Peggy Whiteneck, Freelance Writer

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The National Divide: Immediate Gratification vs. Future Gain

There are many ways to parse the widening divide in American culture. Our national fractures (not new, by the way, just exacerbated and newly exploited) run along racial and ethnic, socio-economic, religious, and political lines. But recently, I've come to think of the divisions in a different way as a clash between short-term thinking and long-term vision.

The natural human tendency is to prefer immediate gratification, which is why so many of us spend but don't save and why we love tax cuts. It also explains why the country as a whole is resistant to engaging larger challenges and threats such as climate change: who cares what happens fifty or a hundred years from now? So we keep drilling and blasting and fracking our merry way through the earth's reserves, doing a nasty job of protecting either people or wildlife or habitat in the process. In the land of immediate gratification, it's about the economy right now, stupid.

Short-termism is why so many voters are willing to put up with tantrums and scurrilous behavior in their leaders that they wouldn't tolerate from their young children, who are learning from no less than the President of the United States that this is an acceptable way to talk to people. Their parents say,"Yeah, he may be crass and crude, a misogynist and a misanthrope, but the economy's better, plus he gave me a tax cut." The fruits of an economic recovery that arguably resulted from a strategic focus on the economy during the eight-year Obama administration were already being attributed to Trump after he'd been in office for a mere two years. While common sense would tell us the economy doesn't turn on a dime, common sense is one of the apparent casualties of too long a focus on the short term.

The Republican Party and its leaders have mastered the art of appealing to this very human desire for instant gratification. Few Americans think of taxes as a civic duty in support of the common good. Taxes are instead seen as an arbitrary and illegitimate burden on citizens, many of whom would be happy to see them abolished altogether. Meanwhile many laud Trump's consistency in "keeping his promises," one glaring failure is his promise to shore up the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Why? Because infrastructure improvement requires funding - and a long-term strategic plan.

Democrats, for their part, have generally opted for longer-term goals and programs that are harder to justify to a restive public: humane immigration reform that doesn't just deport its way out of the challenge, social programs and the Affordable Care Act that protect the vulnerable, disaster relief that extends to disaster recovery, and so on. Long-term goals - including infrastructure repair and maintenance - require long-term investment. This draws the old Republican charge that Democrats are "tax and spend liberals." And it has spawned the new slur claiming Democrats and Progressives are "Socialists," a charge calculated to stoke conservative paranoia and create rightwing backlash.

It should always have been obvious, but isn't until it starts affecting the people who support more and greater tax cuts, that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and that tax cuts have to be funded by cuts in other areas. Predictably, Republicans are attacking long-term benefits, with repeated attempts to defund the ACA (AKA "Obamacare") and with trial balloons to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

However, a strategy of characterizing these as "entitlement" programs appears to be backfiring, at least in the case of Medicare and Social Security because every working American has been paying into these programs through payroll taxes since the first job they ever had. Every working American also knows what a chunk those two programs take out of their weekly or bi-weekly paychecks; it is one of the few areas where Americans have been willing to put up with short-term burdens for long-term goals.

Still, cuts to these programs appeal to a significant part of the voter base that doesn't need them in the short-term. Unless we are disabled or over the age of 65, we don't need Social Security or Medicare - now. And because the majority of voters aren't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, it's no skin off their noses if Medicaid funding gets cut, or if eligibility gets restricted, or even if Medicaid goes away altogether. (This "not my problem" mentality is why so many states have opted out of expanding the Medicaid program to cover more of the working poor, despite the lure of federal subsidies to states who did expand.)

This short-term thinking has a cost, however deferred, and as instant gratification becomes a habitual policy, the costs will build right along with the national deficit and the progressive deterioration of the nation's transportation, water, and utility infrastructure. The results of that thinking will bite the very people who prefer it right along with those who don't.

The handmaid of short-term thinking is short-circuited historical memory. When the people willing to tolerate cuts to social programs today finally do qualify for Medicare and Social Security in retirement, they will bitch loudly about the declining payouts, totally forgetting their own citizen role in creating them.

When we don't learn to regret the mistakes of our national past, we are condemned to relive them. The refugee camps of today are but echoes of the Japanese internment camps of yesteryear. Rigid and inhumane application of broken immigration enforcement separates children from parents and decimates families while seeking to deport us out of the challenges of undocumented migration. (The latter creates fear and anger among vulnerable immigrant populations and, for those corralled in camps and/or deported, creates a potential new recruitment pool for terrorism and fuels resentment toward our country. Meanwhile, our culture feeds an emboldened and increasingly violent homegrown white nationalism, arguably a greater threat to long-term national security than refugees from Central America.) These are all examples of a refusal to think outside the confines of a quick-fix, short-term, and ultimately feckless box.

Yes, y'all, if we're in it for short-term gain, we'd best be ready when the bill comes due: degraded environment, dilapidated and failing infrastructure, deterioration of human rights, disrespect for the Constitution, denigration of truth in favor of "alternative facts," and a world where only the most corrupt among us flourish. Alternatively, if we want a future worth living for our country and our world, we'll have to invest in the long term - and to figure out a way to pay for it, tax cuts and quick fixes and Presidential Twitter posts be damned.

(Open source clipart in this article courtesy of

More Peg's Blog Spot Posts

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 · American Voters and the Cult of Celebrity
 · We Have Met the Enemy and the Enemy Is Us
 · Wanted: A Working Government
 · The Trouble with That Anonymous Trump-Circle Editorial
 · Breaking News: We're All "Values Voters!"
 · Monuments Flap Is Not about the Monuments
 · Have We Always Been the Disunited States of America?
 · A Humble Defense of the Constitution
 · The Trump Presidency: Bigotry's Cause or Only Its Effect?
 · Race, Class, and Access to Women's Health Services
 · Trying to Learn from the Holocaust
 · Trump's Angry White Folks
 · Whatever Happened to "Look It Up?"

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