Why has America stopped caring about the future?

How the country became harmfully obsessed with the present

A space gun.
(Image credit: Illustrated | icollection / Alamy Stock Photo, Asya_mix/iStock)

The U.S. budget deficit widened to almost $1 trillion in the latest fiscal year, with that gap almost certain to reach record levels in coming years. Yet few policymakers seem to care. Republicans want more tax cuts, Democrats more spending. Not that their apparent lack of concern is surprising. The buzzy new economic thinking is that fiscal prudence is an antiquated virtue.

Then again, maybe it's the debt hawks who've had their eyes on the future all along. Maybe they're the forward-thinking ones. And what about the hot, new consensus that these scolds should be ignored? Maybe it suggests America is harmfully obsessed with the present. Even worse, this myopia might be one symptom of a long-term national illness.

A recent study by Yale University economist Ray Fair notes an interesting historical coincidence that perhaps isn't a coincidence. First, U.S. infrastructure spending as a percent of GDP began a steady decline around 1970, a pattern seen in no other rich country. "The United States appears to be a special case in this regard," Fair writes.

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And roughly at the same time that America started ignoring its roads and bridges — not to mention advances such as high-speed rail — Washington started running big budget deficits. And it has continued to do so ever since, except for a few years at the end of the 20th century. Fair argues the two occurrences reflect a sustained change in national attitude: "The overall results suggest that the United States became less future oriented beginning around 1970. This change has persisted."

The reasoning here is obvious: Fixing your roof while the sun is shining and curbing spending before the bill collector calls require some foresight and the ability to place the current you in the shoes of future you.

So why did America become less future-oriented in policy at the very same time, interestingly, that its culture began to embrace science fiction? Fair is doubtful the shift can really be explained, not that he doesn't float some possible explanations. Lots of them, in fact, all boiling down to the possibility that lots of stuff happened in the late 1960s — among them the early baby boomers moving into their 20s; the assassinations of MLK and RFK, and the escalation of the Vietnam War — that may have somehow increased "the impatience of the country" in a permanent way. Or not.

Anyway, it's a half century later and the national debt is still growing, and infrastructure spending is still in decline. Moreover, U.S. spending on science research has fallen to 0.7 percent of GDP from 2 percent in the mid-1960s.

But it's not all about taxpayer dollars. Polling shows how that the 1970s retreat from futuristic optimism has warped into technology pessimism. A 2017 Pew Research poll found that Americans generally express more worry than enthusiasm when asked about automation technologies. Strong majorities expect artificial intelligence and advanced robotics to create empty, jobless lives in an increasingly unequal society. A large share of us, nearly 60 percent, even think there should be limits on the number of jobs businesses can replace with machines.

Surely it says something about how we seem to fear the future that in San Francisco — the urban heart of America's tech sector — city officials would force entrepreneurs to apply for a permit before releasing their products into the wild. So there goes part of America that was focused on the future.

As one commenter on a message board at Y Combinator, a venture capital firm, put it: "I'm not sure if there will ever be another time and place like existed in Silicon Valley from the 70s-2000s where forward thinking, creative individuals can come together in a critical mass, with an environment that allows risk taking and innovation. Maybe it will/is happening outside the U.S. but I don't think it's here anymore."

Then, of course, there's Donald Trump, who won the American presidency on a platform of economic and cultural nostalgia. For him, coal miners and steelworkers are the forever and always stars of the American economy, not biotechnologists and computer scientists. Recall his 2017 speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where — in front of a semi-truck — Trump praised truckers as "heroes," while ignoring the coming wave of autonomous technologies that will radically change their jobs.

And who's the future-oriented candidates among Democrats? Joe Biden thinks we all still owns record players, Elizabeth Warren is spinning her own version of Trump's retrograde trade protectionism, Bernie Sanders has touted the same socialist message since 1970, and Andrew Yang has warned that self-driving trucks will "create riots in the street."

Maybe rather than leaders who want to shift America hard left or far right, we need some who want to speed forward.

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