Friday, October 17, 2008


One thing that we've heard a lot about is that we need a Manhattan Project for new forms of energy, that we need to commit ourselves to a massive endeavor to find the source or sources of fuel that will replace our dependence on foreign supplies. I have a lot of qualms about this, most of which I've expressed before (the two biggest: I doubt that New Energy = a New Economy; and there is no guarantee that the U.S. will be the great discoverer, so we'll just pay those billions to a different foreign entity).

Here, though, I want to talk about the analogy to the Manhattan Project, because its philosophy is virtually unsupportable in today's political climate. Let's remember that the Project was run by the government in secret, its budget hidden in a veil of "national security." I know that private companies had their hands in it, but it was, everyone can agree, a government effort.

But we all know from Ronald Reagan (and Sarah Palin) that government cannot be trusted, and this belief is so pervasive that very few Democrats seriously question it these days (I recognize the unreality of the current financial crisis, but the key word there is "crisis" - people are not yet convinced that the energy situation is in that mode). Therefore, no one sees an Energy Project; instead, we want to "unleash" the great creative power of the American people by offering tax credits or rebates or whatever. The government won't manage anything, because it can't, but it will dole out money and wait for magic to happen.

I'm not a lunatic liberal, there are many things where I want government to take a light touch. But there are areas in which government, as a representative of this great democracy, should take the lead. (I recognize that this is one of the great issues of political philosophy, this balance, but I think we've let the balance become tipped too far in one direction.)

China has not taken the world lead in manufacturing by providing vague "incentives." They don't turn out large numbers of engineers by hoping that kids would decide to go into the field. Maybe you don't like comparing us to a totalitarian system. Fine, then look at our democratic friends, the Indians. Do we believe that they just spontaneously saw the benefits of studying computer science, or providing call center services? No, in all these cases, their government made a concerted effort to steer their society along a path.

[To pre-answer my critics, I'm not advocating a Soviet-style 5 Year Plan. That was the apotheosis of a too-heavy hand. But the examples I've provided demonstrate that it's possible for a government to set targets and formulate policies to support them without strangling their economies.]

But we refuse to do that, so caught up are we in ideological purity. If I had to summarize our problems with education simply, I'd say that we have failed to establish real goals. Even No Child Left Behind, with its metrics and numbers, is not specific enough to carry through to the world of employment. After the TV show CSI started, there were numerous stories about how large numbers of students were choosing to study forensic science. No one explained where all those people were going to find jobs, given that forensic budgets weren't increasing by three figure percentages. A rational system, one in which we recognize foreign competition and the waste of resources, wouldn't permit that.

Who is more likely to come up with the Next Big Thing in energy? Americans working in their garages, taking a tax break for the 100 square feet they're using, or the Chinese, using tax dollars to set up huge industrial workshops? Think about where you'd put your money if you had to bet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Technological supremacy can subjudiate Russia, China, and India since militarial supremacy does not make sense in both financial and humane terms.

In addition, let those with oil keep the oil for lubrication, ha ha.

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