Obama, Afghanistan and the second law of thermodynamics.

I was watching a recent broadcast that was reporting Obama’s approval rating was dropping because he hadn’t “fixed the economy” or ended the Afghanistan war.  It made me think of the second law of thermodynamics that states the entropy of a system will increase until equilibrium is reached. Of course the second law was not developed to explain a president’s approval rating but there may be some relevant observations.

Entropy is a measure of disorder or randomness.  If one thinks of a structured object such as a glass there is a certain amount of order and structure.  If the glass is dropped and shatters on the floor it becomes less ordered and one could say the entropy has increased.  This is not rocket science and one could reasonably argue that is is not thermodynamics either.  What it is, is an observation that it is easier to increase the disorder than it is to create order.  Just ask all the king’s horses and all the king’s men about Humpty Dumpty.

From order to disorder. Which direction is easier? Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/bookshelf/br.fcgi?book=mboc4∂=A229&rendertype=figure&id=A236

Energy needs to be applied to a system to increase the order.  Extreme heat must be applied to sand to make a glass but with the slip of a hand the glass can be destroyed.  It simply requires far less effort to destroy than it does to build.

The same is true in society and politics.  A war can essentially be started by one person, the President.  Of course there is the war powers act and issues of funding but if a President, as commander in chief, is determined to attack another country it will be done.  However, once the war machine has been started it is far more difficult to stop.  It takes more energy and time to re-create order from the disorder of war.

Remember President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” Speech in May 2003?  The message was that Operation Iraqi Freedom, started March 20, 2003, was a fait accompli.  In a sense that could be correct.  The massive destruction by the US attack had peaked resulting in an increase in the overall disorder or entropy of Iraq.  Seven years later in August 2010 the United States still had 80,000 troops in Iraq trying to add order back to the system.  The energy (time, funding, lives) necessary to restore order have far exceeded the energy required to create the disorder.  I will leave others to consider the merits of starting the war but it is a prime example of interpreting socio-political events in terms of the second law.

Possibly even more relevant to the entropy metaphor is the economy. Government interventions in the economy can have an impact but the level of impact is disproportionate between positive and negative.  The government can take certain actions that will have a dramatic and precipitously negative impact on the economy.  On the other hand, it is much more difficult for the government to have a positive impact.  For example, the capability of any government intervention to realistically increase employment is exceedingly difficult whether you are a Keynesian or  still believe in the Laffer curve.

What all of this means is that it is unrealistic to expect that Obama or any government intervention can get possibly get back to even in the same time it took things to unravel.  Expectations to the contrary are without a logical foundation but unfortunately contribute to Obama’s dip in his approval rating.

mirror:  http://confrontingmediocrity.com/Sbarefoot.nsf/dx/entropy.htm


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