Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Problem of ‘Nowism’ (1): Addressing the Future

What do these all have in common? 1- PM Netanyahu has never tried resolving Israel’s haredi, education system refusal to include secular subjects that clearly will lead to an economic time bomb down the road. 2- Many Social Security systems in the world (including those of Israel and the U.S.) are approaching bankruptcy. 3- It has taken decades for the world to start doing something serious about global warming.

When it comes to decision-making, whether personal or political-national, one of the biggest problems standing in the way of a rational decision is a phenomenon that we don’t think much about: “nowism”. Never heard of it? Google it – or keep on reading here.

On the micro level, by our very nature as human beings we live in the here and now, even if capable (as most animals are not) of thinking about the future. But we mostly don’t, for three reasons. First, we can see and feel the here and now; not true of the amorphous “future.” Second, human nature has evolved over many, many years during which survival was an immediate concern. Thus, we have been imprinted for short-term thinking; to think “out of the (here and now) box” takes mental and emotional effort. Third, given the many choices at our disposal regarding the future, it is mentally taxing to start going through all the possible paths to be taken, so as a default we let “life” lead us blindly to the future without much conscious direction.

When we turn to the macro-political level, one additional factor kicks in, especially in a democracy: the relatively short-term tenure of elected leadership. The problem incorporates two sides of the same coin: the public thinks short-term (see above) and even if an elected leader wants to think long-term, any results will not much affect the next election campaign. Indeed, many long-term solutions include short-term pain e.g., raising the eligibility age of Social Security recipients; pushing through legislation mandating the teaching of core subjects for everyone; taxing heavy carbon users.

It is here that one distinguishes between a politician and a states(wo)man. By all accounts – even from his fiercest opponents – Netanyahu is a master politician. After all, how else could he have been elected six times to the premiership, ultimately becoming Israel’s longest serving prime minister? However, as a statesman – defined among other things as a leader willing to go against the grain, even if important decisions are unpopular – he fails on almost all accounts (other than his brave budget-cutting as Finance Minister back in the early 2000s during the Second Intifada). Indeed, the Gaza fiasco is but the latest example.

Instead of taking the bull by the horns after his famous Bar-Ilan speech a decade and a half ago by making a serious attempt to find a path to peace, his policy since then has been to kick the can down the road. So that he wouldn’t have to seriously negotiate with the PLA in the West Bank (Judea & Samaria), he weakened it by strengthening its internal mortal enemy: Hamas in Gaza. We now know how that turned out. Moreover, to stay in power he let the haredim continue with their non-education, promising the Supreme Court again and again to find a solution (seven years!), until the Court finally said “enough is enough” – there’s a limit to procrastination.

Is there anything to be done about political “nowism”? Yes. First and perhaps foremost, legislate an ironclad two-term, lifetime limit for the prime minister – exactly what the U.S. did in the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. This ensures that at least in the second term of office, PMs will think more about their “place in history” – largely dependent on the long-term effects of their policies. Second, install within the educational system serious lessons in rational thinking, especially what Noble Laureate Kahneman calls “slow” thinking that attempts to overcome fast, emotional “gut reactions.” Indeed, there can be no “subject area” more important than teaching the next generation how to think analytically, critically, and creatively. A good part of that involves the lower cost-benefit of short-term as opposed to long-term thinking.

None of this, of course, will turn us into totally rational beings. Indeed, in a fast-changing world that is difficult to foresee many years out, there’s even some rationality in some short-term planning – leaving some decisions for later when absolutely necessary (and the picture becomes clearer). Nevertheless, when the longer-term trends are well-defined e.g., the haredi demographic bulge, increasing lifespan and decreasing Social Security funds etc., then it is incumbent for any society and individual to overcome our more primitive proclivity “what should I do now for today,” replacing it with “what needs to be done for a healthier tomorrow.”

As the American statesman (never a mere politician) Benjamin Franklin noted pithily: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

[Next week I’ll analyze the reverse “nowism” problem, regarding our past.]

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
Related Topics
Related Posts