Friday, October 18, 2013

Foresight

We are still far too close to animal behavior. The time horizon of most animals is very short, a matter of a few seconds—although I note that squirrels start their winter preparations about two months before hard frosts really take hold; and migratory species take off with plenty of time to reach very distant winter nesting sites.

Back when I followed trends in technology and economics, I once carefully noted that the oil sector had a 10- to 15-year planning cycle caused by the effective life of its major capital investments. By contrast Retail had a 3-month cycle aimed at seasonal shopping events. Public companies look ahead three months as well owing to quarterly reporting; those reports cause their stock to fall or rise. In politics the cycle is two years at best—but effectively genuine attention to business dissipates after a single year because it takes members of Congress at least a year to get re-elected.

The larger and more complex something is the longer it takes for it to change. In a book on supertankers I had read long ago how long it takes a big ship to change course. It’s a major, coordinated operation rather than, as in a boat, a mere movement of the arm.

Our time horizons blinker or open our foresight. Individuals should look ahead a lifetime—say a hundred years to be safe; the near-term ought to be ten years. As for collectives, they should at least match individuals and, better yet, look two centuries ahead. A three-month delay of a decision on how to finance the governance of a fairly large realm like ours would make a squirrel proud, perhaps, but not Homo obfuscatus.

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