Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Does Obama's "'Sputnik' moment" idea from the State of the Union speech make any sense?

Nope, says my mom, and I agree. That whole post is worth reading, but here's the gist:

If you remember how Sputnik felt — and I do — you'll probably say, but there is no equivalent of Sputnik. There are just a lot of countries, full of human beings, trying to get ahead economically, like us — not against us. There's no race with dramatic consequences for the winners and losers, and there's no impressive physical object that signifies that bad guys are winning the race. If you don't remember Sputnik, you're like: Sputnik?
I found last night's speech very dull, and I turned it off less than an hour into it. The idea that we're supposed to be alarmed that other countries are making too much progress relative to us, and that this is going to be our motivation to make economic and technological progress, leaves me cold. I wonder how many people honestly share this view (as opposed to people who are merely willing to echo Obama's point because they support Obama).

I don't care if we're #1 or #2 or #10 out of 200 countries, by whatever metric has been agreed on by experts. In fact, being #1 is a burden. I'd like to try being #2 for a while. Let another country take on the role of being officially at the top, and see how they like it. It hasn't been uniformly wonderful for the United States to have that distinction. I care so much more about whether this is a nice place to live.

UPDATE: Over on my mom's blog, a commenter named "Revenant" makes a good point:
Sputnik was launched by a genocidal Communist dictatorship that was not only our sworn enemy, but capable of destroying all life on Earth. That's why Sputnik was shocking. We were "losing" to an enemy that had the capacity to obliterate us.

Our biggest modern rival, China, is a mere regional power whose economy relies on exporting goods and services to... er, us and our allies.

15 comments:

Meade said...

Sounds good. Let your reasonably conservative flag fly.

John Althouse Cohen said...

You think what I said in this post is conservative? I was expecting it to be criticized as left-wing.

Henry said...

National rankings is the situational ethics of geopolitics.

When other countries rank higher the the U.S. according to some metric like longevity or fourth-grade math scores, it's left-wing to make that a rallying cry and right-wing to point out the flaws in the comparison.

When other countries rank higher than the U.S. according to some metric like defense spending, it's right-wing to make that a rallying cry and left-wing to point out the flaws in the comparison.

But to wax competitive about other countries waxing competitive can go either way. He's either Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader. Either way it's the politics of a demagogue.

Wouldn't it have been lovely to have Hans Rosling take the stage at the moment and rhapsodize about the developing of the developing world:

"The problem I have is that the world view my students have correspond to the reality in the world the year their teachers were born."

Sputnik indeed.

michaele said...

Interesting to read the reaction of someone in your age group. I didn't find Obama's concern about the US not being regarded as #1 very convincing since in many past speeches, he has, most often, sounded neutral about that status. His default approach is usually to go to the "on the one hand, on the other hand" as in "the United States thinks it is exceptional just as France, Britain, etc, think they are exceptional".

John Althouse Cohen said...

Michaele, I actually think this has been a big theme of his for a while. I said this in my live-blog of last years's SOTU:

9:31 - "Meanwhile, China's not waiting to revamp its economy. ... India's not waiting." He flashed some uncharacteristically brusque anger here.

TWM said...

"I was expecting it to be criticized as left-wing."

He did say "reasonably conservative."

John Althouse Cohen said...

I know, I just find it interesting that he considered my post conservative, when I anticipated the reaction being that it's too liberal/left-wing.

Bob Ellison said...

Like others here, I came via Althouse. I don't see your post as left- or right-wing. You point out a cultural issue in America: we have a problem with others doing well. It's stupid. If China does well, does that hurt us? No. It probably helps, mostly.

Obama seems to be channeling envy, which both lefties and righties have aplenty. It's a stupid vice and has no proper place in politics.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Obama seems to be channeling envy, which both lefties and righties have aplenty. It's a stupid vice and has no proper place in politics.

I agree.

Ron said...

There are so many problems with the Sputnik idea...for example, did the competition with Russia imply specific policy agreements with Eisenhower? If conservatives agreed with the idea that Sputnik means we should be more aggressive with competing with other countries, and therefore we should adopt Policy X on education or science funding or R&D, would Obama agree if it contradicted his proposals? I doubt it.

Wasn't Sputnik really a mask for Russian technological weakness? Didn't flaunting Sputnik then backfire for them in competing with the US?

NotYourTypicalNewYorker said...

"I don't care if we're #1 or #2 or #10 out of 200 countries, by whatever metric has been agreed on by experts. In fact, being #1 is a burden."

If enough people think like this we will certainly get the demise you seem to crave.

Sad really.

Meade said...

Don't worry, John, it happens to the best of us (Isthmus readers).

John Althouse Cohen said...

If enough people think like this we will certainly get the demise you seem to crave.

I wouldn't call being the #2 country in the world a "demise." Top 1 percent!

Wilson said...

What Obama said comes directly from the philosophy of his party: the idea that the pie is only so big, and if others are getting bigger pieces, it means mine has to get smaller.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Yes, Wilson, that's a fallacy that's all too common among liberals. The chapter called "Third World Facts and Fallacies" in Thomas Sowell's Economic Facts and Fallacies is very relevant here.