There may be no future in the future
Sometime around 1970, Prof. Ed Banfield wrote a book, The Unheavenly City, in which he described the “present-oriented” nature of lower class people whose lifestyle was devoid of thoughts of the future.
As a society, we could deal with this inability of a minority to foresee the importance of curbing today’s desires for tomorrow’s rewards. As an example, to protect these folks from themselves, Social Security was made compulsory because present-oriented people would spend everything today and have nothing for retirement. Smoking is another present-oriented example. We’ll enjoy that cigarette today and worry about cancer later.
While present-orientedness was creating social problems 40 years ago when Banfield was writing, it has spread to all segments of society. “I want it now” consumerism has become the rule rather than the exception. Our thoughts of the future have been eclipsed by our thirst for things of the present.
This present-oriented mentality casts dark shadows over our future. In fact, if we stay on this course, there may be no future in our future. God has not guaranteed our existence in perpetuity.
The first shadow is the inability of the electorate to make informed decisions. With the advent of electronic media, people have lapsed into ignorance about public affairs, banking on the total misrepresentations by FOX and MSNBC and the partial misrepresentations by CNN and the networks. Uninformed opinions have supplanted facts in the public dialogue as newspapers have been edged out of the marketplace.
The second shadow is the national debt. Our present-oriented spending habits are unsustainable and, if we are going to have a future, we must curb spending and raise revenue. But this will never happen. Three-fourths of the people think we are spending too much but they are also against cutting programs or raising taxes.
Faced with this inconsistency, politicians grab the part of the elephant they like best and make it their nonnegotiable position. The debt crisis will not be solved by polarized politics that promise to get worse rather than better. Long term problems can’t be solved by short term politicians.
The third shadow is the “dumbing down” of our education system. Instead of making education a joint responsibility of parents and teachers, we keep blaming the failure of children on the schools. Most of the criticism during the Bush and the Obama administrations has been directed at schools while it is the parents who need to be more engaged and that would take a major cultural shift.
At the college level, we see an erosion of academic standards. The electronic media have made it possible for profit-making organizations claiming university status to short-cut education by offering “life experience” credit, second-rate content and inferior instruction. This dumbing down of the system means students are learning less and as more and more students keep learning less and less we will have an electorate that lacks knowledge, critical thinking and other qualities required to sustain a democracy.
The fourth shadow is energy. The present dialogue on energy policy manifests a distinct present-orientedness. There is no public support for reductions in consumption, such as reducing traffic speed, raising gas taxes, or cleaning up energy sources. The response to such suggestions focuses on the increased cost and inconvenience to present day consumers. Today’s corporate bottom line and consumer convenience are more important than the impact on future generations.
On the major issues of the day, the present-oriented electorate can no longer think into the future and realize that this generation must experience inconvenience and sacrifice to secure a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.
Unless we start making some hard decisions, there is not much future in the future.
Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.