Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sputtering Sputnik

Among the items from the President's State of the Union speech that drew attention was his reference to our "Sputnik moment." Here is how Slate's Fred Kaplan noted it:
"This is our generation's Sputnik moment," Obama said. As a result, we need to fund "a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the space race," with particularly strong investments in biomedicine, information technology, and clean-energy technology. In the same section of the speech, he likened this funding effort to "the Apollo Project," which later put a man on the moon.
Kaplan goes on to fault Obama for advocating renewed investment while at the same time calling for a spending freeze, certainly a contradiction. I wonder if OMB employs any Zen Buddhist analysts. Regardless, the Sputnik reference fell flat for three other reasons.

Since I wasn't alive at the time, I'll just stipulate from the outset that news of the Russian success really was a shock and that Americans genuinely felt the scales fall from their eyes about where they were relative to the Soviets.

I suppose Obama's remark was about the Chinese, but has there really been a Chinese analog to Sputnik? Have the Chinese done something that we haven't? Something that we are incapable of? The answer on all counts is no, at least for now.

Second, with the hindsight of history we know the Soviet experiment failed. They lost. We won. Sputnik was something of a high water mark. Again, it may have seemed incredibly important at the time but since it never ushered in the golden age of Soviet-style Marxism, I'm not sure invoking Sputnik accomplishes the rhetorical heavy-lifting the President was attempting.

Finally, the Sputnik reference implies that we need to go back and do things the way they were done in the Kennedy and Johnson era. Here is how Kaplan ends his Slate article:
But if the U.S. economy is going to do big things—and Obama said, twice, near the end of his speech, "We do big things"—they often don't get there without a spurt of government funding.
This strikes me as spoken by someone who already thinks government spending is a good idea. The examples of innovation Kaplan sites like the Internet and microchips did grow out of government work, true. But that's not quite the same thing as they never would have happened without the government, is it?

Even if we concede that this is the case, how confident can we be that a new round of government investment will yield similar results? Technology, politics, culture, population are all different than they were in 1960. I'd say there is a very good chance that a New New Frontier could easily turn out to be much less than advertised.

Obama's invocation of Sputnik, for me, just reiterates this fixation so many on the left have with the post-war boom years. The idea that we can somehow turn the clock back to that perceived better time is utterly uncompelling. The fact that the "Sputnik moment" turn of phrase has fallen flat may reflect this.

1 comment:

J. Strupp said...

I agree with you Jeremy. But I don't think it's a fixation with the post-war boom years that at underscores Obama's "sputnik" reference. I think it's Cold War references are an easy way for the President to spoon feed complex issues to voters. That, I'm afraid, is something both parties do all the time (War of "Terrorism"/Cold War analogies anyone?)