President Obama recently delivered his 2011 state of the union message last night. As always, there are usually low expectations for these events since rarely is anything new, exciting or effective ever proposed. This state of the union message was no different. It seemed like a locker room interview after a professional sports game, nothing but cliches strung together, one right after another. We have all heard them before. Improve education, be nicer to each other, create jobs, be a world leader, “win the future,” yada, yada, yada. Again, no different, no better, no worse than most state of the union addresses.
However, the one part of the President’s speech that attracted my attention, and not in the favorable way the President wanted, is his reference to Sputnik. For those of you old enough to remember or who read it in the history books, in the late 1950s, Russia became the first nation to launch a vehicle into space, the unmanned Sputnik satellite. This scared the life out of Americans, since it was the height of the Cold War and it appeared that Russia might gain a military advantage by being the first into space.
This scare and panic resulted in a dedicated effort to raise the standards of American schools in order to better compete in the world and specifically, against the Russians. As a result, education improved, American competitiveness improved, and the U.S. went off on a decades long bender of being a world leader in just about everything including education, manufacturing, technology, and innovation. In his state of the union speech, the President referred to Sputnik and urged that America attack our problems with the same urgency that Sputnik created back over fifty years ago.
Which really got me thinking? Why did the President have to reach back at least two generations to come up with an inspirational example? My conclusions? Since the Sputnik and education drive, the political class and the government it operates has really delivered virtually nothing that the President could have drawn on to inspire current Americans to strive for. In other words, he had to go back over fifty years to find a government success story. How pathetic is that performance.
Now, one could argue that landing people on the moon was inspirational and he could have used that analogy. This is true except for two reasons:
1) Even if he did use the Apollo moon missions for his inspirational example, that still occurred over forty years ago, really not recent.
2) And second, one could make the argument that Sputnik and Apollo were really two parts of the same example, with Sputnik spurring the U.S. to develop the moon program.
In either case, over forty years ago or Sputnik and Apollo being one in the same event, it does not excuse the fact that the political class, Democrats and Republicans, have been hopelessly lost in leading and inspiring the country and its citizens for at least forty years:
– It would have been nice to have an effective War On Drugs program since the 1960s with government stepping up in an effective manner to control the problems associated with drug abuse. But forty years later, millions of wasted lives later and probably trillions of tax dollars later, that is not the case.
– It would have been nice to have an effective national energy policy and strategy since the 1970s, after the oil shocks of that decade, with government stepping up in an effective manner to wean the nation off of foreign energy sources and implement friendlier energy sources. But over thirty years later, millions of foreign oil barrels later, and trillions of dollars and wealth that have left the country for overseas, this is not the case.
– It would have been nice to have a reboot on making public education effective again, similar to what happened after Sputnik, since in the 1980s, a Presidential Commission laid out the problems and strategy for fixing failing public education. But over twenty years later, trillions of dollars later wasted on faulty education processes, and an unknown amount of brain power wasted by undereducated kids, this is not the case.
– It would have been nice to have secure borders, free from terrorists attacks and floods of illegal immigrants since the 1990s when the first terror attacks hit our shores and armed forces overseas. But thousands of lost lives later and trillions of dollars wasted, we are still only a faulty ignition device or two from blown up planes over Detroit or detonated car bombs in Times Square.
– It would have been nice to have high tech, modern, and safe infrastructure throughout the country, a basic function of central government. But after decades of wasting transportation dollars, earmark dollars, and economic stimulus dollars on wasteful, useless projects (e.g. the Alaskan Bridge To Nowhere, the West Virginian Highway To Nowhere, the use of stimulus dollars to fix bridges that were in tip top shape), that is not the case.
An unsolved drug problem, no effective energy policy, failing public schools again, unsafe borders, and crumbling infrastructure. Throw in the coming insolvency of Social Security and Medicare, the ballooning Federal debt, faulty election processes (e.g. Congressional district gerrymandering, campaign funding disgrace), a space program with no direction or purpose, and any number of other examples of failing by the political class, Now we understand why the President had to go all the way back to Sputnik. That was really the last time that the Federal government was successful in something that resulted in tangible benefits at a reasonable cost.
Which brings us to the baseball steroids connection referenced in the title of this article. As many baseball fans know, many of the sport’s super stars over the past two decades have been found to have used steroids or actually admitted to using steroids to enhance their performance on the field. While the use of these performance enhancing drugs may have had a temporary benefit of increased productivity, the long term effects are yet to be known.
It seems like our political class has been running on steroids for a long time. Temporary improvement but long term negative impacts:
– We threw money (a politcians’ version of steroids) at our failing public schools under the No Child Left Behind umbrella and get a temporary rise in student scores but lost time in fixing the true, underlying problems of our failing schools.
– We once threw money at our energy crisis several decades ago but without a long term, strategic plan that addressed the underlying causes of our energy predicament, the temporary steroid effect eventually wore off and we still had no energy policy.
– We once threw money, and continue to throw money at our drug abuse program without success, indicating that the political class and government steroids used in the War On Drugs was not really performance enhancing.
Our politicians are always looking for the short term, steroid approach to getting anything done. As long as it works until the next election, it is the right thing to do. As long as baseball players could get to their next contract, even if it meant long term damage to their bodies and careers, steroids was the key, a short term fix. This is why Obama had to go back to the fifties for inspiration. Since then, our politicians have been on a steroid like binge, short term planning, short term objectives, just getting to the next election.
Mark Twain coined many insightful looks into human nature. One the most favorite Twain quotes goes as follows: “Sometimes I wonder if the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or imbeciles who really mean it.” If we were being governed by smart people, the President would not have had to go back fifty years for inspiration. If we are being government by imbeciles, well you can draw your own conclusions.
Several simple steps might actually help provide some up-to-date inspiration for America:
Step 1 – get smart, expert Americans involved in a process that addresses our problems of drug abuse, failing public schools, secure borders, and escalating health care costs, a novel and groundbreaking approach that would basically leave the political class out of the process. Use the management model and process that has its roots in other historical U.S. breakthroughs including the Apollo mission, the Manhattan project, the military basing closing commission, the Grace Commission and others, it has worked before and it could work again.
Step 2 – fix Social Security by increasing the retirement age, decreasing benefits and payouts for well off retirees, and change the taxing plan so that everyone pays an equal percentage of their income into the system rather than capping payments at around the first $100,00 so of income. Sounds boring but it would be inspirational to many Americans if that was the case in light of the impending implosion of the Social Security system, i.e. actually fulfilling its original intent is pretty inspirational to me.
Step 3 – implement term limits for all politicians. One of the well known side effects of steroid use is a swollen head and from most people’s observations, we can honestly say we believe that most politicians suffer from big heads/egos, further proof of my steroids analogy. Anyway, those that have been in office for decades are possibly part of the problem because they certainly have not come up with any solutions. Better to term limit them out of office and start anews.
It is a shame that a country with these resources and these types of citizens has not been inspired by its ruling political class for over five decades. Since Sputnik we have lost trillions of dollars on non-effective government programs, run up trillions of dollars of national debt, wasted generations of brain power via faulty education, and have a leader, through no fault of his own has to comb the history books for anything close to inspiration. Steroids and imbeciles, a deadly combination.