President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address this past Tuesday was uninspiring at best and can be more accurately described as an yet another act of Obama, with his eyes set on 2012, trying to secure himself as a part of the American center. Even though he may have stood behind the health care reform of last year and drives towards green energy, over half of his speech was so bland that it would not have been surprising had a Republican stood in his place speaking the same words.
Whether it be a lukewarm endorsement of deregulation or an attempt to make a Reaganesque joke about the clumsy nature of regulation, the speech was clearly more about re-branding the president as a man of the center than providing a thoughtful much less controversial summary of the past year along with a vision for that to come.
Even though Obama’s speech may have been insipid, there were many points in his speech that extrapolated the wrong lessons from history, ignored basics lessons of sound economics and were just plain wrong, which can be illustrated in his discussion of American research and development. He began to speak about the state of American technological research by mentioning how the Soviet Union beat the United States to space with the launch of Sputnik, resulting in the Space Race that brought sudden increase in the amount the American government spent on science and technology.
However, this is the wrong moral to be taken from Sputnik. Obama claimed of the Space Race, “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.” As innocent as this may seem, it is dead wrong because it did not take more government investments in areas like technology to surpass the Soviet Union, the United States had always been a far superior economy compared to that of what was once referred to as the second world.
In reality though, the American reaction to Sputnik was an overreaction that was fueled not only by Cold Warriors’ fear of the Soviet military dominating America’s, but also by academics who taught that the Soviet economy was the wave of the future and that Sputnik was yet another piece of evidence that showed the superiority of an ordered Soviet system compared to the anarchy of capitalist production.
When Mikhail Gorbachev launched his liberalizing reforms and the Soviet Union was finally opened to the West, this delusion was finally shattered and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union itself finally showed that it was nothing but a paper tiger. The “Sputnik moment” that Obama claimed was an example of America rising to a challenge was an overreaction. Despite the fancy gadgets like satellites, ICBMs and boomers the Soviet economy could produce, it was a broken society held together by violence with a standard of living that made the poorest Americans look like kings.
Furthermore, Obama then went on to suggest that an imitation of the heavy expenditure in research and development by the government in imitation of the Space Race is what is necessary to keep the United States at the top of the world economy. As inspiring as this may sound, it is absurd. Why would anyone want a repetition of the Space Race’s wasteful spending on things like missiles and spacecraft? How did Sputnik help to increase the standard of living for the average Soviet comrade? How did Wernher von Braun’s rockets increase that of the average American? The Space Race resulted in millions of dollars, back when that amount actually meant something, being diverted from productive uses in the private economy to being launched up into space for nothing other than being able to boast to the USSR that the USA was first to the moon.
Mr. President, what will drive the American economy forward into the next millennium is the same thing which has been driving it forward these past decades: the ideas of entrepreneurs, not the central planning of the government. Only through the market process can the technologies of tomorrow be discovered, they simply cannot be dictated to society by the government.
Even though a positive “Yes we can” attitude may be a secret to the American exceptionalism that Obama endorsed in his move to the center, he failed to comprehend that the secret of the success of America over the past century has not simply been the existence of that attitude, but how it has been channeled. It is through allowing human creativity to blossom within the markets that multiple solutions to a problem facing society can compete for consumers rather than having a single plan imposed by the government’s technocrats that the United States will thrive in the years to come.
Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]