A reader I greatly respect writes regarding the thematic center of last night’s State of the Union speech. He gives the text a close reading:
The central conceit of President Obama’s State of the Union address was the “Sputnik moment” analogy. As a new way of packaging the liberalism most Americans find so unpalatable, Obama wrapped his plans to funnel government money into favored projects and enterprises by reminding us of how the space race – a favored government project – produced “a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.”
As rhetoric goes, this isn’t bad. At any rate, I can’t think of a better way of selling what Obama wants the country to buy. But does the Sputnik moment analogy hold up logically?
I don’t believe it does. The Space Race was not undertaken for the purpose of developing new industries, nor was it an attempt to change what Americans consume or how they live their lives. The Space Race was, in essence, an effort to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.
From that, everything else followed. The technologies of choice were those that would get us into space and then onward to the moon. The government wasn’t picking winners and losers based on ideological considerations or aesthetic preferences. It was making purely pragmatic decisions about how best to accomplish a very specific set of missions.
This isn’t what Obama has in mind. He speaks of “invest[ing] in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology.” But unmoored to a specific set of missions, this is the government picking winners and losers based on ideological considerations and aesthetic preferences.
Obama did speak of few specific goals. For example, he spoke of “becom[ing] the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 .” But that’s a fundamentally different goal than landing a spacecraft on the moon. To put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, roughly that many people must want to drive them, unless, of course, the government intends to coerce the use of such vehicles.
Obama pretended to acknowledge this problem while, in reality, ignoring it. He said:
Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.
What is the connection between the first sentence and the second that Obama posits with the word “so”? I don’t see it. The first sentence speaks of markets. It is the language of capitalism. The second speaks of an outcome independent of market forces. It is the language of state planning, the true language of this presidency, I fear.
“Our Sputnik moment” reminds me of Ralph Kramden: “To the moon, Alice!” It’s a little too threatening to be said in our current environment.