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“Hysteresis” for Dummies September 18, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Politics, Popular Culture.

In his September 18 blog post, Paul Krugman uses the word “hysteresis.” I’m very smart and have a great vocabulary, but I have to admit, the first time I read his article I had no idea what he was talking about. So I went trolling for definitions.

The Wikipedia article on hysteresis is written in scientist-speak. I’m sure it’s highly informative for science geeks. I searched for a long time before I cobbled together an explanation of hysteresis that helps me understand Krugman’s thinking.

Essentially, “hysteresis” describes the lagging of an effect behind its cause. The best illustration I’ve found is your thermostat. Suppose it’s winter, and you set your thermostat to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. When the ambient temperature sinks to 69°, your heater kicks on and heats your house until your thermostat hits 71°; then it turns off. So if the thermostat says 69° or lower, your heater will run nonstop; if the thermostat says 71° or higher, the heater will stay off. Now, suppose that the temperature is somewhere between 69.1° and 71°. Is your heater on or off? It depends on what was happening the last time your thermostat checked the temperature. If it was 70° or higher, the heater is off; if it was 69° or lower, the heater is on. Suppose the “real” temperature in your room is 70.9° and the heater is running. This “lag” between the real temperature being above 70° and your heater still obediently producing heat is hysteresis. If you set your thermostat for 70°, your heater’s hysteresis is the range 69° to 71°.

I think. Scientist-speak is REALLY obfuscatory!

Here’s another possible definition of hysteresis: You’re on Battlestar Galactica, and you’ve just identified a Cylon and ejected it out an airlock. The Cylon needs air to breathe and is in the dead of space, but it’s not dead YET, and won’t be for another minute or two. The lag between ejection (cause) and death (effect) is hysteresis.

I think.

(Wouldn’t it be horrible if ejection didn’t kill the Cylon, and he/she just had to float alone in the void FOREVER?)

There are a LOT of science-speak uses of the word “hysteresis.” Apparently if you magnetize a piece of metal to one pole, and then re-magnetize it to the opposite pole, there’s a lag time where you have a “north” magnet in a “south” magnetic field. (I think.) In elastic materials, like rubber bands, hysteresis is the amount of useful energy that is lost between stretch and sproing, which explains why those tightie whities eventually become saggy baggies. (Unless, I suppose, you grow a paunchy-waunchy.)

According to Investopedia (in an answer I read on Answers.com), the economics version of hysteresis describes the lag between a phenomenon and its effect on the economy. Investopedia’s example was unemployment. As unemployment increases, more people adjust to a lower standard of living. The idiot at Investopedia who wrote the definition cheerfully continued that as more people become unem­ployed, the more “socially acceptable” unemployment becomes, and even when the good times return, the long-term unemployed may not be “interested” in returning to work. (Dear Investopedia: I haven’t had a full-time job in more than ten years. Given that I AM “inter­ested” in returning to work, do you think the computer programs I learned in 2000 and before have been updated since then?)

. . . No, wait, I have it! (I think.) When Wile E. Coyote is fooled by the Roadrunner into jumping off a cliff, hysteresis is the length of time the coyote hangs motionless in the air before falling.

At any rate. In his blog entry, Krugman points out that most of the developed world is facing a serious problem of demand. So many people are unemployed that demand for goods and services is way down. Most manufacturers are operating at way below capacity, reducing capacity, and scrapping equipment. If the year 2000 suddenly roared back, with all its wealth and prosperity (looted away by the GOP, 2001-present), many manufacturers would be S.O.L.

Krugman’s point is that “austerity policies are actually self-destructive even in purely fiscal terms: by reducing the economy’s future potential, they reduce future revenues, and can make the debt position worse in the long run.”

In other words, the Greedy Oil Plutocrats are telling Americans today that the United States simply can’t afford to give $700 billion to millionaires and billionaires AND give tax relief to us lower classes. Expecting millionaires and billionaires to give up one penny of their obscene privilege is “class warfare.” (Yes, a class war has been going on for 30 years. The wealthy won when Antonin Scalia, the BFF of the CEO of Halliburton, installed the CEO of Halliburton as Vice President, and George W. Bush began the spending spree that single-handedly doubled the national debt while transferring trillions from the U.S. Treasury into the pockets of the GOPlutocracy. The Citizens United ruling, and the resulting tsunami of lies and smears that swept the GOP into office in 2010, were “Taps” at the graveside of the middle class.)

Forget increasing government revenue as a means of paying GOP debts, say the GOPlutocrats. The only answer to our fiscal troubles is to reduce government revenue (preferably to where Grover Norquist can drown the entire govern­ment in a bathtub and then crown himself Prince Regent), reduce the economy’s potential and blight its future, and end the social safety net that helps keep the elderly, the long-term sick or disabled, children, disaster victims, and other “moochers” and “parasites” alive. To take just one example: why should Rush Limbaugh give up his annual tax gift from George W. Bush, a matter of $2.6 million every year (that’s 3 percent of Limbaugh’s net income!), when Great-Granny is perfectly capable of running a cash register, if only she could afford to see a doctor about that pesky cancer?

Some people think that we have a social compact here in the United States. Some of us think that “promote the general welfare” refers to the lower 98 percent as well as the GOPlutocracy. Some of us even think that floods, droughts, earthquakes, and hurricanes do NOT reflect God’s opinion of feminists, pagans, liberals, members of the ACLU, abortionists, gays, or Obama. Some people think that bridges, highways, sewer systems, and public schools are investments in the nation’s future that return a profit to everyone in the nation rather than the GOPlutocracy alone.

Of people like me, the NON-Tea Puppets, the truthiness-disbelievers, the GOPlutocracy says,

“Let them die”!!!

(Passing note of disgruntlement: “hysteresis” is the English transliteration of the ancient Greek ὑστέρησις. To the ancient Greeks, it meant “lack, deficiency, lagging behind.” Like “hysteria,” the word derives from the ancient “huster,” womb. To the ancient Greeks, female inferiority was structural to the language, and controlled their thinking. The ancient Greek language can go frak itself!)



1. Jessica - December 15, 2014

I wanted to thank you for making this subject more understandable. In a late night homework session with my daughter, I tried helping to define this and after 5 websites wasn’t any closer to helping. I added to my search request “for dummies” and your site came up. My daughter laughed but who was laughing when we finally understood it? I started to get it with the thermostat, but what really made it work was the Battlestar Galactica explanation. Thank you!

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