More Good Commentary on the Sputnik Moment

Fri, 28 Jan 2011 12:23:27 +0000

It turns out that Lexington at the Economist had noticed the introduction of "Sputnik moment" into the Preisdent's speeches last month.  Anticipating the argument in my last post based on the State of the Union address:

The trouble with applying the Sputnik moment to China is that it is not much of an analogy. There has, for a start, been no “moment”: China has been rising steadily for years without delivering any single shock. Whereas the Soviet Union and America built separate economic spheres, globalisation has bound the American and Chinese economies intimately together, to mutual advantage. And though China is a geopolitical competitor, it is not a mortal enemy of the United States as the Soviet Union was (unlike Nikita Khrushchev, Mr Hu has never promised to “bury” the West). Even if it were, most Americans believe that they still have the military edge. According to a Pew survey, Americans think by two to one (60% to 27%) that China’s economic strength is a greater threat than its military might. And a 58% majority says it is very important to build a stronger relationship with China.

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You could argue that to invoke Sputnik is merely to say that America needs to wake up and take remedial action. But harking back to Sputnik is hardly consistent with “friendly competition”. And where is the point in stoking up fear of China if Americans cannot agree on what to do about it? It may have seemed obvious after Sputnik that America should make a big public investment in technology. No similar consensus applies today. Though Mr Obama wants to invest in clean technology, other Democrats see protectionism as the answer to China. As for the Republicans, they too point to China as a reason for America to try harder. Newt Gingrich, one of their presidential possible wannabes, calls the possibility of America falling behind China in technology one of the “potentially catastrophic threats” facing the country. But his remedies emphasise tax cuts, a smaller state and freer markets, not the public investments Democrats favour.

It is not hard to see why the Sputnik era appeals to Mr Obama. For all the talk they hear about China’s headlong investment in infrastructure, American voters are lukewarm about their own government’s spending, especially if debt or taxes must rise to pay for it. A new Sputnik moment might change their minds. But in the 1960s Americans were sure their system could deliver the goods. Today they are perplexed by the success of China’s model and divided on how, if it is even possible, to restore the health of their own. They should resolve that quarrel on its merits and keep the China scare out of it. Apart from anything else, that might improve the atmosphere at the next presidential dinner.

Read the whole thing.