Many politicians and policy makers have grand plans to drive through certain changes within a given society. But many fall into the trap of believing the change will work its way through a society or culture within brief periods of time. More often than not, policy shifts and major initiatives take much longer and require much more effort than initially planned. As examples, think of things like pushing through any changes for social security, a new government in Iraq, changes in the intelligence sector, tax code overhauls, health care reform, and almost any other policy initiative you can think of. Why?
As a physicist, I tend to think in terms of a lesson in an introductory physics course about momentum and impulse. One can think of ‘inertia,’ or a property of an object that is responsible for a resistance to a change in the object’s motion. Momentum is in many ways the inertia of a moving object, and is defined as the product of mass and velocity. Practically we can say an object that is moving wants to keep moving in a straight line at the same speed, thus keeping its momentum constant. In other words, objects want to stay the course and maintain whatever state of motion it is currently in. So how does change come about? A force is required to change the state of motion of an object. One can change direction, speed, or both, and that is a change in momentum. The magnitude of the change in momentum is called impulse. All of this can be wrapped up in Newton’s 3 laws of motion. What is most useful is Newton’s 2nd law of motion, which mathematically relates the magnitude of a force to the resulting impulse. The other factor that comes into play in the 2nd law is time. We can write it down in shorthand as (Impulse) = (Force) x (time of interaction). In other words, if we consider a constant magnitude of impulse, a large force acting on the object for a short period of time is equivalent to a small force acting on the same object for a long period of time. Keep in mind that the 3rd law of motion is summed up by the famous phrase, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
In a social context, think about an event like 9/11. This hit the American society (and even the global society) in a very short period of time. Our society changed literally in a few hours, because the force of that one tragic event was unbelievably huge. Such a large change of societal momentum (action) allowed the U.S. to invade Afghanistan with a large amount of force that dislodged the Taliban and al Qaeda in a short period of time (reaction).
What is different about something like Social Security reform? It is an important issue for our society. However, neither the administration and Republican Congress nor the Democrats have produced a plan that has placed a ‘force’ on society great enough to swing the momentum shift in either direction. The political divide in our society is so even that two essentially equal strength forces (i.e. competing philosophies and plans for fixing Social Security) which are acting in opposite political directions have resulted in a state of equilibrium. This is no different to a physical analogue of two equally strong tug-of-war teams pulling with all their might, but in opposite directions; equilibrium results and there is no impulse, i.e. no winner. Someone on either side would need to develop a plan that is radically different that will cause a sensation in society to create a large shift in policy direction, or some event would have to occur that produces an external force on society (depression, collapse of the existing system, etc) that is large enough to create a large impulse.
Continuing this series of analogies to Iraq, the “shock and awe” campaign during the U.S. invasion allowed our military to cause a rapid shift in momentum in Iraqi society, and in that phase, even though there was a small time interval involved, the size of the force was large enough for a large enough impulse (i.e. overthrow of the Baathist regime). The mistake, though, was in the second phase. To stabilize the society immediately in the post-Saddam era in a short period of time requires another large force acting on a society where, almost instantaneously, there was a political vacuum. The U.S. war planners (i.e. Rumsfeld) had a relatively small force available to maintain security. To cause a large enough change in momentum to swing the Iraqis more completely to our side with a smaller force requires a longer period of time. Obviously this is overly simplistic, for there are essentially three societies in Iraq (Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish), making it very much a complex system, but in my mind the general concept seems to make sense. As time dragged on, there were other competing forces in a variety of directions that prevented a momentum shift in the direction we wanted from occurring.
I would be very interested in feedback from those with expertise in economics and military strategy about the concept of societal and cultural momentum and impulse. Economists, for example, speak in terms of equilibrium. Forces such as supply and demand would create the changes in market equilibrium (perhaps we can call this market impulse). Do real market analyses quantify the state of a market with similar analogues to Newton’s 2nd law? Is there a way of quantifying (in both cases it would be presumably be based on statistics & probabilities) military strategies with analogues to impulse, time and force? Can these concepts be used to help devise both winning and exit strategies for Iraq? At this point, I would think not because Iraq has moved beyond the point where equilibrium conditions can be easily reached. The physical analogue seems to be something like a double pendulum that has gone from a state with normal modes to a chaotic state, where the motion is random and unpredictable. Making it even more chaotic are external agents (insurgents) producing perturbing forces on the system. The U.S. entirely missed the brief time window for maintaining an equilibrium state with a smaller occupying force than many outside the administration thought we needed.