The human tenure trap: aka, why the world is fucked.

Elected officials enjoy relatively short terms in office, typically 2-6 years, but they make decisions that shape policy for decades. Facing the constant spectre of the next election, they - quite rationally - prioritize issues with immediate voter impact rather than long-term challenges like deficits, inequality or climate change that lack instant consequences. The resultant short-sighted policies can bring temporary benefits but have detrimental ramifications over time.

Even governments with the best intentions often find themselves trapped in short-term thinking. This systemic issue, called the "Human Tenure Trap," arises from the mismatch between leadership tenures and policy horizons.

The Human Tenure Trap manifests across all areas of technology, society and government, but it is particularly evident in environmental policy. Here, the misalignment between political incentives and planetary needs is stark. The costs of inaction on climate change will compound generation after generation, while the benefits of meaningful action are diffused over long periods. But elected officials gain little from tackling complex, long-horizon problems compared to easily measured quick wins before the next election cycle.

And so, despite scientific warnings, despite worsening climate disasters, emissions stay unchecked as leaders kick the can down the road. Without a vote, the young suffer the consequences as inaction piles up. No single election determines the planet's fate, but the endless minor delays add up until the window for action slams shut. The incentives push toward short-term expediency, and an earth that has measured time in centuries starts to measure its lifespan in 4-year terms.

Take infrastructure investment, where the upside is spread over decades. Politicians gain more from the fanfare of launching quick projects than they'll gain from gradual upgrades, whose benefits accumulate slowly. Urgent priorities like improving resilience against flooding and wildfires are shortchanged for ribbon-cutting dividends. The long view needed for sustainable development succumbs to short-term considerations.

The Human Tenure Trap manifests in fiscal policy. Deficits and debt create liabilities beyond any politician's term. It is easier to pay for new spending with borrowed money than with unpopular but necessary tax increases that will be felt immediately by capricious voters. So deficits mushroom under both parties, as the incentive is to enjoy spending now and leave the bill for future generations. Short-term horizons trump prudence, and vital reforms are postponed.

Term limits, intended to reduce corruption, perversely exacerbate the Human Tenure Trap. As their tenure draws to a close, term-limited officials have little accountability beyond the next election and greater incentive to pursue instant victories for visibility - and, more cynically, to grease their landing in a post-political career.

The Human Tenure Trap stems mainly from politicians' self-interest in re-election. But the reality is more complex. Even where leaders sincerely wish to enact sound policies, they feel constrained by short-term pressures and TikTok politics, imposing tough trade-offs between long-term conviction and near-term viability. Idealism aside, candidates must still win repeated elections in the current system to pursue their vision.

The tensions between political tenures and policy horizons create risks of misalignment across government branches. While legislatures and heads of state turn over regularly, the permanent bureaucracy shapes policy for the long haul. Unelected officials with decades-long tenures and agendas may resist new plans from temporary elected leaders, spurring rapid-fire reversals as short-term politicians battle with long-term bureaucrats.

Above all, escaping the Human Tenure Trap requires leadership that looks beyond the next election or the end of a term. Amid the inevitable pressures of politics, we need women and men who discern what the moment demands against the tides of history. Values must anchor leaders amid fickle political headwinds, guided by a moral compass over expediency.

Future generations depend on stewards who weigh all paths in light of justice, not just transient popularity. Such leadership eschews mob sentiments for timeless principles, the demagogue's passion for reason's rule. Statesmanship entails challenging citizens beyond the appetites of the moment toward nobler possibilities.

Where are the worthy successors of leaders who paid redemption's price for progress but did not live to see the harvest? Of those who faced crossed swords but kept faith in humanity's ascent? Who will take up fallen mantles until the long moral arc completes its bend?

Personal Reputations vs. Systemic Change

The Human Tenure Trap also interacts with a desire for a legacy. Elected officials, considering their place in history, balance building personal reputations against driving systemic change.

But, fundamental reforms do not always deliver immediate results that boost a leader's standing during their tenure. The rewards of major change may come later, benefiting successors more than founding architects. So politicians often favour high-visibility actions tied directly to their name over complex structural solutions needing long development.

Landmark reforms around civil rights and health care catalyzed tremendous progress over generations. But the elected officials behind them are little-remembered today compared to presidents associated with ephemeral events like moon landings and military interventions. The allure of spectacle and ceremony is strong when reputations hang in the balance.

Legacy-minded leaders shy from reforms that reduce the power of their office, where they diminish opportunities for future distinction. Problems requiring decentralization or limits on executive authority drag while monuments to bold leadership keep rising.

Personality, too, plays a role. Leaders confident of vindication by history can disregard contemporary complaints and stay the course. But politicians needing continual validation chase appearances over substance. Long-term thinking requires faith in judgment beyond the next news cycle.

The Long Arc Ascendant

Despite systemic constraints, exceptional leadership has broken the Human Tenure Trap before. Lincoln and the Radical Republicans enacted emancipation, though they correctly predicted it would cost their next election. LBJ sacrificed his presidency to pass civil rights laws whose payoff seemed uncertain amid looming setbacks. De Gaulle granted Algeria's independence despite entrenched opposition.

Each of these leaders chose progress over expediency and conscience over convenience. They met the truth of "now" with the right action for the ages. The Human Tenure Trap shook but did not stop them as they saw the long arc ascending.

Change only happens because determined people fight for change against long odds, believing progress is possible. They summon the world to its best values.

The Human Tenure Trap is not inevitable. But escaping it requires a commitment to outcomes over credit, systems over self-interest, and leaders who care more about solving problems for good than being remembered as heroes.

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