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Obama’s ‘Battleship’ argument has holes in its hull

Written By : Jonah Goldberg
October 26, 2012

In the third and final debate, Barack Obama scored huge points with the media, college kids and die-hard liberals — in other words, his base — when he mocked Mitt Romney’s concern about our historically small Navy.

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“But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” the president said. “You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

“And so,” he added, “the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships,” The question is “what are our capabilities.”

This struck me as an example of how thoroughly liberalism has confused sneering for intellectual confidence. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that comedy shows often substitute for news programs, particularly for younger liberals. That’s probably why the president has been spending more time talking to DJs, entertainment shows and comedians than to reporters. He desperately needs the support of low-information voters, who’ve replaced the old adage “it’s funny because it’s true” with “if it’s funny, it must be true.”

Obama’s argument — if that’s not too generous a word — is that the Navy in particular, and the military in general, can do so much more because of technological advances.

And that is certainly true.

But it’s also true that there have been huge advances in the technology used to sink our ships and blow up our planes as well. And, to date, no breakthrough innovation has led us to figuring out how to put one ship in two places at once.

There’s another problem. What innovation does he have in mind? Many of our warplanes and nearly all of our major naval vessels are much older than the pilots and sailors flying and sailing them. It’s great to talk up the benefits of innovation, but that argument starts to sputter when you realize we are often relying on the innovation of older generations. For all his talk about the game Battleship, we haven’t built a real battleship in almost 70 years, and the Navy hasn’t had one in its arsenal for decades.

But what I find most interesting about this argument is how selective it is. For instance, defenders of Obama’s Keynesian economic policies are constantly touting the benefits of big, high-tech spending programs because of the “multiplier effect” — the increased economic activity “primed” by government spending.

Indeed, the economists who subscribe to these views tend to tout military spending as particularly good evidence in their favor. Many argue that it was the massive spending during World War II that really pulled us out of the Great Depression (a flawed theory but more credible than the New Deal itself, which mostly prolonged the Great Depression).

And yet, it seems that military spending is the only Keynesian pump-priming this president doesn’t like.

Conversely, his argument that technological advances should deliver increased savings by providing more “bang for the buck” doesn’t seem to enter his thinking anywhere else. In the private sector he finds improved efficiencies to be a burden — all of those ATM machines taking away good bank teller jobs.

And where are the technological efficiencies making government more effective for less money? Surely the breakthroughs in productivity, information management and telecommunications would afford us a huge opportunity to cut away some of the obsolescence in the non-defense parts of our government?

But no. Obama is constantly yearning to hire more government workers. The private sector, he said not long ago, was doing fine. The place we needed more jobs was in the federal, state and local bureaucracies.

Indeed, in his new “plan” he promises — again — to hire 100,000 new teachers. He is constantly assuring us that our “crumbling” schools with leaky roofs are robbing children of their education. The honest truth: You can teach kids in a school with a leaky roof pretty easily. A submarine with a leaky roof? That’s a problem.

The amazing thing is that we’ve been increasing federal government spending on education at a blistering pace for decades. Where is the return on the investment? Where are the improved capabilities and efficiencies from investments in technology?

The military, which thrives on precisely the civic virtue Obama insists is on full display in public education, has a lot to show for the investments of the past Obama would like to curtail. Where’s a similar return in the non-defense sector? And has Obama ever bothered to ask that question?

(Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book “The Tyranny of Clichés.” You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)

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