Zero-Sum, ΔE = 0

A pertinent question is asked of an Economist (Paul Solman), and an economist’s answer is received:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/05/do-americans-win-or-lose-when-someone-becomes-a-billionaire.html

Here Mr. Solman engages in a discussion about the economies of 17th and 18th century Europe, but conveniently fails to make the slightest mention of slavery or colonialism.

The correct answer is ‘yes’ – in order for one to gain, another must lose. Though this does not necessarily mean a person must lose.

When the talk about the West moving from a zero-sum game to a game where there is a benefit for “all”, as a Westerner, Solman is of course only talking about white European nations. The rise of Western nations did not occur in isolation, though. They are not, as we might say, a thermodynamically closed system. For centuries, the ascendance of the West was achieved at the expense of the resources and labor of non-Western nations. Any proper discussion of the history of capitalism toward the end of the 17th century must include this. But like most people, Americans prefer to tell themselves a more flattering history.

To wit, in terms of physics – not modern economics – It is not physically possible for

1. More wealth to be created,

2. More productive work to be done,

3. More goods to be produced,

4. More services to be provided,

than is permitted by the resources of the planet and the energy of the Sun. It is a consequence of the first law of thermodynamics. Energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed – only converted from one kind to another. The economists’ understanding is built on a denial of these basic principles.

Like energy cannot be created or destroyed, it is also not possible for anyone to gain wealth without

1. Consuming resources (bringing their energy state to a lower one),

2. Converting an energy source into some productive capacity,

3. Just taking wealth from someone else.

To suggest otherwise is to suggest a creatio ex nihilo; that is possible to produce something from nothing.

So what is happening to the economies of the West now, in this recession? It is the end of the neo-liberal, corporate driven post-colonial exploitation of developing nations. And perhaps, the final exhaustion of the finite resources of this planet. Or we might hope, simply that the throughput of energy at the intake of our economies does not match its requirements. That our economic troubles are disguising what is fundamentally an energy crisis.

Though the planet’s resources are finite, we only really require the energy to maintain them in a perpetual cycle.  Sure, you may have heard “perpetual growth on a finite planet is impossible,” but there is something not often part of the discussion:  that the amount of energy available directly from the Sun, and from the Sun by proxy through plants, wind, etc. vastly exceeds our current needs. The question may be what inventive capacity we have to bring to bear on the problems of efficient energy use and new energy production.

I just want to point out that I do not see that it is explicitly necessary for some to be poor to make others rich; the laws of physics do not (seem) to require that. Obviously there are many other aspects of the discussion: How might we analyze a system of human economy as if it were a discrete living organism with its own energy requirements? Why have the dynamics of human economies – in modern agrarian ones at least – worked to produce a complement of poor to support a privileged class, even to the point of producing a logarithmic distribution  (1) of members of each class(many poor for a few rich)? These questions are for later posts. For now it is enough to establish the use of physical conservation laws in our understanding of economics.


  1. 8/18/2016 – http://physics.umd.edu/~yakovenk/papers/PhysicaA-299-213-2001.pdf

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