The spectrum of problems facing the United States—and for that matter the rest of the world—are vast. Economic, social, environmental and cultural crises all seem to loom ever larger and ever nearer on the horizon.
And what are we doing about this? Remarkably little. Our politics are frozen as competing interests fight for their preferred outcomes at minimal, or no, cost to themselves.
Which it turns out isn’t actually all that hard to explain. Consider the following premises:
1, People want things.
2. People prefer to get what they want with minimum cost to themselves.
3. People inevitably perceive the cost of some social change as more important—good or bad—when it affects themselves personally than when it affects other people.
4. In any choice matrix, if a person can get what they want at others’ expense, they prefer to get what they want at others’ expense.
5. In any case in which the expected returns are unclear and likely to come to fruition — if at all — some time in the future, but the costs associated with the future potential returns are immediate and clear, people resist current expenditures that may only possibly lead to future benefits.
These simple dicta explain quite a lot.
—Tea partiers think government is profligate and that teachers, police and firefighters get too generous pensions while they (the tea partiers) suffer. The solution? Take back the pensions. Restrict bargaining rights. But no matter what, don’t means test Social Security or engage in honest accounting for Medicare. Those programs (which many tea partiers benefit from) are important and ostensibly earned.
—Need to solve the budget? Well, if you’re a Republican, you cut programs .. . at least those aimed at the poor. Defense is sacrosanct … even if the F-22 has flown exactly NO combat missions in the 10 years it has existed and America has been at war. (At $220 million a copy, I might add.) And NEVER raise taxes. By contrast, if you’re a Democrat, you raise taxes … at least on the better off. And you cut defense spending… but you don’t reform SS or Medicare.
—Want to reduce global warming? Buy a Prius … but ignore the vast chain of transportation costs, refining of rare minerals and toxic chemical waste that underlies its production.
I could offer many, many more such comments, but let me conclude with this thought: global public policy is pretty much the same as local public policy: it’s entirely dominated by NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard). So long as we want things cheap, and are willing to nod and wink about the real costs of the choices we make, or can fantasize that we can get others to pay for the things we benefit from, we’re going to be frozen in policy terms.
The system rewards simplistic, short-sighted, short-term answers no matter how complicated or long-term the problems are. No one should be surprised at the result.