Concern About the Future

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A friend of mine on Facebook left a comment in response to a status update to the effect that there's an inconsistency in much of the rhetoric from the left when it comes to our attitude toward the next generation. I think this is a problem for both sides, actually. You can often find people who will issue very harsh criticisms of those on the other side for ignoring the devastating consequences of either inaction or a particular course of action on a certain issue, while the same people will ignore the devastating consequences of inaction or a certain course of action on a different issue.

You hear a lot about how we're failing in our responsibilities to the next generation if we allow climate change to continue at the rate it's going. Yet the same people who make these urgent calls to think about the next generation are happy to spend massive amounts of money that we couldn't hope to pay for in several generations, even if (as is likely) President Obama has to settle for significant departures from his campaign promises about taxes. (See note 1 below for more on this, which I decided was too intrusive to my argument to keep here.)

I would add that they're also happy to impose regulations that will almost certainly generate hardships for lower-earning wage-earners both in making it more difficult to buy new houses and cars with something like the cap-and-trade proposal currently at work or providing health insurance for people who don't have it, at the cost of making health care much worse on the whole for many people, including lower wage-earners whose employer currently does provide health insurance but who will be forced to move to worse health insurance as a result. (See note 2 for my own situation with respect to this, which I wanted to say something about but was also becoming too intrusive to my argument.)

But on the right, you can have similar inconsistencies. Some conservatives favor significant environmental regulation, but most want it limited. Some reject it entirely. Some of those who reject it are nevertheless environmentally conscious, taking it to be a problem we should do something about. For example, Dick Cheney, who is very generous with his money with regard to charitable donations, gives quite a lot of money every year to conservation-related charities, a good portion of of which (I believe) goes toward exploring technologies that will help deal with environmental problems more effectively than regulation could ever do. But there are conservatives who are simply not interested in environmental concerns, who nevertheless put a lot of effort into criticizing the Obama Administration and the current Democratic-led Congress for not caring about the future generations with their ridiculous levels of spending and regulation that will certainly have a negative impact on the next generation.

Now one lessening factor in both of these cases is that you do have people who aren't concerned about a particular environmental consequence because they're skeptical about its existence (e.g. global warming skeptics point to evidence that global temperatures have actually been decreasing for the last decade). Those who support the economic policies of the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congress don't always accept the diagnosis that these policies will have these devastating effects. So it doesn't lead to an outright inconsistency if someone is concerned about a future effect that they believe in while not being concerned about a future effect that they don't believe in. But whether that move works depends partly on whether the effect in question is demonstrable, and they just deny it irrationally. It also depends partly on whether everything that they might not care about is of that form. There may well be other things that they choose not to care about that they have no good reason not to care about, even if one particular case has some reason behind it. (For example, even global warming skeptics aren't likely to claim that we have unlimited resources on this planet, and they need to have some concern about the possibility that we will one day exhaust our resources if we keep expending them at the rate we're using them.)

So my point isn't so much about the particulars here, which different people will certainly take in different directions. It's that those who use such serious language about caring about the future and the next generation really ought to be careful if they're also going to advocate policies that really do have a significant negative impact or if they really do advocate doing nothing about something that really will have a serious problem for the next generation but isn't immediate now. This isn't a problem with the rhetoric or policy proposals just of one side. I'm confident that both the GOP and the Democratic Party have prominent public figures who are guilty of this. It's a kind of unfair, partisan argument that I don't think we spot as easily as we do the unfair arguments that misrepresent the other side, because it involves an unfair omission, and omissions are harder to notice.

(Note 1: I have to state for the record that his campaign proposals already advocated for breaking those promises, because he was advocating increased taxes besides income taxes, and those taxes would have had an impact even on those like me who don't make enough money to pay income taxes. There was an inherent dishonesty in those promises to begin with. But it's looking incredibly likely that he'll have to break his promise more overtly and perhaps in a way that he hadn't intended. He said at various points that he would under no circumstances increase taxes for those who make under $250,000. On some occasions the figure was $200,000.)

(Note 2: I say what I have to say about health insurance as someone whose employer does not provide me with health insurance and whose government-provided insurance is pretty terrible, and I'm confident that if the president gets his way this will be expanded to a much larger number of people at great cost to many more people than those who happen not to have insurance right now. I have a good friend who has no insurance at all who is even more opposed to this than I am.)

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