Ed Driscoll

'If We Win the Future, Who Loses?'

At Forbes, Art Carden explores the rhetoric of the president’s State of the Union speech:

The State of the Union Address was predicated on the notion that The Future is something that can be won or lost, and if we as Americans are not diligent about doing what it takes to Win, someone else will.  ”Winning the future” is an idea that doesn’t really make sense.

First, while a group of White House speechwriters apparently thought that “win the future” would have the same rhetorical resonance as “yes we can,” the Address conveyed an incorrect zero-sum worldview in which what others gain comes at our expense.  As economics has shown over and over and over and over again, trade creates wealth.  Voluntary exchange is a positive-sum game.  If China gets richer, it doesn’t imperil our ability to get richer, too.

Second, I have always been struck by how politicians refer to spending programs that almost inevitably turn into special interest bonanzas as “investments.”  President Obama exalted the teaching profession, but let’s not be naïve: teachers’ unions are some of the biggest spenders in politics, almost all of their money goes to Democrats, and they fight educational innovations like vouchers and charter schools at almost every turn.

Read the whole thing. Carden’s headline is reminiscent of Virgina Postrel’s take, from her classic 1999 book, The Future and its Enemies, on the rhetoric of an earlier Democratic president, chastened by a stinging midterm defeat, who suddenly wished to move to the center:

Running for reelection in 1996, Bill Clinton and Al Gore promised again and again to build a “bridge to the twenty-first century.” The slogan cast them as youthful builders and doers, the sort of people with whom forward-looking voters would identify. It contrasted nicely with Bob Dole’s nostalgic convention pledge to build a bridge to a better past.

But a bridge to the future is not just a feel-good cliché. It symbolizes technocracy. Regardless of its destination, a bridge is a quintessentially static structure. It goes from known point A to known point B. Its construction requires big budgets and teams of experts, careful planning and blueprints. Once completed, it cannot be moved. “A bridge to the twenty-first century” declares that the future must be brought under control, managed and planned by experts. It should not simply evolve. The future (and the present) must be predictable and uniform: We will go from point A to point B, with no deviations. Fall off that one bridge—let alone jump—and you’re doomed.

Technocrats are “for the future,” but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out according to plan. They greet every new idea with a “yes, but,” followed by legislation, regulation, and litigation. Like Schlesinger and Attali, they get very nervous at the suggestion that the future might develop spontaneously. It is, they assume, too important and too dangerous to be left to undirected evolution. “To conceive of a better American future as a consummation which will take care of itself—as the necessary result of our customary conditions, institutions, and ideas—persistence in such a conception is admirably designed to deprive American life of any promise at all,” wrote Herbert Croly, among the most influential Progressive Era thinkers, in The Promise of American Life, published in 1909.

Technocracy is the ideology of the “one best way,” an idea that spread from Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” techniques to encompass the regulation of economic and social life. Turn-of-the-century technocrats, notes the historian John M. Jordan, used images of engineering to promise efficiency and order amid social and economic change: “In an era when the term progressive connoted a steady, teleological, restrained pace of improvement, efficiency implied change while at the same time suggesting security. The smoothly humming social machine envisioned by these reformers promised harmonious eradication of social problems….This peculiarly American paradox of kinetic change made stable appears to have contributed to the ubiquity of efficiency claims in this era.” By design, technocrats pick winners, establish standards, and impose a single set of values on the future. Only through such uniform plans can they hope to deliver “kinetic change made stable.”

That last line sums up Obama rather nicely — Obama isn’t about change, he’s about the Galbraithian stasis of corporatism and Big Government. Since taking office, the president has been building a bridge to the mid-20th century, Jay Cost writes at the Weekly Standard:

The 111th Congress was his Great Society moment: it passed a huge new entitlement program to get his name in the pantheon of great progressive leaders — TR, FDR, LBJ, BO. Yet here it looks like he wants to pursue in the 112th Congress something like Kennedy’s New Frontier — as Tim Carney said last night, his very long State of the Union could be aptly summarized as “national greatness liberalism.” Sure, we’re facing an unimaginably large budget deficit. Sure, we’ve been talking lately about state and local governments possibly defaulting on their loans. Sure, our entitlement problem is about to become a crisis as the Baby Boomers are set to retire en masse. But we have to “win the future!” And how do we do that? Beef up the budget for the Department of Transportation, that’s how!   Barack Obama is stuck in the 1960s. And it’s not just because his style of liberalism — spend, spend, spend! — is reminiscent of that era. Liberals since the New Deal have enjoyed spending. It’s because he likes to spend money as if we are in the middle of the greatest economic boom in the history of the nation, as if there’s plenty of cash to go around. The country could afford, in the 1960s, to send a man to the moon and to create brand new entitlement programs. Real GDP increased, on average, by 4.4 percent every year for the whole decade. But those days are long gone. As much as getting a great return on an “investment” in infrastructure improvement is appealing, it’s always a bad idea to invest one’s spare cash when the creditors are about to bust down the door. Ever dime should go to deficit reduction — not two for new spending, one for the deficit.

I don’t think Obama realistically expects to get any of this new spending through the 112th Congress — and, indeed, the State of the Union last night seemed more like a campaign address than anything else. If the president and his advisors are betting that national greatness liberalism can win an election in 2012, conservatives should take that bet. They need to run a candidate who brings this basic message: I’d love to improve our infrastructure as much as anybody, but the budget crisis requires us to put away our ambitions, put on the green eyeshades, and figure out how to stay open for business.

Or as Ace writes in inimitable style, “It’s time we started the 2012 season, then, and brand him a political coward, a timid time-marker who seeks a second term not for America’s interest but for his own insatiable ego.”

Update: “From the moon landing to solar shingles. Is there a better example of American decline?”