Reader Vinayak Naik wants to know how the term “escape velocity” has come to be used in connection with social justice.
The expression derives from a scientific term defined as “a speed sufficient to overcome the gravitational force of a planet.”
The Earth, with a diameter of 7,918 miles, has an escape velocity of 25,000 miles an hour. The moon, with a diameter of only 2,16 miles, has an escape velocity of 5,320 mph. The planet Jupiter, with a diameter of 86,881 miles, has the greatest escape velocity of all: 133,018 mph.
The term seems to have gained its buzzword status as the result of an academic paper published in the American Economic Review (Vol. 103, 2013) by two Harvard economists: “Achieving escape velocity: Neighborhood and school interventions to reduce persistent inequality.” Authors Roland D. Fryer and Lawrence F. Katz examine policies needed to enable young people in poor neighborhoods to “escape the gravitational pull of poverty.”
Before the publication of the social studies paper, the expression enjoyed some popularity as a book title, for example, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, published in 2007, and Escape Velocity: Free your company’s future from the pull of the past, published in 2011.
Since mid-2013, escape velocity has achieved buzzword status, not only for social reformers, but also for bankers, artists, and publishers:
The U.S. economy has had trouble rising above a 3% growth rate since the financial crisis, a line in the sand often cited as the threshold for achieving “escape velocity” of sustainable expansion. — Matthew Boesler, Business Insider, Nov. 7, 2013.
After the announcement a year ago of his appointment as Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney worried publicly and repeatedly that Britain’s economy had not yet achieved “escape velocity”. — London Times, November 14, 2013.
“We believe the missing links for the economy to achieve ‘escape velocity’ are real estate, banks, and small businesses,” Michael Hartnett, investment strategist quoted in Business Insider, November 2013.
Once a striking metaphor, escape velocity is on its way to becoming just another cliché.
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