In the midst of the epic dysfunction known as the 16-day government shutdown, we lost sight of the fundamental issue whose inescapable logic cuts across politics and party lines: We are feeding the gluttonous appetites of our current at the dire and escalating cost to our future selves. If that sounds unworkable and unsustainable, it is.
If government spending continues at this pace, feeding the monster known as the national debt will swallow the resources of our future selves, whether we personify that concept as ourselves at retirement or our children who will inherit an astronomical bill for our rash, compulsive and unnecessary spending.
We cannot expect Washington to solve these problems, because politicians are, by definition, creatures of the moment who want to please their current constituents who will re-elect them, rather than worrying about future constituents who cannot vote. It’s up to us to advocate for our future selves.
As simple and logical as this might sound, it is near impossible to do. We simply can’t help ourselves, because of our human nature and a behavioral concept, applicable to most everything in life, called time inconsistency, or hyperbolic discounting. Simply stated, we discount the present now more than we expect to later. That is, we act one way now, impatient, demanding our appetites be met at all costs, while deluding ourselves that, in the future, we’ll somehow be patient and better able to act rationally and take care of problems. But when later becomes now, we are just as impatient. The easiest and most universal example is dieting. We indulge our appetites now, telling ourselves we’ll diet tomorrow. The parallels to our bloated spending and ballooning debt are too obvious to mention.
Our only hope to stop the battle between present and future selves is to adopt a more roundabout perspective, seeing time differently in an intertemporal dimension. When we are no longer hyper-focused on the moment, we can pursue proximal aims that look across slices of time. We avoid eating, drinking, acting, and spending as if there is no tomorrow, so that we can, indeed, have better, healthier, and more prosperous tomorrow.
Admittedly, grasping these concepts about our human nature and our perplexing time inconsistency requires a mental leap. By becoming more aware, though, we give ourselves a roadmap with which to navigate the minefields of our own human nature. With an intertemporal perspective we can avoid the mad scramble for 11th hour solutions, which in politics always equals crisis.
Since we cannot expect Washington and its stable of political animals to do the work, we must press for it ourselves, by sending the message to Capitol Hill: Taking on ever bigger amounts of debt is mathematically unsustainable. Using the Federal Reserve and its zero-interest-rate policy to kick the proverbial can down the road only postpones the pain, which intensifies with the passage of time. The reckoning will be excruciating.
When another shutdown looms in the months ahead, we have to keep in mind who the battle is really between: our present selves versus our future selves. We who can think, act, and vote now, must advocate for the currently disenfranchised who will pay the bill.