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Germany

Short-Term Thinking, The Ruin Of Today's Politics

Democratic systems offer little incentive for long-term thinking. But unless we can implement true, forward-looking policies, problems like climate change will only multiply.

Election banner of Hildegard Bentele, a candidate of the CDU for the 2019 European Parliament Election
Election banner of Hildegard Bentele, a candidate of the CDU for the 2019 European Parliament Election
Johannes Hillje

-OpEd-

BERLIN — The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) share much of the blame for waning confidence in their future leadership abilities.

The big coalition steers by sight, seeing itself only as a transitional government until a hoped-for new majority is obtained. As such, it keeps seeking short-term wins to boost its popularity numbers, but at the expense of self-imposed climate goals or tackling long-term reforms for pensions, infrastructure, education or for the EU.

At the same time — and this is not only the responsibility of the CDU and SPD — democracy as a whole suffers from notorious shortsightedness and ignorance of the future: Parties are hostage to the election cycles. And as a watchdog, the media is so fixated on personalities that it's rarely ahead of the game.

Public confidence with regards to future leadership abilities is highest for the Green party, but if they were to govern soon, they would first have to come to terms with the pressure of short-termism. Would they stick to their "radical realism" if the poll numbers go down again, or would they, like the CDU and SPD, only give small answers to the big questions of our time?

A promising option would be to institutionalize farsightedness in democracy.

A not unrealistic negative scenario is that governments change regularly and the big challenges remain permanently unsolved. In fact, the problems multiply.

These days we're talking mainly about climate change, and understandably so. But what about the increase of the world population by one third heading into 2100? But then, there could be about 2 billion people willing to migrate. How can democracies master such challenges and other mammoth ones in the long run, given their inability to demonstrate long-term thinking?

The fact is, there's no escaping any of this. According to the United Nations, at least 6.75 trillion people will be born over the next 50,000 years, completely outweighing the current population of 7.6 billion and all those 100 billion who have died so far. But the unborn have no interest group, no party, no parliamentary seat.

A Fridays for Future anti-climate change demonstration in Hamburg, Germany — Photo: Georg Wendt

There is little point in increasing the time gap between elections in order to reduce the pressure of maintaining power. Longer terms would stretch governments' legitimacy like chewing gum, thus thinning it and, in the worst case, tearing it. Nor does the solution to this problem speak for a greater involvement of citizens. This could perhaps increase satisfaction with democratic processes, but not the sustainability of their results.

A promising option would be to institutionalize farsightedness in democracy. There are already some examples: The Finnish parliament has a permanent committee for the future that controls and evaluates the long-term planning of the government. Between 2014 and 2016, Sweden even had Kristina Persson as its first minister for the future. She was responsible for the long-term consequences of government policy.

In Wales, Sophie Howe was named future generations commissioner in 2016. She cannot prevent laws, but she can force her cabinet colleagues to justify decisions vis-à-vis the unborn citizens of Wales. In addition, Howe actively participates in public discourse. She is the voice of future generations.

Parties are hostage to the election cycles.

This role in political decision-making may contain an important key: giving a future commissioner a veto right in the legislation would be an undemocratic decision-making authority. But lending the future a voice in public debates makes long-term consequences a permanent benchmark for politics that neither politicians nor the media and citizens can escape.

Of course, there could still be democratic majorities for politics that is blind to the future. In view of the current dissatisfaction with the future abilities of the German parties, however, this seems unlikely.

The rendezvous with the futurecould be more constructive, because politics and the future would be in constant dialogue with each other. It would be a step forward to give long-term thinking a firm place in politics. That alone could initiate a cultural change in democracy.

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Society

Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*

-Essay-

When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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