Democracy, unfortunately, is not a pristine and perfect political solution. It comes with its limitations. One of these limitations has always been a tendency for short-term interests to prevail at the expense of long-term considerations.
Nothing ever happens in government without an incentive structure and so, while a future-oriented, long-term approach may be what politicians’ “better-selves” endorse, there is simply little motivation present to aim one’s eyes into the distance, out into the horizon of the future. The consequences are daunting, after all.
Unsustainable public assistance programs are looming liabilities that no one wants to seriously broach, besides giving a dismal shake of one’s head. Government debt has also reached a point wherein its eye-watering current magnitude invokes less healthy alarm in people and more of a numbed sensation. And it’s no wonder. What are you supposed to feel if you have a sinking suspicion that your nation has crossed a certain threshold of no return?
In addition, unfunded pensions preoccupy many, but little in the way of realistic solutions to this problem are actively being labored on. There’s no shortage of anxious talk about these predicaments, sure, but have we stopped to consider how exactly they developed in the first place?
All of the pressing issues mentioned above are “conveniently” located on the horizon of the future. They are issues with questions of sustainability, and what does government do but vaguely address the concept of sustainability without ever actually doing something about it?
But they are also problems that are fast demanding solutions. Why is it that our immense governmental apparatus finds themselves so ill-equipped, so abruptly unprepared for these approaching dangers? The answer lies mostly in a pernicious feature rooted in the democratic framework — that of short-term bias.
Practical Reasons & Psychological Reasons
Short-term bias is a bit like a stubborn weed amongst an otherwise fairly healthy garden. Nearly all politicians find themselves preoccupied first and foremost with their short-term reputation and status. Every politician knows that pleasing constituents is paramount. This is usually their first order of business. It is what gets them elected, after all. It is is what secures them their job and feathers their nest.
With term limits confined to several years, politicians need only hastily fashion their political projects within that deadline. With scores of political figures following this identical, admittedly pragmatic pattern, the bias becomes entrenched, establishing a sustained political model that is dangerously cut off from long-term considerations.
But you do have to ask: what incentive do politicians actually have to look beyond their own governmental terms? Is there reasonably one? How do you get people to put in the work of preserving a collective asset (our nation) if your colleagues won’t do it too? I’m afraid you can’t expect politicians to wring their hands over problems that change hands so frequently that no one quite feels any responsibility for them.
You see, the question of responsibility has a lot to do with short-term bias. As it is, no politician wants to claim ownership for problems. Conveniently, they often don’t have to. Once out of office, it is hard to pin blame, even moreso when considering the effect of the ceaseless, swirling renewal of governmental employees. And furthermore, who cares about responsibility when the consequences are always hovering off in the future?
We can admit that there are practical reasons for “political myopia” or a short-term bias in Washington. But it’s not often touched upon that the problem is not confined to the governmental camp. There’s psychological reasons for a short-term bias just as much as there are practical ones.
Constituents like instant gratification, they like hearing sanguine words from their politicians, and they like quickly-realized gains. They aren’t fond of waiting too long for the delayed benefits of constructive long-term policies, for example. And people generally aren’t fond of parsing consequences and ruminating on costs.
The Curse of Responsibility
Nobody wants to look at the ugly reality of things if they don’t have to. So we shield our eyes from the current specter of our long-term national well-being. This is done in part because the entire governmental apparatus is simply not set up to delineate responsibility in the context of long-term aims! Presidents clock in their four or eight years, careful to protect their image as much as can be done during this time span, and then exit office, leaving the mess under the bed and in the closets, so to speak. But why would they not? Everyone else before them largely did, nudging the difficult, thorny problems a little further down the road.
Responsibility in government is famously fragmented. The sheer number of people involved, not to mention their rotating jobs only exacerbates this aspect. The vast majority of the public sector don’t feel particularly accountable for governmental actions. And in any case, it’s not too difficult to abstract responsibility or blame. What happens when nobody has much of a vested interest in the prosperity, soundness and longevity of the organization they work for? The structural integrity degrades, though maybe some sloppy patch jobs are attempted.
If America were a company, we’d be bankrupt. But governments, by some masterful stroke of their own doing, have tools in the toolbox to detach themselves from normal fiscal operations and monetary discipline. Because of this, politicians shut their eyes and do things like add to the national debt and convince themselves that they are a mere participant in a large machine and that their responsibility is negligible. This is the danger of big government — the lines of responsibility become fuzzy and blurred and accountability itself becomes watered-down, an abstract concept that certainly no one willingly wishes to stick themselves with.
Good Politics, Bad Policy
There’s something called the “good politics, bad policy” conundrum. What is great for polls does not necessarily make good government. But the political game often trumps solid policy.
The truth of the matter is that America’s long-term prosperity is often in conflict with the short-term, immediate desires of constituents. That in itself is a shortcoming of the democratic structure. Consider, for example, that it is politically popular to have low interest rates which signal easy credit and an expansion of the economy. But what is politically popular does not, and should not, correlate to good policy.
It’s a two-way street. In some ways, the public demand was intensified for short-termism because it was discovered that short-termism could sell, and could sell well.
Short-term policies appeal because the results are immediate. Long-term policies, particularly those that are tough, demand realism, and aren’t fresh, positive, and ambitious are not terribly popular — and understandably so. And yet, unfortunately, the inner dialogue of the politician is something like why bother with policies that transcend the current term? Long-term policies require discipline — and prolonged discipline at that — as well as a spirit of collaboration, a sense of shared duty that extends down through the lineage of political figures. It’s not easy.
It is popular to suggest that perhaps we should lengthen the term durations for those in Congress to counteract this suffusive moral hazard. After all, representatives serve a very short-lived term of two years and are constantly running for election, embroiled in the campaign fever. But would that fix our problem? I’m doubtful. In addition, it’s really hard to engender the political will among politicians necessary to pull off projects that will deal with the long-term trajectory. Committees have been erected in the past to attempt to address this very problem but with tepid success. They usually just added to the bureaucratic excess.
The “Political Sell”
The short-term nature of American government coupled with its democratic processes means that constituents are exposed to no shortage of various degrees of pandering, rhetorical acrobatics, chicanery, and clever strategies of framing and molding the perspectives of citizens.
No political system is perfect, I should add. These are just some of the common ills that we have long had to deal with. So, with these elements unfortunately present, the reality is that, from our politicians, we probably get less truth. We’re often getting sold an image.
Oftentimes we care more about who is elected and less about what is happening because we don’t ever actually get told the truth about what is happening. We buy the brand-name and we don’t look at the specs. We elect the politician — who is technically a realistically unpredictable basket of promises and hearty sentiments — and don’t look at the crumbling mechanics of what they should actually be dealing with.
Government has been leaning too heavily in the PR direction and abandoning accounting. That’s not how businesses can sustain themselves, and technically that’s not how governments can sustain themselves either. Relying too heavily on short-term ‘appearance’ and disregarding long-term ‘health’ will result in unpleasant repercussions. For one thing, the consequences of fiscal myopia, in particular, eventually catch up. Why else would there be so much anxious chatter about our unfunded social programs?
In addition, a 24/7 news cycle and the immediacy of social media both exacerbate short-termism. Contemporary news tends to elevate the short-term fodder — the sort-of galvanizing, glitzy affairs like upcoming elections.
Politics is the popular kid at the party and policy is the dry intellectual in the corner. The two are different.
Overall, it’s hard to rouse the support of constituents for long-term developments. It’s hard to educate a people that hasn’t yet had to contend with the harsh realities of governmental procrastination that the long-term matters and cannot be neglected. (Consider the implications of the day when pension funds run completely dry. Hysteria!)
The question remains: how exactly do you fight political myopia? I have to admit that to get rid of it completely — to pull out the weed, so to speak, would be nearly impossible. It cannot really be done. But in the end, the more we can lodge the pesky reality of the long-term into our day-to-day, the better. This myopic tendency I speak of cannot be eradicated but perhaps we could nudge ourselves to look in that direction a bit more frequently than we currently are. Politicians would need to narrow the gap between the demands of the public and the interests of future generations. In effect, to align politics more closely with decent policy.
Long-term projects would need to be clearly spelled out for the populace in order to gain support and legitimacy. On a positive note, a long-term focus inherently requires a degree of partisan collaboration and could induce a sense of common ground given that nearly everyone would like to see their nation prosper for future generations — to be stable and lucrative and financially sound. The interesting thing about long-term interests is that they tend to diffuse partisan tension (if we ever arrive at the point wherein we choose to tackle these issues, that is). Giving up some of the hustle and bustle of short-termism might have a unifying effect.
Short-termism often heightens political polarization which as we all know, is not in short supply these days. Such an environment does make it increasingly difficult to advance long-term aims, but perhaps if we reversed this dynamic and the federal government had enough guts to face up to how the future honestly looks on where we currently stand, instead of cowing to societal unrest, long-termism could get some airtime.
Solutions to political myopia are frustratingly hard to pin down but the sources are somewhat more obvious:
- a diffused sense of responsibility within government;
- an inherent shortcoming of democracy;
- and historical patterns of increasing long-term negligence,
to name a few. I think it’s safe to say that the absence of a healthy, long-term view will cost us and that America currently is avoiding looking at the future square in the face with stark, unflinching realism. Political myopia may be a lure and temporarily sheltering but it won’t be doing us any favors in the long-term and we’d best face up to that fact.