More on Shortsightedness

By Mark McKenna

Guest blogger Brett Frischmann has a really good post over at madisonian.net. He argues that at least some of the problems New Orleans has experienced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are consequences of shortsightedness. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, in very similar terms.

Brett notes that much of the destruction could have been avoided if we had only invested in infrastructure. We don’t because the benefits of those investments are fuzzy and won’t be realized until sometime in the distant future. The costs, on the other hand, must be incurred now. This certainly is true in the context of New Orleans, but there’s a much broader point to be made here, which Brett hints at. Shortsightedness is pervasive in American public policy.

In his article, Brett mentions social security and the environment as examples of our failure to invest current funds to avoid much more expensive problems down the road. There are many other examples that could be added to the list. The budget deficit is an obvious place to start.

There are several less obvious examples too. We have very good information about the kinds of programs that work to reduce violent crime and keep young kids involved in productive activities. Nevertheless, our prisons are bursting at the seams. Because we refuse to make the necessary investments, we have a much more expensive problem on our hands down the road. A similar story could be told about early childhood education. Unfortunately, but predicatably, the costs of shortsightedness tend to fall disproportionately on those who can afford it least. There’s another level on which class has everything to do with the hurricane.

So what in the world does this have to do with technology and marketing? Not very much, except that cognitive science has a lot to say about the natural tendency to be shortsighted. Maybe if we pay more attention to that tendency we can work to offset it.

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