Unaccompanied by any actual proposals, much less commitments to funding, Obama’s latest rhetorical sally-forth has him touring the Hooverville of the south Atlantic states and promising the moon. Okay, not the moon–the race to the moon, which was our way of changing the rules on the space race (double or nothing, since with Sputnik we’d already lost round one).
Funny thing, though: the actual race to the moon was accompanied by massive mobilization and funding. You remember: trillions poured into education and research, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), the formation of NASA.
Not so the President’s made-for-tv version, which on the level of personal presidential narrative is just a way to distract the press from a growing interest in the U.S. presidents of the 1930s. As you read here among the first, Obama’s far more of a slick, charming, moderate, pro-business Hoover than a second FDR. With campaign season nigh, Obama’s unfunded, ad-hoc referencing of Sputnik is clearly in part a bid to head off the growing Hoover comparisons and get himself compared to any post-FDR prez whatsoever.
How empty is the Prez’s rhetoric? Not quite as empty as the hard vacuum of interstellar space, but not exactly full of promise either.
The “time for Sputnik” gambit’s been played over and over again: roughly every five years since we pulled out of Vietnam. Most recently, in January 2006 the Association of American Universities (AAU) and a bipartisan bunch of legislators proposed a National Defense Education and Innovation Initiative, or NDE II (cleverly referencing the 195os NDEA) and the Protect America’ Competive Edge (PACE) Act. Taking advantage of the fiftieth anniversary of Sputnik, these efforts resulted in the 2007 passage of the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007, or America COMPETES Act, which most people found woefully inadequate, and an inappropriate comparison to space-race urgency. Up for reauthorization, even this modest initiative, a bipartisan project under Bush, is now being held up by Republicans.
Therefore the likeliest meaning of Obama’s Sputnik rhetoric is not visionary, launching a new initiative, or anything of the kind. Instead it appears defensive, tactical and political, signalling continued support for the long-delayed re-authorization.
Far from a promise for a brand new space race, Obama’s Sputnik reference is just a rhetorical ploy in a running battle to conserve the status quo.
Education: Running on Empty Rhetoric
That’s too bad because, as I’ve pointed out before, education is a splendid point for stimulus intervention. There are nearly five million educators in the country and roughly twenty million persons working while they study, from high-school seniors straight to graduate school.
Many of the educators are under-employed and overworked, teaching too many students with insufficient support. Lots of room for job creation there–call it a million jobs, minimum. And there are whole areas of educator employment that are underprofessionalized and unexplored, such as public-sector day care and early learning–there’s another million jobs right there.
Likewise, most of the twenty-million-plus persons working while they study are working too much–one of the major reasons for the nation’s execrable performance in graduation rates. Keeping students out of the workforce, or even regulating their hours down to a reasonable level/raising the wage in the workplaces they super-populate, would create millions of jobs.
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