Far-sighted policymaking is hard. Here’s how to make it easier.

November 25, 2013

The check is in the mail. Maybe. (Bradley C Bower/AP)

This is a guest post by Alan Jacobs of the University of British Columbia and Scott Matthews of the Memorial University of Newfoundland.  Jacobs is the author of Governing for the Long Term: Democracy and the Politics of Investment.

In a recent post, Joshua Tucker highlights what he calls “the fundamental political challenge of climate change”: to address the problem of global warming we must engage in costly actions today, even though the benefits of doing so will not be realized for decades. As Tucker points out, many policy issues confront society with just this kind of challenge. If we want to reduce our national debt, upgrade vital infrastructure, or train a better-skilled workforce, we need to make costly investments in the present – but won’t see the benefits for many years to come.

Tucker identifies a couple of reasons why it can be hard to build public support for long-run investments like these. For one thing, voters may place a greater value on the present than on the distant future. Moreover, for very long-term endeavors, people may suspect that they will no longer be alive to enjoy those benefits anyway.  These things may all be true.  But our work suggests something different.  The real political hurdle may be citizens’ uncertainty about the future. For many issues, we find, the problem is not so much that voters don’t care about the long run but that they don’t trust politicians’ promise of long-term policy benefits.

In a recent study, we asked Americans to consider a possible reform to Social Security. We explained that, while the program is currently solvent, Social Security will run short of funds at some point in the future, requiring large benefit cuts and tax increases. We then presented a reform proposal that would close the funding deficit: it would modestly increase taxes and trim benefits now in order to build up enough savings in the program to avoid much bigger tax hikes and benefit cuts later.

Respondents were randomly assigned to see two versions of the policy scenario that differed in their timing. In one condition, respondents were told that, in the absence of reform, the funding crisis – and the associated tax hikes and benefit cuts – would occur in 40 years. In the other condition, the crisis would hit in just five years if no action were taken. These two conditions roughly correspond to the liberal and conservative poles of public debate over how soon the program would run into trouble. Thus, in the first condition, the reform would impose costs today to address a long-term problem; in the second condition, the reform would impose costs today to solve a much shorter-term problem.

As we expected, this difference in timing mattered: support for the proposal was nearly 20 percent higher when the benefits of reform were only five years away than when they were 40 years off.

The question we were most interested in, however, was why citizens were less willing to pay for those longer-term policy benefits. We found that citizens were just uncertain they would ever see the benefits of the policy.

For one, policy ventures that have to play out over longer periods of time have a greater risk of going awry. A reform to Social Security, for example, could fail to solve the funding problem if economic or demographic developments failed to match projections. Projecting several decades ahead is always more uncertain than forecasting the next few years.

Second is the problem of broken promises. For policies to deliver their advertised benefits, politicians have to be committed to the policy for a long time. The longer the time lapse between a policy’s costs and its benefits, the greater the risk that the government will break its promise. Over time, new politicians with different priorities may take office. Funds collected for Social Security today might get spent on fighter jets tomorrow.

In our experiment, we found that taking uncertainty out of the equation reduced or even eliminated the effect of timing on respondents’ support for reform. For instance, merely reassuring some respondents that the reform was a “simple matter of bookkeeping” and would be “easy to carry out” shrank the effect of timing significantly. The timing effect also depended critically on how much confidence respondents had in politicians. In fact, timing mattered only to those respondents who expressed little trust in government. Put differently, those who were least worried about politicians breaking their promises cared little whether the policy’s benefits would be realized quickly or only over the long run.

We found little evidence that people rejected the longer-term proposition because they didn’t place much value on the future, or because they worried they would not be around to enjoy any benefits. Opposition to long-range investments was almost entirely driven by uncertainty about government’s ability to follow through.

We see a lesson here for policy makers and advocates who seek to muster public support for government action on long-term problems, like climate change, crumbling infrastructure, or mounting public debt. It is not enough to persuade people of the importance of the problem: proponents of far-sighted investment must also combat voters’ uncertainty about the effectiveness and political durability of the solutions.

Our results suggest that smart policy design can help. Simpler policy blueprints – ones that citizens can readily grasp – are likely to generate greater confidence than Rube Goldberg schemes. When it comes to credibility with the electorate, a simple carbon tax, for instance, may have a leg up over a complex emission-trading program. Politicians should also design policy to minimize the risk – both real and perceived – that long-term promises will be broken. In a set of follow-up studies, we find that Americans are more willing to pay higher taxes for investments in areas such as education and the environment when revenues collected will be held in a trust fund and legally dedicated to a specific purpose. Which governmental body has responsibility for managing the investment may matter as well. We find, for instance, that voters are much readier to pay higher fuel taxes for infrastructure investments when the project will be overseen by their own local government than by Congress.

The more sobering lesson of our research is that the challenge of farsighted policymaking is tightly bound up with the problem of diminishing trust in government. Already on the decline for decades, Americans’ confidence in their political leaders seems to have plumbed new depths in recent years. The fundamental challenge of addressing long-term problems, thus, may be that public investments ask voters to accept an IOU from political leaders whom they generally view as venal and incompetent. If America’s political leaders want the latitude to invest in the future, their most important task may be to restore public confidence in government itself.

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