It is interesting that our President chooses to rely so heavily on the "Sputnik moment" metaphor given that the average American is about as likely to be able to perform the miracle of loaves and fishes as to correctly identify and explain the significance of Sputnik. Hell, half of us can't find Ohio on a map of our own country. Why would we know about something that happened in 1957?
Accordingly very few people, even among the minority that know to what Sputnik refers, remember the American response. Project Vanguard in the Naval Research Lab (one of the many non-civilian precursors to NASA) was already working on building a rocket booster powerful and reliable enough to put a satellite into orbit. Sputnik took Americans by surprise; more importantly it rendered an entire nation butt-hurt to the point that all pretense of rational thought was abandoned. We let our emotions make decisions for us, attempting to launch a Vanguard booster well before it was ready in order to, I don't know, show the Commies that we were…second?
With a "plan" like that it is hard to see what could go wrong.
Amongst the lofty sounding Sputnik metaphors and soothing rhetoric the President mentioned repeatedly the need to better educate the American workforce. Earlier I talked at length about the dubiousness of this logic, but let us accept it at face value for just a moment. If what we really need is a highly educated, technologically skilled workforce, then the budget proposal we saw today does not make a lot of sense:
(One) component of his FY 2012 budget, which will be released tomorrow, will likely pile more debt upon students who decide to pursue graduate school, potentially making the dream of higher education even more unattainable for many Americans. The move, say administration officials, is needed to ensure that a popular financial aid award stays available at current levels…Host Candy Crowley questioned (OMB Director Jacob) Lew about whether this would make graduate school less accessible for many Americans:
CROWLEY: Here's the problem, I guess. If you are a graduate — let's take one of your examples. You're a graduate student; you are, right now, getting loans. You don't have to pay those loans or any interest on them until you graduate. But now you have to pay — or it accumulates, I'm assuming — you have to pay interest beginning on day one of grad school, and that makes it so that you can't go to grad school.
LEW: Well, let's just be clear. Interest will build up, but students won't have to pay until they graduate. So it will increase the burden for paying back the loans, but it will not reduce access to education. That's, I think, part of how you can responsibly have a plan that deals with the challenge of solving our fiscal crisis, getting out of the situation where the deficit is growing and growing, but also investing in the future.
Part of me wants to make a detailed, reasoned response to this nonsensical argument. A bigger part of me wants to walk up to Jacob Lew, press my palms to the corners of my mouth, and exhale forcefully to make really loud farting noises.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have found our Vanguard moment. If anything can motivate Americans to seek and acquire the skills we so badly need to compete with the Chinamen it is an extra $5-10k in debt saddled to each professional degree. The message, of course, is that you should go to graduate school anyway. Think of the extra debt as additional motivation to take whatever the lousy job market offers you when you finish – and a reminder not to get too uppity with Management in that job you won't be able to afford to lose.
POSTSCRIPT: On its third attempt Vanguard succeeded in putting a grapefruit-sized metal ball into orbit. But. But! It's still in orbit, unlike Sputnik. It is in fact the oldest man-made object in orbit at present. So, uh, suck on that, Ivan. What, didn't they translate The Tortoise and the Hare into Cyrillic?