This week’s Courier Herald Column:
In the long run we are all dead. – John Maynard Keynes
John Maynard Keynes has become the whipping post for many who have studied just enough economics to not understand the subject but convince others who have not studied it at all that they are experts. That, fortunately for those of you still reading, is a column topic for another day. Instead we will take his quote about the importance of not focusing too much on the “long run” when trying to solve near term economic problems and extrapolate his lesson to politics.
Politics, civics, and governance itself must have long term goals. But we all live in and through a series of short term decisions, actions, and consequences. It is the sum of these short term actions – and more specifically to the point, inactions – that create our long term political outlook. The fact of the matter is too many participating in today’s political system are playing only a long run game. In doing so, life and an increasing number of those who eschew political participation are passing us by.
We have entered a seemingly unending battle where both major parties and those who support them battle more for gridlock than they do for governance. We live in a politically charged atmosphere where keeping a problem as an issue for the next election is preferred over solving problems.
Fundamental to this issue, at least on the Republican side, is the preference to reject incrementalism in favor of an all or nothing approach. Instead of taking or even planning for a series of smaller victories, Republicans are content to merely play defense until a magical unspecified time in the future when they envision having the power to enact sweeping legislation to correct all that they see wrong with the world.
Instead of planning a strategy to win a series of smaller battles on a path to a smaller and more limited version of government, Republicans have instead turned their focus inward and are arguing over who is the most pure, and who will sit at the right hand of those in power when this unplanned day eventually comes where all problems are solved on their terms.
Meanwhile, more and more are leaving the political process and getting on with their lives. And these short run events that those trying to govern are not insignificant. A child born upon the election of President Obama is now in elementary school. A college graduate of that year has had six annual performance reviews presuming he or she found and kept a job.
While the political class continues to fight the same scripted battle for an approving but diminishing number who demand nothing less than purity, those who have checked out of the political process have started solving problems on their own. It is an irony that should not escape those who spread the prophecy of limited government but refuse to accept smaller or short term deals to begin to reign in the mess of which we have brought upon ourselves but don’t seem to have the stomach to control.
But Keynes, often misquoted and misunderstood, somewhat saw this coming too, saying “The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied by our real problems – the problems of life and human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.”
Those stuck in the middle between feuding hyper-partisans are checking out of the process for good measure. There is little in the political process for them, and they have learned the economic reality that they will get a higher return on their efforts if they focus on what they can control within their own lives. They’ve moved on to their own real problems that are more within their realm of control.
And thus, those that are fighting only a long run political battle have sealed their eventual defeat by ignoring the fact that those who understand markets – those who want to see a return for their time and effort – are using these very principles to avoid involvement in a political process that demands conformity and purity.
Politics must have a long run vision based on clearly articulated principles. Victory, however, must be measured as to whether a group is getting closer to or farther away from this vision.
Those seeking purity over progress will seal the fate of their party if allowed to succeed. For in the long run, their party will be dead.