President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union, delivered last night before the assembled Congress in the Congressional chamber, was evocative. I do not necessarily mean this in a good light. I mean that the president called out several themes that have long been staples of his speeches and of the common political discourse without developing, adding to them, or improving them. To my ear the most common theme was winning the future. From whom?
Presumably, this is what he meant:
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. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.) And tonight, I’d like to talk about how we get there.
The evidence that defense spending has had non-defense applications that have resulted in enormous economic growth (e.g. the Internet, printed circuit boards, solid state) is pretty good; the evidence that education has done so is much slimmer. We already spend more overall and per capita on education than any other country in the world. We are receiving diminishing returns to scale.
The speech was incoherent. This is no special distinction. Nearly every State of the Union address over the period of the last sixty years has been an incoherent, inconsistent shopping list of promises that will be broken almost as soon as they’re made and wishes that will never materialize in concrete legislation. It did not cohere; it did not stick together. How in the world can we increase spending on education and basic research and freeze domestic spending for five years without cutting existing programs? I blanched when I heard the words basic research, by the way. The examples he gave, the Internet and the space program, were not basic research. They were engineering projects. Had the president announced one or more specific mass engineering projects that he was proposing to the Congress, I would have stood up and cheered. But the ROI on basic research is awful. That’s why companies are reluctant to do it.
I was even more concerned when he mentioned medical research. Is there really a large backlog of projects in medical research that have the likelihood of bearing fruit in the foreseeable future that are starved for lack of money? Or are there an infinite number of possible projects in medical research, most of which will never bear fruit at all? I believe there are good reasons for the federal government to support medical research. Saving human life leaps to mind. However, we should hold out no expectations that such research will have near term impact or that it’s the stuff of which tomorrow’s industries will be made. That has not been the experience to date. Three fifiths of all healthcare spending continues to be funded from tax dollars and it appears that will continue to be the case. You cannot boost the economy based on something that requires tax dollars to survive. To believe that is to believe in the cat and rat farm I’ve written about before.
What in the heck is a Sputnik moment? This is a wonderful example of something which is simultaneously evocative and incoherent. Fully five years passed between the day in October 1957 that the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space and President Kennedy announced his intention to send a man to the moon and a decade before its greatest triumphs. I doubt that President Obama’s evocation of Sputnik was a plea for long range planning. Contrariwise, I suspect that he was thinking of a rousing from decades of torpor into immediate and urgent action. A better metaphor for that would be a Fort Sumter moment or a Peal Harbor moment. We’ve already had one of those on September 11, 2001 and we’re still trying to muddle through our response to that, unable to decide what to do. Nearly a decade has passed and we’re still in Afghanistan and we’re still in Iraq and there are still major terrorist acts taking place in the West (as the attack on Moscow’s airport a couple of days ago demonstrated). His pledge in the speech to hold to his promise to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan this year is hardly a model for decisive action. It may be realistic or practical or politically necessary but it is not decisive.
How will increased education spending reach the 40% of the students in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles who fail to graduate from high school on time? (and have done so persistently over the period of the last half century) Will building roads between the islands of Hawaii or bridges to nowhere in Alaska with federal tax revenues (or, worse, with borrowed money) really be the key to a bright economic future for the United States?
Mr. President, dream no small dreams. Rather than being content to rest on laurels, double down on the solutions of the past, or divide an ever-shrinking pie more equitably, make a bold new proposal of your own. I want an Apollo moment, not a Sputnik moment.
The complete text of the speech is here. As usual Joe Gandelman has a fine round-up of media and blogospheric reaction. Memeorandum has an automated (or semi-automated, I’m not really sure) news aggregation on the speech.