Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism

–So much of what we hear and read about major policy issues sounds like short-termism. Why aren’t more people, we ask, taking the long-term seriously? Where’s the widespread recognition that temporizing doesn’t address—nor can any short-termism address—the fundamental issues driving these crises, be it global climate change (GCC), global financial meltdowns, pandemics, income inequality, others? In answer, let’s begin with a typology.

Consider this 2 x 2 typology. One dimension is your ready-made about short-termism versus long-termism.

The other dimension captures two distinct features of the long-term that characterize crises: the long-term conceptualized as the concatenation of discrete or punctuated short-terms versus the long-term as continuously unfolding trends and interactions segmented, more or less arbitrarily, into (short-term) periods.

Rather than label each, representative statements for each cell are summarized:

Key typology implications for long-terms and short-terms. Foremost, what differentiates “time” is not the “long term versus short term.” It’s better to say some crises are pegged to more than one “short/long” cell.

In particular, differing temporal preoccupations with respect to multiple short and long terms matter when they periodize “across time” in terms of different series of different crises, which in turn affects what the time periods ahead are for any corrective or responding action. Segmenting into different periods the past-to-present has been one way to bring in “the long-term” into what’s further ahead, e.g., the Adamic renaming of current time as the Anthropocene.

Or take the healthcare crisis in Cell 2 (basically, “Increases in healthcare costs are unsustainable”) and now rescript it through the other three cells: “The problem in healthcare is that we can’t predict the kind of innovations necessary for adapting to the multiple futures we face here and today” (Cell 1); “Healthcare continues to be characterized by just a series of hardware and digital upheavals, one after another” (Cell 3); and “It’s not if the next pandemic of an unknown virus will happen but only when” (Cell 4).

Time, in other words, is always more complicated in crisis scenarios than long-term v. short-term. In the topology, time varies for two primary reasons: because, as we just saw, the same crisis can reflect multiple short/long preoccupations and because the matching of crises to different cells is a major way the passage of time emerges and is tracked.

For example, talking about the pandemic as “the COVID moment” or Black Swans as “events” is clearly segmenting off the present from a future that will be responding to “it” as distinct from insisting that both COVID-19 or that Black Swan may actually be unfolding indefinitely. Differing short- versus long-term preoccupations matter when they periodize “across time” a series of different crises, which in turn affects what the time periods ahead are for responsive action.

Different timelines, in effect, track different trajectories of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty. The latter look very different if, e.g., that “second surge” of COVID-19 is conceptualized in Cell 2 or in Cell 3 terms. In Cell 2, we have learned something by the time the second surge takes off; in Cell 3, so much may have worsened as a result of COVID-19 and so changed are the initial conditions that any “second surge” may well imply starting to learn all over again.

Even then, a Cell 3 focus—one US secretary of state called foreign policy one damn thing after another—has the great virtue (and I believe it is a virtue) of reminding people that there are cases where predicting the future is difficult precisely for the same reasons learning from the past is: Both require stability in objectives, institutional memory, multiple reserves in case something goes wrong, and low environmental uncertainty, among other factors.

–To some the absence of these preconditions is negative; to me, even where negative, these highlight the many other policy areas where the preconditions do exist to varying degrees of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty.

For example, some regional climate change modeling is of such a high resolution today that model results can be and are in some cases disaggregated in ways that cross several of the above cells. It’s now possible to project estimates for rising sea-levels, storm surges and inland flooding in, say, 20-year increments to better reflect already existing near- and longer-term cycles for region-based infrastructure equipment/plant depreciation and longer term investments, among others. These cycles may overlap but by no means necessarily coincide.

Does this mean uncertainty about climate change impacts is reduced in this case? Of course not. The point is that model disaggregation increases the confidence of decision-making by helping to triangulate (no guarantees here!) on what has already been planned using fewer factors and methods.

The typology’s very major implication for short-termism. Another feature of the typology is subtler but more important for rethinking any complaint about short-termism in crisis response: In all cells, the future is a hypothesis we have yet to finish with.

The Cell 1 hypothesis is that the crisis comes about because we know we can’t predict the future; Cell 4 hypothesizes its crisis is due precisely because we know and can predict the future. Cell 2 conjectures that because we know the present we know the future will differ significantly; while Cell 3 puts forward that we already know that present and future will be alike and importantly so.

But why, “hypothesis”?

A core issue moves to the fore when we focus on the nature of the present in any of the four cells. Where, specifically, in discussing the long and short terms does “not knowing the present” come into play? (Go back to the typology’s four cells and ask of each: “What are the implications of not knowing the present stipulated in this cell?”).

–Whatever your answer, one implication is very clear: Not knowing the short-term we’re in scarcely constitutes short-termism. In fact, conventional short-termism—the present matters more than the future, period—requires more certainty and confidence than warrantable by the respective hypotheses. Our challenge remains “to foresee the present,” as Turgot, the 18th century French economist and statesman, put it long ago. Trying to foresee the present—to track how control room decisions play out over time–is not short-termism.

Major implication for theory and practice. One example of the major implications for theory and practice at the same time will have to suffice. Any number of theories predict very major disasters are headed our way, which haven’t yet appeared because it hasn’t been long enough for them to do so.

Nuclear power plant explosions will eventually be normal occurrences because their irremediable technological tight coupling and complex interactivity makes disaster unavoidable. We haven’t seen enough of them to realize that. Global financial meltdowns and market contagions lead to herd behavior and mob violence, eventually bringing the system down. That there haven’t been more of this shouldn’t dissuade us from seeing what’s coming.

–Long enough, you tell us, and all of this will be abundantly clear—UNLESS, you underscore, we act now to prevent their occurrence.

Well, ok; sure.

But, humor me: Just what cells are you talking about?

Are you saying that nuclear plant explosions and market meltdowns are inevitable because of the long-run trends (Cell 2)? Or are you saying that since these disasters could happen in any of the four cells, they are “more likely” to happen? (No need, you say, for anything like a χ2 test for our 2 x 2 to know that!) Or are you saying something else with respect to your preferred cells and how to parcelize them?

“Actually. WHAT are you predicting?” In short: While many recommend the need for a long-term perspective, the above suggests that their “need” is more problematic than obvious.

Principal source: This is a much augmented, revised section from my “Licking the sharp edge of the sword,” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (2018) 27(1): 1–7.

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