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Friction keeps the world together, except when it comes to economics

The Yomiuri ShimbunNobel Prize-winner in physics Masatoshi Koshiba has an anecdote. When he taught physics at a junior high school during his university days, he tested his students with this problem: “Write down what would happen if friction disappeared from the world.”

The correct answer for Koshiba would be to hand in a blank sheet of paper. This is because the tip of a pencil would slip and students would not be able to write. A world truly without friction would be like something from a science fiction novel. Buildings constructed with nails and bolts would collapse. Threads would come out from textiles and clothes would break into pieces. Mountains and hills would collapse, becoming level ground.

In physics, friction stabilizes the world, as I learned in a book titled, “Tokoton Yasashii Masatsu no Hon” (Very simple book on friction) by Kazuo Kakuta. However, when it comes to economics, it’s a different story.

The United States and China have imposed sanctions and retaliatory tariffs on imported goods from each other, destabilizing the world. Friction occurs when irregular surfaces rub against each other, but in today’s world, supply chain lines are complexly intertwined. If this further intensifies, there will likely be more than just frictional heat.

Last month (June) during U.S.-China summit talks in Japan, the resumption of trade talks was agreed upon. How will they reach compromises to ease friction and stabilize the world? The answer should not be a blank sheet of paper.

(This is a translation of the Henshu Techo column from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s July 15 issue.)Speech

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