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.
The disturbingly static nature of Obama’s vision is apparent when one parses his comments on the bipartisan fiscal commission headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and its stark description of how entitlements are on a path to consume the private economy.
“I don’t agree with all their proposals,” Obama began, on what one can hardly call a positive note. On health care, he persists in claiming that Obamacare “will slow these rising costs,” though every informed person knows that the claimed budget savings are the result of Democrats gaming the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring system.
To which Obama added, “I’m willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs” — which sounds a lot like, “I sure can’t think of many.”
And then there is Social Security. Obama calls for a bipartisan solution “without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.”
That’s an outright rejection of the Pozen plan, which could eliminate much of the future shortfall by indexing the benefits of future high-earner retirees by prices rather than by wages. The Pozen plan would leave low-earners’ benefits untouched and so would actually make the system more progressive. But Obama rejects this mild proposal out of hand.
If you put together Obama’s resistance to just about any serious changes in entitlement spending with his antique vision of technological progress, what you see is an America where the public sector permanently consumes a larger part of the economy than in the past and squanders the proceeds on white elephants like faux high-speed rail lines and political payoffs to the teacher and other public-sector unions. Private-sector innovation gets squeezed out by regulations like the Obama FCC’s net neutrality rules. It’s a plan for a static rather than dynamic economy.
Obama’s State of the Union did contain some inspiring acknowledgements of America’s strengths. But the substantive policies he advanced seem likely to undermine them.