The long term

One of the advantages to not being in politics is that you can actually think about issues facing the country without worrying about reelection in a few years. Because politicians operate with that constraint constantly, it colors all the decisions they make. Not just formal policies adopted, but what issues even get priority or discussed at all. Questions that can be distilled into easy campaign talking points, problems with an apparently easy solution.

Terrorists in a foreign land? Drone strikes or special forces operations give an easy winner in time for November. Elected [ostensibly] on a platform of fiscal conservatism? Propose a budget that cuts some social programs and research funding (maybe even some military spending, if you’re feeling bold) yet leaves Social Security and Medicare untouched. Waves of immigrants causing disquiet among constituents? Build a wall, deport some, strike a deal with transit countries to hold them there. Meanwhile, problems like climate change and environmental impact, the rise of automation and loss of middle-class jobs to low-wage service work, increasing inequality, and the troubling concentration of power in a decreasing number of companies in industries like the media go without any serious action or even discussion at times.

If you were designing a government from scratch, you’d face this fundamental problem. How do you get decision makers to focus on the long term rather than the short term? This is not to say that short-term problems don’t deserve attention–indeed, often they are pressing crises or such. But long-term problems should not be allowed to fester unaddressed because no politician wants to start a program or change something that he or she won’t be around to take credit for, that may cause things to worsen before they get better, or (worst of all) that his or her successor and rival may be able to take credit for instead. In an elective government, this manifests itself through terms. Suppose a president is newly elected. He or she then has 4 years (less, really) to make the case for reelection. Even if term limits are imposed, or the president won’t seek reelection, the party system means that he will undoubtedly want to ensure that his successor is from the “right team.”

So are longer terms an answer? Perhaps, but it’s not without its own issues. Longer terms–say, six or more years–may allow a politician to pursue longer-term goals, but it comes with its own issues. One advantage of shorter terms is that it allows the people–ostensibly the ultimate authority in any representative form of government to regularly check in and impose the ultimate veto on elected representatives, voting their asses out. It’s a nice idea in practice, but given the rate of incumbent reelection in the House of Representatives, I’m not sure Americans are too adept at this–although this may well be more a function of gerrymandering and the lack of general interest in party primaries than anything else.

I want to take some time and explore some topics that I think are real long-term questions. These aren’t necessarily obscure, but they are not part of the regular political discourse at the moment, as much as I may like them to be. I envision this being an ongoing sort of series on this blog. Some of my ideas for long term problems/potential solutions:

  • Universal basic income
  • Climate change
  • Media oligopolies
  • Electoral and political reform
  • Campaign finance

I’m open to any ideas or critiques, as always. I think I may start with UBI, although I have some [in my humble opinion] interesting thoughts on electoral and political reform that I may turn to soon also.


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