Barack Obama, like all American politicians, likes to portray himself as future-oriented and open to technological progress. Yet the vision he set out in his State of the Union address is oddly antique and disturbingly static.
"This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said. But Sputnik and America's supposedly less advanced rocket programs of 1957 were government projects, at a time when government defense spending, like the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, drove technology.
But today, as Obama noted a few sentences before, "our free enterprise system is what drives innovation." Private firms develop software faster than government can procure it.
Undaunted, Obama calls for more government spending on "biomedical research, information technology and especially clean energy technology." Government has some role in biotech, though a subsidiary one, but IT development is almost exclusively a private-sector function and clean energy technology that is not private-sector driven is almost inevitably uneconomic.
And then there is transportation. "Within 25 years," Obama said, "our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. This could allow you," he said breathlessly, "to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying."
Wow! There's some advanced technology. Except that France inaugurated service on its TGV high-speed rail from Paris to Lyon in 1981. That's 30 years ago. It's as if President Eisenhower were inspired by Sputnik to promote the technology of 30 years before, Charles Lindbergh's single-engine propeller plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. It's as antique as the Tomorrowland of the original Disneyland.
In fact, government high-speed rail projects in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida wouldn't approach the speeds of France's TGV or Japan's bullet train and would not beat autos in door-to-door travel. And they could never match the low fares of the free enterprise bus lines that have competed successfully with the Acela for budget-minded travelers.
Truly high-speed rail might make sense in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor for business travelers willing to pay high fares to save precious time. But it might also prove to be a technology as commercially unprofitable and politically unfeasible as the Concorde supersonic plane that was retired from service in 2003. Northeasterners might block high-speed rail lines in their backyards just as they blocked Concorde's sonic booms over land.