The Plague of Short-Termism

by: Roger Ehrenberg

Get rich QUICK. Lose weight FAST. Fix problems NOW. Think State lotteries, the South Beach Diet and TARP (or Social Security for that matter). These are merely three examples of what appears to be the endemic short-term thinking prevalent in our society. We, as a people, often times have little tolerance for the time and hard work it takes to build wealth, personal wellness or durable economic strength. People's perspectives are often measured in days and weeks, not in months and years. The problem is that such quick-fixes are rarely lasting, or are unsatisfying from the start.

Statistically, playing lotteries and gambling in general are losing propositions, and while people certainly extract utility from the rush of playing the games it wears off fast and results in a negative outcome - no wealth, no lasting utility. Faddish diets are the same way. Everyone knows that losing weight and keeping it off boils down to a few key principles: eating fewer calories, eating healthier food and regular exercise. Most people don't need countless books, pre-made meals and the like to lose weight. They need focus and determination, and a willingness to be uncomfortable for a while until they can develop good habits that will last for a lifetime. Yet the diet industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, because many are looking for easy answers or a crutch to help them through. As with most things, there are no easy answers. 

Similarly, consider TARP and the other Government support programs add up to a few trillion - or more. They are focused on dealing with the surface-level aspects of the economic dislocation, not really digging beneath the surface to get at the embedded problems weighing down our ability to recover. Providing financing to failing businesses and broken portfolios without dealing with the problems will only result in one outcome: more taxpayer dollars being thrown at the problem when the initial amounts are burned through due to "unexpected" losses. There is nothing unexpected about how it will end up; it will end up badly because we didn't do what was necessary upfront.

Just like Social Security. "Why deal with it now when it is so politically costly and when it can be dealt with in the future?" This appears to be the stance of successive Administrations; pass the hot potato onto some other sucker, far, far in the future. Even our corporate compensation regimes are cast in the same light. Managing quarterly earnings to Wall Street expectations, large cash bonuses based on annual performance metrics, etc. This is not the way to promote long-term value creation. Yet this is what our society expects. We are sadly mistaken.

This is a profound issue that will plague us again and again unless we collectively adopt a different, longer-term mindset. There is honor and dignity in a job well-done, and in providing for one's future through hard work, smart saving and adding real value. The lottery and other "get rich quick" schemes do little to add real value to society. Living healthier, better lives over time will both make people feel better and sharply reduce our health care and insurance costs. If you don't lose 20 pounds in one month, how about two years? The process of getting there will make you better able to keep it off and more apt to stay with exercise patterns and other aspects of healthier living.

Economic policy in this country is reflective of an unwillingness to experience pain. Bankruptcy is perceived as failure, not simply as a natural cost of doing business. But every time we bail out companies that should be bankrupt, it sends a message to other companies: we can mess up, but we'll ultimately be bailed out. Whether it's the GSEs, AIG or perhaps GM, these actions are being funded on our dime and with questionable long-term benefits. And if we do, in fact, make the decision to bail out certain businesses it should be done the right way, with the systemic issues addressed but with pain taken where appropriate (e.g., equity-holders and bondholders wiped out). 

Getting it right by taking time is almost always preferable to getting it wrong, very quickly. Yet our policies and thought processes are frequently clustered around the latter. If we hope to be better people, better citizens and elements of a better society, we've got to get this right. And time, hard work and a willingness to endure pain are part of what's required to get it right.