Last night I watched two stories about New Orleans on the NBC News. One described the success of the school system, which had to be basically re-invented because of the Katrina devastation. The other was about the increasing availability of health care, as NO is moving away from a large number of big hospitals to a smaller number of those supplemented by neighborhood clinics.
In both cases, the nature of the revolution was clear: It was mandated by a catastrophic event. It became easier to completely redesign the system from the facilities to the curriculum, as they were essentially starting from scratch. Before Katrina, NO's school system was producing students who achieve in lower than the 25th percentile, today it is easily above the 50th and accelerating toward the 75th.
The existence of the new neighborhood clinics made health care easier and more affordable than before, those who used to crowd the emergency rooms can now get care in local and less stressed settings. Again, the destruction ended the life of some of the larger hospitals, and a new successful strategy was born.
In both cases, one could look at the situations and say "Well, if there are better answers, why didn't New Orleans adopt them in the first place?" The answer is clear in understanding the word momentum.
Science describes momentum as a propensity of a moving object to continue moving in the same direction and speed. Consider rolling a basketball across a gym floor. When you release it, it keeps going in the same direction and speed at which you rolled it.
However, other forces can modify the momentum of an object. Friction will cause your basketball to slow down, or if it hits another object it might change course.
Momentum can work psychologically as well. Have you ever driven a few hours at a high speed on an interstate highway, then got off to drive more slowly on 20 MPH a local road, but convinced that you are driving much less than 20MPH? Your speedometer tells you are at 20, but you are so used to driving faster it somehow seems like a bigger difference? You got used to diving faster.
When citizens look at things like school systems, they generally evaluate the in terms of quality and cost. In this day and age, anyone asking for more tax money is a pariah, as the mantra of "no new taxes" have become the norm. So school additional levies are a tough sell, even if it meant an increase of quality. Your school system and your tax rate have a momentum of their own, and it is easier to say "it is functioning, leave it as it is."
But when we are forced to start over, we are very interested in including all the strategies that will make our schools better and more efficient. We have to spend the money anyways, so let's spend it in the best way.
The new clinics in New Orleans are another example of lost momentum. Before Katrina, folks might say "Well, we have plenty of hospitals already, so why duplicate their function by building costly local clinics? Sure, they may be more convenient for some, but they are already handled in emergency rooms we already have." However, when the choice is to rebuild expensive hospitals or spend that same money for the societal improvement of small local facilities, the same "best" choice becomes clearer. The momentum of having the big hospitals is gone.
In both these situations, there was nothing stopping pre-Katrina New Orleans from improving their schools and health care delivery approaches. All it takes is a will (force) strong enough to change the status quo (momentum.) In our society, this often involves increasing taxes, which again have a momentum of their own.
Deficits in the national budget have a momentum. The national debt has an increasing momentum, the "force" in play is each additional defect dollar. It will take a will, a contradictory force to change the direction of both of these. We must slow the momentum of spending and increase the momentum of income (taxes) if we are to get that ball to stop rolling, let alone get it to roll the other way.
Today I read an article seeded by WEMUSTCHANGE, entitled It's the Beginning of the End for the American Empire, a cogent and chilling look into our future as a country and a people. Much of the article is predicated on momentum, on things which are detrimental to our success as a country that we refuse to change. It is well worth the read. But remember this, it takes energy to change momentum, and that change can only be brought about by the will of the people.
What kind of economic Katrina will it take to make us re-invent our economy? Maybe that is what it will take. I hate to think that we are parsimonious and self-absorbant enough to sit back and watch the momentum grow and ultimate crash happen, but from current appearances, this seems to be the case.
But maybe we can learn from these experiences in New Orleans, that answers are possible. But we must recognize and change the momentum now to avoid a big storm doing it for us.