Politicians forget about the future

We choose to go to the moon. So said John F Kennedy in September 1962 as he pledged a manned lunar landing by the end of the decade.

The United States president knew that his country's space programme would be expensive. He knew it would have its critics, but he took the long-term view.

Warming to his theme that day, Kennedy went on: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others too."

That was the world's richest country at the apogee of its power in an age when both Democrats and Republicans were prepared to invest in the future.

Kennedy's predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, took a plan for interstate highways and made sure it happened.

Contrast that with today's US, which looks less like the leader of the free world than a banana republic with a reserve currency.

Long-term planning
Planning for the long term now involves last-ditch deals on Capitol Hill to ensure the federal government can remain open until January and debts can be paid at least until February.

The US is not the only country with advanced short-termism. It merely provides the most egregious example of the disease.

This is a world of fast food and short attention spans, of politicians so dominated by a 24/7 news agenda that they have lost the habit of planning for the long term.

Britain provides another example of the trend. Governments of both left and right have for years put energy policy in the "too hard to think about" box.

They have not been able to make up their minds whether to commit to renewables as Germany has done, or to go nuclear as France has done.

So, the nation of Rutherford is now prepared to have a totalitarian country take a majority stake in a new generation of nuclear power stations.

The world faces long-term challenges
Politics, technology and human nature all militate in favour of kicking the can down the road.

The most severe financial and economic crisis in more than half a century has further discouraged policymakers from raising their eyes from the present to the far horizon.

Clearly, though, the world faces long-term challenges that will only become more acute through prevarication.

These include coping with a bigger and ageing global population, ensuring growth is sustainable and equitable, providing resources to pay for transport and energy infrastructure, and reshaping international institutions so they represent the world as it is in the early 21st century rather than as it was in 1945.

Pascal Lamy had a stab at tackling some of these difficult issues last week when he presented the findings of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, which the former World Trade Organisation (WTO) chief has been chairing for the past year.

The commission's report, Now for the Long Term, looks at some "mega trends" that will shape the world in the decades to come, and lists the challenges under five headings: society, resources, health, geopolitics and governance.

Change won't be easy
Change will be difficult, the study suggests, because problems are complex, institutions are inadequate, faith in politicians is low and short-termism is well entrenched.

It cites examples of collective success, such as the Montreal convention to prevent ozone depletion, the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals, and the G20 action to prevent the great recession of 2008-2009 from turning into a full-blown global slump.

It also cites examples of collective failure — depletion of fish stocks and the deadlocked Copenhagen climate change summit of 2009.

The report suggests a range of long-term ideas worthy of serious consideration. It urges a coalition between the G20, 30 companies and 40 cities to lead the fight against climate change.

It would like "sunset clauses" for all publicly funded international institutions to ensure they are fit for purpose; removal of perverse subsidies on hydrocarbons and agriculture, with the money redirected to the poor; introduction of CyberEx, an early warning system against cyber attacks; a Worldstat statistical agency to collect and ensure quality of data; and investment in the younger generation through conditional cash transfers and job guarantees.

Lamy expressed concern that the ability to address challenges was being undermined by the absence of a collective vision for society.

The purpose of the report, he said, was to build "a chain from knowledge to awareness to mobilising political energy to action". Full marks for trying, but this is easier said than done. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

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