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The Upside of the Debt Debacle: Taking the "Long View" Seriously

The debt crisis was nothing but political theater, but wouldn't it be great if more issues got the "think of your grandchildren" treatment?


Throughout the excruciating debt negotiations, there has been a particularly loud cry from conservatives to "think of our grandchildren." Countless politicians, most of whom will be dead by the time the debt limit creates a real fiscal crisis, are set on dealing with a problem that might materialize in 2070. But as GOOD pointed out a few days ago, the debt deal didn't actually address our long-term problems at all.

Even though this forward-looking view has been little more than political theater, there's an opportunity to apply it to thorny problems that could seriously use a long-term plan of attack from lawmakers. In a recent and all-too-rare moment of government foresight, the Department of Health and Human Services decided to make birth control free under the new health care law. It's a move that won't just save money in the long term, but also could help the world's overpopulation problem. Here are a few more issues that could benefit if politicians took the long view:


The environment. ThinkProgress's Matt Yglesias highlighted this hypocrisy back in April: pushing for long-range fiscal policy is considered "brave," but demanding climate change legislation whose effects accumulate over time is "unrealistic." Reminder: the vast majority of scientists agree that the world's temperature will rise two to 10 degrees by 2100. Things like cap and trade bills, higher gas taxes, and environmental regulations for corporations are all moves that have the next century in mind. Yet legislation like this continues to be alternately ignored and maligned.

President Obama did announce new fuel efficiency rules last week that require an average of 54.5 miles to the gallon by 2025. The new standards are a great baby step, but imagine if serious environmental policy was enacted based on predictions of 100 years from now. We'd see a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a bigger movement against overdevelopment and offshore drilling, corporation regulations, and massive investment in clean energy sources—all in the name of our progeny.

Higher education. Two things are happening: college is getting exponentially more expensive, and too many people are attending. Public universities' budgets are getting slashed, while colleges pump out a surplus of business majors, lawyers, journalists, and art history experts. There will be a long-term problem of where to put young people with bachelor's and master's degrees, not to mention how to make college worth its six-figure price tag.

In the United States, it's still considered undesirable to end up in a vocational job. Our lawmakers could take a cue from foreign efforts, like one in Brazil, to place special emphasis on manual or technical labor. They could also help lessen the problem of ballooning student debt. In this recent round of government cuts, undergrad Pell grants were spared but graduate students got screwed on the interests of their loans. How refreshing would it be if our politicians decided to incentivize paths other than the four-year degree, while lessening the financial burden on those who do pursue a B.A.? We'd need to transform our attitudes about the value of work, but this sea change could be more painless with prescient policy shifts in education and job programs.

Infrastructure. The U.S. has the dubious honor of being ranked 23rd in the world for the overall quality of our roads and other infrastructure. And as it stands now, the Secretary of Transportation is begging for a budget that will adequately pay the department's employees. But if we applied Tea Party logic to our transportation system, we could be funding things like high-speed rail (which Obama suggested but Congress ignored), fixing our air travel system, building bridges and tunnels, and repairing our highways.

Transportation isn't the only area in need of some futurecasting. We're missing opportunities to invest longterm in water systems, broadband capacity, and energy distribution. Making big moves on this issue, like starting a National Infrastructure Bank, could have major payoff down the road.

If the Tea Party has taught us anything, it's that if you grumble enough about something and elect people who will grumble for you, the "long view" argument can resonate with people. It wouldn't hurt to follow in their footsteps—only this time with goals beyond political posturing.

"The Upside" finds the silver lining in news stories that otherwise really bum us out. Read more here.

photo (cc) by Flickr user rightee

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