Of Relativity and Lady Liberty

In 1905, Albert Einstein introduced to the world his theory of relativity, postulating that the laws of physics must hold true regardless of the observer’s frame of reference.  While this may have seemed simplistic or even self-evident to people like you and me, firmly rooted in our slow-moving, earth-bound existence, it was truly profound for physicists who think in terms of space and stars and the speed of light.  Its logical consequences led to mind-blowing discoveries of relationships between time and speed, space and matter and rewrote the laws of physics, beginning with the most fundamental.  Thanks to Einstein, it’s now understood that the apple Isaac Newton observed falling from the tree was driven not by a force of gravity, but by the curvature of space.  Once decoupled from the tree’s branch, and lacking any other influencing forces (like a strong wind), it fell toward the earth because that’s the only direction in which the curvature of space would allow it to go. 

This past 4th of July weekend, the news programs all carried stories of the reopening to the public of the stairway to the crown of the Statue of Liberty.  But for seemingly obvious, practical reasons, the tiny spiral staircase forced officials to limit access to only thirty people per hour.  At first I was struck by the irony of it – that this monument to our heritage of immigration and the belief that we can grow our population without end – should itself impose a limit on the number of its visitors.  Thirty people per hour.  That’s it.  No more are welcome. 

Then it hit me:  if the laws of physics must hold true regardless of an observer’s frame of reference, then shouldn’t that also be true for the field of economics?  Shouldn’t its laws apply to an observer inside Lady Liberty just as much as they would to an observer of something larger, like the United States as a whole?  Of course they should.  The laws of economics do not transcend the laws of physics.

For example, consider the law of supply and demand, one of the most fundamental precepts of economics.  It still holds true inside Lady Liberty.  If I were a vendor of bottles of water in the crown of the statue at the top of that staircase, I could command a higher price if all I had left was a single bottle of cold water than if I had a large supply of 100 bottles. 

So what about economists’ claim that overpopulation can never be a problem because man is ingenious enough to overcome any obstacle to further growth?  Let’s apply that to Lady Liberty.  Why should we place any limit at all on the number of people inside the statue?  It’s because in that relatively tiny frame of reference, it’s patently obvious that it’s impossible to accommodate more than a relatively small number of people.  Just as the sheet metal of a Volkswagen limited the number of college students that could be stuffed inside when such games were in vogue back in the ’60s, the copper skin of Lady Liberty limits the number of visitors that can be stuffed inside. 

Thus, if relativity is applied to the field of economics, then the claim that population growth can never become a problem fails at the most basic level.  Why?  Because it’s not really a “law” of economics.  It’s a dodge that economists adopted in response to the seeming failure of Malthus’ theory that shortages of food would limit population growth.  Either unable or unwilling to further evolve Malthus’ theory about overpopulation, economists simply cupped their hands over their ears, like the “hear no evil” monkey, and vowed never to consider overpopulation again.  They adopted the “growth is good; growth is no problem” mantra and repeated it over and over until they actually began to believe it.

Then how can economists get away with making this claim?  It’s because when people consider the subject of population, the frame of reference that automatically comes to mind is so large as to be nearly infinite for all practical purposes:  the entire country of the United States, for example – an area of over three million square miles.  It’s difficult to comprehend the boundaries of such a vast expanse ever being a practical limit to the number of people that can be contained within.  And because it’s difficult to comprehend it ever being a problem, no one is willing to consider any of the consequences of a growing population.  Beyond resources and strain on the environment, is there anything else that may tend to limit the size of the population before we become a sea-to-shining-sea, quarter mile deep mass of human flesh?  What happens as we crowd together into smaller spaces?  Will our per capita consumption begin to decline?  What does this mean for per capita employment?  Could it be that poverty will prove to be the ultimate barrier to excessive growth? 

As in physics, presumed “laws” of economics that don’t stand up to scrutiny in one frame of reference are failures for every frame of reference.  And the longer we cling to such “laws,” the more unlikely progress toward valid economic models becomes.

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9 Responses to Of Relativity and Lady Liberty

  1. ClydeB says:

    Will poverty in the USA have a different effect than it does in say the Sudan or Somalia for instance? Hopefully it will, I can not imagine bringing a child into such an extreme situation, but these populations appear to be growing in spite of the conditions.
    This certainly looms as the likely outcome if things continue along the same path we are on now.
    With nearly half of our present population having incomes below the level requiring paying federal income tax, we are well on our way. Actually, I suspect that statistic to change shortly as the taxable income level will be lowered to include many of the presently untaxed.
    Some will complain of the hardship on others. but we desperately need to convince corporations to bring the jobs home. For some, just the opposite is happening. The few remaining folks at our nearby Chrysler assembly plant are packing the remaining parts from the RAM pickup line for shipment to Mexico or Canada between now and the 10th. All of the assembly work has been stopped and the last plant closed Friday morning.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Clyde, I understand your concern about for what’s happening with the Chrysler plant there. Just imagine the impact on the Detroit-area economy! It’s going to be fascinating to see how these two companies (Chrysler and GM) re-emerge. How will the government (their primary stockholder) react when loss of market share to more and more foreign manufacturers (including Fiat) makes it impossible to maintain the volume needed to make a profit.

  2. […] Of Relativity and Lady Liberty « “Five Short Blasts” Forum By Pete Murphy This past 4th of July weekend, the news programs all carried stories of the reopening to the public of the stairway to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. But for seemingly obvious, practical reasons, the tiny spiral staircase forced … "Five Short Blasts" Forum – https://petemurphy.wordpress.com/ […]

  3. mtnmike says:

    Pete,

    Your discussion of physics is well over the heads of the majority and totally over the top for our leadership.

    I am completing my Show-Stopper series and have now predicted that a lack of viable employment will be the catalyst that effectively brings down the tent…forever. We cannot physically return to the level of employment that American once supported. We have in our quest for exponential growth, violated the rigid laws of Physics!

    Therefore, I concur that poverty will in a round about way, limit per-capita growth.

  4. Jon-Paul says:

    Pete:

    Hello! This is Jon-Paul from American Age at wordpress. You stopped by and other than enjoying my blog, you also shared many of your notions, ideals, and true facts. I can’t thank you enough for visiting!

    I find your analogy vis-a-vie Lady Liberty and economic principals to be quite brilliant; moreover, it is written in such a non-threatening and congenial way.

    I fear for the worst, meaning, this country (USA) is about ready to hand over citizenship and residency status to any one and every one who is desirous of coming to America. I have my 5-short-blasts that I believe supports my supposition.

    How is your book selling? We need to get a copy of it in Congressional hands as well as the President. I’m “all in” on this hand inasmuch as economic times coupled with runaway illegal immigration is fertile ground for everything you’ve brought forth. I look forward to more dialog with you. Thank you.

    Jon-Paul Schilling, Esq.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Jon-Paul. Regarding getting copies into Congressional hands, I personally put a copy into my Congressman’s hands. I’m afraid that mailing copies to them is an exercise in futility, since unsolicited packages are simply destroyed these days. I recently sent a copy to Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Auto Workers. He soon returned it with the explanation that union rules forbid him from accepting gifts. Very frustrating.

      Perhaps the best we can do is to spread the word and try to get others interested in this new economic thinking. If I could double my readership every year, in twenty years the whole population of the U.S. would be convinced!

  5. The more commonly known body of theory regarding economic relativity, as referenced in the article, does not represent a useful almagamation of classic market-based thinking.

    Most of us understand that commonly accessed, critical resources require a certain degree of public management. We understand that market-based culture is ultimately scalable for future conditions, because the context is relevant.

    Indeed, Jefferson may not have envisioned the array of modern use allocations for the electromagnetic spectrum – yet, even a quasi-physiocrat like he would have understood that the degree of decentralized distribution, and equal access would define the equity in the situation.
    e have skeleton ‘starter’ docs for the other buildings as well, and much of the associated photos on file.

    In other words, context is relevant. One day we might actually have relatively limited critical resources here on earth. Since civilized history began, however, it has only been the tribalistic nature of command/control economics that have limited general access to those resources – hence the opportunity afforded by such access remains a privileged and inflated currency.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Forget resources, Dwayne, and think about the finiteness of the habitable space. Then think about what happens to per capita consumption when you cram more and more people into that same space. That was the point of this article.

  6. ClydeB says:

    “One day we might actually have relatively critical resources here on earth.”

    That day has arrived in spades. Oil supplies are dwindling and increasing in cost to recover. Were the electric auto to become a reality, the total known supply of lithium would no-where meet the demand needed to make the batteries. Numerous other metals, such as copper, are becoming increasingly more dificult to locate and the cost of recovery is driving up the price.

    The only thing keeping the problem from the front pages in the US is the fact that we have stopped making things for the most part and the shortages are only felt in foreign countries. Were we to restore our manufacturing base, material shortages will become urgent.

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