Why do we discount the future?

Ian Welsh wrote on his blog (one of my favorites on my Blogs I Like page) that we Americans don’t care about the future any more.

The men and women who lived through the Great Depression always planned for the future. They built power plants which produced more power than needed, bridges which could handle more traffic, water purification plants which produced more water than needed. They made sure infrastructure would last for decades, and then built it so well it outlasted even their specifications.

Their heirs, the Silents and the Boomers, thought this was absurd.  Why not party now, and let the future take care of itself?

Call this the “death bet”. In its pure form, the death bet is just that, a bet that when the bill comes do, you’ll be dead.  If you live a good life and die owing millions, well, what do you care?

But someone will pay that bill.  Maybe it will be your creditors, who might even go out of business, unable to collect what they are owed.  Perhaps it will be your heirs, if the millions adhere to property.  Perhaps it will be someone you don’t even know.

But someone will pay.  The good life, bought by debt, is always paid for.

The death bet is why we are not dealing with climate change, even though we know that it is coming and we know it will kill hundreds of millions and might even destroy our entire society.  The death bet is why our governments make huge tax cuts today knowing that either taxes will have to be increased in the future or spending will have to be drastically cut because the spending is not used for investment.  But in the meantime the government can borrow, or print money, so who cares?  The politicians who make the tax cuts won’t be in power, and many of the people who receive the cuts will be dead, so what do they care?

The death bet is why America had a 2.4 trillion dollar infrastructure deficit as of 2009. It is why Californians voted in 1978 to disallow property tax increases of more than 2% per year. And it is why tuition rates have increased by hundreds of percentage points more than inflation in many countries.

A death bet always come due. It just isn’t always paid by those who made it.

via The Death Bet.

Why is this?  I think it is reinforced by a philosophy that says pursuit of self-interest in a free market is sufficient to produce a good society, and moral values just get in the way.  This is not a question of liberalism vs. conservativism per se.  You can believe in individual self-reliance and oppose the welfare state, and still be concerned about your neighbors and those who will come after you.   The house I live in was built in the 1920s, before anybody dreamed of a New Deal.  Yet it is more solidly built than many of the houses built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Another factor is that American society since its beginning has been continually transformed by rapid technological change.  Why make an automobile or a computer that will last 25 years when it will be replaced by a better model in five years?  We become habituated to focusing on the new at the expense of maintaining the old.

Some of our problems seem so intractable that it is easier to try to postpone the day of reckoning rather than to solve them.  While it would be perfectly feasible and economically beneficial to launch a public works problem to repair America’s crumbling bridges, dams and water and sewerage systems (what Welsh calls the infrastructure debt), it is much harder to face up to the need for sustainable energy and the problem of global warming.  These would require daunting transformations of society that I, for one, find it virtually impossible to face up to.

That is why apocalyptic religion, and apocalyptic fiction and movies are so popular.  If we are living in the End Times, if civilization is going to collapse anyway, why bother to invest in infrastructure, education or scientific research.

At age 77, I probably will win Welsh’s “death bet.”  I expect to fall apart before American society does.  I guess that makes me part of the problem.

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One Response to “Why do we discount the future?”

  1. Bob O Says:

    If I recall correctly, Native Americans cared enough about their environment that they made no changes to it without thinking of how it would affect seven generations out. A far cry from a CEO who would run over his grandmother for a .001% quarterly profit.

    Like

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