Back when I was in 10th grade, two very important things happened to me. First, System of a Down released Toxicity. Second, I labored for nine months through honors chemistry. One was cool, the other was honors chemistry. But one fateful day, these two seemingly disparate happenings collided and fused like two hydrogen atoms under extreme heat and pressure.
As Ms. Thomason was explaining the principle of entropy, she stated, “Another way of looking at an increase in entropy is an increase in disorder.“
Upon hearing her words I immediately shouted out, “DISORDER!” as though I was Serj Tankian himself, resulting in confusion for most, amusement for some and a referral to the vice principal’s office for yours truly.
I tell this little anecdote because it was in that moment that I connected the underlying principle of the Second Law of Thermodynamics with the non-chemical world.
For those humanities types out there, the basic concept we’re talking about here is the fact that unless energy is put into something to keep it out of equilibrium, it will trend toward it. Essentially, entropy is why your Ramen gets cold, your bike breaks down and that fart you ripped a few minutes ago doesn’t smell as bad anymore.
Scientists are all very comfortable talking about how diffusion down a concentration gradient generates disorder when the topic is solutes, heat or potential energy. But I’m more comfortable talking about entropy when the topic is wealth. And since this is my column, that’s what I’ll be doing.
The amount of time, materials and wealth we spend on the active transport of wealth against its concentration gradient on individual, institutional and international levels is staggering. And the more wealth we’re trying to accumulate or keep concentrated (i.e., the sharper the gradient), the more time, materials and wealth we have to use to do it.
Take the individual level. Rich people are worried about the government taking their money through taxes, so they spend a lot of it on CPAs, brokers, lawyers and Republican politicians to make sure that they stay rich, that their wealth stays concentrated and doesn’t diffuse down its gradient. Middle class people are worried about poor people taking their money by force, so they spend some of it on house alarms, insurance policies and the occasional gun. Poor people are worried about surviving, so they spend a lot of money on food, shelter, clothing and lotto tickets.
Institutions show the same kind of patterns. Corporations buy not just accountants, investors, lawyers and politicians, but also spend on public deception campaigns, think tanks and myriad security systems and guards (i.e., rent-a-cops, to varying degrees of lethality and legality). They also spawn whole new institutions, with governments in tow, like the IMF, WTO and World Bank to ensure that their wealth remains concentrated. As for local governments, they spend money on much the same things, especially the police. Because really, what does a policeman do but protect private property rights at the barrel of a gun?
Speaking of guns, on an international level, military spending correlates exceptionally well with a nation’s wealth. And again, the higher the gradient, the more energy needed to maintain it.
There’s no reason to have a military other than to be able to say, “This is my shit, and if you touch it, I’ll fucking kill you.” And no one says it louder than the United States. With the largest economy, it’s no surprise we’ve got the most guns. Additionally, the six wealthiest countries (the U.S., France, the UK, China, Germany and Japan) have the six largest military budgets on earth. Their shit is not diffusing any time soon.
The implication of applying entropy to wealth distribution and other world phenomena (e.g. immigration patterns) is that if we stopped using resources to maintain gradients, things would approach equilibrium over time and generate greater equality the world over.
That said, I’m not so sure we want that to its extreme. After all, I like my Ramen warm.
K.C. CODY believes the song “Toxicity” was written with a high level of entropy. Write to him with a low level of entropy at email@example.com.XXX