Unfortunately, a great deal of this is simply nonsense. For starters, America is vastly more energy efficient than China and has been getting better at it for years. Since the oil shock of 1973, America's economy has nearly tripled and the population has more than doubled but we only use about 20 percent more oil than we did then. Meanwhile, China -- thanks largely to its insatiable appetite for coal -- is far less green. In 2006, according to the Heritage Foundation, China and America had generally the same greenhouse emissions, by 2009 China's were 50 percent greater.
Ironically, China achieves abysmal numbers like these precisely because it pursues the sorts of policies Obama says we need more of: bureaucratic micromanagement, costly subsidies, arbitrary timetables, political goals that are unrelated to the market and unhinged from the science. China is hardly the leader in technical, scientific, intellectual or artistic innovation. That's where we're still No. 1 and that's why authoritarian China is trying to copy our economic model as best it can without adopting our political system. Think of it this way: Would a government agency have come up with the iPhone?
But Obama might say all that misses the point, because the Sputnik analogy applies with equal force to the need to revamp our educational system the way we did in the wake of Sputnik. But wait a second. It should go without saying that the NASA engineers who responded to Sputnik with the Apollo program were products of the pre-Sputnik educational system. And, as a matter of fact, those engineers were utterly unimpressed with the Soviets' accomplishment. (We could have launched a satellite much earlier, but we wanted the Soviets to go first so they would establish the right to launch satellites over other nations.)
Meanwhile, thanks partly to Sputnik, our educational system became more federalized, centralized and bureaucratized. I must have missed the news reports on how this transformation wildly improved the quality of American education over the past half-century.
Ironically, there's one way in which the Sputnik analogy is perfectly apt: It encapsulates how Obama thinks things are supposed to be done. The government tells the people what to do, and it relies on a handful of experts to get it done according to government specifications. And if conviction won't persuade Americans to spend their money on such enterprises, well, a little Red Scare might just do the trick.