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How Not to Win the Future

On Tuesday night, in the middle of his State of the Union address, President Obama pricked up ears with some Russian. It was the Russki word for “traveling companion,” or “satellite”: “This is our generation’s Sputnik Moment,” he said.

Jan 27 2011, 8:38pm

On Tuesday night, in the middle of his State of the Union address, President Obama pricked up ears with some Russian. It was the Russki word for “traveling companion,” or “satellite”: “This is our generation’s Sputnik Moment,” he said. (Watch the whole annotated thing here.)

Just to be clear: Obama was comparing this moment, whatever this dispiriting moment is, to that time in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched a satellite into outer space, proving that perhaps they weren’t technologically primitive after all, but perhaps even capable of building a rocket that could send an intercontinental missile into an American city, sending the U.S. into a panic that launched it on a technological, innovation, education extravaganza. (See an original newsreel.)

Obama continued the metaphor, describing the investment he wants to make in “a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race,” with particular focus on biomedicine, information technology, and clean-energy technology. He likened this spending effort to “the Apollo Project,” which later put a man on the moon.

Whatever the surface similarities, the risk of resorting to metaphors like these is that you lose more subtle information. Dropping Sputnik or Apollo into your speech may be vivid and poignant (and less corny and absurd than titling it “Winning the Future”) when talking about science and innovation and trying to nudge Americans from complacency to action. But the connection between the Cold War space race and this fragile, divisive and undistinguished moment is as weak as the relationship between an incendiary political environment and the Arizona shooter.

We’re not locked in a life-threatening competition with anyone. Our biggest enemy is our own stagnation and clunkiness. Nor, unfortunately, do the country’s problems involve anything as grand and symbolic and monolithic and technologically ambitious as sending a man to space or the moon. Ours are more complex challenges with considerably less sex appeal: serious education spending and reform, stronger financial and political reform, infrastructure investment, definitely a renewed engagement with the sciences and technology, and a continued economic stimulus. (For good measure, see Robert Reich’s call for more relief to middle income families in the FT.)

All of those will cost as much if not more money than Apollo did. But amidst talk of “we do big things,” and government funding for “cutting-edge scientists and inventors” – the sort of funding that “planted the seeds for the Internet… helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS” – Obama also proposed to halt government spending. Starting this year, he wants to “freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years,” a step that would “bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.”

That’s not to say that Obama has much of a choice with the current GOP-dominated House, and indeed, his speech may have partly been intended to placate the Republicans as seems increasingly usual. But however Obama decides to resolve the paradox between big new programs and a spending freeze, his administration will need to put more of an emphasis on making education spending more results-oriented (see the sad graph of America’s college graduation rate there).

A less significant, but more delicious irony, while we’re at it: amidst the talk about funding a new “Apollo mission,” NASA’s preparing to retire the Space Shuttle and has no plan to return to the moon or go anywhere else for that matter. While the space agency struggles to squeeze a new rocket out of their new budget over the next few months, you likely won’t be hearing NASA administrator Charlie Bolden using that Sputnik metaphor.

Do big things

Perhaps the Sputnik metaphor works best in connection when describing our competitiveness in energy technology, like alternative power and electric vehicles. In that context, its sounds more like a warning about China, which is eating our lunch at the environmental and cleantech banquet. And yet, China’s not our enemy: we are.

To wit, the most exciting part of Obama’s address was when he challenged the country with hard goals: he demanded 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, 80% of clean energy sources by 2025 (today we’re at 40%), and said that tax subsidies for oil companies should be eliminated. That last more negative suggestion was nice, but far from new; this is actually the third time Obama has called to end oil subsidies. He left out another old topic however: there was no mention of climate change – sad but not surprising given our giant failure to pass climate legislation.

Unfortunately, without that kind of legislation, we lack a vital tool for putting a realistic price on carbon and we make it harder to enter into agreements with our potential partners and competitors. Indeed, when it comes to engaging with China on energy, we’re not even facing the same sort of zero-sum, direct competition as we were with Russia. Given the right environment, both countries can cooperate on innovation and manufacturing. The US can benefit from China’s manufacturing capacity, China can benefit from our expertise, and both countries can make a big dent on stimulating their economies and improving the climate, which brings its own economic benefits. But that kind of advancement can’t happen if we think of China as an enemy, or if we think that the enemy is external to us at all. (Getting China to “tell the truth” about the value of its currency would help our economy too – as would getting ourselves to tell the truth about the costs of our energy supply.)

The emphasis Obama has placed on home-grown technology is probably the most worthy of an Apollo simile. But then again, unlike the project that produced Apollo, our we won’t reach our goals through a single solution. As Obama himself explained in 2009 (pace Obama):

There will be no single Sputnik moment for this generation’s challenges to break our dependence on fossil fuels. In many ways, this makes the challenge even tougher to solve — and makes it all the more important to keep our eyes fixed on the work ahead."

As the challenge goes for energy, so it goes for education, regulation, corporate influence and corruption. The “work ahead” means a lot of things. Forget about the usual kind of talk about Obama’s science and technology policy; how about a policy that gets all of our technologies and sciences to work better together, from democracy to information to health care to biology to physics to the law. An actually scientific approach to problems, not one so clouded in politics and money and other arcane obstructions (just read this). What we need is a more sophisticated and more inspirational way of thinking about the future of education, of government, of money and lobbying in politics, of energy – not more distracting and vacuous symbolism about a race that doesn’t really exist.

Then again, maybe I’m giving the speech writers a hard time. Maybe Sputnik is a nice metaphor, though not in the way that they or Obama intended. Even if Sputnik symbolized Russia’s attempt to take control of the universe, sending a Communist-fearing country into a paroxysm of science-fiction induced paranoias – “Control of space means control of the world,” LBJ declared – the Soviet threat was far more illusory than we imagined. By throwing around the strongly-worded rhetoric of competitiveness and giant nationalist projects, we may once again be subscribing to more delusions. This one just won’t be as productive.

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