I recommend a quick read of the body of Fischer’s book to get a solid understanding of both how good things can be when they are good, and how bad things can get when they are bad. The earlier crises were really, really bad for most of the population; one point in favor of global trade is that it has tended to mitigate the levels of misery that are experienced during a crisis. Fischer gives the example of one town where grain prices had soared to four times the equilibrium level, while in another town not too far away (but far enough that there was no trade between them) prices had actually dropped below the equilibrium level because of a bountiful harvest.

It might also be good if some full-quiver proponent would consider Fischer’s claim that increasing family size regularly leads to demand outstripping supply, leading in turn to crisis. Are no bounds to be placed on our fruitfulness outside of the ones that God puts in place Himself?

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3 thoughts on “Book Notes: The Great Wave by David Hackett Fischer

  1. I’m not sure how the ‘increasing family size’ hypothesis applies to modern society. In America, the average family size is in the neighborhood of 2.2 children, and we’re on the high end among western countries.

    From my perhaps overly simplistic perspective, it seems reasonable that the problem lies with the fact that most westerners consume more than they can produce (and perhaps because we consume too much, period) – and not that there are too many people.

  2. Steve,

    I’m not sure how the ‘increasing family size’ hypothesis applies to modern society. In America, the average family size is in the neighborhood of 2.2 children, and we’re on the high end among western countries.

    Increase in family size doesn’t have to be uniform across cultures in order to have its effect on the bottom line. As the ZPG people never tire of telling us, growth in developing countries continues to outweigh the decline in Western birth rates.

    From my perhaps overly simplistic perspective, it seems reasonable that the problem lies with the fact that most westerners consume more than they can produce (and perhaps because we consume too much, period) – and not that there are too many people.

    My next book notes will be about Overshoot by William Catton, an ecologist, who makes the startlingly obvious point that it’s not enough to stabilize the rate of consumption if it still exceeds the rate of replacement. Say you open an all-you-can-eat buffet which can feed one hundred people on a continuing basis. If you stock it well in the beginning, it may be able to feed many more people, say six hundred people, for a short period of time. But if six hundred people show up and stay, eventually you’ll need to get people to eat one-sixth as much, or reduce the crowd by five-sixths, or some other suitable balance of appetite and crowd size.

    At this point there may or may not be too many people at the buffet. Catton would say that we can’t know the answer based only on the fact that everyone has been able to eat up until now.

  3. Increase in family size doesn’t have to be uniform across cultures in order to have its effect on the bottom line. As the ZPG people never tire of telling us, growth in developing countries continues to outweigh the decline in Western birth rates.

    It would be interesting to see how developing countries are affected as the rates of consumption per capita overtake the rates of (real) production per capita.

    My next book notes will be about Overshoot by William Catton, an ecologist, who makes the startlingly obvious point that it’s not enough to stabilize the rate of consumption if it still exceeds the rate of replacement.

    Of course. But it should be equally obvious that if the rate of replacement meets or exceeds the rate of consumption, then we have little left to talk about. To use your example, if the all-you-can-eat buffet is supplied by the excess of what the people that eat there produce, it could exist perpetually – and we would be less tempted to consider the existence of ‘excess persons’ (for the lack of a better phrase) to be the real problem.

    Granted, we’re light years from willfully adopting such a selfless, independent (and free) lifestyle. America is the “buffet” where everyone eats but few produce. But the suggestion that overpopulation is a primary consideration is a leap, imho. We would do much better to have more children, teaching them the value of hard work and the wisdom of prudence & frugality; in other words, liberty; – and to go out to teach their children, and others, likewise. To me, it’s the only way were going to get out of this mess (barring a forced catastrophe, which is probably inevitable anyway.) Less people, consuming more than they can produce, will still present a big problem.

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