Thursday, January 27, 2011

Our Sputnik moment

Is this our "Sputnik moment"? Well, it should be, no doubt, but we've had a lot of those moments, haven't we? Heck, the first Arab oil embargo in the 1970s was certainly a Sputnik moment - maybe even the most important one - but we failed that. Our greed, our focus on the short-term, our complete lack of vision led us to Ronald Reagan and "don't worry, be happy."

We failed to research and invest in alternative energy, so today we're sending billions of dollars to the worst nations in the world and destroying our environment planet-wide. Our focus on tax cuts has led to crumbling infrastructure and a declining system of education, along with - ironically enough - massive debt, both personal and governmental.

And unlike the original "Sputnik moment," we've got an opposition party which refuses to do anything that might be seen as a success for the President. With the GOP these days, it's all politics all of the time.

I really don't mean to slander them. I'm sure they've convinced themselves that nothing is more important for the good of America than their own political ambition. But, well, I'm sure they find it even easier to fool themselves than to fool their supporters.

China is spending billions on research into 21st Century technologies and 21st Century infrastructure. But to Republicans, that's just "big government." According to them, our government's only concern should be the military - and corporate welfare, and your love life, and your religion, and... everything else they believe is important.

Scientific research? No. The problem with science is that it tells us things we don't want to hear. Global warming. Evolution. The Big Bang. We don't want to believe them. We want to believe that America was designed by God himself, and that we're the greatest nation on Earth and always will be, at least until we're raptured up into Heaven to live forever and ever. (And so we end up with only one-fifth of our high school seniors knowledgeable about science.)

21st Century infrastructure? No. The problem with that is that it will compete with existing industries - 20th Century industries - that are big campaign donors (and also big buyers of advertising, including on Fox "News"). Buggy whip manufacturers, figuratively-speaking, have all too much influence in America.

Of course, private investment is critically important, too. But private investment is generally short-term in orientation. The goal is to make a profit, and relatively soon. Long-term research, especially into areas that don't seem to have an immediate economic payoff, is also critical. Remember, it was the government that gave us the internet, initially.

And investment in education is something the government pretty well has to do, especially if you want all of our children to have a chance to learn. Despite right-wing rhetoric, there are some things the government really does need to do. That includes public education at least as much as it does public libraries, police and fire departments, and roads.

And as we've just seen in this economic collapse - on the Republican watch and as a direct result of Republican policies - private industry can screw up royally if not watched and regulated. True, too much regulation is bad. But too little regulation is at least as bad. Surely we've seen the clear evidence of that these days!

Unfortunately, when you're a faith-based, rather than evidence-based, thinker, none of that matters. Those people go on believing what they just know is true, no matter what the evidence shows.

That's part of the problem, but only part. It's equally unfortunate that we're starting in a huge hole, after nearly bankrupting our nation during the Bush years. Not everything the right-wing did in those years was deliberately intended to destroy our nation, of course (though accidental damage is still damage).

But many Republicans actually wanted to dig us into this hole, so we would be just too broke to do anything and be forced to cut the size of government (until it was small enough to "drown it in the bathtub.")

They succeeded. After their mismanagement - two wars without increasing taxes to pay for them, tax cuts for the wealthy, the interest payments on the accelerating debt, and finally this economic collapse, brought on by the deregulation of financial instruments and their other bubble-creating policies - we're so deep in debt that it's hard to do anything at all.

After all this, it is indeed hard to find any money to invest. But can we afford not to invest in our children? Can we afford not to invest in our nation? It's one thing to borrow money for a fancy vacation or a big-screen TV. It's another to borrow money for a college education. The latter is an investment, which we should expect to pay off despite the increased debt. Even if you're already in debt, a college education usually makes sense.

But another part of the problem is our media. Yes, we've got Fox "News" which is, quite simply, the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. They don't inform as much as they mislead. (And we've got The Wall Street Journal doing that for readers, too, especially now that Rupert Murdoch owns it.)

And yes, they're a terrible example for others, especially since they're making money hand over fist. But even mainstream media who try to report the news in a fair and balanced fashion end up focusing on gimmicks like who's sitting with whom at the State of the Union address. Really? That's what's important?

But maybe that's just what we want to hear. Maybe that's all we're smart enough to understand. Maybe the fundamental problem in America is us. Unfortunately, that's a big problem - the biggest, no doubt. In a democracy, we the people make the decisions (even when our decision is to completely ignore politics). Can America endure, and hopefully thrive, under our direction?

Whatever happens, it is our responsibility. And if we fail, it will be our fault. It's a collective responsibility - you may be doing everything you can, yourself - but we're in this together. E pluribus unum, whether we like it or not.

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