Politics  •  February 2, 2017

Political Fight: Should We Think Short-Term or Long-Term?

Now with everyone fired up about getting involved politically, interesting differences are emerging between short-term thinkers and long-term thinkers. The former is often frustrated by the latter because the solutions the latter propose often feel too idealistic, abstract, and/or distant. In terms of timeline, where should our target be? Before we answer this question, let’s think about how the temporal difference in our thinking emerges.

We learn and develop long-term thinking over time. None of us were born with it. By default, we are short-term (or immediate-term) thinkers. I am reminded of this fact when I observe how my daughter thinks. She is now twelve and it’s only in the last few years that she has been able to dress appropriately for the weather before stepping out. I was stunned that, even at around age eight, she still could not predict the consequences of ten minutes in the future. I would tell her, “It’s really cold outside. You need to wear your sweater.” She would then say, “No! I’m hot.” She couldn’t see that I wasn’t talking about now, but about what is going to happen when we are outside in a few minutes.

What is an effective way to teach her how to think long-term? I think the right answer is: Do nothing. Part of the reason it took so long for her to learn how to dress appropriately for the weather is that my wife and I kept preparing her for the future. If we nag her to wear a sweater every time it’s cold outside, she would never learn because she would not be able to make the connection between the cause and the effect. She would simply take for granted that she feels comfortable outside in her sweater. Only pain or suffering can cause her to think.

Even as adults, most of us are short-term thinkers because that is our natural tendency. Long-term thinking requires cognitive intervention, which means we do not need to encourage others to think short-term. They will by default. What we are desperately lacking in our society is long-term thinking. In fact, the political situation we face today is a consequence of our short-term thinking.

This article, “Our New Age of Contempt” by Karen Stohr in The New York Times is a good example. She introduces Immanuel Kant into our current political debate about Donald Trump. She argues that contemptuous ways of engaging our political opponents are counter-productive. Many short-term thinkers would roll their eyes at her argument. “OK, whatever. Let’s talk about what we can do to block Trump’s immigration ban.”

The irony is that the articles like this are not suggesting long-term solutions; they are in fact short-term solutions. Stohr is suggesting a more effective way to communicate and negotiate with our opponents today, now, for the next thing we are going to say. In fact, we should have been practicing it in the past. After all, how did the Democrats (particularly the urban elites) lose the support of the rural blue-collar workers of America? These are the people the Left is presumably fighting for. In my view, there is nothing more urgent and immediate than changing the way we talk with our fellow citizens.

But just like with my daughter, it’s not possible to nag short-term thinkers into thinking long-term. If you watch how people cook, it becomes clear what their orientations are. A long-term thinker cleans as she cooks. A short-term thinker lets his sink pile up with cookware. If he manages to finish cooking before it becomes impossible to continue cooking, he is lucky. For instance, he might get stuck when he needs to drain his pasta because the sink is full. He might scream for your help. “Quick! Can you clear the sink?! The pasta will overcook!” As a long-term thinker, what should you do? It’s a double-bind situation. Fucked if you do, fucked if you don’t. If you help him, he will never learn. If you don’t help him, he would be pissed at you. You could help him and try to tell him to clean as he goes, but once the immediate problem is solved, short-term thinkers don’t care about any lessons you might want to teach him. After all, thinking about how to avoid the same problem in the future is long-term thinking. If you don’t help him and tell him, “I told you so,” he’ll just be bitter and angry, and make a point of never cleaning as he cooks. You can’t win.

Extending this analogy to our political problems, what is the pragmatic solution to resolve these differences? I would say leave short-term thinkers alone. There are already too many short-term thinkers in this world. We should dedicate our time and effort to thinking only about long-term solutions. Because if we don’t, most people won’t. But someone has to.