09/10/2012 02:49 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2012

The Politics and Psychology of Time

"Time is relative," Einstein discovered. So, too, is political time. But these two facts together cause many problems, as reflected in current debates over the seemingly simple question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" In fact, many of our political controversies today center on what time frame we should use to assess progress and success. Much of the clash between Democrats and Republicans involves questions of what timescale to use, who should decide, and how. Yet these larger questions have received little focused attention.

Political time, economic time, geological time, psychological time, and human lifetimes all exist, yet they differ vastly. Political time involves congressional elections every two years, and presidential ones every four. But global economic depressions, great recessions, and Middle East wars operate on very different timescales. The war in Iraq started a decade ago. Some say current Middle East conflicts really began in 1918, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, or even with the Crusades. Global warming operates on geologic time. Millions of years are nothing. Ocean levels rise in millimeters every decade, only over much vaster periods do continental boundaries move and cities drown. Psychologically, we like short time frames and handle them best. Our moods and attitudes can change by the hour. Fads can last a season. Some of us don't remember what we ate for lunch yesterday. Simultaneously, human lifespans are lengthening. Once, 65 was old, but no longer. Yet longer life expectancy is bankrupting social security and health care, and we haven't figured out how to respond. In evolutionary time, the human brain came to address problems people face over tens of thousands of years. Our brains don't evolve faster to solve the increasingly complex difficulties we face involving global economies and climates.

Many people think these time scales are somehow the same, and fixed, unquestionable, and absolute rather than relative and subjective. But these beliefs are dangerous and wrong. The short spans of political and psychological time conspire with hazardous results. Because political time is four years, many voters expect economic transformation to be, as well, and they don't remember key details from before then. Why not ask: Are you better off now than you were 10 years ago? Or one year ago? Or six months ago? Many Americans would say "yes" to questions about these time frames, but not to questions about a time frame of four years. Relatedly, questions arise of whether there should be a statute of limitations, and if so, how long. For how long can Obama blame George W. Bush for the country's economic woes? Again, four years is not the right yardstick. One administration's mess can take a decade to fix.

These conceptual limitations affect our views of the future, as well. Politicians have tended to pass problems to the future, paying for programs today with borrowed money to be returned with interest in the distant future, not on their watch. They are thinking in political time frames (four years), not economic or historic time. Conflicting time frames affect other policies, as well. In 1700 six-year terms in the U.S. Senate seemed long -- a tenth of one's life. No one could have conceived of senators serving 50 years or more, and accumulating ever more power, or of Supreme Court Justices writing opinions for that length of time. Appointments have more impact than ever before.

To more forward together as a nation, we need to set realistic goals and expectations, to increase our awareness and understanding of these issues and not accept four years as the measure of success or failure of our nation or our individual lives. It is vital that we realize that time is not fixed but relative. We need to be far more aware of what we are doing.

Time -- at least political time -- is quickly running out.