The U.S Electoral System and Short-Term Thinking

November 1, 2017

 

The United States’ Constitution was formed with the idea that power resides with “We the People” in an attempt to make monarchy impossible. And why shouldn’t it be? Americans fought a war 20 years ago for that right. Thus, the founders decided the best way to enforce accountability was to hold elections every few years (four for a president, two for a Representative, and six for a Senator). And throughout our history, this system has served the country well in the long and short term. However, now, more than ever, that system is hurting the country (at least financially). While frequent elections promote frequent change in leadership, they often limit long-term thinking.

 

The best example of short term planning hurting America’s financial health is Social Security. Created in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, it provided a safety net for the elderly. However, in 1940 there were 40 workers for each retiree; currently, there are only 3.3. For decades, social security age, privatization, and benefits have all been at the front of political debates in one way or another. And for decades, the thought has been to kick the can down the road for another generation. Why? Because people over the age of 60 don’t want a system that they previously paid for to all of a sudden raise their retirement age, which would decrease the number of people eligible for benefits from the government. And guess which age group votes most in America, people over 60 (See Voter turnout demographics). Thus politicians know that if they vote against “pay now” policies they will have to answer to their constituents next election cycle. Conversely, if politicians had long term incentives, I believe many would see how damaging the snowball effect of borrowing more money to pay retirees really is. However, the case could also be made that it is the young generation’s fault for not getting out and voting in their interest.

 

The next case of short sighted economic thinking lies within the budget deficit. While I understand that a substantial debt isn't always a bad thing, there are three main pitfalls to large debts: first, government resources must go to paying interest; second, more debt typically means less domestic investment, and third, high debt typically decreases economic growth. Thus, for this piece we are going to assume that debt is bad and it should be repaid in a timely manner. With that said, US federal debt as a percent of GDP is at it’s highest point since World War II (106.1%). Understandably, the 2008 financial crisis played a role in the dept rising to unprecedented levels. However, it cannot be ignored that the government hasn’t stopped borrowing even a near decade after the recession began. While counter-arguments rightly explain that government money eventually supports the private sector, I would ask does the private sector need supporting? It has proven it needs regulating. It has proven it needs oversight and government institutions to operate effectively and safely. But when markets are performing at all time highs, do they really need government support? If so, what happens when the next financial crisis hits? After all, the U.S. economy goes into a recession about every ten years. The point is, now is the time to trim the deficit back down to healthy levels, instead of waiting around for another recession.   

 

The final example of the country's chronic short term thinking has the slow progress of the environmental protection agenda of the government. The previous two cases are reversible and with good planning and perseverance can go away. The environment is different. There is no “reverse” option once we have pushed the Earth past it’s limits. While there has no doubt been big steps forward (the EPA, car emissions testing, dumping laws, a bold recycling agenda, etc), it hasn’t been nearly as comprehensive as most other developed nations. The United States, Syria, and Nicaragua (who said it wasn’t tough enough) are the only three nations in the world not to sign the Paris Climate Agreement. I believe global warming is a product of a uniquely American way of short-sighted political thinking. The environment is one of the few explicit ways short term thinking has harmed the health of the country and the world.

 

Peaceful transition of power has been one of the trademarks of the Constitution. It was a revolutionary idea that has served the country well. That being said, it is not a plan without flaws. The government’s constant state of leadership transition has bred a “win now” mindset in our leaders that is limiting long term planning. While countries like China, Russia, and Germany (albeit with their issues of their own) have the potential for long term economic stability, the tradeoff is of course few opportunities for the people to decide to change the direction of the government.

 

In this article, forgive me if it sounded like Jon Snow warning everyone that the Night King and his army will soon be at the wall of the kingdom (Sorry people who don’t watch Game Of Thrones). But fortunately, there is still time to reverse the course of the path we are currently on and our preparedness for the battles to come.

 

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