long-termism > noun [mass noun] the practice of making decisions with a view towards long-term objectives or consequences.[i]
Few vices of contemporary life have been more publicly derided yet institutionally persistent than short-term thinking. ‘Short-termism’ has become a dirty word, and it does not take a great deal of retrospection to understand why.
Deregulatory initiatives championed by Wall Street investment banks enabled the blithe risk-taking that, by 2007, precipitated the global financial crisis. After multi-trillion-dollar bank bailouts and tepid efforts at reform, the global financial sector remains vulnerable to the same destructive behavior that periodically stokes up systemic banking crises. Unsustainable trade imbalances between Northern and Southern European states fueled the borrowing that led to the Greek debt crisis, which is being prolonged by myopic, creditor-imposed fiscal austerity, with repercussions to be felt for generations to come. At the same time, a quarterly earnings obsession and legal requirement to maximize ‘shareholder value’ have led management at corporations like ExxonMobil and Gazprom to adopt a policy of postponing as long as possible the global energy transition away from fossil fuels, essentially ‘greenwashing’ their positions on climate change risks. President Obama, in a recent interview with Vox, spoke regretfully of the consequences of a system of corporate governance with “international capital that is demanding maximizing short-term profits”. Add to these systemic financial problems the incredulity and levity with which humankind has so far dealt with looming risks of astronomical and earth-based natural calamities, resource depletion, nuclear war, terrorism, totalitarianism, advanced nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, and it becomes evident that short-termism has truly catastrophic potential.[ii]
There is a long history of Cassandra-ism that has caused some people to be skeptical of long-term prognoses, because they turned out to be wrong—most recently and influentially, the nuclear winter predictions culminating in the early 1980s. And yet it would appear now, more than ever, important to take into account a variety of dire possibilities, because there are real medium- and long-term dangers today that did not exist in the past. The nature of the ‘long-term’ view has changed; as the title of Jörg Friedrich’s recent book on the risks of climate change and future energy scarcity suggests, “The future is not what it used to be”.
To be effective, national public policy initiatives on long run issues from financial reform and debt restructuring to climate change mitigation and disarmament all require strategic social and economic planning sustained over decades, surviving the vicissitudes of party competition and the succession of political leadership. Although politicians do not have quarterly earning reports, their purview does not extend much further than the next election. Politicians in the Western democracies spend much of their time—often half in the U.S. and a quarter in Europe—“dialing for dollars” to run campaigns and retain power. Under these circumstances, national dialogue and legislation on long run policy issues is rare or quickly embroiled in political budget battles amid the grandstanding and disinformation of quadrennial, lobbying-infused election cycles and ephemeral, spectacle-driven news media cycles. There are a few exceptions, of course, but by and large, short-termism reigns in the political arena.
In response to the juggernaut of short-termism in politics and corporate governance, a sophisticated critique of what Cicero once called “the tyranny of the present’” is germinating in social science departments. Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage opened their History Manifesto, which appeared online in October 2014 and has stirred controversy in the historical profession, with the indictment that “a spectre is haunting our time: the spectre of the short term”. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, political theorist John Dunn’s Breaking Democracy’s Spell, political theorist David Runciman’s The Confidence Trap, and economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century have also received extraordinary attention in their respective disciplines and become topics of public debate. What unites these scholars is a shared belief that the near future appears ominous and that avoiding the worst perils this century can only happen with a shift in emphasis towards the longue durée.
But beyond refocusing academia’s attention on long-term historical processes, they are also pleas to engage in policymaking based on some kind of long run perspective. Admonishing the Eurogroup’s handling of Greek debt negotiations, Piketty urges in an interview with Die Zeit, “at some point people need to look toward the future … Europe was founded on debt forgiveness and investment in the future”. Runciman writes that“the successes of democracy over the past hundred years have not resulted in more mature, far-sighted, and self-aware democratic societies”, but instead “democratic politics is as childish and petulant as it has ever been: we squabble, we moan, we despair”.[iii] What might help us overcome “the dilemmas of collective action and our deep-seated preferences for short-term comfort and convenience over long-term security and flourishing”, Dunn writes, “is a somewhat better apprehension of the magnitude of the risks we are choosing to run and the brevity of the time scale over which we have thus far chosen to run them”.[iv] Guldi, Armitage, Fukuyama, Dunn, Runciman, and Piketty all insist that long-term thinking is necessary to avert the repetition of past mistakes or the unwitting creation of new ones.
The budding critique of short-termism extends to the institutional level. Oxford University’s Martin Commission for Future Generations was formed “to address the growing short-term preoccupations of modern politics and business and identify ways of overcoming today’s gridlock in key international organizations”. The slightly more foreboding Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University was founded for “the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction”, in order to ensure “that our own species has a long-term future”. Some political bodies have joined the chorus: the Finnish parliament created the Committee for the Future, tasked with generating “active and initiative-generating dialogue with the Government on major future problems and means of solving them”, while Hungary’s Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations has quasi-judicial power to strike down legislation that harms “citizens’ right to a healthy environment”. There have also been ongoing discussions about whether there should be a High Commissioner for Future Generations at the United Nations.
The concerns of these scholars, academic institutions, and governments extend beyond the ephemera of political headlines or the waxing and waning of commercial markets. They share in common a belief that our generation may be unwittingly passing on to posterity a planet more unequal and inequitable, or worse, pillaged and plundered.
Modern denunciations of short-termism and exhortations to take a longer-term view are not entirely novel, but a vestige of the past. Concern about the plight of posterity is documented as early as the fragments of the Athenian statesman Solon from the 6th century BC (see Daniel Unruh’s recent essay on Solon in the pages of King’s Review). It was a common thought in the writings of Solon, Herodotus, and Aristotle, that even after death, the misfortunes or indignities of one’s children or grandchildren can ruin one’s reputation, and thus one’s “life”. “Though a person may have lived a blessed life into his old age and died accordingly”, Aristotle writes in Nicomachean Ethics,
many reverses may happen in connection with his descendants. It would indeed be odd if the dead person also were to share in these vicissitudes, and be sometimes happy, sometimes wretched. But it would also be odd if the fortunes of descendants had no effect on their ancestors for any time at all.[v]
For many Ancient Athenians, the prospect of falling into disrepute was reason enough to worry about the fate of one’s progeny.
Innervated by similar concerns after decades of war-making, the Constitution of the Iroquois Native Americans urged the people of the confederacy to think and plan with a view towards how present decisions will impact descendants seven generations into the future. “Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do”, the Constitution advises, but “look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation”. For the Iroquois, long-termism was not a fleeting concern, but an integral, inescapable facet of the day-to-day. “We are together facing a very grim future […] We have watched within our own nations and territories the exploitation of not only the people but the resources without regard for the seventh generation to come”, writes Oren Lyons, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, one of the six Iroquois Nations. And in confronting this history,“we are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given to us as chiefs, to make sure every decision we make relates to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come”.[vi] Sentinels of future generations, the Iroquois derived strength and vivacity from their radically extended purview. Long-termism was not a part-time preoccupation of political leaders, but a paradigm with which to mold daily decisions with a view towards intergenerational equity.
The Iroquois mandate to think and plan seven generations ahead is a powerful, emphatic ideal. But in practice, wherever such behavior is not the norm, thinking more than a century ahead can be unsettling, putting one out-of-step with the acquiescence of the day-to-day, with the short-termism endemic to political and financial institutions. As cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees writes in the New Statesman, looking ahead at risks and planning for “trends beyond 2050” should make us feel “anxious”. What would it mean to be innervated by the thought of the struggles of our descendants living in 150 years, by which time the depletion of finite, fossil energy resources and the breaching of ecological limits could be irreversible, or by which time the brinkmanship and bellicosity of inveterate war-making may prove ultimately fatal to civilization? Or, to put it in the form of concrete directives: what would it mean to, within the next two decades, finance the next generation of energy and transport infrastructure, to quell the nuisance of congestion, emissions, pollution, and energy insecurity for the benefit of our descendants, or for sake of our reputation? To pursue expeditious disarmament and peace-making efforts—beyond the conveniently ignored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—for sake of human survival?
That social and economic planning with intergenerational foresight is a rarity in most parts of the world today, at the very moment when there is a ubiquitous surge in criticism of short-termism, should be puzzling. It should prompt some rather difficult questions about what kind of ‘long-termism’ we are after. How far ahead should humankind think and plan—decades, centuries, millennia—and on whose behalf? Should our time horizon depend on the particular social issue in question—e.g. the issue of national debt, like climate change, may require thinking ahead 150 years, whereas the issue of safely storing radioactive nuclear waste or preventing a fatal earth-asteroid collision requires thinking ahead tens of thousands of years. How do we distinguish genuine long run concern from sanctimonious posturing? And how much long-termism do we really need, if many instances of human achievement that we retrospectively celebrate as examples of forward-thinking actually arose from short-term pressures and concerns?
It quickly becomes apparent that pleas for ‘the long term’ as an antidote to ‘the short term’ are not as clear-cut as they may seem.
In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the protagonist Alvy Singer, as a young boy, is taken to the doctor by his distressed mother, who appeals to the doctor for help because Alvy won’t do his homework anymore. “What’s the point?”, Alvy responds forlornly, “the universe is expanding. The universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, some day it will break apart and that will mean the end of everything”.
Long-termism, when taken to its logical extreme, can be debilitating. But when used in the right measure, on the right time scale, and for the right objectives, the sobriety of long-term thinking is vital to the development of democracy and civilization. What form such ‘long-termism’ should take, and with whose objectives or consequences in mind, are questions I pose but cannot hope to answer here. I claim only that the current proliferation of intergenerational thinking has a wealth of historical precedents to draw upon, and that without a conversation with that history, without the imposition of the unapologetic long view—however far-off or preposterous to public sensibilities of the time—the vainglory of each successive generation will in the final analysis be exposed for what it is: a relic of humanity’s exceedingly limited foresight and extraordinary capacity for self-deception.
With this opening article, the King’s Review is launching a new strand that will explore the opportunities, challenges, and setbacks of long-termism in the 21st century. Over the next few months, we are keen to bring together a forum of writers to debate the uses, and potential abuses, of long-term thinking across a range of disciplines and issue areas. Submissions and responses are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Oxford Dictionary of English, 2010, p. 1043.
[ii] See, for example: Nick Bostrom and Milan M. Cirkovic (editors), Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford University Press, 2011.
[iii] David Runciman, The Confidence Trap, 2014, Princeton University Press, preface, XV.
[iv] John Dunn, Breaking Democracy’s Spell, Yale University Press, 2014, p. 146.
[v] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 16-17.
[vi] Christopher Vecsey and Robert W. Venables (editors). American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse University Press, 1980, p. 173.