1629, 1929, 2009: Always The Same

I don’t want to single out individuals, but it so happens that Tyler Cowen had an article in the New York Times on Sunday that mildly exemplifies the negative dystopian mood and the history-starved outlook we have come to recognise as ‘this time is different’. Because of new automation and change in demographics and division of labour, writes Cowen, “poorer nations might never become like us. There was something special about the 20th century mix … be prepared for the possibility that ... La Paz, Accra, and Dhaka will never look much like Seoul”. Dani Rodrik found elective affinity with Cowen on his own blog.

I, in contrast, am heading in high spirits for the time machine capsule … I’m boarding it right now ... setting the creaky dial (drat the antique imprecision) on 1620-1629, the decade of the first Great Depression.

In the few seconds remaining before reverse thrust take-off shoots me into the 17th century, let me explain why I am doing this … When looking at twenty-first century crisis the usual comparative reference point is the much disputed great crisis of the twentieth century. I want to find what can be learned about crises of earlier centuries, about other functionally transformative political-economy catastrophes with the same or equivalent developmental dynamic. I shall apply telescopic tunnel vision to ascertain the truth.

It was a sentence in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic essay "The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" that led me to pack sandwiches and turn on the time machine.