A Philosopher's Blog

A Sputnik Moment?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 27, 2011
A replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial s...
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In his State of the Union speech, Obama compared today’s situation with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik. According to the received view, this launch showed that we had fallen behind the Soviets in key areas of technology and we were thus inspired to win the space race. This comparison raises two main questions: have we actually experience another Sputnik moment? If so, can we rise to the challenge?

Obviously, one key difference is that there does not seem to be one focal event that defines our alleged new Sputnik moment. The Chinese, for example, did not unveil a fusion power plant. Nor did the Indians, for example, reveal that all those tech support calls have actually been handled by a sophisticated artificial intelligence. Instead we are facing a wide range of challenges none of which seem to have the dramatic singularity of the Sputnik event.

The fact that we have not been clearly and dramatically shown up is actually not very reassuring. The reason is that rather than having one foe and one clearly defined goal (beat the commies in space) we now face a plethora of challenges and competitors. Rather than a space race between us and another contender, we are now competing in a veritable Olympics against many opponents and in many events. This, of course, makes facing up to the challenge even harder.

As such, I would say that we have not exactly had  a Sputnik moment. Rather, we seem to be having something of a Roman moment: gazing out and seeing “barbarians” approaching the gates and gazing in to see a multitude of problems. This comparison, of course, nicely leads to the question of whether we can rise to the challenge or not.

In the case of Sputnik, we clearly won that round. We beat the Soviets to the moon and then helped bring the Soviet Union down. Of course, we are now relying on the Russians to get stuff into space. So much for that win.

As far as our current challenges, it certainly seems possible that we can meet them and make the 21st century an American century as well. While our economy has weakened, it still dominates the world. While our education system has decayed, our universities are still among the best in the world. While our innovation is not as dominant as it once was, we are still world leaders in many fields. As such, we are still contenders. No doubt the Romans thought the same shortly before the Empire fell.

While there are many things to worry about when facing such challenges, one factor well worth considering is the matter of cooperation. While it is unreasonable and undesirable for people to simply go along for the sake of cooperation, our “leaders” need to refocus their efforts on the general good rather than focusing so much on the good of their specific parties and interest groups. For example, for the Republicans to consider beating Obama in 2012 to be their main priority does not seem to be very helpful. Unless, of course, Obama is actually the greatest threat to America (which some folks seem to believe).

Just as in sports, if we are going to win, then we need to play as  a team. This does not mean that we must match in unquestioning lockstep nor does it mean that we cannot dispute with each other or even try to get a new coach. It does, however, mean that we need to focus more on working together against our competitors rather than against each other.

 

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6 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on January 27, 2011 at 8:45 am

    This all rings hollow. They still don’t get it.

    http://spectator.org/archives/2011/01/26/obama-and-the-bodysnatchers

  2. WTP said, on January 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Look back at the last two paragraphs. Change Republicans to Democrats, Obama to Bush and 2012 to 2004 and read it again. Does it feel right to you?

    • erik said, on January 27, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Oh yeah? OK.”

    • Asur said, on January 27, 2011 at 3:20 pm

      I was wondering the same thing, WTP, and I decided I’d even take Bush if it meant that American politics would focus on long-range planning and implementing solutions rather than ‘winning’ over the other party and getting re-elected.

      Re-election pressure in particular seems to drive our system; I think it would go a long way toward improving our system if House and Senate seats could only be held for one term — it would even undercut the influence of special interest lobbies, who get most of their clout from re-election financing.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on January 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Politicians–starting with Obama–need to start telling people the truth about the mess we are in. People are in denial about the scale of the problem.

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/01/27/obamas_empty_evasion.html

    We cannot have a useful debate on the role of government — what it should do, for whom and at whose expense — if Americans are highly misinformed. Obama should have dispelled some common budgetary myths. Consider three:

    Myth: The problem is the deficit. The real issue isn’t the deficit. It’s the exploding spending on the elderly — for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — which automatically expands the size of government. If we ended deficits with tax increases, we would simply exchange one problem (high deficits) for another (high taxes). Either would weaken the economy; and sharply higher taxes would represent an undesirable transfer to retirees from younger taxpayers.

    Myth: Eliminating wasteful or ineffective programs will close deficits. The Republican Study Committee — 176 House members — recently proposed $2.5 trillion of cuts over a decade in non-defense, non-elderly programs. This plan would kill dozens of specific programs. Now, many of these programs should go; they’re either unneeded or ineffective. Consider one candidate for elimination, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In an information-drenched society, it’s hard to justify government subsidies for TV and radio.

    But this budget category covers only a sixth of federal spending, and squeezing it harshly would penalize many vital government functions (research, transportation, the FBI). The Republicans’ cuts are huge, about 35 percent. Even so, they would reduce projected deficits by at most a third. Over the next decade, those deficits could easily total between $7 trillion and $10 trillion.

    Myth: The elderly have “earned” their Social Security and Medicare by their lifelong payroll taxes, which were put aside for their retirement. Not so. Both programs are pay-as-you-go. Today’s taxes pay today’s benefits; little is “saved.” Even if all were saved, most retirees receive benefits that far exceed their payroll taxes. Consider a man who turned 65 in 2010 and earned an average wage ($43,100). Over his expected lifetime, he will receive an inflation-adjusted $417,000 in Social Security and Medicare benefits compared to taxes paid of $345,000, estimates an Urban Institute study.

    It’s a cliche, but true: There are no easy — or popular — solutions. Controlling the budget requires some combination of (a) reducing benefits for the elderly; (b) downsizing other programs, including defense; and (c) raising taxes. Not only did Obama avoid choices. He failed to frame the debate in a way that clarified what the choices are. So public opinion remains muddled, and politicians — sensitive to public opinion — remain stalemated.

    Obama’s expedient evasion is the opposite of presidential leadership. It maximizes short-term approval ratings while running long-term risks. A loss of investor confidence could trigger a chaotic flight from Treasury bonds and the dollar. One economist recently wrote in The Financial Times: “I hope it does not ultimately require a crisis to restore fiscal (balance), but I fear it will.” That was Peter Orszag, Obama’s first budget chief. Sobering.

  4. erik said, on January 27, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Myth #1 Good luck with that. They don’t call it the third rail for nothing. Bush touched the third rail in ’05–but not with an eye toward saving the system. That was his mistake. Well, actually, his biggest mistake was not making privatization a negotiable matter. The rest of his problem was that you can’t save SS through privatization. A majority of the public, not just the AARPers , want SS, and they SS quickly caught on that PA’s were merely part of conservatives’ ongoing agenda to kill SS. If you think the uproar over SS in ’05 was heated, wait until Republicans bring up privatizing the system again.

    Myth #2 Conservatives have been going after CPB and the NEA since the Nixon and Reagan administrations. No surprise considering what appears to be their overwhelming distaste for the arts—or should I say distaste for the progress of art. In terms of cutting the deficit it’s very small fish. Government supplies 15-20% of the cost of CPB. Put that up against gov’t tax breaks for corporations.

    “In an information-drenched society, it’s hard to justify government subsidies for TV and radio.” Not really. PBS is available on basic cable-thus available to a wider audience of (OMG!) people who have less money! If you want access to the nature programming, the science programming, and the rightly lauded chiildren’s programming like Sesame Street, and programs like Frontline (which I believe magus approves of :) )
    and Independent Lens and American Experience, you have to go to PBS. And anyone who wants to claim the NewsHour isn’t more objective and doesn’t provide more in-depth coverage of timely issues than any other news hour on American television, cable or otherwise must surely be deluded. So, if you can’t go to PBS, you pay $30-60 more per month for higher tier cable service and spend your time piecing together a decent hour or two of less-objective television every once in a while. Unless you’re a sports fan. Plenty of that on premium cable if you’ve got the dinero.

    Let’s go cut EnergyStar and Weatherization and Family Planning. Last thing I want to do in an age of energy insufficiency is encourage saving energy. And why plan a family? Just go out and screw. Who would object to courses on sex and the family in schools? Soon-to-be-mother, you can be certain there’ll be a conservative there, holding your hand to pull you away from the abortion clinic, then abandoning you and your child once it’s born.

    Did Obama reject the Republican list of cuts out of hand? Reuters Jan 23:
    “He did not spell out specific initiatives or budget plans. But he and his Democratic allies are wary of Republican calls for immediate, large cuts in domestic spending amid fears that could stifle the still-fragile economic recovery and jeopardize hopes of reducing the 9.4 percent unemployment rate.” Sometimes a president has to be presidential at the right time. Other than his “privatization” folly, what cuts did Bush call for in his 2005 SOTU when the deficit was growing? Here’s what the last Repbulican president said in the 2005 SOTU speech:
    ” I will send you a budget that holds the growth of discretionary spending below inflation, makes tax relief permanent, and stays on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009. My budget substantially reduces or eliminates more than 150 government programs that are not getting results, or duplicate current efforts, or do not fulfill essential priorities. The principle here is clear: taxpayer dollars must be spent wisely, or not at all. ”

    When Bush left office in ’08 he hadn’t “cut the deficit in half”. In fact. . .Well, you know the story.
    And what happened to Obama’s Deficit Commission proposals?
    http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/12/03/deficit-commission-report-fails-advance-congress/
    Some very stiff stuff there: stymied by Republicans.


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