Navigating the Minefield of Short-Termism

Its disappearance went largely unnoticed. There was no post mortem, no eulogy, no deep sighs for what had been lost.

Posterity slipped from our consciousness as we ushered in the neoliberal era 40 years ago. Populations would now be administered, not led. Grand vision was a quaint artifact of generations past. Besides, the invisible hand of the marketplace would see to all our needs today, tomorrow, forever. Politicians grew smaller and smaller until they shrunk to fit the mold of technocracy.  Like sheep being dipped we were plunged into a world of supply-side economics in which lower taxation and deregulation would deliver manna from heaven. We focused on skinning the economy, and society, right to the bone. Everything would be maximized, nothing would be wasted, not even the offal. 

We were surrendered to a world of short-termism. We elected governments of technocrats - grey suits stuffed with wet cardboard - whose horizons were measured in electoral cycles. They would do what they must to get re-elected, the bright thing rather than the right thing. The corporate sector loved it. Stock markets soared. So too did a host of social blights from inequality to substance abuse. 

Weak thinking generates huge problems. We saw that in the Great Recession of the Harper, Bush-Cheney era. Our leaders failed to hold Casino Capitalism in check and, like any con game, it swelled until it burst, plunging the world into economic chaos. It's not like we weren't warned. Guys like Roubini and Stiglitz and Krugman warned anyone who would listen that we were holding a gun to our own heads but societies and economies and governments that are reactionary don't heed warnings. 

Which brings us to the first article in MIT Technology Review's "Long Term Issue," Richard Fisher's essay on how to navigate past the trap of short-termism, "How to escape the present."


"Like toddlers, our pre-human ancestors had no sense of a distant future. They lived only in the present. Humanity’s trajectory from tool-wielding hominins to the architects of grand metropolises has been interwoven with our ever-expanding sense of time. Unlike other animals, we have minds capable of imagining a deep future, and we can conceive the daunting truth that our lifetime is a mere flash in an unfathomable chronology.

"Yet while we may have this ability, it is rarely deployed in daily life
. If our descendants were to diagnose the ills of 21st-century civilization, they would observe a dangerous short-termism: a collective failure to escape the present moment and look further ahead. The world is saturated in information, and standards of living have never been higher, but so often it’s a struggle to see beyond the next news cycle, political term, or business quarter.

"...In the West, a deeper sense of time didn’t emerge until the 18th century. In the 1700s, geologist James Hutton showed how the chronology written into Scottish rocks extended millions of years into the past. The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that there would be “millions and millions of centuries, in which new worlds and world orders will be generated,” adding: “Creation is never finished. It once had a beginning, but it will never end.”

"...Our awareness of deep time was here to stay, but that’s not the same as paying attention to it. The 18th-century European contemplation of a long, bright future was not to last. Periodically, perspectives would shorten, often through crises such as the French Revolution.

"...According to historian Fran├žois Hartog, the author of Regimes of Historicity, we are in the midst of another shortening right now. He argues that at some point between the late 1980s and the turn of the century, a convergence of societal trends took us into a new regime of time that he calls “presentism.” He defines it as “the sense that only the present exists, a present characterized at once by the tyranny of the instant and by the treadmill of an unending now.” In the 21st century, he writes, “the future is not a radiant horizon guiding our advancing steps, but rather a line of shadow drawing closer.”

"...Future historians may have a clearer view. But we can still perceive the lack of longer-term thinking from which our society suffers. You can see it in business, where quarterly reporting encourages CEOs to prioritize short term investor satisfaction over long-term prosperity. You can see it in populist politics, where leaders are more focused on the next election and the desires of their base than the long-term health of the nation. And you can see it in our collective failure to tackle long-term risks: climate change, pandemics, nuclear war, or antibiotic resistance."

The author identifies five contributing factors that anchor short-termism. One is salience, the bright, shiny thing. 

"Striking, emotionally resonant events tend to dominate our thinking more than abstract happenings.  ...This means that slow, creeping problems like global warming don’t pop up on the attentional radar until something is burning or flooding. Before the covid-19 pandemic, even disease scientists were more focused on the salient dangers of Ebola and Zika, rather than coronaviruses."

Another is the habits we have embraced in the neoliberal era.

"It’s harder to overcome the shortening effects of salience when we are doomscrolling on our phones through political controversy, crime, culture wars, disasters, or attacks. These events, while important, populate our imaginings of the future to a disproportionate degree."

A third major factor is "overload." I doubt there are many not deeply aware of this.

"As technology’s pace accelerates, the concomitant quickening of life, work, and information has further overloaded our attention. Research conducted in 2005 suggested that people’s picture of the future goes “dark” around 15 to 20 years hence. As the cosmologist Martin Rees has pointed out, it’s difficult to be a “cathedral thinker” when the lives of our children promise to be so radically different from our own—a problem that our medieval ancestors simply did not have."

Fourth is "responsibility," a fading sense in our manufactured daily lives. We absolve ourselves of responsibility by proclaiming our insignificance.

"The modern world has made it ever easier to detach ourselves from consequences and accountability. Consider the hamburger. A single consumer in a complex global supply chain shares only a tiny portion of responsibility for the ills involved in getting that burger to the table: carbon emissions, factory farming, water pollution, and more."

"Centuries ago, people didn’t have to think about the damage caused by industrial farming, nor about atomic waste, ocean plastics, atmospheric carbon, or the other malignant heirlooms for which we are collectively responsible but not individually culpable. (And even in that far simpler world, civilizations occasionally collapsed after exhausting their natural resources, among other wrong turns.) We need ways to make those responsibilities more visible—and, crucially, hold people accountable."

The final horseman of the Short-Termism Apocalypse - targets.

"The sociologist Robert Jackall described one scenario in which this happens regularly. He called it “milking the plant”: a manager would arrive at a plant or factory with an ambitious set of targets from the board, and immediately crack the whip. Productivity would rise accordingly. Months later, the targets would be hit, and the manager would be promoted or move on. Left behind, however, would be a mess: unhappy workers and machinery run into the ground. The next manager would have to pick up the pieces with a new set of short-term targets—and the cycle would repeat. ...The problem with metrics is captured by Goodhart’s Law, named after a British economist, which is often phrased as: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

The solution, he argues, begins with imagining a future.

"Our greatest challenge this century is to transform our relationship with time. History suggests that our horizons have shortened before—but they can expand again. During the pandemic, our “presentism” has become even more extreme, but cultural norms have been challenged too. There may never be a better time to ask what future we actually want. 

"Some suggest we may be living at the “hinge of history,” a time uniquely influential for the future of humanity. We have never had so many ways to destroy ourselves through self-made dangers, from nuclear weapons to bioterror pathogens. But if we can plot a way through this period by embracing the long term, goes the argument, then our species—like other mammals—has the potential to survive for millions of years."

---

When I started this blog 14 years ago one of the first essays I penned focused on posterity as the key to our future. Posterity is prosperity in an economic sense but also in a social and cultural sense. It is providing for the future. Short-termism blindfolds us to the urgent need to reinstate posterity as a prominent factor in government planning and policy. Yes it comes with a cost, one that was willingly borne by previous generations, the people who built and paid for this country and the infrastructure that underwrote our society - the highways, railways, bridges and ports; the hospitals and libraries and so much more.  Why are we so reluctant to do for future generations what previous generations did for us?

Comments

  1. Distraction!! after all it's christmas eve.


    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VmMUM0HW6E

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lCIh2aCH_o

    best wishes.

    TB

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    1. Christmas at Tommy's - priceless! Thanks, TB, and a Merry Christmas to you and yours.

      Delete
  2. Off topic. ...
    Thanks for reviving this excellent forum for comment, Mound.

    Merry Christmas to all!

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    Replies
    1. And to you as well, NPoV. I expect we'll have no end of things to discuss this year. Interesting times indeed. I hope humanity finds the wisdom that was so often lacking this year. Cheers.

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  3. This was all said a could thousand years ago in Plato's Protagoras: people are lacking a specific skill of measurement. They keep seeing short term gains as bigger than distant losses because they can't measure pleasures and pain over time. It's the most important thing that schools should teach! Fast forward two millennia, and we still haven't learned. Anyway, glad to have found you again - and hope you had a Merry Christmas!

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    1. Hi, Marie. A belated Seasons Greetings to you also. I think it was Yuval Harari who suggested that humans are little better than other creatures, even plants, at dealing with change. In the millennia of human civilization, man-made change came at a snail's pace. Most people lived pretty much as their parents, grandparents and earlier ancestors had. They expected that their children, grandchildren and generations to follow would have a future akin to their own, wars and plagues aside.

      The MIT article contends that, today, our sense of a future extends 15, perhaps 20 years after which it goes dark. Science can warn of dire consequences 30, 50 or 80 years hence but it falls flat and we become inured to it.

      Just as we're not inclined to take stock of the future, creeping normalcy is busy burying the near past. I remember seeing my own neighbourhood 25 years ago when it was an orchard. Most of my neighbours don't even know that and I doubt the rest think of it very often.

      I came of age in the 60s. How many of my contemporaries recall the climate we enjoyed back then when teenagers might spend most of the summer working to achieve that perfect tan. Today, half an hour in the summer sun can leave you microwaved. The transformation over just a half century is staggering by any geologic measure and ought to be alarming. Except what was normal then and had been normal for centuries is now forgotten, displaced by a new normal. So we're not looking ahead and we're steadily erasing our sense of the past.

      Imagine driving down a city street where traffic is maybe moving at 30 km./hr. You're not looking five blocks down the road. There's no need. What's going to affect you is pretty much what's happening within a block. Then you get to the highway but you're still only looking a block ahead until something horrible happens.

      Consider climate change. Those nations that have already made major reductions in carbon emissions have one thing in common. They have passed legislations that binds current and future governments to specific reduction targets. Here in Canada we make lofty promises of major cuts in 10 year increments - 10, 20, 50 years down the road. Only we've been making those same promises for an awfully long time all the while our emissions have increased. Those governments that mandate a long-term view and impose it on themselves and governments to follow, implement change. Those that don't make sincere promises.

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  4. @ Marie
    This can maybe, possibly , well nearly be relevant.

    https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/dec/27/holocaust-survivor-anita-lasker-wallfisch-uk-holocaust-memorial-learning-centre

    In this case we measure our disgust and disapproval of the past by erecting a monument to what exactly?
    We live in an age of bullshit and blind siding

    Some suggest that next year will be the great reset!

    Another is the habits we have embraced in the neoliberal era.

    Sadly the old habits are going to break at the seams as the various antidotes to Covid become available.
    Without re education and a move to responsibility above rights we have a tough year ahead.

    TB






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    1. Just a couple of days ago a friend asked me to find out what channel was streaming "The Valley of Tears." It's a new movie about the Yom Kippur war of 1973. A vicious battle was waged on the Golan Heights. Great carnage ensued as Arabs slaughtered Israelis while Israelis slaughtered Arabs. Once the sands had soaked up the blood and detritus it was memorialized by calling the battlefield The Valley of Tears. There's a touch of "remember the Alamo" to it. "Go tell the Spartans."

      We do much the same every November 11 when stalwarts gather at town Cenotaphs to memorialize those who sacrificed their lives for King and country. We imbue the dead with a perfect, noble bravery as though they had grabbed their rifles and charged into the teeth of Nazi machine guns. Our very need to remember them this way actually debases their deaths. The big killer for ground troops was shrapnel, jagged shards of white hot shrapnel that tore through bodies. It might just take one guy out of several, the rest would remain uninjured. A sniper would pick one target out of many. Just rotten luck if it's you.

      I know this all too well. My dad's luck ran out. Shrapnel got him from his face, his neck, his torso and abdomen, down to his calves. One minute he was a platoon commander. The next minute he wasn't. No medals for getting fucked up (unless you're American).

      It's said if they had to bury you in the field, they wrapped the body in your own blanket. Then, when they sent your pay to your widow it was docked five bucks for "kit not returned." That's what my dad told me. Doesn't sound particularly reverential does it?

      Delete
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