Falling apples, projecting fire extinguishers

The weekend before last, we were guests of our friend Michael Aizenman at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, UK. Fortunately, like most very bright people, Michael has many interests besides his specialty, mathematics, so we were able to find things to talk about.

Nevertheless, wandering through the institute and peering at Newton's walking stick and his notebook of living expenses (he'd bought Stilton cheese) got me thinking about math (sort of) as I tried to assemble the bits of Newtoniana scattered through my memory, mainly his three laws of motion (alas, I have yet to master calculus). And the only reason I, science-averse as I was in my student days, have any clear notion of those three laws is the amazing Leonard K. Nash who taught a Natural Science course for nonscientific freshmen at that other Cambridge, the one in Massachusetts. His classes were theatrical performances, with explosions to demonstrate Boyle's Law and, most memorable of all, his lecture on Newton's third law of motion. It came near the end of the hour. An assistant wheeled out a low cart with an upright fire extinguisher mounted behind a padded seat. Without interrupting his talk, Nash sat himself on the cart and pressed the levers of the extinguisher as he declared, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." And propelled himself offstage at precisely the last minute of class.

This was in 1959, and still I remember. And as I looked at the Newton memorabilia, I I began wondering if Newton's Three Laws of Motion might not be applicable to political science. The first one, the law of inertia certainly seems applicable to American politics (and all other social behavior): the parties just continue doing whatever they have been doing forever, unless and until some external force -- riots, a stock market crash, public outrage over the disaster in Iraq -- makes them change course. And once that force is applied, it will keep propelling the pols until friction (there's a lot of that in politics) slows them down (2nd Law). And of course the 3rd Law, which I think of as the fire extinguisher law. We can easily come up with examples of "equal and opposite" political reactions, e.g., to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

I was sure that this could not be a new idea, so I looked up "Newtonian political science" on Google. And sure enough, there's a whole book on "Quantum Politics," claiming to go beyond Newton to base political science on quantum mechanics. And I found this very
amusing review by Ingemar Nordin, Linkiping University, Sweden, who finds that although this whole approach is scientifically absurd (social behavior is not like physics), it may still generate valuable insights.

Chile & Venezuela: different Lefts, different paths

Someone just forwarded an anonymous attack --a string of insults, really -- on Ricardo Lagos, former president of Chile, because he dared to say in an interview that Hugo Chávez's kind of leftism was not replicable in other countries without Venezuela's fat "checkbook". An obvious enough point, one would think, but unacceptable to the anonymous author, who seems to think that boldness and clear revolutionary thinking are all that are needed to bring about revolutions everywhere.

We should be skeptical of all politicians, including Lagos & Chávez. Nevertheless, Lagos appears to me to be one of the most honest and effective of the bunch. He left office even more popular than when he entered, so clearly a lot of Chileans have a high opinion of him. He is of course pragmatic -- like all successful and long-lasting politicians, Left or Right. What the French call a possibiliste. And he is also cautious, as anybody governing Chile (with its terrible recent history) should be. So if his policies were "liberal" or "neoliberal", that was due less to his personal wishes than to his estimate (pretty astute, I think) of what his government could get away with.

Hugo Chávez is less obviously pragmatic, and far less cautious in what he says -- though I think he's very careful about maintaining good relations with his armed forces, which is a kind of pragmatism. He has also discovered that he can get away with, can dare to pursue, much bolder anti-U.S. policies than could Lagos. Not only that he can do it, but that he will be applauded for it. There are at least three immense differences between Venezuela and Chile that make Chávez's defiant rhetoric and aggressive reforms possible, all of them conjunctural (that is, produced by a convergence of historical processes that may not last long): (1) the high price of petroleum, and Venezuela's abundance of it; Chilean copper is selling well, too, but not like oil. So Chávez has the resources to spend on projects both useful and wasteful. (2) The weakening of the U.S. government's interest or capacity to slap down this opponent, because of its contradictory petroleum needs and the calamitous failure of its Iraq war (which was supposed to secure the needs of U.S. petroleum interests forever, but has ended up producing nothing but costs in all areas -- military depletion, diplomatic weakness, spiraling deficit). (3) The utterly different social-political history of the two countries. Just one aspect to note: Chile has a very large, established and monied conservative bloc, nearly as large as its very deeply established left. Votes, when free (before and after Pinochet) have always been close, with either Right or Left's hold on government precarious. Neither Lagos, nor Allende, nor anybody had the kind of support in the polls that Hugo Chávez musters. I think the main reason that the Right is so ineffective as a political force in Venezuela is that it never really had to bother about mobilizing voters, it was enough for them to make money while a whole series of corruptible governments of the white elite kept the darker masses at bay. The Venezuelan Left is also radically different from that in Chile, where both the Socialist and Communist parties became highly institutionalized, with large bases of trade union members, producing a more cautious political culture than in Venezuela where the ideologues of the Left parties, with much smaller and more marginalized rank-and-files, were responsible to no one but their own visions of the truth.

By the way, here's what Lagos really had to say about Chávez, in an interview in El País (26/03/2007). It sounds very sensible.

¿Considera válidos los análisis que dividen a América Latina entre los países en favor y en contra del presidente venezolano, Hugo Chávez?
Las políticas de Chávez se sustentan en la capacidad financiera que le da el petróleo y no son reproducibles en otros países que no tienen petróleo, donde no tienen esa solvencia. A lo mejor, a muchos jefes de Estado les gustaría tener la chequera abundante; otra cosa es saber darle el mejor uso a esa chequera. En condiciones mucho más modestas, Chile ha experimentado una holgura financiera producto del precio del cobre y ha hecho un uso cuidadoso de esos fondos, destinando parte de esos recursos al desarrollo en ciencia y tecnología y guardando otra parte... El tema de los pros y los anti Chávez es maniqueo.

Photo of Lagos from Chilean newspaper Clarín