Carpe diem nation
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 today 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.
This slingshot manner of life led to one of those true national cliches: that America is the nation of futurity, that Americans organize their lives around romantic visions of what is to be.
In 1775, Sam Adams confidently predicted that the scraggly little colonies would one day be the world’s most powerful nation. In 1800, Noah Webster projected that the U.S. would someday have 300 million citizens, and that a country that big should have its own dictionary.
In his novel, “Giants in the Earth,” Ole Rolvaag has a pioneering farmer give a visitor a tour of his land. The farmer describes his beautiful home and his large buildings. The visitor confesses that he can’t see them. That’s because they haven’t been built yet, the farmer acknowledges, but they already exist as reality in his mind.
This future-oriented mentality had practical effects. For decades, government invested heavily in long-range projects like railroads and canals.
Today, 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. 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.
Banks can lend money in two ways. They can lend to fund investments or they can lend to fund real estate purchases and other consumption. In 1982, banks were lending out 80 cents for investments for every $1 they were lending for consumption. By 2011, they lent only 30 cents to fund investments for every $1 of consumption.
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. Last week, for example, Ford 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. There was what one historian called a “renunciation of renunciation.”
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.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama is apparently planning to give us yet another salvo in that left-right war, as he did in his second Inaugural Address. One of his aides, in a fit of hubris, told Politico that the president will be offering Republicans a golden bridge to ease their retreat.
But it would be great if Obama gave an imaginative speech that reframed things as present versus future.
If the president 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.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.