Wednesday, March 22, 2006

World: Long term investment vs short attention span

The best evidence politicians have short attention spans is when it comes to initiatives where the payoff is only long term. That’s the reason preserving our global environment is so difficult. And that’s the best explanation for ignoring early childhood intervention, where the benefits over costs are eight to one.

Ross Gittens has written a very interesting article on early intervention. (Gittens has always been good value in recent years.) The gist is that intervention with ‘at risk’ children – the earlier the better, before age eight – has drastic payback later in life in terms of improved incomes, decreased welfare dependency and prison rates, and so on. These are just the economic costs, let alone social. Interesting to read that a key study here was initially deemed a failure, because the intervention was with ‘lower IQ’ children, but followups suggested the marginal improvement didn’t justify the cost. However, subsequent study of the cohort as adults revealed improved socialisation and the benefits mentioned above. Read the article for more detail.

Why are politicians so reluctant to invest where the returns are so far down the track? In part, it’s due to the standard economics concept of ‘discounting the future’ – we value the present much more than the future so, for example, we’re much keener to spend $10 now than to put it towards something that will pay many times over in ten years’ time.

I think it’s also due to short election cycles. Election campaigns these days seem to be focused much more on the short term – what happened in the last month of the campaign, or the last week, rather than talking vision for the future.

Some questions:
a) Why do you think the campaign focus has so drastically contracted over the past 20 years or so?
b) Do politicians respond to people’s concerns, or do people vote according to the agenda set by the politician’s campaign?
c) Or is the agenda largely hijacked by the media, working on whatever will produce headlines that sell?
d) Why do nordic countries and the EU appear to be more forward-thinking than most others?

I believe marginal campaigning bears some culpability too. Political parties move closer together to attempt to capture voters close to their opponents’ affiliations (that, too, is a phenomenon well-known in economics). Campaigns have also focussed harder on the marginal electorates (regions) where the final numbers are won or lost. Improved technology is partly to blame here. But so is the attention span of the voter.

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