Democratic Shortsightedness: From Concern to Change, Part 1

By Teddy Tawil

This is the fourth article in a series on shortsighted policy-making in democracies. It will begin to explore institutional reforms and systematic changes that could promote more wise, forward-facing policy. 

To catch up on the previous parts, please visit the following links below:

Part I

Part II

Part III


Free money? 

Last article, to consider whether democracies or autocracies are better at crafting forward-thinking policy, we first mentally traveled to West Africa.

This time, in thinking about how to improve the ability of democracies to implement prudent policy, our initial destination is somewhere a lot less foreign: your local mall (presuming it’s still around post-COVID).

Picture yourself taking a leisurely stroll through its shiny tiled halls: Build-a-Bear to your right, Gamestop to your left, on your way to Auntie Anne’s.

However, before you make it to order cinnamon sugar pretzel nuggets, you see a sign that catches your eye, announcing “Free money, $5.” Below, sure enough, is a table with a pile of neatly stacked 5-dollar bills, staffed by an unassuming 20-something.

Understandably, you’re skeptical. This has to be a scam. You even know their tactics: The conniving young marketer will insist you aren’t being swindled as they make you fill out some Sisyphean survey. After completing it, you’ll “win” the “chance” to get what will in all likelihood be not a bill from the stack, which is for show, but a $5 gift card. Nice try.

Except, if this was a certain mall in Cambridge, Massachusetts around 2010, the money really was free. In this case, the “marketer” would have been an MIT undergrad carrying out an experiment designed by behavioral economist Dan Ariely and two colleagues to test how much the public distrusts schemes promising something for nothing.

Evidently, the answer is a lot: just one percent of passersby stopped when the students offered $1. Even when the students gave away $50, fewer than one in five people stopped. This occurred despite the fact that pedestrians could ostensibly see others, also skeptical but curious, talking with the students, asking “wait, there’s really nothing I have to do?,” to which the student would respond, “yeah, I promise, the money is yours,” before the incredulous mallgoer would cautiously walk away.

I don’t mean to shame anyone for not stopping. Frankly, I probably would have walked right by too. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and people are right to be wary of “free money” when those who typically offer it are self-anointed Nigerian princes or faux gurus.

Yet surprisingly, many people metaphorically walk past free money all the time. The difference is that the offer isn’t suspicious, and the money they’re “walking by” is less like $5 or $50 and more like $500 or even $5,000.

Many companies incentivize their employees to save for retirement by offering employer matching programs. In these cases, the employer agrees to match the worker’s contribution to their retirement plan up to a certain point. For example, perhaps the company will add $1 for every $2 the employee saves, up to 5 percent of their income.

Financially, it’s almost always worth it to take full advantage. Although it may be more complicated for those with very pressing needs, economics Nobel laureate Richard Thaler and prominent legal scholar Cass Sunstein write in their popular book Nudge that “This match is virtually free money. Taking full advantage of the match should be a no-brainer for all but the most impatient or cash-strapped households.”

What percentage of workers utilize such plans? Of course it won’t be 100 percent, and maybe not even 90 percent, but surely at least 80 percent do.

Not even. One report found that 25 percent of workers eligible for an employer-match don’t fully take advantage of it, despite the fact that many companies take measures actively encouraging them to participate. They pass up an average of $1,336 every year, effectively declining an annual stimulus check.

Other studies paint an even more discouraging picture. One focused on plans at 25 British companies that don’t even require the employee to pay in and can be fully paid for by the employer, but require workers to actively sign up. It found that just 51 percent of employees bother to participate. Another looked at American workers who were old enough to withdraw funds with no tax penalty. They can literally make free money, no strings attached, by simply putting funds into their accounts, immediately withdrawing them, and keeping the employer match. Yet 36 percent fail to sign up or save the full amount eligible to be matched.[mfn]Figuring that this 36 percent were perhaps unaware of the “free lunch” they were passing up, the study’s authors then distributed a survey educating employees about their ability to make free money. Clearly, that was not the issue: among those who received the survey, contribution rates went up by not 20 percent, not 10 percent, not 5 percent or nor even 1 percent, but a measly, statistically insignificant .67 percent.[/mfn] 

It’s no wonder, then, that democratic shortsightedness is such an issue. How can we expect our elected officials, who are constantly pressured by election challenges, annual audits, shortsighted interest groups, and scrutiny from a myopic media to plan for an uncertain future we can’t even plan for ourselves when we know it’s in our best interests? Under our current system of government, we can’t. Even the brave soul who sticks out their neck to look past the present will often find themselves confronted with a challenger in their party’s primary, lobbyists keen to see them out of office, and a successor who reverses course.

Given that this problem is baked into nearly every facet of our political system, from the incentives of politicians to the psychology of the voters to whom they’re accountable, one would think there would be too few proposals on how to combat it. However, thanks to the inventive work of imaginative academics, we actually have the opposite problem: too many ideas. Way too many. There are hundreds of proposals, which run the gamut from the more obvious (longer electoral terms) to the far more ambitious or, as some might say, quixotic (disenfranchising the elderly, letting 8 year-olds vote, picking legislators randomly, and establishing a whole separate “future generations” branch of government).

Although I applaud the creativity of many envelope-pushing suggestions, there’s only a slim chance they will be passed by a government that enacts about one-fifth of its legislation to name post offices. In other words, much like a typical Drake album, lots of what’s there is probably just worth skipping over, in this case simply because it’s relatively impractical.

However, there are also a number of more modest, realistic changes that could serve as effective “contact lenses” for our shortsighted democracy and that our government would do well to consider.

A roadmap to reform

Before we dive in, it’s important to define our terms. What makes a “good reform”? The framework which academics typically use to evaluate the proposals usually consists of some variation on the following three factors:

First, effectiveness. To what extent will this change help solve the problem of democratic myopia?

Second, overall desirability. In addressing democratic myopia, does this change introduce other, possibly even worse issues? In particular, does it come at the cost of making our government less accountable to its constituents, even if they are shortsighted?

And third, feasibility. What’s the probability this change could pass in the real world? As Oxford Professor Simon Caney points out, that’s not the only relevant factor here, either: What’s the chance that, once passed, this change would be rolled back or reversed?

I’ve used these three factors to assess the proposed changes as well, as I think they each highlight important factors that deserve close consideration.

I’ve also chosen to organize my exploration into what I believe are the most promising ideas using the four groups Caney employs to categorize the drivers of democratic myopia. Caney divides the reasons for shortsightedness into four groups—so-called “first image,” “second image,” “third image,” and “fourth image” causes—a framework which he in turn adopts from noted International Relations scholar Kenneth Waltz.

  • First image causes include all of the cognitive biases that, on an individual level, make us ill-equipped to properly conceptualize and address long-term issues (think, for example, the human tendency to minimize gradual, creeping problems).
  • Second image causes consist of the features of our political system that systematically discourage planning ahead (think, for example, frequent elections).
  • Third image causes have to do with our fundamental inability to bind future governments to long-term policy commitments (think, for example, the Trump administration pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords).
  • Finally, fourth image causes stem from the inherent uncertainty of the future. Our inability to reliably predict how events will play out, especially on the time scales of decades or centuries, threatens to diminish the effectiveness of far-sighted policymaking and, in doing so, discourages political actors from engaging in it in the first place (think, for example, reluctance to take more drastic actions to fight climate change due to uncertainty about the magnitude and time horizon of its effects).

Through this structure, I hope to make it easier to see what class of root causes each change specifically seeks to address. This article will go over “first image” solutions; future entries will explore proposals to combat “second image,” “third image,” and “fourth image” issues.

First image

At the most basic level, shortsighted voters bear much of the responsibility for myopic policymaking. Their tendency to prioritize the immediate provides the impetus, or at a minimum, a justification for the politicians who represent them to do the same. 

Fighting narrow thinking on an individual level seems ideal because it would allow our government to preserve the all-important value of democratic representation. Many political reforms to promote longtermism involve delegating authority to agents less accountable to the people; the fear is that there may be no other way to overcome the electorate’s inclination towards imprudence. However, if the electorate were no longer so shortsighted, then that would eliminate any need to ignore or modify their preferences.

However, one recent Finnish study questions the need to focus on “first image” causes of myopia. Surveying 830 people, it found that respondents were equally likely to support a given policy regardless of whether it took five to ten years to pay off or just zero to two. Thus, the researchers concluded that “these findings add to the growing evidence which suggests that citizens’ short-sightedness is not a very strong driver of democratic myopia.” So case closed, let’s move onto “second image” and the political system, shall we? Not so fast, in my opinion, for four reasons.

First, while the study paints an optimistic picture regarding how voters evaluate policy that will pay off in five to ten years, it is far less encouraging on how voters see policy they’ll have to wait 20-30 years to benefit from. It found that on average, they are 3.7 percentage points less likely to support such policies compared with those that begin to pay off in two years or fewer. Long-term policy also often requires small tax increases and involves some uncertainty about the size of its eventual benefits. However, worryingly, the study found that even small tax increases made respondents feel seven percentage points less favorable towards 20 to 30-year policies. It also found that even if these decades-long policies were anticipated to generate “slight improvements,” respondents felt nearly the same about them as when the policies were not expected to lead to any improvements at all (only the expectation of “substantial improvements” helped).

Second, the study surveyed only Finns. Finns tend to trust their government a lot more than Americans do: in 2016, 80 percent of Finns said they were satisfied with democracy in their country, and 74 percent expressed trust in their legislature. In 2019, only 39 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with our democracy, and approval of Congress recently hit a 10-year high of just 35 percent. Many researchers suggest that trust in government plays a key role in whether citizens are willing to entrust it with long-term policy objectives[mfn]For a more in-depth discussion of this issue, see Good Economics for Hard Times by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, Chapter 8.[/mfn], which prompts us to question the applicability of these results to American politics. 

Third, as both social science research buffs and people who have made cursing out Nate Silver an election year-tradition know, even the best surveys are flawed.[mfn]To its credit, the Finnish study used a method called conjoint analysis, which may make its results more credible. This means that instead of directly asking respondents whether they preferred policies with immediate payoffs, the researchers asked the respondents to choose between random “sample policies” that varied in several ways, including in their time horizons. Based on their answers, the researchers could infer what factors did and did not matter to the respondents.[/mfn] In practice, actual voting behavior may provide a better measure of the shortsightedness, or lack thereof, of the electorate. Research has found that American voters reward politicians for pursuing disaster relief over far more cost-effective disaster prevention, suggesting that in real elections they are indeed somewhat shortsighted. Furthermore, even in high-trust and eco-conscious Norway, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have cut greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds at a cost equivalent to that of increasing the income tax from 36 to 37 percent, providing more discouraging evidence.

Fourth, even if the study is completely correct, the strength of people’s preferences matter. Weak support for farsighted policy may not be enough to overcome the other factors that impede its implementation. We will need to build a devoted, passionate constituency willing to prioritize long-term issues in order to effect change, especially change that roots out not just specific myopic policies, but also the institutions that lead to their systemic passage. 

As I discussed in the first article of the series, first image causes go beyond just the lack of diligence exhibited by those who fail to take advantage of employer matches; they’re baked into our psychology due to the conditions in which it developed, where planning ahead was subsumed by the need to not starve and to stave off pressing threats.

Thankfully, psychological predispositions aren’t inexorable, unchangeable features of who we are. People can be trained to overcome them. Indeed, I’ve previously discussed how Philip Tetlock showed that most people are very bad at making quantitative predictions about the future; like short-termism, our weakness at prognostication is also due to an array of cognitive biases, including confirmation bias, our tendency to make snap judgements and then seek out or interpret evidence in a way that confirms those judgements. However, in their bestseller Superforecasting, Tetlock and Dan Gardner explain that Tetlock was able to improve people’s predictive accuracy by an average of 10 percent over the course of a year simply by giving forecasters a basic, hour-long tutorial summarizing the principles of smart prediction.

Could Tetlock’s approach be used to improve foresight too? Could the solution involve training the public to think more telescopically?

Telescopic training or citizens, united?

Many prominent thinkers say so. In her book The Optimist’s Telescope, Obama climate advisor Bina Venkataraman writes that America could use scenario-planning activities modeled after war games to make catastrophes possibly yet to occur more visceral and real, encouraging voters to support proactive policy that would help prevent them. Certainly, vividly imagining a prospective climate refugee crisis, swaths of land potentially becoming uninhabitable, 500-year storms becoming routine occurrences, and even perhaps far worse like David Wallace-Wells does in The Uninhabitable Earth seems as though it would stir more people to action than a scary-looking graph will. A 2016 study published in the top journal Nature empirically confirms this hunch: it found that playing games involving thinking about the impacts of global warming on coastal communities increased hundreds of participants’ concern about the risks climate change poses on a local level, their support for action to combat these risks, and interestingly, even their perception that their mitigation efforts could make a difference.

Many other scholars argue on similar grounds that large-scale political meetings known as citizens’ assemblies could play a significant role in addressing systemic short-termism. Citizens’ assemblies are inclusive bodies where a group of random citizens, together meant to form a representative cross-section of society, discuss policy issues. They are not merely theoretical, and have actually been used by a number of countries in recent years to provide input on important policy debates. For instance, in 2016, the Irish Parliament established a citizens’ assembly that included 100 random members of the public. They were instructed to read intensively, deliberate, and ultimately issue recommendations regarding abortion, fixed-term parliaments, referendums, Ireland’s aging population, and climate change. This experiment in deliberative democracy was widely seen as a success: extensive publicization of the assembly’s meetings helped promote public buy-in, many participants became “deliberative democracy evangelists” after their experiences serving on the assembly, and the assembly’s recommendation to legalize abortion played a key role in pushing parliament to call a referendum on the issue that subsequently overturned Ireland’s abortion ban. Since, Spain, Belgium, Canada, and Britain have convened citizens’ assemblies to advise local and national governments.

Citizens’ assemblies are well-suited to advancing more future-focused governance, and academics have suggested a number of ways they could be used. Political scientist Graham Smith of the Center for the Study of Democracy explains that citizens’ assemblies are thought to “outperform more traditional democratic institutions in orientating participants to consider long-term implications” for two reasons. First, the process of random selection ensures that those of different races, classes, ideologies and more are all represented somewhat fairly, preventing elites and vested interests who desire maintaining the status quo from gaining disproportionate influence. Second, the atmosphere of reasoned thought and discourse that the environment of the assemblies facilitates helps participants reflect on the intergenerational consequences of policy actions, encouraging them to take a longer view of the future. 

Participatory democracy enthusiasts thus suggest that citizens’ assemblies could be used in one of two ways. First, America could follow Ireland’s lead, forming citizens’ assemblies on a more modest scale that would advise local and state governments or even the federal government on long-term issues. Second, citizens’ assemblies could be convened en masse by the thousands and used to encourage members of the public to think ahead, an Aristotelian idea which public philosopher Roman Krznaric proposes in his book The Good Ancestor. Krznaric envisions such assemblies meeting across the country, vested with significant legislative powers and modeled after the Future Design movement originating in Japan.[mfn]Future Design holds citizen meetings in which participants are divided into two groups, one acting as citizens from the present and the other, adorned in special robes, as future residents from the year 2060. Krznaric references multiple studies suggesting that the practitioners role-playing as future citizens are more willing to take drastic action on environmental policy and health care.[/mfn] The former would be a “second image” solution so I’ll leave it for a later section, but on the other hand, Krznaric’s proposal in large part targets the “first image” causes of myopia.

While Venkataraman’s games and Krznaric’s “intergenerational juries” could certainly be useful tools to encourage thinking ahead, I do not believe they are realistic large-scale solutions to systemic short-termism. Specifically, I have two fears:

First, I have doubts over whether they could be implemented effectively on the scale that would be necessary for them to make a significant difference. Setting up the infrastructure for society-wide scenario planning and citizens’ assemblies would be an arduous task, requiring large outlays that may be better spent on our nation’s schools or on healthcare. In addition, to be effective, each intervention would require a significant amount of people’s time. Citizens are not fond of even something as simple and necessary as studying to get their driver’s license; would they really buy into climate change visualization activities they are forced to complete? Ireland’s assembly took 12 weekends and even more time due to reading requirements; given how much people hate jury duty, would they suddenly suspend their distaste for the government demanding their time? And given the work and family care obligations many have, would these assemblies be truly representative? In her excellent book The Idealist, journalist Nina Munk documents how development economist Jeffrey Sachs’ well-meaning efforts to improve the lives of destitute Africans through his Millenium Village Project flopped because they were imposed on rather than developed with and responsive to the people they tried to help. I fear these ideas may suffer from a similar flaw.

Second, they don’t address the important issue of impassioned minorities. Often, the views of a vocal few overcome those of a large consensus (I previously called this the “Wool Problem,” as it’s the reason the U.S. still has a wasteful wool subsidy). University of California, Santa Barbara Assistant Professor Leah Stokes provides a particularly vivid example of this phenomenon. In 2009, the Liberal provincial government of Ontario, Canada passed the Green Energy Act, which allowed companies, communities, and individuals to build wind turbines and sign long-term government contracts to sell the energy they generated. However, constructing these turbines was only economically worthwhile in areas within the province with high enough wind speeds. Thus, the policy served as a natural experiment, allowing Stokes to investigate whether the Liberal Party gained or lost votes in areas where turbines ended up being built relative to other areas. At first glance, it seems they should have benefitted, or at least that the effects should not have been large: a representative survey of Ontario residents conducted in 2010 found that 90 percent supported wind energy in the region. Nonetheless, Stokes found that a few committed opponents were willing to let the issue determine their vote while most wind energy supporters weren’t. As a result, provincial Liberal candidates received a quite substantial four to ten percent fewer votes in areas where turbines were put in place; in addition, in those areas, national Liberal politicians received almost no fewer votes than they should have relative to other areas, suggesting voters were specifically punishing provincial politicians for wind energy.  

For the same reason, coal workers and the beneficiaries of programs that would be cut, among other groups, stand in the way of even broadly popular climate and fiscal reform. Even taking an optimistic view that Venkataraman and Krznaric’s programs would be able to convince most people to think more about the far future, they’re far more unlikely to change the minds of these committed minorities, limiting their potential effectiveness.

Caney’s solution

My main reservations about scenario planning and citizens’ assemblies are largely due to the costs they would impose on government resources and people’s time. Is there a less costly way to focus attention on the future?

Simon Caney believes there are several. He proposes three measures modeled after effective practices Finland currently has in place, including requiring a “Manifesto for the Future,” convening a legislative committee, and declaring regular “Visions for the Future” days. I believe all of these ideas are quite promising.

In Caney’s plan, each incoming government would be forced to draft a Manifesto for the Future outlining their policies for confronting long-term issues. Then, the legislative committee would meet to scrutinize the report and issue a response, drawing on expert testimony to point out the merits and drawbacks of the administration’s plan. Finally, “Visions for the Future” days would be set aside for the entire legislature (and perhaps also the general public) to debate the manifesto and deliberate about other issues that will play out over decades or centuries, not just months or years. 

The ultimate goal of all three of these synergistic ideas is to force politicians to devote more attention to long-term issues. Caney’s hope is that the government’s focus on these issues will rub off on the public, making them more aware of problems that are typically less visible. In turn, the public would ideally prioritize these issues at the ballot box and hold politicians accountable for not fulfilling their promises concerning their vision for the future. All of these measures do not sound like they would be too difficult to implement in practice and do not seem likely to lead to other adverse consequences.

While Caney’s proposal has much potential, it also comes with some difficulties. Jonathan Boston, a Professor at the Victoria University of Wellington, makes two points about why Finland’s system may not be so easily replicated in other countries that also apply to Caney’s proposal. First, Boston contends it suffers from a chicken-and-egg problem. The whole proposal is meant to institutionalize caring about the future, and yet passing it in the first place will require a significant contingent of the public or of a major party to care about the future enough to garner the political will needed to put it in place. Second, Boston warns that in deeply polarized countries like the U.S., the dialogue associated with the manifesto and “Visions for the Future” days could reinforce rather than transcend partisan divisions, changing few minds and fostering animosity rather than foresight. What would happen if a Democratic administration used their manifesto to make the case for some iteration of the “Green New Deal”? Or if a Republican administration used it to give the SparkNotes version of Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never and to contend that, in not taking drastic action to combat climate change, they are actually acting wisely? I could also easily see a “Visions for the Future” floor debate devolving into a testy exchange that could be edited into a click-baity Youtube video: “Rand Paul OWNS John Kerry on Global Warming!,” 1.3 million views. Inversely, I also worry that like so many government hearings and reports, manifesto-related proceedings and “Visions for the Future” days may only reach a meager audience, watched by 80 people on C-SPAN2 before languishing in the obscure annals of the Congressional Record. Mainstream media coverage would be critical for bringing the proceedings into the public eye.

Nonetheless, while these are challenges, they’re not insurmountable. The status quo isn’t working; Caney’s way is certainly worth a try. 

The dal approach

I’ve saved what I believe to be the best for last, at least within this section. Overcoming our psychological idiosyncrasies may not be necessary so long as we can circumvent them through policy design.

To understand what I’m talking about, an example that will initially seem out of left field may help. In Poor Economics, Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo document that the developing world is plagued by a health problem that is perhaps unexpected: people are reluctant to take the initiative to use health services and treatments, even when they’re cost-effective and easily worth the investment. For instance, a monthly supply of Chlorin, a brand of chlorine bleach that can be used to clean drinking water, costs 18 cents per month in Zambia. It can reduce diarrhea in young children by up to 48 percent, and Zambians both know and can afford it: 98 percent name Chlorin when asked what can purify drinking water, and a monthly supply of Chlorin costs less than one-sixth what the average Zambian family spends on cooking oil every week. Nonetheless, even when families were offered a discount voucher lowering the price of a monthly supply for 16 cents, only about 50 percent bought it. Even when the price was reduced to just seven cents, about one-quarter of people still refused to buy it.

The NGO Seva Mandir was running into the same problem: it set up a well-run immunization program in Udaipur, India, yet the immunization rate was only seven percent. Banerjee and Duflo then tried something that should have not made any difference: they offered people two pounds of dal (dried beans) for each immunization they underwent, and a set of stainless-steel plates for completing the whole course of immunizations. If Udaipur residents were declining to be immunized, their reasons for doing so should have been too strong for the dal and plates to have made any difference: the dal was worth less than half the average daily wage for working at a public works site, and the benefits of the vaccines were orders of magnitudes greater. Yet this single intervention raised the immunization rate sevenfold, to an astounding 38 percent.

The lesson is that sometimes, even when it shouldn’t necessarily, compensation can encourage people to overcome their shortsightedness. When immediate harms (or, in the case of flu shots, inconveniences) are less painful, they are less of a decisive factor in our decision-making process. 

Norwegian Business School Professor Jørgen Randers thus writes that adapting this approach could be a silver bullet for overcoming myopia, since it recognizes our cognitive biases rather than trying to fight them, and doesn’t require large changes to governmental systems or rules. I tend to agree: when possible, compensating losers and blunting short-term costs is a great way to increase the palatability of long-term policy.  

In practice, this would mean workers laid off as part of reforms to combat climate would receive generous severance packages and, when possible, would be first in line to be re-employed. Or, for instance, that disaster prevention spending would not be accompanied by budget cuts elsewhere. Every dollar spent on natural disaster preparedness saves an average of $15 by averting future losses; this would be akin to implicitly using $1 of those savings on a program that would otherwise lose funding. Admittedly, these compensatory actions could dampen the long-term benefits of such policies, but there is no need to be absolutist when these offsetting measures may be the only way to realistically get any long-term benefits. $14 saved per dollar spent is fewer than $15, but it is also far greater than $0. 

Randers provides another example of using policy structure to make a potentially objectionable measure less of a hard sell, one that is especially clever because it helped build an impassioned minority that would support the policy rather than fight against it. In 2000, the Bundestag (the German Parliament) passed the Renewable Energy Sources Act, which aggressively subsidized green energy in an effort for Germany to generate 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010. Anyone who wanted to install a windmill in their field or a solar panel on their roof could do it on the government’s dime, which the government in turn paid for by splitting the bill among taxpayers. The policy thus generated a few big winners (those who installed solar panels and windmills) and many small losers (German taxpayers) in the process of achieving a long-term objective that would likely benefit everyone. The Bundestag created a committed group dedicated to vouching for the policy rather than against it, making it more politically sustainable. 

Although the policy was eventually repealed, this shrewd construction helped it achieve its goals: by 2010, 16 percent of Germany’s energy was provided by green sources. Would a carbon tax have probably been a more cost-effective way of curbing emissions? Yes. But would it have passed, let alone continued to pay dividends decades in the future?[mfn]Solar panels and windmills, once installed, generate power for years.[/mfn] Probably not.

And that is the magic of policy design: it makes solutions to hard problems possible, even if they’re imperfect. It brings to mind the Italian proverb Voltaire popularized after quoting it in his 1770 Dictionnaire philosophique: “Il meglio è l’inimico del bene.” Perfect is the enemy of good.  

However, comprehensively addressing democratic shortsightedness requires addressing not just its psychological causes, but also the political environment that allows it to flourish and the uncertainty about the future that inhibits action. These will be the subjects of the forthcoming final articles in the series.


Selected works

Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Revised and expanded edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.

Banerjee, Ahbijit V., and Esther Duflo. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. New York: PublicAffairs, 2012. 

Boston, Jonathan. “Governing for the Future: How to bring the long-term into short-term political focus.” Prepared for a seminar at the Centre for Environmental Policy, School of Public Affairs, American University. November 5, 2014. 

Caney, Simon. “Democratic Reform, Intergenerational Justice and the Challenges of the Long-Term.” Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity. July 2019. 

Caney, Simon. “Political Institutions for the Future: A Five-Fold Package.” In Institutions for Future Generations, edited by Axel Gosseries and Iñigo Gonzalez Ricoy, 135-155. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Christensen, Henrik Serup and Lauri Rapeli. “Immediate rewards or delayed gratification? A conjoint survey experiment of the public’s policy preferences.” Policy Sciences 54 (2021): 63-94. 

Healy, Andrew and Neil Malhotra. “Myopic Voters and Natural Disaster Policy.” American Political Science Review 103 (no. 3): 387-406. 

John, Tyler. “Longtermist Institutional Design and Policy: A Literature Review (Draft).” Forthcoming for the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research. Accessed March 10, 2021.

Krznaric, Roman. The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking. New York: The Experiment, 2020. 

O’Leary, Naomi. “The myth of the citizens’ assembly.” Politico. June 18, 2019.

Randers, Jørgen. “The tyranny of the short-term: why democracy struggles with issues like climate change.” Democratic Audit UK. September 2, 2015.

Schwartz, Evan I. “The German Experiment.” MIT Technology Review. June 22, 2010.

Smith, Graham. “Enhancing the Legitimacy of Offices for Future Generations: The Case for Public Participation.” Political Studies 68 (no. 4): 996-1013. 

Stokes, Leah C. “Electoral Backlash against Climate Policy: A Natural Experiment on Retrospective Voting and Local Resistance to Public Policy.” American Journal of Political Science 60, no. 4 (October 2016): 958-974. 

Tetlock, Philip E. and Dan Gardner. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. New York: Broadway Books, 2016. 

Thaler, Richard H. and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.

Venkataraman, Bina. The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019. 


Title Image Credit: Interim Partners/Richard Jolley

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