Neutron bombs and suddenly being able to see the key economy

19.55, Thursday 9 Apr 2020

I grew at the tail end of the Cold War. My unquestioned assumption was that I would probably live out my life in a nuclear wasteland.

One of the things we’d talk about was the neutron bomb. This type of bomb would leave cities buildings intact, and it had very little fallout so the city would be safe to occupy after it was dropped, but the people would all go. Not die, that wasn’t the myth of it, but somehow vapourised – raptured up to heaven, really. It was called the “clean” bomb. The mental image was of an urban Mary Celeste.

Amongst the misery of Covid-19, this horrifically unfair disease, which is too big for me to think about and so I’m feeling my way around it bit by bit, there is the the lockdown.

The lockdown is a neutron bomb for the economy. What if the buildings stay, and the people stay, but the economy vanishes?

Or at least, part of the economy. The UK government is essentially paying to keep the wheels turning of the “key” part of the economy – the life-support system. With what money? Who knows, it doesn’t seem important now. “Key worker” has a definition now that can never be forgotten. The rest: work from home please… if there’s work to be done. Otherwise, well, being a consumer is part of the key economy too, because you need to consume to live, so you get paid to do that too.

This wheat-from-the-chaff of what’s in and out of the “key” economy – it doesn’t differentiate between producing and consuming. Those words are redundant now; we need new words for the transactions taking place. If it’s key, and it isn’t happening because it the market, it’ll get paid for by the state.

So it turns out the key economy is a hyperobject that I didn’t know existed. There’s the key economy, there’s the bit which is stood up by capitalism’s free market, and the rest is evaporated.

I ran across a paper the other day, Why is Maxwell’s Theory so hard to understand? [PDF]. This is in reference to Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism which he published in 1865 and - despite his high standing in the scientific community - were largely ignored for 20 years. They turned out to be enormously significant. (That is: all of electronics, i.e. the modern world.)

What this paper puts forward is that when Maxwell introduced the idea of “fields,” it was a scientific revolution to the point that even Maxwell couldn’t speak in terms of it.

He replaced the Newtonian universe of tangible objects interacting with one another at a distance by a universe of fields extending through space and only interacting locally with tangible objects. The notion of a field was hard to grasp because fields are intangible. The scientists of that time, including Maxwell himself, tried to picture fields as mechanical structures composed of a multitude of little wheels and vortices extending throughout space.

Electrical fields. Magnetic fields.

The modern view of the world that emerged from Maxwell’s theory is a world with two layers. The first layer, the layer of the fundamental constituents of the world, consists of fields … The second layer, the layer of the things that we can directly touch and measure.

The second layer, that’s the layer you and I live in.

And just to finish off this diversion:

The ultimate importance of the Maxwell theory is far greater than its immediate achievement in explaining and unifying the phenomena of electricity and magnetism. Its ultimate importance is to be the prototype for all the great triumphs of twentieth-century physics. … All these theories are based on the [two layer] concept of dynamical fields, introduced by Maxwell in 1865.

What’s my point?

My point is that it took something radical to transition from a world with one layer to a world with two layers. And once that shift in viewpoint happened, there was a fifty year golden age of physics.

So: the key economy. I couldn’t really imagine a line drawn around it before. Now I can.

I don’t know how to draw that line, but just to know that it could be drawn… the fact lets me imagine other kinds of economy, or other orchestrations of human activity that fulfil the goals of the key economy, and it lets me question things. That line is a boundary on definitions.

Like: why should the money of the capitalism free market be same as the money of the key economy? Maybe, to run health, education, grocery stores, deliveries, we could just print as much as necessary, then remove it from the system via taxes later to avoid the system getting inflationary. Maybe make a special currency called “key activity sterling”. Why shouldn’t the people involved live as well as bank CEOs? It turns out we get to choose what money does.

Maybe money doesn’t work in the way that I thought money worked. I imagined money as something that could neither be created nor destroyed – the economy as a scaled-up version of MONIAC, that famous hydraulic model of the economy.

But maybe money is more like a lubricant in that it makes parts of the system work well together, and you can add it and replace it and remove it and clean it whenever necessary.

I don’t know. I’m still getting my head round this. Key workers, my goodness you could have spent a lifetime trying to create a list like this or argue one into existence, and now we have it.

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