03/08/2008 09:20 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Short Attention-Span Theater

Two events dominating this week's news demonstrate together how we've managed to build a society incapable of taking the long view -- of anything.

The mess that the two parties have made -- the Democrats with their rules, the Republicans with their legislative mischief in Florida -- of the Michigan and Florida primaries is a splendid demonstration of the public sector's unwillingness to look beyond the next news cycle. The Democrats decided months ago to "punish" Florida and Michigan for moving their primaries early into the process -- a sop, basically, to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, the only approved early states. The Republicans who control the Florida lege had moved up the primary in the same bill that mandated paper trails for voting machines, apparently knowing the national Dems opposed the date but also knowing Florida Dems couldn't vote against the paper-trail bill. There it sat, a non-issue until it became painfully apparent that this was, against the intended design, to be a long primary season, and Florida's (and Michigan's) delegate votes might well be crucial.

Now, it's a crisis. Yet all the players had months to work out a reasonable solution. But that would have meant looking ahead.

Similarly, the economic mess the banks and Wall Street have sponsored was a classic in short-term thinking. The exotic economic "products" that were peddled, as supposed AAA-rated securities, to banks all over the world, that were just bundles of sub-prime mortgages, were premised on one simple assumption: that housing prices would continue to rise in the short term. In the long term, of course, housing prices both rise and fall, and a sane financial strategy takes that fact into account. But there was so much money to be made -- by peddling the crappy mortgages, by peddling the bundles of crappy mortgages -- and the chief executives of the financial services and banking companies that ended up holding the bag kept one salient fact in mind: they could get out with their $50 million golden handshakes intact, before the bubble burst, and somebody else would have to clean up the mess.

The public sector decision makers can't think past the next election. The private sector decision makers can't think past the next quarter. And it's the public that's got a short attention span?