I always regret it when politics creeps into this blog. But I just finished reading this post over at The Economist's "Free Exchange" glog, and I can't resist linking to it. The author focuses on a few lines from the President's State of the Union speech, and gets rather agitated:
Later, the president added: "Don’t let other countries win the race for the future."
The context, innocuously enough, was in calling for greater support for American research and development efforts. But the language of this statement is either daft or ghastly, depending on how charitably one is willing to read it. Is Mr Obama so dense as to miss that when America invents things other countries benefit, and vice versa? If a German discovers a cure for cancer, shouldn't we be ecstatic about that, rather than angry? Indeed, shouldn't we be quite happy and interested in ensuring that Germans and Britons and Indians have the capability and opportunity to develop fantastic new technologies? In the more nefarious reading, Mr Obama seems to accept that only relative standing really matters. A sick, poor world in which America always triumphs is preferable in all cases to one in which America maybe doesn't "win" the race to discover every last little thing that's out there to be discovered. And hell, one has to ask again whether the easiest way to prevent other countries from winning the race for the future isn't simply to blow up their labs.
Look, I understand the forgiving interpretation of these remarks. Americans are motivated by competition and patriotism, and if that's the only way to rally the country behind fundamentally sound policies like subsidies for basic research, then that's the card you play. And, in practice, Mr Obama's reforms will probably not do much more than offset the crummy, mercantilist choices made by other governments elsewhere. . .
I don't see that that's an acceptable excuse. People who live outside of America are people just like Americans, and we should all rejoice in their rising prosperity, the more so when it occurs through additions to the stock of human knowledge that will benefit people everywhere. If an American president can't communicate that simple idea to his citizenry, out of fear that he'll be drummed out of office on a wave of nationalistic outrage, then he doesn't deserve to be president and his country doesn't deserve to win a damned thing. . .
I'm very far from a zero-sum person, myself. The world really has gotten wealthier, and if we have disagreements about how that wealth is distributed, fine - as long as we first realize that we're sharing a much, much, larger pile of it than we used to. Much of that wealth has come from human ingenuity, from science and technology, and on those days when I can get my experiments to work, I like to imagine that I'm adding a bit to the pile.
And yes, I think that this was just speechmaking. But if it reflects, as it might, "permanent tendencies of heart and mind", then I have to say, I don't much like it.
Back to science after this. No more politics until November, I hope, and maybe not even then.