Short-termism

I’m not, by nature, a person concerned with the short-term. If I lie awake worrying, there’s a better chance that I’m worrying about the eventual heat-death of the universe than what might happen at work tomorrow. An hour, a day, a year are nothing. I can stand on my head that long. Give me the long-term. Let’s talk about what’s going to happen over decades and generations. That’s what’s going to hold my interest.

Focusing on the long-term has advantages. It helps me cope with a lot of the bad things that happen. For example, in the fight for racial justice, I take hope from demographics. I know that over the next generation, white people will become a minority in the United States, and there’s no going back. At some point, white-supremacy simply won’t have the numbers to be sustainable. I know that’s abstract and won’t work for everyone. It might even be my own version of burying my head in the sand. For me, though, the evening news would be unbearable without that hope.

However, there is a great, big but which shows itself every November. For a long time now, I’ve struggled with arguments like the one presented here. How am I supposed to tell a Black person essentially, “Hang in there. If things go the way I think they’re going to go, maybe your kids or grandkids won’t have to be afraid of being murdered by the police?” At best it’s condescending, insensitive, and heartless even though I don’t mean it in those ways. A long-term perspective just isn’t appropriate when people are suffering in the here and now, especially for those who are suffering in the here and now.

So, for matters of practical politics, I adopt a short-term view. “Biden wasn’t my first choice, I know he’s not perfect, but Trump is an existential threat. . .” I never feel good about this, though. I’m vulnerable to the fact that the lesser of two evils is still evil, but it goes deeper than that. I can’t shake the feeling that short-termism is what caused a lot of our problems in the first place.

When they were writing the Constitution, the founding fathers knew how badly slavery conflicted with the ideals of the Revolution. There was a real effort to ban the slave trade from the outset. Georgia and South Carolina flat refused any attempt to do so. So, a short-term compromise was reached. The federal government was kept from passing any laws that interfered with the slave trade or individual states’ treatment of slaves until 1808. The southern states felt protected while the abolitionists told themselves that by 1808, the slave trade would have died a natural death without government intervention since it was trending in that direction anyway. Of course, the trade did not die a natural death. And, in 1808, when the federal government started passing laws designed to end the slave trade, the south made sure the laws had no teeth or were improperly enforced.

That kind of moral abomination may not be the result every time we make a short-term compromise, but it feels like that danger is real. Is that just what short-termism does? I don’t know the answer to that, but I also don’t see that we have any choice. There isn’t a long-term option.

Another term of Trump really is an existential threat. Biden really is the only way to stop Trump. Trump will really try to maintain power through any means necessary. Biden really needs his victory to be so decisive that the courts, the military, and everyone else are forced to accept it. The pressing needs of the present have blotted out real future considerations. I really want us to survive the short-term so I can get back to worrying about the long-term.

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