Entropy and economics

Entropy. It means disorder, more or less, and refers to the tendency that all things in the universe have  to gradually lose coherence. To fall apart.

The term comes from thermodynamics – heat and work – and explains, with blinding simplicity, howeven the most efficient of closed systems will lose energy and become less efficient with time. So be it a steam engine (which Nicolas Carnot, one of the early 19th century thinkers in thermodynamics, used) or a plane, bird or Superman, its inevitable fate (at least if it’s not a fictional superhero) is to fall apart. Or, in the immortal words of my adored Flanders and Swann: “Heat is work and work’s a curse; and all the heat in the universe is gonna coooool down. That’s entropy, man.”

That’s why airplanes are painstakingly taken apart and greased, fixed and rejiggered so they don’t fall apart when we’re flying on that cheap flight to Tahiti; it’s the reason  cars and refrigerators and everything else eventually end up in landfills. And it’s why pristine comics or teddy bears or whatnot are worth a fortune: there’s not a lot of them about.

But we’ve forgotten about entropy; the term is barely used. I remember it from a 70’s era Isaac Asimov short story which gives you an idea of long ago it even touched popular culture. No, we like to think of ourselves as having imposed a lasting order – not least because of our clever algorithms and chic equations.

Take this economic crisis we’ve created. At its epicentre was the belief that markets are knowable, rational, explain-able. Of course even a  child who’s tried to trade a baseball card knows this makes no sodding sense, but greed and hubris and a lot of money all came together at once and people really came to believe that this time it was different.  What went up wasn’t going to come down.

After all, there were these equations ….

Turns out some really clever people came up with some algorithms that seemed to work for a time. So, like all greedy eejits they believed their own press clippings (not to mention the fat bonuses) and soon all of Wall Street and much of London and Zurich and the rest followed suit, rolling the dice convinced that it wasn’t luck but science. Hey, everybody loves it when things that seemed unpredictable and unknowable can be reduced down to a quantitative model – probably because so few of us actually understand any of the math. So the “quants” (for “quantitative”) directed the finance industry towards the Kool Aid. Now of course, there’s analysis and backtracking and people who knew it was going to happen (see http://tgam.ca/LIF via @globeandmail for a review of a book on the subject) but really what happened is that people wanted to believe  they understood how it all worked.

Why else would otherwise quite clever people set aside all rationality to invest in acronyms they didn’t understand? And it is a comforting notion, that markets are über-rational and what had always seemed random could be reduced down to a handful of equations. So, staggering sums of money ended up in chopped up pieces of debt,  mortgages, and then it all came tumbling down. (Of course at every step of the way a hefty commission was being pocketed so it was to many people’s advantage not to rock the boat, whatever their private beliefs in the rationality of markets.)

What these “too big to fail” banks and funds forgot was that expressing anything in quantitative terms requires thought, not computers; you have to understand,  in depth, what that equation fundamentally means. And all its ramifications. One of the most seemingly simple equations – E = mc2 – occupied Einstein his entire life. D’you think he was just slow? Or that with computers he’d have managed it in a weekend?

The universe just doesn’t give a damn. Civilization, progress, is just our feeble attempt to thwart entropy.

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings …. Look on my works ye mighty and despair .. “

But here we all are, in spite of it all still bright-eyed and bushy tailed, convinced we’re so much cleverer that all those silly oafs who came before (including Boyle and Carnot and Nernst and all those other clever johnnies who actually managed to came up with thermodynamics). After all, we have Google Earth and iPads and we’re good at expressing ideas numerically. Unfortunately, no matter how much we like things to be neat and fit into those cool spread sheet boxes; no matter how much we’d like to think our rules, our ideas, are those of the universe, real rules are few and far between and almost never apply across the board to all situations.

But we don’t believe that, so we don’t agonize about the moral dimensions of our economic theories as Adam Smith did or stop to wonder if our exuberance might be irrational. No, we actually think that what we’ve come up with – our rules and theorems and guidelines and ideas and metaphors; the narratives we’ve constructed to explain how markets work (efficiently), or how physiology might function (neatly, mechanistically) or biology operates (hierarchically) – are real.

As the geneticist Richard Lewontin writes in The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology (HarperPerennial, 1992) writes, we’ve succumbed to the delusion that our metaphors and narratives exist. So often have we heard our genes described as the “blueprint” of life that we have come to believe biology is destiny. So often have we heard mechanistic metaphors used to describe our organs that we believe replacing a defective heart is akin to changing the engine on an aging Camaro. So ubiquitous is our reverence for our own cleverness that we forget previous generations thought they had it right too.

Memories are short these days and we forgot. Forgot that whether it’s finance or physiology, real life is messy.  Not quantifiable.