Economic Lessons From Lenin's Seer

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NIKOLAI KONDRATIEFF was not exactly a faceless bureaucrat in post-revolutionary Russia. He had held an important economic post in the last, short-lived government of Alexander Kerensky before the Bolsheviks took charge; then he founded an influential research organization, the Institute of Conjecture, and became an important theorist of the New Economic Policy under Lenin.

But he would long ago have been consigned to the dustbin of history had it not been for his quirky academic passion, which he pursued in a series of books and papers through the 1920s. Reviewing economic history since the late 18th century, Kondratieff came to a startling, doomsday conclusion: that capitalist economies were fated to go through regular and predictable cycles of around 50 years, inevitably culminating in a depression....

Kondratieff and his disciples — among whom was Joseph Schumpeter, who wrote about capitalism’s “creative destruction” — identified four stages in each cycle, corresponding to the seasons. After spurting ahead in the spring phase, they said, the economy cruises through the summer, experiences a scary drop as autumn sets in, and then — despite the TARPs, TALFs and whatever else governments do — descends into a winter phase that can last up to 20 years.

In case you hadn’t noticed, it has been getting quite chilly lately.

Over the years, Kondratieff’s appeal has waxed and waned in counterpoint to the economy, falling out of favor in good times but charging back when things look bleak. But his theory has never been accepted by mainstream economists, who consider it an occult hall of mirrors in which any sort of pattern can be discerned by shifting starting dates and definitions.

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