It is well known that wealth is shared out unfairly. "People on the whole have normally distributed attributes, talents and motivations, yet we finish up with wealth distributions that are much more unequal than that," says Robin Marris, emeritus professor of economics at Birkbeck, University of London.
In 1897, a Paris-born engineer named Vilfredo Pareto showed that the distribution of wealth in Europe followed a simple power-law pattern, which essentially meant that the extremely rich hogged most of a nation's wealth (New Scientist, 19 August 2000, p 22). Economists later realised that this law applied to just the very rich, and not necessarily to how wealth was distributed among the rest.
Now it seems that while the rich have Pareto's law to thank, the vast majority of people are governed by a completely different law. Physicist Victor Yakovenko of the University of Maryland in College Park and his colleagues analysed income data from the US Internal Revenue Service from 1983 to 2001. They found that while the income distribution among the super-wealthy - about 3 per cent of the population - does follow Pareto's law, incomes for the remaining 97 per cent fitted a different curve - one that also describes the spread of energies of atoms in a gas.
In the gas model, people exchange money in random interactions, much as atoms exchange energy when they collide. While economists' models traditionally regard humans as rational beings who always make intelligent decisions, econophysicists argue that in large systems the behaviour of each individual is influenced by so many factors that the net result is random, so it makes sense to treat people like atoms in a gas. The analogy also holds because money is like energy, in that it has to be conserved. "It's like a fluid that flows in interactions, it's not created or destroyed, only redistributed," says Yakovenko.
Yakovenko also found that the total income of those in the poorer part of the distribution did not change significantly with time after accounting for inflation. But incomes for those in the Pareto curve shot up nearly five times from 1983 to 2000, before declining with the US stock market crash of 2001.
This, along with research data from other countries, suggests that there are two economic classes. In one, the rich grow richer while in the other the poor stay poor. Yakovenko explains this by going back to the analogy of atoms in a gas. The atoms assume an exponential distribution of energy when they are in thermal equilibrium, and pushing the gas away from this state takes a lot of energy and it could prove similarly difficult to shift an economy to a different state. Randomness in the model does, however, mean that individuals can jump from one class to another.
"It suggests that any kind of policy will be very inefficient," says Yakovenko. It would be very difficult to impose a policy to redistribute wealth "short of getting Stalin", says Yakovenko, who will talk in Kolkata next week.
Interesting, eh? If you want to see the rest of the article it's here. It seems that for all we think we're all making rational choices, in the end we're just people bumping into one another and exchanging money. This sort of thing seems to imply that all those things like welfare and government handouts won't do much to impact the system unless the addition of funds was truly extreme. You can read on if you want, but some seem to suggest the only thing that skews the system for you away from randomness is saving, the idea of putting away a nestegg.
And on the lighter side...you've got to love the farging japanese. They're always going that extra mile to give fear factor ideas for their next season.