Who Are We in This 'Sputnik Moment'?

David Harsanyi

1/29/2011 12:01:00 AM - David Harsanyi

One of the difficulties progressives face is trying to make centralized planning sound like a good idea. Even the president, with all his rhetorical genius and majestic vagueness, can struggle with the task. So from time to time, it's important to mold history a bit to, you know, make a point.

Early on in his State of the Union, for instance, President Barack Obama reminisced of an age when "good jobs" meant "showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown." A time when you "didn't always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors," and if you "worked hard, chances are you'd have a job for life, with a decent paycheck and good benefits and the occasional promotion. Maybe you'd even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company."

Way to dream big! Really, was this country ever about being proud that your children ended up in the same plant you slaved in for 30 years? Even with a promise of a union pension and -- if you're lucky -- an "occasional" promotion, it sounds like a soul-crushing grind you'd want your offspring to escape, tout de suite.

Luckily, in the real world, history tells of a story filled with dynamic movements of people, class climbing, churning innovation, booms and busts, and widespread embrace of risk taking.

Now, as the president explained, "painful" changes have crashed down on his revisionism, and Americans have been forced to compete, find India on a map, move from town to town and study.

How do we deal with this daunting future? Obama says that "none of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be or where the new jobs will come from." And by "none of us," he means you. Because Obama proceeded to give a speech that laid out exactly what needs innovating, which sectors will be innovative, where new jobs will be found and how we are going to get to those jobs. Can you say high-speed rail? The president can. He mentioned railroads six times, because how else are we going to win the 19th century back?

Actually, this fixation with building an extraordinarily expensive, outdated and tax-funded rail system is a great example of why central planning undermines progress.

By the time the president's promise of high-speed Internet for everyone comes to fruition, we'll probably be teleporting like Sulu. But at the very least, let's not re-fight the battles of the early 20th century. Someone already invented airplanes and cars, which, unlike trains, can be pointed in any direction we want, whenever we want, as often as we want.

Maybe that's the problem. Blame capitalism. Sure, the president says our "free enterprise system is what drives innovation," but it doesn't seem to play much of a role in his plan to "win the 21st century."

Obama, for example, used the word "invest" -- a well-known euphemism for more spending and subsidizing -- 13 times in the speech. Didn't he just get through telling us we don't know where modernization will emerge? Didn't he just explain that free enterprise drives innovation? True, but government knows how to guide the markets in the right direction. Just think of it as an ethanol additive for capitalism.

I know, this is a "Sputnik moment," and being cynical is unpatriotic. And maybe the Sputnik analogy can be instructive in other ways. Yes, the Soviets were the first to send junk and animals into space -- a race they lost in impressive fashion when it was all over. But were we really ever "behind"?

Of course not. The Soviet Union's intense effort to erect a facade of accomplishment was achieved by investing in an unnecessary, costly, symbolic, ideology-driven project that did nothing for the aspirations of its citizens or its stagnant, dying economy.

Let's be sure we're not on the wrong side of the Sputnik moment.