The Big Cycles Over The Last 500 Years

While the evolution of empires and currencies is one continuous story that started before there was recorded history, in this chapter I am going to pick up the story around the year 1600.  My objective is simply to put where we are in perspective of history and bring us up to date. 

  • Ray Dalio

I will begin by very briefly reviewing what the Big Cycle looks like and then scan through the last 500 years to show these Big Cycles playing out before examining more closely the declines of the Dutch and British empires and their reserve currencies.  Then I will show how the decline of the British empire and the pound evolved into the rise of the US empire and US dollar and I will take a glimpse at the emergence of the Chinese empire and the Chinese renminbi.

That will bring us up to the present and prepare us to try to think about what will come next.  

The Big Cycle of the Life of an Empire

Just as there is a human life cycle that typically lasts about 80 years (give or take) and no two are exactly the same but most are similar, there is an analogous empire life cycle that has its own typical patterns.  For example, for most of us, during the first phase of life we are under our parents’ guidance and learn in school until we are about 18-24, at which point we enter the second phase.  In this phase we work, become parents, and take care of others who are trying to be successful.  We do this until we are about 55-65, at which time we enter the third phase when we become free of obligations and eventually die.  It is pretty easy to tell what phases people are in because of obvious markers, and it is sensible for them to know what stages they are in and to behave appropriately in dealing with themselves and with others based on that.  The same thing is true for countries.  The major phases are shown on this chart.  It’s the ultra-simplified archetypical Big Cycle that I shared in the last chapter. 

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In brief, after the creation of a new set of rules establishes the new world order, there is typically a peaceful and prosperous period.  As people get used to this they increasingly bet on the prosperity continuing, and they increasingly borrow money to do that, which eventually leads to a bubble.  As the prosperity increases the wealth gap grows.  Eventually the debt bubble bursts, which leads to the printing of money and credit and increased internal conflict, which leads to some sort of wealth redistribution revolution that can be peaceful or violent.  Typically at that time late in the cycle the leading empire that won the last economic and geopolitical war is less powerful relative to rival powers that prospered during the prosperous period, and with the bad economic conditions and the disagreements between powers there is typically some kind of war.  Out of these debt, economic, domestic, and world-order breakdowns that take the forms of revolutions and wars come new winners and losers.  Then the winners get together to create the new domestic and world orders.  

That is what has repeatedly happened through time.  The lines in the chart signify the relative powers of the 11 most powerful empires over the last 500 years.  In the chart below you can see where the US and China are currently in their cycles.  As you can see the United States is now the most powerful empire by not much, it is in relative decline, Chinese power is rapidly rising, and no other powers come close.  

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Because that chart is a bit confusing, for simplicity the next chart shows the same lines as in that chart except for just the most powerful reserve currency empires (which are based on an average of eight different measures of power that we explained in Chapter 1 and will explore more carefully in this chapter). …

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