An Open Letter to President Obama

by Marshall Brain
January 18, 2009

Dear President Obama,

I probably share this feeling with millions of Americans: When I think about America today, I ache.

I ache when I read articles like this:

Frugal is cool in cash-strapped US

Tobar, an acclaimed author and essayist, was stunned to find America in the grip of an economic turmoil that was changing his native country before his eyes, plunging it into the worst crisis since the Great Depression. “There is a sense of mourning and confusion and a real feeling of living in the last days of empire,” Tobar said.

And this:

Fighting Off Depression

The fact is that recent economic numbers have been terrifying, not just in the United States but around the world. Manufacturing, in particular, is plunging everywhere. Banks aren’t lending; businesses and consumers aren’t spending. Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.

And lists like this make me cringe: A Timeline of the Bush Years

Here is where the ache comes from. There once was a time when we could say, with full sincerity, that America was the greatest nation of earth. I ache because it would be ridiculous to make that claim today.

Instead of the greatest nation on earth, today we look like a nation of idiots.

The examples are everywhere, but here are a few of the high points:

  • Obviously there is the financial meltdown. Our once-great financial system has gone down in flames, taking the entire world with it. Greed and corruption and stupidity came together once again, but this time the scale of the mistakes and the length of time they were allowed to fester were gigantic.
  • The American dollar, once the currency of the world, is being dethroned because it is becoming worthless.
  • Our car industry, once the greatest in the world, is now on life support.
  • Our space program, once so dominant that no one else could compete, is so bad off now that, next year, we will have no way to get people into orbit. Our astronauts will have to hitch rides on Russian rockets for five years or more.
  • Our software industry once ruled the world. And then Microsoft released Vista.
  • America lost an entire city to Hurricane Katrina. A city. And three years later, most of it still lies in shambles.
  • Our health care system is riddled with problems. Health care in the U.S. costs twice as much per capita as it does in other developed nations, and tens of millions of people are locked out of the system by lack of insurance.
  • Etc.

The list goes on and on. We have global climate change threatening the entire planet, with thousands of species in the process of going extinct. We have oceans full of plastics and acid with no plan to stop it. Our moral standing has been corrupted by things like torture and we have gutted basic protections provided to citizens by the Constitution. The price of oil can skyrocket to $150 a barrel and then a few months later fall to $40 a barrel without any rhyme or reason, and in the process millions of people can starve as food prices fluctuate senselessly…

We look like idiots.

But it is not just idiocy. We also look evil. We look like idiots in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we are evil idiots. We came without any sort of coherent plan, and our incompetence was deadly. More than a million people have died in Iraq since we invaded. Millions more have fled the country. Coming out of 9/11/2001 we had the moral high ground. The entire world was on our side. Then we completely squandered it through incompetence and arrogance.

Right now, it would be impossible for even the most patriotic of Americans to shout “We’re Number One!” Right now we are not #1, and we all know it.

Where do we go from here?

Mr. Obama, we elected you to lead us out of this darkness. We all know that too. We hope that you will put American back on the path to greatness. Please, please help America to reclaim the title of greatest nation on earth.

The reason I am writing is because I have been watching the news as they discuss the “new” stimulus package that is coming together. This package is different from Bush’s $170 billion “stimulus package” of 2008, which simply handed money to taxpayers. And it is different from the $700 billion TARP bailout package. The new $850 billion package (which is likely to become $1 trillion) is going to be one of the first acts of your administration, and looks like it will be the largest federal program in history.

The opportunity you have here, in spending this gigantic amount of money, is enormous. But only if you deliver that money in a way that leads us to greatness. Attach the money to a big vision that inspires us, and you will change the world. Let that money dribble into the economy with no vision, and it will have far less impact.

So what is the vision? Here is my suggestion: Focus on America’s two great strengths. The United States has prospered from a technologically advanced economy. And America has prospered by doing good and helping others. Focus your stimulus package on those two areas and we will be great once again.

To clarify what I am saying, think of these two examples:

  1. Think about World War II. We used our technological prowess to win the war, and we also made the planet a better place in the process. We helped to rebuild the world. It was an amazing example of grace.
  2. Think about the Apollo moon missions. Given a big, challenging goal we rose to the occasion and achieved the impossible. Then when we got to the moon, we again acted with honor. Our moon mission was not a land grab. It was a giant leap for mankind.

America needs big, audacious goals. We need to use our understanding of science and technology to reach those goals. And we need to be focused on good rather than evil. In this way we can become the greatest nation on earth once again.

The amazing thing about one trillion dollars is that we can have dozens of gigantic goals. That amount of money can have a staggering effect on our planet. Just look at the possibilities. With $1 trillion we could do it all:

  • In 10 years we could develop and improve dozens of technologies that would, together, completely eliminate fossil fuels. This would include renewable energy production, a grid upgrade and new automotive and transportation technologies. Then we could share our innovation with the world.
  • The elimination of fossil fuels would go a long way toward stabilizing the climate change problem. We could then develop the technologies to clean up the remaining mess. For example, we could return the oceans to normal acidity levels and soak up the extra carbon in the atmosphere using both natural and man-made tools. Our gift to the world would be the end of global warming.
  • We could eliminate world hunger. Today, in one day, tens of thousands of children will die from simple things like starvation and lack of clean water. It is a disgrace. It is a moral outrage. We all know it. Let America solve this problem.
  • We could fully fund and fast track a mission to Mars…
  • …and set up a moon base with a hundred or a thousand permanent residents.

But why stop there? Why not get totally audacious? With $1 trillion we can fund impossible stuff. Let’s build a 3,000 mile long vacuum-sealed tunnel from DC to LA so that a maglev train can cross the country in an hour or two. Let’s build the first space plane so people can fly to China in two hours. Let’s build the world’s first space elevator and/or launch loop. Let’s put fiber optic cables into every home and give Americans cheap gigabit Internet. Let’s computerize our education system so every student gets the best, customized instruction in the world. Let’s develop humanoid robots that put Korea and Japan to shame. Let’s crank up nuclear fusion. Let’s develop the computer technologies that will replace silicon. Let’s eliminate disease and aging and make health care so cheap and accessible that it flows like tap water to every human on the planet. And so on…

Why the hell not? If you are going to spend a trillion dollars, spend it on something worthwhile. Bring our nation, and the world, real hope and change like the people of this planet have never seen before. Transform planet earth into something amazing. Let’s take a crack at truly solving every major problem that humanity faces, and let’s put America at the top of every field of scientific and technical advancement.

Please eliminate the ache we all feel, and replace it with a vision of greatness.

If you do that – which you can easily do with a well-articulated plan for the future and the huge pile of money you are planning to spend anyway – America will once again be the greatest nation on earth.


Marshall Brain

You may also enjoy this in-depth interview, “Marshall Brain on Singularity 1on1: We’re approaching humanity’s make or break period”:

On the coming Singularity and Artificial Intelligence:

A Conversation with Marshall Brain from MIRI on Vimeo.

The Official Site for Marshall Brain