The State of the Union, part 2: our Sputnik moment

The second “adversarial ethics” theme in President Obama’s State-of-the-Union speech last night came with the rhetorical emphasis on “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

For those any younger than Obama — and I guess that includes me, for I am three weeks younger than Obama — “Sputnik” was the name of the Soviet satellite that won them the first round of the “space race” in 1957.

(For those younger than, say, my students, many of whom were born in the 1990s, the Soviet Union was basically Russia. Russia and America were competing, in part to prove to the countries that were wavering on the sidelines that their system of government and political economy was the one to emulate. They decided to try to demonstrate their superiority by being the first to master space. To boldly go where no dog, monkey, or man had gone before. Both sides built their space programs on the backs of Nazi rocket scientists they captured at the end of the Second World War. But the Russians seemed to have snatched the smarter ones. They won the first three quarters of the contest by getting the first satellite, the first animal, and the first human into space; but America won with a touchdown late in the fourth quarter by landing the first man on the moon. There’s a great exhibit on the whole race in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It was kind of a Big Deal, as the headline in the New York Times, above, makes clear.)

So the time has come for our generation’s Sputnik moment. Only now it is the Chinese and the Indians we are competing against. (The Russians are not our main competition any more. It turns out, capturing some Nazis and making them build you rockets does not prove that your political and economic system is superior. But I digress.)

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can now do the same work with 100. Today, just about any company can set up shop, hire workers, and sell their products wherever there’s an internet connection.

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us…

The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can’t just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement.” …

Now it’s our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future. And tonight, I’d like to talk about how we get there…

Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik¸ we had no idea how we’d beat them to the moon. The science wasn’t there yet. NASA didn’t even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.

In an earlier post here we highlighted Paul Krugman’s skepticism about this renewed emphasis on international competitiveness. From the perspective of adversarial ethics I would add only that it is a curious (rhetorical, no doubt) framework for motivating a number of policies and investments that aim to improve the American economy. Again — as with the argument for squaring the competitive instincts with the cooperative spirit which I discussed in the post below — this argument for taking seriously the international competition with the Asian giants appeals baldly to American nationalism. How dare they try to beat us at our own game! We practically invented innovation and entrepreneurship. (As George W. Bush once said, “the French don’t even have a word for ‘entrepreneur’.”)

It’s a curious appeal to nationalism and national pride. If we can’t be motivated to adopt smarter policies for the simple reason that they would improve our lives, are we really more likely to adopt them so that those uppity foreigners don’t prove they are better than us? As a humble philosopher, I don’t know the answer to that question. But the President is paying good money to people who presumably do. Our Sputnik moment indeed.

All that said, I generally liked and admired the speech. Politician’s speeches are not usually about showing why they believe a policy is justified, but rather about trying to move people who are not inclined to agree with them. And they do this because they are locked in a fierce competition with people who don’t want them to succeed. That’s what adversarial democracy is all about. A bit of rhetorical flourish is surely not unethical in such a contest. Is it?

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2 responses to “The State of the Union, part 2: our Sputnik moment

  1. I think it’s worse than you suggest here. The space race was at root a zero- (or negative- ) sum status competition; the gains of concern were relative. (No one said, “it’s a shame the Soviets got there first,, but still, what a glorious achievement for humanity!”) In Sputnik as in sports and partisan competition, one wanted the other side to lose.

    But the successes of China and India are good for humanity, and good for America. It’s both self-destructive and inhumane to be rooting for those countries to “lose.” And the president shouldn’t encourage the pernicious belief that “jobs” are a zero-sum national-level competition.

  2. Pingback: How China Won… | Ethics for Adversaries

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