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For a New "Sputnik Moment," the '60's Radicals Have Got to Go

President Obama may want one

President Obama called for another “Sputnik moment” on Monday by having the nation invest more in education and science, previewing a theme that is likely to be part of his agenda and his budget for the second half of his term.

Mr. Obama, who made his remarks during a visit to a community college here, was not yet born when the Soviets’ launch of the Sputnik orbiter in 1957 shocked Americans and prompted a national commitment to education, space and science spending. “Fifty years later, our nation’s Sputnik moment is back,“ Mr. Obama said.

His goal, he said, is to increase education and science spending to 3 percent of the size of the economy, a significant increase from current levels. Mr. Obama also acknowledged the need to reduce the long-term debt, just days after his fiscal commission proposed a $4 trillion, 10-year package of spending cuts and tax increases, and he said the two parties would debate the nation’s spending priorities next year and years beyond.

…but he’s going to have to jettison a large part of his party’s “baggage” to get one.

It’s true that the panicked reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik engendered one of the greatest and most visible advances in science and technology we have ever had.  But it’s also worthwhile to remember that much of the 1960’s was a backlash against same scientific and technological advance, or featured the introduction of a great deal of pseudo-science.  It’s also worth remembering that many presented the space race and fixing our social problems as an “either/or” proposition.  Well, as Jesus promised, the poor we have with us always, but…

The largest burden anti-technological burden that came out of that era was the environmental movement, which is now about to lower the boom on American industry–and the science and technology that go with it–by using our anti-pollution laws to regulate carbon dioxide.  It’s never occurred to anyone that we can’t stop current activity while waiting for this “green ideal” to show up.  And then there’s that great casualty of 1960’s and 1970’s panic mentality: the nuclear power industry…

This administration’s aversion to small businesses is only making the unreasonably complex regulatory environment even worse.  It’s worth remembering that many of the technological spin-offs of the space program were commercialised in the private sector.  As the Soviets found out, the government is great at making theoretical advances, but not so hot at putting shoe leather to them.  We can put the question another way: in a society where being credentialled by a few institutions and moving up in large bureaucracies is becoming de rigeur, where will the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates come from?  And where will the jobs they create be located?

It’s true that our educational system needs to fix the laggard status of science and math education in our state school system.  But we can’t simply upgrade that and leave those who come out of the system “all dressed up and nowhere to go.”  To fix that is going to require a metanoia amongst many of the superannuated hippies and their followers amongst our élites–or perhaps the boot would be quicker.


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