Obama's Sputnik Analogy Doesn't Fly

It's a sign of how tinny and uninspiring President Obama's State of the Union address was that a week later it all seems so forgettable.

Let's see, there was something about high-speed rail and a lot more spending ("investing," in Washington-speak). There was the theme, "Winning the Future" a term that apparently focus-grouped so well that nobody in the White House bothered to look up the fact that Newt Gingrich has written a book by the same title and all but copyrighted the buzz-phrase.

And then there was all that stuff about Sputnik.

The president insisted, as he has done before, that this is "our generation's Sputnik moment" where we must galvanize the whole society with common purpose (he left unclear what this means for those still-living Americans whose generation's "Sputnik moment" was, well, Sputnik. Maybe they can sit this one out).

China is hardly the leader in technical, scientific, intellectual or artistic innovation.

Indeed, to hear Obama tell it, he has sounded the warning bell. We must lay down our proverbial shovels and hoes and run in from the fields to take our instruction from President Obama on how to deal with the current crisis.

Which crisis is that? You might think that he was referring to the fact that the country is flooding with red ink (according to the Congressional Budget Office, this will be our third consecutive year with a deficit above $1 trillion), and that everyone needs to help bail out the USS America before she capsizes. You might think his calls for unity might have something to do with the fact that we're fighting two wars and are under the constant threat of Islamic terrorism.

But, no. Apparently, our Sputnik moment requires that we launch an updated arms race with China, but instead of bombs and tanks, we must build windmills and brew the government moonshine we call ethanol.

Why the focus on China?

No metaphor can withstand too much scrutiny. But Obama's effort to recast America's plight as a replay of the last Sputnik moment fails in every intended regard.

According to Obama, China is eating our lunch at conservation and the all-important green energy business, where all the new good jobs will come from in the 21st century. He said during the State of the Union that China has built the world's biggest solar energy research facility (apparently, when it comes to solar research, size is everything). Therefore, America needs to revive what many liberals have long claimed was the Cold War hysteria that fueled the first space race, after the Soviets stunned America by launching the utterly useless satellite called "Sputnik."

Unfortunately, a great deal of this is simply nonsense. For starters, America is vastly more energy efficient than China and has been getting better at it for years. Since the oil shock of 1973, America's economy has nearly tripled and the population has more than doubled but we only use about 20% more oil than we did then. Meanwhile, China--thanks largely to its insatiable appetite for coal--is far less green. In 2006, according to the Heritage Foundation, China and America had generally the same greenhouse emissions, by 2009 China's were 50% greater.

Ironically, China achieves abysmal numbers like these precisely because it pursues the sorts of policies Obama says we need more of: bureaucratic micromanagement, costly subsidies, arbitrary timetables, political goals that are unrelated to the market and unhinged from the science. China is hardly the leader in technical, scientific, intellectual or artistic innovation. That's where we're still No. 1 and that's why authoritarian China is trying to copy our economic model as best it can without adopting our political system. Think of it this way: Would a government agency have come up with the iPhone?

Our education failures

But Obama might say all that misses the point, because the Sputnik analogy applies with equal force to the need to revamp our educational system the way we did in the wake of Sputnik. But wait a second. It should go without saying that the NASA engineers who responded to Sputnik with the Apollo program were products of the pre-Sputnik educational system. And, as a matter of fact, those engineers were utterly unimpressed with the Soviets' accomplishment. (We could have launched a satellite much earlier, but we wanted the Soviets to go first so they would establish the right to launch satellites over other nations.)

Meanwhile, thanks partly to Sputnik, our educational system became more federalized, centralized and bureaucratized. I must have missed the news reports on how this transformation wildly improved the quality of American education over the past half-century.

Ironically, there's one way in which the Sputnik analogy is perfectly apt: It encapsulates how Obama thinks things are supposed to be done. The government tells the people what to do, and it relies on a handful of experts to get it done according to government specifications. And if conviction won't persuade Americans to spend their money on such enterprises, well, a little Red Scare might just do the trick.

Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at the AEI.

Photo Credit: White House/Pete Souza

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