Class War / Entropy

My Carbon Manifestation has been a tad occupied of late – work, visitors, domestic stuff – and hence my Silicon Being has been sadly neglected. A shame, because there has been plenty of astro-pol related stuff to blog about – the future of X-ray astronomy, panics about private Universities, speeches by Willetts with tantalising clues about what may happen to  science funding priorities, Martin Rees being attacked in the Guardian. I am even on Strudel’s amusing new Astronomer HR diagram .

That austerity stuff is starting to bite. Here in the Athens of the North, we got a letter from the Principal announcing that this year’s Professorial Pay Review is cancelled. The Universities all got letters from the Government saying “We’d like you to think hard about senior pay. Looks bad to pay top chaps too much when we are asking a lot of The Nation. Purely your choice of course. But we do know where you live.” I had assumed that this “top people pay” thingy was all about Jonathan Ross and his six million, or maybe fat cat Vice Chancellors etc. But no. Seems to mean all profs – anybody earning £53,918 and up, whose salaries are determined year by year based on performance review. But this year it seems we needn’t bother publishing any high impact papers or leading international projects cos it won’t make any difference.

Profs are in an interesting place in the coming class war. We ain’t exactly poor, and we ain’t exactly rich.  Class War did you say ? Well, I feel that Osborne’s cover is being blown by an increasing number of right wing commentators who are turning up on Radio Four etc with comments along the lines of how rolling back the state is overdue, and people are too reliant on handouts, etc. At the same time, Union reps are starting to roll up their sleeves, and left wing commentators are saying err, excuse me, seems we have been screwed by greedy bankers, and now the poor have to pay ?? Found myself thinking of that very rude song. I shan’t remind you of the rude bits, just the chorus that goes “Its the rich what gets the pleasure, its the poor what gets the blame. Its the same the whole world over, ain’t it all a fucking shame”.

This could get nasty. Did they really think 25% cuts to the state would go down quietly ?

Meanwhile Cameron is over in the USA. He is getting beaten up over BP and Megrahi and all that, but austerity-vs-stimulus is left as an “agree to differ” kind of thing. The word “stimulus” doesn’t quite catch the issue I think.  There are really three things the State can do. One is State Activity – the police, the army, the NHS etc. We all know that stuff tends to slowly bloat and become inefficient, so good luck to the Government there. Two is stoking the economic fire – play with interest rates, pump money in to the economy to get things going etc. This is what folks usually mean by stimulus. We build pyramids. We know its pointless really, but it gives people jobs, then they spend their dollars in MacDonalds, etc. Or we cut public spending and taxes so people have more dollars in their wallets. And then spend them in MacDonalds etc.

The third thing is investment in infrastructure.  Sometimes this is what people mean by stimulus but its really very different. When the Government builds roads and railways and information superhighways etc new economic activity becomes possible. The effect of building infrastructure is not a bubble or illusion or about accelerating the circulation of money. There must be something quantifiable here. I think its entropy. What distinguishes a rich society from a poor one ? Partly its energy. The more oil or coal etc you burn, the more real wealth you have. But there is more than this. Society is an intricate machine – gas pipes, power generation, railway connections, delivery of food to the shops. The other day I needed insurance. A few web clicks and I was done. Then I needed a sink plunger. A walk down the road and there was one waiting for me in a hardware store. Somebody had already made one because they knew I’d want it. We live in a very high information content, low entropy world, and are steadily moving further in this direction. Some of this happens naturally, because humans are entropy changing machines. But we are still fighting the laws of thermodynamics, so the market doesn’t always work. Conscious restructuring effort by the state can have a huge effect.

Anyway. Some reader can I am sure tell me whether this entropy stuff is all standard economic theory, but it may be crucial to the argument for funding science and technology by the state. The only snag is the transparency of science. When you build a road, it decreases entropy right here in the Yookay. When you build knowledge, you’ve done it for the world…

6 Responses to Class War / Entropy

  1. Rob Ivison says:

    one aspect of Cameron’s various speeches this week caught my attention and befuddled me completely.

    on Friday he was saying “our oil companies had nowt to do with the release of Megrahi” (can you imagine someone from Eton saying “nowt” without a condescending smirk?)

    then this morning he told all our ambassadors that our economic interests must be their absolute priority in all their dealings.

    now, i’m not expecting consistency from a politician, but… in the same week??

  2. Albert Zijlstra says:

    The list of things governments do leaves out education. I guess education could be considered ‘human infrastructure’ but it is different from building pyramids/motorways which are basically a way of ploughing money into the economy.

    Astronomy, like particle physics, has an important play to play in developing this human capital. It educates people to be critical, inquisitive and imaginative, and best of all, aim to be the best. This, I would guess, has the longest-lasting impact of any of the list of government actions.

    Astronomy and physics educate a group of students with an affinity to a mathematical way of thinking. But by stinulating curiosity, we affect a much larger group of people. How much is this worth to the country? Would it happen without government funding, or would it generate a society aiming for mediocrity because that is ‘good enough’?


  3. Michael Merrifield says:

    To misquote F&S, “That’s thermoeconomics, man!”

    • andyxl says:

      Come to think of it, this infrastructure thing is maybe more closely related to the Gibbs Free Energy… hmm.. need a bit of thinking here

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Well, from time to time surely we are all tempted to apply a throttling process to those responsible for science policy, which, if I remember rightly from very rusty thermodynamics, would make enthalpy the appropriate function of state.

  4. andyxl says:

    Mike – thats cool. I am only fifty years behind ! Albert – absolutely, yes, education is infrastructure, as scientific research, and both are quintessentially about information.

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