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. 


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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