The Great Wave

David Hackett Fischer is well known for providing new insights into important but seemingly commonplace topics. He does this again in THE GREAT WAVE: PRICE REVOLUTIONS AND THE RHYTHM OF HISTORY, a book that might be better titled THE GREAT WAVES. There is not one single wave of inflation beginning in the Middle Ages, but others in the sixteenth century, the eighteenth century, and the twentieth century, each followed by a period of terrible economic and political crisis, then an era of equilibrium.

His intended audience is the general reading public, but there are sufficient charts and maps to satisfy most economists; also, he gives half of the book to appendices, notes, and bibliography. Fischer analyzes price revolutions according to seven different models (monetarist, Malthusian, Marxist, agrarian, neoclassical, environmental, and historicist), but at heart he is a disciple of “Ricardian economics,” formulated by David Ricardo. To summarize: increased population causes inflation; this leads to crises that decrease population growth; at length, stability encourages people to have more children. He proposes an alternative model for “Autogenous Change” based on contingent processes reflecting market instabilities. Thus, we are not foredoomed, though we are vulnerable to climate changes, war, disease, and other factors that upset social stability. Living at the end of one great wave, we must not sit by while market forces determine our fate. Instead, once we understand the long-range economic processes, we must summon the political will to develop policies that will serve the common good and thereby save ourselves from unnecessarily repeating the past.