Preparing for the post-industrial economy

(K.H. — I like to think that the following blog — slightly longer than usual — is a useful contribution to the dilemma that all advanced nations face.)

There’s a whole area of physics from which many students run a mile if they can avoid it — or at least hope to avoid coming up in their final exams! It involves heat and first derives from the problems found when boring out the hole in a cannon.

The idea of the cannon first came to Europe in the 13th century along the Great Silk Road from China. Of course, unlike silk, porcelain, tea and spices, ‘siege-engines’ or cannons made from bronze were far too heavy to be carried on, or even hauled along by, camels for several thousand miles !

So instructions of how to make effective gunpowder and cannon balls, and also drawings of how to drill a long cylindrical borehole were effective enough in getting the European cannon industry started in the 14th century!

However, one problem is that drilling the borehole of a cannon produces an immense amount of heat. The reason for this is that in drilling out a long cylindrical hole, all the central part of the bronze has to be ground into powder before it can be removed. This needs an enormous amount of friction — lots atoms pushing against other atoms — and producing a lot of red-hot heat.

This is called ‘waste-heat’ and spreads into everywhere — into the rest of the cannon and into the air all around. If the workshop has windows, heat will escape through the glass into the world outside.

If, on the other hand you could merely cut a thin cylindrical skin around where you want the borehole to be, at the end you need only simply extract a completely solid bronze cylinder which hasn’t needed to be ground up at all. A vast amount of energy has been saved. There is still some waste heat though and although this is only a very small fraction of what it was previously it still spreads all around the operation .

The students’ dread mentioned in my opening paragraph are the four Laws of Thermodynamics, but all that really needs to be remembered by the layman is very simple. It is that any inefficient process produces a lot of waste heat and that, in turn, this spreads around to anywhere nearby of lower temperature.

In doing so it makes the process itself become more efficient. This is called the Principle (or law) of Least Effort. It’s almost as though the system itself were self-conscious. But of course it isn’t. As Richard Feynman explained 45 years ago, no-one knows why Least Effort (or maximum efficiency) happens– it’s just a deep inherent mystery within the way the universe operates..

The world’s economic system is just a very large version of drilling out the bore of a cannon. It is a mechanical system and it produces waste heat. It is not only constantly tending to make itself more efficient, but also, if good economic decisions are taken in addition then the path to efficiency is faster still.

On the other hand, because economic decisions have mechanical consequences some decisions may be harmful. If so, these slow down or even arrest the inherent tendency towards efficiency. The problem is that, so far, we are unable to decide which are the good decisions or which are the bad decisions!

We can now broaden the whole issue of just where the world’s trading system now finds itself. It appears to be stuck in the doldrums. The smooth opening up of the industrial evolution within about half-a-dozen original countries has not been able to spread into the rest of the world. It is not becoming more efficient or, if it is, it is hard to discern just at the present time.

If anything, with several large central banks now thinking seriously in their desperation of ‘helicoptering’ money into consumers pay packets then, if anything, the world trading system is going backwards — and becoming less efficient. Several central banks are already into negative interest rates — which is absurd in any sane world.

In other words, some bad economic decisions have probably been taken at some junctures — or perhaps many of them — since the industrial revolution was at its most exuberant. This was at around 1870.

It was then that governments first started to impose their political wills on their country’s and then the world’s trading system, mainly in the amounts of money they cause to be printed for reasons of their own, not their electorates.

If and when governments, central bankers and economists accept that the world trading system is basically a physical process and not a political process and that the laws of physics are not negotiable and have primacy, perhaps they’ll then learn to leave the system to its own methods of repair.

So long as we are pushing energy into the world trading system it’s not going to disappear or at least descend into some sort of permanent deflation or depression — which is what many economists are worried about. As mentioned in a recent blog, maybe the advanced nations are now in a long preparative adaptation to a mainly services society in which automatons do all the manufacturing.

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