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?