Education Policy on the Moon

Revisiting Barack Obama’s education speech, this bit near the beginning touched on some interesting themes:

I know there are some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time. They forget that Lincoln helped lay down the transcontinental railroad, passed the Homestead Act, and created the National Academy of Sciences in the midst of Civil War. Likewise, President Roosevelt didn’t have the luxury of choosing between ending a depression and fighting a war. President Kennedy didn’t have the luxury of choosing between civil rights and sending us to the moon. And we don’t have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term.

I agree with Obama’s conclusion, but this Moon analogy seems terrible. It’s true that there was no zero-sum tradeoff between civil rights and the moon, but at the same time we obviously did have the luxury of just not going to the moon. The point I would make about education is that the quality of the education the current generation of children receive is critical to the economic well-being of the country 20, 30, and 40 years from now and if screw it up, you can’t get the kids back in school. We really don’t have the luxury of choosing, but Kennedy did.

The Lincoln business, meanwhile, is one of congress’ great untold stories. People generally don’t think about this very much, but one important consequence of secession was to radically shift the balance of power in Congress since almost every southern member was gone. Suddenly, the super-empowered northern-based Republican majority could pass all sorts of legislation on all sorts of topics. And legislate they did — Homestead Act, all kinds of trade protections, railroad schemes, etc. Just imagine would happen in congress today if the South seceded? It would change everything! And, obviously, it’s not as if there was less regional polarization back then. Conversely, what if Southern Democrats hadn’t seceded back in 1860–61 and had just instead decided to mount a ton of filibusters of all Lincoln’s key legislative priorities? Of course back then we didn’t have the present-day understanding that routine filibusters are okay. But just for fun, project today’s alleged supermajority requirement back to the election of 1860 and a Southern decision that obstructionism was a better path to the preservation of slavery than secession.