President Obama is behind the times. His State of the Union address on Tuesday talked about China's emergence as America's "Sputnik moment." For a majority of his younger audience, the reaction was a resounding, "What?" As the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri put it, "What's so important about Sputnik?" She found out, after a fashion:
As far as I can understand it, it seems to have been something that Soviet Russia launched into space. Apparently, thanks to the impetus that Sputnik gave us the last time, an entire generation of Americans committed to developing expertise in engineering, math, science, and technology that would enable us to convincingly fake a moon landing on a soundstage somewhere in 1969. This gave added emphasis to the Cold War. Given my advanced youth, I also missed the Cold War. I am accustomed to wars that are hot and distant, like certain men.
Petri goes on to give a cogent and amusing critique of why this generation can't have a Sputnik moment, but there's an even deeper problem with the President's use of the term. Just when was the Sputnik moment? The original was October 4, 1957. It was a single, clearly obvious threat to America's technological and industrial dominance. When was the single, identifiable moment when China posed a threat to us?
Was it when China surpassed America in manufacturing output? No, the US is still the number one manufacturing nation in the world.
Was it when China started innovating more than us? No, China has very little innovation - most of its economic output comes from doing things other people invented.
Was it when we started running a trade deficit with China? Hardly, given that we were running one back in 1985.
Was it when Hu Jintao arrived in the USA aboard a supersonic Chinese jet? ROFLMAO
No, there has been no Sputnik Moment. Roger Pielke Jr summarizes it nicely:
Today's "moment" just doesn't compare for at least several reasons. First, there is no single thing out there, no technology that we can all see, fear and develop a shared understanding about. The technologies of everyday life are not, for the most part, threats, but rather the source of information, freedom, jobs, health and other good things. When an American charges his smart phone, I seriously doubt that he worries about whether the power source is built with technologies that may originate overseas. Second, a single enemy that threatened apocalyptic annihilation would tend to focus the mind. Today it is not even clear what the nature of our competition is with other countries, as we are bound together in a globalized world. Trade imbalances, patent applications and technology transfer are hardly have the same mind-focusing quality as a nuclear war.
Globalization has indeed brought an end to "us vs them," except in a few cases where the "them" is even more backward than President Obama (North Korea, Iran - what used to be called the "axis of evil," which is actually more an "axis of stone-age thinkers.") China does a lot of work for us because we've asked it to. It can do it so we can do other things. For every job they "outsource" abroad, our multinationals create two here at home.
The simple fact is that Obama needs a hobgoblin to scare us into agreeing to spend billions on his useless programs of high speed rail and clean energy. Global warming failed. Now he's basically going back to the old standby of the Yellow Peril.
Sputnik moment? Hardly.