Why “Sputnik” Doesn’t Fire Up Americans

Will Wilkinson on Obama's state of the union address and the follies of telling Americans that this is our "Sputnik moment":

I'm lucky to have been in the last cohort of American children to grow up with the living fear of total nuclear annihilation. That "the world's fastest computer" now chugs away in China hardly leaves fourth-graders contemplating the futility of ducking under their desks as a widening ball of atomic fire races to melt their helpless flesh. Nor does the swiftness of Chinese microprocessors excite my competitive spirit. It makes me eager to buy a new ThinkPad.

Here's the essence of the Lexington post Will links to:

It is not hard to see why the Sputnik era appeals to Mr Obama. For all the talk they hear about China’s headlong investment in infrastructure, American voters are lukewarm about their own government’s spending, especially if debt or taxes must rise to pay for it. A new Sputnik moment might change their minds. But in the 1960s Americans were sure their system could deliver the goods. Today they are perplexed by the success of China’s model and divided on how, if it is even possible, to restore the health of their own. They should resolve that quarrel on its merits and keep the China scare out of it. 

Agreed.

Despite what polls and pundits say, I think most Americans are not terribly anxious about America the country "falling behind" China the country. When a person's job gets shipped overseas, he cares. When a product is cheap or not cheap on the shelves of Wal-Mart, he cares. Abstract talk about American exceptionalism and the importance of the U.S. being number one, as if there were one ultimate ranking? Hard to get fired up.

I'm obviously pro-innovation, pro-growth, etc., but I'm not convinced that the marketing effort undertaken by Obama and many pundits — namely, declaring now a Sputnik moment, implicitly vis-a-vis China — is the going to effectively galvanize the average American to innovate or in some other way feel extra inspired to help grow the economy.

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7 Responses to Why “Sputnik” Doesn’t Fire Up Americans

  1. Tom Shakely says:

    I saw something after the president’s speech to the effect that the majority of Americans — something like 70 percent — weren’t alive when Sputnik launched. It’s tough to elicit a visceral response when your audience has, at best, an intellectual appreciation of what Sputnik represented.

  2. Ben Klaus says:

    “I think most Americans are not terribly anxious about America the country “falling behind” China the country.”
    This is probably true, but says nothing about whether they SHOULD be anxious. Most Americans are more cognizant of who is dancing well this week on Dancing With The Stars.

    So I think it was good to bring it up. However, most Americans weren’t watching the SOTU either.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Great point. That's a more complicated question. :)

  4. Shefaly says:

    Ben, in line with Ben Klaus’s excellent if somewhat uncomfortable point, you will no doubt know of the often-mangled but powerful quote: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”.

    (Ironically I have found in conversations, sadly sometimes also with American friends my age, that they do not know of Santayana and other gifted public intellectuals that America can claim as her own, regardless of their birth, and whose wisdom remains as applicable now as it was when they were active.)

  5. Krishna Mony says:

    What are the options before a beleaguered President..? (a) Get the Big Three hub at Detroit rev back up, hiring armies of laid off workers (b) Drive healthcare costs down without compromising on social security budget (c) Cut taxes, put money back in citizens’ pockets to bring back spending levels – sounds easy…?

    So what’s left…?

    Talk, talk and talk :-)))

  6. Xoch Herrera says:

    I think Ben is taking a more practical approach here. People SHOULD care, but they don’t. So let’s frame the problem in a way that lets people know why it’s important, e.g., those jobs shipped overseas, and the cheap goods on store shelves.

  7. DaveJ says:

    It seems to me that the way to be “number 1″ as a country is to create the right conditions – namely genuine freedom (vs. Rooseveltian freedom) – and let everyone do their individual things well. The idea of trying to be #1 as an economic entity from the top down is ludicrous.

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