Since these sorts of regulations on excessive power — power that has the potential to seriously damage the lives and opportunities of the majority — are so important, it’s worth stepping back and analyzing what’s behind that ever-steeper uphill climb. After all, we know that children in U.S. cities are suffering brain damage through lead poisoning caused by faulty water pipes; we know that the warming climate poses a truly existential threat; we know that under-regulated financial markets systematically underpriced risky debt, inflating the housing bubble and leading to a recession from which we’re still recovering.
Yet, in each of these extremely serious cases, action is either inadequately forthcoming or blocked. Despite all the talk about infrastructure, there is no national plan to repair water systems. The Trump administration is aggressively planning to roll back Obama-era actions against global warming, and, as mentioned, deregulating financial markets is an early goal of Trump’s gold(man)-plated cabinet.
What’s at the root of this disconnect? To fail to understand and correct this means to continue to move one step forward, as in the Obama years, and many more steps back, as is likely in the Trump era.
One obvious problem is the intersection of extreme wealth concentration and money in politics. Confirming common sense, recent political science research has shown that regardless of what politicians run on, when it comes to legislating actual policies, the political process is indifferent to the preferences of middle- and low-income voters. So when the big donors from the finance sector give the politicians they fund their marching orders to take down Dodd-Frank, the result is concentrated wealth protecting itself against market regulation.
But I also think basic human nature is in play here, in ways that are underappreciated. I’ve written about this under the rubric of the “high discount rate problem.” Most people have what economists call a very high discount rate. We want what we want now, even if we’d be better off waiting for a better outcome.
Thus, even if you can convince people that by ignoring the human influence of climate, their beachfront property, if not their city, will be underwater in a couple of years, they’d still rather enjoy it today and worry about that other unpleasantness later. On cable news, I am often that scolding guy trying to remind everyone about what happened last time we let Wall Street get their risk on, but history is clear on this point: As the crash fades and recovery takes hold, amnesia takes over (the economist Hy Minsky recognized this process).
President Trump dangerously amps up this problem, as suggested by this recent New Yorker cartoon of his inauguration, wherein the chief justice offers him a choice: “You can eat the one marshmallow right now, or, if you wait fifteen minutes, I’ll give you two marshmallows and swear you in as President of the United States.”
Humor aside, this is a very dangerous dynamic. Humans already are heavily prone to discount future risks, a fact our money-infused system further amps up. When, on top of all that, our leaders themselves encourage shortsighted policies — his tweets alone confirm that Trump massively discounts the future impact of his impulses — it becomes nearly impossible to implement safeguards against actual and potential threats. Say what you want about Barack Obama, but on this measure, he was a uniquely mature leader.
What will it take to change this, to get more of us to place a higher value on the future such that we’re less susceptible to arguments about how any discomfort today isn’t worth it, even when “it” means a better future?
Part of it is framing, and there’s a role for the media here. Policymakers and conservative advocates mustn’t get away with broad swipes at “job-killing regulation.” Make them say which specific regulation they’re opposed to and do not let them count only its costs. I fully admit that Dodd-Frank engenders compliance costs or that a tax on carbon raises energy prices. But no analysis can stop there. We must insist on accounting for the benefit side of the equation.
Another part is getting so much money out of politics, but that path is structurally blocked as today’s bought-and-paid-for politicians aren’t going to stiff their funders.
Advocates of smarter, longer-term thinking have tried to invoke concerns about children to push back on the discounting problem, but I fear the evidence suggests that the threat of leaving an unsustainable environment to our children and grandchildren isn’t enough of a threat to shift temporal preferences.
So perhaps a good place to start is to “meet people where they are.” That is, while most people heavily discount future threats, we don’t completely dismiss them. Thus, implementing a very small cost on carbon, one well below its social cost, or a tiny tax on financial speculation, or a focused, targeted infrastructure program (say one that just aims to replace lead pipes in sizable cities) might be acceptable to people. Then, as threats become clearer and nearer, these mechanisms could be ratcheted up.
Of course, even tiny interventions run into the problem of politicians on the payroll, paid to shoot anything that moves in this space. Without fixing that fundamental problem, the path forward will be blocked. But the price of getting this wrong is large, and with the election of Trump, it is growing.