David Brooks: Nation needs to go back to focusing on future

02/13/2013 4:05 PM

02/13/2013 4:05 PM

Europeans who settled America gave their lives a slingshot shape. They pulled back so they could shoot forward. They volunteered to live in harsh conditions so their descendants could live well for centuries. The pioneers who traveled west did the same thing. So has each generation of immigrants – sacrificing the present for the sake of the future. They organized their lives around romantic visions of what is to be.

This future-oriented mentality had practical effects. For decades, government invested heavily in long-range projects like railroads and canals.

Today’s Americans have inverted this way of thinking. Instead of sacrificing the present for the sake of the future, Americans now sacrifice the future for the sake of the present.

Federal spending is the most obvious example. The federal government is a machine that takes money from future earners and spends it on health care for retirees. Entitlement spending hurts the young in two ways. First, it squeezes government investment programs that boost future growth. Second, the young will have to pay the money back. To cover current obligations, according to the International Monetary Fund, young people will have to pay 35 percent more taxes and receive 35 percent fewer benefits.

But government is not the only place you can see signs of this presentism. Business has slipped into this pattern, too. CEOs serve short stints and their main incentive is to make quarterly numbers, not to build for the long term.

As Robert D. Atkinson and Stephen J. Ezell note in their book, “Innovation Economics,” U.S. firms are also lagging in their commitment to research and development. Between 1999 and 2006, for example, German firms increased research-and-development spending by 11 percent, Finnish firms by 28 percent and South Korean firms by 58 percent. During that same period, U.S. spending increased by a paltry 3 percent.

Increasingly, companies have to spend their money on retirees, not future growth. For example, Ford recently announced that it was spending $5 billion to shore up its pension program. That’s an amount nearly equal to Ford’s investments in factories, equipment and innovation.

Why have Americans lost their devotion to the future? Part of the answer must be cultural. The Great Depression and World War II forced Americans to live with 16 straight years of scarcity. In the years after the war, people decided they’d had enough.

We’ve now had a few generations raised with this consumption mindset. There’s less of a sense that life is a partnership among the dead, the living and the unborn, with obligations to those to come.

The political debate, though, is largely oblivious to this mental shift. Republicans and Democrats are so busy arguing about the merits of government versus business that they are blind to the problem that afflicts them both.

If President Obama were to propose an agenda for the future, he’d double spending on the National Institutes of Health. He’d approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He’d cut corporate tax rates while adding a progressive consumption tax. He’d take money from Social Security and build Harlem Children’s Zone-type projects across the nation. He’d means test Medicare and use the money to revive state universities and pay down debt.

Would Americans buy that agenda? Maybe. Americans are neglecting the future, but I bet they’re still in love with it.

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