Thursday, March 3, 2011

Topical Comments Here!

Besides the actual policy problems, one thing worth commenting about the State of the Union—yes, I know, a while ago—was the cliché invoked that it should be a “Sputnik moment” for the U.S., i.e. a moment where the nation snapped to attention and realized how good the competition was at stuff. The implied addition to the “Sputnik moment”—the encouragement delivered with the warning—was that we made it to the Moon a bit more than a decade later. Besides the monumental coolness of making it to the Moon, there were many, many incidental advances made that turned out to be very big and interesting. So it’s probably fine to use the Sputnik moment as an inspirational story; what isn’t fine is misunderstanding the analogy you’re trying to make.

Most critiques of the Sputnik-moment-as-analogy stop merely at its overuse, which is a fine place to stop if you’re just concerned about stale language, but someone like Orwell noted that the real reason to oppose stale language was that its usage substituted for real thinking about the causes and effects of things. That’s true of the Sputnik moment.

Let’s take the Obama State of the Union analogy: he used it as a metaphor for rebuilding our economy and nation along more competitive, modern lines, and just as we were able to organize a massive effort in pushing the space race forward past the Soviets, so too are we able to organize a massive effort to right our economy. The problem is what kind of problems these are: the space race is an overwhelmingly technical problem; rebuilding the economy isn’t. Most of the difficulties involved figuring out exactly how to get to the Moon; you didn’t have to reorganize old agencies or cultures—you just built an entirely new agency and hired brand new people with no old, stubborn convictions. We would be lucky to have a purely technical problem these days.

Instead we have, with our economy and nation generally: instead of one problem, we have multiple problems, and those problems almost all come with a technical and cultural aspect. They are therefore much more difficult than getting a bunch of smart people together and giving them a discrete problem. The technical problem is that no one can be exactly sure what it would take to correct the direction of the economy, let alone the first best solution; this is to say nothing of such cultural problems as race, gender, education, etc. etc. The cultural problem—among others—is that we don’t agree about what should be done, and in fact are rather ornery about our disagreement and intend to stop others from enacting their preferred solution. (e.g. Republican efforts to obstruct health care reform in whatever method is available to them.)

These societal problems are considerably more difficult to solve, and if you want an example of how bad a technical/cultural problem can get, consult the black experience in America. That’s something close to the worst-case scenario, but is an example of how bad the mire get can when the solution is complicated and the resistance to any attempt is stubborn.

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