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Energy politics follows laws like those of physics

Bob Tippee

Politics and physics have disparate meanings for the word "energy" yet adhere in their treatment of the subject to natural laws with interesting similarities.

Defining "energy" with technical precision is difficult, of course. Defining the word politically is impossible.

Technically, energy relates to the ability to perform work and transfer heat. Engineers and physicists discuss it in terms such as ergs, joules, and degrees.

In politics, "energy" means whatever anyone needs it to mean. This flexibility frees political discussion of worry about the physical world's thermodynamic constraints. The basic political terms applicable to energy include dollars, euros, and yuan.

Despite these contrasts, parallel laws do seem to be at work.

The physics of energy, for example, concerns itself with shifts between varying degrees of energy usefulness. It employs tools such as engines, turbines, and batteries.

The politics of energy concentrates on shifts, too: of money. Its tools are taxes, mandates, and subsidies.

Like energy, politics has useful and useless states. Also like energy, politics seems drawn by some natural law in the direction of uselessness.

Observation makes clear that as rhetorical heat rises in a political system addressing energy, disorder overwhelms discussion, degrading the consequent ideas.

Evidence of this political version of entropy abounds. It includes proposals to outlaw "price-gouging," to rein in the supposed excesses of "speculators," and to tax hydrocarbons in order to fund energy of lesser utility.

Energy politics has its peculiarities.

In physics and engineering, attention to energy is constant.

In politics, attention to energy—rhetorical heat—varies as a function of the price of vehicle fuel.

And since the quality of political ideas for energy varies as an inverse function of rhetorical heat, it follows that the risk of policy error rises with prices of gasoline and diesel fuel.

Price levels exist, however, below which political attention and therefore rhetorical heat seem to vanish.

Such a political state, of zero attention to energy, might seem like the good old days.

But political inattention of the past helps explain energy prices of the present, suggesting that politics, like energy, changes only in form, never in quantity.

(Online July 4, 2008; author's e-mail:

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