Magazine article The Spectator

In Economics, as in Meteorology, the Basic Theory Is Both Boring and Largely Useless

Magazine article The Spectator

In Economics, as in Meteorology, the Basic Theory Is Both Boring and Largely Useless

Article excerpt

When I was a boy I never really understood strong winds, still less storms. I'm not sure I do now.

This was not due to complete ignorance of meteorology. Something of a star pupil at geography (why the weather was geography rather than physics baffled me), I absorbed with interest and some degree of comprehension the explanation of wind. Warm air, heated by the sun, would rise; and cooler air would waft in to take its place. Thus (I appreciated) a light breeze might waft from the cool sea to the warmer land during the day; but, by night, as the land grew cooler than the ocean, the airflow would reverse and a breeze blow from land to sea. All around the globe, as air pressures dropped or rose in one place or another, air would be sucked from one place to another to rebalance. And Mr van Aswegan demonstrated how rain was made when bodies of warm, damp air were caused to rise, and cool, and precipitate their moisture.

Our physics teacher, Mr Murphy, even demonstrated the effect with a different medium, water, showing how warm water (dyed with ink) rose as heat was applied by a Bunsen burner beneath. Oh yes, these explanations were clear enough to me, and intellectually satisfying. Those novelty 'lava lamps' filled with coloured oils that rose and fell in slowly mutating globs that became fashionable (for the first time round) in the 1960s when I was at school seemed to offer a pleasingly graphic demonstration of the effect.

But what neither Mr van Aswegan, Mr Murphy nor the lava lamps explained - and nobody tried to - were storms, and gales, and the sheer violence of the elements as observed in nature. The picture logically implied by Mr van Aswegan's physics was (as I understood it) of a gentle, continuous rebalancing of pressures, so that the moment a pressure difference emerged between one patch and another, a little air (or water) moved from the area of higher to the area of lower pressure, until pressures were equalised.

But according to this picture you would never get the 40mph wind that buffets my window in Derbyshire as I write, clouds racing across the sky and the Scots pines on the hill waving wildly in the gale. Such a transfer of air suggests a sharp difference in atmospheric pressure between the place the wind is going and the place it's coming from. This would never have arisen if Mr van Aswegan's lessons had told the whole story: instead there would have been a very slight northwesterly breeze for the few days just behind us, as a pressure difference that had begun to build up was balanced out; not a couple of calm days followed by a sudden, roaring wind.

Water, after all, did not seem to behave like this. Violent tidal movements were explicable in terms of funnelling, but as for ocean currents, these proceeded very much as the van Aswegan model would suggest: at stately drifts of just a few miles per hour or less. Storms happened above the water-line but there was no hydraulic equivalent in the depths beneath it. Why not? I left school, having earlier obtained a distinction in GCE O-level geography, none the wiser.

And I'd been perplexed, too, by a comparable puzzle in the elementary economics I'd been taught. Price theory rather resembled the theory of the rebalancing of atmospheric pressures. Lessons had started with an outline of the theory of markets, and Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'. I had understood about supply and demand: how, if demand rises and supply does not meet it, a relative shortage (low pressure) will precipitate an increase in price, which should lead to higher profits and suck in higher supply which in turn should satisfy demand so that prices stabilise or even drop a bit. …

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