10 April 2007

Does Progress Threaten Democracy?

If you hit the brakes at 20 mph, your car might stop in about 20 feet. If you are traveling at 90 mph, it will take you closer to 600 feet. Its simple physics: the faster you are traveling the further into the future you'll find yourself before you can change.

We're hurtling into the future at about 1,000 miles an hour. No, wait. That's how fast we're spinning. But it is true (albeit cliché) that the pace of change is incredibly rapid. Technology. Economics. Social norms. Science. All are changing rapidly.

The consequence of this is that today's policy is going to influence our lives in twenty years, in forty years. Not in a year or two. One of today's presidential candidates will be sworn into office in January of 2009. The bills he or she signs into law will not take effect until about mid-2009, and much of his or her policy proposals will take much longer. The influence of these laws will take even longer.

Think about education policy, for example. Changes to preschool policy made by the new president will (if they do anything at all) change the lives of adults who don't reach their working prime until the year 2050. If carbon emissions were stopped today, the climate would continue warming through 2020, so slow is the delay there. Changes to Medicare or social security will impact taxpayers and recipients in 2030.

2020, 2030, 2050. These dates are absurdly distant and yet making intelligent policy choices suggests that we're predicting the impact of policy this far out.

Elliot Jacques, the deceased Canadian management consultant, championed the notion of segregating the population into different bands based on different time horizons. Some people think ahead about 3 weeks and others think ahead about 30 years. The problem is, according to his theory and data, only a fraction of the population has a time horizon beyond a couple of years. It could be that Jacques is wrong, but my own (and Norman's, who introduced me to him) experience suggests that he's not.

So, here we have a conundrum. Democracy depends on the voting decisions of a majority of the population. This majority has a time horizon of less than a couple of years. The policy they're voting on has impact decades out.

And finally, this simple question. Is the accelerating pace of progress a threat to democracy? What if we're traveling at 90 mph and able to see only 100 feet into the future?

12 comments:

David said...

I think it's a threat to the effectivenss of democracy as a system of government. Politicians seldom think beyond the next election. The only important time frame for almost everyone is ME.

exskindiver said...

hi ron,
(down like a house of cards after the adrenalin rush of the trip)
i will not even attempt.
~chesca

Tisha! said...

policy usually lags behind since we lack foresight as you said but what is the alternative? the people with foresight impose their will?

Dave said...

Compounding the problem is the issue you raised in the preceding post. With a society that is limited by short term thinking, with problems that don't manifest in the short term, aren't future generations doomed?

The saving grace is that some guy writing on parchment rather than on a computer probably said the same thing awhile back.

Ron Davison said...

David,
you could probably argue that the really great politicians are a litle suicidal - paying now for things that will help after their administration is out of office..

Chesca,
thanks for stopping by.

Tisha!
That is the central question. How do we maintain democracy and enact policies that won't impact us for decades?

Dave,
LOL. Great reminder that worrying about the future has been a hobby for generations.

cce said...

God, this scares me plenty. To think that the Mastermind in office now implementing bad policy both here and abroad will be remembered far into the future for these outrages...If there is a future with the icy waters of the melting poles enveloping us in our own stupidity.

cce said...

God, this scares me plenty. To think that the Mastermind in office now implementing bad policy both here and abroad will be remembered far into the future for these outrages...If there is a future with the icy waters of the melting poles enveloping us in our own stupidity.

Ron Davison said...

cce,
Always happy to have you stop by - even if you do rather charmingly hit the xerox button as you post your comment. I didn't mean to scare you - I was simply hoping that you'd have a solution.

Norman said...

To Tisha's comment about the "the people of forsight imposing their will"

Leaders can accomplish things only through the efforts of others. Thus, it is difficult to "impose your will" without successfully communicating to those who work for you the benefits of your ideas. In turn it then becomes necessary for these individuals to further communicate the benefits of the idea. Luckily, democracy helps prevent this process from being subverted.

In fact, democracy usually does a decent job of blocking, or at least slowing the propagation of "bad" ideas, and of accelerating "good" ideas -- But only when the effects of those ideas have a rather short gestation period.

That's where Elliott Jaques' ideas about using people's differing "time horizon" capabilities could provide benefit. If you have 3-month'ers working for 1-yr'ers working for 5-year'ers working for 10-year'ers, then you have the structure needed to see long term impacts and opportunities, and to effectively communicate them down to the people that will be needed to turn ideas into actions.

Ron Davison said...

Norman,
And the question is how you make the 10 year horizon guys appealing to the 1 year horizon voters. I'm sure that the solution is possible but it's not obvious.

David said...

The genius of politicos is being able to make the 1 year voters believe they're 10 year clairvoyants who are going to also make the world better for them quickly. Arnold is catching on to this with his "let's do something green now" campaign. In this case, without global consensus and actions that match, what we do now is nearly irrelevant to solving the problem. But he's getting the press he's seeking. You talk about how you're often mystified about the strange customs of our planet. Me too. Why do we continue to believe that politcos care or have answers? Believe that they want to win for some self-serving agenda. The buck stops there.

Norman said...

I suppose you start by recognizing where most of the population lies, and speaking to them in that time horizon.

Unfortunately, without some education on this subject, people tend to assume everyone else is operating in the same time horizon as they are . . .

and the candidate with the shorter time horizon is, unfortunately, closer to the truth on this assumption, and thus typically resonates with more voters.