Davies J-Curve Revisited

Michael H. Glantz
27 June 2003

Davies J-curve Revisited

In retrospect, the post World War II period was politically speaking an exciting one: post-war reconstruction of Europe, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, the A-bomb and the H-bomb, the Iron curtain, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, colonial wars for independence, and increasing affluence in many parts of the world. Even under the economic, political and ideological pressures of the Cold War, it was in many ways an era of rising expectations in poor as well as in rich countries.

In the late 1950s, a period of coups, emerging guerilla wars and wars for independence, James C. Davies came up with a theory about rising expectations and the likelihood of armed conflict. His idea became known as the Davies J-curve. Here is how it works: for a given individual, life is getting better in real terms: increasing salary and benefits, improved nutritional status, the ability to purchase better modes of transportation, among other items well beyond his or her basic need. However, the individual wants more than s/he can afford. S/he thins that his or her standards of living should be getting better at a faster rate than it is. In other words, the pace of reality is not keeping up with his or her expectations about how much better it should be. Nevertheless, while it may be frustrating to the individual not to have his or her reality keep up with his or her rising expectations, the individual's situation is not so bad that it leads either to conflict or to frustration. That's the situation in an era of rising expectations, as it was, say, in the 1960s.

Davies J-Curve

Problems arise, however, if there happens to be a sudden downturn in that individual's well-being, while his or her expectations are still on the rise. This results in a relatively rapid, sharp decline in one's actual well-being. Thus, a major gap is created between one's expectations and one's reality. Frustration ensues, thereby generating discontent. This was Davies' explanation for social unrest and the increased potential for political unrest in a given country. The J-curve was devised as one explanation for why unrest and conflict occurs. I would contend that today we are witnessing the application of the J-curve to domestic politics. Here's how:

The U.S. engaged in a "War on Terrorism." We now have a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. We have a color-coded terrorism early warning system of sorts in place. We have toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and many al-Qaeda personnel have been captured or put out of commission around the globe. The expectations of the American public have been raised about the success of the U.S. and its allies in containing terrorism abroad as well as at home. For a while, our expectations about winning a war on terrorism were rising, but not as fast as we would have liked.

Suddenly, we are told about the fact that the government has been receiving warnings at an increasing rate about an increase in al-Qaeda "chatter" about possible attacks on shopping malls, tall buildings, apartment houses, hospitals, water supplies and even the possibility of blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge.

Following this increase in news items about the belief that al-Qaeda (as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan) have been regrouping, top government officials (senators, the Vice President, the FBI Director and now the Secretary of Defense) talk about their belief that terrorist attacks will definitely happen in the not too distant future somewhere on American soil. We are told about how porous our international borders really are. They tell the public through the electronic and printed media (newspapers, TV, and radio), that terrorist attacks will be devastating, maybe even cataclysmic.

The way I see this change in outputs from the government about how successful we are in the war on terrorism and on the homeland security front is as follows: government officials are making statements that in essence are designed to lower the expectations of the public about the government's ability to prevent all terrorist acts on our soil. The problem with this situation is the following: if we expect less from our government, we will get less. The point is that, while it is difficult for a government, any government, to keep up with the rising expectations of its citizens (demands, wishes, needs), it can easily match declining expectations. Not only that. It can cause the expectations of its citizens to decline - about the state of the economy, of environmental protections, about war - and about a war on terrorism.

Davies J-Curve modified by Glantz

The government, in a way, is admitting that its war on terrorism is much more difficult and protracted than it had at first realized. As a result of this realization, it has been preparing the public for events that it is admitting it cannot prevent. Hence, our expectations - that is, to expect less from the government - will match reality. In fact, we show little reaction to failures because we are being asked tacitly to expect less from our government. As our expectations of success decline, our government can easily match those expectations. Hence, this will reduce public frustration over the lack of government success in eradicating terrorist acts against America. Instead of being frustrated and thereby prompted to oppose the government, the citizenry in general shrugs its collective shoulders, sighs and goes on with its daily routine, expecting even less from its government.

Davies, James C. 1962. "Towards a Theory of Revolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. XXVII. p. 5-18.

--Michael H. Glantz

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