Considering the future

Tyler Cowen has an unpublished book out there called Stubborn Attachment. In it, he makes the case for the "imperative of growth". No, it is not about startups, it is about the economy.  

Economic growth is a powerful force which has shown incredible healing properties in human history. Nothing cures inequality, poverty, unemployment, more than growth. In lack of growth we are destined to a troublesome epoch, with people and nations fighting over limited resources. I must add that growth here is attached to a broader concept of wealth, defined as "wealth plus": the total amount of value produced over some period, including leisure time, household production and environmental amenities. Growth should be our first and main objective, subordinated only to few universal human rights. 

What I like the most about this thesis is the moral principle that sustains it. Namely that we should care about the future at least as much as we care about the present. In the business world we are used to discounting the future. To compare present benefits and future ones we apply a rate of discount that puts an extra burden on our future gains. In traditional business accounting (and often in our private lifes) we procrastinate long term investments in favour of short term results. This leads to a dangerous way of thinking: 

"Why should costs and benefits receive less weight, simply because they are further in the future? When the future comes, these benefits and costs will be no less real. Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra wanted an extra helping of dessert. How could this be justified?"

In politics, this is reflected by the fact that people of the future are not represented. They are a silent constituency. While political choices (at least we would hope) have a great impact on the people who will come after us, nothing of their preferences and agenda is included in the political debate. As recent electoral results have shown, older age groups have the power to basically fuck up the future for younger generations. 

I like the idea that we should challenge this principle. Why should the present be as valued as the future (when not more)? Why should someone who is only going to live on a fraction of the consequences have the ability to decide for everyone else? Shouldn't we weigh our votes in a way that better represents who is going to stick around longer? 

It sounds like blasphemy. Many will jump off their chairs, pointing fingers at the disrespect for the elders, and maybe bringing the example of traditional societies. Well, traditional societies have always had mechanisms to give formal power and status to the elders, very often as an illusion of power. Our electoral democracies have made this into an a false absolute, "one head one vote", which implicitly assigns more value to the present than the future. It might be time to consider a change. It is time to consider the future.