This story is over 5 years old.


Can Physics Explain Wealth Inequality?

Probably not, but let's indulge.

Here's a fun thing: Wealth inequality is just physics. For that matter, so are biology, geophysics, technology, and social organization. The whole dang universe, really. It can all be reduced to the properties of flow, or the tendency of a flowing system to try and flow more easily. Economics is just a river with money instead of water. See?

Probably not, but hang on.

This is an idea put forth by a couple of engineers at Federal University of Paraná in Brazil and Duke University. They explain it all in a paper published this week in the Journal of Applied Physics. It's kind of goofy.


The idea has to do with what's known as the Constructal Law. It was first formulated in 1996 as such: "For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it."

It's a vague and disputed theory. In general, it imagines that every system hosts some kind of internal flow because systems all tend to evolve in time in one direction. Nature, like the whole thing, always seeks to make everything flow more easily through the processes of evolution and "design generation." For example, the tributaries of a river converge so as to enhance flow. Forks of lightning merge to make electrical current move better between clouds and the Earth. The theory is supposed to explain the ubiquity of branching structures in nature.

The Constructal Law was devised by Duke professor Adrian Bejan, who is also behind the new paper.

"'Inequality' is the oldest and most divisive observation about us, as members of society," said paper declares. "There is no topic more burning than this today, and this is why the theoretical step advanced in this paper is timely. This paper uses physics to predict the natural occurrence of hierarchical movement and wealth on earth."

The movement in the global system of economics is wealth, and so design emerges facilitating this movement. Wealth flows together because this is a better way of moving it, of enhancing its flow. "The nonuniform distribution of wealth becomes more accentuated as the economy becomes more developed," Bejan writes, "i.e., as its flow architecture becomes more complex for the purpose of covering smaller and smaller interstices of the overall (fixed) territory."

There's not much more to it. The paper is probably the breeziest I've read in a physics journal in a really long time. It's also intensely self-important, making repeated pronouncements about a grand new unification of economics and physics. It's not a great look, to be honest.

So, is wealth inequality just physics being physics? I hope not. That would make it something like inevitable. Just nature. Conservatives love "just nature" arguments about money, of course: social Darwinism, bootstraps, and all that bullshit. Let's hope Paul Ryan doesn't get ahold of this one.

Watch A Smarter Gun on Motherboard: